Reviews Category RSS Feed | Reviews RSS Feed on en Launch Media Network A Knight's Quest Review: Errant Knight Wed, 16 Oct 2019 15:42:47 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Knights are usually supposed to save the world, right? Well, someone forgot to send a raven to Rusty, the accident-prone star of Sky9 Games' A Knight's Quest.

While out spelunking in a convenient tutorial-cave one day, Rusty stumbles upon a talking chest sitting next to a not-ominous-at-all purple crystal holding a strange being inside it.

He opens said chest and triggers a chain of events unleashing the crystal's power that will ultimately destroy the world in a powerful magical burst if nothing is done about it. Whoops.

A Knight's Quest has a promising premise. It combines that sense of quirky humor with gameplay that's more than obviously inspired by The Legend of Zelda. It even adds a dash of '90s 3D platforming for added vigor. But unfortunately, the result is something that's not as good as it could be.

Now that Rusty has unleashed doom upon the world, he and his long-suffering friend Valy kindly take it upon themselves to put things right. To do that, they'll need the power of the three Guardians of legend, who happen to be associated with the elements each on which the world's central regions are based.

Rusty must journey across the land, solving puzzles and investigating ancient ruins along the way, because that's what you do on adventures.

You'll uncover a range of power-ups and new gear that enhance Rusty's battle and exploration abilities, including the ability to use Rusty's unique metal arm for magic. (Don't all knights have magic metal arms?) 

From the themed areas to the sort-of open world ("sort-of" because parts of it are literally behind gates), its gadgets and magic, and Metroid-vanianess, it's not difficult to see how A Knight's Quest tries to include Zelda throughout its adventure.

And that's kind of a problem in several ways.

It feels too much like a Zelda game to be unique on its own. The first dungeon is even forest-themed (Ocarina of Time), grants you the ability to create wind gusts (Gale Boomerang), and builds its puzzles around spinny devices (Twilight Princess). Part of your goal is even to venture deeper into the temple/dungeon to rescue a creature mobbed by some evil force. No, it's not a monkey, but it may as well be.

Some inspiration is perfectly fine since most art is derivative to an extent anyway. But when you're routinely thinking, "Wow, this is...almost exactly like X," it starts to seem like the game is trying too hard to be something else without doing anything except adding a sense of quirk.

Unfortunately, A Knight's Quest doesn't borrow Zelda's more admirable qualities along the way.

Puzzles don't quite reach the "mind-bending" level they're meant to. Some, like pushing "X number of blocks" along a very straight path with no alternatives and no real reason, are relics of a bygone era, tedious without offering any sense of fulfillment after you finish.

Many are sequence-based, figuring out which device to activate in what order and others involve platforming or using Rusty's unique wall-running ability to get to a certain point before a timer runs out. There's nothing wrong with these, though the timing on some does occasionally seem a bit off. There's just nothing particularly noteworthy about them.

The open-ish world does look lovely; there's no denying that. The cartoon style is used to great effect in every area, from over-exaggerated character designs to some rich and lush environments.

Expect to see a lot of these environments, too, because you'll spend a good deal of your time getting lost. Alas, A Knight's Quest borrowed Xenoblade Chronicles 2's obfuscated map system instead of Breath of the Wild's detailed one.

You get a bar that shows dots related to story and side quests, but absolutely no detail about where these essential points might be or how to get there. The dungeons are mostly straightforward enough to where this isn't an issue. On the world map, though, it eventually forces you to choose whether you really want to try and find this possibly unnecessary event or if you just want to push forward and save time and effort.

Combat also borrows heavily from Zelda and is a curious mix of broken and trying to break you with no happy medium.

Rusty's primary weapon is a sword, of course, and he gets a shield and some other perks as well. Enemies mostly don't do anything when you attack them, which lets you keep spamming your basic attacks before dodging when they try and land a hit, then continuing until they are no more. Some stronger enemies break this pattern by attacking after you land five or six hits, but it's basically the same throughout.

You're encouraged to use a charge attack and some other combat methods, but these aren't really worthwhile. You can't move around while charging your sword, and getting hit breaks your charge. However, it doesn't charge fast enough to where you can pull a charge attack off without getting hit in most cases.

Magic stuns foes, but for such a short time that it's basically useless. They've recovered and then attack you before you can pull your sword out and try to take advantage of their stunned state.

That brings us to another issue that can't really be ignored. A Knight's Quest suffers from a slew of technical problems, big and small. Sometimes, actions, like casting magic or charging the sword, are unresponsive. Jumps are a bit random in their breadth as well, sometimes going further or higher than others, sometimes being a bit floatier, and occasionally drifting when you land.

A few animations don't work quite as they should either. If Rusty rolls into an out of bounds area, mostly in the water, the animation that plays should be "drowned Rusty" — except he floats up for several seconds longer than he should. I've heard this is game-breaking for some, where Rusty ends up in an endless respawn of death, but it didn't happen to me. Dogs have a habit of running backwards, too.

The game's lighting effects are quite good for the most part, but in several places, the realism is a tad too effective; it's so dark you can't actually see around you. And there are a few times when it randomly goes dark even when there are plenty of light sources.

One thing A Knight's Quest has in abundance is heart, though. It's evident the developers worked hard to give the game a unique visual style and buoyant spirit, and it pays off throughout the adventure.

Even with its shortcomings, tedious sections, and bugs, the game's infectious spirit made me want to keep playing to see how Rusty's adventure unfolds. That spirit is the strength I wish Sky9 had played to throughout because it could have given A Knight's Quest a stronger identity, even with the technical issues.

  • Some genuinely funny moments
  • Lighthearted poke at the genre
  • Lush visuals
  • Too derivative
  • Not enough puzzle variety or depth
  • Technical issues — lots of 'em
  • Combat needs adjustments
  • Desperately needs a better navigation system

The flaws in A Knight's Quest are things you'd find in most 3D platform and adventure games from days gone by. If that's not really an issue for you, then you'll probably enjoy your time with Rusty, even if it does seem too familiar.

If not, the issues holding it back, lack of depth, annoying navigation, and the missed opportunity to create an identity for itself make A Knight's Quest difficult to recommend, which is unfortunate, because it could have been so much more.

[Note: A copy of A Knight's Quest was provided by Curve Digital for the purpose of this review.]

Stela Review: Imitation is Flattery, Right? Wed, 16 Oct 2019 11:00:03 -0400 Mark Delaney

It's long been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If there's ample truth to that phrase, Stela is totally infatuated with games like Limbo and Inside

The similarities are unavoidable, but that doesn't mean Stela fails to justify itself. For fans of cinematic platformers, Stela is a good one, with some interesting puzzles and striking scenery.

It just lacks any resounding, memorable moments like those Playdead titles have, which keeps Stela at the level of an interesting imitator but nothing more.

Stela tells an enigmatic tale of a woman escaping the apparent end of her world. Early sequences have her dodging unsettling, Slenderman-like creatures who kill on sight with brute force, while later levels take her to some sort of fiery furnace, the steeple of a bat-infested castle, and a purgatorial ether decked in ever-shifting geometry.

If you're trying to unravel what's really going on, your guess is as good as mine. Stela is more than happy to obfuscate its true meaning in metaphors barely penetrable on a first playthrough. Because the game only takes about two hours to complete, it's easy to go back through and see if you can dissect it better, though I still came out confused. 

One clue may be the game's title which refers to a sort of grave. Grappling with life and death is a timeless theme in storytelling, but in Stela, you're left too confused to feel the weight of any of your actions.

The puzzles, meanwhile, have the opposite effect. They're a bit too easy to decipher, often immediately. Cinematic platformers tend to be less skill-based than things like Super Meat Boy and other genre counterparts, but in Stela, most puzzle setpieces are obvious at first glance, leaving you to simply perform the right moves to survive and move on.

If the game wants us to feel present in the protagonist's fight for survival, her escapes should be made narrower. As they are, the sense of danger is lost because you know you'll always avoid the fast-closing danger if you've done everything right, and right answers are so often telegraphed. 

There is, at least, a lot of variety in the puzzles. Each section is like its own new mechanic and they rarely repeat. Stela also employs the foreground and background in ways I've not seen from this sort of game before. This gives the world an interesting element of 3D spacial movements in what is actually a 2D game.

When you do fail, the checkpoints are never more than a few seconds from where you left off. This helps the game avoid any frustrations, which is always a good thing, but the puzzles that lead you to some failures just don't pack the punch of Stela's inspirators.

While these words so far may sound harsh, they're only meant to convey the game's just-fine elements. It has other parts that rise above that, namely the setting and music. Combined, these set the stage much more strongly than the forgiving puzzles and drowned-in-metaphor story.

The music builds dramatically and plays off the screen in a faux-dynamic manner, given how so many puzzles are timed for you to just barely survive. It's okay that the music isn't really dynamic. It does a good job pretending.

Levels offer a ton of diversity, from the foggy treescapes that look like the remnants of a great, sweeping forest fire, to a dingy slaughterhouse, to other nightmarish scenes, too.

The entire game has a dream-like element to it, bordering on horror plenty of times. That's in part caused by the woman's almost levitating running style as she ducks, dodges, and sprints by dangers. The aesthetic variety is the game's greatest feat, and the singular way Stela rises above the games from which it so clearly takes its cues.

  • Constantly shifting set pieces make for a visually striking world
  • Music is memorable, often quieted for effect and booming when it needs to be
  • Some interesting use of 3D space in a 2D game
  • Puzzle solutions are often too obvious
  • Story fails to deliver any payoff due to cloudy metaphors all over

Stela is not an essential entry to the cinematic platformer genre, but neither is it a bad one. It's good, but its biggest transgression is failing to leave its mark in any memorable way. It follows in the footsteps of Playdead's enormously popular platformers, and though games are invited to try to raise that bar, Stela fails to do so.

If you love games like Limbo and InsideStela is a good accompaniment, but it lacks the jaw-dropping moments or the inventive puzzles of those games it unabashedly looks up to.

[Note: A copy of Stela was provided by SkyBox Labs for the purpose of this review.]


Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands Review: Shipwrecks are Rarely This Fun Wed, 16 Oct 2019 09:49:32 -0400 Mark Delaney

Typically, a farm life sim focuses on things like meeting the neighbors, settling down, maybe even getting married as you tend to your quaint life in a new town full of welcoming faces. Stranded Sails is not your typical farm life sim. 

In fact, it more often takes several of the foundational elements of games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley but remaps them in a world slightly harsher than you may expect.

It's still pretty breezy overall, but Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands stands out thanks to its exciting mix of simple pleasures and grand adventures.

When your crew is shipwrecked on a mostly deserted island after sailing for a totally different climate, and the captain, your father, is stuck in bed with injuries, it's up to you to reassemble your crew and survive on the titular Cursed Islands.

Story in Stranded Sails is not its strong suit, but ultimately, it does just enough to give context to your many missions. It never feels like a detriment, just more of an excuse to get you island-hopping.

The best bits of Stranded Sails come in how it toys with expectations. It's nearly as much a Zelda-like as it is a farm life game. Early on, your stamina is constantly pushed. Sprinting is taxing, and you'll likely pass out mid-mission several times as you work to plant your flag in a safe area of your new makeshift home. Fortunately, there's not a significant penalty for this other than losing a few in-game hours and having to return the next day.

As a result, eating and gardening are absolutely crucial, and anyone who isn't waking up to water and pick their crops is doing it wrong. In some games like this, there's a lot of freeform space where players decide how to spend their days. In Stranded Sails, every day will necessarily begin with these chores, but the gameplay around them, especially the recipe mini-game, is fun and rarely makes any of it feel like an obstacle.

In fact, while Stranded Sails may not arrive with the pedigree of some genre titans, it should actually be used as a teaching tool for some others in the genre. With so many mechanics reappearing here as they do in other similar games, I can't recall any game every getting each mini-game so right.

Fishing is simple and accessible. Cooking makes for a fun puzzle and offers major character upgrades. Crafting promotes exploration and in turn, puts you down new rabbit holes on every island. 

It's a lot to take in, and collectively, it's impossible to mainline the story. You'll always need to spend some hours, if not full in-game days, keeping up with your camp in important ways. Therefore, when your schedule does finally fall into place all at once, it feels earned, like you've been building to a specific moment with efficient gardening, tool usage, and sleep management. 

When you do set out on an adventure, there's a lot to do. The isometric camera combined with the game's somewhat maze-like geography ensures there's always something nearby that you'll want to obtain but can't quite get to — yet. After a lengthy introduction where you get your crew new shelters and provide each of them the workspaces they need to help you fish, craft, cook, row, and more, you'll eventually unravel the mysteries of the islands, ghost pirates and all. 

The farm life genre is surprisingly no stranger to combat go figure  and in Stranded Sails, it once again feels like a fun distraction but ultimately one that isn't too challenging for most players. The enemy design is fun, too, with glowing ghoulish pirates standing between you and the islands' storied history. Some mysterious collectibles also help flesh out the backdrop of this hybrid adventure-farming game.

While all of this is good to great, one area where I feel my farm life itches aren't scratched is in the interpersonal elements. Stranded Sails lacks both the dialogue depth and the array of characters to make meeting and greeting others one of the best parts — like so many genre games accomplish. 

It seems by design really, so it's hard to fault the developer for emphasizing adventure over the leisure of some similar experiences, but it still ends like there's room for both. Your crew just doesn't have the same personality as your neighbors in other games in similar worlds, and that's one aspect genre fans have come to expect universally.

  • Consistently offers some of the best mini-games in the genre
  • Exploration is enticing and rewarding
  • Subtle character upgrades deliver a real sense of progress
  • Meeting and greeting new people is lacking 
  • For a while, stamina penalties border on too severe

Stranded Sails stands out among a growing field of farm life games by involving more survival elements than others. This gives it not only a unique look at the genre, but a fun one too, especially when the many mini-games are all so smartly built. There's a clear lack of friend-making in Stranded Sails which feels integral to the genre, but it makes up for that missing ingredient by going its own way and infusing almost as much adventure as there is simple pleasure.


[Note: A copy of Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands was provided by Lemonbomb Entertainment for the purpose of this review.]

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3 Review — Forward, Relentlessly Tue, 15 Oct 2019 11:36:11 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

With his last breath, a particular character near the end of Trails of Cold Steel 2 encourages his former classmates to move forward, relentlessly, if they hope to achieve their goals and see peace reign in Erebonia once more.

It's a moment and sentiment that aptly summarizes the game's follow-up. Trails of Cold Steel 3 pushes the entire series forward in narrative, scope, and mechanics, improving on previous titles' foibles to deliver a JRPG masterpiece.

Note: small story spoilers for Trails of Cold Steel 2 follow. 

Back to School: The Branch Campus Edition

The game starts a year and a half after Cold Steel 2 ends. The civil war might be over, but the Erebonian Empire is in a state of flux. Chancellor Giliath Osborne moves towards achieving his goals — though precious few people know what those are — completely reshaping the empire, its government, and its social structure in the process.

Dissent ferments under the surface thanks to his actions. However, there are many more actors on the stage than the Blood and Iron Chancellor. They are all equally determined to leave their mark on the world.

Amid this vortex of unrest is Rean Schwarzer, hailed as the champion of the civil war, navigating between his duties as a government agent and an instructor at the newly established Thors Military Academy Branch Campus.

Though it takes place partly at a military academy (again), you quickly learn this isn't just another school story.

Cold Steel 3 is the point where plot threads from the Trails in the Sky games and the unlocalized Trails to Zero and Trails of Azure start to come together at last. These narrative pieces combine into a lens that gives a more in-depth look into the true nature of the Erebonian Empire, one that goes beyond politics and military machinations. Though those are undoubtedly important, it delves into the darker side the first two games only hinted at.

It's a vast game, but the way major plot points and characters are handled means you’re pulled in from the start. There’s never a dull moment, with some significant and unexpected events taking place as early as midway through the first chapter.

I'm roughly past the halfway point, but thanks to accidentally spoiling the major plot points a while ago, I can say everything combines seamlessly to culminate in an explosive finale. Cold Steel 3 does a superb job of building on everything that came before, but even standing alone, the entire experience is utterly compelling and masterfully delivered throughout.

No story can hold its own without quality characters, and fortunately, Cold Steel 3 has those in spades. The new Class VII is immediately likable and exciting, benefiting from you getting some characterization and backstory right away. Not only is Class VII instantly engaging, but the entire Branch Campus is full of distinct personalities, personalities who also get interwoven in the story much more than the old Thors students did.

However, that two-game long buildup does pay off well for Old Class VII. As they gradually reunite with Rean throughout the story, you'll see each of them, including Rean, has a noticeably more-defined personality.

Improvements All-Around

The V.O. performances are better than ever as well, especially for Rean and Old Class VII. Voice work in the first two Cold Steel games wasn't bad by any means, but it definitely seems like all the actors have made the characters their own, which fits perfectly with Old Class VII's confidence in their new paths as well.

It's worth noting the localization is very good throughout. For the most part, you wouldn't really know the translation and localization were handled by a different publisher this time around. It's that seamless. If anything, the script seems a bit livelier than the previous Cold Steel games, though that could just be the source material, too.

There are some typos and a few other issues, perhaps more than one might hope for. But these are outside the main storyline. They don't amount to much more than a missing letter or word here and there, with a few exceptions.

Sometimes, the flow is a bit rough, and one or two NPC comments require a few seconds to work out, but it should also be said these are nothing as problematic as the original Ys VIII translation. NISA is set to fix these with a Day-One patch anyway. 

On the visual side of things, Erebonia looks better than ever. Being built natively for the PS4 gives the presentation a huge boost, which, even though it's not taking full advantage of the system's capabilities, is still a significant change for a Falcom game. Colors are brighter, the gameplay is silky smooth with hardly any loading times (a huge blessing for those coming from the Vita games), and character models are much more detailed than before.

These improved character models lend themselves to a greater range of expression during dialogue, too. The days of that gorgeous 2D artwork accompanying dialogue boxes in Falcom games are well and truly gone. Still, the flexibility of expression and better fidelity in modeling makes the digital models pretty darn close to the 2D artwork.

The presentation is helped along by an outstanding soundtrack as well, one that's a step up in sophistication from previous titles. If you check it out on Spotify, you'll notice it's divided into four albums. That's because almost every track used is brand-new for this game, ranging from the sweeping and evocative to lighthearted and bubbly as needed.

Granted, there's no specific stand-out track like Azure's "Omen" or Cold Steel's "Atrocious Raid." But at the expense of one track that tells you "Ah yes, the shit is indeed hitting the fan," you get a full-bodied, tonally and thematically unified work throughout the entire game.

The Eighth in the Third Arc in the What Now?

With all those layers and nods to other games, you're probably wondering whether Trails of Cold Steel 3 is a good starting point for the series. You might be surprised to hear that, despite relying in part on the plots of all the other story arcs, the answer is "yes," with just a couple of caveats.

Falcom president Toshihiro Kondo has mentioned in multiple interviews that, by the time development of the Cold Steel series began, the team realized the backstory and density might make it rather tricky for newcomers to get into the series. So, the Cold Steel games were meant to both continue the series and welcome those who'd never touched a Trails game before.

While the plots and other characters are undoubtedly crucial to what's going on in the series, Cold Steel 3 in particular, the majority of it isn't presented as if you should know it already. What's happened outside the first two Cold Steel games isn't really known by the core cast anyway. This creates a narrative where you learn about pivotal events and people as Rean-and-co. do, giving you enough information to understand what's going on without expecting you to play all the other games first.

The other thing that lets Cold Steel 3 do this is the way the Cold Steel arc's narrative is structured, to begin with. The first two games don't really emphasize the major plot elements, focusing on Erebonian politics instead. Cold Steel 3 builds on those political happenings but ties them to new and more significant plot points.

Of course, this means you'd do well to at least have played the first two Cold Steel games, so you have a clearer understanding of who everyone is and what went down. If you're curious about this specific entry or really want to experience it without spending the time to play the first two, though, that's still possible.

Like its predecessor, Cold Steel 3 includes a generous backstory section in the start menu, where you can either catch up on what happened before and who was involved or learn about it for the first time.

There's also the game's official website, which NISA has turned into a veritable encyclopedia of information. Between those two things, you might still feel adrift at times, but you could still certainly enjoy the game as your first one.

Field Triiiip!

The story and all its trappings unfold in a way similar to other entries in the series. Each chapter segment brings with it a variety of tasks to complete, including required and optional tasks, and you'll start at the Thors Branch Campus.

Campus tasks range from training in Einhel Keep, which benefits from being a much more interesting place than the Old Schoolhouse to helping out the folks of Leeves, and offering some assistance either to your fellow instructors or your students.

The entire branch campus goes on Field Exercises every chapter as well. These might sound like the quintessential school activities, but they're actually full-blown military exercises. The Branch Campus investigates various, potentially deadly, disturbances in the western empire and the province of Crossbell while the imperial army is busy fending off an invasion in the east.

So they're sort of like field trips from hell in that respect. Fortunately, you meet a ton of interesting people along the way.

Tasks during these exercises are similar but with a twist. You'll help out the citizens of whatever area you're in at the time, but with some crucial quests mixed in with the optional ones.

Completing quests always rewards you with money, items, or both. Doing so also increases your Academy Points. As your Academy rank goes up, you get unique, often useful, items as rewards. Plus, along with unlocking a trophy for maxing your AP, the data carries over into the next game with some extra bonuses.

On top of those optional and crucial quests are the objectives the government wants Class VII to fulfill. These typically entail gathering information, exploring a specific location, and uncovering just a bit more about what's going on in that location and Erebonia in general.

As always, each segment has at least one missable sidequest that isn't on your to-do list, but this time around, they get quest markers anyway. They're still easy to miss unless you check your map constantly, though, so it doesn't take away from that feeling of discovery when you stumble on a hidden quest.

Even still, it's worth wandering around and speaking to the NPCs you meet. Vibrant NPCs with their own unique stories that change as the game progresses is one of the series' hallmarks, and Cold Steel 3 is no different. Whether it's gaining a new perspective on an important plot event or watching NPC relationships grow and develop, Erebonia feels even more alive and dynamic thanks to these extra touches.

CS3 introduces two additional sidequest types, too, one where you're tasked with finding radio material for the Leeves branch of Radio Trista, and the other where you take landscape photos for a former Thors classmate turned journalist.

There's also the in-game card game, Vantage Masters, a replacement for Blade from the first two games that lets you challenge certain characters and party members to strategic card battles just for the fun of it.

In short, it's a massive world, with a wide variety of things to do and see.

Let's not forget the improved fishing mini-game, too!

Previous games in the series sometimes struggled with balancing optional quests and activities with the main plot, but Cold Steel 3 handles them in a way that feels better balanced and more streamlined. That's in part thanks to an improved fast travel system that lets you navigate to specific parts of the highway or a side area, making monster quests — and the almost inevitable trek back to town to buy necessities — so much faster and easier.

The quest structure works in the game's favor, as well. Most of your sidequests are assigned early on in an area, and they help you navigate that new area. By the time events really start to kick-off, the quest volume drops, so you don't have four or more quests hanging over you while you choose between them and the main story. 

Overcoming Barriers

The combat system has also received an overhaul. It's still based on the same concepts and systems as the first two Cold Steel games, but it's faster, smoother, and more strategic.

The old ring menu system is gone, replaced by a Persona 5-inspired layout with actions mapped to face buttons and directional arrows. It's a pretty simple change, but it has a surprisingly noticeable effect on how smooth the action feels.

Divine Knight battles are much more involved and entertaining than in Cold Steel 2, and with the ubiquity of Panzer Soldats, other characters piloting their giant mechs regularly join you.

The PlayStation 4's capabilities also seem to have affected the game's smooth combat. Movements are faster and less blocky, animations for arts and crafts unfold quickly, and the overall tempo just seems faster. If it's still too slow, there's even a Turbo feature you can activate to make it move even quicker, added in just for the English release.

There are some other big, new highlights for the combat system as well. Enemies now have a Break meter that gradually depletes as you attack them, with specific crafts causing more considerable Break damage. Once an enemy's Break gauge reaches zero, it's immobilized for a turn. 

Brave Orders are another new feature, one that gives added purpose to the Bravery Points (BP) you get from unbalancing foes. Each character has at least one Brave Order they can activate for a set number of BP, with effects ranging from increasing defense, reflecting attacks, or multiplying Break damage to shortening action delay and cutting received damage in half.

If you're playing on normal, it's incredibly easy and satisfying to break the game using Break and Brave Orders. If you're playing on hard, these features are vital for making it through. Fortunately, the difficulty is adjustable at any time, except Nightmare mode, so you're free to experiment as you see fit.

Finally is the addition of a second Master Quartz slot, which opens up character build customization even more than before.

Determining when to use BP for an Order or a rush attack, whether to prioritize Breaking or defense, and figuring out what Quartz combinations suit the situation or your playstyle make this the most involved and engaging combat system in the series to date.


The Verdict

  • Deeply layered story, tightly knit, and full of surprises
  • Massive and engaging world
  • So much to do — or not, if you don't want to
  • Brilliant characters and characterization
  • Improved combat system
  • Numerous quality of life enhancements over previous entries
  • Fantastic soundtrack
  • Best visuals in the series to date
  • Surprisingly accessible for newcomers
  • A few slow areas
  • Doesn't take full advantage of the PS4's capabilities

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3 is a shining example of how to improve on a winning formula. Practically everything is improved compared to previous releases, from combat and narrative pacing to voice acting and visuals.

The story might be dense, but it's one of the most intricate and finely crafted in gaming and fantasy. That's due in part to building so well on what came before. Yet it still manages to welcome newcomers if you're willing to do a bit of reading to catch up.

All in all, if you're an RPG fan or are just curious what the fuss is all about, you owe it to yourself to give Cold Steel 3 a try.

[Note: A copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3 was provided by NISA for the purpose of this review.]

Valfaris Review: Death to All But Metal Fri, 11 Oct 2019 10:07:58 -0400 Jason Coles

Valfaris is the world that heavy metal albums were based on. Each and every aspect of the game should be witnessed with your horns in the air and your head windmilling. It's a fact the game is incredibly proud of.

The art style is grim, gory, and full of grotesque insectoid creatures juxtaposed to futuristic cybernetic soldiers. The music thrashes on as you fight your way through every room, slaughtering everything before you and reducing each enemy to its entrails.

Even the weight of your character is heavy metal; I don't mean that metaphorically, I mean it literally. Landing from any sort of height is rewarded with a satisfying clunk as your character defies physics and lands unscathed. If you came to Valfaris wanting metal in every way, you won't be disappointed.

You have a few different ways to interact with the world, none of which are headbanging. That's reserved for unlocking a new weapon, of which you have several.

To start off, your primary weapon is a pistol, and you also have a melee weapon, which begins life as a plasma sword. Eventually, you get an ostensible heavy weapon. The latter two feed into the game's energy mechanic; killing things with your melee weapon nets you energy and your heavy weapon requires this energy to fire. Simple stuff.

You can also use energy to activate a directional shield. This drains no energy until it takes damage, and activating it allows you to stand in place and aim without moving. More importantly, you can also use this shield to parry both melee and ranged attacks. Doing so with against a melee attack will stun your attacker, which is nice and opens things up for total evisceration. If you can time the parry right, you'll even be able to catch projectiles in your shield; then you can fire them back by releasing the button. It even works on a few of the boss projectiles, too.

And of course, Valrafis wouldn't be metal enough if there weren't monstrous bosses.

You'll fight toad monsters that spit exploding tadpoles at you (at least, I really hope they're tadpoles), massive mechs with flamethrowers for arms, and even something called a junk gargoyle, which could easily be a nickname for an old, riff-thrashing raccoon. Each one has new patterns to learn and attack strategies to master, but it's not always all that difficult to defeat them.

While some of the battles require perfect planning, there are a couple that you can cheese by merely standing still and firing from the right place. Those are rare, but it still detracts from the usual high of success.

In between each of these bosses are different levels, some of which are very enemy heavy and simple. Others are very enemy heavy and complicated. A lot of these feel inspired by the games of yesteryear, such as Contra and even Blackthorne.

There's a level where you ride a platform slowly across lava and occasionally jump off to clear obstacles that feels a lot like the same type of level in Mario. There's a level where you hang on an alien worm to be carried through a spike-infested hallway that could easily be in Mega Man. There's even an annoying level where you have to escape from an ever-rising tide of deadly acid while enemies try and knock you down the tower; that one feels like Ghouls N Ghosts.

It's a good mix for the most part, even if it rarely feels like there's anything new happening.

  • Excellent visual and audio aesthetic 
  • Combat has a very satisfying weight
  • Headbanging when you get new items
  • Some sections feel unfair rather than difficult 
  • Doesn't do much that hasn't been done before

My biggest issue with the Valfaris is that it never feels very original. It's all good, and it's all hard in a rewarding sense. But it's not doing anything new. That's doesn't make it less enjoyable, it just means you'll occasionally feel as though you're playing a medley of old games, rather than a new one.

It could well be that coming at it with less experience with 16- and 32-bit games will have this feeling fresher to you, but, unfortunately, I'm old, so I do remember.

That being said, Valfaris is still a solid game, and one that is metal AF, and I do kind of love it for that. If you're looking for a hard-as-nails action game to sink your teeth into while thinking about death and stuff, this could well be your next favorite metal album. \m/

[Note: A copy of Valfaris was provided by Good Old Games for the purpose of this review.]

John Wick Hex Review: I Put a Spell on You Tue, 08 Oct 2019 12:00:01 -0400 Jason Coles

Prior to the announcement of John Wick Hex, if you would have told the world there was going to be a John Wick game, nobody could have predicted who was going to make it, let alone what kind of game it would be. 

People would have guessed first-person shooter, or maybe a third-person action game. Hell, the closest to being John Wick we've had in gaming is probably the almighty SUPERHOT, which allowed you to mercilessly make your way through hordes of enemies without batting an eyelid.

A bit like the first film, but without the sad starting point. 

That it's a semi turn-based, isometric strategy game based on the films is a surprise enough. That it's one from Bithell Games, who most recently put out two visual novels, is an even bigger surprise.

Of course, if you take a look at 2015's Volume, then maybe this starts to make a bit more sense. Whether you had prophetic foresight or not, John Wick Hex is here, and it's an incredibly intriguing game straight from the get-go. 

Once Upon A Time

Hex kicks off with a cutscene that could have been pulled straight from a comic book. The semi-titular Hex talks to two people, telling a tale of the other semi-titular John Wick. It tells the story of events that have since passed, and it's a fun way to let you know where the story is going. 

You're then thrown straight into the game without much warning; you simply become John Wick.

There are a couple of tutorial messages, but the trick to this game is very much practice. Learning what moves you can make and the effect they have on the unfolding battles is a lot of the fun.

The first thing to know about Hex's gameplay is that everything takes time, moving might take 0.1 seconds, crouching might take 0.5 seconds. When you shoot, it might take you 0.9 seconds, while it may take your target 1.2 seconds to fire once they've spotted you. It's all about incremental and split-second advantages. 

You're not some all-powerful god; you're a regular dude, just one who's very well trained. It means that while you can take on an army of enemies, you have to think about it. Your positioning, timing, and actions matter. That's why some of the best moves help you move around as you do them. 

Play That Again

If you use a takedown on someone, it'll take a while to do. However, that time also lets you reposition, which might be the difference between being shot and being in cover. As you get better, you'll feel the motions flowing together more naturally. You know you want to crouch to avoid an incoming shot, roll into cover, and then return fire. 

The best thing is, at the end of each level, you get to watch everything that happened in real-time. This means that what took you half an hour to accomplish, you get to see unfold in two-minutes. The camera angles are incredibly cinematic, too, so you watch Wick roll, disarm, shoot, and even throw his gun at people, all with dynamic camera choices. It's glorious. 

That might make things sound a little easy; I mentioned that you're just a normal dude, and well, that means that you die  and quite quickly sometimes.

You have to keep an eye on your ammo, your health, and your focus. The latter is akin to your MP, and it allows you to use more complicated moves  takedowns and pushes for example. Managing all of this would be tricky no matter what, but the game's resource scarcity is incredibly apparent. 

Plan Ahead

You can offset this (to an extent) by investing in supply drops as you make your way through the maps. But you can also spend those resources to make your dodges cost less, or to make it more likely that you'll avoid being seen. 

Every decision in John Wick Hex is important, from the ones you make before you start fighting to each and every move you make within the fights.

That makes it very easy to feel as though you've messed up the entire map 75% of the way through. Thankfully, restarting is easy enough, but you'll have to be willing to sacrifice the victories you've made along the way. 

If you like a sharp visual style, then you're in for a treat. The colors and unique animation style make for a truly striking visage. When you add in the excellent sound design, particularly the music, you're in for something truly special. 

The only real issue with Hex is that it can feel a little too punishing at times, and while starting a map again is easy enough, it's never an easy pill to swallow. Still, overcoming those obstacles brings that wonderful feeling of elation that so many of us strive for in gaming  so it could be worse. 

  • Fun tactical gameplay
  • Wonderful visuals 
  • Incredibly rewarding
  • Can be frustrating
  • Restarting hurts both your head and heart
  • Can occasionally look a little stiff

John Wick Hex is the kind of game that many people wanted, but probably not one that anyone realized they wanted. It's fun, it's challenging, and it's dripping with style. The gravity of each decision becomes heavier with every map you clear, and while bashing your head against a boss level for an hour is annoying, you'll be ecstatic once you've overcome it.

If you like strategy games, then this is one you'll not want to miss. For everyone else, this could well be the one that casts a spell on you. 

[Note: A copy of John Wick Hex was provided by Bithell Games for this review.] 

Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince Review — Get Experimental With Puzzles Tue, 08 Oct 2019 11:58:00 -0400 Thomas Wilde

It’s a little weird that there’s a fourth Trine at all. It’s not because the games are bad – they mostly aren’t – but it makes a certain sense that a game called Trine, built around a trio of heroic characters, would end as a trilogy. A fourth game feels like it’s a violation of the theme.

Here we are again, though, on pleasantly familiar ground. If you’ve played a Trine game before this, then you more or less know what to expect from Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince. Like its predecessors, Trine 4 is an entertaining, low-stakes puzzle-platformer, starring its old familiar cast, that mostly tests your brain more than your reflexes, set in a colorful storybook of a fantasy world.

You play as three characters at once – wizard Amadeus, Zoya the thief, and armored knight Pontius, known collectively as the “heroes of Trine” – who are approached by the administration at a wizarding academy to bring back a wayward student.

That student, Prince Celius (from developer Frozenbyte’s 2017 game Nine Parchments, so Trine 4 is two sequels at once), has proven too impatient to get a handle on his dream powers. Now he’s on the run, pursued by a host of nightmare monsters that he’s also responsible for conjuring.

It took me a couple of hours to realize it, but the interesting thing about Trine 4’s story is that it’s exactly what it appears to be. This is a straight-up fantasy story (no gimmicks) that doesn’t wink at the camera, revel in its own darkness, or try to mess with genre standards. It’s just a trio of heroes trying to help a kid out of some trouble because they’re heroes and that’s what they do. The end. It’s refreshingly straightforward.

Considering that, it is funny to look at the cover art, though. The first two Trine games have really dark covers that suggest they’re atmospheric mid-2000s European CRPGs. The third features key art of the three heroes that makes it look like a fantasy take on Broken Sword or some other character-driven adventure series.

Now, with Trine 4’s cover, Amadeus, Zoya, and Pontius look like they’re just having the time of their damn lives. It might have taken a decade, but a Trine game actually has a cover that matches its mood.

Trine 4 is also one of the more elegantly paced puzzle-platformers I’ve ever played. It begins with three quick solo levels, to introduce each playable character and his or her unique abilities, then puts them together and takes off running.

Each area is a line of rooms that challenge you to use local features and your characters’ talents in new and different ways. Amadeus can conjure boxes, to use as stepping stones or ballast, and telekinetically move objects; Zoya has a bow and a grappling hook; and Pontius can use his shield to reflect projectiles and stomp to destroy weak floors. You control one of the three heroes at a time, and you can switch between them on the fly with the push of a button, using their abilities in concert with the environment to circumvent various obstacles.

As you go, you gradually run into new obstacles and areas, and unlock new character abilities, each one of which is explained in context in a way that doesn’t feel forced or blatant. Trine 4 is actually a low-key master class in how to correctly do in-game tutorials. I only found one area in the entire game where part of the solution wasn’t something I’d explicitly already learned. 

One of the stranger things about Trine 4 is that it doesn’t really feel scripted, for want of a better term. In a lot of games like it, you’re generally expected to find the one intended solution to each puzzle, and if you find another way through, it’s probably an exploit.

Trine 4 is a lot messier, particularly in the middle game, once you’ve got a few new abilities. I’ve played a lot of games where character abilities like Amadeus’s conjured boxes or Zoya’s tightropes would be limited to specific, labeled locations. In Trine 4, conversely, you’re implicitly expected to be constantly experimenting.

Most of the time, when I tried to do something crazy just to see if it would work, it did. I might have ended up building a rickety Rube Goldberg machine out of fairy ropes, conjured platforms, and environmental objects when all I had to do was jump a couple of times, but I got to that damn platform, and that’s what matters.

I’m considerably less enthused about the game's combat.

Every so often, as you progress through a level, you get thrown into an inescapable arena with a handful of Celius’s nightmare monsters. Each one has a specific pattern and a couple of quirks. They are easy to figure out on the fly, but you always end up crammed inside a small space with four to six of them at once. The controls just aren’t suited to that kind of sudden, frantic scramble for survival, and every time I got into a fight, I wished I didn’t have to.

It’s not particularly challenging, but it just doesn’t flow particularly well, and Trine 4 would be a much better game if the combat was replaced with anything else. You can gradually pick up several upgrades that ostensibly give you more options in combat, but that isn’t any kind of incentive.

  • One of the more well-paced puzzle-platformers I’ve ever played.
  • It has a lot of faith in its audience. It’s a smart game for clever people.
  • Colorful, friendly, and challenging. Great for adults and kids alike.
  • The game would be much better if it didn’t have combat at all. The system is simply a mess.
  • The upgrade system feels like it’s there for the sake of being there.
  • A lot of the music sounds like something you’d hear randomly at a Renaissance festival.

The rest of the game is good enough that I can still recommend Trine 4, but it’s a shame that it has to stop dead every so often for an irritating fight scene. It’s got a lot of teachable moments for level and puzzle design, it’s refreshingly straightforward about its own genre, and even the characters are surprisingly nuanced for what they are.

Trine 4 is a great little puzzle game, but you could replace the combat with anything else – cooking minigames, card matching, historical trivia contests, whatever – and it’d be a monumental improvement.

[Note: A copy of Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince was provided by Frozenbyte for the purpose of this review.]

GRID Review: Burnout Tue, 08 Oct 2019 04:00:01 -0400 RobotsFightingDinosaurs

It's gotta be tough developing racing games in 2019. Forza, Forza Horizon, Assetto Corsa, iRacing, and Gran Turismo, all have virtually cornered the market. Each one appeals to racing fans in different ways.

From the most casual fan who loves to powerslide around corners (Forza Horizon) to hardcore fans that want in-depth, fine-tuned experiences (iRacing, Assetto Corsa), it seems like racing games have everything. 

In such a crowded field, with so many franchises jockeying for position, the bar for quality is incredibly high. Unfortunately, the hotly-anticipated GRID reboot can't keep up with the pack.

Under The Hood

Codemasters has made its all-new AI systems a huge selling point for GRID. The developer claims they've crafted a new system by which AI racers are more realistic, featuring personalities that are more aggressive and mistake-prone, as well as racers that are more defensive and stick to the racing line.

In my time with the game, I've found this to be generally true, but my favorite moments with the AI come courtesy of the new Nemesis system. Suffice it to say, it introduces a layer of rubberbanding for AI racers that makes contests much more interesting.

Nemeses are a whole lot harder to pass than your average racer, will delight in nudging your back wheels to make you spin out mid-corner, and generally provide the kind of jerkwad-rival experience that makes you revel in finally passing them. Overall, it's an increased challenge over what's found elsewhere in the game. 

When it comes to driving, GRID is pointedly more Forza than Assetto Corsa. It's not arcadey, but it is more forgiving than some of the more intense sim racers out there. A loss of traction doesn't necessarily mean you'll spin out, and a rewind function means that when you do screw up, you can generally undo your worst mistakes. 

Of all the racing games I've played, GRID is one of the few that has succeeded in simulating the hazards of weather, glare, and night racing. Standing water actually feels dangerous, and it pools realistically in rainy scenarios. At the same time, glare complicates chasing the sunset on a long straightaway, and night poses similar obstacles. You really have to be on your toes when racing through the game's wide variety of courses, even it does take its time showing them to you.

Legendary racetracks like Brands Hatch join lovingly created custom courses on the streets of Barcelona, Havana, and Shanghai, giving racers numerous locales in which to race. 

The lights of Shanghai at night are mesmerizing, and the idyllic atmosphere of the hill climb in Okutama, Japan, is something out of an Initial D episode. It's a shame, then, that the vast majority of these tracks are circuits with precious few point-to-point races.

Keeping The Pace

The actual racing in GRID is solid, fun, and rewarding. It's a shame, then, that in this crowded field, that isn't enough.

GRID offers only three ways to play: a quick custom local race, online multiplayer, and an incredibly disappointing career mode. This is where the real problem with GRID comes into focus.

Technical games like iRacing and Assetto Corsa (among many others) pride themselves on granularity. You can tune everything from tire pressure to roll-bar tension to weight distribution. Specificity and granularity are part of the game, and it makes up for the fact that most of the time, these games don't really have epic, story-based career modes full of cutscenes and gripping drama.

Forza and Gran Turismo try to split the difference by peppering races with cutscenes and voiceovers, and it's a big part of why they're so popular.

Finally, you have the Forza Horizons and Burnouts, where there's an open-world, a storyline told through cutscenes, or some other throughline to keep racers engaged through the more arcadey experience. 

There's nothing wrong with any approach, specifically because each caters to a different audience. The problem with GRID is it isn't granular enough to justify the fact that there really isn't a strong progression path to follow.

Sure, there are multiple racing disciplines to follow, including the a Fernando Alonso esports discipline, but there's no specific introduction to each. There's no flash. After the tutorial, you'll spend the majority of your time with the game picking a race, and just racing.

And again, that wouldn't be a problem if GRID offered the deep customization options and tuning that come with its competitors in the hardcore racing arena.

At launch, GRID only features 70 cars, meaning many legendary cars (the exclusion of the Mazda Miata is a cardinal sin to me) are absent. Tuning, as far as I can tell, is relegated to four different generic sliders. Car modification is restricted to picking from a list of liveries that unlock as the game goes on. There are no physical mods to be had, and a handful of the cars have their liveries locked from the start.

Middle of the Pack

  • Great racing mechanics
  • The AI is stellar, and the nemesis system is legitimately great
  • A lack of depth in the career mode makes it tough to recommend for casual racers
  • A lack of depth in tuning and modification makes it tough to recommend for hardcore racers
  • Only 70 cars

The tragedy here is that GRID is a more-than-capable racer. But when the field is so crowded, it's hard to recommend the game over the latest Forza Horizon or even Gran Turismo Sport. There's just not enough there to hook casual players, and there's not enough depth to keep hardcore racers coming back for more. 

[Note: A copy of GRID was provided by Codemasters for the purpose of this review.]

Ghost Recon Breakpoint Review: Excess Baggage Mon, 07 Oct 2019 12:29:28 -0400 John Schutt

Ghost Recon Breakpoint attempts to be many things: a tactical shooter, a loot game, an open-world exploration game, a cautionary tale about the lengths we'll go to achieve our ideals. 

It is, at its heart, sincere in its attempts to be any of those things. It sees the value in them and makes an honest attempt to adapt those systems and structures to those ends. At times, Breakpoint succeeds. When it succeeds, there are powerful, emergent stories that write themselves.

Even the overarching narrative has its strong points that make powerful, if overly familiar, points about war, and what we'll do for the people we care about.

Breakpoint does, however, find itself looking for an identity with no grounding. It tries to chase every popular trend without understanding why those trends are popular in the first place.

A Box of Empty Sand

Ubisoft has made a name for itself by creating open worlds full of things to do, places to see, people to meet, and lives to change. Games like Assassin's Creed: Black Flag and Watch Dogs 2 are full of new, emergent stories. Each has fascinating locations full of grand vistas that wow the eyes and kindle a love for exploration. They are also full of tangible, engrossing history. 

Ghost Recon Breakpoint has none of these things. The Auroa archipelago can be beautiful, but its beauty is bland. The same trees for miles, dirt roads next to grey rock mountains, green-blue water that offers nothing for the eye.

More often than not, I couldn't be bothered enjoying the scenery because there was nothing to look at. Everything felt generic.

This sensation is something Ubisoft was at least somewhat aware of. They've built both easter-eggs and hints at an ancient island culture into the game. 

Idols, shrines, and other iconography pepper Auroa; they entice players with a mystery of what came before the Skell Tech corporation. There are even moments of surprise when the old and the new clash, where military or future-tech installations seem at war with one another and the landscape around them. 

The problem is, these moments are too few and far between. Breakpoint's world is more filled with the same kinds of busywork we've come to expect from Ubisoft's later titles. Go to this location and pick up this item, then do it again and again.

It doesn't take long for your map to fill with "locations of interest," which rarely take more than a few minutes to clear correctly, provided there are enemies to shoot. Each location might only net you a few thousand "Skell Credits," the game's in-world currency, but not much more. 

There are hundreds of these little nooks and crannies, and after a few hours of exploring, they tend to blend, even if one or two seem interesting at first.

The various towns, villas, science outposts, and futuristic locations offer a little more variety. Each of them is different enough from the others to break up the otherwise monotonous traversal. For one thing, there's usually at least one person to talk to or otherwise interact with, even if it involves just shooting them. 

I will say that there's a lot of love and thought put into the various installations scattered across the island. The secret weapons lab and waterlogged research campus are highlights, but I can't say I'd have ever found them if there wasn't an objective marker leading me there.

Breakpoint ultimately suffers from the opposite problem Rage 2 did: instead of too little to do, it has too much that doesn't matter. There are bright spots of; interesting lore and intricate worldbuilding, but I tend to go bleary-eyed if my map's filled with hundreds of icons that offer nothing for me.

A Story at Odds With Itself

There is ambition in Ghost Recon Breakpoint's storytelling. Buried beneath the generic plotline and underwhelming characters could be a nuanced take on what the future holds for us, and what that means for soldiers and civilians alike.

There are hints of human tragedy and horror, of what it means to push someone to the brink and what they'll do once they've slipped past it. In ways, I was sometimes touched by the counterpoints created between Nomad, the player character, and Cole, the main antagonist. Most of all, though, I found myself hoping for a story about where "the line" was, and what it might mean to redraw it.

Sadly, such a narrative never materializes. Instead, we have a main character who is The Good Person and Cole, the villain, who is the Monster with a Heart. All around them are cardboard cutouts we've seen a thousand times. The Genius Scientist, The Preppy Tech Company CEO, The Grizzled Old Man, and The Plucky Child Who Is Always Happy Until She Isn't.

I might forgive weaker characters if they stood in a stronger story, but there are as many problems with this narrative as anything else in the game. One of the core conceits of Breakpoint's story is about how Cole, gone off the rails, will engage in any depravity if it serves his purpose.

Nomad is supposed to represent a kind of moral high ground, killing because they must and using only the force necessary to accomplish the mission. The problem? Nomad probably kills more people than Cole's forces ever do, and the only reason everyone's okay with it is because they're killing the "bad guys." 

There's even a moment where Cole and Nomad argue about how "you killed my soldiers," and never once do they acknowledge that both of them are monsters. It's only Cole who's gone too far.

Worst of all is Cole's endgame. While I won't spoil it in case you play the game yourself, what he wants is idealistic in the extreme and takes the idea of "ends justifying the means" to a ridiculous level. It's a thing built atop a house of cards, a goal not worth having if the way you get there is so soaked in blood you ooze red.

A Gray Horizon

Several other problems don't warrant full sections but are worth mentioning.

The enemy AI is laughably inadequate, and at one point, I saw a whole group of them all but bumping into one another trying to work through their walk cycles. For a game that bills itself as a "tactical experience," the conga line of soldiers running into my bullets doesn't bode well. 

There are plenty of bugs, too. The only time I didn't load into the game with empty hands was just after the opening cutscene. I found myself clipping through geometry more times than I'd like to count, and some vital screens wouldn't load for minutes at a time, if at all. 

Tutorial overlays — and quest information in general — are poorly implemented, as well. Everything has a tutorial that plays a sound bite and clogs up the screen for a good minute every time the game opens. 

The quest screen itself is too large for any monitor to contain, and is made up of so many menus and submenus I could never keep straight what I was or wasn't doing. 

And while it's a small thing, the fact that speaking animations are so much worse outside of cutscenes always threw me. Borderlands 3 and Destiny 2 — games with plenty of in-game dialogue — never have that kind of problem. But in Breakpoint, the facial animations are almost always jarringly fake.

There are a few bright spots, however. The feeling of taking down a few targets in quick succession while avoiding their larger group of friends isn't something you'll find most places. The gunplay, too, isn't terrible. It isn't great, but I never felt like I was using anything except a weapon of war.

I was also kind of a fan of the loot system, as I'm kind of a sucker for that kind of progression. It doesn't need to exist, but it is always fun optimizing a new build.

  • Workable combat 
  • Generally good music
  • Uninteresting but fun progression
  • Boring
  • Horrid Microtransactions
  • Poorly written story and flat characters
  • Mediocre worldbuilding
  • An empty world filled with too much busywork

Breakpoint cannot free itself from the trap of being too many things in too large a space. Its world feels barren in its vastness. Its story is hamfisted, and its characters are flat and uninteresting. 

Most of all, it commits the ultimate sin for any piece of entertainment: it's boring. For all the moments of levity and enjoyment, there is far too much time spent doing nothing of any interest.

Traversing the world is a slog. The combat, though functional, lacks character. The enemies aren't worth a bag of sand, and if I can't even enjoy the look of the sunset on the horizon, I can think of a hundred reasons why I would want to be playing anything else.

[Note: A copy of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint was provided by Ubisoft for the purpose of this review.]

Dragon Quest Switch Review: Erred-rick Fri, 04 Oct 2019 13:39:26 -0400 RobotsFightingDinosaurs

What can be said about Dragon Quest that hasn't already been said? It, along with its cohorts, originated the role-playing-game genre, and it was the first one to appear on consoles. It's legendary both on its own merits and also for inspiring pretty much every Japanese role-playing-game that came after it.

The game was wildly ambitious in its time, and though some aspects of the game have aged poorly, that's only because its contemporaries have built on the formula that Dragon Quest created. 

I say all of that to say this: reviewing an RPG that came out in 1986 by today's standards is a bit unfair. Instead, this review will focus on the newly-released Dragon Quest port for the Nintendo Switch, and how it's been updated for a modern audience.

Unfortunately, Square Enix sure made it difficult for new players to jump in.

Quest Log

If you're new to Dragon Quest, you'll likely be surprised by the open nature of the game. From the moment you start, there are no forced tutorials. No part of the map is off-limits, save for the final castle. You're free to visit any of the game's towns or dungeons at your leisure. The only thing stopping you is all the murderous Akira Toriyama-designed wizards, skeletons, and beasts that want you dead.

Other than that, the gameplay loop will be familiar to anyone who's ever played an RPG because, well, Dragon Quest invented the gameplay loop. Take on monsters, level up, buy equipment, find items, learn spells, loot dungeons, and eventually save the world. Specifically, it's your quest to defeat the Dragonlord by building a rainbow bridge to his island fortress and then besting him in combat. 

There are a few other unique gameplay hooks in the first Dragon Quest, namely the (relatively annoying) fact that each one of the dungeons is dark, so you need to use a torch to see further than one tile away, and the use of magic keys to open doors around the world. Other than that, any RPG lover will feel very much at home with Dragon Quest, from its random encounters right down to its cheesy-yet-clever Olde English dialogue.

A Quest for a Modern Era

If you're going into this game knowing that it's not going to have many, or really any, of the modern quality-of-life advancements that came to the RPG genre after 1986, you're likely going to be satisfied plunking down $5 to experience this five-ish-hour piece of history.

That said, that's not all you're getting here. This game has been updated in a variety of ways to appeal to a modern audience, and the most notable change is in the visuals. This is generally a matter of taste, but I typically prefer the original blocky, pixelized feel to the ultra-smoothed-out art style of many modern remakes. That said, the upgraded enemy portraits and battle backdrops are a delight, bringing Akira Toriyama's original designs to life in a new way. 

There are a few other quality of life changes, too.

Prices of magic keys have been reduced, and spell names have been changed to make them a little clearer. There's also a quick-save system, meaning you don't have to trek all the way to the castle to save your game. In a baffling move, however, the game hides it in the "Misc." section of the menu, along with a group of tutorials that take new players through the game's mechanics.

The game never tells you that this is where the save function and tutorials are, so they're pretty easy to miss. It's hilarious that the tutorial you already found in the "Misc." menu tells you explicitly to check out the "Misc." menu because it's easy to miss.

A Medieval Life

  • Dragon Quest is legendary for a reason
  • The remastered battle visuals are great 
  • The remastered music is great
  • It's $5
  • Despite not being a faithful remake, the game offers very few quality of life updates
  • The general sprite aesthetic could be a turn-off for some

Given the small tweaks made to the game in advance of its release on the Switch, it's baffling that Square left certain other aspects of the game alone. 

Your inventory is laughably small, and the only way to expand it is to sock your items away in a vault in one specific town. There's no way to deposit or retrieve these items without trekking all the way back to town.

There's no fast travel either, which would be fine except for the fact that frequent random encounters make necessary treks back to a castle or town frustrating. Adding to this frustration is the fact that when you do get to a town to buy items, you can't purchase keys or healing items in bulk. You have to buy them one at a time, in distinct transactions. 

It's a death by a thousand cuts. None of these issues are damning on their own, but given the other tweaks made to the game before its release, it means that Dragon Quest for the Switch now occupies the RPG middle ground. The visual changes and quick-save function mean that it's not intended to be a faithful recreation of a classic RPG, so the question then becomes, "Why did the developers not go one step further to make the game friendlier and less frustrating?". 

The bottom line is that even with these issues, Dragon Quest is still worth the $5 you'll spend on it. It's legendary for a good reason, and playing through it is cozily nostalgic, even if you didn't play the original back in 1986. It's just frustrating that the team behind the Switch version didn't lower the barrier of entry.

[Note: A copy of Dragon Quest was provided by Square Enix for the purpose of this review.]

Dragon Quest 2 Switch Review: Let the Past Shine Once More Fri, 04 Oct 2019 10:08:43 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Long ago, Enix released an RPG that would revolutionize gaming and spawn a series still going strong today. Dragon Warrior was the first of its kind, though rather basic in scope and mechanics.

Not long after it released came Dragon Warrior II. It provided a host of improvements over its predecessor, with expanded combat options, more characters, and a broader story carrying on the Erdrick saga. It was ported to Android and iOS as Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line, and that's the version the recent PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch ports are based on.

It boasts the usual improvements modern ports of older games tend to feature, such as some quality of life upgrades, better soundtracks, tweaked scripts, and much nicer looking sprites.

Yet the big, loaded question is whether Dragon Quest 2 is worth playing this many years later, even with these improvements.

That's not an easy one to answer.

Go Forth, Young Prince

Dragon Quest 2's story is standard for a late '80s game, but that doesn't mean it's bad; it's just fairly simple.

It takes place long after the events of the first Dragon Quest, starring three of Erdrick's illustrious descendants — the titular Luminaries, a name which should sound familiar to anyone who's played even a bit of Dragon Quest XI.

One day, the fiendish followers of Hargon invade the peaceful kingdom of Middenhall, destroying its castle and king along with it. It falls to your character to venture forth and gather the Prince of Cannock and the Princess of Moonbroke to eventually take the fight to Hargon.

That's pretty much all there is to the story. You travel around and gather your cousins, then travel some more, conquering dungeons and gathering the necessary sigils to successfully defeat Hargon at the end of the road.

Dragon Quest stories tend to be fairly conservative on the scale of RPG narrative innovation to begin with, though DQ 2 was a huge step up from its predecessor when it released.

The world is much bigger, and you have party members this time. Though the plot is ultimately a variation of "Hero defeats evil villain," it does continue the story told in the original game, unlike Final Fantasy.

We take these things for granted now, but it doesn't take away from appreciating that kind of continuity and improvement put into older games.

Simple Can Be Good

How this resonates with you today depends on your expectations. But, in a world that sets 100+ hour character-driven epics as the standard, there's something refreshing about a simple game you can finish in under 20 hours. That goes double for a game that's mostly straightforward, one you can just have fun working through.

The same kind of simple setup applies to the game's mechanics. Combat is rudimentary, though still more involved than the first Dragon Quest. Apart from two additional party members, DQ 2 also introduced the seeds of what would become the series' class system.

The Prince of Midenhall (aka you) is the warrior type and can't actually use magic, unlike most DQ heroes. Cannock's prince is a mixture of warrior and mage, learning spells like Heal and Sizz without excelling in physical or magical strength. The Princess of Moonbroke is the only one who fits the usual mage class, being squishy but magically powerful.

The game has more combat abilities than its predecessor, though the range of spells and physical attacks is still limited.

Fights are in first-person, like most of the series' fights until DQ 8. Just like you have more party members, your foes can come at you in larger groups as well, and unlike the original DQ 2, these fights take place on animated backgrounds. Sprites are static, though that and the first-person perspective are actually a big boon.

Why? Because it means combat goes faster without snazzy animations and detailed models. That's a good thing because you're in combat a lot.

The random encounter rate in Dragon Quest 2 is almost obscene, with fights occurring as frequently as every step you take. Yet you do also need to fight most of these. DQII is no exception to the Dragon Quest rule of requiring lots of experience points to level up.

Most fights are stingy in the amount of experience and gold you get from them, but if you run from too many, you'll find you die more quickly than you'd like later on.

It creates an interesting, if sometimes tedious, balance between dealing with a highly intrusive encounter rate on and short fight times. You'll grind because you have to — but not for endless hours.

Thankfully, there are no transition screens or load screens when you begin and end a battle, which helps make them go even faster. However, it would have been nice to have an option to reduce the rate. This is 2019, after all.

Ye Olde Adventure

There is a caveat to all this simplicity and streamlining, though, and it's one you'll want to keep in mind if this is your first Dragon Quest game.

"Simple" and "straightforward" might be friends in a thesaurus, but they're miles apart in Dragon Quest 2. Being a game from the '80s means Dragon Quest 2 expects you to either play it very frequently, take notes, or use the 21st-century version of the playground information network (online guides).

Naturally, you don't get objective markers, your map features no names, and you'll need to talk to townsfolk to get a clue about where you need to go next.

Don't forget that clue, because there's no "story up to now" feature either. The trouble is, these clues can be very vague indeed. It's all well and good to describe a specific location, but when you've never been there, and the map isn't the best at showing landforms and the like, there's still a bit of guesswork and extra travel involved.

There's no bag feature like later Dragon Quest entries either, so your inventory capacity is significantly limited. You also don't get HP and MP restored upon leveling up.

You'll burn through Medicinal Herbs and MP using Heal pretty quickly at first, which means it's back to town using a Chimera Wing (assuming you remembered to buy one), then another monster-filled slog to whatever dungeon you had to evacuate from.

Save points are infrequent. You can save by speaking to the kings of each castle and some other NPCs in certain places, but unless it's a king, there's no way of knowing who will let you save. Fortunately, there is a quick save feature.

Your cousins don't get any character development either, which is a big difference from later DQ games that interweave character stories with the overall plot.

These setbacks, plus the encounter rate and somewhat barebones plot work much better for those who are already fans of the series or who have a good tolerance level for older games. Others might walk away wondering what all the fuss is about this Dragon Quest thing.

Some Improvements

Some things did get updated, though. Unlike the port of Romancing Saga 2, this port is solid in terms of text size, interface, and general appearance.

The graphics got a new coat of paint, so they're upgraded even from the SNES version — more vibrant colors, just a bit of extra detail to help make environment models look nice, and as mentioned, backgrounds for combat.

There's always some chatter about character sprites in Square Enix's mobile games. While there is a slight disconnect between their style and color and the style and color of the environments, it's not that much of an assault on the eyes.

DQ 2's soundtrack is also simple, but it's a great example of why soundtracks usually don't change much. They just work — really well. It's made even more pleasant thanks to the MIDI treatment the original chiptune tracks received, which puts the soundtrack just a bit below the quality of the DQ IV, V, and VI remakes on the DS.

Finally, the text. Later Dragon Quest games add in a variety of dialects depending on location and specific individuals. Dragon Quest 2, like its brethren, uses just a variant of old English instead of including different dialects, but it's definitely been spiced up from the original text as well.

It's cute, too, and adds a bit of verve to all the dialogue, unlike the medieval literature that is a certain H'aanit's dialogue in Octopath Traveler.

Plus it gives you scenes like this:

The glory of no context

  • Still solid gameplay, after two decades
  • More varied combat, even if still limited compared to what the third entry brings
  • Fast and simple combat
  • Something you can reasonably expect to finish in a month or two
  • A chance to experience part of the series' origins on consoles again
  • It's obviously a two-decade-old game
  • That encounter rate
  • Would have benefited from additional QoL enhancements

In the end, this is a game you can't really assign a score to. On the one hand, Dragon Quest 2 is completely solid and enjoyable by itself. The port is good in terms of presentation, but it really did need some extra attention to help ease that transition into the modern era.

If you're good with retro blemishes and don't mind having to put up with some iffy features, then jump right in. If not, you'd probably want to look elsewhere for your first, or next, Dragon Quest experience.

[Note: Square Enix provided a copy of Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line for this review.]

Warsaw Review: Bleakness in the Face of Darkness Thu, 03 Oct 2019 17:32:05 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

If you squint at screenshots of Warsaw, it would be understandable if you thought you were looking at Darkest Dungeon. If you squinted at footage of Warsaw, you might still think you were looking at Red Hook Studios' bleak RPG. Warsaw's animation and art design draw heavy inspiration from Darkest Dungeon. Much of the gameplay does, as well.

In that vein, Warsaw tries to use the bleakness and desperation of Darkest Dungeon to tell a real story about one of the darkest settings the world has ever known: eastern Europe during World War II.

In that regard, Warsaw works well. It has its ups and downs, but it stands as a tough-as-nails RPG with a nice, non-fiction bent. Its central issue is that it just isn't as good as the games it emulates.

One Thing Only: Killing Nazis

Warsaw is set in Poland during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Part of the Polish underground resistance, you must carefully manage your troops and resources, pick the missions you wish to carry out, and try to lead your ragtag army against a nigh-unstoppable German war machine.

Gameplay is broken down into a few different elements. In your headquarters between missions, you have a variety of specialists and shops capable of helping you better your efforts. Leave wounded fighters in the care of the doctor between missions to heal their injuries, recruit new soldiers, purchase better weapons — these are the moment-to-moment activities you'll carry out.

It would be nice if the different areas of your HQ had a bit more personality. While each character looks unique and full of personality, they're ultimately nothing more than storefronts, placards devoid of real nuance. In a game that wants to make you feel the true cost of war, this seemingly slight stumble is all the more glaring. 

Going out on missions is where you'll spend most of your time, though. Here, you navigate a map, scrap with German troops, and try to achieve your given objective before you exhaust your team. Your objective might be to kill a certain number of enemies, find some needed supplies, or a myriad of other tasks.

Regardless, missions will always lead to plenty of battles and some tough decisions.

Guerrilla Warfare

As you move through the streets during Warsaw's missions, you're directed to a variety of interest points. Some of these are battles (more on those in a minute), some are supply drops, and some are story beats, the latter of which are laden with decisions that can affect your team in many different ways. Having a certain class or weapon in your loadout, for example, might change the options you have to choose from.

Most of the time, though, you're losing more than you're gaining.

Warsaw goes to great lengths to show you how difficult war is, especially if you're fighting against a massively overpowered foe. Just like Darkest Dungeon, enemies are better equipped and much more numerous than your scant troops. That means you have to be very smart about how to approach situations, and you should only take risks if you've gotten to the point of desperation.

Likewise, you will often feel like the underdog when you enter battles with enemy forces. Battles are turn-based, with each side having as many actions as they have troops still alive.

You can move your troops behind cover, inflict status effects on enemies, and deal direct damage directly. You pick your available actions from your equipped weapons, rather than your troops' classes. Though classes affect your stats, meaning certain troops are better at fitting into certain roles, most any troop can fill any role if you're desperate.

You can also use the same unit as many times as they have stamina points (most actions will use up a stamina point, which recover slowly), meaning you can get by with one main damage dealer and a support team, provided you keep them alive.

That twist on battles seems like it would open up tactics, but it never really clicked for me.

Some battles devolve into neverending stalemates; I found myself down to a few troops, alternating between minimal damage to enemies behind cover and keeping my last damage dealer alive. All the while, I watched my ammunition grow scarcer as I dealt ineffectual damage.

It felt real, yes; actual skirmishes can often turn into a "whoever has more supplies, wins" exchange. It also just... wasn't fun. There isn't much in gaming that's more disappointing than a neverending turn-based battle.

Into the Dungeon

As you get further into Warsaw, your supplies dwindle faster and your enemies get stronger. Considering the real-world events the game is based on, that impotent feeling of helplessness sets in. It's extremely difficult to succeed in this game, and that's kind of the point: you're the underground Polish military, fighting against a literal death machine.

Warsaw makes up for its derivative nature by introducing this historical conflict to the genre. It really makes you want to win: everyone loves an underdog story, and what could be more underdog than Poland against Germany during World War II?

That said, Warsaw flies a bit too close to its source material without actually being better than it. Lots of the design choices that help set it apart from Darkest Dungeon actually make it less effective: drawn out battles are tougher to stomach (both ethically and from a "fun" standpoint) when it's "real" soldiers sinking bullets into one another. There isn't any room for the winking tone of Darkest Dungeon, either, when we're dealing with a true story of a doomed uprising.

Back to the Pit

  • Fascinating, real-world setting
  • Tough decisions, both in and out of battles
  • High stakes
  • Battles sometimes devolve into neverending stalemates
  • Some design choices fall flat
  • Ultimately, it just isn't as good as games it emulates

I really wanted to like Warsaw more than I did. Maybe it was some bias creeping in (I have put way too much time into Darkest Dungeon), but Warsaw is far too similar to not compare it to the 2016 release.

The main thing it brings to the table is its interesting setting. The Warsaw Uprising is a gripping point in history, and a great setting for a game like this. If you love WWII, especially some of the lesser-known aspects of it, you can't go wrong there.

However, if you just want the best tactical experience you can find, there are other places to look. Warsaw's solid, but it can't compete with some of the big dogs of the genre.

[Note: A copy of Warsaw was provided by Pixelated Milk for the purpose of this review.]

Code Vein Review: A Vampire Tale That Doesn't Suck Thu, 26 Sep 2019 10:00:02 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

Code Vein has somewhat been coined as "Anime Dark Souls." That's not too far from the truth.

Combat is a bit faster and less deliberate than in From Software's series, and a lot of the danger comes from waves of enemies rather than a single terrifying one, but it is certainly not difficult to compare the two titles.

And that is not at all a bad thing.

Bandai-Namco's souls-like is a blast to play, even if it is a bit rough around the edges. It's close enough that it will quench your thirst for this style of game, but it isn't as much of a clone with new dressing as it initially seems.

It scratches the "anime techno-vampire" itch we didn't even realize we had.

Blood Beads and Gifts

One thing that Code Vein does extremely well is immerse you in its bizarre world. This is a post-apocalypse full of vampires struggling to survive against tyranny and oppression. The only way for these vampires to survive is by hunting humans or finding "blood beads," which are a naturally occurring blood substitute. Sort of.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the story, and it's all very anime, which adds to the charm.

This vampire culture pervades all the dialogue and much of the story in Code Vein, and it allows for a bit of roleplaying on the player's part. You aren't going to make dramatic "Dracula will remember that" style choices, but I did find that choosing the armor that let me drink blood through a gigantic mechanical scorpion's tail spoke to me more than a pair of metallic claws.

It just felt right to strike at enemies with that barbed tail. And Code Vein gives you lots of those little roleplaying options.

For example, there is an entire series of strange vocabulary words that you pick up as you play, but so much of it is rooted in traditional video game trappings that it fits in naturally. You've got a "Blood Code" (character class), "Blood Veil" (a hybrid of armor + fighting style), "Gifts" (spells and abilities), "Haze" (both experience points and money), "Ichor" (magic points), and so on and so forth.

All of these can be switched on the fly, too; if you die a few times against a boss, try equipping a new Blood Code and weapon to enter the arena with an entirely new strategy.

As expected in a game like this, you can still upgrade your favorites to make them stronger, but you're never "all in" on a specific style. Leveling completely different styles at about the same pace is a boon in a few different ways as it will allow you to approach tough sections in different ways, and it will keep things from ever getting stale.

