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Everything posted by Saricino

  1. Bungie took a big chance when it chose to reset three years of progress and start all players, new and returning alike, at ground zero for Destiny 2. The risk has allowed for a reinvention of troublesome systems and a new opportunity for players to climb the level curve, while still maintaining the successes learned across the many updates of the first Destiny. The result is a game that is more accessible, streamlined, and sensible, with a clear through line in both gameplay and story. However, this refined sophomore effort in the Destiny universe comes at the cost of flexibility to play how you want and fully customize the experience as you go. Newcomers to Destiny 2 will discover the same core precepts that have kept others engaged for years. Hundreds of years in the future, humanity’s fate has been reshaped by a powerful alien entity, spreading our reach across the solar system. A later inexplicable collapse has left a scattered people scrambling for survival, guided and protected by deathless Guardian warriors. The fiction seamlessly melds fantasy and sci-fi tropes into a richly imagined setting. Gameplay features remarkably taut FPS gunplay enhanced with seemingly magical powers. Your character grows in power alongside friends that inhabit the same public playspaces, and they join you in all manner of integrated exploits. If the first Destiny introduced the universe, Destiny 2 is the story that begins to make meaningful changes to the status quo. With no mention of a nebulous Darkness to be found, we instead have a game all about Light, a power that sets humanity apart and represents concepts of hope, self-sacrifice, and resilience. That focus on Light and its meaning lends an optimistic tone to the plot. In the wake of a devastating opening in which The Last City is brought to ruin, the Guardians are scattered, and power lost. The dramatic setup leads to a coherent and straightforward tale that spans the solar system, and culminates in several stellar set piece confrontations, including a thoughtfully concocted central villain. Individual missions are varied and smartly paced, and I love that we get some more insight into the minds of our supporting cast. I relished the adventure, but some of the magic and mystery I've come to expect is absent. Some of the most troublesome and cryptic story elements from the earlier game also made its universe feel bigger and stranger, and I'm not sure Bungie has managed to replace characters like the Awoken Queen, or design concepts like the Grimoire, with equally curious alternatives. Most enemy types return from Destiny 1 with only minor alteration, diminishing the disquiet of facing a new threat. I'm also mystified by the decision to lock so much of the story content away after its conclusion, replayable only in prescribed chunks a few times each week. The inability to relive favorite moments outweighs the gains in simplifying the map with fewer icons. Likewise, I'm stymied by the absence of an option to select individual strikes, and their inclusion only as part of a playlist. These excellent small-team cooperative expeditions are great fun, but seem almost relegated to an afterthought following the campaign. Breathtaking environment art and design maintain at least some of the story mystique I was looking for, accompanied by a dizzying and inspiring orchestral soundtrack. Every one of the major sites visited in Destiny 2 is majestic, beautiful, and vast, from a European forest overrun by alien conquerors to a grand underwater city hiding beneath the methane waves on one of Saturn's moons. Bungie creates compelling and intimate battlefields, but also communicates the grandeur of massive, daunting backdrops. The first Destiny offered large open planetary destinations with little narrative context. The biggest change to gameplay is a welcome reorganization of those destinations into compelling spaces for exploration, punctuated by clearly marked sites for blistering battles beside other players. Mini-dungeons called lost sectors provide a sense of discovery. Public events are easy to find, and even feature fun heroic variants for those in the know. And a bevy of excellent new story quests and adventures extend the narrative potential post-campaign, revealing the story of these locations and their characters. (Please visit the site to view this media) Crucible play has been overhauled in substantial ways, and moment-to-moment combat feels more competitive. Teamwork is highly valued in every mode, and encounters take a split-second longer to conclude, with fewer one-shot kill options on the table. I quite like the change, which adds up to more strategic and thoughtful engagements. From the new and intense Countdown game type to returning modes like Control, every Crucible match type demands players move and play in different ways. Yet again, I'm perplexed by the decision to force players into one of two playlists, quickplay or competitive, rather than let them choose their preferred mode. I'm also torn by the move to exclusively four-person teams in PvP; the compact group size demands everyone pull their weight, which is great. But neither three-person strike teams or six-person raid groups can easily transition into competitive play, a symmetry that was ideal in the prior game. If most of Destiny 2 caters to accessibility and ease of play, the new Leviathan raid offers a potent counterpoint. The most challenging cooperative activity is a mechanics-heavy beast of an expedition in which constant communication is necessary, and nearly flawless play is required. The sprawling pleasure palace is one of Bungie’s most intricate and fascinating environments to date, accentuated by a maze of secret passages and hidden chests beyond the main encounters. My biggest issue is with the new reward system, which separates the excitement of new gear from the moment of victory, and doesn’t offer most loot until a full completion. Without the ability to gather much new gear as you progress through, there are few ways to gear up for the next battle. Your choice of Hunter, Titan, or Warlock class shapes the experience, whether exploring as a lone wolf along a moon of Jupiter, grouping up for challenging cooperative challenges like the briskly paced new Nightfall strikes, or trying to hold ground in the Crucible. All classes play well and offer their own avenues to mastery. The reliance on mostly returning subclasses within each of the three is a tad disappointing, but each has been tweaked in purposeful ways. Add in a new and aggressive offense subclass for each, from the aerial superiority of the Dawnblade to the melee-oriented Arcstrider, and you have several thrilling playstyles to explore. Each subclass features two pre-optimized paths. Yet again, it’s a design choice that puts even new players on equal footing with returning players, but the more limited customization options sting. Progression is smooth from opening to endgame, thanks to an elementary milestone system that always suggests meaningful content to confront, and an in-game map that is easily navigable. A new clan system makes friend groups more important, and offers substantial rewards, even if they also create some danger of insular bubbling with players you already know. No matter the preferred style of play, collectors are in for a treat. New exotic weapons and armor are joined by welcome revisions of old favorites, and everything from legendary gear to emblems are a lot of fun to gather. Gear comes fully powered now, so you're free to play with the gun or helmet you like, rather than waiting to power it up. Even so, I'm bummed that most items have so few customization options, as I have fond memories of tweaking those as I played in Destiny 1. Vault and inventory management have seen only minor changes, and even in these early days the management chores aren’t much fun. While I love all the collections, the cosmetic customization system has taken a step back, offloading and embedding many of the coolest ships, shaders, and other visual trappings within the microtransaction system alongside a slow-paced alternative to earn the same packages through play. Being able to apply shaders to weapons and vehicles is a great addition, but the system discourages experimentation, since shaders are consumed on use. A rich equipment modding system is also sadly looped in with the microtransactions, diminishing an otherwise compelling power customization tool. A veteran player of any game is likely to home in on criticisms, and there's a danger of getting lost in the weeds, which would be a mistake. Destiny 2 is a massive and rewarding game that offers the potential for hundreds of hours of fun and discovery with friends. Quibbles aside, Bungie has crafted a fantastic follow-up to a wildly popular formula, and one that no other developer has come close to equaling in sophistication. Many of the streamlining choices welcome a new crop of Guardians into the mix, but also make this new game more playable and understandable for even returning players. As I settle in for what I hope to be another several years of adventures, I hope Bungie can nail the elusive balance between depth and accessibility. View the full article
  2. A Fine Finish

    In 2012, Arkane Studios introduced the world to the city of Dunwall, a dark fantasy kingdom inspired by Victorian London, where nobles stabbed other nobles in the back for crumbs of power when they weren’t busy grounding the poor into dust. For nearly five years and across multiple entries, Arkane has built its fantastical universe around assassins and vigilantes, people sick of corrupt politicians and tyrants molding the world in their image and willing to do anything to stop them – even making deals with the devil. In the world of Dishonored, the closest thing to the devil is The Outsider, a mysterious figure on the outskirts of reality who grants those he deems worthy of his interest supernatural powers. It’s no surprise that Death of the Outsider, supposedly the last chapter in Dishonored’s story, is focused on The Outsider. He’s always been the most compelling character in this universe as well as being the one person tying everything together across every game. While Death Of The Outsider isn’t the strongest Dishonored game, this standalone expansion does justice by its enigmatic character and serves as a strong finale for a series that’s mined the depths of revenge, justice, and the absurdity of existence for all of its combined worth. In Death of The Outsider, you play Billie Lurk, Daud’s pupil and a returning character from the original Dishonored’s first DLC, The Knife of Dunwall, as well as Dishonored 2. Lurk finally reunites with Daud after years of separation and her former teacher presents her with one last job: to kill the Outsider and end the chaos that he introduces into the world. Death Of The Outsider does a great job of setting up both Daud and