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Everything posted by Saricino

  1. Portraying love and relationships in games can be tricky, and developers often struggle with how much interactivity, or even significance, should be given to intimate moments. Florence, an interactive graphic novel, finds a powerful balance in its exploration of love, offering a breathtaking experience. This breezy game puts you in the shoes of 25-year-old Florence, who is wrapped up in a mundane routine. She snoozes her alarm several times before waking up, mindlessly browses social media on the bus, and chats on the phone with her worrisome mother. When she meets Krish, a cellist whose music enchants her one day during a stroll, her world lights up. The relationship that unfolds has its share of ups and downs, as the two do a careful dance of growing closer and growing apart, making the game feel authentic. Florence tells its story mostly without words and requires minimal interactivity, but this simplicity adds to its allure. For example, in several short chapters, you match pairs of numbers to help Florence’s productivity at work or interact with a slider to put images in focus to advance a scene. These moments make the experience smooth, like conversation flowing naturally between two love-stricken partners. The simplicity keeps the focus on the narrative, so that I could better enjoy Florence’s clever and creative methods of marrying its thematic visuals with interactivity without complicated or distracting systems. (Please visit the site to view this media) Florence doesn’t just excel at portraying good moments; it also appropriately enhances the tense scenes with distinct aesthetics and changes to gameplay. Florence’s simple color palette can make the world comforting, while other times it makes more striking colors pop to accentuate strong emotions. For example, Krish’s cello-playing is overwhelmingly alluring when Florence follows floating music notes that grow into a vivid yellow background, and arguments are jarring and uncomfortable when the two wear bleak grey attire as blood red speech bubbles zoom upward. These fights are especially well done, as you try to fit puzzle pieces into speech bubbles quicker than Krish while harsh music plays. Though failing to be quicker doesn’t come with consequences, it tilts your view like a sinking ship. This imagery immersed me, as I envisioned the argument like a fierce tug-of-war. I imagined what terrible things the two were saying to each other while tears fell down their cheeks silently. Despite not having agency in the story’s direction, I felt a connection to Florence. I cheered her on as she discovered new inspirations, and felt a knowing pang of sadness as she brushed her teeth solemnly without someone by her side. She’s relatable in some of the simple ways all humans are – we all want to be loved – but she’s also young, idealistic, and finds passion through those she admires. It makes her plight more engaging and relatable. My interactions helped her through this snapshot of her life as I eagerly turned the digital pages of what felt like a personal journal. Florence is a beautiful experience that isn’t afraid to tell an ordinary story. This isn’t an action-packed, heroic tale or a somber story filled with tragedy, but it still hits some of those notes in subdued ways. Florence is happy, distressing, and admirable in its reflection of young romance, and it left me with a sense of unexpected hopefulness. View the full article
  2. As an early action/RPG, Secret of Mana helped popularize the genre with its cooperative elements and impressive creativity. It kickstarted the Mana franchise and set a high bar that the series has yet to hit again. A remake seemed like a wonderful way to resurrect this important game, giving longtime fans a chance to revisit it while allowing new players to take in the experience with modern mechanics. Sadly, Square Enix’s attempt to update the classic doesn’t live up the original’s legacy, nor does it improve its more problematic elements. I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, but the Secret of Mana remake is middling in every way. As a 25-year-old game, Secret of Mana’s story is straightforward and occasionally campy. Square Enix tried to inject more personality into a tale about a boy recovering a legendary sword that in turn sets him on a world-saving quest. This is mostly done through the addition of voice acting and some dialogue changes. The voice acting feels unnatural and jarring; characters’ mouths don’t move as they speak, even during close-ups. The voice performances’ poor quality disrupted so many scenes that I eventually turned it off, significantly improving my experience. The campiness still has its charm, but the new force-fed personalities make the cast more annoying than endearing. Sometimes less is more, and that is certainly the case here. Remaking the game was a chance to modernize the original for this generation of gamers. Unfortunately, Square Enix only made small tweaks. The movement is the best it’s ever been, with the analog stick opposed to the d-pad. The ability to assign shortcuts to items, magic, and weapons is also a great improvement, as the flow is not interrupted by menu navigation. That being said, the game is still inconveniently menu-heavy. You can only assign a few shortcuts, so just to make simple changes to weapons or cast a spell can be a hassle. Also, if you choose to play local multiplayer (online multiplayer is not available), shortcuts go away, making you and your partners constantly juggle menus to use items or cast magic. (Please visit the site to view this media) Playing co-op alleviates issues with the terrible A.I. (which was also a problem in the original), but playing with others has other drawbacks, since you lose flexibility in managing your entire party. Your A.I. allies get better as they level up and you can alter their tendencies, but you still spend too much time babysitting them. Even worse, some characters’ abilities are necessary to beat bosses, so having them die easily is frustrating. They also sometimes run into walls and lag behind, another carryover issue from the original. Additional frustrations surfaced with technical foibles, like frequent stuttering and a few hard crashes. One of the most notable changes to the remake is nixing the 16-bit graphics in favor of 3D-enhanced visuals. While I prefer the original graphics, the new style retains its predecessor’s colorful essence, and the improved monster designs are a nice touch. The same can be said for the newly arranged score; it doesn’t trump the original music (which you can thankfully swap to), but it still carries a lot of the game’s spirit, even if I disliked some of the tracks. The remake disappointed me more than delighted me, but it’d be disingenuous to say I didn’t have fun with it. Taking down a boss that’s triple your size is still satisfying, and the wondrous world is teeming with creative baddies, from mushbooms to nitro pumpkins. Even so, this remake doesn’t do enough to address or improve the original’s problems. Some tweaks are for the better, others are for the worse, but the end result is a remake that fails to do anything meaningful with a beloved classic. View the full article
  3. With its distinct art style, melancholy tone, and ambiguous story, Fe tries its best to run with the artistic indie video game crowd. While its heart is in the right place, Fe comes up short in nearly every way, delivering an experience that is frequently frustrating and consistently bland. Controlling a spiky being named Fe, you work your way through a large interconnected forest and save your animal neighbors from a mysterious alien threat. Except for the occasional tutorial prompt, you won't read any text or dialogue or be told about the story in an overt way. Fe unlocks new traversal abilities and learns different languages which are used to communicate with other animals who offer additional traversal assistance. The emphasis on expanding your movement is smart; for example, unlocking wings for gliding is a great reward because it changes how you interact with the world. I like that my platforming moveset expanded as I progressed, but no matter what skills I gained, it never fully corrected the issues that plague the core movement. Prematurely jumping off trees happens all the time, and sure footing on platforms is rarely guaranteed. I frequently slipped off ledges because of the inaccurate controls, which was especially problematic during a few sequences where I had to climb large structures. Stealth is also required to avoid the alien menace, and the loose controls made me move past the bushes of safety right into my enemy's field of view, which is instant death. Checkpoints are friendly, but when the controls are failing you and not your platforming abilities, it's a problem. (Please visit the site to view this media) The narrative pulling Fe along is vague, but some parts are enjoyable. Early on you come across story moments in the world naturally, and you can figure out what needs to be done from context clues. The further along you go, however, the more traditional cutscenes are triggered. A laughable moment occurs near the end where the story conveniently forgets Fe learned how to fly hours ago. Ultimately, the story has a satisfying conclusion, but the path there is just so bland that nothing stands out as memorable. The art direction is undeniably unique, but I never found it inviting or particularly pleasant to look at. With the myriad spikes, every creature in the game looks like an enemy, which is a gameplay problem, but I also struggled to sympathize with any of the creatures based on their designs. Every area of the forest also feels similar, even if the color scheme is working overtime to try and make locations feel distinct. Since it was always hard to tell if I was in a new location, I had to rely on in-game markers to point me in the right direction too much. I don't want Fe to be the red flag that makes Electronic Arts reconsider the great idea of supporting comparable projects, but nothing about Fe is exciting or interesting. It tries to tell a story about animals overcoming adversity in a large interconnected forest, but falls short in just about every aspect. View the full article
  4. Loyalty isn’t easy to come by. The kind of devotion that inspires poets is only built over time. Civilization VI’s new Rise and Fall expansion takes this concept of loyalty and bakes it into Firaxis’ incredibly robust sim. Lead your nation well and you inspire other city-states to rally to your side. Mismanage your population and even your most cherished municipalities could rise up in secession. Rise and Fall cleverly builds off existing designs without destroying Civilization VI’s groundwork; it’s the kind of smart design that has earned Firaxis its own loyal following. As with all Civilization games, the ultimate goal is to lead your nation through several millennia of progress and become the dominant world power. Properly managing an empire requires rulers to carefully spin several plates at once. You might need to maximize the productivity of your population while making sure your cities have proper amenities while also defending your national interests from warmongers. These elements can be micromanaged to the nth degree, and it takes a while before you begin to see through the matrix, but once you develop a winning strategy, you feel like you’ve built something incredibly special. Rise and Fall maintains all of Civilization VI’s incredible flexibility. I had playthroughs where I focused on conquering the world through religion and avoided combat altogether. In another game, I used my scientific lead to nuke everyone – then conquered the charred remains of the planet. Thanks to Rise and Fall’s loyalty system, spreading across the globe too quickly can lead to ruin. Cities built further away from your capital are now more susceptible to the cultural influences of other nations. If those nations influence your city too much, that settlement might eventually run a new flag up the top of its courthouse. This push-and-pull mechanic adds a nice element to your strategy, and I loved exploiting it and pulling other nations cities over to my side. (Please visit the site to view this media) Micromanaging each city’s loyalty is never tedious thanks to the addition of governors. These administrators can be installed in a city where they boost that city’s loyalty. Governors also have their own unique skill trees, and buff things like food production or military strength. These characters add another layer to city management, but all their buffs run in the background. That means I didn’t feel connected to them, since they demand little attention once installed. Another change for Rise and Fall is a reworked era system. Nations no longer progress through the ages at their own pace; every nation on the map moves through eras together. As you establish contacts with other nations, discover Natural Wonders, and building unique units, you earn points for that era. Manage your nation well and you enter a prosperous golden age. But if your nation slacks off, you suffer through a dark age that diminishes your population’s happiness and loyalty. Thankfully, digging yourself out of a dark age is easy; the only time I fell into one, I was able to rebound into a fruitful heroic age. This new era system didn’t dramatically impact my overall strategy, but it is a playful way to chronicle time, and it gave me some short-term goals to aim for while I kept my eye on the global prize. Firaxis’ Civilization franchise has remained popular because each entry is an incredibly rich, multilayered strategy. Fans love this intricate network of surprisingly flexible systems. Rise and Fall adds numerous new leaders, buildings, units, and wonders. It also tinkers with the nation-building strategy in some bigger ways thanks to the additions of loyalty and golden ages. In the end, Rise and Fall’s moment-to-moment action isn’t dramatically different from the base game, but the new bells and whistles provide a good excuse to return to Firaxis’ excellent strategy game. View the full article