Building a Better Vampire

This all comes packaged with an impressive character editor and a wild combat system that simultaneously makes you feel powerful and horribly overmatched.

Dressing your character for battle is as easy as stopping by your home base and standing in front of the mirror; yes, even though you're a vampire. Put on some elbow-length lace gloves and a giant cross necklace. Don your favorite floppy hat. Don't forget the mascara. Now you're ready to fight.

Code Vein carries that ethos over to its weapon types as well: rifles, swords, huge axes, rusty pieces of pipe. All of these weapons have different attack speeds, combos, and styles they are best suited for, and swapping through them to find the best combinations is one of the best parts of the game. You're going to need to experiment in Code Vein, and once you get past the fairly simple opening section of the game, every scrap can be deadly.

Combat plays out much like a slightly looser Dark Souls. There's still a level of deliberation that rewards you for studying enemies and understanding their capabilities, but things move a bit faster and smoother here.

You're prone to getting surrounded, as enemies travel in packs, but this makes awareness and scouting essential, and also further encourages you to set up your character to play to your strengths.

Skills and Kills

Another interesting aspect of Code Vein is how the abilities, called "Gifts", work. Each Blood Code gives you several Gift options that you can unlock and use for a very small price in Haze  buffs and debuffs, active skills, and passive bonuses. You can then assign a number of these abilities to a hotkey and, as you hit later parts of the game, things get even more interesting.

Most of these Gifts are utilized with a corresponding Blood Code; the caster Code learns attack magic and shield spells, the fighter Code learns unique, weapon-based combos, etc. However, you can gain "Proficiency" with every Gift, which unlocks it to be used with any Blood Code equipped.

This allows you to put together some ridiculous ability combinations. Suddenly, your fighter Code has the ability to fire ranged spells. Your ranged attacker can imbue their weapons with all sorts of nasty status effects and put up massive shields.

This allows you to completely customize your character as you see fit and, again, nothing is set in stone. Farm some more souls... er, haze... and try out some new combinations.

Pobody's Nerfect

Code Vein has a lot of positives going for it. It offers tons of customization options and does let you feel like a badass techno-vampire battling against crazy bosses. However, there are a few things that hold it back from being a slam-dunk recommendation.

It looks... fine. The world is interesting, and as you reveal the story, it becomes moreso. That said, the environments are often pretty bland and same-y. A genius little map feature that outlines the path you last took is the only thing that keeps you from wandering the same path repeatedly, questioning whether or not you've been there already.

The character models are also fine, but they have some pretty glaring clipping issues. For example, my first character model often had a big hat on as I was feeling the Vampire Hunter D vibes. However, I had to change it as soon as I could. Why? Because nearly every cutscene has multiple shots from directly over your character's shoulder. That giant hat was literally all I could see, rather than the roaring boss I should have been focusing on.

Hair regularly clips through clothes, too, and object textures rattle on top of one another. These little quirks stick out like a drop of blood on a pale, white neck and put a damper on a lot of the polish that the game has otherwise received. Maybe some fixes are on the way, but it seems doubtful. 

The other issue is how similar a lot of Code Vein is to Dark Souls. There are literally aspects of the design  the "Mistle" (bonfires) you purify as you explore, the items you collect, the way traps are set up  that come across almost as lazy rather than inspired. It isn't a problem, as Dark Souls has some impressive design, but it's tough not to knock Code Vein a bit for its lack of inspiration in some regards.

  • Tons of customization options
  • Bizarre, interesting world
  • Combat is intense and rewarding
  • Bosses are a blast
  • Lacks polish, especially graphically
  • Very derivative

Code Vein is one of those games that you can take a quick look at and immediately tell if it's your speed. If you like the punishing combat of the souls-like genre and want an injection of anime style, you can't go wrong here.

It's by no means perfect, and a lot of small details factor in to leave it less polished than it should be, but anyone who isn't turned off by the style or difficulty is going to have a good time with this Dark Souls-inspired RPG.

[Note: A copy of Code Vein was provided by Bandai-Namco for the purpose of this review.]

Contra Rogue Corps Review: The Alien Bores Wed, 25 Sep 2019 18:59:12 -0400 Jonathan Moore

Contra Rogue Corps is a hard pill to swallow. Objectively, it's not a very good game. Repetitive level design, terrible graphics, and an uninteresting story cripple the game from beginning to end.

Its disastrous soundtrack ranges from nonexistent to head-scratchingly awful, and its mechanics spit in the face of Contra's central ethos: fast, frantic gameplay. 

As a long-time fan of the series, I'm baffled by the game. Not since Legacy War has a game in the series ventured so far afoul of what makes Contra Contra.

Compounding its woes, Rogue Corps isn't a particularly good twin-stick shooter. Mediocre at best, it fails to grasp the expediency of the genre, even if it does embrace its bullet-hell chaos. 

Despite all of that, Rogue Corps' isn't completely un-fun. When the game fires on all cylinders, it shows flashes of what might have been. Deep within its bones, it has the atoms of a good Contra game.

C-Minus Storytelling

Contra Rogue Corps takes place six years after the events of Contra III: The Alien Wars. You begin as a soldier named Kaiser, a caricature of 80's action cinema and early DOS-based shooters. Quickly, though, you gain control of the three remaining members of Rogue Corps. 

Banished to the post-apocalyptic underground of The Damned City, Rogue Corps is a motley crew of esoteric would-be heroes. 

Ms. Harakiri is an Uma Thurman doppelganger with an alien fused to her stomach. Perplexing anthropomorphic panda Hungry Beast is loaded with the brain of a human scientist. Lastly, Gentleman the alien aristocrat is capable of harnessing the power of black holes.

The story doesn't make sense, and I'm inclined to believe it's not supposed to. Producer Nobuya Nakazato told us that the game's story exists because Rogue Corps has four playable characters instead of two:

Contra has always been about two parties fighting together, so the story wasn't that important, but this time we are up to four players, so you need each character to stand out. It made sense to create the background story for each of them, having a personality for each of them. This is why we decided to put more focus on story this time. 

However, from its rushed nature and nonsensical plot to its flat, sophomoric jokes and C-grade schlock, the unbalanced emphasis on narrative ultimately makes it meaningless. Its presentation as a beautiful motion comic is its only saving grace.

The Killing Joke

However, as any Contra fan knows, the story isn't the central focus of the franchise. 

In what becomes an unmanageable glut by mid-game, Rogue Corps never leaves you wanting for weapons. You can acquire them (and their parts) as drops in missions, by building them, or by purchasing them the in-game shop. 

Of course, you can also upgrade them by acquiring BAD modifications in missions, which carry myriad buffs such as increased damage or reduced cooldowns. 

Weapons also become more potent as characters use them. Using weapons increases their level, and weapon affinity increases as characters use each class. Consequently, one character may be more proficient in close-range weapons while another is a master of machineguns 

In my 12 hours with the game, I've come across many of the game's weapons and variations, including machine guns, shotguns, grenade launchers, missile launchers, and lasers. Some are fully automatic, some fire in short bursts, and others ricochet or use heat-seeking ammunition. 

This diversity adds a thin layer of strategy to the game's gunplay but only minimally. Overall, I found that a fully maxed-out automatic machine gun, paired with a high-level flamethrower or heat-seeking missile launcher, worked fine for every encounter. 

Classic weapons, like the spread gun, are relegated to special weapon pickups in-stage, and they carry a limited amount of ammo. These augment your arsenal, but none turn the tide of battle. 

There are other ways to take down aliens in Rogue Corps as well. Each character has a melee dash attack that acts both offensively and defensively. Like many twin-stick shooters, the dash provides you with a moment of invulnerability as you slide forward or backward. It always deals a bit of damage if it hits an enemy as well, making it ever useful in a pinch.

Each character has a unique ability that gives them buffs and advantages. Kaiser, for example, whips out a powerful machine gun/spread gun combo that devastates foes. Dodge speed and melee damage define Ms. Harakiri's special. Hungry Beast drops a row of automated turrets that distract most enemies, and Gentleman harnesses the power of a tiny black hole for crowd control. 

Every member of Rogue Corps can also perform a flowery execution move. However, they only affect some of the game's hardier, more persistent enemies. The shortlist, though, does not include the game's hulking bosses or the game's run-of-the-mill minions, severely limiting its use. 

Body parts, such as brains, eyes, and skeletons, let players upgrade each character by giving them specific buffs such as increased health, counterattack capabilities, and elemental resistance. These upgrades can drop throughout each of the game's missions after beating powerful enemies and assigned to characters via a surgery mechanic at the main base.

The biggest issue Rogue Corps faces, though, is that its gunplay isn't very compelling. In any other twin-stick shooter without the Contra name, it might be serviceable. However, when nearly 100% of your playtime is spent shooting while slowly walking backward, what might initially be fun quickly becomes a chore. That's not to mention the words "slow" and "Contra" should never share the same universe. 

Tantamount to heresy, you can't shoot up, severely limiting the game's verticality and freedom of movement. Instead, you have to jump to hit any enemy above you, flying or otherwise. Nakazato assured me that certain weapons in the game do, in fact, shoot up. However, after all this time with the game, I've yet to find them. 

On top of that, your weapons overheat. I'll just let that fact simmer with series fans... 

Compounding the game's sluggish, metered shooting, the only real way to hit targets is to aim with the right stick, which slows you down to a crawl. Shoot without aiming, and you'll run right into enemies and take damage. Either choice is frustrating at best, especially when games like Nex Machina, Resogun, and Nuclear Throne consistently do it better. 

Leveling the Playing Field

Rogue Corps has a lot of levels. Looking at the game's trophy list, it appears there are seven chapters, where the first three have six levels each. If my math is correct — and each section has a similar number of levels — Rogue Corps has 42 stages. 

The thing is, Rogue Corps recycles many from earlier parts of the game. To give you an idea of how quickly this happens, the first level of Chapter 2 is a level from the previous chapter, just with slightly harder enemies. Making matters worse, most levels in Rogue Corps are dull corridors without much in the way of verticality. The jumping sections that do appear are often hard to navigate because of the game's camera. 

Isometric, Rogue Corps' camera often shifts perspective during a level. Sometimes, the camera provides a top-down view; sometimes, it gives a more traditional 2D, side-scrolling view. However, it's always stationary in each section of the level. This design complicates movement, especially when traversing hanging platforms that require precision movement. 

While I don't mind the 3D perspective and design of Contra Rogue Corps, I would have preferred a different camera set up. Perhaps a 2.5D perspective would have worked better, or a completely top-down view. A free-roam camera would have been welcome over what's available here.

Notably the game's visuals look utterly awful. It looks like a PS2-era shooter or the potato version of a current-gen title. Its muddiness, though, impacts gameplay as enemies and projectiles sometimes blend into backgrounds. From loftier heights, some enemies disappear entirely with the camera so high above the action. 

Luckily, hordes often grow to such a size that losing a handful of enemies isn't an issue. Indeed, it's when one or two enemies remain in a section that things can turn into a pseudo Where's Waldo

I do, however, appreciate the inclusion of defensive items in each of the levels. Barrels provide ways to burn, shock, or acidify hordes of enemies. Sandbags provide strangely impenetrable cover for foes but force you to employ a focused strategy on the game's higher difficulty levels, and act as barriers for you when things get tough. 

  • Beautiful comic-book style presentation
  • Iconic weapons
  • Classic enemies
  • Unique character abilities
  • Tons of customization options
  • Terrible graphics
  • Terrible soundtrack
  • Terrible story
  • Repetitive gameplay
  • Grinding, slow progression
  • Forced, pedantic humor
  • Weapons overheat

I had a hard time writing this review. In fact, it is most likely the hardest review I've ever written. I wanted to like this game. I tried very, very hard to. 

When I first played the PlayStation 4 demo a week ahead of the game's release, I was disappointed. Very disappointed. I suppressed that, though, when I played the game a few days later at Twitch in Seattle, Washington. There, playing with other journalists and streamers, I had a great time. The game's 4v4 PvP mode was an absolute blast, and couch co-op was a lot of fun. 

But after I got home and played more of Rogue Corps alone, in a familiar place without all the pomp and circumstance of a launch party, I found nothing changed. Disappointment crept back in. Because of that conflict, this is the fourth review I've written for Rogue Corps in as many days, each one a vicious fight with my feelings toward the game. 

Ultimately, I had to do the hardest thing: rate the game poorly. It's something in which I never find joy. 

The straw that broke the camel's proverbial back was when I couldn't get a single match in co-op or PvP on the day of the game's release. With no one to play with, both modes are essentially dead on arrival — at least on PS4. 

Some people will enjoy this game for what it is. Hell, I've found some joy in it myself — and it's possible I'll play it a little bit more. But Rogue Corps' problems far outweigh its strengths, making it a hard game to recommend to anyone, much less Contra fans.  

[Note: A copy of Contra: Rogue Corps was provided by Konami for the purpose of this review.]

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening Switch Review — Aged to Perfection Tue, 24 Sep 2019 17:32:24 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is the perfect follow-up to Breath of the Wild's franchise-busting experiment in open world, free choice gameplay. It's also a testament to the timelessness of excellent game design and the power of nostalgia.

There's not a whole lot one can say about the plot of Link's Awakening without spoiling things, since it adopts a more unusual narrative pattern for the series. 

After defeating Ganon in one version of the series' notoriously complicated timelines, Link sets off for new lands outside Hyrule. The problem is, his rather flimsy vessel gets hit by lightning, and he ends up unconscious on an unknown beach. 

That somewhere is Koholint Island. It's an odd place where animals talk and live side-by-side with humans. There's an egg at the top of the island's biggest mountain, and a mysterious girl called Marin, who looks an awful lot like Princess Zelda, takes an interest in Link's wellbeing.

You'll piece together more of Koholint's past and present as you journey around the island seeking out its eight mysterious ruins (i.e. dungeons), defeat the Nightmares inside, and obtain the Instruments of the Sirens.

The game's exploration structure is classic Zelda, and the original Link's Awakening is often seen as the game that cemented it for years to come, after it first debuted in Link to the Past.

But the loose story with a central plot twist is unique to this game and gives it so much character.

Zelda II was the series' first experiment in doing something different, back when making the second game different was almost a requirement. Yet Link's Awakening is where the spirit of experiment and innovation first shone through, making it memorable for more than just being the weird stepchild.

A big part of its character is because that destiny of yours involves a not entirely unexpected, though still gut-wrenching plot twist that completely reshapes how you approach the game from then on, but you won't learn about that until much later in your journey.

Meet the Islanders

The general story structure up to that point might seem a bit bland by modern standards. However, what really makes Link's Awakening stand out — and makes that eventual twist dig in even further — is its characters.

Not even Breath of the Wild or Majora's Mask include such a varied cast of strong personalities and downright bizarre scenarios.

The village dog lady keeps bloodthirsty but fashion-conscious Chain Chomps for pets. There's a starving alligator who's also a banana salesman. Old Man Ulrira won't talk in person, but he's Koholint's version of Dear Abby, and the goat (ghost?) writer Christine sends letters to her beloved Mr. Write but won't reveal she's a goat. 

It's one of the only games in the series where every personality stands out and contributes something to the game, even if it's just worldbuilding, which is more important than ever in this entry. 

What's especially impressive in Link's Awakening for the Switch is that the game's core hasn't changed from the original Game Boy version, and yet it's still as engaging as ever before.

The dialogue and scenarios are helped along by some modern touches that make them more dynamic and boost engagement. Text boxes are no longer limited to three or five words at a time, so it's a lot easier to get the spirit behind the message. Delivery is also improved by adorable and expressive character models, each of which gets its own set of sound bytes that add even more personality.

It's the best next step for the series after BotW. In that entry, Hyrule itself is arguably the main character. Take that away and return to something like Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess, where interesting characters are mostly one-offs, and it'd be very easy for the game to feel flat.

Old Feels Surprisingly New

Gameplay in Link's Awakening is classic Zelda with a bit of a twist.

For first-timers, it might seem too linear since there's no flexibility in the game's overall progression; you have to get to Point C from Point A via Thing B, and you have access new tools in the order the game wants you to.

However, the game is surprisingly open despite that strict structure. For example, after getting the Power Bracelet from the second dungeon, a huge portion of Koholint Island opens up, and there's nothing stopping you from exploring it.

And it's worth taking the time to look around. Link to the Past offers a big world, but despite originating on more limited hardware, Link's Awakening feels bigger, with more things to do, see, and uncover.

There's practically no unused space on Koholint Island, whether it's a place to uncover a Secret Seashell, a cave hiding a new Heart Piece, or the next path you need to unblock.

There are still places you can't go until you learn to swim and get a certain other item, and you won't be able to access dungeons out of order, but you can go almost anywhere you want in between — as long as you can figure out the route. 

It turns the game into a puzzle within a puzzle, with everything falling satisfactorily into place the further you progress. 

Toys to Life

Link's Awakening uses a delightful mix of toybox style characters in diorama settings and hyper-detailed 2.5D environments to create something that surpasses even Octopath Traveler in innovation and looks.

It's the little touches that really stand out, though.

Unlike the original, characters are capable of facial expressions, too, which adds a charming touch of nuance to the game.

Because of the Switch's hardware, water sparkles while flames shine and look realistic. The Keese's glowing eyes challenge you from the darkness, and a subtle blue tint washes over the screen when you're near the ocean.

The world isn't divided into a grid map anymore, either. Moving from one place to the next no longer requires transitions. That change, however, comes at the cost of framerate stability. FPS drops mostly occur where screen divides used to be, among some other areas unconnected to the old divides. Some spots always stutter, while others sometimes won't.

While these hiccups aren't game-breaking, nor do they make your in-game death more likely, it is a shame the lovely aesthetic has to be marred by these issues.

Respect the Past, Envision the Future

The Soundtrack

What isn't marred is the soundtrack. Full-bodied, subtle, and entirely appropriate in all contexts, the real draw is how it expertly pays homage to the original while using nostalgia as a springboard to do something amazing.

The original chip tunes were fine for their time, but there were basically two sounds: silence and BEEP. Here, however, every song is beautifully re-imagined with modernity while being painted with the undertones of emotional nostalgia.

In almost every facet, it's an incredibly effective soundtrack adding even more life to a vibrant remake.

Dungeon Crawling

Dungeons are a bit on the simple side overall. Most of them are fairly short by series standards, though that isn't a bad thing considering this is a portable game remade on portable hardware. They sit in a comfortable position between BotW's mini-puzzle Shrines and the lengthier, more complex dungeons of games like The Wind Waker or Twilight Princess.

Rather than having you solve puzzles spanning multiple stories or relying on more complicated movement-based puzzles, you'll piece together the right path much in the same way you do in the overworld. Clearing out one part of the dungeon always gives you the necessary keys tools to open previousl-closed areas.

Those with fond memories of the original will probably be more likely to overlook their simplicity here. But it's still a nice cleanser after spending over 40 hours dealing with 100+ Shrines in BotW

Dampe, Dungeon Master

The Chamber Dungeon mechanic is the only completely new addition to Link's Awakening, and it's a fun one, if more limited than it should be.

Eventually, you can visit Dampe the grave keeper in his home, and he helps you put together mini-dungeons using tablets on his special worktable.

He'll teach you the basics, then set out a series of challenges for you to complete. You have to meet his requirements and create a feasible dungeon with no loose ends. It's an interesting set of brain teasers, and finally landing on an ideal layout is very satisfying.

Playing through them is not, though. Most of the tablets are rooms from dungeons you've already conquered. Even though piecing together rooms from random different dungeons does keep things fresh, it's just not as compelling as actually piecing the layout together. 

  • Tightly-knit narrative and gameplay scenarios
  • Surprising amount of freedom within a linear system
  • World stuffed full of secrets
  • Engaging characters
  • Expertly pays homage to the original, while updating as needed
  • Innovative and highly appealing graphics direction
  • Fantastic soundtrack
  • Not much (read: hardly any) new material
  • Might seem too simple for first-timers

The 1993 version of The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is a masterpiece — and its 2019 remake is one, too. 

The time that's passed since experiencing Link's Awakening in its original form has helped showcase how well the game has aged, as well as where it fits in with the series and gaming overall.

It's the best entry after Breath of the Wild to keep the series fresh while something completely new bubbles away. It's a strong testament to the power of caring, thoughtful design.

Even a 26-year-old games can be made new again with a little love.

FIFA 20 Review: Volta Don't Jolt But Gameplay Glimmers Tue, 24 Sep 2019 13:16:27 -0400 RobertPIngram

When it comes to soccer games, FIFA is king.

While Pro Evolution Soccer has long been talked up as a contender for the moniker of top soccer simulation, the days of anything approaching true competition in the field have come and gone.

FIFA is in charge, and the good news for fans of the sport is that EA does not seem content to rest on their laurels when it comes to the pitch. While not every new implementation in FIFA 20 lands correctly, EA's commitment to keeping things fresh is more than evident.

If It Ain't Broke Now...

The heart of any sports simulation is its ability to accurately represent real gameplay. The best set decoration and suite of specialty modes are all for nothing if things don't work after the whistle blows.

To that end, a game series like FIFA presents developers with a difficult challenge. When existing standards are high, every change carries more expectation — and has a greater chance of failing. 

While it's hard to truly grasp what does and doesn't work with the engine before it's been through millions of real-world simulations, the early signs are that EA did some fine work 20.

The most notable changes focus on how players behave without the ball, both offensively and defensively.

On defense, EA set out to put eradicate a dastardly defensive tactic: letting the computer handle certain parts of play. In prior years, it was often easier for some to let the AI handle tackling and regaining possession. 

Or so I've heard.

In FIFA 20, this tactic has been nerfed by an increased emphasis on manual defending and properly-timed tackles. This puts the onus back on the actual humans playing the game and requires they step up and make more plays than in some recent iterations of the game.

Not all the changes make for less competent computer teammates and the need to go it alone, however. On the other side of the ball, your teammates have never felt more capable.

FIFA 20 has dialed back its speed, and the slower play feels more realistic, bringing effective changes to the offensive AI. Teammates are now more capable of reading the game and dropping into space while waiting for the right moment to run through a gap and latch onto a pass.

Overall, the changes to the engine seem to be significantly better by all early indications. After a year in which many fans felt the series took a step back, FIFA 20 feels like a leap forward to its best version.

FUT Remains King

The online fantasy team builder FIFA Ultimate Team has been the game's showpiece mode for years, and fans of the mode will have little reason for complaints this year (sans the ever-present loot boxes that have plagued sports games ad infinitum).

If you're new to FIFA, FUT is an online mode where players build teams from real-life leagues. Players are represented as cards, gained by buying or earning packs, or from direct purchases on the game's market.

Teams gain bonuses for having high chemistry, earned by placing players from the same nation, league, or team near each other on the pitch, as well as placing players in their natural positions. The higher your chemistry, the more bonuses it brings to your team's overall performance.

In FIFA 20, there are many ways to play online, from one-off matches to seasons, as well as offline options. With Squad Battles, you can take on squads from real, player-built squads under AI control, which gives you a taste of PvP matchups without having to face off with a stranger.

The largest drawback remains the mode's inherent pay to win structure, with the game never shying away from the fact that it encourages you to invest in more packs with real-world money.

The good news is there is nothing forcing your hand, and the game seems to be somewhat more generous with pack access this time around.

In addition to a starter boost of 1,000 coins per game for five games, I received bonus packs for having played FUT on FIFA 19. While my starting team was far from a world-beater, just the ability to jump in and take control of competent players instead of soldiering on with a bunch of League Two strugglers made the mode significantly more inviting. 

At the end of the day, FUT is largely more of the same, though when a mode is already an international juggernaut, there's not much need room for drastic change.

Volta Fails to Jolt the System

Perhaps the most indicting criticism I can make for Volta is, upon finding it unenjoyable, I very much wanted to make a Volta is Revolting pun for this section heading. But even that wasn't quite true.

A bad game mode is certainly not a positive, but it at least shows an effort to really push things where they simply failed.

In almost every way, I found Volta to be something worse than bad: I found it boring.

The appeal of streetballers is their propensity for flashy skills and tricks, which see them doing things with the ball you never would have imagined possible. The game is all about crowd-pleasing excitement.

Volta, on the other hand, usually just feels like smaller FIFA.

On a cosmetic level, the game dials up the showmanship with each touch, but all too often, it's more window dressing than real change. Before long, I discovered the best way to score is to rely on the basics. Pass it around, draw opponents out, and hit a backdoor ball to a forward to tuck home.

Sure, there are fewer players to draw, and the goal is a tiny thing with no keeper, but it doesn't change that the most success I had in Volta came from using tried and true tactics from the traditional mode.

While I like the idea of a more realistic approach to streetball than prior arcade-style games, I came away feeling like EA took the approach too far. Volta doesn't do enough to make the game feel unique or worth my time.

And its story mode isn't much better. 

While not all fans loved The Journey, sacrificing it for Volta's story mode was a clear net-loss, if for no other reason than it is utterly dreadful. The characters are poorly realized, and the plot fails to stand out in the slightest.

  • Changes to the gameplay engine have created the most realistic and enjoyable soccer game ever
  • FIFA Ultimate Team is an engrossing way to play, and the joy of slotting a new star into your lineup and taking him to the pitch for the first time is hard to beat
  • Be a Pro and Be a Manager campaign modes remain the same enjoyable fun for anyone looking to take their favorite team to the title
  • Volta is an uninspiring letdown from a mode which showed so much promise at launch
  • Loot boxes will see you squared up with overpowered opposition from time to time in online play
  • The same criticisms from the FIFA 19 Women's World Cup add-on remain, with an inability to actually build a full 24-team tournament

The question of whether or not FIFA 20 deserves a spot in your collection ultimately comes down to the same qualifiers most sports game run into.

If you're new to the series or haven't updated in several years, then it is certainly worth your money. Similarly, if you're happy seeing your annual purchase as a subscription fee to take part in online play, there's nothing here to hinder your fun.

If you purchased FIFA 19 for its offline modes, however, it's a trickier call. Even if the gameplay is tighter this year, you're safe to wait until 21, which will hopefully have a better, stronger Volta mode. 

The Surge 2 Review: Unforgiving Combat Refined to Sci-Fi Perfection Mon, 23 Sep 2019 18:32:35 -0400 Ty Arthur

In a year marked by several highly anticipated titles that don't quite stick the landing, an unlikely contender for Game of the Year has arisen.

After a lukewarm response to its predecessor, The Surge 2 has taken everything you thought you knew about brutal combat titles featuring respawning enemies and refined that style into a brand-new post-apocalyptic, sci-fi experience.

Just about any complaint you may have had about The Surge  its clunky combat and limited options, for instance is missing from the sequel. The Surge 2 is leagues better than its predecessor, taking its style to new, futuristic heights.

Bigger, Bolder, Badder

        Behold, my defibrillators of DEATH!!!

The Surge 2 immediately makes it clear you will have far more choices here than in the previous game, starting with character customizing, where players can change their gender, skin color, and hairstyle. They can tweak their character's overall work background.

Taking a cue from RPGs, that final choice has real repercussions NPCs will react to characters differently based on what you did before the nanite plague turned Jericho into an android war zone.

Character creation is just the tip of the iceberg, though, as every last mechanic in The Surge 2 has been enhanced, improved, and extended. Options for customizing rig parts and using different weapon types seem limitless.

Starting out dual-wielding defibrillators like an absolute boss, it won't be long before you're severing robotic limbs and choosing between spears, sledgehammers, table saws, flaming gas tanks, and many, many more marvelously gruesome weapons.

Between brand-new skill modules to equip and a vast range of equipment crafting possibilities, such as sets focused on speed, damage, or interrupting enemy attacks, the game gives you free rein to learn and master your own preferred combat style.

But that's not where the upgrades end. The game world is larger this time around.

Expanding from the confines of the factory in The Surge or the amusement park from the A Walk In The Park DLC, the whole city is open to exploration, and the environment is used far more effectively to keep the game feeling fresh.


         You won't be needing THAT anymore...

Coming into The Surge 2 off a long stint with Blasphemous, I initially wasn't super excited. The thought of diving into a game with super-hard combat and a restrictive stamina mechanic didn't sound like much fun.

Thankfully, that's not the case.

Early on, you can pump points into your stamina stat like crazy to mitigate that restriction. When you know how to dodge enemy attacks and get in combos to sever limbs, you frankly don't need health anyway.

On that front, the game utilizes an updated battery mechanic that fits its own style so perfectly that I honestly can't understand why it wasn't used before. In order to sever limbs for scrap collecting, power special abilities, or even heal yourself in boss fights, you need to charge your battery by landing multiple hits. That means aggression is rewarded here, and the combat is much faster and more fluid than before.

It could be compared to the change between Dark Souls and Bloodborne but much more pronounced. 

Finding New Ways to Kill

Aside from the updated limb severing (and oh, you will sever so many limbs!), there's more a larger stealth component this time around, and the environment can be used to your advantage in different ways.

Jericho City is a big area, and now there's frequently more than one way through any given location.

Finding hidden stairwells, back alleys, and rooftops offers new ways to take out enemies, such as using a drone to shoot them from above or below where they can't reach you.

Of course, you can plow through those enemies via standard melee combat instead, but if any particular enemy type is vexing you, there are now more ways to play than just having to "git gud" and that addition to this style is long, long overdue.

Playing in a Living World

While exploring acidic rivers, bombed-out apartments, gravity lifts, and more, there's a shared world element at play, as well. You can see where other players had victories or defeats (much like with Nioh), but The Surge 2 takes that idea a step further with an interesting twist.

Besides just shooting enemies or searching for loot, your drone can drop a hologram "banner" of your current character loadout. The idea is to find extremely hidden, out of the way places to drop the banner and the longer it remains hidden from any other player, the bigger your reward. 

        Hi me, meet me!

Lock-On Combat

The Surge features significantly fewer instances of hidden secondary enemies, those hidden just out of your field of view waiting to gank you as soon as you enter an unfamiliar area. The first game was lousy with that kind of cheap mechanic, and thankfully, it's more manageable here.

That being said, the camera can still be your biggest enemy since its auto-lock feature is turned on by default. In almost every way, it makes it difficult to see who is coming up behind you when fighting more than one enemy at a time.

I'm still not entirely certain if that's a feature meant to increase the challenge in group combat or a bug that doesn't need to be there, but after disabling auto-lock my enjoyment with the game skyrocketed into the stratosphere, so I highly recommend turning it off.

With auto-lock off, you can still cull a herd of enemies into a manageable size, then manually lock onto whoever looks like they will have the best loot. While locked on, your goal in any fight is to either sever a specific armored part to get components you need or target the weakest body part with the best weapon and attack mode for firing off a deadly combo.

That latter element is crucial to beating bosses, and it is used to enhance the combat system along with a new directional blocking mechanic that lets you get in counter-attacks.

It's somewhat complicated, but very satisfying when you figure it all out, and the system comes together for frenzied melees or large scale boss fights. These bosses definitely aren't cakewalks, and there's some serious strategy to be employed if you want to them down from "impossible" to "doable with some luck."

For instance, it took me somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 attempts on the first boss fight before I realized the weaker but faster attack could be chain-combed for 5 or 6 hits in a row on one specific body part.

The end result is that boss fights are basically puzzles to be worked out, and they're extremely satisfying when you unlock the right combat style to move forward.

       Trying out different equipment and module loadouts is crucial 

  • Updated battery, limb severing, and healing mechanics
  • Much faster, more fluid combat than the previous game
  • The Souls style has now been refined into something with a broader appeal
  • There is a bit of a grind
  • The auto-lock on feature should be turned off immediately

Other than learning to work around the lock-on feature, the only real downside to The Surge 2 is that there is some grind involved to find schematics, construct equipment, and upgrade components.

Respawning enemies is integral to the gameplay since you need to sever limbs to find new weapons and scavenge parts to upgrade. But with the expanded nature of the various game mechanics and the hidden routes to find across the city, it doesn't feel nearly as repetitive as it could have.

That issue aside, The Surge 2 is a nearly perfect refinement of this style and a significantly improved follow-up to the previous game. If there's an award for "best sequel," Deck13 definitely deserves to take it home for The Surge 2.

[Note: A copy of The Surge 2 was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the purpose of this review.]

Nintendo Switch Lite Review: Does It Shine Bright or Burn Out? Mon, 23 Sep 2019 17:39:29 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Console revisions are nothing new. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have revised their consoles and handhelds for years. Typically, each new model brings something unique to the table while also improving on previous technology. Some even remove features. 

The Nintendo Switch Lite follows that long-standing tradition of revision. As an alternative to the Nintendo Switch, the Lite improves on its predecessor in several ways, while also removing some things that make the Switch the Switch. 

Even if the Lite might not be the best choice for some, there's not much doubt it is the superior version of the Nintendo Switch, especially for handheld experiences and overall efficiency.

Below, we look at how it compares to the original. 

How Does the Nintendo Switch Lite Look?

Side by side, the Lite's screen doesn't appear t be considerably bigger than the one featured on the original Switch. The launch Switch looks almost too big for a handheld system, while the Lite seems to strike a happy balance — bigger than the 3DS and Vita, but not too big to be unwieldy.

The difference here is mainly down to better use of space by Nintendo; the Switch Lite doesn't include rails for detachable controllers and doesn't have to include controllers big enough to use solo. 

It's also because the Switch Lite doesn't have a huge border like the one surrounding the launch version of the system. The plastic screen cover behind the glass is the same color as the rest of the system, giving the impression of a seamless transition between system and screen.

When you're holding the Lite, your hands cover most of the control area as well. That means the 5.5" screen commands all of your attention and looks bigger or at least the same, despite actually being smaller.

Almost everything else, such as the button layout and control stick locations, is basically the same as the original Switch. However, there is one glaring change: the D-pad. The Switch now has a regular directional pad instead of four face buttons.

You'll likely notice there's no pop-out slat in the back for the kickstand, either, since the Switch Lite doesn't support tabletop mode. In its place is a card cover not unlike a game card cover.

The speakers have also been moved; rather than one opening on top, you get two smaller speaker openings. These are on the bottom, though they're sensibly placed further in, unlike with the new 2DS XL.

For some, the Switch Lite could be seen as a regression to the "Toy factor" systems of Nintendo's youth, specifically because it's bright and small with stark-white buttons. That combo might not make the Switch Lite look like a serious piece of tech, but if it is a toy, it's certainly a stylish one.

How Does It Feel?

In a word, good.

The Switch Lite feels perfectly suited for handheld play in a way the original just can't compete with.

My hands are roughly average in size. Holding both Switches so all the buttons and sticks were within easy reach means, for me, holding them so the bottom corners are in the center of my palm.

Playing the original Switch in handheld mode is uncomfortable because you really feel that extra weight after a while. Even though reaching the "ZL" and "ZR" buttons doesn't require a huge stretch, it still feels awkward.

Just balancing it enough with one hand for this photo was a challenge.

But that's not the case with the Lite. It is definitely lighter, but it still has a reassuring sense of weight.

Because of that, you can play for extended periods of time without discomfort. Unlike with some systems (looking at you, Vita) there's also none of that unconscious hand shuffling stuff while trying to find a holding position that actually works.

In short, it's smaller, lighter, and easier to hold — pretty much everything you want your handheld system to be.

Those with smaller hands will find this is definitely the ideal portable Switch experience, though reaching the middle of the touchscreen still isn't quite as easy as it could be.

The big-handed folk among us might find it a bit more difficult to get used to, though.


The Switch Lite has a thick matte finish, which feels satisfying to the touch and, as an added bonus, isn't a grime magnet like the original Switch's plastic chassis.

Face Buttons

The original Switch's face buttons are a lot like the New 3DS buttons: clicky, hard, and shallow. The Switch Lite feels more like it has proper controls. The "ABXY" buttons push in further, and they provide a better tactile response. The D-Pad is the same but does require a bit more pressure than I initially expected.

"ZL" and "ZR"

One of my favorite changes is with the "ZL" and "ZR" buttons. The original Switch's shoulder buttons are fairly loud. The Lite's "ZL" and "ZR" buttons press down further, and the click they provide is much softer and less intrusive — perfect if you're in public or around other people.

Control Sticks

The control sticks have been a concern for some ever since the Joy-Con drift issue became so widespread. Early teardowns of the Switch Lite show the control sticks use the same parts as the original Switch's Joy-Con, but there does seem to be a slight difference in performance.

The Lite's control sticks feel tighter and more responsive, and I didn't notice any change in that feeling even after several rounds of Smash Ultimate and playing some of Astral Chain's more intense fights.

How Does It Play?

However, none of that really matters if the Lite doesn't perform well at the one thing it was designed to do: play video games. Luckily, gameplay and performance are two areas in which the Switch Lite truly shines. 

Improved Display

The Switch Lite doesn't include a new or better GPU, but it still handles displays better than the original Switch.

One reason for that is the size. With more pixels shoved into a smaller screen, games on the Switch Lite tend to look crisper and sharper in general.

The above is a shot taken from the Switch Lite at middle brightness.

The following shot is from the original Switch at max brightness. The difference isn't tremendous, but colors are slightly brighter, and everything just looks clearer.

The difference is particularly easy to spot in visual-heavy games like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and the demo for Dragon Quest XI S (which looks lovely on the Lite). However, it's still noticeable in anime-styled games like Tales of Vesperia and Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana.

Apart from size, another contributing factor is brightness. The max brightness setting on the original Switch is roughly equivalent to the halfway mark on the Switch Lite. It makes a huge difference, and it can't be overstated just how welcome it is, especially since it's not a huge drain on the battery.

There's been some chatter about a greenish tint on the Switch Lite's screen, and it's not without merit. There's an evident difference looking at the home screen on both systems, but it's not something you'll really catch if you aren't playing them side by side (well, you might now, after reading this).

Louder, Louder, Louder

Like with brightness, the Switch Lite's audio is about twice as loud as that on the original Switch.

There are a couple of caveats here, though. It's excellent to actually hear game audio without having to use headphones, but it can sound a bit tinny at times. However, because of how the speakers are constructed, the quality and clarity of voices is greatly improved on the Switch Lite. 

Also, because the system's audio is louder, the system vibrates at about the halfway mark and higher.

 Will your hands cover the Switch Lite's speakers? It might be a slight problem for people with bigger hands, but after some general testing, it seems to depend mostly on how you hold the system.

If you naturally hold it mostly resting in your palm, with your fingers wrapped around it, it shouldn't be an issue.

Overall Efficiency

The Switch Lite is also a step up from the original Switch in terms of efficiency.

Turnin' on the Heat

The original Switch heats up when you download apps, it heats up when you charge the battery, it heats up when you dock it, and — surprise! — it heats up when running certain games.

The Switch Lite still gets pretty hot when you're downloading material (especially if it's 100GB+ in a short length of time), but that's about it.

After leaving it charging for four consecutive hours, the back panel was warm, but not in the concern-inducing way of the original Switch.

More impressively, though, is how it handles demanding games. The processor boost for the Switch Lite means games don't cause the fan to come on at all, at least in my time with it so far. 

Keep the Lights On

I didn't play Breath of the Wild for six hours straight to test the battery for this review. Despite my gross negligence, I can still offer some insight into Nintendo's claims about improved battery life.

They're true.

Since my system arrived, I've charged it twice. The first time was a little after I initially received it and began redownloading my digital titles from the eShop.

That first burst of battery power lasted a surprisingly long time, then around 4 p.m. the day I received it, I plugged it in. I unplugged it at 7 p.m., when it was at 90%, finished downloads at 11 p.m., then played Ni No Kuni and the Dragon Quest XI S demo for a while, all on close to max brightness.

When I finished, the battery was still at 20%.

What You Don't Get

The Switch Lite isn't all sunshine and roses, of course. The lite-ness means some things had to be cut, but whether that's a deal-breaker really depends on your preferences.

No Joy-Con Means No Docking

The Switch Lite doesn't feature Joy-Con. The controls on either side are built-in, which means no detaching and no docked/TV mode playing.

That also means your Switch games won't benefit from the higher GPU power resting within the Switch dock, so you won't be seeing Hyrule (or anything else) at resolutions higher than 720p.

It Also Means No Other Stuff

You also won't find IR sensors or HD Rumble on the Lite, and you won't have the ability to detach the system's controls and share them with other players.

Very few games have actually made any noteworthy use of HD Rumble, but if the idea of not being able to count digital ice cubes or milk cows with your controller makes you sad, then the Switch Lite might not be for you.

Since you can't detach the Joy-Con, it also means multiplayer will be a bit difficult, and games like Super Mario Party just won't be playable. Here's a list of games that we know don't work in handheld mode for easy reference. 

I've also heard some talk that the built-in gyroscope is less effective on the Switch Lite as well, but after some testing, that doesn't seem to be completely true.

The motion controls for small movements, like catching Pokemon in the Let's Go games or aiming in Breath of the Wild, seem identical. Larger scale movements are pretty much the same, too, like in the motion shrines in Breath of the Wild.

Another Missing Thing: An HDMI Port

Since the Switch Lite doesn't dock, it also doesn't have an HDMI port, meaning it won't be possible to stream from the Lite until there's a capture device manufactured for it.

Not a 2DS or 3DS Replacement

One other thing worth noting: I've heard lots of people saying the Switch Lite is a replacement for the 2DS and 3DS. It isn't. This is a Switch, and no matter how nicely you ask, it won't play 3DS games.


Who the Nintendo Switch Lite is For
  • People who want to experience the Switch library without paying $300 for a system
  • Families or people sharing systems
  • People who play primarily in handheld mode
  • Those who mostly enjoy single-player games
  • People who want to take their Switch out of the house, but don't feel it's suited for portability
  • Those who just want that extra bit of clarity and efficiency the Lite offers
Who the Nintendo Switch Lite is Not For
  • People who want to play in docked/TV mode
  • People who aren't happy with console games at 720p
  • Those who play lots of multiplayer games
  • Those who require hard, tactile feedback when they milk digital cows

The Switch Lite is undoubtedly the better form of the Switch on the market. The display is cleaner and sharper, the buttons respond more effectively, there's a D-Pad(!), it doesn't feel like it might explode when playing demanding games, and its size and battery mean it actually functions like a good portable gaming device.

That doesn't make it absolutely mandatory for those who already have a Switch, since these are minor, though noticeable, improvements. However, the price point makes it unbeatable for getting into the Switch library for the first time or trading up for a system that better meets your needs.

Still, it's not for everyone. If you don't do handheld mode, then you're better off just waiting for the Switch Pro, assuming it's real. Likewise, if you take your Switch with you because you use it for multiplayer games, then stick with the original.

HyperX Cloud Alpha S Review: A Slight Improvement Over the Alpha Mon, 23 Sep 2019 10:58:26 -0400 Kenneth Seward Jr.

There’s nothing like owning a solid gaming headset. Sure, there are plenty of good cans out there, most of which provide a decent means of communication while offering various levels of comfort. Not many of them, however, can match the overall quality of the affordable HyperX Cloud series of headsets.

This is especially true when one considers the HyperX Cloud Alpha S gaming headset. As the latest member of the Cloud family, it features some nice improvements over its predecessor. This includes its bass adjustment sliders and USB audio control mixer.

It even has custom-tuned HyperX virtual 7.1 surround sound something fans have been asking for in a set priced slightly higher than the original Cloud Alpha. 


The HyperX Cloud Alpha S is almost identical to the Cloud Alpha. Signature memory foam ear cushions and headband, strong aluminum frame, detachable mic aside from the splash of blue (replacing the red highlights), it looks just like the Alpha. At least, at first glance.

A closer inspection of the Alpha S reveals slightly different cans. Each one sports a bass adjustment slider on the bottom, towards the back. They’re there to provide three different bass levels.

There’s also the detachable 3.5mm braided cable. Instead of ending with a headphone splitter, though, it connects via USB. That way, gamers can take advantage of the advanced audio control mixer  which replaces the normal volume/mic mute buttons  and surround sound feature. 

Things are a bit more familiar under the hood. The Alpha S has many of the same sound quality features as the Alpha. That includes the dual chamber technology that separates bass frequencies from the mids and highs, essentially providing a more accurate soundscape.


Like the Alpha before it, the Alpha S offers a rich audio-based experience. The sounds of explosions and gunfire ranged in my ears (in a good way), while the near-constant chatter of my friends alerted me of an enemy’s position. Things were just as clear when playing single-player games: I could hear a soldier’s boots kick up gravel in Remedy’s Quantum Break, for instance.

Most of this can be attributed to the Alpha S’ solid tech; I was able to hear things I had previously missed with my old headsets. Games like Hunt: Showdown proved to be more immersive, with its ambient sounds being raised to terror-inducing levels. That said, none of the sound effects or in-game music kept me from communicating with others.

The advanced audio control mixer helped in this regard. This is because it splits a game’s overall sound level from the chat audio; though it’s capable of raising and lowering both volumes equally, the Alpha S is capable of placing a bigger emphasis on one or the other. Meaning, you can raise the chat audio so that it sits on top of the game-related sounds and vice versa. If there was a particular scene or moment that made it hard to hear my teammates, a few clicks of the mixer sorted things out. 

Everyone could always hear me just fine of course. Thanks to the bi-directional, noise-canceling mic, my voice was received loud, clear, and absent of any background noises. It didn’t matter if we were using in-game chat, Discord, or some other application. It always worked as intended.

7.1 Surround Sound 

The feather in this headset’s proverbial cap has to be the surround sound feature. It’s the one thing that largely separates the Alpha and Alpha S models, aforementioned upgrades notwithstanding. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as impressed as I hoped I’d be.

I played a few different games to get a feel for the feature, making sure to activate and deactivate it by pressing the large 7.1 labeled button on the mixer  at the same segments per game. What I found was that the headset already had a base level of surround sound implemented before activation. I could tell what direction shots were coming from, where speaking characters were in relation to myself, and so on. 

Upon toggling the “real” surround sound, I got the same thing but at an elevated level. All of the ambient sounds came rushing in; I could seemingly hear a pin drop in an adjacent room. At the same time, all of the sounds turned hollow. Shots from my gun lacked their original oomph. Walking across gravel was akin to trudging on glass.

It was worse during cutscenes. Characters in a crowded area sounded like they were talking on mics in an abandoned warehouse; their vocals lived apart from everything else. 

This was because of how the surround sound seemed to work. Instead of making things more immersive, it made them louder and less tangible. Airier even. I remember playing Hunt and being scared out of my seat with the sudden appearance of a monster. Only it wasn’t the danger of their presence that scared me. It was how loudly they came crashing through the cabin I was in. It literally hurt my ears. 

That’s not to say that you can’t adjust things. Lowering a game’s overall volume helps, though when you eventually switch back/toggle off the surround sound, you’ll have to raise it back to its normal settings. The surround sound also proved great when listening to certain music. While playing a few Jazz songs, I was able to hear each instrument in greater detail. It sounded fuller, grander than what I was used to.

A Nice Fit

This should go without saying but the Alpha S is super comfortable to wear. This is coming from someone who struggles to keep his headsets on; my ears are very sensitive to pressure. That said, even after hours of gaming, I barely noticed they were on my head.

The memory foam ear cushions feel great, and they don’t get hot, a possible result of the upgraded, breathable leatherette and an adjustable frame that doesn’t place undue pressure on the ears.

Of course, one’s mileage may vary. Some will sweat more during intense sessions than others.

  • Amazing sound quality (most of the time)
  • One of the most comfortable headsets on the market
  • Plug and play USB connection
  • Mixer that allows separate game and chat volume control
  • 7.1 Surround Sound works well in certain instances
  • 7.1 Surround Sound isn’t great for gaming as it makes everything louder/shallower, losing the richness that was afforded from the start.  

All and all, the HyperX Cloud Alpha S is a great headset. It’s slightly better than the Alpha, even with the surround sound issues, considering they work well when listening to certain types of music.

The mixer proves the most useful. It’s nice being able to lower or raise the chat volume without messing with a game’s overall sound levels. The bass adjustment sliders are also a nice touch, though they seem to be more geared towards music — and that’s not a bad thing. 

For $129.99 ($30 more than the Alpha), you’ll get an improved headset, extra goodies (replaceable cloth ear cushions, travel bad, etc.) and the nifty mixer. It’s not a bad deal at all, especially if you are already looking at the Alpha or another quality set with a median price tag. 

Here are the headset's specs: 

Drivers Custom dynamic, 50mm with neodymium magnets
Type Circumaural, Closed back 
Frequency Response 13Hz – 27kHz 
Impedance 65 Ω
Sound Pressure 99dBSPL/mWatt 1kHzT.H.D.: ≤ 1%
Weight 310g
Weight w/ Mic 321g
Cable Length 1m
Connection Type 3.5mm plug (4-pole)
Mic Element Electret condenser microphone
Mic Polar Pattern Bi-directional, Noise-cancelling
Mic Frequency Response 50Hz –18kHz
Mic Sensitivity -38dBV (0dB=1V/Pa at 1kHz)
Audio Mixer Weight 57g
Audio Mixer Cable Length 2m

[Note: A HyperX Cloud Alpha S review unit was provided by HyperX for the purpose of this review.]

The Sojourn Review: A Little Bit Goes a Long Way Thu, 19 Sep 2019 13:42:20 -0400 RobertPIngram

In a world that seems to be in a neverending race to the next big release, sometimes what you really need is to step back and bask in the joy of simple mechanics set to flawless execution.

Sure, flair can be fun, and when done well, a big game offers unique and thrilling experiences. But all that flash also provides cover, allowing gamers to overlook small problems as minor inconveniences in a larger, excellent whole. 

When a developer makes the decision to keep things simple, they are taking a risk. By only offering players a few simple ideas, any failure to execute on those ideas becomes impossible to miss.

I recently looked at Vane, a puzzle game which tries to employ simple mechanics but becomes weighed down by errors in execution which turn it into a frustrating experience. For all its flaws, most disappointing is that it left the impression that there was space for a visually arresting game with simple controls and clever puzzles to flourish.

It created an itch it wasn't ready to scratch.

With The Sojourn, that itch is soothed.

Basic Doesn't Mean Boring

If you're looking for a game where you can fall into the rhthym of fast-paced button mashing and thumbstick flicks, The Sojourn is not the game for you.

The game unfolds, quite literally, at the pace of a casual walk. Your goal on any given level is simple: make your way to the exit. Of course, this is a game, so it's not as simple as walking over to it.

Each level presents a puzzle to be solved, and rarely does a level not require you utilize a new mechanic or uniquely implement a prior one to do so. This is the key to what separates The Sojourn from similar titles which fall flat. Despite the fact you are rarely asked to perform incredible feats of digital athleticism, and what abilities you possess are added to your repertoire at a leisurely pace, each new puzzle will get your gears turning as you puzzle out the riddle in front of you. 

Embrace the Darkness to Follow the Light

While I'm not going to delve too deeply into the game's slowly-expanding array of tricks because this is a game best experienced fresh, a look at the game's broader ideas can help demonstrate its appeal.

At its core, the primary concept which underpins most of the mechanics in The Sojourn is the existence of both light and dark, different versions of the areas you explore. For the most part, the two are similar, with just a few small differences. For example, one noticeable change might be the existence of bridges in darkness, which can be used to cross chasms in the world of light. 

More importantly, though, you gain the ability to interact with statues when in the dark.

Initially, there is just one type of statue, though others are discovered as you progress. These initial statues allow you to switch places with them when activated. This is an essential mechanic because your time in the darkness is limited by the number of steps you can take. By swapping with a statue placed closer to the area you need to reach, you can expand the range in which you can travel.

That's just one of the ways the statues are required to solve the puzzles of The Sojourn. Soon you will encounter stages where the statues serve as keys to open gates, or are duplicated in machines, or have runes which let you activate them in the light.

With each new function, the complexity of the puzzles you face goes up, all while requiring the simplest of inputs.

A Beautiful World for a Beautiful Game

The Sojourn is such an elegantly executed game that it deserves an elegant world in which to play it, and once again, it delivers.

The visuals are often beautiful, colorful, and occasionally surreal. Just wandering around the gorgeous levels is as an enjoyable experience as a walking simulator. And just as those games, there are often wonderful monuments to gaze at. 

The game takes a similarly esoteric approach to storytelling. Rather than relying on NPC dialogues or extended cutscenes, the game uses environmental storytelling and the occasional brief on-screen message. You find yourself drawn along through the puzzles while absorbing what you can of the world with each new level.

  • Engrossing puzzles continue to find intriguing ways to challenge your brain with each new level
  • A beautiful world is stunning to explore as you reason your way through puzzles
  • Simple starting mechanics with a slow-but-steady increase creates a smooth learning curve for players
  • Slower pace may not be ideal for all gamers
  • Plotting often requires players to put pieces together, which may leave some players behind

I came into The Sojourn without any lofty expectations. Perhaps it was a case of once bitten, twice shy after having my hopes dashed in a similar experience with Vane.

While I may not have come in expecting much, The Sojourn took little time to set its hooks and win me over, and my first sitdown with the game lasted a full 90 minutes longer than I had budgeted for. It was only a complete inability to remain awake at such a late hour which finally saw me quit back to my desktop and finally go to bed.

While The Sojourn falls just short of being a game that everyone needs to play, as there are some gamers who just know from the description of "slow and serene play" that it's not their cup of tea, it's worth your time if anything about the game sounds intriguing to you.

You won't be disappointed by the time you spend navigating its puzzles and taking in its beautiful world.

[Note: A copy of The Sojourn was provided by Iceberg Interactive for the purpose of this review.]

Borderlands 3 Review: Loot, Laugh, Love Thu, 19 Sep 2019 12:36:10 -0400 John Schutt

Borderlands 3 is many things: a fun 30-hour campaign, an unsurpassed loot grind, a technically proficient and satisfying shooter, and funny if you're 12. It's also a great entry point for the series and a love letter to everything that made it the juggernaut it is today.

It's got its issues, of course. The writing quality is inconsistent, and performance leaves something to be desired. These facts haven't deterred thousands of players from diving in and are unlikely to stop thousands more when everything's said and done.

Loot as Far as the Eye Can See

No Borderlands game is built on the back of its narrative, nor even its immature, irreverent humor. People come to the series for the loot game, and if there is anywhere this title nails absolutely everything, it's the loot progression.

Where to even start? If you're familiar with the formula, you know that you'll never want for new guns or gear to equip. Every enemy has a high chance of spawning something. Most of what you'll find is trash, but on the off chance you do find something worthwhile, it can change the game. 

At least until you find something else in 10 minutes.

That's a big draw for most fans, too. Unlike a game like Destiny 2, where the loot is more measured and the power scale smoother, in Borderlands 3, with the right drop, you can and will break the game right open.

Every enemy you kill could be the one to drop the perfect roll, even on the lower rarities. A blue-rarity gun might not dominate at the highest difficulties, but if you're lucky, it can and will carry you well past its level. 

It's the perfect chase, in many ways. The game shows you how potent one gun can be, but it then dangles a new carrot in front of you. Suddenly, you're questioning everything about your current setup. So you pick up something on a whim and try it out, only to wonder why you ever used anything else.

And it's not just about damage, either. The various equipment types — shields, relics, and class mods — augment your abilities with a weapon and within your class. The most dedicated players will spend hours looking for a single item, killing the same boss over and over so they can find the relic that perfects their build. 

The way loot spawns is almost as important as the abilities it provides. The sudden jump of gear as it explodes from enemies is more satisfying than it has any right to be. Plus, the Epic and Legendary gear spawn sounds are subtle but unmistakable. Bosses are especially enjoyable to kill, as their death throes terminate in a massive horde of money, consumables, and gear. No other game can boast anything like it.

The loot variety is also nothing to sneeze at. There are enough weapons and weapon types to keep things interesting for dozens of hours. If you add in the half-dozen weapon subtypes and various mechanical iterations, "billions of guns" sounds like a real possibility.

If Borderlands 3 stopped there, no one would blame it for providing an incredible progression system, but it doesn't stop — instead, it steps on the gas. 

With the return of True Vault Hunter Mode (TVHM), you have a NG+ mode with better loot and a way to truly test your gear against the game's toughest enemies. Then you can add in the new Mayhem Mode to increase your looting options even further. It comes complete with combat modifiers, gameplay changes, and smaller tweaks to the formula.

The hits keep coming, too, with two endgame modes — Circle of Slaughter and Prooving Grounds — pushing you to put on a real show. Both will test the limits of your loot and your build, but players are already finding ways to shatter bosses.

And that's how Borderlands is supposed to work.

These Guns Were Made for Shooting

Now, loot is great and all, but it doesn't mean as much if it doesn't change the way you play. And boy, can it ever.

Build variety in Borderlands 3 is incredible, even if the skill trees do try to rein it in somewhat. Melee focus, long-range focus, Ability focus, weapon type focus, grenade focus, life-steal, speed, damage, and so much more — if you can dream it, there's probably a way to build it.

Which is why it's a relief killing enemies with anything and everything is so satisfying. Unlike in previous games, where the shooting was a little clunky, or the movement didn't feel as fluid, everything comes together in Borderlands 3 to create an exhilarating experience. 

The guns, for their part, have a real punch to them, and there's a chunky feeling to the heavier weapons that scratches the itch for power in your bullets. Grenades — especially the community-favorite Pipe Bomb — are a great way to turn your enemies into red mist.

Player abilities are all unique, and all effectively fit the characters who use them. Zane's Clone and Drone abilities, for instance, are great for misdirection and battlefield control. Amara's fists show off not only the power of a Siren but also her mentality as someone always looking for a new fight.

Powerful as they are, abilities won't win fights for you on their own. They do enable feats of strength and power you don't find in other games. As with everything in Borderlands 3, if it isn't cranked to 11, it isn't worth having.

A Bridge Too Far

Sadly, there are a few things about Borderlands 3 that get in the way of the experience.

There are two huge elephants in the room: story and character. While many of the game's side characters and friends/enemies you meet along the way are well-written enough, the main drivers of the plot cannot boast such love and care. 

The Calypso twins are, to put it mildly, insufferable. Even though you discover why they are the way they are near the game's end, what you learn does little to blunt their sheer obnoxiousness.

That said, the real issue is how little your character has to say about the plot of the game. True, it's your actions that enable the main NPCs' plans to move forward, but you nonetheless spend time doing what you're told. More importantly, in the narrative cutscenes where the Twins and others get their evil on, your Vault Hunter isn't just silent: they're missing. 

The number of times the player character could have done something — anything — about the horrid situations they find themselves in is criminal. Only once, at the beginning of the game, is there some barrier between the Vault Hunter and a problem. Almost every other time, if they had just stepped in, events would have played out quite differently.

The narrative's overall weakness isn't helped by how the game runs, either. On PC, framerate drops, hitching, and intermittent crashing are common, as are save corruption errors and other progress blocking-bugs. Console has its own issues to iron out, and we even have a guide on how to fix one of them

Equipment balance is another pressing issue. If you've spent any time on forums or watching streams, you've seen the damage the Porcelain Pipe Bomb can do to bosses. It's beyond broken in a game meant to be broken, melting endgame bosses in seconds.

These issues, among others, have prompted official responses from both the Borderlands and Gearbox Twitter accounts. No timelines have been given, and in a game this large, something is liable to slip through. That doesn't excuse the bugs and performance problems, but at least they're being addressed.

  • Great gunplay, loot, and ability mechanics
  • Fantastic worlds filled with interesting side characters and sub-plots
  • Irreverent humor that satisfies the kids in all of us
  • Mediocre story with annoying main villains and too many missed opportunities
  • Performance on PCs and consoles leaves something to be desired

Despite a few glaring flaws and quality-of-life issues (endlessly screaming enemies, for one), Borderlands 3 is one of the best looter-shooter experiences on the market today. No other game can boast the amount of loot, nor the satisfaction of acquiring it all.

The classes on offer are each unique in their way, and their gameplay works in beautiful tandem with the gear you find littered about the world. The guns and grenades and other tools of destruction are almost too much fun to use. Turning an infinite number of bandits into red mist has almost never been this enjoyable.

It's not a perfect game, but it will keep you hooked for way too much time if you give it half a chance.

Nauticrawl Review: Crawling Through Endlessly Repetitive Trial and Error Wed, 18 Sep 2019 16:47:36 -0400 Ty Arthur

If you're a world-class puzzle solver, there's a game you might be interested in. It involves an impossibly obtuse control panel and a submersible, and if you fail to properly solve the puzzle in time, you'll be crushed by the remorseless pressure of the depths or ejected from an alien machine into an un-survivable environment.

Still up to the task? 

That's the premise of Nauticrawl, which puts you a nameless, faceless worker identified only by a three-digit code into a stolen underwater ship that you don't know how to operate.

You start with absolutely no clue of how to turn it on, let alone pilot it to the surface. It kind of feels like the sort of thing some might call a recurring, inescapable nightmare. 

Survival Of The Persistent

                   The first of many, many, many, many ignominious deaths

First and foremost, Nauticrawl is slow. Very slow.

In many ways, it plays like a full-length Flash escape room popular circa 2009, and it's mixed with elements of old-school text adventures for extra flair.

Throughout Nauticrawl, there's the illusion of movement across the ship's sonar screen, but you don't actually go anywhere or see, well, anything else. Instead, the game takes place entirely within the confines of the submersible's cockpit, and it's exemplified by the tag line: "Theorize. Experiment. Repeat."

It's important to note the emphasis is very much on that last word: Repeat. Here's the story of how my first few hours of the game played out.

"Huh, I'm totally in the dark and nothing's turned on... What do all these unmarked buttons do? I'd better figure something out fast, because they (whoever "they" are) will definitely notice I'm stealing a nauticrawl unit at some point."

A truly genius idea pops into my head: I'll randomly pull levers and press tabs until something happens.

"Cool, the power is on now! Uh... except why is that blinking light bar rapidly depleting, and what is that wildly alarming beeping sound?"

I don't want to die in the dark, so I start frantically flipping switches hoping to make the sound stop, but with absolutely no clue of how the hardware works, I've run out of time and am sitting in the dark again, the battery apparently dead.

A few seconds later I experience a brief glimmer of hope when a covering pops open and a new button emerges. 


Turns out my hope was unfounded because that's the emergency eject switch which only comes online when you run out of battery power. Know what happens to someone without a pressurized suit who manually ejects from a submarine? You guessed it, I'm drowning as I'm crushed to death. Good thing random worker #667 will shortly step into my place and start over from scratch.

This time I'm determined to figure out how to start the battery charger before running out of power. After an absolutely frenzied minute pulling every lever and mashing everything that looks vaguely like a button, I'm met with my first taste of success. 

The generator is on and the battery is charging; I can actually operate this vehicle now.

Overzealous, I divert power to the engine and pull the lever to move forward... immediately crashing into a wall and destroying the hull's integrity. It's my second time dying and starting over in less than 10 minutes.

Random worker #668 appears and starts again. Thankfully, he's got my knowledge on how to turn on the lights, start the engine, and move forward, but this time, we're going to try to not immediately die.

After more random button pushing, the sonar screen finally flickers to life, and I have some basic idea of where the Hell I am and what direction I'll be crawling if I pull that deadly movement lever.

That means it's time to divert some power into the engine and go full speed ahead towards something that isn't a wall!

"What the Hell is that smell?"

Unfortunately, worker #668 didn't have any clue how to vent the engine heat, so about 15 paces later, the nauticrawl unit overheats and shuts down. The escape hatch button pops out again.

With a sigh, I start over as worker #669.

This button will come to represent all your failures and fears in life

After going powering on again, charging the battery again, pinging the sonar again, and slowly moving around yet again, I finally figure out which rod to pull to vent heat. I'm locked, loaded, and ready to explore! What could possibly go wrong?

Turns out my nauticrawl doesn't have that much fuel, so I run out almost immediately exploring the starting area. That damnable escape hatch button pops out again, and I'm thinking about actually smashing my screen instead of lightly tapping the button.

Attempt number five gets underway, again repeating the same things over again, but this time, I don't charge ahead and stay close by to look for anything to salvage. Lo and behold, a broken nauticrawl unit from another unlucky escapee is on the ocean floor, and it doesn't take me very long to figure out how to salvage fuel.

Unfortunately, I have absolutely no clue how to transfer that fuel into my unit's tank, so the eject button pops open, staring at me with a level of taunting menace that a freaking button shouldn't be able to project.

That's the entire Nauticrawl gameplay loop, just endlessly repeated as you build on past failures until you figure out how to charge the hook and pick things up, how to navigate the sonar map, how to read transmissions, how to use the cloaking device to avoid defense turrets, and so on.

There are some minor randomized events and transmissions through the computer screen with each try, so it's not the exact same thing every time, but it's pretty close, especially when you consider the map remains the same on each an every playthrough. 

This is what you will stare at for 95% of the game

The Bottom Line

  • Unique premise
  • Expansion of the classic "escape room" style to a full game
    • If you liked Objects In Space, you'll probably get some enjoyment out of Nauticrawl
  • Repetition to a masochistic extent
  • Not a ton of actual gameplay

As a game entirely focused on trial and error repetition, Nauticrawl has one major flaw that's difficult to overcome: whether its five minutes in or two hours in, you are going to eventually hit a massive, immoveable frustration wall. It's probable you don't have the patience to work through it, either.

That flaw was glaringly highlighted by the guide sent to advance reviewers, which had every single button clearly marked and gave step by step instruction on what to pull in which order. The fact that reviewers would need that sort of thing to even start the game (and not throw their hands up in frustration and quit) says something about the sort of experience you can expect here.

Through sheer trial and error, it will probably take you double-digit hours to get through all three chapters and eventually make it from the nauticrawl unit to a zeppelin to escape. If you somehow manage to guess all 81 button presses and movement maneuvers correctly on the first try, though, you could get through this whole game in less than an hour.

Unfortunately, Nauticrawl lacks the major gameplay elements or visual designs that might keep you playing other purposefully difficult games. With a title like Death's Gambit, for instance, at least you have gorgeous pixel graphics and cool backgrounds to gawk at while dying constantly. Pathologic 2 has its bizarre atmosphere and incomprehensible dialog to keep you somewhat interested.

While playing Vambrace: Cold Soul, I spent 19 hours on the first level, but there's just no motivation to keep up that level of effort here because there's nothing going on that's interesting enough to solidly hook you. Sadly with Nauticrawl, I just don't care enough to keep trying, because all I have is the same damn screen to look at the whole time.

To be clear, this isn't an actively bad game it starts, it runs without crashing, it has a distinctive graphical style it's just not a particularly entertaining one.

Obviously, a certain section of gamers will absolutely love everything about Nauticrawl  and for that section of players, I could see this being a 9/10, must-play but for anyone else, there aren't many compelling reasons to figure out the next mechanic and move forward another inch.

[Note: A copy of Nauticrawl was provided by Armor Games for this review.]

Daemon X Machina Review: System Malfunction Wed, 18 Sep 2019 15:24:08 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

The moon has shattered, and, unsurprisingly, the world is changed forever.

Once-thriving cities slowly rust and wither, and people band together in groups of mercenaries, piloting massive mechs called Arsenals and taking on whatever tasks net them the biggest profit.

These tasks usually involve destroying AI-controlled machines, tools that once aided humanity but now, corrupted by an alien force, seek only to destroy it.

Is this an anime? An action flick? No! It's Daemon X Machina — which is to say, it's a bit of both, with some Armored Core thrown in for good measure.

In DXM, you blow up robots, then you blow up more robots, and then you blow even more (and bigger) robots. Sometimes you face off against other mercenaries when you aren't listening to them share their life stories and talk philosophy. In between all this, you're customizing your Arsenal to make it the best it can be.

Unfortunately, it seems the same care you put into building Arsenals wasn't used to make the game a cohesive experience. Various elements, from worldbuilding and character development to combat and strategy, don't quite coalesce the way they should, and it keeps the game from realizing its true potential.

Robots in the Skies

Creating the best Arsenal you can is at the crux of Daemon X Machina, which is no surprise to fans of the mech genre.

You've got several components to deal with, including the usual body bits, weapons, and processors. Each addition takes a bit of memory available to your Arsenal, and many components have attachments you can add to further enhance their performance, assuming there's enough memory.

There's a wide variety of ways you go about getting new parts, too. Some are unlocked as you go along, while others must be bought in the Orbital store using Credits earned through completing missions.

Scavenging is another — better — way to get new stuff, though, since you can often find much more powerful weaponry than you can buy. If not, you can sell it off for more Credits.

Deciding what to outfit your Arsenal with is one of the game's finer points. Weapons come in several different types  not that you get access to many initially  and it's up to you to determine what matters most.

Do you want a powerful but clunky laser beam or a fast and reloadable machine gun? What about a gun that does more damage but loads slowly? Homing missiles are nice, but grenades explode. But maybe the smart thing to do would be to prioritize defense and upgrade your shield.

Things get deeper thanks to the Pylons your Arsenal comes with. On top of the right-arm- and left-arm-weapons, you can add backup weapons to the left and right pylons, weapons you can swap out at any point during a battle using the direction pad.

Changing your build is fast and easy, plus you can save different builds to use in whatever situation arises. That's especially good because while you might need to up your defense and give mobility a boost for one mission, emphasizing power and weapon versatility might work better for another.