Billie’s motives for wanting to do so. They’re both old, hardened killers who had many years to try and come to terms with their years as assassins. They’re filled with regret over their actions – including killing Empress Jessamine Kaldwin at the beginning of the original Dishonored – and are looking for redemption. Daud’s on his last leg, coughing with disease, so it’s up to you to do the job. Luckily, as is Dishonored’s inclination, you’re given more than enough tools to get it done. Death of the Outsider replaces the abilities from Dishonored 2 completely by giving Lurk her own three abilities: Displace, Semblance, and Foresight. All three powers are essentially mutated versions of powers from Dishonored 2, but the mutations make them worthwhile. Displace lets you teleport from place to place like Blink, but it’s switch-oriented instead of instantaneous. So you can place a marker in a safe spot, run into a zone filled with enemies, kill a few of them, and then zap back to where the marker is before you’re overwhelmed. You can also use that same power to ‘displace’ an enemy, meaning you can teleport inside them and literally cause them to explode into gory chunks. Nifty. If you’re a pacifist player, Semblance allows you to literally steal your enemies’ faces and walk around as them, passing through checkpoints. The New Game Plus mode lets you play through the campaign with the powers from Dishonored 2 as well. (Please visit the site to view this media) On a gameplay level, Dishonored has always been about giving players a variety of skills and abilities to accomplish their objectives and then letting them go hog wild. Death of the Outsider might be the strongest version of that series concept thanks to one seemingly small, but important tweak. While previous Dishonored games required you to constantly find or buy potions to recharge your mana, Lurk’s power currency, called ‘void power’ is constantly recharging so that you can use your abilities as much as you want – they just have a cooldown that lasts a few seconds. This change eliminates you having to worry about rationing power use and instead encourages you to use it all the time, stringing together powerful combos like displacing behind a target and then using Semblance to steal their identity and walk through the entrance of an enemy base smooth as hell. The chaos system, which determined what ending you would get in Dishonored and Dishonored 2, is gone completely. You can kill as many people as you want and suffer no narrative consequences for it. This tweak also turns out to be for the better, giving you the freedom overcome obstacles with whatever means necessary, lethal or otherwise, without any systems in place to hold you responsible for your actions in an artificial manner. Death of the Outsider is a fairly short experience, about half as long as Dishonored 2. However, peppered throughout every level are a number of side quests you can do called contracts that reward money and are often skilled-based challenges. I ended up doing most of these and enjoyed them for their variety, as they’re much more than just wetwork. One quest requires you to infiltrate an enemy bar, knock out the bartender, and bring him across the city. How you do that, whether you go in stabbing everyone or sneaky, is up to you. Other contracts include stealing the contents of a lockbox from a bank and, amusingly enough, killing a mime and making it look like an accident. The biggest strike against Death of the Outsider is while its levels are fun and open-ended in the way series fans have come to expect, none of them are particularly memorable enough on their own. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun pulling off a heist with minimal casualties and navigating The Void while being pursued by giant monsters, but there is no level that comes to matching the enigmatic wonders of Jindosh’s Clockwork Mansion or the time-bending puzzles of Artemis Silton’s house. The storytelling also occasionally leaves something to be desired. On paper, having a game centered around killing The Outsider is a fantastic concept worth ending the series on, but the game has trouble rising to the occasion. For example, The Outsider himself has a habit of showing up and giving Lurk special powers or presenting her with frustratingly dull philosophy 101 questions about people and the choices they make. My reading was these scenes were intended to be mystifying, playing into The Outsider’s reputation as an enigmatic figure who just does whatever he wants, but in the end, they mostly annoyed me as they felt like scenes that existed to strike a wobbly balance between fan service and pushing the plot forward at breakneck speed. Some of Daud and Billie’s character development feels rushed as well, with limited conversations between the two failing to capitalize on the dramatic history between them. Luckily, everything comes together in the end in a predictable but satisfying way, making these occasional weak points bumps in the road on a journey worth taking. Death of the Outsider ultimately emerges as a strong chapter in one of the best modern action/RPG series thanks to gameplay refinements and dedication to its dark fiction. This standalone expansion doesn’t revolutionize the series but instead does something more important, navigating the familiar to bring everything to a satisfying conclusion. View the full article
  3. Speed and skill are a given in the modern NHL, but those traits alone don’t anoint Stanley Cup champions. Beating the best in the world takes more than tape-to-tape passes and wicked slappers. The little things like short shifts, back checking, and never giving up on a free puck can make the difference when the skill gaps are marginal between great teams. EA Sports’ NHL 18 may not have the cutting-edge features and talents of its FIFA and Madden brethren, but this year’s edition starts doing a lot of the little things correctly, which results in a more competitive experience. Competition intensifies on the ice thanks to the new bag of tricks developer EA Canada gives to attackers and defenders. On the rush, puck carriers can unleash several new deke moves to gain separation and tickle the twine. Between-the-legs dekes, one-handed moves, and Datsyuk-esque puck flips are easy enough to learn but more difficult to pull off in fast-flying games. Defenders can neutralize these new threats thanks to the return of the defensive skill stick, which allows for better gap control and zone coverage to take away passing lanes and shut down overzealous stick handlers. Offline players should appreciate the savvier A.I., which is much better at making smart breakout passes, using dekes to gain free ice, and staying in a proper position. Legacy problems like missed puck pick-ups and being unable to make micro movements in small spaces on defense still frustrate, but overall the gameplay feels strong. At first glance, the headline Threes mode introduced in NHL 18 looks like a casual arcade experience, but in practice, EA wisely didn’t handicap its controls. With a smaller sheet of ice, fast play, and money pucks that can turn the tide of matches, users can show off all their sickest moves in these fast and furious 3v3 competitions. EA’s smart implementation of various ways to play with friends (any combination of offline couch play and online team-ups works) makes this a great destination mode for party pick-up games. Just don’t expect much from the more fleshed out Circuit experience. This grind against CHL, AHL, and NHL teams starts you with a roster of 60-rated players, and rather than reward you with fun-to-play NHL stars and legends at the peak of their powers, it instead doles out lesser-versions of modern players to pad out the journey. This robbed the Circuit of any fun for me, so I recommend sticking to the more entertaining exhibition/online match-ups. For years EA has largely neglected easy improvements to make its franchise mode stronger, but NHL 18 shows that the developers were indeed listening. Fan requests like mid-season contract extensions, better draft classes, and stretching player ratings to create a bigger skill gap between stars and fourth liners make this a vastly improved mode. Realizing a pending free agent had no interest in re-signing with my club before the trade deadline gave me the opportunity to get something of value in return instead of letting him walk for nothing. Draft class variety more realistically mimics the modern NHL; I even saw one class with six NHL-ready players who could jump right into the pros. Player progressions can stagnate or surge based on their circumstances, which makes free agency more interesting. More than once I was able to find a stalled prospect for cheap who eventually realized his full potential with my squad. All of these small but important changes reinvigorate the mode much more than the headline inclusion of expansion drafts. (Please visit the site to view this media) I’m glad EA chose to include expansion teams (both the incoming Las Vegas Golden Knights and a 32nd team of your creation), but the implementation leaves much to be desired. Including mechanics that allow you to squeeze out extra assets from teams for not picking particular players like Vegas GM George McPhee did would have been nice, and picking as the 32nd team from Vegas’ leftovers doesn’t hold many exciting options. I wish they followed the lead of NBA 2K and allowed you to introduce the 32nd expansion team in a season down the line instead. Speaking of lines, Hockey Ultimate Team offers new ways to improve yours via the introduction of solo challenges. The handful of options in HUT may not have the diversity or depth of the options on display in FIFA and Madden, but I’m nonetheless glad to have another way to grind for coins. EASHL, Be A Pro, and Draft Champions modes all return mostly unchanged for better or worse. Even with the reintroduction of trade requests, the Be A Pro mode in particular feels outdated given the story-focused experiences in other sports titles. While EASHL introduces 3v3 options for those who can’t field a full lineup and want to avoid having A.I. on the ice, I still feel the mode would benefit greatly from a player progression system that served the needs of competitive balance while letting users customize skills in a meaningful way. NHL 18 may not win every scrum in the corner or go top shelf with every shot it takes, but it still shows enough grit and hustle to earn your respect. The new offensive and defensive tools are welcome additions on the ice, and the entertaining Threes mode could become a party staple for hockey fans. View the full article