  5. A Case of Distrust makes players feel at home in its noir world as they try and solve an intriguing case as private detective Phyllis Malone. The visual style and well-written dialogue easily draw in players, but the point-and-click gameplay – while natural for an investigative adventure title – does not do any favors to the noir vibe the game tries to establish. Malone is following in the footsteps of her uncle, a legend on the San Francisco police force. As a woman in a man's world, Malone has to navigate the environment as an outsider, both in standing apart from people's expectations and in trying to penetrate the fog of clues and misdirection surrounding the inevitable murder. The setup adds flavor to the otherwise common trappings of the genre and time, adding a layer to Malone's personality. However, the way that her identity is relied upon to unpack the case's resolution is an inelegant fit. A Case of Distrust's strength is its world – its visual style and presentation, script, and reaction to player's dialogue choices. The noir genre has its share of blaring symbols, like the femme fatale and wise-cracking detective, but this game doesn't tread clumsily. Choosing what you want to say to other characters reveals well-written lines of dialogue that sometimes expand on Malone herself or the world, but the game is not over-written in terms of style or volume. Sometimes small details jump out while inspecting a bottle or choosing to talk to a cabby (or not). For an adventure game where you're clicking on the screen for anything that gives you a response, the fact that the dialogue doesn't overstay its welcome says a lot. (Please visit the site to view this media) That being said, this same gameplay conceit of clicking on anything and everything also stresses the game's relationship with the noir genre. The inherent trial-and-error introduces slack in otherwise possibly tense interactions, as you shuttle between menus (easily, I should add) looking for and presenting evidence. Also, in a larger sense, your total control over events as the protagonist belies the doomed inevitability and powerlessness to larger forces that is an arresting hallmark of the noir genre. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," isn't a sentiment that is conveyed in the game. Contrast this with L.A. Noire, for example, which successfully executes investigative gameplay within the noir genre by letting players operate as a detective without sacrificing its noir undercurrent. The visual style of hard lines is appealing – and reminiscent of noir's classic juxtapositions of light and shadow – but I miss cinematic elements such as subtle acting, frame composition, and lighting which aren't present here. Finally, the story's ending does not land. While it's logically sound, it doesn't register with its intended gravity. I'm not sure how you'd figure out its finer points on your own; as a detective, it feels like you've been taken off the case, and are instead reading how some other detective figured it out via the case file after the fact. It also works from without rather than from within because it relies on sentiments for a character that I didn't feel. View the full article
  6. The two half-clothed hunters circle me. One of them has already pegged me in the chest with an arrow, and they’re both taunting me as I try to duck out of sight, nude and armed only with a club that was once someone’s femur. The first hunter charges but misses with his spear. I slam the club into his face, killing him. I hear the pluck of the bow snap and turn just in time to get another arrow in my belly. He’s prepping another arrow when I slam the bone down on him over and over again. Soon he’s on the ground, wounded, begging me not to kill him. I smash his skull in with a rock and take his bow as my prize. My victory is short-lived. As I wander away from the site of the battle, I notice that I’m bleeding out. Within seconds, I topple over and die. Such is the world of Rust. Facepunch’s quirky and vicious survival sim is filled with stories like these. Across my time with the game, I discovered and took part in many of the mini-dramas unfolding across the massive map, where players form alliances or strike out on their own to survive as long as possible in a harsh environment. Using voice chat, I once begged another player armed with a rifle to take me into the community that he had built with others. He invited me into their makeshift sheet-metal castle, and after five minutes of pleasant chatter, he shot me in the face without warning. In another occasion, I was being chased by three hunters on the plains, all of whom were suddenly attacked by a bear, and I listened to their screams fade as I made my getaway. In these moments, Rust is enthralling, proving to be fertile ground for player-driven stories. However, the cost for taking part in those stories is high; Rust’s deadly and tedious world rewards only the most tenacious and stubborn players. Every game begins with the player waking up on a random spot on the map with only a rock and torch. From there, you have to gather materials, chopping wood and stone with your rock until you can craft more efficient tools and other thing necessary for survival, like spears, clothing, fire, and respawn points. If you survive long enough, you might even be able to build a house or a fortress – maybe even gather an army of fellow players! But that’s a big “if.” Rust’s appeal is rooted in the volatile unpredictable nature of its community. Every player you meet can be either your killer, your savior, or a stranger you pass peacefully. However, the majority of the players I encountered were openly hostile, killing everyone they came across despite my frequent attempts to make peace. Rare were the games in which I survived longer than 15 minutes; hunters found me picking stones, then brutally murdered me before I could get my bearings. This happened even when I had played long enough to know what materials I needed to survive the opening moments of each life I spent. Respawns are quick, with almost no downtime between each life since every map persists until the server resets (about once a week, depending on the server). The houses you build last until the server wipe even if you don’t —unless another player destroys them. Upon each death, you lose everything you were carrying. Since other players generally loot your body, you start at square one every time you die. This makes every death crushing. While I’m a fan of punishing rogue-likes and survival sims, losing progress in Rust often felt like wasting a huge chunk of time just because an aggressive, better-equipped player happened to wander by. The fact that Rust has been in early access for several years also creates an uneven playing field, putting the odds against newcomers. A number of technical issues also consistently interfered with my experience. While Rust’s draw distance is impressive and the forest environments are lush and pleasing to look at, models of both human characters and animals are rough, and their animations are stilted. Worse, lag cropped up across multiple servers, and choppy action makes stalking prey and fighting with other players difficult. The amount of toxicity I came across was also off-putting. I encountered constant disturbing and bigoted behavior, from players screaming racial slurs to mimicking sexual assault over other corpses. As the distasteful interactions and glitches mounted, my enjoyment of Rust’s better qualities waned. You can turn down the volume to mute voice chat, but that’s basically closing yourself off to Rust’s emergent stories. At the center of Rust lurks something fascinating, with the Wild-West sense of lawlessness and the exploration of trust and betrayal that emerges when trying to survive. Yet Rust’s habit of tripping over its own feet makes it difficult to get to those fascinating stories. As the survival genre continues to mutate and create compelling experiences generate exciting player-driven stories regularly with little frustration, even Rust’s most compelling feature feels sadly archaic. View the full article
  7. A Nostalgic Epic

    Crossing Souls makes no attempts to hide its love for the ‘80s. Within moments of the opening credits, the player is bombarded with images of Ghostbusters posters and references to Excitebite. However, this indie adventure doesn’t just make nostalgia a pretty wrapper; it thematically mines the zeitgeist of the decade for all its worth. Beyond the pixelated veneer lurks a fun action game that tells a beautiful story about the power of friendship in the face of rampant greed and materialism. You play as a band of five teenage friends trying to make it through the summer of ’86 in the small California town of Tajunga. After one of them makes a disturbing discovery, the group squares off against supernatural forces hell-bent on wreaking their lives. While you start with the baseball-bat-wielding ringleader of the group, Chris, you soon gain the ability to switch among five kids with the tap of a button. Every kid has their own stats and special traversal abilities. Chris is capable of parkour and climbing while Matt, a diligent nerd, can use his jetpack to reach places others can’t. To solve environmental puzzles you need to control all five characters and use their unique skills. For example, one puzzle requires Joe to move boxes around a labyrinth. However, to reach some of those boxes, you need to switch to Matt, who can fly around obstacles, and then switch back to Joe. The switching mechanic results in fun, breezy puzzle-solving that impressed me with solutions that emerge naturally from the characters’ abilities instead of feeling forced or tedious. The battles are also bolstered by the character-switching. Combat is initially presented as a basic hack-and-slash action game, but character-switching makes things more dynamic. Chris might be overwhelmed by four approaching enemies, but switching to Charlie makes short work of those foes thanks to her jump rope’s wide attack and her enhanced evasive abilities. Switching to Joe lets you brute force your way through stronger enemies when Chris needs to recharge his stamina. The character-switching lets you develop strategies for any situation you come across on the battlefield, and the continual formation of strategies I made throughout my playthrough kept me entertained for the entirety of the game. Characters aren’t the only things that are switching in Crossing Souls. You gain access to a device that lets you flip between the lands of the living and the dead, so you go from fighting bullies to zombies, ghosts, and other supernatural foes. The world around you also changes; though you’re still navigating the streets of Tajunga, you come across bizarre sights, like the ghosts of civil war soldiers huddled beneath a dinosaur, or cave men sitting around a living room. Some of these ghosts even give quests, like one understandably grumpy Native American who wants you to convince a suburban family not to build a pool over his grave. These quests are short but worthwhile, rewarding you with fantastic dialogue and useful health recovery items. (Please visit the site to view this media) From top to bottom, Crossing Souls oozes style and charm. Tajunga feels like a lived-in place thanks to its eccentric denizens and the detailed art of its neighborhood and downtown distracts. The five characters you control are also likeable, with fears, ambitions, and desires that make them more than clones of the Stand By Me cast. The relationship between Chris and his brother as they navigate the troubles of adolescence and what it means to lose people they care about is a strong point, as is Matt’s attempt to escape the looming shadow of his parents, both brilliant (and cold) scientists, with his own inventions. To delve too much into the story would spoil some of the fun, but I found the eight-hour journey to be immensely rewarding, culminating in a moving, memorable ending that shows the cost and reward of meaningful sacrifice. Even more impressive than its surprisingly deep story is how well-paced Crossing Souls is. Beyond fighting ghouls and exploration, you have to complete various mini-games. All of them are fun and challenging, especially a Back To The Future-inspired rhythm game that I won’t say too much about. However, these diversions are most interesting when they take on the form of plentiful boss fights – well-designed battles that test your brain much more than they do your brawn, like one battle in limbo where you play a game of Simon Says with a ghost king to deal damage to him. Crossing Souls changes things up exactly when it needs to, spacing fights out with quirky investigations and charming detours that endeared me to both the characters and the setting. Crossing Souls is a inventive thrill ride that embraces clever, varied gameplay and heartfelt storytelling to coalesce into a gem of a game. As someone rarely wooed by ‘80s nostalgia grabs, I found an enchanting world worth exploring in this great adventure. View the full article