You also get the option to fight outside your Arsenal, too. It wasn't an option that seemed especially useful in most cases, but it does encourage you to experiment with surgery.

You can surgically modify your avatar to install weapons for arms, improve lower body functionality, and so on, and though it means you can fight using your avatar alone, it also improves aspects of your Arsenal.

Machine Learning

While the mech-building aspect isn't necessarily as deep as other, similar games, that's okay. The battles aren't really complex enough to support building mechanics that go any deeper.

That isn't to say they aren't fun, though. Controlling your Arsenal feels intuitive and smooth, and it's a joy just moving around each battlefield as you hunt down rogue AIs. Fighting rarely feels stale either, thanks to the huge variety involved in outfitting the Arsenal.

However, there is a definite sense that Daemon X Machina isn't quite sure what kind of game it wants to be. It's hard not to think a difficulty option would be a useful addition, something to let newcomers to this genre get their feet wet without much tension while rewarding those who want to push their Arsenal-building skills further.

Most of the time, fights are comparable to battles in a musou game: lots of enemies staring at you, waiting for you to kill them. Considering the majority of story missions involve wiping out X number of AIs, it does feel like there's a lot of wasted potential here. The care put into building your Arsenal and the need to actually put that strategy to good use just don't match up.

Moreover, defend "Position X" or escort "Thing Y" missions are few and far between, more likely to come up in free missions, so there is definitely a need for more variety here.

That doesn't hold true when facing off against opposing mercenaries or AI-controlled humanoid mechs, though. Particularly with the former, you'll be on your guard more often, having to make use of your well-considered bag of tricks, and that's when DXM's combat really feels good.

The same isn't exactly true for the big setpiece battles against Immortals, giant corrupt AIs that act as bosses in most cases. These fights are visually impressive and task you with managing resources more efficiently, but they also drag on too long, without being very challenging.

Once you figure out their limited attack patterns, which happens pretty quickly, it's just a matter of going through the motions and attacking the right spots enough times.

That brings up one other minor annoyance: the lock-on feature. It improves as you upgrade your processor, but it's a hindrance as much as a help. Locking on to an enemy means you'll fire guns at it, but the reticule often shifts to new enemies as they come into view, and you can't keep it situated on one foe. It also has no effect whatsoever on melee weapons, where you'll zoom straight over them despite being locked on.

A World of Confusion

The world of Daemon X Machina is a genuinely interesting one, and it's full of over-the-top personalities pursuing their own, usually conflicting, goals. That kind of setup tends to be promising and foreshadows an enjoyable narrative experience. In this case, though, it's actually a hindrance.

I know, this is a mech game. It's about blowing things up and making your giant robot the biggest, bad-asserest mech it can be. Story doesn't usually come into play with these kinds of games, or if it does, it's an afterthought that links missions together. The game would have been fine like that, too.

The thing is, Marvelous tried making Daemon X Machina's story interesting and puts it in front of you all the time — just, not in the right way.

Your avatar is a silent one who, when the game begins, comes out of a special kind of brain surgery enabling people to link with Arsenals for combat. There's no indication this surgery takes people's memories away, but the characters have a bizarre habit of simultaneously treating you like an amnesiac and assuming you know everything.

Basic information like what happened to the world gets told to you as if you had no idea anything existed before your surgery, when a cutscene would have sufficed — or better yet, a Souls or Metroid Prime style system where you can find more information about the world if you want to.

In fact, some kind of archive or glossary giving background about things like Sky Union and its rivals would have been a nice inclusion and one that fits in the world's context.

That's because important things like who specific mercenary groups are, why the people you're working with act the way they do, and why these various organizations you take contracts from even exist, get passed over as if you know everything already.

What you're left with is a lot of questions and a very (very) loose narrative thread tying together all the missions you take on.

It's an unnecessarily frustrating setup that ends up making you not care about the world Marvelous tried hard to create. A less interesting and unique world would have been perfectly fine — more appealing, even — since we aren't allowed to know much about how this one works anyway.

Chat Room

With all that, you'd think the characters don't have much to say, or there isn't a lot of interaction going on. Oh, how wrong that assumption is...

The moon falling obviously removed any sensible conversation inhibition people have, because they never stop talking — ever.

Despite that, they don't always have interesting things to say.

Each mission comes with a pre-acceptance cutscene where you meet the other mercenaries taking part — well, sort of because they tend to overlook your existence.

These scenes show off a character's personality and sometimes their motivations. However, in many cases, the personalities are a bit too overdone, and the scenes drag on unnecessarily, and you can't advance the dialogue manually. Banter between parties isn't very interesting when it doesn't have any effect on the mission, relationships, or, well, anything.

For some reason, these will randomly switch to text conversations spoken by portraits. Presumably, this is when each mercenary gets in their Arsenal, but there's no transition in the scene or even dialogue to suggest it, making these pre-mission scenes seem choppy on the whole.

Anecdotes on the Battlefield?

Where the dialogue really becomes a problem is on the battlefield, because it interferes with gameplay.

In every mission except the free, non-story missions, you'll hear and see your various partner mercenaries carry on discussions about a variety of things, from what they think about the mission and what they were doing before they became mercenaries to commentary about their employers.

It's all interesting stuff — if you weren't trying to complete a mission. None of the conversations are suited to the situation at hand and would be better off as pre- or post-mission discussions.

Unless you're playing in docked mode or have headphones on, you probably won't hear everything they have to say, either because A.) you can't hear it thanks to the game's other SFX or B.) you're focused on mission objectives, not reading reams of oh-so-tiny text at the bottom left of the screen.

The sequences outstay their welcome as well, to the point where they're continuing to role after you've already completed an objective. The mission won't advance until the dialogue stops, though, creating an annoyingly frequent discontinuity in the gameplay.

Fortunately, all these things are, while not exactly easy to overlook, somewhat forgivable thanks to the excellent combat and Arsenal-building mechanics.

Blending Styles

There's no denying Daemon X Machina is a good-looking creation. Its art direction adds immensely to the overall feel of the game and sets it apart. Battlefields look fresh and appealing — even when you've seen the same basic one countless times. 

There were some times where the game stopped briefly when a lot of action, movement, and light effects appeared on screen, though, mostly during battles with Immortals.

The human designs are an interesting mix of anime and Western styles, almost like anime had a baby with Borderlands. It's a fresh approach to an often worn-out style, and something that hopefully doesn't end with DXM.

The soundtrack is a bit more difficult to pin down. The mostly-bereft Hanger area doesn't have a theme, there's little musical accompaniment to pre-mission cutscenes, and what you do hear during battle gets overshadowed by the action.

The Verdict

  • Satisfying and deep enough mech building
  • Intuitive combat that's just plain fun
  • Fresh and appealing style
  • Confused and unnecessary narrative direction
  • Baffling decisions for when and where to spew forth exposition
  • Disconnect between Arsenal building and actual combat difficulty

Daemon X Machina is a strange hybrid. From a critical perspective, it's one that seems like it needed more time baking before it could be called truly finished. There are a lot of annoying elements that add up over time, and the combat really should have more variety and difficulty.

Does that mean you won't enjoy the game? No, it probably doesn't. Combat is what the game is all about, and it's fun — even if your partners never shut up, and shooting toothless robots doesn't take full advantage of your time and effort.

Still, at the end of the day, Daemon X Machina doesn't live up to its full potential, and that's a shame because it has a lot going for it. Here's hoping for a new entry in the franchise that builds on this one's shortcomings.

[Note: A copy of Daemon X Machina was provided by Nintendo for this review.]

Siege of Centauri Review: Tower Defense By the Numbers Wed, 18 Sep 2019 13:27:04 -0400 David Jagneaux

Remember those simple Flash games you'd find on websites like Newgrounds and Kongregate? If they didn't feature clicker-game mechanics or stick figures exploding, then there's a good chance they included features from the tower defense genre.

Siege of Centauri reminds me a lot of those games, except with a supremely polished coat of paint and (very) high production values. But underneath its shiny exterior, this tower defense title still feels relatively archaic and overly simple by modern standards.

Ideas Under Siege

Siege of Centauri is a top-down tower defense game developed and published by Stardock Entertainment. The game takes place in the same universe as the developer's popular Ashes of the Singularity RTS series. Here, though, you deploy an arsenal of mechanical defenses to protect remote bases from alien onslaughts.

It's a simple premise that's bolstered by lengthy, involved, and entirely unnecessary mission dialogues that actually feature some surprisingly good voice over efforts. It's a shame, however, that the talent feels a bit wasted on content most players will likely skip. Much more of that flavor context should have been woven into the missions themselves to aid pacing and inject some much-needed personality into the overall product.

Instead, after the first hour or so, the game winds up feeling like a bit of a slog. There are about 24 missions in total that will take roughly seven hours to complete, plus a meager endless mode for a few maps, and a level editor that also lets players download community maps.

Generally, though, all of the maps feel the same. There is little variation, especially in terms of enemy lanes and movement along those lanes. Basically, each map is flat and forgoes varied elevation. It simply feels like the game's level designers ran out of ideas far too early in the development process.  

Polished But Not Perfected

Now, let me be clear: I'm not saying Siege of Centauri looks, feels, or plays like a hobbyist Flash game. Stardock is responsible for some excellent strategy titles such as Sins of a Solar Empire, Ashes of Singularity, and Galactic Civilizations. That's their specialty. But despite what you might assume based on how much these genres overlap, that doesn't seem to have translated to the same depth, complexity, and thoughtfulness in the tower defense scene. 

Thankfully, there are some things that work very well. Visually, Stardock's tower defense title certainly shines through.

Siege of Centauri is undoubtedly one of the best looking tower defense games in terms of not only map design and texture detail but also gadget and enemy quality. Even its particle effects are flashy.

Swarms of enemies pour into maps later in the campaign in such a way that it feels almost like they're stumbling over each other to rabidly attack your base. It can often feel intense and overwhelming for brief moments, which is a welcomed change of pace from most of the game's pacing — and they look fantastic doing it. 

It's just a shame that the glorious mobs of creepy, crawly, and sometimes mechanized alien hordes aren't smarter and more dangerous. Other tower defense games really make you plan and think and pick and choose your battles. It's a genre about cost-benefit analysis and this one usually devolves into the same brand of chaos at the end of just about every mission.

While some enemy types are weak to certain weapons and not others, it doesn't end up mattering much in the end since most weapons have similar ranges and area of effect attacks that hit multiple groups at once. If you spread out your weapons enough and summon reinforcements when available, most levels won't be much challenge without manually raising the difficulty slider.

  • Great visuals and detailed animations
  • Surprisingly engaging voice acting before missions
  • Solid, albeit derivative, core gameplay loop
  • Level design lacks variety and verticality
  • Most missions devolve into identical chaos by the end
  • Upgrades aren't very rewarding
  • Performance issues plague stability

As far as I'm concerned, Hidden Path's Defense Grid: Awakening and Defense Grid 2 the standard-bearers of the defense genre; they've set high bars that have yet to be surpassed, and Siege of Centauri doesn't come close in any regard. The genre has seen plenty of spin-off iterations like Dungeon Defenders, Orcs Must Die, Plants vs. Zombies, and more bring in extra mechanics. Siege of Centauri feels decidedly stuck in the past by comparison.

All that being said, Siege of Centauri is still extremely playable, brings high-quality production values to the table, and has a brisk campaign that's solid to play through at least once. At $15, you can certainly do worse, but it's hard to commend it much beyond that at this stage.

[Note: A copy of Siege of Centauri was provided by Stardock for the purpose of this review.]

Gears 5 Multiplayer Review: A Greater Arsenal, But Not Without Issues Tue, 17 Sep 2019 10:49:46 -0400 Mark Delaney

While we delivered our Gears 5 campaign review ahead of the weekend, we wanted a few more days with the expansive multiplayer suite before passing our final judgment on that side of The Coalition's blockbuster.

As it turns out, we didn't need a heck of a lot more time anyway. Even a week post-launch, the game's multiplayer component is plagued by connectivity issues.

When it is working, the component's modes are phenomenal, and in time, Gears 5's multiplayer will likely deliver a best-in-series experience just as its story mode has. But as of now, there are too many issues plaguing it to be anything better than decent. 

Bugs in the Sawmill

For a game that launched to some players on September 6 and to the rest of the world four days later, Gears 5's stability is still inexcusably poor.

Maybe it's a sign that the game's launch was bigger than anyone expected, which, considering the numbers coming out, may mean Game Pass is having a hell of a month, but none of that matters outside of Microsoft's corporate offices.

For fans, Gears 5 multiplayer is a brilliant experience, but only when it's working  and that's currently not often.

Several of my play sessions both before and after launch were hit by connectivity flaws, including disconnects and false starts when heading into new rounds. These hiccups don't happen all of the time, or else I wouldn't have so much forthcoming praise to share, but it is more common than anyone should find permissible.

To their credit, the development team has been extremely vocal on forums and social platforms like Twitter, as well as on the game's website, keeping players updated with how fixes are progressing. Once these issues are ironed out, it looks likely Gears 5's multiplayer will join its campaign as being the new benchmark for the long-running franchise.

Hero Shooter-Lite

While several fan-favorite modes return with little tweaking, like Arms Race, Dodgeball, and TDM, these are supplemented by completely new modes that give Gears one of the most robust multiplayer offerings in the industry.

Arcade mode is what The Coalition has called a "hero shooter-lite," where players load into a battlefield with their preferred character and abilities they can customize. Meant to be played a bit faster and wackier than the standard modes of old, Arcade offers game-changing mid-match upgrades that feel like totally new ideas for the series.

Properly balanced out of the gate, you'll quickly find your own playstyle as you learn to work with others to maximize effectiveness just like you would in something like Overwatch

The Great Escape

The greatest addition to Gears 5 is the new Escape mode. A three-person PVE experience, Escape drops you into a Swarm hive where you detonate a bomb before charging as fast as you can to find the exit in a long, labyrinthine interior. Your only clue as to where to go next is often to follow the trail of bodies you've left ahead of you.

With safe rooms on the way and an emphasis on resource management, it's often the case that you don't have what you want in terms of ammo or weapons when things go down, but as a true survival experience, that's perfect. You rely on teammates and well-timed item drops from corpses to keep charging ahead until you find salvation in the outside world.

Charting Your Own Way

Escape is an excellent mode all on its own, but it's made even better because players can make and share their own maps. The Coalition hopes to expand this map-making ability to Versus and Horde modes later, but even for now, it's an interesting tool that gives the whole suite the feeling of a studio going above and beyond.

Featured maps from The Coalition will welcome players to the Escape menu each week, but the best and most played user-generated content will be highlighted too, and you can search for specific maps that you've heard are good or maybe your friends made. There are even some already designed to boost achievements.

"If It Ain't Broke ..."

Versus and Horde, meanwhile, return their familiar elements to Gears 5 and don't add a whole lot new. For many players, this makes for an "if it ain't broke" proposition, though it should be noted that it's not all just shotgunners so far in the early days. 

It's obvious that the devs gave more attention to bettering other gun classes, meaning firefights should be more varied than the old days where enemies wall-hugged from room to room until they were in your face with a Gnasher.

All of this comes on the foundation of the deepest customization and ranking system ever seen in the franchise.

Unlocking skill cards improves characters across all modes and allows you to craft your exact character to a level that I can't recall seeing in any other shooter. Add to that the most content, be it characters, maps, or many cosmetics, will be free or earnable with in-game currency, and you've got a player-friendly system that still leaves space for the "whales" to buy into some content and keep the studio working for the betterment of the whole.

  • The deepest Gears online experience yet
  • Escape mode is a fantastic new addition to the series
  • Tweaks to gunplay make it more worth playing without a Gnasher
  • Arcade is a faster, looser take on Gears with hero shooter inspirations
  • Connectivity issues continue to plague the game at the time of writing

If this review was written a few weeks from now, I'd bet the score you see below and the words written within would contain more praise. Sadly, it's too unstable even 10 days after the Game Pass Ultimate launch day to earn those higher marks.

It feels safe to assume The Coalition will iron out the problems found here, and Gears 5's multiplayer will join its story mode as the best in the franchise. For now, you can see how great it will be, but that doesn't hide how troubled it is today.

Gears 5 Campaign Review: Gears Has Never Been Better Fri, 13 Sep 2019 11:39:08 -0400 Mark Delaney

We're still a few days out from handing down our final verdict on the expansive Gears 5 multiplayer suite, but in the meantime, we want to weigh in on the campaign.

Unlike many popular multiplayer games, the Gears series has always attracted a large number of campaign players as well, and that's never felt more justified than it does with Gears 5.

By taking some stunning risks, delivering a better script, and putting on an audiovisual clinic, Gears 5 offers the best campaign in the series. Ever. 

Gears 5's biggest shift  that being its move to Kait as the main protagonist is apparent in all its marketing materials, but that change doesn't come until Act II. Before that, it's JD, Marcus' son and the flawed hero of Gears of War 4who remains the still-imperfect playable character. 

These first few chapters look and feel a lot like what series veterans are used to, even as it still bears the style of The Coalition's more colorful makeover. City streets and corridors re-invite players to the Gears we've had for so long, where you can chainsaw ugly monsters or cut them down from a distance with loads of firepower. After an unsettling story moment at the end of Act II, one that represents this script's best-in-series writing well, the tone abruptly shifts to something that feels quite different.

Kait's saga is the most personal in the series to date, even literally, as we often see inside her own unwell mind. However, it's the best in the series for reasons that go beyond just that introspection. Gears 5 makes a welcome habit out of subverting expectations over and over again throughout the 12-hour campaign.

Moments big and small are upended by surprises, like the ebb and flow of combat and dialogue, which has for so long been metronomic in this and other shooters but now cleverly unravels in Gears 5. Character moments will be interrupted by chaos when you least expect it, while the game lets things breathe more than Gears is known to do.

Gears 5 cares more for its characters, too. Even as many fans were invested in the likes of Dom, Baird, and Marcus in the original trilogy and scoffed at JD, Del, and Kait in 4, the latest in the series does more for all the living characters, both past and present, than ever before. Beneath the bulky exterior, Gears has fully-fledged human beings in its starring roles now. I even got goosebumps a few times. That's new.

The series once dedicated to gravel-voiced testosterone junkies is no longer afraid to cry, and it's a beautiful thing. It's so affecting in Gears 5 that it's made me retroactively care more for the series' earlier narrative shenanigans. 

It's especially daring how Kait is promoted to the starring role, and even more so when you realize she's likely to be the pivotal character in Gears 6, too. I can't think of other series that have pivoted from one hero to the next mid-trilogy like this, and it seems unlikely any similar moves would've been successful. From a storytelling view, it feels unfathomable almost improper that the story could unfold as it does in The Coalition's first two outings as Gears caretakers, but they've nailed it, and I'm excited for what's ahead.

The final scene of Gears 5 has the pitch-perfect summer blockbuster cliffhanger mood they're going for, and I now find myself a bigger fan than ever thanks to Kait's motivation.

It's one of many sweeping changes that The Coalition has made since taking over with Gears of War 4, and the handoff looks even more secure here in Gears 5. New enemy types in basic combat and boss battles are to be expected from any shooter, but the cover-shooting heart of the franchise still doesn't miss a beat. Supplemented with new environmental tactics, like shooting the ice beneath enemies, as well as the returning storm mechanics from 4 make Gears 5 a game that always feels great.

The Coalition's north star seems to be paying homage to what worked before but not fearing big changes. They've made many in this game alone and most of them work well.

A pair of open-world hubs have their ups and downs, though. With one main objective in each of the two areas, players are left to their wind-sailing skiff to explore for more blips on the map. Twelve side missions and some collectibles round out the optional content in total, while the bookend sections surrounding Acts II and III don't offer any similar areas, making the move to open-world feel half-baked.

Stuck between a linear past and a future potentially more vast, Gears 5  feels like a trial run for an even more expansive Gears 6 in a few years, and that move will be a smart one as the side missions are a fun addition to the series. But for now, players may be wondering why they have so few toys for so much sand.

But at least that sand is gorgeous. Environments in Gears 5 make it the best looking Xbox game to date. It instantaneously becomes the new benchmark for their first-party titles and will help usher in the next generation with this pretty of a picture. Act III's red sand screams of The Last Jedi, but Gears makes it work for itself just as memorably. Before that, the crystalline blue tundra helps diversify the battlefield like never before for the once grey-brown franchise.

Character models have always been inflated, though The Coalition slimmed them down a bit when they took over. However, by imbuing the world with a wider color palette and using some amazing lighting effects, Gears 5 is visually flawless, even as sawing Swarm monsters in half doesn't tend to be the most portrait-ready scene.

It also sounds great thanks to awesomely designed audio, including the return of Ramin Djawadi, of Westworld and Game of Thrones fame, as composer. The Coalition has found their sonic soulmate in Djawadi and can't let him out of the building until he scores the finale to this new trilogy.

As this review arrives post-launch, I didn't experience some of the issues reported elsewhere regarding progression bugs, though I did encounter some that required checkpoint restarts. Given how unforgiving the checkpoints often are in Gears 5, those were annoying. Thankfully, they never persisted and some have already been patched out, too.

Still, this is Xbox's biggest game of the year and the flagship launch for its holiday rush Game Pass initiative. It would be silly to say Gears 5 is unpolished since it does so much so impressively, but several of the bugs, like an interact prompt that never seems to work the first time, have the feeling of QA reports deliberately overlooked.

  • Revitalizes the series with a new emotional core
  • Environments are more varied and interesting than ever before
  • Takes big risks in the story and gameplay and most of them pay off
  • Frequently subverts expectations 
  • Some bugs cause annoyances and force restarts
  • Open-world sections feel half-baked

Before Gears of War 4, the series felt like its future was up in the air. For some, that feeling grew stronger after a polarizing debut for The Coalition. 

Gears 5 not only puts that debate to rest, it delivers a new benchmark for Xbox Game Studios. When Master Chief returns next Christmas, it's Gears 5 he'll need to contend with to claim the top spot among Microsoft's first-party campaigns. 

[Note: A copy of Gears 5 was provided by Microsoft for the purpose of this review.]

NHL 20 Review: Top-End of the Talent Pool Fri, 13 Sep 2019 09:00:01 -0400 RobertPIngram

It's fall, which means it's time for another rollout of EA's NHL series. For fans of the genre, there's good news: NHL 20 is back with an entertaining hockey simulation and a variety of fun ways to play.

With the always-popular Ultimate Team mode, an intuitive and instructive Career Mode, and some pond hockey inspired games to enjoy, there's a little bit of everything waiting for you in this year's edition.

Getting Up to Speed is Easy 

The most important thing about any sports game is how it handles. Clunky controls can drive a player insane and steep learning curves can make it difficult for anyone new to get into the game.

When it comes to converting the minutiae of an entire sport into a single controller, the NHL series is perhaps the biggest challenge EA faces outside of the UFC. With players flying around the ice on skates and wielding their sticks in dynamic fashion, it's important for EA to truly replicate the high-speed feel of elite hockey.

And, thankfully, EA does it with impressive economy. Button and joystick usage is efficient, and the game provides a great deal of creative expression and control with minimal use of the gamepad's functions.

While classic controls that harken to the series' much revered early iterations on the Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis are available, the game is meant to be played on a modern two-joystick scheme, and it's at its best when you do so.

On a very basic level, your left stick controls your skater while your right stick controls their stick, but what at first seems like a somewhat limited layout actually delivers controls which help you to feel like a true NHL star.

By combining the right stick with a few buttons to modify it, not only do players have full control over the shots they take, but a deep system of dekes and misdirections opens up for skilled players to master.

With a little practice, your next open ice opportunity can see you beat the last man with a spin-o-rama, then fake the goalie out of his pads before nudging the puck past him into the exposed net with the toe of your stick.

If the above sounds rather intimidating and like something you'll never be able to manage, you are in luck. The game includes a Training Camp, which guides you through controlling your players, starting with basics like passing and shooting, before progressing to open-ice dekes and playing the puck between your legs.

The entire process plays out through a series of small tutorials which teach the moves, explain why and when to use them, and has you perform them in a training setting to get them down pat.

As a player who has always been more comfortable relying on the old-school controls of my youth, it got me acclimated and finally modernized in no time at all.

Be a Pro Career Shines

The series' franchise modes are always popular options for players, and the "Be a Pro" mode, in particular, lives up to expectations. While the lack of extras like interviews and apartment building from some of EA's other sports franchises will be seen as a plus by some and an omission by others, what it delivers here is a focus on playing hockey, which is easily strong enough to stand on its own.

When starting your career, you have three options for pre-draft preparations. If you want to jump straight into the league, you can go right to the draft. Those who prefer earning their slot can instead join a CHL side as a teenager and start making a name for themselves.

The Memorial Cup offers a happy compromise of the two, with your pro joining a CHL side for the four-team round-robin tournament, which will see you playing between three and five games before entering the draft.

No matter how you choose to go about your formative years, the experience is a can't miss way to play the game.

Playing in shifts means you can power through your career at a reasonable clip, while the coaching instructions you receive double as a training camp feature by encouraging you to perform certain moves for bonus experience and also showing you how to perform them. Even if you've never played an NHL game before and skip training camp, you'll be feeling like a veteran on the ice after a few games.

World of CHEL Goes Royale

If there's one thing the NHL's stadium series has taught us, it's that hockey fans will always have a special place in their hearts for the game being played in its pickup setting outdoors on a frigid winter's day.

It was only natural that it would find its way into the NHL series, and the expanded role of World of CHEL in NHL 20 shows EA is committed to the concept. While the grind-heavy approach is frustrating, with your character starting out with only a small handful of customization options unlocked in your free starter bag, the gameplay itself is an excellent change of pace from full side games.

Taking a sporting twist to the trendy world of last-man-standing, this year's edition of CHEL includes two different online elimination modes.

In THREES Eliminator, you can pair up with two friends to take on opponents in a rapid-fire series of winner-moves-on-pond hockey. Survive all three rounds and you'll be the kings of the bracket.

Even more fun is the ONES Eliminator option, which cuts the ice in half and places you and two opponents on the ice at the same time, all looking to bang in the most goals before the clock runs out. As in THREES, the winner moves on to the next round until finally, the 81 players who started the game are whittled down to one winner.

Ultimate Team is Back

At this point, the existence of an Ultimate Team mode, where you open packs of cards to cobble together a team logo, uniform, and players, is a given in any EA sports game, but the NHL version is among the best. While there are the usual concerns about the appeal to microtransactions that these modes include, it does offer a variety of ways to play for those opposed to such things. 

In addition to the option to play online seasons to progress through the game's online tiers, there are offline options which allow you to play with and build your team even if you don't like online play. From taking on challenge modes with set objectives to battling against computer-controlled versions of other players' actual HUT squads, there's plenty of Ultimate Team fun to be had without ever venturing online.

  • The game's tutorial and overlay options provide an easy entry for new players without oversimplifying gameplay and harming the top-end of the talent pool
  • New World of CHEL options add even more fun to an already enjoyable side mode
  • Strong "Be a Pro" mode is an absolute pleasure to play
  • Players who have NHL 19 may not feel there is enough new about the latest addition to justify the cost
  • Some mechanics in "Be a Pro," specifically the camera when coming off the bench, can be aggravating and lead to on-the-ice errors
  • The inability to utilize the game's in-depth team creation feature for HUT in order to maintain the unlock-based system of earning real uniforms is disappointing and wasteful

NHL 20 is definitely a strong entry in the larger sports simulation world. For those looking to try a hockey game for the first time, or who have taken a few years off from the series and are ready to get their hands on some new features and updated rosters, this game is a no-brainer. The gameplay is fluid and fun, and the various play styles offer enough variety to more than get your money's worth.

For players who purchased NHL 19 but aren't members of the every-year club, it's a more challenging call. While there are certainly nice elements to the game, and the addition of Elimination modes promises a good time, it's hard to say if that's enough to justify paying full price for an improved version of a game that's only a year old.

If you opt to sit this one out until next year, you'll be missing out, but if you don't mind playing a year behind, you can wait for NHL 21 with the peace of mind knowing that you're missing out on a step forward, not a giant leap.

[Note: A copy of NHL 20 was provided by Electronic Arts for the purpose of this review.]

Astral Chain Review: Platinum Excellence Tue, 10 Sep 2019 16:16:01 -0400 diegoarguello

I didn't get the appeal at first. The Legion tied to my arm needed only one measly command to push forward and attack my enemies. Most of the time, my attacks were useless anyway. They were simple, and I was barely able to defend myself. But as I progressed, combat opened in dozens of ways.

Now, hours later, I feel like my Legions and I have become one, syncing attacks in mid-air and performing a spectacle of movements whenever I encounter a group of enemies. Controlling multiple characters at once in video games doesn't always go as intended.

After dozens of hours in Astral Chain, it feels like second nature.

Cops, Chains, Chaos

Platinum Games, the studio responsible for hack n' slash games such as BayonettaMetal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and NieR: Automata, has for years set a very high bar. Licensed games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aside, they have always exceeded expectations of games in the genre, even their own.

Astral Chain is no exception.

The game's premise introduces you as an officer from the "Neuron" special police task force, a squad in charge of protecting the citizens of The Ark. You pick between two characters, one male and one female, who happen to be twins, as well as the squad commander's children. 

As civilians start to report disappearances, the presence of ghosts, and many otherworldly events throughout the city, the task force launches into action.

All of this is related to the mysterious Astral Plane, a place that can only be accessed through rifts in our reality. As you quickly start to find out, this place is swallowing the human world piece by piece. And the ghosts? They're called Chimeras, creatures that can't be seen by the regular eye, but can otherwise hurt and kidnap the unwary.

As with the rest of the game, Astral Chain's first hour is a lot to take in. However, it's an exciting kick-off for a completely new IP that does some unique things to set itself apart, such as fully voicing the character you don't initially choose and allowing them to follow you through the story to aid you in combat. 

You Chain Me Right Round, Baby

Legions play a big part in Astral Chain. Essentially, they are familiars that fight alongside you by following commands. They are, by far, one of the most engaging aspects in Astral Chain.

Initially, their actions are limited: you can only summon them to auto-attack an enemy before they disappear. Thankfully, this usually only takes a couple of seconds, but it can be the difference between life and death in the most intense battles. Keep progressing through the game, though, and an array of possibilities will open for you and your group of companions. 

Sync Attacks are the first of these additional abilities. They allow you to perform special movements with your Legion if you press a trigger button right when a distinct light appears on your arm. It's a small addition that adds a lot to combat, even if it's one extra attack at a time.

Further wrinkling the game's combat mechanics, the main character uses a police baton that can reshape itself into three different weapons: a small and agile sword, a slow but devastating long blade, and a pistol. Depending on which one you're using during a Sync Attack, the result will differ drastically.

And then you can upgrade both your baton and your chain by boosting their stats, making each encounter far more interesting as the game slowly becomes harder.

If all of this doesn't sound like enough, there's also a skill tree for each of the five Legions available in Astral Chain, which unlock not only better stats, but also slots where you can assign skills to perform in combat alongside passive abilities, which can toggle some actions automatically, like healing yourself when health drops below 30% or increasing your movement speed.

What impressed me the most, however, is how seamless movement for each character feels when you're using them simultaneously.

Along with giving commands to the Legion, you can also move them freely by using the left analog stick. This is best suited for exploration when jumping across gaps and getting to hard-to-reach places (more on this later), but if you circle around an enemy in combat, it will perform a special action in which they are trapped by chains, unable to move, letting you relentlessly attack them. 

It might sound like there is a lot to consider and pay attention to during battles, and you wouldn't be wrong. But once it clicks, each encounter in Astral Chain become special.

A (Contained) World of Possibilities

The police HQ is your base of operations throughout the game. It's divided into different floors that can be accessed either through elevators or by a shortcut you unlock further into the story. It's filled with NPCs to talk to but also houses helpful facilities and rooms. This is where you customize your character with different clothes and accessories, maintain on your Legions, take part of training sessions, and more.

Once you're deployed to a mission, the possibilities for exploration open further, though you won't find a huge map here, which is expected of a developer that mostly makes linear experiences. 

Most of the missions, also called Cases, in Astral Chain involve gathering clues by writing down keywords from people you talk to, trying to come up with a conclusion, and looking for suspects as you inevitably end up inside the Astral Plane kicking Chimera ass. These sections are a welcoming change of pace, but they're greatly balanced by side missions.

Often fairly short and hilarious, side missions offer great variety in Astral Chain's gameplay. Jumping from the seriousness of helping a civilian in danger to investigating the appearance of a ghost in an alley and buying a kid ice cream, there's a lot to do here. And that doesn't even take into account the hordes of loot and crafting materials you can collect along the way. 

While platforming can be troublesome at times, Legions are extremely helpful outside of combat, too, each with their own signature action that can help reach out-of-the-way places or scavenge holes in the ground to find items and collectibles.

By far, the ones I enjoyed the most were the Arm Legion (which you can wear as armor, becoming a mech of sorts) and the Beast Legion (which can be used as a mount and, thankfully, pet).

  • A new and exciting combat system
  • Side missions that don't feel like a chore 
  • Great performance on Switch
  • Vibrant and stylish user interface
  • Legions, both inside and outside combat 
  • Platforming sections can be annoying due to imprecise movements
  • The world is far more interesting than the story

Astral Chain presents an experience that might be familiar those familiar with Platinum Games, but there's enough to keep you engaged and excited.

Your performance during missions is always ranked, and a new difficulty gets unlocked once you finish an act. Take into consideration all of the game's collectibles and items often hidden away or that require a certain Legion to find, and the game is highly replayable. 

But even if you're just looking for a new, fairly linear story to dive into, or dying to get your hands on a game whose combat actually involves new ideas and executes them well, then this is the game for you. It's vibrant and stylish art style will lure you in instantly, and while the main conflict isn't one you'll remember for years to come, the world's originality is certainly worth treasuring.

[Note: A copy of Astral Chain was provided by Nintendo for the purpose of this review.]

Blasphemous Review: Indie Heretical Platforming Done Diabolically Right Tue, 10 Sep 2019 12:21:42 -0400 Ty Arthur

Who needs SNES games on the Switch when there's a wealth of old-school pixel platformers steadily arriving from new developers? This resurgence of classic art styles and mechanics from the Golden Age of gaming is truly a beautiful sight for the 30+ demographic.

From crowd-funded retro RPGs to Metroidvanias that will bring '90s-kids to tears, what's old is truly new again.

It's that latter genre-mash that strongly shines through with Blasphemous, a new action-platformer from The Game Kitchen. Although, "shines" may be the wrong term here since this is a very dark and disturbing game.

Seriously, What Did I Just See?!?

 Just killed a giant warden of sorrow, so it's a good time to
fill my helmet with blood before moving on!

Some decades back, I remember seeing the boss made of screaming dead bodies in Symphony Of The Night and thinking I had just witnessed the pinnacle of video game darkness. Surely, nothing could top that. 

Fast forward and The Game Kitchen shows up to prove tweenage me wildly wrong with Blasphemous.

Everything about the game careens into the seriously messed up, all to a deliciously devilish degree. Think of something like Inner Chains or the ill-fated Scorn but in a hyper-religious grimdark fantasy setting.

Ever wanted to fight a murderous crown-of-thorns-wearing Jesus baby? Well, you will in Blasphemous. It's certainly not a game for the squeamish or religious. 

In terms of gameplay, Blasphemous is most closely approximated in both style and substance to Dark Devotion, but thankfully, without the Souls stamina mechanic adding an artificial element of difficulty.

Let me be clear: Blasphemous is still hard (often brutally so), but this isn't the kind of pointlessly, unfairly difficult nonsense developers have injected into games since From Software popularized that particular pedantry.

The launch version of the game is much, much more akin to Demon's Crest meets Castlevania than the previous demo release would indicate, as that brief taste of the game really highlighted the title's Dark Souls elements.

Oddly (and refreshingly!) that's not the only way in which the demo didn't quite put its best foot forward, as Blasphemous has significantly more going on with its story than the demo indicated, and the voice acting is leagues ahead of what we heard in that brief snippet.

On the atmospheric front, Blasphemous fires on all cylinders, from deviously anti-religious enemies to truly unique NPC creatures. This small development team didn't skimp on the music either, as the soundtrack will bring to mind Grim Dawn particularly the majorly depressing stuff in the Ashes Of Malmouth expansion  offering a low key, dark fantasy soundscape.

Platformin' Till the Sun Goes Down

There's a lot of what you'd expect from a 16-bit style platformer here  huge, epic bosses, lots of perfectly-timed jumps to avoid projectiles, and the like  but with some wonderfully gross additions that will keep you staring in slack-jawed amazement.

Simply put, the execution animations are just flat out amazing, and I couldn't get enough of watching the brutality. Chainsawing locust in Gears 5 doesn't have anything on Blasphemous, that's for sure!

While there's sadly not a lot of variety in the game's weaponry, there is plenty of variety in the enemy types and the game's overall level design.

Flying bishops try to skewer you with pitchforks, frozen damned souls leap up from the snow, exploding poison-filled priests try to kill you, and even a giant using a dead stag carcass with bleeding antlers will assail. These, thankfully, require different tactics to overtake.

Although there's no stamina system, there's still an exactly right and wrong time to dodge or parry, which is where the game's main difficulty resides. Couple that with environmental hazards like acid falling from the sky, drowned corpses reaching up from the water below, or rusted spikes shooting out from any given surface and things can get difficult quickly. 

Due to the pixel art nature of larger enemies, you have to learn where the hit and dodge boxes are positioned, and that can occasionally lead to some trial and error with some bosses and, admittedly, some frustration. 

Sometimes it seems like you should be able to dodge through an enemy's leg, for instance, but your character, The Penitent One, will actually stop partway through and take damage. It's certainly not a negative aspect in a game like this, yet more of tactical limitation to the gameplay. 

Aside from enemy variety, there's also a satisfying amount of environmental diversity to be found within the world map. On your journey of guilt and repentance, you'll explore a plagued village, a decrepit old castle, an underground sewer, an alternate dimension turned to salt, snowy cliffs (the slide mechanic here will very much bring you back to the glory days of Mega Man), a steep mountain area, and more. 

There's plenty to do that will have you re-exploring old areas as well, like tracking down various saint bones or unlocking an item that causes previously hidden platforms to appear. Playing through the game's early demo, I was concerned there would be too much backtracking involved, but eventually, a fast travel system is worked in as you beat bosses.

Even if you don't utilize those fast travel portals, though, going through the same areas over and over isn't pointless because both the experience and money systems use the same currency. Adding in an RPG style element, currency is accrued by defeating enemies, so if you want new skills and more items from the game's vendor, you'll need to slice and dice your way across the landscape.

Heresy Detected

As you might expect from an indie game, there's some rough edges in Blasphemous, too.

I found a few bugs in my playthrough, some of which are already slated to be ironed out with a Day 1 patch, but others weren't specifically mentioned in the developer update. For instance, you can make the game completely wig out and crash if you open the inventory menu as you leave a room.

For all its profane and impious weirdness, there are a handful of areas that just aren't executed perfectly. The enemies in the mountain area, for instance, aren't as notably vile or eye-catching as enemies in previous sections. While they do have a classic NES platformer vibe, the eagles and bull-headed shamen aren't as inspired as monsters found elsewhere.

Those issues aside, my biggest complaint is that I thought the game would be longer.

Like the classic Symphony Of The Night, getting to 100% doesn't actually mean you've completed the game, but it is still a shorter overall experience than you might expect. To give you an idea of your potential time investment, there's an achievement for completing the first main half of the game in under three hours.

The Bottom Line

  • Brutal and disgusting combat
  • Delightfully sacrilegious and compellingly weird universe
  • Old-school and challenging without being unfairly difficult
  • A few bugs to still be ironed out
  • Lack of variety in weapons and combat styles

If my primary problem is that I wanted to play more, that's a pretty good sign you've got a great game on your hands.

Blasphemous may not have the huge budget of a AAA title, but it doesn't need one this is a title that revels in its old-school nature, with perfect pixel art and challenging platforming gameplay. If you like your games on the sacrilegious side, do yourself a favor and pick this one up.

[Note: A copy of Blasphemous was provided by Team 17 for the purpose of this review.]

GreedFall Review — Set Sail Through a World of Fantasy Mon, 09 Sep 2019 18:00:02 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

When you first set foot on Teer Fradee, the mysterious island at the heart of GreedFall, it's pretty impressive. While the intro of the game takes place in the "Old World," which is based on Colonial Europe, Teer Fradee opens up a land of infinite promise. After you step off the boat with your companions, who knows what you'll discover?

Exploring your new home is exactly what you'd expect from an open-world RPG like GreedFall. Boxes glow yellow if there's loot inside. Citizens give brief rebuke if you knock into them. Little hints at story elements lie in plain sight.

Suddenly, a character shouts in a language you don't understand. A question mark appears above their head. Oh yeah, it's side quest time. Welcome to GreedFall, the best and worst of the open-world genre. 

Wonder by Wonder

GreedFall is first and absolutely foremost designed for people who want an open-world RPG experience. Your map is jam-packed with stuff to do almost from the get-go. Quests dot the map. Points of interest pop up as question marks. Camps, merchants, crafting benches bob against the horizon. There are little icons everywhere!

Especially early on in GreedFall, the amount of stuff you can do is a bit overwhelming. While you're still figuring out the basics of the game's controls, it's quite possible to wander into an off-limits zone and get attacked by guards — all because you're trying to follow your map. 

It can certainly be a lot to take in, but as you start to get into the groove of things and figure out how GreedFall differs from other games of the same ilk, it all starts to come together.

In fact, one of GreedFall's biggest shortfalls is that it is not The Witcher or Dragon Age. Surely, it's tough to compare a lower budget game from a small studio to those genre behemoths, but since GreedFall shoots for the stars, it's worthwhile making at least a loose comparison. In many ways, though, it has a lot going for it if you're searching for another RPG in which to lose yourself.

Diamond Skies

The main thing that helps GreedFall stand out in a crowded genre is its setting and story. As mentioned at the top of this review, it's inspired by the Colonial period and the age of piracy. That doesn't mean you're sailing to Bermuda, however.

Teer Fradee is full of monsters, elves, and all sorts of interesting takes on standard fantasy tropes. The developers do an excellent job pulling you in and making you care about the world you're interacting with.

Equally, GreedFall also does a great job of making you feel like your decisions impact its world. As the Legate, you are forced to listen to several different sides and stories and proceed accordingly. There are several different factions to interact with, and each faction's opinion of you can open up new questlines and story options.

Even with all these different options, GreedFall never comes out and says, "These are the good guys, these are the bad guys." Instead, most of the people you encounter (and your own character, for the most part) exist in a sort of moral grey area. There are definitely bad people, but they are spread out all over the world. There is a sense of realism lent to the universe knowing you can navigate its complex web however you like.

Little details stand out and help the world to feel alive as well. One of the driving story points is searching for the cure for a horrible disease. Some elements of the plot take some predictable turns, but it's nice to see plague doctors, citizens in different stages of the disease, doors with big, red "X"es painted on them. It's equally that a wizened old hermit explaining the world to you isn't found at each and every turn. 

You put things together on your own, which makes everything feel a little more real.

Every Turn a Surprise

The story and world-building are great, but not everything in GreedFall is as polished. The combat is just OK. It gets better as you progress and unlock more abilities, but the "Tactical Pause" option, which lets you instantly freeze combat and pick your next move, doesn't gel for me.

Maybe I never found a good key binding, but I would accidentally hit that key instead of the dodge or secondary attack button, bringing the game's action to a standstill. Some of the more complicated attack options, like GreedFall's magical abilities, make combat more interesting, but I often found that smashing through things was the most tactically sound plan.

That's not to say combat is bad. There just isn't all that much to it.

You have a few different attack buttons, depending on the weapons you're using. You can quickbind about a dozen items and abilities: health potions, spells, and the like. The tactical pause always gives you the option to take stock of what's happening around you but, otherwise, everything is happening in real-time. Especially if you want to focus on other elements of character building, combat is just a fine element of the game.

GreedFall also seems to have some technical issues regarding graphics. Turning quickly around, especially in the middle of the city, would often cause stutters and tears, and things often look great until you get close. Scenes with extended talking venture into the uncanny valley with poor lip-synching and glossy eyes, and the background blurs horribly to help make the characters look sharp when you're up close and personal.

Finally, the sheer amount of quests tend to drag because so many of them are a bit fetch-y. For example, the quest I mentioned at the top of the article regarding the merchant is nothing more than a bunch of running back and forth and back and forth for dozens of minutes. 

Maybe that's how colonialism actually works: tons of bureaucracy, a lot of backtracking, and an unfair death at the end of it. But it sure isn't a lot of fun to just traipse around the world as a glorified gopher simply to pad out the length of a quest in a game that has so much more to offer its players.

A Whole New World

  • Interesting setting and story
  • Voice acting is solid
  • Lots of options and ways to approach
  • Decisions feel like they matter
  • Tons to do
  • Quests can get drawn out
  • Technical issues
  • Combat isn't as streamlined as it could be

There's a lot to like in GreedFall. It ticks many of the most important boxes an RPG should. It makes you care about the characters and the world, all while giving you a sense that you can actually impact those things. Building relationships with your companions, deciding which factions you want to ally with, and changing your armor and weapons so your character looks dandy as all hell, GreedFall has all these elements covered and covered well.

However, GreedFall's limitations rear their heads frequently. It tends to be a combination of the "best and worst" of the open-world RPG genre. For some, that may be exactly what's needed, The Witcher in a new setting, with hours upon hours of new quests to run.

For others, GreedFall might not quite scratch those hard to reach itches due to its less impressive aspects.

[Note: A copy of GreedFall was provided by Spiders for the purpose of this review.]

Torchlight 2 on Nintendo Switch: A Blast From The Past Mon, 09 Sep 2019 11:28:13 -0400 diegoarguello

Torchlight has always held a special place in my heart. For me, it wasn't just a game that arrived at the right time to fill the gap between Diablo II and Diablo III. It was an experience that I would return to time and time again. It meant something.

The sequel made everything better, adding sorely-needed multiplayer. Over time, even though I still cherish that first single-player experience, the sequel didn't hold up for me.

It was Blizzard's latest entry in the click-and-slash genre that hooked me for the long run instead, thanks to Adventure mode and its Seasons, giving players a reason to return even when the base game remained pretty much unchanged.

Now, Torchlight 2 arrives on consoles during one of the busiest years in video games, doing the most to try and capture that initial player base while also grasping for newcomers that might have missed it the first time around. 

2012 sounds like ages ago. Not only did Diablo III release then, but other games such as Dishonored and Telltale's The Walking Dead came to life back then, cementing a legacy for years to come. Torchlight 2, despite its strong playerbase during the beginning and the mod support that kept it fresh and experimental, didn't take off as I was expecting.

Same Towns, New Stories

These new console versions of Torchlight 2 bring back the exact same content from the original release, although tuned up with a whole new interface to better adapt to consoles and, especially, gamepads. This is where this port excels the most: presenting each UI element in a clear manner, and allowing you to rebind buttons as you wish, either by adding attacks, powers, potions, or items.

Another significant change that will easily surprise veterans of Torchlight II comes when you speak to an NPC. Instead of zooming in as it used to be, now it takes you to a different window where the character is displayed on the left, and the text is bigger and clearer.

The same applies to rewards and items in general. It lacks a bit of the style from the original layout, for sure, but this is a game where dropping in an out of the inventory and other character windows is a frequent activity. Now, instead of being separated by three different sections for each side of the screen, everything is packed on the same screen, quick and easy to navigate using the bumpers.

The map is, by far, my new favorite aspect in this Torchlight 2 port. It's located in the upper right side of the screen, in the same shape as always. But if you use the D-pad, you can expand it vertically, showing even more details of the areas surrounding you, or even deactivate it altogether. In both perspectives, you can also zoom in an out at any time.

Why is this important? Well, pretty much all games in recent memory that got ported onto the Nintendo Switch (and even Fire Emblem: Three Houses) suffer from a lack of legibility in terms of text and interface in general. In some cases, it's not all that problematic when playing docked. But it becomes a hassle in handheld mode, often without an option to increase text sizes or make everything bigger.

In Torchlight 2, this was never an issue for me, and I'm grateful for the decision to focus on these aspects to try and improve this irregular but steady standard. This is all benefited by the native option to zoom in and out from the game itself, which has been kept in the port.

A Surprising Port

Controls and UI aside, this version of Torchlight 2 presents fairly decent performance all around. It's hard to say how many frames-per-second it gets exactly, but I only notice drops when there are literally too many things happening on screen at once. Since this is a game that excels in that regard, it's worth mentioning that it never becomes unplayable, though it's not flawless.

The one true bummer here is that there are no current plans for new content. Adding DLC might be too late at this point, but a feature similar to seasons or even weekly challenges could make this an easier sell for folks who have already beaten the game, considering that there is no mod support here either.

  • Welcoming new interface
  • Finally, a decent port to play in handheld mode
  • Dozens of hours of content, along with the classic New Game +
  • Both online and local multiplayer
  • Lack of substantial new content and plans for on-going content

Aside from exclusive pets and the revamped interface, there aren't any significant reasons to go back to Torchlight 2 on the Switch other than to replay it with new friends in local mode or with other players online.

I love Torchlight 2, and I can't wait to continue playing it on the go. But this port is also a reminder that Torchlight Frontiers is the next big thing in the series, and these versions are none other than a breeze of nostalgia looking for a place to settle in modern consoles, rather than a new beginning.

[Note: A copy of Torchlight 2 was provided by Panic Button for the purpose of this review.]

The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game Review — Dangerous Business Fri, 06 Sep 2019 14:57:16 -0400 Sergey_3847

The Lord of the Rings is undeniably the most influential fantasy franchise of the last century. It has been adapted into so many different forms of media that it's sometimes hard to find your way through all of them, including the many video game adaptations.

Now, the story of men, elves, and dwarves has been transformed into a CCG, which, unsurpisingly, looks a lot like Hearthstone.

However, there is one big difference: The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game is a pure PvE game, which means that there are no ladders to climb and no players to compete against. This CCG plays out like a typical PvE adventure with different campaigns that culminate in a final battle against Sauron, the infamous antagonist of the LotR franchise.

Additionally, The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game isn't a free-to-play game, which means that it is targeted primarily at the fans of the LotR franchise, those who are most ready to spend money for each new expansion. 

Traipsing Across a Beautiful Land

Something sinister is happening in Middle Earth that may change the fates of all its inhabitants. It's an opening very similar to the original LotR story, where we learn that the evil mastermind Sauron has awoken and is looking for his most precious possession: the one ring to rule them all. 

From here, players travel across the map either alone in single-player mode, or they team up with a friend in co-op mode. As is expected from a game in the Tolkien universe, the design of each board is gorgeous, and each changes according to your location on the map. Accordingly, each card has its own unique art as well, and all of them are accompanied by distinct sounds and voiceovers. 

Unfortunately, as you progress through the game, it becomes evident that there isn't much variety in any of the objectives, and the only way to raise the stakes is to play on the highest difficulty. 

Taking the Fight to Sauron

As you progress through questlines, you unlock new cards, which, of course, can be added to your deck. You can also choose to engage with optional encounters and get new cards. The game allows you to change decks and even the difficulty settings before each quest or encounter, so this makes the gameplay a bit easier to handle than it otherwise might be.

Each deck consists of three hero cards and three other card types, which include allies, equipment, and events. The latter of which are basically spells. Each card has a mana cost, which is called Resource. Players have access to three points of Resource every turn, and if you skip your turn, these points continue to stack.

Sauron's decks have tricks of their own, too, such as Treacheries that serve as traps during match-ups. The funny thing is that you don't really know what kind of Teachery will trigger next, which brings a strong element of RNG into the game.

There are also two types of meters on the main screen: the Fate meter and the Threat meter. The Fate meter is filled using the Willpower values attached to your cards; additional abilities can be triggered using Fate points. 

When building a deck, players have access to five sphere types as well: Leadership, Lore, Spirit, Tactics, and Neutral. Different spheres are indicated by the color of the card and their main focus. For example, Leadership is represented by purple, and the sphere focuses on defensive abilities; Lore spheres are green, and they focus on healing.

You can combine different spheres into synergies and create some really powerful decks. Since there are three heroes available for each deck, you can combine up to three different spheres in one deck.

There are also 12 factions (or races) that determine what kinds of equipment and events can be used alongside them. This creates certain limitations when it comes to deck building, but it also helps you choose cards with better synergies, which in the end, wins you games.

Besides all of that, each card has its own mechanics that can be used in specific situations, such as Guard, which protects your heroes, Exhaust, which renders enemy minions useless, Ranged, which allows you to bypass minions with Guard, and many others.

If you've played CCGs before, then most of these mechanics will be very much familiar to you. In this regard The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game is easy to learn, and you can quickly come up with a decent deck without too much experience playing the game.

Leaving the Shire Behind

  • Lots of great mechanics
  • Excellent design and card art
  • Quests feel grindy and "samey"
  • No PvP mode

The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game has a lot of great ideas, but because it's exclusively a PvE game, it gets boring pretty quickly. All of its quests are scripted, and there's little value in replaying them on the same difficulty. The only choice is to increase the difficulty, which, at times feels like a chore.

While PvP  would not change that fact, it would make the game incredibly interesting, especially if it was offered in a free-to-play format. In many ways, it's conceivable that many Hearthstone players regard it as a serious competition to the Blizzard favorite.

Since The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game is a digital adaptation of the physical board game, it was a natural choice to make the video game in a similar fashion. But physical games and video games are two different types of experiences, and if PvE works great in the physical world, it, unfortunately, doesn't work in the same way here, especially in a world oversaturated with free-to-play CCGs.

[Note: A copy of The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game was provided by Asmodee Games for the purpose of this review.]

Blair Witch Review: Getting Lost in the Woods Would be More Fun Thu, 05 Sep 2019 15:20:18 -0400 Mark Delaney

One of the pleasant surprises of E3 2019 was the on-stage reveal of Blair Witch. The first-person horror adventure was announced with a quick turnaround from Bloober Team, the studio behind favorites like Observer and Layers of Fear.

Blair Witch should be a series that translates well to video games, but somehow that's never been the case. Disappointingly, that trend continues into 2019. The game which emerged from nowhere this summer should have stayed there. 

With only a few bright spots, Blair Witch goes from bad to broken, consistently failing to deliver scares worthy of its name.

Walking Blind

The literal signs of its brutally lackluster nature come early. 

Within the first minutes, extremely poor signposting leaves you feeling abandoned in the woods. Initially, this seems logical. Players are thrust into the same shoes worn by the movies' protagonists, equally turned around and eventually totally lost in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland.

But that fleeting similarity quickly disappears when misdirection becomes an agonizingly boring north star. With every interaction, the game wants you to get lost, dragging this three-hour story to four or five hours. In a shorter, better-paced window, it works in a movie. In a game twice as long, it will bore you to tears.

My early displeasure quickly grew to greater disappointment as I played. Monster encounters both ignore the series' established mythos and present repetitious Whack-a-Mole encounters. It's strange that this is the game where Bloober Team seeks to finally include direct monster encounters, whereas all of their other horror games act as nearly-on-rails haunted house attractions. 

Blair Witch doesn't need a bunch of ancillary scares. The title antagonist, in all her unseen glory, has always served the series well. That's a great deal of the appeal. To give players these tree-hugging humanoid creatures to chase with flashlights does a tremendous disservice to the world of Blair Witch. 

The story further complicates things, because it feels like Silent Hill fan fiction in the worst of ways. We didn't need backstory to the characters in The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and we don't need it today. The movie taught us about the characters in real-time, and as they got lost, tired, hungry, scared, we saw who they really were. 

Blair Witch the video game retreads the same tired plot of a mentally unwell protagonist with a shady past, and it goes exactly where it looks like it's going 10 minutes in. For a while, I thought the plot was so obviously hinting in one direction that it must've been a misdirection, but it ends up being truly predictable and painfully pedestrian. 

Misreading the Script

At every turn, Blair Witch fails to understand what makes the original movie so special, even in its overused collectibles. 

The haunting climax of the 1999 film made famous the image of one character standing in the corner, just as lore had said the witch was known to do to her victims. It was unnerving and unexplained, and those two seconds became iconic.

Unfortunately, the game laughably takes this standalone scare and turns it into a recurring collectible where players are tasked with finding literally dozens of photos of dozens of people standing in corners of dingy basements. To say it's fascinatingly misguided would be an understatement.

Blair Witch the game also puts your relationship with your dog, Bullet, front and center. However, it delivers a canine so robotic that forming a bond is impossible. Bullet works as a game mechanic and nothing more, like Batman briefly activating his Detective Mode in Arkham Asylum.

A wheel of interactive options exists, which allows you to do things like call Bullet to your side, pet him, or send him looking for collectibles, but things are again undone by their pedantry, such as one of the collectibles being, quite amazingly, actual trash. 

There's an option to reprimand the dog, too, and it again makes no sense. Despite his robotic behavior, there's no point in the game where anyone with a fraction of a human heart would want to reprimand this dog. Bullet does everything you ask of him and is often hurt or traumatized in the process. Treating the dog poorly can change the ending of the story, but there's not one fraction of a second in the game where berating your pet makes sense whatsoever, even as he spins in place like an autonomous vacuum.

So the game isn't scary, it betrays or exploits established lore, and it treads tired video game ground, but at least it's over quickly, right? Wrong. The game is so buggy you'll likely have to restart chapters several times. I actually hit a game-breaking bug in the final chapter which blocked me from finishing the story at all.

Staying in the Shadows

Patches have already been implemented and more are promised to arrive soon, but this game is in stores. Today. In this state. It does a number on the goodwill Bloober Team established with its Layers of Fear series, which has become a modest hit among genre fanatics. The game is ugly with little more than bad puzzles and worse dialogue.

Most of the game is made up of walking from one slog of a puzzle to the next. The games some call "walking simulators" are often among my favorites because they deliver engrossing stories in interesting settings, but this isn't that. Not nearly. Blair Witch surrounds you with Xbox 360-quality trees and a half-dozen types of collectibles and tells you it's scary, but it never actually is. Not for a second.

Blair Witch deserves much more than this, and Bloober Team is much better than this. Their adaptation feels like a rushed and resource-deprived project that should've been scrapped or altogether reimagined many months ago.

  • Offers a morbidly fascinating look into how not to adapt an established IP 
  • The story feels unrelated to the Blair Witch mythology
  • Bugs are everywhere and potentially game-breaking
  • Collectible-chasing makes up most of the game
  • Visuals are reminiscent of mid-360 era
  • The dog is robotic and mechanics surrounding him make no sense
  • Its few attempts to scare players result in flat Whack-a-Mole sequences 

Blair Witch may have been my most anticipated game post-E3, but don't confuse that with me saying it was doomed to meet my expectations. They were realistic and I wasn't asking for much. Sadly, this game does virtually nothing right and couldn't clear even the lowest bar for fans of the franchise.

Its story frustratingly abandons established lore, the gameplay oscillates between sluggish puzzles and flat scares, and if all of that wasn't bad enough, the bugs may keep you from even seeing the credits and finding some closure with this deeply flawed project.

You'd probably have a better time actually getting lost in the woods.

[Note: A copy of Blair Witch was provided by Bloober Team for the purpose of this review.]

Audio-Technica ATH-G1 Headset Review: A Gaming Headset Worth Listening To Wed, 04 Sep 2019 13:07:34 -0400 Mark Delaney

For fans of quality music headsets or record players, Audio-Technica is probably already a brand you know. If your most important audio experience comes when you're gaming, though, they may have slipped through the cracks of a market dominated by the likes of Astro, HyperX, and Turtle Beach.

One of Audio-Technica's newest headset, the ATH-G1, rivals headsets like the ever-popular Stealth 700 from Turtle Beach in price, but to establish the brand in the gaming world, they need to outperform those and other stalwarts.

While the ATH-G1 lacks some features players would assume are standard on even entry-level headsets, the actual audio experience is blatantly better than those offered in its price range, making it a go-to piece of equipment for players serious about their game audio.

How The ATH-G1 Sounds

At $169, the ATH-G1 is actually one of the cheapest gaming headsets offered by the revered company, but that price would put it at near the top of some rivals' headset lines. With that in mind, the ATH-G1 needs to outperform those rivals in all the usual ways, like overall audio quality, onboard features, and form factor. Two out of three isn't bad.

In terms of audio quality, the ATH-G1 is the best I've experienced at this price. It dwarves similarly priced headsets from bigger names, giving Audio-Technica the strange designation as deserving underdog. They're a company used to consumer trust and name recognition, but the ATH-G1 will be a headset that helps them break into gaming in a serious way or it least it deserves to.

The headset's 45mm drivers may not seem so impressive on a specs list, but the ATH-G1 finds a way to make them work. The end result is an audio experience with the loudest ceiling I've experienced so far, but not one that sacrifices the subtleties of game audio design that remains at the forefront of the most important factors.

Seriously, cranking the ATH-G1 all the way up is absurdly loud without a loss in sound quality. They're actually too loud for me in most instances, but if I could be assured they're not going to do long-term damage at this level, I'd mess with them like that some more in stuff like PUBG or Blackout, where the audio edge plays a massive role in how a round shapes out.

You're not going to get the revolutionary audio experience of higher-end headsets like the HyperX Cloud Orbit S built with Audeze parts, but you likely already understand that tradeoff. For this price, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better experience.

How The ATH-G1 Feels

Another big benefit of the ATH-G1 is the form factor. Simply put, it's the most comfortable over-the-ear headset I've ever used. Lightweight and breathable, it's built for long sessions, be they on console, PC, mobile, or even just for music.

It doesn't feel as bulky as most other fancy headsets I've bought or reviewed. Once you get to this price range, many headsets offer a detachable microphone, and the ATH-G1 is no different. In turn, this has made them my go-to headset for mobile gaming or for stuff like music and podcasts.

Where it stands out most, however, is in how stylish it looks. Reflective royal blue circles surround the brand logo on each ear cup, and though the minimalist design leaves some wires exposed and running through the light metal, all seeming a bit strange at first, I got used to the look and eventually came to appreciate their studio style. It mirrors those which DJs or producers may use. That's Audio-Technica's move, so they're going to use it.

While stuff from Astro and Turtle Beach wear their gaming-first design on their sleeve (on their ears?, this Audio-Technica headset appeals to the more varied audiophile. As a result, they drop the early-aughts' boyish designs of lime greens and bright oranges in favor of sleek blacks and metals, with a touch of elegant blue.

They look classy in a way the industry's most recognized brands deliberately lack for reasons I still can't quite figure out. More than that, they don't feel like they're just marketed toward young men. They're refreshing.

What Else Can the ATH-G1 Do?

It's always important to spell out the versatility of a headset, especially pricey ones where buyers don't want to ensure they've made the right choice on the first try. Here's where the ATH-G1 falters. Yes, it's a great headset for all parts of your audio-driven life. As mentioned, it's become my travel headset for those trips in the hotel with my Switch or several hours of podcasts.

However, they clearly lack a few features that should or very well could be standard for $169.

For one, there's just one way to connect them, and that's via the 3.5mm headphone jack. A lack of any wireless options stings, but a total of zero USB inputs hurts more. The cord that comes in the box is two meters long, which is almost comically long. There will maybe be times when I'm thankful for this immense length, but I haven't had one yet. As it's plugged into the controller anyway, what's the need?

The worst offense of the ATH-G1 is its almost complete lack of onboard buttons. The headset features none at all and the cord contains one volume dial and a mute button. The mute switch's physical markings are so obscure it's not immediately apparent which way mutes the mic.

With no way to balance game and chat audio, the ATH-G1 lacks one of the central features offered by virtually all other gaming headsets of note. At least on Xbox, the audio mix options are easily found, but on other platforms, they aren't as quick to find. Regardless, one shouldn't have to go looking for those menus with a headset that costs almost $200.

  • Fantastic audio for its price range and with a very high ceiling, too
  • Comfy, stylish, and maturely designed
  • Lightweight and battery-free
  • A lack of standard onboard features, like a chat/game mix 
  • The few buttons that are there are obscure and unnecessarily confusing at first glance

Audio-Technica's ATH-G1 offers a sonic experience better than its direct MSRP competitors. It's not the best headset on the market, but it's not trying to be. For that, everyone would agree to pay much more. However, for the high-end but still sub-$200 market likely the most trafficked headset range in gaming you can't do much better than the ATH-G1.

Its lack of physical buttons and features can be hard to overlook, but the mature, lightweight fit paired with the fantastic quality of the audio overall makes it a versatile and proudly simplified headset. Audio-Technica seems to pride itself on not being flashy, and while that gets the company into some trouble with the ATH-G1, it also helps deliver a gaming headset worth listening to.

[Note: An ATH-G1 review unit was provided by Audio-Technica for the purpose of this review.]

BenQ EW3270U Monitor Review: Great 4K, Alright HDR Tue, 03 Sep 2019 20:44:41 -0400 Jonathan Moore

As time marches on, more and more monitors have begun to support Ultra High Def, including HDR. While HDR in computer monitors certainly isn't as good as that found on televisions as it currently stands, some manufacturers have made strides to close the gap. 

While the BenQ EW3270U doesn't quite make the best argument for HDR technology in computer monitors, it does provide some nice 4K performance for its current $400 price tag, which is considerably lower than some other monitors, especially when considering its size. 


The EW3270U is a no-nonsense monitor. Sporting a mostly black aesthetic that's not at all flashy, the 32-inch screen is has a matte black bevel on both sides as well as the top. The bottom portion is charcoal, with the BenQ logo stamped in the middle.

Underneath that is a smooth, glossy polygonal tab. This is the Brightness Intelligence + sensor and the monitor dynamically measures a room's ambient light to adjust the screen's color and brightness. A small button used to quickly turn HDR and Brightness Intelligence Plus on and off can be found in the lower right-hand corner of the monitor. Beneath that, you'll find the monitor's on/off switch, as well as the monitor's five OSD buttons. 

Moving to the back of the VA panel, the BenQ logo is emblazoned across the top, and the monitor's various ports can be found near the bottom. Furthest to the left is the power port, the moving right you'll find connection ports for HDMI (x2), Display Port (x1), USB-C (x1), and 3.5mm headphone (x1).

There is also a connection point in the middle for VESA wall mount and further down for the metal and plastic stand, the latter of which is sturdy and easy to attach. 

The stand doesn't give nearly as much functionality as the one featured on the AG271QG, and tilting the screen can be a bit of struggle with the EW3270U, especially when pulling out from the bottom. Having worked with a screen with adjustable height and easy tilt, I wish something like that was here, too. 

Menu and Settings

Once the OSD is up, you can pick from five options. You can easily cycle through and select options with ease and exit the menu altogether with the click of a single button. Actions are prominently displayed above each button as you make your way through the OSD, another feature I very much appreciate. 

The left-most button brings up the Low Blue Light menu. The lowest setting, "reading", mutes blue tones the most, with the hue steadily increasing as you climb the hierarchy to "multimedia", which removes the least amount of blue light.

Moving from left to right, the next button opens the Picture Menu. Here, you can choose between the monitor's 10 preset picture modes, as well as a user mode. The next button pulls up the Input Select Menu, where you can easily navigate between your display connections.

Moving along, the last noteworthy button opens the monitor's full OSD, where you can toggle all of the monitor's settings in a single place. Here, you also have access to the monitor's advanced picture menu, which allows you to toggle individual settings when in User Picture Mode. 

You will also find the audio adjustment menu here, as well as the system adjustment menu. 


Aside from being a 4K UHD HDR monitor at a relatively low price, the EW3270U largest selling point is its eye-care technology. 

For the most part, the technology works as advertised, automatically dimming and brightening the screen as more or less light moves across the monitor's primary sensor. 

It's a neat technology, but the biggest nuisance is that the brightness fluctuates quite a bit from moment to moment, especially in brighter rooms. So much as leaning over the sensor causes it to detect shadow, causing the brightness to fluctuate from dim to, at times, too bright.

Some users will like the technology, others will find likely find it a bit irritating. 

Outside of that, we tested the EW3270U across all of its settings. Below, we get into a few of the more granular details of the monitor's image quality, where we ran tests with Langom Display Test and Eizo Monitor Test.


Across the board, from one to 32 and from blue to grey, the monitor performs well in this test. The only noticeable blemish is the demarcation between the first rectangle and the second rectangle in the top-most blue bar; it's very difficult to make out the first rectangle. The same can be said of the slight blurring of the line between 31 and 32 on the high end. 

The latter occurs for cyan and red, too, with the red being more noticeable. Turning on Super-Resolution clears the blue and cyan a bit, but doesn't do much for the red. 

HDR washes out the blue and red bars, making it difficult to see lines after bar 16. Things get treacherous for the pink bar around rectangle 22. Green and cyan suffer a bit, but not as bad as the previous bars; yellow and grey perform the best. 

All bars seem to react the best in Game mode, with lines in the upper portions of each being discernible outside of default. However, blue and red perform the worst on each of the monitor's 10 pre-programmed settings.