  4. I was very happy with Pro Evolution Soccer 2017's gameplay because of the way it felt and the things it allowed me to do in the game, so I was surprised when developer Konami announced that it was changing things up for 2018. I braced for disappointment, but instead I'm beyond relieved. The developer didn't just tinker with the game for the sake of slapping the word "new" on the box. They improved a vital component of the franchise without changing what was already great. The gameplay speed is slower than 2017, allowing users to better see, feel, and control players' touches with the ball. The game is slower, but it's by no means clunky. While there are still some moments of predetermined possession, if you think you can stretch out that foot for a last-ditch volley on goal or get your foot on the ball to control it and start dribbling on the run, you can do it thanks to the still fluid movement. This sensation is even more remarkable given that the game adds a layer of physicality to the gameplay as players shield the ball and jostle for position. The result of this combination is sophistication, not ugliness. In general, PES' animations are beautiful but rarely feel contrived or cumbersome. As highly as I rate PES 2018's gameplay, legacy issues persist. Even on higher difficulty levels, rapid one-touch passes, give-and-go passes, and through balls can break the lines perhaps too easily, and leave defenses vulnerable. Playing against the A.I., their buildups and attacks can feel the same. However, I liked having to be selective in my defensive movements, because having to recover from a step in the wrong direction or a hesitation often makes an important difference between success and failure. (Please visit the site to view this media) The Master League career mode also has its additions, although the mode feels less fresh than the gameplay. Small touches like release clauses, a preseason tour, and a new challenge difficulty for the mode (including transfer refusals from some players) are nice, but it still needs an overhaul. Transfer windows lack drama, with the news buried in menus and a lack of Galácticos and large transfer amounts separating the elite from the rest of the pack. I also feel the mode needs more injuries, more variety in the sim engine, and in-depth scouting and youth departments. Konami added more club and league licenses while others like Manchester United and Bayern Munich fall away, and you'll still have to deal with import files if you want many of your teams, leagues, and competitions to look like they do in real life. The MyClub fantasy roster mode remains largely the same, but adds 3-on-3 co-op to the play options (co-op is also available for offline play), and trying to level up and receive categorical accolades and MyClub rewards is addicting. Exhibition Random Selection matches similarly offer a different way to experience the game – even if they're one-off matches – but how this all adds up when you step back and look at the game's big picture is hard to assess. I absolutely enjoy playing PES 2018; its gameplay elevates an aspect that was already strong. This is remarkable in and of itself, but also highlights the work still to be done in important areas such as the Master League. The franchise contains a great foundation, and will have to continue to build on it to remain at the top of the table. View the full article
  5. NASCAR Heat 2 is more than just a sequel to last year's title. It represents developer Monster Games' return to multi-series racing – one of the things the studio was known for with 2002's Dirt to Daytona. Heat 2 includes the Camping World trucks and Xfinity cars, as well as the new multi-stage racing rules. These aspects, alongside a new rivalry system, alter the career mode but aren't a clear step forward, which is a problem for this sequel. Career modes can ask a lot of gamers. Managing players' development and juggling the financials can mean a lot of irons in the fire. Heat 2 simplifies things by stripping away the R&D aspect of your team's operation, and presenting objective-based contracts on a rolling five-race basis. Hit some objectives and you can feel your operation and race results get better. This is an easy way to let you progress without making you agonize over smaller aspects of your organization. Unfortunately, it also takes out any potential meat from the mode and makes it feel like you're on a tour of the racing series rather than orchestrating and being a part of a satisfying rise up the ranks. You earn money from race to race, but it doesn't go towards anything and is just a number to help gauge your progress. Rivalries are notched according to whom you run into on the track, but despite the many, many bump-and-runs I performed (and even outright wrecking), I didn't worry about reprisals on race day because nobody really came after me. (Please visit the site to view this media) The racing itself has its positives, but is also undercut by oddities such as cars randomly checking up for no apparent reason, inconsistent yellow flags, tire wear not being as important as it should be (even on the max setting), and being able to cut through parts of the field like butter even on the higher difficulty. The A.I. ability of cars has been a problem in many racing games through the years, from not executing smart pit strategy to allowing players to exploit certain racing lines, and that continues here. All of this is a shame, because like NASCAR Heat Evolution before it, this sequel has some good racing moments in it. There are cars throughout the field that give you a good fight, making you try different lines to work for the pass. Some even stand their ground and refuse to be intimidated by a shove or a bump. Slipping up in many situations means the other cars are going to exploit you and seize the opportunity to roar by. While there is room for improvement in this game, I celebrate moments like these. Racing online with the game is a different beast, as players can tweak cars' setups more for good lap times, which is a reason I wish Heat 2 provided some guidelines as to the effects of tweaking aspects like brake bias, springs, weights, etc. At least, this year offers more multiplayer lobby options such as flags, stages, and stability options, as well as more structure via continuous five-race mini-seasons. Along with these additions, I wish the title also included a no-collision option in multiplayer to cut down on the caution-filled chaos which inevitably happens on many tracks. The game also includes offline, splitscreen races, which is a nice feature that delivers a good sense of speed even with a full field. All of this represents good progress for the franchise, but while NASCAR Heat 2 adds racing series, rivalries, and other features, it misses an opportunity to make them meaningful and expand the actual scope and excitement of the game. View the full article
  6. The original Metroid pioneered a new breed of exploration-based gaming. It was a non-linear experience that allowed players to traverse eerie alien landscapes, slowly amassing an ordnance of new weapons and tools that would help them overcome both environmental obstacles and combat challenges. Metroid’s formula was so strong that – even 30 years later – its influence on the industry is still felt. Games like Axiom Verge, Ori and the Blind Forest, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night can all trace their heritage back to Samus’ first steps on the planet Zebes. However, despite the many challengers to Metroid’s throne, Samus Returns proves that Nintendo still understands the formula best. The game picks up right after the events of the first Metroid. Intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran must travel to the Metroid homeworld of SR388 and eradicate the alien species before they can be turned into biological weapons. This 3DS title is technically a remake of the Game Boy title Metroid II: Return of Samus, and fans of the original will recognize certain enemies and environments, but Samus Returns features so many fresh ideas that it feels like a completely new adventure. One of the big new additions to the franchise is a melee counter system that allows Samus to stun enemies with well-timed button counters that expose their weak spots and leave them vulnerable to a quick finish. This counter makes the moment-to-moment action more engaging than past 2D Metroids, and it keeps you on your toes because you never know when some creature is going leap from the shadows. Whenever I missed a counter, I knew it was my fault, but I loved finding the perfect flow in combat and hitting two or three counters back-to-back then wiping out a screen’s worth of enemies in seconds. Like previous entries, Samus Returns features alien environments that do an incredible job pulling players deeper into cavernous landscapes with the promise of powerful upgrades. Many enhancements are familiar favorites, like the ice beam and spider ball, but MercurySteam also delivers a few new gadgets that offer fun twists to both exploration and combat. For example, Samus can use a new alien energy called aeon to overpower her suit for a short time, granting her defensive and offensive boosts. I got a real thrill out of using a new machine-gun aeon attack to burn through enemies who had previously seemed invincible. Likewise, Samus’ aeon shield was invaluable during boss fights and while passing through volatile habitats. (Please visit the site to view this media) Thanks to a massive list of collectibles, your next reward is always just around the corner. Every area is littered with tiny power-ups like extra missiles and energy tanks, so you constantly feel rewarded for exploring every nook and cranny. Of course, many of these toys remain tantalizingly out of reach and beg you to come back after you’ve acquired the right tools to extract them from their environmental cages. The big and small rewards are so evenly spaced out that Samus Returns’ pacing remains superb, and I had trouble putting the game down for any length of time. Collecting all of Samus’ upgrades is even more rewarding thanks to SR388’s richly detailed locations. These subterranean labyrinths wind through lava-filled caverns and ancient alien ruins. Mapping out the entire subsystem requires clever use of your entire toolkit, and subtle background touches like glowing eyes and crumbling debris help sell the feeling of foreboding isolation. Samus’ last 2D adventure was in 2004 with the GBA release Metroid: Zero Mission, which was a remake of the original Metroid. Despite the lengthy hiatus between 2D entries, I was initially disappointed to hear that MercurySteam’s Metroid project was another remake. However, Samus Returns has enough unique content that it feels like a worthy sequel. MercurySteam’s first outing with the franchise is also different enough from the recent fan remake AM2R, so fans shouldn’t hesitate to pick up this rare gem. This might be Samus’ first 2D adventure in more than a dozen years, but it’s a great reminder of why we fell in love with the franchise in the first place. View the full article
