Reviews Category RSS Feed | Reviews RSS Feed on en Launch Media Network Capcom Arcade Stadium Review: A Visual History of the 80s Arcade Wed, 24 Feb 2021 16:10:34 -0500 Jason D'Aprile

Like a delightful and historic artifact of fun, Capcom’s latest collection of classic games is a wayback machine to the golden days of the arcade. This isn’t, by any stretch, the first such collection we’ve seen from them. Their last arcade collection, the Capcom Arcade Cabinet, hit during the Xbox 360 and Vita era, but it wasn’t quite as expansive as Capcom Arcade Stadium.

The 32 games in this collection represent a remarkably varied look at the sheer variety of styles Capcom released to arcades through the 80s and 90s. It’s not their complete catalog, unfortunately. A lot of 90s fighters, like Darkstalkers and X-Men: Children of the Atom are absent. But it offers some of the true coin-op greats of the era. Available as a free download with just 1943: the Battle of Midway unlocked, the collection is split into three vaguely related packs of 10 games each.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins is available as a separate download as well, complete with two-player local multiplayer, which is new. You can read my review of that over here

Capcom Arcade Stadium Review: A Visual History of the 80s Arcade

There’s a hefty assortment of SHMUPs like Carrier Airwing, the 194X series, Gigawing, Varth, and Forgotten Worlds. They’re all fun and intense bullet-hell quarter-eaters that were a prized commodity on consoles of the day. Side-scrolling brawlers make up a significant part of Stadium as well, and it’s amazing to see just how outlandish Capcom would make titles to add personality to the genre.

Most are probably familiar with Final Fight, which was a pretty straightforward street-fighting thug bash. Others, like Captain Commando and the really obscure Battle Circuit, offer hilariously weird character designs across the board. The latter lets you be a kid with a super ostrich or a plant alien, among others, then drops you into four-way co op as you fight against even weirder foes like cephalopod aliens and a guy who looks an awful lot like Elvis.

Other brawler gems include Dynasty Wars (well before the Dynasty Warriors series), Warriors of Fate, and Powered Gears, all offering stunningly different landscapes for what is essentially similar bashing action. 

For a really old-school challenge, Commando, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Tatakai No Banka (released on the NES in the U.S. as Trojan), Strider, Bionic Commando, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and more all offer a pixel-perfect look at some of the biggest coin-ops of the 80s. They’re ridiculously hard, colorful, and impressive feats of game design. 

Arcade Stadium also includes Street Fighter II: The World Warriors and two of its variants, Hyper Fighting and Turbo Editions. Capcom also threw in the very obscure but entertaining Cyberbots: Full Metal Madness. This is a one-on-one fighter of battling robots that never had much presence in the West and had to be imported for the Sega Saturn. 

All the games here are classics of one sort or another. They’re all gems that 80s kids hunted down in arcades and probably paid full-price for whenever one got an actual console release. So, on that level, paying a mere $40 for the collection is a pretty small price. On the other hand, the 80s (and even the 90s) were a while ago, and there are some noticeable gaps in this collection.

Stadium includes Section Z and Forgotten Worlds, for instance, but not Hyper Dyne Side Arms (easily one of this reviewer’s favorite arcade games of all time). Carrier Aircraft is here, but not U.N. Squadron.

The fighting game collection could have been far beefier as well.

It’s not hard to assume there might be legal issues including the superb X-Men fighter, but why not throw in the Darkstalkers series and some other non-Street Fighter-based games? Several games in the previously-released Capcom Arcade Cabinet collection aren’t included in this collection, like Side Arms and Black Tiger.

From a presentation standpoint, Capcom has done a great job offering players options. Most of the games include a Japanese and English ROM version (though some are Japanese-only), but you can customize the display in all kinds of ways. The default is a 3D-rendered arcade cabinet, although it feels much more comfortable to have the game take up as much of the screen as possible.

It’s slightly annoying you have to adjust the display settings for each game individually though, instead of just a blanket option to always display all games a specific way.

Once in the game, there are rewind, difficulty level, and even speed control options, which add a lot of fun to the frenetic gameplay. Pressing the R-stick button adds quarters, allowing you to play forever, which is great for enjoying the nostalgia of the arcade without needing pockets laden with quarters.

Stadium also lets you save at any point in any game and, depending on the game, supports local play for up to four players. There are even online leaderboards to take the high score list online and Stadium-specific achievements.

Capcom Arcade Stadium Review — The Bottom Line

  • 32 arcade classics
  • Superb collection of shooters and brawlers
  • Can rewind and continue forever without ever having to touch another dirty quarter or token
  • Online and local play
  • Could definitely be more complete
  • Missing some key 80s games and most Capcom fighters
  • Universal display options would have been nice

Capcom Arcade Stadium isn’t flawless. It could definitely be more complete, but the 32 games on display here still offer a pretty great slice of gaming history. As examples of their genres, it’s amazing how well most of these games still hold up while serving to vividly illustrate just how much gaming has changed since.

[Note: Capcom provided the copy of Arcade Stadium used for this review.]

Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection Review: Brutally Old-School on Every Level Tue, 23 Feb 2021 10:40:05 -0500 Jason D'Aprile

It can be hard to bring back classic games, especially those from the arcade-era of the 80s and early 90s. Deciding how close to stick to the original template is key, since design philosophy and game mechanics have moved on so much since then. In the case of Capcom’s revamp of their arcade classic, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, the developer opted to stick right to the source material’s template.

That sounds great, nostalgically, and for those who have played Ghosts ‘n Goblins in modern times and liked it, Ghost ‘n Goblins Resurrection will almost certainly appeal. For those used to more modern sensibilities and controls, this classic take on side-scrolling action is much more of a mixed bag. 

Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection Review: Brutally Old School on Every Level


Arcade games were designed for players to fail, just enough to put more quarters in the machine and not so much so they rage quit. GnG always skirted that line. Even by standards of the day, it was a viciously hard game. Resurrection embraces that insane difficulty level with abandon. In that pursuit, it shines a light on so many of the original game's flaws while choosing to emulate them. 

As the beleaguered, armor-wearing knight, Sir Arthur, the entire game world is against you. It starts with Arthur’s own legs. The man runs and jumps like he’s in mud. The weird, janky pace of his movements impacts everything, especially jumping and dodging. Where tombstones and other bits of scenery do nothing to hamper the armies of the undead (both enemies and enemy fire go right past them), it all hampers Arthur, forcing him to jump over even minor obstacles.

It forces players to perform perfectly timed attacks and movements to get through nearly every part of every level. 

All of this is, of course, is spot-on for the source material. It’s remarkable how exactingly Resurrection mirrors the feel, pacing, and overall gameplay of the original. Whether it’s particularly fun is another question entirely.

The game starts out brutally hard and never lets up. Chase sequences mix in with more standard side-scrolling, where you’ll have to jump from flying dragon to flying dragon, avoid murderous bee swarms while jumping to disappearing platforms, and maneuver through other creatively sadistic tasks.

The only compromise here is the difficulty level option. There are three main difficulty levels to choose from and Page mode, the easy mode that also doesn’t allow access to the entire game. Only Page mode allows you to continue from right where you died. The other three rely on sparse checkpoints set on each map. There, when you die, you get sent back to the last checkpoint, which can make forward progress frustratingly slow.

I tried the game on all four settings but only managed to actually get through on Page. Squire and Knight, the next difficulty levels, proved sanity-threatening by around half- to three-quarters through the game. If anyone can beat the game on Legend mode, hats off to them.

The frustrating point isn't really that enemies are wickedly hard to kill, but how much the game relies on the sluggishness of Arthur to punish players. Beating a level after umpteen attempts, with all the repetitive backtracking it involves, felt more annoying than satisfying.

Even with weaker enemies, more power-ups, and saner respawns, Page mode is far from actually easy. Since Arthur moves and controls exactly the same no matter which setting you choose, platforming challenges still suffer from sluggish movements. Given that even the arcade sequel, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, felt noticeably improved over the first, the sluggish feel of your character here feels almost cruel.

Granted, arcade revamps and ports in the modern world cater to nostalgia more than anything else. Some of them are legitimately great in their own right, but all come with expectations of a certain style and challenge. On that level, Resurrection certainly accomplishes what it set out to do. It feels spot on to the original.

One area where there is a definitive enhancement is the game's artistic style. Resurrection has a delightful, colorful, almost-hand drawn graphic style. It looks charming and fantastic. Enemy design, from an array of zombies and skeletons to pig men, vicious bugs, and huge bosses, is great as well. There’s a surprising variety of villains here, and they look great. 

The soundtrack in general is excellent, but the updated score will be music to an old arcade hound’s ears. There’s also an incredible variety of weapons to collect and throw. Starting with the standard lance, there’s explosive holy water, knives, shields, a giant hammer, crossbow, and more. 

New to the series are special powers Arthur can buy by collecting magical sprites. These build Arthur up with moves like turning into a rock temporarily, turning weaker enemies to frogs, unleashing lightning and fire, and more. Bizarrely, these secondary moves require you to hold the main attack button to charge instead of having their own button. Given the frenetic pacing of the rest of the game, having to wait a couple seconds without being able to attack makes these specials hard to use. 

Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection Review — The Bottom Line



  • Captures everything about the original game nearly perfectly
  • Delightful artistic style and great soundtrack
  • Excellent enemy designs and great selection of weapons
  • Perfect if you want an absurd challenge


  • Insanely hard
  • Sluggish player movements hurt pacing and accuracy
  • Can’t see the whole game on the easiest difficulty level.

Fans of classic arcade games will almost certainly be eager to jump into Arthur’s sluggish boots again for another romp through this classic adventure. For those on the fence, the best approach may be to download the original game in Capcom’s Arcade Stadium and see how it feels.

Resurrection captures everything about Ghosts ‘n Goblins, warts and all, with little to no compromise. 

[Note: Capcom provided the copy of Ghosts 'n Goblins Resurrection used for this review.]

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury Review: The Best of Both Worlds Wed, 17 Feb 2021 16:10:04 -0500 Josh Broadwell

Whoever said you can't capture joy clearly never played Super Mario 3D World. It's one of those rare games that distills the essence of fun, and now more people than ever can experience it with Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury on Nintendo Switch.

While 3D World holds up just as well, or even better, on the Switch, Bowser's Fury is the part you should keep your eye on. This little spin-off mode could be (read: hopefully is) the future of 3D Mario.

Both excel on their own, but together, they are essential for any Switch owner.

Super Mario 3D World and Bowser's Fury Review: The Best of Both Worlds

Mario 3D World starts with Bowser, as it must. While Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad are walking along one lovely evening, a clear pipe springs up. Out pops a Sprixie, closely followed by Bowser with kidnapping on his mind and a Sprixie-sized jar in his claws.

What’s a Sprixie? Who knows. Mario 3D World isn't keen on exploring these newcomers to the Mario world, but the Sprixie kidnapping is enough to get Mario and friends into the pipe.

On the other side of that clear pipe is the Sprixie Kingdom, a series of eight worlds plus four bonus areas. It's the setting for what’s easily Nintendo’s most distinct approach to Mario designs.

3D World lays out each course on a Super Mario World/SMB3-style map. They feature the usual themes we’ve come to expect from Mario games over the years, including ice, rocky heights, desert, and so on, but from there, Nintendo completely turns the pattern on its head. 

These stages trade uniformity for the unexpected. You’re just as likely to find an autumn waterfall area in the ice world or a green plain stage in the desert world because Nintendo’s more concerned with throwing in as many design ideas as possible than sticking to tradition. 

There’s a Galaxy-style carnival stage, a level that reduces the clock to 30 seconds, an entire world of castles — there’s almost no way to neatly categorize 3D World’s levels. While that makes it challenging to talk about how Mario 3D World plays, suffice to say it translates to an incredibly fun experience where you never know what to expect next.

Early stages seem a bit pedestrian and straightforward, but it’s hard not to have fun even with these seemingly basic levels because 3D World’s unique design approach means you can transgress the usual laws of 2D platformers.

Massive walls normally meant to block your way become avenues through a stage and probably hide one or two fun secrets thanks to 3D World's newfound sense of verticality. Turning a corner in a tame side-scrolling segment reveals a 3D run through falling platforms and lines of enemies, and this isn't even taking 3D World's superior boss stages into account.

Later locales ramp up the complexity. Some offer the challenges of obtaining all three Green Stars and a collectible stamp. Still others present an even bigger cocktail of creativity. It’s a non-stop parade of the cleverest level designs Nintendo’s ever given us.

Imagine Mario’s biggest moments — the “Jump Up” segment in New Donk City or grabbing the Tanooki Leaf for the first time — spread that all over 12 worlds, and you’ll have an idea of how it feels to play Mario 3D World. It might not have a few standout “wow!” moments like its 3D counterparts, but it is a tribute to everything that makes Mario so iconic and genuinely just a joy to experience.

That love extends to the smaller details too.

Cat Mario, Toad, and the rest don’t just walk on all fours. They strut like the proud cats they are, accompanied by adorable little pitter-patter footsteps that even “plink” on metal. Luigi shouts “It’s Weegi time” when you pick him for a stage, and it’s hard to describe it all as anything other than delightful.

That dedication to variety means some ideas miss the landing, even as the stages themselves are fun. A few feel a bit unnecessarily rushed, and some additions, such as the superb Double Cherry, absolutely deserve more screen time. Still, complaining because one or two wonderful mechanics get lost in the shuffle of a bunch of other equally wonderful mechanics is something I’m happy to live with.

One big feature with the Switch version is online multiplayer, though unfortunately, I haven’t been able to test that out. Local co-op is as fun and chaotic as you’d expect, and while it doesn’t necessarily add anything essential to the gameplay experience, it’s a heck of a fun time.

3D World on Switch still includes the Captain Toad puzzle levels, where you guide the hapless and jump-less explorer to green stars with movement and stage rotation as your only tools for success. They’re refreshing diversions from the main game and pretty effective advertising for Captain Toad’s spinoff game.

The other part of Mario 3D World on Switch is, of course, Bowser’s Fury, a roughly 5-hour side mode that low-key manages to be the best 3D Mario so far. Bowser’s Fury has no story ties to 3D World — or anything, for that matter — and you can start it immediately after booting up the game if you want.

Mario arrives at Lake Lapcat via a suspiciously familiar piece of “M” graffiti to find something strange taking place. The entire region is covered in sludge, Bowser’s turned swol, and only the power of the Giga Bell can rein him in.

Bowser Jr. is along for the ride this time. He just wants his pappy back to normal and pitches in as either an AI partner or player two, should you give multiplayer a try. The AI is customizable, making Bowser Jr. either the perfect companion for players less familiar with 3D Mario games or a quiet tagalong when you want to forge ahead alone.

Lake Lapcat is divided into multiple themed regions, each with several lighthouses you need to activate via Cat Shines. Each lighthouse sits in its own mini-region with several Cat Shines and five fragments forming an additional Shine.

Admittedly, Bowser’s Fury doesn’t offer the endless buffet of creativity Mario 3D World does. You’ll recognize plenty of shared gimmicks between each mini-region, such as bouncy platforms and spinning metal grates.

Yet thanks to the seemingly limitless number of combinations Nintendo created for how they’re all used, these mini-regions never feel stale or dull. There are plenty of additional challenges thrown in the mix for good measure, including some, like the Bully challenge, that hearken back to the classics.

The other part of what keeps Bowser’s Fury feeling fresh is how the side mode approaches power-ups. Mario can store multiple power-ups  and more than one of each for the first time.

Giving a purpose to each power-up beyond just one or two specific instances is a small change with a big effect, lending Bowser’s Fury a much-needed sense of immersion that I hope also finds its way into future Mario games.

The whole of Lake Lapcat feels the same. Stringing a series of platforming challenges together should feel forced or arbitrary, but it’s the exact opposite.

There’s no empty filler space like some other 3D Mario games — and most other open-world games — so it’s the best of both worlds: an entire game’s worth of material packed tightly together without sacrificing the expansive feel of exploring an open world. 

Bowser’s Fury wouldn’t be complete without Bowser, obviously, though there’s a bit less to report here. The periodic Bowser invasions with death flames and lava rain makes the Koopa King a bigger threat than he’s been since the NES days. Seeing Super Saiyan Cat Mario never gets old, but Giga Bell fights are mostly just big-sized versions of traditional Bowser fights. 

And that’s okay. Bowser’s Fury gave me much more than I was expecting.

Super Mario 3D World Bowser's Fury Review  The Bottom Line

  • Some of the best gameplay in both 2D and 3D Mario
  • Stage design is a nonstop train of creativity
  • Bowser's Fury is a bold step forward in imagining what platformers can be like
  • Love letter to all things Mario
  • Some stages could stand being longer or more involved
  • The variety means a few design ideas don't get used as much as they should
  • Non-stop innovation doesn't quite extend to all of Bowser's Fury

Super Mario 3D World might be almost eight years old, but time hasn't dulled this cat's claws. It's still an absolute blast to play, with a delectable range of designs that never fails to impress. That's made more evident with the Switch's slightly faster speed. 

And while Bowser's Fury is short, it's full of so much potential for Mario's future, making this the most easily recommended port-and-repackage of the Switch's lifecycle so far.

[Note: Nintendo of America provided the copy of Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury used for this review.]

30XX Review: A Blast From the Future Past Wed, 17 Feb 2021 10:40:11 -0500 Luke Shaw

Tight platforming and roguelikes aren't two things that often go together well. Given the procedurally generated nature of most roguelikes, tight level design is usually overlooked for variety.

Thanks to what I can only assume is a massive amount of work from Batterystaple Games, 30XX manages to include platforming that despite its roguelike nature, wouldn't feel out of place in the original Mega Man games it's inspired by.

30XX Review: A Blast From the Future Past

Across six colorful and varied worlds, you jump, shoot, slash, and walljump your way through increasingly difficult areas stapled together by procedural generation. Each location has a set of increasingly different challenges to pick from, so if you get the shadowy cathedral of Penumbra as your first level, it will be easier than if you get it as your third. The game ramps things up as you go through your randomly assigned quest. 

You're given the choice of controlling two characters, either the Mega Man style Nina, who has a blaster, or the Zero style Ace, who has a blade. There's even the option to play both characters in co-op, a rare option in a roguelike.

Nina and Ace are able to dash, giving them more range and speed for their jumps, as well as wield a bunch of boss power-ups. These range from a vertically fired mortar to a column of lightning and a portable blackhole. There's also scope to combine these powers into new forms by mixing too, but firing them always costs energy.

The roguelike influence comes into play beyond the level of randomization, as you'll unlock plenty of core upgrades along the way, such as increased chance to get health on enemy kills, a double jump, shields on dash, and more. This is supplemented by gaining "Augs," which give you various buffs and different attack types. 

All said, there's a decent amount of variety, and a permanent upgrade you can unlock allows you to salvage them into more core slots, more health, and more energy. 

The meta-layer to upgrading your equipment as you progress through the game comes into focus after beating mini bosses. These drop Memoria, which lets you upgrade a handful of things such as your health cap, and Potentia, which lets you unlock more effective upgrades, such as giving you a random aug as you start a run.

When resuming a run, you'll have the choice of randomizing levels or working from a fixed seed that presents levels in a Mega Man style 3x3 grid. The latter might better suit those who don't mesh so well with the uneven nature of roguelike challenges, as you retain all your upgrades between deaths, letting you treat the whole parcel like a regular Mega Man game.

Each way has its positives and negatives, but the core gameplay is responsive and interesting throughout. Bosses are the trickiest part, many with a bloated health bar and hard-to-avoid attacks. But some are inventive, such as a chase section against an Owl robot in the lofty towers of Highvault, and a battle with a Wizard who activates a stained glass killing machine in Penumbra.

Levels themselves are also full of platforming challenges that riff on a variety of ideas. The neon computer innards of Deepverse feature lots of phasing platforms and hazards that appear out of thin air, while Penumbra features devilish jumping puzzles based around platforms that cycle in a sequence of red, blue, green as you either jump on them or hit buttons to change the active platform. 

There are times when a sequence of level chunks can be strung together in such a way that you'd think it was a handcrafted platformer, and it's a real delight to navigate through them. Sadly there are often times where sequences are on the brutal side, and progress can feel hard to come by. The amount of upgrade currency you get feels a bit on the stingy side overall, with a boss fight giving you one Potentia when upgrades cost 10 to 15. 

Accumulating that much takes a while and reruns don't often feel worth it. The only way to make progress is through the hard graft of mastering the pixel-perfect retro gameplay, which has its merits but definitely creates some friction when combined with the roguelike setup of the game. 

One final point worth mentioning is 30XX's very generous level editor. Presumably, this is part of the tool the developers used to create the randomized level chunks you play. It lets you place tiles, enemies, hazards, and so on, tweaking their movement and other things to create a playable area that you can save, upload, and share with others.

It's fun to just throw things in and have a run-through, and like Mario Maker, I can see people making some devious challenges this way. It's not overly detailed, but the base game's enemy patterns and hazards work like clockwork toys, and careful placement can lead to some hazardous gauntlets. You can save out chunks as easy, normal, or hard, which impacts where they'll show up in levels, and there's nothing to stop you from messing with that expectation by throwing easy sections into hard and vice versa.

30XX Review — The Bottom Line


  • Excellent pixel art presentation
  • Tight, inventive platforming challenges
  • A variety of upgrades to work with
  • Choice of roguelike or traditional progress
  • Powerful, easy to use level editor


  • Upgrading at the metalevel takes a while
  • Some levels types are much harder later on
  • Avoiding enemy attacks can feel a little too hit and miss

Overall 30XX is a bright, well-paced experience that has plenty of forward-thinking ideas rooted in throwback mechanics. 

Special mention has to go to the art style, which perfectly captures the dense and detailed pixel styling of the latter-day Mega Man games on the SNES and GBA. Environments are incredibly colorful, with lovely background art and some cute enemy sprites, even if a few are a little uninspired. 

30XX gives players plenty of variety in how they approach it, and the legacy mode that plays like a regular platformer is a welcome addition. 

[Note: Batterystaple Games provided the copy of 30XX used for this review.]

Prison Architect Going Green Review: To Greener Pastures Fri, 12 Feb 2021 16:07:00 -0500 Ashley Shankle

Farming and general agriculture is a typical facet of the management sim genre at large, but it was never something the playerbase expected from Prison Architect outside of the modding community.

Prison Architect: Going Green defies that expectation, giving wardens the ability to put their prisoners to work in the fields to feed the compound and even export crops out to bring money in for the prison. Of course, having them toil in the fields brings new places for prisoners to cause trouble, as well as new contraband for you to deal with. (Surprise: They really want to make moonshine.)

Prison Architect Going Green Review: To Greener Pastures


The idea of farm work is novel within the confines of Prison Architect, considering the holistic nature of the job compared to the other means of employment the game's prisoners had available previously. Though you are certainly free to instead just hire farmers to do the job and make your prisoners watch from the sidelines — because why not!

Having your prisoners work the fields in Going Green isn't too different from assigning them to other jobs, though the same cannot be said for getting solar power up and running.

Hooking up and using a solar power system requires solar panels, batteries, a transformer, and a power export meter should you want to export excess power for cold hard cash. It's a tempting route to take, but you may want to supplement it with the traditional power station just in case.

At the time of writing, there are a number of bugs related to the game's new solar energy system that can be particularly cumbersome, especially when trying to move the new solar-related facilities around once they are set. There are plenty more besides those, though.

A patch is being released soon that will hopefully sort these and a number of other newly-introduced bugs out, but it is something to bear in mind before purchase as some of these new bugs are so prevalent they do diminish even my enjoyment of the expansion for the time being.

Going Green was released concurrently with an update to the base game, The Glasshouse. The update brought a number of quality of life improvements to the UI, particularly in regards to the building menus. I have to say it's more than welcome considering all that was added with the expansion, and noteworthy whether you dive into Going Green or not.

This is the second Prison Architect expansion to be released after Paradox Interactive took over the game's publishing and Double Even as its developer. Those that were disappointed with the first expansion, Island Bound, will find much more to love here with Going Green despite the bugs in the expansion's initial build.

Prison Architect: Going Green Review — The Bottom Line


  • Laying out fields and getting prisoners to work on them is just what the game needed
  • Prisoners' illicit use of the fields and their yields adds some fun challenge
  • New methods of bringing in cash to a prison are always welcome
  • Lots of new ways to spruce your prisons up


  • At the time of writing, there are a lot of frequent bugs
  • Some concepts come straight from a particular mod

Going Green has a great deal going for it despite its current problems. The addition of solar power is a nice touch, but the real meat to this expansion is the ability to work up essentially a farming prison colony and darn it! — it's fun.

That all said, the bugs are not to be ignored and neither is the presence of a certain mod on the workshop that adds farming to the game without the monetary investment. Prison Architect: Going Green adds much more than that mod, though, and ultimately is worth it if you're really trying to add more depth to your time with Prison Architect.

[Note: Paradox Interactive provided the copy of Prison Architect: Going Green used for this review.]

UnderMine Switch Review: Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Back to the Mines We Go Fri, 12 Feb 2021 15:59:00 -0500 Josh Broadwell

Thorium's UnderMine released in 2019, bringing its offbeat brand of roguelike dungeon crawling to PC. Nearly two years later, UnderMine is out on Nintendo Switch, but the question is how it stacks up on a system with no shortage of quality roguelikes already.

The answer is very well, actually. UnderMine doesn't break new ground, and with the level of polish and strong design here, it doesn't really need to. 

UnderMine Review: Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Back to the Mines We Go

UnderMine starts with a simple premise. You’re a peasant. It means you do what others tell you to do and don’t ask questions. That’s what the resident all-powerful wizard thinks anyway.

He summons you to his wizardly abode once the game begins and tasks you with venturing into the mine (and beyond) to solve the mysteries behind the strange earthquakes occurring recently. He’d do it, but… well, y’know: he’s important, and you’re a peasant.

So off you go, ill-equipped for the task and with no real clue what to do. When you die — and you will die, make no mistake about that — that’s it. As with other roguelikes, you’ll lose a big chunk of your money and all the artifacts uncovered on the way, but your particular peasant is dead too.

Another one hops down into the fray, a new name and fresh face in a never-ending parade of peasants marching to their certain dooms that the wizard can’t even be bothered to notice.

There’s a pervasive quirkiness in UnderMine that goes well beyond the comically callous wizard. You’ll find all manner of lovely weird folk underground, from talking mushrooms desperate to give their sporelings new life to shopkeepers trapped behind locked doors who, with nothing else to do, set up shop anyway. Behind a locked door in a dungeon.

UnderMine has a wider story you’ll gradually dig out the further you go, and the earthquakes are just the beginning. It’s a reason for five distinct dungeon areas brought to life with charming pixel art, and while the overarching story isn’t bad by any means, the visual identity and strange world unfolding around you stand out much more strongly than the actual story.

Another of UnderMine’s stand-out features is the dungeon design itself.

UnderMine’s approach to roguelike dungeon crawling is a more accessible one than many. Each dungeon area is relatively contained, meaning you won’t be searching through dozens of rooms vainly trying to find an exit before you either die in-game or stop caring in real life.  

It takes a significant piece of the grind and annoyance out of restarting and makes sticking with UnderMine for long sessions easier.

The roguelike elements themselves also help with that. You’ll lose all your special artifacts upon death, true, but not all your gold. The hardy peasant(s) keep enough of it to spend on goods back at the base, and assuming you’ve bothered to free the various shopkeepers and smiths you come across, you can upgrade your peasant with a better chance at survival.

Enhancements, such as bag durability, are a must so you retain even more gold after death. Then there are improvements for your pickaxe, your health, your bombs — it’s all pretty standard, though useful, stuff.

You can say the same for UnderMine’s gameplay and dungeon design in general, but it’s proof that innovation and darn good gameplay don’t always go hand-in-hand. 

Chances are, you’ve seen a good bit of UnderMine elsewhere. The ultimate goal is reaching the bottom-most area, gathering as much gold and other precious materials along the way. Your peasant has a canary, like all good miners, plus a standard attack, a ranged one, and a bomb attack.

There’s a cave area, a dungeon area, and so on. Some foes, such as bats, slimes, and giant centipedes with suspiciously glowing rear ends, are straight out of Zelda and numerous other RPGs. Each dungeon room is full of traps, from pressure plates to something very similar to Zelda’s blade trap foes, and it’s hard not to see them as imitations in some way.

How UnderMine handles these things is what raises it above being a knock-off, though. The action element, while simple, just feels good. UnderMine is also very fair, even when it’s brutal. The randomly generated rooms might be full of gold and health-restoring food, or the layout could have a legion of monsters and a maze of pressure plates that might as well scream D E A T H.

UnderMine’s signature quirkiness shines through in dungeon design and helps keep things fresh too. Slime creatures called Pilfers steal your gold if you aren’t fast enough (and make amusing sounds when you punt them into oblivion). In some rooms, monsters, overeager in their pursuit of peasant flesh, walk into traps or fall down pits while you stand in the corner and quietly wait for them to finish destroying themselves.

Even in the rooms that make you fight for your life, you almost always have the tools needed to make it out alive. The simple combat system means there’s no massive learning curve, and like Hollow Knight, there’s no cheap gimmick responsible for your demise. You always realize what your mistake was and how to try and fix it next time.

That even applies to boss fights, despite almost every boss and mini-boss being a damage sponge to a nearly insufferable degree.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of help offered along the way. Most floors have a shop with at least one food item for sale, and you can exchange gold for vouchers to expand certain inventory categories.

Some artifacts offer an edge in exploration, such as increasing recovery effects or turning bombs into gold. Even with the genre’s staple randomization governing layouts and rewards, UnderMine always leaves you feeling encouraged to press ahead or try again.

A few blemishes pop up from time to time, though they certainly don’t ruin the experience.

Some item descriptions are rather vague. One, for example, says you absorb gold. Do you literally pull it out of the walls or just draw it to you once it falls? A few layouts are also confusing. I had to Google what to do with certain statues or purple flames in secret rooms because there’s absolutely no way to learn it in-game without experimenting with your already-scarce resources.

These are minor in the grand scheme, but they’re also a surprising oversight in predicting the player experience in an otherwise solidly designed game.

One other thing worth mentioning is the pixel art. It’s rare finding a roguelike you can call cozy, but UnderMine definitely fits the bill with its warm colors and nostalgic, chunky pixels. If Stardew Valley were a dungeon crawler, it’d look like UnderMine.

UnderMine Review: The Bottom Line

  • Clever dungeon design that rewards longer play sessions
  • Quirky and fun presentation helps make UnderMine stand out amongst other roguelikes
  • Strikes a good balance between challenge and accessibility
  • Some evident imitations in certain design areas
  • Vague item descriptions
  • Bosses have too much health given the limited combat options available to you

UnderMine is perfectly content to work in existing mine shafts instead of boring new ones, and it's a stronger experience for it. It's a comfortable, rewarding dungeon crawler with a unique identity and plenty of fun on offer. 

If you’re looking for something fresh and innovative, you’ll want to look elsewhere. Just know you’re missing out on a darn good time if you do.

[Note: Thorium provided the copy of Undermine used for this review.]

The Nioh Collection Review: Bringing Back the Demons Fri, 12 Feb 2021 12:10:33 -0500 John Schutt

The original Nioh released in 2017 and immediately became a hit among fans of ultra-hard action-centric RPGs. Nioh 2 released three years later to more positive reception, and our Nioh 2 review was no exception.

Now the Nioh Collection has come to PS5 and PC, bringing technical improvements and the full suite of post-game content for each title. That’s all the DLC and optimized gameplay, new weapons and abilities, and tons of additional missions and story content.

Here, we’re talking about how the remasters play on the new hardware, what the biggest improvements are, and what's still lacking. There’s a bit to cover, so let’s dig in.

The Nioh Collection Review: Bringing Back the Demons

The Best of the Nioh Collection

Reviewed on a PS5, the Nioh series plays better than ever. It’s clear the developers at Team Ninja took what they learned from the first game’s PC port and built upon it. You can set either title to 60 FPS at 4K resolution and watch the framerate stay smooth as butter. The image remains crisp, and even in some of the highest-intensity gameplay segments, the visuals stay locked at that magic number.

If all you care about are the frames, the Nioh Collection has you covered. By dropping the resolution and some more demanding graphical enhancements, you’ll see a relatively stable 120 FPS. It’s not perfect, and PC users are reporting significant frame stutter above locked 60, but the PS5 seems somewhat more stable.

Perhaps the star of the show, on PS5 at least, is the loading times. The much-hyped solid-state drive takes every loading screen from 30 seconds to three seconds. If Nioh didn’t have a restart mission prompt, there’d be no way to actually read any of the screens. In games as brutal as these, you’ll be thankful for the brief delay.

Weapons, Modes, Yokai, Oh My

The Nioh Collection gives you full access to all the DLC weapons from the get-go, allowing lapsed players to experience an entirely new set of combat mechanics. Somehow, while the new options are strong, they don’t completely outclass the vanilla options. The basic sword is still just as effective as the new claw and fist weapons.

There are also three additional playthroughs after New Game+, all of them adding new enemies, areas, bosses, abilities, upgrades, and so much more. It really is a new game, too.

Two entirely new item rarities, new enemy behaviors, and AI tweaks — Team Ninja went the extra mile making sure every time you progress into a harder difficulty, it is actually more challenging and equally rewarding.

What Needs Work (But Won’t Get It)

Don’t go into the Nioh Collection expecting the Demon’s Souls remake. The models, textures, environments, etc., haven’t seen overhauled. Some effort’s been made to smooth over the rough edges, sharpen the image, and make areas visually cleaner, but this is still very much the games that released in 2017 and 2020 from the visual standpoint.

Sadly, beyond the framerate, loading times, and visual sharpness, little of the extra power inherent in the PS5 or the PC platform sees much use here. The Collection still takes up a pretty piece of real estate on the SSD, and PC users have had performance and software stability issues since launch. It’s not as though we expected more than some quality of life improvements on this front, but more time updating even some of the assets would have been appreciated.

You’ll also be disappointed if you want a better-written story. The narratives of both Nioh and Nioh 2 remain some of their weakest points and serve as a means to get you to the next combat encounter. It’s coherent enough, and the DLCs are a bit better, but none of it is anything to write home about.

Mechanically, there are plenty of annoyances that can lead to significant frustration the longer you play. Bosses tend to have oddly shaped hitboxes or attacks that don’t function how they appear they should. There seems to have been no effort to iron out borderline-broken enemies who break the rules because they can, and certain sections could have used a tuning pass they didn’t see.

The UI is as messy as ever, as well, and you’ll spend hours sorting through awkward menus looking for the perfect setup.

In short, the Nioh Collection is purely a technical upgrade. Expecting much more with 2020’s circumstances asks far too much of a team that still produced a game worth hundreds of hours.

The Nioh Collection Review — The Bottom Line



  • A technical overhaul, taking advantage of some of the biggest-ticket next-gen talking points
  • All the content ever released for both Nioh games
  • The same excellent mechanics the series is known for


  • Fails to take full advantage of next-gen and PC hardware
  • None of the frustrating issues saw any addressing
  • The story remains one of the weakest points

The Nioh Collection is not going to convert anyone who doesn’t already like it. If beating your head against a boss for hours until the glorious moment of inspiration strikes isn’t for you, nothing here will change that. However, if you are a fan, this upgrade is one of the easiest purchases you’ll make this year.

Even Nioh veterans can find something to love here if they haven’t seen everything on their original releases. The additional difficulties and commensurate rewards are a constant draw, and the performance enhancements make the experience more enjoyable than ever.

Do bear in mind, however, that many of the warts from the original release remain. Expecting a complete rework is asking too much.

All that doesn’t take away from what really makes the Nioh series magical: the top-of-its-class combat, addicting loot mechanics, and vast build variety. These games are both rage-inducing and immensely satisfying at a stretch, something few pieces of media pull off.

If you’re looking for a new game to beat you into submission before you learn its secrets, and you want to play the best version of it, pick up the Nioh Collection. It will hurt, but you’ll get so much more in return.

[Note: Sony provided the PS5 version of the Nioh Collection used for this review.]

Blue Fire Review: A Dash Too Far Fri, 12 Feb 2021 10:55:34 -0500 Luke Shaw

Precision platforming challenges are often a thing of absolute delight in video games. They're a combination of finely honed movement, masterful platform placement, and a series of clockwork elements all coming together to elevate jumping puzzles to something beyond the norm.

Mario games know this well and slowly crank the difficulty up over the course of play, knowing that players will acclimatize and rise to the challenge as they get to grips with their avatar’s movement.

Blue Fire is a decent stab at replicating the euphoria that comes with nailing sequences of perfect jumps, dashes, and wall runs. It derives its structure not from Mario but from Nintendo’s other mainline series, The Legend of Zelda, and adds a pointless dash of Soulslike difficulty for no discernible reason.

Blue Fire Review: A Dash Too Far

Pitting you as a small masked character with dual swords and a speedy dash, Blue Fire also packs in z-targeting combat, magic attacks, and a set of unlockable Spirits that function similarly to Hollow Knight’s charm system, allowing you to buff certain aspects of your move set. 

The story is fairly simple: a calamity has befallen the world while you slumbered, and you have woken up to a shadowy force encroaching on the castle you call home. A knight named Von says that as a warrior of both shadow and light, you are the one fated to purge the world of shadow by freeing the goddess. 

This task requires you to track down three benevolent spirits situated in temples reminiscent of Zelda puzzles. Shortly after, the quest evolves, requiring you find and defeating three different three evil spirits, switching the game's focus from platforming to combat.

Sadly, it's a poor one, as the combat doesn't do Blue Fire any favors. It's a miserable mesh of simplistic enemies with poor combat tells and bad hit/damage feedback that makes the whole affair feel underbaked.

While the platforming is far preferable, it has its issues too. Progression isn’t heavily telegraphed, which feels derived from the Souls style world-design, but when this is coupled with tricky jumping sections, it’s hard to know if a lack of progress is due to difficulty or lack of ability.

One memorable hour saw me trying to climb a large tower full of tricky wall jumps and wall runs only to give up and wander the world for a while. I then stumbled across a door that led to a dungeon, which then gave me a double jump ability that made the tower trivial. 

Given that some of the platforming sections before this were dictated by trial and error — asking me to mix jumps, dashes, and wall runs into a harrowing combination — such a random lack of direction is frustrating, especially when the traversal is incredibly rewarding when it does work.

Sending your avatar dashing and double jumping around is responsive, and conquering challenges is often its own reward. Some of the best come in the form of "voids," discrete platforming areas of various difficulties suspended in a featureless void. They really test your platforming mettle and are so nearly brilliant, but they all seem to go on too long, with absolutely no checkpoints.

You can get all the way to the last jump and mess up, and you’ll be punted right back at the start. It's a frustrating sequence that doesn't work well with the game's finicky wallrunning controls, and it's exacerbated by spikes and buzzsaws that will also send you back to the start at the slightest touch.

The last great sin of Blue Fire is its dependence on Ore to buy spirits and unlock checkpoints. The latter is particularly baffling, as you have no way of knowing what the bonfire-style shrines will cost to unlock. Just like in the Souls games, you drop your ore where you die, so if you are carrying a chunk and give up the ghost, you’re often in a perilous place.

There were more than a handful of times I arrived at a shrine without enough money, only to die later and be sent back to a much earlier shrine; the slog of saving up and getting back rarely felt interesting and was more an arbitrary punishment than anything else.

A prevalence of bugs also hampered my experience, with numerous crashes to desktop, instances of the controls going unresponsive, and enemy contact rag dolling my character into bottomless pits. At one point, the game even let me sell over 70,000 ore's-worth of items despite the fact my wallet could only hold 2,000 ore. It didn't refund me the other 68,000, so I had to load an earlier save.

That's not to mention there is only one place to sell ore as far as I could tell, so the need to teleport back to a specific area to earn money to buy better wallets and unlock shrines means that there is a whole lot of pointless backtracking. It's more baffling when you consider every area tends to have its own merchants. 

These aren't game-breaking issues, but they're prickly enough that they stick in my mind well after completion.

Blue Fire Review — The Bottom Line


  • Clean and sharp aesthetic design 
  • Fast, response platforming
  • Lots of secrets to hunt out


  • Messy, unresponsive combat
  • Lack of direction at times
  • Checkpoints cost money for no real reason
  • Plethora of crashes and technical issues

The presentation of Blue Fire is clean and elegant. It’s clear a lot of care and love has gone into the lore, writing, music, and overall design of the game. But sadly, the actual mechanical parts don’t quite hang together. 

There are a lot of interesting ideas at work, but they just can't elevate Blue Fire above a curiosity. Coupled with the bugs, I’m hesitant to recommend it to anyone but the most ardent of platforming fans. 

[Note: ROBI Studios provided the copy of Blue Fire used for this review.]

Destruction AllStars Review: Potential Meets Pitfalls Wed, 10 Feb 2021 11:23:05 -0500 Justin Koreis

In this new stay-at-home era, online games have grown even larger in popularity. A hit game, like Valheim, becomes part of the cultural zeitgeist and infiltrates all corners of your internet experience. Destruction AllStars is a not hit, at least not yet.

It’s a shiny package with fun characters, enjoyable gameplay, and room to grow into a household name. But poor balance and in-your-face microtransactions result in a game that presents itself as a premium retail release but feels like a free to play game designed to nickel and dime players.  

Destruction AllStars Review: Potential Meets Pitfalls 

Destruction AllStars is a car combat game for the Twitch generation. It’s a demolition derby with Rocket League style driving and Overwatch-esque hero characters, called AllStars, complete with unique hero abilities. It is all wrapped in a colorful, bombastic, and emote-filled Fortnite presentation.  

The game is gorgeous. Colors are vibrant, vehicle designs are clean and detailed. Level and character designs exude style. All of that makes Destruction AllStars a very next-gen-looking game. It’s presented as a major prime time television sporting event, complete with famed UFC ring announcer Bruce Buffer introducing matches. It makes for an exciting spectacle.  

Players start on foot and race to take control of one of several different car and truck variants. Car combat focuses on slamming into opponents at high speed, causing damage or wrecks, and accumulating points. Bigger slams result in more points.  

AllStars are not helpless on foot. They can knock over other vehicle-lacking players, hijack other AllStar's rides, and activate traps for vehicles to crash into. They can also platform and parkour above the fray to collect crystals, which speed up access to the key differentiator between them: Hero Breakers and Hero Cars. 

Hero Breakers are unique abilities AllStars can activate when outside of vehicles. They vary from invisibility to magnetic fields and cardboard boxes (seriously). Eventually, players can summon their Hero Cars, which feature unique looks and boosted specs.  

Each Hero Car has its own unique ability, called a Car Breaker. Some have defensive abilities, such as Twinkle Riot’s the Mr. Sparkles, which equips damage-reflecting bumpers. Others, such as Blue Fang’s Shredder, are offensive and can instantly wreck other AllStars.  

Smash and Crash Action 

Driving and crashing are enjoyable, and vehicles are fast and responsive. There is a good variety of rides to choose from, such as high-speed racers, ultra-maneuverable buggies, and powerful trucks, to name a few. The vehicle choice affects the best strategies for causing damage, adding some variety to the gameplay.  

But while the Car Breakers are fun to use, they're very unbalanced. Most matches start with a sort of gold rush, as players flock to offensive-oriented AllStars. Gameplay rewards damage dealt far more than survival, creating a significant advantage for Car Breakers that can instantly cause wrecks.  

On-foot gameplay doesn't fare well, either. The parkour isn’t as fluid as many other games, and actions on foot aren’t very impactful. You can try and jump on an enemy vehicle to take it over and wreck them, but it’s too easy to be shaken off. You can fight other AllStars that are out of vehicles, but you can’t actually knock them out, and the fact that your attack has a cooldown makes it a boring back and forth affair.

Usually, your time is spent just searching for your next ride or collecting crystals to summon your hero vehicle.

Motivated Motor Mayhem 

Destruction AllStars does have an interesting variety of play modes.

Mayhem is a solo match where the highest score wins. Gridfall is Destruction AllStars' answer to battle royal, where players try to survive to the end in an ever-shrinking arena. Carnado has a team accumulating and banking points in a tornado. And Stockpile has you collecting gears from wrecked opponents to claim and hold three territories around the map. All can be played online or locally versus bots.  

There’s a number of cosmetic options, as well, ranging from skins and emotes to shouts, victory poses, and more. They don’t affect gameplay but are meant to be rewards for progressing in the game. They are purchased using one of two currencies; AllStar Coins (AC) are earned from raising your level in-game by completing matches and challenges, and Destruction Points (DP) are purchased with real-world money.  

Unfortunately, the cost of items in AC is high, and the rate at which Coins are earned is pretty slow. The number of hours that DP can save a player is significant. This pressure the economy puts on the player to spend money is much more akin to a free-to-play game looking to recoup the developer's investment. 

This issue is exacerbated by the Challenge Series.

Destruction AllStars isn’t necessarily a multiplayer game. There is a very small single-player “story” mode called the Challenge Series. These different stories begin and end with cinematic storytelling featuring one of the game's AllStars. You play through a series of special events, most of which are unique and not otherwise accessible.  

Initially, you can only play through Ultimo Barricado’s story. A second AllStar's story can be bought, and a third is time-gated for future purposes. Presumably, more will be available for purchase in the future, but locking these unique game types and the only story content in the game behind a paywall further disconnects any sense that this is a premium stand-alone game.  

Destruction AllStars Review – The Bottom Line


  • Fun destruction derby gameplay 
  • Colorful cast of characters 
  • Vibrant graphics  


  • Balance needs work 
  • Little player motivation 
  • Overbearing microtransactions 

Destruction AllStars is a fun game to watch and play. However, the slow pace of progress and lack of tangible goals limit the motivation to continue playing. The funneling towards microtransactions for progress and paywalled single-player content is frustrating. That's not to mention balance between AllStars is sorely in need of work.  

The good news is all of these issues can be fixed. The bones of a really great online game are here; it’s up to the developer to make the right changes. Until that time, Destruction AllStars will continue to be an overall mediocre experience.  

[Note: The PlayStation Plus version of Destruction AllStars was used for this review.]

Little Nightmares 2 Review: Beautiful Nightmare Fuel Tue, 09 Feb 2021 12:04:40 -0500 Jordan Baranowski

The original Little Nightmares released to extremely positive reviews back in 2017. Its combination of grotesque and terrifying visuals, a mysterious narrative, and plenty of puzzle platforming made quite the splash.

Now developer Tarsier Studios is taking us back into this creepy little world with Little Nightmares 2, a game that builds off the style and successes of the original while adding some new ideas and continuing the story.

Little Nightmares 2 Review: Beautiful Nightmare Fuel

Little Nightmares 2 can be best described as an atmospheric puzzle platformer. You step into the role of a child named Mono, who wakes up in a mysterious world full of dangers. As you explore your surroundings, very little of the story is directly spelled out. You're not going to find audio logs teasing a big bad or a cackling villain explaining their master plan.

Instead, Little Nightmares 2 relies on its clever world building to hint at what has happened in the terrifying places you explore. The world is suffering. Environments are destroyed and dilapidated, filled with discarded belongings from before whatever calamity afflicted this world.

Clothing piled into dumpsters, flickering spirit children, and a mysterious television signal are just some of the many aspects you'll spot that indicate exactly how things went wrong.

As you pull levers, avoid traps, and puzzle out how to get through the next area, you'll want to explore every little side area to make sure you don't miss a thing. 

For the most part, the enemies in Little Nightmares 2 tower over you, and if they catch you, it's game over. In the first game, you can dodge and sneak past beings like the Chefs and the incredibly-long-armed Janitor. In Little Nightmares 2, there are a number of different types of confrontations; sometimes, you'll even have to take the fight directly to your foes.

The enemies you encounter here are every bit as horrifying and full of surprises. There were multiple times when trying to survive against these different foes made me jump out of my seat, as they're prone to bursting through doors or turning suddenly as you make a break for it.

Though the levels aren't laid out to look like it, most of your attempts to survive against these insta-kill foes are essentially timing puzzles. You'll need to hide under a desk here, cause a distraction there, and sprint into a narrow grate just as they reach out to grab you.

That means Little Nightmares 2 features a lot of trial and error; due to the nature of some of the game's puzzles, death will sometimes just hit you out of nowhere. Checkpoints are generally very close to one another, so it usually isn't too frustrating.


Sometimes, it takes a bit more "error" than I would like to figure out the perfect combination of events to get me to the next scene. In that way, Little Nightmares 2 is a game that sometimes desperately calls for a break. You can easily find yourself beating your head against the wall, restarting a section a dozen times and getting nowhere. That's before giving up in frustration.  

This is most apparent in the game's combat sections. There are some minor enemies this time around, and you can grab items littered around the environment to smack them around. This is easier said than done, however.

Usually, the weapons you find are as big as your character. Swinging them takes a lot of time, and it's incredibly hard to judge how far you'll swing and how quickly your enemies are moving. There are multiple sections that had me swearing because I would couldn't work out the timing for how to smack the different enemies that were charging towards me.

But more often than not, when I put the game down and returned with a clear mind, I breezed through the section I was stuck on in the first couple of tries. That "obtuseness" is the only aspect of Little Nightmares 2 I can fault, and even that has some old-school charm to it. You're going to die multiple times here; that's just par for the course.

Little Nightmares 2 Review  The Bottom Line


  • Extremely impressive atmosphere
  • Well-designed environments
  • Gives the player credit, not full of prompts and tutorial sections
  • Compelling story to uncover


  • Some sections are overly frustrating
  • Combat mechanics are unimpressive

Little Nightmares 2 is a lot more substantial than the first game, offering more foes and environments to explore. It also continues the story threads from the first game; even though you're playing as a new character, you'll encounter an old friend early on who will follow you on much of the journey. 

There's also a new central antagonist to deal with, and you'll see several hints of this nasty foe (and some of what they've done to cause so much destruction to the world) as you move forward through the different areas of Little Nightmares 2.

Finally, Little Nightmares 2 just feels good to play. The way everything flows together with hidden loading screens and a vast, interconnected environment, the way the massive enemies seem to be going about daily routines until they spot you, sending them into a terrifying rage — this game begs you to keep exploring its twisted world and rarely ceases to impress.

In short, Little Nightmares 2 is a must-have if you are a fan of the first game or similar platformers like Limbo or Inside. It's creepy and gorgeous, and it flexes the puzzle-solving areas of your brain. It isn't perfect, but it is one of the best in the genre.

[Note: Bandai Namco provided the copy of Little Nightmares 2 used for this review.]

Persona 5 Strikers Review: A Summer Road Trip Extravaganza Tue, 09 Feb 2021 10:10:34 -0500 George Yang

In 2017, Persona 5 became a landmark title for the series, propelling it to its highest mainstream status yet. Then in 2020, Persona 5 Royal, an enhanced rerelease of Persona 5, added even more features and story bits to the already gargantuan game. Now, the Phantom Thieves return in a sequel, Persona 5 Strikers, to take our hearts once again.

Persona 5 Strikers differs quite a bit from Persona 5 in that the former uses a real-time action combat system rather than the turn-based combat system the series is known for. This change is welcome, however, as Koei Tecmo’s Omega Force and Atlus did a fantastic job taking elements from both of their respective franchises, Dynasty Warriors and Persona, and combining them into one.

Persona 5 Strikers is one of the best JRPG titles this year.

The story of Persona 5 Strikers takes place six months after the events of Persona 5. There are some new lore concepts and new characters introduced, as well. The Phantom Thieves travel all over Japan on a summer road trip to uncover the new mysterious events involving the Metaverse. The plot is a genuine delight and delivers complete character arcs that you expect from a Persona game.