  8. For Final Fantasy fans and enthusiasts, Dissidia Final Fantasy NT provides a cast of high-profile characters ranging from the series’ inception to its modern-day road trips. Having Sephiroth, Kefka, and Golbez take on Cloud, Terra, and Cecil in an arena soiree is the stuff fans dream of. However, a dramatic dissonance forms between these neat offerings and the core experience. Dissidia Final Fantasy NT is a disjointed mess of multiplayer meanderings, threadbare single-player options, and puzzling story content that demands you spend time doing non-story activities to progress. The cast is divided into broad buckets that give players an idea of their playstyle, though every character has their own feel. Dish out fast and furious attacks with high-damaging assassins like FF XV’s Noctis, or assault your enemies from afar with a marksman like FF IV’s Golbez. Vanguards like Sephiroth excel at staying at the forefront of the action in the middle of battle, and specialists like Exdeath defy traditional class distinction. Dissidia presents an interesting mix of character roles and a ton of favorites from games old and new (even Final Fantasy Tactics brings Ramza into the fray!). Unfortunately, these awesome characters are thrust into a conflict that doesn’t give them the opportunity to shine. (Please visit the site to view this media) The main mode of Dissidia (and the one you spend the vast majority of your time on) is 3v3 battles. These team-oriented battles typically take several minutes, with players frantically slinging skills and spells at each other. To incentivize action and keep players from running around the spacious arenas in circles waiting for a perfect time to strike, summoning stones create critical zones to battle over. If your team successfully summons an iconic Final Fantasy creature into the arena, like a fire-breathing Bahamut or a field-drenching Leviathan, you gain a powerful advantage. These summons often are loaded with incredibly powerful skills that topple your opponents outright or create space for you to bring them down yourself. On paper, this sounds like a freaking blast. In practice, combat is difficult to control and parse, with many characters firing things off at once. Despite a solid tutorial that lays everything out in an easy-to-digest format, everything goes to hell when several players start ganging up on one, or when you lose sight of your allies. This happens a lot; the camera is awkward at best and devastating at worst, and getting lost in the chaos is too easy. Simply put, the 3v3 format is sensory overload. Too much happens at once in all directions, and it’s difficult to get actionable information at any given moment. The combination of elements from multiple genres like fighters, brawlers, and MOBAs just doesn’t work here. It’s not fun. The lackluster multiplayer takes the center stage, with meager single-player offerings attempting to buoy the ship. The story and associated cutscenes are fun, but to unlock them, you must dive into multiplayer or grind against A.I. controlled teams – and neither are enjoyable. On the plus side, plenty of Final Fantasy loot is waiting to be acquired and admired. You’re always earning gil even if you’re being demolished in the arena, and you can spend your hard-earned coins on awesome new weapon visuals, skins, portrait icons, and classic Final Fantasy music tracks. That these cool Final Fantasy tributes are attached to this particular game is tragic; it is a great celebration of the series anchored to something no one should play. Undeniable Final Fantasy charm flows through Dissidia Final Fantasy NT, and it pains me that the gameplay doesn’t justify a delving into it. The roster from across the series puts on a great show and is fun to customize and engage with, but the crux of the experience is the multiplayer, which doesn’t hit home. Unless you’re a hardcore Final Fantasy fan that really wants to get Golbez a new outfit, it’s not worth suffering through the arena for the perks. View the full article
  9. Mountain climbers don’t climb mountains because it’s easy. Difficult challenges are often intrinsically rewarding, and Celeste is that kind of experience. This adorable platformer about a troubled young woman named Madeline who pushes herself to climb a mountain is full of platforming sequences that mirror the heroine’s own struggles. The journey isn’t always easy, but the view from the top is spectacular. Celeste’s early levels feature a series of precise platforming challenges in the vein of indie hits like Super Meat Boy. However, Madeline can also climb up most vertical surfaces until her stamina runs out. Instead of a traditional double jump, Madeline performs a mid-air dash, which gives her a wider range of movement once she’s airborne. I never grew tired of even the basic platforming sections thanks to the tight controls and the wide variety of aerial maneuvers. Jumping across a bottomless pit and then dashing up to find purchase on the side of a narrow pillar is incredibly harrowing, and Celeste is filled to the brim with exciting moments. The basic mechanics aren’t complex, but each stage puts a unique spin on the action. In one area, I used the momentum of several moving platforms to launch across wide chasms. In another section, I strung together a series of shimmering diamonds that refreshed the mid-air dash to perform extended aerial stunts without touching the ground. Every time I started to grow tired of one environment, the game threw out a curveball and added some new element that made it feel fresh again. (Please visit the site to view this media) Many of the platforming sequences offer a fair challenge, as well as occasional frustration. However, the reward of overcoming these trials always overshadows the bumps along the way. Those who want to mitigate their pain can turn on several assist mode options like more air dashes and immunity to environmental damage. Players can even skip troublesome levels altogether. If you want a heartier challenge, you can collect floating strawberries in hard-to-reach places. I enjoyed collecting these berries, but my efforts ultimately felt futile since you don’t get anything for collecting them apart from a relatively insignificant change to the ending. Throughout your journey, you encounter a grouchy old woman, a fellow climber, and an awkward ghost, but the story ultimately centers on Madeline’s struggle up the mountain while overcoming her own anxieties. I won’t spoil the specifics, but the adventure is surprisingly heartfelt, and the clever dialogue and bizarre encounters are as compelling as the platforming. Developer Matt Makes Games’ previous release was TowerFall, the archery-themed four-player battle royale. With its single-player focus and touching narrative, Celeste might seem like an odd follow-up. However, like TowerFall, Celeste features polished and intense action that makes it easy to love and hard to put down. View the full article
  10. When I first plunged into the depths of Subnautica’s vast sea, I was filled with awe. This underwater world is both familiar and otherworldly, with giant coral tunnels, uncharted caves, and alien-looking fish. Everywhere I turned, I discovered something exciting and grandiose, making this gripping survival game a joy to play. Right from the start, Subnautica offers an engaging premise. After your crew’s starship crashes on a watery planet, you take refuge aboard a tiny lifepod near the wreck. The planet you’re stranded on is filled with both danger and intrigue, and you survive by gathering supplies, building sea bases, and managing your character’s basic needs. Luckily, you begin in a relatively safe region filled with edible fish and enough materials to provide drinkable water. These systems aren’t too complicated or overwhelming, making it a pleasant start that becomes more intense as you progress to increasingly dangerous territory with scarcer resources and predatory enemies. Subnautica offers different options for those who want to tune the difficulty of their experience. Freedom mode removes health and thirst gauges, hardcore mode limits players to a single life, and the creative mode is more of a sandbox with all buildable items unlocked. Each brings something unique, but I enjoyed survival mode the most. Here, you have to manage your basic needs like health, thirst, and hunger. It makes you both curious and frightful of what awaits you in the dark waters, while also offering a rewarding balance of challenge and progression as you unlock new crafting formulas. Crafting is one of the most enjoyable parts of Subnautica. Your lifepod is equipped with cutting-edge tech, including a wall-mounted fabricator that allows you to construct items from raw materials. As you venture into the unknown, you stumble upon wreckage you can scan for blueprints and discover necessary items to create new equipment. I was always excited to see what I could build next as I discovered new recipes. One of my favorite creations is a large submarine that lets you plunge deeper without worrying about air pressure or oxygen supplies, since it allows you to reach fantastical biomes and ancient alien structures that were once inaccessible. (Please visit the site to view this media) Exploration is both rewarding and thrilling, as you progressively upgrade your gear to journey out further. Whether you’re entering a cave filled with glowing plants or freezing in fear as a colossal beast approaches, Subnautica always offers something new and compelling. To make these treks easier, you can build sea bases. These give you safe zones where you can stock up, build items, and decorate the interiors to your liking. I enjoyed personalizing these spaces with different décor and discovering the functions of different rooms. For example, the scanner room deploys camera drones into the water, helping me pinpoint locations of resources. Long journeys, however, come with a cost. You have to be cautious, as they require you to stock up on food and water. Massive sea monsters also lurk in the shadows, and while you can build a knife or use decoys, they can still take you out quickly. This introduces a vulnerability akin to horror games, especially when traveling at night when visibility is reduced. Positional audio gives you cues on when a predator is near, and while these are helpful, it’s still downright terrifying. Subnautica’s narrative is deeply rooted in exploration, and it’s a well-crafted story despite diving into some science-fiction clichés. You can follow the story at your own pace, and this freedom brings an enjoyable variety to the gameplay. I often jumped between building my sea base, upgrading my equipment, and engaging in story missions. Narrative missions are received through radio transmissions, where you listen to distress calls from other stranded crewmembers. These transmissions provide superb voice acting, which invested me in the plight of the characters. Upon listening to these messages, it’s up to you to find these missing people or discover what happened to them. Sometimes this includes following coordinates to abandoned lifepods or investigating the crashed starship. These events all tie into a larger, captivating story about the daunting secrets this sea-like planet holds. While I enjoyed following the story, I encountered a few bugs that required me to exit the game completely, such as getting stuck between walls. At one point, this caused me to lose 20 minutes of progress, because Subnautica allows only one save per world. This was mildly aggravating, but these isolated incidents didn’t happen too often; the rest of the game performed without problems. Subnautica is gorgeous and enthralling, offering rewarding progression and a fascinating world. The story is well told, and it offers a crafting system that is easily accessible even for players who aren’t familiar with survival games. With fantastical sea beasts, fun gadgets to build, and a sci-fi story that gets its hooks into you, Subnautica is as deep as its sprawling ocean. View the full article