The monitor's settings can be tweaked to reach close to the advertised 3,000:1 contrast ratio, but colors are always a tad darker than expected. 


Here, the EW3270U fails miserably in the Langom test. In no way was I able to make the background a smooth, grey rectangle. In every case tested, the vertical and horizontal line of each box were clearly visible, as was the central circle and the black and white bars. Between each setting and even using the provided User setting, only relative brightness and hue were able to be changed. 

This test corroborates the findings in the previous test, where sharpness did little to further differentiate between bars. 

Using another test provided by EIZO, I directly tested sharpness with white letters on a black background and black letters on a white background. While the white on black was easier to read overall, the font looked mostly sharp from 10pt. to 16pt. There were a few fringes around the edges of both white and black letters at 18pt. 

Black Level

In a bright room, all of the black squares were distinguishable. The darkest is a bit hard to see, but the edges are just able to be defined. It's worth noting that there is a discernible lightening of the background from the top to the bottom of the screen in this test. 

In a darker room, blacks are deeper. However, there is noticeable splotching from certain angles, specifically deep blacks. 

White Saturation

As with black level, the monitor performed well in this regard, although the brightest levels were barely distinguishable on default settings. Neither Sharpness nor Super Resolution seemed to affect this test. 

However, changing the display presets did. For example, HDR made the boxes more distinguished and bolder. However, Cinema HDR complicated matters by completely washing out the bottom row of boxes, save for a few grey blocks in the left-most box. 

Response Time 

On Lagom, there is shimmering in each box above 64, which is expected considering this monitor has a 60Hz refresh rate. At the specified refresh rate, the monitor performs as expected. 


During our Lagom test, the monitor performs extremely well in this test. There is no dithering, banding, or reduced color depth. Staring very, very hard shows a few horizontal lines, but that's simply reflective of the monitor's cycling. Colors from black to white are well recreated. 

The Eizo test is a little different than Langom's. Instead of a single black to white gradient, Eizo allows you to choose from several different colors, including black to white. 

Here, red, magenta, and blue perform best at 256 demarcations. Their gradient is smoothest, and I saw none of the steps (lines) between bar demarcations. However, even at 256, I was able to see very small lines in white, cyan, yellow, and green.

Viewing Angle

While the first part of the test, viewing the word "lagom" from different angles proved the monitor is capable of displaying accurate images and words without difficulty from multiple angles, it did show that certain colors lose their accuracy.

The colors, when viewed straight on and with your eyes "close" to the screen, which is defined as about equidistant "to the monitor's diagonal size," should be uniform. At about 33 inches away, that's true. However, most users will probably sit closer, such as my more comfortable, average distance of 20 inches. 


Using EIZO's uniformity test, the monitor tested ok. Looking straight on at 25% grey tone, the image was darker in the middle than at the edges. At 50% grey tone, the disparity lessened considerably, but the darker tones in the middle were still noticeable. At 75% grey tone, the screen was mostly uniform across the board except for the edges, which were a bit lighter than the rest of the screen. 

Color Distances

This Eizo test is meant to test how well a monitor can differentiate colors when they are similar or nearly the same. The EW3270U can easily differentiate between deep reds and blues and bright reds and blues.

However, although it does a good job with dark greens, it cannot differentiate sections of the brightest greens, which is reflected in normal usage eye tests where, for example, the GameSkinny green looks blurred and oversaturated on several of the monitor's settings, specifically HDR. 


None of the profiles blended values near 2.2 in the Lagom test. 48% blended between 1.2 and 1.5. 25% between 1.6 and 1.7. 10% between 1.7 and 1.9. Each section became more disparate higher up the numerical scale. 


  • Competitively priced
  • Sturdy and well made
  • 4K UHD resolution
  • Supports HDMI 2.0
  • Easy-to-navigate OSD
  • Good gaming and movie picture
  • Supports Freesync and (now) G-Sync
  • Inconsistent Brightness Intelligence +
  • 60Hz refresh rate
  • Some greyscale issues
  • Some splotchy darks
  • Useless speakers

BenQ's EW3270U monitor is a decent, well-made VA panel that provides an average viewing experience when gaming and watching movies. Considering its price point, it's one of the more affordable 4K HDR 32-inch monitors. 

The biggest considerations here are its 60Hz refresh rate, its splotchy darks, and its Brightness Intelligence + technology. While we can hope the next generation of 4K monitors will hit 120Hz, it's expected the EW3270U doesn't. The inconsistent darks can be annoying when watching certain films or playing horror games, for example, they aren't terribly distracting. However, Brightness Intelligence + may deter some users with its constantly fluctuating values. 

It's worth noting this feature can be turned off, but since it's marketed as a primary functionality, it's disappointing it doesn't work more consistently. 

That being said, we recommend the BenQ EW3270U as an overall good monitor. 

[Note: An EW3270U monitor was provided by BenQ for the purpose of this review.]

Vigor Review: A Marred, Bite-Sized Looter Shooter Tue, 03 Sep 2019 14:00:46 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

I saw them enter the house, and I've slowly been making my way toward it. I'm sticking to cover and watching the windows, making sure I haven't been spotted. I'm close enough that I can hear them inside, and I move toward the door to grab a kill and snag some loot.

Suddenly, the door flies open. We begin a bizarre dance of missed attacks and jumping. The framerate hits the floor. Somehow, my enemy does, too. As I'm looting what's left behind, I get shot in the back of the head.

Welcome to Vigor.

A looter shooter from Bohemia Interactive, Vigor comes from the same crew that brought us DayZ. The game has been in the Xbox Game Preview Program (Early Access) for about a year, but it recently came out as a full-fledged title.

It's got a lot of fun ideas, but a lack of context and polish really hold Vigor back from being the money-making F2P game it desperately wants to be.

Shelter from the Storm

After a brief tutorial shows you the basics, you arrive at your shelter. It's a "safe space" that acts like a hub where you can prepare for your next excursion, construct equipment, train, and generally look around and admire things between skirmishes.

There's a gun range, there's a Rubik's cube, and there's a litany of crafting benches. The area can seem overwhelming at first, especially as you try to find everything and get your bearings. However, a few button shortcuts let you quickly skip around the menus to find what you need.

After you've checked things out, grabbed a few weapons, and maybe set a shelter improvement, you head to the map and set out on a mission.

One thing you'll notice right away, whether in the hub or in a mission, is how pretty everything looks. Bohemia Interactive makes some good looking environments to run around in, and Vigor is no exception. Granted, that makes the scenes of you and an enemy flailing around with knives look even more bizarre when you do jump into the thick of things.

Hidden Foes

When you hit a map, you're able to choose between a variety of locations. Maps themselves do not change, but the layout of loot and the location of the objective does. Each round, your goals are:

  • Survive
  • Find loot
  • Grab the airdrop (optional)
  • Make it to safety

You drop into one of about eight small maps with about a dozen other killers. You're given roughly 15 minutes to loot and gear up before the airdrop hits. After that, you grab the airdrop crate and try to reach one of the map's exits, all while a radiation cloud funnels the remaining survivors toward the same map exit.

If you reach an exit alive, any gear you have with you (including the airdrop, if you were the one who managed to grab it) will help stock your shelter. You can squirrel away supplies, building materials, guns, and health kits for the next mission with the loot you bring back.

Die before reaching an exit, however, and it's all lost.

This risk/reward system cultivates an interesting decision-making process centered on luck. The more loot you find and stow away, the more painful getting merced becomes. Maybe you won't even go for that airdrop; maybe you let other players fight over it while you escape with those 37 bags of fertilizer.

However, what if you risk it all by rushing the airdrop, downing a few enemies, and grabbing a handful of better loot? If you manage to bag a few kills and still make it out alive, it's an exhilarating rush of excitement.

Unfortunately, the cutthroat nature of Vigor also exacerbates some of its biggest flaws, some of which can't be overlooked. 

Troublesome Tactics

It is literally astounding that Vigor is no longer considered an "Early Access" title. The game is so wonky and fickle that I found myself questioning whether it was being intentionally obtuse or if it is simply plagued by myriad technical issues. 

At one point, I opened a window, vaulted inside, and crept around a corner. When I tried to leave through the same window, it took more than 10 button presses to vault back out, something that should not be so difficult in a game where an errant noise or movement can give away your position and get you immediately killed.

Aiming with low-level guns is absurd, too. The aiming reticle for each is so massive that any shot beyond point-blank range will probably miss unless you have a steady supply of rare weaponry. That's not to mention that as you close in on your prey, you better hope that Vigor's framerate can hold up. 

I even started one round with an incomplete map. No points of interest. No marked exits. No airdrop circle. I wandered aimlessly, wondering if I had entered some weird in-game purgatory until I was shot dead in the snow by an unseen enemy.

Not only did I lose the match, but I also lost all of the weapons I had gathered. To add insult to injury, the game told me, "You should have bought insurance," something you buy before the start of the round that will let you keep your loadout, even if you die. The problem is that you buy insurance with one of the Vigor's many currencies: crowns. And crowns cost real money.

Let that sink in: I died and couldn't keep my loadout because the game glitched before chiding me for not using real-world money to protect my in-game investment.

Good Intentions

  • Environments are pretty
  • Intense gameplay
  • Easy to sit down for one round or many
  • Feels totally unfinished
  • Convoluted microtransactions
  • Glitchy, unpolished gunplay

Like DayZ before it, there are a lot of great ideas in Vigor. Every round brings the same intensity found in the endgame of titles like Fortnite and PUBG. And while it strives to be a combination of those games, and it has some of the pieces of greatness, there ultimately needs to be more to it. 

Unfortunately, Vigor never really puts its pieces together in a satisfactory way. It could certainly be a huge F2P shooter for Xbox One if Bohemia Interactive took the time to iron out the glitches and patch things up.

The problem is that it just doesn't feel like that's going to happen.

There is some fun to be had with Vigor, and the sting is dampened by its free-to-play structure. But it's tough to recommend it over other games in a crowded genre.

[Note: A copy of Vigor and a Starter's Pack was provided by Perfect World Games for the purpose of this review.]

HyperX Cloud Orbit S Review: A Headset That's Out of This World Tue, 03 Sep 2019 09:15:01 -0400 Mark Delaney

There are a few big names in the gaming headset space, and for a long time, Turtle Beach garnered most of the name recognition. Depending on your platform, you may also be familiar with Astro, Logitech, Corsair, or HyperX. One name you may not know is Audeze, unless you're a true audiophile with interests in music and other media beyond just games. 

Audeze hasn't really broken into the games market the way they may want, but that's about to change thanks to their partnership with HyperX.

The HyperX Cloud Orbit S is, in almost every way, the same headset as the phenomenal Audeze Mobius, now repackaged for a cheaper price with a name more familiar. What does that all add up to? A versatile headset with few peers, if any.

So We Meet Again

I reviewed the Audeze Mobius earlier this year, so it was funny when my review unit of the HyperX Cloud Orbit S arrived on my doorstep. Though the box is different and the manual is more to the point the Mobius booklet is "The Traveler's Handbook to the Mobius Universe" while its HyperX is regular plain very little else inside is different, and that's a beautiful thing.

The marquee feature of the Cloud Orbit S is its true 3D audio experience. Built using Waves Nx with optional head-tracking technology, the subtlety of every movement in-game is mapped in such an unrivaled manner that for anyone who plays competitively, there's no better choice.

I play PUBG a lot and with a serious drive to play well, and I can confirm I've actually played better and won more since I switched to this headset (including its Mobius twin). The way it mixes sounds near and far, right and left and all around is stunning. Eventually, your ears will get so used to the advantage that it's tough to go back to anything else.

Early hours of play with the Cloud Orbit S actually had me laughing out loud with my brother in party chat because I was able to call out enemies in a way we couldn't before. As he's a better shooter than me, I feel like I am pulling my weight better these days.

The head-tracking is really fun to use in VR as well, placing you there in a way I previously didn't know was available yet for video games. When new consoles come out, we often look first to visual fidelity, but an awesome headset can no longer be overlooked as game audio improves and the tech to deliver it is as impressive as the Cloud Orbit S.

One Big Difference

Internally, the Cloud Orbit S is identical to the Audeze Mobius with one exception: there's no Bluetooth functionality. Knowing that, you'll need to be okay with always being wired one way or another to play. The headset includes three connection options: USB-A, UBS-C, or a 3.5mm cable. The cool thing is you can plug it into multiple sources at once and swap between them with the push of a button. That might sound like overkill, but it's nice to be able to swap between, say, a game your playing and a phone call coming in without ever taking off the headset.

Bear in mind, if you're a console player, the Audeze Mobius is never wireless either, so it's only really PC players that may have to choose between the wired Cloud Orbit S and the optionally wireless Mobius. And if you're not the type to mind an unintrusive wire being the only real difference, you'll save $70 off the MSRP in the process. While the Mobius retails for $399, the Cloud Orbit S is sold at $329.

For console players, the savings are a no-brainer because there's simply nothing different about your experience. For PC players and those who may use the headset for other things like music or Netflix, you just have to decide if you want to go fully wireless for the extra $70.

Same Look and Feel

Even the form factor of the Cloud Orbit S is virtually identical to the Mobius. The same dark gray, smoothe matte surface with the same dual audio control options on the left ear cup are present. The same detachable microphone with optional pop filter is there, too, as is the simplified 3D audio button.

Both twinning headsets deliver about a 10-hour playtime on a full charge with 3D enabled, more if not (but you should totally use it). Inside, the same standard-bearer Audeze planar magnetic drivers deliver supreme audio fidelity, making every game a theatrical masterpiece. 

Looking at it from the outside, the only major difference is the logo on the ears, and that's where the project explains itself. Audeze is not a name many gamers know, but HyperX is. However, what Audeze does have is the very best tech in the field, so the collaboration between the two audio engineering companies makes sense. HyperX brings the name value, Audeze brings the technology, and theoretically, everybody wins. It's an equation that will likely prove true. 

  • Internal components have nearly no rivals, from the Waves Nx 3D audio to the Audeze planar magnetic drivers
  • Easy to use on-board control scheme puts everything you need on the left ear
  • Several ways to plug in, and you can swap among them with ease for multiple uses
  • Lacks any fully wireless options

The Audeze Mobius was the best headset I'd ever used when I reviewed it this spring, and in the HyperX Cloud Orbit S, I found its near-identical twin. For those who want the best gaming headset on the market and don't mind a missing Bluetooth feature, this is it. You really can't do better than the HyperX Cloud Orbit S.

[Note: A Cloud Orbit S review unit was provided by HyperX for the purpose of this review.]

Sin Slayers Review: Not Up to the Challenge Mon, 02 Sep 2019 10:37:12 -0400 Jason Coles

Sin Slayers is a JRPG. But it's not just any JRPG, oh no. Sin Slayers, instead, opts to mesh this classic genre with another, the roguelike. You might be wondering how that works — how can you build a party of heroes if they’re just going to end up dying?

Well, the good news is that they don’t die. There’s a reason for it, though.

The game opens with your party of classic D&D characters finding themselves fighting off hordes of baddies and, well, not performing very well.

Cornered, they take refuge in a church at the behest of an old, blind sage. They breathe a moment, hoping that at the very least, they are now safe.


Alas, it turns out that they can’t leave the church or the Valley of Fallen Sinners in which it resides, at least not until they’ve defeated the embodiments of the deadly sins of Lust, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, Envy, Pride, and Greed.

These beings are known as Sinlords and must be destroyed to release the seals and allow our heroes to escape. When the game tells you that you can’t leave, that includes even death.

Each Sinlord has a corresponding seal, and these seals don’t allow your party members to truly die. From a gameplay sense, this makes things much easier as it allows you to continue building your preferred party members, but it certainly sucks for the party members themselves who will have to keep trying no matter what. 

What, then, are the roguelike elements?

Well, each of the Sinlords has taken up residence in a different area of the game, and each of these areas features a little bit of procedural generation in its layout, the various events you can happen across, and the enemies you face.

You select these areas from a world map of sorts, then navigate around the grid-based maps by clicking on the tile you’d like to move to. Until you walk onto a tile, you’ve no idea what’s there, which means you could be walking straight into a fight, or you could stumble upon a healing fountain.

While this is an initially entertaining idea, it becomes repetitive quite quickly, which can make the later areas quite annoying. Especially as there is a very limited pool of different events to find, and they’re very rarely worth taking part in.

Sin To Win

Taking part in events will often generate sin. If you sin too much, then the enemies in the area will become stronger. However, you can offset this by using special shrines or simply ignoring the events. Though that often means leaving a rotting corpse on the side of the road instead of burying it to avoid sinning, of course.

Don't worry, it doesn’t always make sense.

Despite the strange, often perplexing meta-narrative weaving throughout the game, the combat is probably the main star of the show here  or at least it should be.

Everything here is relatively standard turn-based stuff: each combatant takes a turn to perform a single action, and as you progress through each fight, you build up your Rage, which is essentially MP that you spend on more powerful abilities.

However, the main thing to pay attention to is, of course, your party composition, which you can change as you unlock new characters.

Most characters can be unlocked by defeating a Sinlord, but there is a drawback. Characters join you at Level 1, although the max level is five. So while it doesn’t take long to train and level them, it’s never really worth doing so. I found myself using an entirely overpowered team very early on, and only swapped out a party member once when I finally acquired a magical class.

For the most part, there's never really nay reason to switch to new party members once you've leveled the initial characters. 

In fact, difficulty is a real issue here. The areas you go through are meant to be more and more challenging as you progress, but the enemies you fight are often Level 1 or Level 2 no matter which stage they are in. This means you trounce them right off the bat once you've leveled up your party.

I’d often find myself staring at my defeated foes within a turn or two of starting a battle. That’s not really what you want from a roguelike such as this. In fact, there’s an achievement for having your entire party killed five times. That’s one of two that I didn’t get in my seven hours with the game.  

It’s just not challenging enough.

  • Some good ideas
  • It's short?
  • Boring combat
  • Uninteresting exploration
  • Bad story

The lack of challenge in Sin Slayers means you won't want to replay it, which means it kind of fails as a roguelike. That also means you’re only left with the JRPG side of things as they attempt to lure you in with promises of complex battle mechanics and a gripping story  neither of which exist here.

Consequently, what you have with Sin Slayers is a game that doesn’t do anything very well. Which means it’s probably not worth playing.

[Note: A copy of Sin Slayers was provided by Black Tower Entertainment for the purpose of this review]

Final Fantasy VIII Remastered Review: Preserving A Classic With Modern Enhancements Mon, 02 Sep 2019 10:15:38 -0400 David Jagneaux

Toeing the line between remastering a game and remaking a game is a difficult balance to strike. In the case of a full-on remake, entire game systems are often entirely redesigned and in many drastic cases, a game may no longer resemble the original very little or at all.

The upcoming Final Fantasy VII Remake is a prime example: the story beats and characters are the same, but that's about it. Basically everything else was thrown out for something new.

But in the case of Final Fantasy VIII, what we've got instead is a remaster, similar to the remasters done for Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy X previously.

For all intents and purposes it's the same game but a bit cleaner, a bit more more streamlined, and a bit more accessible. That means if you didn't like VIII when it first came out because to its divisive changes to the established Final Fantasy formula, then you're probably going to feel the exact same way about it now. This is functionally the same game.

Bucking The Trend

In Final Fantasy VIII, you take on the role of Squall Leonhart, a young recruit for an elite mercenary group named SeeD. You live in a compound designed to educate and train new soldiers from a young age basically grooming child soldiers to rise in the ranks once they graduate. You'll travel the world, battle armies, fight off a sadistic witch, fall in love, and collect lots of cards and Guardian Forces (GFs) to summon.

Since this is a big budget remaster, let's take a step back and break down exactly what makes Final Fantasy VIII stick out from the pack and why it's such a divisive entry.

For starters, it dramatically changed everything about Final Fantasy combat other than the active-time battle system basis itself. You still wait for your gauge to fill up before you can issue a command to a character, but everything else is totally different.

For example, there isn't really any gear in Final Fantasy VIII, and you don't technically grow in strength and ability by leveling up. Instead, there's the junction system, where you "Draw" magic spells from enemies and store them with your party like other items.

Instead of an MP bar, each spell has a quantity listed, which is affected by drawing the spell out of enemies. You then junction those spells, or attach them, to your characters and their corresponding stats. You also acquire summons known as Guardian Forces that can be junctioned and leveled up as well.

It's a bit different than other systems, to say the least. The end result is something that, in theory, is rich with strategy and depth, but in practice is extremely annoying. Since magic is junctioned to characters to boost stats, this functionally means you're punished if you decide to ever cast any spells at all.

And that's not to mention that GF summons play a major role in this entry, which is a shift that has since been embraced, but at the time, it was a major departure.

Then there's also Triple Triad, the mini game that laid the foundation for basically all card-based diversions in RPGs for years to come. Dare I say there would be no Gwent without Triple Triad.

Personally, I never cared much for it, but it's got a lot of fans and is faithfully present in this version once again unchanged as far as I can tell.

Final Fantasy VIII isn't my favorite Final Fantasy game, that honor goes to either Final Fantasy X or Final Fantasy IV depending on the day, but I'd still rank VIII in the top half. The soundtrack alone puts it above a lot of other entries and the intimate love story is one of the best video game romances you will ever experience.

Squall embracing Rinoa is the actual logo art work for the title, leaving zero question about what the center of the story is all about.


"The Best Looking Guy Here"

When it originally released, Final Fantasy VIII was renowned for its impressive pre-rendered backgrounds, soaring soundtrack, and fully 3D character models with articulated faces, hands, and full bodies, a departure from the almost chibi-style characters from Final Fantasy VII. Looking back, the jagged edges make it hard to even interpret what character is supposed to be doing half the time, leaving a lot to be desired.

Thankfully, the remaster fixes all of that.

My favorite way of describing a remaster like this is that it basically makes the game actually look and play like you think you remember it looking and playing. Nostalgia and fond memories can do quite a number on the mind, and we tend to gloss over visual discrepancies. Even the best of us imagine things in HD that were very much not in HD at their conception. Remasters fix that issue, and this is quite a fine transition when compared to its peers.

One of the funniest things to come out of the entire Final Fantasy VIII series is the meme focused on Squall's face when Rinoa tells him that he's, "the best looking guy here." Zooming in on his face, he barely looks like a person as all of the pixels are so jumbled and jagged. But now, the remaster fixes that and gives him a smooth, attractive mug instead.

Even the official Twitter account was getting in on the joke.


Unfortunately, that same tender love and care was not applied to the remaster's pre-rendered backgrounds, which were drawn at a specific resolution 20 years ago and are now being up-scaled. Short of remaking every background to match the remaster's higher-quality character models, there really isn't much to be done, so some scenes end up looking like the characters have been superimposed onto them. It's almost like looking at bad green screen in an old movie.

It's an unfortunate price to pay for better quality character models, but it is worth it overall. Since the camera likes to zoom in so much, especially during combat, you see much more of the new character models than the handful of noticeably bad backgrounds.

Since this is a modern remaster of a 20-year-old game, Square did include some new bells and whistles beyond just better graphics. For starters, you can now toggle random encounters on and off without entering the menu at all. It's a great feature if you're low on health and need to escape an area to heal, if you're backtracking out of an area, or if you just want to get through a region without getting bogged down in fights.

There are even options to speed things up a bit, which is a fortunate inclusion considering how frequent and prolonged animations for things like big spells, limit breaks, and summons can be.

  • New character models look great
  • Still one of the best soundtracks in the entire franchise
  • Good romance story line with lots of well-developed characters
  • Welcomed accessibility and quality-of-life enhancements
  • Junction system is still extremely inconvenient and annoying
  • One of the weakest casts of villains in the series

Final Fantasy VIII, despite its quirks and flaws, actually holds up quite well due in large part to its oddities. Rather than feeling like every other JRPG, it's decidedly different. From its bizarre initial plot and surprising focus on intimate relationships and internal dialogues, to the extremely unique (albeit often annoying) junction system and engaging pseudo-sci-fi setting, it still stands out even to this day.

The enhanced visuals quite literally take the edge off how old the game is and the quality of life enhancements really go a long way toward making it bearable by lessening the trudge of its systems.

[Note: A copy of Final Fantasy VIII Remastered was provided by Square Enix for the purpose of this review.]

Children of Morta Review: It's a Family Thing Mon, 02 Sep 2019 10:15:14 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Margaret Bergson, a wise, old woman knows trouble is coming, a trouble called the Corruption. A brave swordsman called John ventures out into the wild to see how far the Corruption has spread and what the damage is.

Suddenly, a young woman with a bow steps forward from the trees and offers her assistance. There's something interesting about her. No, she isn't an elf. She's not even supernatural to any extraordinary extent.

She's Linda Bergson, John's daughter and Margaret's granddaughter.

Children of Morta takes fantasy tropes we're familiar with, like the world approaching the edge of doom and the special chosen ones who can stop it, and transforms it all into a much more personal affair by making it a family story.

It's the story of the Bergsons — John, Kevin, Mark, Linda, Uncle Ben, and the whole lot — before it's the story of their diseased land, the darkness on Mount Morta, and the divine Rea who charged them with protecting it.

Their ancestral home is the game's hub, their worries and hopes fill the downtime between dungeon dives, and their collective strength is what gives them half a chance at saving the world more than the special powers gifted them by Celestial Shards.

But Children of Morta isn't a virtual novel. First and foremost, it's a tough, roguelike RPG — and an excellent one at that.

Fight for Your Life

The Bergson's goal is to stem the Corruption flowing down from Mount Morta, and to do that, they need the power of three spirits from around the land. There's a handy divine relic in their basement that lets them travel to these three areas and pulls them back home when on the brink of death.

Three main areas might not seem like much, but each consists of multiple stages, which, in turn, have at least two or more main areas to venture through.

Being a roguelike, Children of Morta's dungeons are different every time you venture through them. You don't necessarily have any sort of fast travel option either, so if you die on the second part of a three-part dungeon, you start back at the beginning. That being said, once you fully clear an area — for instance, the initial spider caverns — you don't have to get through it again to move on to the next.

You won't clear even the early stages in a hurry either. There are some small puzzles and the usual traps to avoid — or to trigger accidentally, die, then avoid them next time through — but the biggest challenges facing you in Children of Morta are the enemy mobs.

The game's combat is simple, but involved. Each Bergson has a standard attack, a special ability like John's shield, and then a special attack.

Throughout your explorations, you'll also find various Charms and Runes that expand your abilities in one form or another, but they don't carry over if you die. Charms buff stats like movement speed, while Relics provide powerful spells or sub-attacks to help keep you alive. However, you can only have one active Charm and one active Relic at a time.

Combat is easy to get used to, and while the default button mapping is perfectly comfortable and intuitive, you can change it to suit your needs should you wish. Your specific Bergson faces whatever way the cursor is pointing, and you just press whatever your attack button is to attack.

It might sound a bit too simple on paper, but things rapidly heat up, and you're more often than not in a fight for your life against hordes of enemies, using every trick available to you.

Having said that, the game never feels unfair, and it certainly seems better balanced than when we tried the demo a few months ago.

Then, mobs would reappear after the screen transitioned, their damage output felt just a tad too high, and health restoring potions were a rarity. Dying multiple times just during the opening scenes wasn't uncommon.

That's not the case now, though. It's hard to tell whether mobs have been reduced slightly, but they don't re-spawn when you turn around at least, and damage given and received seems much better balanced.

Health potions don't exactly abound, but they are more common than before, either through scavenging animal carcasses (like you do) or by finding them in special chests.

There are some instances where enemies weasel their way into a kind of sweet spot, where your attacks can't hit them, but you also can't move away, though this doesn't happen too often.

Co-op play would definitely help make the experience easier, especially depending on which Bergson you choose. Some, like Linda, are much more difficult to use effectively without a partner to back you up, just because they lack defensive capabilities or can't handle multiple enemies at once.

On the whole, though, the challenge is finely tuned, and it's worth playing as every Bergson at least once, since their varying playstyles make it almost like playing a completely different game.

Still, balanced as it is, you should expect to (almost) die. Frequently. But that's also sort of the point.

Home Life

Every time your Bergson falls in battle, you get yanked back to the family home thanks to the handy Celestial Shard you keep with you. This is where you can take a breather, tweak your character setup, and check out what the rest of the family is doing.

There's always something new to see when you're back at home, too, such as a pre-scripted scene about one of the Bergsons or new dialogue based on what everyone's doing. This is what advances part of the Bergsons' story as well, so it's actually worth dying.

For example, fairly early on, we get a glimpse at the younger son Kevin and what motivates him. A bit later, that turns into a new scene where Uncle Ben teaches him how to fight, and then a bit later on from that, Kevin becomes a new playable character.

It's a smart way to break up the potential monotony and frustration of roguelikes and gives purpose to every action you take.

There's a story to tell outside the main one as well, and you miss it if you don't actively look for it. Each Bergson busies themselves with an activity or ponders over their worries while you're away.

Linda plays her violin to relax, but Kevin gets annoyed with it from time to time. The youngest Bergson isn't completely aware of what's going on, but possesses as much insight as Grandma Margaret. Not everyone's happy about Kevin learning to fight, and things get tense for a while. In short, it's family life, with all its ups and downs, warm moments, and sharp annoyances.

All this adds a unique air to the adventure itself as well, in an untold story that plays out as you forge ahead. In between scripted events and home breaks, you do a lot of fighting and exploring — a lot. Many games, especially roguelikes and dungeon crawlers, have a distinct separation between the action and narrative. But Children of Morta's emphasis on the Bergsons' personalities at home carries over into the various dungeon areas you explore.

Gearing Up

The other thing you do back at Bergson HQ is fine-tune your equipment and skills. Your Bergson gains skill points for every new level attained, and each playable family member has a unique and expansive skill tree.

You can technically tamper with the tree while out in the field, but it's a lot easier to just do it back at home without as many distractions. Either way, you can't upgrade the Bergsons except back at home.

Uncle Ben uses his magical forge to improve armor, weapon strength, agility, and a host of other important attributes — for a price. Yes, your uncle makes you pay so he'll help you survive (we did say it was a fairly realistic portrayal of family).

Figuring out which abilities to upgrade provides a slight element of strategy, one that changes depending on your playstyle. Whatever ability you upgrade provides a noticeable difference, whether its extra health, a stronger weapon, or a nifty new sub-ability for one of the Bergson's unique traits.

The loop of explore, fight, die, get better gear, try again often gets old very fast, but the tangible sense of progress you get from your upgrades keeps it compelling throughout the Bergsons' trials.

Pretty Pixels

It's impossible to talk about Children of Morta without bringing up its visuals, which are fantastic. The game uses what looks like simple 2D pixel art, but it's incredibly dynamic and expressive, thanks in part to the use of real lighting as a complement.

Fire glows warm and bright, light flickers and changes, and your Corrupted foes have a bizarre shifting effect to their purple auras that enhances the sense of otherworldly danger.

The Bergsons themselves might not have photo-realistic faces, but their movements and general designs probably do more than high-def graphics could anyway. From John's sturdy build, to Grandma Margaret's slight stoop, to the simple animation of Linda playing her violin on the bed with her legs crossed, these pixel characters exude personality and individuality.

A personal favorite is the dollhouse effect that happens every time you go back to the Bergson's home. The house opens up from the outside, and you get an overhead view of each room and what everyone's doing. It's something you see a lot, but it never gets old.

The environments are detailed and interesting as well. You don't necessarily see this right away, though; the opening stages in the silk caverns and some of the others are rather bland and repetitive. But that changes the further you progress in the game, with each area having a distinct and interesting appearance.

Put short, it's a joy to look at and a testament to the flexibility and potential of pixel art in the right hands.

The audio isn't quite as noteworthy. There's a definite lack of soundtrack in most places, and the combat noises each character makes get stale rather quickly. However, you probably won't really notice these things, since combat requires a good deal of focus.

There is voiceover in the form of narration, though, and it's quite frequent and quite good. The reader's voice is laced with gravitas perfectly suited for the game's atmosphere, and though it sometimes strays into the melodramatic, you can't get good fantasy without melodrama thrown in at some point anyway.


  • Well-balanced combat
  • Tons of replay value
  • Each Bergson feels and plays unique
  • Strong implementation of the family element for a distinct identity
  • Satisfying gameplay loop
  • Gorgeous art style


  • More challenging for solo players
  • Could use a better soundtrack
  • A few dungeon areas seem repetitive

In a sea of roguelikes, it's difficult for a title to stand out. But Children of Morta manages to hold its own in a variety of ways, from the family element to its excellent art direction. It's tough, but it's immensely satisfying to slowly build up your family of warriors and push through each challenge.

If you're looking for an indie roguelike or RPG, Children of Morta is definitely worth checking out. If you're looking for both, it's a must-play game.

[Note: A copy of Children of Morta was provided by Dead Mage Studios for the purpose of this review.]

Yu-Gi-Oh! Legacy of the Duelist: Link Evolution — A Duelist's Paradise Mon, 02 Sep 2019 09:58:12 -0400 Jonny Foster

The Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game has enveloped my life on multiple occasions, but the video game offerings have always been sub-par. That was until Yu-Gi-Oh! Legacy of the Duelist: Link Evolution came along on Nintendo Switch last week.

Firstly, before we go any further, let’s address the troublingly long name: Yu-Gi-Oh! Legacy of the Duelist: Link Evolution (hereafter called Link Evolution for simplicity) is essentially the “Deluxe Edition” of Legacy of the Duelist, a title that has already been on PS4, Xbox One, and PC for a few years.

Legacy of the Duelist received mixed reviews as it featured a slow trickle of paid DLC, but Link Evolution bundles these all together for the reasonable price of $40.

As a result, Link Evolution is absolutely brimming with content, with a nice mixture of old and new. The primary draw is the campaign mode, which summarizes each Yu-Gi-Oh! Anime season into a series of one-off duels, interspersed with brief dialogue segments with static character models above textboxes to move the story forward.

This is an excellent way to get up to speed if you’re unfamiliar with the full Yu-Gi-Oh! storyline. It's also a nostalgia-filled rollercoaster for long-serving veterans. Whether it’s Yugi facing off against Seto Kaiba over the fabled Blue-Eyes White Dragon, or something more recent, these are all familiar duels for fans of the TV show. 

Aside from being a fun trip down memory lane, the campaign is also a requirement if you want to build your own custom decks. Campaign missions will unlock new booster packs for you to buy with Duel Points (DP), the in-game currency. It’s fantastic that there are no microtransactions in sight, but the booster pack solution has it’s own teething problems.

Not only can you get several duplicates of cards you already own — well beyond the limit of three copies per card that are allowed in a deck — but it can also take a long time to find specific cards you’re looking for. The boosters each have hundreds of possible cards to unlock, and you can only open 8-card boosters one at a time.

Unlocking the boosters by playing the campaign is also a nuisance if you’re primarily looking for multiplayer matches, but thankfully, you can play each series separately. This means active TCG players can quickly jump into the VRAINS duels to unlock the boosters featuring Orcusts and Cyberse monsters, for instance. 

The fun doesn’t stop there, though, with sealed and draft play both available, along with online and local multiplayer. These are all excellent additions that help round Link Evolution into a more complete game than previous digital Yu-Gi-Oh! entries.

However, there are some hiccups to be found along the way. The audio, for example, does let Link Evolution down a little. The music and sound effects, though high in aural quality, can get repetitive before long. It’s also a shame that there’s no voice acting during the dialogue segments of the campaign, but that probably would have been a licensing nightmare anyway. This does mean that there’s no harm in playing with the sound off entirely, though, which makes it perfect for quick duels on public transport.

There is another downside of Link Evolution as well, but it’s almost a necessary evil. I’m talking, of course, about the lack of tactility in a virtual TCG. There’s a certain allure to playing games like Yu-Gi-Oh!, Magic the Gathering, or the Pokemon TCG in person.

Link Evolution, like every official Yu-Gi-Oh! title before it, can’t match the tactile feeling of holding the cards or the nerve-wracking tension of live play, and while the automatic shuffles and instant searches are often a significant boon, the response popups here are still an ordeal. On the default setting, Link Evolution will prompt you roughly 10 times per turn if you want to activate a trap or quick effect. Other options exist to counteract this, but they aren’t without their own shortcomings.

Even with these irksome issues, though, Yu-Gi-Oh! is still a fantastic deck-building TCG title, and the portability of a game like Link Evolution can’t be understated. It's great for theory-crafting and playtesting new builds, ideal for someone that doesn’t have enough time to keep up with the ever-changing card game, and the perfect entry point for beginners.

There are tutorials to explain all of the game’s mechanics, both new and old, which are concise but effective. You also have the option to play with character-themed decks in story mode if you don’t feel like constructing your own decks, though it also gives you some generic structure decks to improve if you’re not sure where to start constructing. Sealed and draft play modes are also brilliant learning tools for anyone looking to improve, so there’s a bit of something for everyone.

The performance has been spotless on the Switch so far, too, and the graphics are all vivid and authentic. Iconic cards like the Blue Eyes White Dragon and Number 39: Utopia even have their own entrance animations. Though these can get old for more mature players, this is a charming touch that is sure to wow a younger audience.

  • The campaign is a fun trip back through time to enjoy each series of the Yu-Gi-Oh! TV show
  • Efficient tutorials help newcomers brush up on the current rules
  • Over 9000 cards included and not a microtransaction in sight
  • Tons of content, including sealed and draft play, plus local and online multiplayer
  • Collecting individual cards that you need can be an absolute chore
  • Mechanics are unforgiving if you make a misinput

Whether you’re reliving childhood memories of card-swapping on the playground, brushing up on your latest TCG builds, or coming into Yu-Gi-Oh! completely fresh, Yu-Gi-Oh! Legacy of the Duelist: Link Evolution is the best game you’ll find.

At $40, the entry price may seem high, but there’s well over 30 hours of single-player content available, various multiplayer options, and no microtransactions in sight.

If this has whet your Yu-Gi-Oh! appetite, why not check out our other Yu-Gi-Oh! coverage, here.

[Note: A copy of Yu-Gi-Oh! Legacy of the Duelist: Link Evolution was provided by Konami for the purpose of this review.]

Unlucky Seven Review: Out of Luck Sat, 31 Aug 2019 13:52:21 -0400 diegoarguello

Unlucky Seven, brought to you by the studio Puzzling Dream, presents itself as a graphic adventure of sorts telling the story of seven characters with an interesting premise that regrettably crumbles fast.

The title screen gives almost like a game a horror-like vibe loading it up, but that doesn't really flow into the game itself. That's okay, though: The title screen's the best part of the game.

Unlucky Seven starts off with a robot and an anthropomorphic alligator inside a dark, muddy room. They talk about a "Alcoholics Anonymous meeting", and the croc explains their plan to sneak into it, turn the thing into a party with alcohol and chemicals, and then kill everyone. Okay then.

So I'm sitting there, watching this scene unfold, and quickly realize that I can't click my way through it. You only have to use your keyboard or a gamepad, with "E" being your left click. This unfortunately proved to be the first of many technical and control issues.

The game's movement isn't as smooth as someone would expect from the adventure genre, which has the bar for controls set low in the first place.

Instead of clicking somewhere on the ground, or just moving straight from left to right, the game requires keyboard movement in pseudo-3D environments. You can move back and forth towards notable items in the environment, but only in a designated path. This makes for some real clunky exploration, especially when most of the game requires you to search rooms looking for a couple of items to progress.

Sometimes it takes a while for your character to recognize a movement. In many situations, interacting with an object moves your character away from it, forcing you to wait for the object's name to show up on the screen to interact with it all over again.

I'd like to say "technicalities aside" and move on, but this was just the start of a bad foundation for Unlucky Seven that intertwine with everything else. Movement is key in a game like this, along with dialogue. The developers seemed to want to escape from the standards of the genre, but just failed at it. Miserably.

Conversations are painfully slow, and the voice acting is atrocious. I get it, it's an indie game, but it sounds as if the folks behind it were trying too hard to get into character. At their best, they're hilarious; at their worst, they're painful. It doesn't help the game seems to have been translated from Polish to English via Google Translate or something, either.

Dialogue pushes itself to be the most cringe version of itself in every given occasion despite the poor translation. It feels like the kind of writing you'd find in a teenage-written fanfic, only that they're trying to sound serious here. Real serious. It's terrible.

The premise of the game have always been to have a cast of anthropomorphic (See: furry) characters, but it seems like development has been under significant changes ever since their Indiegogo campaign. You can really feel the shift in development in the game itself, and it's not pretty.

The anthro characters are present in the game as a choice. When you're meeting a new character, you're presented with the option to choose either the animal or the human form. It's odd, and the ways this is brought up make it seem almost like a joke.

The worst one by far is an android that asks you which head to use. I picked the anthropomorphic option, as I did with the rest of the characters, and the response was, "Strange that this choice was left to me. One day we'll all be damned by this excess of freedom."

It was due to moments like this where it was clear how unimportant the tone and character representation was for the developers. The overall clunkiness of control and overwhelming amount of confusing and straight out boring puzzles that made me glad to uninstall Unlucky Seven, and hopefully forget about it..

  • Lighting and atmosphere
  • Neat art style
  • Painful controls
  • Disgusting tone
  • Laughable writing
  • Boring puzzles
  • Unimaginative tasks that get tiresome fast

I'm always up for new experimental stories. Unlucky Seven seemed like just that from trailers alone, but it turned out to be much more tedious and confused about itself than it seemed. Maybe I would have gave the tanky controls a pass if the story was at least somewhat interesting or promised something deeper than anthro cannibals, but this isn't the case.

Unlucky Seven's pacing seems obsessed with needless puzzles and item gathering, while some bugs also get in the way of an already troubled experience. It doesn't seem like the game is interested in respecting the player's time, so don't bother respecting it with a purchase.

[Note: A copy of Unlucky Seven was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.]

Bionik BT Audio Sync Switch Review: Simple Bluetooth Connectivity Fri, 30 Aug 2019 08:17:01 -0400 David Jagneaux

Nintendo's decision to not include Bluetooth audio support in the Switch is still baffling to this day. So many people have moved on from wired headphones, due in large part to many smartphone manufacturers no longer including 3.5mm audio jacks on phones any more. But the Switch was a step back in that regard.

For all of the things the Switch does to innovate with its portable-meets-home console hybrid design, it lacks obvious Bluetooth audio functionality. Thankfully, that's why the BT Audio Sync for the Switch from Bionik exists.

BT Audio Sync Technical Details

The proposition here is simple: you plug in this little adapter and it lets you connect Bluetooth headphones to your Switch. Bingo, that's it. After that you can use any Bluetooth headphones, earbuds, or even external speakers that you want.

The package dimensions are 5.25 x 6.50 x 1.25 in (W x H x D) and it weighs only 0.25 lbs. 

BT Audio Sync Switch Setup

Thankfully, setting up the BT Audio Sync is as simple as its crystal clear value proposition. 

Literally all you have to do is plug it in, hold down the button so it's in pairing mode, put your headphones in pairing mode, and wait a few minutes. It will automatically connect, and you'll be gaming in no time. That's it. You don't even need to charge the thing at all.

Plus, you don't have to sacrifice the USB-C port on your Switch while using this little device; you can still plug the Switch in while in handheld mode to charge it or use another accessory while using the BT Audio Sync since it has a port on the bottom, as pictured below.

If you want to use it when your Switch is docked, have no fear: it even includes a short USB-C to USB adapter in the box so you can plug it directly into the front-facing USB port on your dock. No fuss, no hassle. 


BT Audio Sync Design And Quality

In terms of physical quality, it's solid enough. It doesn't quite measure up to the heft of the Switch itself, but I wouldn't say it feels cheap either. Once it's connected, it fits snugly and shouldn't get jostled out of place without intentional force.

My main issue with its physical design is the orange color scheme at the bottom. It seems like a weird choice that doesn't really jive well with any of the Joy-Con combos you'd typically see. I usually use my blue and red ones, and it just sort of sticks out at the bottom. The same goes for the standard black Joy-Cons.

Finally, because of how it protrudes from the bottom when plugged in, that means you can't use the kickstand to play in tabletop mode at all unless you get really creative with how you balance it. That being said, I have never once used my Switch in "tabletop" mode except for maybe one or two games of Mario Tennis Aces, and if you're using Bluetooth headphones then you probably don't need or want to prop it up publicly on a table anyway.

  • Setup couldn't be simpler
  • Audio quality is crystal clear
  • USB-C port ensures you're not sacrificing functionality
  • Included USB dongle lets you use it while docked as well
  • Solid build quality and simple, clean design
  • Design prevents using the Switch kickstand in tabletop mode unless you get creative with propping it up
  • Orange color scheme clashes with most Joy-Con color combos

You clicked on this review because you were looking for a good, simple way of getting Bluetooth audio working on your Nintendo Switch. I'm here to tell you that for $39.99 the BT Audio Sync does exactly that. You plug it in, sync it up, and you're good to go. Works like a charm every time.

[Note: A BT Audio Sync for Switch was provided by Bionik for the purpose of this review.]

Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark Review: Remarkable at Every Turn Wed, 28 Aug 2019 11:19:39 -0400 Mark Delaney

Confession: I've never played Final Fantasy Tactics. To come totally clean, I've never actually played any of Square Enix's important series. But the only one I feel like I'm missing out on is Tactics because a few years ago, I fell in love with the tactical RPG genre after dodging it for my whole gaming life.

By the time I got around to Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark, I had already realized my mistake in avoiding TRPGs thanks to a few other choice games in the genre, but I was aware that Fell Seal harkens back to FF Tactics closely, like a homage from your biggest fan.

Suffice it to say, I can't write this review for those who want to know how it stacks up against its inspiration. I can say, however, that Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark is an unforgettable and constantly rewarding game in its own right.

Like any respectable RPG, Fell Seal's story is well worth your attention, and right away, it's this element, as well as the gorgeous color palette, that captured me. Fell Seal is a story of political conspiracy, and of our hero, Kyrie, trying to stay virtuous in a world that is crumbling under the weight of corruption.

It wastes no time getting into the main plot, but this 30-hour campaign will frequently introduce new friends and foes, and it will send you down many paths on the way to the game's finale. Side quests appear regularly, and sometimes, these are satisfyingly little more than dialogue moments, optional rest stops on an arduous road. These chats with your ever-expanding party flesh out who they are and why they remain by your side.

Fell Seal introduces a lot of original lore that is surprisingly easy to follow. Without voice acting, the characters still feel alive and real and interesting, and that's something I know I tend to struggle with when I play games. It's an engrossing experience from title card to credits, giving me a world I have no interest in hurrying through. Even though you always know where to go due to the game's clean overworld map, I still feel like I went on a long and winding journey with these characters.

It's not perfect, though, and I'd say the game's only glaring blemish comes via some of the secondary or tertiary characters who often feel like cliches of the genre. Silly sidekicks and Big Bads with unclear motivations get in the way, but not often enough to sour the experience too much. Overwhelmingly, this is still a story worth celebrating.

What makes Fell Seal memorable goes beyond its writing, too. Its tactical RPG elements are astoundingly deep, with character customization options more involved than most AAA titles. Each character, be they the three main heroes who do most of the talking or any of your sellswords acquired on your travels, can be fully decked out to look how you want, fight how you want, and even carry the names you want.

Assigning and reassigning classes is simple and allows you to build the party you work best with. Focus on healers, distance fighters, tanks, thieves, counterattacking mercs, and so much more  or combine them all into a supergroup that is more well-rounded than a circle. Recruiting new party members and molding them into the warriors you need is endlessly rewarding. It really feels like Kyrie, with her indomitable spirit, is inspiring others on her journey.

Battlefields are extremely varied, both aesthetically and topographically, which gives even briefer, less impactful enemy encounters a fresh approach every single time. Enemy variants repeat regularly over the course of the story, but it's when different types are combined that the battles become really exciting.

Having to juggle all of your characters' abilities against monsters attacking in several ways at once is the kind of challenge a TRPG should provide, and for 30+ hours, Fell Seal gets it exactly right. I never shook the feeling that I was enjoying myself as much in combat as I was in dialogue sections. It's unceasingly captivating.

Terrain, reward stashes, and environmental hazards constantly demand players weigh their every movement. Grid-based combat is one part puzzle, and when you finally overcome a tough battle using brains as much as brawn, Fell Seal carries with it the same aha! feeling one might find in Portal.

One of the reasons I avoided tactical RPGs for so long was because of the many confusing menus and meters I was afraid to get to know. I'm still finding my footing under them, or at least I thought I was, but Fell Seal never left me feeling confused one bit. It guides you through the menus with smart UI and explains anything you don't quite understand with the press of a button. It feels accessible, and it's made more so by the fully customizable difficulty options.

You can choose from one of several default settings or alter the difficulty line by line to your precise preferences. I think I'm still sort of bad at these games sometimes, but Fell Seal allows me to find the right balance for myself, and no matter how new or experienced you are to tactical RPGs like this, you'll find your balance too, no doubt.

  • Fully realized, original story universe with an intriguing political conspiracy at the center
  • Combat rewards smart maneuvers and balances risk/reward elements well
  • Party options go super deep, allowing for your band of heroes to be precisely who you want them to be in every way
  • Made with accessibility in mind, evidenced by the many optional tutorials and difficulty settings
  • Feels like a AAA game in all the most important ways, but it uses its permission to be weird and wonderful like the indie it is
  • A few cliche characters and plot points hurt the story

Until just before I started playing it, Fell Seal was not really a game on my radar. I decided to give it a try as part of my quest to branch out to new genres, and now I can't stop thinking about it.

Despite a few poorer elements in the story, it's a universe I feel fortunate to have explored. The tactical turn-based combat runs deep, as do its awesome customization and accessibility features.

This game does nearly everything right. Turn after turn, mile after mile, Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark is a world fully realized and worth fighting for.

[Note: A copy of Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark was provided by 1C Entertainment for the purpose of this review.]

Man of Medan Review: Evolving, Choice-Driven Horror With Unique Multiplayer Wed, 28 Aug 2019 10:08:12 -0400 David Jagneaux

I absolutely loved Until Dawn, Supermassive's original foray into the realm of interactive, choice-driven narrative games. At the time, it was reminiscent of Quantic Dreams' work on titles like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, but with a distinctively unique horror-focused spin.

And it worked so well.

Man of Medan is the latest entry into the genre. It is the first part of an anthology of short-form choice-driven narrative games called The Dark Pictures Anthology. Inspired by the works of Hawthorne, Poe, and even Lovecraft, Supermassive is aiming to put a video game spin on the short story format by releasing multiple ~5-hour games that focus on different spooky tales, each of which has some grounded facts based in reality.

The big difference between Man of Medan and the written works that inspired it is the fact that the player has direct control over what happens next.

Choice-Driven Narrative

Man of Medan is a story about a small group of 20-somethings on a boat trip to explore the wreckage of an undocumented crashed WWII-era plane. As expected, things quickly go awry and you're forced to fight for your life  as each of the game's five characters — and try to get out alive.

From the opening moments of the prologue, Man of Medan is very clear about the type of game it is. Any time you're given direct control of a character, it's purely meant as a form of wandering exploration. Anything you can pick up, inspect, or interact with is highlighted by a faint twinkle when you get close enough, but all action scenes are handled by quick-time events or frantic, timed decisions and dialogue choices.

If you ever played Until Dawn, Detroit: Become Human, Heavy Rain, or any of Telltale's adventure games, then you have a good idea of what to expect here. Every choice you make can have far-reaching consequences for the narrative as a whole and any of the five main characters are liable to get killed off in a huge variety of moments.

During my first playthrough, only one character died, and it was near the end. However, my gut tells me I came extremely close several other times. More so than most other games of its type, I'd argue Man of Medan is not only designed to be played repeatedly but it actually has more to offer than most on subsequent playthroughs.

In addition to the dozens of collectible treasures and hanging wall paintings that trigger premonitions, the narrative is full of branching points. Entire sections of the game can be erased if someone were to die early. Seemingly small choices like whether to run or hide or take diving gear with your or not could drastically alter events later on, too. You can also unlock "Special Features" which are like short documentaries and interviews with the cast to shed more light on the game's creation.

Interrupting The Flow

My biggest gripe with Man of Medan is a two-fold issue centered on its pacing. For starters, I think things would have worked infinitely better if the game had simply removed all gameplay that wasn't directly tied to decisions or quick-time events. The moments of exploration add little to the narrative that couldn't be offered in dedicated cutscenes or by letting the player pick where to turn and explore prior to animations playing out.

It would sort of be like an FMV game, but animated the same as it is in the final product.

Controlling your character as they move around environments is a bit like driving a tank while drunk. The camera frequently changes angles like in old-school Resident Evil games, forcing you to change which way is up and which way is walk-directly-into-a-wall. Animations are extremely stiff as well, which is highlighted even more because character models are juxtaposed with their wonderfully detailed faces.

My other main gripe is that since the flow of the plot is heavily affected by your choices throughout the story, cutscenes are stitched together depending on the paths you take. The end result is that between scenes, you'll often see frames skip or freeze for a fraction of a second, or character moods and vocal tones swing between extremes depending on which cues the scene is listening to most predominantly. 

I had a character absolutely crying hysterically, completely inconsolable, and then immediately switch to speaking with a calm and collected voice for the conversation bit, and then return to sobbing before the next "gameplay" moment. Stuff like that absolutely wrecks the mood and flow of the story.

Co-Op Evolution

The main new feature that Man of Medan brings to the genre is the inclusion of cooperative multiplayer. Unfortunately, it's split into two different modes that are definitely not created equally.

The first is dubbed "Movie Night" mode and is an offline, local co-op mode for up to five players. At the start of the game, each player chooses which characters they will control. Every player must pick at least one, and all characters must be accounted for, which is how it supports up to five total.

Then the game literally plays out exactly the same as it would if you were playing solo. However, each time the perspective of the controlled character changes, you pass the gamepad to whoever's turn it is. That's it. 

You might as well just play solo and pass the controller when someone else wants a go, or crowdsource decisions in solo mode like people did with Until Dawn. The implementation here feels half-hearted. All you gain is a basic rating at the end for how you did.

But then there's the "Shared Story" mode, which is restricted to two-player online co-op only. In this mode, two players simultaneously play together. Sometimes that means two characters exploring side-by-side, but other times it means two different sections of the game playing out at the same time.

Playing this mode with a friend is great and exciting, but playing with a stranger online is unnerving and exciting in a special kind of way since you never really know what they're going to do next. It injects a truly unique sense human-driven chance into the game, and it's a shame this mode isn't available locally.

  • Mostly satisfying story full of twists and turns
  • Huge variety of decision points with real consequences that dramatically alter the story
  • Good core cast of characters that feel well-developed and strong
  • Excellent visuals, especially for facial capture and environment designs
  • Some scenes are stitched together awkwardly and it ruins the flow
  • Movie Night local co-op mode is mostly pointless and Shared Story is online-only
  • Controls are frustrating when exploring scenes 

Man of Medan is an extremely capable narrative adventure game that fans of the genre will have no problem enjoying. It successfully iterates on the formula established in Until Dawn by placing a similarly cliched cast of characters into increasingly dangerous and unfortunate circumstances, all while letting players pull the puppet strings on their collective fate.

While it lacks some of the consistency and powerful performances that helped Until Dawn soar, it does a great job of making horror a fun and shared experience.

[Note: A copy of Man of Medan was provided by Bandai Namco for the purpose of this review.]

Control Review: Remedy's Most Ambitious Game Yet Mon, 26 Aug 2019 09:00:01 -0400 Mark Delaney

Remedy's illustrious history has two throughlines since the company's debut title launched in 1999: unconventional shooting mechanics and an obsessive commitment to storytelling.

Each of their previous major franchises, Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break, tackled third-person shooters in new and interesting ways, while few players could easily forget any of their intoxicating tales. That tradition lives on in Remedy's biggest, weirdest, and, in many ways, best game yet: Control.

Though its efforts ultimately lack the atmosphere of Alan Wake or the emotional weight of Max PayneControl is consistently a gorgeous and bizarre world of which it's worth exploring every inch. For longtime fans of the studio, four words could succinctly say it: Remedy does it again.

Control is the story of Jesse Faden, a woman who finds herself suddenly thrust into the role of Director at the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC). Think of this super-secret government body as an alternate version of the FBI in The X-Files, one where Mulder was promoted to the top rather than tucked away in the FBI's basement. The world of Control is full of weird stuff. The FBC is the clean-up crew.

Jesse, though, doesn't exactly want to be Director when she arrives at the FBC's headquarters, ominously named The Oldest House. Her role is one she quickly discovers to be a perfect fit, though, as her supernatural abilities give her the edge against The Hiss, an infection-like enemy that has invaded The Oldest House.

Over the course of 25 hours or so, Jesse digs deeper into Remedy's latest rabbit hole. As she uncovers more about the world around her, players will often be just as confused as she is, in a way that feels comfortably familiar to Remedy fans. Few other studios try to combine stylish action with ponderous plot points as much as Remedy does.

As The Oldest House is an ever-shifting building whose geometry is regularly disrupted through time and space distortions, such a setting allows Control to unravel its main plot at a satisfying pace, all while making plenty of time for optional missions that bring another element of The X-Files to the stage: Monster of the Week stories.

Even as their quest-givers can be disappointingly flat characters who wait around for you to talk to them, these side missions go far to flesh out the Metroidvania setting of Control. By consequence, a first playthrough can be dizzying or, at times, almost aggravating because the motivation to turn over every stone is so strong. Without spoiling much, fans will want to make time for the game's many collectibles and side missions, because they will start to paint a larger picture of what I'm calling the Grand Remedy Universe. 

Most of the time, Control also delivers interesting boss battles, which is a first for Remedy. Several optional bosses are found in the game's side missions too, further lending to their importance.

The design of The Oldest House stands as a labyrinthine, brutalist monument to cover-ups and conspiracies. It is as exciting as it is detailed, and there's still plenty we don't know. Above all else, nothing about Control excites me more than that. But there's still a lot more worth getting excited about.

The star of all of the game's trailers has been Control's third-person shooting mechanics, which, while being initially reminiscent of Quantum Break's gunplay, quickly stand apart and above due to their scale and depth. Jesse's telekinetic throws and levitation abilities build one of 2019's best shooters by making every enemy interaction a highlight reel.

The Oldest House is infinitely responsive, so whether you're ripping up the floor beneath you to shield yourself, chucking large desks at Hiss variants, or dashing and floating around every makeshift battlefield, combat has rarely looked this cool. Papers fly around office corridors, railings get flung like limbo bars of death. Every inch of the setting is tactile and customized by your destruction. There are also about a dozen enemy types, so encounters can feel different not just chapter to chapter, but minute to minute.

An expansive skill tree is weighted just right where every upgrade decision is a tough one, but you never feel like you wasted your skill points either. Remedy tends to delve into power fantasy combat, and Jesse's mysterious powers fit right in with Jack Joyce's time stutters and Max Payne's slow-mo bullet time.

Control also looks stunning and serves as one of the foremost poster children for ray tracing (RTX), which looks poised to be the Next Big Thing in video games. Even on consoles where ray tracing isn't available yet, Control is obviously made by developers who know how to show it off. So many areas of the mazelike Oldest House seem designed to highlight the brilliant lighting and exhaustive textures. Remedy's in-house Northlight engine mostly dazzles in its second outing.

Unfortunately, a day-one patch to repair various issues was intended to address frame rate slowdowns, and while this issue has been improved noticeably according to my time before and after the patch, it hasn't fixed it completely. Some of the bigger battles can annoyingly slow down, and the game reliably stutters coming out of every pause menu.

I can't say if this issue will persist on other platforms  I reviewed with an Xbox copy and a colleague said it is persistent on a PS4 Pro, too  but I can say such issues don't tend to bother me as much as they may bother others. While I had issues with frame rate drops, they were overshadowed by so much else that Control gets right.

  • Another weird and wonderful story from a studio famous for them
  • Combat provides for some of the coolest gaming moments you'll see all year
  • Gorgeous set design from top to bottom
  • Side missions give it an X-Files quality, often with Remedy's best boss battles
  • Fleshes out the Grand Remedy Universe
  • Secondary characters feel flat
  • Frame rate issues, especially after pausing or when enemy counts really get high

With X-Files-like side stories and its Metroidvania design, Control is obviously the biggest game yet for a studio that's historically focused on linearity. In a lovely way, it's also their weirdest game, with a plot that introduces more new phrases and big ideas than the rest of Remedy's catalog combined.

When frame rate issues don't spoil the fun, highlight reel combat continues a longstanding tradition of rethinking what makes a shooter, and all this helps serve the bigger picture no fan of the Finnish creatives should miss. 

[Note: A copy of Control was provided by 505 Games for the purpose of this review.]

Witcheye: Redesigning Platforming With Just One Eye Wed, 21 Aug 2019 16:57:15 -0400 Joseph Rowe

Platforms. Gaming has a long history of characters jumping between, off of, and onto them.

In the Super Mario Bros. series, you play as plumbers who jump on platforms and each other and weird little mushrooms.

In Crash Bandicoot, you play as a bandicoot that runs from boulders while jumping across deadly chasms — and, of course, much more.

However, Witcheye adds a little spice to the platformer cauldron by removing the ability to jump altogether! You're not a plumber, a bandicoot, a bobcat, a jazzy jackrabbit, or even a sentient ball of meat. You're a flying eyeball.

"That sounds like a hot mess," you're thinking (maybe). If so, you're wrong.

Witcheye is the latest release for Android and iOS by developer Moon Kid and publisher Devolver Digital. Moon Kid, also known as Peter Malamud Smith, created the mobile puzzle game Satellina. He was also half the team behind the Great Gatsby adaptation for the NES.

His knowledge and skills were put to good work when he created this new kind of adventure platformer. I say a "new kind" because no other game in this genre solely revolves around controlling a floating witch’s eye to fight bad guys and collect gems.

The goal of Witcheye is to control a witch who has turned herself into a floating eye as she tries to reclaim her stolen belongings from a klepto knight. It is also a platformer where you float – you do not jump. There is no jumping here.

Thankfully, the game’s controls are so simple and intuitive that you won’t miss jumping. Swipe to go in a direction, tap to stop. That's essentially it. Easy peasy. 

The game’s challenge comes from avoiding attacks while killing enemies and traveling through levels. Some of the enemies are simple to kill, whereas others require you to perfectly time your swiping and tapping to kill them.

It's natural that enemies will repeat as you go through the game's various levels, which include beaches and an autumn setting for example. But luckily, each new area introduces new enemies with new attacks. 

The game stays fresh by going at a quick pace. Unless you get stuck on a particular foe, you’ll clear each level before you have the chance to get bored of it. For players that might want to take their time, each level also has a subgoal: retrieving four gems by killing enemies (some of which are hidden). This adds a layer of replayability to the game, albeit a small one.

There are also two additional difficulties to unlock after beating the game on normal, so subsequent playthroughs should be more satisfying for players craving something more challenging.

On top of additional difficulties, the game has an unlockable speedrun mode, as well as boss rush and mini-boss rush modes full of tough enemies. In true old-school fashion, beating the game will also unlock a sound test tucked away in the options menu (which is a great bonus since the Witcheye soundtrack is awesome, complete with NES-era charm).

  • Intuitive control scheme makes the game simple and fun
  • Original character designs reminiscent of games from a bygone era
  • Enemies, especially bosses, are fun to fight
  • Great soundtrack
  • Unlockables
  • Amazing price point
  • Short
  • Might be too easy for some players before unlocking harder difficulties
  • Not fun if you don't like the eye gimmick

One of the most appealing aspects of Witcheye is its retro graphics. It's true that many games over the past decade have employed graphical styles from the 8- and 16-bit eras, and while some have succeeded in capturing the ethos of those eras and others have failed, Witcheye is of the former camp.

Witcheye is a good investment considering what you get for the price point. It's obvious a lot of thought went into every detail of the game, whether it’s the character and sound design or the extra features added into a game that only costs a few bucks.

In an era where console games are largely recycled AAA releases and most mobile games try to take every single penny they can, it is refreshing to have a complete, stand-alone retro-inspired “platformer” on mobile. 

[Note: A copy of Witcheye was provided by Moon Kid for the purpose of this review.]

Remnant: From the Ashes Review — Left 4 Souls Tue, 20 Aug 2019 00:00:02 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

If you've ever played Dark Souls or Left 4 Dead, you've had a certain kind of feeling. You know the one. Low on resources, you trudge through an area toward a bonfire or a safe room that's just around the corner, but as you do, you wonder if you should test fate or turn back. Do you face the enemy head on or regroup, saving your resources for another day? 

Remnant: From the Ashes, a co-op third-person shooter from Darksiders developer Gunfire Games, does its best to recapture that heavy, creeping feeling. And, for the most part, it succeeds.

With a few friends firing alongside you, Remnant: From the Ashes is a blast from start to finish, and it offers plenty of replayability along the way. 

Death Takes Root

Remnant: From the Ashes is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster as far as what it actually is.

On the surface, Remnant is a three-player, cooperative third-person shooter. It has randomly generated levels, but they essentially follow the same progression each time you play through. It also features more than a few callbacks to Dark Souls, which we'll get into.

It all sounds a bit like someone said, "What do gamers like? OK, let's just do all of that then. In a single game."

Oftentimes, that can be a recipe for disaster. Somehow, though, Remnant: From the Ashes is anything but that. It's extremely well-made and a joy to play. There's great give-and-take between making you feel powerful and bashing you over the head with harder and harder enemies.

Somewhat cliched, you take control of a character after the world has essentially fallen apart. A race of monsters called the Root has invaded Earth and destroyed much of humankind, leaving crumbling cities and a few desperate survivors clinging to life.

Survival is your goal, but finding the source of the Root and how to save the planet is something that you may be able to achieve along the way.

Soul Remnants

It won't take you long to see the influence of Dark Souls on Remnant: From the Ashes. Your movement is similar, although a bit quicker and less clunky than when trekking around Lordran, and you have a few different dodges and attacks at your disposal, too.

Approach a red, floating crystal and have a seat; it will heal your character, replenish your ammo, and serve as a fast-travel point. It will also bring back every enemy you've killed.

No bonus points for guessing what lies beyond the doorway encased in fog.

If you've played Dark Souls, you'll feel right at home with Remnant: From the Ashes. However, the game itself plays quite differently. It's familiar, but not a copy.

The central difference is that, in Remnant, you're equipped with guns. You have a melee weapon, a pistol, and a "long arm," usually some variation of a hunting rifle or shotgun. Swapping between weapons is immediate, and learning to quickly assess a situation and what weapon you should use is key to surviving.

Deadly Foes

The other area that Remnant: From the Ashes might draw some comparisons to Dark Souls lies in its difficulty. Especially solo, this is a tough nut to crack. Regular enemies are easy enough when isolated or even in small groups. It's just enough to make you overconfident.

Then, a swarm of them will drop from the ceiling, surrounding you. What's that? You're also bleeding now? And an elite foe just entered the fray? You're going to have to restart at your last crystal, I'm afraid.

These types of deaths will happen frequently, but they rarely feel undeserved. Remnant rewards you for playing cautiously and improvising according to your situation.

Early on, you encounter little goblin-type creatures in some of the dungeons you come across. With a sweeping melee weapon, I found myself wading into groups of up to 10 foes at once, swinging a hammer and watching them fly backwards. However, if I caught a glimpse of a disease-causing kamikaze enemy coming around the corner, I would quickly move out of melee range and start blasting from afar.

It's something that represents the perfect level of adjustability at play here; "commit to your strategy but be ready to change on the fly." You learn very early on to use the third-person camera to your advantage, swiveling back and forth as soon as you start the animation for a melee swing.

Locating more dangerous foes is critical, especially when you hear an auditory cue indicating that an elite has appeared. If they aren't tackled properly, you will be trapped and killed almost immediately.

Stay Awhile, and Listen

Even though it looks totally different, another game that Remnant: From the Ashes calls to mind is Diablo. The dungeons you come across, loot you find, and bosses you fight are semi-random, and they are drawn from a pool each time you start a new game.

The first time walking through the first area, you might come across a sewer dungeon with a giant creature wielding a curved blade as the boss. Reroll the world, and you might find the same dungeon (with a slightly different map) guarded by a gigantic sorcerer. Play through a third time, and there might not be a side dungeon in the first area at all, but instead, a very similar sorcerer is guarding a dungeon in the third area.

That idea of familiarity while exploring the unknown can backfire, but it can also lend almost infinite replay value when done well. It is difficult to tell just how much content is locked away in different playthroughs and difficulty settings, but Remnant: From the Ashes seems like a game that will stay fresh even on multiple playthroughs, provided you can eventually skip the boring tutorial.

More importantly, though, it also brings up another wonderful part of the game: cooperative mode.

The Family that Slays Together

You can tackle Remnant: From the Ashes as a solo experience, but it's really made to be played with two friends. You can find a game with a few randoms, or set yours to "Friends Only," letting people on your contact list drop in and out of your game as they see fit.

Friendly fire is on, and strategy becomes even more important when you start slinging multiple shotguns. If one member of your team goes down, the other two need to decide if they want to push forward to reach the next checkpoint or hightail it back and retry.