  7. The Monster Hunter franchise is well known for offering precise combat, a high-skill cap for weapon mastery, and boss-battling hunts against giant monsters that can withstand massive amounts of punishment. Monster Hunter Stories combines those monsters and biomes with turn-based combat and a monster recruitment system to deliver an interesting spin on the series formula. Without the focus on real-time action, Monster Hunter Stories instead taps into a Pokémon-esque desire to catch, train, and genetically splice perfect monster companions. Discovering new monsters and customizing them via options that get progressively more advanced as you work through the game (like taking one monster’s abilities and putting them in another) is enjoyable. Collecting them is also fun, as you discover standard and rare egg nests – sort of randomized mini-dungeons where your goal is to sneak off with a powerful egg you can hatch later. As a fan of the franchise, seeking out my favorite monsters like the terrifying, strange Khezu and enhancing them was a treat. Hunting down eggs and finding out what’s inside, assembling your perfect monster squad, and dialing down deeper to create ultimate allies forms a satisfying loop. The overworld is neat to explore and nothing like the self-contained island-find boss-exit style of the core series and constantly refreshing itself with crafting materials, egg dens, and monsters to battle. (Please visit the site to view this media) While the game is incredibly accessible due to the rock-paper-scissors turn-based combat system, it’s a double-edged sword. The simple combat system is mastered quickly, and although weapon abilities, monster special skills, and combos attempt to make things more interesting, combat quickly falls off in terms of enjoyment and becomes a rote, repetitive task. If you’re looking for a challenge, you won’t find it here. Your sidekick monsters act on autopilot, but can learn many useful abilities and skills, and you can ride them during combat to execute special abilities. You hotswap between monster companions in combat to find the right skills you need for the job, and they also have out-of-combat abilities to help you break boulders, traverse water, or find items in the overworld. You can even go for “break offs” by targeting specific monster locations during a fight like the head, which may weaken it as well as dropping a valuable piece of loot –nods to the core franchise like these are interesting to see in turn-based translation. Don’t expect anything resembling an engaging story despite the game’s name. I expect the dialogue will appeal to a younger audience, but it didn't resonate with me. Thankfully, the gameplay is the main allure. While Monster Hunter Stories doesn’t have nearly the amount of weapon and armor choices that appear in the main entries, you can outfit yourself to an offensive or defensive playstyle and upgrade your gear with monster parts. After you’ve mastered your skills, you can take on other players online with your ultimate team of monsters, which is perfect for players that want to really dig in to the endgame experience, as the title doesn’t really offer the hundreds of hours associated with one of the mainline games. Series fans might be put off by Monster Hunter Stories’ simplified combat, but I enjoyed the opportunity to pilot some of my favorite creatures from the franchise on the other side of the blade. Fans of turn-based JRPG fare, newcomers to the franchise, and younger gamers have more to enjoy here – to explore and engage with the Monster Hunter universe without having to enter through a less accessible door. Monster Hunter Stories is a warm and welcoming trek that’s only brought down by stale and repetitive combat. Despite its shortcomings, there’s still a neat egg to crack here. View the full article
  8. Console launches have a long and frustrating history of mediocre games. Knack is the prime example of a launch title that gave gamers a brief taste of what the PlayStation 4 could do before the adventure settled into a mundane rhythm of repetition. The showering of polygons ended up being the highlight in an adventure that rarely tapped into the potential of a size-changing hero. The idea was interesting enough to lure people in, but the execution didn’t quite hit the mark. Enter Knack II. Iteration can go a long way in making a formula work, and that is crystal clear in this sequel, which clings to the core tenants of the inaugural release, yet finds ways to keep them exciting, fresh, and varied from start to finish. The changing scale of the character also grows in meaningful ways to deliver the sense of being incredibly powerful at 30 feet in height, and resourceful at just two. Knack II clobbers the combat repetition that plagued the debut, and never falls into a rut. Instead, the action bounces from one challenge to the next. A typical level could begin with an average-sized Knack brawling against a handful of trolls, move on to tiny Knack using stealth to infiltrate a base, shift to a harrowing platforming sequence, and conclude with giant Knack laying waste to tanks and giants. Each level has a nice blend of action, along with well-placed secrets that require a keen eye to detect. I was impressed just how quickly it would move on from one challenge to the next. 
Combat is the most enhanced element, sewing in a variety of moves and powers that are fluid and fun to use. The feeling of being a force of pure destruction amplifies as Knack learns new abilities. These powers can also be upgraded by investing points in a skill tree that ups his speed, power and more. By the end of the game, even a smaller version of Knack can topple giants using a flurry of punches, roundhouse kicks, and aerial slams. He can even grab enemies and pull them in for a pummeling using an extendable arm, much like Mr. Fantastic. The enemy A.I. is quite resourceful, knowing when to rush if your health is low, and when to keep guard. The first game pushed players to use the same attacks (sometimes modified by elements) against the same foes. As monotonous as it was, the combat was still surprisingly challenging. Knack II retains that difficultly, but it’s made less frustrating thanks to better checkpoints and less frustrating enemy designs. It also helps that, much like the first game, you can play this entire campaign with a friend via couch co-op. This is the optimal way to play, as new moves are unlocked when the two Knacks interact with one other. For instance, unleashing that flurry of punches into the back of your friend’s Knack will hurl relic pieces at your foe. The platforming sequences also require skill, but are rendered somewhat challenge-free given the lenient checkpoint system. Regardless of the challenge, the act of jumping feels great and is backed by harrowing designs filled with spinning gears, sliding platforms, and sections that require the player to switch between tall and tiny Knack in a flash. Again, variety is key to keeping the player off kilter. The puzzles littered between combat and platforming are perplexing, and do a great job changing up the flow of action. SIE Japan Studio has created a game that I didn’t want to put down and enjoyed playing from start to finish, yet I never once felt a strong tie to the world or Knack as a protagonist. He’s as unlikable a character as I’ve seen in a game. He’s fun to control, and is somewhat cute in his tiniest form, but has the appeal of a heap of building blocks and a personality to match. (Please visit the site to view this media) Given how uninteresting Knack and his companions are, the villains end up stealing the spotlight in this lengthy (and beautifully animated) story. The narrative’s introductory chapters are as predictable as can be, but things begin to unravel in interesting ways roughly halfway through the campaign. I like where the story goes, and it gets surprisingly dark in the final moments. Knack II is the sequel no one expected to see, yet everyone should consider playing, especially if they are fond of Ratchet & Clank, Jak and Daxter, and Crash Bandicoot. View the full article
  9. Love is a powerful emotion, which can make us feel both euphoria and devastation. Last Day of June explores these feelings and how they change when tragedy strikes. While it has some poignant scenes, Last Day of June loses its lasting appeal with mediocre gameplay and repetition. You play as Carl, who experiences tragedy following a relaxing picnic by the water with his partner June. When things go awry, he is left by his lonesome, crippled and devastated. Later on, he magically obtains the gift to rewind time and change the past, giving him a glimmer of hope that all is not lost. Last Day of June plays in an infinite loop of that final day, where you embody multiple neighborhood characters from one sequence to the next and change their choices. For example, if a young boy uses a rope to fly a kite, then another character can no longer use said rope to safely secure boxes atop their vehicle. Each choice makes a butterfly effect that can either help or hinder you from saving June. These varying outcomes kept me invested, but are brought down by repetition. The puzzles are never too difficult and can be entertaining, but the way they are implemented is frustrating. In order to change past events, you experience characters’ arcs repeatedly to find correct solutions. Certain characters can open up pathways or gates that others cannot, which is annoying because switching characters requires playing through their entire day again. Some cutscenes are skipped through these sections, but the repetition is still sluggish and distracting. (Please visit the site to view this media) Once a day is completed, you watch the outcome of your choices and whether you managed to save June from death. You see June die not just once, but over and over again, which makes it lose its original emotional impact. I grew tired of seeing the repeated scene, and my connection to characters waned. Last Day of June’s best moments take place in present day, during interactive scenes. When Carl wakes abruptly from sleep to find his wife no longer beside him, my heart sank. He is wheelchair-bound, and his anger, frustration, and sadness take over. When his stomach growls, he struggles to reach a can of food on a high shelf, and it takes great effort to get around. The dim lighting makes his home feel claustrophobic, and each time he turns back time to try and save June, I empathized with his growing hopelessness. The neighborhood is a joy to explore, with its brightly colored environments that look like watercolor paintings. The characters feel lively and real, despite their vague, eyeless appearances. They speak to each other in incoherent murmurs, which means the story is told mostly through body language and visuals. I enjoyed having to piece things together myself, but their high-pitched mutters grew tiring, often portraying exaggerated emotions that didn’t feel authentic. Last Day of June paints a world that is visually beautiful on the surface and darker at its core, but its emotional story loses luster quickly. While some narrative twists drew me in nearing its conclusion, I never connected enough with the story and felt distracted by its repetitive nature. View the full article