  11. When EA Sports signed its deal with the UFC in 2012, the publisher had an uphill battle. The previous UFC series by Yuke's set a high bar that EA initially struggled to meet. With UFC 3, EA Sports refines and sharpens the entire package, finally earning its place as the champ of mixed-martial-arts video games. No game captures the calculated-yet-violent spirit of mixed martial arts better than UFC 3. The rush of entering the Octagon with the sole purpose of topping your opponent is well represented through both gameplay and presentation. The UFC brings multiple martial-arts disciplines into each fight, and you must always be on guard against both ruthless knockouts and technical submissions. Fights often turn into breathless affairs, keeping you on the edge of your seat. Just because you're winning the fight doesn't mean a single well-placed uppercut or takedown won't turn the tide in your opponent's favor. UFC 3's striking controls are the best the series has ever seen. From the base knowledge of each face-button corresponding to a limb to the more advanced strikes using shoulder buttons as modifiers to your basic attacks, the stand-up game in UFC 3 is intuitive and accessible while maintaining depth. New vulnerability windows leave you open to damage when you attack to make striking a more careful art. This, when combined with the finely tuned stamina bar, successfully balances out the number of fighters who come out swinging for the fences, as getting caught with a head kick in the middle of throwing a haymaker puts them in a precarious situation. Animations have been rebuilt from the ground up for UFC 3, making for seamless transitions between moves. In addition, there are few awkward strikes and glitches during gameplay, and fighters look and move much more like their real-world counterparts. Each fighter's stance, pre-fight routine, and post-fight celebration looks authentic to how they behave in real-life. With how great and authentic UFC 3 typically looks and feels, I'm disappointed by how often the commentary fails to keep pace. Play-by-play analyst Jon Anik does a great job in his debut effort, but longtime color commentator Joe Rogan adds little in way of new voiceover, a noticeable detriment in sequences where Anik and Rogan are going back and forth. In addition, the commentary sometimes lacks contextual awareness, with incorrect calls or set ups that give the wrong storyline of fights. (Please visit the site to view this media) UFC 3's overhauled career mode is a huge success. The new GOAT Career mode peppers in multiple short-term goals to keep you engaged at every turn. I enjoy watching my fighter climb the ranks on his way to his first title shot, but the satisfaction of completing smaller goals every few fights on my way to a better contract is much more exciting. I also love how each contract gives me a new rival to trash-talk throughout my contract before facing off against them. UFC's licensed shows help tell the story of your fighter each step of the way, making each milestone even more satisfying. Earning the title is still one of the ultimate goals, but to become the greatest of all time, you need to perform well inside and outside of the Octagon. I love the balancing act between training and promoting during the lead up to a fight. Do you want to boost your fight's hype by talking trash to your opponent on social media, or do you want to learn a new submission that might come in handy during that fight? I often struggled with the answer to that question, and because of that, I looked forward to each training camp as much as the fights themselves. In addition to career, players can engage in several diversions, both returning and debut. Popular one-off exhibitions like Knockout mode return (with Snoop Dogg delivering humorous commentary), while the new Tournaments feature allows you to pit 8 or 16 fighters against each other in a bracket-style tournament with custom rules. I'm glad Live Events are back, as I enjoy following along with real-world cards and putting in my picks for who I think will win. Online, you can play in ranked championship in pursuit of a belt, or unranked quick-matches, resulting in a basic-yet-enjoyable suite. Online play is mostly smooth and absent of lag, but I'm annoyed you still can't skip the long-winded pre-fight and mid-round presentations unless both players agree to. Ultimate Team also introduces many new features. As you fight through opponents online and offline, you earn in-game currency, which can be used to purchase packs. Each pack you open features fighters, moves, and consumable boosters that can be applied to different slots of each fighter in your starting lineup. Items can also boost your chemistry rating if you apply them to the correct weight class, fighter type, and slot (for example, punches to the arm category). With each added move and consumable boost, your fighter becomes more competitive, which helps whether you're jumping into online matchmaking or staying offline. With items carrying different tiers of effectiveness, and better packs costing more in-game currency, it opens the mode up to tempt you with microtransactions. However, without paying any real money, I still fell into the addictive loop of earning coins through completing in fights and opening packs to improve my fighter. Opening a pack to reveal your favorite fighter, or the move you've been missing from one of your starters' arsenal is a thrill. I love that the online portion of Ultimate Team has been complemented by a fully featured offline mode for those who don't want to throw down in the fiery gauntlet of online competition or worry about players who have paid money to acquire the best items. By building on its already strong foundation and adding meaningful new gameplay and modes, UFC 3 delivers a terrific MMA experience from top to bottom. Whether you want to play against a friend in a single bout or develop a fighter from local favorite to greatest all time, UFC 3 allows you to live out the fantasy of stepping into the Octagon like never before. Note: The online portion of this game was evaluated using EA Access servers prior to official launch. View the full article
  12. Making a Metroid-inspired pixelated platformer as an independent developer is practically a rite of passage. We have seen plenty over the years, and for good reason - they're a lot of fun. Iconoclasts fits this mold and checks the right boxes with a confident red marker. The pixelated art looks great, figuring out how to explore each area and build out its map is a lot of fun, and both jumping and shooting are accurate. These elements alone would merit a recommendation. However, Iconoclasts takes its success a step further with an impactful story touching on topics not widely explored in video games. Iconoclasts follows Robin, a smart mechanic with a big wrench who recently lost her father. The local religion, the One Concern, is integrated into every aspect of life, and it violently punishes those who go against its rules. The One Concern labels Robin a heretic for choosing to be a mechanic over the job selected for her. She rejects the One Concern's efforts to collect Ivory, the most valuable resource on the planet. Her actual mission is tough to nail down, which makes her journey all the more intriguing. She's not necessarily trying to save the world or favoring one side over the other. She's just trying to help those in need when they need it. To delve deeper would spoil the game, but I was surprised by the story's direction, what happened to its characters, and especially by the conclusion. Iconoclasts tackles topics like religious zealotry, competing faiths, familial responsibility, environmentalism, and other serious themes, but it does so while maintaining a sense of humor about the video game medium and letting its characters be light-hearted at the right moments. Truly feeling the weight of an end-of-the-world scenario in a video game is rare, but Iconoclasts pulls it off. I was scared for everyone in the game, even its sympathetic villains, and I am still thinking of the story after seeing its closing credits. (Please visit the site to view this media) Iconoclasts has a lot more going for it beyond the compelling story. Both its art and musical direction are great, and it plays well. Clearly drawing inspiration from Metroid, you reveal the map for each area by exploring it. Your arsenal of abilities doesn't expand dramatically over the course of the game, but figuring out how to get to new areas is still exciting thanks to a collection of clever puzzles that constantly make you use the tools you have in new and rewarding ways. Backtracking is thankfully kept to a minimum, and on the occasions where you do have to retread, visual flourishes are typically in place to tease upcoming bosses, or handy shortcuts are created as a result of solving the necessary puzzle to get there in the first place. Of all the locations, The Tower was the only one I found frustrating thanks to a series of elevators and blocked paths that were not entirely clear on the pause-map. This was the only area in the game I abandoned before solving every puzzle. The rewards for the plentiful side puzzles littered throughout are materials that can be exchanged for minor upgrades. They can make you run a little faster, or make your wrench hit a little harder, but the number of slots you have to equip them is small, so even though I ended the game with lots of material, I only ended up making a handful of upgrades. Despite the underwhelming rewards, I still went after every piece of material just because I liked the puzzles I solved to get them so much. The myriad bosses stand out thanks to their varied visual design, strategies, and implementation. In any game, I sometimes find too many bosses frustrating as they can they act as gatekeepers to more exciting areas to explore, but I was excited to tackle each encounter, even at the end of the game, which throws a number of impressive bosses at you back to back. With its Metroid trappings, Iconoclasts began as a familiar experience, but by the end I was left thinking more about the impactful character and narrative moments. Despite its bright and colorful aesthetic, Iconoclasts' world is a dark one, and the journey across it is one I did not expect to be so affected by. Couple that with design that would excel even without the narrative hooks, and you have a game that stands above its peers. View the full article
  13. I don’t think I am being hyperbolic when I call Shadow of the Colossus a masterpiece. Even among Fumito Ueda’s small-but-impressive collection of games, Shadow of the Colossus stands out as my favorite. I know I’m not alone in that, which is why remaking Shadow of the Colossus is a tall and dangerous order. Thankfully, developer Bluepoint was up to the task. While it does not improve on the original game (or the HD remaster from 2011) in every way, this version of Shadow of the Colossus is absolutely worth seeking out for both fans and newcomers. The biggest and most notable overhaul to the game are the visuals. Remakes are often complimented for allowing you see dated games as you remember them as opposed to how they really looked, but Shadow of the Colossus goes well beyond that sentiment. You can see individual blades of grass as you ride with Agro, and the portals to the sky that appear above defeated colossi take on a new beauty. With so much to look at, the added detail leads to fewer moments of boredom as you travel. It adds more weight to the moments between colossi, and made me more eager to explore. The new environmental details are impressive, but the colossi are astounding. The beard on the sixth colossus looks better than it ever has. The eyes on colossus number 10, who chases you underneath the sand, have a humanity I’ve never seen before. The fur in particular, on all the colossi, is especially realistic. Even the new details impress, like a wave that accompanies the bird colossus you fight on the lake as it speeds toward you. Along with looking great, the wave gives the beast more implied weight, and even gives you a better cue for when to jump. The impact of meeting each colossus has never been lost on me, even after -multiple playthroughs, and it has only been elevated for this remake. I gasped at near-falls, and my heart raced as I leapt from Agro’s back onto the flying dessert colossus just as it did in the past. (Please visit the site to view this media) For all the visual steps forward, one element falls short. Mono and Agro look great, and even Lord Emon (who had the least amount of detail of any human character in the original) has a new impressive wizened look – but Wander’s face looks bad. Something was lost in translation on the way to PlayStation 4, and Wander looks like he has been recast by a younger actor with softer features. Newcomers may not be bothered by his new appearance, but I couldn’t get over the fact that he simply never looked right. A number of other changes are small, but still improve the experience. The original control scheme was atypical, to be polite, and the new default control scheme is more in line with contemporary button layouts (X to jump, circle to roll). Your items are now quick-select on the d-pad, making it easier to quickly change from sword to bow. Changes to the stamina bar also make its upgrade progress clearer, and it uses less screen space while still offering the necessary information. You also get a detailed list of stats you can refer to anytime, tracking things like distance traveled, time riding fish and hawks, Agro stunts, and your fastest times for defeating colossi. I love stat-tracking, so I definitely appreciate their inclusion. The option to play a mirrored version of the game after you beat it is one of the few true additions, and it’s an inoffensive unlock that doesn’t change the game in a substantial way. While the lack of more significant content additions might be disappointing for some, I appreciate how true this remake remains to the original I adore. Bluepoint strikes a good balance, making welcome changes that leave the core experience intact. The original Shadow of the Colossus is easily one of my favorite games. It was among the first that made me want to violently point at the screen and yell, “Look! Video games are art!” at anyone within earshot. Bluepoint’s remake feels different in some respects, but is exactly like Shadow of the Colossus in the important ways. Scaling beasts feels appropriately epic, and the few story moments that exist still tell a heart-wrenching tale of sacrifice in the face of impossible odds. The PS4 Pro Edge A few advantages exist if you’re playing Shadow of the Colossus on a PS4 Pro. Outside of the expected additional 4K display options, you can also choose to play the game in Performance mode. As the name implies, this mode prioritizes performance, boosting the framerate to 60 FPS. The other mode, Cinematic, lowers the frame rate to 30 FPS, but displays the game in 4K. On a standard PS4, the game plays in 30 FPS. Performance mode was my preferred way to play. The higher frame-
rate makes the game lose some of its filmic qualities, but it plays and feels better as a result. View the full article