Persona 5 Strikers Review: A Summer Road Trip Extravaganza

Strikers borrows more elements from Persona 5 than Dynasty Warriors, as it seems like the latter was more of just a template for the real-time action gameplay on display here, while you can feel the former’s DNA coursing through its structure and more intricate gameplay mechanics.

The story structure still follows the calendar system integral to the series, but this time around, the pacing is much faster and more on-rails than the previous game. The cast solves whatever problem is plaguing the city they’re in and then move on to the next stop on the trip.

To fit with this new pacing, the game replaces the Confidant/Social Links feature that previously expanded on worldbuilding with a new Bond Level gauge that fills every time the story progresses, or you'll complete certain requests involving the main cast. In turn, increasing the Bond Level provides you with Bond points that you can spend to increase your party’s abilities, such as recovering HP during a successful enemy ambush or gaining higher amounts of money drops after a battle.

This new mechanic works narratively since Strikers focuses much more on the Phantom Thieves as a group rather than the team trying to expand its network of alliances.

Additionally, Strikers does a great job translating the traditional Persona turn-based gameplay mechanics into real-time versions. During battle, you can pull up the Persona menu to select a special skill from your list and execute it. It works very similarly to Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s menu system. When in the menu, the game stands still, giving you time to strategize on hitting enemy weaknesses or heal/buff allies.

The game also runs very well on PlayStation 5 via backwards compatibility, with short load times and at a solid 60 FPS, with no crashes or performance issues. The soundtrack is absolutely fantastic too, with new tracks and remixed versions of Persona 5 and Royal originals.

Old Thieves, New Tricks

There are some new battle mechanics unique to Strikers too. The first is Phantom Dashes, which draws inspiration from the original’s use of special background objects to inflict additional damage. It’s reminiscent of the Flowmotion mechanic in Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance.

In Strikers, you can dash onto cars and blow them up or swing around street lights to hit enemies. There’s also now a dedicated dodge button, and if you perfect the timing, you can hit enemies with a counter-attack.

Although my favorite mechanic is definitely the Master Arts, which is a set of skills unique to each character that utilizes certain button combinations to pull off. These skills make each of the characters feel distinct, and some even invoke Personas. So even when you’re not using Persona skills that consume SP or HP, it’s a nice aesthetic feature to have that makes it feel like the Personas are also participating in battle.

Characters now have a Showtime, an ultimate attack that can be unleashed once the Showtime gauge is full. It can be filled by attacking enemies, although the ability to skip the full animation of these attacks would have been appreciated. They are nice, but after seeing them multiple times, I'd like to get back to the action.

While many of Persona 5’s mechanics transition incredibly well to Strikers, not every mechanic lands; some can be a bit sloppy. I enjoyed Persona 5’s Demon Negotiation, where you convince enemies to join your side, but in Strikers, they’re replaced with a chance of a mask drop when defeated. I understand Demon Negotiation may not have been something easily replicated for real-time action, but this new mechanic seems a bit half baked.

A Royal Misstep

While you can switch members between both your reserve and main party any time outside of battle, you can't do so during battle. There are some side requests in the game that pitted me against strong mini-bosses, and it wasn’t until I got into the battle that I could see their elemental weaknesses, and I wouldn't have the right party build. 

If this strong enemy nullified all Nuclear damage, for example, and I brought Makoto with me, who specializes in that element, then she might as well have been a sitting duck; I had no way to swap her out for a party member in my reserve. This feature was in Persona 5, so why isn’t it here too?

However, the biggest issue relates to Strikers' controls. It’s strange how Strikers doesn’t offer any sort of controller remapping, considering other action games like Devil May Cry 5 and the recently released Ys IX: Monstrum Nox have fully remappable buttons. On PlayStation, the “interact” button is O, and not X, much like other games, such as Persona 5 Royal. It took a bit to get used to, but being able to swap those two buttons would have made for a more comfortable experience.

Unfortunately, Strikers doesn’t reference any of the new story content featured in Royal either. While Strikers' story doesn’t contradict any of the events in either the original Persona 5 or Royal, it feels incredibly odd not to see any references to the new characters and plot points in Royal, the definitive version of Persona 5.

This is even stranger since Showtime was a new mechanic introduced in Royal, one that is also in Strikers. The new characters introduced in Strikers are great, but it would have been even better if it had included Royal’s story elements.

Persona 5 Strikers Review — The Bottom Line

  • Turn-based mechanics transferred well into real-time
  • Good story and good new characters
  • Perfect performance on PlayStation 5
  • Stellar music and aesthetic
  • No remappable controls
  • A few mechanics from Persona 5 aren't implemented or are a bit half baked
  • For a sizeable number of fans, no Persona 5 Royal references will be disappointing

Persona 5 Strikers is a great time and a worthy sequel to Persona 5 and Royal. The franchise’s traditional turn-based mechanics are masterfully transitioned into real-time versions that retain the soul and identity of what makes the series so much fun.

Combine all of that with a heartfelt story and a great group of characters, and the Phantom Thieves’ summer road trip extravaganza is one to remember.

[Note: Atlus/Sega provided the copy of Persona 5 Strikers used for this review.]

Control: Ultimate Edition Xbox Series X Review — Weirder and Prettier Than Usual Mon, 08 Feb 2021 12:00:59 -0500 Mark Delaney

When Remedy released Control in late summer 2019, it quickly captured the gaming zeitgeist. For longtime fans of the studio, it was yet another example of Remedy's often-underappreciated sense of style. Eventually, it became the first game from the Finnish team to really break through since Max Payne nearly 20 years prior.

There was one issue though: consoles struggled to run it at times. In the fast-paced third-person shooter, things were usually fine, but pause the game or go to the character menus and you'd be hit with a staggering, stuttering exit back to the action. Every time. Without fail.

The Xbox Series X|S and PS5 seem to have cleaned that up across the board, which is great news for anyone who has upgraded their console and not the game. But for the complete package, including both fascinating expansions and other enhancements, Control: Ultimate Edition on new-gen consoles is as the name suggests.

This review will largely focus on those new enhancements for Xbox Series X|S and PS5 (as played on Xbox Series X), but for the uninitiated, it's worth explaining why the rest of Control is so great too.

Control: Ultimate Edition Xbox Series X Review — Weirder and Prettier Than Usual

As Jesse Faden, newly and reluctantly awarded the role of Director of the Federal Bureau of Control, players navigate The Oldest House, a top-secret government building with a shady history and an even more mysterious blueprint. Forever shifting its dimensions and home to locked-away otherworldly threats, the brutalist Oldest House makes for one of recent gaming's most distinct settings. 

As this is a Remedy game, Control's third-person shooting is fast, frenetic, and full of flair. Whereas Max Payne had bullet time, Alan Wake fought with light, and Jack Joyce used time-distorting abilities, Jesse Faden is afforded the full gamut of paranatural abilities, such as telekinesis and mind control.

Over the course of 20+ hours in the main game, plus another five or so for each expansion, Faden's story is one that cherishes its own loose threads and collects the entire history of Remedy's storytelling prowess into one grander universe, but it can be just as easily enjoyed if this is your only window into the studio's weirdness.

As Jesse says, this is going to be weirder than usual, but it's also more impressive across the board.

Like a lot of games, Control on new consoles offers two modes: Performance Mode and Graphics Mode. The former gives players 60 frames per second in 1440p upscaled to 4K, while the latter presents things at 30 frames per second in 1440p upscaled to 4K with ray tracing. Never before have I struggled so long to choose a mode to run my game in.

While the energized gunplay of Control feels like a shoo-in for the 60 fps mode, so too do I find the ray-traced Oldest House to be dazzling. The only downside is I can't have both at once. Ultimately, I landed on playing at 60 frames per second but stopping regularly, swapping to Graphics, and admiring the sights in photo mode.

If ever there was a case for ray tracing, Control is it. The geometrically flawless Oldest House glimmers like nothing else when in Graphics mode. With so many office hallways lined by floor to ceiling windows, you do admittedly lose a lot of the vibe when you move away from Graphics. The second DLC, AWE, is an especially great showpiece as it focuses so much on light and dark contrasts. 

The good thing is at least in Performance mode, you're not getting a bad image either. It's on par with the last-gen version in terms of textures, which were already quite good looking, only now it runs smoother with the improved frame rate. That gives players two modes, each better than the old version.

While the visual enhancements look great, perhaps the best part of all is just how fast the game loads everything. From start menu to saved checkpoint, it takes about 10 seconds, while fast traveling routinely takes just a half to a third of that. All that stuttering players grew familiar with before is gone now as well. I ran the game through something like a QA trial, trying to get it to freeze, and I never could.

Conversely, I did still have some issues in the form of game crashes, which are actually a new issue, but they only cropped up when I would move back and forth between the two presentation modes several times in short succession. 

Control: Ultimate Edition Xbox Series X Review — The Bottom Line


  • One of the best games of the last generation made prettier
  • All the DLC packaged in despite the lower price tag
  • Ray tracing and 60 fps modes each dazzle
  • Stuttering issue is fixed


  • Game crashes can still occur, usually when swapping between presentation modes

The inherent power of the Xbox Series X (and presumably other new-gen consoles) has already fixed the last-gen version of Control's stuttering issue, so perhaps you needn't buy into this new-gen version. But few games have such a strong case for ray tracing as Control has. If you've already upgraded your console and you want to see it show off what it can do, Control: Ultimate Edition is an early showpiece for the generation.

Its upgrades are apparent and fit perfectly for the game's lightning-quick gunplay and gorgeous world. And if you missed the game or any of its DLCs until now, then you should absolutely start here for the complete, most impressive version of the best games in recent years.

[Note: 505 Games provided the copy of Control: Ultimate Edition used for this review.]

Disjunction Review: Retro Cyberpunk Stealth Fri, 05 Feb 2021 15:39:21 -0500 Justin Koreis

Disjunction is a promising first effort from the three-person team at Ape Tribe games, as it pays homage to some of the finest stealth and cyberpunk games of the past. It features attractive pixel art and solid gameplay. However, it can’t quite live up to its forbearers, and its modest depth begins to wear out its welcome before the end.  

Disjunction introduces you to a near-future, cyberpunk dystopian New York City. Gangs, drugs, and evil corporations run rampant, while corrupt politicians and police turn a blind eye to the suffering of the people. You spend time playing as three distinct characters with dark pasts, whose stories intertwine over the course of unraveling a wide-ranging conspiracy.  

Each character has their own motivation, where one is a private investigator looking for evidence to free a framed man, another is an ex-con and prizefighter searching for the truth behind his daughter's death, and the third is a hacker and former crime syndicate member pulled back into the life by the family she tried to leave behind.  

Disjunction Review: Retro Cyberpunk Stealth

The overall presentation of Disjunction is a treat. Well-designed pixel art brings life to the characters and city. New York’s fading industry-meets-gangs aesthetic is strongly reminiscent of Detroit in Robocop, while enemy designs conjure images of everything from generic gang bangers to The Terminator. The musical score brings the classic cyberpunk feeling to life with a retro-dystopian synthwave that would be at home in any movie theater of the 1980s.  

The story itself doesn’t hold up as well.

It is fairly paint-by-numbers. You’ve got evil corporations, anti-human augmentation crusaders, new super drugs flooding the streets, and warring ethnocentric gangs  generic to the point of being forgettable. Disjunction does have a few branching story paths, but those roads just lead to different rote recreations of stories you've heard before.  

Solid Sneaking and Shooting

You guide each character through a number of top-down levels ala Metal Gear for the NES. Enemies have vision cones and can be attacked head-on, stealthily avoided, or taken down with non-lethal sneak attacks. Each playable character has unique abilities and a skill tree to develop, and each plays slightly different.

Frank, the private investigator, is built for nonlethal takedowns, carrying a stun gun and smoke bombs. Joe, the prizefighter, favors combat and has regenerating health and a combat stim ability. And Spider, the hacker, favors stealth, utilizing active camouflage to turn temporarily invisible and holograms to distract enemies. 

Characters control well. Sneaking around the various levels is enjoyable, especially with the well-implemented line of site system for enemies, which allows you to see where obstacles create blind spots. There is a special joy to be found in stealth games when you memorize patrol routes for enemies, determine the ideal location and timing for an ambush, and execute your plan.

Disjunction nails that feeling early and often. 

The enemies react to seeing bodies, and the game gives you the ability to pick up and drag your fallen foes. This presents opportunities to clear areas before other enemies arrive, or put bodies in strategic locations to draw enemies where you want them.  

When you have to go loud, gunplay is simple and straightforward. There is a reticle that hovers a short distance from your character, and it is up to the player to determine if enemies further away are within that trajectory, adding an element of skill to the gunplay. You are limited to the specific gun equipped to each of the three characters at the start, and ammo is scarce.  

The Limits of Inspiration

Disjunction makes a strong initial impression. It is genuinely fun to sneak around, and the simple tutorial puts you in the action quickly. Watching enemies patrol and planning your approach is like solving a puzzle, and the action has a nice heft to it.  

Unfortunately, this is also where Disjunction peaks.

The game never deviates from a fixed pattern: grab a keycard, go up the stairs, grab the next keycard, go to the end of the level. Once you’ve cleared a dozen rooms of bad guys it all begins to blend together. Every section ends with finding either an object that leads you to the next level or a conversation with your target, which always ends with either letting the person go free, arresting them, or killing them, all done via a dialogue choice.  

The game’s biggest flaw is that it never does anything interesting. The leveling system is limited, and it doesn’t change the gameplay fundamentally. The game stops adding enemies and environmental traps early, making stealth repetitive after a fashion. 

Disjunction fails to deliver the elements that make its predecessors special. Unlike the combat in Hotline Miami, the action here largely isn’t viable beyond the beginning of the game. Gameplay is slow, the camera is too tight to the character to show you much of what is ahead, and the sparse checkpoints make a guns-a-blazing approach too risky. Enemies swarm the sound of gunfire and are bullet sponges that mow you down quickly.  

It suffers from its comparison to Metal Gear as well. Both are top-down stealth action games, but Metal Gear delivers memorable bosses and gameplay altering weapons and equipment. Conversely, there aren’t any bosses in Disjunction, nor any usable items beyond a character’s built-in setup. This lack of variety drags on the experience, regardless of how solid the core stealth mechanic is.  

Ultimately, Disjunction’s good core gameplay can’t overcome its lack of ambition. After seven to nine hours of the exact same gameplay, even good stealth becomes uninteresting, and the credits rolling brought welcome relief.

Any temptation to play through Disjunction again to experience the different branching story paths had long since passed by then.  

Disjunction Review — The Bottom Line 


  • Absolutely nails the '80s Cyberpunk Vibe 
  • Fun, quality stealth action 
  • Quality pixel art 


  • No gameplay evolution 
  • Predictable and formulaic story 
  • Compares poorly with its inspiration 

Disjunction is a quality stealth action game that is fun to play and nails the '80s cyberpunk feel. The core gameplay loop is well-executed, and the overall presentation is very appealing.

It is held back by a lack of interesting development in both gameplay and story, however, and overstays its welcome. This is a good first outing from a small development team that can’t quite live up to its legendary predecessors.  

[Note: Ape Tribe Games provided the copy of Disjunction used for this review.] 

Skul: The Hero Slayer Review — End the Tyranny of Heroes Thu, 04 Feb 2021 12:52:36 -0500 John Schutt

Skul: The Hero Slayer is well aware of its genre: pixel art rogue-lite with mild narrative elements. It sits somewhere between Dead Cells and Hades in almost every way, borrowing elements from one and something else from the other. Thankfully, it has its own identity as well, built primarily around its premise: you are the villain in the story. At least by traditional standards.

In this game, the heroes are the generic fantasy mooks you’d kill by the dozens in any other fantasy setting. Orcs, witches, werecreatures — all of them are beset by the heroes of the world until all that remains to save the Demon King is you, a lowly skeleton.

The viewpoint swap creates an opportunity to see the emotional and psychological cost of the reprehensible things humans do when the victims are painted as wholly irredeemable. Make no mistake, some of what you learn throughout Skul would be fodder for any traditional adventure. The difference is it’s built on the backs of monsters who seem much more human than the actual humans you meet.

None of these heavy topics stop Skul from having some truly endearing moments and plenty of charm. Its mechanics are familiar but well-executed, and the enemies you face are as varied as the environments you face them in. I’ll be honest at the start: I can’t find a lot of fault with the game. I have my complaints, but most are minor.

Skul: The Hero Slayer Review — End the Tyranny of Heroes

Many of Skul’s gameplay and design ideas are familiar to anyone who knows the rogue-lite genre. You start with nothing. Do runs. Die. Come back with upgrade materials to increase your power and do more runs. You learn enemies and craft strategies, find out what works for you and what doesn’t, and experiment with new builds even as certain powerful abilities carry you farther than you’re ready for.

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re getting a Dead Cells-style experience through and through. It won’t take you long to learn that Skul takes a hybrid approach, adding in some of the decision-making Hades demands.

After every room you clear, you’re greeted with two doors offering either gold, an item, or a random skull. The first two are simple. Gold lets you buy stuff, obviously. Items grant passive buffs and automatic abilities. Skulls are where the game comes alive. There are more than a dozen different options that replace the generic character you start with.

Skulls start at Common rarity, and you can upgrade all of them through play, ultimately reaching the borderline-overpowered Legendary version. There are also randomly dropped skulls you can only acquire through skull rooms, and these can do a lot of the heavy lifting even late in a run.

Much of the charm and enjoyment of Skul: The Hero Slayer comes from the various skulls you can upgrade or uncover. You need only look at the Rocker skull. It’s a heavy-metal skeleton that can summon a full band with a light show and pyrotechnics. Why? Who cares? It’s funny and will melt bosses.

The environments and enemy designs are also quite endearing or are as disturbing as they are deadly. The second world is probably my favorite because Skul starts to have fun with its enemies and environments. The third world showcases the depths of human depravity and the last acts in severe contrast to everything that came before.

Moment to Moment Gameplay

As with the mechanics, the arenas sit in a middle ground between Dead Cells and Hades. They are technically randomized as far as their order, but the rooms themselves are static. This lends a level of consistency to each run, provided you’ve seen a room enough times to know what enemies spawn where and when.

You’ll build a definite sense of mastery in a way you might not in other rogue-lites because at the highest level, you'll know exactly how to play every encounter. No guesswork, no random chance, just knowledge of your skulls and the enemies in front of you.

There’s also a surprising amount of depth to how you can optimize each run. Do you focus on getting the best skull you can find, discarding the rest of the bone pieces for upgrading, or do you max out your gold for heals and easy items? Then, once you have the build you want, do you prioritize additional survivability or straight damage?

Familiar choices, certainly, but far easier to get wrong than execute as effectively as it’s done here in Skul. The reason here is simple: you can be a literal demigod and still watch the bosses or unfamiliar enemies wipe the floor with you. Knowledge and skill are as important as good RNG because you will fail again and again without one.

The bosses themselves are as varied as their levels, and each asks something different of you. Your first go with each of them is likely to result in a quick death, meaning anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour just vanished in a few moments. The later levels also are particularly mean, adding traps and other environmental damage sources that are as likely to end you as any of the enemies themselves.

A Crowded Screen and Other Issues

If I had to name one issue that holds Skul back, it would be how crowded the screen becomes almost as soon as you start playing. The issue only gets worse the farther you get in a run, with your own abilities and those of your enemies mixing into a mishmash of bright color, flashing lights, and other visual noise.

The enemy crowding problem can be especially heinous because there are rooms designed for dozens and dozens of them at a time. There are plenty of abilities that clear rooms quickly, but if you’re on a run without any good clearing moves, one false step can see a random group of ten knights hit you ten times in quick succession.

There are a couple of other annoyances, as well. Some of the rooms are themselves part of the challenge but in an annoying rather than difficult way. Asking for precise platforming in a game where the platforming isn’t stellar isn’t the greatest design choice.

Then there’s the game messing with you. If you’re unlucky, all you’ll see on a run is money and common skulls, with no way to properly increase your power. Some enemies are frustrating rather than difficult, either because of their attacks or because of how hard they can be to hit.

Skul: The Hero Slayer Review — The Bottom Line


  • Addicting gameplay built on solid mechanical foundations
  • A welcome twist to traditional fantasy narratives that invites sometimes difficult questions
  • High-quality music, art, and overall aesthetic


  • Can fall prey to visual noise that makes gameplay hard to parse
  • Some design choices are more frustrating than they are fun
  • Less-than stellar platforming controls

Like the core elements of the game, Skul’s music and art direction are high quality, though they aren’t necessarily award-winning. The writing and world-building are good, too, and there are plenty of humorous moments, and little (or not so little) nods to other games. Skeleton puns are always appreciated, as well.

As far as the narrative is concerned, the best part is the way Skul plays with expectations. Combine how it switches good and bad guys, the surprising shifts in some of the later bosses, and its quiet commentary on how we justify atrocity, and Skul elevates itself above some of its peers.

Skul: The Hero Slayer falls into a similar category as something like Ghost of Tsushima. There aren’t many new ideas on display, but everything here’s been polished to a mirror sheen.

The new mechanics add significant flavor and charm to an already solid package. Good music and art combined with satisfying combat and a dash of good humor make the difficulty spikes bearable and the few frustrations bearable.

If you’re looking for a game to scratch your rogue-lite itch with a few fun twists, Skul is a fantastic choice.

[Note: Neowiz games provided the copy of Skul: The Hero Slayer used for this review.]

Werewolf: The Apocalypse Earthblood Review — Cry for the Wolfman Thu, 04 Feb 2021 04:00:01 -0500 Jason D'Aprile

As part of the venerable World of Darkness, and perhaps riding on the popularity and anticipation of the upcoming Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines 2, Werewolf: the Apocalypse — Earthblood had a lot of potential leading up to release. Regrettably, it lives up to exactly none of it.

I approached it with a sense of cautious optimism, but the end result is some unfortunate time warp of a game that feels at least two generations old and doesn’t manage to do much of anything well.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse Earthblood Review — Cry for the Wolfman

Earthblood is a straightforward third-person action game, where players take the role of a generic gruff-biker-dude-stereotype named Cahal. And the plot is really the first of so many points of contention.

Given the source material, Earthblood could have gone in nearly any direction. Instead, it went in the most clichéd and uninspired way possible. 

Cahal is an angry werewolf guy thrown into the predictable angst and redemption arcs that we’ve seen far too many times. The salt in the wound is that it’s just badly done, playing out like fan fiction written by an angsty 14-year-old trying to impress a high school crush who’s, like, totally into, you know, saving the world and stuff. 

The game dives straight into the murdered wife cliche, whereupon Cahal loses his shit and accidentally murders a packmate in his unbridled rage. This, in turn, causes him to abandon his pack and, worse, his teenage daughter because he must atone for his sins alone — like a "Man" or something.

Five years pass in the story and, like clockwork, he’s forced back to his old pack and his now-adult daughter. The drama.

It would take too long to go over every absurd Earthblood story detail, but the highlight is probably Cahal infiltrating a prison by, inexplicably, impersonating a wanted serial killer to intentionally get arrested. 

It’s bad SyFy movie-level writing, but unlike something like Sharknado, which revels in being trash, Werewolfseems desperate to take itself seriously. There’s little logic in most of the level goals either, which typically boil down to find objective widgets, flip switches, and kill things. 

The bulk of the gameplay is divided between stealth and combat, with some awkward running and conversation in between. Cahal has three forms: human, wolf, and a brutish combat-able wolfman. In human form, he sneaks around and can shoot certain things, like security cameras and enemies, with his very limited crossbow, though it’s better to just perform stealth takedowns and find computer terminals spread around to shut off the cameras.

The speedier wolf form is vital because human Cahal is slow, and you’ll want to run through these levels as fast as possible. The wolf form is also stealthier and can bark to attract attention.

The hulking hybrid rage form is for combat when stealth fails; there are even spots where you can rage out during dialogue, which is undeniably funny, as violent murder makes any of the game’s conversations better. 

The hybrid form has an agile and heavy attack stance, each with their own special moves, but the action is largely a chaotic mess of bashing and dodging unblockable attacks. By the end of the game, the combat feels so repetitive that even the initial gimmick of decorating the rooms with gore can't save it. Grabbing and executing enemies refills the rage bar (needed for special attacks), but even the execution moves are repetitive and boring.

Old-school stealth is the other major component, and I mean old-school like 90s-era PlayStation stealth. Werewolf takes no chances making sure players know when it’s stealthy time, as it automatically shoves Cahal into his stealth crouch and doesn’t let him up until combat starts or he leaves the area.

The entertainment value of these sequences comes entirely from how unbelievably stupid the AI is. Levels are filled with stealth puzzle rooms where guards stand or patrol in predetermined spots mindlessly waiting for something to cross their limited vision cone.

If you run past an enemy’s line of sight, its awareness meter (an eye-shaped gauge) starts filling. Move out of sight and the gauge lowers. Once an enemy is alerted (and their panic can cause surrounding enemies to become alerted too), they stay that way either forever or until you kill them.

As long as enemies never reach that alert level or catch sight of a dead body, however, they remain oblivious to nearly anything. You can pluck their co-workers off from behind cover even if they’re standing right by them. Many of these room-size murder-puzzles rely on this hilarious obliviousness, as the trick is to just find the path that lets you kill each enemy in turn based on where they’re standing.

There’s a simple, if stupid fun to be had here, somewhat ruined by certain enemies that Cahal simply can’t stealth kill. These include hulking mechs and larger brute soldiers. Once the enemy is alerted, any doors or vent shaft entrances (which are, naturally, how wolves travel through buildings) are locked down. This is important, because it hides a gaping-sized hole in the game’s logic.

Enemies, as it turns out, only work in the specific room they live in. They can’t see you through grates, windows, or (most fantastically) doorways. This means you can entertain yourself by running through doors, catching one’s attention, murdering them, then running back through the door before any other alert meters fill. Cahal can hang in the doorway jumping up and down, and it just doesn’t matter.

Various other glitches and just outright cheap elements abound, especially in the visuals department. Character models are a murky, smudgey bunch, reminiscent of early HD models on PS2 and the original Xbox. During interactions, they come across as creepy, lifeless mannequins.

The exception comes in the form of the spirits spread around the landscape. These strange creatures are actually intriguingly designed, especially the two clan protectors you meet.

One is a massive tree spirit with a hulking man’s body and glowing orb for a head. The other is a gorgeous winged skeletal snake. Sadly, the enemies are a generic lot of soldiers, the occasional bad werewolves, and inexplicably by the end, a group of bad Resident Evil 4 knockoffs culminating in an end boss that is truly awful from both a design and plot standpoint.

There are also collectible plant and other spirits Cahal finds by sniffing shrubs, trees, and even potted plants hidden around the levels. These are then used as currency for the basic upgrade system that improves some of Cahal’s abilities. There’s a lot of running around looking for things to sniff in Werewolf, which is probably more unintentionally amusing than most of the rest of the game.

Werewolf: the Apocalypse — Earthblood: The Bottom Line


  • Rage mode violence can be amusing
  • Three body forms is a cool idea
  • Often hilarious, if for all the wrong reasons


  • Subpar graphics, incredibly bad writing
  • Hilarious stupid, primitive AI and stealth mechanics
  • Mostly boring combat

As if suffering from some bizarre form of virtual Stockholm Syndrome, I felt nearly compelled to see Earthblood through. The game ended up more entertaining because of the barebones effort put into it, resulting in humorous bugs, glitches, and just plain nonsense.

On some level, it’s almost worth playing for the same reason bad sci-fi and horror movies are worth watching, but that’s definitely not a recommendation. 

[Note: Cyanide provided the copy of Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Earthblood used for this review.]

Habroxia 2 Review: Reaching For the Stars Mon, 01 Feb 2021 12:00:01 -0500 Henry Stockdale

It feels like a lifetime ago when shoot 'em ups represented arcade gaming’s pinnacle, seeing Space Invaders dominate the battle for our hard-earned coins. Their popularity sunk in the 90s, but SHMUPs have retained a niche fanbase since, kept alive through notable efforts like Ikaruga, Geometry Wars and Jamestown+

Now Lillymo Games have brought us Habroxia 2, a horizontal side scroller that comes almost two years after the original. Though it isn’t particularly ground-breaking, fans of older SHMUP titles will feel right at home here.

Habroxia 2’s story is relatively straightforward. Millennia after humanity reached the stars, this newfound peace was shattered by a brutal alien race attacking the galaxy, as seen in the first game. Through unprecedented co-operation, humanity eventually defeated them, pushing the aliens back to their star system.

Habroxia 2 Review: Reaching For the Stars

Twenty-five years later and nothing has been heard from this vicious force, leading humanity to deploy a scouting team into the depths of space, only for none of them to return. In Habroxia 2, you play as Sabrina, daughter to a missing scout that sets out to find him. 

Piloting a space fighter, your left joystick controls movement during these missions and the right joystick for an aimed weapon. The control scheme feels a bit fiddly at first; for those used to pressing X to fire, aiming with the right stick is strange, but ultimately manaegable.

Your ship has a health bar, so there are no one-shot kills here, and that bar can be replenished via dropped items from enemy ships. Some foes will drop credits instead, which can be spent at Space Station Hermes to improve health, fire rate, boost speed, and more. Others give you bombs or shields to save for tough situations.

If you don’t have any pickups, there are other means to get yourself out of a pinch. You can boost your ship directly through incoming obstacles and enemies and special attacks are available via L1 and R1, which slowly recharge after use. R1 will fire the front facing weapon, L1 for the rear, and you can equip two separate ones between them.

Once you get the controls down, Habroxia 2’s campaign kicks off, presented in a mission-based format. Taking down waves of enemy fighters, survival is your ultimate goal, and each mission is capped off with a boss fight.

There are bonus objectives too and astronauts will need rescuing, which you collect by driving towards them, alongside enemy bounties which are completed by destroying particular ships.

Every mission is ranked around points you’ve earned, and you can build up combos by destroying enemies without taking damage.

After completing a mission, bonuses for weapon accuracy, combos, and remaining health are also handed out. Defeating a boss rewards you with new special weapons, offering variety like more concentrated lasers or bombs, alongside some additional credits.

It sounds formulaic, but Habroxia 2 successfully keeps things interesting, while also offering a good amount of replayability. Enemies are varied, levels are well-designed, and some stages have hidden bosses too, accessed by taking alternative routes.

You can finish the campaign in 6-7 hours but New Game+ unlocks after completing it, featuring harder enemies and bosses that’ll appeal to challenge seekers.

Whether you’re a high score chaser or just looking for a new SHMUP, it’s a great time. Weapon aiming aside, my only real gripe is that when compared to the shooters it takes inspiration from, Habroxia 2 isn’t that unique. But it’s still enjoyable where it counts.

That’s without going into the appealing retro aesthetic too, offering a smooth pixel graphic approach and fitting chiptune soundtrack.

Habroxia 2 Review — The Bottom Line


  • SHMUP fans will love it
  • Good upgrade system
  • Appealing retro aesthetic
  • Strong replayability


  • Aiming shots with the right joystick is fiddly
  • Not particularly original

Lillymo Games have made a great attempt with Habroxia 2. Capturing the spirit of old-school SHMUPS, it isn’t especially long, but these kinds of shooters rarely are. Focusing more on replayability with branching mission paths, a customizable ship, and New Game+, it fills a niche sorely missing on modern platforms.

There isn’t enough here to truly elevate it beyond its predecessors, but it comes recommended.

[Note: Lillymo Games provided the copy of Habroxia 2 used for this review.]

Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review — Going Down to Prison Town Fri, 29 Jan 2021 15:22:37 -0500 Josh Broadwell

Ys IX: Monstrum Nox follows Adol Christin on yet another of his fantastical adventures, but things are a bit different this time. Getting chucked in the Prison City of Balduq's famous prison is just the start of a much bigger, grander adventure with higher stakes and a more compelling narrative than ever before. 

Ys IX: might not do everything perfectly, but it's one heck of a wild ride and a good contender for the best Ys game to date.

Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review  Going Down to Prison Town

Ys IX is easily the most ambitious in the series, thanks in no small part to the story and setting. Adol goes to jail, and Balduq’s lockup hides a massive, far-reaching secret. The Ys series is no stranger to either of those things — Adol in prison and big secrets to uncover — and Lacrimosa of Dana’s setting is one giant secret. Ys IX handles it in a deeper way, though.

Adol escapes, but not before encountering the enigmatic Aprilis and becoming one of her Monstrums. These Monstrums are sort of like Balduq’s superheroes. Aprilis tasks them with defending the city against the Grimwald Nox (more on that in a bit), but each Monstrum is free to do whatever they please in their spare time.

That means helping the downtrodden for some and just causing chaos for others, but it’s always directed at correcting injustices in the city.

The Romun Empire gets mentioned frequently in Ys lore, whether for oppressing provinces such as Felghana or warring with Altago in Ys Seven. It’s always present in some form, but typically distant and secondary to the main mystery. In Ys IX, imperial oppression is almost tangible.

Balduq and the wider Gllian region didn’t acquiesce to Romun role without a fight, leading to a social split affecting those who sided with Romn (the wealthy) and those who didn’t (everyone else).

Almost everyone has a reason to despise the occupying imperial forces, and if they didn’t before, the recent spate of unjust imprisonments and tight-fisted rule just gave them one. Granted, Ys IX doesn’t always handle these narratives with finesse.

Still, Balduq’s plague of problems makes the Monstrums’ and Adol’s missions feel much more personal and important than usual. It also makes for better pacing. Previous games, including Ys VIII, start much slower and ramp up at the end. Here, there's at least some important story facet always present and pushing you forward.

That sense only increases once the game settles into a routine built around the Monstrums’ base and the Dandelion organization. Lacrimosa of Dana made bonding with party members and NPCs a priority, but Monstrum Nox makes it more intimate by putting Adol and the others on society’s fringes, a true ragtag group of heroes banding together against the world.

Ys IX’s broader story is a bit more complicated. This has always been a series of mostly standalone games. Some story bits connect to each other — Felghana’s false god Galbalan returning in different forms in The Ark of Napishtim, for instance — but you can typically play each game without having a clue what happens in the others.

Monstrum Nox is different. Clear ties to previous games gradually become more apparent, and while many of them, such as recurring monsters, are just nice nods to series fans, the villain and the situation surrounding him are actually connected to earlier games, Ys V in particular. The trouble there is that Ys V is the only series game that never received a Western localization or modern re-release (barring the 2002 PS2 release) of any kind.

Other portions, namely the Clan of Darkness and their relationship with alchemy, have roots stretching throughout the series and even into Ys Origin

You might feel a bit more confused than usual as the ending ramps up, true. Ys IX definitely feels like the Cold Steel 4 of Ys by tying multiple plot points together. Fortunately, even though what happens in Balduq builds directly on everything that came before, it’s still functional as a standalone story. 

The city itself is almost as important as the other characters and the plot. Balduq might not be to everyone’s tastes after the Isle of Seiren’s open expanse, but it ended up being my favorite settings in the series. 

Ys is about adventuring and exploration, but you often wouldn’t know it from some of the settings. Classic Ys uses fields and such as arenas for level grinding. Modern Ys gives us bigger areas with little reason to explore them. Even the Isle of Seiren is so much empty (but pretty) landscape, a vehicle for telling Dana’s story more than anything else.

What you trade in visual variety for (mostly) staying behind the city’s massive gothic walls you gain in personality and, better yet, a reason to explore. Balduq is crammed full of secrets, from hidden treasure chests to graffiti scrawled in secret, collectibles, and more. You don’t have full access to the city until much later, but even the earlier segments have plenty of alleys, tantalizingly out-of-reach rooftops, and other nooks to explore.

It’s a hugely refreshing change of pace from the previous pattern of enter region, follow path, find dungeon, repeat, and it gives you a chance to interact with Balduq’s people more. The result is a location not unlike something out of a Trails game and what feels like the fulfillment of Ys’ promise of exotic adventures.

Monstrum Nox’s special twist only adds to the sense of exciting exploration. Each Monstrum has a special ability of some kind they can use to reach new areas and explore the city further.

Adol’s Crimson Line acts as a grappling hook of sorts, for example, while Hawk can soar above the rooftops, and that's just the start. Moving around feels good, and there’s nearly always a reward for putting these abilities to good use aside from admiring the Monstrum’s costumes.

Balduq isn’t quite a sandbox, some areas look a bit too sparse and clean, and later Monstrum abilities don’t get to shine as much. Yet it’s definitely the series’ strongest setting and a design philosophy I hope Falcom continues to work with in future games.

With the broader story and tons of content packed into Balduq, Ys IX is still very much a traditional Ys game built around fast-paced combat. That combat isn’t much changed from Ys 8 or even Memories of Celceta for that matter.

Each character has a series of regular and aerial attacks plus a slew of learnable skills with varying effects. Attacks have one of three attributes, so exploring with a balanced party is as important here as it is in previous games.

One noticeable difference is how combat feels. Lacrimosa of Dana plays like an extension of Celceta, with loose, almost floaty combat. Ys IX feels weighty and definite without sacrificing speed. There’s power behind each sword swing and intention in every movement, a small set of changes that gives combat a more distinct and satisfying feel.

The Boost gauge fills more quickly as well, and you’re expected to use each character’s Boost abilities more frequently as a result. These moves are handy for getting an edge in boss fights or dealing with enemy swarms, and more importantly, they’re flashy as all heck and just fun to use.

A good bit of Ys IX’s combat actually takes place on Balduq’s streets, in addition to its sewers and dungeon areas. One significant part of the plot involves an unseen curse and the twisted monsters it gives rise to. The city hosts multiple portals where the worlds collide. Interacting with said portals literally takes the fight to the streets, as they unfold alongside Balduq’s homes, parks, and businesses.

That’s also one area where Ys IX’s mechanics feel a bit forced. The curse prevents Monstrums from accessing certain parts of the city until they dispel the darkness in a given region. It’s not unlike Ys VIII’s obstacles you could only overcome after finding a set number of castaways, but it comes across as a bit game-y.

On the plus side, the required Grimwald Nox fights aren't nearly as intrusive as Lacrimosa of Dana's village raids. They're part of the story and necessary for progressing, instead of interrupting your progress at important points.

Ys VIII was clearly a Vita game upscaled for PS4. While Ys IX won’t win any graphics awards, the visuals are definitely a step above its predecessor.

Balduq might be uniformly grey and imposing, but there’s a surprising amount of visual interest in the architecture and layout. Colors, particularly character clothing, are vibrant, and the character models look more detailed than ever for an Ys game. 

The downside is a bit of camera and movement jank, at least on PlayStation 4. Camera movement is a bit jerky when you’re moving in open, especially crowded, areas, visuals don’t look quite as clear as they do indoors, and model movements are a touch rougher in some cutscenes taking place outside.

Ys IX’s soundtrack is absolutely stellar, dripping with atmosphere and adding an almost perfect touch to every scenario and location. It’s a bit different from previous Ys games and has a noticeable tinge of Cold Steel 3 and 4 in it, but the different tone also feels appropriate to Ys IX’s grander setting and more complex story.

Ys VIII released in the West with a rather infamous set of localization issues, but that's absolutely not the case for Ys IX. NIS America's localization for Ys IX is smooth and natural, with some nice character nuances and extra flourishes for the more dramatic and mysterious characters.

Ys IX Monstrum Nox Review  The Bottom Line


  • Best setting in the series
  • Huge map to explore, full of secrets to uncover and fun ways to uncover them
  • Winning tweaks to an already strong combat system
  • Compelling story and likeable, relatable characters
  • Excellent soundtrack


  • City progression feels a bit game-y at times
  • Some characters and stories don't get as much attention as they could
  • Slight camera and model jank at times

Ys IX is a departure in several ways from previous games, from the more concentrated setting to the deeper focus on character stories, and it pays off in all ways. A few narrative missteps and some awkward progression mechanics aside, it's an outstanding RPG and an impressive step forward for the Ys series.

[Note: NISA provided the copy of Ys IX: Monstrum Nox used for this review.]

Immortals Fenyx Rising: A New God DLC Review — Testing Brain More Than Brawn Wed, 27 Jan 2021 14:42:48 -0500 Jordan Baranowski

Immortals Fenyx Rising took a lot of people by surprise when it launched back in December 2020. After it was announced, it was easy to dismiss it as a Breath of the Wild clone tacked into the familiar world of Greek mythology. Though it does have a lot in common with the Nintendo title, it brings plenty of new ideas and streamlined mechanics to the table. That's not to mention its clever and extremely funny script.

It isn't overly original, but it is a darn good time.

Right now, we know of three DLC releases headed to Immortals Fenyx Rising, and the first expansion in that trio is out on January 28, 2021. Titled A New God, it continues the main story and, for better or worse, gives you bigger and more difficult puzzles to play around with.

Immortals Fenyx Rising: A New God DLC Review — Testing Brain More Than Brawn

We want to avoid getting too far into spoiler territory, in case we've got readers who haven't finished the main questline yet. If you know how Immortals Fenyx Rising ends, just know that the new DLC picks up right where it left off.

The new section that A New God allows you to explore is an expansive place, and it offers another unique style that fits in nicely with where the story is headed. You'll encounter characters you already met, but this time you'll be assigned special trials from each in order to further prove your abilities.

Each of these trials is extremely difficult, and they often require that you combine several of your mastered abilities in unique ways.

A New God is serious endgame content. You'll practically need to have your full suite of abilities and your stamina upgraded near-maxed to stand a chance at completing several of them and nabbing their fun, if unspectacular, rewards.

There are some new equipment sets to build out and a few new character upgrades to be had, but this DLC is really about pushing your skills to the limit and your brain to the point of breaking as you try to figure out some of the diabolical puzzles put in front of you.

This is for better and for worse. One of the things that makes Immortals Fenyx Rising such a pleasant surprise is that it doesn't suffer from quite as much bloat as many other open-world games. There came a point in my review playthrough where I thought, "Alright, I'm done with sidequests. Let's finish this out." And I did, and I was happy. The side quests and other collectibles don't keep you from finishing the game and feeling powerful while doing it. 

As such, stepping back into the shoes of Fenyx and having Hermes say, "Oh, but wait, there's more!" wasn't exactly the big, exciting moment I was hoping for with this DLC.

When Ubisoft revealed their expansion plan for Immortals Fenyx Rising, A New God isn't the one that jumped out. The second DLC is an entirely new story, inspired by Chinese mythology, and the third DLC promises a "new top-down exploration and brawler-style combat."

So more of the same here isn't bad  it just isn't terribly exciting.

The environmental puzzles here are harder than most anything in the main game. Just figuring out what you need to do in certain areas is a monumental challenge, and putting together a run without mistakes in order to complete it and gain your reward is extremely satisfying.

There are plenty of new mechanics to make things even tougher: portals that warp blocks through walls, stamina orbs that make for extremely long sections of gliding, and laser obstacles that require stringing together all of your combat maneuvers. If you were disappointed by Immortals not being difficult enough, then you might be in luck with A New God.

Though combat is put on the back burner a bit, and the focus here is testing your brains and abilities, you'll still deal with some foes here and there in some unique combinations, even if the mechanics are essentially the same. 

Immortals Fenyx Rising: A New God DLC Review — The Bottom Line

  • Tough puzzles that force you to use all your skills in unique ways
  • Continuation of the main quest story
  • Writing and characters are just as charming
  • A bit underwhelming
  • Lack of true character development, which was such a big part of the main game

A New God is really made for players who finished Immortals Fenyx Rising and wished there was more. This is strong additional content to an already strong game, and it's nice to know that Immortals Fenyx Rising is still getting developer support. 

Judging from the response that Immortals Fenyx Rising has received since release, there seem to be plenty of players who want to dive right back into the world of Immortals and experience the new challenges that it has on offer.

[A copy of Immortals Fenyx Rising: A New God was provided by the developers for the purposes of this review.]

The Medium Review: What's Past is Prologue Wed, 27 Jan 2021 09:00:01 -0500 Mark Delaney

In Bloober Team's latest in a long line of horror-adventure games, themes of trauma, childhood, and the shaping nature trauma has on childhood are everpresent. For the Polish team which seemingly loves to work with dark material, The Medium is certainly their most ambitious game yet — and probably their best too.

What came yesterday determines who we are today. It's true of The Medium's characters and the team that brought them to life in equal measure. 

The Medium is of a piece with Bloober Team's past works, foregoing survival horror mechanics for something more like an effects-heavy haunted house attraction, but with more old-school style and an interesting central mechanic, it makes for an enjoyable horror story.

The Medium Review: What's Past is Prologue

The Medium stars Marianne, a former orphan, now an adult mourning the loss of her surrogate father Jack, who also employs her as an assistant at his funeral home. Marianne makes a great employee because she can commune with the dead, though not usually of her own free will. More often, she finds herself spiritually split into two, existing in her world and a clay-colored surreal otherworld at once. She won't always know why it's happening but answers like that make for the game's intriguing story.

To depict Marianne's nature, the game uses a unique Dual Reality presentation, where the screen will often split horizontally or vertically, with players controlling Marianne in both worlds at once, tweaking one world to alter the other. 

This Dual Reality feature is touted as something only the new consoles such as Xbox Series X|S can do. I'll have to take the studio’s word for it because even on the Series X, the presentation falters occasionally, usually in the form of screen-tearing, something that was quite rare throughout except for one point deep into the game where it was common for a few minutes. Maybe on last-gen platforms this would have been much worse.

It hampers the moment and your mileage may vary anyway, but it's clear why the game was delayed and now, even as these issues aren't so invasive, they do remain present and sometimes distracting.

In its split-screen style, which is often but not always the way the game is played, The Medium cleverly highlights the differences between its two worlds. In the surreal world, Marianne may be talking to a child holding a toy ball, while in her world she is alone in a facility and something like the ball, but dirtier and torn, is floating there. For sections, it is like seeing a ghost, only Marianne, and thus the player, get to cross into that afterlife with the spirits.

In these moments, the puzzles shine. 

Most of them in The Medium are well-designed in that they often brought me to the edge of needing some guidance, just before I'd solve them myself. It makes progress feel earned but never obstructed for long. Though much of the narrative explanation for this second reality is purposely shielded from the player, the puzzles themselves flow wonderfully and maintain consistent logic, avoiding any frustration as a result.

You'll be shown the basic how-to, but the game will regularly leave you with enough area to explore a number of routes before determining a solution, always keeping an answer within reach.

When you're not solving puzzles, you're likely running from well-designed monsters. In the game's best example, The Maw becomes Marianne's Big Bad, stalking her in different ways depending on where you're exploring. In Marianne's world, it's invisible but also sightless, chasing you based on sound, while in the surreal world, it can see you — but you can also see it.

Combined with a haunting performance by Troy Baker, who would be unrecognizable if it weren't for the credits, these Dual Reality sections featuring The Maw are some of the best in the game, but they're sadly few and far between.

Bloober Team's credentials as a horror studio were proven several games ago, but one long-lasting critique I've had of the team that remains true with The Medium is there aren't enough fail states in their games. So much of The Medium, like Layers of Fear and Observer before it, feels more akin to a haunted house attraction. If you can't suspend your disbelief and forget the actors can't touch you, it's hard to get scared walking those halls.

Similarly, the vast majority of The Medium's would-be scariest sections rely on cinematic escapes you're meant to beat on the first try. It's good for pacing, but it's bad for inciting a real sense of dread or horror. When The Maw does grab you, the kill screen runs a bit long too, which makes those few failures quite frustrating on their own. 

Despite there being too few serious scares, The Medium still feels exciting and worth seeing to the end for two reasons above all else.

For one, it just looks and sounds really good. Set in the studio's homeland of Poland, almost entirely in and around a single building, the atmosphere is strong whether you're moving between worlds, exploring an abandoned pool room echoed with ghosts of the past, or running through a threatening outdoor labyrinth. It's all aided by a musical score carrying its own dual reality. Layers of Fear's Arkadiusz Reikowski and Silent Hill's Akira Yamaoka composed the music in tandem, giving the game the perfect pairing of the former's more electronic soundscape and the latter's strings and pianos of old.

Things like textures, lighting, and characters all look good to great too, especially when you consider the team is much smaller than most making games of this visual caliber. Running animations look rather stiff and even slow at times, but what makes all of these pieces come together in a whole greater than the sum of its parts is the game's fixed cameras.

Sometimes these are tucked into a corner like those in Resident Evil and sometimes they are wide-angle shots like those in The Shining. What they always are, no matter what, is fantastic looking. They imbue The Medium with an old-school survival horror flavor, even if the scares never reach the same heights.

These angles are more cinematic than problematic like they so often are in horror games, allowing the story to really leap out of every frame. There's no photo mode, but the game has a way of framing a scene so well, you'll be hitting the capture button often.

The other best asset to The Medium is one this studio routinely gets right, and that's story. A few hours into The Medium, I realized I wasn't going to find the next evolution of Bloober Team's horror games, instead accepting the more horror-adventure style they returned to once again. But what kept me invested through that early disappointment was the story. Shifting not just between two worlds, but multiple timelines, to tell its tale makes for an intangible but ultimately enjoyable story.

There's a lot The Medium doesn't quite explain, but rather than come away feeling cheated by a lack of answers, I feel it was in keeping with the world the story is set in. Wretched monsters preying on trauma, families torn apart by tragedy, and childhoods robbed by circumstance — as is always the case with this team's games, there is a heaviness to the story.

Though The Medium doesn't convincingly sell that sadness, it still delivers an early-aughts survival-horror weirdness I found more charming as the game went on. 

The Medium Review — The Bottom Line


  • A moody story well worth seeing through
  • Filmic, stylish presentation
  • Puzzles stump but never totally halt
  • Dual composers make for an inspired mix of signature sounds


  • Some visual glitches
  • Too few fail states to be scary
  • Colors within the studio's legacy lines

It maybe sounds like damning Bloober Team with faint praise to call this the studio's best game while still only giving it a 7, but to say nothing of the fact that a 7 still makes a worthwhile game, it's also simply true that The Medium does show tremendous signs of growth from the team, now on its fifth consecutive horror game.

Characters and story are stronger here than in anything this team has done yet, and the world is rich in detail and atmosphere, made all the better with a moody soundtrack.

All the successes The Medium offers come in areas the team has already shown a talent for, such as story, visuals, and mood. Where Bloober Team still needs to improve is in creating truly horrific moments. The Medium lacks those, but as a genre story, it's still well worth the chase through the real and surreal.

[Note: Bloober Team provided the copy of The Medium used for this review.]

Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy Review — Making Magic Tue, 26 Jan 2021 10:48:48 -0500 Josh Broadwell

Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy picks up Ryza's story after a few years and sees it move onto a much bigger and better stage. Direct sequels are a rarity in the Atelier series, but Ryza 2 builds on almost everything the first game did right and adds something better.

It's a much more polished and enjoyable game, with more character development, improved combat, and streamlined crafting, though one that still isn't entirely sure what it wants to be at times.

Atelier Ryza 2 Review: Making Magic

Ryza and friends grew up a fair bit in the three years between games. Tao matured and turned his studies into a job in the capital city, Bos isn’t (much of) a turd anymore, and Lent works as a warrior. It’s only Ryza who’s seemingly made no progress when Atelier Ryza 2 picks up — or it might be more accurate to say Ryza’s friends grew up and left Ryza behind a little.

Having hit a roadblock in her alchemy studies, Ryza looks for any excuse to get away from Kurken Island and broaden her horizons more. As luck would have it, she gets two excuses: a mysterious egg from island leader Mortiz Brunnen and an invitation from Tao to investigate some equally mysterious ruins near the capital.

Perhaps Gust had feedback from the first Ryza and its slow pacing in mind, but Ryza 2 offers only a little of this backstory right away. Instead, after enough to get you going, you guide Ryza through a field of monsters and a combat tutorial before arriving in the capital and hearing some of the story. The improved pacing sticks around for the whole game, with just one hiccup.

The story revolves around exploring the five ruins surrounding the capital city and the mysterious creature Fi who becomes an important character early on.