As you kill more enemies and gather more items, you will incrementally improve your character. Max out your armor and health and wade into the middle of fights with your hammer swinging. Pump all your resources into a shotgun and watch foes fall in a single blast. Build up a healing ability and max out a long rifle.

There are so many different ways you can approach things in Remnant. But again, you have to adapt.

Certain traits only open up for characters after killing a certain boss or clearing a certain area; if a specific boss area or boss isn't in a playthrough, you'll have to reroll the world to try to find it. Before long, you'll have multiple characters rolled. Each of these will have certain specialties and weaknesses, which you'll parse through as you try to figure out who to bring on the next expedition.

The difficulty spikes and the ability to jump in and out of games with different characters lead to far more strategizing than they initially seem. This is the type of game where you could spend hours just thinking about the best ways to approach certain challenges.

Bang Bang

  • Tons of viable strategies and approaches
  • Very difficult, but fair
  • Replayable
  • Simple but intuitive fighting
  • Could grow stale
  • Generally generic enemies, environments, and presentation.

Ignore the fact that Remnant: From the Ashes sounds like an AI did a madlib to come up with the title. Ignore the somewhat odd, generic design choices, too such as when characters randomly quip during combat but never speak to each other.

Overlooking such things, you realize that Remnant: From the Ashes is fantastic. If you've got a couple of friends looking for a strategic shooter challenge, this is a no-brainer. If you want a new Dark Souls-esque game to take on, here's your chance.

Provided the community for this game stays strong, this is one that the developers could keep adding to. Remnant could continue to grow and evolve for years to come  it's that good.

There's really something here for everyone, despite it initially looking a bit uninspired. Look past that, and you'll find a pretty amazing experience here, whether you're playing on your own or with friends.

[Note: A copy of Remnant: From the Ashes was provided by Perfect World Games for the purpose of this review.]

GameSir G6 iPhone Touchroller Review: Give Yourself the Mobile Edge Mon, 19 Aug 2019 12:25:07 -0400 Ty Arthur

While a slew of titles have arrived on mobile phones over the years, there are still plenty of gamers-on-the-go who wish their iPhone was just a bit more like an actual handheld console.

For some, the RotoRiot controller works great. However, it doesn't quite convey that handheld vibe. 

For those who prefer a horizontal joystick and ABXY button setup, GameSir has a line of "touchrollers" like the G6, which are somewhere in-between a one-handed gaming controller and an extension of your phone's standard touch capabilities.

Between the compact, lightweight design and the easy wireless connection, the G6 offers a simple way to get a more full-fledged gaming experience on your phone, although it clearly works better for some games than others.

G6 Design And Handling

The whole point of gaming on a phone is maximum portability, ditching the need to lug around a console carrying case. Obviously, to be worth buying, a touchroller needs to be as light and comfortable as using the phone normally.

That's where the G6 shines, as this sleek little piece of black plastic doesn't add an appreciable amount of weight to your iPhone, but the sliding rack for fitting different sized devices still feels sturdy.

The rack and grips fit snugly, but they don't feel like they are going to break your phone either, and the curved edges are easy to hold in either one hand or two while the phone is horizontal.

Rather than plugging into the phone's power port, the G6 connects via BlueTooth and setup is quick and simple: just hold three buttons while your phone's BlueTooth pairing is turned on. From that point, the controller automatically pairs whenever you turn on the power.

I haven't experienced any lag or dropped BlueTooth connections so far while gaming, although there is one issue with the hardware to keep in mind: make absolutely sure to run the joystick calibration before loading up a game, or you'll end up running in the wrong direction!

That was the only frustrating part of my experience with the G6, as it took me a few minutes to figure out that the "L3 button" used for calibration meant pushing down the joystick since that wasn't listed anywhere in the instructions or marked on the controller.

Since the sliding rack wraps around your phone, it does just slightly muffle the back speaker, but not enough to ruin your enjoyment of any given game.

Of course, that won't be an issue if you use headphones, which are supported.

While it might vary depending on your specific device, with the iPhone 8, I had no problems with port positioning, and there's ample room to connect your headphones (or plug in to charge).

On that note, GameSir claims the G6 lasts 80 hours on a charge, and we all know those estimates tend to be wildly wrong in product spec sheets. However, I can say the controller battery will far, far, far outlast the battery on your actual iPhone.

I've charged my iPhone three times since charging the controller and its not even close to dead yet! 

Do I Need an iPhone Controller?

Now that you know how it works, it's time to answer the most important questions: who actually needs this, and is it worth the money?

The G6 is unquestionably more useful for some types of games than others. To be blunt, a touchroller is pointless for games that don't allow horizontal orientation, like or, and only moderately helpful for titles like Pocket Mortys.

In the latter case, it's the thumbstick that's the draw for its improved movement scheme, as you'll still be tapping the screen to select battle commands or do anything else. 

Where you'll get the most use out of the G6 is playing shooters, MOBAs, or battle royale titles like Fortnite, PUBG, or the slew of mobile knock offs available in the app store.

In those cases, having a joystick and bumpers definitely gives you an edge over the rest of the mobile crowd, as the buttons make it easier to quickly switch weapons, zoom in with a sniper rifle, build structures, jump over obstacles, and so on while also sprinting or aiming.

The Bottom Line

  • Gives you a serious edge in battle royale, MOBA, and FPS apps for iOS
  • Comfortable and huge battery life
  • Cheaper than buying a full-sized controller
  • Slightly muffles the speaker
  • Really only useful if you love Fortnite or PUBG
  • You need to periodically run the joystick calibration

Note that this particular model only supports iOS. If you've got an Android phone, the GameSir T6 is what you want instead, and it does sport a slightly different design with fewer buttons.

For battle royale fanatics who want to play on their phones rather than console or PC, the G6 is a great investment, and its actually a better choice than larger phone controllers.

Devices like the G6 are one tier down from GameSir's gamepad line, which literally connect your phone to a standard sized, two-handed game controller.

Besides a lower price, touchrollers such as the G6 steamroll the controller competition for iPhone users, since games like Fortnite won't detect it as a simulator tool and block you from playing (as has happened with full-sized controller peripherals in the past).

[Note: A G6 review unit was provided by GameSir for the purpose of this review.]

Vermintide 2 Winds Of Magic DLC Review: A Rotten Wind With An Unpleasant Price Fri, 16 Aug 2019 15:41:09 -0400 Ty Arthur

Having been away from Warhammer: Vermintide 2 for a number of months, I was really needing to scratch that Left 4 Warhammer style itch, and the Winds Of Magic DLC seemed like the perfect time to jump back into the fray.

Unfortunately, this wind stinks of something rotten... and its not the hordes of unwashed beastmen.

Following two previous map packs, Winds Of Magic is the first "major" expansion for Vermintide 2, although what constitutes a major DLC versus a minor one will definitely be a point of contention for fans here.

What You Get For Your $19.99

 Look at the little baby! What kind of monster would want to hurt that adorable little guy?

Green flaming meteors from the sky always seem to herald bad things for any given world (just ask the folks in the Darkest Dungeon hamlet or any Lovecraft protagonist ever), and that's no exception with the new Dark Omens level.

If you did a double take reading that sentence, let me reiterate -- yes, there is only a single new level.

Were you expecting a new campaign based around the beastmen and their meteor? That's too bad.

Then again, when you've played the same levels over a couple of hundred times anything new is welcome, but the lack of content is kind of odd considering the other packs at half the price had 2 - 3 levels each.

Dark Omens itself is a pretty standard wilderness and underground mine level that doesn't bring much new to the table. You'll run around out in the woods looking for the meteor crash site, survive waves of enemies, and then destroy some banners at the end before taking the bridge of shadows back to home base. 

The biggest challenge in the DLC? Wood banners.

There's no new boss with the DLC, so if you were expecting to have to figure out tactics for a beastman version of Burblespue Halestorm or Bödvarr Ribspreader, you're out of luck

In fact, there are really only a handful of new enemies, which makes this feel more like the chaos faction got a few extra soldier types rather than the arrival of a whole new faction.

The obnoxious bannerman are the real threat in that roster of enemies, setting down a banner that must be destroyed in melee and significantly buffs the horde in the nearby area.

Besides serving as the focal point in Dark Omens, with the DLC installed the beastman randomly appear with hordes in other levels for a little extra variety while mowing down ratmen and chaos warriors.

 Nope, I see it now. Exterminate them!

If Winds Of Magic just consisted of the Dark Omens level the fanbase would riot, so now we also get short, randomized levels called weaves, where you upgrade weave-specific weapons.

With the weaves come the addition of "seasons" so you have to start over with weave progress again periodically. Since the progression in the weaves doesn't affect your main game characters, this sort of feels like spinning your wheels. 

The point here is to reach the top of the newly added leaderboards, but there's not much incentive to do so at the moment, although its nice to have something different to do if you've already mastered all the other levels.

Next up we get the return of an even harder Cataclysm mode, although bizarrely this top tier difficulty level doesn't include correspondingly better loot or a new tier of chests -- its just harder for the sake of being harder.

So what's the absolute best addition with Winds Of Magic? Probably the new weapon for each class (Sienna's flaming flail is pretty rad) but I mean, does that feel like it would be worth $20 to you?

The Winds Need To Change

A slew of patches arrived for Winds Of Magic during the pre-release period for advance review copies, and they are still coming hot and heavy now in the days after official release.

Sadly they are all needed, and there better be more in the works.

Wednesday's patch for instance wildly nerfed Sienna's fire damage, which was thankfully fixed with a patch that just hit this morning. That patch also changed the weave system so you now get partial experience if you fail a weave, just like with a normal level

Other issues remain, however, like hit detection on the new beastmen enemies in the Dark Omens level needing some polish, as it feels off compared to the rest of the game.

There's also a really odd issue where the sound of the bannerman isn't originating from the correct position, so it will sound like they are ahead of you when they are actually behind you, or vice versa. 

The one issue that desperately needs to be fixed is an option to add in bots while playing weaves, because matchmaking with random players is a nightmare right now.

In a normal level you can set a game to private and get three bot allies who aren't great at anything, but will at least revive you when get grabbed by a packmaster or sliced up by an assassin. That's not an option with weave matches. 

If you have three friends who regularly play Vermintide 2 and can commit to specific times then you're golden, but if you are just jumping into the pool of other players, get ready for some major wait times on non-peak times.

The Bottom Line

  • You get a new level to play with
  • Extra enemies
  • If you have a reliable group of friends, the weaves are fun
  • For the price, this should include a full new campaign
  • No new boss?!?
  • Every patch seems to break something else from the previous patch

Obviously, its not great when the biggest addition to your game and the place where players were supposed to get the most hours from the expansion is a deserted wasteland.

If you're a Vermintide 2 fanatic and have played every other level into the ground, it might be worth picking up Winds of Magic for Dark Omens and the weaves... but frankly this DLC is priced too high for the content.

Long story short? Wait until it's half off and the bugs have been ironed out.

Corsair Nightsword RGB Review: Top Notch Comfort and Customization For Wired Mouse Fans Thu, 15 Aug 2019 19:14:54 -0400 Ty Arthur

A whole new crop of high performance gaming mice hit shelves this summer, including Corsair's re-designed Nightsword RGB wired model.

As would be expected by the $79.99 price tag, there's a whole lot of mouse to play with here, from a wide range of programmable buttons to extensive lighting options and a customization-focused weight system.

I switched over to the Nightsword RGB after exclusively using the Logitech G305 wireless mouse for the last six months, so I'm approaching this as someone used to snipping that pesky cord and having true free-range mobility.

Even with the cable, I can easily say the Nightsword is an incredibly strong offering from Corsair that's well worth the asking price, with just a few minor design issues present that might not be perfect for all users.

Corsair Nightsword RGB Button Layout

I'm in love with the positioning of #10

To be clear from the get go, this is a righties-only mouse (sorry left handers!), considering the positioning of the thumb rest and sniper button.

You get a total of 10 buttons plus the scroll wheel so this is a mouse that works well for the macro-obssessed MMO crowd as well as the twitchy first-person shooter fans.

It's the positioning of those buttons that's impressive, though, as everything is on the center and left side within easy reach of the thumb or pointer finger.

In particular, I have to mention that the sniper button positioning is spot-on perfect and almost feels a bit like cheating in an online match. Just slightly depress your thumb at its normal resting position, and you quickly drop down to 400 DPI for perfect sniper aiming, then let go to immediately return to your previous DPI setting.

In addition to the sniper button, there are two separate buttons for changing the DPI settings: one for going up and one for going down. This configuration is opposed to the single-button cyclers found in other models. This config is much more useful than the other design style if you need to regularly change settings during a game. 

Moving over from a Logitech mouse with a single DPI button, I found I never accidentally hit the DPI switches while moving my finger, which has happened a few times in the past with the G305 because of its centrally placed single button.

For extra comfort, the Nightsword utilizes the tried and true side thumb rest, and I have to say I wish my wireless gaming mouse had this nifty rubber bit on the side. It makes a big difference during extended gaming sessions, especially for major click fests like action RPGs.

As for the (single) downside regarding the button and grip design: the Nightsword is fairly fat, making it potentially difficult for those with small hands. However, that also means it works well with bigger hands and is aimed more at the palm grip style.

If you don't like the meaty design or prefer using a claw grip, then the Logitech G502 has a similar style with the same sniper button position and side thumb rest, but in an overall sleeker format. Or, you might want to try out the slimmer, and abidextrous, Corsair M55 RGB Pro

Fine Tuning With The iCUE Software 

 Changing RGB lighting and DPI settings is simple with iCUE

When you get into this price range, of course, your mouse is going to come with multi-zone back lighting. Here, the zones are found on the front, sides, and top via the logo.

While they undeniably look cool, those are really just bells and whistles that aren't as important as performance or grip. Your palm will always cover the logo while you play games, so having lighting there is just kinda pointless.

What's more useful are the three light indicators on the left side of the mouse that let you know which DPI setting you currently have active. Of course, those three settings can be customized however you want through Corsair's iCUE software.

The highest DPI option available through the software on this mouse is a whopping 18,000 DPI, which is sort of absurd; you'd never need movement that fast during normal desktop operations, although there are some strategy games and shooter games where you want to go from one extreme periphery to the other with a tiny flick of the wrist.

 I'm not entirely sure Roadrunner can even hit 18,000 DPI!

Besides color and DPI customization, Corsair's software has a surface calibration option that is simply phenomenal.

It automatically adjusts settings after you rotate the mouse in a spiral on your current surface, whether that's a mouse pad, kitchen table, glass desk, or whatever. Movement gets noticeably smoother and more responsive after running the test.

I was playing a lot of the same games with the Nightsword while testing out the Audio-Technica ATH-G1WL wireless headset, and found great performance for FPS games like Black Ops 4, RPGs like Pillars Of Eternity 2, and strategy games like Age Of Wonders: Planetfall.

However, I do have one other complaint regarding the mouse's design, and this one's a bit subjective.

I've gotten used to a certain standard of living by using a wireless mouse with total freedom of movement, and that's tough to compete with when a wired mouse shows up. No matter how I position the cable on the Nightsword RGB, there's still a slight sensation, almost like its pulling to the left a hair more than I want.

That issue is particularly noticeable when I pull my hand off the mouse entirely while playing a game with scrolling map corners. Although, to be fair, if you generally use wired mice, you might not even be able to tell the difference.

On the other side, it is kind of nice to not have yet another device that needs to charge or have batteries changed out regularly, and the heavy duty braided cord will stand up to regular usage and transportation.

Extreme Weight Customization

Lots of mice have back lighting customization and a ton of buttons, so what sets this one apart and really justifies the price?

That's the tunable performance system, offering the maximum amount of comfort by completely customizing not just the overall heaviness of the mouse, but also the positioning of that heaviness by using six different weights.

No matter your hand size or mouse weight preference, you can get the perfect fit here by swapping and re-positioning the internal mass.

That process is super easy, with no screwdriver or parts retriever tool necessary. The bottom pops off, weights snap into place with a little push, bottom snaps back on, and iCUE automatically detects where you put the weight and which kind you used.

After a little trial and error, I found that adding the three hollow 2.8g weights on opposite sides in a triangle pattern got me closest to the weight and glide of my G305, so I feel more at home with my usual mouse style.

The Bottom Line

 The software automatically detects weight placement

  • Customizable weight system
  • Excellent surface calibration software
  • 10 buttons that can all be programmed
  • Slightly bulkier model than the typical sleek high end gaming mice
  • Wish it was wireless!

For wired mice fans, this model is a serious winner, especially if you typically use the palm grip and like to play shooters or MOBAs on a regular basis.

With the excellent sniper button position, dual DPI switches, and comfortable weight tuning system, Corsair's Nightsword RGB should be at the top of your list if you're planning on buying a new gaming mouse soon.

Prefer a different mouse style or wondering what other high end offerings to look out for? Check out our roundup of the best wired and wireless gaming mice in 2019 at every price point.

Here are the full Corsair Nightsword RGB specs:

Program Buttons  10
DPI 18,000
Sensor PMW3391
Sensor Type Optical
Backlighting 4 Zone RGB
On Board Memory Yes, 3 Profiles
Button Type Omron
Connectivity Wired
Durability Rating 50 million L/R Click
Grip Type Palm
Weight Tuning Yes, 6 Included Weights
Cable Type 1.8m Braided Fiber


[Note: A Nightsword RGB review unit was provided by Corsair for the purpose of this review.]

Ewin Knight Series Gaming Chair Review: Not a Valiant Steed Thu, 15 Aug 2019 14:34:24 -0400 Jonathan Moore

A good gaming chair is worth its weight in gold. Whether sitting for a few minutes or for a few hours, comfort is the name of the game. For many, a good gaming chair moonlights as an office chair. It pulls double duty and bears double the burden. 

EwinRacing's Knight series gaming chair seeks to provide a solution for both situations. Built for long gaming sessions and long workdays alike, it's meant to be an elegant, ergonomic solution.

Despite the grandeur and allure it carries with its name, the Knight doesn't shine and it doesn't sweep you off your feet. It isn't completely uncomfortable as there are a few configurations that keep it from inducing early-onset arthritis. However, it's a chair that ultimately fails to deliver on its promises. 

Unboxing and Assembly

Unlike some other chairs, assembling the Knight is easy and straightforward. Using the tools provided in the box, I assembled the chair in about 20 minutes entirely by myself.

The included instructions are mostly easy to follow, and they do a great job of leading you from one step to the next. The only hiccup I ran into was when the instructions called for attaching the chair's lumbar cushion to the main body of the chair via a strap — which isn't included in this specific model. 

However, I do appreciate the lengths to which Ewin goes in labeling and segregating each piece of the chair, along with separating the nuts and bolts for each piece into tidy little bags. It's a huge help in the assembly process, drastically reducing the time it takes to put everything together.

Moreover, Ewin provides additional nuts and bolts in case something is missing out of the box, which is a nice touch considering that's not always the case with other brands and pieces of furniture. 


The Knight gaming chair is undeniably sleek. Its overall design mimics that of other professional gaming chairs, such as those from DXRacer and Secretlab. In many ways, it's similar in style to the Ewin Champion series gaming chair we reviewed two years ago, although it does eschew some of that chair's more luxurious trappings to reach a lower price point.

Both the backrest and the seat feature black faux leather. Smooth to the touch, the non-stick material is perfect for staying cool during marathon gaming sessions. 

The Ewin logo is emblazoned at the top of the backrest and nicely stitched colored highlights climb up the sides and across the top. The chair I reviewed has red stitching and highlights, but white and blue variants are also available. 

The chair's armrests utilize what Ewin calls "2D technology," although all that means is that they're adjustable up and down; the "4D technology" used in the Champion edition chair allows for lateral adjustments and rotation. 

Overall, the armrests are adequate and what one would expect from an office or gaming chair. Instead of buttons, though, the outside of each armrest features a plastic trigger which is used to raise and lower it. 

Finally, the bottom of the chair is the tried and true 5-star base design featured in almost every chair on the planet. The wheels bear the chair's chosen highlight color. In my case, red. 


However, there's a chance you might see red no matter what color you choose. That's because the Knight feels like sitting on plate armor. 

Comparing the Champion to the Knight, it's clear to see that the Knight is much scrawnier than its compatriot in both the seat and the backrest.

Ewin says it uses cold-molded memory foam as support in the Knight. From what I can tell that's mostly accurate: it's cold, harsh, and heartless. It provides very little actual cushion to your aching muscles. Outside of the cushy and comfortable armrests, there's zero give to the rest of the chair. 

The one positive I can muster is that the lumbar support is pretty damn good. The pillow is comfortable and although it moves around and falls over every time I get out of the chair, it fits snugly and alleviates a good amount of discomfort.

The chair can be somewhat comfortable with your feet propped up in front of you, and after pulling the head cushion down underneath your neck.

It can also be somewhat comfortable in a reclined position, which is easy to achieve with the chair's lever-operated reclining mechanism that can produce various reclining angles from 85 degrees to 155 degrees. Unfortunately, my lower back began to ache after only about five minutes in a fully reclined position. 

Finally, sitting straight up, with your butt all the way to the back of the seat, without the lumbar support appears to be how the chair was meant to be used. It's the best position for long-lasting back comfort.

Unfortunately, this too isn't ideal. Since the armrests don't move forward or back, sitting straight up means you elbows often sit at the posterior of the rests. It's not an ideal position for your arms, and one that can slowly send nagging pain up into your shoulders and down into your forearms. 

  • Easy to assemble
  • Sleek, professional look
  • Comfortable armrests if you sit forward
  • Quality base
  • Nice lumbar cushion
  • Uncomfortably thin foam padding
  • Hard, unforgiving backrest
  • Hard to roll on the carpet
  • No strap for lumbar cushion

It's difficult to recommend the Knight series gaming chair, especially at its $289 asking price. No matter what I tried, I couldn't find a consistently comfortable configuration while using the chair for more than a week. 

In almost every situation, whether it was at work or play, the Knight was more uncomfortable than not. Ultimately, that's what matters in any chair, no matter what bells or whistles it might or might not have.

One positive I can offer is that the chair does make me sit up a bit straighter. In doing so, creates a somewhat better angle for typing. Marketed as an ergonomic choice, that gives it a few small points in my book. 

It pains me to give something such a low score, but if my back and forearms ache after sitting in this chair for more than 30 minutes, I simply can't recommend it. 

[Note: An Ewin Knight series review unit was provided by Ewin for the purpose of this review.]

RAD Review: A Shining Light in the Post Apocalypse Thu, 15 Aug 2019 13:40:52 -0400 diegoarguello

Double Fine, the studio behind the infamous Psychonauts and many other charming, beloved titles, revealed an all new IP last year that looked, well, RAD.

As short and funny as it sounds, RAD introduced itself as a roguelike starring a group of kids tasked with bringing hope to a decaying world.

Using a top-down perspective and boasting a cartoonish art style, it is exactly as what you would expect from many of the recent entries in the subgenre. But there's a distinct personality to it, something that sets it apart.

As the chosen savior, you're granted with the ability to absorb rads from the world, thus allowing your body to mutate in hilarious and terrifying ways.

See, the world has went through not one, but two apocalypses, and a the machines in charge of survival are beginning to fail.

The Menders, a group of people that attempted to put the irradiated and broken pieces back together, naturally failed in their task. And now, someone needs to get out to the wasteland (called Fallow) in search of a new power source.

After choosing between a group of brave characters — something that does not affect gameplay but merely aesthetics — you jump into a procedurally generated world, wielding nothing but a baseball bat, a simple set of controls, and your guts.

Here we go. 

Is There a Doctor in the House?

Familiarity strikes at first.

As expected, your character can do basic attacks, jump, and combine the two for either an aerial kick or a mid-air stomp. Hold the attack button, and they will charge a special ability that spins around, hitting everything that gets close. Dodge is also an option. And that's pretty much it.

You begin fighting against a couple of small enemies — horrifying, yet cute creatures, each with a unique attack pattern. There's a fungus-like monster that releases a deadly gas when you get close, while others fly around and attack at a distance. Variety is short in scope during these first few moments, and so are your attacks, which makes the initial experience a bit shallow.

But as soon as you gain a level in RAD, everything changes.

As you progress, a random mutation attach itself to your poor youngling, adding either a passive skill (such as immunity to acid pools or fire) or a completely new ability. Wings! A massive arm that can be used as a boomerang! Crab legs! A small creature that clings to you back and shoots at enemies! Spiders — with your head on them!

The array of possibilities is ridiculous, and I haven't seen all of them yet. Only two abilities can be equipped at once, however, so you won't become an unstoppable force like in something such as The Binding of Isaac. There's a small sense of experimentation and building the best combo, but it's not the focus here. Abilities are supposed to help you survive in the wasteland, either with a combat advantage or by allowing you to explore an otherwise inaccessible area.

Once I got the wings, clearly displayed on my character after an intense close-up animation, I had two ways of putting them to use. On on hand, they are perfect escape tool, helping me take the high ground and glide to someplace safe in a short, but acceptable distance. On the other, they are the perfect traversal tool, helping me fly across a massive gap where once lied a bridge, exploring a different part of the map altogether.

A Green Sea of Nostalgia

It's clear that RAD's mutations and environmental design get along, but the game's procedural generation tends to get in between.

Of course, we aren't talking about a metroidvania, where wings would probably be used to unlock entire new areas, for example. It's just that most of the time, the random mutations can keep you from breaking through a crack in the floor or exploring a corner of the map.

Despite  that, everything else comes down to skill. I might feel betrayed for a brief moment, but a miscalculation in the next area might throw me back to the hub with a different run waiting for me. It's a fairly small one, but it has everything you need. A local vendor, NPCs that give you useless chatter, and others that ask for an specific item. There's also a Pac-Man arcade machine since, well, RAD is being published by Bandai Namco.

In terms of on-going progress, there are unlockables that can you obtain after each run depending on your score, from new abilities to pick-up items and potions.

You can also store money (represented as cassettes) in a local ATM found in the small world hub, which has a vendor, NPCs that provide useless chatter, and a Pac-Man arcade machine since, well, RAD is published by Bandai Namco. Your savings can either be withdrawn on your next run or during your ventures in the wasteland if you find a machine out there.

Humor is also a big part of the game's charm, but RAD also leans on nostalgia to tell its story, and does so in a fantastic way. Jean vests with spikes over the shoulders, CRT TVs used as decorations, keys disguised as floppy disks. There's a lot to love in RAD aside from the mutations and gameplay, and I felt compelled to keep helping this group of rascals again and again.

  • All sorts of mutations to have a laugh with
  • A compelling world that feels worth fighting for
  • Sense of nostalgia all around
  • Humor is subtle enough to be a pleasant companion
  • The procedural aspect gets in the way of environmental design
  • Barebones feeling during the first few moments

I've played more roguelikes than I can count, but I've only seen the end of a mere few of them. According to RAD's handy and stylish notebook — which displays everything from unlockables to brief backstories for each enemy and each character — there are six different endings waiting for me.

I hope that none of them are bad, since the group of kids have started to grow on me; I could trust them with whichever post-apocalypse mission we'll find ourselves into in the foreseeable future.

It's not the first time that we see this scenario displayed in a game, it's just that RAD actually took the time to present me with a world that I want to save.

Leaving a green path behind me, I watch the flowers grow as I wait for my arm to come back to me, boomerang style.

[Note: A copy of RAD was provided by Bandai Namco for the purpose of this review.]

Ion Fury Review: Hail to the Queen, Baby Wed, 14 Aug 2019 10:36:27 -0400 diegoarguello

Do you remember CRT monitors? Clunky, white keyboards that could last for decades? The scream of your parents whenever you spent way too long locked in your room playing games?

Well, welcome (back) to the 90s. Ion Fury, published by genre standard-bearers 3D Realms, evokes all of that nostalgia at once.

If you grew up with playing classics like Wolfenstein 3D, Duke Nukem, or even DOOM, you'll feel right at home with Ion Fury

However, if this is your first time playing a game made on the Build Engine, there's enough to keep you hooked, so don't worry. The engine still excels 23 years later, rendering gorgeous animations and small details in every nook and cranny. With this latest release, there's even revamped controls, ushering the engine into the modern landscape. 

Ion Fury arrives during a resurgence in throwback FPS titles, all of which are bringing new life to these classic experiences. Thankfully, this entry continues to push that trend forward. There's enough in its DNA to appease both past audiences and modern ones, introducing itself as an inheritor of sorts for Duke Nukem 3D, but ditching the macho protagonist altogether.

Instead, 3D Realms has passed the torch to a badass woman by the name of Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison, who also has a penchant for shouting quippy one-liners. 


As can be the case with shooters of any era, the story here is a mere excuse to justify the shooting that comes afterward.

An evil transhumanist doctor creates a cult of tech baddies that are storming the city, and, of course, you're the tool by which those numbers will be drastically lowered.

You'll do so through hand-crafted levels filled with secrets, stuff to shoot at, and weapons to experiment with.

Weapons and shooting fall in perfect balance between old and new. The revolver you start with is fast and powerful, landing headshots with ease if your aim is true. Interestingly, it also includes an alternative fire mode that lets you target multiple enemies at once, only to unleash a rain of bullets a la McCree's Overwatch ultimate when you release the button.

On top of a shotgun that can be turned into a devastating grenade launcher, there are also munitions called bowling bombs, by far one of the weapons I had the most fun with. They feel new and interesting, even if I have been throwing grenades in video games for years.

Physics, and the careful craft behind each impact and each projectile that leaves your hands, meld perfectly to make every weapon feel meaningful and different.

Luckily, movement ties everything together.

Ion Fury ditches the limited possibilities found in some of its forebears and offers agile inputs that easily feel like most modern shooters. This is not only for fashion, but it's also as a way to get you comfortably pushing through the levels and keep you alive

That's good, too, because there's no health regeneration here, and pick up items are either found or earned by killing enemies. Movement is key to survival, and strafing is, of course, as important as ever.

Hail to the Queen

As is often the case with games of its ilk, Ion Fury's campaign takes you through different suburban landscapes, from the usual decaying cities to train stations and beyond.

Far from the bold and intricate level design from other throwback FPS such as Amid Evil, here, the game takes us places we've been before, but ones we know and love. A bar with almost endless shot glasses to use as dummy targets, flashing lights in a disco tech, an arcade full of beeping, ping-ponging machines. 

All of the game's levels are hand-crafted, so don't expect any procedurally generated bonanza in Ion Fury. This is both a blessing and a curse for the game. While I appreciate sticking to its classic roots, especially when so many games now take the procedural approach, the campaign can get tiring during long sessions.

Don't get me wrong, I can't stop thinking about going back to the game after I'm done with it. But I think it plays best in short sessions, exploring each scenario (which always grants you a reward) and enjoying it without overstaying your welcome. Perhaps it's the enemies who, even though they bring up a good fight, don't feel as groundbreaking as I had hoped they'd be.

That being said, I was hooked by Ion Fury from beginning to end. There's something about the way each weapon feels, how animations shine within the walls of an engine that might as well be considered ancient.

In no short order is it something to behold. 

  • A reinvention of the Build Engine I didn't know I needed
  • Thoughtful and interesting shooting all around
  • A completely new experience to dive into, even when everything seems familiar
  • Enemy design could be bolder
  • It's best enjoyed during up and coming sessions

There's clear harmony between everything I loved from my first FPS experiences and the quality of life updates that the genre has grown accustomed to throughout the years.

For me, the major achievement of Ion Fury is making you feel like you're entering a new world altogether, despite recognizing the polygons and sprites that pay tribute to its past influences.

It's only the beginning for this these throwback shooters, and this particular entry has the potential to be remembered as one the pioneers of its resurgence.

[Note: A copy of Ion Fury was provided by 3D Realms for the purpose of this review.]

Audio-Technica ATH-G1WL Wireless Review: Meh For Music, Absolutely Epic For Gaming Tue, 13 Aug 2019 15:38:43 -0400 Ty Arthur

Audio is a critical component in any gaming experience, and I don't just mean for games like Beat Saber or Dance Dance Revolution.

From hearing where gunfire is coming from in Fortnite to accurately getting classic lines like, "You must gather your party before venturing forth," dunked into your eardrums, sound effects and music can be just as important as graphical quality.

The fact that we now have lag-free wireless headsets for phones and laptops still kind of blows my mind, especially having grown up with felt-covered Discman headphones that could charitably be called "absolutely awful."

Audio-Technica's 2019 product lineup now includes a wireless model specifically aimed at gamers, and if you play games more than you listen to Spotify or Apple Music, then they should definitely be on your wishlist.

Bells and whistles aside, of which the ATH-G1WL has plenty, there's really only one thing that matters with a pricey headset like this: how does it sound?

While I'm not the guy who insists on downloading the FLAC lossless audio files from Bandcamp or the one who will argue about why vinyl sounds better, I can say one thing for certain: after reviewing music for a decade and getting to interview musicians and audio engineers regularly, I do put a premium on sound quality. So, hopefully, the analysis below should be helpful to audio junkies and the average gamer alike.

Alright, ready? Let's dive in and take a look at how the ATH-G1WL compares to other headphones in terms of sound quality, comfort, and overall features.

How the Sound Stacks Up

To get a proper baseline and explore the differences between headphones with varying designs, I tried out three different models to compare and contrast the ATH-G1WL's sound:

  • Crappy $10 earbuds from Big Lots
  • Denon DJ HP1100 wired headphones
  • Audio-Technica ATH-G1WL wireless Bluetooth earphones

Since headphones aren't just for gaming or even a single type of gaming, I compared the three across three different test beds: music reproduction, single-player gaming with lots of music, and multiplayer gaming with lots of chaotic sound effects like bullets, explosions, and sword-clanking.

For the music test, I went with Ihsahn's "Mass Darkness" off the Arktis album. It's something heavy with catchy elements, a bit of a progressive twist, and a combo of harsh and clean vocals that hit all the various sound types in one song.

The track has a clean enough production that you'd notice if the sound quality is off, but it is still heavy enough that it's something I'd listen to regularly for a pulse-pounding backing soundtrack to a gaming session.

So how did the three models stack up?

To be blunt, the Big Lots earbuds were garbage. Just straight up, unmitigated garbage. Somehow they take this epic track and make it sound like '90s era Mayhem, all with an extremely fuzzy tone muddling the low notes.

Moving onto the wireless Audio-Technica ATH-G1WL wireless headset, the quality is leagues ahead of the earbuds (of course), although it is still not pitch-perfect. Unfortunately, the headset still has a slightly fuzzy tone to some of the backing notes, which becomes much more noticeable at higher volumes.

Strictly for listening to music, (especially with heavy guitar notes and booming drums), there's no question the Denon DJ wired headset came out on top for sound quality. 

For gaming, it's an altogether different story. 

Where Audio-Technica's wireless offering really shines is with PC game audio. When tested by that metric, the ATH-G1WL easily lived up to its pedigree. 

Echo effects and deep-bass strings found in Pillars Of Eternity 2 come through crystal clear and provide a killer surround sound atmosphere. There's also no appreciable lag in sound despite the lack of a wired connection.

Clicking Tekehu's icon at the bottom of the screen, resulting in, "Yours to command, captain," immediately filtered into my ears in full 7.1 surround. Ditto when launching a lightning attack with my scepter in the ultra fast-paced Ziggurat.

Fortnite, Call Of Duty: Black Ops, and Homefront: The Revolution all had the same high-quality sound when played online.

How the Design Compares 

Now that we know the game audio is top-notch, what about all the other features like button placement and comfort?

First up, I love being able to change the volume directly on the headphones. While a lot of models have on-ear volume wheels, the positioning here is easy to reach while gaming, and the wheel is easily discernable from the other buttons and switches.

Rather than just swiveling up out of the way, you can fully remove the mic for when you aren't gaming online and don't need it in your face. The mic also has a bendy attachment string so you can put it into any position you want, an added bonus for any use.

The mic easily picks up sounds, it's clear, and I never had any issues with teammates not being able to hear me. On top of that, the volume on/off switch for the mic is on the far side, which is a nice touch. it makes it easy to remember which button is for the audio output and which is for the mic input.

Where the ATH-G1WL absolutely annihilates the competition is in overall comfort level. This model fits perfectly over my ears, and it is significantly lighter than I expected. While something like the Audeze Mobius weighs around 350g, this Audio-Technica model weighs 290g without the detachable mic. 

The level of "barely there" comfort makes multi-hour usage much preferable to other large over-ear headphones. The difference is so noticeable that I now get ticked off when I plop my Denon DJ headset back on. That's because I know how much more comfortable high-end headphones could be if they went with the current Audio-Technica design.

However, the ATH-G1WLs don't fold up for storing like other Audio-Technica models, or those from Logitech or Audeze. 

Since this pair doesn't come with a storage bag, either, it's worth investing in a charging stand for aesthetically-pleasing storage — and so they don't get banged up while on the coffee table or thrown into that pile of cords by the door.

The Bottom Line



  • Crystal clear audio for PC gaming
  • Ludicrously light and comfortable
  • Easy button access for volume and muting
  • Sound quality is tailored toward gaming and isn't great for music
  • No Bluetooth for phone pairing
  • Wireless means charging — and remembering to charge

When it comes to video game audio, the ATH-G1WL is easily the best headset I've ever used. The fact that it's wireless puts this model in the upper echelon of headphone contenders.

After charging all night long, I got a solid and respectable 14 hours of listening time, although other wireless gaming headsets, such as some from HyperX and Logitech, provide upwards of 30 hours of battery life. 

There's one final design issue worth noting: this model is tailored exclusively towards gaming, and that shows in more than just sound quality. Despite being wireless, these headphones don't provide a phone- or tablet-pairing option via Bluetooth. For some, it's a small issue that easily disregarded. For others, it might be harder to overlook. 

That issue aside, if you want a wireless option and play games more than listen to music, you can't go wrong with the Audio-Technica ATH-G1WL.

You can pick them up on the Audio-Technica website for $249.99. 

The full specs can be found here: 

Driver Diameter  45mm
Frequency Response 5-40,000Hz
Sensitivity 101 dB/mW
Impedance  45 ohms
Battery Internal, 3.8V rechargeable
Battery Life 15 hours
Charging Time 7 hours
Weight w/Mic 297g
Weight w/o Mic 290g
Mic Type Condenser
Mic Sensitivity -43 dB (1V/Pa, at 1kHz)
Mic Frequency Response 30-20,000Hz
Mic Polar Pattern Hypercardioid
Included Accessories 6.6ft charging cable; USB transceiver;
spare earpads, windscreen

[Note: An Audio Technica ATH-G1WL review unit was provided by Audio Technica for the purpose of this review.]

Rebel Galaxy Outlaw Review: Fight On, Space Cowboy Mon, 12 Aug 2019 14:55:27 -0400 John Schutt

As Rebel Galaxy Outlaw opens, the screen fades up from black, and protagonist Juno Markev walks into a bar and puts a gun to someone's head. That person then gets up more angry than hurt and chases her across space, eventually shooting her down onto a lonely desert planet, leaving her with nothing but her wits and a long list of old connections.

She'll need all of them.

At its core, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is a character piece set in a Western-inspired sci-fi future. The game is at its best when you're making money any way you can. Whether it's through trade, mercenary work, convoy protection, piracy, or many other uses for your space ship, there's real magic in flying about trying to make your fortune.

That said, the story and characters of Rebel Galaxy Outlaw are up there as some of the better ones we've seen this year. I don't think they'll win any awards, but they're straightforward and well-conceived. Even the villains — when they get more than a few moments of screentime — are compelling enough for me to want them dead or otherwise out of the way.

Revenge Benefits No One

At its core, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is a story about one woman seeking revenge and the long road she has to take to find it.

Juno Markev is a forty-something ex-pirate and she's lost something dear to her. After failing to find vengeance, you'll guide her out of obscurity and back onto the world stage, help her reconnect with old friends, take down rivals new and all but forgotten, and discover what matters to her is not what she expected. 

There are some twists and turns on her journey and plenty of colorful characters, some she's known for years and others she'll meet only once. Thankfully, all of them are interesting and well-developed, and some are even a little bonkers.

The occasional humor is a welcome reprieve from the darker side of roughing it in space. You don't have to look far for the seedier types who want to make a profit at any cost, and even someone with Juno's reputation is bound to run afoul of at least one power-broker with something to gain.

For her part, Juno knows all about that part of the system. Though she doesn't seek it out purposely, she understands there isn't always a way around it. Fortunately, she keeps a perpetual chip on her shoulder and a sardonic wit ready, because without both she's liable to end up on the wrong end of a missile lock or a gun to her head.

Her only real problem is in her willingness to help others whenever they might need it. More often than not, Juno will all but jump at the chance to help someone she cares about, even if it isn't directly to her benefit.

This tendency, unfortunately, extends into gameplay occasionally as well. Out of the dozens of story decisions Juno makes throughout the game, only a few demand player input. That isn't to say moment to moment choices in space aren't her own. The player usually decides whether Juno is on a constant rampage or trying to make the best of her bad situation. When it comes to her story, though, Juno's very much her own woman with, as she is fond of saying, "[her] own problems."

If Ships Made Sound in Space 

While the heart of Rebel Galaxy Outlaw lives in its story, everything else exists in space. Just about every one of the game's strengths exists here too, relatively unfettered by a heavy need for narrative or designer control. The ship controls are tight, combat satisfying, the reward systems are well-tuned, and you can take on the galaxy alongside some fantastic music.

It's a double-edged sword, however, because many of the glaring issues with the game live in space, too. From inconsistent mission difficulty to questionable design choices and sometimes genuine tedium, the life of a spacer in the Dodge Sector can grate on the nerves and your sense of patience.

Taking to the Stars

The first time you embark into space in Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, it's clear this is a different kind of space simulation. Where games like Elite Dangerous and EVE Online overwhelm with their sheer scope and depth of play, Outlaw chooses instead to be approachable. 

There are only about 30 or so star systems in the game's world, and each system only has a few stationary locations to visit. You'll spend the majority of your time either moving from station to station or asteroid belt to asteroid belt.

Some stations you come across are faction-oriented, but you'll only really be dealing with two: the Red Devil pirate group and the Commonwealth consortium, the non-pirate faction. Earning enough reputation for one alienates the other, but offers bonus perks like increased station access and lower encounter rates for your favored group.

Traveling is easy as well. Because Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is a purely single-player experience, you can skip many of the animations and interactions at your leisure. There's no "fast travel" per se, nor is there true autopilot. You won't be able to hit a button and be where you want to be in ten minutes, for instance. Thankfully load times are quick enough that it hardly matters.

When it comes to combat, the game is just as easy to pick up. There's one button to lock on, one to fire your main guns, a third to fire missiles, and a fourth to manage your speed. 

The combat takes the "easy to learn, tough to master" mantra to heart as well. You could rely on your ship's auto-lock and missile damage, but if you want to make life easier for yourself you should learn to lead your shots, manually track a target, optimize your ship's power output, prioritize targets, and a lot more. 

Ensuring you have the best loadout is vital, too. That means different things to different people, but thick armor and durable shields are a must.

You also have to consider whether you want range, chunky weapons or if you prefer close-range, fast-firing options. Both will cost you something, but there are no wrong choices, only different choices. The ship you fly is primarily up to personal preference as well, until you get to the endgame.  

What you do with that ship is also up to you; whether you spend time bounty-hunting, playing the pirate, or doing the various missions offered at each station. Add on a pair of guilds with curated missions, and you'll never be at a want for something to do.

Probably the best part about all this is the fantastic soundtrack. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw boasts over 24 hours of licensed music and a soundtrack that could carry the game on its own. That your radio has annoying space-commercials is a nice touch, and the fact Juno reacts to them with the same disdain you'll have is much appreciated. I really can't praise the soundtrack enough in both quality and attention to detail.

Distress Signal Received

As much as I enjoyed everything else about the game, there are some glaring issues I can't overlook that risked ruining the experience. 

First, there are the constant distress signals that stop your automatic movement between waypoints. I had a high Lawfulness rating near the end of my playthrough, so every time I wanted to move between stargates or stations, I'd be stopped by a distress beacon. 

On their own, this isn't the biggest annoyance in the game. However, if answering a distress call ends in a high-risk ambush, I'm not keen on answering them at all. Doubly so when the rewards are rarely worth the effort or time.

I often felt that way about story missions, too, especially in the early game. Until you've upgraded your ship and improved its overall loadout, almost everything in Rebel Galaxy Outlaw will be an "extreme" threat.

If you want to avoid such a frustrating fate, grinding missions, mining, and pirating in the low-danger zones is the only real option. The first ship you unlock has almost nothing going for it, so while you could take your trash truck to the end of the story, there's not much reason to.

Even if you grind your brains out to get the best ship and gear possible, some of the missions seem to be designed for player failure. Enemy spawn locations, tactics, and general firepower can be punishing to the point of ridiculousness.

The later game encounters are much better tuned, I think. That said, I can see some players being turned off by the early difficulty spikes, or at least the heavy grinding that seems all but necessary. 

  • A well thought out narrative and a strong character focus
  • Incredible soundtrack
  • Fantastic ship-to-ship combat that will keep you on your toes
  • Incredible early-game difficulty spikes make it hard to progress
  • Lack of depth later on
  • Some annoying design choices that do little more than clutter the experience

Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is a very well put together space sim, and one that offers some of the best ship-to-ship combat around, from an indie developer, no less. It's got a kicking soundtrack, plenty of exciting opportunities for encounters and emergent gameplay, and one of the strongest central protagonists of 2019.

It isn't perfect, and there's plenty that needs addressing or improving, especially early on. I got Fallout 4 "Another settlement needs your attention" vibes with the constant distress signals, and not in a meme-y way. 

Still, this is a game well worth your time and money, as it offers an approachable, easy to learn, hard to master set of systems, a well-told narrative, and plenty of charm.

[Note: A copy of Rebel Galaxy: Outlaw was provided by Double Damage Games for the purpose of this review.]

Pix the Cat Review: Purring on the Nintendo Switch Mon, 12 Aug 2019 13:07:42 -0400 Joey Marrazzo

It's nice to cleanse the gaming palette once in a while with a fun and quick game, rather than something narrative-driven, riddled with side quests, or full of complex character creation. 

Back in 2014, the team at Pastagames created a game for that specific moment. Originally released on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita, Pix the Cat is a mash-up of two of the most iconic video games ever created: Pac-Man and Snake

You play as Pix and in each puzzle, you are tasked with collecting ducklings and bringing them to certain spots in the puzzle. You collect them in a similar way to how Pac-Man picks up orbs, but imagine if those orbs lined up behind you and created a long tail kind of like a snake. 

Sounds simple, but that's because it is. Pix the Cat is a game that is quick, and easy to grasp so you can just run with it. As you play through its four different game modes, that initially easy concept transforms to bring you a challenging puzzle game that is good in short sessions or for a fun game-night with friends.

Arcade Mode

In the game's Arcade Mode, you are given 300 seconds to get as far as you possibly can. There are no loading screens; you move from one puzzle to the next as you complete them. You start off with a simple puzzle while moving at the slowest speed, but that speed dramatically increases as you progress, ramping up the difficulty as you go.

As you play through the puzzles, you must maneuver your way around objects and sometimes enemies. This includes making sharp turns and trying not to have your tail of ducks surround you (which ends the puzzle immediately).

If you can't handle the increasing speed and find yourself not able to make the quick turns necessary to bring the ducks to the right location, the puzzle will end. If you can handle the speed, you will start building up a combo score, which will carry through all the puzzles.

One of the best parts of the game's Arcade Mode is the background music. It goes perfectly with the speed of the game and will make you feel the pressure to deliver the ducks. 

Arena Mode

In Arena mode, you and up to three friends take to the battleground and compete against each other. In this mode, you collect the eggs that will form your tail, and what will be the ammo you use to take down the other players. 

If you don't want to use the eggs to destroy your friends, you can eat the eggs instead and perform a dash ability that can also hurt your opponents. 

You can also activate the ghost feature, adding a new wrinkle to the game. When your Pix turns into a ghost, you can go after your friends. If your ghost hits a friend's living Pix, you will come back to life and your friends Pix will become a ghost instead. 

While I didn't spend too much time in this mode, I can already see that it can make for a fun and relationship-ending game night next time I have people over. 

Laboratory and Nostalgia Modes

While Arcade and Arena are the most polished game modes, the game has two more to try your hand at. 

The first of the two modes is called Laboratory. In this mode, you are tasked with picking up cells and taking them to the marked spots on the puzzle. The trick with this mode is that you are given a Par score to match, like in golf. You can, of course, go over.

What differentiates this from the Arcade mode is that when you complete the puzzle, it doesn't immediately send you into the next one. You will go back to the mode screen and choose the next level.

The other difference is that if you forget to pick up a cell and already dropped off the other ones, the puzzle will end.

I didn't find this mode that entertaining or fun to play. The basic gameplay is pretty much identical to the Arcade mode, which is much more entertaining.

The final mode is Nostalgia, where you have to collect all the eggs on the screen before the flower gets eaten by the goat. It sounds strange, and it is.

If you visualize the horse-racing carnival game, it is similar to that. Collecting all the eggs before the goat eats the flower will give you a perfect score for that round. 

  • Arcade and Arena mode are fantastic.
  • The soundtrack is motivating and keeps you moving.
  • Ducks
  • The other game modes (Nostalgia and Laboratory) don't add much to the game.
  • Very fast-paced (Only a con if you have slow reflexes)
  • Cats

Pix the Cat is a quick and fun palette cleanser to play before you go to bed or in between intense gaming sessions.

While the Nostalgia and Laboratory modes don't have much to offer, the Arcade and Arena sections of the game carry the load to make this a fun game to pick up.

The Arcade mode is fun to play alone and with friends. Once your 300 seconds are up, you can easily pass the Switch to your friend and see if they can beat your high score. Or you can take it to Arena mode and go head to head to see who is better.

While the game has been on the other major platforms for a few years, it just arrived on Switch this past week and is priced at $9.99. If you love arcade games and love the rush and intensity of games getting faster as you go, this could be the game for you. 

Sairento PSVR Review: Tech Keeps This Ninja Fantasy From Being Reality Fri, 09 Aug 2019 13:51:38 -0400 Ty Arthur

While early hardware adopters might be abuzz at the prospect of major upgrades for a next-gen PSVR, there are still plenty of VR games coming to the PS4 to justify jumping in now.

One of the most recent is Sairento, a ninja-em-up that made the leap from PC to the PSVR and lets you live out your cyberpunk cyborg samurai dreams in a neon-lit Tokyo.

While Sairento has received rave reviews across the web, I have to be honest I was less than enthralled with it. While the ability to fly through the air and perform crazy decapitations is undeniably awesome, there are two major issues that keep me from playing Sairento as often as other PSVR titles.

Don't Ninja Usually Put Their Best Foot Forward?

 These are some sad PS1-era graphics

The first problem assaults you as soon as you put on your VR headset. It would be charitable to call the game's character models and environments ugly. What we are dealing with here is a crime against your eyeballs.

Abysmally poor polygonal box cars, flat buildings, and unconvincing gore effects assault your field of vision at all times —  from moment one. 

Of course, graphics don't make a game, and you can't judge Sairento on that element alone. I mean, West Of Loathing is literally a black and white game made of stick figures, and it was still one of the best releases of 2017.

When you move past the dated visuals and master the controls, there's a lot of fun to be had wall-running, sliding along floors, performing gravity-defying jumps, and flipping around behind enemies to slice them apart or unleash a hail of bullets.

Tackling enemy encounters any way you want is where Sairento shines, and it has plenty of secrets to uncover on that front, like figuring out you can actually do backflips in mid-air with certain arm motions.

Sadly, that leads me to my second big complaint: the pace of movement.

There are two methods of movement in Sairento, and, unfortunately, they are at odds.

Ostensibly, Sairento is meant to be a fast-paced, action-packed game where you streak across walls while shooting and slicing through enemies... and it is that ... when going forward and backward.

It absolutely isn't that when going left to right.

To mitigate potential player nausea, the game defaults to 90 degrees left and right turns, which are wildly distracting and simply don't jive with the game's hyper-speed and teleporting.

Simply put, the game is basically unplayable on its default settings, as it's too difficult to line up shots and aim at enemies when you have to shift your position 90 degrees at a time.

Thankfully, those who don't get sick from fast-motion VR can change this setting to free movement — only it isn't really "free." Here, movement is still noticeably slower and jankier than if you were moving around in a first-person shooter on a standard controller using thumbsticks.

The end result is a constantly nagging feeling, that Sairento could be an amazingly immersive and unforgettable ninja VR experience but it's always just falling short.

That problem is exacerbated with a few other limitations on movement, like how you can't turn while wall-running, and standing too close to certain vertical objects prevents you from jumping.

Where It All Comes Together

 You think you've got me surrounded? Oh sirs, you are in for a surprise...

Story-wise, there's nothing awe-inspiring or earth-shattering here, as the story is simply a vehicle to get you acrobatically killing goons, which is where the game comes together.

Even if the story and graphics aren't particularly pleasing, the sheer number of combat options present may change your mind about Sairento.

Before even getting into the weapons, there is a host of skill trees to pick from, offering abilities like life regen, increasing slow-mo duration so you can be a Matrix badass, and adding the ability to jump a third consecutive time in mid-air for even more aerial insanity.

When you get into a fight with a cybernetic armored samurai, it's a dual-wielding dance of death where you can choose between any combination of swords, claws, pistols, SMGs, assault rifles, shotguns, and even thrown weapons like stars. 

Of course, each of those weapons can also be modified with relics to enhance their deadliness, adding bonuses such as critical damage, drain life on hit, and more.

While the game's movement is clunky, Sairento does have a very satisfying VR feel when you grab a gun from a holster at your hip or pull a sword off your back with the Move controllers.

As a matter of personal taste, I prefer the guns over the swords, simply due to a lack of "presence" with the melee weapons.

That's a recurring issue with several PSVR titles (and a major sticking point for Everybody's Golf VR, where it didn't feel like you were actually holding and swinging a golf club that had real weight or heft).

Other games have overcome this limitation in a variety of ways that could have been employed here. Beat Saber, for instance, uses timed beats to great effect to make it feel like you're hitting something, and it utilizes haptic feedback when your two sabers cross paths. Something of that nature, like a gentle shock when landing a sword blow, would go a long way towards making the melee combat here more satisfying.

Choice is the name of the game, though, and swords don't have to be used in melee, as you can also unlock the ability to throw ranged shockwaves with melee blades.

The constant variety of choices keep Sairento from being a throwaway, as there is just an absolutely absurd number of options for tweaking absolutely everything. Here's just a small sampling:

  • Prefer sitting over standing? No problem, the game supports that.
  • Want a 45-degree movement option instead of 90 degrees or free movement? Done.
  • Need your guns to automatically reload so you have one less thing to do while flipping, flying, leaping, and shooting? Sorted.
  • Want your guns to only reload when you fling your arms up? What about only reloading when you fling your arms down?

Every single mechanic in the game has that level of customization across a whopping five separate pages of option screens.

The Bottom Line

 You want options? You got 'em!

  • Tons of weapon, skill, and gameplay tweaking options
  • You get to be a cyborg ninja in VR with guns and swords 
  • The movement and control scheme just don't work well enough yet to pull off the developer's vision
  • These are some of the worst graphics I've seen in a PSVR game to date

Ignoring the hardware limitations and wonky movement, there's plenty to do in Sairento between unlocking skills and switching between waves of enemies, stealth assassinations, and area-clearing campaign missions.

Coupled with a decent amount of variety in the levels and a wide range of weaponry, this is an overall solid PSVR entry that just falls short in the visual department and doesn't have a great control scheme. 

If futuristic ninja are your thing, you'll probably want to give Sairento a try anyway.

However, the recently released Blood & Truth delivers on this premise a little better, since it gives you high-octane shooting mechanics and other satisfying elements like VR lock picking.

[Note: A copy of Sairento was provided by Mixed Realms for the purpose of this review, which is based on the retail version of the game. The North American retail edition is now available.]

Silver Chains Review: Tried and True Haunted House Horror That's Better as a Let's Play Wed, 07 Aug 2019 17:55:27 -0400 Ty Arthur

I'm always up for a new horror adventure title. It doesn't matter the time of year (begone summer, bring us that glorious October already).

Silver Chains from Cracked Head Games does an admirable job of working within the standard genre norms to tell a haunting tale now and in the haunting season.

However, the game doesn't shatter any of those norms. It doesn't push any of those boundaries further out into the blackening abyss. Unfortunately, we all know the drill of a horror game like this.

We open things with our poor, doomed protagonist stuck in a big building for an unknown reason. Of course, they must occasionally hide from a un-killable monster while trying to unravel a mystery. 

Silver Chains even embraces classic tropes in its opening segment, and it's something straight out of 1991's Uninvited

But after that opening scene that we've already seen a million times before, Silver Chains offers up a mix of folklore, traditional ghost tales, psychological horror... and a whole lot of dolls.

What Silver Chains Does Differently, an ungodly number of dolls

The very first thing that stands out in Silver Chains is the high level of graphical polish the game presents, which is far beyond most other indie walking-sim horror games.

Aesthetically speaking, this particular haunted-mansion is just flat out beautiful, and the environment is a genuine joy to peruse, especially when you aren't being chased by some awful thing or other. However, this isn't a game where exploration is rewarded, or even necessary. 

There are some achievements to miss if you don't explore, but you won't have to worry about missing too much when sneaking between walls, exploring libraries, and running at top speed down dusty hallways.

Like most titles in this style, you always know you are on the right track because the big bad will appear and chase you whenever you find the next storyline objective. In this case, its the monstrous Mother.

 I'm sorry, I promise to finish my vegetables next time, Mother!

Speaking of Mother, Silver Chains employs a truly solid monster design, here. There's no doubt she elicits a more viscerally terrifying reaction than a lot of other "run-and-hide" horror games that have released recently.

Besides her wildly flowing hair and spooky supernatural aura, Mother can skitter along the walls in a most unsettling manner; getting caught in her oversized hands isn't a fun way to die, especially when you consider the animation is accompanied by an extremely unpleasant snapping sound.

Although neither the atmosphere and nor the story's execution is as dark as, say, Outlast 2, Mother is easily a scarier antagonist than the pickax-wielding Marta. Silver Chains does a fantastic job of wrenching up the gruesome quotient so desperately lacking from death sequences in other games.

It's something that motivates the player to not get caught, and it's something more games in the genre need to take heed of. 

 There's also some dolls sometimes.

Chase sequences aside, Silver Chains has its fair share of effective jump scares, especially if you play in the dark with the volume up. That's because the sound and music is mostly a step up from other indie horror titles. 

While walking on the kitchen tile sounds godawful (and thankfully, it only occurs in that one room), everything else here is meticulously crafted to increase the game's atmosphere, from the creaking wooden horses to the children whispering, "She's coming!" when Mother is on your trail.

When you aren't jumping out of your seat from a sudden ghostly appearance or hiding from the deadly Mother, the bulk of the game consists of finding ways to access new areas, which is where Silver Chains' monocle mechanic comes into play.

With the spirit monocle equipped, you can follow ghostly signs to find hidden entrances or changing rooms, which is a bit different from what you'd expect in this genre.

Unfortunately, the puzzles are pretty standard fare for the most part. Input a safe code, gather three doll parts, twist some nobs to a specific pattern, find four paintings — it's all fairly standard fare.

One Big, Unavoidable Problem

 If I recall correctly, there may have been a doll or two.

Besides its rather by-the-numbers mechanics, Silver Chains has one major problem that can't be overcome by high-end visuals or amazing sound effects— there's even less actual gameplay here than Layers Of Fear.

You don't even get to open cabinets and drawers in the search for the next journal entry or key. It's all "walk here, press 'E' to interact" — and that's it.

For many players, Silver Chains will work better as a Let's Play than an actual game.

Having both played the game and then watched a playthrough, I can confidently say that the latter is a better experience with the lights off, headphones on, and a YouTube clip at full screen. At least then you don't have to deal with the frustration of repeatedly dying or trying to figure out the puzzles.

The Bottom Line

 Did I mention the dolls?

  • Beautiful graphics for an indie title
  • Sound effects and music match the atmosphere
  • Classic haunted house storyline and terrifying main enemy
  • Extremely short 
  • Puzzles are by very by-the-numbers
  • Lack of gameplay elements makes this more fun to watch than to play

If you dig Outlast, Amnesia, Layers Of Fear, or The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter, then Silver Chains can find a place in your collection of puzzle/adventure horror games.

Unfortunately, it's a very short experience that makes the price tag hard to justify. I finished it in less than four hours and one sitting. If you can guess all the puzzles on your first try, you could complete it in just over an hour.

Considering that you can watch the whole game online without having to deal with frustration puzzles and deaths, and get the same overall experience, I have to (sadly) say that Silver Chains is a well-crafted game that's only worth buying if you must play every game in the genre.

Rotor Riot Controller Review: This Mobile Gamepad Expands Our Horizons Tue, 06 Aug 2019 13:14:44 -0400 Mark Delaney

Despite playing video games for as long as I can remember and owning virtually every platform between SEGA Genesis and Nintendo Switch, there's one platform I've just never been able to get into: mobile.

I'm not one to say mobile games are all bad. I know many developers play to the strengths of the platform and millions around the world are hooked on all sorts of games for the platform. But it's just never been for me.

Last year I played hundreds of hours of video games and probably not even five of them were on phones and tablets — and it's mainly because of touch controls. 

This year, the same has been true. However, the second half of the year is about to be a lot different thanks to the Rotor Riot Made for iPhone (MFi) Gamepad.

Form Factor

The Rotor Riot controller takes all of its design cues from the Xbox One controller. Considering I think that's the best form factor on the market, that seems like a wise decision. The Rotor Riot even sports the L3/R3 clickable thumbsticks, which the company says makes it the first MFi controller to do so.

Combining that with the same face buttons (albeit with a slightly different color scheme), the same off-center thumbsticks and middle D-pad, and the same trigger and bumper buttons, the Rotor Riot will feel right familiar for anyone who has used an Xbox controller before.

That's not to say the form factor is quite as strong here. Instead, it's a really good imitation, but it lacks the sturdiness Microsoft's product provides. Every button responds well and without issue, but the D-pad feels loose and clunky, reminiscent of the Xbox 360's D-pad. Though unlike the version pictured above, my review model has the eight-way lattice design of the Elite Controller for Xbox. Suffice it to say, the Rotor Riot's D-pad feels less than elite.

Overall, though, it's more than a decent imitation with reliable, responsive buttons in all ways but one. Those touted clickable joysticks feel great, the size of the controller is nearly identical to that which it's trying to mimic, and it all just feels comfortably familiar.

As for the phone holder, I've had no issues during my extended use of the device. The weight of a newer iPhone like my 8s Plus does take some getting used to. Despite the Rotor Riot's supposed zero gravity design of the stand, it's a feeling that, while not uncomfortable, isn't nonexistent either. 

The part that closes around your phone is very tight, as it should be, and when I tested trying to get it to fall out, it never did, even with several good shakes. Once you get used to the weight of the phone sitting above the controller like a top-heavy Switch, it's not awkward. Even my six-year-old son got a lot of playtime out of it and never complained of the weight of the complete contraption. 

The stand is, of course, optional, and it could work just fine on a table or propped up against a book or something else if you prefer, but the stand really suits gaming on the go, like on a bus, train, or plane.

In any case, you'll need to be plugged directly into the phone. The Rotor Riot controller is not wireless, but that wasn't an issue in my time. The cord is just the right length to allow iPad use without getting in the way when you're playing instead on your docked iPhone.

The wire is meant to cut down on latency, and while I can't compare it to a wireless counterpart, I can say I streamed PS4 games to my phone all week with very few problems. The entire experience has really been eye-opening. I didn't quite realize this tech was already here, and now I find myself excited to play games on my phone for the first time in my life

The controller is stated to use less battery than a pair of headphones and that seemed about right in my time with it. As usual, it appeared to be the games that were so taxing on phone battery life, but if the controller exacerbated this drainage at all, it was so minimal I didn't notice.

If you're really worried, you can even charge your phone via a charge-through USB-C input on the controller. By that time, your setup would start to look a bit surgical, with wires and hard plastics popping out in different directions, but it's not obstructive. If you believe in function over fashion, this sort of setup could last you a transcontinental flight and beyond.

Compatible Games

So far, it's been mostly good news for the Rotor Riot, but a mobile gaming controller is only as exciting as its compatible games list. Thankfully, the Rotor Riot's library is quite varied, and it includes some major titles that anybody would love to have.

Some, like Fortnite and Stardew Valley are already available for mobile gamers with Nintendo Switch, but if you don't have one and already have an iPhone, the controller is a much more affordable means of taking such major console games on the go with you.

My favorite games from the compatible library, which features over 1,000 titles in the controller's affiliate app, Ludu Mapp, are the PS2-era Rockstar Games. Nearly all of them — GTA III, Vice City, San Andreas, Liberty City Stories, and the DS classic Chinatown Wars — are all revived thanks to this functionality, and even as the series has come so far, replaying San Andreas wherever I go has actually been a highlight of my time with the Rotor Riot.

Other classics such as Bully and Max Payne are in the store, too.

Popular indies like Hyper Light Drifter, Playdead's Inside, and Fez all place near the top of the platform's available titles. With 1,000 games working with the Rotor Riot, there is a surprisingly deep roster on offer, though many have likely played some of its best games on home consoles.

Perhaps the Rotor Riot's best feature is its compatibility with streaming apps like PS4 Remote Play and Steam Link. Using these, you can play your home PC or PS4 from anywhere in the world. There's also an Xbox streaming app, though it's not free like the others and demands the same network.

It's worth noting, though, that Microsoft's xCloud technology is meant to debut soon, which will hopefully mean future compatibility with the Rotor Riot.

Playing Days Gone on my iPhone was stunning. That was the precise moment I realized technology had surpassed what I was aware of. The world looked just as gorgeous as it does on my big screen TV, and the game ran with only the occasional slowdown.

This feature will be the one that brings mobile gaming into its next phase, where it redefines the ubiquity of games, and as of now, the Rotor Riot is the best tool for the job.

It's worth noting that before the end of the year, both the DualShock 4 and the Xbox One controller will be iOS-compatible via Bluetooth, and when that happens, the same library will become available as it does for all MFi controllers, so while the Rotor Riot is the best option today, it may feel more redundant in the future, unless you really prefer the wired connection or don't want to take any special controllers you may have out of the house.

The 25 Best Rotor Riot-Compatible Mobile Games

If you're wondering about more of the MFi-compatible games that are out there right now, I've curated a list (in no specific order) of some of my favorite mobile games that you can jump into with full controller support. Goodbye, touch controls. You will not be missed.

  • Grand Theft Auto Vice City
  • Grand Theft Auto San Andreas
  • Stardew Valley
  • Life is Strange
  • Telltale's The Walking Dead
  • NBA 2K19
  • Minecraft
  • Terraria
  • Bully: Anniversary Edition
  • Max Payne
  • Fortnite
  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
  • Hyper Light Drifter
  • Oxenfree
  • The Talos Principle
  • The Witness
  • The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
  • Tales from the Borderlands
  • Oceanhorn
  • FEZ
  • NecroDancer: Amplified
  • Transistor
  • PAKO 2
  • Bastion

I'd be remiss to not also mention Final Fantasy IV-VII are all compatible, too. I've never played any game in the series, but I imagine many fans would want to know. I'm also partial to console-quality experiences on my mobile device, but there are quality mobile-first games on there, too, like the addictive Asphalt 9: Legends and the unique Stone, an adventure game starring a koala bear without a care.

As the console-like gaming scene is still pretty new to mobile devices, the library could use more of a boost. A ton of popular games like Madden Mobile and PUBG Mobile are natural fits with the Rotor Riot and MFi controllers in general, but they aren't available yet. That's not really a problem in the hands of Rotor Riot, but as it's being sold all the same, such a caveat unfortunately comes along for the experience.

  • Good form factor comes via replicating the industry's best
  • The only MFi controller with L3/R3 triggers 
  • A robust library of mobile games, console ports, and classics from the old days
  • Can be charged while playing and hardly taxes your device's battery anyway
  • Works great with PS4 and Steam streaming apps
  • To hell with touch controls
  • D-pad feels flimsy and imprecise
  • With console controller compatibility just weeks away, the shelf life feels anxiously brief
  • Some glaring library omissions, although that's not really their fault

I have a Switch already, but I've quickly found having the Rotor Riot isn't redundant. It broadens the possible games on my docket when I'm on the move, and it's awesome to have a controller that allows for my phone to be a legitimate gaming device for the first time in my life. I've never used any other MFi controllers but browsing them in stores, they always seem like cheap science-fiction knockoffs one might see in a movie or TV show.

With the Rotor Riot, I've found my favorite controller form factor is now available on the go with many of my favorite games and more being added all the time; coincidentally, Hyper Light Drifter was added as I wrote this review. 

An ever-expanding library and a quality controller have gone far to open my eyes to the world of legitimate mobile gaming on iPhones and iPads, and the Rotor Riot is the first sign that the future we all hoped for is finally here.