  14. Dragon Ball FighterZ accomplishes a difficult task: Taking two insular genres (fighting games and licensed products) and broadening the appeal of both. With its gorgeous characters and explosive combat, it wonderfully captures what has made Dragon Ball such an enduring power fantasy. With a steady learning curve and simple-but-varied combat, it is immediately rewarding as a fighting game, but also has the potential to turn average players on to the fun of learning, adapting, and improving through competition. A casual glance at the team-based, 2D fighting of Dragon Ball FighterZ could be confused with an episode of the Dragon Ball anime. Goku, Frieza, and the rest of Dragon Ball’s absurdly powerful cast bear a stunning resemblance to their animated counterparts, and several moves and supers artfully recreate stills from the manga or anime. Every frame of animation during fights looks immaculate, and exchanges regularly have an over-the-top bombast to them that made me feel cool just for being a part of them. Throws are a flurry of punches and kicks that sends opponents flying at top speed, and fatal super moves cut to a shot from space of a planet-shattering explosion. For all the action’s faithfulness to its source material, the biggest accomplishment is how the fighting underpinning it all slowly reveals its layers, offering new players a great onramp to fighting games without bogging them down in tutorials. Rather than be quarantined to a “simple” mode that eschews creativity in favor of flashiness or automatic combos that are useless in a real fight, one-button strings are an integral part of combat. Characters like Beerus or Piccolo have automatic attacks that are useful in disorienting opponents and can lead to longer combos. Even my early matches, in which both my opponent and I fumbled combos and spammed the same moves repeatedly, were fun. That’s because combos are easy, satisfying, and don’t kill characters immediately. You also have a number of easy-to-use maneuvers at your disposal, and a great mix of dashes and double-jumps make movement feel incredibly freeform. Once you have the hang of them, the variety of flashy ways you have to close the distance and start a combo helps you diversify your strategy. Is your opponent firing lots fireballs and playing defensively? A super dash breezes past the fireballs, and a vanish may catch them off guard. Is your opponent abusing super dashes? A well-timed Kamehameha or heavy attack forces them to think twice. Because of all these options, I rarely felt helpless during a loss (unlike many combo-heavy fighters). This lessened the sting of losing, and drove me to think more creatively. What specific tools does my team bring to the table? How I can I escape bad situations while devising a few traps of my own? These same tricks work when you head to training mode to maximize the damage of landing a combo on an opponent. Longer combos take some practice, but emphasize putting all the tools at your disposal over strict timing. The more intricate combos aren’t easy to master (most players will still likely have to consult guides online to see some of the more obscure tricks and combos), but most of the tools you can use to deal more damage are right in front of you, making it easier to think up new tricks. You can even cook up a few ways to try to summon Shenron, which is difficult to pull off in a real match but offers some powerful benefits, like completely healing or bringing a character back from the dead. The roster also strikes a good balance of varied and simple. You can use the same basic joystick motions, combos, and tactics with the entire cast, so switching characters doesn’t feel like learning an entirely new game. But as I tinkered with various characters, I found exciting new tricks I could use can use to deal more damage using double-jumps, fireballs, and swapping in a teammate. Kid Buu, for example, has great long-range options with his stretchy limbs, Android 16 can amp up combos and break defenses using his crushing piledrivers, and Hit can stop aggressors in their tracks with counter moves. You don’t need to switch stances or keep track of secondary characters (staples of developer Arc System Works’ other titles), but these differences make for enough intricate setups and team-specific combos that those who love to tinker in training mode for hours have lots of reasons to do so, though it isn’t a requirement to enjoy fighting. If the complicated terms and rhythms of fighting don’t appeal to you, you can head directly to the story mode. This single-player campaign clocks in at a meaty 15-18 hours, and offers a great starting point for Dragon Ball fans. Between cutscenes you make your way through simple board game-like maps where you navigate your party through spaces, leveling up party members and swapping them out after each fight on the way to each boss. Which fights you choose and in what order are mostly irrelevant, since they don’t present much of a challenge until the last couple of hours. This mostly makes them useful as a way to learn or practice combos. A few elements also attempt to complicate the fighting in story mode, but are underutilized. You can equip various stat bonuses that drop randomly after fights, but I never bothered to use them until the end, since most fights are a cakewalk and opted for experience boosters, since leveling up characters unlocks more conversations with them. This is more of a missed opportunity than a real impediment since I still enjoyed mowing down teams of bad guys without paying much attention to my party or navigating each board. The real draw of the story mode is listening to voice actors ham it up as classic Dragon Ball characters (even if some reads tend to miss their mark), as well as some of the more lighthearted conversations that draw on and poke some fun at the series’ extensive lore. What does Gotenks think of the Great Saiyaman? Why would the Ginyu Force blindly follow all of Frieza’s orders? These clever scenes are good for a laugh and occasional insight, and were my main motivation for completing the story mode. The overall plot of this story mode isn’t terribly captivating (it spends far too much time justifying why Goku and crew are all evenly matched with clones of each other), but I was eager to see what conversations my next unlikely team setup would cause. While the story mode is more about fun than challenge, the arcade mode skews in the opposite direction, testing you with opponents who react more quickly and deal ridiculous damage with even basic combos. This can be a little frustrating since two characters are locked behind beating the harder difficulties with high marks, but players can also earn zenny (the in-game currency) elsewhere to unlock them if they don’t want to fight these lopsided matches. (Please visit the site to view this media) Between matches you can roam around an online lobby, which acts as a central hub for players to communicate, set up private fights, watch replays, and take on the world in ranked and casual matches. Private matches and party matches (six-player brawls where one person controls each character) are confined to local lobbies, which makes them difficult to set up. You earn zenny as you play more matches and work through the various modes, which you use to purchase capsules that randomly drop new avatars and stamps. These unlocks are a fun way for Dragon Ball FighterZ to explore the more obscure parts of Dragon Ball’s fiction, letting players walk around as Mr. Satan or a casually-dressed Piccolo. This system exclusively uses in-game currency (no microtransactions), so it feels fun rather than exploitative. The lobbies work smoothly, and if you don’t want the hassle of moving around this area, you can bring up a menu and hop right into a match. Dragon Ball FighterZ seamlessly blends accessibility and complexity, making for a feverishly-paced fighter that makes the learning process gradual and engaging, and gives casual players hours of worthwhile things to do solo and potentially turning fighting game fans on to the world of Dragon Ball. Even after dozens of hours in single-player, training mode, and online, I’m excited to keep digging into its combat and see just how many more gorgeous flashes and explosions I can cause. If I happen to blow up a few more planets along the way, all the better. View the full article
  15. The Payoff

    You ever have that one friend? Delightful one minute, and a rage-fueled monster the next? You like their company, but you’re never sure when they’re going to go off and reveal the Mr. Hyde that lurks within. The second season of Telltale’s Batman has been about being trapped in a room with this particular kind of person, and the fourth episode makes good on all the tension associated with that. This culmination results in not only the best episode in the series since Lady Arkham’s debut in the first season, but also one of the more compelling Batman/Joker relationship stories in years, in any media. Last we left Bruce, he was trapped in a cold and deadly predicament. After escaping, he resumes his quest to bring down Harley Quinn and the rest of the villainous Pact, with the help of secret agent Avesta and John Doe (a.k.a. The Joker). Much of the episode revolved around just how much you trust Doe. Is he actually willing to help you? Or is he working behind your back to earn Harley’s affection? Regardless of intentions, Doe commits some horrific actions during the episode. However, he seems properly contrite and confused in the aftermath of them all. Is it all an act? The foundation of Episode 4 is whether you can trust Doe as a friend, playing your own knowledge of Batman and Joker’s relationship throughout the years against the events of previous episodes. Telltale’s version of Gotham City follows its own logic, for better or worse, often recasting old favorites in new light and rearranging origin stories to make a world that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Batman mythos. (Please visit the site to view this media) Watching Telltale’s version of this classic dynamic come to a head in the final hour of What Ails You is enjoyable. I spent the majority of the episode wanting to guide Doe toward doing the right thing while also balancing that against what was right for Gotham. Familiar Telltale-brand problems rear their hydra heads more than a few times, like bad animation and a few tedious walk-around-the-room-and-look-at-things sequences, but the writing and tension prevalent through the episode is strong enough that those are easy to ignore this go round. Rooting for The Joker as a likeable, sympathetic person is a strange, unexpected thing. And yet Telltale has accomplished that much with its season-long gambit. One more episode remains and I’m curious to see if Telltale will go all-in on letting players shape Joker as a character. Regardless of how the finale plays it, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the journey of trying to rehabilitate one of comic’s greatest villains. View the full article
  16. The latest game in the Monster Hunter franchise brings the core elements that have made the franchise a cult classic – difficult battles, fun and interesting progression, and stomping on dinosaurs with your friends – and opens the door for a deluge of new players with a more accessible sheen. Make no mistake, hearty challenges are still at the center of the experience, so veterans won’t be disappointed with the colossal end game leviathans. In addition to serving up what fans expect from the franchise, newcomers also have a chance to dip their toes in before being shoved out into the ocean and can enjoy a slightly more accessible ramp. Monster Hunter: World is the most accessible game in the series, and funnels new players into the core systems and mechanics over the first 20 hours of the game. The first low rank hours are comfortable and casual, followed by more challenging high rank fare and an expanded armor and weapons system, and then finally, Elder Dragons. End game hunts pull all your skills are put to the test, and hopefully after all the progressive challenges leading up to them you’re ready for some serious battles and top tier rewards. This clear segmentation works incredibly well, providing a linear path that slowly ramps up both enemy difficulty and the underlying options for your gear. By the time I hit credits after around 60, I was eager to get right back into the mix for more post-game fun. The intense task of bringing down an Elder Dragon and reaping the rewards provides a double-shot of dopamine to the brain, and you just want to roll back in and take on another. The progression loop is simple but enchanting. Go out, hunt monsters, use their parts to make new and exciting weapons and armor. As you progress through the game, more customization options unlock along with powerful set bonuses, allowing you to create a potent mix via set pieces and decorations (gem slotting for bonuses). An element of exploration adds to the experience, as you can stumble upon all-manner of interesting things out in the wild, from new Palico tribes and gadgets, creatures to collect and put in your house, and undiscovered monster clues that can lead on a dangerous, wild ride. While each area is its own instanced piece of the larger world, each feels distinct and interesting. Each time you come back to the main city of Astera, there’s something new to engage with as well, like sending out your Palico squads to hunt for you in previously conquered areas, upgrading your food options in the canteen, collecting the fruits of your harvest, or checking out the new goods that come into port via ship. (Please visit the site to view this media) The streamlining of certain franchise staples is a boon for both newcomers and veterans. Instead of dealing with annoying paintballs and guessing games during the hunt and chase, scout flies are a great solution. These helpful insects provide a tracking experience that feels natural and immersive as you