Exploring the ruins means gathering memory fragments and placing them in the right order in a small mini-game of sorts to help figure out what’s going on. The memory game isn’t as mindless as Atelier Lulua’s Alchemyriddle puzzles, but it feels gimmicky and more like an interruption than a feature. Most of the ruins have enough visual interest — and enough rare item gathering points — to offset this issue, however.

Some previous Atelier games struggled with dealing in slice of life versus story, with the first Ryza definitely falling in the former category. Ryza 2 balances both quite well, though. The main plot is solid enough, but Ryza 2’s slice of life narratives really make it shine.

Ryza and her irrepressible personality are likeable enough in her first outing, but it’s almost impossible not to sympathize with Ryza and root for her in the sequel. 

Recent Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games ventured away from the overused teenagers who save the world territory by throwing 20-something heroes in the mix, but Ryza 2 absolutely nails the feeling of starting a new life on your own and throws a splash of Kiki’s Delivery Service in for good measure.

Here’s an optimistic young woman venturing to the big city for the first time. She’s stuck and doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life and magical abilities. But she still has to pay rent, find a job, and figure out how to get along with these people who live so differently from her.  

The plot weaves in some of these elements, but the bulk of Ryza 2’s character development is, as always, in the side events that pop up at certain times in the right place. That popping up happens at decent intervals, unlike the first game, so you don’t have two or more events triggering every time you enter a key area. 

Even outside these events, the city feels much more natural and alive than most locations in earlier Atelier games. NPCs don’t have anything astounding to say, but there are more of them to speak with and several smaller stories taking place outside Ryza’s own circle.

If the Ryza games are any indication, it seems the individual character stories and endings attached to the protagonist’s friends are a thing of the past. If it means more coherent character development blended in more frequently with the main story as it does in Ryza 2, though, that’s completely fine by me. 

The end result is almost more like watching an anime than playing a game, and I was much more invested in seeing how each character’s story unfolded than I was in the overarching story itself.

The characters don’t break new ground or go too far beyond their initial types, and one or two of the new characters, including the ludicrously dressed Serri, don't get as much attention. But they’re so earnest and relatable, it’s hard not to feel invested as you watch them grow even further.

Atelier Ryza 2 makes combat more intuitive and improves the pacing here as well. Instead of accumulating AP and deciding whether to spend it on skills or increasing the party’s Tactics level, you spend AP to increase the Tactics level. It’s a small change that just makes so much more sense. You’re not penalized for using skills anymore. In fact, there’s more reason than ever to go all out with each character’s flashiest abilities.

The first Ryza added a real-time element to combat and an interrupt system where you can land an extra attack. Ryza 2 gets rid of the interrupt feature for attacks and, instead, lets you chain skills together if you have the AP for it. In one turn, you can land three normal attacks, chain several skills together, then trigger another character’s support move in the process and completely wreck your enemies. 

Item Core Charges, another cumbersome system from the first game, gets an equally intuitive overhaul. You have a set number of charges in the first game and can't use items in battle, including healing items, once you use them.

It means lots of backtracking and in hindsight is more of a hindrance than anything. Core Charges in Ryza 2 start at 0 and accumulate as you use skills and raise your Tactics level. Moreover, Ryza and co. can chain items together for special attacks, assuming you plan well and have Charges to spare. 

And you’ll need good planning even on normal. Atelier games aren’t known for their massive setpiece monster fights, but like the first Ryza, Ryza 2 does seem to up the difficulty a bit. Even groups of normal monsters pose a decent threat.

Whatever leading role combat and story might take, item crafting is always the core of an Atelier game. Ryza 2’s is one of the best so far but not without a caveat. 

The basics remain much the same and use the Material Loop system. It groups ingredient types in separate loops, and each loop has a set elemental attribute. Leveling up the loops and the elements unlocks new loops and adds new traits or qualities to the item, unlocks new loops, and sometimes leads to new recipes.

It’s a solid system already, but Ryza 2 improves it in a couple of key ways. One is through Essence, something earned through using Gems to refine existing items. Essence can change a loop’s element or add new loop types, giving more control over how the item turns out. Evolve Link is the second, where Ryza combines two items to carry traits from one into the other.

A related tweak is the Skill Tree. Ryza learns most new recipes, all existing recipes from the first game, and some handy skills — including skills that increase how many items you can use in synthesis — by spending Skill Points to unlock nodes on the tree. It does away with the alchemy level system most modern Atelier games use, but that’s okay because it also gives you more incentive to dive into the game. 

Where alchemy levels increased slowly in previous games, Ryza 2 heaps skill points on you for crafting, completing quests, and progressing in the main story. Working towards a clear goal keeps the crafting and quest grind from feeling like a burden, and being rewarded for playing the game instead of punished just makes sense.

The trouble with all this is similar to the same trouble that pops up in previous Atelier games. All the control you have over items and their traits doesn’t always feel worth it.

Ryza 2, like other games in the series, has tougher quests and fiercer monsters, but clearing these challenges often comes down to skill and item chains more than the right item traits. Quests in Ryza 2 don’t require items with specific qualities as they do in older games either.

Like the first Ryza, Ryza 2 does away with many of the more complex traits possible in older games anyway. The issue doesn’t stand out quite so much because of that, though it’s a bit disappointing the first Ryza’s oversimplification is the new norm. I’m not sure paring down the series’ core mechanic instead of putting it to good use in new ways is the right answer moving forward, but time will tell.

Still, Ryza 2 has enough going for it where these disturbances won’t rock the boat too much. Even Ryza 2’s exploration gets a boost in several ways. There’s new ways to explore each area, new ways to get around, and, even better, more reason to stray from the beaten path. 

The first Ryza offered small rewards for discovering an area’s landmark locations. Ryza 2 rewards you with rare item gathering spots in hard-to-reach places, not even landmark areas, which is a reward immensely more enticing and useful. Better yet, Ryza 2 frequently gives you more of each item at each gathering spot. Combined with a small preview window showing what each spot has, it means much less backtracking.

It’s worth noting Ryza 2 looks and sounds gorgeous. Bright, vibrant colors define every area, and small touches such as fog and rain help make the overworld feel just as alive as the city. Ryza 2’s soundtrack is a hodgepodge of orchestral pieces like the first game’s, but there’s a generous helping of jazz shaking the soundscape up with a bold new flavor I hope makes more of an appearance in future Atelier games. 

Finally, it's worth noting Ryza 2's localization also improves on the original, with a much more natural flow and fewer instances of awkward or stilted phrasing.

Atelier Ryza 2 Review  The Bottom Line

  • Polished, heartfelt narrative
  • Expanded exploration options
  • Vastly improved combat
  • Better pacing and other QoL enhancements
  • Refined crafting system
  • Bright, charming visuals and audio
  • Needless puzzle gimmick in the ruins
  • Still not entirely sure if it wants to be a deep item crafter or traditional RPG

Atelier Ryza 2 does a lot of things right. But even with the much more engaging combat, better environments, and skill tree reward system, it is, surprisingly, the story and characters that kept me coming back for more.

Watching these seemingly one-note characters navigate the pitfalls of starting their own lives out strikes a chord like few other games do and proves Gust is still one of the best at making something magical out of ordinary things.

[Note: Koei Tecmo America provided the copy of Atelier Ryza 2 used for this review.]

Cyber Shadow Review: Ninja Gaiden's Angry Cyberpunk Grandchild Mon, 25 Jan 2021 13:43:55 -0500 Thomas Wilde

There's a lot of obvious care and time baked into every frame of Cyber Shadow. If I didn't already know this was one guy's years-in-the-making passion project, I'd definitely suspect as much.

It's got that feeling you get sometimes from very polished fan games, where it's wearing its influences on its sleeve, and every piece of it was meticulously built out of sheer love of the medium.

That medium, incidentally, is homicide. Cyber Shadow wants you dead.

Cyber Shadow Review: Ninja Gaiden's Angry Cyberpunk Grandchild

Cyber Shadow is a dark 8-bit-styled action-platformer that takes much of its inspiration from the part of the original NES' library that was big on '80s-style future dystopias. Here, you're a lone ninja on an impossible mission through the ruins of a once-great city, where everything in it is rusting, broken, corrupted, and trying to kill you.

The game was primarily made over the course of several years by a solo Finnish developer, Aarne "MekaSkull" Hunziker, with Shovel Knight developer Yacht Club Games only coming along near the end of the project to help polish and publish it. Cyber Shadow also has a genuinely great chiptune soundtrack, courtesy of Enrique Martin and Jacob “virt” Kaufman.

Hunziker has been fairly open about his influences in the last few years, citing games like Contra, Shadow of the Ninja, the level design of the Mario series, and Sunsoft's 8-bit Batman. More than anything else, though, Cyber Shadow feels like a follow-up to the NES's Ninja Gaiden trilogy. It's got those games' mood, storytelling style, and fluidity, but above all else, it places the same emphasis on flawless execution.

Every room in Cyber Shadow's extensive map is a long gauntlet of traps, enemies, and hazards, where every mistake costs you dearly if it doesn't flat-out kill you. It's a brutal, unforgiving game, but it's fair, aside from a few rough edges.

In the Grim Darkness of the Cyber-Ninja Future

At the start of the game, a ninja named Shadow wakes up to find himself equipped with new cybernetic parts, with a dim memory of getting caught in an explosion. According to a nearby friendly robot, Shadow used to be a powerful member of the ninja clan that protected Meka City.

Now the city's wreckage is ruled by an army of synthetic soldiers, the master of Shadow's clan is missing, her father has gone full Dr. Wily, and the handful of ninja who are still alive are hooked up to machines, which drain them of the supernatural "essence" that fuels their abilities. Shadow's only survived due to being made into a cyborg, and it seems like the only chance he's got to save his clan is to find and free its master.

The strange innovation here is that Cyber Shadow plays its hand straight. It's not winking at the camera like a lot of retro-styled games do; it takes its story seriously and doles out just enough of it at a time to keep the ball rolling. It's sparse but effective, and it adds some real pathos to a game that would otherwise be a long series of death corridors.

From the start, Cyber Shadow makes it clear just how bad your odds are. You spend the first level crawling out of a hole in the ground with little more than a sword to your name, and the training wheels come off almost at once.

Cyber Shadow moves fast, with a degree of fluidity in motion that most of its 8-bit inspirations could only aspire to, and it uses all that speed to kill you as efficiently as possible. The first couple of rooms in Cyber Shadow are more challenging than the entire first half of a lot of the games like it.

It also seems to operate on the assumption that if you're playing it at all, you're generally familiar with its genre-pool. Cyber Shadow's enemies have obvious patterns you should be able to pick up at a glance if you've got any experience with this style of game, and if something looks like it's capable of killing you, it is. Every area has a frankly gratuitous assortment of spikes, steam jets, acid, live current, and other hazards, populated by a killer assortment of deadly robots and mutants.

Cyber Shadow's map is broadly divided into particular areas, where you can go back and explore later as you pick up new tools and tricks; it splits the difference between a straight one-way trip like Ninja Gaiden and a wide-open "Metroidvania" map. Between every save point, you'll run a series of vicious gauntlets, full of hand-placed enemies and clever ambushes, each one of which requires careful execution if you want to survive.

You can get upgrades that increase your base damage, maximum health, and spirit, but enemy damage output goes up faster than your life total ever will. The only real way to survive, particularly once you pass the 33% completion mark, is to focus on not getting hit at all. There's no way to brute-force your way past Cyber Shadow with late-game upgrades or grinding; it's all down to your personal skill and timing.

This is further reinforced by the special, extremely powerful items you can pick up, but which are immediately destroyed if you take three hits while using them. One of them in particular, a sort of rotating throwing star on a chain, is immediately reminiscent of the big orange throwing star subweapon in Ninja Gaiden, and it shocks me that it took this long for someone to make the "yo-yo shuriken" into an actual weapon in a modern game.

In general, the challenge level in Cyber Shadow is tough, but it's fair. Most of the moments that frustrated me came from my wanting to speed through an encounter, but a little patience and observation usually did the trick.

The boss fights in particular seem like they're initially impossible, and you're likely to die in seconds on your first attempt, but they're designed well enough that you can gradually get a feel for what you can and cannot do.

What annoys me a bit is that Cyber Shadow, like many of the games that inspired it, gives you a short invincibility window once you take a hit, but unlike those games, Cyber Shadow's window is very brief and doesn't give you immunity to instant-death hazards. This is immediately evident early in the game, where there are several rooms that "challenge" you with not getting randomly punted into yet another acid pool/industrial shredder/wall of spikes. It's more obnoxious than anything else.

The greater criticism, though, is that Cyber Shadow feels like its manual is missing. There are a lot of elements of its gameplay that you're simply expected to find out on your own, via context or experimentation. Some are easy enough to understand, like how your Charge Beam assist has a visible gauge and an audio cue, but others are actively hidden from you.

There's one sequence early on where you're supposed to win a vertical footrace by using your recently-acquired down-slash move to bounce off of objects and gain altitude, but the game never actually tells you that you can do that unless you talk to a friendly ninja who's halfway up the course.

Later, when you learn the ability to sprint, there's a room you can't get through unless you figure out by yourself that you can attack while sprinting to launch a long-range flying dash that functions as a long jump. This is the kind of thing that, back in the day, we used to have to find out from an eight-page spread in Nintendo Power (or from that layout disaster of a "secrets" section in really early issues of EGM), and to be honest, I didn't miss it.

Cyber Shadow Review— The Bottom Line


  • Beautiful sprite art
  • Fluid controls
  • Good soundtrack
  • Tough, but usually fair...


  • ...although it's often frustrating
  • Some crucial systems go unexplained
  • Made for serious retro-game nerds, and basically nobody else
  • Projectile parries are a little too high-risk/low-reward for as often as the game emphasizes them

There's a lot I like about Cyber Shadow. Its soundtrack is amazing, its environments are impressively designed, and its story steadily pulled me along. What holds it back, to some extent, is that it feels like it's made for people who've already played a hundred games just like it. Cyber Shadow is a product made for fans of an incredibly specific sort of gaming experience, and effectively no one else.

It's worth a look if you're up for a serious challenge, but only the hardest of the hardcore need apply. I'm usually not up for this level of recreational masochism in my games, so if you are, feel free to add a mental point or two onto this score.

[Note: Yacht Club Games provided the copy of Cyber Shadow used for this review.]

Ocean's Heart Review: A Fun If Unoriginal Retro Throwback Thu, 21 Jan 2021 18:57:30 -0500 Henry Stockdale

When you consider its enduring popularity, it isn’t surprising that there have been so many clones of The Legend of Zelda over the years. Between early adventures like Neutopia to more recent games like Immortals: Fenyx Rising and Genshin Impact, Zelda has been a continued inspiration for developers across the world since it originally released. 

Even with Breath of the Wild’s successful reinvention, there has always been a place for 2D entries like A Link to the Past, and that much is clear with Ocean’s Heart. Developed by Max Mraz, this top-down action RPG is often enjoyable and wears its influences proudly, even if that’s not always to its benefit.

Ocean's Heart Review: A Fun If Unoriginal Retro Throwback

In Ocean's Heart, you play as Tilia, a Volunteer Navy member with a striking resemblance to the Hero of Time. After her settlement has been attacked by pirates, she finds that the ne'er do wells have also kidnapped her friend Hazel. Tilia's father, also a Navy member, sets out to bring Hazel home but doesn't return. Of course, Tilia sets out on an adventure to find them both. 

The story is packed with humor throughout, often playing off classic RPG tropes. You’ll get a few laughs, but this self-referential style can feel forced at times, making it hit and miss.

While the opening portions of Ocean's Heart are more linear, things really open up after leaving Limestone Island, allowing for plenty of freedom. You can buckle down with the main story, but plenty of side quests are available too, offering currency as a reward known as "crowns". 

Some quests are your standard “defeat x monsters” or “explore x dungeon,” but others include more interesting situations with greater significance on the world.

Early in Goatshead Harbor, you're tasked by the Merchant Guild leader with chasing a “Phantom Squid," which ultimately leads you to discover this squid and the residents of Crabhook Island have been unjustly persecuted. You can side with the Squid and the residents to overthrow the Guild leader, a move that permanently changes your interactions with the guild moving forward. 

It's a small matter in the wider plot, but one that ripples through the rest of the story. Your more standard quests don't usually hold such impact, with many asking you to clear out a dungeon for some explorers, so something like this stands out. 

Outside of these populated areas, whether on the road or inside a dungeon, Tilia encounters numerous monsters, from easier foes like crabs with a standard swing attack to mandrakes, which pop out of the ground and can knock you out in seconds. 

Initially armed with a sword, you can eventually acquire a crossbow for ranged attacks, while magical abilities, such as helpful leaf barriers or lightning attacks, can be learned too. 

Ocean's Heart leans a lot on Zelda here in this capacity, where the ideas present have been better executed elsewhere, and while things can be fun, the lack of originality is arguably the game's biggest flaw. That reliance makes things less engaging as a result.

Several issues get in the way as well. For example, the sword’s hit detection ultimately feels off; swinging around your immediate vicinity, it lands hits on enemies fine but breakable objects are a different story. Unless you stand directly in front of them, it doesn’t register that type of attack at all.

Furthermore, Tilia’s abilities could do with improved button mapping. Her dodge roll ability is mapped to the same button as interacting with NPCs or objects, so it becomes very easy to make a mistake without lining yourself up perfectly. If you’re trying to talk to someone by the docks for example, it’s easy to accidentally roll and land in deep water, causing you to lose health. Combined, both issues make gameplay feel unnecessarily finicky at points.

Both weapons and armor can be upgraded for better offense and defense via the blacksmith. It's a useful feature since Tilia starts with the game with only three hearts; they can be increased, usually by undertaking hidden dungeons and health restoring fruit is widely available too, but this system makes things a bit more manageable.

There are a few elements of crafting involved here as well, letting you pick up ingredients to later use in brewing healing potions. To make life easier, Tilia has two slots for item use, equipping her with potions, fruit, or bombs, so these can be placed there for quick access as you see fit.

Ocean’s Heart Review — The Bottom Line


  • Pixel art style is nice.
  • Channels that classic Zelda gameplay well.
  • Good quest system.


  • Controls can be imprecise.
  • Distinctly unoriginal.
  • Jokes don’t always land.

You can tell Max Mraz put a lot of love into Ocean’s Heart and in some ways, it makes for a remarkable solo effort. Offering wide exploration and an enjoyable quest system, it doesn’t shy away from that Legend of Zelda influence but struggles to offer anything unique. Much of what’s offered here has been seen before, and good humor isn’t enough to elevate it.

Despite that, Ocean’s Heart would feel right at home on SNES, featuring a lovely 16-bit pixel art style that really shines through. Old-school Zelda fans will likely enjoy it and as a retro-styled RPG, it still comes recommended despite these flaws.

[Note: The developer provided the copy of Ocean's Heart used for the review.]

King of Fighters 14 Ultimate Edition: A Modern Fighting Classic Returns to the Ring Thu, 21 Jan 2021 10:09:20 -0500 Jason D'Aprile

SNK’s King of Fighters series has a long and illustrious history, taking up residence in the hearts of many fighting game lovers. Originally released on the Neo Geo back in 1994, it’s been faithfully chugging along ever since. 2016’s KoF 14, however, was the first time the series went 3D and the results were impressive.

As it turns out, the game is still pretty impressive almost four and a half years later. Presumably to whet appetites for KoF 15 coming later this year, 14’s entire package, with all the DLC, is being re-released as an Ultimate Edition. 

From a purely statistical point of view, this is a massive fighter. Fifty-eight characters, including the eight add-on DLC fighters, makes for a grand range of fighting styles, and the horde of arenas to match are just as remarkable. In addition, 10 DLC costumes are included along with 10 KoF PS4 themes.

King of Fighters 14 Ultimate Edition: A Modern Fighting Classic Returns to the Ring

There’s also a lot to do here. The arcade story mode tells the latest saga of the King of Fighters tournament, wherein everyone is fighting to be the very best and beat the Champion. It’s not a huge spoiler to say that beating this big, generic fighting dude opens up the true boss who appears to be a demonic-looking alien just traveling around the universe looking for kicks (and punches). 

There are some cinematics and dialogue scenes between fighters at various points, and while nothing here is in danger of being high (or well-written) drama, it’s fun. Tutorials, practice, and survival modes help players refine their skills, but, of course, the meat of KoF 14 is online play.

Two players can fight locally, but up to 12 can compete in actual tournaments, which is a distinctive sell for the more hardcore fighters out there. King of Fighters has always been distinctive because of its three-member team-based take on fighting. You don’t have to use the pre-set teams, though, and can pick any three you want.

Like most SNK fighting games, KoF uses a basic four-button fighting style of light and heavy punches and kicks. Although, some fighters focus entirely (or nearly so) on either punches or kicks based on their fighting art. On initial play, the game seems to work much like Street Fighter or other popular fighters might, but there are enough distinct differences to make KoF feel more unique.


Elements like the rush, dash, guard crush, and super meter, alongside the different types of jumps, all combine with a specific character’s abilities in different ways. The result is a system that takes practice to get adept with but still feels relatively familiar and intuitive to newcomers. The extensive training mode is a great help for getting up to speed and a necessity if you’re planning on spending much time fighting online.

The previously 2D art style makes a smooth transition to 3D. The characters have a fun cartoonish look and are sharply defined, brightly colored, and exceedingly well animated. Beyond that, the score is bouncy fighting rock, the narrators boisterous, and the character voice work entirely Japanese.

If you’ve grown up with fighters, from the original Final Fight and Street Fighter 2 on, King of Fighters has some other notable, if sadly expected, elements worth noting.

Mai, Final Fight’s classic ninja so over-endowed she apparently can barely stand upright has always been an expected bit of lurid, perverse design, but so many of the women fighters here are just as obnoxiously over-sexualized. Granted, SNK is far from the other fighting game maker stuck in the era of ridiculous character designs that seem purely aimed at sad teenage boys. The problem is that for more mature players who love the gameplay, this actually distracts from an otherwise excellent fighter.

King of Fighters 14 Ultimate Edition — The Bottom Line


  • Incredible roster of 58 characters
  • Deep fighting system that rewards skill without being unfriendly to newcomers
  • Great online tournament modes and generally robust multiplayer


  • Admittedly, the game is still five years old and KF 15 is coming
  • Too many of the women characters are just inanely over-sexualized and creepy looking

King of Fighters 14 Ultimate Edition really is just the original game with all the DLC automatically added. There’s no other change to the base game. If you missed it the first time around, this is still a fine way to get into the series.

The online tournament play is robust and the fighting system has plenty of subtlety and nuance. The massive character roster offers incredible amounts of experimentation, even if we personally wish the developers would grow up when it comes to their depiction of women characters.

[Note: SNK provided the copy of King of Fighters 14 Ultimate Edition used for this review.]

Hitman 3 Review: A Proper Sendoff to The Professional Tue, 19 Jan 2021 08:00:02 -0500 Mark Delaney

The Hitman series is something of a unicorn in video games. Despite being a franchise dating back more than two decades, it's had to take on virtually no imitators in its entire history. There's simply nothing quite like it. 

That leaves the creators at IO Interactive mostly looking inward to challenge themselves to improve the series. In 2016, a soft reboot did just that, delivering the best game in the series to that point. Hitman 2 in 2018 raised that bar even further, refining the signature style and impressive substance of its stealth-action sandbox.

Hitman 3 is IO Interactive at the height of its powers, once more building on the stunning foundation of what's come before while giving fans the proper sendoff Agent 47 deserves. 

Hitman 3 Review: A Proper Sendoff to The Professional

Like its predecessorsHitman 3 is labeled a stealth-action game, but it plays more like a puzzle game. It's a game that asks its players to manipulate the AI in such entertainingly convoluted routes to the bloody finish line that each level ends up feeling like the world's deadliest Rube Goldberg Machine. 

This installment does not revolutionize what has come since 2016, nor should it. Acting as a platform for the entire trilogy, Hitman 3 is refined in appreciable ways, but it primarily serves to show off more of the developer's untouchable level-design talents. For the globetrotting Agent 47 and players alike, each mission is an opportunity to turn over every stone and determine the countless means to his contract killing endgame. 

Hitman 3 puts players atop the world's talent building in Dubai, in a foggy British estate for a Knives Out-like murder mystery, on the neon-soaked streets of Chongqing, China, and more, and like the earlier games in the reboot trilogy, they're nearly all exceptional.

Like a sad clown, each wears a superficial layer that the locals want you to believe, but Agent 47 is always able to look more deeply and find its darker underbelly. The skyscraper in Dubai looks ritzy and extravagant, but behind closed doors, the staffing areas are messy and plain. In Dartmoor, the stunningly built mansion's exterior hides a secret of a family disheveled and tearing at itself. Like Sapienza or Miami or so many more before them, the locations of Hitman 3 are some of the very strongest in all of video games.

The lone exception, acting also as the game's biggest disappointment, is the final level. Without delving too deeply into spoiler territory, suffice it to say the linearity of this area betrays much of what makes Hitman so special, much like parts of Hitman Absolution did in 2012.

From a certain view, this finale is a clever breakdown of Hitman's decades-old design principles, streamlining the hierarchical nature of the game's disguise system down a linear path rather than a sandbox, but because earlier Hitman 3 levels give their own brief linear cinematic sections before opening up to the real sandboxes, I was surprised to see this final mission has no similar devil's playground waiting at its end.

I suppose if you're trying to put a cap on your trilogy, some bottlenecking toward the final target is needed, and it helps soothe the sting when so many creative ways to play are present in previous levels. With the game's abundant Challenges and Escalation Contracts  increasingly tough missions with strict parameters  replayability is again high for Hitman 3, and now higher than ever if you've been playing the trilogy since its debut.

Players who own or buy access to the earlier games can treat Hitman 3 as the singular hub for all three games, even taking new unlocks from Hitman 3 back into older levels, making it feel like all three games are getting ample post-launch support. 

2016 was not just a rebirth for Hitman's gameplay after the polarizing Absolution, it was also a chance to start anew with Agent 47's story. As the conclusion to a planned trilogy, Hitman 3 achieves its lofty goals of sending Agent 47 into the sunset, if only temporarily. I've enjoyed Hitman all my life, but in Hitman 3 I found I was more drawn to the story than ever before.

From the first scene, where Agent 47 and his accomplice, Gray, are skydiving out of an airplane, Hitman 3 has the same finale feeling as something like The Dark Knight Rises or The Deathly Hallows, a riveting "it all comes down this this" energy. Dripping with style and cinematic flair between its superb levels, Hitman 3 makes clear that IO's next venture as developers of a 007 game has been well-assigned. 

This game is so stylish in such a similar way, where world leaders hold ritzy cocktail parties to disguise their more nefarious plots happening on another floor, that I genuinely wondered if Hitman 3 would reveal itself to actually be a 007 game in some elaborate long con of a lead-in to the studio's next project. IO knows how to set a scene as well as any industry outfit, and on the third go-around with this version of Hitman, everything has come together dazzlingly.

Though you won't find major innovations in Agent 47's toolset, he's got a few more tricks up his sleeve (provided his current disguise uses sleeves). A camera tool allows him to hack into areas otherwise inaccessible and also doubles as a simplistic photo mode for virtual photographers. It's feature-light but this is the best-looking game I've ever played in terms of mood and lighting, so there's still some fun to be had with it.

Additionally, new Shortcuts are built into levels which only open from one hard-to-reach side, but once they're opened, they remain that way for future playthroughs. Like so much else in the series, these don't just encourage exploration, they strongly reward it.

Overall, the game takes only steps forward in terms of gameplay innovations, partly as a means to keep IO's trilogy platform plans possible, but it performs more impressive leaps when it comes to storytelling, all while capping off one of gaming's finest trilogies with one more world tour of impeccable level design.

Hitman 3 Review — The Bottom Line


  • Yet more unrivaled level design
  • A well-told final chapter to a great trilogy
  • Creativity reigns once again
  • Lighting and mood are stunningly realized in each setting


  • Few gameplay innovations
  • A rather linear final level somewhat dampens the sendoff

Hitman 3 feels like the culmination of years of work for IO Interactive. So much has been in flux for this team, from debuting the trilogy episodically to mixed reactions, breaking from Square Enix and going indie, and now landing the 007 license for their next game.

The singular constant in all of that has been Hitman, a series which had never been better than it was in 2016  until it got even better in 2018 and once more in 2021. If this is the end for the barcoded assassin, at least for a while, it's the one the developers, fans, and Agent 47 all deserve.

[Note: IO Interactive provided the copy of Hitman 3 used for this review.]

Rhythm Fighter Review: A Decent Beat Thu, 14 Jan 2021 15:58:27 -0500 Kenneth Seward Jr.

It takes a lot to get me to notice new roguelikes. Despite a genuine fondness for the genre, a seemingly constant stream of mediocre releases has soured my interest. Not every game can be a Dead Cells or Hades. For this reason, I wasn't surprised to learn that a title like Echo Games’ Rhythm Fighter flew way under my radar.

Previously released on PC and now headed to the Nintendo Switch, this colorful action title offers the genre's basics: randomly generated levels and items, a card system, and multiple in-game currencies. 

By themselves, none of those things inherently make Rhythm Fighter stand out. And while the premise might raise an eyebrow – animals taking up arms to defend Earth from violent vegetables sounds interesting – there are plenty of other games offering similar content.

Thankfully, Echo Games did a little more than just copy and paste popular gameplay mechanics into Rhythm Fighter

Rhythm Fighter Review: A Decent Beat

All of Rhythm Fighter’s action takes place on a horizontal plane. Players move left to right (and vice versa) as they navigate the game’s segmented levels, though diverging paths, often located at the top and bottom of the screen, allow for a bit of exploration. Some areas are safe havens, housing shops that sell health items and powerups. Others might lead to environmental challenges and secret encounters.

The idea is to move through a level while collecting as many boons as possible before heading to the boss area. If you survive that final encounter, you move on to the next level. Rinse and repeat.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. That's partially because of the game's rhythm-based combat. In order to be successful, you have to move and attack on the beat while learning the capabilities of each enemy as they also move to the beat at different speeds.

A carrot might be a pushover, but a Tai Chi practicing cabbage knows how to throw a punch. Luckily, every enemy has a tell to help you better get in the groove. For example, one might have a windup or glow that lets you know they’re going to attack.

The last thing to contend with is moving and attacking in relation to space. Basic movement is tied to a hop, so moving forward and back one space at a time is simple. Two spaces are needed to roll past enemies and environmental hazards, though, and certain attacks can only land if an opponent is right in front of or behind you. Other moves can target enemies several spaces away.

What makes things challenging is how frequently Rhythm Fighter mixes up opponents. Some throw slow-moving projectiles several spaces in front of them. Others try and bait you into moving close (staying out of a fire-breathing cayenne pepper’s attack range while landing hits on a constantly moving tater is tough). And that’s to say nothing of the difficult boss fights. Not only do they have long health bars and devastating attacks, but they also spawn several minions to get in your way.

It doesn’t take much to become overwhelmed at any given moment.

Lighthearted and Accessible

Most of my time spent playing Rhythm Fighter was pleasant. Besides being a little too repetitive in places (despite its more random elements), I enjoyed battering veggies as they hipped and hopped in my direction. The techno-like beats kept things lighthearted, too, a deceptive measure considering how challenging the game can be.

There are some extra bits that help make death more palatable, though.  

Hitting various in-game achievements — like beating a certain number of a given enemy  unlocks new characters, modes, and features. A training bot lets you spar with enemies and bosses that have been previously encountered. Collectible hearts can be used to level up characters. New weapons eventually become available, randomly showing up in chests and shops during play.

With all of these things working together, Rhythm Fighter’s difficulty curve bends back towards the player. These types of features are there to keep you invested by offering progressive based incentives, and they help make Rhythm Fighter slightly more accessible.

The same can be said of the game’s rhythm mechanics and customization options. Landing multiple hits or moves on the beat boosts your attacks, eventually powering up your character, something that's essential to tackling the game's really tough enemies. That said, while missing the beat or getting hit saps your strength, it doesn't prevent you from attacking or moving; the game doesn't stop you cold just because you’re off the beat.

Hints encourage keeping the sound on, but Rhythm Fighter’s visual cues make it possible to play without being able to hear the music. If you don’t jive with the basic control schemes, you can change the button layout manually, and if you're struggling to stay on beat, you can adjust the music’s tempo to account for any possible delays.

There isn’t anything here that’s groundbreaking or as inclusive as, say, Marvel’s Spider-Man. But there's been some effort placed on making a challenging game that people with varying skill levels and needs can play.  

Rhythm Fighter Review – The Bottom Line


  • Entertaining rhythm-based combat
  • Somewhat accessible
  • Decent music


  • Unremarkable gameplay
  • Repetitive to a fault

Echo Games’ Rhythm Fighter isn’t as unique as it wants to be. While it offers a lot of the genre's staple mechanics, it doesn't do much with them  Rhythm Fighter often feels like the "lesser version" of something else. 

On the other hand, its rhythm-based combat, achievement system, and accessible nature offer compelling arguments to keep the game downloaded on my Switch.

Will I be playing Rhythm Fighter a month or two from now? Probably not. Am I enjoying my time with it at the moment? Certainly.     

[Note: Coconut Island Games provided the copy of Rhythm Fighter used for this review.]

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game Review — A Little Outdated But Still Fun Wed, 13 Jan 2021 17:41:20 -0500 George Yang

Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game has had a cult following since it released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2010, but it was made more evident after the game was pulled from digital store listings back in 2014.

Ever since, fans have clamored for the game to return in some form, and they have gotten their wish with this new remaster, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game — Complete Edition.

While it is generally a fun game, it ultimately feels stuck in 2010.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game Review — A Little Outdated But Still Fun

The bulk of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World lies in its Story Mode, which follows Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers as Scott sets out to defeat Ramona’s seven exes across seven different levels. These levels are set up on a world map in a Super-Mario-like fashion, where completing one level opens the next, and you can return to previous levels whenever you wish. 

Unlike the original release, which only allowed you to pick between four characters, there are six characters to choose from at the beginning in the Complete Edition, bringing the original's DLC characters, Knives Chau and Wallace Wells, alongside Scott, Ramona, Stephen Stills, and Kim Pine. 

The beat ‘em gameplay central to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is pretty simple and familiar. You have your standard light attack and heavy attack buttons.

Enemies drop money that you can use to purchase equipment to boost your stats, as well as food to restore your health and experience points to level up. Equipment, such as the 101 Push-Ups book, gives you a small permanent increase to your strength to help you take out more enemies faster, while the Winifred Hailey record raises your defense to reduce the amount of damage you receive.  

Additionally, each character can be leveled up, maxing out at Level 16, learning a new technique with each level. This leveling system does, however, feel imbalanced, where some techniques should be learned or unlocked earlier in the game when compared to others. 

For example, the Air Recovery skill isn’t available until Level 15, yet having it available sooner would help counteract enemies capable of knocking you into the air repeatedly. 

I eventually warmed up to the system since I felt like I was actually progressing as more attacks and skills unlocked, ultimately allowing for more interesting combos, but a tweak to its pathing would have been nice. 

Though Scott Pilgrim vs. The World can be played as a single-player experience, it feels more suited to co-operative play. 

Some areas are flooded with a massive number of enemies, and if you’re playing solo, you can easily find yourself overwhelmed. It's true for even the standard difficulty, and it's made more apparent when enemies stunlock you before throwing out more devastating attacks. It wasn’t until I purchased a very expensive item that gave me a permanent +50 strength increase that the number of enemies being thrown my way became much more manageable.

Unsurprisingly, online multiplayer with friends is pretty fun — when it actually works.

Up to four people can play in one session, either online or offline, making certain parts of the game easier. Together with your co-op teammates, you can execute moves unavailable during solo play, such as combined attacks, reviving each other when your HP hits zero, and even stealing lives from each other without permission.

However, my group and I ended up having to cut multiple gaming sessions early and restart entire levels because of glitches and game freezes. 

One instance saw me walk out of a shop and — nothing. But the music kept playing. A friend walking out of the same shop was met with a black screen that just stuck there. I also had issues where an NPC would be introduced, only for a cutscene sequence to stall and not progress. My friend, who was in the same group as me, said he didn’t see the NPC’s sprite appear at all! 

Local multiplayer runs as smooth as butter compared to online multiplayer, so it's unfortunate that freezes and glitches compromise an otherwise fun online component

While Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game — Complete Edition may stumble in other areas, it's replayability isn't such an area. 

There are several different difficulty settings, and each character you clear the Story Mode with has a different ending. Additionally, there are extra game modes outside of the Story Mode that include Boss Rush, Survival Horror, Battle Royal, and Dodgeball.

Boss Rush sees you fighting each of the game's bosses until you're defeated. Survival Horror pits you against hordes of zombies, and you must survive as long as you can. Battle Royal is a free-for-all brawl between players until only one is left standing. And Dodgeball is similar in the sense that a ball-like object is placed in the center and players must pick up and throw it at other players to deal damage, with the last one standing the winner.

Up to four players can join, but unfortunately, these extra modes seem to be only available in local co-op.

Another area in which Scott Pilgrim vs. The World shines is with its soundtrack. The music is incredibly catchy and gets you pumped to take down Ramona’s seven exes. The 8-bit art style is also charming but sometimes looks low-res when it’s blown up on the big screen — and some areas, such as the opening credits sequence that displays the publisher's and developer's logos, are low resolution even in Switch's undocked handheld mode. 

  • Good amount of replayability
  • Charming art style
  • Great soundtrack
  • Online multiplayer and co-op is very fun when it works
  • No noticeable framerate dips or long loading times 
  • Incredibly inconsistent difficult curve
  • Online play is prone to glitches and timed out disconnections
  • Visuals are sometimes blurry and have low resolution

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game  Complete Edition feels a bit outdated and inconsistent. It’s pretty much the same game as the 2010 release with the DLC included and online functionality added, but it doesn't take the chance to add to the overall experience or make the most of newer hardware.

Despite having to grind stages for money to buy stat-boosting equipment, a single-player mode that's more suited to multiplayer, and a number of irritating glitches, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is fun to play in short bursts and a nostalgia trip for all of those fans anxiously awaiting its return. 

[Note: Ubisoft provided the copy of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game — Complete Edition used for this review.]

Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Heart of the Forest Review: Choose Your Own Rageventure Wed, 13 Jan 2021 14:09:26 -0500 Jason D'Aprile

Werewolves, as it turns out, are an angry lot. You might have noticed as much from their many appearances in film, television, and other pieces of pop culture. Such an indignant demeanor might be because of how much decent hair products cost for lupine fur or the fact that flighty teenagers keep choosing annoying emo vampires over them. Hard to say, really.

Either way, the takeaway is that lycanthropy is big on being angry, and the new text adventure Werewolf: the Apocalypse — Heart of the Forest certainly captures the emotion. Rage and how you, the player, deal with it are major themes in this bit of interactive storytelling.

Heart of the Forest isn’t quite as simple as a typical "choose your own adventure" game, such as the recent and surprisingly witty The Innsmouth Case, where you just choose from stock responses and see where the story goes, though it does mostly play out that way.  

Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Heart of the Forest Review: Choose Your Own Rage Adventure


In Heart of the Forest, you play Maia Boroditch, a college student who has dragged along her new bestie, Anya, to Poland to discover her family roots. Now finding herself in the quaint if strange little town of her grandfather, she quickly discovers her family name is not beloved there. Her grandfather’s grave was desecrated and marked, the townsfolk shun her, and weirdness abounds.

Amidst this backdrop, protestors and loggers face off to determine the fate of the massive old forest that lies just outside the town. Logging companies want to profit off the ancient forest and others want to protect it. For anyone familiar with the source material, werewolves are intrinsically connected to the Earth, so this forest is particularly sacred ground. 

For the most part, you’re given a description of a location, situation, person, or you're some shown dialogue, and from there, you select from a short list of potential reactions. Some choices are mundane, others intriguing, but some choices affect the protagonist’s very RPG-like character sheet stats. Rage, Willpower, and Health can all be affected by the choices you make over the course of the story, making your choices integral to progression. 

At first, you're largely faced with emotional responses, but as the narrative progresses, choices can get more physical. If one stat, say Willpower, is depleted, then certain choices won’t be available. The inability to control your rage because of previous choices means you'll likely be forced down a possibly undesirable narrative path. 

Though the gameplay itself is entirely text-based, the game's presentation, with lovely evocative art, music, and ambient sounds, compliments its narrative nature well. 

With all of this in mind, Heart of the Forest unsurprisingly shares a lot with its tabletop roots. The game itself uses the same art and writing style as those sourcebooks, which is a huge compliment. White Wolf’s games are beautifully-made books with a narrative style of writing vastly different from Dungeons & Dragons. The art is edgy and superb, in its realistic photo-style. All of those qualities are present here, in what essentially amounts to a digital version of those materials. 

Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Heart of the Forest Review: The Bottom Line

  • Beautiful presentation is nostalgic for fans of the source material
  • Well written, with an eye on history, diversity, and real-world issues
  • More advanced than standard choose your own adventures thanks to the inclusion of meaningful stats
  • Feels way too pricey for a short text adventure
  • Little action or in-depth roleplaying

Heart of the Forest is an intriguing diversion. It’s an interesting story with fleshed-out characters, and it makes fascinating use of actual history and modern issues. More importantly, the game uses the source material to excellent effect.

The story is only a few hours long per playthrough, though there are multiple paths to explore. That said, the $15 list price seems a bit steep for a game that would go for a fraction of that upon its inevitable mobile release. Still, for gamers who love text adventures, this is certainly recommendable.

[Note: Walkabout provided the copy of Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Heart of the Forest used for this review.]

Nvidia Geforce RTX 3070 Review: Power to Game Fri, 08 Jan 2021 13:21:10 -0500 Jason D'Aprile

Nvidia’s new superpowered graphics cards have arrived, as they do, with no small fanfare in the gaming community, especially the company's flagship RTX 3080 and 3090 cards. These high-end GPUs do magical things for an ultimate 4K gaming rig, but they also cost a ton. $700 for the 3080 and a whopping $1500 for the 3090. /p>

If you’re at the new console price point of $500, however, and tired of trying to buy one of those —  or just love PC gaming — the RTX 3070 is a much more comfortable bet with little in the way of meaningful compromise.

There’s a lot to like about the 3070. The card is using the same Ampere GA104 GPU as the RTX 3080 and RTX 3090, if not quite as beefy for obvious reasons. This ensures the card offers the various new and impressive bells and whistles of the RTX line. Specifically, the highlights are ray-tracing and Nvidia’s impressive DLSS AI technology for improving frame-rates (in some cases quite dramatically). 

Nvidia Geforce RTX 3070 Review: Power to Game


To put things into a more direct perspective, for $200 less than the RTX 3080, the 3070 frequently proves to be a notably better performer over last year’s $1,000 RTX 2080 Ti. The 3070 lets you rocket past 1080P to extreme details at 1440P and, at the moment anyway, offers exceedingly good 4K performance.

Admittedly, while 4K HDTVs are certainly common enough, PC monitors hitting that level aren’t quite as ubiquitous. 

For games like Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone, and Gears of War 5, framerates at 1440p are well over 100fps in our testing. Fortnite with DLSS performance mode turned on hits over 200fps and in quality mode, it was close behind that number.

Other games with notoriously trying engines like Control and Metro Exodus benefit immensely from Nvidia’s DLSS tech. Control in 4K with full details and ray-tracing, for instance, is a slideshow without it (tanking at times as low as 12+/- fps). With DLSS on, the game holds at just around a reasonable 60fps. At 1440p, however, that same high-detail DLSS with ray-tracing goes up to nearly 100fps for Control.  

Another surprising perk comes with Minecraft. Nvidia has worked diligently on creating a truly amazing showcase for the powers of ray-tracing in the sandbox game. Right now, even though the feature is officially supported and out of beta, it's still only available on specific RTX-labeled maps. The effects, however, are gorgeous. Lighting and liquid effects look ethereal, adding an intense level of atmosphere to the maps. 

Nvidia has proven themselves to be reliably adept at updating their drivers to accommodate new releases. As a result, we expect the 3070 to hold an exceptional level of performance in most upcoming games, even if the gains aren’t quite as high as those seen in the 3080.

Testing the 3070 with 3D Mark led to impressive results. We installed the card into an Acer Predator Orion 5000, which sports an Intel i7-8700K CPU and 16GB RAM. Results for 3D Mark's Time Spy benchmark ranked as "Great" with a score of 11,153 (or better than 91% of all results according to 3DMark’s statistics). So, from a pure benchmarking standpoint, the 3070 is no slouch.

Honestly, stress-testing framerates isn’t necessarily the best way to express the performance of a video card. Even at a devoted 4K resolution, it proved unlikely to find any game unplayable on the 3070 after a few minor tweaks to some of the game’s graphics settings. For players who are still good with 1080P, the 3070 is definitely the new card to get, offering intensely high performance at the HD resolution with no compromises.

There are a couple of other reasons to consider the 3070 over the 3080.

It uses around 100 watts less than the 3080, for one thing, so cooling is a bit easier (and quieter). Nvidia recommends a 650-watt power supply at minimum to handle the card. 

The 3070 also has a smaller footprint, coming in at just over 9 inches long (as opposed to the 3080, which is just under 12 inches). This means it fits more comfortably in a wide range of cases, so those with more compact rigs will find this a better choice. The RTX 3070 also sports three DisplayPort 1.4a outputs and an HDMI 2.1 port, so it can handle up to four monitors if needed. 

Nvidia Geforce RTX 3070 Review — The Bottom Line



  • $200 cheaper than the next card in the line
  • Better than last year’s high-end RTX 2080
  • DLSS tech makes ray-tracing and extreme graphic effects smooth and gorgeous
  • Smaller footprint, less power drain, plenty of monitor ports make it fit in a variety of cases


  • $500 is still a lot of money
  • 8GB of RAM might be an issue for future games at 4K
  • If you only game at 4K, probably go the extra $200 or so for at least the 3080

The general rule of thumb for building and upgrading a gaming PC is getting as much power as you can afford. No matter how you look at it, though, spending between $500 to more than $1,000 for a single component is still painful. So, for those looking for the middle ground between price and super high-end performance, Nvidia’s RTX 3070 is a remarkable video card.  

As it stands, the Nvidia RTX 3070 is the best mid-range card on the market. It easily surpasses anything AMD currently has in this price range and comes close enough to the higher-end cards to not feel like a painful compromise.

For 1440p and 1080p, this card smokes anything we threw at it, with full details and ray-tracing thanks in part, at times, to Nvidia’s DLSS. For 4K, it still proved to be an exceptional card and our primary caveat might be that with only 8GB of onboard RAM, it’s conceivable newer games in the next year or so might need some visual downgrades.

Granted, even the RTX 3080 for $200 more might have this problem as it only has 10 GB. But it’s hard to say if that will matter at all in the next few years.

[Note: Nvidia provided the RTX 3070 GPU used for this review.]

Override 2: Super Mech League Review — Giant-sized Mechanized Combat Mon, 04 Jan 2021 15:44:53 -0500 Jason D'Aprile

The original Override: Mech City Brawl was a fun, mostly multiplayer-focused mech brawler that did a solid job of conveying the joy of fighting giant battle bots in destructive arenas. It’s a concept that pretty much sells itself, but the game never quite garnered the attention it deserved.

Thankfully, Override has returned, giving the series a second shot at glory. While there are definitely some issues that keep it from soaring as high as it could, there's a lot to like in this 3D brawler.

Unlike the first game, Override 2 is a multiplayer-only affair. There’s a brief tutorial mode and ample opportunity to play matches against bots, but the original’s single-player campaign is entirely absent here. That’s not a huge loss, since it was basically a series of bot matches anyway. 

Override 2: Super Mech League Review — Giant-sized Mechanized Combat



Whether playing the ranked league mode or just quick instant battles, there’s a lot to like here. There are 20 playable bots and just like the original, they are an incredibly diverse and fantastically designed bunch. There are towering, classic Gundam-style bots, ninja and fairy cat bots, a giant fish-headed monster, a very Godzilla-inspired mecha, and designs heavily influenced by other animals, mystical creatures, aliens, and general sci-fi pop culture.

Basically, there’s a battle bot for everyone and more on the way thanks to DLC (including Ultraman right now). In-game money lets you purchase new bots in the career mode, along with cosmetic items to customize your bot along the way.

The robots vary wildly in size, power, and style, which creates the same problems with game balancing found in the first game. Override 2 is unlikely to ever be a pro competition game as a result. But for more casual battlers, there’s a distinctly Super Smash Bros level of chaos that offers plenty of fun.

Override 2 also features a commendable range of game modes: one-on-one, four-way free-for-alls, two-on-two team battles, king of the hill, and even the cooperative Xenoswarm mode where players work together to battle the AI-controlled aliens from the original game.

The career mode in Override 2 is an upward series of mech league battles that also throw in corporate sponsorships and random sponsorship missions to earn extra cash. One company might task you with blocking 100 times in battle, for instance, but the rub is there’s a 20-minute time limit.

If you’re planning to spend the afternoon bashing bots anyway, this is fine, but the rigid requirements for these challenges can easily feel like more trouble than they're worth. 

The career mode also features a fully voice-acted guide to get players up to speed on all the mechanics of the gameplay, sponsors, and league game modes. This narrator is fine at first, but there's an awful lot of her in an otherwise entirely multiplayer game and it ends up feeling as if she was a leftover from a scrapped single-player game.

The controls are very fighting game-like. With light and heavy punches and kicks, multi-button power attacks, grabs, shields, ultra-attacks, and dashes, the control pad buttons are all used here.

A wide variety of weapons spawn in arenas as well, in addition to throwable parts of the scenery. Expect to unleash abuse with rocket launchers, shotguns, blasters, swords, spears, exploding produce and dice, and, best beloved of all weapons, a giant cast-iron frying pan. 

The arenas themselves are full of pitfalls, obstacles, and opportunities. There’s a giant cake-themed level where sweet treats can be used as weapons. Other levels offer lava pits, electrical pools, and even pinball-like jump pads. The levels get crowded with all four players, though, and seem to be designed with absolute chaos in mind.

Override 2 revels in its over-the-top frenetic gameplay, but there are some noticeable problems still nagging the game. For one thing, the auto-targeting system is loopy to the point of being worthless in close quarters, and the camera just refuses to track reliably. This leads to utter confusion in the heat of battle when the game simply can’t keep your direct opponent in view. 

When four robots are right against each other, the game frequently chugs into an inscrutable mass of explosions and jerky framerates. What’s especially odd is this happened on every platform we tried, from a gaming PC equipped with a new Geforce RTX 3070 to an Xbox One X and Nintendo Switch. Override 2 seems to just have trouble with its own speed, both online and off. What seemed like lag during a four-way multiplayer battle was also apparent in a split-screen local match and, weirdest of all, a four-player bot match. 

The other big issue here is simply the lack of players. Override 2 is in desperate need of cross-system play, where players from any platform can battle each other. Since the game is available on both generations of Xbox and PlayStation, the Switch, and PC, there’s plenty of opportunity for a decent player population. At launch, however, cross-play is only possible between PS4 and PS5 and Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S, respectively. 

Override 2: Super Mech League Review — The Bottom Line

  • Fantastic array of robots to choose from
  • Strange, treacherous arenas with ample opportunity for mayhem
  • Lots of game modes
  • Lag and frame issues across all platforms
  • True cross-platform multiplayer needed to overcome lack of players
  • Auto-targeting system is sketchy at best

Override 2 certainly has issues, but the core of the game is solid, playable, and a ton of fun. The action can be frustrating to track, but the feel of combat is excellent and the diversity of characters rivals the best of classic versus fighting games.

There’s a clear need for some backend optimization to smooth out the flow of combat, and though the framerate issues never proved game-breaking, the lack of players might be.