  10. Multiplayer in virtual reality is one of the more attractive concepts of the still-young gaming technology. Standing in a virtual space with another person is a strange experience, more personal than talking on a headset to another player. CCP Games recognizes this and has crafted a sports game that pits two players against one another in a surprisingly intimate and fun competition that feels like it belongs in VR, but little has been put in place to keep you coming back. The disc game played in Tron, where two opponents try to hit each with digital Frisbees, is the quickest and easiest comparison to make for the rules of Sparc. Two players facing one another in a slender hallway try to hit their opponent with a ball. This ball can be bounced against the walls and ceilings, or you can hold on to your ball for a single-use shield. If you are hit by your opponent’s ball they gain a point. If you are able to dodge the ball (by physically moving), but it still passes through your hit zone, your opponent doesn’t get a point, but their ball grows and moves faster next time it’s thrown. Executing a good toss right to your opponent’s face is satisfying, but even more satisfying is activating your shield right before you’re about to get hit with a ball. Everything works well, and once I got some practice with throwing, games started to have a fun back-and-forth flow I was eager to recreate in the next match. As a virtual reality experience, Sparc is thoughtful in its execution. You don’t walk or move, so you have to worry less about motion sickness, and trying to dodge and counter bright bouncing balls with your shield as they speed towards your head is an exciting experience. Even watching the game as you figuratively wait in line for your turn is interesting. You, and whoever else is on deck to play next, loom over the match in progress. From your perspective, you see a tiny version of Sparc being played in front of you. From the players’ perspective, giants are watching you play. The spectator aspect is weird and initially unsettling, but it does a good job incentivizing you to leave your headset on while you wait. (Please visit the site to view this media) Sparc only has a few modes, placing a lot of value on its base game. That’s a risky bet, but not an entirely unfounded one. Of its three online modes, I could only regularly find matches in the novice mode. For the advanced play, and the experimental mode that changes gameplay elements like the shape of the arena, it took much longer. To get into these, I would take off the VR headset and angle it in such a way that it was still recognized by the camera, sit to the side, and wait until someone else entered the room. This could the product of few VR players out in the world, but with little incentive to play the other modes, like more experience or money, I’m sure many felt the same way I did: Why leave the crowded room to try the different rooms without a compelling reason? The admittedly small, early online community is very cordial. Something about being in a physical space together meant every round ended with a genuine, “Good game!” which goes a long way to making Sparc an inviting online space. Every clothing option is unlocked from the beginning, meaning I never saw the same custom character. You don’t have a level you watch grow as you play, which is both good and bad; none of the customization options feel arbitrarily withheld, but the reasons to keep playing outside of simply enjoying the base game are few, which can only take you so far. The act of bouncing a ball back and forth against an opponent in a virtual space, the main hook of Sparc, is fun and it works well. After overcoming my initial shortcomings of accurately being able to throw a digital ball, I quickly began to enjoy Sparc and even work up a small sweat. Beyond the basic fun of the main game, however, there just isn’t much here. View the full article
  11. Having the Hot Shots Golf series (as it used to be known as in North America) on PS4 is undeniably great. I was hoping that since the game isn't tied to a platform launch like it normally is, developer Clap Hanz would be able to stretch out and offer more than the normal collection of courses and unlockable opponents. That's the intent of Everybody's Golf, with its online courses and hub world you can wander around. However, the disjointed implementation of those plans is where the game trips up. Despite having various modes available as separate destinations from the hub world (including career, online play, and Open Courses), no one mode satisfies. Career mode is the usual gauntlet of beating characters in order, but the path is marred by the slim offering of only five courses out of the box. You are left with too much grinding on the same courses and holes, even with different parameters added like small/large holes and penalties for going into the rough. These same courses are available in the online Open Courses sections. Here everyone runs around in the environment and posts scores on leaderboards, but they aren't directly playing each other (for that, you have to go to a specific competitive online section), although you can see players and communicate with them. You can fish, swim, and find special items and currency in the Open Courses. However, these activities are not that interesting, largely because you've been on these courses a ton already. (Please visit the site to view this media) To play directly against other players online (standard local multiplayer is also an option) at launch, you only have two options: creating/finding a stroke play lobby or heading to the Turf War mode. Turf War is fun; your team has a limited amount of time to score better on select holes than the other team to claim the hole. The problem is the matchmaking can be uneven, since a team with more players has an advantage. Even worse, you get no reward for winning – another weird dead end. It would be nice if what you did in the online portions of the game helped unlock the career mode courses faster, like how many other titles preserve your progress across modes, but that's not the case. The career mode and hub world feel further isolated because both act like tutorials in that part of their function is to explain core concepts. But what are they an intro to if the online portion they ostensibly open into is underdeveloped itself? At least the three-click gameplay is reliable, and in one of the game's few positive steps forward, it uses clubs that get better the more you perform with them. With different sets to try out, I like taking a chance with ones that might be harder to golf with for the payoff of potentially better shots and the fact that I'm improving them with every outing. This franchise's attempt to step out from its own shadow is only half successful, and not because it dared to do so in the first place, but because it didn't dare enough. It also lacks a singular vision, and instead feels like a collection of parts pieced together. Sony has promised online tournaments and other additions post-launch (two DLC courses are already grayed out in the course selection screens), and an inaccessible online gate is present, but that's meaningless at this point in the game's life. Everybody's Golf is fun to play – as it always has been – but that's not enough to fulfill its own ambitions or mine. View the full article
  12. Facing Reality

    Life is a series of struggles we can't avoid. The original Life is Strange explored the concept of rewinding time to ease conflict and create different outcomes, but Life is Strange: Before the Storm is focused on reality. In this prequel, you have no special powers. You are forced to face life head-on and confront its painful plights. New developer Deck Nine uses Awake, the first of three planned episodes, to emphasize choices and emotional turmoil. Awake retains the essence of Life of Strange (with plenty of callbacks to the original), but now you play from the perspective of Chloe and see her budding friendship with Rachel Amber. The result is an episode that pulls at the heart strings despite some stumbles. Before the Storm takes place two years after the death of Chloe's father (and three years before she reconnects with Max), and she's still grieving. Her depression has taken a toll, causing her to rebel and not care much about anything or anyone. Playing as a younger Chloe is a nice change of pace, as she isn't completely the confident free-spirit she was in the original. She's still figuring herself out, and has more naivety and vulnerability that makes her more sympathetic. Rachel Amber is on the opposite end of the spectrum; she's popular, gets good grades, and has a financially stable family. The pair meet at a concert and embark on a complicated friendship, as they're both facing their own trials. This episode is a slow burn, gradually introducing you to Chloe's world. You travel to familiar places like Blackwell Academy, and to new locales like a punk club. One of my favorite aspects is seeing Blackwell students from the original game, like Victoria Chase to Nathan Prescott. However, you see younger versions that foreshadow their future. Yes, Victoria is still a stuck-up brat, but you start to see the beginnings of her concern for Nathan, while watching Nathan deal with his own difficulties from his father's influence. This episode also sets up Chloe's conflict with her mom and new boyfriend David well, providing insight into why Chloe's so angry and distraught. It also doesn't forget to show the impact Max had on her life, which was the focal point of the original game. Max is mentioned a lot to show Chloe's hurt that she moved away, and isn't there to help her through the hardest time of her life. (Please visit the site to view this media) Even with several parts that feel genuine, Chloe and Rachel Amber form their friendship at unnatural speed. They've only known each other for a day, so their interactions can feel forced. In their second time hanging out, you can already decide if you want to tell Rachel Amber if you want to be more than friends. That being said, they have some fun bonding moments, such as playing games like Two Truths and a Lie and observing people and making up stories about their lives. The most authentic part of Awake is how Chloe mourns the loss of her dad (dream sequences heighten this), and Rachel Amber's reaction to finding out some disturbing news about her father. Both girls are recognizing harsh realities together, and I felt for both of them in their anger and sadness. Without the rewind feature, you're mostly exploring and making choices. The change makes sense for the story, and I didn't mind it. Dialogue plays a larger role, and Deck Nine does a good job creating interesting interactions, such as Chloe playing D&D and allowing you to pick her moves and responses. The only new aspect that didn't entirely