collect tracks and other clues around an environment that lead to their habitats. Learning more about monsters from tracking, hunting, and capturing fills out your research library in the town hub, allowing you to get a comprehensive look at monster weak spots, elemental strengths, break-off parts, and drop tables. Studying these entries an extremely useful way to learn more about the monsters and your approach to beating them. Picking up useful materials as you run by instead of having to stop is great, and auto-crafting makes annoying activities like refilling your essential consumables a thing of the past. Monster Hunter: World offers 14 different weapon types that embrace all variety of play styles, from in-your-face aggression to long-range bombardment. Weapons are tagged with accessibility in mind, pushing new players toward more responsive equipment that may not require as much setup or methodical combat. But for those who want to show off and put their skills to the test there are plenty of opportunities. A longsword user will have a much different experience than say, the hunting horn, and experimenting with different weapons is a big part of the fun. Catching up a new weapon to your current “tier” only takes a few battles, so it’s easy to try out a new play style. This adds a good deal of longevity and entertainment to the overall experience. A few quirks drag World down from the heights of greatness. Some framerate issues happen from time to time, creating a jarring combat experience, especially when there is more than one giant monster on the screen at the same time. Sometimes when you have two or three big beasts in the same area, they won’t even really interact or move around unless you’re really close to the action – which is probably the last place you want to be in that situation. There are a few other minor down points, including one of the story-based battles (that the game has the ridiculous notion that you’d want the opportunity to play it more than once!) being an unfun slog that’s more of a trial of patience than a battle with a monster. When playing multiplayer, you must wait for a friend to complete story-based mission objectives before joining in their quests as well, but in the grand scheme of things these quibbles can be overlooked. Monster Hunter: World is the best game in the series, and a welcoming gateway for newcomers to get in on the tail-chopping, rodeo-riding, and titan-slaying. I never want to play the series on handheld again after this, as the grainy graphics and clawed clutch can’t compare to the redefined experience core platforms facilitate. View the full article
  17. As RPGs evolve and adopt more modern complexity, it’s refreshing to revisit the classic mechanics that helped make the genre what it is. Like I Am Setsuna (the previous title from developer Tokyo RPG Factory), Lost Sphear tries to capture the 16-bit era, paying homage to classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy. However, just like its predecessor, it fails to offer much beyond nostalgia. Lost Sphear feels like a journey I’ve taken before; it is a bland return to yesteryear without the novelty. Lost Sphear places you in a world that’s disappearing bit by bit. Protagonist Kanata possesses the ability to restore the world’s memories. This puts him on a journey to discover why he has these powers and what they mean, and save the world along the way. The plot has its share of predictable moments, and the majority of the twists are visible from miles away. Intriguing developments don’t happen until late in the story, which is also when the characters finally start growing beyond their archetypes, like the childhood best friend and the hard-headed loner. With boring and excessively drawn-out dialogue, Lost Sphear makes it challenging for players to stay invested. This is especially apparent in the ending, which extrndd over several fetch quests and bosses, not to mention an epilogue that takes hours to finish despite the fact your quest is apparently complete. Once the game focused more on the world’s origins and evolution, I became more interested, but it’s too little, too late. Since Lost Sphear’s storytelling is nothing special, combat and customizing your characters’ skills are the key attractions. The ATB system from I Am Setsuna has improved, allowing control over character placement. You can now line your heroes up to target multiple enemies in a single strike. Better yet, you can also use movement to space out your party members so they’re not all caught in deadly AOE attacks. The momentum gauge returns, allowing you to power up your attacks when a blue flash hits the screen. You also eventually get access to Vulcosuits – powerful mechs that add interesting strategy to battle. The limited points available to use Vulcosuits make you plan when it’s best to bust them out, especially since they can’t be restored without sleeping at an inn or using a rare item. (Please visit the site to view this media) Building your party members’ abilities offers a great amount of depth, and my favorite part of Lost Sphear. Depending on your collected memories (items you find while you fight enemies and explore), you can trade for new skills, counters, and momentum perks to equip on your characters. These have effects like activating a follow-up attack after using a skill, restoring HP, and increasing your defense. By restoring parts of the vanishing land with artifacts, you also get powered up, from increasing critical hit rates to speeding up ATB charge rates. Taking advantage of all these tools is essential, as battles get downright vicious later in the game. Enemies frequently use instant death attacks, resurrection potions, and self-destruct abilities. These fights are flat-out frustrating because you might kill a boss without knowing it has a destruct ability that can wipe your entire party. Or maybe you begin a fight and your foe wipes half your party with its initial strike, something you can’t prepare for. I expect a challenge from end-game enemies in RPGs, but these battles often feel unfair, and simply grinding levels doesn’t solve the problem. While I reveled in proving myself in battles, the same can’t be said for the exploration. I dreaded its repetition, specifically the backtracking, which is baffling given Lost Sphear’s short length of about 25 hours. You visit the same places and fight the same baddies multiple times. You can also expect to spend more time running errands and searching for things than making meaningful progress. This is compounded by vague directions and a lack of quest markers; finding my next destination became a challenge itself, adding frustration to an already-tedious element. Lost Sphear has some good ideas and mechanics working together when it comes to battle, but everything else falls short and feels dull. The reused dungeons, backtracking, and slow-paced story don’t give me much to fight for, even if the end does come together in an interesting way. Sadly, the tedious grind through a milquetoast adventure is sour for far too long before paying off. View the full article
  18. The touch-screen interface on mobile devices poses a unique design challenge to game makers: How do you make a compelling interactive experience with only one input? Some mobile games get around this problem by awkwardly emulating a controller layout on the screen, while others keep the action so simple that the gameplay suffers. Fireproof Games’ The Room series is a rare breed that finds balance; it constructs compelling puzzles around a limited interface. You only need one or two fingers to solve most of The Room: Old Sin’s challenges, but these creative puzzles (along with a haunting atmosphere) engage your whole brain. Like previous The Room games, Old Sins is a massive puzzle box that asks you to slowly manipulate intricate clockwork gadgets. Most of the puzzles in Old Sins are solved by pushing, pulling, or twisting these objects, but Fireproof combines and remixes these actions in a wide variety of unique ways. I marveled as a miniature bell twisted into a cog in my hands. I stared in wonder at a small mechanical train that came to life after I'd assembled its missing pieces. And I threw my fist in the air triumphantly after repairing an old radio, then deciphered the meaning of its warbled audio. Throughout my adventure, I never felt like I was doing the same thing twice. Old Sins features nice balance between simple and complex puzzles, and the solutions are never frustrating. The last few Room games expand on this simple puzzle box concept by adding multiple rooms and a greater variety of objects to interact with. Old Sins steps back from that; you spend the entire game investigating an elaborate dollhouse mansion. One of the handiest tools in your inventory is a mystical eyepiece that allows you to see invisible writing and other clues, and this eyepiece also allows you to shrink down and explore each room of the dollhouse as if it were full-sized. I appreciate how this structure allows Old Sins to cleverly return to the series’ roots of pulling apart one big puzzle box while also providing a wider variety of backdrops. Several puzzles are cleverly spread across multiple rooms. For example, after I got the water working in the kitchen, that water was piped out into the garden, which led to a whole new set of puzzles that eventually ended when I brought an ornate fountain back to life. At other times, matching items in your inventory with the environment makes Old Sins feel more like a traditional adventure game. Objects you acquire usually have a logical use somewhere else in the house. The base of a model pagoda matches an indentation on a display cabinet, for example. However, I occasionally wondered where to go next. In those cases, Old Sins clue system always subtly nudged me back on the right track without spoiling any puzzle solution. Old Sin’s puzzles are wrapped around a mystery involving a researcher named Mr. Edward Lockwood who becomes absorbed with his experiments on a strange substance called the null, which seems capable of unleashing an otherworldly horror upon the world. Through scattered notes, I slowly pieced together Old Sins’ thin narrative about Edward’s obsession with the null and the strain it put on his marriage. This story functions like a rubber band collecting all Old Sins’ puzzles, but I was never excited to find another note from Edward, and I didn’t care about going deeper into his disappearance. Over the course of four games, Fireproof has teased a larger narrative for the Room series, but Old Sins fails to expand on that universe in any meaningful way. In many respects, Fireproof Games offers more of the same with The Room: Old Sins. However, the original concept is so strong that I can’t complain about getting more, especially since the puzzles continue to feel fresh and interesting. In a market churning out free-to-play loot-box grinds, this meaty mobile experience is refreshing. View the full article
  19. By poking fun at slasher films and providing a captivating interactive horror experience, 2016’s Until Dawn was a pleasant surprise. Developer Supermassive Games’ successful storytelling made me hopeful for Until Dawn’s VR prequel, The Inpatient, but I struggled to keep interest due to mediocre scares and a forgettable cast. The Inpatient takes us back 60 years and is set in the Blackwood Sanatorium, the dilapidated hospital you explore in Until Dawn. Playing as a patient with amnesia, you attempt to unravel a conspiracy and escape, all while savage monsters are on a killing spree. Although The Inpatient sheds more light on some of Until Dawn’s mysteries (such as the slaughter of the sanatorium staff), it fails to make this history interesting. Like Until Dawn, your choices mold the story and have consequences. These decisions occur during dialogue with other characters, and they impact who lives and dies. Unfortunately, it never feels that tense, since the game is plagued with dull characters. Most of the hospital staff you’re grouped with seem emotionless, and are held back by stiff voice acting. Because it’s a short narrative experience, you don’t get much time to become acquainted with them. Since the narrative changes based on your choices, you can replay The Inpatient to see its different endings. While I didn't notice any huge revelations or entirely new sections open up, I was happy to see some noteworthy changes when making different decisions on my second playthrough, depending on how much others trusted me and who I managed to save. As for its VR component, Supermassive took another step to add a sense of presence. With voice controls, you can choose dialogue options simply by speaking into the headset’s microphone. Though it’s a small addition, I found it effective and fun, making it feel like I was directly speaking to other characters. Good scares are few and far between, but some made me jump or shout obscenities because they were up close and personal in VR. Physically turning around to find a monster appear out of nowhere and seeing bloodied bodies appear and disappear on stretchers is terrifying. With the headset strapped to my face, I couldn’t look away and had to face these fears. I enjoyed exploring green-hued nightmares that tormented my character, where I’d walk through an otherworldly version of the sanatorium. Voices whisper unintelligible words while cell doors open and close on their own, making it a frightful experience. The Inpatient is at its best when it delves into psychological horror, but these nightmarish sections make up only a small portion of the game. (Please visit the site to view this media) As you make your way through the hospital, often your only light source is a flashlight. This was initially spooky, but long stretches of time are spent walking through barren hallways without much happening. Lacking in interesting dialogue and effective scares, these sequences left me bored as I wandered through the sanatorium. As you explore, you can use either the PlayStation Move controllers or the DualShock 4 to maneuver. I found it much easier and comfortable to use the standard DualShock 4 controller, as the Move controllers are more awkward. You have to click a button on the left controller to move forward while tilting the other controller in the direction you want to go. I grasped the controls better as time went on, but it never feels natural. One advantage is that one Move controller also acts as a flashlight that you can wave around to light up areas, making it feel like you really have one in your hand. VR is great for immersion, but it can cause some unwanted side effects. Luckily, The Inpatient’s camera limits your movements to 30-degree pivots, reducing the chance of nausea. That worked for me; I never felt queasy during my time with The Inpatient, though I did experience headaches after about an hour of use. The Inpatient is a difficult game to recommend, with inconsistent scares and a mundane cast. It still offers some frightful moments, but they aren’t wrapped up in a captivating enough narrative to keep you engaged. Even if you’re a hardcore Until Dawn fan, this watered-down horror experience is probably worth skipping. View the full article