[Note: Modus Games provided the copy of Override 2: Super Mech League used for this review.]

Super Meat Boy Forever Review: The Sawblades of Destiny Tue, 29 Dec 2020 12:43:05 -0500 Jordan Baranowski

Meat Boy first burst onto the scene as a flash game before getting the full-sized treatment in Super Meat Boy in 2010. The charming and extremely difficult platformer was one of the major darlings of the rise of indie platformers at that time and, despite containing hundreds of levels, had folks clamoring for a sequel.

Ten years later, we finally got a sequel with Super Meat Boy Forever. But it might not be quite what you expect.

Super Meat Boy Forever still has the same charm and still rewards lightning-quick reflexes, but it's quite a deviation from the original. It isn't surprising when you learn that SMBF was originally a mobile title, as the control scheme and mechanics indicate that origin. It's still a solid game, but fans of the original will probably be disappointed with some of the development choices here.

Super Meat Boy Forever Review: The Sawblades of Destiny

When you look at screenshots or first jump into gameplay, Super Meat Boy Forever looks like more of the same. Cute little cutscenes play at the start and end of each world: Meat Boy and Bandage Girl now have a child named Nugget, who is kidnapped by Dr. Fetus.

You take control of either main character (and many more characters as you unlock certain achievements or obtain optional objectives), running and jumping through insidious platforming levels full of traps and pitfalls.

It even sounds like you'd expect. The soundtrack to SMBF is absolutely incredible, with fun, catchy tunes across each world and a perfect sense of timing on when to kick things up to eleven and unleash some serious guitar shredding. 

SMBF is stylish and slick, and it will almost assuredly make you crack a smile. The little homages to games of old, the goofy cutscenes (including the return of Dr. Fetus's love of flipping you off), the clever animations -- this is a game that is almost guaranteed to make you happy, even when it's killing you dozens of times in a row.

The formula starts to change a bit when you hit the actual mechanics of Super Meat Boy Forever. Right away, you'll notice that you don't have complete control over your character; they automatically run forward. This turns the game into less of a platformer and more of a puzzler. You're still going to need quick reflexes and even faster fingers once you do get it together, but longer levels and this new style of gameplay means its unlikely you'll have many levels where you run through without dying on your first try.

Learning how to delay your character so they avoid timing traps and adapting your style to powerups (like floors that invert gravity or a pickup that drops a block you can use to boost yourself up) are the keys to success here.

One thing SMBF does really well is introduce each new hiccup in a really solid way. The first few levels, as expected, teach you the basics of punching, sliding, changing direction and the like.

Almost every level throughout the course of the game adds some new mechanic or wrinkle to adapt to, and they do a pretty great job of intuitively placing it so you just know how it works. This is especially fun when you hit later levels and bosses, which will combine previous mechanics in interesting ways and reward you for putting them all together.

Super Meat Boy Forever also boasts a dynamic difficulty, which is a bit tough to see in action as you're playing. The idea is that there are variations for each level, and the game lays them out in front of you depending on how you've performed so far.

Things are never easy, and this is a nice way to make sure everyone can keep progressing. However, it kind of makes me wish the levels were just laid out to progress through instead of "sometimes you get this variation, sometimes you get this one."

This plays into the biggest issue with Super Meat Boy Forever. It just feels... underwhelming. It's a tiny development team, it's gone through some fits and starts and delays, but this type of valuation has to be expected in making a sequel to a beloved game. 

Super Meat Boy had some incredible post-game releases, with tons of new levels adding devious new tricks to things. There's no way of knowing if SMBF will follow suit. But the lower level count and simplified mechanics are a little bittersweet.

Each world has six levels and a boss, plus the "dark world" variations if you beat the finish time goal for each. SMB had twenty levels per world and a boss, plus the dark world variations. The difficult nature of the game is still there, but it's different this time around. Forever tends to kill you more with unseen dangers — since you can't stop to evaluate things, you'll often just barge off an edge or into spikes without realizing what's coming.

This plays into an even more problematic aspect: intentionally doing the wrong thing.

In later levels, I found myself turning my character around at certain junctures, or using a powerup in an odd way, simply because I thought "There's no way a late level like this would make something this simple." It disrupted the flow and the feeling of mastery, simply because I was trying to use my skills and habits I had picked up from earlier level design to try to predict what was coming.

The simplified controls of Super Meat Boy Forever also caused some issues. Most of the time, things are incredibly tight and responsive with jumps, slides and other movements. Once you figure out how to proceed, you can usually tell that it's user error preventing you from moving forward.

This changes with a few things, especially in boss fights. Certain elements shift a bit here, and the timing and rules of these moves aren't very intuitive. Punches and slides work a bit differently when you're trying to beat down the bosses you encounter, and I found myself dying much more than I felt I should due to these changes.

In a game that focuses on split-second timing and muscle memory, these shifts in mechanics made some of the big spectacle boss battles more of a chore than they should have been.

That said, Super Meat Boy Forever has a lot to offer platforming fans. It's still tough, it's still charming, and it's different enough to not feel like it should have just been added on to the original.

Super Meat Boy Forever Review  The Bottom Line


  • Charming characters, soundtrack, story, and design
  • Nice use of powerups and mechanic shifts to keep things interesting
  • Huge variety in levels and difficulty


  • Autorunner controls take away some of the best aspects of the original
  • Feels oversimplified
  • Variable difficulty and shifting levels makes things feel unfinished

It takes some serious bravery to take a beloved title and change the core mechanics as much as Super Meat Boy Forever does. Unfortunately, it isn't made better by these changes. Maybe over time, SMBF will unleash its true potential, but it stands as an inferior sequel at this point.

You'll still get plenty of enjoyment out of it, even if you're a diehard fan of the 2010 title. Just don't expect SMBF to be just like its predecessor, but more of it. It's dramatically different and, generally, not quite as good.

[Note: Team Meat provided the copy of Super Meat Boy Forever used for this review.]

Cyberpunk 2077 Review: The Dark, Broken Future Mon, 28 Dec 2020 11:00:25 -0500 John Schutt

After eight years and three delays, Cyberpunk 2077 came out. CD Projekt RED’s second game after The Witcher 3 was meant to showcase a new, next-generation open world in a city like no other, with roleplaying and action mechanics designed to do far more than just impress. Instead we got one of the best locations any studio has yet produced, marred by dated systems, bugs, and design and narrative choices that confuse more than they delight.

When Cyberpunk works, it works better than any open-world game I’ve ever played, and it should be commended for blending so many different elements so seamlessly. Unfortunately it’s clunky, disorienting, and frustratingly out of touch with current design trends when it doesn't work.

Perhaps the biggest area of contention is the incongruity between the systems of the game and its narrative. Making money, building a character, questing, exploration — all can be at odds with the moment-to-moment storytelling and certainly conflict with the main campaign's tone.

It’s a difficult game to review not because of what’s in it but what surrounded it before release. There was no way for Cyberpunk 2077 to live up to eight years of sky-high expectations. And thanks to a rocky, abusive development cycle, corners had to be cut to meet unreasonable deadlines.

Make no mistake: this is a game you should play if only for the grandness of its world and the human stories hidden everywhere. It’s also a cautionary tale about the threats facing development at this scale and how hype can never match reality.

Cyberpunk 2077 Review: The Dark, Broken Future

Night City is a triumph. It stands side by side with the best open worlds ever created and puts many of those to shame as well. It’s a place that feels alive not because of the people in it, or the activities players can participate in, but because so much care went into every corner of its construction.

You learn something about the city, its history, the way its people live, its past, and more everywhere you go. The environments are as varied as their aesthetics, and there are stories in every market, every trash heap, every alleyway.

It’s also clearly a cyberpunk city, one we should want to avoid creating at all costs. A two-minute drive is all that separates the massively wealthy and powerful from the worst slums you can imagine. Beyond Night City’s borders lies a wasteland where people get by on the scraps it throws out, a place of hardship and grit. Nonetheless, the people there take pride in their lives despite the troubles of their existence.

Night City is also one of the most beautiful metropolises gaming has yet produced. Looking out of the player character V’s apartment window, no matter the hour is an unmatched feast for the eyes.

Neons mix with hard polygonal shapes and rough-hewn stone sidewalks. The unfinished paradise of Pacifica glows with the dying embers of what it could have been. Little China and Japantown are alive with the imagery and color of their respective cultures. The vast Badlands, though a relatively empty desert, nevertheless shimmer in the summer heat.

Unfortunately, actually moving about Night City and interacting with its many denizens could is incredibly jarring. There’s no attention to little details that places like Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Santos take for granted. Civilians have a single line of potential dialogue if that. Traffic piles up at the slightest provocation and pedestrians seem unfazed by walking in circles endlessly if their AI so much as touches a small ledge. And that's just what you'll see on a regular basis.

Cyberpunk also suffers from icon bloat. Not even ten hours into the experience, your map will be awash in optional side missions and random encounters. Zooming in to see where you want to go serves only to highlight how densely packed much of the content is. Most of said content has little substance.

Side jobs, called “gigs,” have you going to a location to complete some objective, but this almost always involves taking down the same three or four enemy types ad infinitum then collecting an item from either their bodies or the arena.

Repeatable world encounters are even less interesting, as there’s no narrative reason to complete them beyond “fighting crime” for credibility. In The Witcher 3, you were clearing out bandit camps, bringing people back to their homes, or removing a threat of monsters from the world. In Cyberpunk, you’ up the streets? Not really the highest calling for a merc wanting to go down as a legend.

Even some of the main campaign mission spaces come up short. Though they’re all well-designed, they rarely showcase the strengths of the environment where they take place. Said missions usually rely on set-pieces anyway, so the environmental storytelling isn’t as high on the list of priorities.

Thankfully, there are no radio towers to reveal more of the map or unlock additional activities, and the world fills up over time as you play. Shotgun the main story, however, and you’ll be left with a map bursting with things to do, few of them particularly engaging.

People of Night City

Let’s put aside the incidental characters and their wonky AI and focus on some stars of Cyberpunk 2077: primary NPCs. The elephant in the room is, of course, Johnny Silverhand as portrayed by Keanu Reeves.

Johnny is, in a word, a giant dick. He’s immature, self-centered, arrogant, dismissive, and abrasive. What he wants and what he does are one and the same, or it would be if he didn’t exist solely inside the main character’s head. V’s relationship with him, especially at the start, is particularly strained as the two strong personalities clash over what’s best for them and their future.

However, as the story progresses, and especially if you complete Johnny’s long questline, you’ll see the strong writing you expect from the best of CD Projekt RED. Cockiness becomes disillusionment. Selfishness becomes regret. Narcissism becomes genuine worry.

There’s a moment in the middle of Johnny’s quest where he has to come to terms with the one thing all of us share and that, by some wicked grace, he’s managed to sidestep. Their quiet moment in an oil field is a turning point in the relationship between Johnny and V because the rockerboy finally has to reckon with death and legacy.

The various other characters you meet and grow close to also go through strong, well-constructed narrative arcs. You’ll see the best of these in the various romance options available. Still, even if the relationship remains platonic, you can form lasting bonds with people from all walks of life, all of them wanting to be a part of the machine that is Night City, and to change it somehow, even if all they can manage is a little.

Legacy is ultimately the core theme of every major story in Cyberpunk 2077. Whether that’s remembering your long-forgotten home, the fear you inspire in people, the hope you gave them, or the fond memories you leave behind, everything characters do serves some goal they’ve long held.

Night City itself is built on the ideas of legacy. It’s a city of dreams where you can become a legend in your own right, someone who changed the world or at least made a lasting impact. Whether your allies want to leave a big mark or a small one, they know their best chance is right here. All they need to do is reach out and take it.

System Shutdown

If the city and side characters are the main attractions in Cyberpunk 2077, it’s main campaign and systems are the vectors by which you unlock and experience them. The trouble is, both lack the punch to make a lasting impact on the player.

The main campaign, for an open-world RPG of this kind, is disappointingly short. If you do nothing but focus on the main storyline, you might eke out 20 hours of content. Fast travel a lot and eschew any side content, that number dwindles to almost 15 hours.

Cramming the story into so small a space creates serious pacing issues, and at several points, the narrative either comes to a screeching halt or sprints too fast to properly work out its beats. The resolution of some of the conflicts has little emotional payoff because everything done to get to that resolution happened in a couple of hours of in-game time, and none of it can reach a proper conclusion in such a short span.

The late game is especially guilty of poor pacing. The number of times when I expected a story to open up, to branch out, to let amazing ideas take me on a five-hour journey to some strange and amazing place, I was in and out in less than an hour.

I’m reminded somewhat of the latter half of the original Dark Souls. Suddenly a mysterious, interconnected world gave way to four linear and comparatively uninteresting areas with lackluster bosses at their end. We know now this was due to development time constraints, and how developers needed to cut corners and rush their designs to meet deadlines.

Cyberpunk’s later sections seem to have fallen victim to a similar scenario. There’s so much opportunity for the exploration of some of the coolest places in gaming that go completely uninvestigated or are so woefully underdone that it seems to have just come down to timing.

The interplay between the game’s systems and storytelling is another victim, too, I think. The core loop is: go to place, shoot or otherwise deal with enemies, pick up item, talk to people (sometimes), leave. This is such an issue that the story-centric missions are a welcome relief from the monotony of the endless gunfights.

Then there’s the loot system. Every enemy drops a weapon, and you can loot their bodies for random items, as well. The vast majority of the items you find are trash whose only purpose is selling or dismantling into crafting materials. You can sell anything to anyone, and crafting has no additional animation. You press a button and, if you have the materials, you create the item.

V becomes, in that sense, a merchant of death, making their fortune not through daring heists or impossible action but by killing everything they see and taking their stuff.

It’s not that different from The Witcher 3, but the problem there is, why didn’t this system evolve at all? Why isn’t there a way to make money selling stolen cars, putting together a crew, and robbing a big place? Why can’t you raid the various corporation towers for high-tier loot and get out, spreading your story to the masses?

That’s not even discussing some of the systems present in The Witcher 3 that didn’t make their way into Cyberpunk. The number of times I picked up an NPC in an expensive car — one I had no right owning — and wanting them to comment on it are too many to count. There isn’t additional dialogue for many major NPCs either, depending on how famous you are when you meet them.

NPCs you meet late into your career to the top should have something to say about who you are and the legend you’ve built. Some of the incidentals do, granted, but the major characters, romance options or not, consider you just another street rat no matter how much of a name you’ve made for yourself.

In summary, Cyberpunk 2077 is, from a mechanical perspective, either a sidestep or a step back from The Witcher 3. It evolves few if any of the mechanics, UI elements, or systems from that game, and the ones it does add don’t move the genre forward in any meaningful way. The writing is strong or stronger than it's ever been, but only in places. Given the circumstances developers were in making the game, it makes sense.

The Human Cost

Eight years. That’s how long we’ve known about Cyberpunk 2077, and everyone expected eight years of quality control, dedication, and care. While we probably saw that many man-hours put into the game, it was likely smashed into less than four years.

The last Witcher 3 DLC released in 2016. Cyberpunk probably didn’t enter full development until after Blood and Wine came out. Games as expansive as this one, with all the details and technical requirements, need a lot of time to get right. However, no one should be forced to work extensive and abusively long workdays to ensure those details are addressed.

We know that developers at CD Projekt RED worked to the bone, to the point of exhaustion, then asked to keep going. Mandatory six-day weeks under the expectation, I wager, that all six days were ten to fourteen hour work periods. The multiple delays only made the issue worse.

We expected Cyberpunk 2077 in April of 2020. Then it became September. Then December. That’s eight months where developers likely spent close to a hundred hours a week working on the game at the expense of their families, social lives, and personal health. The thought is unconscionable. No one, no matter how skilled or passionate, should be forced to do something like that.

Sure, crunch happens in any workplace. Sometimes you work long hours because that week just sucks. However, I don’t know of many other industries that call for 80-100 hour weeks for months or years at a time. Yet here in video game land, it’s all but expected for big releases like Cyberpunk.

The thought disgusts me, but I am more disgusted by being lied to. I didn’t review this game on a console, next-gen, or otherwise, but what I was promised and what I got were two different things. Console players are even less lucky, and may as well have received a polished rock instead of a disk.

Consumers saw nothing of the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game before release, and they were broken as all get out. I hear PS5 and Series X|S weren’t much better. Even PC needed immediate patching for the game to be playable, and I can only imagine the difficulty for those reviewers who weren’t given the day one patch.

Comparisons to No Man’s Sky and Fallout 76 aren’t unfounded in this case. Granted, neither of those two messes came with hours and hours of well-written content. In fact, they came with nothing approaching it. But both set a precedent for what not to do with your game’s release.

Now, both Hello Games and Bethesda spent years retooling and improving on their initial failures, and both titles are now reaching the potential of their initial promise. I have no doubt Cyberpunk 2077 will do the same, as CD Project RED promised two big patches in January and February. The Witcher 3 had similar growing pains and only got better with time.

Cyberpunk 2077 Review — The Bottom Line


  • One of the best open worlds ever created
  • Amazing writing in some of the main missions and many side ones
  • An aesthetic and visual experience few other games can match


  • Many, many bugs and AI glitches
  • Rushed main story and narrative inconsistencies
  • Lack of innovation in mechanics

There is a lot of room to grow and improve for Cyberpunk, and I have no doubt it will. Despite all the issues, I had a ton of fun playing it and am looking forward to going through it again with new goals in mind for builds and gameplay decisions. This is likely due to my playing on PC, where it seems the majority of the effort went.

There’s no denying a real gem exists somewhere beneath the bugs and odd choices, and when DLC eventually makes its way to Night City, I know things will get so much better.

Add in the major patch fixes we’re likely to see in 2021 and the continuing support once the multiplayer component releases, I have some faith Cyberpunk 2077 will become one of the best games around. It’s just a shame so much of it had to be at the expense of initial quality and human cost.

[Note: CD Projekt RED provided the copy of Cyberpunk 2077 used for this review.]

Among Us Review: Paranoid Murder Fun for the Whole Family Wed, 23 Dec 2020 16:13:07 -0500 Jason D'Aprile

Among Us exploded onto the scene and into pop culture over the last eight months, but it certainly didn’t appear from nowhere. Originally released in 2018, this clever multiplayer gem deserves all the popularity and kudos it’s finally receiving.

That upward rise should get a boost thanks to Nintendo's fanfare about the Switch release and other console versions coming soon after.

It’s this translation to the Switch that we’re largely focused on here. If you’ve missed the boat entirely, Among Us is a plucky indie effort that takes the classic themes of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and John Carpenter’s The Thing and mashes them into an addictive game with surprisingly adorable 2D visuals.

Among Us Review: Paranoid Murder Fun for the Whole Family

The premise here is simple: 4-10 people are shoved onto one of three sci-fi maps with maintenance jobs to do, but the rub is some of them aren’t human. Instead, part of that crew is an Imposter — a shapeshifting alien hungry for murder and destruction.

In proper bureaucratic style, when a dead body is found, an emergency meeting is called and players can chat it out and vote on which of their fellow crewmates they think is the alien. There’s a lot of subterfuge and psychology at work in these bits, as the humans try to work out who was where, what were they doing, and who might be lying.

The intent is whoever gets the most votes gets booted out into the void. The imposter players, of course, are just trying to mislead — and outright lie — to not get voted off, continuing their murderous subterfuge. 

Imposters can win the match by either killing the rest of the crew or causing a self-destruct sequence, while humans win by either killing the imposters or preventing said self-destruction by completing all their assigned tasks.

Among Us is a brilliant game in that it keeps everything simple. The tasks are mini-games meant to be easy to grasp and complete on a touchscreen, with a mouse and keyboard, or a control pad. The action buttons are entirely contextual. If you’re near something interactive, you just follow the prompt.

Among Us isn’t an action game. Even murder (generally done in private corners with, you hope, no prying eyes) is just a button press when the prompt shows up. That focus on making a game that works across any potential platform serves Among Us well, because players on all those platforms can actually play together. This includes the Switch version, so there’s no shortage of matches online at any given time.

The core of Among Us, no matter the platform, is excellent. It’s just a fun game, full of clever twists, creative maps, and accessible gameplay. Bringing it over to a console, however, highlights certain shortcomings that were easier to overlook on mobile and PC. A problem exclusive to the Switch (but probably very temporary) is the lack of any in-game purchases, so you can't buy any of the pets and extras you might see on players from other platforms. 

This whole microtransaction thing needs an overhaul in that each platform —be it Steam, the App Store, Google Play, etc. — is its own island. Since there’s no central account associated with the game (like where Minecraft uses an Xbox account to let all your DLC purchases follow you), any purchases on, for example, iOS won’t transfer to Switch, Android, or PC (and vice versa). 

Specific to the Switch (and certain to apply to other console versions), there's simply going to be issues associated with any game where text chatting is an important element. Playing the Switch version as a portable, it works exactly the same as any mobile. You either mind touch typing on the screen or you don't, but it's workable.

Doing the same with a control pad is another story, even with the usual bits of shorthand and horrible diction that goes hand in hand with this type of thing. There's been no attempt to streamline the process or aid players in quickly relaying pertinent information (about, say, locations and colors). This means console players will likely feel compelled to curtail any lengthy sort of chit chat, which isn't ideal.

Among Us Review — The Bottom Line


  • Incredibly clever concept merged with fun, accessible gameplay
  • Adorable graphics really offset the horror
  • Cross-platform multiplayer means there's no shortage of matches to play
  • Text chatting during a timed meeting with a control pad feels awful
  • No unified account means purchases from one platform don't track to another
  • No microtransactions on the Switch yet, so you can only look sadly upon other player's pets and cool customizations and sigh (for now)

Playing Among Us on a variety of platforms is proving the game, while unabashedly excellent, might not be able to grow as rapidly as its popularity has. Flaws aside, Among Us is a clever game that deserves its time in the spotlight. It works a surprisingly complex concept into a simple and accessible package where matches are quick, fun, usually hilarious, and sometimes even intense.

[Note: The copy of Among Us used for this review was purchased by the reviewer.]

PlayStation 5 Review: A Strong Stride Into the Future Wed, 16 Dec 2020 15:12:22 -0500 Jonathan Moore

The PlayStation 4 has been a massive success for Sony since it was released in 2013. As of October 2020 (the last month for sales data prior to writing this review), the console has sold more than 114 million units.

It’s a mind-boggling statistic surpassed only by the number of PlayStation 2s sold over that console's 13-year lifespan.

While Sony's stellar catalog of exclusives and first-party titles, like those in the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy and the Uncharted franchise, certainly help drive those install numbers year after year, generation after generation, the architecture and design of the consoles themselves play a large part in continuously reaffirming the power of the PlayStation brand. 

With the PlayStation 5, Sony again has a killer system on their hands. It's powerful, fast, and in places, innovative. 

That doesn’t mean the PS5 isn’t without its foibles or faults; any console launch has its fair share of missteps, and the first batch of machines off the line always has kinks to work out. But what Sony’s done here with the PS5 is remarkable for reasons more substantial than simply making games look better.

The measuring stick for generational leaps in console gaming has changed.

PlayStation 5 Review: A Strong Stride Into the Future

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of either version of the PlayStation 5 (the 4K Blu-ray disc drive version or the all-digital version) is that it has a cumbersome footprint. It’s big enough — and heavy enough at 15 pounds — to be Sony’s largest console, surpassing the immense size of the original PlayStation 3. 

Fitting the PS5 into the complex geometry of an entertainment unit can be a feat. Doing so while also giving the console enough room to vent properly will be the first game PlayStation 5 owners play with their shiny new console. 

Depending on how you have it oriented (vertically or horizontally), the PS5 measures:


  • 15.35 inches tall
  • 10.23 inches deep
  • 4.09 inches wide
    • 3.62 inches for the digital version


  • 15.35 inches wide
  • 10.23 inches deep
  • 4.09 inches tall
    • 3.62 inches for the digital version
PlayStation 5 Specs*
CPU x86-64 AMD Ryzen Zen 2
8 cores/16 threads
Variable frequency, up to 3.5GHz
Ray tracing acceleration
Variable frequency, up to 2.23GHz (10.3 TFLOPS
System Memory GDDR 6 16GB
448GB/s bandwidth
SSD 825GB (667GB usable)
5.5GB/s read bandwidth
Disc Drive Ultra HD Blu-ray
Video Supports 4K 120Hz, 8K, VRR
Audio Tempest 3D

Aside from the sheer size of the thing, the look of the PlayStation 5 certainly won’t be for everyone. It’s ostentatious and brazen.

While I’ve grown to appreciate its bold design since launch, there's no question it still looks like a plotting Pixar villain sitting next to my TV, especially with its flared matte-white side panels and glossy black chassis wedged between them. 

Regardless if it fits in with other devices or not, the daring form factor is nicely accented by the blue, white, and orange indicator lights that shine from the top of the console when it's powering up, powered on, or in rest mode.

These lights are the same hue as those found in the PlayStation 4, but they’re more striking in the PS5. They bounce off the black finish of the console itself and bloom across the inside of the white panels in a lovely, eye-catching display. It’s particularly nice in a dimly lit room. 

On the front of the console, you’ll find a USB Type-A Hi-Speed port, a USB Type-C Superspeed port, and the power button. You'll also find the disc-eject button and the disc drive if you’ve opted for that version. 

It can be difficult to tell the power and eject buttons apart since their corresponding symbols on the body are nearly impossible to see from any angle. I’ve pressed one while meaning to press the other too many times already. Despite that, both buttons smartly protrude, making them easy to find in general, unlike those found on the PS4 Pro. 

On the back of the system, there are two USB Type-A Superspeed ports, an Ethernet port, an HDMI 2.1 port, and the power socket. You’ll also find a line of Triangle, Circle, X, and Square symbols engraved along the spine, indicating where to attach the stand to lay the PS5 horizontally. 

Turn the console upside down, and there's a small rubber insert hiding a screw hole for attaching the stand and positioning the console vertically. There's a small compartment in the stand for the screw, which is a nice touch and follows the thoughtfulness of peripherals companies like Logitech.

My only gripe here is that it's difficult to get the screw out of the stand when setting it up for the first time. I actually broke a piece of the plastic off of the inside of the stand trying to get the screw out.  

Luckily, once you get it secured, the stand is fairly small and doesn't add to the already-mammoth footprint of the console. Because of the flared panel design, though, the stand is almost an essential component. Without it, the PS5 wobbles when laying down and slides while standing up. 

One of the defining factors of the next-gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony is speed. This is made possible on Sony's system by way of a proprietary NVMe SSD. While it may not be very large at 667GBs, something you're likely to blow through quickly considering the size of games these days, it is fast

Booting up the PS5 is the same as on the PS4 and PS3, but certainly much faster from a powered down state. Though, it strangely doesn't currently see any speed benefits over the PS4 Pro when booting from rest mode, at least in my tests. 

A single press of the PS button on the DualSense gets you up and running from a cold state in about 22 seconds and in roughly 14 seconds from rest mode. It takes 38 seconds for the PS4 Pro to start up from off and the same 14 seconds to boot up from rest mode. 

Where things are noticeably faster is in starting games and loading up saves. I tested the system's proprietary SSD performance against the PS4 Pro's HDD across several backwards compatible games. Here's what I found in terms of load times: 

  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon (PS4) 
    • Startup to main menu: 35 seconds
    • Loading a save: 44 seconds
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon (PS4 version on PS5) 
    • Startup to main menu: 27 seconds
    • Loading a save: 17 seconds
  • Ghost of Tsushima (PS4) 
    • Startup to menu: 51 seconds
    • Loading a save: 19 seconds
    • Starting GoT Legends: 10 seconds
  • Ghost of Tsushima (PS4 version on PS5)
    • Startup to main menu: 41 seconds
    • Loading a save: 18 seconds
    • Starting GoT Legends: 8 seconds
  • No Man’s Sky (PS4 version on PS4)
    • Startup to main menu: 26 seconds
    • Loading a save: 1:05
  • No Man’s Sky (PS4 version on PS5)
    • Startup to main menu: 16 seconds
    • Loading a save: 56 seconds
  • No Man’s Sky (PS5 version): 
    • Startup to main menu: 18 seconds
    • Loading a save: 19 seconds

While No Man’s Sky takes slightly longer to load to the main menu on the PS5, the dramatic difference in save game load time more than makes up for it. Playing Yakuza: Like a Dragon on the PS5 is a much slicker, faster experience than on the PS4 Pro, even if parts of the game still stutter when transitioning in certain areas. 

Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t get the same love as the other two in terms of decreased load times, but it does receive a wonderful 60fps PS5 enhancement (as well as, I swear, a lighting upgrade) that takes the combat and other animations from plain ol’ smooth to buttery smooth. 

Demon's Souls takes 31 seconds to reach the opening cinematic and 5 seconds to load a save file. Traveling from the Nexus to Tower of Latria's Prison of Hope takes roughly around 7 seconds. The snappiness of the PS5’s SSD makes seeing “You Died” over and over again much more bearable and grinding for items much less painful. 

Spider-Man: Miles Morales takes a bit longer to load up: 35 seconds to go from the XMB to the main menu and the same 5 seconds to load a save. However, fast travel is as close to instant as you could hope for. It loads in an insanely speedy 3 seconds (shown in the video below).

I also tested putting the PS5 in rest mode while playing Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls without saving or quitting to the main menu. Booting the PS5 back up took me straight to where I left off in both games in about 15 seconds. There were no developer or publisher logos. No loading screens.

It's a feature that exists on the PS4 Pro, but again, the theme here is incredible speed. 

I can’t leave the topic of speed without talking about how quickly games install on the PS5 or saves can transfer over from the PS4 Pro. 

When you first hook up the system, it asks if you want to transfer any games or data from your PlayStation 4. You can do this over a wired connection with an Ethernet cable (which Sony suggests), or wirelessly. 

I chose wireless to test out the console’s WiFi 6 antenna, and the PS5 located my PS4 Pro in about 11 seconds. I then transferred 112GB of games and save data in about 16 minutes. Installing Destiny 2 (60.5GB) via the disc drive took around 80 minutes, but downloading the digital version from the PlayStation Store took 43 minutes, roughly half the time. Of course, individual mileage may vary based on connection speed, but the PS5’s WiFi 6 is crazy-fast in any case. 

To further drive the point home, I concurrently downloaded digital versions of Maneater (11GB) and Bugsnax (8GB) while installing the disc version of Miles Morales (38GB) in about 28 minutes. Gone are the days of waiting hours to download and install games. 

One of the biggest things that's bothered me about the PlayStation 4 Pro over the last year or so is its sluggish, laggy UI. Despite being intuitive and having relatively logical navigation, the slowdown and stuttering between menus have become grating, to say the least. Perhaps it's a symptom of an older PS4 Pro, but either way, it’s not ideal. 

There's none of that nonsense with the PS5. Moving between menus and submenus is snappy. Everything loads at the press of a button.

Games and Media Apps are finally separated logically, thank the gods. Each has its own section easily accessed by clicking "L1" or "R1" or using the D-pad from the Home screen. Whereas the PS4 hides Media Apps in the TV & Video subfolder — something that's always a few clicks away at best — the entire category is easily located through a single input on the PS5. 

Things are made cleaner in the Media section by showing you only the Media Apps you currently have installed, removing the featured and trending sections found on the PS4. It's a small change but a welcome one that keeps the clutter to a minimum and helps you better focus on what you’re looking for. 

Unfortunately, I can’t give the same praise to the Games section, which works fine, but is a bit less user friendly. 

Things still line up in a left-to-right fashion on the Home screen, with the PlayStation Store to the far left, followed by the Explore section (this is where you can find stories and information about your games). After those icons are the last eight games you played, with your entire game collection all the way to the right. 

Thankfully, the PlayStation Store is finally integrated into the UI and is no longer a separate app that takes forever to load. Far more streamlined than the last-gen version, the PS5 store eschews most of the menu options found in the PS4 version and is cleaner in presentation. In some ways, it makes finding certain things, like complimentary PS Plus games, easier. 

In other ways, however, it's a lateral step for Sony. Removing the categories sidebar tidies things up visually, but it makes finding deals harder and DLC or add-ons more obtuse. At least on the PS4, there's an Add-Ons section in the menu. Even if it isn't always helpful, it at least collects add-ons for popular titles in a single place.

(This is mitigated somewhat by the PS5's global search function, which I'll touch on shortly, but browsing add-ons has led me to discover games in the past, so it's something I do miss).  

The Explore section is where you'll find stories for the games you've played, as well as trailers and other announcements for things like in-game events. There are also sections for livestreams and related videos from content creators. It would be nice to see this section grow, which I'm sure it will, and eventually add a sorting function for finding specific content or content types quickly. 

Moving along, your eight-game Rolodex rotates based on the most recent game you've played. Anything beyond that requires you dig into your Game Library. This section is subdivided into several categories: your entire PlayStation collection — including PS3, PS4, and PS5 games — those installed on your system, those you’ve snagged through PlayStation Plus, and any you have through PlayStation Now. 

Each section can be sorted alphabetically, by most recent, purchase date, platform, and source. This is a nice and necessary set of options, especially for finding older games you haven’t played in a while. But it’s befuddling Sony's new console doesn’t yet allow for folders. I’d much rather create a folder of all the games I’m currently playing or plan to play right on the Home screen than dig around in this menu. 

In a way, I feel somewhat silly complaining about it at all. Still, it’s a quality-of-life option that should be available at launch, especially since the PS4 uses the folder system already. 

To the right of the Games and Media tabs on the Home screen, you’ll find a search icon, a settings icon, and your profile icon. Counterintuitively, you have to navigate to these icons using the D-pad, not “L1” or “R1" as you do to navigate between the Games and Media tabs. The lack of continuity still trips me up ~30 days post-launch. 

That aside, the search function is a fantastic example of simplistic yet thoughtful design. It searches for games and apps across your libraries and the PlayStation Store. You don’t have to dig into individual sections to find something, so I guess it’s an OK stand-in for folders and a good way to find add-ons and DLC for specific games. For now. 

To the right of the search function is the Settings menu, which is set up almost exactly like the System menu on the PlayStation 4. The standouts here are the new submenus and options inside. 

The most notable is the addition of more granular accessibility features for things like text size, scroll speed, talk-back speed, closed captions, and chat transcription.

Some of these options are available on the PS4, but not to the degree they are on the PS5. For example, there's now a new color correction option that lets you enable a color filter with specific settings for different types of color blindness. 

Whereas the PS4 only allows for "larger" menu text, the PS5 allows you to choose from small, normal (which really should just be renamed medium), large, and very large. For closed captions, you can tweak a lot of things: font style, size, color, opacity, background color. Having hearing loss, I find these options especially helpful since I leave my captions on all the time.

There's now a screen reader with nine speed selections and volume controls, chat transcriptions with nine language options, and more controller options for customizing vibration intensity, adaptive trigger intensity, and swapping the right and left control sticks. 

You can automatically set preferences for compliant games, as well as spoiler warnings that automatically flag certain pieces of content. There are even global system options for inverting look controls or reducing motion effects. 

It's heartening to see Sony take such steps to offer more inclusive options for those using their systems. I can only hope the breadth and granularity of choices grow over the console's life cycle. This is a great start. 

Your Profile tab is where you’ll find your gameplay hours and trophies, your accolades, which other players can give you in multiplayer for being a good, helpful sport, your shared media, and your friends list. It’s also where you can set your online status, edit your profile, and change privacy settings. 

The addition of gameplay hours finally brings PlayStation up to speed with Xbox and most PC launchers like Steam and Epic. It's a feature, just like the PS Store's new wishlist, that honestly should have been added ages ago, but it’s better late than never. 

Trophies still display in a vertical list, showing progression and the number of trophies you have in each category. The progression bar for each game is smaller now, making room for a platinum trophy to the left of it instead of above it, while your overall level and lifetime trophies show at the top of the menu. 

All that said, I’m still unsure if I’m a fan of the new layout for trophies once you click into a game, where trophies are displayed in a horizontal list. I think I still prefer the PS4’s vertical sorting method as a default instead.

Comparing trophies with friends reverts the list to the vertical style, but getting there requires a few extra button clicks. It would be nice to customize the layout right in the menu itself, especially considering Sony gives so many options elsewhere. 

Regardless, I greatly appreciate the ability to sort trophies by “not earned,” “rarity,” “earned date,” and “grade.” 

Pressing the PS button on the DualSense brings up a tucked-away Command Center bar containing 11 submenus for quickly viewing downloads or jumping to your friends list. The options can be lightly customized, but some categories are hard-baked into it, forcing you to choose which of the editable options are most important to you. 

Hopefully, in the future, we’ll get full customization control here, even if it’s for reordering the options from most-used to least-used, or moving the Power option from the far right to the far left to minimize the number of movements it takes to get there from the Home screen. 

Whether in-game or when highlighting a game on the Home screen, the Command Center is also where you’ll find Activity Cards, one of the PS5’s coolest features. These show you how much progress you’ve made in a particular mission or challenge, or give you an idea of how close you are to popping certain trophies. Other cards let you jump right into activities, taking you straight to a specific section of a game at the press of a button. Others contain help videos for supported titles.

These help videos can be nicely pinned to the left or right side of the screen for watching in real-time as you play. They're typically 30 seconds or so and provide a visual aid for completing puzzles or getting through certain sections. Some even show you where to find collectibles or contain basic strategies for particularly tough enemies. 

However, like the inconsistencies of Activity Cards themselves, where each game presents information however it pleases (some useful, some not), the helpfulness of these videos is hit or miss so far. Those for Astro’s Playroom make the game so easy I platinumed it on release day, while the ones in Demon’s Souls act more as extended tutorial sections than gritty, actionable tips. 

At least this early on, perhaps the most consistent way to get tips and strategies while playing is to use the PS5’s web browser to pin YouTube videos or make use of the awesome screen share feature in parties. A friend and I have made great use of the latter, helping each other through Demon’s Souls and Destiny 2 in real-time. 

Aside from 3D audio, which works as you'd expect it to when using true 3D-capable headsets such as Sony’s Pulse 3D or Audeze’s Mobius 3D, the biggest game-changer for the PlayStation 5 is undoubtedly the DualSense controller. It’s truly a piece of next-gen innovation that I hope is more than a launch-window gimmick. 

The rumble features are like nothing we’ve experienced in gaming. Instead of a general shake relegated to a few seismic registers on the DualShock 4, the DualSense produces insanely-detailed micro and macro rumbles in different areas of its build. 

Some emanate from the center outward, some from the top down. Some shake the whole controller, while others shake different portions at different strengths. Still, other bits of sorcery make it truly possible to tell the difference between metal flooring and the planks of a bridge.

The effect is more resounding when coupled with the increased number of sounds coming from the DualSense speaker in each game, such as small pings and patters that bounce off each other and distant whooshes that grow in intensity from right to left.  

The adaptive “L2” and “R2” triggers complete the whole package. In Astro’s Playroom, pulling back a bowstring feels as close to real-life archery as it currently gets, and firing a machine gun shakes the triggers themselves. In No Man’s Sky, pressure slowly builds up in the right trigger, letting you know how close your mining beam is to overheating. 

Despite that, I won’t lie about how the controller may feel out of the box. The primary input buttons and sticks are comfortable, featuring the same finish found on the DualShock 4. Same with the triggers.

However, I experienced significant hand fatigue for the first few days of using the DualSense, likely from the slight tapering of the handles as they approach the triggers. It’s a small deviation from a design that’s essentially the same size as the DualShock 4, but one that some may find initially uncomfortable, especially if they've been using Sony's last-gen controller for years. 

Games look downright incredible on the PS5. Many launch titles, including third-party ones, incorporate Fidelity and Performance modes that can be toggled between using in-game menus. These prioritize graphics over frames and vice versa. 

With most Fidelity modes, you're getting 4K 30fps with ray tracing and everything that brings, such as better shadows, reflections, and lighting. With most Performance modes, you're getting upscaled 4K but at 60fps. Unfortunately, you lose the benefits of ray tracing. 

Some games, however, like Miles Morales, have been patched since launch to include ray tracing in their Performance modes as well. As you can tell in the video above, it's hard to pinpoint the immediate differences between Morales' Fidelity mode and Performance + ray tracing mode in terms of graphics.

Other games, such as Demon's Souls, do struggle a bit between the two modes. As I stated in my review for the game, playing From Software's groundbreaking RPG in fidelity mode is painful once you've played it at 60fps. What you lose in framerate for true 4K visuals isn't worth it, especially considering the difference in graphical quality isn't drastic. 

PlayStation 5 Review — The Bottom Line

  • Expanded accessibility options
  • New screen-share features (+PiP)
  • Lightning-fast load times
  • Whisper-quiet fan
  • DualSense haptics 
  • PS4 backwards compatibility
  • Low usable SSD storage space
  • Disc drive can get very loud
  • Large, awkward form factor 
  • Some counterintuitive UI design choices lead to an uneven UX 

There’s so much to say about the PS5 that I could ramble on for days and still not list every little thing.

I haven’t touched on how sharing native pictures and video to Twitter and YouTube is much improved by tweaks to the UI and being able to perform most functions without leaving the game. The system now records up to an hour of 4K video that can be saved in more manageable increments. 

I haven’t spoken about how the fan is whisper-quite and no longer sounds like a jet engine, even after 14-hour sessions of Demon’s Souls (though the whir of the disc-drive can replace that familiar sound at times).

I haven’t said how awesome the PS5 Remote Play feature is, where you can control every aspect of the system from your PlayStation 4 without a single dip in performance or visual fidelity. 

I’ve only tangentially mentioned backwards compatibility, which works for both digital games and discs, and covers essentially every PS4 game on the market. Out of the half-dozen I’ve tried, I’ve not received any compatibility warnings. I know that some games have small issues — and not every game features PS5 graphical or framerate upgrades like Ghost of Tsushima and Destiny 2 — but I've not run into them yet. 

In the past 30 days, very few system-level bugs have reared their heads. My PS5 powers down and goes into rest mode just fine so far. The only hiccup is that my front USB port refuses to charge my DualSense in rest mode. I’ve only had a game crash twice, and that’s when I was quickly opening and closing Demon’s Souls during my review of the game. 

There is a bit of discoloration in the middle of my console on both fins. It’s a slightly different white than the rest. I only noticed it after I went looking for it with a flashlight about a week post-launch. Since then, I haven’t noticed it get any larger, so fingers crossed. 

I certainly have my issues with Sony's next-gen platform, specifically the idiosyncrasies baked into its UI that can sometimes make navigation a mess and closing games needlessly clunky. Some options and submenus, like those for accessibility or finding your system saves and cloud saves, are unnecessarily separated. 

1440p should be supported out of the box and media apps like Disney+ or WatchESPN should take advantage of picture-in-picture. Activity Cards cards are nice when they work, but there needs to be more uniformity in how specific features are used moving forward.  

All that said, I've very much enjoyed my first month with the PS5. It's a powerhouse of a system and a feat of engineering Sony should be proud of. It's certain that many of the system's stranger quirks will get worked out in the coming months and years, so I can't wait to see how the platform evolves. 

[Note: The disc-based PS5 used for this review was a retail unit purchased at launch by the reviewer.]

*Source: PlayStation Blog

Empire of Sin Review: Mob Machinations Served a Bit Cold Fri, 11 Dec 2020 14:04:01 -0500 Jordan Baranowski

Empire of Sin is a fantastically frustrating game. There is so much potential here with its mishmash of genres and stylized pastiche of prohibition culture.

It has XCOM-style combat missions, a variety of character types, goofy caricatures, and a robust management system, all wrapped in a pulpy, Dick Tracy-esque depiction of the mob. Producing liquor for the Fuzz or under noses is a good time. 

On the other hand, Empire of Sin is badly hobbled, plagued with bugs and aggravating design choices that make it less than the sum of its parts, at least in its current state. The developers have been working since launch to fix some of the game's more glaring issues, but it's tough to tell what's working as designed and what isn't.

There are a lot of good ideas here, but it just isn't coming together just yet.

Empire of Sin Review: Mob Machinations Served a Bit Cold

At the start of Empire of Sin, you choose one from a variety of characters to serve as your leader; each has different perks and controls a different gang. All of the choices have different story quests that push you along, but the general goal is always the same: rule the streets of Chicago.

You do this by setting up a number of illicit businesses, each contributing to the others in a certain way. Speakeasies are your main source of income, and you'll need to brew up the booze for them to operate efficiently. Brothels offer a different type of entertainment, and having leftover alcohol to sell there makes customers willing to spend more. Hotels increase the number of customers in a given neighborhood, and so on.

As you start to move in on different neighborhoods, you'll encounter other bosses and gangs. Gear up your gang for war or broker peace  just make sure you're ready to take advantage of openings if your newfound ally has their guard down.

Of the two aspects that make up Empire of Sin's gameplay, the management section is a bit more fun and a lot less broken than the game's combat.

Management is fairly standard: build and upgrade new businesses, bring in new customers, and cripple the supply chains of your rivals. It works really well because of the setting. Casting you in the role of a "bad guy" makes it extremely easy to be a bad guy, ruthlessly taking out your foes and taking control of their rackets for your own means.

The biggest issue with the management portion is it's a little too hands-off. You can't really go wrong, as there aren't that many options. Just set up more stuff and don't get too far in the red. If you're stretched thin, you upgrade what you have so it makes more money.

And since the focus is more on the combat side of things, that's where Empire of Sin falls down a few notches.

Double Tap

As your crew troops around Chicago, you'll wind up in combat with the numerous factions you run across. If you've played XCOM or other turn-based tactical combat games like Wasteland 3 or Mutant Year Zero, things play out in much the same fashion.

All participants are laid out on the top of the screen in initiative order, and you move about a grid, taking turns shooting enemies and using abilities until one side wins. Half and full cover, overwatch, bleedout/death  the usual suspects are all in Empire of Sin.

That said, it just doesn't really feel right.

Character movement and animations are jerky; shots don't feel all that powerful or differentiated from one another; and the AI is laughably bad. I participated in multiple shootouts where enemy characters literally just ran back and forth between cover spots, never firing or using any abilities. Machine gun-wielding foes would split from cover to come punch someone, leaving them wide open to retaliation. My shotgun-carrying enforcer can't hit the broad side of a barn and, if he somehow does, his blast does less damage than a dinky little pistol someone else is carrying.

It's tough to compare Empire of Sin to a game like XCOM, but it's remarkable how much more intuitive a game about shape-shifting snake aliens is than the game featuring a real, historical setting.

Other design choices just seem out of place too. One that stands out is that you can't stop on a dead foe's square. You can move through them, but you can't stay there. For some level layouts, this is fine since you're often battling in tight, indoor quarters. However, this often made prolonged encounters a hilarious game of "where can I move?" when dead bodies started piling up in choke points.

An Offer You Can Refuse

Another thing about Empire of Sin that never quite comes together are the "sitdowns." These confrontations are supposed to be dramatic negotiations between powerful underworld foes  this is where you set up arrangements or finally put the nail in the coffin of an irritating rival.

The character models are ... terrifying. It's like sitting across from a particularly unsettling doll. Wide, glassy eyes and jerky movements will leave you desperately trying to escape the uncanny valley.

In one negotiation, I had my character pull a gun and start making demands. With the camera fixed on my character, still sitting in their chair with their hands by their sides, my foe started pleading for his life. "You can't do this! Please, don't!" My lifeless-eyed mob boss continued to make threats with their hands sitting on the arms of the chair.

It was a surreal and oddly hilarious moment, not really what the developers were shooting for, I'm sure.

Empire of Sin Review  The Bottom Line

  • Really plays up the setting
  • Management aspect has some promise
  • Lots of customization options for characters and equipment
  • AI is buggy and erratic
  • Graphics and animation are... not good, especially in combat
  • Sitdowns are hilariously terrible
  • Lots of wasted promise

Empire of Sin could have been such a great addition to the turn-based tactics genre. Instead, it stands as a buggy and undercooked mess, with plenty of good ideas that don't have much of a chance to shine through.

As is, there is a lot that needs to improve before I would recommend it. There are too many other similar games that do things much better.

My only caveat would be to keep an eye on patches and feedback. If the developers stick with it, Empire of Sin could evolve into a comeback kid. Wait for a sale if you're desperate for mob action, as it's not in great shape currently.

[Note: Romero Games provided the copy of Empire of Sin used for this review.]

Worms Rumble Review: Real-Time Worming Fri, 11 Dec 2020 11:22:49 -0500 Jason D'Aprile

The original Worms was released in 1995. A hilarious, turn-based, physics-filled wonder of destruction wherein opposing teams of small, adorable, and heavily armed worms attempt to murder the living hell out of each other.

Worms 2 was a huge step over the original, greatly improving on the visuals and generally making the game better in every way. Since then, there have been quite a few iterations of the game, but all (even the brief foray into 3D) stuck to the turn-based nature of the core gameplay of the original. 

Worms Rumble is the first time the series has gone fully real-time. The results are, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Taken from the perspective of someone who has played nearly every Worms game since the original, Rumble is a jarring transition. This is essentially an online-only, side-scrolling team and free-for-all battle royale deathmatch-style game. 

Worms Rumble Review: Real-Time Worming

Currently, the Worms Rumble supports 32-player battles on the PS4, PS5, and PC in deathmatch, Last Worm Standing, and squad-based Battle Royale matches. The game is cross-platform as well, so if you turn the option on, it will generate random battles against anyone on any platform. This means there’s always a healthy amount of competition to play against. In my testing, there were never any problems finding other worms to kill.

There were also never any hiccups in matches. Running at 4K 60fps on PC, PS4 Pro, and PS5, the game looks superb, like a modern CG cartoon, and it runs buttery smooth. Why the game hasn’t hit the Switch or Xbox platforms is another mystery entirely, but Worms Rumble is most recommendable to PS+ subscribers.

It launched as a freebie on Sony’s service for both PlayStation 4 and PS5, making it an easy sell on those platforms. For non-PS+ players or those that play on Steam, it’s still pretty cheap at around $15, but that cheaper price does come with a lot of flaws. 

For one thing, there are only a few maps to battle on. Granted, Team17 has a roadmap of free content drops, including new maps, until March 2021. There’s also “the Lab,” which is basically a daily event with themed matches that focus on specific weapons and objectives.

The maps included are really good. Dockyards, an explosive rocket mall, and other strange locations suit the goofy worm-based combat. Maps are heavily focused on multi-level structures, complete with vent shafts and other hiding spots, and chock full of weapons and power-up items that spawn in regularly.

Shotguns, machine guns, the classic bazooka, exploding sheep, a baseball bat, holy hand grenades… the insane array of weapons this series has amassed is largely intact in Rumble. The game keeps stats on your usage with each weapon as well, and players earn XP for individual weapons.

Your worm character goes up in level too. Aside from showing others your experience and expertise with the game, each new level earns customizable gear for your worm and weapons. There’s a sizable array of new skins, clothes, paint jobs, and more. This provides an insane number of ways to make your worm distinct, from tattoos, hats, and glasses to full-face masks, skins, voices, expressions, and more.

The transition of familiar Worms gameplay to real-time combat is mostly successful. Using classic gear like the grappling hook gun or rocket pack to get around is still a hilarious endeavor. The intensity is amped up since other people are trying to kill you at the same time you’re maneuvering.

One massive omission to the classic game, however, is the lack of destructible environments. In earlier games, you could theoretically destroy the entire randomly-generated battle island. Here, levels are set, not at all randomized, and nothing beyond minor elements like parked cars can be blown up. 

This feels like a lost opportunity and takes away from what made those earlier games so spectacular. Game matching is another issue. While you can invite friends to be on a squad, there’s no actual way to host or control a match. You simply pick the game mode and the game just matches you with enough players on a randomly chosen map. 

There are no options for match creation at all. Previous games let you customize not just the map (or map theme really, as they were randomly created), but weapons drops, items, time limits, number of players, etc. There’s no single-player component here either, which is also disappointing. Rumble’s multiplayer is also entirely online, so no split-screen matches.