[Note: A Rotor Riot MFi review unit was provided by Rotor Riot for the purpose of this review.]

The Forbidden Arts Review: Raking Up the Past Tue, 06 Aug 2019 12:28:22 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Trying to capture the feel and style of days gone by is a difficult task, but it's a challenge indie developer Stingbot Games set for itself with its debut title, The Forbidden Arts.

The game is a mix of high-fantasy and sidescrolling action, with a smattering of RPG and a touch of collect-a-thon panache. In it, you take control of Phoenix, a young man who accidentally stumbles into a large, dangerous world when he finds out the power of the Forbidden Arts resides within him.

It's a compelling setup that, unfortunately, falls prey to the traps of recreating yesteryear's glory, incorporating style and mechanics that were better off staying in the past.

You're a Wizard — Now Save the World

The story found here may be minimal, but serves its purpose.

There are a number of elements in the world of The Forbidden Arts — earth, fire, air, and the other usual suspects, but then death gets thrown into the mix. It's a bit of an odd addition since it doesn't fit with the rest, and that sense of things not quite meshing the way they should stays with you for the remainder of the game.

According to the story, each element once had a segment of practitioners specializing in that element, but the Necromancers were the most feared because they sought to replace natural life with life gained through death.

Unfortunately, the narrative is mainly unimportant. It's the stuff of high-fantasy novels that might entertain but doesn't always astound.

You basically know what you're in for as soon as you start learning about the game world. It acts as a decent background for the rest of the game, and sometimes, running around in a world full of elves is all you really need, but it ultimately doesn't quite click.

A Bit Too Familiar

Unfortunately, The Forbidden Arts doesn't offer much for those who don't want to just run with elves, and the gameplay actually makes it difficult even for fantasy lovers to fully enjoy it.

One of the first things you notice about The Forbidden Arts is how game-y it is. That might seem like an odd criticism to level at a video game, but it's a prime example of the off-kilter balance of The Forbidden Arts.

The game opens with Phoenix waking up and talking to a guard, who then promptly tells Phoenix things he should already know about the area surrounding the place he's lived. Shouldn't the protagonist already know where the local witch lives?

Take the map as another example. When you aren't in a town or exploring an area, you roam a 3D map. You can easily see the second main area from the beginning — the old mines — on your way to the witch, but naturally, you can't access it.

After clearing the initial quest and gaining the power of flame, you're supposed to head to the mines, but you find you now can't leave the first area until you clear it because this is a game and that's what the developers want you to do.

These are things you'd expect from an NES-era game or maybe if Phoenix were an amnesiac protagonist or if the whole map didn't look accessible, but this isn't and he isn't and it isn't. These quirks set the imbalanced tone for the game's general style, which are only exacerbated when the game's antagonists, the Dark Elves, randomly appear after a bit of basic plot. 

There's no denying plenty of games used to play out like this, and you do feel like you've stepped back in time when you're playing The Forbidden Arts. But that doesn't mean revisiting outdated presentation and design is consistently fun either.

We don't see many of these things in modern gaming for a reason.

Run Away

There are some issues with combat as well, namely that it isn't worthwhile and can be completely cheesed.

Most enemies can be dispatched by mashing "Y" for your basic attack, during which time they can't counter. Some are stronger and break your attack cycle with their own charged attacks, but you can take them out from a distance with an elemental attack, thus avoiding damage entirely. Others are only weak to a certain element, but even then, they aren't hard to defeat.

The easiest way to avoid damage, though? Double jump over every enemy and keep running. You can do that throughout the entire game for almost every enemy, which makes all of your abilities and magic mostly redundant, to say nothing of the combat system itself.

Finding novel ways to avoid enemies and progress through each level quickly is, again, characteristic of older games. However, being able to bypass most of the game this way seems a slightly bizarre design choice, especially when it makes the game's chief feature — using elemental attacks — entirely unnecessary.

Are We There Yet?

Jumping is something you'll be doing a lot of throughout The Forbidden Arts. Stages are multi-level affairs, with lots of ledges to climb, walls to scale, and gaps to leap. Despite other weaknesses noted, it's easy to notice the strength of design here.

Gaps and jumps are measured with great precision, so executing a jump at just the right moment clears those seemingly impossible leaps or propels you to that ledge just out of reach.

While the platforming aspect is executed effectively, it does get somewhat repetitive over time. Stages don't mix up the platforming very much, except with some basic puzzles here and there, and each stage is fairly long, too, so it all becomes a bit stale after a short while.

That's exacerbated by the fact that most levels trend towards the rather plain, with huge blocks of earth or stone taking up most of the screen in each stage or the main action area just being a flat plane of color.

The game's pre-release screenshots suggest The Forbidden Arts has a fair bit of 3D gameplay as well. That's not actually the case.

3D is limited to moving around the overworld map, and there's not much to do there. It's a shame, because the 3D parts are much more attractive in their presentation than the 2D areas, with more to see, more color, and more variation in general.

One nagging issue when exploring the 2D environments is the map. Expanding it isn't an option, even though the stages have multiple paths leading to dead ends or gold, the latter of which acts as the game's collectible item.

You can use it to rebuild certain towers on the world map if you collect a certain amount of it, but the trouble is in getting to them. The game's dummy paths are long as well, and Phoenix doesn't move very quickly, so getting to paths that end in gold can get irritating the more you play.

Repeat Track

Finally, let's talk about the audio.

There's some good variation in tracks throughout the game, but most are far too short. Many tracks seem like they are more appropriately sound bytes than full soundtrack pieces. You'll spot loops very quickly and turn the volume down even faster.

  • Effective fantasy setting
  • Well-considered platform design
  • Tedious levels that border on bland
  • Comes across as artificial and padded more often than not
  • Combat system needs work

The Forbidden Arts is a testament to how fickle nostalgia can be. There's a good reason some aspects of game design have fallen by the wayside over the years. We may remember them fondly, but it's often the case that they just don't work anymore.

That being said, your mileage will vary with The Forbidden Arts. If you don't mind some of its less appealing quirks and are just looking for a basic platformer with a fantasy setting, then this might be for you after all.

Everyone else would do better looking elsewhere.

Metal Wolf Chaos XD Review: Back to the Past Tue, 06 Aug 2019 09:51:54 -0400 RobotsFightingDinosaurs

Beginning a review of Metal Wolf Chaos XD is a tall order. There's no real way to introduce the concept of this game, the story behind its re-release, or the game's cult status in any kind of cohesive way.

In short, if you've never heard of Metal Wolf Chaos, it was an Xbox-exclusive mech game released by From Software in 2004. At the time, From Software's most popular IP was the Armored Core series, and Metal Wolf Chaos was the developer's attempt at creating a mech game for western audiences.

From did that by creating a game where you play as the president and blow up the entire United States of America...

Hail To The Chief

Right off the bat, given our current political climate, the story of the game might make some folks squinchy in a Dr. Strangelove kind of way.

The TL;DR is that the vice president has seized control of the United States and installed a fascist dictatorship. Under the guise of revolution, military coup d'etat forces instate martial law, complete with a propaganda network that blames the country's problems on immigration and "terrorists," like the player character.

If you like your video games to be escapist fantasies, and you live in the United States, be warned.

Of course, any serious anti-war message here is somewhat undercut when you're piloting a gigantic mech shooting railguns at tanks in the middle of San Francisco.

This ridiculous story is what the game is mostly known for. And I'm happy to say that it doesn't disappoint. It's blatantly over-the-top and bombastic, full of explosions, quips, and hilarious translation errors. For some, the cutscenes might be worth the price of admission alone.

The gameplay, however, is a different beast altogether, and will likely turn off a few folks who had been looking forward to this game for years.

Showing Its Age

Metal Wolf is very, very much a product of 2004.

Though it's unfair to judge the game's graphical quality by today's standards, the general color palette of the game is drab and bland, as was the trend for many action games circa 15 years ago.

In addition, there's not much strategy to be had. Granted, that's not a bad thing on its own, but for folks expecting a deep Mechwarrior-like blend of combat and strategy, there's none of that to be found here.

Instead, players are given a game that plays a lot like the Earth Defense Force series. You'll be mowing down waves upon waves of opponents, blowing up everything in your path (with the occasional dodge), and completing objectives in small, self-contained stages. And just like the EDF series, its gameplay is an odd blend of repetition and satisfaction.

This kind of loop will likely be frustrating for some, especially because the game isn't exactly newcomer-friendly.

Your HUD is full of meters, bars, and gauges, and the game never really makes it clear which is for what. The game also never tells you how your shield works, that stomping does massive damage to buildings, that you can boost in the air to hover, or that your burst move works in mysterious ways. You'll have to find all that out on your own through trial and error, a tough ask given the game's stages don't have checkpoints.

It seems like the remaster team skimped on the part of the budget meant to go to audio. Certain post-mission cutscenes are insanely loud compared with the rest of the game, and depending on where the camera is situated, a horrible whooshing sound will drown out the rest of the audio during gameplay. Hopefully, the audio can be normalized in a future patch.

That said, there's a reason the Earth Defense Force games are so popular and enduring among their fans. It feels good to charge up a railgun and line up a shot that lances through two buildings and a helicopter. Stomping enemies and causing them to fly out in a perfect, circular splash is almost therapeutic. Seeing explosions from two console generations ago is nostalgic.

The game stimulates some primal part of your brain, and for some, that'll be worth the $25 asking price.

The Results Are In

  • Ridiculous, hilarious story
  • Satisfying action, akin to the Earth Defense Force series
  • A pitch-perfect time capsule from the gaming world of 2004
  • Action is repetitive 
  • A distinct lack of tutorials in the game's systems means there's a lot of trial and error 
  • A pitch-perfect time capsule from the gaming world of 2004

The big question is whether, after a 15-year wait, Metal Wolf Chaos XD is everything it's been hyped to be. 

And the answer is an emphatic no. The game hasn't aged much worse than other 2004 action titles, but at the end of the day, this is a popcorn game, best played in short hour-or-so-long bursts until you finish the brief campaign and never really think about it again.

Judged on its own merits, however, there's a lot to like here for fans of simple, satisfying games. If you meet the game in its current state, you'll find a well-constructed mech game with hilariously over-the-top dialogue and story. We can confidently recommend this game for all fans of the Earth Defense Force series, and for others, it's definitely at least worth playing the demo.

[Note: A copy of Metal Wolf Chaos XD was provided by Devolver Digital for the purpose of this review.]

Wolfenstein: Youngblood Review — Old Meets New Mon, 05 Aug 2019 10:19:52 -0400 Sergey_3847

As the grandfather of the FPS genre, Wolfenstein has always been considered one of the best shooter series in the world. Aside from competitive multiplayer, the Wolfenstein games have always been single-player games. However, modern times dictate a different approach.

From the very beginning, Wolfenstein: Youngblood has been marketed to audiences as a kind of experiment. This time around, it's not just your typical Nazi-blaster, but a looter-shooter with a hefty handful of RPG elements.

This isn't Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus or Wolfenstein: The New Order. There's no B.J. Blazkowicz; instead, the narrative tells the story of two completely different characters, although they're irrevocably tied to the old Nazi killer.

Story and Setting

Things begin when Blazkowicz suddenly disappears in Nazi-occupied Paris. His two daughters, Jessie and Zophia, set off, as one does, to find him. After they arrive in France, the La Resistance group immediately takes the twins under their protection and even vaguely hints at the possible location of B.J., which spurns the twin sisters forward.

The game's beginning is actually quite intriguing, but then you begin to realize that story doesn't play a big role in Youngblood, and that B.J.'s daughters aren't like their father at all. They can't take anything seriously, and to them, the whole idea of war seems more like a game.

In general, the scope of the story is much smaller than the narratives found in previous Wolfenstein games, and the tone tends to lean away from the serious; much of what here seems to be here for pure entertainment this time around.

Now it's all about character progression and gathering trophies and achievements.

On the other hand, the game's visual representation is superb. Bethesda manages to believably convey the eerie aesthetics of alternative history, where the Nazis have ruled over the world for many years after the alternate WW2 we've come to know throughout the series.

Location design is extremely well done, with a lot of ways to enter and leave buildings, which is great for players who prefer to sneak up on enemies instead of running through a location guns blazing, although that's certainly still here as well. 

Gameplay Mechanics

New Enemies

Youngblood's basic mechanics have not changed much since New Colossus. Many enemies from New Colossus have returned, including ordinary soldiers, ubersoldats, snipers, robot dogs, and many others you'd expect to see in Nazi-occupied Paris.

However, some enemies have become stronger and are now protected by barriers in addition to their armor. There are two types of barriers in the game, and each requires a different approach. For example, armor-piercing weapons will do nothing to a soft barrier, but they will obliterate a hard barrier. 

Adding a small wrinkle to gameplay, you most certainly will have to change weapons more often, whether in firefights or when engaging a single enemy. 

In the 20 years between Youngblood and New Colossus, the Nazis have significantly improved their defenses, as well. One of the enhanced types of enemies in Youngblood are commanders, which are now equipped with much better weapons, and, as always, ought to be killed first. Otherwise, they will alert other soldiers.

Besides commanders you will see flying drones and new kinds of robots with high-tech weapons, which you can pick up as well. 

Compulsory Co-Op

Wolfenstein: Youngblood is the first game in the series to offer co-operative campaign play. Both sisters can be used in co-operative mode, however, they both have the same skill trees and weapons. It's a missed opportunity to flesh out both characters and give players the opportunity to synergize abilities and skills.

While a Buddy Pass code comes with the Deluxe Edition of the game at the release, making sure that players who buy the edition will have a friend to play with, playing the game in co-op is not required. Without another real-life player, the super helpful AI simply takes over. 

Predominantly concerned with keeping you alive, Youngblood's AI will revive you if you go down. It's a really cool feature, and it makes playing with AI totally worth it.

RPG Elements

Skill trees and other character progression elements have been present in the Wolfenstein series before, but not to such an extent as in Youngblood. Here, players can't contend with enemies several levels above their own. This system basically forces you to complete side missions to progress to the required level.

You can repeat the same missions over and over again to grind for a certain perk or weapon upgrade. But for many players, such a system is a nuisance, and it flies in the face the quick gameplay previous Wolfenstein games are known for.

Making matters worse, enemies also tend to respawn in the same locations, which makes the whole idea of clearing an area increasingly pointless. 


It has to be mentioned that Wolfenstein: Youngblood has microtransactions and in-game currency, which can be earned by completing missions. But fortunately, MTXs don't influence important gameplay elements and are used solely for cosmetics.

  • Gorgeous, atmospheric open world
  • Well-designed locations
  • Weapons feel more powerful
  • Feels less casual than previous games
  • Too much grinding for character progression
  • Lack of plot development and no big story
  • Protagonists can be annoying at times

Wolfenstein: Youngblood indeed offers a somewhat fresh look at the long-running franchise. The gunplay is basically the same, but grinding and RPG elements do make the game feel slightly different from the rest of the games.

Long-time fans of the series will probably dislike Youngblood for the compulsory co-op and disappearance of B.J. Blazkowicz from the primary action. Many players may not like the RPG elements that require a good deal of grinding in a game that was marketed as the continuation of New Colossus.

An open-world design and side quests are fine, but that's not exactly what players expected from the new Wolfenstein.

If you're a Wolfenstein purist who adored the single-player aspect of the previous games, or you are attached to B.J. Blazkowicz, then chances are you might not like Youngblood.

But if you don't care about any of that, and new quirky characters with their own brand of original humor excite you, then it's definitely a shooter you need to try out.

[Note: A copy of Wolfenstein: Youngblood was provided by Bethesda Softworks for the purpose of this review.]

Age Of Wonders: Planetfall Triumphantly Propels the Series Into a Sci-Fi Future Mon, 05 Aug 2019 09:00:01 -0400 Ty Arthur

 Clear your calendars, buckle up, and get ready for a long drop into orbit. Age Of Wonders: Planetfall is going to consume your life. 

While the fan base may have been apprehensive about such an established fantasy franchise making the jump into hyperspace, but they needn't worry any longer. After having put a few dozen hours into the game, I can easily say the transition was smooth and worth the long wait between entries. 

Even if you normally prefer strict medieval fantasy, endlessly re-playing Heroes of Might and Magic titles or the previous Age Of Wonders III, the updated mechanics found in Planetfall are worth experiencing, if for nothing more than expanding your horizons and taking a trip into the future.

How Going Sci-Fi Changes The Game

 Screw your frost wyvern. I'll keep my TANK!

There's one question on the minds of all returning AoW players right now: just how different is Planetfall from the other games? 

Thankfully, Planetfall employs the right amount of different-but-familiar gameplay to work for any player.

There are a handful of similar 1:1 holdovers from the previous game, like needing to research Aquatic Deployment before you can move armies onto water tiles. Everything else, however, is distinguished enough from the fantasy version that Planetfall doesn't just end up a re-skin of Age Of Wonders III.

Now there are Tactical Operations instead of combat spells, and spells that would have affected the game map are now split between Strategic Operations, like creating drones that hinder enemy movement in a province, and Doctrines, which provide global bonuses and affects.

Of course, the territory acquisition mechanics have been upgraded, and changes have come to resources and weaponry. You'll be calling in orbital strikes and placing recon outposts instead of lobbing fireballs or sending magic crows on scouting missions.

In either campaign mode or in random scenarios, maps now wraparound like a Pacman board since you are landing on and conquering spherical planets instead of traversing flat landmasses. That's a subtle change that reinforces the shift into planet-conquering, far-future gameplay. 

Further, the soundtrack is more pulse-pounding than in previous entries. I wouldn't call it extreme metal by any means, but the rapid fire drum beats in manual combat make for significantly more exciting battles.

Between the soundtrack overhaul and the tactical battlefields filled with objects you can interact with, there's more reason to actually play each clash of armies rather than just hitting "auto" every time.

Aside from combat changes, there's a lot more going on with annexed provinces, such as how you interact with them and how they generate resources. These mechanics are befitting advanced technological societies that can generate huge amounts of power or grow biological food on a massive scale.

One of the most welcome tweaks arrives in the form of a handful of long-overdue quality of life upgrades.

The tedium of clicking through every event has been minimized, and now there's an icon clearly showing what a settlement is currently constructing and how many turns it will take to complete.

Long story short, if you've already mastered Age Of Wonders III, you won't have any problem figuring out this version of the game. Luckily, there's still enough new here to change the experience and keep the gameplay fresh.

Planetfall Factions And Gameplay

So how many factions can be played, and how do they differ from one another?

Another area in which Planetfall really shines, there are six strong, main factions to choose from, along with a variety of minor NPC groups to interact with that feature their own unit types, from the degenerate human Spacers to the mechanical AI collective, Autonom.

These are the factions you can pick as of launch:

  • Vanguard: Rough and tumble human survivalists who can drop drones and turrets but otherwise use standard firearms and laser weapons.

  • Kir’Ko: Psionic insects focused on rapid population growth and working in tandem during battle with swarm abilities.

  • Dvar: Thrifty miners focused on explosives, area of affect attacks, and terraforming mountain terrain.

  • Amazon: Beast riders focused on biological weapons, laser attacks, and using forest terrain.

  • Syndicate: Decadent criminal houses that use arc and psi weapons, ignore morale penalties through slavery, and focus on stealth and information gathering.

  • Assembly: Cyborgs that break down and reassemble human flesh, with a focus on arc weapons and faster research.

Although the Dvar are clearly space dwarves, the rest of the factions aren't just obvious analogs to the fantasy version of the franchise, and that's a huge plus that makes the game more exciting for returning fans.

The Vanguard is probably the easiest faction to pick up and play, since they are so strongly focused on military conquest and can pump out a steady stream of useful ranged units.

That being said, my personal favorite is easily the Assembly at the moment. Their creepy, death-and-resurrection focused cyborgs that use the body parts of the fallen to heal themselves and craft new troops is very compelling. It's a sneaky way to get necromancers in sci-fi game, but Triumph makes the faction feel significantly more futuristic. 

No matter what race you go with, you'll interact with other NPC factions much more often than in the previous game, and in some brand-new ways, too.

NPC factions with which you aren't actively warring request tributes of you much more often than before (probably to a degree that needs to be scaled down in a patch) but there's a two way street there.

You can now spend a new resource called Influence to buy units, items, and technology from allies. The more you buy, the more they like you and the more often they give access to higher quality inventory. Staying on good terms with your neighboring communities can be more lucrative than outright conquering and absorbing them.

Every faction is strongly represented by its roster of heroes. While there are fewer item slots for your heroes than before (since they aren't wearing helmets, magic rings, and so on), there's much more flexibility in what abilities you get by swapping out items and placing modifications.

Here's the big twist: you can apply these mod changes to any units,not just heroes. Want a melee skirmisher that deals bleed over time effects and can heal other units? Prefer a sniper with a high critical hit chance and more defense than normal? No problem, just spend some energy and cosmite to apply whatever mods you've researched.

The best part? The UI automatically creates a template anytime you put a new mod combination on a unit, so you can then create new instances of that unit with those same mods already applied, rather than having to manually add them anytime you produce new armies.

While combat remains a big focus no matter what faction you choose, there's now greater choice in how you want to tackle missions via diplomacy, exploration, or military conquest with rewards and quests available depending on which team on the map starts down which path first.

Taking a cue from Civilization, there's also now a branch of the research tree that lets you win randomized maps without military conquest at all. So long as you can be a good neighbor for a set number of rounds and keep diplomatic relations strong, you can unify a planet without first burning it all to the ground, which offers up a very different way to play random Age Of Wonders scenarios. 

The Bottom Line

 ....the hell?!?

  • Updated graphics and a host of quality of life changes
  • The sci-fi setting works amazingly well with Age Of Wonders gameplay
  • Distinct starting factions and more options to decide how you want to play any given map
  • The story and dialog are pretty hit or miss
  • Some resources are still clearly better than others, so a few branches of the research tree aren't going to be used often

Campaign or random map, cyborg necromancers or dino-riding amazons, military conquest or diplomatic unification: there's just a ton to do with Planetfall, and the missions are lengthy and meaty enough to keep you playing for hours. Taking the cautious defensive route, going for diplomacy, and completing all the side quests, it took me 69 turns to complete the first mission.

Of course, in a game this huge, there will be some problems, and I do have a few minor complaints with Planetfall. Notably, some resources and abilities clearly outpace others. You always need more energy, so its far more useful to focus on upgrades that increase that resource as opposed to anything else.

Although its not a big enough deal to distract from the gameplay, the story and dialog aren't anything to write home about. The missions occasionally get silly or are too on the nose, and Triumph shows a weird obsession with evil, genetically modified penguins that some will love and others will get annoyed by fairly quickly.

That being said, the core of the game is rock solid, and its replay value is high. Planetfall even has a mods tab as soon as you launch the game, so clearly that side of the community is being well supported.

Simply put, Planetfall accomplishes everything it set out to do, and between the campaign, randomized scenarios, and the upcoming mod onslaught, I'm expecting to get hundreds of hours of play here in the coming years.

[Note: A copy of Age of Wonders: Planetfall was provided by GoG for the purpose of this review.]

The Church in the Darkness Review: Heaven's Great Fri, 02 Aug 2019 10:25:02 -0400 Mark Delaney

It's 1977.

At the behest of your sister, you're sent to the jungles of South America to search for your nephew Alex. He's in a community named Freedom Town, whose 500 or so people packed their bags amidst supposed persecution ten years prior and left the capitalist machine of the United States behind.

Whether a name like "Freedom Town" fills you with suspicion or hope when you arrive on the outskirts of the commune likely reveals part of your own worldview, and the best part of The Church in the Darkness is you'll be right and wrong at different times no matter your predisposition.

Sometimes Isaac and Rebecca Walker, the charismatic leaders of the Collective Justice Mission, will practice what they preach and exist as the open arms to all who search for a new way of life. Other times, their intentions, though perhaps once noble, have been trampled by years of paranoia, subversion, and in-fighting.

You've just stepped into a small, town-sized powder keg. This malleability is the greatest ambition of The Church in the Darkness, and it largely succeeds at fulfilling its promise.

Only God Can Judge Me

The Church in the Darkness is built on stealth first and foremost, and while it allows you to go louder and messier if you prefer  the same way many genre games do  it's often the wrong approach because you can easily end up the bad guy.

Cults rightfully have a bad reputation, but it's also true that we only tend to hear about the communities that end like Jonestown or Heaven's Gate. There are surely some communities that could be considered cults, but they live on without human rights violations and mass suicides, so they don't make the news.

Sometimes that's who the Collective Justice Mission is. Sometimes the Walkers truly are the loving, kindness-practicing leaders who just want to live a way of life that is incongruous from Cold War United States politics. Other times, the chorus of kumbaya never comes, because one or both of them are unhinged.

No matter which personalities you get for the Walkers on any given playthrough, the game masks who they really are and drip-feeds the reveal to you by way of dialogue, collectibles, and the leaders' temperament if or when they capture you.

There's a small number of other CJM members with whom you can interact and from whom you pick up side missions, and though their objective, like your own to find Alex, never changes, where you find them and where you'll find what they need changes with every playthrough.

There seem to be four major personality possibilities for the Walkers, but then those permutations have permutations that react to how you're playing. Even if you've deduced that the Walkers aren't worthy of praise or trust, you can still alter the course of how that playthrough ends based on what you've done to their people. Every interaction is a moral dilemma and even as the community members are mostly faceless zealots, the sense that you could light a figurative fuse in Freedom Town and cause more harm than would otherwise unfold presents an engaging utilitarian dilemma.

Do you knock out a guard knowing he'll awaken shortly or just kill him on the spot? Do you hide a body or flee the scene in a disguise? Do you rob a farmer for their food or sneak past and save them from that trauma? How will you manage your inventory when health and bullets are often so low?

The game constantly feels like it's doing the math and solving the equations you present in real-time, and that makes for over a dozen different endings, and you'll definitely have favorite finales — I know I do.

Working In Mysterious Ways

The top-down map is wide open but constructed in a maze-like manner because of the various treelines, buildings, and armed guards you'll have to circumnavigate. On easier difficulties, this is done using vision cones which can temporarily be spotted when the player crouches. On the highest difficulty, you're completely without them  and death is a one-shot kill away.

The four difficulty modes are well-balanced. A systems-heavy game like this, where so many variables are interacting at once, feels like the perfect backdrop for perfectionists to chase the most difficult playthroughs, like moving through Freedom Town and extracting Alex without anyone ever knowing you're there or doing so without being harmed on the way.

Completionists will also love filling out the game's endings page, where you can see which you've seen so far and on which difficulty you've seen them. 

Maybe because the game is so ambitious, it doesn't quite hit the high mark it's going for, even as it admirably comes close. With so many permutations in play, enemy behaviors don't always logically continue from the data you've given the game. It can sometimes be really easy for guards to stop chasing you, even after they may have found several dead bodies. The game also doesn't have a sound mechanic that alerts nearby Freedom Towners of gunshots. Instead, it's all seemingly based on line of sight and vision cones.

It's consistent, at least, but dissatisfyingly unrealistic in this way.

Some parts of the UI also tend to get in the way by taking up too much of the screen and staying on screen longer than needed. As each playthrough will contain multiple objectives and side missions before you can escape with Alex (or not), confront the Walkers (or not), or expose the Collective Justice Mission (or not), time is often of the essence.

The game's way of sharing new information via large blocks of text can sometimes obstruct vision cones or enemy movements, too, leaving you at their mercy for a moment too long. On harder difficulties, this is especially problematic because it takes that vital autonomy out of your hands and nearly blindfolds you amid a host of trigger-happy gunmen where one shot erases it all.

Other times, some minor bugs get in the way, too, usually revolving around escorting your nephew. He's a reliable AI, don't worry about that, but sometimes interacting with him during your getaway can leave some extra UI stuck on the screen. I found a workaround to fix this, but it's obviously not supposed to happen. 

Anyone for Kool-Aid?

While it's first and foremost a game driven by its well-defined but flexible gameplay elements, I found a lot of the narrative content compelling. Reading descriptions for collectibles is fun because they too change with the many versions of Freedom Town. But most of all, I was often stunned by the constant dronings over the speakers by Isaac and Rebecca Walker.

They make some really strong points about the United States' shortcomings and its bloody, terrible history as the richest country in the world built on the backs of slave labor. They recall the Stonewall Riots, mock the presidents of their time, and even come down particularly hard on my hometown of Boston. 

The Walkers, even when they're at their most vile and violent, can still make uncomfortably strong arguments, at least for why Freedom Town was originally necessary.

Their public speeches like these serve as a constant reminder of how cults often reel in some of the smartest people in our society, not just our most outwardly vulnerable. We know this is true from history, and Church depicts this accurately and cleverly across the many versions of the charismatic leaders.

  • Ambitious, moving-parts story design mostly works and invites many playthroughs
  • Compelling characters in the Walkers who beg philosophical questions in all iterations
  • Collectibles done right


  • UI issues get in the way, especially on higher difficulties
  • Falls a bit shy of reacting realistically to all your decisions

The Church in the Darkness comes from a small team determined to toy with big ideas, both in story and in gameplay, and for the most part, it gets those elements right.

The employ of stealth as a self-measuring moral barometer is satisfying every single time, and the Walkers' soapboxing is unnervingly hard to argue against.

The game does show its constraints in some ways, but by and large, it's worth singing its praises. Hallelujah.

[Note: A copy of The Church in the Darkness was provided by Paranoid Productions for the purpose of this review.]

Lexip Pu94 Gaming Mouse Review: Unusually Customizable, But Who Actually Needs These Features? Thu, 01 Aug 2019 11:18:55 -0400 Thomas Wilde

Lexip is a French company, which mounted a successful Kickstarter early last year to deliver a specialized gaming mouse to the world. The trademark feature of the Pu94 is that it integrates two separate internal, miniaturized analog joysticks. One's on the left side of the mouse, under your thumb; the other is controlled by subtly rocking the mouse's shell on its spring-loaded base.

To be honest, when I first heard of it, I wasn't sure why Lexip thought I'd want it. Having a couple of extra makeshift joysticks on a gaming mouse sounded like a level of innovation for innovation's sake, something that you don't often see outside late-night commercials. They might as well have stuck a garlic press on there, or a mandolin slicer, for all the practical application it seemed to have.

The goal, according to Lexip, is to buy yourself a couple of extra seconds in-game by allowing you to move and click simultaneously with the same hand. You can reassign your "WASD" keys to one of the integrated joysticks, for example, so you can pivot, aim, move, and strafe entirely with your mouse.

Lexip's initial product launch last year was bogged down a bit by glitchy software. The company showed up at E3 this year ready to roll with some updates, aiming to make up for lost time, and offered me a chance to test-drive a new edition of the Pu94.

After a couple of weeks of play, it does have a lot going for it.

I'm rough on hardware, and the Pu94 is one of the more sturdy-feeling gaming mice I've ever used. It's got a nice long braided cord, ceramic "feet" along its bottom for a surprisingly smooth glide, two extra buttons on its left side, and one extra "Lexip" button on top underneath the scroll wheel. It's also comfortable in my hand.

I do have to ding the Pu94 straight out of the gate, however, for a lack of documentation. The manual and box appear to be written on the assumption that you're probably buying the mouse straight from Lexip itself, so you've obviously already done your research. Nothing that comes with the mouse tells you about its control panel, which is a free download from Lexip's website, and which is required before you can take advantage of the Pu94's additional options.

Without the control panel, it's just an expensive plug-and-play mouse, with a strange rocking base and a thumbstick that's little better than a second, pointier, oversensitive scroll wheel.

Once you install the control panel, which is still a little glitchy (one of the menus consistently stayed open on my screen even after I closed the panel) but entirely usable, you can start tinkering with the Pu94's DPI, change the colors of its lights, customize the buttons, and adjust the sticks' sensitivity. It comes with a number of pre-set options for games like Kerbal Space Program, DOTA 2, World of Warcraft, and Counter-Strike.

The general idea is meant to be that once you're used to it, you can use the mouse to do some or all of your in-game motion, instead of the mouse plus a keyboard, which means you gain valuable seconds in the heat of the fray.

It does require a lot of custom tinkering unless you're playing one of the games that are already included as presets, however, and once you've got it working, there's a fairly hellacious learning curve. It takes a lot of time to decouple yourself from the old "WASD"/mouse combination, although it's surprisingly useful to be able to save your left hand for things like context commands and quick-selecting weapons.

Mostly, though, this is a gimmick. The Kickstarter and website for the Pu94 are both littered with testimonials from satisfied players who've used the mouse to gain a new competitive edge, but for the amount of work you're putting in here, you have to take your fun fairly seriously. I don't see the real utility here unless you're actually looking to go pro.

There are two big exceptions, though. One is obvious: this would be an ideal solution for any player who happens to not have full use of both hands. The Pu94's actually a surprisingly great accessibility option.

The other is that the dual joysticks make the Pu94 a nice option for playing certain kinds of games that are heavy on spatial navigation. Some players have reported that it's excellent for flight simulators, for example, or building games like The Sims. I actually found it a decent option for playing the non-VR edition of the recent release Bow to Blood, a sort of naval-action game, as it let me move through space a bit more elegantly than a simple "WASD"/mouse combination would allow.

  • A comfortable, sleek ergonomic gaming mouse that's built to last
  • Adjustable all the way up to 12,000 DPI
  • Incredibly useful for certain genres, such as flight simulators
  • A great potential accessibility option for disabled or recovering players
  • The packaging and manual in the box do not actually mention the control panel software at all; I guess you're supposed to go to the Lexip website out of sheer curiosity and find it that way

  • Definitely a hardcore option for serious players, as only the most driven or dedicated fans will sit down and spend a couple of hours customizing a control scheme like this one

  • A niche product; if you don't intend to use it for its specific hardware options, you'd do better to get a Logitech or Razer product for a bit less money

The Pu94 isn't a bad mouse on its own, and I'd be interested in buying a stripped-down model that simply featured the same degree of comfort and sensitivity. The big key features here, however, take enough work to set up that I question the value of the product as a whole. It's not bad, but outside of a few edge cases or particular genres, it's not particularly necessary.

If you like tinkering with weird hardware, though, this is a must-have. One way or another, there isn't much else like this on the market today.

[Note: A Pu94 review unit was provided by Lexip for the purpose of this review.]

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review — Cream of the Crop Wed, 31 Jul 2019 16:20:54 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Put an RPG in a school setting, and you'll likely get lots of exasperated eye rolls from fans. Anime School often brings with it lots of well-used tropes. That's why Fire Emblem: Three Houses surprised and concerned many when it came out the game was partially set in a school.

Competing factions? Check. Shy mage girls and brash, would-be Casanovas? Check. In fact, "check" for everything you might expect out of a school-based RPG.

Add a Persona-style calendar and stat-raising system with some distinct plot elements reminiscent of Nihon Falcom's Trails of Cold Steel, and you have a game that seems mostly derivative on paper.

Fortunately, the difference between theory and reality is made plain from the moment you boot up Three Houses. This Fire Emblem skillfully balances innovation with established mechanics to create the most immersive and finely crafted game in the franchise.

The Bonds You Form

Three Houses presents what's easily the most sophisticated — and coherent — Fire Emblem story, and it does so in ways subtly different from the series' usual storytelling methods. Note that some minor story spoilers from the opening segments follow.

It's no secret that churches and organized religion are frequent targets in JRPGs. Three Houses isn't different in this regard, but it doesn't expect you to be surprised by that fact. You're actually shown the Church of Seiros' dark side in the game's opening movie sequence.

By chapter five, which is still quite early in the game, you and your students are in no doubt about the Church's morally ambiguous nature and tendency towards authoritarianism.

What makes the plot especially strong is how all this isn't necessarily the primary emphasis. How each character reacts to what they learn, how they take part in or are affected by the political machinations around them — that's what makes Three Houses' narrative compelling.

It doesn't fade as the game progresses either. Despite some intentionally predictable developments, there are still plenty of surprises, many of which relate to how you're forced to interact with the students you once considered friends once the real war starts.

This setup and heavier focus on characters and character development is a definite boon for the game. That's because Fire Emblem has always been about its characters, even before Intelligent Systems turned them into breeding machines with Awakening.

As we initially predicted after the first gameplay reveal, the school setting is a natural way for the game to emphasize this strength. You don't really have a choice: you're going to become invested in your students.

You help them grow and achieve their goals, you learn their troubled backstories, you come to understand their hopes and dreams, and you spend your rare free time with them.

After the time skip and each House splits, all this time and effort means it's almost like facing off against your own kids during battle (if your kids were fictitious and lived in a fantasy world, that is).

Support conversations are more important than ever thanks to this setup, especially since these are where you interact with students one-on-one and see how they relate to their classmates.

What's even more interesting this time around is that support conversations often have some plot significance, with the conversations between House leaders and their second-in-command proving most useful in foreshadowing how that House's path will play out.

Wanting to see how each House's path plays out means Three Houses has tons of replay value as well. Plus, that desire bears witness to the story's strength on the whole. Even after dozens of hours finishing one path, you'll want to jump right back in to pick another path.

Tangled Threads

It's not all about the characters, though; there's still a strong plot independent of them. Even with the many changes to the series, the usual Fire Emblem content is still here: characters who go bad, surprise-not-surprise revelations about an important character's lineage, lots of political intrigue and the like. As fantasy food goes, it's all satisfying stuff.

However, Three Houses' political issues seem more deeply rooted in political history, with a splash of literature thrown in for good measure. (Bonus points for anyone who gets the house name references to King Lear in the Golden Deer path.)

No longer does King X invading Country Y to fulfill evil, arcane Mission Z make up most of the world-building. It's there, but there's much more as well.

Clashes between democratic ideals and monarchy, burgeoning nations and the established hegemony, are as old as civilization. These different themes are common throughout medieval European history, and the tangled motives and conflicting paths are a refreshing take on Fire Emblem's usually more one dimensional narratives.

All of this is wrapped up in the Church of Seiros' dark secrets and the forces that move against it, not all of which work together.

Whether you're versed in politics and history or not, it's easy to appreciate the detail Three Houses lavishes on its world and nations, not to mention the nuanced treatment given to the story.

Welcome to Your New Life

Fire Emblem games usually introduce something new in each entry, but the changes tend to be conservative. Some new class paths here, an overworld map there, skirmishes, removing weapon durability, and other similar changes have all featured in each successive Fire Emblem game in the West since 2003.

In comparison, Three Houses is like a quiet revolution. Not only does it do away with the weapon triangle, a series staple, but it introduces a host of new mechanics, expands existing ones, and does all this in a way that feels completely natural for the series and genre. It's a perfect setup for longtime fans and series newcomers alike.

Teacher's Pet

The most noticeable changes come first thing when you're recruited as a professor and have to choose a House.

The branching storyline mechanic isn't new, though it's certainly perfected far beyond what it was in Fire Emblem Fates, thanks to more meaningful changes in the plot.

But the big change here is, of course, being a professor, which in Three Houses means choosing in what your units will excel and what they will prioritize.

Being responsible for teaching your students introduces an almost intimidating level of customization and lets you make any unit whatever you want it to be. Unlike earlier games, the only restrictions on classes are skill levels and, for some, gender. Want to see what happens when Marianne the weak mage focuses all her might on her Brawling skills? Go for it.

That being said, each character has innate strengths and weaknesses, and some of them act like guides for how you could chart their growth paths. You can ignore them if you want, tweak them a bit, or just forego the customization element completely and let them train themselves.

Letting you choose to engage in the new mechanics or not is a smart move. Sure, auto-instruct might not grant the same level of investment in your students, but some people just want a traditional Fire Emblem game and that's fine, too.

Those who do engage in the new features are in for a treat. Once you get the hang of goal setting and choosing which skills to promote with each activity, the teaching turns into an incredibly satisfying loop that also helps determine how you spend your time in the other big, non-combat change: the monastery.

It's a huge area that functions like an overworld, with plenty of places to explore — so many that you're still unlocking new areas several chapters into the game.

You have a set number of Activity Points to spend during exploration and a wide range of things to do. You can choose to engage in tournaments, complete activities with students to raise support points, fish, garden, host tea parties, complete side quests, return lost items, answer notes left in the cathedral — there's a staggering amount of activities you can pursue outside of combat and instruction.

Taking breaks from combat to explore and focus on bonds helps keep from getting into the strategy game slog, where consecutive maps easily lead to game burnout.

On the Battlefield

Then there's the combat, one of the most important parts of any strategy game. It's largely unchanged except for a few key areas.

The first is battalions, groups of soldiers or mercenaries you can hire for each character, should you have the funds and requisite Authority ranking.

Battalions offer a variety of advantages, from stat boosts to special Gambit skills. Gambits are powerful attacks often involving more than one character, and they can have several different effects.

The most common one early in the game is Onslaught, which can prevent a counterattack, push an enemy back, and seal its movement for the next turn. Others like White Magic Resonance magnify healing magic and spread it over multiple tiles. Your enemies get battalions too and make good use of them.

These Gambits aren't all-powerful skills, though, and your battalions eventually wear down. However, replenishing them is easy and inexpensive, so while it's not a good idea to blow through your battalion right away, the game certainly encourages you to use them frequently.

Another minor but important change is with skills. Each skill set gets a variety of passive and combat skills, and good use of combat skills can turn the tide of a difficult battle — at a cost. Weapon durability is back, and combat skills wear weapons down at a faster rate than normal combat.

Magic is tied to the Reason and Faith skills this time. That means you don't have to buy tomes and staves, but you do need to invest a lot in Reason and Faith to make mages useful.

Though these changes are minor, they all combine to make Three Houses the most streamlined and engaging game in the series so far, with plenty of options to keep combat fresh.

Finally, we come to map variety. Three Houses continues the theme Echoes: Shadows of Valentia started by exchanging complex and exotic maps with open spaces, simple terrain, and multiple paths in a given map.

Some fans prefer the diverse map design from Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, with challenging gimmicks and layouts that hinder as much as they assist.

However, there's something to be said for the simpler variety. The lack of features means you have to focus more on strategic unit placement, taking advantage of what terrain there is and deciding whether to split your army up or press forward as one. It ends up fitting very well with the game's greater emphasis on training and wisely choosing skills too, so even if it isn't as flashy as other games, it works perfectly in the context of Three Houses.

New Horizons

Speaking of looks, Three Houses is easily the best looking Fire Emblem game to date. Colors are deep and rich, and the various areas of the monastery offer their own visual treat, from the sun shining on the flagstones to the warm hues of the cathedral.

Character models move much more fluidly than in previous games, even if they don't have too many movements outside of combat. They do have feet, though, which is important for anyone who's played Awakening.

As with more recent entries, scenes are told via both gorgeous 2D portrait art and 3D models, though the Switch's hardware naturally makes Three Houses' story sequences look and play the best of them all. There are more lovely looking anime-style cutscenes as well, helping punctuate important moments with that extra bit of visual impact.

Unfortunately, it seems like Three Houses might have been a bit too ambitious for the hardware in a few areas. There's frequent slowdown when moving about the monastery, and while it doesn't really affect the game's flow, it is noticeable. There's also evident screen tearing in the Entrance Hall and some of the monastery's corridors while in handheld mode. Again, it doesn't detract from the game, but it's easy to see.

Three Houses is an audio treat as well. The soundtrack features various remixes of the main theme, but they're all suited perfectly to whatever situation in which they play, from the quiet melodies of exploration to the truncated, percussion-heavy sounds of combat.

More important is the voice acting, which is stellar and much more extensive than the grunts of past games. Every line of dialogue, even NPC and random Seiros guard dialogue, is voiced, and fortunately, it's all high-quality work.

Each actor manages to capture the emotion behind their lines, and like all good acting, it makes the experience even more immersive than if it were just text. This writer didn't use the Japanese voice track, so he can't really comment on it, but that's a testament to the English track's quality; never was the temptation there to switch tracks or shut it off, even on the odd occasion when voiced dialogue and script didn't match completely


  • Expansive story, with plenty of replay value
  • Meaningful player choices
  • Immersive character customization and development
  • Consistently engaging and high-stakes plot
  • Impressive coherence between all aspects of the game
  • Map design may be too simple for some
  • A few technical problems

Fire Emblem: Three Houses has enough to keep the strategy faithful happy while still being accessible for newcomers, making it a very versatile game indeed. It builds on the traditional Fire Emblem formula, introducing a number of improvements that build naturally on the series' biggest strengths. Combat is smooth and deep, the story is impressively detailed, and there are countless ways to spend your time in the game.

It all blends seamlessly together to create a satisfyingly immersive experience that lasts throughout the game and well into several extra playthroughs.

[Note: A copy of Fire Emblem: Three Houses was provided by Nintendo for the purpose of this review.]

Steelseries Arctis 9X Review: Mission Accomplished Wed, 31 Jul 2019 15:09:21 -0400 Stephen F. Johnston

The Arctis 9X for the Xbox One is the next in a line of successful gaming headsets that SteelSeries claims is the "most-awarded headset line in history". With over 50 awards across the board, it's hard to argue that the underlying hardware pedigree is well established, especially when you consider how we've previously reviewed the Arctis 7 and Arctis Pro headsets. 

With a tidy set of main feature areas, the 9X is one of the few officially compatible Xbox One headsets in the company's line. The Arctis 3 Bluetooth is technically compatible alongside a few others, but the 9X comes from a direct partnership with Microsoft, all with the goal of bringing the best sound experience to the Xbox One. 

I can say that goal was accomplished. 


The 9X includes 40mm drivers capable of 20-22,000 Hz response and a retractable ClearCast noise-canceling microphone which tucks into the left earcup. 

Like other headsets in the Arctis line, the 9X sports an all-black finish from top to bottom. The cans feature a matte finish on the outside of each premium, padded earcup, with a more brushed finish encircling them and moving around the headband. 

The more noticeable change here is the green-wire design found on the cloth across the headband. The color is the same as the official Xbox green. 

Overall, its core design is comparable to the Arctis 7 in almost every way, and it doesn't particularly stand out from the average headset in the line. 


While the 9X might not have everything found in the Pro, it does have a few unique features. Notably, the microphone is well worth attention since it's one of the best out there in our experience. It's clear and precise, and it doesn't sound like you're talking through a tin can. 

On top of that, the 9X features built-in EQ, a nice feature that can easily go overlooked, especially in a headset made for console. The 9X provides four presets that mostly cover the gamut of what many users will expect. However, in a twist not often found on console-centric headsets, you can tweak the presets with the SteelSeries engine if you have a PC. 

The headset also features a dual wireless connection for Xbox Wireless and Bluetooth, which we'll talk more about below. 

Of course, it also features SteelSeries' infamously comfortable ski goggle fabric across the headband, making it (once again) one of the most comfortable headsets on the market. 


Adding to an already excellent foundation is a top-notch Xbox-compatible wireless setup with notable bells and whistles.

SteelSeries didn't just slap wireless onto a headset and call it a day. The Arctis 9X supports a dual wireless connection, which means you can connect to the Xbox One and to your Bluetooth phone at the same time. This allows you yo pipe audio in from the phone if you need to take a call or want to listen to your favorite playlist.

In addition, the headset allows an audio-only wired connection for when gaming sessions outpace the headset's 20-hour battery life. 

The headset can also be used on PC if you have one lying around. In my testing, it didn't require any additional hardware on Windows 10, but SteelSeries claims a device is required for low latency connections.

Overall, sound with the 9X is great. You'll find something comparable to what's available in the Arctis 7 or even the Arctis Pro. These cans pack a lot of punch in the high- and mid-tiers, and they provide clear tones that are easily differentiated from each other. 

  • Easily connects to Xbox One and PC
  • Provides dual wireless connection
  • Great sound
  • High price point might deter some gamers
  • Doesn't support all platforms

Overall, the Arctis 9X is one of the best headsets SteelSeries has made. You can't go wrong with it, especially if you're an Xbox player.  

The Arctis 9X is available for $199.99 at GameStop and

Here are the headset's full specs: 

 Drivers Neodymium 40mm
Frequency Response 20-22,000Hz
Headphone Sensitivity 98 dBSPL
Headphone Impedance 32 Ohm
Microphone Frequency Response 100-10,000Hz
Microphone Pattern Bidirectional
Microphone Sensitivity -38 dBV/Pa
Microphone Impedance 2,200 Ohm
Microphone Type Retractable
Connection Type(s) Wireless, Bluetooth
Range 20ft (6m)
Battery Life 20 hours
Bluetooth Version 4.1
Bluetooth Profiles A2DP, HFP, HSP

[Note: An Arctis 9X review unit was provided by SteelSeries for the purpose of this review.]

ARMA 3 Contact Review: Occasional Aliens Wed, 31 Jul 2019 11:23:12 -0400 John Schutt

There is no widely-known military simulation game quite like ARMA, and despite a large portion of its fame coming from its DayZ mod, the series nonetheless has a core contingent of fans. Whether they came for the zombies and decided to stay or wanted something more tactical and freeform, the ARMA playerbase remains dedicated to the game after many years, iterations, and DLCs.

Contact is the latest downloadable content to hit ARMA 3. Though it comes with a new map and plenty of new assets for hardcore players to dig into, the real draw here is the singleplayer campaign where an alien intelligence visits earth in a first-contact scenario.

Making a Playbook

Initially set as a large-scale military exercise in the fictional country of Livonia, you play as Specialist Aiden Rudwell, and it's your job to assist both the Livonian Defense Force (LDF) and their American allies in a mock invasion by the Russians. 

Things start innocently enough, as the entire first mission of the DLC is nothing more than a failed attempt to steal fake data from a terminal behind enemy lines. You learn a little bit about the world you're inhabiting (it's not particularly interesting), the people you'll be working with (a fairly standard bunch), and the equipment you'll be spending a lot of time using (it's ARMA, so it's awkward). 

Then, events begin to spiral downward, and they do so quickly. An explosion rocks the base where Rudwell and his team are stationed, revealing a strange structure that defies description.

Two weeks pass without much news, at which point one of Rudwell's buddies — and his immediate superior — Corporal Stype starts to get a little paranoid. Through a series of increasingly silly shenanigans, a darker story nonetheless starts to tell itself.

It's typical science-fiction fare. Someone's trying to cover something up, there are unknown figures and voices in places they shouldn't be, and Stype, ever the not-conspiracy-theorist-but, only finds his paranoia rewarded with each passing moment.

Rudwell, for his part, wants nothing to do with any of it, but partly because he's the protagonist and partly out of curiosity, he goes along with Stype's plans. 

Or he does until every piece of electronic gear in the country gets knocked offline, everyone panics, and a giant blue-black space ship shows up to some unknown purpose.

Finding Answers

It's not a terribly paced first act if I'm honest. While predictable and marred by voice acting that leaves much to be desired, the story is told well enough. 

Once the aliens actually arrive, however, everything starts to go sideways. Stype does something stupid, of course, which leads the LDF to have shoot-on-sight orders for any Americans they see. Comms and equipment not shielded against electronic warfare are inoperable, and the chain of command, while intact, is shaky at best. 

Oh, and there's a couple of weird dudes from overseas who know exactly what the plot needs them to know, and no more.

At this point, there's a huge shift in gameplay style and the quality of the storytelling. No longer a war simulation, Contact now asks the player to go into stealth mode.

You're forced to rely almost exclusively on the Spectrum device, a frequency transmitter/receiver that has as many applications as the developers need to make the plot move along. The device can: send and receive enemy transmissions, send and receive orders to enemy squads so you can sneak by them, pick up and "talk" to alien entities, plus a few other minor features that make these primary tasks easier. 

The reliance on stealth and subterfuge does several things to make ARMA 3 Contact a lesser experience.

First, it highlights the glaring flaws in the game's AI. From its inhuman ability to detect the player to aim that would give a Stormtrooper a run for their money, the AI foibles you would usually solve with a gun are all too plain to see. 

Second, you won't be firing a single bullet for hours. And yes, I know that makes sense in the context of the story, but the game goes out of its way to give you a new weapon with every mission, even when it knows you won't need one. You're incentivized from the beginning to distract and deceive, not to kill, as the people you'd be shooting are technically your allies. That the game eventually throws this out notwithstanding, I found it irksome that I had access to so many different pieces of gear that served no purpose beyond window dressing.

Third, half of the ARMA experience doesn't existThere's very little squad play, even with your NPC allies. Almost everything you do is done solo with only said NPCs on the radio to keep you company. You don't have access to many vehicles, either, as the need for stealth makes such noisy machines a hindrance. And because you're walking everywhere, it takes several minutes just to get to your next objective, seemingly just to pad out gameplay time.

Last, is the "Danger Zone" mechanic, which prevents you from saving as long as you're inside the red circle, forcing you to rely on the game's awful autosave system. Checkpoints are few and far between and with such droll voice acting and mission variety, a single death can cost almost 15 minutes. 

The game did have its moments, infrequent though they sometimes seemed. Duping the AI never got old, simply because they were so eager to follow fake orders. Using the map and topography to place yourself effectively was also incredibly satisfying, and I would be lying if I said there were genuine moments of awe at some of the alien designs. They weren't anything revolutionary, but I still found their presence menacing, strange, and fascinating.

The Occasional Alien

Despite its claim to be primarily a "First Contact" scenario, the Contact DLC doesn't focus on the aliens themselves much. They are a presence, something beyond our understanding and control, the kind of force we can only hope to avoid or redirect than face head-on.

I think that's my favorite part about Contact, as well. Stories of alien contact shouldn't answer too many questions, and I've always felt that aliens that take too much of the spotlight do a disservice to the human stories that we can actually relate to.

Mystery is essential when it comes to crafting an extraterrestrial narrative, and Contact makes no attempt to truly understand The Visitors, as they come to be called. They are as strange and incomprehensible at the beginning as they are at the end, and though I would have loved to see what kind of creatures they were in the flesh, I am nonetheless satisfied with their presence in the ARMA universe. 

  • Interesting aliens that perfectly straddle the line between threatening and mysterious
  • A vast, well-constructed map to explore 
  • A serviceable narrative that doesn't break new ground and gives its players seven or eight hours of pleasant diversion
  • An almost complete disregard for what makes ARMA the franchise it is
  • Poor performance even on good hardware
  • Baffling design choices that cost players time for a single mistake

ARMA 3 Contact is a valiant attempt to tell a unique and engaging science-fiction story in a realistic setting. It spends a little too much time getting in its own way, and there are moments where it seems a little too inside its own head. However, it remains a serviceable narrative regardless of its other shortcomings.

ARMA veterans will find something to like in Contact, if only as a pleasant distraction from the standard gameplay loop of the core game. The new map and assets are likely to be much appreciated, but for someone not already enthralled by the military-simulation genre, there's little here to convince them to jump in and see what the fuss is about.

[Note: A copy of ARMA 3: Contact was provided by Bohemia Interactive for the purpose of this review.]

Turtle Beach Recon Spark Headset Review: A Colorful, Slightly Pricier Recon 70 Upgrade Wed, 31 Jul 2019 11:04:56 -0400 Thomas Wilde

A Turtle Beach representative told me at E3 that the company had done some research, and apparently, there's quite a potential market for PC and console headsets that are not primarily jet black.

Who knew?

The Recon Spark, which retails for $49.95, is the first result thereof. It's the first of a planned series of headsets from Turtle Beach that will receive what it calls the "Spark treatment," which begins with a unique visual style.

The Recon Spark is bright white with lavender cords, which is more of an eye-catcher than you'd expect, and more color options are intended to follow in the coming months.

As the name suggests, the Recon Spark is an update and cosmetic redesign of Turtle Beach's entry-level Recon line of wired headsets. The Spark is a cross-platform model with a 3.5mm jack, intended for use with any modern console or tablet, and comes with a splitter cable for PC compatibility.

Like the Recon 70, the Spark features a volume dial on its left speaker, the ability to mute its mic by sliding it into an upward position, and an adjustable, reinforced metal headband.

The extra $20 price tag above the Recon 70 does get you a few bonus features besides the new color scheme, however. The Spark doesn't feel as flimsy or cheap as the Recon 70 does, and it's markedly more comfortable. It's got a wider headband, with a glasses-friendly design on its speakers' padding. The 70 tended to sit a little uneasily on my ears, but the Recon Spark was comfortable and stable through several multi-hour gaming sessions on PC, Switch, and PS4.

Just for the hell of it, I also tested the Spark by spending half an hour on an elliptical machine while I watched Netflix on a tablet. While I don't recommend that as, you know, a life decision (yeah, work out in earmuffs, see what happens), the Spark stayed firmly in place throughout the experience. It's got a nice bit of grip and weight to it, comfortable without being heavy or restrictive.

As far as the audio quality goes, I didn't really notice a difference between the 70 and the Spark. It's still a perfectly serviceable option for games and still sounds decent if you're watching movies or streaming video.

As with the 70, then, the Recon Spark is aimed strictly at a no-frills, entry-level audience. The extra $20 over the 70 might seem a little steep, but that extra money is getting you a lot of additional comfort, as well as a much-needed splitter cable that addresses one of the 70's primary issues. 


  • One of the rare gaming headsets that you can also use for music or TV without a noticeable dip in audio quality
  • It systematically addresses many of the issues I had with the Recon 70
  • Decent sound
  • $49.95 feels like a slightly tall ask for an "entry-level" product
  • It's a little warm and bulky, even by the standards of a stereo headset with big speaker cups
  • As with the 70, the best thing you can say about it is that it does the job

[Note: A Recon Spark review unit was provided by Turtle Beach for the purpose of this review.]

Madden NFL 20 Review: Rebuilding for Prime Time Wed, 31 Jul 2019 10:57:24 -0400 Mark Delaney

Like many annual sports games, Madden NFL is often cast as a copy and paste job. There have been years where that's closer to the truth, but the last several years have seen Tiburon and EA Sports try to implement some sweeping changes, putting that truth in question. 

The problem is that not all of those changes have worked, and some have even disappeared from games within a few years.

This year, Madden NFL 20 brings quantitatively fewer big changes, but qualitatively, the changes it does bring feel like the building blocks of a future champion.

Just Throw It Up There, I'll Go Get It

Though the game's cover star doesn't always denote its direction, Patrick Mahomes seems like a good fit for this year's iteration. Why? Because Madden NFL 20 is largely focused on the league's most explosive playmakers, and no one was more fun to watch last season than the Chiefs' instant superstar. 

For Madden, his and others' game-changing abilities manifest as new X-Factor abilities. Superstars and their returning, lesser abilities are spread out to the point where you'll find several on every team, but only 50 players in the league have been designated as X-Factors. They're given special skills that can be activated during a game after certain parameters are met. 

For Mahomes, it means earning an additional 15 yards of throwing distance after he throws multiple passes that travel 30+ yards in the air. For others, like Aaron Rodgers, it means disabling the ability for defenders to get an interception for a while. Twenty skills are assigned across 50 players for skill positions and defenders.

This focus on the league's best players is done in an arcadey way, but it's meant to represent the real-life explosiveness of players, letting them take over a game. It's a system that carries across all game modes: franchise, online, and even in Madden Ultimate Team (MUT), where you can assign X-Factor roles to your players.

Sometimes you see a new Madden feature and you know it isn't long for this world (see: QB Vision), but X-Factors feel like something that will stick, even as that's partly because it's an easy headline to market each summer.

Step Into the Spotlight

Over the past two years, Madden story modes went from bad to painfully worse. Thankfully, the Madden team must've agreed change was needed because this year's new take on narrative-driven Madden is the best it's ever been. Like X-Factors, this year's Face of the Franchise feels like it'll stick around for years to come.

By taking a more hands-off approach than Longshot mode, Madden NFL 20 allows the story to behave as a brief but interesting preamble, and then quickly shuffles it off stage a la' NBA 2K, all before it can get too absurd or make too many head-scratching plot decisions.

For the first time ever, you can also choose a college to attend from a pool of about 10 major programs and play the two-game playoff series as you push for the National Championship and eventually attend the NFL Combine. This background helps flesh out your draft prospects all before you get drafted by one of several eligible teams, each of whom are QB-needy in real life, like the Dolphins and Bengals. 

In this year's mode, you're immovably cast as the quarterback, but one could easily envision this same sort of mode reappearing for years ahead. While not every position would be compelling sorry interior linemen and kickers upstart running backs, trash-talking wideouts, and defensive leaders could appear over the next few years and make Face of the Franchise a new series staple.

It's not perfect, and at times it's ironically almost too rushed, but as a first attempt, it's a lot of fun.

Ultimate Team Piles On

EA has made Ultimate Team the focus of all their sports franchises, but if you're not someone who got in with the series years ago, it can be hard to find the right jumping-on point. To EA's credit, MUT is the deepest experience annually, with more content than seemingly anyone could ever make time for. This year's game helps ease newcomers in with missions, a more guided approach that sort of holds your hand through the many menus of MUT. 

MUT is a live service mode, so new challenges and players come to it all the time, but it's good to see at launch there are some chase-worthy cards already built into challenges, like 86 overall Baker Mayfield and Deacon Jones. 

Outside of that, the mode does a lot more of what it always does: teases you with card packs to buy. The roadmap of missions help you stay on target better so you're not lost in the sea of MUT menus, but it's still difficult to resist the packs which promise all sorts of treasures and shortcuts to get your low-ranked team ready to compete.

I'd be curious to know what the statistics show regarding how many MUT diehards refrain from buying cards whatsoever. They certainly make it tough to dodge.

  • Rebuilds story mode in a better light
  • Better guidance in MUT mode, which continues to grow more robust each year
  • X-Factors help bring real-life explosiveness to the game
  • MUT still feels like it's too heavy on buying card packs to progress at an enjoyable pace
  • Story is miles better than before but could still use better writing

Madden NFL 20 feels built for new audiences without abandoning the diehards that are there every year on day one.

Face of the Franchise erases the ugly past of Longshot and builds a much stronger foundation for the future. MUT introduces missions to hold new players' hands so they can navigate the dizzying menus, even as EA still clearly hopes everyone buys a pack or three. X-Factors help the game mimic the real NFL which has never felt more explosive.

The major changes this year mostly feel like course corrections for past mistakes, but they're the building blocks of a contender for years to come.


[Note: A copy of Madden NFL 20 was provided by EA for the purpose of this review.]

Logitech G Pro X Gaming Headset Review: Sound Like a Pro Mon, 29 Jul 2019 10:11:08 -0400 Jonny Foster

The latest addition to Logitech's arsenal of 2019 gaming gear is the Logitech G Pro X headset, a refinement over the company's previous Pro model. For a small price increase (up to $130 now), the G Pro X adds some bells and whistles that make it an enticing option, especially for streamers, content creators, and eSports athletes. 

Before we jump into the meat of this review, though, it's worth mentioning that Logitech G is also releasing an updated version of the Logitech G Pro headset for $100, that it's helpfully named: (drum-roll please...) the Pro.

Setting aside the fact that there are also 'Pro' lines of Logitech keyboards and mice, there are now three nearly identical headsets with nearly identical names. 

So that everyone's clear: we're specifically reviewing the new G Pro X Gaming Headset with BLUE VO!CE. It's the BLUE VO!CE integration that makes the G Pro X so special, but it's also what pushes the headset over the $100 price tag that many gamers are so keen to stay below.

On top of that, the improvements require Logitech's G HUB Software to use, planting this firmly as a PC headset. PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch owners will see no improvement over the regular Pro headset, narrowing the headset's market further.

With the competition for gaming headsets under $100 already so fierce, Logitech has an uphill battle in this regard. It's filling a niche demand, sure, and it does that superbly, but it's not the recommended headset for everyone.


The G Pro X is instantly recognizable as a Logitech headset. Save for the metallic silver "G" logo on the outside of each earcup, the headset boasts a simple, sleek black aesthetic. It features aluminium and steel for the headband and frame and memory foam leatherette for padding. 

Thanks to the lightweight metal frame, it's far more durable than cheaper plastic headsets as well as some of Logitech's other offerings. Though, it obviously comes at a cost. At 320 grams, it's not the lightest of headsets, sitting between Logitech's G935 and G432. However, it's far from bulky, either. 

As with its predecessor, the word "Pro" is emblazoned across the top of the headband, this time in a subtle black finish. Overall, it's a very stylish design, straying from the typical "gamer" look that may put casual users off.

You'd have no problem using these to listen to music or a podcast in public: they're nondescript enough without looking boring, and the microphone is detachable, which is always a nice touch.

There still isn't much movement with the earcups, unfortunately. There's no 90-degree swivel that Logitech's other headsets employ, so the G Pro X can't be flattened to pack away or set on the chest when not in use. We've been fairly vocal in the past that it's a crime for modern headset design to forgo this, but it's primarily a preference at the end of the day, so some certainly won't be bothered by the omission. 

The in-line volume wheel and mute slider can be found on a clip about 1ft down the headset's cable. Although other Logitech headsets, as well as those from other brands, have mostly moved to on-cup controls for volume, mute, etc., the in-line controls found here aren't necessarily a detriment and are easy to find while in use. 


For the G Pro X, Logitech has included both leatherette memory foam earcups and cloth memory foam earcups, though the headband padding is solely the former. 

The leatherette gets hotter than the cloth over long periods, and I preferred the smell of the cloth to the leatherette. It might seem odd to critique the smell in a headset review, but I found the standard leatherette earcups were strangely pungent. 

The G Pro X is certainly comfortable for longer using the velour, but other users have complained of a small fit. If you have littler ears like I do, this shouldn't be an issue for you. However, these earcups definitely cut a trimmer figure than their bulky Logitech counterparts.

The headband never became an issue, either, with quite a wide range of adjustability. The leatherette sits comfortably atop your noggin, and it's even wide enough to sit snugly over a VR headset, which is an added perk.   


Having only briefly mentioned it earlier, I should explain exactly what BLUE VO!CE is.

Put simply, Logitech has teamed up with BLUE, the makers of the famous Yeti and Snowball standalone microphones, to bring souped-up microphone technology to the G Pro X.

Using the G HUB software, you can tweak the compression, noise, and balance of your microphone, as well as add filters to give the mic a more professional audio profile. It won't make you an overnight V.O. superstar or radio personality, but it's an impressive piece of kit. 

The microphone quality is on par with the Snowball, making the G Pro X a solid all-in-one option for anyone looking to get into streaming, video creation, or eSports. In fact, the audio profiles have been fine-tuned by professional gamers, with presets of some of your favorite eSports athletes available in the software.

The 50mm drivers pack a punch, too, presenting an impressive soundscape with the G Pro X headset. At the $100+ price range, though, you can easily find headsets with greater frequency ranges and better impedance.

It has good audio for a "mid-range" headset; voices are crisp and clear, while explosions are deep and footsteps are noticeable. It doesn't provide the spacial awareness of other headsets in the $150+ range, but it's a fine set of speakers for gaming. 

I fear, though, that the addition of BLUE VO!CE may have pushed the price too high for the average gamer. The "Pro" moniker itself should be a clear indicator that this is aimed at a more serious crowd, but when it comes to gaming and audio, no-one likes second best. 

If you're sick of your squad telling you they can't hear your orders, or you want an all-in-one audio solution that can also help you create quality recordings, the Logitech G Pro X gaming headset may be the perfect set of cans for you. 

For everyone else, though, the BLUE VO!CE integration is probably wasted. It only works when you're plugged in using the included USB soundcard and synced up to the cumbersome G HUB app, so this is purely a headset for PC gamers.

It will work on other systems, and you can still plug it into your phone as a set of headphones and mic, but you lose the USB of the G Pro X, making the regular $100 G Pro a better option.  

  • Excellent microphone quality, when using BLUE VO!CE integration
  • Good sound quality with 50mm drivers
  • Sturdy construction but not too heavy
  • G HUB software can be fiddly and a nuisance to use
  • Only get the full experience when using a PC
  • Better quality audio is available in the price range 

Overall, the G Pro X is a great all-in-one package. You can definitely find worse headsets for a higher price, be that in terms of audio, microphone, or build quality. It's got a sleek look that lets it easily double as a pair of travel headphones, and it's comfortable on the head, too.

The main drawback with it, however, is the price. At $130, it's certainly not going to break the bank, but its audio doesn't necessarily stand out when compared to other headsets in the same price bracket.

Anyone looking for a good pair of headphones and a reasonable microphone to do some recording with will surely be happy with their purchase of a Logitech G Pro X. But if microphone quality isn't of great importance to you, you're probably better off sticking to something like the $90 HyperX Cloud Alpha or spending slightly more for the powerhouse that is the SteelSeries Arctis 7.

Here are the headset's full specs: 

Frequency Response 20Hz to 20kHz
Sensitivity 92dB SPL @ 1mW & 1cm
Impedance 35 Ohms
Type Wired
Cable Length 6.6ft
Audio Stereo
Mic Type Cardioid (Unidirectional
Mic Frequency Response 100Hz to 10kHz
Mic Sensitivity -40dB (+/- 3dB)


[Note: A Logitech G Pro X review unit was provided by Logitech for the purpose of this review.]