  20. Can you imagine a world where no one can experience negative feelings? Would it help humanity flourish, or would it brainwash us to be mindless robots? The Red Strings Club attempts to answer these questions by delivering an engrossing, philosophical adventure game about the importance of human emotion. Taking place in a dystopian future, The Red Strings Club has you control three different characters: a bartender who works as an information broker on the side, a freelance hacker, and an empathetic android. You work as a team to unravel a corporate conspiracy that involves a company giant aiming to forcefully erase negative emotions for all. It makes for a fascinating storyline about what makes us human, and raises questions about what true happiness is. Gameplay mostly involves chatting with other characters and manipulating them in the form of minigames. Each playable character comes with a unique minigame, including sculpting genetic implants, impersonating people on the phone with a voice modulator, and mixing drinks that magically accentuate the drinker’s specific emotions. One of the best minigames is psychological bartending. A small, jazz-themed bar called The Red Strings Club is where the majority of the game takes place. Here, you attend to the needs of corporate moguls or bizarre individuals coming for a drink. Your goal is to squeeze information out of business people to take down a big corporation. This is absolutely captivating; fiddly controls may cause more spilled drinks than desired, but this minigame is nonetheless enthralling as it requires strategy and keen attention to detail. Each drink brings out different traits such as fear, vanity, and lust. Choosing which questions to ask a patron and when is a must after narrowing down which trait to exploit. For example, giving a brilliant inventor a vodka drink with a touch of vanity could make him divulge information about his controversial project. Whenever I successfully made a customer spill the beans, I felt like a mastermind. (Please visit the site to view this media) These conversations make for some of my favorite moments. I enjoyed debating with a corporate executive about the meaning of happiness, and listening to a maniacal (and underage) customer talk about his many cheap thrills. Even the designated villains have their own motives, strengths, and weaknesses. They want to make the world a better place just as the protagonists do, but with different means. This engaged me into the storyline on a deeper level. Knowing that even my enemies had logic, rather than some deranged ploy to take over the world, made their actions seem more calculated and reasonable. Although each minigame is unique in concept, their controls range from functional to frustrating. For example, sculpting implants resembles futuristic pottery, where you choose different cursors to mold the edges of the implant into the correct shape. To interact with the buttons on the lathe, you have to awkwardly move a sensitive cursor up rather than simply pressing the buttons. I often ended up interacting with the wrong function, which was aggravating. Despite these frustrations, parts of this section are still engaging. Working in an implant upgrade lab, you must choose the right implants to correspond to clients’ wishes. These requests range from a cosplayer hoping to increase their online follower count to an executive wanting an edge to help close a big business deal. Each implant has a desirable effect, including higher confidence or increased sex appeal. This flexibility creates several entertaining outcomes that are either darkly humorous or empowering. For example, an upgrade that nullifies the effects of implants could end up having unforeseen consequences when inserted into an anxiety-ridden employee. If your implant choice fails completely, the client returns, and their file shows what went wrong. Seeing how my choices played out felt like I helped them find peace with their problems. The third minigame involves tricking corporate executives into handing you information over the phone by disguising your voice with a modulator. Playing as a deceiving trickster is a lot of fun, and seeing how different characters react to your impersonations makes it all that more engaging. By calling the right person while using the correct voice, you progressively find a breadcrumb trail of clues that lead you to solving the thrilling mystery. Despite some poor controls for minigames, The Red Strings Club conceptually flourishes, with fascinating subject matter, well-written characters, and unique approaches to gameplay. I enjoyed feeling like a puppeteer as I made others do my bidding by exploiting their emotions or deceiving them through phone calls. However, these actions begged a bigger question: Was I just as bad as the mega corporation? Was I playing god? The Red Strings Club had me pondering these moral questions for days. View the full article
  21. Developer Castle Pixel's affection for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is immediately and persistently evident in Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King. With sprawling dungeons, enjoyable puzzles, and intense boss battles that deliver new twists, it's a worthwhile adventure despite relying on the tried-and-true formula of Nintendo's classic series. Blossom Tales puts you in control of Lily, a new knight serving the Kingdom of Blossom. Shortly after she's knighted, the king is put in a slumber by his brother, the evil wizard Crocus. As the new recruit, you venture to distinct regions of the world to find three key ingredients that can awaken the king. While lacking in the design sophistication of Nintendo's enduring masterpiece, many of the trappings of A Link to the Past are used heavily throughout the adventure. You set out with just a sword, but later find items like a bow, a boomerang, and bombs. But just because the mechanics are familiar doesn't mean they aren't fun. Each of the four dungeons is long and diverse, giving ample enemy encounters, puzzles, and boss battles. Though all the dungeons are great, I love the fire-themed one the best. Battling through legions of flame monsters and a bullet-hell miniboss is a rush that is finely balanced with methodical, thought-provoking puzzles where you must track a path to activate all the tiles without stepping on any you already activated. The action sequences only intensify as you work through this 10-to-15-hour adventure. My adrenaline began pumping as I ran along a narrow, falling walkway, avoiding projectiles from turrets on the wall and slashing at enemies in my path. However, the puzzles stick out in my head as my favorite parts of the dungeons, as they continually build on top of the simple concepts as you play on. The aforementioned tile-activation puzzle is the most common concept, but my favorite style tasks you with rotating differently shaped tiles to connect circuits to get power to its destination. These puzzles were never difficult to the point where I was stuck for an extended period, but they often made me stop and think about the solution for a bit. (Please visit the site to view this media) Exploration across the multiple regions is rewarded well. In addition to the typical heart pieces and magic gauge upgrades, you can also uncover awesome new weapons and abilities. I was stuck on a boss in a dungeon, so rather than repeatedly trying to fight him, I explored the world and upgraded my bow to fire three arrows at once, making the fight much easier. My favorite optional ability comes late-game with the discovery of the powerful fireball spell, which destroys almost anything in its path. The feeling of discovery abounds. As you explore, you uncover sidequests that give you reasons to revisit old regions, fun minigames that give you worthwhile rewards, and hidden treasure chests. Blossom Tales is set up as a bedtime story being told by a grandfather to two young children. This convention delivers some cute moments, using the grandfather as an unreliable narrator at times. Sometimes, the kids interrupt the grandfather, arguing over what Lily should fight next and the player must choose between two options. It doesn't happen often, but I enjoyed the few times it popped up. Despite some new ideas, Blossom Tales can rely too heavily on aping a 25-year-old game. The visual style, the overall structure, and the gameplay plays like an updated version of A Link to the Past. At times, it seems less like an homage and more like an unlicensed bootleg of that classic title. Fun puzzles, exciting dungeons, and satisfying exploration makes this retro-style title a joy to play through. With loads of Zelda inspiration and fun, new takes on puzzles and boss battles within the beloved formula, Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King is a delightful take on a familiar style. View the full article
  22. Sky Force Reloaded is a bit unusual in design. Grinding for levels has more to do with your progress than the skill of weaving through a sea of bullets. This may sound like a dreadful approach to a vertical-scrolling shooter, but Sky Force Reloaded succeeds in making almost every second matter – whether it’s victory over a challenging boss or defeat to a basic enemy. Your ship is continually evolving, gaining better weapons, shields, and even the addition of A.I.-controlled assistants. The degree to which the ship improves is significant – almost comically so – giving players the firepower to flawlessly complete levels they may have deemed impossible hours before. Developers Infinite Dreams and Crunching Koala created a power trip of leveling that just happens to occur within excellently designed shooter. The gameplay sticks to the basic script of classics like Raiden and 1942, requiring players to do little more than hold down the fire button while weaving through fighters and bullets. It doesn’t offer a hardcore “bullet hell” experience, but varied enemies and nicely designed waves of action elevate this basic formula to deliver enthralling stages that conclude with wild boss battles. The controls are smooth, the visuals are clean, and flow of play changes to increase the intensity or give the player a needed breather. One level strips away your weapons entirely, almost making the action feel like a stealth game in which you veer away from threats rather than engage them. Diving into a level for the first time likely won’t go well. A stream of 10 fighters, which could be mowed down with ease in a previous stage, may only be partially destroyed, since your weapons aren’t powerful enough. With those bogeys still occupying the play space, you will likely be overrun by foes in a matter of seconds. You’re probably going to die. Like all shooters of this ilk, memorizing formations helps, and may be the only thing you need to complete the stage. I entered several levels underpowered and managed to get through them. It feels great knowing you defied the odds. In most cases, however, I would die, retreat to my hanger with the currency I earned in my run, and use it to enhance my craft’s abilities. Every little upgrade gives you a better shot. That’s the routine I got into, and it’s an addictive one, where I continually found myself saying “just one more game” and “one more upgrade.” I’m torn between what’s more rewarding: achieving victory through sheer skill, or annihilating a stage with an overpowered ship. They both define Sky Force Reloaded, and show how its gameplay can be exhilarating for different reasons. Sure, playing through the same level a dozen-plus times to farm currency is annoying, but the rewards you reap make it worthwhile, and they go well beyond upgrades. In one run, a colored ship part may appear after an enemy is destroyed. You lose it if you die, but it’s added to your collection if you finish the stage. When you own all parts of a particular color, a new ship is forged, offering different functionality (such as more health or a different firing arrangement). Collectible cards also appear randomly; some activate immediately to give the player 15-minute bumps, like an increase to the maximum firing rate, or making the megabomb more powerful. Other cards offer valuable permanent boosts along the lines of a lucky shield sometimes activating after you are hit, or a support drone that flies at your side. Collecting the cards is another fun aspect of the experience that is again only achieved through time vested. The effort the player puts in also funnels into career statistics. When milestones are reached, new technicians join your team. Only one technician can be active at a time, but they are game-changers. A tech named Burton Panic randomly fires off his own supply of power-ups, which can help or be hilarious if no enemies are nearby. Another tech named Kate Brush paints over your first scratch, meaning you stay alive longer. All of Sky Force Reloaded’s side elements add up in a big way, and play into the central hook of the game: becoming more powerful. Even if you max everything out, the game still delivers a decent challenge, especially in the final levels. (Please visit the site to view this media) Most people that devote time to leveling up should be able to finish the game on the standard difficulty, but beating it on insane requires plenty of skill. I enjoyed almost every run – both in single-player and local co-op. Having a friend at your side helps in farming and taking down harder stages, but also creates more chaos to decipher. Sky Force is a long-running series, but this is the first entry that truly hooked me and made me want to play more just to see how ridiculously overpowered my ship could become. View the full article