It’s hard to say how many of these issues might be fixed or improved upon in the coming months. Team17 will certainly be expanding the game and adding plenty of content, but taking the game as it stands now is more difficult. The core gameplay here is definitely entertaining. The absurd, non-stop action is fun, challenging, even clever as players learn to manage the insane variety of weapons and items.

Worms Rumble Review — The Bottom Line

  • 32-player matches are lively, exciting, and fun across large, multi-story maps
  • Tons of ways to customize your worm
  • A horde of weapons and weird items to master
  • Free on PS+ and regular free content drops until March 
  • Just not enough content
  • No match hosting options at all

Worms works in real-time as a fast-paced, side-scrolling free-for-all, even with all the omissions and limitations. Despite all the complaints, Worms Rumble is a ton of fun.

That said, this feels like a slight divergence from the main series. For PS+ members, it’s absolutely worthwhile but anyone else should approach the game as a work in progress still expanding in, we hope, the right direction.

[Note: The PlayStation Plus version of Worms: Rumble was used for this review.]

Orwell's Animal Farm Review: Cultivating Something Special Thu, 10 Dec 2020 22:12:48 -0500 Mark Delaney

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." You may not have read George Orwell's condemnatory 1945 allegory about the rise of Stalinism, but you probably still know its most famous quote.

For decades, the superficially childlike tale of animals overthrowing their farmer landlord  — only to descend into their own newfound chaos amid a leadership vacuum  — has been used as a benchmark of critical post-Russian Revolution literature, but its broader message of the corrupting influence of power is timeless.

For that reason, a video game adaptation of Animal Farm has potential, even if it seems an odd project, and the collective at The Dairymen and Nerial found just the route to deliver such an idea.

Orwell's Animal Farm Review: Cultivating Something Special

Orwell's Animal Farm isn't a page-by-page reenactment of the decades-old story, but sometimes it may seem that way. I suppose for those that missed it before now, a spoiler warning is justified even for a book from 1945. I'll tread lightly. 

Its intro unavoidably opens like the novel — anthropomorphic farm animals call for an uprising and cast out the farmer they believe has been a bad leader and worse caretaker. His sudden removal leaves a void, and through conflicting ideals, the animals' once-rose-tinted view of the future descends into chaos as allegiances form, betrayers emerge, and even wars ignite.

Like the book, the game takes seriously the juxtaposition of cutesy farm animals with names like Snowball and Squealer and the political ideals they represent. It would maybe be interesting to faithfully retell the story exactly as it occurred, but Orwell's Animal Farm thankfully dares to do something more.

Though it is essentially a text adventure, there are in Orwell's Animal Farm strategy elements to consider, such as determining who plows the fields, deciding whether the cows distribute their milk to other species, and what to do with excess hay for the winter. Each of these decisions and more are laid out with gorgeous original artwork, still and simple, but lovely nonetheless.

You're given free control over the direction Animal Farm heads in, but after an optimistic honeymooning period with your new government of Animalism, things tend to fall apart.

Every decision feels like it has enormous weight to it. You'll never comfortably see through the decision matrix and know how to keep all your residents happy, and more likely, you'll soon find yourself alienating your comrades  or worse, driving them off the farm or to their deaths.

Each would-be puerile predicament carries the usually overt but still interesting political overtones. Even after multiple playthroughs, the game has its share of surprises, and it's possible to head down a totally new path for your farm, only to painfully end up back on the rails headed for disaster, like a train wreck you see coming. It's really sad when that happens.

I think even if you haven't read the book, the game does a great job of introducing the many characters and causing you to feel for their needs and wants equally, at least at first. You know what they say about equality on Animal Farm, after all.

By setting up a gameplay loop like that seen in Reigns and other political text adventures, Orwell's Animal Farm allows players to sometimes retell, but more often reshape, classic literature in a way that never wavers from the core beliefs espoused in the book. Power corrupts. 

Animal Farm reminds us of this with its bleak ending, once meant to tell readers what happened next under Stalin, but you can find yourself just as doomed following different economic and political ideals on the Animal Farm.

For my first few runs of the game, which is played in up to seven-year chunks — a couple of gameplay hours each — I was beginning to think that despite many alternate endings, none of them would be any more optimistic than the original story's. I still actually haven't found one that is, though I've seen hints that they are attainable, and I love the game for that elusiveness.

It reminds me of another quote, attributed usually to Ben Franklin, where he promised the United States would have "a democracy, if you can keep it." That caveat has never felt more present than in these last few years, and we've seen firsthand how delicate our governance truly is. As we seem to now be coming out of the other side of a half-decade of borderline constitutional crises, it's unnerving and dazzling at once to see a game portray this delicacy so well. It's even more impressive to see it comes from a game that dares to rewrite classic lit in the process.

On top of remarkably recreating the time and place of Animal Farm so well through well-considered rewrites and period-specific art, the game also manages to maintain a high bar for its mood by using some excellently delivered narration and original music that feels of a piece with the era seen in the game. For a game that is mostly just text on top of pretty pictures, it is much more immersive than I expected.

Like reading a book with choose-your-own-adventure continuity, the story can occasionally trip on itself. I never saw any of my choices betrayed, but several times I did see moments play out twice in close proximity to one another in a way that implied the game bounced off its own lofty story branches. This can be jarring, but because it never broke my own continuity, I feel it's a mostly forgivable flaw in an otherwise unique and fascinating game. 

Orwell's Animal Farm Review  — The Bottom Line

  • Dares to reimagine classic lit — and nails it
  • Great narration, music, and art set the scene
  • Captures the fragility of effective governance just as we're seeing it so much in real life 
  • Sometimes replays scenes like a CYA novel backtracking on itself

Orwell's Animal Farm is destined to fly under the radar this December, sharing a launch date with the biggest game of the year. It doesn't help that many people simply won't be interested in playing a game that both plays like and is based on a book. But there's absolutely an audience for this game, and if you find yourself in it, Orwell's Animal Farm is a timely, effective reimagining of one of the last century's most notable allegories.

I don't know how often games can successfully rethink classic literature from decades ago, but it definitely worked this time.

[Note: The Dairymen provided the copy of Orwell's Animal Farm used for this review.]

Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure Pack Review — Skipped Beat Thu, 10 Dec 2020 18:07:22 -0500 Josh Broadwell

Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure Pack is a repackaging of two 3DS games from the early 2010s, Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure and Taiko no Tatsujin: Mystery Adventure. It’s part rhythm game, continuing the long-running Taiko no Tatsujun rhythm series with its unique drum sounds. It’s also part RPG, with two separate story modes spanning across time and the entire world.

Perhaps it’s trying too hard to be too much, or perhaps it's just a case where older games should be left in the past, but Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure manages to fall short in every area.

Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure Review —Skipped Beat

Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure is technically two games — Rhythmic Adventure and Rhythmic Adventure 2 — but mechanically, they’re both essentially the same. 

In the first, Don and Katsu are preparing for a taiko festival when they’re interrupted by a strange rabbit called Tocky muttering about time. A foursome of baddies appears, led by the evil Dr. Timedyne, and steals Tocky’s pocket watch friend Ticky.

Before leaping back in time, the dynamic drummers face off against Pietro — a flamboyant man with stubble and a dress, whose insensitive design absolutely should have been altered for this re-release.

From there, Don, Katsu, and Tocky embark on an adventure through the ages, befriending various historical personages such as Nobunaga and Marie Antoinette along the way. There’s a plot somewhere in there, and it’s about as predictable as you’d expect from the setup. 

The second game is similar but sees Don and Katsu travel the world instead of traveling through time.

Silly, predictable stories are fine sometimes. This is a game about adorable talking drums, so you'd expect a cute yet daft story with cute and daft characters. But Rhythmic Adventure’s characters just… aren’t?

Don’s optimism is infectious, and Katsu’s foolishness earns a few grins, but everyone and everything else is too bare-bones to even warrant a hint of attachment.

Coupled with cheap character designs like Pietro’s and lackluster localization (more on that in a bit), Rhythmic Adventure just seems like a throwaway effort to pad out the traditional Taiko rhythm game.

The RPG mechanics only add to the feeling. Don makes friends with various monsters and people in Rhythmic Adventure 1, and they join your party of playable characters. Katsu exists just to run into walls apparently and isn’t playable. 

They each have HP added to the party total and stats of their own, plus a specific monster type (not the humans, obviously) with a unique ability. Don occasionally comes across a special equippable item that amplifies these species-specific abilities and could come in handy for tougher fights.

But none of it matters. Combat in Rhythmic Adventure uses the regular Taiko rhythm game mechanics, with some added traps you run no risk of activating on accident between notes. As long as you hit the right notes at the right time, you’ll win. Getting too many “Ok” hits in a row means you’ll take some damage, but even on hard, you probably won’t lose until later on, when the song selection throws in the odd difficult song or two.

Like silly stories, easy games are fine. Rhythmic Adventure’s RPG trappings just don’t fit its combat — and aren’t even necessary.

Additionally, each area has a very limited roster of battle songs and far too many random encounters. The core rhythm game is fun, sure, but hearing the Yo-Kai Watch anime theme 10 times in a row can ruin even the best gameplay. And it does.

All in all, there’s a distinct sense the game is still at the concept stage and needed either more time or more care, which is saying something considering  both are over five years old. Straight ports are fine when they work, but these two don't.

Rhythmic Adventure 2 does away with random encounters, replacing them with shadows you’ll invariably run into anyway. It makes environments less linear, with no reason to explore them. The combat system gets extra layers, with no need to use them, and most fights end in draws because the song ends before you defeat the enemy. 

In short, despite the appearance of improvements, it ultimately makes the same mistakes, only worse in some regards.

The need for more time and care is evident in the localization as well. Bandai’s non-flagship titles have a reputation for sometimes shoddy localization, and Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure is no exception.

Dialogue in the first adventure is throwaway at best, just by nature of the story. But it’s also awkward and often stilted, with several mistakes that make me wonder how Bandai handled the localization in the first place.

The localizer’s nightmare phrase “it can’t be helped” pops up more than it should, but then you get instances such as the Palace of Versailles. Every woman in the palace is called Big Sister, which makes me wonder if Bandai opted for a machine translation in parts. Whatever the case, it just makes Rhythmic Adventure feel even flatter, and it doesn’t help that no one ever stops talking. 

Rhythmic Adventure 2 is a bit better in places, though it only makes the need for improvement more apparent. This time, Don and Katsu accompany a good witch and her monkey familiar around the world to recover treasures protecting the world.

It’s evident in some areas a writer or editor tried injecting more character, but the tone and speaking style often change even in the same stretch of dialogue.

Playing both Rhythmic Adventure games felt like a chore. Both adventures have Taiko mode, the standard Taiko no Tatsujin rhythm game, though these, too, come with issues.

Taiko no Tatsujin’s brand of rhythm game shares its DNA with Donkey Konga. You press buttons corresponding to a specific part of the drum — or hit the actual drum if you have the drum controller — and swap between a few different pattern combos on the fly.

Aside from the basic one- and two-button presses, there’s a drumroll where you press the buttons as fast as possible and a special that boosts your completion meter where you… press the buttons as fast as possible. There’s not much variety, but things get wildly hectic on normal and Oni/extreme modes.

While all this unfolds at the top of the screen, animals from Japanese folklore enact little scenes or dance along underneath the rhythm meter. It’s adorable, even more so with Taiko no Tatsujin’s bright, distinct art style.

So it’s a shame that just when you really feel like you’re getting into the rhythm, it’s over.

Few songs last longer than two minutes, even when the real song itself is anywhere between three and five minutes or longer. 

Total, both Taiko modes feature over 100 songs split across J-Pop, anime, games, an assortment of classical music, and some Bandai “originals.” On paper, that’s a great idea. So much variety! In practice, it’s actually a detriment. It soon becomes evident the rhythm game portion is as much a novelty as the RPG adventure mode that needs more depth. 

Randomness seemingly rules the selection. You’ve got a grand total of five J-Pop songs, such as the popular “Marigold.” Rhythmic Adventure 2’s Taiko mode has almost exclusively Tohou music for its game section.

There’s one Kirby song, two Studio Ghibli songs, a handful of popular anime themes, and three Yo-Kai Watch songs, which is three too many. The lack of depth in each genre and the overall brevity of each song means there's just not much to dig into.

Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure Review — The Bottom Line


  • Beautiful, distinct art style
  • Fun rhythm gameplay while it lasts...


  • ... which isn't long. Gameplay gets stale fast
  • Breadth instead of depth in song variety makes it feel shallow
  • Half-baked adventure modes that work against themselves
  • Localization needs improvement
  • Who decided Pietro's design was still okay and didn't need changing?

Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure doesn't offer enough variety in songs to make an easy recommendation, and it certainly falls short with its adventure modes. There are better rhythm games on Nintendo Switch for the same price or less. 

[Note: Bandai Namco provided the copy of Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure Pack used for this review.]

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Definitive Edition Review — Beauty and Feeling Wed, 09 Dec 2020 18:46:49 -0500 Daniel Hollis

The first time you step out of your home village of Cobblestone and the world of Dragon Quest XI opens up, you're hit with a sense of adventure that’s missing from most games. It harkens back to classic moments like Samwise and Frodo leaving The Shire in The Lord of the Rings. It’s exciting and daunting, yet every step is more compelling than the last. And the Definitive Edition of Dragon Quest XI is a constant reminder of why there has never been a better time to dive into this fantastic JRPG.

Last year, the Definitive Edition was released as a Nintendo Switch exclusive. Many fans, myself included, were disappointed by the absence of an enhanced version for PS4 and PC, but any excuse to jump back into Dragon Quest XI was surely something many were willing to undertake.

Just over a year later, PS4 and PC owners finally have that enhanced experience, with Xbox players getting the Dragon Quest debut with its inclusion in Game Pass. So here I am again, throwing myself into one of the greatest JRPGs ever made.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Definitive Edition Review — Beauty and Feeling

It’s hard to know where to begin with Dragon Quest XI. Should I start with the gorgeous, vibrant world that’s begging for exploration? The way the Definitive Edition streamlines many of its components to make this version the most accessible entry to date? Or how every monster contains more personality than 90% of the games released this year?

Those are good ideas, but I think the beauty of this game stems from a feeling.

It's a feeling of warmth and comfort that not many games possess. Sure, it can be fun to blast through waves of enemies in Doom Eternal or begrudgingly push yourself through the world of Demon’s Souls, but Dragon Quest XI remains so unapologetic in its tone that it’s hard not to be enamored by its purity.

With the world the way it is right now, it can be hard for any of us to muster the energy to push through gritty, dark games, so there’s something sweet and sincere in Dragon Quest XI’s presentation. It’s the polar opposite of many genre games in recent memory. Titles such as Final Fantasy VII: Remake pride themselves on bringing murky worlds to fruition, and they work for what they’re trying to achieve, but Dragon Quest XI often feels like comfort food both in its delivery and execution.

The story presented here is fairly basic. You’re a hero. The world is in peril. And you need to gather the help of friends to save the day.

It’s a tired trope that has been the basis for many games, but the difference is how the story is so well crafted and presented here. It takes the traditional conventions of many JRPGs and makes the Definitive Edition the best possible version of those it can be. Dragon Quest XI’s narrative pushes you through various locales, often built around their own story arc, and presents wonderful characters, stunning vistas, and engaging narratives in a way that the whole package can't help but create an unstoppable momentum that surges from beginning to end.

That energy extends to the game’s cast of characters, each of which you are able to learn about through unique side stories. Each character is larger than life, yet grounded and relatable. The flamboyant Sylvando is a particular highlight who steals every scene he is in.

Since building connections and relationships between your party members lies at the heart of what Dragon Quest XI is all about, and that core building block never disappoints over the game's 100+ hour runtime, some of the game's best moments involve the quiet scenes between characters or the bickering amongst your party members between combat. 

Exploring the world with your party, then, is an absolute treat, all the more helped by Dragon Quest XI's meticulously-crafted environments. Playing the game on the Xbox Series X, it was staggering to see how much more vibrant each area is by way of the console's fantastic use of Auto HDR. Honestly, if you’re going to play Dragon Quest XI, this is the version to play. Every element of the game’s world is beaming with wonderful little flourishes and interactions.

The town of Gondolia, for example, features gondolas you can control while taking in the gorgeous surroundings, and the starting village features a small path you can follow that ends in a jaw-dropping vista. These small instances may seem mundane, but they exist because Dragon Quest XI isn't just about clearing a map of objectives: it’s also about soaking the world in and living in every moment.

The same idyllic nature extends to the inhabitants of Dragon Quest XI, each of which has their own beaming personality, even the ones with very little dialogue. An early area features a shopkeeper attempting to sell you an armor set for 12,000 coins. Explore, and you’ll come across his brother who undercuts his price. Return to the original seller, and he attempts to undercut his brother in retaliation.

Alongside the game's detailed enemies, which all have wonderfully expressive animations and moves, it’s ingredients such as these that elevate the world-building of Dragon Quest XI to heights beyond any other JRPG I can think of. 

Dragon Quest XI unashamedly uses an age-old combat system. Outside of Pep Powers, special moves that can be used if a party member randomly gets "pepped up," very little has changed about it from previous entries. 

That’s not to say combat is generic — not at all. The system here is one that has refined itself over time, building into something gripping and special in its nostalgia. Many recent turn-based RPGs have attempted to do "more" in an effort to engross players, whether that be through button prompts or the ability to block attacks (Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a recent example). And while those systems may be fun, there’s something addictive about the classic JRPG battle system here that just clicks, best represented by Dragon Quest XI's intense boss battles that demand a perfect mix of status effects and heavy-hitting attacks.

When it all comes together, it’s magical.

Even with these already fantastic implementations, the Definitive Edition of Dragon Quest XI goes further in so many ways. The new version comes with enough changes — many of which act as nostalgic love letters to previous entries — to entice series veterans back to the table.

One of the most important new inclusions is the ability to play the entire game in 2D. Every single story beat, battle, and environment has been fully recreated in a retro-style package, and 2D and 3D modes can even be interchanged at a moment's notice by visiting a church. 

Those who want to experience a bit of both worlds can visit Tickington, a 2D village full of special Dragon Quest XI side quests. Here, players can venture into books that act as past entries in the series to solve small mysteries and take on minor quests. Visiting classic, fan-favorite games is truly wonderful and makes Dragon Quest XI feel like the culmination of everything that preceded it.

Wrapping everything up in a nice bow is an array of quality of life improvements that make returning to the original version impossible. Battle speed can be increased, you can now craft anywhere and purchase ingredients on the go, and a new quick-command menu lets you use new features, such as the ability to call your horse at a moment's notice, at a moment's notice.

If that wasn’t enough, Dragon Quest XI now has a full Japanese voice track, fully orchestrated music, and a photo mode that lets you soak in the beautiful world of Erdera.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Definitive Edition Review — The Bottom Line


  • A beautiful, stunning world to explore
  • A classic formula crafted to perfection
  • Engaging characters that the Definitive Edition fleshes out
  • Wonderful quality of life improvements
  • 2D mode is a welcomed treat


  • It eventually all comes to an end

Dragon Quest XI is built with a sense of warmth and comfort that not many games possess, and it's a game we need in the current global climate. 2020 has been a terrible, dreadful year. While many of us are still quarantined, finding those cherishable moments of reprieve is more important than ever.

The Definitive Edition of Dragon Quest XI is the perfect salve. It's a game unashamed to be a video game, and it's one that embraces its roots in a charming, beautiful way. It's unashamedly jolly and light, but most importantly, it's comforting.

[Note: The reviewer used their personal Game Pass account to access the version of Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Definitive Edition used for this review.]

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade Of Light Review – A Retro Classic Returns Mon, 07 Dec 2020 13:12:49 -0500 Henry Stockdale

Though it’s become one of Nintendo’s top franchises in recent years, you might be unaware that Fire Emblem is celebrating a big anniversary this year, much like a certain plumber. Or that the first game was released way back in 1990, since, until 2003, the whole Fire Emblem series remained a Japan-exclusive. And even when the series did show up in the West, that initial release stayed behind.

Until now.

Developed by Intelligent Systems and dubbed Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade Of Light, the original NES game has finally been localized for Nintendo Switch, joining Three Houses, Warriors, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore on Nintendo’s hybrid machine.

Shadow Dragon may show its age 30 years later, but there remains a fine RPG experience here, one that series fans owe it to themselves to try.

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade Of Light Review – An Aged RPG Classic

Shadow Dragon & the Blade Of Light's story takes us to the Archanean continent and the Kingdom of Altea, which was Formed after King Anri fended off the Dolhr Empire and killed the Shadow Dragon Medeus with the exalted blade, Falchion.

Resurrected 100 years later by an evil wizard, Shadow Dragon Medeus launches a new invasion of the kingdom, forcing our protagonist, Prince Marth, to seek refuge on the island nation of Talys. After several years of forced exile, Marth sets out to reclaim his homeland with an army of knights at his command.

Progression in Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is strictly linear; each of the 25 chapters directly progresses from one to another. This is an NES game, after all. Battles have their own victory conditions, normally focused on routing enemy forces, defeating their commander, or securing a central castle.

The game employs a turn-based movement system across a grid-based battlefield, so units can only move a set number of spaces each time, calling to mind games such as Final Fantasy Tactics. If you run out of HP during these encounters, the affected unit is permanently dead; even key characters, like Princess Caeda, can be killed and removed from the remaining storyline. If Marth is defeated in battle, it’s game over.

Across each area, you’ll find various buildings housing helpful NPCs, such as villagers offering friendly advice or offering items, and secret vendors selling new weapons and healing potions. Later portions of Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light are quite challenging, so careful planning is required, making these NPCs extremely helpful. 

Adding to that layer of tactical strategy is the game's class system. Each character is tied to a specific class that affects their functions in battle. For example, flying units like Pegasus Knights can travel across rough terrain and Cavaliers can move greater distances. Classes also affect the weapons units can equip, access to magical abilities, and overall stats, such as defense, attack, and HP.

Individual units level up over the course of battle, earning EXP by taking damage or inflicting it, which increases stats at random. After reaching a set level, some units can be promoted to a higher class for a larger stat buff, though not all of them, including Marth, have the ability to do so.

Unlike later entries in the series, Shadow Dragon doesn’t include Fire Emblem’s famous weapons triangle, but each weapon still has unique traits. Axes and lances are more powerful but are less accurate than swords, while flying units are particularly susceptible to archers.

The game doesn’t tell you how likely an attack is to hit, which makes planning trickier, and since enemies can counterattack if their weapon is within striking range — and you can do the same during your turn — further strategy is needed for unit placement and movement.

Units can’t equip weapons beyond their proficiency rank, either, so you’ll start with lowly iron swords, bows, and axes before getting better equipment later on. Weapons have durability ratings and will break with repeated use, so keeping multiple weapons in your inventory is wise. You can regularly stock up from armories, using gold obtained through the story to purchase them.

Considering Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is a 30-year-old NES game, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that it shows its age. Looking at it in a historical context, it was a superb RPG in 1990, one that influenced countless other titles, and you can see how later Fire Emblem games built upon it. The base components are all here, relationships aside, but it lacks depth in comparison to those later titles.

Curiously, Shadow Dragon received a full remake on the DS in 2008, which overhauled the visuals, added multiplayer components, a new prologue, rebalanced the weapons system, and more. Considering it received a Western release, you have to wonder why Nintendo didn’t release that version on the Switch instead of this one. 

Outside of hardcore Fire Emblem fans, it makes the NES version (this version) practically redundant. Perhaps, despite the new translation, porting this version was simply the easier option; releasing the remake on Switch would require reworking its dual-screen elements for the console. It’s the type of rework we’ve seen with The World Ends with You, but even there, the controls received the most negative feedback.

This re-release does, however, provide several quality-of-life additions to make Shadow Dragon smoother. By pressing both "L" and "R" buttons together, you can bring up a separate menu that lets you increase gameplay speed, create fresh save states, and rewind to a previous turn. For an unforgiving game, they are welcome additions.  

You can also change the graphics settings between a widescreen setting and a “pixel perfect” setting, which restores the original 4:3 ratio and looks significantly less stretched on the Switch, though both still have a large black border.

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade Of Light — The Bottom Line

  • Still a fine RPG experience
  • New quality-of-life improvements make it more accessible
  • Enjoyable combat
  • Both graphical options leave a black border on your screen
  • Gameplay lacks depth compared to modern entries
  • Difficulty may be off-putting

I still can’t believe Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade Of Light is finally here after 30 years; it’s better late than never. As a significant piece of gaming history, it shows just how far this series has come.

While I question the rationale of releasing the NES edition over the superior DS remake, there’s still an enjoyable game here, and going back to where everything started is certainly enjoyable, boosted by some new quality-of-life improvements.

When you consider the low price point alongside everything else, this is one Fire Emblem game that fans should experience before the limited-time release is removed on March 31, 2021.

[Note: Nintendo provided the copy of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light used for this review.]

Destiny 2 Beyond Light Review: The Future Shines Brightly, The Shadows Are Long Tue, 01 Dec 2020 16:34:09 -0500 John Schutt

Destiny 2: Beyond Light delivers an enhanced experience for new players and an expanded set of objectives for veterans. It is not without flaws, great and small, but Bungie built a large portion of both this DLC and its seasonal content in the throes of a global crisis. That alone is a triumph, and there is already so much to love about Destiny 2’s new year.

A short but functional campaign, post-campaign content with narrative weight and character-focused storytelling, refined level grind, some great new weapons and gear — you can and will spend hours and hours discovering everything Beyond Light has to offer.

You likely won’t mind the missing destinations unless you’ve been primarily playing Destiny 2 at the exclusion of all other games. But it is unfortunate that the returning location, the Cosmodrome, gets so little love here.

While some of the systems are muddier than they should be, and the number of bugs, game-breaking mechanics, and reliance on years’ old content isn’t ideal, what you will find in Beyond Light is Bungie doing their absolute damnedest to give everyone what they want — and almost reaching the pinnacle in the process.

Destiny 2 Beyond Light Review: The Future Shines Brightly, The Shadows are Long

The vast, icy caverns and futuristic facilities of the Clovis Bray corporation give the world above and below ground life of its own.

The big-ticket items in Beyond Light — Stasis, Europa, and Fallen Dark Empire— almost all land. The new subclass is incredibly satisfying to use, and Europa is a beautiful wasteland gilt in snow. The Fallen haven’t been a major threat since Black Armory two years ago, and their return is indeed worth the wait.

Stasis, for its part, rewrites how combat works on a moment to moment basis. Suddenly, all three classes can control a battle not just through damage but also geometry. Area denial and the neutral game are now the core of the experience; Stasis abilities aren’t built for sheer damage potential, but they can enable it.

The Warlock’s Shadebinder subclass has seen the lion’s share of discussion in the community and is likely the reason for adjustments to Stasis in PvP. Finally, Warlocks have a magic staff that deals in actual magic, Titans have yet another way to punch things, which is par for the course, and Hunters are now space ninjas who make their weapons out of ice and freezing wind.

Classes also share a core set of abilities and modifications. Every class has access to three grenade types and six Fragments that slightly alter how Stasis powers function. Each of these takes a significant grind to unlock, but because of how new and fun it is to use Stasis, getting your hands on them isn’t prohibitively taxing. The first time, anyway.

A Bleak New World

Europa is amazing. It’s not as visually stunning as the Dreaming City, nor can it boast that location’s interconnectedness with the Tangled Shore, but it needs neither. The vast, icy caverns and futuristic facilities of the Clovis Bray corporation give the world above and below ground life of its own.

There’s a tinge of mystery floating in the air and dark secrets hide around every corner. The environmental storytelling, in other words, is fantastic. And for the first time, fans get real answers to some of the foundational questions in the Destiny universe, such as who Clovis Bray is, what it means to hold Darkness power, and what humanity was really responsible for. 

The DLC uses the entire map as well, which was a woeful misstep before Beyond Light. There is almost always a reason to explore the whole Europan space, whether for a quest or otherwise, something that can't be said about locations like Titan or Io.

It’s not all good news, though. Bungie made much figurative noise about how snowstorms would change how we interact with the playspace. They don't. The effect of snowstorms is neat, and they rarely get in the way, but the issue is how little they come into play in either the story or when you’re doing activities across the planet. You’ll encounter snowstorms on patrol and nowhere else of note.

There also aren’t a lot of new ideas on offer. There are only three Lost Sectors (though fantastically designed), and a massive number of region chests serve the same base purpose as they always have. And though the world itself tells a story, the actual narrative rarely uses the environment to its full potential. Characters and story beats certainly fit in into their respective spaces, but they interact very little.

It’s unfortunate because some of the storytelling in Beyond Light is stellar.

A Dark Empire and Darker Implications

You can say a lot about Beyond Light’s campaign, but not much of it would be glowing praise. The main villain  and writing more generally  is fairly generic. From her motivations to her characterization and how the player inevitably overcomes her, Eramis is, for better or worse, a stepping stone to your acquisition of Stasis and discovering the quality storytelling in Beyond Light.

Once you complete the Eramis storyline, a four-or-so-hour endeavor, the narrative opens up, focusing on human problems, mistakes, and the consequences our decisions have on more than just ourselves. It’s not perfectly told, but there is nuance and real emotion to the important moments, especially regarding the interactions between characters.

I grew to care about what happened to the cast as I progressed and can’t wait to find out more.

Taking the Fight to the Enemies of Humanity

Now there are almost too many ways to level up and make your way toward the Pinnacle barrier of 1,250.

Beyond Light’s gameplay is, at its core, more Destiny 2, but with improved progression, an increased focus on builds, emphasis on using more than one weapon, and phenomenal endgame activities and rewards.

The elephant in the room is the raid. On day one, during Contest mode, when everyone was 20 levels under the recommended Power, it was a true test of skill and coordination. So much so that some are once again calling for Contest to be an option for the high-skill crowd.

It might be a good addition. The raid at or above the recommended level is a much calmer experience than some of the hardest-core want from their endgame activities.

You and your team will still need to work well in tandem, communicating effectively and making the right moves at the right times. Without the constant fear of instant death, however, there is much more room for error. On my first clear, with a set of experienced raiders, we managed to one-phase all of the primary encounters once everyone fully understood their roles and how to execute them. 

Probably the best thing about the raid is that: how it asks everyone in the party to play a specific role and how those roles evolve as you progress. Some roles are more important than others, depending on the encounter, and newer raiders should observe as much as possible, though there’s value to diving in headfirst, too.

Long before you get to the raid, you’ll be leveling up. In previous years, players used vendor loot to expedite the Power grind. Bungie said "no" to that this year, essentially forcing on players the “play how you want” mentality. Every activity in the game offered a path toward the soft cap of 1,200, an increase of 140 from the maximum level at the end of Shadowkeep. From there, Powerful rewards were your only path upward, and those were harder to come by, at least until after the first team completed the raid.

Now there are almost too many ways to level up and make your way toward the Pinnacle barrier of 1,250. There are all of the options on Europa, the core playlist activities of Strikes, Gambit, and Crucible, everything at the Tower, the Seasonal offerings (its own article entirely), the raid, the various Exotic quests— the list goes on.

Add to that the need to grind out new abilities on each character, and Beyond Light’s time investment goes from reasonable to MMO-levels of intense, which is probably Bungie’s purpose. Destiny is officially an action MMO, and if that didn’t come with a massive amount of “go to place and do repetitive thing over and over again" activities, I’m not sure what that would mean.

Thankfully, the grindable activities are both enjoyable and chill enough that at the easier levels, you can complete them again and again without any of them losing their luster. The best rewards are at higher difficulties, and you’ll need friends for those; Empire Hunts, which play like miniature Strikes, hide one of the best boss damage weapons in the game, the Cloudstrike. They’re also farmable for specific weapons, should you choose to do so.

One-off quests are high-quality as well. The Lament quest, for the best new sword in the game, provides not only fun missions that ask you to play in different ways but also some juicy story bits to boot. The Born in Darkness and Fragment quests for the new abilities see you taking Stasis across the system, trying out new ways to optimize your grinding, and generally freezing everything you see.

Rewards are top-notch, though there needs to be a little more variety. The exotics are, to a one, unique and uniquely useful. Some are more universal, but none are trash-tier like we saw in Shadowkeep.

Lost in the Snow

Beyond Light is a new era for Destiny 2.

Destiny 2 can only grow so large so fast, and Bungie cannot put out content quickly enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of its community. That said, it would have been nice if they had found some way to level Stasis inside Europa, maybe even requiring the raid or other endgame activities on the destination to do so.

One of Forsaken’s greatest strengths was its lack of reliance on core content to do almost anything. The DLC and progression were mostly self-contained. Strikes and such were still necessary, but there was enough content between the Tangled Shore and the Dreaming City to keep players occupied for weeks on end, especially after the Last Wish raid.

Beyond Light can’t do that by necessity. Even though it has two destinations once again, one of them is tremendously underused. The Cosmodrome's return should have been a triumphant moment, with players old and new flocking to it. Instead, it plays a small role in the campaign and hosts the new player experience and some endgame Lost Sectors.

By the time you’re ready for the highest level gear in the game, the Cosmodrome has almost no value. The Lost Sectors offer a sure path to Exotics, but the vendor offers no rewards, and his bounties are XP and planetary materials only. The returning Strike is a welcome addition, but you can get to that without needing the rest of the destination.

There are a ton of bugs, broken geometries, and general inconsistencies that could have been addressed, as well. Such issues typically force quick action from Bungie, oftentimes after the community collectively scratches its head at the issue. With the addition of Stasis, new and untested ways of breaking the game have wormed their way in, and it hasn't taken the Destiny hive mind long to exploit them.

Destiny 2 Beyond Light Review — The Bottom Line


  • Improved storytelling and characters
  • Incredible new subclass and world
  • High-quality raid
  • Well-designed and satisfying progression and sweet loot


  • Lackluster campaign
  • Bugs, glitches, game-breaking mechanics
  • Swathes of underutilized content

Beyond Light is a new era for Destiny 2. It shows that Bungie has the chops to take their storytelling in new directions and can build beautiful, enormous spaces under immense stress. At the same time, gameplay and progression haven’t evolved in meaningful ways.

One reason might be because those systems don't need to innovate when subtle adjustments will do. Alternatively, we’ve seen this game shift in big ways before, and maybe it's time for something more to shake up an aging meta.

Sunsetting gear notwithstanding, a major revision to established mechanics or systems beyond just Stasis could have been just the risk this series needed to take. Though Stasis broke a lot of what we thought we knew, so maybe not.

One thing is sure: this DLC is a major step up from Shadowkeep. Whether the seasonal content exceeds expectations remains to be seen, but the year has opened with a bang, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

[Note: The reviewer purchased the copy of Destiny 2 Beyond Light used for this review.]

Immortals Fenyx Rising Review: A Godly Good Time Mon, 30 Nov 2020 13:22:13 -0500 Jordan Baranowski

Immortals Fenyx Rising, Ubisoft's newest action-adventure game, sounds a lot like Assassin's Creed Valhalla on paper. It features a massive open world to explore and tons of things to do in that world, and it puts an interesting twist on pop-culture mythology.

The UI fills with icons when you climb to the top of large statues (this game's version of viewpoints), and hitting a button reveals the surrounding landscape on your map. As your character gets stronger, you unlock new combat mechanics, but you always have the capability to sneak up on enemies and take them out with a one-shot kill. And there are some very good mounts to ride.

Immortals Fenyx Rising doesn't break a lot of new ground, but it ticks many of the same boxes that AC Valhalla does without being quite as swollen. It also carries with it a strong comparison to Breath of the Wild, but on all platforms.

What it may lack in innovation, Immortals Fenyx Rising makes up for in breezy combat and excellent writing, and it's a surprisingly solid game that stands as a must-play for open-world fans.

Immortals Fenyx Rising Review: Deities in Distress

In Immortals Fenyx Rising, Typhon, one of the Titans imprisoned by Zeus and the other Olympians, has broken free and is attempting to take over the world. Panicked, Zeus seeks the help of Prometheus, who proclaims a mortal named Fenyx will be the gods' salvation.

Even though Greek mythology is a commonly visited well in pop culture, Immortals Fenyx Rising does some excellent work with its writing and characters. Prometheus and Zeus regularly interject to narrate your journey and occasionally crack jokes.

Zeus, in particular, has a lot of great, pretty darn funny lines; he's all-powerful but totally naïve and kind of a doofus. Fenyx herself is a storyteller, and can hardly believe she's interacting with so many legends. 

Immortals Fenyx Rising has a lot to say about the power of stories, and it subverts the well-known myths just enough to keep things interesting and to keep the player guessing.

After a brief customization section, where you can choose between male and female versions of Fenyx, you make your way to the Golden Isle, a sort of vacation spot for the Olympians. Each section of the world is dedicated to one particularly powerful deity: Aphrodite's area is a lush paradise, full of blooming flowers and rolling meadows, whereas Ares' portion is a constant battlefield full of massive fortresses and broken siege engines, a tribute to the god of war's many victories.

You begin your journey on a little sub-island off the coast of the Golden Isle, where you obtain most of your early abilities and gather the basics of how to fight, solve puzzles, and generally progress. Then you hit the main portion of the game (complete with the reveal of the logo after a few hours of play), and it all opens up.

On each portion of the Golden Isle, your first goal is to find a giant statue honoring whichever deity is in charge of that section of the island. Climb to the top of it and you can scout the area, revealing all the little points of interest you can tackle.

Opening up a few fast travel points on different parts of the Golden Isle allows you to jump to different sections of Immortals Fenyx Rising without ever putting your progress on hold. 

It helps that traveling around the Golden Isle is a lot of fun. There are different mounts to tame, which you can summon out of thin air and instantly begin riding, and you have a pair of wings to glide around on, taking in the views from above. 

While these points of interest can be a bit overwhelming, they all offer different rewards that help you upgrade Fenyx at the game's hub, called the Hall of the Gods, ultimately preparing her for the final showdown.

Ambrosia can be collected, increasing your maximum health. Treasure chests contain resources to improve your weapons and armor. Potion ingredients help you take down stronger foes. Zeus' lightning raises your maximum stamina. Completing challenges gives you Charon's Coins, which you can use to buy new abilities. There's gear to collect, bosses to fight...

Really, there is a ton to do in Immortals Fenyx Rising.

It helps that all of these resources are so specialized; the system helped me home in on specific upgrades as I played. If I was in a particularly tough boss fight, I could take a quick break to hunt down some Ambrosia to raise my maximum health. If I was trying to climb a mountain and I didn't quite have the stamina to make it to the top, searching for a few more Lightning Bolts was the next goal.

Just like the ability to approach quests in any order you wish creates a sense of freedom, being able to upgrade Fenyx in this way creates a sense of ownership: your Fenyx will evolve in a way unique to you. 

Combat is a big part of Immortals Fenyx Rising, and though it's solid and there are plenty of things to think about as you work your way through bigger mobs of more varied foes, it's nothing too involved or terribly difficult.

Early on, you gain your main weapons: a sword for quick attacks, an axe for heavy attacks that build a stun meter, and a bow for ranged attacks. Basic combat unfolds much as you would expect, but buying new abilities with Charon's Coins helps you to tackle things in certain ways, such as upgrading bracers to pull me to you or equipping gear that has bonuses for attacking while airborne (which gives you a strategic advantage for taking out frustrating flying enemies). 

Boss fights can be challenging, as can some of the puzzles you're tasked with solving, but Fenyx Immortals Rising takes another page from Assassin's Creed with its difficulty adjustments.

There are tons of ways to change things on the fly, making puzzles incredibly simple to solve or foes total pushovers. If you can't figure out the missing piece of a Fresco challenge, adjusting the difficulty to help you move on and then changing it back to normal is a nice way to not get bogged down.

Immortals Fenyx Rising Review  The Bottom Line

  • Well written and funny
  • Lots to do
  • Pretty and varied environments
  • Tons of difficulty adjustments
  • Charming and inventive storytelling and animations
  • Gameplay isn't terribly original
  • Not very challenging
  • Stamina bar takes some getting used to

You could easily classify Immortals Fenyx Rising as a less gory Assassin's Creed or an all-platform Breath of the Wild, and few would question you.

That said, Ubisoft's latest does more than enough to stand on its own while offering a twist on the familiar. It is much more than a clone of either of those games, and its engrossing story and unique narrative help it stand apart.

Immortals Fenyx Rising has undeniable charm. Your mileage may vary, but don't sleep on this one. It's worth the adventure.

[Note: Ubisoft provided the copy of Immortals Fenyx Rising used for this review.]

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity Review — Once More Into the Breach Wed, 25 Nov 2020 16:18:05 -0500 Josh Broadwell

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity takes players back 100 years to re-live the story told through Link's fragmented memories in Breath of the Wild. It's a tale of desperate resistance against inevitable doom, of a world banding together to stem the rising tide of monsters eroding the light.

It makes sense Age of Calamity tells its story through Warriors-style musou combat. And make no mistake: between all the hacking and slashing, Age of Calamity has an interesting story to tell. More than one, in fact. The hacking and slashing is a meaty added bonus, one that's never been better in Nintendo's Warriors games so far.

The end result is a superb blend of refined Warriors combat deeply rooted in Zelda lore, with a surprising amount to offer.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity Review — Once More Into the Breach

After you fire Age of Calamity up and watch the opening cutscene, it won’t take long to realize this isn’t quite what you expected from a BotW prequel. Zelda and time travel go hand-in-hand like a cold glass of Lon Lon milk and… whatever they snack on in Hyrule. The timeline is confusing as all get out thanks to that, and Age of Calamity won’t make it any clearer. 

Whether it raises interesting possibilities for Breath of the Wild 2 or explodes the timeline doesn’t really matter. What matters is the dev team can run wild in BotW’s Hyrule and fill out the original world with dozens of satisfying moments and small stories.

Seeing an intense, life-and-death fight under the boughs of the slumbering Deku Tree or swooping over battlefields as Revali and peppering enemies with bomb arrows — Koei Tecmo and Omega Force get the Zelda universe.

Folks called the original Hyrule Warriors the ultimate fan service game, and that’s just not true anymore. The developers here stuffed Age of Calamity with so much Zelda goodness, filled out the corners, realized that meant room for more fanservice, and crammed a ton inside. 

Even more remarkable is how these little moments flesh out the world and characters. Take Zelda, for instance. She’s nearly always been the ethereal princess in need of a helping Link, showing just a glimpse of personality in Breath of the Wild’s memories. Age of Calamity shows Zelda as both a leader and human Hylian. 

She’s smart and the only one capable of using the Sheikah Slate as a weapon. She’s also determined to press forward and organize the realm’s resistance movement, despite her crippling self-doubt and jerk father. Played right, she’s one of the most powerful and enjoyable characters in the game.

This is the best incarnation of Zelda so far — though the bar was admittedly a bit low to begin with — and it’s something Nintendo needs to stick with in the future.

But it’s not just bringing Zelda alive that makes this Hyrule special. Age of Calamity lets you run amok with 18 characters, and while they don’t always play a meaningful role in shaping the story, it’s still a big change.

Just having them playable feels like a long-standing promise fulfilled. No longer passive watchers and pray-ers, Hyrule’s people get to actively shape their world, interact with each other, and tell their stories. It’s a step forward in shaking the series up, making it more dynamic, and another thing Breath of the Wild 2 hopefully continues.

Theirs aren’t the only stories unfolding either. Hateno Village and other locales might just exist as map blips, but they’re just as involved in stopping the Calamity as the Champions.

Age of Calamity is crammed with different side quests, some battle-oriented but most making use of your hard-won spoils. Two paragraphs of text accompany each, one before and one after completion, and it’s remarkable how much character and information these small blurbs contain.

Link helps prepare a newbie militia group for war, then follows up in a later quest with vital provisions. Zelda helps a young Rito make a wreath for the village’s goddess statue.

Age of Calamity has so many little stories to tell. Even though you can’t see them play out, it’s the most alive Hyrule’s ever felt.

There's no shortage of self-referential humor either.

The quests themselves aren’t that deep, but Age of Calamity links them together in a satisfying way. A batch of new quests opens up and requires items won from finishing battle quests or main quests. You’ll get more hearts, a new combo, or open new stores, including some you visit during Breath of the Wild.

It’s a small but tangible sense of progression that hits all the right endorphin-releasers by rewarding everything you do. And as an added bonus, you can still destroy the gravitas of important scenes by dressing Link like a doofus.

Speaking of endorphin rushes, Age of Calamity's combat is superb. At times, it plays more like an action RPG than a straight-up musou, one that makes you think about the combos you’re using. Cutting through swathes of monsters feels weightier than its predecessor and adapts the essence of Breath of the Wild’s weapons almost perfectly. 

Combos, such as using Mipha’s Grace as a healing finisher or exploding magma chunks for Daruk’s strong attacks, have all the flash you expect from a Warriors game, but they’re grounded in Breath of the Wild as well.

What Age of Calamity lacks in enemy variety it makes up for in mob mix and numbers. On top of the standard bokoblin hordes, you’ll run into a good many mini-boss-type monsters in each map. 

Blue Moblins and Electric Wizzrobes might not seem like much on their own (they are, actually), but when two Ice Moblins and a Fire Wizzrobe team up, mindless slashing goes out the window. There’s still plenty of carpal tunnel-inducing button mashing, but it’s more considered than usual.

If you just want to smash thousands of monsters, then you'll enjoy the Divine Beast stages. Piloting one of the four Beasts from BotW, you'll mow down literally thousands of Lynels, Moblins, and more with special elemental attacks while fending off damage with the Beast's specific counter skills.

These are fun in the sense that smashing things is fun, but they aren't quite as engaging as the main battles. Fortunately, most of them don't linger too long (except Vah Medoh's stages), so it's a nice diversion from the main game with plenty of special effects on show.

All this flashy action comes at a cost, and surprise, surprise, that cost is framerate and resolution. Resolution takes a major hit during special attacks and sometimes when there’s a lot on screen. Age of Calamity isn’t about perfect fidelity, though. Even though it turns into a Hyrulian approximation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night at times, it doesn’t really affect the experience.

Surprisingly enough, neither do the framerate drops  most of the time. Because they happen during combat’s biggest moments, it almost adds a touch of dramatic flair.

The frequent pop-in is dramatic, but not in a good way. Again, it doesn’t ruin the experience, but it does make one wonder how much more developers can get out of the Switch before it’s time for an upgrade.

Battles are too frantic to notice these issues for long, and Age of Calamity adds even more variables than the usual Warriors game.

Enemy placement and weapon type matter as usual, but so does the environment. Sometimes, gaining an edge in a tough fight means using the surroundings to your advantage, unleashing a lightning blast on a puddle or jumping off the wall to land a head hit on a Moblin and open its weak points.

Then there’s Breath of the Wild’s runes. You get to play with Stasis, Magnesis, Remote Bombs, and Cryonis. The forms they take differ for each character — Zelda gets the best — and they add a whole new layer to combat. Outside of using them in normal combat, certain runes counter enemy strong attacks and open their weak points. 

I can’t overstate how good it feels to whack a Moblin, switch seamlessly to a Rune, break their defenses, wall jump for a mid-air combo targeting the head weak spot (a la Breath of the Wild), and then finish it off with a weak-point attack.

It never gets old.

The upgrading system does grate, unfortunately. It's interesting, but it's also a bit unnecessary. The blacksmith enhances your equipped weapons by fusing them with up to five other weapons from the spoils earned during missions.

These often have different engravings offering stat bonuses of some kind, but it isn't always as useful as it sounds. 

Mashing five weapons together without thinking works just as well, and while the challenge ramps up fast in the story quests, I can’t say the benefits from matching sigils are all that noticeable.

Though everyone else is limited to their signature battle tool, Link can swap between and level up spears, two-handed weapons, and one-handed weapons. Each offers unique movesets, but you’ll probably stick with the Master Sword once you get it. Given the thought put into these, more scenarios revolving around each type would have been nice, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker.

Some characters are more practical to play as than others, but it’s clear much thought went into designing the moves and movements of each. I don’t care if playing as Hestu is awkward. Hitting Moblins with maracas is fun, and I will continue to do it.

That actually sums up the Age of Calamity experience pretty well. It’s not super deep. Heck, it’s probably not even essential to the series, though we’ll have to wait for Breath of the Wild 2 to know with certainty. But it’s non-stop fun and a shining tribute to Breath of the Wild and Zelda as a whole.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity Review — The Bottom Line

  • Expansive take on Breath of the Wild's Hyrule and its people
  • Engaging combat
  • Lots of character and playstyle variety
  • So much quality fanservice
  • Excellent soundtrack
  • Some graphical and performance blips
  • Doesn't always make good use of all its systems
  • Some Divine Beast battles drag on a bit
  • Could use more checkpoints

Maybe Age of Calamity is a stop-gap to tide fans over until Breath of the Wild 2, but no effort was spared in making it a quality game. If you can't stand musou combat, yeah, it might be better to pass on Age of Calamity. Fighting is more in-depth, but it's still a Warriors game at heart.

If you're fine with that or love Zelda, Age of Calamity is a must-have.

[Note: Nintendo of America provided the copy of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity used for this review.] 

PS5 Pulse 3D Wireless Headset Review: Excellent Sound Held Back By a Lackluster Mic Wed, 25 Nov 2020 13:18:16 -0500 David Jagneaux

Alongside the PlayStation 5, Sony released a handful of accessories: a DualSense charging station, a media remote, and an HD camera. Probably the most appealing of them all is the $100 Pulse 3D Wireless Headset.

After spending a few weeks with the headset while playing PS5 games like Astro's Playroom, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, Godfall, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Demon's Souls, and more, it's clear that Sony has a high-quality accessory on their hands in terms of sound quality. The mic, however, isn't up to that same quality.

Reviewing the PS5 Pulse 3D Wireless Headset is a bit odd because it's difficult to separate the PS5 Tempest 3D audio features from the headset and vice versa. Due to how the PS5 handles its audio, including the "3D audio" sensation, most headsets are going to deliver really nice and well-rounded sound, even if they don't have 3D in the name.

PS5 Pulse 3D Wireless Headset Review: Well-Rounded Sound With A Lackluster Mic

Comfort, Design, and Build Quality

I was at first concerned that the headset would be uncomfortable. Since I wear glasses, I'm typically wary of smaller ear cups because of their tendency to pinch my ears on the rim of my glasses, but these cups are just large enough to mostly cover my ears entirely and rest around them comfortably. 

The leather cups are soft and relaxing with enough depth so your ear isn't scraping on the inside (I always hate that feeling). The headband is stretchy, yet resistant to bending, so as you expand it to fit on your head, it collapses enough to rest firmly without feeling too tight.

It's a nifty design that eliminates the need for clicking the headband open or potentially damaging it if someone else ever puts it on.

The plastic white portion of the band, though, feels weak and cheap. I haven't been brave enough to apply pressure and see what happens, but it feels like snapping is a very real possibility with these if you're not careful. I'm terrified to think of what my three-year-old might do if left alone with this headset!

Visually, it looks just like the PS5 and DualSense controller with a stark white-on-black aesthetic. Personally, the style is growing on me more and more over time, and it's nice to have accessories that all go together nicely. 

Except for the USB dongle.

The Pulse 3D's USB-A dongle is pretty large and sticks out when plugged in, so you may want to plug it into the back. But if you're using the PSVR headset, which takes up two slots on its own, you're left with just the USB-A and USB-C ports on the front. Using this headset while keeping your PSVR plugged in means that all your ports are accounted for, with no room for an external hard drive or USB stick for transferring files — unless you get a USB hub or extension of some kind.