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order Review — Heroic Hack and Slash Fri, 26 Jul 2019 16:37:21 -0400 Joseph Rowe

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is the long-awaited sequel to the MUA and X-Men Legends franchises. Fans have been waiting for this day for years, and they will not be disappointed with what Team Ninja, Nintendo, and Marvel bring to the table with this release.

Before getting into this review for MUA 3, I must admit something: I love this genre, but I have never played the previous entries in the franchise. That means I am unable to compare it to the previous games in the series. I do not know how original fans would feel, but my experience with the game was highly favorable.

Let's start with the plot for Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 as it is probably the least important aspect of the game. An exploration of different worlds and dimensions in the Marvel universe, the plot focuses on familiar heroes, anti-heroes, and foes alike. Thanos is the big baddy, of course, and there is a rush to prevent him from getting the Infinity Stones. He works with, you guessed it, the Black Order.

Overall, I enjoyed the plot. I didn't go in expecting War and Peace, and I was entertained. It's a mishmash of some of the best characters Marvel has to offer, so it's filled with lots of fan service and entertaining dialogue.

One of my favorite little tidbits throughout the game's story mode is the introduction screens for each of the important characters. It is done in a sort of Borderlands-esque style with a fun description underneath their names, which can add a good bit of humor to some of the more serious characters, like Green Goblin. 

Although Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is filled with many fan-favorite characters, it also misses some seemingly obvious inclusions. The choices made for the cast make sense as they are based off some of the more popular characters from the last five to 10 years, but it is missing some notable characters like the Fantastic Four, or slightly less famous but still beloved characters like Squirrel Girl.

At launch, there are 36 playable characters that are mostly unlocked by playing through the story mode, though some of them are unlocked by completing extra missions called Infinity Trials. These missions are basically the same as the ones in the story mode with some sort of twist added, such as "you can only damage enemies with Synergy attacks" or "you need to kill enemies to add time to a countdown clock."

Some fans will be pleased to know that there are currently three DLC packs scheduled for release, which will include some of the more notably absent characters. Other fans will be less pleased to know that some of these DLC characters are likely to be based on characters that are already in the game as NPCs who come along with you on story missions.

Graphically, the game is gorgeous. It strikes a balance between the art style of the comics and the art direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even still, it employs its own stylized approach.

Abilities and attacks all have interesting effects. Some characters, who are similar to each other, tend to have abilities that don't look all that different, but stylizations still manage to make the on-screen action hold your attention.

While MUA3's soundtrack didn't particularly stand out during my time with the game, I enjoyed much of the moment-to-moment sound design. Fighting effects are satisfying, and the voice acting is well done for most of the characters. The only issue long-time fans might have is adjusting to new voice characters for familiar characters.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is an incredibly fun experience for fans of the genre, and it is especially fun with friends while playing couch co-op.

Players who are not fans of hack 'n' slash or beat em' up games but still love Marvel might enjoy the game, but players who are neither fans of Marvel nor the genre are unlikely to enjoy it due to some repetitive elements.

The combat's simplicity is familiar, and it's actually kind of therapeutic to mow down waves and waves of enemies. Thankfully, the game has immense replay value, implementing the expected New Game+ mode, which lets players test their skills on a ramped-up difficulty setting. 

Although Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3's combat can somewhat get stale, the rest of the game's RPG-style systems keep it interesting by giving you lots of ways to improve your characters and teams, such as collecting and improving ISO-8 crystals, enhancing abilities, and synergizing team bonuses by finding optimal compositions.

The ISO-8 system in MUA3 is based on collecting and earning ISO-8 crystals that will improve characters' stats, modifying either offensive or defensive attributes at the cost of the other, improving a character's ability to tank by drawing in more aggro, and much more. It encourages players to make choices about which crystals to improve, which to scrap, and how they should distribute them amongst team members.

The leveling system also provides a lot extra gameplay. Leveling a character not only makes them stronger by enhancing their stats, but it also gives you points to use to strengthen one of your character's four abilities based on their superpowers.

Choosing which abilities to level first is an important part of the gameplay as you will need to balance your team with a diversity of abilities to properly utilize the Synergy system. This system allows other characters to join yours in using an ability, thus increasing damage to enemies. 

Each character also has a set of traits that, when placed on a team with another character who has the same trait(s), enhances a team's stats. Furthermore, each character has a different combat style, role in a party, and set of abilities that must be considered when placing them with others.

One of the most appealing aspects of MUA3 is its multiplayer. Action RPGs like this one are best enjoyed with a party of friends.

Thankfully, the game is very flexible in its set up. You can play it on one Nintendo Switch with a single Joy-Con or you can play it with four players using both Joy-Cons, Pro controllers, or even old school Gamecube controllers. You can play it in couch co-op on the same screen, offline with multiple Nintendo Switches, or online. 


The Verdict

  • Entertaining enough plot with lots of fun dialogue thrown in
  • Tons of characters to choose from with more on the way
  • Lots of options for team building and character leveling
  • New Game+ and Trials provide extra hours of gameplay
  • Great co-op fun
  • Combat could possibly get repetitive
  • While the plot is entertaining, it is simple

All in all, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is definitely worth consideration, especially for fans of the franchise — or fans of Marvel in general. The game is shallow in some aspects, but deep in others.

It is visually pleasing and well designed in terms of sound. Its story mode is nothing to write home about, but it should entertain you.

At the end of the day, it's just a lot of fun to play with buddies, and that's really what these types of games are all about. 

[Note: A copy of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order was provided by Nintendo for the purpose of this review.]

The Blackout Club Review: Stranger Things Meets Thief In One of the Year's Best Games Fri, 26 Jul 2019 12:02:29 -0400 Mark Delaney

A fearless group of kids investigates the mysterious and malevolent forces that lurk beneath their small town's soil and streets.

Few believe the threats are real. In fact, some may even be complicit. It's up to the kids and the best their allowances can buy to head into the dark depths, face evil head-on, and uncover the truth about what's happening to their neighborhood. 

Despite what you may be thinking, this isn't about Netflix's flagship series Stranger Things. No, this is The Blackout Club, a four-player co-op immersive sim horror hybrid with atmosphere and level design worth celebrating.

Using unpredictable enemy behavior, an elaborate underground lair, and ever-shifting mission parameters, The Blackout Club stays fresh time after time, whether you're successfully sneaking out with evidence of a supernatural conspiracy or getting swallowed up by the game's central monster.

When the Wifi Goes Down

The Blackout Club takes place in the fictional town of Redacre, which is based loosely on the real-life unfortunate residents of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a small portion of the U.S. that heavily restricts radio waves from various everyday electronics.

In The Blackout Club, that means no internet and no cell service outside of the town's own CHORUS system. For the neighborhood kids of the titular club, that means no one is within range of helping them, and seemingly, all the adults are in on it or brainwashed.

What "it" actually is makes for the grand mystery of The Blackout Club. At night, the bravest kids on the block collect their best gadgets (like lockpicks, drones, and grappling hooks) and set out to unravel the wide web of conspiracy.

They don't quite know what's going on, and for a long time neither will players. However, the story unfolds in piecemeal through documents and video recordings found in the clubhouse between the game's procedurally generated missions. 

While they're ultimately worth the wait, these story elements do feel like they come too slowly. You can play several missions in a row and come away with little more than a cryptic computer message or a newspaper clipping. The Blackout Club savors its mystery, but it's one I so badly want to witness that I find myself wanting to look up the synopsis (for the record, I've held off so far).

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Co-op is often antithetical to horror, but The Blackout Club proves it doesn't have to be. The first several hours of the game may be among the scariest of the year, and even as you eventually settle into a more comfortable relationship with the game's monsters, the fact that the enemies, obstacles, and supplies change location with every mission keeps the sense of unease at the forefront.

Cautious planning and teamwork are key, so naturally, it's a very hard game to play solo, though not an unenjoyable one.

With one to three co-op partners, The Blackout Club shines brightest. The game's developing studio has ties to immersive sims like BioShock 2 and Thief, and the same brilliant level design concepts of those games are in full view here. That's even as the environment  co-op horror  is so unfamiliar for an immersive sim. It ends up working so well because the game wants you to complement each other's skills and tools.

In my time with the game, I found the optional grappling hook to be crucial for navigating the dangerous world in ways that would otherwise be unavailable to me, but that meant when directly faced with a lurking monster, I was relatively powerless to stop it. However, if my teammate was carrying the stun gun, they could get in close for the knockout. Likewise, so could another teammate get a safe-distance knockout if they had the crossbow and found a tranquilizer dart.

Counterbalancing a strong team of kids will make the difference between those who unmask the cryptic subterranean cult and those who fall victim to its siren song. The map is mostly static, but gated by player level and very intricately designed. Above ground, you'll need to navigate backyards and bedrooms. Exploring the town itself is fun because of the quiet breaking and entering element to it all. You'll be thankful when a home you enter has carpeted halls and no lights turned on.

But it's underground where the game really shines.

The labyrinth is actually a musical instrument, which barely makes more sense in practice, but that mystery is a big part of the fun. As you level up, new missions and obstacles are thrown into the procedurally generated mix, but it's the newly opened gates of this maze, along with the drip-fed story, that make leveling so alluring. Each new room is weirder than the last, and piecing together what the facility is used for is worth every investigation.

You may find favorite spots to check for supplies or preferred routes from A to B, but the missions change so much each time that you'll always be thinking on the fly, which maintains a steady sense of good anxiety.

Just Beyond the Shadow

Another thing that makes The Blackout Club so good is its deceptively varied enemies. Though you can count the variants on one hand  sleepers, lucids, The Stalker, and The Shape  the ways they interact with the world and its players are varied. Each presents unique problems, which feeds into the immersive sim design of weighing your actions against alternate routes, constantly contemplating the cost and benefit of everything.

Sleepers are the low-level minions of the cult. They lumber blindly through the dark, arms outstretched while whispering weird stuff. They're the most common adversary and can be found wearing cult's garb. But more often, they are the sleepwalking, brainwashed adults of the neighborhood. It seems unlikely one of the year's scariest games would involve sneaking past sleepwalking Gen X dads in their pajamas, but that's part of what makes The Blackout Club so special.

Lucids will be the bane of many players' time because they not only listen for the kids sneaking, but they can see them, too. The Stalker takes the game from PvE to PvPvE: Anyone who opts in can have their game invaded by a fifth player who is working for the cult.

Lastly, The Shape is the game's most fearsome threat. Commit enough "sins" on a mission and this mostly-invisible enemy shows up and quickly pursues you with its thunderous footsteps for eternity. You can track its movements by closing your eyes and revealing its location, which makes for an exciting horror moment every time. It turns the game from a deliberate and considered stealth adventure into something more like running from Mr. X in Resident Evil 2, having to balance the immediate threats with the ever-encroaching Shape.

With sleepers and lucids, there exist issues with somewhat broken behavior. Unprovoked, they will roam randomly, often feeling like they're vaguely giving chase even as the game is telling you they're none the wiser. This is important as standard stealth enemy patterns would've been a letdown, so their unpredictable routes are instead a highlight.

But when they are alerted, sometimes they'll perform feats that look a little silly, like jumping back and forth over the same piece of fencing several times or doing the same thing in and out of a door. It's a lack of polish that doesn't ruin the game, though, and if it comes at the cost of guaranteeing dynamic enemy AI, it's a price worth paying.

We Speak As One

There's one more element worth speaking of when it comes to The Blackout Club's excellence, but it's one that is hard to explain. Players who opt into the Enhanced Horror feature at the start of the game (or anytime thereafter), open themselves to being spoken to by the gods of the game.

Each of these mysterious beings has their own name, voice, and goals, and they can literally speak to you on an individual level. When they do, other players in your game don't see the messages sent to you; instead, the written messages come to you when your eyes are closed, or they react to things you're doing.

When one of these taunted me for being so sneaky, referring to me by name, I was floored. You can offer tributes to these gods, speak to them in dreams, and even be visited as a result of these actions.

They remember you, can recall things from previous interactions, and they seem to reward players who roleplay as the kids and stay in-universe with their communications. It leaves you with a feeling of paranoia, not knowing when they're listening. I found myself whispering a lot in the in-game chat, as though I may startle a sleeper or awaken a god. When you peek behind the curtain, you'll find it's a unique system across the history of video games, but the way it manifests in-game is too much fun to spoil. 

  • Mix of character abilities, level design, and variable parts form an exceptional immersive sim
  • Maybe the first scary co-op game (and it's very scary)
  • Underground maze design is astounding
  • Enhanced Horror is a wholly new and fascinating live-game component
  • Lacking some polish 
  • Story develops slowly

The Blackout Club blends several genres together that are normally mutually exclusive and that daring approach results in one of 2019's best games.

Its horror can bring your breathing to a halt. Its co-op is balanced and rewarding. Its immersive sim mechanics are smartly designed with benefits and detriments for every character build.

On top of all that, the story, while slow to develop, is still worth the time it takes to unravel, and the world is oozing with atmosphere. Some relatively minor issues aside, The Blackout Club promises the best investigation is always the next one. 

[Note: A copy of The Blackout Club was provided by Question for the purpose of this review.]

Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot Review — A Shallow Shooting Gallery That's Lacking Lore Fri, 26 Jul 2019 11:01:36 -0400 Jonny Foster

Set in 1980's Paris, Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot is a virtual reality spin-off from the main series of Wolfenstein games. You take control of a nameless, mute character referred to only as ‘Cyberpilot’. Obeying instructions from a French ally, you hack your way into various Nazi killing machines to turn them into Nazi-killing machines, a joke at which the game whimsically rolls its proverbial eyes.  

The only explanation for Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot being an entirely seated experience is provided by a female voice, which tells you that "they" have had to strap you into a chair. There's no explanation why.

Of course, this contrivance feels like a missed opportunity at building a worthwhile backstory. For example, you might have been left wheelchair-bound by a tragic accident or an experiment, or maybe you were left mute after a Nazi soldier tried to slit your throat. 

It’s a common and ironic sin in VR games, which are usually so focused on player immersion that they don’t spend any time fleshing out the world itself. It’s particularly vexing and disappointing here because Wolfenstein has such rich and interesting lore — but Cyberpilot only ever briefly references it. 

Utilizing VR, the game does a fantastic job immersing you in its setting, but that presents its own issues, too. You never feel like you're in danger because you aren’t the one directly in the fight. Your character is quite clearly controlling the robots remotely while viewing a live video feed, as opposed to actually piloting mechs and machines, which leaves everything feeling a bit flat and detached.

Add to this that enemies don’t make any sounds when you shoot, burn, or otherwise injure them, and you end up feeling incredibly disconnected from Cyberpilot's gameplay. You end up with an experience that doesn't feel like a Wolfenstein title. There's no blood. There's no real feeling of conflict. And Nazis comically ragdoll when you kill them.

A number of mechanics also detract from any enjoyment you’d get out of making Nazi marshmallows, such as the game's self-healing button. Having a way to heal yourself is fine, but the action of engaging it takes five seconds or so, meaning you're stationary and unable to access your weapons. When this happens every 30 seconds, it starts to become a chore, and I’m not sure why Bethesda wouldn’t just give you regenerating health or provide some other time-saving mechanic.

Death can also mean 5-10 seconds of loading screens, each manifested as lines of hacker code. Of course, you have to sit through these before you regain control of your machine, which, again, becomes exhausting after a fashion.

There are certainly positives to Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot’s gameplay, though, even if they’re somewhat buried under the bloat.

There’s a hacking minigame that functions a lot like Bethesda’s classic lock-picking puzzle, only in three dimensions; by rotating the left move controller in 3D space, you look for “sweetspots," which feels unique and rewarding. 

Combat in the final robot you pilot, the Zitadelle, also packs an enjoyable punch.

Despite its flaws, there’s a good amount of polish and versatility built into Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot as well. There are three difficulties for those that like a challenge, there achievements to collect, and there is a wide variety of comfort and performance options to tweak in the menu.

The game only lasts a couple of hours, and the levels are linear, but there have been far worse VR titles to release for $20.

  • Good level of polish and options
  • Clever controls make for some interesting mechanics
  • Gameplay is stale and flat overall
  • Barely utilizes the Wolfenstein brand 
  • Short and forgettable

Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot feels more like an elongated tech-demo than a fully-fledged VR title. It only features a handful of levels, which don’t leave much room for exploration. I’m glad Bethesda didn’t decide to build another wave shooter — that’s the last thing VR needs! — but Cyberpilot’s shallow shooting gallery leaves much to be desired. 

Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot supports the Dualshock 4 and Move controllers on the PS4, and is also available on Steam. It officially supports the HTC Vive, WMR, and Valve Index headsets, but we had no issue playing it with an Oculus Rift S.

[Note: A copy of Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot was provided by Bethesda for the purpose of this review.]

A Place for the Unwilling Review: Pushing Back the Shadows Thu, 25 Jul 2019 13:44:57 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Imagine you're going about daily life, minding your own business. Suddenly, you receive a letter from a friend named Henry Allen you knew long ago, back when you lived in an orphanage.

It's a strange letter, full of regret for something Henry is about to do. He's asking you to move to his city, take up his business, and keep watch over his wife, Juliet, and mother, Dana. The city is dangerous, he says, full of things you can't understand, but you must pay attention to the shadows because they're important.

It goes on like this, becoming more fevered and frantic, until it finally stops.

You then learn Henry committed suicide, though there's some doubt over whether he hung himself — or was murdered.

So, what do you do with this information? How do you live, and do you carry out Henry's last requests?

That's exactly what AI Pixel's A Place for the Unwilling tasks you with figuring out on a daily basis in the 21 days you have to live until the city is swallowed by darkness.

Endless Variety

Every choice you make counts in the game, from how you sign your letters to which shops you frequent and whether you take sides in the city's growing class war. You won't see everything there is to see in one playthrough, especially because the game uses a Harvest Moon-style clock, where one real-world second equals one in-game minute. Time flies.

The story starts with you establishing some basics about your character — name, gender, preferred pronouns — and choosing how you want to save the game. This is actually more important than it initially seems, depending on how you want to approach gameplay.

The first is saving at the beginning of each day, and the second is saving when you want to exit the game. If you want to play the game completely blind, the second option is best because it's not as easy to see how one option turns out, then reset to pursue another.

Those who prefer seeing all the various permutations might find it better to save at the beginning of a day, play through one way, then start that day again and do it differently. Prepare for a lot of restarting if you want to do this, though.

The Right Choice

The game's charm likes in making spur of the moment decisions and forging your path as you move, or sometimes blunder, along.

You're presented with a handful of bigger choices early on. The first is whether you want to take up Henry's buying and selling business or focus on uncovering the truth behind his death. Of course, you can do both, but your response when people asks what you're in the city for — business or the truth — affects how they view you.

Admittedly, the business side of things isn't too exciting. The city has a handful of shops, each offering the same items — toys, combustible goods (of course...?), food, drinks, and the like. Prices change daily, and the idea is to buy cheap from one shop, then sell at a profit to another.

Yeah, you probably spotted the logic gap there. Most good merchants don't saunter down the street to sell some books they bought five minutes ago from Ms. A to Mr. B and expect everyone to be happy about it.

You'll still need to do some trading from time to time if you want money, and you will want money. It's used for fast traveling and buying non-tradeable goods, not to mention some quests require a healthy sum of money to complete. It's just more of a necessity than an enjoyable feature.

Whatever you choose to do, you get some suggested tasks on most days to help guide you along. None of them are mandatory, and thanks to the city's size and your snail-like movement pace, it's impossible to do them all. However, the point is to get out and talk to people.

It's only a few people, at first. Those "shadows" Henry mentioned are all around in the city, people you don't know who don't know you. They're too busy to chat with a complete stranger the newspaper says has questionable acquaintances.

Depending on tasks you complete and choices you make, some of these figures shed their dark cloak, gaining faces and names — yet not necessarily becoming friends, again depending on your choices. You do get to learn more about them if you choose to, which can eventually unlock different tasks or story paths.

The Company You Keep

In fact, it's tough to say if you make any real friends during your time in the city.

Dana Allen, Henry's mother, throws a welcome-and-mourning party when you arrive and seems to be on your side, but she has a terrible reputation among people of her class. And that migraine medicine she gave you — why does your head start hurting worse when you take it?

Then there's Juliet, the grieving widow. She won't speak at first, then she tries ascertaining your motives, before getting you to join her side in the "war" against Dana, or you can choose to be neutral. Henry chimes in through dreams from time to time to clarify what's going on, but you always wonder whether you made the right choice.

Not every character forces huge choices on you, but it can't be emphasized enough. Every. Decision. Counts. Whether it's how you sign a letter, what tone you take during certain conversations, who you help out, or whether you interrupt someone or let them continue, everything matters.

Helping the poor improves your friendship with Ms. Peyton the shopkeeper and sets you apart from the callous wealthy citizens, but spending the mayor's surplus on charity doesn't sit well with him — especially if you listen in on his phone conversations before making your presence known.

Telling the posh newspaper hawker you feel sympathy for the poor runs the risk of giving you a bad reputation on the nicer side of the tracks, but repeatedly helping Myles forms a relationship with the city's revolutionary downtrodden. The opposite can be true as well.

All of this affects how the story progresses, which tasks are available, and how you can relate to other people. The endless variety and multiple opportunities keep the game engaging throughout, partly because you end up feeling so invested in this strange world with its kind but dangerous inhabitants.

Coming Alive

It's not all slice-of-life, though. A distinct plot begins to unfold after a few days, involving the supernatural and an odd cult, with Juliet and Dana taking opposing sides.

Because you don't get a whiff of this until you've established your bearings in a world that seems grounded in reality, the supernatural elements initially come off as out of place. However, that soon just becomes part of the city's dark quirkiness.

The attention to detail isn't limited to just character interactions and branching paths. The unnamed city (*cough cough* London *cough cough*) is rendered in a soft, hand-drawn style complementing the historical setting, and the character portraits, though exaggerated, convey tons of personality just with their few static images.

Dialogue isn't voiced, but there's a special touch added that arguably lends more character than even voice would. Dialogue is presented as if written in pen on parchment. The text scroll flow fits perfectly with spoken dialogue, and its cadence changes depending on the context.

Plus, each character has their own style and sound effect. It's a minor touch absolutely brimming with personality. There's the main character's measured, steady pace and the flighty Mrs. Clinton's scribbled-sounding scrawl. Juliet's is looping and complex, while the corrupt policeman August's written speech is clumsy and heavy-handed.

False Stepping

Unfortunately, this close attention doesn't extend to everything.

The bookshop owner, Lucas Weston, says he speaks in singsong, but his speech style doesn't change to match that. The music, rich and always area appropriate when it does play, cuts out seemingly at random.

One night, when you "accidentally" drink too much with the local seadog, you fall flat on your face (after some rather amusing dialogue changes). The sailor remarks about you being out for so long, but then you're on your feet again, with no time having passed.

These are little things to be sure, but they begin to add up and occur more frequently after the first few days.

There are a few other minor quibbles.

Yes, the game is about time management, but making character movement so slow where even casual passerby move faster seems like an artificial way to keep you from accomplishing multiple tasks. For instance, going to the lighthouse takes almost 3/4 of the day until you can fast travel there.

An almost completely blank map doesn't help matters. Naturally, a newcomer isn't going to know where things are, but you are given a map after all. Maps usually have places marked on them, and even strangers in the street can point you in the right direction. Not here.

Then there's the grammar. The worst thing about it isn't syntax or anything like that. It's the fact that the errors are completely avoidable. Missing words, repeated words, words you phrases you meant to delete because you thought of something better — all of these make an appearance, with increasing regularity as the game progresses.

This is something an editing pass would catch, and it's  surprising to find so many problems in a final build, especially in a game built around writing.

There is one specific issue: the F-bomb. A Place for the Unwilling hurls it at you pretty often, and it doesn't fit the context.

Now, your humble writer knows the Victorians weren't prim and proper, whatever the common belief might say to the contrary.  Underneath that polite veneer, the Victorian era was as raunchy as they come. That goes double for the Fin de Siecle (French for "end of the century," roughly the 1880s-1890s). This was a time of glorious debauchery, by 1800s' standards, full of experimentation, loose living — in other words, the Victorian equivalent of the 1960s.

And that's the point. The big F was primarily used in its more literal context, not as the descriptive stand-in so common in modern usage.

That's how it's used by folks in not-London, though. "Stop f***ing staring", says the policeman. Or from a member of the lower classes, you get the always popular "F***, stop f***ing staring ar*eh**e, jesus" (with a lower case "j").

Some well-chosen four-letter words are fine and can add to a given character or create a certain mood. Using them just to use them, especially when they don't even fit, takes you out of the game and lets the rest of the usually well-considered writing down, writing that actually conveys meaning.


The Verdict

  • Intriguing and compelling story and characters
  • Highly engaging branching choice system
  • Gorgeous aesthetic style
  • Needs a final polish
  • Some design issues and questionable writing
  • Lack of puzzles and other activities might turn some away

A Place for the Unwilling definitely needs some extra tune-ups, and the early days might prove frustrating for some, before a clear idea of the city's layout sets in. F*** being chucked at you left and right gets really old really fast, and the other slip-ups are disappointing in an otherwise carefully conceived game.

However, its stronger points help push past these issues. There's a mystery to solve and a world to save — or not. Here you find a large cast of bizarre and potentially sinister characters with dubious motives. Whether they're trustworthy, you never know, but you push on and make nice to hopefully uncover the truth before it's too late.

Whether you're the poor person's friend or a jerk in a stuffed shirt, A Place for the Unwilling offers a deep and compelling story that's never going to be completely the same, no matter how often you play it.

[Note: A Steam key of A Place for the Unwilling was provided by AIPixel for this review.]

Fantasy Strike Review: Steamlined Fighting Wed, 24 Jul 2019 10:00:01 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

When people think of the fighting game genre, they tend to equate "skill" with "insane combos." Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat are the two main culprits, but check out any fighting game tournament on Twitch and you'll probably see massive combo strings featuring insane timing and superhuman dexterity on most games. 

Fantasy Strike looks to do something a bit different with the genre.

Made by a former Street Fighter developer, the game is designed to be totally accessible: there are only a few buttons, no special move inputs, and no 30-second combo strings. At the same time, it is designed to be difficult to master and hopes to support an esports community. 

Eager Students

If you've ever sat down and tried to explain a fighting game to someone who has never played one or doesn't know much about the genre, they probably got lost very quickly. Every fighter has totally different controls, and many systems in the game are essential but impossible to fathom without experience. Fantasy Strike looks to upend that idea by distilling the fighting genre down to its basic elements.

There are three attack buttons: a normal strike and two special moves. By holding forward or backward, you can change the properties of your moves. There is no dashing. There is no ducking. There no dexterity-testing combos. It takes about 10 seconds to learn the basics of Fantasy Strike and jump into a fight.

In no small words is the accessibility of Fantasy Strike crazy; after just a few rounds with a character, you'll start to discover your favorite moves and strategies. You'll start to build upon them and learn the strengths and weaknesses of various characters.

That certainly doesn't mean this is a simple game, however. Fantasy Strike possesses a lot of similarities to games like Divekick (albeit without all the inside jokes). It might seem like there isn't much to it, but there's much more than meets the eye.


As you gain experience, you'll also start to put together just how much complexity exists inside the basic systems of Fantasy Strike. Frame traps, cross-ups, mixups, all the hallmarks of high-level play exist inside this simplified setup. It has the rock, paper, scissors format of zoning, rushdown, and grappling. Even the throw counter is simplified if risky; rather than hitting your own throw button to counter the opponents, you have to stand still and hit nothing on your controller.

Think of the risk there: in order to counter your opponent, you have to do absolutely nothing. If they throw out an attack, you're going to get hit. If you successfully counter the throw, you deal a bit of damage and you fill up your super attack meter. In a game where some characters can only take a few hits before getting knocked out, that's a massive momentum swing.

Yes, super attacks and throws make it sound like Fantasy Strike is getting more complex, but both are activated by pushing two buttons together (or just making a keybind for it). Again, no one will need to pause the game and study a move list just to make a new character work.

Open Palm Technique

Fantasy Strike has some well-designed systems and a nice learning curve, but there are a few major questions about its target audience. The issue with a game like this is that it might be a little too simple for its own good. After putting several hours into it, it's tough to see if it could maintain its momentum once it gets "figured out."

There are only about a dozen fighters, and only a few different ways to play. As fighting games tend to live or die in their online competitive scene, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to imagine Fantasy Strike petering out after a few months, as a dwindling player base and lack of options cause people to walk away to bigger, flashier things.

I'm not convinced that the game can truly support a diverse competitive scene, as the systems are a bit too simple and the options a bit too limited.

Because of the small number of options, some fights are totally lopsided. A few of the characters only have five bars of health (rather than a nebulous "health bar," like most fighting games, Fantasy Strike characters show very clearly how many hits they can survive), and some attacks take away multiple life points. There have been a few fights that end in as little as two moves! That can be disheartening, and you never know if games with a small development team will have the amount of post-launch support they need to thrive.

It doesn't help that the character designs are, for the most part, very bland. Even the more bizarre options (a gambling panda and a man with a ghost who trails behind him) are fairly run of the mill beyond their basic appearance, and many of the characters read like carbon copies of other famous fighters.

To The Death

That said, it seems that Fantasy Strike could have a niche audience for a few specific reasons. For one, its deliberate gameplay makes it ideal for in-person gaming, such as couch competitions or live tournaments. Fighting games are the perfect style for hype, and Fantasy Strike has plenty of room for trash talking and mind games along the way.

Fantasy Strike also has a unique method of ranked play that encourages players to learn several fighters, rather than just specializing in one. In ranked matches, players pick three fighters. The game then randomizes matches, where one player's "A" fighter will square off with another player's "C" fighter. This isn't revolutionary, but the way you win the entire match is as players will continue squaring off until a single player has won with all three of their fighters.

That means you might have to fight multiple times as the same character. You could win the first two matches as your "A" fighter and "B" fighter, then have to battle three times in a row if your "C" fighter is a weak link. It encourages you to learn every fighter's strength and weakness and pick a team that is balanced in order to give you the best chance to win.

Now, I am the Master

  • Easy to learn, difficult to master
  • Ranked matches encourage diversification
  • Good online coding provides for lag-free matches
  • Perhaps a bit too simple
  • Generic character designs
  • Not enough options

Is Fantasy Strike going to topple the heaviest hitters in the fighting game genre? Probably not. Does it have some niche appeal? Absolutely.

Fantasy Strike is a really well-designed game that could serve well for certain audiences who don't want the combo memorization needed to compete in other fighters.

It would be great to see a game like Fantasy Strike take off. It could be unbelievably hype to see a fighter like this on the stage at EVO.

However, it seems unlikely. There just doesn't seem like there's enough substance to Fantasy Strike to give a competitive scene the room it needs to grow. It's a good way to teach the basics of the fighting game genre, and a good way to introduce some of the more complex systems that underlie most games like it, but it seems to ultimately lack that lasting appeal.

[Note: A copy of Fantasy Strike was provided by Sirlin Games for the purpose of this review.]

Gorn Review: Heavy Metal Battles Tue, 23 Jul 2019 11:47:49 -0400 Jason Coles

Whether you love or loathe it, violence has been a part of media for a long time. Gorn is one of the first VR titles to lean into hyper-violence as a key selling point. This is noteworthy because while in other forms of media, you can close your eyes or simply look away if things get too much, it's simply not an option in VR.

Hyper-violence can be deeply uncomfortable. It's often used to shock and horrify viewers and is a crucial component of many cult films like Kill Bill and Ichi the Killer (to very different degrees). Its presence in a piece of media is often due to a desire to get across a specific message or even titillate consumers. After all, how else can you see something so needlessly over-the-top?

The cartoony Gorn is about as hyper-violent as a game can get, but it's not wouldn't the uncomfortable sort despite being a VR game.

You compete with other gladiators in melee combat in the hope of coming out victorious. Your aim is to be the last one standing amongst the scattered body parts of your fallen foes, all for the entertainment of some severely bizarre-looking overlords. But hey, at least you get to keep living.

The combat is hard too; if you're too far from being a perfect fighter, then you're going to get your head caved in by a heavy iron mace. Defeat is upsetting, defeat when you know your eye is hanging out of its socket is humiliating and disturbing.

Well, it would be were it not for the cartoonish presentation that underlines every aspect of Gorn. You see, this level of violence would be uncomfortable in VR, but Gorn comes to us from the same minds that created Genital Jousting and Broforce, so it doesn't want to be taken seriously.

In fact, the game doesn't want you to be taken seriously, either.

Let's start with movement; you move around the world by swinging your arms around and holding a button. If you move your arm in front of you, hold the button down, then swing your arm behind you, you'll be dragged forward. Repeating this from side to side in order to charge your enemies results in your character drunkenly swaying around.

If that doesn't diffuse the whole thing, watching your competitors staggering around like a toddler definitely will. Suddenly the violence is incredibly funny because it's being presented in a similar way to something like Tom and Jerry. It's over the top, it's abhorrent, but it's so intensely silly.

The combat is genuinely challenging too, defeat is humiliating, but mostly because the one who vanquishes you probably tripped over their own feet to get to you. You have to be completely aware of your surrounding at all times. If you don't make sure your enemies are dead, they're likely to stand up again when you're distracted.

The battles take place in a fairly small arena with doors on each side. At the start of a match, you only have to worry about what's in front of you. As you progress, everything changes. You need to keep an eye on the doors behind you, new weapons will start appearing, and if you get far enough, you'll even have to face off against huge boss enemies.

A single match might only last thirty seconds, so you can progress through things quickly if you're good enough. That speed makes it perfect for a quick round or two in between other games, but it also has that wonderful 'one more match' quality that could easily consume your entire weekend.

When you add in a wealth of challenges, special arena fights, and the innate replayability of this style of game, you have an experience that could easily give you months of joy. It's also easy enough to play that it makes for a tremendous first VR experience, which is made all the funnier when you're watching a friend flail around for the first time.

  • Genuinely funny
  • Great variety of weapons
  • Unique movement and easy to learn controls 
  • If you don't like the combat, then there's nothing for you here

Gorn is challenging, horrifying, hilarious, and a genuine joy to play. It manages to be brilliant in both short bursts and long sessions, and there are so many little challenges to complete and weapons to master that you'll never really be able to put it down for good.

Vane Review: What a Beautiful Mess This Is Tue, 23 Jul 2019 09:00:01 -0400 RobertPIngram

When Vane made its first public appearances it created a strong buzz, as the beautifully haunting open world and graceful flight of a bird throughout it promised a captivating experience. When the game arrived for play on PlayStation 4 earlier this year, however, players found that looks can often be deceiving.

With Vane now ready for its PC release there were hopes that the time between editions could be used to hammer out some of the mistakes which frustrated console players so much.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Come Fly With Me

One area where Vane, for the most part, lived up to lofty expectations was in the visuals it delivered.

While the slightly-washed-out colors aesthetic isn't my personal favorite, even I found plenty to like about what I was seeing when the game put me in position to relax and enjoy the sights. Sadly, those opportunities were simply too few and far between to make for a truly satisfying gameplay experience.

Vane opens with a young boy running along a surface peeling up and generally being destroyed by a storm, which is light on explanation, but high on striking visuals. When you finally reach your destination, however, you are rebuffed by a mysterious figure and booted to a title screen whereupon you begin your time as a bird.

Flying through an open world is one of the more enjoyable ways to roam in video games, but the best thing Vane contributes to the genre is a newfound appreciation for games from your past.

Controlling your bird feels like navigating a frigate, with slow and imprecise response to your every flick of the thumbstick, while the controls for flapping are inconsistent. More than once I found myself fully aware of where I needed my bird to go, only to have my attempt to flap my wings and fly upwards thwarted for no apparent reason. By flying away a bit I could gain the height I needed and maintain it to my target, but trying to rise where I was originally had my bird bumping against an unseen ceiling.

Clunky controls may have been excusable if not for two major problems.

Most egregiously, the game routinely called for precision with your bird form as you attempt to land upon a series of weather vanes. When every flap of your wings sends you careening off with only a mild hope it's where you'd like to go, and efforts to simply halt and drop in place are infinitely more challenging than seems necessary. You'll likely quickly be praying for the end of the bird portions of your adventures, turning what should be the most fun part of the game into a chore.

Your bird also lacks meaningful direction for much of the journey. The introduction to stalling your flight prompts with a simple cue to press the button, but without a clear indication of where. Having not seen the vane in the gulch it sent me to, I landed on the ground, hopped around a bit and then took to the skies again unaware I had not yet done what I was there to do.

This ordeal led to an extended period flying aimlessly without the guide the vane would have provided, culminated in entering a series of caves where I more than once found my camera glitching my screen into total blackness, leaving me completely turned around and lost until I could happen upon a landmark I recognized.

By the time I had finally finished sending enough birds to a large vane to crash it and unlock the material I needed to be a boy again I was very excited to see the back of it. Then I jumped off too high of a ledge and was a bird again.

After backtracking all the way to the transformative material once more, I was at last allowed to move on to the next phase of the game.

Pointless Puzzling

Making the change from wings to walking, unfortunately, fails to fix much of what ailed the first act of the game. Response is still slow and clunky, and it's all too easy to find yourself unsure of where you need to go or how you need to get there.

The weather vane system for your bird form is largely replaced by a series of balls which must be rolled, alone or with some often-unhelpful help, from here to there. If you've ever heard the story of Sisyphus forever rolling a boulder up a hill and thought it sounded like a great time, then you're in luck.

If you make the mistake of dropping off a ledge too high at any point throughout your time as a boy, you'll transform again and have to fly back to the start of the current puzzle.

When absolutely nailed, the puzzles can be fine. Nothing that will have your pulse racing, but not overly egregious, either. Unfortunately, the odds are very high that every player will have multiple times throughout the game where the slightest misstep, your own or the game's, throws the puzzle into infuriating chaos. Even so much as looking away from the screen for a minute to grab a drink or adjust the AC meant risking getting turned around in the meandering cave.

There's No There There

Environmental storytelling can be an excellent device when handled well. I wanted to love this game very badly. Short, story-driven experiences are right up my alley, even when they feature basic gameplay.

I stumbled upon Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as a PS+ game that I entered with no prior knowledge and loved the experience of exploring these beautiful settings. The puzzles were rarely overly complex, but it didn't matter because they worked and simply served as a means to experience the world and story the designers had prepared for you.

With Vane, everything about the execution of the game serves to undercut the story it is trying to tell. When navigating becomes so challenging that even the smallest task has the potential to devolve into disaster, it saps interest in the larger storyline. I didn't have time to marvel at the world being created and the story being told because I was too frustrated to pay attention to it.

I can't say for sure if the story of Vane was not great in the first place, was poorly executed, or was simply undercut entirely by the gameplay around it. All I know is that I was less interested in why I was pushing a ball to a point than I was interested in how doing so would bring me closer to the end of the game.

Final Thoughts

  • The visuals can be spectacular, particularly the opening scene, flying outside and a period where the world changes and reconstructs itself as you navigate it
  • When the flying phase clicks you get glimpses of the great game it could have been as you soar over hills and dive through canyons
  • The controls handle as if the game was never play-tested and corrected
  • Minimalist approach to direction lacks the necessary structural cues in some parts of the journey
  • Punishing backtracking system means any mistake can lead to a massive amount of retracing the steps it took to get there
  • Glitchy camera work often results in partial or total obscuring of where you are, which can easily lead to getting turned around trying to rectify it

Vane is not a good game. What positives there are to be gleaned from it are significantly dwarfed by the negatives. Even my early impulse during my first hour with the game, that there was a real gem to be found if more time had been taken to polish out some of the flaws, is one I lost confidence in the more I played.

Had the time between the console and PC releases been used to fix the broken controls, extending the time if needed, I might be sad for what could have been. As it is, I think another two years in development would only have gone on to yield a longer experience, not a better one.

[Note: A copy of Vane was provided by Friend & Foe Games for the purpose of this review.]

Automachef Review: Pleasant Programming Tue, 23 Jul 2019 04:00:01 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

One of the worries of the modern economy is how quickly automation is rendering certain jobs obsolete. This isn't a new phenomenon, but we are starting to realize that many supposed "safe" careers are in danger or being mostly (or entirely) outsourced to machines. 

Automachef tasks you with working within that narrative - you are tasked with building entirely automated kitchens to get hungry customers what they want. In order to do so, you have to analyze the situation and come up with a solution by managing your resources and creating assembly lines. 

It's a game of problem-solving with programming commands; it gets wickedly complex in a hurry and will definitely scratch that puzzle-solving itch that a select group of gamers need to fulfill.

01000110 01101111 01101111 01100100

Automachef is essentially a programming game, albeit in a bit of a different presentation. In the main campaign mode, you will be given a limited menu of food items, a budget, a maximum amount of ingredients to use, and an electricity limit. You then must build a series of machines to create the dishes your customers order that fulfill the requirements.

This starts simple, but quickly ramps up and demands that you work as efficiently as possible. You'll begin with just a few conveyor belts, grills, and cranes to move things from one place to another. Soon, you'll be building complex machines full of "if/then" triggers and branching pathways.

There isn't a lot of room for experimentation in Automachef; not many puzzles have multiple solutions. This can be frustrating in some regards; it isn't the best at introducing new machinery elements, so you can get completely stuck if you can't wrap your brain around exactly how a certain part works. At the same time, this is really the best teacher of Automachef's many pieces of machinery you generally can't move forward until you've effectively utilized everything available to you in a given level.


In one level, you may be running a burger shop. You'll have to place an assembler, which creates the burgers out of the ingredients that each pop out of their own dispenser. However, they all have to come down different conveyor belts: a burger patty needs to hit the grill before it's ready, whereas cheese will need to go through a slicer. The lettuce is fine as is. 

But wait, there's more.

Dispensers just spit out ingredients at set timing intervals. Since you have a limit to how many ingredients you can use, you'll need to set up other machines that tell your dispensers what to do whenever an order comes in.

Grills use a lot of electricity and don't have triggers to turn on and off on their own, so those same machines that direct your dispensers can also tell your grills when to operate. They can only be connected to four machines at a time, however, and your budget is probably already going to be too high to add another one.

You see how this works?

Everything in Automachef is working automatically  you build the machine, press "Start", and watch to see if it happens. You won't be pressing triggers or helping the machine to run - it has got to do it on its own. It usually won't the first time, forcing you to have to move some stuff around (or, in many cases, restart from the beginning) and try again.

Machine Learning

You have to know what you're getting into with Automachef. Learning efficient programming takes a lot of repetition and a deep understanding of how systems work. Shortcuts and workarounds will only keep you afloat for so long; eventually, you will need to maximize your efficiency to make the most complex systems work.

For some, Automachef will nail that aspect and feel like a nice cozy blanket. Tearing the pieces apart and making them work in the absolute best manner possible can be extremely satisfying. For a large swath of gamers, however, games like Automachef can be too tedious for their own good.

"Oh, I need to build a machine to make ten BLTs," you think.

The first time it doesn't work, you tweak it a bit to try to fix things. The fourth time you build it, you start to grit your teeth. The sixth time you build it, you're completely frustrated.

How many players are going to go back a seventh, tenth, fifteenth time, rearranging conveyor belts just so and optimizing their system to run 2% more efficiently to keep them under their electricity requirement?

As mentioned, for a select few, games like Automachef are exactly what you're looking for. For the vast majority of gamers, it's going to be far too fiddly and specialized. Chances are if this sounds like your type of game, it is.

System Requirements

There are other modes to play besides the campaign mode in Automachef, although it's likely you'll want to start there, since it teaches you the ins and outs and gradually introduces the new parts you can add to your system.

If you love what the game has to offer, there is a lot of content here to sink your teeth into. Different modes, user-created levels, and mod support are all here, meaning there will probably wind up being more content available then you'll have time for.

On a technical level, Automachef very much looks and sounds like an indie game  and we aren't saying that as an insult. Rather, you know what you're getting.

Graphics are somewhat cartoony, but everything is clear and distinct. Once you have put a bit of time into Automachef, you'll have no problem identifying different pieces of machinery on sight. The brightly colored ingredients stand out on the monotone machinery, so there is an assembly line satisfaction that triggers when you watch your machines run.

There's also a bit of a storyline going on here. Your boss is a "human" named Robert Person who just wants other humans to enjoy the food you make together.

You've probably seen the joke play out before - it's actually a robot trying (and failing) to act human, making forced small talk while trying to conquer the world.

It's cute, but the "endless charm and quirky humor" promised by Automachef's description is maybe a bit of a stretch. You might grin a few times, but Robert's pre-level banter can get tedious since you have to read it. He might introduce how a new machine works, or introduce a stipulation to the level.

Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger


  • Unique way of approaching programming puzzles
  • Puzzles are well designed and intricate


  • Repetitive
  • Only one real solution to most problems
  • Humor gets a bit stale

Automachef is probably not going to convert people into the programming/puzzle genre. If you've tried similar games and haven't found them to your liking, it seems doubtful that this one does enough to win anyone over.

That said, this type of game will definitely press right buttons for a certain subset of people. Everything it does it does well, and there is a lot of content here (with the possibility for plenty more through mods and the Steam Workshop). Just know that it isn't reinventing the wheel of the genre.

[Note: A copy of Automachef was provided by Team17 Digital Limited for the purpose of this review.]

Night Call Review: Stories That Last Everlong Mon, 22 Jul 2019 13:59:52 -0400 diegoarguello

It's a cold night in Paris, but there's no other option than to get up and start the next work shift. The clock starts ticking. You look for passengers. Lights go by, and you hear a party on the first floor of a nearby building. Quickly, work begins and the time goes by.

Thing is, you still can't shake the fear down running your spine, the fear left from the attack. The killer is lurking out there... Somewhere...

Night Call, developed by Monkey Moon and Black Muffin and published by Raw Fury, tells the story of a cab driver who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After being seriously wounded by a serial killer, he wakes up from a coma two weeks later. Time passes, and he eventually returns to work, even if his boss is still unsure about the whole idea. Flashbacks haunt him, but he's tired of resting and knows he's capable of getting back to work.

However, the police haven't forgotten about the night that easily, and now, they're using his past to try and crack the case. Before he knows it, he's working on a police investigation  and time is running out.

The main objective in Night Call is to gather clues on a number of suspects, either by reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, or visiting locations of interest in Paris, where the game is set. However, clues can also show up during conversations with passengers, something that will crop up often.

A shift in Night Call often goes like this: You get out of bed, recall if you had a bad night on the streets or had a strange dream, and then start your shift driving a cab.

When working, two indicators on the right corner of the screen show the time and the status of your fuel tank as well as your money. The entirety of Paris is displayed on the game's map, and pointers indicate when potential passengers are nearby.

The map is reminiscent of Google Maps, exchanging the blue lines and neutral color palettes with gray, black, and yellow. Whenever you reach a pick-up destination, the game will let you know where the drop-off is and what the estimated fare is. If you accept the job, the ride happens automatically, leaving you to immerse yourself in the moment and let the passengers do the talking.

Conversations are rather straightforward if you've played RPGs and visual novels before. You can either pass through each dialogue section manually or enable an auto mode (which goes a bit faster than I'd prefer).

Every now and then, you'll be able to choose between a couple of possible answers. Some have a small symbol next to them that indicates what the possible outcomes might be, either if it's taking the piss of someone or just showing compassion.

The game shines in these moments. Half of the screen shows the map, but the other gives a general perspective of the cab's interior. Your passengers are on the left, sitting in the backseat, and the main character sits on the right. Some stories unfold with care, and you'll need to choose the right responses to see it through. Others happen naturally. 

During my first trip, two women got in the cab, and they started talking about what they thought of a man they had just met at the bar. After a few minutes, they ask the driver what he thinks. Finally, they reveal the encounter wasn't a regular date, but rather one in which they judged a possible sperm donor.

Following the ride, I stumbled across them a few days later. There had been a couple of other candidates, but they were still unsure who they should choose. Eventually, they come to a conclusion: the driver should be the donor. Although they think he's been kind and honest to them from the get-go, the choice ultimately relies on you. 

There are a lot of these situations in Night Call. Exchanging stories with a priest. Helping a cat to get to a train station. And even dealing with the presence of paranormal beings. Each dialogue option and each conversation immediately hooks you in. Things are made more gripping by both the soothing soundtrack and the atmosphere.

It's easy to get lost in these twisting tales, but the detective aspects of Night Call aren't as memorable. At the end of each day, you return home and look at the gathered evidence, as long as there's enough time. You see all of the clues on a board, along with a few pointers for the ones that carry a link to one or more possible suspects. You are, after all, looking for a killer. 

There are some insights to learn and discover throughout the story, which I won't spoil, but overall, I wasn't as invested in this part of the game as with the passengers themselves. The killer's identity becomes a central focus, but what I enjoyed the most was the off-topic chats with unknown people who stuck with me long after I had stepped away from the game.

  • Stories that linger long after the game is over
  • Mature and compelling writing
  • Soothing atmosphere
  • At times, the detective aspect feels unnecessary 

Night Call's stories are indelible, lingering in the mind long after you've turned off the computer. With mature storylines, the conversations here are some you won't find in many other games nowadays. 

At times I felt uncomfortable whenever a passenger would ask the driver a very personal question or touch on a subject not often brought up in casual conversation, but that feeling is probably evidence of how taboo interactions can sometimes feel.

Every passenger has their own tale, and I loved hearing each and every one of them. Even with only a couple of dialogue lines and short additional scenes, it's really easy to get lost in the driver's perspective.

Descriptions and small gestures are enough to create a tangible experience, and I'm sure that I'll be returning to the game soon, not to uncover a murderer's identity, but just to sit in the cab and talk to the next passenger that needs a ride. 

[Note: A copy of Night Call for PC was provided by Raw Fury for the purpose of this review.]

Super Mega Baseball 2 Ultimate Edition Review: The All-Star Game Mon, 22 Jul 2019 10:51:39 -0400 Mark Delaney

While the MLB's popularity has waned in recent years, losing ground to the NFL and NBA among stateside sports fans, there's still an intense desire for baseball video games. It doesn't help that there are so few baseball games coming to the various platforms.

If you're determined to only play with licensed pro teams quickly and easily, you'll have to try PlayStation's annual The Show. However, if you don't mind a game with studio-invented teams and a deep customization suite for more determined creators, you won't find a better mix of arcade and simulation baseball than Super Mega Baseball 2: Ultimate Edition.

There's a chance you've already played Super Mega Baseball 2. It originally launched in May 2018, though after a year of DLC and the welcome landing spot the Switch has become for indies, the game has been repackaged as an Ultimate Edition complete with all the DLC on a new platform. This review was conducted with the Switch version, and it was glorious.

While Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey are the system sellers for many people playing on Switch, for baseball fans, SMB2 is the killer app that is worth a Switch purchase all on its own. From top to bottom, the game is precisely what baseball fans would want, and to have that all on the go or docked is a supremely addictive fit.

In terms of modes and menus, SMB2 has most everything you'd want. You can play solo, in local play, or online. You can do so in pick-up games, season mode, and custom leagues. In these modes, everything from division and conference names and sizes to team names, jerseys, and fully customized logos is up to you. Names, looks, and even the eye-black and tattoos of every single player are customizable. 

It does lack a derby mode, but competitive online play is integrated in several ways, like front and center leaderboards, that help round out the modes on offer. The options to make a league your own whether playing alone or with friends is stunning for an indie game like this. Heck, it would be impressive even as an annual big-budget sim.

Without MLB licensing, you'll not have the chance to drop in and play as the Red Sox, Cubs, or the league's 28 other teams, but for the most patient and dedicated, the customization suite is so absurdly deep that you can certainly make those teams from scratch. Many players already play the game this way. The DLC that comes with this all-inclusive version amounts to new logos and stadiums, taking the game's customization options that much farther.

On the diamond, the game's wide-ranging difficulty options mean virtually anyone will find the right resistance from AI opponents. Dubbed "Ego," this system allows players to tweak the skill level of their opponents from 1-100, offering incredible nuance. If the game is getting too tough or too easy, you can simply adjust the Ego accordingly and try out the new level until you find the right fit.

As you improve, your opponents can come with you, or you can keep them as pushovers and turn a season into a one-sided home run derby. In many of its most important areas, SMB2 is defined by its player agency. 

There's also the dynamic mojo stat which measures a player's mental toughness. Players on hitting streaks will have higher mojo, while those hitting in the low .200s may be ice cold at the plate until a lucky swing turns it around. Pressure is also measured and works in tandem with mojo to deliver heroes and zeroes to every game. Step up in the bottom of the ninth with a high mojo player, and they may as well be David Ortiz.

All this agency wouldn't mean much without strong core mechanics, but again the game dazzles here, too. Pitching and hitting are very active systems, where you have to chase the spot of the ball whether you're at the plate or the diamond. Pitching feels phenomenal: you can really fake out opposing batters with intimidating control of the strike zone, while batters have to weigh contact versus power versus bunting. Complete control is also given to every baserunner individually or collectively, and each player is even given their own walk-up animations and songs. And yes, even these are customizable. 

Nearly every strategy you'd expect to see in the most expensive AAA baseball games are here, too, which rewards smart players with challenging situations meant to bring out the coaches in them. How to play the base paths, adjust your fielders, and creatively use substitutions are key to winning on the highest Ego settings for the most thoughtful baseball minds. 

The one area in which Super Mega Baseball 2 has not gone leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor and, for the matter, genre counterparts, is fielding fly balls. This system is largely automated, leaving you feeling like you've lost control of your vehicle in intermittent moments despite the awesome autonomy everywhere else. Whereas hitting, pitching, baserunning, and fielding with the ball in your glove cal all be as tough as you like them to be, with fly balls even at the highest settings, SMB2 holds your hand for seemingly technical but ultimately unexplained reasons. 

Screenshots of the game cloak all of this deep customization and true to form baseball IQ in a cartoonish and fun aesthetic. Player models got a bit more realistic compared to the original game which featured ridiculous proportions, but they still look something more like Jimmy Neutron characters than real humans, and that's fine. Metalhead Software surely couldn't attain photorealism, so they smartly made this style work for them instead, turning a neutral or negative element of the game into a positive. 

  • Impressive customization options
  • Great on-the-field play with wide-ranging difficulty options
  • Many modes and ways to play with friends locally, online, or alone
  • Creative mojo and pressure systems interact to alter athlete behaviors in fun ways
  • Fun, lighthearted visuals bring the world to cartoonish life
  • Fielding fly balls is curiously semi-automated, which stands out as the one area where players lose control

Super Mega Baseball 2: Ultimate Edition is the definitive killer app for sports game fans playing on Switch. More so, if you haven't played it on other platforms, it remains an excellent option there, too, even if you have access to PS4's The Show.

What's lost in MLB licensing is recovered tenfold in deep customization across the board, intuitive play on the field that rewards a high baseball IQ, and a lighthearted aesthetic which belies the game's as-serious-as-you-want-it design. Admitting it's an overused cliche, it also feels unavoidable; Super Mega Baseball 2 is a grand slam.

[Note: A copy of Super Mega Baseball 2 was provided by Metalhead Software for the purpose of this review.]

Audeze Mobius 3D Headphones Review: Moving Through Sound Thu, 18 Jul 2019 17:06:55 -0400 Jonathan Moore

A while back, I reviewed Sennheiser's GSP 500 open-back headset. Its sound was phenomenal. In fact, it emitted some of the clearest, most immersive sound I'd ever heard. I gave it a 9/10, and I still stand by that score. 

But now I've tried Audeze's Mobius 3D headphones, and my life has irrevocably changed for the better. 

At $399, Mobius comes in at the price of a console. Indeed, it's a headset for audiophiles or those with deep pockets willing to shell out for top-tier sound. The good thing is that for those people, the Mobius is worth the price of admission. 

Compatible with PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and mobile in various setups, Mobius is the classy, tuxedoed martini of headphones. With a focus on projecting impeccable sound across a meticulously designed soundstage, Mobius 3D creates an immersive experience that's authentically mind-blowing.

If you've never heard 3D audio before, it's possible your jaw might hit the floor. 


The Mobius screams premium. Everything about the headset feels solid and lovingly made. Whereas some other headsets might have flimsy frames, the Mobius doesn't rattle or creak even though it's made almost entirely of plastic.

As pointed out by a PR representative for the company, and proven true in my testing, you can "twist it to an extreme level" without fear of breaking it or deforming the headband. 

Although the headset is sold on the Audeze website in variants sporting copper and blue accents, the model I tested had a black matte body with grey accents at the bottom, middle, and top of the adjustable headband, as well as on both sides of each earcup.

"Audeze" is emblazoned across the top of the headband in the chosen color, and "Mobius" is emblazoned on the outside of the left earcup in smaller font. Finally, each earcup has a hexagonal honeycomb design on the outside, also in the chosen accent color. In my case, grey. 

Both the headband and the earcups feature extremely comfortable memory foam underneath faux leather. The padding feels great and isn't too thick; there's no discomfort along the jaw or across the top of the head even at 350g. I especially appreciate how the closed earpads encompass the ears and keep the diaphragms from resting directly on them. 

As with many modern headsets, gaming or otherwise, all of Mobius' controls are on the left earcup. Here you'll find the volume for the headset as well as the volume for the detachable boom mic. You'll find the input jack for the mic and the USB-C charging port there as well. Lastly, you'll find the AUX jack and the 3D audio toggle button.

On the outside of the earcup, you'll find the mic mute toggle at the top, the power button at the bottom, and an LED just above that for denoting if the headset is on or charging. 

While there are quite a few buttons and inputs on this set of cans, they're all fairly easy to find once you feel your way around, and the mic mute isn't as awkwardly placed as I originally suspected. Having said that, I do wish the headset volume and the mic volume dials were a bit more prominent for better grip. 


There's quite a bit going on under the hood of the Mobius 3D. It features planar magnetic drivers, head tracking technology, 3D sound emulation compatible with surround sound modes such as 7.1 and 5.1, full-room emulation, and Waves NX technology for incredible sound processing. 

Due to its plug and play ethos, there are also eight pre-programmed sound profiles on the headset:

  • Flat
  • Default
  • Foot Steps
  • Ballistics
  • Music 
  • Racing
  • RPG 
  • Warm

Oddly enough, though the headset has free downloadable software in the Audeze HQ app, there's currently no way to adjust the pre-programmed EQ profiles. It's a bit of a bummer, even if the profiles sound great. There will certainly be those who wish for more control than the headset currently provides. 

However, there are a few things you can tweak in the software, namely HRTF Personalization (head-related transfer function personalization) and head gestures. 

The first allows you to customize the soundstage based on the measurements of your head. The headset already does a good job of producing tones out of the box, but if getting into the minutia of optimal emulated driver placement is your thing, you can set up an audio experience that's unique to your biologically-perfect cranium. Just whip out the tape measure and input the values. 

Specifically, this mostly has to do with positional audio. I'm grossly oversimplifying the process, but it boils down to how sensitive your ears naturally are, and how the software, based on your measurements, accounts for boosting frequencies for your specific head shape and ear anatomy. 

The second feature allows you to set keybindings to head gestures. The Audeze HQ app shows your head position in real-time, including pitch, yaw, and roll. With head gestures activated, it's possible to assign such functions as looking up and looking down, turning right or turning left, to certain head movements.

It's even possible to tweak the degrees at which the in-game action will be performed, with larger values requiring more head movement to activate and smaller numbers less head movement to activate. A Twitch mode binds an action to two head movements, either up or down or side to side for example. 

Outside of those two things, the Audeze HQ app is pretty threadbare; most of it acts as more of a manual than a piece of software. As you can probably guess at this point, there's no RGB to be found here, either.

Audeze eschews modern gaming tendencies with the Mobius, something that may or may not put certain gamers off, but something that very much seems to align with the company's hard sci-fi panache. 


In almost every way, the Mobius 3D shines when it comes to audio production. With games, music, movies, and podcasts, both 3D audio and stereo audio sound absolutely fantastic.

But let's face it: while it might sound great, you're not here for stereo. Instead, you're doling out $399 for full audio immersion. So what's it like? 

3D audio is like touching sound or being inside whatever you're listening to. Some have even called it VR for sound, and I think that's probably the most effective way to describe it. In no small way does Mobius' 3D audio authentically emulate real-world sounds and sound wave directionality. 

I often listen to relaxation sounds and playlists while working, such as rain in a forest or tides crashing on a beach. With the Mobius, I can pinpoint almost every raindrop and know exactly where every seagull is flying as they caw against the crashing waves. 

In games like Battlefield 1, I'm able to eerily pinpoint exact enemy placement, down to what section of wall they're standing behind, for example. With Logitech's G533 headset, a set of cans which I completely adore, I'm able to get a fairly close approximation of where enemies are hiding based on its directional audio. With 3D audio, I can pick them out with extreme certainty.

Combine that with the headset's Ballistics or Footsteps presets, and you'll hear bullets whizzing by your head in incredible details or boots plodding on concrete with precision. In the campaign mode, you'll feel as if you're inside Chapter 1's tank or in the cockpit of Chapter 2's biplane. Dialog cuts through booming sound effects and sweeping scores like a bullet through silence. 

Music sounds fantastic as well  especially live music. I've been to and played in my share of rock and metal concerts. Mobius is the only headset I've ever used that comes close to accurately recreating how sound works in a live concert environment.

The magic of Mobius is that it emulates your head position. That means if you're facing the screen (or the position you've designated as the center of your viewing area), it feels as if the speakers are directly in front of you.

Turn to the right, the sound shifts mostly into the right diaphragm, with the volume in the left decreasing accordingly. Turn left, the same thing happens. Turn around, and it feels as if the sound is behind you. 

It's eerie. It's awesome. And it's something everyone should hear for themselves at least once. 

  • 3D audio changes the way you hear you experience your favorite games
  • Sturdy, yet flexible design makes the Mobius a joy to wear
  • Crystal clear detachable mic with dedicated volume
  • Can charge and use at the same time via USB-C 
  • In-depth (and surprisingly cheeky) user manual makes set up easy
  • 3D audio doesn't work on mobile devices
  • No Bluetooth for PS4, Xbox One, or Switch
  • No Bluetooth dongle or receiver provided 
  • Short USB-C charging cable makes it hard to use when attached
  • Can't adjust EQ settings or make new profiles in HQ App
  • Battery doesn't last as long as other wireless/Bluetooth cans

Audeze's Mobius 3D headset is certainly a premium product. It's not the highest high-end headset out there, but at $399, it's probably out of reach for many gamers. That being said, this is a headset that will last for years and years to come, all while providing some of the best audio you can possibly get without going to absolute crazy town on price. 

Not everything on the headset is a bag of chips, either. Head Gestures is currently in beta, and while it's a neat feature, it's strange in practice. With some tweaking, and perhaps some more practice by users, I could really see this being used to awesome effect in VR. As it stands, the number of use cases for the technology is pretty slim.  

For certain setups, the included USB-C charging cable might be too short, specifically if you're wanting to use the headset and charge it at the same time. As of this writing, there's also no way to change the on-board EQ profiles, truly a bummer for the price. 

However, if you want one of the best audio experiences around, and a pair of cans able to produce lush, vibrant tones across a bevy of media, the Mobius 3D is well worth checking out. Unless you actually hear 3D audio, it's almost impossible to accurately convey how precise and immersive it truly is. 

Here are the headset's full specs: 

Drivers Planar Magnetic
Emulation 3D w/ support for surround
(7.1, 5.1, 5.0, 2.1, 2.0)
Connections USB-C to USB-C, USB-A to USB-C,
Analog 3.5mm, Bluetooth
Frequency Response 10Hz - 50kHz
THD < 0.1% (1kHz, 1mW)
Earpads Contoured memory foam
artificial leather
Headband Memory foam
Microphone Detachable w/ volume control
Battery Type Lithium-polymer
Battery Life 10+ hours with 3D enabled,
charges via USB-C while in use

[Note: A Mobius 3D review unit was provided by Audeze for the purpose of this review.]

Etherborn Review: Grappling with the Unknown Thu, 18 Jul 2019 09:00:01 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Barcelona-based developer Altered Matter has been working on its physics puzzler Etherborn for several years now. It's a game built around the concepts of finding truth in the unknown while working through vast, multi-stage puzzles and defying gravity in the process.

If those two mechanics sound rather different from each other, that's because they are, and it's a split that stays with the game throughout. That split isn't necessarily to Etherborn's benefit, though there's still enough for patient puzzle fans and 3D thinkers to enjoy here.

Into the Ether

Normally, you wouldn't expect to read much about a physics puzzler's story, but Etherborn tries to be a bit different in that regard. All the running up walls and piecing stages together is loosely based on an equally loose story about an enigmatic being's search for truth.

What truth? Well, that depends.

The being, a cluster of nerves forming a tree in the chest and brain, apparently has an emptiness that must be filled, though it isn't aware of the emptiness and doesn't know what fills it. So, like you do, it starts listening to a geometrically abstract, pulsing, golden Thing that talks philosophy and promises to reveal all the unknown that needs to be known.

As you progress through each stage, that changes to the Thing telling you about the nature of the universe and how humans came to try and dominate it. Eventually, that turns into how people lost their relationship with — and place in — nature by turning to language, using it to name and dominate creation whilst simultaneously rejecting all other paths in the process.

The existential bits don't get developed fully enough to contain real meaning before Thing switches gears to something akin to an environmental message, which also isn't fully developed.

Moreover, it's all a little confusing. That's not because it's a deep, philosophical message on the nature of humanity. No, there isn't anything here that hasn't been said before, and with more impact.

It's because each message is wrapped up in convoluted writing, writing seemingly designed to suggest the profound by straying into purple prose, when something more direct could convey meaning better.

Or: Humans feared what they didn't understand and tried controlling it through limiting the unknown.

And that's every scene with narration.

Those who want to engage in the message on offer here will find it doesn't work with this style of game anyway. The being's goal is to navigate through each stage by putting things in order. Chaos gets tamed through the player imposing their will on creation, manipulating it to their own desires for a goal they aren't even fully aware of — the exact behavior the game tries telling you led humanity astray in the non-gameplay portions.

Were there some big payoff with insight into the human condition that isn't already commonplace in contemporary media, these narrative issues might be easier to overlook. As it is, conversations with Thing are just where you stop paying attention until the scene changes again.

Fortunately, you don't really miss anything if you do stop paying attention. These segments end each stage, while opening up new segments on the giant tree you travel up and around on your journey towards...whatever it is (or isn't).

In other words, the narrative has little to no bearing on the actual gameplay. Whether that's good or bad depends on your perspective, since it makes dealing with the annoyances and gaps in logic easier. However, it also begs the question of why bother building a puzzle game around this kind of plot when the plot doesn't even matter.

Climbing the Walls

All this probably makes it sound like Etherborn is a mess. Well, it isn't.

The puzzle design is consistently brilliant. When you hear "physics puzzler," you might think something like Human Fall Flat or something similar. Etherborn is more like Super Mario Galaxy, only gravity will kill you as often as it's your friend.

The goal in each stage or stage segment — since some levels are divided into multiple areas — is, obviously, make it to the end. To do that, your character will need to collect shining, faceted, sphere-like objects and place them in specific areas to impact some aspect of the immediate area.

That sounds simple, but Etherborn quickly ramps things up by giving you multiple options of where spheres could go and only a few to work with.

It translates to working out the correct order for progression, which ends up being as much a part of the puzzle as the actual jumping, climbing around, and so on.

At times, it's rather intricate as well. Some parts have multiple steps required to finally reach a sphere you need to activate another area, which has its own puzzles and finally leads you to the stage's end.

Your character doesn't just walk around on the regular floor to get to each area, though. In fact, depending on perspective, there isn't a regular floor at all.

The game's central feature is letting you walk up walls and around stage segments, with the physics changing depending on what surface you're on. For example, jumping might take you "up" when you're walking around normally. Run up a ramp onto the wall, and jumping takes you sideways.

Should you jump without a surface to land on, gravity takes hold. It can be the only way to reach that next area — or it can send you smashing against some barrier.

Keeping your footing and using gravity to your advantage fast becomes the game's chief challenge, especially since the being can't survive long drops. Fortunately, the game lets you start back where you fell, so there's really no harm in failing again and again.

That tiny thing in the vast emptiness of space? That's you.

The whole thing is a creative exercise in 3D thinking, as you try to work out which angle you need to approach a given situation from. There are plenty of moments where you find yourself wandering, having tried countless ways of reaching a certain point, when you make a random jump onto a nearby wall or platform that opens up a completely new segment of the stage. It's a good feeling and indicative of the game's clever design.

It should be a given by now, but Breath of the Wild this is not. Each puzzle has a specific solution you must work out, with no grey areas. (And yes, it's ironic that a game cautioning against black-and white-approaches to existence uses a very strict black-and-white approach to design.)

Etherborn doesn't let you cheat either. Obtaining a sphere by free-falling doesn't count, so you have to plan all your movements with care.

Falling Down Again

The scope of each stage and that strict level design do come with a few flaws, though. Many stages and areas seem a bit bigger than necessary. They look great, and there's a definite atmosphere for each. Yet it's a huge pain — and inconvenience — to navigate these massive areas time and again while you're figuring out how each stage works.