  23. Smash Bros. is weird. Nintendo’s fighting mashup drew the masses in with the promise of seeing what would happen if Yoshi were to get really upset with Kirby. Hardcore fans developed a splinter scene, where ultra-competitive players stripped the game to its essence – no items, Final Destination only, thank you very much – squeezing every last drop of strategic gameplay from the cutesy title. The series has yet to come to the Nintendo Switch, and in that absence, Angry Mob Games has brought its platform fighter Brawlout over from Steam Early Access. It caters to the serious Smash fans, but without the charm, variety, or recognizable characters. If you’ve played Smash, you have a solid idea of what to expect. After picking your character, you beat the snot out of your friends or A.I. opponents until they fly or fall outside the boundaries of the stage. The more damage you do, the farther they get knocked back by your attacks. You can choose between timed matches or play until you deplete a stock number of lives. That’s about it; aside from a single-player challenge tower where you fight your way through a variety of regular matches, you don’t have other options to explore. (Please visit the site to view this media) Brawlout suffers from an overall lack of content, starting with its roster. When you start the game, you can choose between eight characters, including guests from Guacamelee and Hyper Light Drifter. They’re not outright clones, but I recognized familiar Smash archetypes, with analogs to Donkey Kong’s grab and Pikachu’s lightning attack, among others. That’s not to say they’re bereft of originality; Paco, a four-armed Luchador frog, is a goofy character with a prehensile tongue that he can use to whip himself back onto the stage from long distances. The walrus Olaf can freeze enemies and also summon ice platforms to get a boost when he’s knocked away from stable ground. Aside from a handful of standout moves, however, Brawlout’s cast as a whole is inoffensively generic. The stages are equally bland, with few animated elements or personality. They’re just backdrops featuring things like totem poles and ice floes. Unlocking more than the initial three is tedious, because you need to level-grind characters to master rank 10. The results aren’t especially rewarding, much like the rest of the unlocks. To get new characters, you need to buy piñatas with gems and coins earned through gameplay. If you want to unlock a specific character, good luck! The rewards are randomized. They’re all essentially new skins, with subtle gameplay tweaks. You can unlock Senator Feathers, for example, who is basically Chief Feathers with a stars-and-stripes-themed top hat. Considering the hurdles you have to jump over to unlock the new content, it’s a disappointment. You don’t have items to use against your foes or a final smash counterpart, but a meter builds up as you battle. You can unleash it when it’s halfway filled to break enemy combos, or wait until it’s completely filled to become a slightly super-powered version of your character. That aspect of the game never really clicked with me; it is a nice addition, but I would gladly trade it for the ability to block. You can roll out of danger, but the timing window is frustratingly small, particularly when you’re trying to avoid projectiles. Locally, you can play with up to four of your friends. When you take the game online, things falls even further apart. I was never able to play with people on my friends list. The game simply timed out repeatedly. After trying for about half an hour, I was able to play a 1 v. 1 match against a random opponent, but it was so laggy that it was virtually unplayable. In short, if you can’t get your friends together in the same room – and playing against other people is a priority – Brawlout is a non-starter. Brawlout probably isn’t for most Smash fans, including me. It simply can’t compete in terms of roster size, interesting characters, and overall personality. All of those things are critically important. Gating what little it has to offer behind a slow-drip progression feed is a mistake, too. Players who don’t have the time or patience to unlock everything can console themselves with the knowledge that they aren’t missing out on much. View the full article
  24. Crawl is a multiplayer experience that feels entirely new thanks to its ambiguous genre designation. It plays like a brawler, but rewards like a fighting game, and constantly forces you to change your playstyle. The arcade multiplayer experience borrows its style from old-school arcade games (it even flashes ‘insert coin’ instead of ‘press start’), but the actual mechanics are difficult to quickly sell to interested participants. It doesn’t take long to start beating up monsters with a sword, but to understand why (and who) you’re beating up takes more time. The learning curve is a detriment to the experience when you’re trying to invite others to join on your adventure, but if you and your group have the patience, Crawl offers an innovative multiplayer experience. You and up to three friends (or A.I. characters) make your way through a dungeon as you simultaneously compete for the role of living hero. Whoever kills the hero gets to be the new hero, and that hand-off repeats as you crawl deeper and deeper into the dungeon. If you’re dead, you control the dungeon’s monsters. If you’re alive you try to keep it that way long enough to take on the dungeon’s final boss. You level up and get new equipment along the way, constantly moving between the world of the living and the dead. The setup is novel and forces you to constantly re-examine your role in the combat. It is equal parts rewarding, like when you have a long stint as the hero, and heartbreaking, like when one of your monster brethren steal the killing blow from you after putting in all the work to whittle down the hero’s health. The actual combat is simple. It uses only two buttons, and each monster plays a little differently. Some monsters move quickly and fire projectiles, others move slow and leak damaging pools of unspeakable liquids, while others are powerful brawlers with powerful special attacks on long cooldowns. The strategy lies in figuring out which weapons and monsters work best for you. The game moves fast though, so finding your strengths takes multiple playthroughs. Thankfully you can practice playing as the assorted unlocked monsters, but when you’re trying to teach new players, it’s a lot to take in. Each game is long, clocking in at about 30 minutes for each playthrough. That’s great for seasoned players, but a lot to ask from new players. (Please visit the site to view this media) There is no ultimate ending per se, as the joy you derive from the game comes from repeating the action and seeing who comes out on top. In this way, Crawl is more like a fighting game, even though it looks like a beat ‘em up. It’s not about getting to the credits so much as it is about seeing who can achieve the greatest mastery of mechanics and get to the end boss, and beat it, the most efficiently. You unlock additional monsters on each playthrough, but it’s a minor reward in the grand scheme. The action can also get a little too chaotic when three players are controlling monsters of varying sizes and trying to kill a human all in one screen. As the hero moves screen to screen, the dead float around as ghosts, rushing between wooden crates and traps and launching them at the living player. Ghost also get to periodically summon monsters. Most attacks are color-coded, letting you know where you are in the fray, but that’s often not enough and you lose yourself in the chaos. To its credit, moving your hero or monster around is fast and responsive so your main enemy is paying attention, as opposed to difficult to control action. Crawl is local multiplayer only, which is the best way to play. The game is particularly well-suited to Switch, too, as playing with a single Joy-Con doesn’t feel like a handicap thanks to its simple inputs. I don’t know if its inclusion would improve or hinder the game, but the lack of an online mode, in a game so focused on the multiplayer experience, is surprising. Using A.I. opponents thankfully still leads to a rewarding experience, and you can even set four A.I. players to play through a match to learn strategies and unlock new monsters, but you won’t find a campaign or other big incentives to play repeatedly as a single Crawler. Crawl appeals especially to fans of local competitive arcade multiplayer experiences that aren’t fighting games. This group is a niche one with a lot of qualifiers, but developer Powerhoof knew exactly who they were going after with the game. Crawl isn’t hard to play, but it takes study to be successful at it. When you have a group that knows the game, however, it leads to close calls, upsets, and victories at a brisk and rewarding pace. View the full article
  25. Tiny Metal’s simplified strategy and delightful tone scratch an itch that has been festering since Nintendo’s Advance Wars series reached a ceasefire in 2008. Battalions of adorable tanks and warplanes engage in a series of turn-based encounters that seem like the opening salvos of an epic tactical war. Unfortunately, Tiny Metal’s action fails to evolve past the basics; its shallow strategy offers some cheap thrills, but its lack of depth is boring for battle-hardened tacticians. Tiny Metal’s action starts off slow as you are introduced to your various units and the classic rock-paper-scissors gameplay that gives some classes an advantage over others. For example, tanks are strong against basic infantry while rocket launcher-wielding lancers will rip through those armored vehicles. Each unit’s strength is tied to its health, which creates a nice balance to the flow of battle. It also means if you can’t destroy an enemy in a single turn, you might, at least, be able to neuter its next attack. Fortunately, even weak units can still be useful in combat, because you can have them team up with other troops to attack a single foe. I found this especially helpful when taking down many of the heartier tanks and warplanes. Tiny Metal’s tactics are easy to learn, and I never felt forced to adopt a specific strategy to progress. At the same time, I never felt like my back was up against a wall. Tiny Metal’s campaign is a breeze, largely because the enemy A.I. has all the tactical prowess of a puppy chasing down its dinner bowl. The enemy’s army rolls towards your base in evenly paced waves. However, you generate resources at a steady clip, so building a larger army and overwhelming your opponent is easy. Tiny Metal’s lack of depth compounds this problem. Since all your units only have one basic attack, you don’t make complex strategic plays – you simply match the units on your team that are strong against the units on your opponent’s team. (Please visit the site to view this media) Where’s The Multiplayer Mayhem? Tiny Metal’s simplified strategy might take on an added depth if you were playing against a real opponent. Developer Area 35 plans to add a multiplayer feature at some point in the future, but as of this writing, the studio hasn’t announced a release date for the update. Despite Tiny Metal's adorable exterior, it tells a serious story about an army Lieutenant named Nathan Gries who is embroiled in a war between two fictional nations. When a famous war hero goes missing, Nathan’s battalion goes in search of him only to discover a larger threat headed for the borders of their nation. This boilerplate war story adds very little to the experience, and the main villain’s ambitions remain vague, even at the end. Area 35 expends a great deal of energy on this lackluster narrative, and each campaign mission is bookended by several minutes of characters explaining their backstory, which ultimately bogs down the flow of the action and killed some of my enthusiasm rolling off a successful mission. Tiny Metal’s visual style pays homage to Intelligent Systems’ dormant Advance Wars series, but its under-baked action isn’t as cute. The battles never feel like a chore and I enjoyed basking in my easy victories, but Tiny Metal needs a few more tools in its arsenal if it wants to take on the legacy of Advance Wars. View the full article