Thankfully, the USB dongle is dead simple to use. No setup necessary at all here. You literally just plug it into your PS5, PS4, or PC and turn the headset on. In less than 5 seconds, it's connected and you're good to go. There's a 3.5mm jack as well if you'd prefer or need that. (On the box it's marketed as being intended for PSVR since the headset processes 3D audio in the external processing box, meaning you need to be hardwired in the specific case of using a PSVR headset).

I particularly like how many settings there are on the side of the left ear cup. You can not only adjust volume and mute your mic easily, but you can even turn on mic monitoring to check what you sound like and even adjust the party chat vs game audio balance manually on the headset rather than needing to open a PS5 UI window. 

Pulse 3D Wireless Headset Sound Performance and Mic Quality

Despite the marketing behind the headset and the fact that it has "3D" in its name, you don't actually need this headset to take advantage of the PS5's 3D audio features. In fact, just about any headset should work fine as long as it connects to the console via USB dongle or by plugging into the DualSense controller itself.

It's worth noting that 3D audio is essentially a term that Sony has unofficially claimed as a moniker for its version of immersive surround sound. The best way of describing it is to say that if you're playing Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, for example, you should be able to hear precisely from which direction enemies are approaching thanks to directional audio. It's also apparent in a game like Godfall, where you're able to hear from which direction an enemy is attacking or a treasure chest of loot is located.

The 3D Audio features are impressive and effective, but they don't feel as essential or groundbreaking as the DualSense controller. It's something headsets from companies like Logitech and Audeze have been doing for some time.

Though the headset sound quality itself is pretty fantastic, the same can't be said for the microphone, unfortunately. The Pulse 3D headset uses a dual mic setup so that one mic focuses on identifying and "canceling" background noise while the other mic listens to your voice. 

The canceling portion works well; background noise was rarely an issue while wearing the headset. However, the quality of the mic itself seems to suffer — a lot. There is an almost muffled quality to it. It sounds more like someone is sitting across the room from you, trying to speak up over the game audio, rather than being in the actual chat channel.

In fact, switching your mic audio to the built-in mic from the DualSense actually sounds better than the mic in the Pulse 3D Headset, which seems highly unusual (but it's been true from what I've tested). I'd even say the old PS Camera mic is better than the Pulse 3D Headset mic.

PS5 Pulse 3D Wireless Headset Review — The Bottom Line

  • Great sound quality and depth
  • Robust 3D audio presence
  • Seamless compatibility via USB dongle
  • Lots of toggles and settings on the headset itself
  • Comfortable earcup design
  • Flimsy build due to plastic band
  • Relatively short battery life (~10-12 hours)
  • Poor mic quality by comparison

Overall, the PS5 Pulse 3D Headset has earned a spot as my go-to headset for PS5. I plan to leave the dongle plugged in the back and simply turn it on as needed to start gaming. The mic quality seems good enough for casual gaming, but for longer sessions or a game that requires more tactical conversation, I'll likely switch to using my SteelSeries Arctis 1 for the improved mic quality. It also still benefits from the "Tempest 3D Audio" technology anyway, so I'm not losing much beyond branding and style consistency.

At $100 you get a lot of bang for your buck and the ease of use combined with the solid sound quality make this a good purchase for the average PS5 user without question.

[Note: A PlayStation 5 Pulse 3D Wireless Headset was provided by Sony for the purpose of this review.]

Sackboy: A Big Adventure Review – A Finely Crafted Adventure Tue, 24 Nov 2020 17:08:26 -0500 Henry Stockdale

It doesn’t feel like that long ago everyone was talking about LittleBigPlanet on the PS3. But for Sackboy, an icon of that bygone era, it's been over six years since he's made a new appearance.

Though original developers Media Molecule have moved on to thecreative playground that is Dreams, Sackboy hasn't been forgotten. His legacy is now in Sumo Digital’s hands, and with the studio's latest effort, Sackboy is back  triumphantly so.

Rather than develop a brand new LBP game, Sumo Digital has brought fans Sackboy: A Big Adventure, a spin-off that ditches the main series' creative mode for a Super Mario 3D World-esque platforming experience.

Sackboy: A Big Adventure Review  A Finely Crafted Adventure

Sackboy begins with peaceful Craftworld under threat from the villainous Vex (played by the wonderful Richard E. Grant), a puppet-esque villain attempting to enslave Craftworld to create his “Topsy Turver,” a machine designed to turn this planet into a nightmarish hellscape.

Managing to escape this fiend, Sackboy sets out to stop him, aided by Scarlet (played by the equally wonderful Dawn French), a Knitted Knight who mentors our knitted friend into becoming a Knight himself and stopping Vex’s nightmare from coming to fruition.

A journey across five different worlds, which range from the underwater delights of Crablantis to the jungle-themed Colossal Canopy, Sackboy can be played just fine as a single-player game, but the biggest delights come from its co-operative mode, allowing four players to join in at once.

One thing you’ll immediately notice when entering these worlds is just how stunning this game is. Running at a smooth 60 frames per second, SABA makes effective use of the PS5 hardware to create a colorful aesthetic filled with cute designs and heartwarming creatures. It also retains those same visual quirks from LittleBigPlanet, so expect to see plenty of cardboard cut-outs and stickers as you progress.

Some stages are specifically co-op only, requiring you and a partner to put your heads together to solve certain puzzles and overcome obstacles. Unfortunately, Sackboy only features local co-op currently; online multiplayer was delayed until later this year. It’s hard not to feel disappointed by the feature's absence so close to launch, but at least it’s on the way soon.

Sackboy has a variety of different moves to help him through each level, letting you punch, roll, jump, and more. It’s not as simple as just defeating enemies and moving on, though: mechanics differ between levels, including climbing onto sticky surfaces or using the DualSense controller to move platforms.

Each world ends in a boss fight, which feels challenging but never infuriatingly so. They are more a matter of learning attack patterns and timing your strikes than anything else.

In terms of the core gameplay, SABA nails it. Levels are well designed and balanced, packed with imagination. You couldn’t ask for a better co-op game at the PS5's launch.

Each world is absolutely brimming with content and contains many hidden tidbits to discover, from secret rooms marked by zipped-up doors to disguised pathways leading to concealed goodies. Your primary objective in Sackboy is to collect Dreamer Orbs required to unlock more segments of the map. They often tie into these secret areas, which, alongside Knitted Knight time trial stages, adds a lot of replayability. 

At the end of each level, your performance is ranked based on how many score bubbles you collect across the stage, granting you a bronze, silver, or gold trophy. That, in turn, gives you golden collectibles, which act as your currency. These can be used to purchase new costumes, costume pieces, and emotes from Zom Zom, a French merchant with a love of collectibles, giving you a fantastic range of customization options. 

A remarkable soundtrack accompanies you on your journey, taking a cue from Rayman Legends where some levels revolve entirely around a set of licensed songs, ranging from Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk to Britney Spears’ Toxic. Though standard gameplay is really enjoyable, this is an undeniable highlight, and it’s hard to not find yourself singing along as you play.

Sackboy: A Big Adventure Review — The Bottom Line


  • Platforming is very precise
  • Excellent voice acting
  • Adorable aesthetic
  • Great fun in co-op mode
  • Strong replay value


  • Online multiplayer not available at launch
  • Sometimes a bit too easy

It’s difficult to say anything bad about Sackboy: A Big Adventure. No online multiplayer at launch is admittedly disappointed; combat is slightly basic but does what it needs to, never feeling too complicated; and levels can be rather easy.

But overall, there’s plenty of content here for veteran platforming fans, some of which will put their abilities to the test. Sure, SABA won’t revolutionize 3D platformers, but Sumo Digital has created a highly refined experience for Sackboy’s grand return, something that really drew me in.

With an A-list cast, superb visuals, and some strong co-op gameplay, Sackboy: A Big Adventure successfully proves that Sackboy can thrive without LittleBigPlanet’s creation mechanics, all while still paying homage to his roots. It’s genuinely wonderful to see this PS3 icon return once more, and I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of him.

Demon's Souls Review: Key to Life's Ether Mon, 23 Nov 2020 14:47:06 -0500 Jonathan Moore

Though From Software couldn’t have known it at the time, the release of Demon’s Souls would change the face of gaming forever. It gave birth to an entirely new subgenre of RPG while also redefining the general context of difficulty in games. Deeply layered lore, a mysterious world, and methodical — almost surgical — combat mechanics cemented its place as a multi-generational must-play.

In the years since its release on the PlayStation 3 in 2009, Demon’s Souls has mostly watched from the shadows as its spiritual sequels have basked in the adulation for which it was the foundation. Darks Souls, Bloodborne, and even Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice are all exceptional games rightly lauded for their simultaneous adherence to and iteration of the original formula. Each brings something special and unique to the legacy of the Old One.

But they aren’t the same special concoction that is Demon’s Souls.

Indeed, the return of such an indelible classic on the PlayStation 5 is perhaps more than fans could have ever hoped for. Remastered and enhanced by the expert team at Bluepoint Games (who also gave us Shadow of the Colossus remastered and Metal Gear Solid HD), Demon’s Souls is a veritable triumph of execution and a stunning showcase for Sony’s newest console.

Demon's Souls Review — Key to Life's Ether

To be clear: Demon’s Souls on PS5 is a remaster with many breathtaking next-gen (now current-gen) enhancements. It is not a full-on remake. That, however, does not compromise what Bluepoint Games has accomplished or render it any less majestic.

The underlying code of the game remains intact, meaning that most of the gears that made the original Demon’s Souls work so well are still hard at work in the remaster — they’ve just been greased and oiled with the power of the PlayStation 5.

Combat, then, is mostly the same. It’s still tough as nails and predicated on methodical, patient play, where each enemy commands both respect and strategy to defeat. Take an enemy for granted at nearly any level, and you’ll quickly learn the definitions of pain and punishment. Late-game foes, even if they resemble those from earlier levels, can be utterly unforgiving.

Movement is a tad less janky than it is in the PlayStation 3 version. It feels noticeably less floaty and more substantial from the start, even if it sometimes finds ways to act up when rolling or treading carefully along a beam above a bottomless abyss.

Some of this “improvement” can be chalked up to the relative heaviness of the DualSense over the flimsiness of the DualShock 3, but I like to think that the development team has done some alchemy here to strike a balance between old and new.

The charm and personality of From Software’s original vision shines through brightly here.

As with combat, bosses mostly stay true to their original iterations. Tower Knight still lumbers around its arena trying to crush you with its gigantic shield, stomp you with its boots, skewer you with its spear, or hit you with a (sometimes) devastating Soul Arrow. Adjudicator still lashes you with its tongue while punishing slow, inattentive movement. And Old Monk still underscores the inventiveness of the game’s multiplayer system, summoning real players to act as the boss for Tower of Latria’s final level.

Worlds and level layout are virtually unchanged, as well. Enemies, items, and secrets are in the same places they were before. If you’ve played the original, you already know where everything is and how everything operates. But I, like many other Souls fans, wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s like revisiting an old friend that’s grown wiser in the decades since youth, but one that remains familiar and approachable. The charm and personality of From Software’s original vision shines through brightly here, and for that, Bluepoint deserves everlasting praise.

Though many parts of Demon’s Souls still feel like Demon’s Souls, the remaster is the best version of the game because of the tweaks and changes Bluepoint has implemented from beginning to end. The most obvious of these, of course, is the dramatic graphical overhaul showcased in all of the trailers and screenshots leading up to release.

It’s to be expected DeS would look better on the PS5 than it does on the PS3, but it cannot be overstated how impossibly gorgeous this game is. There are two display modes available: Cinematic mode, which runs at 4K but a lower, choppier framerate, and Performance mode, which runs at a variable resolution but stays at a solid 60fps.

Not only does Demon’s Souls feel fantastic in Performance mode, but it also still looks fantastic, underscoring the fact that sacrificing frames for visuals in Cinematic mode just isn’t worth it. All of the game’s environments, from the ramparts of Boletarian Palace to the depths of the Valley of Defilement, are so incredibly detailed and refined in this mode that it’s the most definitive and enjoyable way to play the game.

Instead of relying solely on monochromatic color patterns as in the original, DeS remastered now intersperses worlds and levels with more diverse swatches of color that better realize the land of Boletaria. Though most environments are still rooted in darker browns and greens, there’s much more vibrancy and contrast to each location by way of expert lighting and other environmental effects just not possible on the PlayStation 3.

Torches twinkle in the dark of Stonefang Tunnel and the Valley of Defilement, casting looming shadows along the walls and decrepit buildings. Water puddles ripple as you splash through them, sending droplets flying in multiple directions each time. Banners flutter in the wind, twisting and turning in each gust. Lightning cracks through the sky in twisting arcs that ignites rolling clouds.

Walls, cliffs, boards, and doors have incredible texture, and geometric enhancements mean that certain surfaces are no longer flat or amorphous, allowing bricks and other architectural flourishes — such as the meticulous detailing on each Archstone — to jut outward or curve around exteriors realistically. Rocks pepper the ground in Stonefang Tunnel, making it feel more like an actual mine. Cracks and fissures in Boletarian Palace make it feel more run down and abandoned. 

This attention to detail carries over to character models, as well. Boletarian soldiers grimace in agony when attacked. The tongues of Depraved Ones droop from their mouths and flop about as they attack you. Mindflayers snake their tentacles toward you to drain your lifeforce in a terrifying waking nightmare.

In a nice touch, blood and mud now stick to your character, while the aura of soulform has graduated from a pittling glow to a detailed “steam” that rises from your character’s upper body and head.

At this point, it’s worth mention the improved character creation system. Bluepoint claims there are “16 million permutations” available in Demon’s Souls remastered, and while I only have two characters at the moment and I certainly haven’t spent hours and hours confirming there are truly that many options, what is on offer adds tremendous credence to the claim.

Options for body type and appearance are greatly expanded upon from the original, with 48 presets to choose from and myriad sliders to adjust everything from brow depth and nose height to facial hair (beards!), skin color, and tattoos.

Creating the perfect character isn’t a useless endeavor, either. There’s now an option in the primary menu that allows you to remove your headgear during play, and the in-game facial rendering means you can see every last detail of your meticulously created you. And yes, the incredibly awkward but timelessly chic friar cut makes a triumphant return.

The little details add up to show the amount of love poured into each and every aspect of this new Demon’s Souls experience.

Bluepoint has also added a plethora of new animations to the mix for attacks, parries, and backstabs. Each weapon, even those in the same class, can have different animations; only a handful of swords, axes, and spears operate the same visually. The heavy attack for the Great Axe and Guillotine Axe, for example, is similar but subtly different, lending to each a distinctive feeling.

Backstabs vary from enemy to enemy, as well as if you’re holding your weapon with two hands. Kicking a Blue Eye Knight off the end of your longsword is a powerful sensation and never gets old. Parries, on the other hand, which I’m terrible at, are effectively brutal, lending a sense of heft and energy to the move found in few other places.

Performing a parry with a long sword or crescent falchion jabs the blade through an enemy before you lift them and slam them down. With the dagger, you stab an enemy multiple times before slashing through their neck. Weirdly, the great axe includes a stabbing animation, which sees you ramming the blunt end of the weapon straight through an enemy. Ouch.

Spells aren’t left out in the cold. Soul Arrow, for example, uses a shoving animation, while Soul Ray has an animation that resembles underhanding a baseball. Warding is a singular circular motion, while Protection uses two circular motions.

These little details may not seem immediately consequential, but they add up to show the amount of love poured into each and every aspect of this new Demon’s Souls experience.

Attached to this is how the game implements the haptics and rumble features of the DualSense controller. Whacking a sword against stone creates a strong pulse from the middle of the controller that centers in your palm. Striking the tip of the same sword along a stone wall creates a smaller pulse that diffuses more evenly across your entire hand.

Soul Arrow rumbles through the controller as a small wave from the center outward, while Soul Ray does the same, just with an added punch at the end after a slight pause.

Like the archery sections of Astro’s Playroom, Demon’s Souls also uses tension in the triggers when using a bow. The initial bump feels a lot like nocking an arrow and pulling it back against a tense bowstring. I noticed that the tension isn’t the same every time, as it’s often strongest when you first nock an arrow after not doing so for a few minutes. 

It’s unfortunate that the rest of the game doesn’t make good use of the adaptive triggers. There’s no tactile power in parrying, and heavy attacks feel just as they would on a DualShock 4. Though, to be fair, having feedback in every swing and thrust would likely get grating quickly, not to mention wear out the triggers prematurely.

Perhaps some of the most welcome improvements to this version of Demon’s Souls come in the form of quality of life changes. These add to the overall experience without toying with the core mechanics detrimentally.

You can now send items from your inventory, or those in the world that would over encumber you, to Stockpile Thomas at the click of a button. This is incredibly helpful for transferring shards and stones while farming or for picking up unique weapons and armor you just don’t want to come back to.

Weapon and shield durability is smartly shown as a red bar next to your currently equipped items in the lower-left portion of the screen, cutting down on time spent in menus. There's also a hotkey toolbelt system that expands your ability to use items quickly in the heat of a fight in case you’ve forgotten to save them to your items list (just don’t forget to set them in the toolbelt, either!).

World and Character Tendency, the system by which your in-game actions are judged, is much easier to discern in the remaster, getting its own menu divided into the two categories. This is important for those seeking out certain NPCs and for knowing whether or not specific level areas have opened or remain blocked off. Being able to see changes in this system every time you return to the Nexus in an easy to access menu is leagues better than the nebulousness of the original approach.

You can now also warp between Archstones within worlds and from world to world, similar to the bonfire system in Dark Souls. Loading times may be lightning fast with the PS5’s SSD, but being able to skip the Nexus when you want to travel between areas is a very welcome addition.

In no small way is the original sound design refined in this version, made more potent by the use of 3D audio...

I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend some time talking about the strength of the remaster’s sound design and soundtrack, both of which pay respectful homage to the score and sounds of 2009’s version of the game. Silence still plays a key role in bolstering the sense of isolation and creeping dread in key areas, but the remaster's orchestration adds new textural nuance to places like the Prison of Hope and bosses like Flamelurker.

Shunsuke Kida’s original score is legendary in the Souls community for good reason. It’s unique, foreboding, and powerful in ways that few soundtracks are. I wish more of it had been salvaged and made available in the remaster, but I also appreciate the evolution of the score here, which takes Kida’s themes and creates a wider soundscape that is truly epic in its own right.

The game’s sound effects also deserve special mention. You can differentiate between water dripping on stone and steel; boards creak and groan under your feet; armor clinks with little taps as you walk; and soldiers belt out blood-curdling screams when set on fire.

In no small way is the original sound design refined in this version, made more potent by the use of 3D audio, which lets you hear where your enemies are and fathom the full might of a dragon as it flies overhead, the defining swoosh of its wings engulfing your senses.

Demon’s Souls isn’t perfect. Because it’s more remaster than remake, some of the original’s more vexing elements have made the transition.

Rubber-banding is still an issue from time to time, especially when fighting more aggressive bosses such as Maneater and Flamelurker. The camera, too, has an annoying tendency to whip around in certain portions of Upper Latria when Gargoyles descend their perches or drop down to catch you on staircases.

Enemies can still clip through walls when using certain attacks, something especially obvious with the SIlver Skeletons in Shrine of Storms, and switching targets while locked on to an enemy doesn’t always choose the one closest to you.

Summoning can still be a drag, even if it's improved and now employs a password system similar to the one found in Bloodborne. I appreciate its tenacious adherence to the old ways — objectively making it endearing — but I can’t help but wish for something less obtuse and protracted.

All of these would have been nice fixes for Bluepoint to address, if for nothing more than mitigating unnecessary frustration.

Demon's Souls Review — The Bottom Line

  • Stunning graphics
  • Amazing sound design and soundtrack
  • Silky smooth Performance mode
  • Lightning-fast load times
  • Ability to transfer items to stash
  • Smart warping system
  • Clearer World Tendency indicators
  • Omni-directional rolling
  • Multiplayer password system
  • Robust character creation tool
  • Photo mode
  • Lock-on system can be fickle
  • Camera can get stuck in places
  • Some janky movement and combat
  • Choppy Cinematic mode
  • Flavorless HP, MP, and Stamina bars

Demon’s Souls is a masterpiece. From jaw-dropping graphics that showcase the pure power of the PlayStation 5 and a sweeping soundscape that takes full advantage of 3D audio, this is a launch title to die for. Add to that a loving and tender adherence to the source material and intelligent quality of life enhancements that make for a more enjoyable experience, and Demon’s Souls on PS5 is perhaps the most complete remaster to ever exist.

I do have small qualms with the underlying code that I wish had been addressed, and it would have been nice for Bluepoint to give the status bars a bit more character. It’s a shame, too, that the Cinematic 4K mode is so unbearably choppy that it's rendered nearly unplayable once you experience the silky smooth framerates of Performance mode.

Regardless of those relatively small shortcomings, this remaster stands as a shining example of how transformative reimaginings can be, and how, with loving dedication, a remaster can be just as revolutionary and memorable as its source material.

[Note: Sony Interactive Entertainment provided the copy of Demon’s Souls used for this review.] 

Xbox Series X Review: Microsoft's Vision Comes Into Focus Fri, 20 Nov 2020 16:45:07 -0500 Mark Delaney

I've played video games all my life, but only this past August did I finally play a video game on a PC. I've played on every console since the mid-nineties  we even had some weird ones growing up (Panasonic 3DO, anyone?) — but not until a few months ago had I ever really seen video games running on a PC in my own home.

The results have been impressive to say the least. It came pre-built and fully loaded. My wife bought it as a gift, and she's never revealed the price. I've asked, but she doesn't want to say. It runs everything on Ultra and loads super fast. Frankly, it's been excellent, even if I shudder to think about how much she spent on the thing.

Despite my decades of preference toward consoles, I've lately wondered if I should move the majority of my gaming to PC. Then I played Xbox Series X, and I remembered what it is about consoles I love so much.

Xbox Series X Review: Microsoft's Vision Comes Into Focus

The Series X is Microsoft's most impressive console launch in the company's history, because it gives me a high-end PC experience for a fraction of the price. Alongside services like Game Pass and xCloud, the Xbox ecosystem has never been stronger than it is today with Xbox Series X. 

Out of the box, the Xbox Series X is built to look like a PC. Microsoft is well-versed in both consoles and personal computers by now, but the Series X blatantly seeks to merge the two into one, and it starts with the form factor.

The Series X stands at just shy of a foot tall, and it's almost six inches wide. Its footprint is that of a smallish cinderblock, and though it's not nearly as heavy, it feels hearty in your hands. It's designed to work both vertical and horizontal, though for my money, it looks much nicer standing tall.

With a subtly green-painted top vent, even calling it whisper-quiet seems wrong. Whispers are still audible. I can't hear a thing coming from my Series X, and it must owe that to the internal parts of this monolith and the massive vent it wears on top.

It's no accident that it looks like a PC. That's the point. It plays like one too. Early and often, playing video games on Series X is smoother, faster, and simpler. One of the Xbox's unique features is Quick Resume. Whereas on Xbox One, players can keep a single game suspended and return to it instantly so long as they don't initiate a different game, Xbox Series X allows for multiple games to wait for your return like this. 

My first brush with this feature came as a pleasant surprise as I had forgotten to expect it when it happened. Moving instantly from Fortnite back to Assassin's Creed Valhalla was my first "aha!" moment with the new generation, but it wouldn't be my last.

However, Quick Resume does suffer by having no clear place that lists what's in standby this way. At launch, it seems to be up to the player to keep track of their last five games played, so they know what's still idling.

I tend to go between two games plus maybe an additional review game during any given week, so it hasn't been too tough to track what are normally the same three games each session for me, but if you're someone who jumps around a lot between games, Quick Resume owes you simpler navigation and a clearer explanation.

When it comes to the games themselves, the Series X is an obvious improvement over last-gen consoles. To be frank, this is what I was most skeptical about. I have a big 4K TV, but it's not the nicest one on the market, so I was worried if my 4K/60/HDR setup would look lesser than Microsoft would like me to believe.

My doubts subsided before I even got into a game. During the Valhalla loading screen, the first game I tested, it was immediately obvious that Eivor, the protagonist who runs around while the game loads, already had more vibrant colors and much finer detail on her Viking armor.

When the game threw me into my ninth-century settlement just seconds later, I was stunned. The high-end PC experience, which I had missed for most of my life and I'd only finally seen at home weeks prior, was suddenly being presented on my 65" TV as a vibrant Viking village, sun-soaked in the most dazzling light I'd ever seen in games.

If you blocked your ears for years while PC gamers preached about superior performance and how 60 frames per second is so important, you don't have to run from their teases anymore. The Xbox Series X performs on par with my PC, and in some cases even outperforms it.

I have a 22" 1080p PC (no ray tracing), and I never upgraded to the mid-gen Xbox One X or PS4 Pro, so these early moments with Valhalla were my first ever with 4K gaming outside of trade shows. It looks different  more mesmerizing  when it happens in your own living room. 

Over the last week and a half, I've tested nearly 20 games spanning four generations of Xbox, and though some of the biggest hits like Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves are next-gen-ready with day one optimizations such as improved frame rates and 4K textures, the unprecedented thing the Series X does is how it makes all your games better, even when the developers of some games haven't even touched them.

Next year, an enhanced version of Control hits new-gen platforms, but for now, the Series X has already eliminated its infamous freezing issue when I exit the pause menu. Remedy didn't touch it up. It's just the architecture of the Xbox Series X making games better.

My Game of the Year, Ooblets, can routinely slow the pace of play by forcing a load screen when you move between your farm and the town, but that screen has virtually disappeared now. The new-gen Madden 21 is due out in two weeks, but I've already enjoyed the disappearance of the legacy menu lag that plagues Madden annually. It's just gone. And that's lovely.

The fact is regardless of how much extra work studios want to do to optimize their games for the Series X, Microsoft has ensured the machine already does a lot of that work for them. Loading screens have been reduced by half or more in many instances, such as the once-lengthy opening to Sea of Thieves, now cut down to under 20 seconds. Fast-traveling in Valhalla was taking about 30 seconds or more on Xbox One, but since moving my save data to Xbox Series X, the same moves now take me about 9 seconds.

These highlights  suspending multiple games, improving load times, sharpening up frame rates  they all sound familiar, don't they? The Xbox Series X is a high-end PC for a fraction of the price. Often people say they don't need an Xbox because Microsoft always brings their games to PC. That may be true for many people, but for those not yet invested in either, the proposition of getting high-end gameplay for about the price of just a decent graphics card is a smart one for everyone involved.

This generation, Microsoft has committed more to compatibility than ever before, and the Series X's use of instant cloud save transfers and Smart Delivery guarantee a seamless transition. Smart Delivery means any game that is cross-gen compatible need only be bought once. The game will recognize the platform you're playing on and instantly give you the best possible version for that device.

This was obvious when I moved from a game like Dirt 5 on Xbox One to its already enhanced Xbox Series X version. Dirt 5 is already a lovely looking game, but racing fans will tell you higher framerates reign supreme, and Dirt 5 will be offering not just 60, but a 120 frames per second mode in this launch window.

Even if you prefer resolution, Dirt 5 in 4K is a showpiece. The game's colorful festival campaign mode is one of the best ways to spend the launch of the Series X because it stands as an example of all the smart moves the Xbox team has made.

To some, the absence of any major exclusives makes the Series X launch lackluster, but I don't see it that way. Halo Infinite was delayed but even that was going to be cross-generational. For now, Xbox has both the means and the motive of tens of millions of Xbox Ones already inside homes around the world to keep games coming to both platforms as much as possible.

The first true next-gen exclusive looks to be January's The Medium, which leverages the power of the Series X to present its dual-reality gameplay in such a manner that Xbox One can't handle.

But for their 23 in-house studios, it seems Microsoft is intent on offering them across generations for at least a year or two. If that reads as boring, I'd understand, because I once thought faster loading and better framerates weren't enough for my next-gen purchase, but I'm here to say, many dozens of hours later, it totally is. 

This generational transition is less of a gap and more of a changing tide. The waves come to shore, the current pulls them back out. Over time, we see how the beach is affected. This is not an action movie leap between Xbox One and Xbox Series X. But I prefer it that way, and I have no doubt if it could've been like this 20 years ago, it would've been. This sort of compatibility deserves to be the new normal.

Nowhere does Microsoft's tide-like transition feel more apparent than when you boot up the console. After a new opening logo and chime, everything else you see is the same as it is on Xbox One. Microsoft has created a universal UI for its two ongoing Xbox generations, alongside a redesigned mobile app also fitting the style.

In this uniformity, one may lose that new console look and feel that we all love, but it's hard to see this as a bad thing either. Any changes they wish to implement will continue to come to both platforms for the foreseeable future, and right now that doesn't seem to suggest the Xbox One is holding back the Series X in any way. Perhaps in a year or two, when the games totally move on from Xbox One, so too will the development schedule for the Xbox UI.

Not quite identical, but still very close to its predecessor is the new Xbox controller. In a consumer-friendly move, virtually all accessories from Xbox One are forward compatible with Xbox Series X. This means your headset, controllers, charging stands, and chatpads can all still be used on Series X. It's brilliant, but it does come at a pretty pronounced cost: the controller is light on innovations. 

You've maybe heard of the PS5's DualSense controller, a new gamepad for a new generation. Xbox apparently isn't concerned with matching its rival's features when it comes to what players hold in their hands. The new Xbox controller is the best it's ever been, but its improvements are subtle at best. It's ever so slightly smaller, which may actually be a bad thing for players with bigger hands.

The dedicated Share button is a welcome touch, but something the PS4 had at launch and Switch had in 2017, so it feels mandatory, not interesting. The best touches to the new controller are two-fold. For one, the back of the pad, as well as the two shoulder buttons, now feature a gripped touch to provide just a bit more friction, in what feels like a half-step toward giving players more of the Elite controller options at the base level.

This extends also to the best D-Pad in video games, which Xbox can now boast it possesses in its new controller design. Its precise clicks give the accuracy of the old Nintendo 64 C-buttons, but it doesn't lose the versatility of diagonal inputs for things like fighters or platformers where players prefer to use the old-fashioned D-Pad.

Looking at the controller, you'd be forgiven for not seeing where it's different, but like a lot of the Xbox Series X features, the pairing of subtlety and consumer-friendliness manages to feel like a great fit.

Right now, the worst thing about the Xbox Series X is its plans for storage expansion. A custom port in the backside of the console allows for one specific type of expansion card, and at launch, at least, it's very pricey, retailing for $220. Maybe you won't need to expand your storage for a while, but should you decide to, it seems Microsoft is only going to give players one option should they want to continue to benefit from the full range of Series X capabilities. 

The console does allow for external hard drives like before, but it's said that these games won't reveal their best versions of themselves if they're not on the solid-state drive inside the Xbox, which only the expensive cards can access. It's a strange move, a platform-defying one even, to be so consumer-unfriendly in this one way while so much else contributes to being the most consumer-first console in industry history.

All of this talk of the device itself unavoidably leads into the bigger picture at Xbox. Phil Spencer and company would love to sell you an Xbox Series X. But if they can't, they've got plans for you still. Maybe it's the cheaper Xbox Series S you'll grab instead, or you'll buy their games on PC, or maybe, best of all in their mind, you'll join Xbox Game Pass and pay them a monthly subscription so you can play games on your console, PC, or even your phone or tablet.

The Xbox Series X can't easily be compared to the PS5, nor even the Xbox One in many ways, because the manufacturer's intentions have shifted dramatically. A Series X is an iterative PC-like device and not the generational leap a PS5 may be because that's Microsoft's new vision.

When the technology advances, your games go with you now. When you buy a game, you buy it once and play it wherever you want. When you play an older game, it'll benefit from the improved power even if the studio that made the game doesn't work to improve it  heck, even if the studio doesn't exist anymore.

I already find the Xbox Series X essential for Xbox-first players, like me, and with time, I think anyone who can't easily play games on PC or those who want a second gaming device in their homes should consider a new Xbox. Game Pass is revolutionary no matter where it's played, so you'll want to gain access to that one way or another.

Though it's not without miscues, Xbox Series X is the most consumer-friendly console launch in video game history. The team has made a point to ensure your games, your saves, and your accessories all have a home with Series X, and because of the increase in power, games look and play better effortlessly.

In many ways, like the popularity of Game Pass and the promise of 23 first-party studios, a lot of what's so exciting about the Series X is more about the ecosystem than the device itself, but its ability to play and enhance thousands of games from day one is remarkable.

Xbox Series X Review — The Bottom Line

  • Wildly consumer-friendly in almost every way
  • Makes games look and play better even if studios haven't touched them
  • Smart, iterative touches to what was already the world's best controller
  • Delivers a high-end PC experience for a fraction of the price
  • Proprietary storage expansion cards feel like highway robbery
  • Lacks a traditional line-up of must-have exclusives

The Series X is a fix to the doomed Xbox One launch seven years in the making. Former Xbox brass drove players away with anti-consumer tactics and speech, and Phil Spencer and company have spent the better part of a decade trying to clean up the brand.

That's what Game Pass is. That's what Smart Delivery is. That's what the rapid expansion of Xbox Game Studios is. That's what virtually every facet of the Series X is meant to be, and it's off to a promising start.

The future is blindingly bright, even if today the sun is just starting to rise on what should be the greatest era of Xbox gaming ever.

[Note: The reviewer purchased the Xbox Series X used for this review.]

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Review — Changing With the Times Fri, 20 Nov 2020 14:50:22 -0500 JosephYaden

 After spending a considerable amount of time with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War's multiplayer beta, we were worried the full release would fall short. While it certainly doesn't hit the same way Modern Warfare did in 2019, Cold War is an excellent addition in the series, due in part to the sheer amount of content it offers and little embellishments that make it stand out. 

Cold War is broken up into three sections (soon to be four when it gets integrated into Warzone in December). It comes with a single-player Campaign, multiplayer, and the beloved Zombies mode fans have grown fond of over the years. Right off the bat, Cold War has a tremendous amount of content for you to enjoy, and it's only going to become bigger, thanks to the promise of future updates.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Review  Changing With the Times

Following Treyarch's last entry, Black Ops 4, which did not feature a single-player Campaign, the community was vocal about missing a strictly offline mode that leans into the narrative. Thankfully, Cold War's campaign is one of the best in years, offering surprises and twists you might not expect. 

The Campaign gives you choices to make, from your character's origins to the things they say and decisions for which characters to save. While many of the choices don't make a huge impact overall, it's a step in the right direction  it moves away from the very linear story modes fans have grown tired of. 

Call of Duty campaigns have never been known for being long, and Cold War's is no different. You can finish the story mode in around six hours or so depending on the difficulty you choose, and if you opt to find all collectibles and do side missions (that's right there are side missions!), your playtime will longer than that.

Despite its relatively short length, there's never a dull moment, and the story mode offers tremendous variety not just in gameplay but in setting, as well.

One moment you're tasked with taking down a series of enemies stealthily in a city, the next you're in a helicopter mowing down foes in a beautiful jungle, and after that, you're sent to a snowy Russian area where you take down opponents with a sniper.

We'd much rather have a short, thrilling campaign that never lets up than a long story mode that drags on too long with lots of fluff.

The overarching aspect that ties this campaign together is its sense of high production value. Playing Black Ops Cold War often feels like you're watching a movie, simply due to its presentation and the stellar performances from its actors. Games don't need to be like movies to be good, but it's enjoyable when a game draws inspiration from film to feel more cinematic.

I also appreciate little additions like the ability to grab an enemy to use as a human shield or acquiring intel to figure out who a mole is  all features that feel refreshing.

One of the campaign's highlights is a trippy section in which you must recall past events while being injected with a memory serum. We won't spoil it, but it's wild and proves that a first-person shooter doesn't have to play by the rules. 

The main hook of this package, of course, is its multiplayer mode, which offers much of what you've grown to expect from Call of Duty over the years. It has many beloved modes like Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy, and Domination, along with new modes like VIP Escort and Fireteam: Dirty Bomb.

VIP Escort, in particular, is really fun and feels much more tactical than you might be used to, taking a page out of a Rainbow Six book. In it, you must escort a specific teammate who serves as the VIP to one of two points, while making sure the enemy team does not take them out. It's a welcome change of pace from the usual chaos of multiplayer.

Beyond that, the maps Cold War has to offer are mostly pleasing. It features eight at launch that all feel and look unique, with some featuring large open vistas and others more geared towards close-quarters engagements. Eight maps might not seem like much, but it gives the community a chance to learn them without feeling overwhelmed. Plus, Treyarch will be adding more maps for free as the game continues to evolve, so there will be plenty more later down the line.

The maps themselves are mostly enjoyable despite none of them reaching the highs of those found across other iconic Call of Duty games. The standout map is Armada, which is comprised of large, multi-leveled ships you can traverse either via zipline or through the water. Overall, the biggest issue with the maps is that they all feel too big for traditional 6v6 modes. At times, matches would feel empty, despite having the max number of players. 

There are a slew of new additions with Cold War's multiplayer mode, as well. The most prominent of these is the Scorestreak system, which allows you to rack up Killstreaks, even after death. This might sound like a broken, imbalanced mess, but it actually works quite well. You can earn Scorestreaks faster if you don't die, but even inexperienced players now have a way to rack up their Chopper Gunners or UAVs. It also incentivizes playing the objective instead of only aiming for kills. 

I also really appreciate the customization options available with the game's weapons, giving you tons of attachments to unlock to tailor to your playstyle. This keeps the gameplay loop going, with many reasons to continue playing and earning rewards. Each attachment features a breakdown of how it impacts the weapon, even down to the exact millisecond, perfect for those who want to dive into the nitty-gritty stats. 

Other changes include shotguns as sidearms, which are a welcome change since so many players relied on them in past games. Now, they're less powerful and treated as a supplemental weapon, not a primary. Treyarch also implemented the ability to ping your surroundings, just like in Warzone, though, most players seem to ignore this feature, sadly. 

The biggest issue with Cold War's multiplayer mode is the way it looks, even on PS5. Not only is it just flat out not as good-looking as Modern Warfare, but the color palette is muddy, making it very hard to see enemies against the drab backdrop of their surroundings.

This, when combined with the oversized maps, makes matches play out more sporadically than you might be used to. You'll spend much of your time looking for enemies, only to be surprised by someone who was blending into their environment. The "flow" seems to be altered due to these key changes. 

Interestingly, the single-player campaign doesn't suffer from these visual issues, and in many instances, it looks quite beautiful. 

And, of course, we'd be remiss if we skipped discussing Cold War's Zombies mode, which is just as over-the-top and chaotic as you'd expect. The progression system from the game's multiplayer carries over into Zombies, but with a few additions specific to taking out hordes of undead.

The great thing about Zombies mode is that it offers a refreshing change of pace from the traditional Multiplayer mode. Sure, it gets hectic, but since you're working together with teammates against AI, it doesn't get as frustrating as playing against other players who have put way more time into the game than you might've. 

There's something so satisfying about earning powerups and mowing down hundreds of zombies to earn points, which you can use to buy upgrades and perks. Much of the Zombies mode leans into nostalgia, so if this is your first time, you might not appreciate it as much as someone who has played it since the World at War days.

Because of that, it might be a turnoff to newcomers, especially when considering just how complicated things can get. There are tons of things you need to know, like how to unlock new areas, upgrade weapons, and how to complete the Easter Eggs. While you'll still probably have a good time if you stumble through, it's not always self-explanatory how to "win." 

Though, it is nice to be able to choose between the Die Maschine Endless and 20 Round modes. That way, you don't have to worry about meeting your inevitable demise. There's also the timed-PlayStation exclusive Onslaught mode, which is a different take on the Zombies formula.

In it, you and another player must power up an orb by killing zombies. Take out enough zombies, and the orb will migrate around the map. Chasing a high score on each map is fun enough but nowhere near as exciting as the traditional Zombies mode since it doesn't allow you to spend points to gather upgrades. 

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Review — The Bottom Line


  • Tight, high-action campaign mode
  • Tons of weapon customization options in multiplayer
  • Plenty of content right away
  • Zombies mode is hard to put down


  • Muddy visuals make enemies hard to see
  • Multiplayer maps feel too big

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a memorable entry in the long list of games in the series. Even if its particular themes aren't for you, it's tough to deny the amount of bang for your buck offered with this game. You can spend hundreds of hours in the multiplayer alone, not including the Campaign and Zombies pillars. 

Its biggest issues are its visuals and muddy color palette, which cause players to blend into the environments. Despite this, there's a lot of fun to be had with this year's entry. The vast amount of content at launch is enough to draw players in, while the promise of more will keep players around. 

[Note: Activision provided the copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War used for this review.]

Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales Review — Our Side of the Tracks Thu, 19 Nov 2020 12:56:37 -0500 Kenneth Seward Jr.

A game based on Miles Morales was a long time coming. Ultimate Universe or Earth-616, Miles has always been a key player and an often-celebrated hero. His animated film was a critical and commercial hit, and the potential of him crashing the MCU  hinted at by Spider-Man: Homecoming  invoked excited speculation amongst fans.

Basically, the desire to see Miles in any degree is strong. Even more so for people of color.

I assume Insomniac knew this going into development. Considering their treatment of Miles and how well they represented his (our) culture, it’s evident that they tried their best to make his fans proud. The result is Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a damn near perfect action-adventure game.

Note: All of the screens in this review were captured via PS4.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales Review  Our Side of the Tracks

Miles’ story is a heartfelt one. Picking up a year after the events of Marvel's Spider-Man, he's first seen swinging around Harlem with his mentor Peter Parker. He hasn’t quite adjusted to this new role, though he does show some promise. Moments in Miles prove that he can throw hands with the best of them, Parker included.

Still, he’s new to the game (heh) and needs all the help he can get. When things go wrong and a powerful villain is released from custody, it takes all of Parker’s “been there, done that” advice to snap Miles out of his self-doubting funk. From there, the story moves in earnest, with Miles stepping into the shoes of New York’s sole protector.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales has familiar story beats. Anyone who’s played through the first game will recognize the signs. An evil corporation hurts several people in pursuit of something, leading to the creation of a villain who ends up hurting everyone. Familial bonds are strained. Friendships are tested.

As things unravel, a few twists are revealed some of which comic-book heads will see coming a mile away before an ultimate showdown of sorts. Thankfully, that’s just the surface content.

Looking a little deeper, one can find a story that explores what it means to be a family. It shows how shared experiences can create meaningful relationships, the destructive nature of a well-meaning lie, the power of forgiveness, and how far a person will go to protect a loved one. All of this is showcased through an awesome cast of characters and solid voice work.

Whether it’s Miles, his loving mother Rio Morales, or Ganke Lee, Miles’ “man in the chair” and best male friend, the audience is always in for a treat. That goes double for the game’s main villain. They steal the show whenever on screen, delivering equal amounts of sadness and rage, easily making them one of the best antagonists seen this year.

Again, Miles’ story is heartfelt. It’s also succinct. Some might gawk at this game’s price because of a short campaign, and there’s some validity to that, especially if this is the only game you’re buying in the near future. The thing is, the original Spider-Man could have used some edits.

As much as I loved seeing inventive versions of classic villains, the first game was a bit bloated. Spider-Man: Miles Morales moves with a sense of urgency and in doing so, delivers a better story  even when considering the similarities mentioned above  proving that less is actually more.

While Spider-Man: Miles Morales should be praised for its story, it does present a few sticking points when it comes to representation, namely in how it handles systemic issues facing black and brown people. To be blunt: Insomniac fails in this regard. If Miles’ story only centered on him becoming a bonified hero, it would be easier to overlook. But it’s clear that Insomniac wanted to address issues of race  just from a safe distance.

The game doesn’t take a real stand on racial issues. Nor does it directly talk about the difficulties Miles might face being Afro-Latino in New York. Instead, Insomniac offers lip service. A Black Lives Matter sign does nothing when it isn’t met with action. In this case, there isn’t even a passing remark or event showing the reality of being a black vigilante.

There is a very brief moment  insert Roxxon soldiers in place of the police  but it’s stuck in the fantastical. If Miles was a real-life superhero… well, let’s just say he’d have a harder time than Peter Parker.

This isn’t entirely Insomniac's fault. Marvel has dropped the ball several times in the past as well. Bright moments, like Tony Stark talking to Miles about what it feels like to be profiled during Civil War 2, are overshadowed by Miles declaring he doesn’t want to be known as the “black Spider-Man” after a tense encounter with police.

Writing this sort of thing takes a careful hand, is my point. And considering Brian Bendis, the creator of Miles Morales, often stumbled in this regard, I can cut Insomniac some slack, especially since they got everything else right.

When it comes to showcasing Miles Morales' culture, Insomniac knocks it out of the park. The game is filled with mostly positive representations of black and brown people. Puffy coats, Tims, loose-fitting jeans during the winter. Bilingual conversations, the slang, Hip Hop, sports poster with a variation of Jordan dunking, and the collective spirit of people living in Harlem.

I loved it when Miles signed to his deaf friend, commending her on her Spider-Man mural. There’s just a lot to take in as a black person, most of which helped provide a nuanced perspective leading up to a grand experience.

Of course, these elements are book-ended by superheroes and villains. Megacorporations and shady dealings. It's basically Marvel's world but seen from our side of the tracks. And the view is beautiful!

Streamlined Approach

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales features a streamlined edition of the gameplay found in the 2018 original. Players can still beat the snot out of criminals by bouncing from foe to foe, occasionally using “Spidey sense” to dodge attacks (think Batman Arkham) before following up with a counter.

Consecutive hits eventually send enemies flying while, conversely, holding down the attack button will launch them into the air. From there, they’ll be met with repeated punches to the face, a swinging kick, or be slammed back onto the ground with well-placed webbing.

Miles is just as fast as Peter. Because of this, pulling off wild combos is always entertaining; his speed and strength allow for some impressive moments in battle. Miles stands a bit better than Peter mechanically, though. For one, all of the abilities that players had to unlock in the first game are granted to Miles from the start. Basic stuff like being able to web away weapons from enemies and toss those weapons back at them are available from the start.

Even traversal abilities aren't held behind experience levels; most of Miles’ skill trees are devoted to meaningful upgrades instead of skills that we’d expect him to know already.

Also gone are the special skills found in various costumes/Spidey suits. They still unlock interesting perks by way of swappable Visor mods, but the big room-clearing moves are unique to Miles. Tied to his developing powers, he eventually unlocks cloaking abilities and Venom-based attacks.

The cloaking is great for sneaking up on enemies or when needing to exit a losing fight quickly. Miles’ Venom, on the other hand, is explosive. He can use it to knock away enemy shields, stun foes, destroy certain aspects of the environment, and solve electrical-based puzzles.

All of Miles’ skills are fun to use in and out of battle. What makes them great, though, is the fact that they don’t rely on suit-based technology. With the previous game, players had to swap special moves once unlocked; you couldn’t equip Web Blossom and Holo Decoy at the same time. That’s not the case in this game. As long as Miles has enough Venom  built up by attacking foes  Miles can use any of his unlocked Venom-based attacks whenever he wants.

This leads to another change. Players no longer have to worry about using Focus to heal themselves instead of activating finishers  flashy barrages that automatically subdue a given foe. When it comes to healing, Miles’ Venom gauges handles that. The finishers, on the other hand, are tied to combos. Score enough hits without taking damage and you’ll get the opportunity to take out an opponent with ease.

Another notable change comes via the stealthier side of things. Like Peter, Miles can web up unsuspecting enemies while perched on an elevated position within the environment. Unlike Peter, he can also mark enemies by scanning a given area. This allows Miles to keep tabs on people as he goes about clearing a room; their tags will persist even if they walk around a corner or behind a wall.  

What all of these things equate to is a better combat experience. Aside from having most of his predecessor's abilities at the start of the game, he also has access to all of his Venom powers (once unlocked) at any given moment. Throw in the Visor mods, invisibility, upgradable gadgets, and the ability to tag enemies, and it's easy to see how more equipped Miles is for fighting.

This is, of course, balanced by the introduction of new foes and boss fights that require the proper use of certain skills. The game is still challenging, but it’s also way more entertaining to play.  

Other streamlined elements include a better way to hunt down side quests and random crimes. Thanks to an app created by Ganke, people can reach Miles by posting current events. All you have to do is swipe left on the PS4/PS5’s touchpad, scroll through the different posts, and click on the one you want to follow up on to produce a way-marker.

The map is still there (you can go through the menus and tag a side quest the old fashion way), but using the app proved to be much faster. And speaking of the map, there are no towers to hack. The entire city is open/populated with relative icons, with areas only greyed out because you aren’t in them.


It’s no secret that the PS5 version of Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales looks better than the PS4 version, especially when it comes to the finer details boot prints in the snow, various metals and fabric, Miles’ haircut and the ability to toggle between Fidelity and Performance modes.

That said, the PS4 version (the one I’m reviewing) looks great. Swinging through the city is still exhilarating. And the load times are negligible; I didn’t experience any pop-ins or issues concerning quick transitions from interior to exterior spaces and vice versa.

Honestly, the only bad thing I can say is that its next-gen version looks better. But that’s to be expected.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales Review  The Bottom Line  


  • Solid representation
  • Succinct, well-written story
  • Elevated/streamlined combat and game mechanics
  • Dope soundtrack
  • Excellent voice acting


  • BLM lip service
  • Looks better on PS5

I could spend days talking about why I had a blast playing as Miles. As someone who recently beat the first game (to get ready for this one), I can confidently say that Spider-Man: Miles Morales is better than its predecessor in almost every way. The combat, streamlined UI, story, and overall game length is damn near perfect. And that’s just on more gamey aspects.

It’s also close to being perfect when it comes to representation. Black and brown people fill out most of the roles and do so with gusto. Their performances, at times, eclipsing what came before. I’m thoroughly pleased with what Insomniac has accomplished.

Hopefully, if Miles gets another go, they won’t be afraid to tackle the tough issues he faces as an Afro-Latino superhero.

[Note: Sony provided the copy of Spider-Man: Miles Morales used for this review.]

Observer System Redux Review: Dredging Up the Past Thu, 19 Nov 2020 11:55:33 -0500 Mark Delaney

In Bloober Team's young history, the team has crafted horror stories exclusively, often seeking to capture the player's attention with dramatic setpieces that play out more like unpredictable haunted houses than games utilizing inventive mechanics.

They are more adventure-horror than survival horror.

2017's Observer diverted from the blueprint of Bloober's breakout hit, Layers of Fear, and now with the new-generation version, Observer System Redux, the game moves even further away from that by adding more missions and some gameplay tweaks across the board, giving players more area to explore and more stories to discover.

These changes are appreciated, and the imagery is nothing if not memorable, but all these enhancements don't augment the game's central plot, which itself remains deliberately impenetrable for too long.

Observer System Redux Review: Dredging Up The Past

Observer takes place in 2084, in a cyberpunk dystopian hellscape where people hide in their apartments playing video games to dodge a virus that conspiracy theorists believe is no accident. This would-be sci-fi setup when the game came out in 2017 is now all too familiar in 2020, so it immediately presents an unexpected comparison, but to be fair to 2020, the similarities end there.

The next-gen enhancements, including 4K support and 60 frames per second presentation, are dazzling. The updates make a difference, especially for someone like me who bounced off the original game due to a growing disinterest unhelped by the game's drab design.

The impressive lighting and smoother movements are the best of all, especially as one of the first next-gen games I've seen. As with the small handful of others I've played so far, the differences are apparent right away.

Despite those enhancements, Observer System Redux is an ugly, nauseating, even upsetting game throughout its roughly six-hour runtime. It is this way by choice, as the apartment complex where (technically) the entire game takes place is filthy, cluttered, and malfunctioning. I don't know how long it'll be until video games offer scented gameplay, but playing Observer makes you feel like you can smell the grime and decay of every apartment.

At one point, you rummage through a tenant's porn collection in a room painted in blood and (ahem) cyber-spunk, and in another you relive the memories of an obsessive, hurtful artist. Still other times your door-to-door policing introduces you to residents yelling at their kids or beating their girlfriends. Some are paranoid to the point of intense personal anguish.