jive with me is Chloe's backtalk option. During certain conversations, you can talk your way out of things by being brazen. You need to pick a string of "correct" dialogue options that relate to what the person just said and goes with the tone of the conversation. Mostly, this is Chloe throwing insults and threatening people, including talking back to her principal to get out of an after-school visit and convincing a bouncer she's tough enough to enter a shady music venue. Sometimes Chloe's insults are so over-the-top, I didn't believe she could have gotten away with talking to any human like that. When it beats you over the head with Chloe's rebellious side, Awake feel disingenuous. As you explore, interacting with certain items can open up dialogue options, and Chloe can tag special places with graffiti akin to Max taking extra photos in the first game. Some areas also have obstacles that you must get past, like finding a way to steal wine or getting a jammed quarter out of a machine. These sequences never go on too long, and I enjoyed the focus on the story and characters. As this is the first episode, I can't say for sure how far-reaching the choices are, but you do have plenty of decisions, including how you treat other characters, whether to steal money, and even what clothes Chloe wears, which characters notice. I wish this episode had a few tougher choices, but hopefully future episodes have more agonizing ones with satisfying payoffs. Awake shows you a broken Chloe - someone at her lowest. Everyone hits those trying times in their lives, and what Awake does best is illustrate how much another person can make a difference in those situations. The emotional pull is strong, and the story's strength is its relatability. This first episode has me intrigued at how Chloe and Rachel Amber will make it through their distress, and it also has me rooting for them. View the full article
  13. Telltale recognizes the importance of laying narrative groundwork in its games, establishing character motivations in early episodes with an eye toward payoffs in later installments. That strategy is evident in More Than A Feeling, in which the titular Guardians have a well of competing motivations and desires established through backstories and flashbacks. That tension gives Episode Three the most emotional resonance so far, but the reoccurrence of another ancient temple, along with some technical problems, hold things back. An important new character enters the scene in the latest episode; Mantis’ first appearance in the Telltale version of the Marvel universe echoes the naïve but earnest portrayal established in the recent film treatment. Her empathic powers provide a good bit of the humor, and establish the impetus for emotional conflicts to come to a head between several of our leads. The most important of those conflicts is the backstory between Nebula and Gamora, a fraught sibling rivalry with life-and-death consequences. The flashback mission about what created the original rift between the two is fun to watch unfold, especially since we get the opportunity to see it from both perspectives. Both Gamora and Nebula have been profoundly shaped by the results of that encounter, which can also be said for most of the rest of the cast and their own personal losses. While it’s a theme we’ve seen throughout the season up to this point, the idea of losses that profoundly shape us has special significance, as the opportunity that these losses might be wiped away begins to tear the team apart. (Please visit the site to view this media) With the whole galaxy to explore, I admit to some disappointment that this story once again winds its way toward another not-so-mysterious ancient temple. It’s such a notable repetition that Rocket even jokes about the location’s tedium upon arrival. Instead of a thrilling new vista or wonder to uncover, the third episode’s finale unfolds in a space that looks remarkably like other places we’ve already visited. Meanwhile, the traits that have so far defined the season endure without much change. Facial animation and voice work combine suitably well to squeeze some genuine emotion out of the colorful alien heroes, and the writing elicits some smiles, if only rarely chuckles. Action scenes are welcome, and present some cool combat exchanges. However, they still feel stilted, especially as brief stuttering loads sometimes pause the action in crucial moments. While I’ve yet to run into any irreparable technical problems, I had to deal with a temporary progression bug in Episode Three, in which an essential conversation pop-up didn’t appear, halting my ability to move the story forward. On a subsequent reload of the sequence, the problem inexplicably resolved itself, but not before I’d spent half an hour trying to figure out what I was missing. Telltale continues to do some fun things with these familiar comic-book heroes, especially in fleshing out character backgrounds in compelling ways. More Than A Feeling wraps up the initial conflict, and lays out a new one to carry us into subsequent episodes. If this installment fails to dramatically up the tension, at least it maintains a solid storytelling pace, and fans of the galaxy’s most loveable space misfits should continue to find moments of fun. View the full article
  14. The Ys series has always captured the heart and soul of an adventurer. Throughout its nearly 30-year run, developer Nihon Falcom has complemented fun exploration with adrenaline-pumping boss battles, all starring its iconic red-headed protagonist Adol Christin. Ys VIII stays true to the franchise's core values, but those elements plays off each other wonderfully, creating an engaging gameplay loop that had me glued to the game for hours on end. Ys VIII puts exploration front and center. After a vicious monster attacks a ship transporting Adol and various others, they end up stranded on a deserted island overrun with strange creatures. To survive, Adol must gather resources, build up a base, and find a way off the island. During his journey, he can recruit fellow passengers to jobs on the base, such as a blacksmith, tailor, and gardener. Watching your headquarters grow is exciting, and it was one of my favorite parts of the experience. I loved venturing off to explore more of the island, then coming back with new materials to craft better things. The vibrant island also has mysteries to uncover, taking you to deserted pirate ships and ancient towers. Some sections of the vast landscape are blocked off until you recruit more members or obtain certain gear; special gloves let you climb vines to reach new areas, while another item allows you to breathe underwater. I enjoyed revisiting areas to obtain treasure I couldn't get before, and unlocking the new abilities for Adol keeps gameplay fresh and fun. Climbing vines adds some verticality to the experience, and battling creatures underwater is slower and methodical, making you anticipate where your opponent is going to be rather than striking where they are. Narrative beats slowly unravel as you progress. At first, your goal is merely to figure out a way off the island, but then the focus turns to discovering why all the beasts are roaming around it. The answer is more interesting than I expected, but the plot tends to drag with awkward dialogue and boring, long-winded sequences. The latter especially hits when you play as Dana, a mysterious girl Adol is connected to through his dreams. These perspective shifts often have you backtracking, and feature some of the most lackluster dialogue in the game, as conversations feel more like filler than interesting revelations about Dana's world. Part of the story also revolves around building bonds with the strangers you meet. You can get to know your fellow castaways better by completing quests and giving them gifts, which often nets you new items and improves their support skills in battle. Ys games aren't traditionally built on strong characters or story, and while Ys VIII is an improvement, these areas remain weak. That being said, I appreciated the little bonding moments and having characters with more personality, like a sassy noble to a lighthearted fisherman who add some levity to the journey. (Please visit the site to view this media) Outside of exploration, Ys VIII's bread and butter is its stellar action combat, which is fast and smooth. Specific weapons are stronger against certain creature types; selecting the right one is essential for bringing down foes. For instance, pierce weapons are strong against flying enemies, while slash ones are superior against soft-bodied creatures. At any point, you can swap to a character in your three-member party to take advantage of this. All combatants have different fighting styles, from slower powerhouse tanks to quick-jab fencers, which adds variety to fights. You also have skills and special moves to unleash, but the focus on the dodge and block mechanics is the shining star of combat. If you dodge at the right time, you can unlock a flash move, which makes you invincible for short time and slows everything down. This is key for creating openings to get the edge on enemies. Similarly, if you guard right as an enemy strikes, you unleash a flash guard, where all attacks briefly become critical hits and all damage is nullified. My most satisfying moments were when I pulled off both a flash move and flash guard in succession to wreak havoc on bosses. These big battles don't disappoint, as you go up against larger-than-life enemies and live to tell the tale. Every boss has weak points to target, so part of the fun is finding the right area to hit and recognizing their patterns. The bosses are a highlight for me, as they force you to pull out all stops and really showcase the battle system coming together at its best. Dodging, jumping, and using your skills at are opportune moments are key, and taking down these large enemies is an adrenaline rush. The only time combat frustrated me was due to controls. The dodge and block buttons are on the shoulder buttons, and if you press them both at once, you trigger your special. When you're in the heat of battle, accidentally hitting both at once is easy, wasting your special. This happened to me on more than a few occasions. Ys VIII gets its hooks in you with its progression loop; you're always making new discoveries and locating new materials to craft something better. Nihon Falcom also does its best to inject variety when it can, from battles that involve your entire village to Dana learning different fighting styles throughout the game. With a wealth of content to pursue, you always have something to do, even if it's merely fishing or cooking. On top that, Ys VIII has a lot of memorable battle moments; I only wish the story and characters held the same allure. View the full article