The being's movements don't always help alleviate this particular issue either. The walking pace is glacial, and though running does improve things a bit, it's still not enough to make for quick traversal of each large area.

It might not sound like a huge issue, but so much repeated movement and backtracking to finish a stage means there's little incentive to hurry on to the next one. Etherborn isn't a game meant for marathon play sessions, except for the very patient.

Turning sometimes contributes to this issue. Your movements are rather on the wide side, meaning there's no such thing as a sharp turn in Etherborn. The game's insta-try-again feature keeps it from being too punishing, but it's still annoying to fall off a ledge on accident because changing directions requires a wide swing.

There were a few points where the character clipped through solid objects and fell to its demise. There were also some areas the game had difficulty dealing with movement, mostly around the specific spots where you can transition from one surface to another.

Similarly, some platforms behave a bit oddly from time to time. One major feature of many puzzles is platforms that extend out when you approach them, blocking your way from one angle, but potentially acting as a path from another.

The issue is how the game recognizes when they should extend. For the most part, it works as it should. There are times when a platform that should extend, based on your proximity to it, won't. Whether that's by design because it's not how the maker wants you to solve a puzzle isn't certain, but there's no apparent pattern to which ones won't move unless you approach from the right angle.

Look, But Don't Listen

There's no denying Etherborn's visual style is striking, skillfully employing a minimalist approach that still manages to create mood. A big part of that is the color scheme, with each stage standing out as much for its visual identity as its puzzles.

The game's soundscape is a bit less inspiring. Most of the tracks are very short, so you're going to hear them a lot as you work through each stage. That's fine for some tracks, but others are discordant or have an easily identifiable loop point that means it's time to reach for the volume button.


The Verdict

  • Excellent puzzle design
  • Clever use of visual elements
  • Overly convoluted, and inessential, narrative elements
  • Stage scale and character movement don't complement puzzles

Etherborn is one of those games that defies easy scoring. From the number and the negatives, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is game you should run away from. But if you're a puzzle fan, enjoy thinking in 3D or just want to try something new and have a good bit of patience, it's worth checking out.

[Note: A digital copy of Etherborn was provided by Altered Matter for this review.]

Super Mario Maker 2 Review: Everything Promised and More Mon, 15 Jul 2019 14:52:55 -0400 Ashley Shankle

How much do you have to play a game before you say it's one of your favorite games?

Sometime during my past "85 hours or more" of Super Mario Maker 2, it's made its way into my favorite titles of all time. Which isn't a surprise; it just replaced the original Super Mario Maker in my heart.

Super Mario Maker 2 takes almost all of the best features from the original Wii U title and brings them to the Nintendo Switch along with a host of new creator tools and features. If the first game was your cup of tea, the second is going to be a whole pitcher.

Along with the host of new creator tools such as new enemies, Snake Blocks, the Super Mario 3D World style, new themes, and slopes (!!), comes the ability to browse and play fellow player-made courses (levels), and a fancy new story mode to play through. Anyone who even remotely enjoys the Mario games can find something enticing here to sink their teeth into.

Not keen on creating courses? You can simply spend your time with the game playing through its story mode, which features 100 courses showcasing much of what's possible in Super Mario Maker 2 (and a few things that aren't); or stick to the endless player-created courses available.

There's more than enough gameplay to be found in the game even if you don't want to get all creative with it and start making your own courses, but the creator toolset is itself a joy to play with. For some, like myself, the allure of creating courses is more powerful than the pull to play them. It's fluid, it's fun, and best of all it's easy to bring your ideas to life using the game's course maker.

Course Making

In Super Mario Maker 2, you build your courses using a sprawling grid-based layout that allows for hundreds of elements on a single area or sub-area. You can extend the course as long as you like, and you can create a sub-area (which can be the same size as the primary area) that is vertical instead of horizontal.

There are five distinct game styles to choose from, specifically Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, New Super Mario Bros. U, and the brand new Super Mario 3D World styles.

With each style comes more than just a change in scenery and music. Some styles have different tools available, and the gameplay mechanics differ between them.

For instance, in the Super Mario Bros. style, the player is unable to slide down slopes and koopa shells can't be picked up. In exchange, it has the Big Mushroom item, which turns Mario gigantic and makes him able to break through certain types of blocks.

Another example lies in the Super Mario Bros. 3 style, which has its signature Super Leaf item and Shoe Goomba enemy, but the player is not able to do spin jumps as they're able to do in the latter three styles.

Super Mario World, New Super Mario Bros. U, and Super Mario 3D World are all more complex gameplay-wise than the previously mentioned styles. Spin jumping is featured throughout all three, but wall-jumping is only available in NSMBU and SM3DW and this is really only scratching the surface.

The hefty differences between each style allow course creators a constantly-surprising level of freedom when working up their next idea, but the Super Mario 3D World style is the least fleshed out of the three.

While SM3DW is technically the fastest of the five available styles, it's missing a number of tools available in others. It has its own unique set of tools to work with, but it's the most restrictive of the set and it is not possible to swap a course between SM3DW and any of the other styles.

The sheer variety of themes available in Super Mario Maker 2 was my biggest source of excitement before it came out (aside from slopes), and I am very happy to say they exceeded my expectations in every regard.

Course themes don't just set the stage here, some of them outright grant different gameplay experiences.

You've got Ground, you've got Underground, you've got Sky and Airship and Castle and Ghost House and Underwater all from the original game but you've also got the new Desert, Forest, and Snow themes. That's 10 themes!

Two of the new themes, Forest and Snow, are most notable because they bring new gimmicks without having to switch the course to nighttime.

The Forest theme has adjustable water akin to the lava in Castle theme courses — and, of course, the water doesn't outright kill you. This makes for some real weird courses, let me tell you.

The Snow theme does what you think: it makes the ground slippery. The bane of all those who call themselves gamers, but some course creators have found some creative ways to make use of this mechanic without it feeling like torture.

Amidst all this is the new ability to switch a course area or sub-area between day and nighttime. Daytime functions as normal, but nighttime brings out a whole new slew of gimmicks to work with.

A Ground night course? No more 1-Ups for you, those suckers are now Rotten Mushrooms that will chase you and deal damage.

A Forest night course? The water's now poison and insta-kills you just like lava.

A Desert night course? Well... it really depends on the course style! It gets real windy on the desert at night, apparently, and the direction and duration of wind gusts varies per style.

The sheer magnitude of uses that these new styles, themes, and related gimmicks have in conjunction with the size of the overall creator toolset cannot be understated.

Some may have claimed that your imagination was the limit in the original Super Mario Maker, but that is something you really feel here with the sequel.

With Yamamura's Dojo present to give players creation tips and tutorials, anyone can get into creating courses with minimal set up and knowledge. Players can also do local co-op and create courses in docked mode, which is both fun and relatively easy to work with as long as both creators are communicating.

Playing Courses

There's more new here than just the shiny new story mode. Story mode is great in its own right, but the bulk of the game consists of trying your hand at player-made courses, which can be done solo, in online multiplayer, or with other players locally on other Nintendo Switches.

Super Mario Maker 2's online multiplayer modes, co-op and versus, are the big new kahunas to its gameplay variety. In co-op, players work together to finish courses; in versus, they go against each other with the first to reach the goal.

In theory, these modes should be great. I know a lot of people like them even now, but to me, these are currently the biggest blemishes on Super Mario Maker 2's otherwise blemish-free existence.

Both online cooperative and versus are plagued with lag, lag so bad I'm curious how anyone can fully enjoy these modes as they stand because that just seems like lunacy.

Every single co-op and versus match I've gotten into, I've chugged around at a uncomfortably variable speeds, sometimes feeling like I'm moving one pixel per second and sometimes a whopping 20 pixels per second. Sometimes I move at totally normal speed for a few seconds straight  amazing! ... Not.

I would love nothing more than to enjoy these modes for what they are, perhaps even with local multiplayer (which isn't available outside of the Course Maker, so you have to download a course to do it), but I hate feeling like I'm moving through molasses, and it's hard to understand the people who do enjoy the game's online multiplayer as it stands.

Outside of these two modes that will hopefully be fixed are Endless Challenge, the game's replacement for the original's 100-Mario Challenge, and, of course, just sifting through trending, popular, or new courses for a good time.

Thanks to the new Boo! option, which functions as a foil to Liking something, Endless Challenge is more bearable than much of what a player would run into in the first game's 100-Mario Challenge.

There are still plenty of sub-par courses you'll run into, but courses that receive enough Boo!s don't get put into the Endless Challenge pool very often. It's curation at its most simple, but it's made playing the mode more enjoyable than its predecessor.

There's not much else to say about playing courses but "It's Mario." Because it is, in fact, Mario, and if you're familiar with the series at all, this is an easy title to jump right into without having to worry about the more in-depth mechanics put on display in Expert and Super Expert difficulties.

There is more than enough content in Easy and Normal for players of any skill level to take on without having to stress about pixel-perfect jumps, kaizo blocks, and all that jazz.


Super Mario Maker 2 is exactly the sequel players of the original Wii U title were looking for, at least for this fan.

I put hundreds of hours into the original Super Mario Maker; I bought a Wii U for that game, but after my dog's well-placed paw put my Wii U out of commission a couple of years ago, I'd been high and dry. All I've really wanted was more SMM.

Aside from the janky online multiplayer, Super Mario Maker 2 is basically the perfect sequel, and like its predecessor, the series once again has opened creative doors I never even knew were there.

  • Easy to understand and use course editor
  • Literally limitless courses to play
  • Co-op course making is surprisingly fun, provided you communicate
  • All the new maker tools aren't just comprehensive, they're perpetually surprising
  • Online multiplayer, both co-op and versus, is a laggy mess

If online co-op worked worth a heck, Super Mario Maker 2 would be an easy 10 out of 10 GOTY hoedown throwdown; it'll still probably be my game of the year.

I have a serious weakness for this game. However, even with the (totally optional) less-than-optimal online multiplayer, it's still a fantastic time for both casual and hardcore gamers with a soft spot for Nintendo's mascot.

[Note: A copy of Super Mario Maker 2 was provided by Nintendo for the purpose of this review.]

Blazing Chrome Review: An In(contra)vertible Classic Fri, 12 Jul 2019 12:44:34 -0400 Jonathan Moore

Like any good arcade shooter, Blazing Chrome is a challenge. Some may say it isn't, but let me tell you it ain't a walk in the park. Until you master each level, each enemy attack, and each boss sequence, you'll find yourself pushing daisies more often than not.

I'd wager you'll be well acquainted with the undertaker and his pals even after you've gotten your Ph.D. in sentient robot slaughter. That's simply the exquisite nature of a game like this: a shooter unequivocally married to the halcyon days of the genre.  

In no small way is Blazing Chrome a phenomenal homage to run n' guns like Metal Slug, Gunstar Heroes, and most obvious to literally anyone familiar with the genre, Contra. Specifically, I'm talking the incredible Contra III: The Alien Wars

In almost every sense it's more than a tribute: it is the best Contra title to release in years. Change the name to Contra: Blazing Chrome and you'd never know this wasn't a triumphant return to form by Konami. 

But it's not. Blazing Chrome is developed by JoyMasher, the same team also responsible for the awesome Oniken, and the one that's developing what amounts to a Ninja Gaiden 3 successor in Moon Rider.

Like the Duffer Brothers with Stranger Things, JoyMasher knows how to do nostalgia right — and the team knows how to out-Konami Konami. 

As expected from any game in the genre, Blazing Chrome's story isn't an Academy Award winner. The good thing is that it doesn't have to be. 

The game opens almost exactly like Contra III with an A.D. 21-something date flashing on the screen. In the background, the devastation of a post-apocalyptic Earth slowly comes into focus. Everything is laid waste, but the resistance will prevail and restore order. 

The prologue does give us a bit more background than most anything found in Contra, telling us that the robots have taken over, and it's our job to take them out with a horde of bullets, lasers, and grenades. However, the mini-narrative is mostly inconsequential, and it can be completely skipped without fear of missing out on anything vital.  

Hop into the meat of things, and you'll quickly find the game is as chaotic and frenetic as you might have hoped. Enemies and bullets fly every which way. Supply drops fall from the sky, giving you upgrades, new weapons, and support drones for offense and defense. Huge, multi-phase bosses take over the screen, lobbing all sorts of impending doom in your general direction. 

You won't have access to as many weapons as some other games in the genre. Here a machine gun, beam cannon, grenade launcher, and a ropey laser-whip weapon are all you've got. What you lose in arms you gain in support from attack drones, shield drones, and speed drones.

It's a good thing, too, since a single hit will merc one of your lives and remove any weapon you were currently using sans the basic machine gun. 

The game's Arcade Mode consists of six total stages, which will take about 45 minutes to an hour and a half to completely finish. Four are immediately available, and you can play them in any order by choosing them from the stage select map. After beating all of them, two secret stages become available.

These, of course, are some of the hardest stages in the game. More so than the first four levels, they showcase some truly creative level design which forces you to strategize your movements or rethink how to engage each merciless boss. 

Things are made more tumultuous when you add another player via local co-op. There's absolutely nothing like teaming up with your best friend to viciously dismantle robotic alien scum a la' Probotector or The Alien Wars. I can only hope for the addition of online co-op sometime in the future, which is a strange omission here.  

But whether you're traversing this metered madness solo or with a friend, Blazing Chrome controls beautifully. Aiming, shooting, and switching weapons is decidedly old-school cool while moving and jumping is buttery smooth. 

While I'm not a fan of the game's default input layout, JoyMasher smartly allows for complete button remapping. Indeed, the game's options menu is surprisingly beefy. Aside from adjusting volume and input, JoyMasher provides two filtering options that mimic CRT TVs and one (5XBR) that reshades the game's already beautiful and era-accurate 16-bit pixel graphics. 

The game is even localized in 10 languages at launch, any of which can be chosen with the flick of a button.

  • Tight, remappable controls
  • Classic run n' gun flair
  • Beautiful pixel graphics
  • Fantastic synthwave soundtrack
  • Lack of online co-op
  • Very short arcade mode

Blazing Chrome is an instant classic. In no small way has JoyMasher lovingly captured the sound and fury of classic Contra in a way that feels truly authentic. 

Despite the lack of online co-op, my biggest gripe with Blazing Chrome is that the sequel isn't already out. I'm already yearning for more, whether in future DLC or sequels, which says nothing but good things about how JoyMasher handled this masterful throwback.

[Note: A copy of Blazing Chrome was provided by JoyMasher for the purpose of this review.]

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review: A Great Companion for Fans Thu, 11 Jul 2019 09:38:14 -0400 Mark Delaney

Chances are good that you're watching Stranger Things 3 this week. If not, chances are pretty good that you aren't because you've already finished the eight-episode season.

For the biggest fans, the fleeting binge may not feel like enough, but luckily it doesn't have to be this season. Stranger Things 3: The Game, developed by BonusXP and published by Netflix's burgeoning gaming division, is a fun retro take on the popular show's third season.

By including the expansive main cast as playable characters, giving players all of Hawkins to explore, and combining old-school charm with modern accessibility, Stranger Things 3: The Game makes for a great companion to the TV series. 

If you haven't watched the show's third season yet, you should do that first, as the game adaptation mostly tells the same story. It does make some very gaming-specific alterations, however, like offering many side missions and a lot more combat than the show makes time for. It's designed for co-op too, so while you can switch to any character you want, you'll always have a buddy handy as either AI or someone next to you on the couch.

Outside of those sorts of changes, it adheres very closely to the show, including even precise dialogue segments taken right from episodes. It's clear BonusXP didn't just have the plot outlines but had seen the whole season, and that sort of approach feels as nostalgic as the series. Tie-in games like this are disappointingly few and far between nowadays, but Stranger Things 3 makes a case for their resurgence. 

The artwork isn't exactly period-accurate. The show takes place in 1985 while the game, though retro-styled, looks more like a project from 1993 or so. For fans who don't like retro games and lack the nostalgia no matter how far into the annals of console history a game goes, ST3 thankfully modernizes the 16-bit open-world hubs with conveniences like fast travel, improved waypointing, and much more forgiving checkpoints. Controls are smartly set up too. With several characters offering unique abilities, the game wisely swaps to them automatically when you need them, and at any point, you can swap to whichever character you'd like, or even move back and forth between your last two like a favorites menu.

What remains intact from the era of games which ST3 mimics are very difficult boss battles. Usually how to defeat them is spelled out well enough to not frustrate, but there's a difference between knowing how to beat an enemy and executing that plan. In BonusXP's tie-in, the latter can be a real obstacle some times, just like the old days.

Even then, a few late-game bosses don't as clearly spell out the tactics needed, which is a harsh reminder of how games used to be and how far we've come from such annoyances. Every major battle from the season appears here as a boss, and they get harder as you go.

When you're not fighting bosses, combat can still be more than mindless button-mashing, even if it's not as trying as the bosses. Controlling crowds of flayed rats, armed Russians, and spillovers from the Upside Down involves some smart thinking and pairing of the right heroes while using their moves in effective ways. You recharge energy for devastating special moves by drinking New Coke, because even the game couldn't escape the influence of product placement.

For the biggest fans, it's not going to be just playing as favorite characters that is so exciting: it's getting to live in Hawkins as those characters. The overworld plays host to several good-sized hubs, like the suburbs, the Starport Mall, Hopper's woods, and more, and many of those have hidden areas which act as puzzle and combat dungeons, thus expanding the size of each area even more.

It's a thrill to go sightseeing to Joyce's general store, or Billy's pool, or especially the Hawkins Lab which has hosted so many classic moments. The game brilliantly takes you on a tour of every corner of every street and into every home and store by the end.

Getting familiar with the map really rewards you with a sense of place in the once quaint, always fictional town. You'll feel like a resident, or more accurately, 12 residents.

All the kids, younger and older, as well as Joyce and Hopper, are playable, and most of them are faithful avatars to their TV counterparts. With a few of them, it seems like BonusXP didn't quite know how to make them fighters, so their move sets end up feeling foreign, like they don't quite capture who they are. Nancy uses scissors, apparently because she's an office clerk. Why Max's normal attack is a high kick is another confusing example, though others, like Steve's ice cream cone lobbing or Eleven's Jedi powers, are welcome and powerful.

All of this comes while the series' unforgettable music plays in the background to perfectly set the stage, even as the game purposely withholds some flair that would be possible with a more modern approach.

  • Features 12 playable characters and every sight you'd want to see in Hawkins
  • Combat is fun against goons and a proper challenge against bosses
  • Music and the open-world go a long way to make you feel like you're a part of Hawkins
  • A few boss battles are needlessly obtuse
  • Some characters' abilities seem out of left-field

If you like neither retro games nor Stranger Things, you're probably safe skipping this one, but for anyone who likes either and everyone who likes both likely a great number of people  Stranger Things 3: The Game is a fun homage to the old school and a proper tie-in game that will hopefully bring about more similar projects.

The TV series appeals to a wide age range and the game surely will too. Bring someone skilled for the boss battles and this will be a frustration-free extension of your season three binge.

[Note: A copy of Stranger Things 3: The Game was provided by BonusXP for the purpose of this review.]

Dragon Quest Builders 2 Review: A Textbook Example Of A Sequel Done Right Thu, 11 Jul 2019 09:15:02 -0400 David Jagneaux

Dragon Quest Builders 2 is the perfect sequel. To be clear: that doesn't mean it's a perfect game by any means, but if you enjoyed the first one or had some specific, common issues with it, then you're very likely going to love this follow-up. 

More so than most any sequel I've seen in recent memory, it takes everything about the first game, improves it, expands it, and makes it better from top to bottom all without feeling redundant. It's actually pretty impressive.

Dialogue Boxes Galore

I never put a whole lot of time into the original, but I played enough to approach this review with some ground-level expectations. Despite being familiar with the previous game, an avid consumer of JRPGs, and fan of the core Dragon Quest franchise, I was not prepared for the sheer volume of text in this game. I'm not exaggerating. If you told me Dragon Quest Builders 2 has more lines of dialogue than The Witcher 3, I'd probably believe you. 

The premise here is that you're a rare and talented "builder" that possesses the unique gift of being able to, you guessed it, build stuff. That means busting out your book to jot down crafting recipes and blueprint ideas precisely when the narrative demands it. 

Truth be told, the story is all but meaningless after the first couple of hours, at which point you finally get to leave the starting island.

The game's broken up into several large themed islands with self-contained quest progressions that gradually teach you the game's various layers such as planting, mining, and so on. Each island has its own set of resources and eventually, you'll unlock access to anything and everything back on the main starting island, which is a bit like your home base as you recruit villagers to come back with you.

Building With Purpose

What originally attracted me to the Dragon Quest Builders franchise as a whole is the fact that it puts the addictive "collect, craft, build" gameplay loop from popular sandbox games such as Minecraft into a package with a clearer, more structured design. Instead of being a pure sandbox, you've got NPCs to chat with, a story to progress through, dedicated chunks of content to do, and a driving sense of purpose. Eventually, you can ignore it all and treat it like a pure sandbox, too, so it's kind of the best of both worlds in a way.

The downside to this is that even after a dozen or so hours, Dragon Quest Builders 2 is obsessed with teaching you. Even if it's something you figured out on your own, sifting through countless dialogue boxes over and over is tedious. I usually am very much against not reading the dialogue in games like this; I'm a writer so, of course, I appreciate good prose, but it eventually gets monotonous and patronizing in this case.

All of the writing is cute and charming, but sometimes I just wanted to get on with things already.

From a gameplay perspective, Dragon Quest Builders 2 feels really good. It uses a sort of middle ground between being top-down and isometric with a camera that can pan and zoom a bit to get the right angle. Thankfully, it helps establish a good sense of scale for how large the settings often are.

You'll spend most of your time completing simple checklist-style quests, but once you get a bit into the first non-starter island, things open up more. You'll start building up villages and recruiting NPC villagers that can go with you on adventures, along with your combat buddy, Malroth. 

As a first for the series, you can even assign tasks to villagers, too, like collecting certain items or even working on completing structures by following blueprints. Being able to offload a lot of the busy work to your helpers is a huge quality of life improvement.

Learning New Tricks

Speaking of changes and new features, the biggest addition here is multiplayer. Just like Dragon Quest 2 itself added a party to the game instead of the original's single protagonist, Dragon Quest Builders 2 adds NPC companions and player companions as well.

Combat received an overhaul as well by letting you attack much more quickly, removing the damage you'd take from touching enemies previously (it was super annoying,) and increasing the intensity a bit across the board. It's still just mashing attack and moving away from enemy swipes, but it's less tedious at least, even if not remarkable.

In terms of moment-to-moment gameplay, though, the biggest improvement to me is the enormous inventory expansion. No longer do you need to constantly drop things off in storage or sift through chests to find items. You've basically just got bottomless pockets this time around. Add in a Breath of the Wild-style glider, teleporters spread across islands, and a flute to help find rare items and it really rounds out the sequel package here in a great way.

And you can swim now, too!

  • Great improvement on the original in basically every way,
  • Lots of wonderful quality of life improvements,
  • Tons of stuff to do with dozens of hours of content,
  • Normally tedious stuff is handled very well.
  • Combat is still a bit boring,
  • At its core, it's still more of the same,
  • Story is extremely forgettable, albeit well-written.

At the end of the day, you probably already decided whether Dragon Quest Builders 2 was for you from reading the features list summary on Wikipedia or the storefront page of your choice. This doesn't reinvent the blocky cube wheel, and it doesn't do a whole lot to stand out other than refining its existing formula, but for fans of the original, that should be more than enough.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 releases on July 12, 2019, for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

[Note: A copy of Dragon Quest Builders 2 was provided by Square Enix for the purpose of this review.]

Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble Plays Like A Big Expansion Rather Than A Major Sequel Wed, 10 Jul 2019 18:14:55 -0400 Ty Arthur

Ready for another tactical Japanese arcade-style rumble as adorable armies clash on the battle grid? There's plenty more of that in-store with Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble, which manages to keep nearly all the same pros and cons of the previous 2017 title.

It isn't often that a game's biggest strength is also its main weakness, but that's the case here, as this is more of a big expansion than a true sequel in any sense of the word.

That being said, obviously if you liked Tiny Metal then it will be welcome addition anyway, but be aware you are getting a lot more of the same here, with a few added bugs inherent to any new release.

What's New And What's The Same With Full Metal Rumble 

 World map exploration (kinda)!

First things first: the graphics are essentially identical with Full Metal Rumble. The map terrain is the same, the unit models are the same, and even most of the unit voice work and sound effects are the same (the metal tank units still proclaim "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am!" when firing).

We've also got mostly the same cast of protagonists this time, with a few new additions as the stories for Wolfram and Nathan continue.

In terms of overall gameplay, this is essentially just 39 extra campaign missions that play out the same way as in the previous Tiny Metal entry.

There are some upgrades, however, which straddle the line between "beefy DLC" and "actual full sequel."

You get to manually move across the world map on different land or air vehicles to start new levels this time around, although this is really a cosmetic enhancement and not a game-changer by any means, as there's nothing else to do on that map but choose your level.

Full Metal Rumble also adds in some differing superpowers and abilities between heroes that nerf or buff various unit types, so you can change up your play style a bit on each level depending on what type of unit you prefer to use.

 Fuel and ammo resources to manage!

Easily the biggest change is the addition of ammo and fuel to manage for all of the units, and the lack of that element was a frequent complaint from Steam players for the previous game.

This is where the strategy changes from base Tiny Metal, although to be honest in the single-player campaign it rarely comes up in the first half of the game because units won't last long enough (and the maps aren't big enough) for those two new resources to matter much.

In skirmish mode where you can choose the map size however, resource management comes into play far more often. I would have to assume it will play a key role in multiplayer as well but wasn't able to confirm with my pre-release copy.

Unlike the first game, multiplayer is apparently going to be available immediately (it appears on the main menu anyway), but we'll have to wait and see if its fully up and running at launch; returning players will sadly recall it took nearly a year for multiplayer to actually become available in the original Tiny Metal. Things appear to be different here.

Finally, some of the AI has been tweaked. Units (thankfully) aren't nearly as suicidal as they used to be, but anyone who breezed through the first game will still find the campaign to be too easy in many places. 

There's only one major area where that difficulty spikes out of nowhere. Mission 33 is simply insane, even on easy mode, but the developers have already stated a patch will arrive shortly after launch to fix that issue. 

For the Tiny Metal veterans, the real difficulty will be in completing the secondary challenges in missions, like never losing a unit to retaliation or completing each mission under a certain number of turns.

Working Out Some Bugs

 Nope, that's not the key to use at all :)

As with the first game, there have been some bugs in the pre-launch version that need to be worked out shortly after launch.

For instance, commander super abilities currently stay active forever instead of lasting one round, which is supposed to be fixed on Day 1.

I also came across a handful of small annoyances, like stuttering when opening up the build menu or constantly getting throwback into the menu when you try to exit on one early level.

Those aren't too bad, but there's one that is particularly annoying: the game shows the Delete key as the way to move back in menus, but it's actually bound to the Backspace key.

Since there's currently no ability to change key bindings, that is extremely annoying until you figure out the key is just listed wrong. Until I figured that out I was having to ALT+F4 out of the game in some menus to start all over.

The Bottom Line 

 For Artemesia!!

  • Tactical battle that's easy to get into but hard to master
  • Unique and adorable art style
  • If you loved the first one, this is more of the same
  • The new resources and world map aren't as big of changes as you'd expect
  • Bugs, bugs, bugs to be squashed after launch
  • If you hated the first one, this is more of the same

Right now there aren't a ton of games in this genre to choose from, which makes Tiny Metal worth your time even despite the problems.

If Wargroove didn't scratch the tactical itch for you and you've played your GBA ROM of Advance Wars into the ground, Full Metal Rumble is really the only way to go right now.

There's also one big plus here: it's coming to the Switch as well as Steam. If you want an all-ages friendly strategy game for your console, do yourself a favor and pick this one up, while keeping your fingers crossed that big patches arrive shortly and multiplayer is actually available on day 1.

[Note: A copy of Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble was provided by Area 35 for the purpose of this review.]

Corsair M55 RGB Pro Review: Budget in Price Only Wed, 10 Jul 2019 17:09:03 -0400 Jonathan Moore

As most modern mice go, Corsair's M55 RGB Pro gets the job done. In many respects, it's a fairly average and inauspicious mouse when you consider the oversaturated field, and admittedly, the bar for average is pretty high these days. 

When you consider it's a $40 budget model that provides ambidextrous functionality without sacrificing form or function, the mouse broadens its shoulders. 

While there are other competitors in the ambidextrous space, such as GameSir's surprisingly nice GM300 and SteelSeries' egalitarian Sensei 310, there aren't that many to get your hands on, much less clamor about. Consequently, I think the M55 RGB Pro deserves a good deal of attention from righties and lefties alike if for nothing more than its dependability and ease of use. 

I won't say the M55 is the best mouse out there, but I like it a lot for what it is. 


From front to back, the M55 is a minimalist mouse. Remove the RGB lighting and one would have trouble proving this is nothing more than your typical office mouse. 

The hard-plastic shell is covered in a customary matte black finish, while a strip in the middle of the mouse sports a glossy black finish. The contoured sides of the mouse are covered in the expected rubber padding, which has dozens of small triangles grouped together for increased grip. 

There are eight buttons on the mouse: LMB and RMB, mouse wheel, DPI, and two lateral buttons on each side. The LMB and RMB are Omron's rated at 50-million clicks and respond until about halfway down the back of the mouse. 

The two lateral buttons are nicely placed and easy to get to; I appreciate that they jut out from the top of the shell a wee bit, making them recognizable along the shell. While the rupee-shaped DPI switch is rather large, it's placed a bit too far back for palm-grippers and is awkward still in a claw-grip style. 

There are two backlighting regions on the mouse, between the DPI switch and the mouse wheel, and at the lower end of the shell. These are fully customizable, but can't be easily seen while in use, if at all, essentially negating their inclusion.    

Flip the M55 over, and you'll find three feet: two at the front of the mouse on the right and left, and one larger across the back of the mouse. In the center, you'll find the 12,400 DPI PMW3327 optical sensor. 

Lastly, the mouse is crazy light, weighing in at a minuscule 86g. 


Rather unexpectedly, there are quite a few features on the M55 RGB Pro, all of which are accessible through Corsair's iCUE software. 

You can set macros, change pointer speed, and set DPI in one-step increments, something certain players will find a big selling point. You can also easily switch between right-handed and left-handed modes. 

The one thing I did not like is that the software allows you to set the DPI for a sniper button, which is meant to drastically lower your DPI for precise shooting or other precise actions. However, there is no dedicated sniper button; instead, one must be set by the user in the "Actions" section of the software.

Sure, it's a small gripe, but I spent two or three minutes looking for a dedicated button that didn't exist — and nothing in the software tells you where to set it when you finally figure it out. 

As expected, you can also change the M55's RGB lighting, with the entire 16 million color spectrum at your disposal. You can alter the color of the logo and the effects profiles in the lighting effects section. Here you can choose from speed, starting and ending positions (such as with a profile or on click), and three different effects categories: predefined, custom, and lighting link. Within these, you have even more choices such as static, color pulse, rainbow, rain, and temperature. 


In every game tested, the M55 worked swimmingly and as expected. Killing Floor 2 stood out with the mouse as I was able to consistently increase my headshot record over three separate games.

In Battlefield 1, Blood: Fresh Supply, Skyrim, Stardew Valley, and Cities: Skylines, the mouse was responsive and accurate, and I didn't notice any float on my two cloth mousepads: a Bloody MP-60R and a Logitech Powerplay

My biggest complaint outside of the hard-to-reach DPI switch is the mouse's lift-off distance. A good 3/4 of an inch, the LoD here can make aiming and movement a bit jumpy if you have a proclivity for picking your mouse off the mat when playing. 

Some players won't mind it, but I often found it distracting, and I consciously accounted for it as I played the above games during testing. 

  • Stupid affordable for what you get
  • Responsive and precise
  • Ambidextrous
  • DPI switch is hard to reach
  • Only one on-board memory profile
  • High lift-off distance

There might not be much to write home about when it comes to the M55 RGB Pro, but there's also very little to complain about. This is a super solid mouse and a definite consideration for lefties. 

Corsair has done a lot to round out its catalog of gaming mice. The M55 is another great addition. It's a $40 mouse that feels like a $60 mouse. 

Here are the mouse's full specs: 

Programmable Buttons 8
DPI 12,400 (in single steps)
Sensor PMW3327
Sensor Type Optical
Mouse Backlighting 2 Zone RGB
On-board Memory Profile 1
Button Type Omron (50M)
Mic Frequency Response 100Hz to 10kHz
Connectivity Wired
Cable Length 5.9ft
Grip Type Palm, Claw, Fingertip
Weight Tuning No
Weight 86g
Report Rate 125Hz, 250Hz, 500Hz, 1,000Hz

[Note: An M55 RGB Pro review unit was provided by Corsair for the purpose of this review.]

Terraria Switch Review: Building a Promising Path Tue, 09 Jul 2019 12:27:44 -0400 diegoarguello

It's getting late. I think of going back to the mines in search for some more cooper and maybe some chests with items that might come handy, but Demon Eyes start slamming the walls of my house. My sword can only get me so far, and my current armor made of dirt barely adds any protection to my body. I make a run for it, digging and breaking any obstacles in the way.

I had forgotten how daunting Terraria can be at times after years since I played it on PC, but the Nintendo Switch port is making me fall in love with it again. Even if it's demanding some patience from me when it comes to the way it controls.

Let's start with the basics: Terraria isn't Minecraft. That discussion has been long-had and finished.

From the ground up, it's much more arcadey experience. It seemed limited at first with its 2D perspective, but it couldn't be farther from reality. Digging below the ground with a handful of tools and discovering the map bit by bit is still exciting, and you never know what to expect just around the corner.

The key difference with Mojang's sandbox is that the game encourages you to build all sorts of weapons, from a wooden sword or a shotgun to different types of grenades, even getting magic into the mix. There are companions, probably too many materials to find, forge, and build upon, and so on. It's huge. And the developers haven't stopped supporting it throughout the years.

I've always enjoyed this particular focus, which is surprising to see in a sandbox, and it has always worked well. But if you're like me and you've probably already played Terraria before, you must be wondering if it's worth it to start from scratch on a new console.

Everyone wants everything to be on Nintendo Switch, but I was skeptical about this port at first. The narrow 3D perspective of Minecraft translates well to consoles since aiming at blocks only takes a gentle movement from the camera. But when it comes to Terraria, it's not as easy as on PC.

The left analog stick controls the player, as expected, but there's also a pointer that follows you everywhere that can be controlled with the right stick.

This can be used on the go with only your left stick movement (if you're mining sideways, for example) or you can also help yourself with the right stick, with moves said pointer to the direction you want to. Thing is, the sensitivity is way too high at least with the Joy-Cons, and it doesn't feel as intuitive as it should.

In addition with this control scheme, the game has the tendency to fill up all empty spaces around what you're aiming at, and it does it in a fast manner. Say you're placing background blocks to form walls. If you move the pointer in a spiral while holding the right trigger, it will probably use around 20 blocks in a couple of seconds. This isn't a huge problem when you actually want to cover up space, build yourself a bridge or block an enemy's path fast. But if it's a matter of precision required, it can become tedious.

Luckily there are two elements you can use to ease this. One is the possibility to zoom, something that is only available on the console versions of Terraria and is especially helpful when you're playing on handheld mode. The other is a particular perspective that makes a grid visible around your character. This allows for a much slower building instance, which made so much easier to cover specific parts of the environment.

Since this is Nintendo's hybrid console we're talking about. you can also use touch controls to navigate through the game. This is naturally far easier to pick up and play with. It also showcases a zoomed-in box of the particular area you're setting blocks in building mode, which makes it even easier to read.

For the most part, I haven't encountered any problems with Terraria's performance on the console.

It runs at 720p in handheld and jumps onto 1080p in docked mode. Even there the screen got crowded with enemies and projectiles, it always maintained itself at 60 fps. One would like to take this for granted, but a bad port can ruin any game regardless of how demanding it is, so it's a nice change of pace to just jump in and get the best experience possible.

  • An exuberant amount of content
  • Intuitive touch controls
  • The same Terraria experience
  • Solid performance
  • Building isn't as easy as on PC
  • No exclusive content

Terraria is an entertainment experience that seems rather simple from screenshots alone but hides a lot of charm underneath with literally dozens (or hundreds!) of hours well worth your time. The Nintendo Switch version has the potential to grant it new life, both in singleplayer and multiplayer, even if the actual building isn't as natural as one would expect.

It's a fair trade-off from the PC version thanks to its pretty much outstanding performance, and the possibility to zoom into the action in different ways erases any kind of troubles that might come with visibility, especially when you're holding your Switch.

Whether or not veterans would want to return to Terraria in 2019 is up for discussion, but if this could be your first time and you have a couple of friends willing to get on board for some online spelunking, then there are literally hundreds of adventures waiting for you.

[Note: A copy of Terraria for Switch was provided by 505 Games for the purpose of this review.]

SolSeraph Review: ActRaiser By Any Other Name Tue, 09 Jul 2019 09:45:02 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

It's no secret what SolSeraph is: even the capitalization of the title is a thinly-veiled reference to the Super Nintendo classic ActRaiser. The gameplay and plot featured here will be familiar to anyone who has played that 1990 game, as well. 

SolSeraph is a hybrid platformer-town building game, although it swaps out the original's real-time strategy elements for tower defense.

Unfortunately, neither element of SolSeraph feels like it's fully realized, making for a game that is much better in idea than execution. There's nothing really bad about it, but there's not much good either. SolSeraph just kind of... is.

Pray to the Gods

SolSeraph puts you in the role of Helios, a divine being who protects mankind from all sorts of nasty creatures. You do this by helping different tribes of humans in battles against other divine beings, who continually send monsters out to cause harm. 

After selecting an area from the overworld map, you enter a platforming stage. Helios is a fairly straightforward character who starts the game with a fairly standard repertoire of moves at his disposal: a basic sword combo, a ranged attack, a double jump, a guard, and a back dash.

Sidescrolling stages have a few different objectives: sometimes you must reach the end of the stage, sometimes you have to defeat a large creature, and sometimes you're in a small arena and must defeat waves of respawning enemies.

After finishing the sidescrolling stage, you are brought to another overworld map, smaller than the first. You must protect the tribe and flush out the boss of the region. Enemies will march out of the darkness, looking to extinguish the tribe's campfire, always walking down a clearly delineated path.

You must manage your resources and construct the tribe's buildings, placing defenses along the way to stop the ever-increasing waves. Eventually, you will find new lairs in the darkness, which you will enter and defeat until you have safeguarded the tribe and defeated the boss of the region.

Upon return to the main overworld map, you'll have a new ability and several new areas to choose from.

Raising Acts

If you ever played ActRaiser, this set up will sound extremely familiar: it's the exact progression that the SNES classic used.

Unfortunately, not everything in SolSeraph runs quite as smoothly as its spiritual predecessor. Everything feels kind of slow. In the sidescrolling stages, Helios runs slowly. He attacks slowly. He back dashes slowly. God forbid there's an extended section where he's underwater, which slows him down even more.

When you zoom out to the tower defense portions, enemies move slowly. They chug along towards you as you wait to kill enough of them so you can move on to the next area. You can zap them with lightning bolts, which hustles it along, but those lack the impact that your godlike powers should feel like they have.

This sluggishness in both sections causes two different problems.

In the sidescrolling sections of the game, it makes your character feel unresponsive. Coupled with a knockback effect when you are hit and some floaty jumping, it leads to some seriously frustrating "instant death" jumping sections that are completely infuriating.

In the tower defense sections, there is a lack of urgency. I never found myself panicking, and the only reason I ever had to restart one of these sections was because I simply lost track of where enemies were coming from as I waited to open the next sidescrolling lair.

Fury of the Gods

Of the two portions, the tower defense sections are more enjoyable. There is a wide variety of enemies and buildings for you to place, keeping you on your toes when you encounter something new. The lack of urgency does give you a chance to experiment a bit with different buildings and find the strategy you like. With a few tweaks, it could be a solid bit of puzzlework.

The sidescrolling sections are filled to the brim with odd design choices, however. Though they are 2D areas, enemies frequently enter the screen from the foreground or the background. I took far too many hits as I started swinging before they were on the same plane as me; it's impossible to tell when they can be hit, and they move so deliberately that it looked to be much sooner than it was.

Enemies spawn in the path of your jumps, knocking you off cliffs to your doom. You often have to jump blindly, and the screen is so zoomed in that Helios will suffer a lot of cheap hits from fireballs appearing where you can't see them. Your health bar becomes absolutely massive by the late game, making each hit feel insignificant as you tank through enemies rather than figure out effective strategies to avoid hits.

When you think of classic platformers, you usually think of pinpoint controls helping you overcome enemies, powerful abilities that help you defeat overwhelming odds, and repetition serving as a learning tool, not an exercise in frustration. 

SolSeraph fails to deliver on those ideas.

Divine Intervention

That said, SolSeraph looks and sounds pretty. There's a fun soundtrack, and it is obvious which enemies are tough and which will go down in just a hit or two. It's also kind of fun to see the same tiny enemies on the tower defense portion tower over your character when you hit the sidescrolling portions.

Even the look of the game has some strange design choices. Powerups barely register when you pick them up. Even defeating each region's boss, which unlocks a new power for Helios, barely makes a mark. Remember when you'd defeat a boss in the Mega Man games, and it was a big deal? Flashing lights, a massive upgrade screen, and a demonstration of the badass new power you've obtained?

In SolSeraph, it will say something like "You unlocked a new power: Flame." Then you will have to wait until you enter the next area, tap through some text boxes, and select the new power to even see how it works. For a game where you play as a literal god, you certainly never feel like it.


  • A callback to a classic
  • Lots of strong ideas
  • Good soundtrack and look
  • Slow and repetitive
  • Never delivers on ideas
  • Frustrating platforming

SolSeraph seems like a solid throwback to a much-beloved classic. On paper, it all looks right. Unfortunately, it never quite moves on the aspects it needs to. It ultimately winds up seeming more like a pale imitation than a hand-crafted tribute to ActRaiser.

SolSeraph never quite overcomes its sluggish, deliberate pacing and odd design choices to become what you'll want it to become. With a few small tweaks, it could be a fantastic diversion and admirable tribute to the 16-bit days. As is, it feels like a tragic case of "almost got it."

You'd be much better served grabbing a solid platformer and a solid tower defense game from the huge number available. SolSeraph just never quite soars as high as you'll want it to.

[Note: A copy of SolSeraph was provided by Sega for the purpose of this review.]

Sea of Solitude Review: A Life Vest for Those Drowning Mon, 08 Jul 2019 12:55:47 -0400 Mark Delaney

As video games have grown up over the last several years, we're now able to experience stories of real-world politics, social change, mental health, and so much more, many things that were once the realm of the unexplored.

Trailblazing creators don't have to choose between telling personal, unorthodox stories and making money. Today's industry allows for such goals to coexist, thankfully.

Jo-Mei Games set out to tell such a story with Sea of Solitude, a fantastical adventure game which, at its core, grapples with mental health. Unfortunately, the game's script feels so wary to ever let players miss the underlying message that it instead spells it all out to a degree that leaves much of it unsatisfying.

In Darkness, Search for the Light

Sea of Solitude tells the story of Kay, a young woman who morphs into a shadow-like monster sometime before we meet her. Left to explore a flooded fantasy world inspired by Jo-Mei's home of Berlin, Kay meets many other monsters on her three- to four-hour journey. Some will be sympathetic and help her inspect her feelings. Others will be violent and antagonistic, even vulgarly mocking her as one such hermit crab-like enemy does in the early moments.

The game pivots between gorgeous vibrant oranges and blues to smoky dark gray doldrums. This oscillation between light and dark, hopeful and depressing, keeps the whole game visually interesting as the game plays very differently depending on what the world around Kay looks like.

In the lighter moments, Kay is free to explore by boat, by swimming, or on foot as she solves simple platforming puzzles. These will slow virtually no one down and clearly aren't meant to. In the dark periods, Kay is often chased by a sea monster which lurks like the shark in Jaws. The accompanying music when this "whale" gives chase is even similarly anxiety-inducing.

Other villainous monsters appear too, like shadowy children who will impede or chase and assault Kay and her brother. Every time a new monster is introduced, their design alone tells their story in artful and meaningful ways, such as a massive arctic wolf whose gorgeous fur is just a veneer for a dark and isolated true form. In fact, the game's whole world is strong enough to stand alone in presenting a compelling dialogue about mental health, and particularly Kay's loneliness.  

Lots of Tell, Little Show

The oft-cited golden rule of writing is "show, don't tell." It means creators should poignantly depict a character's motivations and a story's themes without just laying them out via spoonfed dialogue. However, virtually every instance of chatter in Sea of Solitude commits this cardinal sin.

The world Jo-Mei created is a fascinating one, and it stands on its own needing no such hand-holding, but unfortunately, it's difficult to think back and recall one moment where the writing expresses the idea that less is more. 

This on-the-nose dialogue is Sea of Solitude's biggest fault because it leaves every interaction hyper-focused on forwarding the game's themes. However, the game's world and character design already do that so exceptionally well it feels like Sea of Solitude would've been better off staying totally silent.

It doesn't help that the voice acting is often lacking, meaning the lines aren't just unrealistic, but unnatural in their delivery. Like the way the fascinating world pivots between binary explorations of darkness and light, it can often feel like everything good about the game is in its visual presentation, and everything bad about it comes from the audio. 

For Those Lost at Sea

Despite the issues with dialogue and voiceovers, Sea of Solitude still feels like it succeeds as a game grappling with some really tough subjects.

For those unexposed to these sort of themes in games before, it could be the experience they are hoping for, and in that way, Sea of Solitude's merits as a public good outweigh its detriments. While it follows a decade or more of games that have "grown up" and handled similar themes, sometimes better than this one, few have painted them in such interesting colors, including literally, and perhaps never all in the same experience. 

Sea of Solitude bills itself as a game about loneliness, and by the end that loneliness takes on many forms, like bullying at school, unhappy marriages, and, in a rare feat of eloquence, manic-depressive disorder. All of this manifests on Kay's backpack as literal baggage, which she even comments on told you it was heavy-handed.

Still, it's undeniably a good thing for more games to exist in this space and have the potential to be there for someone who needs it. Despite some really dark stuff, it's rated for teens here in the United States, and thus could be some young person's first video game that demands introspection of them and helps them navigate their own feelings. Its more challenging, better written third and final act also seems like the one most likely to relate to many players.

  • A gorgeous and interesting world in both darkness and light
  • A memorable, more eloquent third act
  • A good, though not great, meditation on mental health


  • Heavy-handed dialogue and metaphors sour the artfulness of it all
  • Lackluster voice acting

Ultimately, Sea of Solitude is a worthwhile though inelegant conversation piece on the dark recesses of our often self-deprecating minds. Visually, its vibrant and unique world would be enough on its own to serve the game's laundry list of metaphors.

The voiceover and dialogue then only get in the way by spelling it all out in unsatisfying ways. Still, if this is your first stop at the intersection of games and mental health, or if you know someone who needs to hear what Sea of Solitude has to say, it's certainly worth leaving the shore.

[Note: A copy of Sea of Solitude was provided by Jo-Mei Games for the purpose of this review.]

Mini-Mech Mayhem Review: Watching Carefully Laid Plans Implode In Glorious VR Wed, 03 Jul 2019 09:33:55 -0400 Ty Arthur

Need something completely different to get you back into playing PSVR regularly?

Although there's been a fairly wide variety of games hitting Playstation's VR platform in recent months, Mini-Mech Mayhem offers up a style you didn't even know you were missing a thoughtful and hilariously randomized strategy title with both single player or online multiplayer that's fit for audiences of all ages.

The basic idea here is that four adorable mechs with a huge combination of cosmetic body parts and gun types are trying to duke it out for supremacy by taking control of the victory point, pushing each other into harm's way, or directly blowing up the competition.

How you reach those goals is where Mini-Mech Mayhem sets itself apart, and this homage/deconstruction of the board game genre is both fun and clever.

Before we dive in, I just want to leave a quick note about the images below: taking screenshots while playing PSVR can sometimes give off a false sense of how the game looks since a 3D experience is rendered into a flat image. In the pics we're using here, the board looks much farther away and the mechs seem smaller than they actually are while playing Mini-Mech Mayhem.

Not-So-Controlled Chaos

 A re-arrange interrupt swaps everyone's positions just as they start moving

Despite the name, this is actually a slow-moving game strategy game and not a fast-paced action shooter. That's not a negative by any means.

While the tutorial is quite in-depth, the game itself is simple to grasp once you have the basics down. Essentially you assign three actions (two for moving and one for shooting in whatever order you want) simultaneously with the other players before each round starts.

Mechs who move fewer tiles across the game board go earlier in the turn order, as do mechs who aim at the chest or limbs instead of the head when shooting, so which player will move first and how your best-laid plans will inevitably unravel is a mystery until the round kicks off.

The "mayhem" here isn't from speed or wild explosions, but rather in the utter insanity of how each round will play out since you don't know how the other players will move, and you can all mess with each other's plans through interrupt actions. 

Another mech might collide with you and push you out of your intended path (or even through a red hole tile where you plummet to your robotic death). A stray shot could hit your legs and redirect your movement another direction, or hit your arm and send your next shooting action towards a different part of the board.

Interrupt actions accrued randomly at the start of each round can wildly change the battlefield, entirely re-arranging everyone's positions, adding or subtracting a step from a move plan, bumping a mech onto another tile line while they move, or even stealing energy from an opponent so you can use more interrupts.

Bets laid plans will often go hilariously awry

To put it mildly, this isn't a strategy game in the vein of Into The Breach where you will have a pretty good idea of where your mechs are going to end up at the round's conclusion.

Wherever you think you are going and whatever mech you thought you were going to shoot is almost certainly not how the round will actually end. The main strategy here is in trying to guess what the other player will do so you can reach a more advantageous position. That gets easier with practice in single player AI mode, but in online multiplayer, all bets are pretty well off.

For the most part, this random chaos is a lot of fun, although there are at least two instances I found where that element of the gameplay needs an update.

First up, one tutorial challenge level seems to be bugged, as it randomly re-assigns your action at the start of the turn even though none of the other players are using interrupts.

Second, I sadly found an exploit the AI takes advantage of in normal mode that can also be used by unscrupulous players in multiplayer. Each board is randomly generated, and sometimes a red hole tile is placed on the outer edge near where players re-deploy after dying in a round.

In these cases, occasionally you get into a situation where the player who moves before the one who re-deploys can just constantly push the unlucky player into the hole at the start of each new turn.

When this particular scenario occurs, it effectively prevents that player from getting a turn and you get a victory point for free every round. That certainly needs a fix.

The Bottom Line

 Sporting my cool new duds unlocked by leveling up

  • Adorable graphics
  • Tons of customization options
  • Plenty of strategy tempered by a wildly chaotic turn system
  • This would be more fun with local multiplayer or as a real board game
  • There are a few ways to exploit the respawn system
  • The way that your plans always fall apart won't sit well with some die-hard strategy players 

Once you've mastered the mechanics, the replay here arrives from the utter unpredictability of each match, as well as in leveling up to unlock new body parts and emotes for your avatar and your mech.

Both online and offline matches can be a great time, but much like Dick Wilde 2, this is a game that is screaming for local VR co-op or some sort of way for people on the couch to interact with the game (like in The Playroom VR).

Everything about this experience feels like it would be more of a blast with people you know, watching their plans unravel as everything goes sideways. On a Friday night with your gaming group and a few beers, a local version of Mini-Mech Mayhem could be the ultimate icebreaker game that keeps everyone coming back for more.

To be perfectly honest, this game might actually work better as a tabletop experience with an app that keeps track of positions and lets you know the turn order. Each player could set down three cards in order in front of them, then the app would let you know how to re-position the mechs if interrupts are played. With mix-and-match mini parts, you wouldn't even lose out on the mech customization aspect.

That style of lo-fi board game meets high tech mobile title has been done well in the past, from the simplicity of the app timer with 5 Minute Dungeon to the complexity of tabletop war game Golem Arcana where the app calculates all the math and lets you know if your move is valid under the rules.

Wishing for local co-op aside, Mini-Mech Mayhem is a welcome addition to the PSVR lineup, especially if you've been craving something beyond the normal stable of action shooters or walking simulators.

If this were a freemium mobile game without the virtual element, I'd probably give it a 7, but as a PSVR exclusive that gives you a reason to pull out your headset again, this is a solid 8 that's great fun even if there are some elements I'd like to see changed up.

[Note: A copy of Mini-Mech Mayhem was provided by FuturLab for the purpose of this review.]

Corsair HS35 Headset Review: A Lateral Step Tue, 02 Jul 2019 17:12:16 -0400 Jonathan Moore

Corsair's new HS35 gaming headset is a budget model of the HS50, which we reviewed last year. I liked the HS50, especially at $50. It was, and still is, a serviceable, good-sounding headset that I recommend. 

It's somewhat strange, then, that the HS35 exists at all. In many ways, it gets rid of the more premium aspects of the HS50 and drops the retail price $10. Problem is, what it removes were some of the things I liked about the HS50, and what it kept, I didn't like so much. 

Despite all of that, it's hard not to recommend the headset in general, specifically to anyone looking for a fantastic budget option or a lateral choice to the HS50. Gamers aren't made of money, and one could do far, far worse than the HS35. 


The HS35 comes in several different colors: 

  • All black
  • Black with green earcups and headband cushion
  • Black with red earcups and headband cushion
  • Black with blue earcups and headband cushion

The frame of every submodel is lightweight plastic, except for the adjustable section of the headband, which is your standard silver aluminum. As is custom, "Corsair" is emblazoned across the top of the headband. 

Each earcup tilts inward to provide more comfort for different shaped heads, an expected but nice tough. On the outside of each, the Corsair ship logo is placed nicely in the center. There is a glossy black channel that runs around the earcups, providing a stark contrast to the matte black around the rest of the headset. 

One thing I do not like about the HS35 — which I also did not like about the HS50 — is that the earcups do not swivel. It's a crime in modern headset design, but that's just whining from an entitled writer that likes to rest his headsets flat when not in use.

On the back of the left earcup, you'll find the volume wheel and the mic mute button. On the front, you'll find the port for the unidirectional, detachable mic. 


For the HS35, Corsair opted to drop the leatherette earcup and headband padding found on the HS50 for fiber mesh. The mesh is a tad hotter than the leatherette over long periods, and although the earcups are supposed to manage moisture better, my ears did feel a tad sweaty after prolonged use. 

What bothered me more, however, was the depth of the earcups. Unlike the roomy earcups found on the HS50, those on the HS35 feel very shallow, as if my ears were directly on the drivers and the mesh that covered them. 

However, a plus is that during my time with the headset, the headband never bothered me; it felt just as comfortable as the one found on the HS50. Perhaps the headset's newer lightweight design contributed to that as the HS35 is 60g lighter than the HS50.


The HS35 sounds pretty great for a $40 budget set. It's hard to complain on most levels. While I did moan a bit about the HS50's bassier leanings, I found I missed that punchier sound in the HS35s. Here, bass isn't as pronounced, with highs and mids garnering the most attention. 

In games like DOOM, that means glory kills aren't as meaty and visceral, and the thrum and thunk of a shotgun takes a backseat to clankier tones of individual parts — or even the slug itself. 

There's nothing wrong with that, and I never felt I was "missing out" on tones or cues, but it's worth noting. 

For dialog in games and podcasts, for example, the HS35 shines. Voices are clear as a bell, and the stereo power of the headset's 50mm drivers really shines through. 

The microphone is Discord certified, and it performs swimmingly on the app. A colleague of mine said I sounded decidedly better than when using Logitech's G432. She said my voice was crisp and clear. 

  • Great sounding Discord-certified mic
  • Good sound on a budget for gaming, movies, and music
  • Plug and play for PS4, Switch, and mobile
    • See below
  • Earcups are shallow
  • Detachable mic is easy to lose
  • Overall construction is flimsier than HS50
  • Not all versions come with Y-splitter 
    • May need XB1 3.5mm adapter (sold separately)

All in all, the HS35s aren't necessarily worse than the HS50s; instead, they're simply different. Gamers love options, and Corsair has provided them an option to the HS50. Seeing as gamers can buy an HS50 from third-party retailers for about the same price as an HS35 these days, price shouldn't be the deciding factor. 

For a low-tier headset, the HS35s sound great. Music, movies, and games are all enjoyable. Since it's plug-and-play, you won't find any fancy software here; what you hear is what you get. 

One thing to keep in mind if you decide to pick up a pair of HS35s is color scheme — it actually seems to mean something. Although every color works with every platform, only the all-black Carbon version comes with a Y-splitter for PCs.   

Here are the headset's full specs: 

 Frequency Response 20Hz to 20kHz
Sensitivity 113dB (+/- 3dB)
Impedance 32 Ohms @ 1kHz
Type Wired
Cable Length 5.9ft
Audio Stereo
Mic Type Unidirectional noise canceling
Mic Frequency Response 100Hz to 10kHz
Mic Sensitivity -40dB (+/- 3dB)


[Note: An HS35 review unit was provided by Corsair for the purpose of this review.]

Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled Review: A Nostalgic Joy Ride Needing Just One Repair Thu, 27 Jun 2019 13:27:21 -0400 Mark Delaney

When Crash Bandicoot wasn't jumping on crates of wumpa fruit and spin-attacking turtles and wizards, he was racing aliens around the track in a stylish buggy. Crash Team Racing (CTR) has long been regarded as one of the best kart racers of its time, if not of all-time.

With the world welcoming 90s' mascots back with open arms as of late, it's the perfect time for the racer to reemerge as Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled and try to dazzle audiences just as the N. Sane Trilogy did in recent years.

Just like that collection of Crash's platforming feats, CTR mostly holds up as a great example of its genre, albeit with one nagging issue that comes along for the ride.

Racing Into 4K

If you played the N. Sane Trilogy, it helps to understand that Beenox has used for CTR the same impressive process which Vicarious Visions used for that collection. More than a simple touch-up remaster  the likes of which we're used to hearing about  but not a complete remake either, 2019's CTR was rebuilt on top of the original game and its sequel, Crash Nitro Kart.

Both games are brought into the modern day in this collection with updated colors and textures that look stunning every time you hit a new track for the first time. This process guarantees all the track dimensions, kart hitboxes, and every inch of every level is as you may remember it, only now so much prettier.

Some late-game tracks especially are on par with the masterful work seen from Pixar and it's consistently glorious to see these early-aughts visions brought into the 4K world. Of course, even if your screen isn't 4K-enabled, Nitro-Fueled looks better than perhaps all other kart racers out today. The original music has been restored, too, which functions as an auditory time machine for anyone who played back during the series' original run. 

What's a Kart Without Customization?

Beenox also did more than just touch up the visuals. The developer completely overhauled the game's reward system for contemporary players. Though you can still play the game in Classic mode, I imagine you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who wants to. Originally, the game's campaign, called Adventure, demanded you stick with one racer from start to finish and could do nothing but race and complete challenges. That's no longer the case, as players can now change characters whenever they'd like.

On top of that pillar, Beenox has built an entire customization suite that lets you alter your kart's body style and paint job, apply stickers, and even change the cosmetics of your racer. Want Crash to look like a skunk? Want Coco's kart to be an alien hovercraft? These changes and many more are now available and bring a previously missing carrot-and-stick feature that feels at home with today's gaming landscape.

You can unlock many of these by performing the sort of challenges Crash has always been known for, such as time trials or CTR challenges where you need to find letters hidden on each race. This keeps the relatively short campaign worth revisiting for more than just achievement and trophy hunters. 

There's a store to spend your in-game coins for more cosmetics, too, sometimes very rare ones, and as of now, these can't be obtained with real money. As Nitro-Fueled is being treated as a live service game, the upcoming Grand Prix online mode will bring many more cosmetics to the game, including even the ability to play as Spyro, but currently, Activision has not revealed if in-game coins will ever be for sale.

A Game Mode for Every Competitor

The best feature of Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is certainly its long list of game modes. The brief Adventure mode is elongated by challenges that feel worthwhile after the final boss is beaten, but it goes far beyond those. Local co-op or competitive play extends to four players in various types of races and arena battle modes, while you can also take the game online and compete against others in any of the same modes.

In my experience, online play was impeccably lag-free, leaving no discernible difference between this mode and local play, which is crucial for any competitive game. Grand Prix mode, while not live yet, promises to give players a reason to come back every week, if not every day, to compete for seasonal rewards.

With over 30 tracks, each of which can be played in mirror mode, thus doubling the number of routes, there are a lot of sights to see and roads on which to prevail. Along with Capture the Flag multi-stage Cup races, and a dozen battle mode maps, there's plenty here to justify a timesink for fans.

Precisely the Kart Racer You'd Want In All Ways But One

Kart racers tend not to reinvent the wheel, and while Beenox added a lot of features to the structure of the game, the actual racing is exactly as you may remember it, and largely indistinguishable from genre counterparts. You pick up crates to earn power-ups and find shortcuts on the map to cut corners and get ahead while drifting around corners to earn speed boosts.

It's nothing you haven't seen before, and really how could it be? It's all just a resurgence of a years-old game. That's all fine except the controls themselves are unintuitively designed and sadly can't be remapped.

These bad controls give CTR a learning curve steeper than it should have. Other racers such as this have resorted to copying and pasting the Mario Kart button layout, and for good reason. It's the top of its class. With CTR, the controller demands a bit too much for simple actions and it's confusing to see Beenox doesn't offer any alternatives.

Drifting to earn boosts is a more active system, demanding several timed button presses rather than just holding the left shoulder button so many others have used. While an active system sounds like it could be interesting, in turn, it makes the game feel unwieldy whenever you're hitting a corner or trying to turn around after a mistake. Often my kart would not drift when I wanted it to, like only the most pronounced turns were conducive to such drifting, and it always felt like this was due to the controls giving me fits.

On difficulties higher than easy it feels too involved for younger audiences to perform well enough to beat the AI or online players, leaving the game mostly suitable for nostalgia seekers or modern genre fans. 

  • Tons of tracks, game modes, and new customization options
  • Glorious visuals put CTR in pole position among genre counterparts
  • Outdated, often unwieldy control scheme with no alternatives available

At the finish line, CTR is mostly the enjoyable game you may remember and love  or maybe even love for the first time. But time has not been kind to the outdated controller layout and Beenox either couldn't or wouldn't include alternatives, leaving the game a bit more annoying than something so much fun should be. It's a bit paradoxical, perhaps, to be both awesomely recreated and frustratingly stuck in 1999 in this one glaring way.

Like the N. Sane Trilogy before it, by building on top of the original games, players can preserve all that was good in the first place, but that approach also means some legacy issues ride shotgun. Still, it only means the game has a steeper learning curve than it should, not that it's irredeemably broken. Crash Team Racing is still well worth the ride for most genre fans.

[Note: A copy of Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled was provided by Beenox for the purpose of this review.]

Logitech G502 Lightspeed Review: Reinvigorating a Classic Thu, 27 Jun 2019 13:24:33 -0400 Jonathan Moore

There's currently a (growing) trend in the world of gaming peripherals: take an old product people love and update it. Logitech previously did so to great effect with the G935 gaming headset, and now it's done the same with the G502 Wireless Lightspeed gaming mouse.

For those familiar with the G502 line, not much has changed over the years. The upgrades here focus on wireless functionality (both signal transference and charging through Lightspeed), as well as a few changes to the modular weight system and the mouse's sensor. 

Coming in at $149.99, the G502 Lightspeed is pricey, that's true. For some players, other similarly-priced options from Logitech might present more agreeable overall designs. The G903 ($150) and G703 ($100) both implement the G502's Lightspeed and Powerplay technologies; both are also smaller.

It's worth noting that the $149.99 price point is not counting the extra $99 you'll have to spend on the Powerplay mat, which provides the compelling Lightspeed and Powerplay features but does not come with the mouse.

However, there's no reason to sleep on the G502 Wireless. It's one of the best mice you can buy right now. 


The G502 Wireless looks more or less like the two previous models in the Proteus line: the Core and the Spectrum. 

The mouse features an all-black plastic shell and a futuristic design replete with angular angles and curvy curves.

The main body of the mouse, its LMB and RMB, and the thumb rest all feature a matte black finish. Other body accents and buttons feature a glossy black finish. The sides of the mouse are textured black rubber for increased grip. 

Unlike some other mice I've reviewed, the G502's body doesn't seem to scratch or mark easily, which is a good thing. What's more, it's relatively resistant to grease stains from potato-flaked fingers. 

There are 11 total buttons on the G502 Wireless: the LMB and RMB, a clickable mousewheel, and underneath that, a button that changes the wheel's scroll resistance.

Beneath the scroll wheel, there's a button that indicates the mouse's current battery level, and to the right of the LMB, you'll find the DPI up and DPI down buttons. Finally, there are three buttons on the left side of the mouse: two side buttons and a "sniper" button that drastically lowers DPI for more precise movements on the fly.  

On the front of the mouse, between the LMB and RMB, there is a port in case you want to use the mouse in wired mode. Flip the mouse over, and you'll find three rubber feet, the HERO sensor, and the wireless on/off switch.

This is where you'll also find a large detachable plate for inserting four of six removable weights, as well as an area for an insertable core. Logitech provides two of these, which can be easily swapped out. One holds the two larger, 4g weights that come with the mouse, while the other acts as a Powerplay channel.

As for size, the G502 measures in at 132mm long, 75mm wide, and 40 mm deep, making it the same size as the Spectrum. Both, however, are a tad narrower than some other offerings from companies like Corsair.

However, it weighs 7g less than the Spectrum, weighing in at 114g without the six removable weights and 130g with them installed. 


Using the G Hub software, you can change just about everything on the G502 Wireless. 

Starting with lighting, you have all 16 million colors at your disposal, and the mouse features LightSync, which allows you to sync the lighting features and effects of all of your Logitech products. Here, there are individual settings for the primary lighting effects along the side of the mouse, and the logo lighting effects. You can choose from five effects: fixed, cycle, breathing, screen sampler, and audio visualizer. 

As you would expect, you can remap every button on the G502. In the "Assignments" section of G Hub, you can assign everything from commands to keystrokes to macros with the click of a button. The G502 might not have as many buttons as, say, the Scimitar Pro, but it gives players complete control of the mouse with G-Shift, which allows for a plethora of combinations across five saveable profiles.  

Finally, G Hub lets you tweak polling rate and DPI as well. Polling rate has four settings: 125, 250, 500, and 1,000. As for DPI, the G502 is capable of reaching 16,000 DPI, as with most modern mice, it seems. However, the DPI can only be changed in increments of 50.  


The extremely accurate HERO sensor in the G502 means that it's predictable and relatively consistent. There were times that acceleration and accuracy seemed a tad different between my office mousepad and my pad at home, but the deviations weren't terribly inconsistent. Differences in surface consistency are found in all mice, and HERO does a great job at keeping things stable. 

As with most Logitech mice, sniping heads and precisely targeting fuel tanks on Sniper Elite V2's harder difficulties was a cinch, even with bullet drop. Wasting zombies in Killing Floor 2 was as simple as aim and fire, but being able to pinpoint specific zeds in a horde, and then specific body parts on those zeds, was an added benefit. 

I found the mouse worked equally as effective in games like Age of Empires II HD and Civilization V. Acceleration across the screen was as expected given the specs. The G502 didn't always stop on a dime depending on the surface on which I was playing; however, those moments were few and far between. 

While it's not entirely innovative, I do have to say that I very much enjoy the ease at which you can switch between hyper scrolling and step scrolling on the mouse wheel. Simply pressing the button beneath the scroll wheel switches between the features on the fly. It's something I found myself using more than I thought I would. 

Finally, battery life on the G502 is an estimated 60 hours with the RGB lighting turned off, and an estimated 40 hours with the RGB lighting turned on. I'm not able to completely confirm the efficacy of that reported lifespan.

I predominantly used the G502 with a Powerplay mat provided by Logitech, which continuously charges the mouse while in use. However, in the office and without Powerplay, a full 8-hour work day only used about 10-12% of the battery with the RGB turned on.  

  • Comfortable design with well-implemented thumb rest
  • Tunable weight system and wireless dongle holder
  • Accurate and precise in wireless and wired modes
  • Easily switch between hyper scrolling and step scrolling
  • Can't use all of the weights if using with Powerplay map
  • RGB is difficult, if not impossible, to see when in use
  • DPI tuning is locked to increments of 50

Anything I can find "wrong" with the G502 is nothing more than a nitpick. Having a Powerplay map for near infinite wireless charging and having seamless wireless signal transference with Lightspeed makes the mouse more compelling than without it.

From stem to stern, the G502 is one of Logitech's finest products. It's a mouse that you should have on your desk if you can afford it. 

Here are the mouse's full specs: 

Height 132mm
Width 75mm
Depth 40mm
w/o extra weights
w/ extra weights
Sensor HERO
DPI 100-16,000
Max Acc. >40g