Wires spill out of every wall like a trash bucket overfilling from weeks of neglect, while robot maintenance workers are more often found broken down and in your way. I can't imagine a single person in this world is living a life they enjoy.

It's aggressively unpleasant by design, and that's at once extremely commendable for the team, as it's clearly their intent to deliver such an immersive vision, and also something of a deterrent to actually playing it. As engrossing as it is, it's also just gross. Playing Observer only leaves me feeling like I need to shower.

As the titular mind-cop Daniel Lazarski, played by the late, great Rutger Hauer who died between the game's two versions, you alternatingly explore the complex room by room looking for your missing and presumed dead son while regularly jacking into the minds of others you meet. 

This process of "observing" is a tactic of the game's hellish future where law enforcement can insert themselves into a person's subconscious to learn what truths they aren't sharing otherwise. But this is no police procedural. This is a horror game, and thus you aren't interrogating crooks from some figurative police station in their heads. Instead, you're moving through their worst nightmares and twisted dreams step by agonizing step, usually uninvited and always getting more than you bargained for.

These sequences prove the game's concept, as Bloober Team manages to take its already impressive penchant for audiovisual spectacle first seen in Layers of Fear to new heights in this horrific cyberpunk world. Scene after scene, these more on-rails sections reveal the game at its best. Bloober Team knows so well how to stage these hazy, mind-bending sections, and for once I'd have much preferred a game where this was all it was.

Instead, the game intermingles these more authored moments with some open-ended exploration through the corridors and floors of the complex and adjacent buildings. These moments drag down the story terribly, often relying on your use of the game's dual alternate vision modes, which let you scan for biological or mechanical clues. Glowing objects, basically.

It doesn't feel so much like an investigation as all it requires is that you scan the two vision modes' (again) ugly filters over every wall, table, and floor until they've found the right number of clues to initiate Lazarski's next voice line, leading you onto the game's much better horror setpieces.

There are very few moments where the game even puts you in real danger, which is normally a blemish in my mind, and in this case, it isn't the game's strong suit. Thus I appreciated how few hide-and-seek or chase scenes there are in Observer: System Redux, even with a few new missions thrown into the game this time.

It's an up and down game, but nothing hurts it more than the deliberately obtuse story. Observer is so impenetrable for so long that it's hard to care about the events. As a dad, I'm usually a sucker for stories about fathers and their kids  something the industry delivers at a good clip, no doubt  but Observer doesn't pull on those heartstrings because it's more focused on giving you an admittedly exhilarating drug-like trip.

These psychedelic horrors have never been better in video games, but alone they are merely pieces of art in a museum. Without the story to pull me in, my fascination with the audiovisual design lasts only as long as those scenes that deliver them. Dream-like as they are, they are similarly hard to recall when you leave them.

A good story sticks with you, and though Observer has some interesting things to say by the end, it uses its final scene to basically back up a dump truck of plot details and explain it all as the credits approach.

Observer System Redux Review — The Bottom Line


  • Fascinating and trippy "dream" sequences
  • Optional exploration usually delivers
  • An intense feeling of time and place


  • Investigative sections drag the game to a slow crawl
  • Story waits until the final scene to make sense of most anything
  • A world so grimy that it can be hard to play

Observer System Redux is the clearly superior version of the 2017 horror game. While it's no sequel, a few new side missions and enhancements to the game's look and feel are welcome and give Observer a fuller, more meaningful life on new-gen consoles.

This is still above all else a dirty, rotten game with so much pessimism bleeding through the walls that it can feel claustrophobic even to horror veterans like me. However, if you're willing to trudge through the muck that this game calls a setting, the audiovisual experience is unlike anything else you'll find in the medium.

[Note: Bloober Team provided the copy of Observer System Redux used for this review.] 

XIII Remake Review: Certainly Feels Like 2003 Wed, 18 Nov 2020 14:50:30 -0500 George Yang

Remakes have been quite popular lately, with the likes of Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil 3, and Final Fantasy 7 Remake standing out. These have largely succeeded because not only are the original versions great, but the remakes themselves have modernized these titles to provide new experiences while also keeping the spirit of the originals alive.

2020’s XIII doesn’t really seem to fulfill either of these roles. Granted, I never played the original XIII back in 2003, but this remake absolutely feels like a game from 2003 — and not in a good way.

XIII Remake Review: Certainly Feels Like 2003

The story is probably the best part of XIII, and it’s a decent thriller. You play as a man named XIII who has lost his memory and must uncover a global conspiracy. That's about it, but it does the job admirably. 

What hampers the experience is the game's awful graphics. The original XIII was lauded for its unique cel-shaded style, something that adds a certain charm to it even now. However, in an attempt to modernize the remake, the cel-shaded style in 2020's version looks like it was completely smoothed over. Honestly, calling it “cel-shading” feels like kind of a stretch. 

The only aesthetical aspect of the XIII remake that remotely resembles the old art style is the somewhat thick black outlines found on every character model. Otherwise, the creative direction is lost, and every character looks like they could be a skin from Fortnite. The sharp corners and blockiness that defined the original’s art style are just gone.

I wouldn’t have that much of a problem with the game if it was just ugly, but the gameplay doesn’t feel right either.

There are a variety of different weapons at your disposal, including pistols, revolvers, crossbows, harpoons guns, and sniper rifles. You can even pick up rocket-propelled grenade launchers from enemies you kill. On top of all that, there are throwables like regular grenades and knives.

Although it's strange that throwables are treated as a primary weapon rather than a secondary weapon like almost all modern games do.

To switch between everything, there is a weapon wheel, and in order to use throwables, you have to select them from the wheel. The problem is that it also puts away your main firearm. Having to perform such a switch just to throw a grenade slows the action and ruins the flow of combat, especially when there are multiple enemies coming at you.

To add some variation to combat, there are some sections where stealth is mandatory, and you're not allowed to kill any enemies, and in some areas, you can also hide enemy bodies so they aren't seen by others. But this mechanic isn't as nearly fleshed out the way other modern franchises, like Dishonored, have iterated on it.

All of the levels on offer are pretty linear, with some deviations here and there. There's an objective marker that you can activate to see where you're supposed to go next, but about half the time, it doesn't respond. 

Since XIII is a shooter, I can understand the appeal of mindless shooting action, and I expected fun, all-out gunfights going into this review, but the whole experience is hampered by the fact that guns don’t feel impactful. The shooting feels flat and unsatisfying, and the framerate is absolutely awful during many combat encounters.

The enemy AI isn’t very smart either. In my time with the game, enemies' backs would be turned toward me when I'd enter a room, or enemies would be moving backward while aiming away from me.

NPCs would also sometimes clip into walls. One prison officer I spoke to opened a door in front of me and half of the character model just merged into the wall next to it. Another time, I opened a door to a room, and the entire floor was missing. I stepped forward and fell through it, which forced me to restart from my most recent checkpoint.

On top of that, the save system isn't great. XIII has a generous amount of checkpoints, and I assumed that I could exit the game and pick up at my last checkpoint. Unfortunately, I was wrong. When I returned and selected “continue," I had to start an entire level over again.

XIII has two multiplayer modes, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, but there are only three maps available right now. It looks like the game is only available in local multiplayer, and since I don't know anyone else who's playing the game, I didn't get the opportunity to try it out. I live alone, and of course, I'd rather not invite anyone over during a real-world pandemic.

Despite that, I did boot up the multiplayer to give a shot. Unfortunately, it's prone to glitches too. I immediately ran into a bug where the character selection screen didn't even pop up — no matter what I tried. I was stuck looking at a gray background with the game's music continuously playing. Based on those factors alone, I can already tell that the local multiplayer isn’t really worth writing home about — if you can even get into it.

For a game branding as a remake, it's baffling how nearly 17 years of gameplay innovations didn't make it in. The gameplay could have been drastically updated with modern mechanics from shooters like Call of Duty and stealth games like Hitman. You can completely overhaul the gameplay while also keeping the spirit of the original intact. 2020's plethora of remakes has shown this.

XIII Remake Review — The Bottom Line


  • Story is halfway decent
  • Some variation in mission objectives through stealth only and no-kill sections


  • Awful new art direction
  • Lots of glitches
  • Dumb AI
  • Guns lack impact

To be fair, developer PlayMagic and publisher Microids put out a press statement saying that they’re working to improve the game and have already put out a patch addressing some of the game's issues. But honestly, XIII never should have been released in this state in the first place. 

I’m not entirely sure what players can gain from this that they couldn’t from playing the original. A remaster would’ve been a better use of time than a remake with butchered art direction, which was the original’s biggest selling point.

The bottom line is that this remake isn’t a very good experience. The original XIII is on Steam for around $2 to $6 depending on the time of year. Just pick that up instead. 

[Note: Microids provided the copy of XIII used for this review.]

Astro's Playroom Review: Pure, Imaginative Fun Sat, 14 Nov 2020 22:14:24 -0500 Jonathan Moore

Astro's Playroom wasn't on my list of most-anticipated PS5 launch games. That distinction went to Demon's Souls and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. In many ways, Astro's was, in my early estimation, not much more than a gimmicky tech demo showing off the power of the DualSense controller.

While it is kind of a tech demo, and there are some gimmicks, it's also one of the best platformers I've played in years. Astro's Playroom is a true gem and another feather in Sony's cap. It's marvelous, and I can't stop thinking about it.

Astro's Playroom Review: Pure, Imaginative Fun

I received my PS5 on launch day. Setting it up, all I could think about was getting back to Boletaria and seeing Demon's Souls in its next-gen glory. But after setting everything up and transferring some of my PS4 games to the PlayStation 5, I started with Astro's Playroom.

And oh, wowie am I glad I did.

Astro's Playroom is a showcase for the new haptic technology baked into the DualShock 4's successor, the DualSense. In some ways, a review for Astro's is a review for the PS5 controller itself, but I'm saving some of that info for a full-on DualSense review later.

The TL;DR here is that the DualSense mimics and/or outright recreates real-life textures in games that support its many different features. And with Astro's being the launch-day showcase it is, the way the game uses the DualSense to recreate myriad textures and sensations are revolutionary in execution.

How well this works is hard to explain, but metal feels like metal, wood feels like wood, and mud feels like mud. If you're walking over a corrugated floor, for example, you feel the peaks and troughs in its design. With very few exceptions, you know exactly what you're walking on, through, or over.

The same can be said for the sensation of rain and hail as they pitter off of Astro's little umbrella, peppering the DualSense in light and heavy thumps, as well as that of rumbling thunder as it rolls over distant platforms toward you, through you, and past you. Drawing a bow has distinct weight and resistance, and firing a machine gun that shoots little squishy balls puts the most rumble and force on the trigger (R2) before waning in energy across the controller from right to left. 

The way the haptics work in concert to create hundreds of different textures and sensations is techno sorcery through and through, and it's something you'll want to share with everyone who will indulge you and pick up the DualSense at your urging. 

It helps that the controller's built-in speaker produces small auditory clues along the way. Though the haptics do much of the legwork, sound plays a big role in crafting a full sensory experience here. Metal pings and grass rustles. Wood thumps and plastic thunks. 

And while Astro's Playroom makes good use of the PS5's 3D audio, where rocket thrusters boom with power all around you or the gust of a strong easterly wind rushes and swirls through your right ear, the full experience is more immersive by simply using the DualSense's built-in speaker. 

At its core, Astro's Playroom is an excellent platformer literally set inside a PS5. As a stand-alone package, removed from all of the pomp and circumstance of the DualSense, it employs the best parts of the genre and diversifies its gameplay just enough to stay fresh for its three- to four-hour runtime. 

There are four worlds and 16 levels to explore in the game, as well as a general world hub, a speedrun hub, and what amounts to an interactive PlayStation museum, PlayStation Labo. Each of the imaginative worlds is subdivided into four sublevels, where platforming stages alternate with those that put Astro in a unique suit that shows off more of what the DualSense is capable of.

Cooling Springs is a water- and ice-based world that features a springy frog suit you move by tilting the controller while holding and releasing either "L2" or "R2," diving boards, and even ice skating (perhaps the best and most realistic sensation in the game). Memory Meadow is a grassy world that features a ball suit you can move in all directions with the touchpad, some light bowling, and lots of mud, wind, and rain.

SSD Speedway is a beautiful neon futurescape that showcases the game's verticality in gripping ways and features a rocketship suit, hang gliding, and that kinetic and powerful ball-shooting machine gun I mentioned earlier. Finally, GPU Jungle is, well, a vibrant jungle that features a monkey suit used for climbing and swinging, wind puzzles, and one of the game's only boss battles.  

You might think there's lots of motion control and button pressing going on, and you'd be right. But there's a nuance to it all that makes each suit stand out.

The springy frog suit feels just like a spring, and the amount of pressure you put on the triggers is reminiscent of pushing an actual spring down and letting it go. In the monkey suit, you tilt the controller just as you would tilt your shoulders when reaching up to grab something, and certain handholds require minimal pressure to grab, while others require full force, underlining the unique nature of the DualSense's adaptive triggers. 

It's hard to ignore that Astro's Playroom takes a lot of inspiration from games like Crash Bandicoot and, perhaps most obviously, Super Mario. In many ways, this is the most Nintendo thing Sony's ever published.

In the platforming levels, Astro has a spin attack similar to the one found in Crash and a jump attack akin to Mario's. The difference here is that the spin attack must be charged, and the jump attack trades plumber boots for jetpack boots. There's also a regular punch thrown in for good measure. 

Enemy variety is relatively generic and reminiscent of those games, but nonetheless fitting and endearing. Some enemies rush you with spikes bared, others try to blow you up by blowing themselves up, and still, others smash the ground while trying to catch you in their electric shockwave. None are meant to be difficult by themselves, but when grouped together, they can, at times, present a challenge. 

The environments themselves can sometimes be trickier than enemies in some sections, with pools of frozen water instantly freezing you if fall in and walls of exposed wires shocking you to death if you run into them. Platforms rotate, move back and forth, and disappear above endless chasms that lead to instant death, and there are tightropes to balance, mountains to climb, and asteroids to fly through, all with some type of hazard waiting for you to make a mistake.

If you do die, Astro's checkpoint system is extremely generous, almost always starting you close to where you gave up the ghost. It's a double-edged sword because while you'll never have to slog through a level, the system makes the game's already-low difficulty even lower. 

Replayability mostly comes in the game's speedrun mode, which unlocks after you complete one of the four worlds. You can access these levels separate from the worlds themselves, and smartly, none of them recreate any of the game's levels. 

On top of that, Astro's Playroom is like a living PlayStation history book, jam-packed with references to games like Final Fantasy 7, Bloodborne, and Jak & Daxter. Levels are full of collectibles (142, in fact) that range from full system models to obscure peripherals. Puzzle pieces can also be collected to build a decades-spanning PlayStation mural that adorns the walls of PlayStation Labo, the place where you can see all of these artifacts on display in unbelievably stunning detail. 

Astro's Playroom Review — The Bottom Line


  • Fantastic DualSense showcase
  • Creative use of haptics and adaptive triggers
  • Beautiful, vibrant environments
  • Witty, memorable soundtrack
  • Tight, responsive controls
  • PlayStation Labo


  • Too short
  • Limited enemy variety

It's clear that ASOBI Team poured their heart and soul into Astro's Playroom, developing a meticulously detailed pack-in title that proves the power of the DualSense while also taking players through the entire history of PlayStation in unprecedented fashion.

As a life-long PlayStation fan, the enormity of PlayStation Labo is reason enough to play through Astro's Playroom for all of the collectibles — and to revisit it again and again over the life of the PS5. 

Though it's short and may lack enemy variety, Astro's Playroom makes up for it in character and heart. It's a stunning display of the thought and care Sony has put into the DualSense controller. And it's a solid platformer that everyone should play at least once. 

If we're lucky, we'll get a full-on Astro Bot platformer in the future. Here's to hoping. 

[Note: The copy of Astro's Playroom used for this review was included on the writer's retail PlayStation 5.]

Kingdom Hearts: Melody Of Memory Review — Simple But Clean Fun Fri, 13 Nov 2020 16:00:26 -0500 Henry Stockdale

It’s been a long journey for Kingdom Hearts fans. Starting as an elevator conversation two decades ago, the series ultimately evolved into an unprecedented crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy, helmed by Square Enix veteran Tetsuya Nomura.

Though Kingdom Hearts 3 wrapped up the “Dark Seeker Saga” last year, Nomura isn’t done with the franchise, and now we have Melody of Memory. Launching on PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, this spin-off brings us a rhythm game not too dissimilar to Square-Enix’s previous rhythm game  Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy — and it pulls off the concept fantastically.

Kingdom Hearts: Melody Of Memory Review — Simple But Clean Fun

One of Kingdom Hearts’ biggest strengths has always been its soundtrack, and Melody of Memory knows it, delivering 143 songs from almost every entry in the franchise.

Taking place after Kingdom Hearts 3 (more specifically, the Re:Mind DLC), Melody of Memory starts with a retelling of the Dark Seeker Saga, which covers everything from the original Kingdom Hearts to KH3Melody of Memory is not particularly story-driven and benefits from this approach considerably.

You’ll spend most of your time with the game's World Tour mode, a campaign that lets you visit each location via a world map. All of this map is explorable by way of the Gummi ship in a manner reminiscent of the PS2 Kingdom Hearts entries. From Destiny Islands to Toy Story, Melody of Memory provides a comprehensive look at the series' history.

Progressing through the game isn't simply about beating stages. Each song has three collectible stars, earned by hitting set criteria in each stage, like not missing a certain number of attacks or for reaching a particular score. With three difficulty options available, it's possible to complete songs solo, and with such an emphasis on high scores, there's plenty of replayability here.

One of Kingdom Hearts’ biggest strengths has always been its soundtrack, and Melody of Memory knows it, delivering 143 songs from almost every entry in the franchise. With the exception of Face My Fears, all of Utada Hikaru’s theme songs are present, as are classic tunes like Traverse Town, Vector To The Heavens, and The Other Promise.

Despite being one of the more prominent pieces of Kingdom Hearts music, Dearly Beloved features a new remix in the opening menu but as a playable song, it's curiously absent. Overall though, fans will likely approve of what’s on offer.

Each stage is on-rails and comes in two forms, all explained through in-game tutorials the first time you play them. Memory Dives are less common but more cinematic, playing out to iconic cutscenes, and players need to hit the notes as they appear to progress.

Red notes only require a simple attack, yellow notes require a direction input while doing so, and green notes require an input be held down for a set period of time. It’s a simple approach, but the wider joy comes from reliving classic series' moments, a sentiment that may be lost on new players.

Field Battle stages see you working as a three-person team with Sora, Donald, and Goofy, though some worlds include guest characters like Aladdin, Hercules, or Ariel. Your goal is to reach the end, earning EXP. That, of course, requires battling enemies as they appear in your path. When they do, two circles will appear on them, the outer one slowly closing in. Successful attacking comes down to hitting enemies as these circles overlap, and attacks are ranked based on timing.

Multiple enemies often align on each stage, letting you strike them all at once. Others launch ranged attacks for Sora to avoid by jumping, while some can only be reached during a jump. For larger foes or enemies out of reach, ability crystals appear that utilize special skills or magic. Some sections also feature green notes in mid-air to obtain, so Sora can glide into them as you hold down the jump button.

Missed attacks reduce some HP and to clear a stage, you only need to have some left (since it doesn’t regenerate over time). Though you can’t access them manually during a song, players can pre-set items before going in, so that, for example, potions automatically activate when reaching a certain percentage of health. Others take effect once you’ve beaten the stage, such as EXP boosts, and completion also rewards items. That includes materials like gems, which can be synthesized via a Moogle in your team menu.

By turning Kingdom Hearts into a musical experience, Square Enix has found a winner with Melody of Memory.

For the most part, Melody of Memory gets it right, combining some smooth gameplay with good enemy variance between levels to keep things lively. My only real criticism here is that it can feel a bit messy when multiple enemies emerge; getting flustered is quite easy. But, thankfully, their appearances are generally well-coordinated. Landing attacks in-line feels satisfying and better yet, the whole system doesn’t feel out of place for a Kingdom Hearts entry.

After the impressive visual update we saw in Kingdom Hearts 3, it’s somewhat baffling, however, that Square Enix has taken a step back here, returning to the visual approach we saw in earlier entries. Admittedly, there’s not much wrong with that alone, but the presentation here lacks the shine that KH3 brought us and feels underwhelming by comparison.

Why this is the case isn’t particularly clear, though, as a guess, it might be to invoke a sense of nostalgia, considering Melody of Memory’s premise.

Anyone looking to play with friends is in luck, though, as this entry offers a two-player co-op mode for field battle stages. Vs Battles are also included here, letting you compete against other online players or AI opponents. In this mode, where you lose points if you run out of HP, there's a unique trick meter, letting you trip up opponents once the meter is filled, and since this is a battle for the highest score. It takes a little time to unlock since it's reliant on World Tour progress, but it ultimately makes for an enjoyable multiplayer experience.

Kingdom Hearts: Melody Of Memory Review — The Bottom Line

  • A big celebration of the wider series
  • Solid rhythm mechanics
  • Excellent soundtrack
  • Basic visuals
  • A couple of key songs are missing
  • Easy to get flustered with multiple enemies

By turning Kingdom Hearts into a musical experience, Square Enix has found a winner with Melody of Memory. Celebrating the wider history of this historic franchise, there’s a sense of nostalgia that will be lost on newcomers, but any rhythm game fans would do well to investigate it further.

Drawing upon a rich soundtrack that ranges from original songs to Disney hits, there’s a lot to love in this new spin-off, but don’t expect any major story developments.

[Note: Square Enix provided the copy of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory used for this review.]

Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods Part One Review — Hurt Me Plenty Thu, 12 Nov 2020 09:06:33 -0500 Jonathan Moore

The Ancient Gods — Part One came out on October 20 for PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Google Stadia. It's the first story expansion for the criminally good Doom Eternal. I'm a pretty big fan of Doom Eternal and Doom 2016. I'm also a big fan of good campaigns getting good expansions.

The Ancient Gods picks up right after Doom Eternal. As expected, Doom Guy's job repelling the denizens of Hell isn't quite finished. There's still work to do. After defeating redacted at the end of Eternal (not spoiling that little tidbit just in case), everyone's favorite space marine is off to rip and tear the gods apart and restore the natural order of things.

On the way, a few thousand demon's and a handful of puzzles get in his way. You know, typical Doom stuff. 

One thing I like about The Ancient Gods is that if you're accessing the story DLC through Doom Eternal by way of the game's Season Pass, you don't have to do anything special to start it. It's available right in the main menu.

The other cool thing is that this expansion is available separately from the main game. It can be purchased standalone and played by itself, without having Doom Eternal installed at all. Though, considering how the storyline picks up right after Doom Eternal, it's best that you've played the base game to know what the hell is going on. 

Either way, the Season Pass is $29.99 and includes another future expansion, The Ancient Gods — Part Twowhile The Ancient Gods — Part One itself is $19.99. Regardless of which version you pick up, that's not too bad considering how robust this first expansion is. 

Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods Part One Review — Hurt Me Plenty

The Ancient Gods — Part One feels even harder than the base game, and enemies seem to be even more aggressive than before.

Doom Eternal is already difficult, more so than Doom 2016 in my estimation. Of course, everyone's mileage will vary based on skill and other factors, but The Ancient Gods — Part One can be a veritable gauntlet of giblets. 

The first level throws everything at you all almost all at once: imps, Pinky Demons, Barons of Hell, an Arch-vile, and even a few Cyberdemons for good measure. And that's on the easiest difficulty, I'm Too Young to Die. It's a lot, but it's also welcome, considering you have all of your weapons and abilities from the base game ready from the start. 

There's not much to say about the expansion's combat since it's (unsurprisingly) exactly the same as Doom Eternal. You'll certainly need your wits about you to survive, and conserving ammo isn't an option. The Ancient Gods — Part One feels even harder than the base game, and enemies seem to be even more aggressive than before.

It's very easy to get overwhelmed — even on the first stage. I had forgotten a few of the controls (jumping back in for the first time since March), and my only option for success was to restart the first mission completely. 

The new enemy types will force you to rethink your battle plans, but while they do force new strategies upon you, they can be more frustrating than fun. This is especially true with the Blood Maykr and the Spirit.

The first is a riff on Eternal's Maykr Drone, but it is much more powerful and much more difficult to take down. It's only (seemingly) vulnerable in one state, but attacking it always leaves you wide open to its slowing attack, which can end in a quick reset. In the final boss encounter, this can be hair-rippingly annoying. 

The Spirit, on the other hand, possesses other demons, making them immensely powerful and almost unfairly resilient. Once you defeat the possessed demon, you must take the Spirit out with the plasma rifle before it enthralls another demon and starts the cycle over again. In theory, it's a nice addition, but in practice, it means you must divert all attention to the Spirit first, regardless of the other enemies on the screen. 

Things do get a little bit easier once you get back into the swing of things (or haven't left the swing at all), but the number of enemies remains hectic. Enemy waves are often filled with every demon in the book, and with the DLC's much tighter areas, it's easy to get overwhelmed in a heartbeat. 

There are only three levels in the DLC — UAC Atlantica, Blood Swamps, and The Holt — but they are very long.

Each mission can take upwards of two hours to complete depending on skill and difficulty level, so there's a lot of playtime here, considering the base game takes roughly 13 hours to complete without looking for collectibles and such. 

If, however, you'd like to extend your playtime even further, this expansion also includes collectible Codex Pages, secret areas, secret encounters, and Slayer Gates to uncover and complete. There aren't any Modbots, Sentinel Crystals, or Praetor Points, though, nor are there any Mastery Tokens, Empyrean Keys, Toys, Albums, or Cheat Codes. 

There also aren't any new weapons, which is a bit of a bummer. That being said, the base catalog of guns is still so powerful and fun to play with that it hardly matters from moment to moment once all is said and done. 

On top of that, three new support runes — Desperate Punch,  Take Back, and Break Blast — do make for some interesting wrinkles in how the expansion is played, but they aren't game-changers by any means. I made my way all the way through the expansion's story content without unlocking any of them, so it's a bit unfortunate they don't have a bigger impact. 

There are sharks in Doom now...

The big standout in this DLC is the level design. While some areas can get overly cramped, leading to some frustrating and truly chaotic encounters, id has done a great job making each area distinct and memorable. UAC Atlantica is an instantly iconic Doom level, deftly expanding the series' environmental lore and showing us a type of locale never before seen in the shooter's history.

There are sharks in Doom now, and swimming plays a big role in the level. Both work exquisitely, and neither are additions that I would have said would work in Doom before this DLC. 

Blood Swamps and The Hoth, the expansion's other two levels, are more akin to what fans have come to expect with Doom, echoing aesthetical themes of Doom Eternal. But each has unique qualities that, again, make them instantly recognizable from the giblet-filled Hell areas we've grown used to. Some areas are even haunting, full of foreboding mist and expert use of light. 

Blood Swamps exudes a creepiness not felt in the base game, moving Doom somewhat into horror territory, where The Hoth puts Doom Guy in a forest full of demons and floating mushrooms that shouldn't work but does in spades. 

All of these levels also include sets of platforming puzzles to decipher. None are overly difficult, but much like those found in the base game, they can be needlessly annoying at times. The primary issue is that many are timed and unclear, sending you to your death a few too many times. 

Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods Part One Review — The Bottom Line

  • Wonderfully realized and instantly memorable levels 
  • Compelling continuation of the Doom Eternal storyline
  • Same frenetic Doom combat
  • New demons to slaughter
  • Sharks and swimming!?!
  • New demons to slaughter
  • Some unbalanced enemy encounters
  • Unclear and sometimes frustrating platforming
  • New Runes don't impact gameplay that much
  • Lack of meaningful progression

The Ancient Gods — Part One is a very good expansion.

For Doom fans, it's hard to do a whole lot better than this. There are some vexing sections, the new enemies can be a double-edged sword, and there's very little sense of progression — you're not getting new perks or upgrades that take your power to the next level. 

But these issues are relatively easy to overlook in the grand scheme of things. The base game isn't without its difficulty spikes, and platforming is hit or miss there as well. Whereas Marauders are the bugbear of Eternal, the new enemies fill a similar role in being cumbersome until you learn their idiosyncrasies. 

And sure, it's disappointing there isn't a greater sense of progression, but in some ways, it makes sense considering you're taking on the gods. Even Doom Guy should theoretically be (a bit) less powerful than these celestial beings. 

All said, if you've slept on The Ancient Gods so far and enjoyed Doom Eternal, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It's a ripping good time despite its blemishes. 

[Note: Bethesda provided the copy of The Ancient Gods — Part One used for this review.]

Godfall Review: Stylish Action in a Shallow World Wed, 11 Nov 2020 07:18:15 -0500 David Jagneaux

Godfall launched alongside the PS5 (also available on PC) looter-slasher developed by Counterplay Games and published by Gearbox. I've spent about 20 hours with the game so far, but I finished the main storyline after about 13 hours while doing a bit of optional grinding. Despite all of that time, I still have no real substantive knowledge of what's going on in this world.

That being said, I do have an appreciation for its art style. It looks gorgeous and plays wonderfully on PS5 with the DualSense controller, and I think there is an excellent foundation here to build upon.

Godfall Review: Stylish Action In A Shallow World

Have you ever been flipping through TV channels and stopped to watch a movie halfway through based on a scene or stunning sequence pulling you in? That's kind of what happens with Godfall

The opening cinematic is beautiful, but it doesn't really do a great job of telling you very much about the game. There are these guys in lion-esque armor fighting each other, their armies get massacred on a battlefield, and the one narrating everything loses  just before you take control of him in an injured state.

It's not clear what they were fighting over, but the victor is now vying to become a god and must be stopped at all costs so it's up to you to ascend the realms of this world and confront him again(?). Oh, and there is a voice in your head guiding and helping you along the way, but it's actually three disembodied magical faces named The Seventh Sanctum.

That's about all there is to it. 

Luckily, Godfall doesn't mind if you don't care about the story. As pretty as the world is and as impressive as the handful of cutscenes may be, it's all just so flashy and inconsequential. All sizzle and no steak. 

Regardless of how many obscure names I've heard thrown around, I simply could not care less about this world or setting right now. It's much like the world and setting of the original Destiny, which took several years and a full-on sequel to come into its own. Even still, if that potential growth is there, the story is by far the least interesting part.

Gameplay and Progression

The real focus in Godfall is the gameplay. If you've played a third-person melee action game released in the last 10 years, then the overall rhythm of Godfall's combat should be familiar. You lock onto enemies, strafe around, dodge and parry attacks, and use light or heavy attacks on enemies to beat them down. 

Sprinkle in some special moves and other flourishes, and that's Godfall in a nutshell. It's not bad by any means. I actually found myself picking it up to kill 20 or 30 minutes here and there just to get in some quick, satisfying fighting. All the loot and XP you earn is retained even if you exit a mission before completing it so there's really no consequence to hopping in for a quick session without commitments.

As convenient as this is, it also presents a difficulty balance problem. There are no stakes. When you die, you lose nothing other than the built-up special power energy bars you've accumulated. In most cases, enemies don't even regenerate their health at all. If it's one of the main bosses, then they'll only regenerate the most recent chunk, but not everything. With how fast load times are on PS5, there is literally nothing to lose when you die in most cases.

By collecting different resources out on missions and completing quests, you can start unlocking the 12 different Valorplates. Collecting them all is a big part of the game's early pull since they're all so distinct visually, with different "Archon Fury" special abilities.

Valorplates are both intricate suits of full-body armor and akin to the game's base classes. Each Valorplate includes its own special attack and is often powerful enough to build a character and loadout around. 

Playstyles don't vary dramatically between Valorplates though, since they all move and feel exactly the same. But as you upgrade and invest time into one, it makes sense to try and stick with it when you've found a favorite. It's similar to the frames system in Warframe, but only surface-level similarities.

My main issue, at least so far, is that this system severely limits the variety of loot and amount of customization in Godfall. Other than your weapons and a few slots like rings and an amulet, there isn't really a whole lot of loot to go around. The valorplates are entirely static.

One of my favorite aspects of games like this, and something that Destiny, Diablo, and other similar games all nail perfectly, is the loot grind.

I love seeing new gear drop and frequently swapping out my equipment for incremental upgrades in power. It's a consistent, recurring rewards system that keeps me engaged. Godfall is almost entirely devoid of the meaningful parts of those upgrades.

Progression is level-based in Godfall, and other than your gear gradually getting better, there are also high-level attributes like Might, Spirit, and Vitality that govern your DPS, HP, critical hit chance, resistances, and so on.

Plus, there's also the skill menu, which is shown below. Each of the skill orbs has five tiers of quality, and once you hit Level 2, you get to pick one of the outer orbs to start with.

From there, you can either upgrade an existing orb or pick a connecting orb to expand. Planning your build in advance and seeing which orbs you'll unlock next is crucial, and there is some fun meta-strategy involved with character advancement, kind of like the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X.

Once you complete the main campaign in Godfall, it sort of becomes a roguelike with its Dream Stones content. They function as alternate versions of the game's realms with remixed versions of enemies and bosses. The flow of combat isn't like the campaign and is more wave-based so it's easier and more convenient to do quickly.

I didn't reach the level cap of 50 yet, or the Ascendant Tower of Trials, which is the final phase of the end game loop. It's an infinite tower that gets harder and harder the higher you get with ever-increasing loot quality. This is likely where the most dedicated players will spend the majority of their time.

Godfall was clearly designed with co-op in mind, but the lack of any sort of matchmaking system is a major, glaring oversight. The fact that you're expected to wrangle up people for a launch title on a hard-to-get console is a tall order that I suspect most people will struggle to fulfill. Luckily it plays just fine solo other than some difficulty spikes with a few bosses, but it's more than beatable on Normal.

All in all, Godfall's biggest problem though, above all else, is the repetition. Every single mission is literally the same format: run from the beginning to the end, killing enemies along the way, then fight the boss or open the box to complete it. There is almost zero variation and it gets boring fast, even if the combat itself is flashy and fun.

Also, side note: there is no Photo Mode. For a game this gorgeous, that's a damn shame.


Visually, Godfall is an absolutely breathtaking game. From the opening moments, the lush vegetation, reflective metals, and bright, contrasting colors are a sight to behold. Seeing it all running beautifully on a 4K display is the most "next-gen" feeling game I've played yet.

You can switch over to performance mode for better and more stable framerates, which is my preferred way of playing most of the time. Action feels crisp and responsive in a way that I didn't expect, given how nice it looks.

The best way to describe it is that Godfall feels like you're playing inside of a really elaborate Unreal Engine tech demo, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Normally, I'm not much of a sucker for visuals making things "better," but Godfall proves that art direction and high-powered hardware can absolutely elevate an otherwise by-the-numbers loot-based action game. I enjoy the gameplay a lot, and I think there is a good foundation here, but it's the visuals that set it apart and raise it up as a whole. 

Godfall Review — The Bottom Line

  • Absolutely stunning visuals
  • Satisfying combat with fun weapons
  • Combos and abilities flow very well together
  • Enemy designs are varied and exciting
  • Story isn't established well
  • Lots of style without substance
  • Progression feels lackluster
  • Mission structure is extremely repetitive

Godfall has a lot of really good ideas going for it. On paper, the concept of adapting a Destiny or Warframe-style game to an entirely melee-centered combat system that has more in common with Dark Souls is a great idea. Admittedly, it's the kind of game I've wanted for years since Monster Hunter doesn't quite scratch that itch for me.

There is an amazing foundation here with one of the most gorgeously detailed game worlds I have ever seen. Playing Godfall in native 4K is nothing short of a revelation, but I do tend to prefer switching to performance mode when possible for smoother framerates. Having both options is great.

Overall it gets really close but still falls short. The pieces are here though, so a year from now it very well could be an excellent adventure, but it's not right now.

[Note: A digital copy of Godfall for PS5 was provided by Gearbox for this review.]

Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition Review — More Stylish Than Ever Tue, 10 Nov 2020 10:26:22 -0500 David Jagneaux

Since I received a PlayStation 5 review unit, I've had the pleasure of enjoying games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Astro's Playroom, The Pathless, Bugsnax, and a few others I can't talk about yet, and they've all looked extremely nice visually. But Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition is the only PS5 game so far that's really made me audibly gasp every few minutes entirely because of its style

For those unaware, Devil May Cry 5 released in March 2019 for PC, PS4, Xbox One. The Special Edition dropping this week on next-gen consoles ups the visuals with a host of options, adds Vergil as a playable character with new story elements, and includes various other bonus modes and difficulty options.

This is the best version of the game to play and, arguably, the best overall Devil May Cry game made to date.

Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition Review — More Stylish Than Ever

With DMC 5 Special Edition, you get to play through every mission as Vergil — and it's glorious.

Vergil was introduced as a playable character in Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition and was then added in Devil May Cry 4: Special Edition. Notice a trend here?

If you're like me and not a diehard Devil May Cry fan, luckily, there is a short subtitled series of animations that explain all of the events from the past games leading up to Devil May Cry 5. It's only a few minutes long but does a great job of outlining who Dante, Nero, and Virgil are in the grand scheme of things, so you don't necessarily need to have played any of the past games to jump in headfirst here.

Honestly, every game should have something like it, especially if it's a sequel launching on a new platform like DMC 5 is on PS5 and Xbox Series X|S.

Other than the visual and performance enhancements, which I'll cover more a little later, there are three main additions: Turbo mode, Legendry Dark Knight difficult, and the inclusion of Vergil, Dante's twin brother, as a playable character.

Similar to the Special Edition version of Devil May Cry 4, Turbo Mode ramps up the intensity by making the entire game run 20% faster. Alternatively, Legendary Dark Knight mode absolutely floods the screen with enemies almost all the time. It's a great way to get a thumb workout in, and it really tests your reflexes. 

Let's talk about Vergil specifically, though. One of the biggest issues with the base game was that you were forced to bounce between Dante, Nero, and V through the campaign, regardless of if you wanted to switch characters or not. This was a bummer, for me, because I'm not a big fan of how clunky Nero feels, especially at first. With DMC 5 Special Edition, you get to play through every mission as Vergil — and it's glorious.

What I love about his moveset is just how fast and lethal it is. Everything revolves around his katana, and he's so ferocious in combat it gets my blood pumping every time he starts slashing. I particularly love how he can shift and teleport between enemies nearly instantly to close gaps and keep combos going.

Virgil is almost like a combination of the other three characters into one super-powerful demon slayer. I really, really hope he gets his own entire game sometime soon.

Style and Substance

Even though it's technically just an expanded port, DMC 5 SE shows that Capcom went the extra mile to really deliver on the fidelity side of things. You can use ray-tracing in either 1080P at 60fps or 4K at 30fps. And if you've got a TV capable enough, you can even bump DMC 5 SE all the way up to 120fps with its "high framerate mode." Unfortunately, my TV only goes up to 60fps, so I couldn't test that functionality.

However, the game seems to detect whether or not your TV can hit that mark independent of your console settings.

Another big benefit of DMC 5 SE on the PS5 — and this cannot be overstated — are the ultra-fast loading times.

I spent most of my time using the lower fidelity mode or even turning off ray-tracing altogether because, as beautiful as this game is, it felt I needed to pause and enter Photo Mode to really appreciate the enhancements.

Reflective puddles and amazing lighting effects are great, but when you're busy fighting hordes of relentless demons, you typically need to focus on the combat more than the water reflections. That's why getting a faster framerate took priority for me.

The video below does a great job of demonstrating how much the added graphics options can make a difference if you're into that sort of thing though.

Another big benefit of DMC 5 SE on the PS5 — and this cannot be overstated — are the ultra-fast loading times. When you queue up a mission from the main menu, you're inside the game, slashing away at demons, within a matter of seconds. You barely have time to reposition yourself, let alone have enough time to check Twitter or take a bathroom break, before you're ready to go. For a game as fast-paced as DMC, the less you have to wait the better.

All that being said, the format for releasing this edition feels odd. If you paid $60 (or more for the Deluxe edition) just a year ago, Capcom is asking for another $40 for what is, basically, the same game. 

That's not to mention the fact that DMC 5 Special Edition, with all of its enhancements and new features, is not available at all on PC, nor is that version getting patched to include the new features. It's inexplicable why Capcom would gate off content in such a way, especially from PC players that very likely have gaming setups on par with or surpassing the PS5 and XSX.

Thankfully, though, Capcom is releasing Vergil as DLC on December 15 for last-gen and PC versions of the game for just $5. However, this doesn't include any of the other new modes or technical enhancements.

Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition Review — The Bottom Line

  • Visually stunning and makes great use of next-gen hardware
  • Excellent gameplay  Vergil is a blast to play and easily my favorite character
  • Lots of options for tweaking visuals and performance settings
  • New game modes offer a solid challenge for experienced fans
  • Bizarre pricing and new content platform release strategy, completely excluding PC players
  • Vergil's campaign is still basically the same experience
  • Little reason to purchase if you've played DMC 5 already

Assessing a re-release of an already excellent game is difficult when it doesn't add a ton — or if it has a weird pricing and release strategy. On the one hand, there isn't much new here other than a new playable character with a handful of new cutscenes from his perspective. The new game modes are neat for replayability, but it's still just all remixing the game and not delivering much that's truly new.

But on the other hand, it's such a great game that it's hard to complain. If you haven't played DMC 5, then you absolutely should pick this up, no questions asked. If you have played DMC 5, then it might not be worth it. However, Vergil is the most fun character to play and absolutely makes the game even more intense and badass due to his excellent moveset.

Fingers crossed he gets an entire game all his own sooner rather than later.

Devil May Cry 5 may not have a whole lot that's truly new to offer, but what it does add and change manages to elevate an already excellent action game into the upper echelon of the entire genre.

[Note: Capcom provided a digital download code of Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition on PS5 for this review.]

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin Review — Grains of Glory Mon, 09 Nov 2020 14:00:01 -0500 Josh Broadwell

Growing rice is exhausting. It's one of the most fickle crops you can grow. It takes constant nurturing and attention to get right and hopefully, in the end, you wind up with a prize-winning yield. That's on one hand.

On the other, you have 2D action games. They're fast, frenetic adrenaline rushes that reward you for pulling off the right moves at the right time.

What do you get when you bring both hands together? Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin from Edelweiss and Xseed Games. It's a daring twist that combines an intensely detailed farm-sim with a polished 2D action game to create a game that's immersive, rewarding, surprisingly deep, and an absolute must-play.

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin Review — Grains of Glory

It makes for a unique sense of immersion: you're growing alongside Sakuna, who's growing as a person/deity alongside the rice.

Sakuna’s story starts off with an accident. A group of humans from the Lowly Realm somehow managed to arrive in the land of the gods, and in the process of apprehending the gods, Sakuna accidentally burns down divine empress Lady Kamuhitsuki’s rice stores. Oops.

As punishment, she and the humans are banished to Hinoe, an island formerly belonging to Sakuna’s mother, which also happens to be crawling with demons. If Sakuna wants to reclaim her place in the Lofty Realm, she must bring the island under divine control and replenish Lady Kamuhitsuki’s rice stores.

It’s a terrible punishment for the lazy Sakuna, and not because of the danger. As the daughter of the Lofty Realm’s preeminent warrior god, Sakuna doesn’t mind trouncing a few thousand demons. But growing rice? Ick.

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is the only game I know that builds its core mechanics around being a lazy brat, and Edelweiss pulls it off so well. 

Your first year’s gonna' be rough. Sakuna’s mother is a harvest goddess, but Sakuna herself ignored that part of her godly responsibilities. So you get no guidance for any stage of the rice-growing process. What she doesn’t know, you don’t know.

How should you control the water level? At random! Why is temperature important? I don't know! Brown rice or white rice? *Screams internally*

That sums up the first growing cycle pretty well. But the more you work at it, the more skills Sakuna develops to fine-tune rice growing. You’ll eventually have the tools and know-how to plant a balanced field, manage pests, and control the quality to produce the kind of rice and yield that meets your needs.

It makes for a unique sense of immersion: you're growing alongside Sakuna, who's growing as a person/deity alongside the rice.

That’s the ideal way to play the game, but you don’t technically have to learn any of it. In keeping with her nature and station, Sakuna can delegate almost every agricultural task to someone else. 

But there’s a price to pay. Sakuna won’t learn some key skills without getting her hands dirty, and the rice quality is always lower if she delegates tasks. That’s a bad thing because rice quality is key to making everything work in the game.

Saying Sakuna draws strength from rice isn’t just an abstract note from the game’s mythology. It literally controls her growth. Sakuna breaks rice quality into five main categories. These are each connected to one of Sakuna’s core stats (e.g. Hardness correlates with Vitality, and her overall strength gets decided by some math hoodoo of adding and averaging certain qualities).

Unlike other farm sim games, I felt attached to the field and its produce in Sakuna.

Fertilizer becomes your best friend quickly, and it's one of the best ways to encourage growth in specific areas. There are other methods, but those are more complex and don’t come into play until later in the game.

It’s not always a case of “cram everything into every batch of fertilizer.” You can only use so many ingredients in each batch of fertilizer, and some qualities take precedence over others depending on where you are in the game. 

Sakuna relies on you wanting to learn more and do better, which, presumably, is what you would want if you’re playing the game. This hands-off approach to learning the game’s ropes might not be a hit with everyone, but it’s such a tremendous payoff if you do put the time in.

Unlike other farm sim games, I felt attached to the field and its produce in Sakuna. The care I put into the field, going from bumbler to fledgling rice scientist, made me feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that’s just not possible in other games in the genre. 

That’s not to say I perfected rice growing, and I don’t even think that’s possible. Too many variables, from temperature to unseen weed damage, mean there’s always something that went wrong or something you could have done better.

It’s a lot like real farming in that sense, only without the danger of starvation and destitution. 

Fortunately, Sakuna doesn’t punish the odd mishap too harshly, which is good since some things like weed damage feel out of your control most of the time. As long as you’re putting in some effort, you’ll (*ahem*) reap the rewards.

And it feels so good when that does happen, when you bring in a new rice harvest and the power boost means you can suddenly steam through a tough boss to open new areas. 

With that in mind, Sakuna doesn’t skimp on exploration or combat. This marriage of two disparate game styles, where what you do in one of the game’s halves feeds back into the other, is one of Sakuna’s strongest and most impressive features. And the fighting is the most fun I’ve had with a 2D action game in forever.

You get two weapons, a one-handed weapon (for fast attacks) and a two-handed one (for strong attacks). These weapons have specific attack types you swap between to exploit enemy weaknesses, and Sakuna also uses her Divine Raiment for magic-based attacks. There’s also an RPG element with equipment upgrades and customization.

However you customize your loadout, fighting in Sakuna just feels good.

Kinta makes new weapons from the materials you gather, and Yui weaves new garments. While added weapon attack power is always a bonus, it’s the extra benefits imbued into these weapons that often make a world of difference. Every piece of equipment comes with at least one special skill, like extra health or reduced damage from water attacks. 

Stronger items have spare slots to which you can add new skills, including ones that change weapon attributes, gained from finding Spirit Boughs. While there are admittedly more of these benefits than you ever need to use in the game, the system adds a welcome layer of depth and customization to Sakuna’s combat.

However you customize your loadout, fighting in Sakuna just feels good. Weapon skills and basic attacks work together seamlessly to create a maelstrom of flying demons you send crashing into each other. 

The Raiment is a crucial battle tool and lets you evade attacks and re-position for a better advantage, all while doubling as a magic weapon itself.

It gives combat an element of choreography where you dance around enemies, execute skill chains, pull off debuffs, evade, parry, and attack again in a fluid series of actions that never gets stale.

It’s not always easy, though, at least not on the game's default difficulty. Even without the hard-hitting enemies, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by groups of regular demons. It keeps you on your toes and, since the demons get progressively stronger in each new area, makes up for the lack of enemy designs. 

Each main area on the island is broken into four or so smaller locations to explore. These have a handful of exploration objectives to meet, such as defeating enemies a certain way or finding a specific treasure. 

Clearing these objectives raises your exploration level and unlocks new areas or pushes the story forward. Some of the objectives are a bit grindy, but there are so many to fulfill, you rarely find yourself stalled trying to raise your exploration level.

The areas themselves benefit from being small and focused in design. You revisit some of them a fair few times, to hunt for food and fertilizer ingredients or find material for gear, and not having to spend much time finding what you need is a significant boon.

Having said all of this, one of Sakuna’s best features is its quietest one: mealtimes.

It helps that Sakuna is stunningly beautiful. The stages themselves might be fairly basic, but the backdrops and the farm at the pass are pure eye candy. Handheld mode on the Switch version isn’t quite as striking as docked mode — or maybe it’s just because it looks better on a bigger screen — but it still looks amazing either way.

All this sounds like a lot to take in at once. However, you quickly fall into a routine that lets you accomplish everything you need to, balancing quick bouts of exploring with field maintenance.

Having said all of this, one of Sakuna’s best features is its quietest one: mealtimes.

Your end-of-day meal is an indispensable part of the game in big ways and small. It’s connected to the story, through conversations framing what’s happening in the story at the time. Other stories are less story-relevant, but no less important since they’re ways for the Hinoe group, and you, to understand each other better.

Everyone on the island comes from a different background (for reasons I won’t spoil) which often leads to disagreements. It never spills over into anger. It couldn’t, since they have to rely on each other to survive. Instead, it ends up being a vehicle for exploring different viewpoints and quietly expanding everyone’s horizons. It’s not surprising religion often features in these conversations. It is a game about a goddess after all. 

Along with being a storytelling device, meals serve a practical purpose by boosting Sakuna for the next day for as long as she remains full. Like with rice farming, it’s less than impressive at the start. 

Yet what starts off as a depressing meal of shoe leather meat and water gradually transforms into a multi-course feast where you stuff both your stomach and your stats. Sometimes, the key to powering through a tough spot is just picking out the right menu.

It’s yet another reward for all your hard work with the rice, which naturally forms the basis for most of these meals and another way Sakuna seamlessly blends its gameplay.

What is surprising is how Sakuna deals with the themes it raises, pushing beyond the black-and-white, poking at the grey areas, and gently showing how everyone’s more complex than you might first think. 

These moments, and the entire game really, owe a debt of gratitude to Sakuna’s fantastic localization, with writing that’s easily some of the year’s best. The voiced segments are first-rate as well, and Laura Post’s work as Sakuna absolutely deserves a nomination or official recognition of some kind. 

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin Review — The Bottom Line

  • Solid plot, with touching character stories, unexpected twists, and a fun riff on mythology
  • Incredibly detailed and rewarding farm system
  • Fluid, addictive combat
  • Beautiful, beautiful art design
  • Sublime soundtrack
  • Fantastic writing and voice work
  • Seamless and innovative genre-bending
  • Vague, hands-off approach might turn some people off
  • Not a lot of enemy design variety
  • Starting a few of the character events seems a bit too random

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a fantastic blend of genres. Far from skimping on one part or another, Sakuna pays lavish attention to both of its halves and adds a group of endearing, solidly realized characters on top.

It might ask you to take it on its own terms from time to time, but that's a small price to pay when the experience is this rewarding and unique.

[Note: Xseed Games provided the copy of Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin used for this review.]

Bugsnax Review: Hilarious Writing in an Unsettling World Mon, 09 Nov 2020 09:00:01 -0500 David Jagneaux

Bugsnax is one of the most bizarre video games I've ever played. Frankly, I'm not entirely sure how to describe it, which is troubling given my profession.