  15. Absolver is a strange game. It’s an adventure with few zones, several bosses, and an interesting combat system that lets you learn skills and abilities from enemies and apply them to your own fighting style. It’s filled with other players you can team up with to accomplish your adventuring goals, mentor by forming your own school, or simply pummel into the ground when you see them. While that may sound like fun, the building blocks never coalesce into anything meaningful over the scant hours offered. Absolver’s strength is its combat, which is formed via combat decks and is mainly handled with fists, kicks, and body blows. Weapons are available, but they are limited use items or special activated abilities that only last for a short duration. The concept of tying your core stats to these skills is cool, like a heavy punch gaining more damage as you increase your strength, or a flying kick getting a bonus from more dexterity. Linking together chains of abilities and switching stances to execute powerful maneuvers is the best part of the game. Learning new abilities by sparring with enemies and other players is also quite satisfying, and complements the combat systems nicely. While the excellent combat leaves lots of room for performance and features a high skill ceiling, you can muddle your way through the entire game by smashing one button if you really want. (Please visit the site to view this media) Outside of combat, the world is puzzlingly barren and small. Absolver features three core “zones” that players can explore, and although it can be tense and interesting to move through these areas with other players coming and going at will, the environments feel dull and lifeless. The enemies are incredibly bland, and the mini-bosses and boss encounters are barely different from your average humanoid fighter out in the overworld. While a few nooks and crannies have neat items, the stages are linear and generally have only a few encounters in the way of each key battle. Absolver is notably short and conspicuously compact if you’re looking for a single-player experience, and should only take you a handful of hours to barrel through even if you’re not the fastest adopter of the combat systems. You should not play this game for story, but you do have the opportunity to forge your own tale should you decide to go down that rabbit hole after completing the game for the first time. As an Absolver, you can travel the world freely and recruit other players to your cause, take on “new game plus” versions of previous encounters, and even start your own combat school. For players looking for a post-game experience and more things to do, this is a decent reason to keep playing, leveling, and tracking down those hard-to-find skills. However, I didn’t really feel especially drawn to the post-game PvP-focused content after beating my way through the campaign offerings. Sloclap’s first foray shows glimmers of brilliance in the combat and the somewhat intriguing aesthetic of masked martial artists going at it in strange lands. Even so, Absolver feels like a collection of little pieces from something larger that just never happens. It’s as if someone has set the table for a fascinating three-course meal and the appetizer is the only thing that ever comes out of the kitchen – and by the time you take your first bite, you’re being ushered out the door. This review pertains to the PC version of Absolver. Absolver is also available on PS4 View the full article
  16. Ubisoft surprised gamers when it announced not only was it working on a Mario title for the Nintendo Switch, but that it would be transporting the mustachioed plumber and friends to the turn-based battlegrounds of the tactical strategy genre. While that may sound like an ill fit for gaming’s biggest kid-friendly mascot, Kingdom Battle succeeds by not only what it cribs from the genre’s leaders, but also by what it adds to the mix. Kingdom Battle mashes up the Mario and Rabbids universes with the flimsiest of storylines. A material-merging VR headset falls into the hands of the time-traveling rabbids, who waste no time in accidentally transporting themselves to the Mushroom Kingdom, jumbling up the two worlds in the process. The onus falls on Mario to clean up the mess, along with some of his old friends, a few helpful rabbids, and a Roomba-esque robot named Beep-0, which you use to plot your moves during battle. The madcap adventure plays out across four uniquely themed worlds, each of which offers 15-plus tactical battles against “corrupted” rabbid forces. Kingdom Battle draws no shortage of inspiration from the genre-leading XCOM series, from the navigational aids and overlays that make planning your moves a breeze to some character abilities like Hero Sight, which allows Mario to snipe a moving enemy on their turn (why they didn’t call it Marioverwatch is beyond me). But Kingdom Battle is more than a kid-friendly XCOM clone. Your squad of heroes is more mobile than in most tactics games, and can perform dash attacks and head stomps while on the move to supplement their weapon attacks. Characters also have their own special abilities (including the aforementioned Hero Sight or enemy-attracting Magnet Dance), giving each of your three characters a trio of maneuvers to perform every turn. As such, each battle plays out like an intriguing optimization puzzle, as you swap back and forth between characters’ movements, weapon attacks, and abilities to set up the best team combos and maximize the damage you inflict on enemies. Additional Mario-themed elements like sewer pipes that transport you around the battlefield and chain chomps that take a bite out of the nearest character offer more wrinkles to the gameplay, and reinforce Kingdom Battle’s unique identity. Kingdom Battle offers strategy fans another attribute that XCOM can’t match: a wacky and light-hearted tone that eschews the genre’s penchant for gut-wrenching decisions, oppressive tones, and squad-wiping permadeath. This opens the door to more experimentation and risk-taking. If one of your characters gets knocked out (say, from having their butt lit on fire), you can restart the battle with no long-term repercussions. There’s plenty to experiment with – each character has a long list of weapons to unlock, as well as skill trees that you can (and will) respec before any battle. Ubisoft breaks up the endless series of tactical skirmishes with some light exploration and environmental puzzle-solving. While I enjoyed the world themes and silly predicaments you find the rabbids in, the Sokoban-style block-pushing puzzles go from too simple to simply tedious. Collecting a big string of coins and snagging a new weapon or pile of ability orbs (i.e. skill points) from a treasure chest is satisfying, but concept art, music tracks, and 3D models make up the bulk of the underwhelming rewards. While I appreciate the brief respite from combat, Kingdom Battle’s puzzles feel like filler, as does the need to backtrack through the lengthy worlds to complete the unlockable bonus missions. Kingdom Battle’s entertaining and demanding tactical combat more than makes up for the downtime. I found myself frequently switching up my party and trying new character builds, and I relished the added challenge of the numerous boss battles, from the banana-chucking Rabbid Kong to the aria-crooning Phantom. The gradual build-up in difficulty only hits a few minor bumps along the way, culminating in a satisfying final showdown and some post-game ultimate challenges that prove just how fun and flexible the combat system is. A two-player co-op mode rounds out the impressive package, offering up an enjoyable but minor diversion from the main campaign. I was as skeptical as anyone when I heard the words “Mario” and “XCOM” uttered in the same sentence, but Kingdom Battle didn’t just prove me wrong – it ended up being my favorite Mario game in recent years. Nintendo and Ubisoft took a big risk working together outside their comfort zones, and that risk paid off. (Please visit the site to view this media) View the full article
  17. Firaxis’ alien-blasting strategy game is so finely balanced that if the developer pushed too hard on any of its systems the whole game could completely break. This existing complexity makes XCOM 2’s War of the Chosen expansion feel like a magic trick, because Firaxis adds nearly a game’s worth of new content into the existing framework without compromising any of its mechanics. XCOM’s strategy has never been richer. Like Firaxis’ previous expansions, War of the Chosen weaves an extensive number of fresh ideas into the base game. With no new campaign, players must start a new game that features all of XCOM 2’s content up to this point. However, given XCOM’s procedurally generated nature, I never felt like I was replaying the same missions from last year’s release. On the contrary, within the first hour of War of the Chosen, I had already encountered new environments, faced off against a variety of unique aliens, and eagerly deployed new combat units onto the battlefield. One of the most noticeable additions to War of the Chosen are the titular Chosen. These three new individual aliens have unique personalities and powers. You encounter these Chosen at random several times throughout your journey, but each encounter plays out differently because the Chosen learn from your encounters and gain new skills over time. XCOM’s aliens have always been imposing, but the Chosen are so overpowered that you need to pull out all the stops to take them down. I developed a special hatred for each Chosen, and my journey to end their tyranny felt personal in a way that I’ve never experienced playing XCOM before. (Please visit the site to view this media) The Chosen aren’t the only new aliens in War of the Chosen. This expansion introduces a new class of enemy called the Lost. These stumbling corpses are basically zombies, and they attack indiscriminately in hordes. Every time you kill a Lost you gain a free action, so you can attack multiple times, and I had a lot of fun picking them off in packs. It’s also easy to burn through ammo when fighting these leaderless masses, which means you can get overwhelmed if your clip runs dry. Ultimately, I loved the extra element of chaos the Lost brought to each encounter. Since the Lost also attack other enemies, sometimes it’s beneficial to keep them alive on the chance that they help you cut through more menacing aliens. The new aliens add a few wrinkles to XCOM’s combat. Fortunately, War of the Chosen gives you access to several new soldier classes that expand your strategic options to compensate for these new threats. These new classes come from three new resistance groups you can befriend and share resources with. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses. Reapers are incredibly stealthy marksman who have a chance to attack without revealing themselves to enemies, Templars are psionic powerhouses who grow stronger after each kill, and Skirmishers are alien/human hybrids who specialize in close-quarters combat. All three units are wildly different from XCOM’s other classes, and each is so useful that I wanted to bring them on every mission. Unfortunately, you can only recruit new units by running missions with their faction leader, which makes them hard to replace if you lose one in battle. War of the Chosen contains so much new content that it could almost have been called XCOM 3. Every mission dishes out a new enemy, mission type, or environment, which allows the game to remain fresh for several dozen hours. War of the Chosen’s wealth of interwoven systems might overwhelm newcomers, but strategy nerds willing to master the nuances will be treated to one of the most rewarding strategy games in years. I don’t know how Firaxis could make a more complex yet gratifying strategy game, but I can’t wait to see them try. View the full article