On the one hand, it's a surrealist adventure puzzle game in which you're sent on an expedition to research walking, sentient foods in the form of bugs amidst a mysterious disappearance, but on the other hand, it's like a weird fever dream of someone that passed out at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

It's all filtered through this lens of whimsical adventure that not-so-subtly implies there is more going on here than meets the eye. Despite the cheery attitudes of the denizens and seemingly innocent visual aesthetic, I couldn't help but feel absolutely creeped out every second I was playing Bugsnax.

This isn't a true horror game  not even close  but it's got that sort of "off" feeling that will likely stick with me longer than any actual horror game could ever dream to.

Bugsnax Review: Hilarious Writing in an Unsettling World

Instead of knocking out errands for strangers, you're hunting and capturing the little creepy crawlies and then feeding them like food to the island's denizens, Grumpuses.

A big part of what makes Bugsnax so creepy is what you end up doing almost immediately after arriving on the island. The game quickly devolves from a mystery thriller into a series of fetch quests and errands like any modern video game. Except in this case, instead of knocking out errands for strangers, you're hunting and capturing the little creepy crawlies and then feeding them like food to the island's denizens, Grumpuses.

After eating a Bugsnack, a Grumpus then has a body part transformed to resemble the Bugsnack. For example, after eating a Fryder (a spider with french fry legs), a character's arms suddenly become delicious french fries. It takes the phrase "you are what you eat" to a whole new level.

It's what immediately gave me pause when I first started playing Bugsnax. There's something about the way they smile and laugh with such cheery music playing in the background. It's as if the game is trying so hard to overcompensate in its portrayal of happiness to overcome how unsettling it really can be.

Most of Bugsnax could be summarized as trying to lure various Bugsnax into traps, but it gets very complicated later on. Knowing how certain Bugsnax interact with one another is super important. For example, the bull-esque Bunger will charge and head butt anything that smells like ketchup, so you can catch them in peace.

The plot in Bugsnax revolves around you, a journalist, sent to report on the wondrous world of Bugsnax found on Snaktooth Island. But once you arrive, the intrepid explorer that invited you, Lizbert Megafig, is nowhere to be found. Her sudden vanishing is a bit morbid to begin with, so the premise of devouring helpless bugs in the shapes of various food items doesn't exactly help.

As curious as the world is, though, most of the time I spent playing Bugsnax, I couldn't help but feel like it would have been better as a different genre or perhaps even as not a video game at all. The actual act of playing Bugsnax is by far the least appealing part.

I adore the vibrant world, creative premise, and unnerving underlying implications, but I couldn't help but feel like I'd have been more engrossed if it was just an animated series or more dialogue-driven adventure game. The strength here is the world and its characters, not the game mechanics.

Bugsnax also has one of the catchiest soundtracks you'll hear in a game all year.

Your character controls very floaty, and it's more than a little bit cumbersome to constantly juggle various pieces of equipment while in the middle of a hunt. In the past, the developers have cited games like Pokemon Snap and Ape Escape as inspirations for Bugsnax, but both of those boil down their ideas to an entertaining core to build upon. Bugsnax seems to try too hard to gamify itself in ways that it would have been better served to embrace non-gameplay elements.

All that being said, Bugsnax has a semi Adventure Time vibe going for it. On the surface, it's very light-hearted and colorful, with an aesthetic that seems appealing to kids, but underneath it all, there are some real layers and depth to be found both conceptually and in the game itself.

I particularly enjoyed how nuanced the puzzles became over time and how the game quickly evolved beyond just setting traps. You eventually get various different condiments and sauces for your slingshot to lure different types of bugs into traps, and intersecting patrol paths for bugs gets more and more important the further you get. A few of the puzzles can be pretty challenging and obtuse by design, which is a tad frustrating at times. 

Bugsnax also has one of the catchiest soundtracks you'll hear in a game all year, especially the theme song performed by artist Kero Kero Bonito. The quality of the writing and voice acting is also equally top-notch. It's tough to get through a play session without at least a handful of real belly laughs, especially if you appreciate the semi-awkward situational humor on display here or lots of great food puns, like me.

Bugsnax Review — The Bottom Line


  • Hilarious writing is endearing
  • Charming visuals and music
  • Clever premise is oddly unsettling


  • Game mechanics are a bit tedious
  • Some puzzle solutions aren't very clear
  • Setting and premise may have worked better in a different genre or media format

In a world where big console launch exclusives such as Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Demon's Souls, and Godfall are all vying for your attention, quirky indie games like Bugsnax rarely get much of the spotlight, but luckily, Sony seems to have supported this one from an early stage. I can say with supreme confidence that if Bugsnax looks like a good time to you based on its trailer, you'll very likely come away satiated after you've had your fill.

Bugsnax takes around seven to 10 hours to finish, depending on your speed, ability to crack puzzles, and the amount of exploration you do. Getting all the achievements or trophies could likely take even longer.

Bugsnax isn't the best version of the game it could have been, but it's still a really fun adventure.

[Note: Young Horses provided a PS5 digital copy of Bugsnax for this review.]

Assassin's Creed Valhalla Review: A-Raiding We Will Go Mon, 09 Nov 2020 06:15:01 -0500 Jordan Baranowski

The Assassin's Creed franchise has had its ups and downs, but it seems to have turned things around within the last few entries. It's true it had grown a bit stale with yearly releases, but 2018's Assassin's Creed: Odyssey showed that Ubisoft regained its grasp on what fans wanted from the series and had (hopefully) righted the ship. 

Assassin's Creed Valhalla, the newest entry in the franchise, transports players to a Norse setting full of Vikings, and in the process, stays on course.

Valhalla isn't dramatically different from AC Odyssey, or other AAA, open-world, third-person action games, for that matter. There's a lot of polish in Valhalla, and there is a ton of stuff to do and plenty of little details that draw you into the world. Combat has many options but is not overly interesting or challenging, and sidequests too often fall into the "go here, then go there, then get your XP" formula.

But it is a fun, jam-packed world to play in.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla Review — A-Raiding We Will Go

Just like Valhalla's customization options, there are multiple avenues by which you can handle combat.

I've been out of the Assassin's Creed picture for a while. Somewhere in the middle of the series, between the twists and turns brought about by the Animus and the centuries-spanning battles between secret societies, Assassin's Creed started to feel more like busywork than a game.

Luckily, that's changed. Valhalla injects some fun back into things, with memorable characters and an interesting narrative to punctuate moving between icons on the map.

The customization options for your main character, Eivor, are substantial enough to stand out, and the story gives you enough small options (and a few fairly large ones) to help shape the story as you want. The roleplaying elements in Valhalla are many I played Eivor as a proud, sneaky hothead who frequently deferred to the few people she looked up to. Still, she remained stubborn when dealing with pretty much everyone else.

It would take another playthrough to see exactly how much some of those "stubborn jerk" decisions actually affected my story and the things I saw in Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, but it seemed to do a good job of making my choices matter at the end of the day. 

There are also ways to set quests one of two ways: one where you actually have to solve the puzzles and search for your objectives and another where pretty much everything is marked on your map immediately. The default settings are a nice in-between, and it's great that there are all sorts of options like this in Valhalla.

Cleaving Heads

The Assassin's Creed games have always been replete with combat, and Valhalla is no different. Overall, combat here is... not overly exciting, but it gets the job done. It's fairly standard, third-person action stuff: you have light and heavy melee attacks, a couple of dodges, and some ranged abilities. For the most part, if you don't get caught in a corner or enter a fight with a sliver of health, you probably won't have a ton of trouble with most of the game's foes.

Luckily, just like Valhalla's customization options, there are multiple avenues by which you can handle combat. You can equip an armory of different weapons, and you can dual-wield most for a huge number of combinations. I typically went with the handaxe/shield combo, as it gave me a lot of versatility when combined with my focus on range.

Speaking of that focus, there are dozens of specializations for Eivor. As you complete quests and level up, you unlock skill points that you can stretch out across a huge grid, building up stats and unlocking new abilities along the way. Those abilities can be assigned to quick actions, so you can use them to patch holes in your build or to accentuate the areas you focus on.

For example, an early ranged skill allows you to "paint" a target multiple times, then unleash a flurry of arrows for a nasty knock to their health bar. This is great for taking out multiple weak foes at once or for knocking a major chunk of HP off a tougher enemy.

Iconic Assassin's Creed stealth kills are as thrilling as ever, but, especially early in the game, you'll likely need to mix it up fairly often.

Lots to Do

It's also to Valhalla's credit that its writing and voice acting are so strong.

In the grand scheme of things, though, combat is only a small cog in the mighty machine that is Assassin's Creed Valhalla. The game's open-world isn't quite as convincing as some of the best representatives of the genre, like The Witcher or Red Dead Redemption 2. However, you're never at a loss for things to do in the series' largest game.

There are songs and stories to hear as you sail the seas around England and Norway. There are tattoo blueprints to track down and set to your skin. There is a dice game to play. Cats to pet. Viking word duels (basically rap battles) called "flyts" to engage in. Romances to have. Horses to ride. A settlement to upgrade. And a home to improve. 

Much of these points of interest are marked on your map and within easy distance of a fast travel point. Like the best open-world games, however, Valhalla's most interesting moments are found on the journeys between points.

As a recurring theme, it boils back down to a simple fact: AC Valhalla puts so many paths and options in front of you. There's no problem if you want to jump between fast travel points, checking off your virtual to-do list while watching Eivor grow into an unstoppable killing machine.

There's also no problem in wandering through the world and making your own stories. The world is populous enough that you're never far from something new and interesting.

A Story for the Ages

It's also to Valhalla's credit that its writing and voice acting are so strong. The main characters, secondary characters, and even little minor characters alike help create the illusion that the world is alive. Whether you play Eivor as a male or female, you'll find the character relatable, interesting, and nuanced.

The story is easy to sympathize with, especially when you take things in conjunction with our real world view of history and Assassin's Creed's own bizarre overarching storyline.

Maybe it's because I took such a long break from the Assassin's Creed series, but anytime the focus shifted back into the "modern-day," I stopped being interested. Maybe that part's totally your jam, but good thing for me (and others in the same boat), those moments are fewer and farther between this time around.

Still, it might not be a bad idea to brush up on the "story so far" if you've missed a few entries in the series.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla Review — The Bottom Line


  • Tons of different things to do
  • Strong writing and characters
  • Plenty of customization options to help make the game how you want
  • The world feels like a living, breathing place


  • Combat is unexciting
  • Events don't always trigger when they should
  • Too often, events are often glorified fetch quests

If you've been away from Assassin's Creed for a while, Valhalla is a great entry back into the series. There are myriad ways to make the experience your own, and sailing around in a longship while listening to a bunch of drunk Vikings tell war stories never gets old.

If you've had your fill of Assassin's Creed or games of its ilk, I'm not sure there's enough here to bring you along for the journey. Combat is still kind of messy, and your goals are too often centered on "get to this spot on the map."

Still, Eivor's yarn is a pretty good one, so narrative-driven gamers will find a lot to like with Assassin's Creed Valhalla.

[Note: Ubisoft provided the copy of Assassin's Creed Valhalla used for this review.]

Pikmin 3 Deluxe Review: Pint-Sized Powerhouse Fri, 06 Nov 2020 15:59:23 -0500 Josh Broadwell

Imagine that you and your co-workers live on a distant planet with a population that’s growing fast — too fast. The planet can’t support your species for much longer, so it’s up to you to find a new source of food to keep the ecosystem from falling apart. Fortunately, a nearby planet seems to hold the key, with abundant natural resources just waiting to be plundered.

It’s not hard to imagine the scenario because in all likelihood, you've played a video game or two. In any other game, though, you’d expect to see this scenario as the backbone of some gritty, dark commentary on environmental exploitation. 

Instead, Nintendo turns it into Pikmin 3 Deluxe, a charming mix of Louis Carroll fantasy and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, with, of course, a dollop of heartbreak on top.

It’s one of the Nintendo Switch’s strongest and most focused strategy games and a must-have for those who’ve never experienced it before, but it's a bit of a harder sell if you played the Wii U original.

Pikmin 3 Deluxe Review: Pint-Sized Powerhouse

There’s probably a thousand ways for your Pikmin to die, and you’ll probably subject your Pikmin to every one of them, assuming they don't do it themselves.

Pikmin 3 begins with a crash. Alph, Brittany, and Charlie, explorers from Koppai, experience a ship malfunction and wind up scattered across planet PNF 404. Your main task in Pikmin 3 is finding enough fruit to survive — and maybe even take back home  plus figuring out how to restore your marooned ship’s missing capabilities.

That means lots of exploring, and PNF 404 is a joy to investigate. It has the same juxtaposition of the everyday and the fantastical from the first two Pikmin, where tin cans are mountains and giant flip-style cell phones power spaceship communication features.

What’s even more impressive than the lovely HD visuals (even in handheld mode) is how the formula still sparks a sense of magic and wonder despite being three games and a re-release old by now.

And in the midst of admiring the scenery, the googly-eyed mushroom monster lumbers out and eats your Pikmin, the electrified sheep thing fries them, the hover frog flattens them, and/or the poor little critters just drown…

There’s probably a thousand ways for your Pikmin to die, and you’ll probably subject your Pikmin to every one of them, assuming they don't do it themselves. Pikmin are mostly smart critters, but they're inclined to be a bit dense sometimes.

The Pikmin give as good as they get and show no mercy to their would-be murderers. It's all very National Geographic in a way we don't often see in video games.

If it weren't already obvious, the threat of the natural world and its voracious inhabitants is powerful incentive to plan well. Losing just one Pikmin from a strategy gone awry or, horror of horrors, because you left behind a small platoon of them is a pretty big gut punch. You’re supposed to protect your smol plant children! 

Pikmin 3 goes a bit further in making you care about your plant comrades than usual. Pikmin, as a series, always teeters a bit close to the edge of environmental exploitation, especially Pikmin 2 and its “cash in the planet” theme. 

True, you’re still using Pikmin to get what you want in Pikmin 3. But the trio shows more concern for the Pikmin’s well-being, even going out of their way to rescue a trapped Onion just because they can’t bear to see the Pikmin get eaten. This ultimately makes Pikmin 3 feel more like a partnership between the humans and their plant minions, instead of an interstellar pirate raid on a vulnerable culture.

Fortunately, Pikmin 3 also gives you even more options to work into your strategies and keep the wee ones out of harm. Rock and Flying Pikmin, the two new(ish) headline Pikmin types, offer their special strengths to vary how you approach certain obstacles. 

Rock Pikmin, for example, can survive getting smashed by heavy objects, while Flying Pikmin can avoid certain enemy attacks more easily.

The game does a stellar job with its difficulty balancing, as puzzles and enemies exist in the Goldilocks zone.

Pikmin 3 has plenty of unique enemies and puzzles only these newcomers can solve, like crystal-crusted enemies only Rock Pikmin can shatter or gates Flying Pikmin need to lift for you to progress.

Speaking of progression, you could describe Pikmin 3 as a Metroidvania of sorts. Even at the initial crash site, you’ll get tantalizing glimpses of areas just out of reach — well, until you’ve got the right Pikmin and the right squad, at least. That sense of not quite being finished helps break up the linearity of exploration and make the game’s five stages feel a lot more involved than their number would suggest. 

In most cases, you’ll need more than just the right Pikmin to get the goods. You’ll need your fellow Koppaites too.

Your first task, along with finding enough fruit to avoid death by starvation, is actually reuniting with your crew, and it’s a handy way to introduce one of Pikmin 3’s best features.

Pikmin 3 expects you to make good use of your crew once they’re all assembled. Each map requires a smart division of labor between the three protagonists. As simple as it sounds on the surface, it adds a remarkable extra layer of strategy to every day and how you divvy up the Pikmin.

As always, you can only have 100 Pikmin in the field (less than that until you find Charlie). Most of the puzzles that make you split your team involve specific dangers plus obstacles only the right Pikmin can break through.

Getting the right mix where both, or all three, squads make it out unscathed sometimes takes a bit of trial and error, and that goes double if you’re playing on Ultra Spicy mode and its stricter cap on Pikmin numbers.

It’s never too much, though. The game does a stellar job with its difficulty balancing, as puzzles and enemies exist in the Goldilocks zone.

They’re just challenging enough where you feel clever for figuring them out, even if it took restarting a few days to get there, but not too hard to pose a barrier to enjoyment. If you do get stuck, Pikmin 3 Deluxe even adds some handy hints to point you in the right direction.

Pikmin 3’s run time also sits comfortably in the Goldilocks zone, lasting between eight and 12 hours depending on how you play. There’s enough creativity and fun here where a longer game would be nice, but it also ends before any of its components start feeling stale. 

Pikmin is one of Nintendo's most inventive franchises, and Pikmin 3 Deluxe is the best of the bunch.

If that sounds too short, Pikmin 3 Deluxe adds a few nice bonuses to round off the main gameplay. Mission mode from the original was changed to Side Stories. These are a few extra stages following Olimar’s trek through PNF 404 that you’ll unlock by progressing through the main story.

In the Side Stories, you’ll try and gather every piece of fruit on a condensed version of one of the main maps. Time is short, and you have to make the most of your limited Pikmin squads to get the job done. They’re short, even if you replay to earn a higher score. But it’s a fun way to shake up the gameplay nonetheless.

There’s a brief new epilogue after the main story (where else?) that shakes things up even further. And finally — finally! — Pikmin 3 Deluxe adds co op gameplay for the main story. It’s an excellent inclusion that makes perfect sense given the game’s structure, and it’s surprising story co op multiplayer wasn’t a thing before now.

That’s about it as far as new content goes. Enjoyable it may be, but possibly not enough to warrant a second helping for longtime fans, especially for the price. Everyone else who missed it on the Wii U should definitely give it a try.

Pikmin 3 Deluxe Review  The Bottom Line


  • Excellent level design
  • Smart strategy gameplay
  • Unique mix of the whimsical and brutal
  • Side stories offer a fun diversion from the main story
  • It has co op story mode!


  • Not too much new for being deluxe
  • AI is occasionally dense as a brick

Pikmin is one of Nintendo's most inventive franchises, and Pikmin 3 Deluxe is the best of the bunch. There might not be a whole lot of extra added to the Switch version, but what's there make this one of the most enjoyable experiences on the system.

[Note: Nintendo of America provided the copy of Pikmin 3 Deluxe used for this review.]

FUSER Review: The Next Generation of Music Gaming Fri, 06 Nov 2020 08:05:28 -0500 RobotsFightingDinosaurs

FUSER really couldn't have come out at a better time. What I'm about to say will sound cliche, but it's true nonetheless. Going to see people play music live, and playing music yourself, is a healing act. There is something special about being in a room filled with people who are there just to hear music. There's something even more compelling about making music for people who are special to you.

Feeling the power of music in that way is hard right now. The feeling of community that comes from music, just like most other feelings of community now, is heavily filtered and diluted in this post-pandemic world. 

FUSER doesn't fix this problem. How could it? But by rethinking what the heart of a music game should be, FUSER kindles enough of that magic to be something truly, truly remarkable.

FUSER Review: The Next Generation of Music Gaming

[FUSER] does a really great job of teaching players everything they need to know.

FUSER is unlike any music game you have ever played before, and that's by design. Earlier in the fall, I spoke with Harmonix about their philosophy for the game, and they said in no uncertain terms that the rhythm genre is inherently flawed. No matter how good a rhythm game may be, the fact remains that (with the notable exception of Parappa the Rapper), a perfect score on a certain level will always sound almost exactly the same.

This was the question at the heart of FUSER's development: is it possible to have a score-based rhythm game that actually allows for true creativity, where no two playthroughs will sound alike? 

Harmonix's answer to that is a mashup-based core gameplay loop that keeps scoring very general. The way it works is this: players fill their crate with a selection of over 100 licensed songs (each of which is broken up into up to four instrumental parts), as well as effects and instruments before taking the stage.

Players drop these instrumental loops onto a DJ deck UI to create bespoke Girl Talk-style mashups. Imagine layering the guitar line from "Killing In The Name Of" with the drums from "Push It" and the iconic vocals of Dolly Parton's "Jolene."

Scoring is based on how well you handle audience requests, how often you change up the mix, and how you time everything while doing so. Dropping an instrument loop on the beat earns points, as does triggering effects, ejecting loops, or muting or soloing tracks. You get bonus points for accommodating fan requests, but even these aren't all that prescriptive. They never force you to revamp your whole mix; they just request a certain instrument, a certain song, or a certain track from a specific decade or genre. It allows for a lot of wiggle room. 

What this creates is a scoring system that allows you to create something unique while still getting the deep, base rush of "haha! Yes, number go up!" Not to mention that the unique thing that you're creating, thanks to a whole lot of brilliant beat and key-matching software, usually sounds amazing (or at least hilarious).

Anyone Can Be a DJ

If juggling all those plates sounds a bit complicated, that's, well, because it really kind of is. The game's campaign mode is shorter than Rock Band 4's by a significant margin, with six unique stages that feature six levels each, but that's largely because the entire campaign works as an extended tutorial for each of the game's systems, from the basics of dropping tracks and cueing them to creating custom instrument loops, effects, and filters, recording, sharing and...

Okay, deep breath. 

The point is, the campaign mode, although it occupies that uncomfortable space between too-short-campaign and too-long-tutorial, does a really great job of teaching players everything they need to know. And since FUSER is almost as much a digital audio workstation as it is a video game (there's a robust recording system allowing you to record, edit, and perfect mixes on the fly), that kind of granularity is necessary for players to really be comfortable with everything the game has to offer. 

I did have a few issues with the campaign in regards to introductory cutscenes not loading correctly. Still, these were all fixed with a simple restart (and may have already been addressed fully with a pre-launch patch, as I haven't had the issue since updating).

Mixing With Friends

I didn't see myself enjoying [competitive multiplayer] when it was first introduced, but I'm hooked.

FUSER's core gameplay translates very well both to a weird kind of social co-op play (in this case, defined as playing the game with my fiancée next to me making song suggestions) and actual in-game multiplayer modes.

Co op multiplayer allows you to create a mix online with up to four other players, and it deserves special mention because it really does recreate the deep soul satisfaction of playing Rock Band with friends, except, in this case, everyone is creating something new, unique, and informed by their own tastes. And they're all doing it together! It's incredibly special.

There's also a competitive mode that switches up the core gameplay loop to put you head to head with another player. In these "battles," each track you lay down has a power value that's augmented by how good your timing is and how many audience requests you can fulfill with that one track.

Each track on your deck attacks your opponent for as long as it's active, its power level ticking down every time a global attack timer runs out. If your opponent plays a more powerful track than yours, your track gets ejected from the mix, and you can't play a track if your opponent has a more powerful one in the opposing slot.

It's a pretty simple concept, but it takes the plate-spinning FUSER gameplay to the nth degree, upping the intensity level as you try to quickly puzzle out which track to play (and when, and where!) to get an advantage. I didn't see myself enjoying this mode when it was first introduced, but I'm hooked.

FUSER Review — The Bottom Line


  • The first truly creative rhythm game I've ever played
  • The song list is terrific so far
  • Freeform expression in both gameplay and customization options
  • It's the safest music festival that'll be held for a while


  • Visual stuttering on Switch

FUSER isn't a perfect game. Playing both docked and in handheld mode on Switch, I experienced a few stutters that threw a wrench in the rhythm. I also wish there was a separate story mode other than the extended tutorial, in the same vein as Rock Band before it.

But those gripes pale in comparison to the fact that this game is unlike anything else I've ever played. It is built on creativity. The character creator allows for expression across the gender spectrum, not locking any creation options, from clothes to dances to body type to male and female categories. Every time you play FUSER, you feel like you have created something new, something special, and something that only you could have made.

If you're a fan of the rhythm game genre, you owe it to yourself to pick up FUSER. Not only is it a treat on its own, but Harmonix has already begun giving the game a live ecosystem, with live challenges that allow players to create, share, and vote on mixes made under specific constraints to earn in-game rewards.

This game is already something very, very special, and it's only going to get better as the community grows. After all, it's always better to make music with friends.

[Note: Harmonix provided the copy of FUSER used for this review.]

Yakuza: Like A Dragon Review — A Real Hero Wed, 04 Nov 2020 10:13:22 -0500 RobotsFightingDinosaurs

Perhaps it's the sheer amount of work that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio did in adapting the Yakuza formula into a turn-based RPG. Perhaps it's the level of care that went into Yakuza: Like A Dragon's beautiful recreation of Yokohama. Perhaps it's the way the game takes the requisite ridiculous Yakuza minigames and cranks every single one of them up to 11.

All of these are reasons why Yakuza: Like A Dragon is so special, sure. But for me, right now, at this point in history, the thing that the game leaves me with is the drive to be better for myself and do better by my friends. 

After all, that's what a hero does.

Yakuza: Like A Dragon Review — A Real Hero

Yakuza: Like A Dragon has one of my favorite turn-based battle systems in any video game ever.

For Yakuza fans wondering if Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a worthy entry in the series, there are likely two big questions that need answering.

The first is whether longtime series protagonist and hot-dad icon Kazuma Kiryu fading into the background affects the series' charm. I won't bury the lede here. Though Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio's first post-Kazuma Kiryu Yakuza lead, Ichiban Kasuga, had some pretty huge wingtips to fill, Kasuga not only does the job admirably but is already my favorite protagonist in series history.

The second question is whether the shift to turn-based combat causes battles to lack the series' signature impact. This is a trickier question, but only because it really is just a matter of taste.

If you hate turn-based combat, you probably won't like this. But if you like it, or even tolerate it, you should know that Yakuza: Like A Dragon has one of my favorite turn-based battle systems in any video game ever, with heavy Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door vibes. 

If you're a Yakuza fan, that's probably enough for you. Heck, if you're not, it might be enough for you anyway. But my editor is in my ear and telling me that I should probably go into specifics, so here we go.

Ichiban means Number One!

There's a lot to love about new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga, from his refreshingly expressive demeanor to his goofy hair and suit, but his hero complex takes the cake. 

Kasuga is an uber-fan of the Dragon Quest series of games. This, in a genius stroke of narrative design, justifying the switch to turn-based combat (the explanation is that Kasuga just kind of sees his whole life through the lens of an RPG). And this instills in him a drive to be a hero in real life too, somebody who doesn't just help others, but someone who is dedicated to tough, incremental self-improvement to be the best person they can be.

It's touchingly hopeful and leads to some particularly affecting moments in the game's story. It also helps that the English dub of the game is amazing. The entire English voice team does great work, but Kasuga's voice actor Kaiji Tang deserves special mention.

For the sake of limiting spoilers, I don't want to go into too much detail on the party members Kasuga will meet along his journey, but suffice it to say that they're all the kind of deep, relatable, and lovable characters the series is known for.

The plus side is that because now they're party members, you get to learn a whole lot more about them. The only caveat here is that the game still can't help but make female party members (and other NPCs) the target of leering, creepy jokes. It's a shame, especially because the story, most of the time, does right by its women in ways other games in the franchise do not. 

Also new to the series is a new map to explore, the seaside town of Yokohama. And folks, Yokohama is impressive. Not only is it legitimately gigantic, but the developers put the same amount of care into each building in Yokohama as they do to buildings in Kamurocho. Each building, each signpost, each tiny bar has an identity, even if you can't actually interact with it. It's beautiful, and the fact that the huge parks have the same attention to detail as the tiny alleyways makes Yokohama a joy to explore.

And speaking of exploring, there's plenty of that to do in Yakuza: Like A Dragon. This game has by far my favorite minigames in any title in the franchise, both for their ridiculousness (you'll battle sheep to stay awake through classic movies in a slightly-too-comfy theater before taking a quiz on the history of SEGA) and for their sheer scale.

Along with series mainstays like batting cages, mahjong, karaoke, and a variety of gambling games, Yakuza: Like A Dragon has a company management sim, a game that can be best described as "it's Pac-Man except you're on a bike," and a Mario Kart clone that is, bar none, my favorite minigame the series has ever introduced. 

Leveling Up

Yakuza: Like A Dragon is an uplifting and hopeful story told with heart, supported by satisfying RPG gameplay.

I didn't think the series' transition into a full-fledged RPG would be either as seamless or as complete as it is. There's an incredible amount of care here. The developers didn't just fit the game into an RPG template, they built something original.

Battles load quickly, and despite the turn-based combat, it doesn't take any longer to dispatch goons than it does in previous titles, which is a plus. Even more stunning is the way combat plays out environmentally.

Your party and your opponents circle each other, and depending on where you (and them!) are, you can, in true Kazuma Kiryu fashion, kick a scooter at someone or bash their head in with a traffic cone. The addition of action commands on both attack skills and defensive skills really pulls everything together into a wonderfully dynamic package.

The game's highly-touted job system is also one of the deeper mechanics I've seen in an RPG. There are well over a dozen jobs available to party members, and each one has a specific set of equipable weapons, a distinct battle costume, and a huge, varied list of flashy skills.

Mixing and matching party jobs gives players the ability to approach battles in an incredibly creative way. If you, like me, have been craving a Yakuza 0-esque shakeup to series combat, you'll be extremely satisfied.

Yakuza: Like A Dragon Review — The Bottom Line


  • Ichiban Kasuga is the best character in the Yakuza franchise since (or maybe even including) Kazuma Kiryu
  • The new turn-based combat system is impeccable
  • Yokohama is a beautiful joy to explore
  • The job system allows for a ton of creative strategizing
  • The English dub is great
  • Dragon Kart deserves its own spinoff game


  • It takes a noticeably annoying length of time to load into minigames and dungeons (at least on Xbox One), taking you out of the action
  • Slightly creepy treatment of the game's women

Yakuza: Like A Dragon is an uplifting and hopeful story told with heart, supported by satisfying RPG gameplay and a host of entertaining side-missions and minigames. It is a story about a well-meaning goofball trying his best against impossible odds in an uncaring, cruel world. It is a story told well both through exposition and through gameplay that supports that thesis. 

If this is your first foray into the Yakuza series, Yakuza: Like A Dragon provides an ideal starting point. If you're a long-time fan of the Yakuza franchise, you're about to find your new favorite entry.

[Note: Sega provided the copy of Yakuza: Like a Dragon used for this review.]

Dirt 5 Review: Still So Dirty After All These Years Mon, 02 Nov 2020 14:07:34 -0500 Jason D'Aprile

Codemaster's Dirt series has been around a stunningly long time, since the late 90s when it was Colin McRae's Rally. Yet, in the modern generations of the racer genre, Dirt seldom seems to get the attention it deserves. Thankfully, Codemaster has been steadily updating the series, branching it out creatively, and just generally (mostly) improving on its particular brand of racing.

Dirt 5 skirts the line between two console generations, and buying it for the PS4 or Xbox One will automatically get you an update to the PS5/XSX versions. That's hopefully a big enough perk to get a bigger audience for the game, as it's a very solid update on Dirt 4 and a fun, distinctive racer compared to the competition.

While games like Forza play in the dirt too, few games have focused on down and dirty rally racing like this series.

Dirt 5 Review: Still So Dirty After All These Years

The core of the game is still focused on rough terrain full of challenging twists, turns, and jumps.

Granted, Dirt 5 is one step away from just throwing in the racing equivalent of the kitchen sink. The series has been branching out to be more mainstream since it changed its name, while trying not to alienate its original fanbase in the process. The game has come a long way from just stock time challenge dirt tracks though. As with Dirt 4, there is a metric ton of content here as a result.

Dirt 5 laudably focuses on giving players choices. The career mode is spread across five chapters full of branching events that cover a gamut of race styles. Race through dust, dirt, asphalt, ice, and mud tracks in Greece, Africa, China, Arizona, and other diverse locales. There are ice drifting races in the middle of urban sprawl and other locations and event types that don't fit entirely within the confines of traditional rally racing.

Overall, there are around 130 different events, with each chapter ending in a "Main Event" race, but to gain access to it, you'll have to earn enough stamps in the array of minor races.

The structure is pretty familiar to most career race games, but Dirt 5 allows players to skip events if they like. If you're more focused on traditional rally racing, for instance, then skipping those drift-obsessed challenges might seem especially appealing, since there's a heavy emphasis on them this time around.

But the core of the game is still focused on rough terrain full of challenging twists, turns, and jumps. There's also a plethora of customization options to tweak the game to the exact level of challenge you'd like. From absolute easiest with plenty of AI assists to help brake and retain traction, to damn near sim-level physics, Dirt 5 is a very accommodating game.

One area where I suspect Codemasters tried to really increase mainstream appeal is the presentation of the career mode story. The developer has fully folded in popular racing YouTubers and gaming voice actors instead of the more sedate and straightforward narrators and assist voices of previous games. 

Known gaming voice commodities Troy Baker and Nolan North lend their voices to characters, and the folks behind the racing enthusiast YouTube channel, Donut Media, essentially act as narration for the story. There are other known name inclusions from the sport and YouTube to be found here as well, but all this attempt at adding YouTube appeal is a double-edged sword.

Some players might enjoy the radio morning show-level commentary, which seems to be ad-libbed banter framed around canned stats for each racing type, feature, and location. Others (like, say, me) might miss the no-nonsense, less-banter-filled advice and guidance from earlier games.

Dirt 5 seems to have traded in its slower focus on building up skills, co-driver alerts, and, well, realistic approach to actual rally racing for more shine and celebrity (and we use the word loosely) endorsement.

There are actual corporate sponsorship endorsements to contend with as well, which is an interesting element. Choose from a variety of sponsors, each with specific rewards and requirements, which adds a kind of secondary challenge to the overall racing. Each race even has sub-challenges like air time, overtakes, drift lengths, and more that earn you more reward at the end.

Dirt 5 includes cleverly twisted takes on King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, and tag.

This constant layering of objectives helps Dirt 5 feel fresh the whole way through. There's so much to do, so many options to tweak the events, and a great variety of officially-licensed cars that the game simply feels like a full experience. 

The gorgeous graphics and soundtrack don't hurt either. 4K HDR visuals provide the most detailed and impressive tracks the series has ever seen, but more importantly, it just looks great. The licensed songs fit the frantic speed and challenge of dirt racing, and the robust car effects are positively room-shaking. 

Of course, there's more to do beyond the career mode. Quick races, one-off throwdown challenges (the equivalent of random characters appearing in Super Smash Bros.), and the playgrounds mode round out the experience.

Playgrounds are essentially player-created tracks for not just straightforward races but obstacle courses and destruction derby-like spaces. There's already a ton of content to try out, and the creation tools are simple to get started with.

Online play is amazingly robust. 12-player races let you race online through career mode tracks, but there's a range of party modes as well. Dirt 5 includes cleverly twisted takes on King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, and tag. While the game doesn't include true cross-play across different systems, you'll at least be able to play with others across generations on the PlayStation and Xbox. So, Xbox Series X players can race against Xbox One players, for instance.

Multiplayer supports not just the usual online play, but up to four-way split-screen as well for all multi-car events, where human players just take over the spot of an AI car. It's the sort of option I'd prefer to see in every racing game. The interface for setting up the split-screen options is annoyingly vague and confusing though, which made the initial set up a little frustrating.

Dirt 5 Review — The Bottom Line


  • Huge racer with tons to do
  • Gorgeous presentation
  • Tight responsive controls


  • YouTube-focused narration might not appeal to everyone
  • Split-screen UI needs more clarity

Whether on current-gen or the next-gen, Dirt 5 is a robust and entertaining racer worth checking out.

Dirt 5 is out on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Stadia on November 6. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S versions of the game will launch "later" in 2020. It will feature a free upgrade from the current-gen to next-gen. 

[Note: Codemasters provided the copy of Dirt 5 used for this review.]

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope Review — Restoring Hope Thu, 29 Oct 2020 11:31:14 -0400 George Yang

Little Hope continues The Dark Pictures Anthology as the second game in the series after Man of Medan in 2019. I found myself disappointed with Man of Medan but Little Hope brings further promise

As a fan of developer Supermassive's Until Dawn, the improvements seen in Little Hope over its predecessor give me hope in the next interactive drama title in The Dark Pictures Anthology.

Little Hope Review — Begin the Witch Hunts

Little Hope’s narrative is a noticeable improvement from Man of Medan’s.

The premise of Little Hope follows five characters as they explore the ghost town of the same name. After the group gets into a bus accident, they must navigate the history of Little Hope’s 1692 witch hunt. They experience flashbacks related to Little Hope’s witch trials and must find the cause of the supernatural forces plaguing the area.

In Man of Medan, a large part of the beginning of the story felt incredibly slow as it used up around five chapters to establish its settings and characters before getting into the actual plot. Unfortunately, none of the characters were particularly likable.

The cast in Little Hope is much easier to like, but there is a distinct lack of chemistry between them.

Little Hope’s narrative, on the other hand, is a noticeable improvement from Man of Medan’s. The story wastes no time going straight into the scary bits, and each of the characters in the cast actually has a personal connection with the events that happened during the witch trials, even if it’s only at face value. A group of settlers witnessed during the 1692 flashbacks looks exactly like the characters in the present-day main cast.

The narrative’s pacing has also improved. Until Dawn had a sort of rhythmic flow to it, despite starting off a bit slow.

Whenever the group ends up splitting from each other and experiences different events at separate locations, the circumstances leading up to them feel much more natural. Each character faces their own demons. Little Hope’s threats are established early in the story, the aspect of which made Until Dawn such a gripping tale and the lack thereof in Man of Medan’s middling plot.

Another aspect that Little Hope successfully employs is that it doesn’t spoil its twist halfway through the game like Man of Medan does. That alone keeps you looking forward to continuing the story as you’re wondering to yourself, “There has to be an explanation to all this!” It takes a little while to get there, but it does turn out there is an explanation. Though some players may not be totally thrilled with it.

Different Game, Same Gameplay

The gameplay in Little Hope is nearly identical to
Man of Medan’s. If you’ve played that entry, you know exactly what to expect here. Players control a character in the third person while walking around interacting with collectibles and objects to advance the story, as well as making dialogue choices that can impact your relationships with the characters.

The “gameplay” part of this game is the inclusion of quick-time events (QTEs). During tense moments in the story, passing or failing these QTEs can mean the difference between life and death for a character.

Picking up collectibles will provide you with additional context of the game’s lore as well as some giving you premonitions of future decisions. I enjoyed Little Hope’s premise and background, much more than Man of Medan’s, so learning more about what transpired in the past was fun to do.

If quick time events aren’t up your alley, Little Hope has plenty of accessibility options to improve the experience. They’re the same ones in Man of Medan, such as the ability to freeze QTEs so you don’t have to worry about missing them. You can also add color-coded subtitles and change the size of them if needed.

Some Quality of Life

The characters look as realistic and great as ever.

Despite the variety of accessibility options, what’s strange to me is that none of Supermassive’s games in this interactive drama format include many quality of life (QOL) options. You can’t skip scenes you’ve already seen, so if you’re going for subsequent playthroughs to hunt for achievements or experience new scenes, then you’re going to have to watch through everything again.

This interactive drama type of game is like a western version of Japan’s visual novel genre. Modern Japanese visual novels have a bevy of QOL features because, like The Dark Pictures Anthology, they also require multiple playthroughs to unlock certain paths and events. 

Most of the time, you can fast forward text you’ve already seen, and sometimes the game will actually stop if it comes across a line you haven’t. It really baffles me why Little Hope doesn’t have QOL options like these; it’s virtually unchanged from Man of Medan and Until Dawn.

The Life is Strange series has a skip cutscene feature, so why can’t these games have it as well?

Multiplayer Scares

If you’re playing solo, there are also certain story segments where a character will experience a particular event, but you’ll be controlling someone else entirely and will miss out on that character’s point of view. That’s where the game’s multiplayer function comes into play. 

You can play the co-op Shared Story mode, where Player One will experience one set of events while Player Two experiences a different point of view. Shared Story is actually a great feature for replayability, but can sometimes be awkward for those playing in single player. 

However, solo players will be able to experience that other point of view while playing the Curator’s Cut after beating the game once, rather than the standard Theatrical Cut. The Curator’s Cut is typically locked behind as a pre-order bonus, but will most likely be available as free DLC later on like Man of Medan’s was.

The other multiplayer mode is Movie Night, a fun couch co-op experience where the game asks you to pass the controller to your buddies between story segments.

As for the game’s visuals, the characters look as realistic and great as ever. Most people will recognize Will Poulter’s character, Andrew, as he uses Poulter’s likeness. The environments look fantastic and the graphics are just beautiful.

However, sometimes controlling characters feel stiff when moving around the different areas of the game, something that still persists in these interactive drama games. The script also feels a bit stilted at times, sounding unnatural.

The voice acting is generally up to par, but you can tell where multiple paths are supposed to branch out due to some awkward silence between different characters' spoken dialogue. Additionally, Little Hope crams a few too many jump scares over its length for my liking.

Little Hope Review — The Bottom Like


  • Interesting premise and narrative
  • Good accessibility options
  • Great looking game
  • Lacks quality of life features
  • Jump scares are utilized too much
  • Script and dialogue are a bit awkward at times

Little Hope certainly renewed my faith in The Dark Pictures Anthology. If Supermassive can continue with telling these kinds of stories with engaging characters, then I believe future entries will be just as exciting.

Going forward, I believe these games could really benefit from more quality of life features such as scene skipping. It would definitely help enhance the overall experience.

[Note: Supermassive Games provided the copy of The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope used in this review.]

Watch Dogs: Legion Review — Deconstructing the Sandbox Wed, 28 Oct 2020 07:15:01 -0400 Mark Delaney

As the leading anti-hero in an expansive, bustling, but oppressed society, it's your job to rally the locals and sabotage the power structures wrongfully put in place by tyrants. In the process, you lead your grassroots resistance to self-liberation, region by region, until the shackles around your collective wrists have been shattered into scrap metal.

Sounds like a Ubisoft game, right? The developer-publisher has iterated again and again on this familiar premise across a number of massive franchises over the past decade. From the dense jungles of Far Cry to the countless historical uprisings in Assassin's Creed and the post-epidemic The Division, Ubisoft games have asked the outnumbered good guys to chip away at despots until there's nothing left of them.

You'd be forgiven for thinking Watch Dogs: Legion is more of the same. But poke around under the hood of this ambitious systemic story vehicle and you'll see the team has thrown out a lot of what's been so safe in favor of something special.

Watch Dogs: Legion Review — Deconstructing the Sandbox

It's the act of learning about these new characters and injecting yourself in their lives that feels so different from anything open-world games have done before.

Watch Dogs: Legion feels like it throws out the Ubisoft playbook, though you won't know it right away. For the first few hours, things can feel dishearteningly similar to the last Watch Dogs game, or any number of open-world sandbox games since the 360/PS3 era for that matter. The game looks fine but never exceptional, perhaps because it's set in overcast London and doesn't get a chance to quite literally shine. 

Voice acting is on par with what you'd expect from this type of game: everyone is serviceable, no one is exceptional. Cars drive reliably and a bit arcadey, just as they did in Watch Dogs 2. Many of the game's central mechanics, like a suped-up smartphone that can hack your world in countless ways and a friendly spiderbot that is once again overused, all reappear. Initially, this is Watch Dogs just as you left it.

Until it isn't.

The brilliance of Watch Dogs: Legion begins to manifest once you begin recruiting other characters. The city is bustling with Londoners going about their lives, and you can play as anyone you wish. Each of them brings their own special skills and backstory to your growing resistance movement in a way that rarely seems to repeat.

There are many archetypes, like a hitman, a panhandler, a nanobot beekeeper, even guards for the game's evildoing organizations, and at any point, you can try and get them to join your team.

Some require more work than others, as they may not yet be amenable to joining a hacker collective. Others await your call. In any event, it's the act of learning about these new characters and injecting yourself in their lives that feels so different from anything open-world games have done before.

Once you unlock the Deep Profiler tech ability, you can see exactly where in the world characters will be at all times of day. Visit them during their work hours and they'll be there in uniform. Stalk them late at night and they may be heading to the bar or volunteering at a homeless shelter.

Every character has their own schedule, and every schedule allows for exciting possibilities. You can win over police officers by taking down a drug-smuggling operation they had been planning to bust, or you can convince a guard for Albion, the game's tech-heavy bad guys, to join the movement by following him to his date, then recruiting his girlfriend first. 

It's not just these new tools that separate Legion from the decade of sandboxes that came before it. Because these tools play such an important role in the game, the overworld behaves unlike other Ubisoft games. The publisher's influence over the genre has been monumental, and today even outside its own walls, games like Batman Arkham and Horizon: Zero Dawn replicate their once-signature design.

But in Legion, the era of cluttered maps filled with main, secondary, and tertiary quests is largely ignored in favor of emergent moments.

There's still a mainline plot to follow, but there are very few repeatable tasks the likes of which we've seen in so many games of this nature before. Taking over a district takes just four missions and rewards you with uniquely skilled operatives for the cause each time, making it not just a much more streamlined system but a more rewarding one than the games that had you topple the umpteenth enemy base within an hour or two of playtime.

The engine of Legion is the recruit system. Because every person in the city has their own skills, tackling missions with anyone can feel like trying out new builds in an immersive sim such as Dishonored or Deus Ex. World design allows for a player-driven story in a way Ubisoft has simply never offered in any of their games.

You can scale structures and drop in from above, use a cloaking device and move from cover to cover, or send in a drone to do your dirty work while you sit idly across the street. In some situations, you can dress for the job you want like Agent 47, such as construction workers who can freely roam hostile territories where there is work being done.

These are just a few of many examples. Each new teammate reveals new possibilities. If there's a downside to it all, sometimes it feels like it's simple enough to go in with your invisibility cloak with any character and succeed. Because of that, you kind of have to want to mix things up, or else you risk steering yourself into something much more similar to the past games.

I also wished for more interiors, as many times I'd follow a recruit to an area but couldn't follow them indoors. This seemed like a limitation brought on by the cross-gen release of Legion, and I fully expect the next game to introduce even more scenarios by opening new doors, literally.

Watch Dogs: Legion drastically revises the Ubisoft open-world blueprint it has leaned on for over a decade.

It's optional, but the permadeath option only enhances Watch Dogs: Legion. Because everyone can be on your team, it's only sensible that they can just as swiftly be removed. The possibilities for role-playing are endless in Watch Dogs: Legion, and while the game was often advertised with the funny idea of loading out with a squad of only purse-swinging grandmas, it's much more enjoyable to mix up your team with a long list of heroes of all sorts.

On my team right now I've got an investigative reporter, a homeless person, a former getaway driver, a hardcore hacker, and a doctor, among others.

Everyone brings their own tools to the group, making every mission a puzzle with multiple solutions. Experimentation reigns in London. You mourn losses not because of their personalities, but because of their skills. I was crushed when I lost my construction worker because it meant his unique skill of calling in a drone big enough to transport humans died too.

This gives every mission an exciting urgency, especially when so many of the DedSec tools are non-lethal by default. It's like you're outnumbered and outgunned always. Following the last game's disconnect between supposedly white-hat hackers who shot up their city, it now appears possible to play the entire game without ever killing anyone. It's most stunning of all to see how rarely you even need to take out a weapon of any sort when Watch Dogs: Legion is played deliberately and stealthily. 

One holdover from the outgoing Ubisoft generation is the game's muddled messaging. The publisher has rightfully been taken to task over its fence-walking approach to depictions of sociopolitical upheaval, and that continues in Legion.

The environmental storytelling is clearer than ever, as anti-fascist outcries, burning displays of dissidence, and the Big Tech villains all seem to have something to say, but the game never grapples with all its philosophical musings in an interesting way.

Through three games now, we are told that those who have the keys to our digital kingdom are bad, but the series never inspects the reverse-engineering DedSec does with those same tools. Do we need these same tools to fight our oppressors? Can we use the system for wholehearted good, or do we accept only a lesser bad?

There's a lot to be said of modern data privacy concerns, digital human rights, and the threat of automation. Legion, like its prequels, teases something important to say but only ever clearly states "fascism bad." Of course it is, so what else have you got?

Watch Dogs: Legion Review — The Bottom Line

  • Reimagines the Ubisoft sandbox with intricate new systems
  • Deep Profiler tech makes every person interesting
  • Eschews years of cluttered maps for more emergent, immersive sim-style missions
  • Still muddles its political message beyond "tyrants are bad"
  • Very easy to miss the best parts

Watch Dogs: Legion drastically revises the Ubisoft open-world blueprint it has leaned on for over a decade. It's a daring game for that reason alone, but more importantly, it serves to be a proof-of-concept for what might come from this team and others within the company that can iterate on these new systems.

The ability to play as anyone and have them feel like real people with unique skills and backstories is engaging for dozens of hours. While I'm still waiting for one of these games to say something meaningful regarding their tinderbox political backdrops, the gameplay systems are interwoven smartly and deeply, making Watch Dogs: Legion the next major leap for open-world games.

Future games will be built upon the groundwork laid out in London.

[Note: Ubisoft provided the copy of Watch Dogs: Legion used for this review.]

Ghostrunner Review: The World Bleeds Red and Neon Mon, 26 Oct 2020 10:01:16 -0400 John Schutt

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

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

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

Ghostrunner Review: The World Bleeds Red and Neon

This is a game meant to be played at high-speed, moving smoothly between traversal one second and a flurry of blades the next. 

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

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

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

Getting Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sights and Sounds

The world itself isn’t a masterclass of cyberpunk narrative design.

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Out of the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost Runner Review — The Bottom Line


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pumpkin Jack Review: Simply Spooktacular

This is a game built for, and quite clearly by, fans of Halloween. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With levels reminiscent of beloved 3D platformers and an irresistible audiovisual experience, playing Pumpkin Jack this Halloween is exciting...

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

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

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

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

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

Pumpkin Jack Review — The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHL 21 Review — The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the end credits, you'll notice a consistent tension in your jaw as you've actually been gritting your teeth for seven or eight hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final choice it asks players to make provides for the same sort of internal philosophical debate that Frictional's masterclass SOMA did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amnesia: Rebirth Review  The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cake Bash Review: Cream of the Crop

It’s a lot of fun with friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cake Bash Review — The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aquanox: Deep Descent Review — The Bottom Line 

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

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

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

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

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

I've been a VR fan for three years.

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

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

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

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

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

Oculus Quest 2 Review: Big Improvements, One Big Drawback

Initial Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Controllers and Tracking

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Battery Life

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

The Facebook Dilemma

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

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

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

The Good News

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

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

Oculus Quest 2 Review—The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Win, Buy, Sell, Repeat

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

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

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

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

Career Mode still training with the reserves

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIFA 21 Review The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genshin Impact Review: A Much Bigger Impact than Expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genshin Impact Review — The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Is The Zodiac Speaking Review: Deciphering What Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Is The Zodiac Speaking Review — The Bottom Line

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars Squadrons Review: Double Aces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there's power management. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars Squadrons Review — The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ys Origin Switch Review: Ascending the Heights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ys Origin is a blast to play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ys Origin Switch Review  The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gameplay minimalism

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

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

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

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

Science Adventure Universe

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

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

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

The sequel is for the hardcore fans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robotics;Notes ELITE & DaSH Review — The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 Complete Edition — The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mafia: Definitive Edition Review — A Family Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mafia: Definitive Edition Review — The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirby Fighters 2 Review: Baby's First Brawler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's all standard fighter stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirby Fighters 2 Review — The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Port Royale 4 Review: Old-School Capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Barrel of Rum

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

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

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

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

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

Choppy Seas

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

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

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

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

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

No, thank you.

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

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

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

Port Royale 4 Review  The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hades Review: Hell Was Never So Much Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Action Game Like Few Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Treat for the Eyes and Ears

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Hades Review — The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a way, yes. 

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

Serious Sam 4 Review — ahhhhhHHHHHHHHHH!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach Me How to Shoot

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

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

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

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

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

Nefarious Foes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's Get Serious

Not everything is perfect in Serious Sam 4.

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

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

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

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

It's all a tad bit confusing. 

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

Serious Sam 4 Review  The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disgaea 4 Complete+ PC Review  The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Sentinels and its themes play with your expectations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's true knowing something of 13 Sentinels' key inspirati