  18. Almost everyone has heard of history's amazing prison escapes, like Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin fleeing from the world-famous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in 1962. The men spent six months preparing, and used everything from papier-mâché dummy heads left in beds to raincoats stitched together into a lifeboat. The Escapists 2 gives you the same types of tools to escape a variety of themed confines, but also shares the tedium of working slowly toward an elusive goal. The improvements over the previous game are plentiful and novel, but the frequent loss of progress and lack of manual saves stifles experimentation. The most notable change The Escapists 2 delivers is a wider variety of confines to escape, from Wild West holding cells to futuristic space prisons. These environments are much larger and enhanced by the much-improved visuals. Formerly stark prisons now have plenty of wall decorations and items on desks, and even the pixel-art figures have evolved and are properly shaded. The Escapists 2 doesn't lack things to do. As you'd expect in a prison, you must plan your escape while adhering to a daily routine of eating, exercising, roll call, and working. You curry favor with inmates via quests, pilfer items from those same cohabitants, beat people up, steal keys from guards, craft a variety of makeshift weaponry, and crawl through ventilation ducts. Get caught by the guards? You'll get put in the infirmary or solitary and – most importantly – lose any contraband you have on you at the time. This is my number one frustration, as any mistake puts you back much closer to square one. Any contraband you've hidden in your desk remains, but the on-hand keys, equipment, and weaponry you spent your time crafting are gone, and it's not quick or easy to regain. It wouldn't be so frustrating if the game allowed for manual saves, but the individual levels are tied to their online leaderboards and autosave every few seconds. I wish I could have turned this off for local play. (Please visit the site to view this media) One particularly irritating moment didn't even involve me getting caught by the guards. I was ready to escape with all of my gear on hand and a dummy sitting in my cell. I used my makeshift ladder to access a vent that would get me to where I needed to be, and while going through menus to grab my cutter, I accidentally hit up on the PS4's directional pad ­­­– the surrender button. My character fell to the ground immediately because there was no confirmation for this action. All of my carefully planned progress was lost in a split second. The streamlined transportation prisons don't run into these challenges, and were by far my favorite thanks to their more defined goals. Execution was everything, and failure didn't cause huge setbacks. Building a makeshift carrot on a train to coax a nearby horse was both charming and rewarding. The new multiplayer is a nice touch, especially as it's available as both co-op and versus for up to four players. Co-op mirrors the standard game, where other players can distract guards or help you find materials, while versus opens up the prison, makes inmates sell things to you for free, and removes the routine. The first to escape is the winner. This makes the experience different and more rewarding; I enjoyed versus the most because all of the tedious constraints were gone. For that same reason, though, it doesn't have much staying power. When you find the right offbeat item, or barely squeak by a guard in Escapists 2, it's incredibly refreshing. However, the monotony of gathering items and playing errand runner for other inmates sours the experience, and the awkward controls don't help. For those who crave unforgiving challenges, the Escapists 2 brings them in spades, but it often comes at the cost of your patience. View the full article
  19. Sega started the year off with a wonderful surprise in the form of Yakuza 0. The series has been around for a decade, but that prequel entry held the door open for new players who hadn’t yet been admitted to the club. I was among those new players and, like many, I was excited to continue following the adventures of Kazuma Kiryu and company. Yakuza Kiwami makes it simple. It’s a PS4 remake of the PS2 original, and a direct successor to Yakuza 0 – both in presentation and narrative. It’s mostly more of the same great game, though it’s noticeably stifled by being bound to a 10-year-old release. The series has been compared to Grand Theft Auto, but it’s more like an open-world RPG/brawler. Rather than focus on driving around and causing mayhem, your character wanders the streets of a fictionalized Tokyo district, battling bad guys and enhancing his arcade-inspired fighting abilities. Yakuza Kiwami’s story begins several years after the events of Yakuza 0, with Kiryu now a respected player in Japan’s criminal underworld. He gets caught up in a murder and ends up serving 10 years in prison. After his release (and a merciful time skip), he has to unravel a mystery involving murder and the theft of 10 billion yen. It’s melodramatic stuff that teeters on the edge of being needlessly complicated, but the cast of menacing thugs and honorable criminals kept me from being tempted to skip the lengthy cutscenes. While the campaign veers toward being self-serious, it’s a hard turn from the side missions. These optional diversions make up the bulk of the long running time, and they primarily focus on helping citizens by giving them items or offering some form of protection. Most of these feel like relics of the original release, and they don’t often expand the formula in any interesting ways like some of Yakuza 0’s did with weird trivia or one-off stealth sequences. I understand this is a remake of a decade-old game, but that doesn’t make the repetitive side missions any easier to stomach. Minigames including darts, pool, and skill-crane challenges are back, and they’re a nice break from all the fetching and fighting. (Please visit the site to view this media) Sega added some new activities that weren’t in the original release, including the return of Yakuza 0’s pocket racers and a bug-battling arcade game, each of which includes a multi-stage quest chain. I enjoyed catching up with Pocket Circuit Fighter and the crew of kid racers, and even though they’re clearly getting older, they still enjoy racing the customizable toys. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about MesuKing: Battle Bug Beauties. This card game is a dead-simple rock-paper-scissors challenge, with the main attraction being that you watch women in skimpy insect-inspired costumes grapple and writhe around. It’s creepier than a bucket of centipedes, and absolutely no fun at all. The biggest addition is the inclusion of the new Majima Everywhere system. You can’t play as Goro Majima in Yakuza Kiwami, but he does play a newly elevated role. Kiryu got a little soft during his time in prison, according to Majima, and the character wants to help Kiryu get his mojo back. He helps by challenging Kiryu to random battles in the world. These encounters can be as simple as running into Majima, or getting jumped in the middle of another battle. He also pops out from under manhole covers and a variety of strange disguises. Each battle rewards you with experience to upgrade your abilities, as well as a chance to unlock moves in your special dragon style of combat. Combat is simple and satisfying, with over-the-top animations that add weight to the brawling action. Majima’s transformation from Yakuza 0’s stoic nightclub manager to the so-called Mad Dog of Shimano is jarring, and there isn’t any connective tissue that explains it in any satisfying way. That’s largely a criticism of Yakuza 0, but a new explanatory cutscene or two would have gone a long way. I learned to tolerate his oddball Joker-meets-Jar Jar persona, however, possibly because most of our encounters ended up with me smashing a bicycle over his back. I had a lot of fun with Yakuza Kiwami, but it occupies a strange place. I commend Sega for the extra lengths it took with the remake – including replacing the Western actors from the original release with all-new dialogue from the Japanese actors – but feels like a relic at times. The game’s overall scale is still impressively large, but there’s only one main area to explore. Visiting the first entry, enhanced as it is, certainly gave me a greater appreciation for the strides that the series made later. That’s probably not what Sega was hoping for here, but it’s unavoidable considering the close proximity to Yakuza 0’s release. View the full article
  20. Fans are sometimes confused by the players NFL teams draft. Players are taken at positions the team is already strong at, while weaknesses are seemingly ignored. Fans deem some players a reach, and don't understand why their favorites weren't drafted. A coherent philosophy is not always apparent from the outside looking in. Madden NFL 18 produces a similar reaction. It plays to its competitive/hardcore side seemingly at the expense of its career-focused Connected Franchise mode (CFM), and its Longshot story mode is an entirely different kind of experience. But Madden 18 can't easily be characterized by what's on the back of the box. Underneath what seems like a collection of thrown-together or even uninteresting features is a good game whose rewards are less readily apparent. The Longshot story exemplifies this situation. This four-hour mode follows college dropout Devin Wade's attempt to get into the NFL. The story is more about provoking feelings about Devin, the Texas football environment he grew up in, and the friends that helped him along the way than it is about player freedom, skill-based gameplay, and making sure all your choices are precisely reflected in a particular ending. Gameplay consists of quick-time events (including dialog options), Devin playing QB in the normal Madden style, and some minigames. However, the excitement comes not from the gameplay, but from understanding Devin's mindset and making decisions that feel true in tense situations. By that measure, it's a success. While Longshot is an experience everyone can relate to, Madden 18's overall bent toward competitive players and Ultimate Team mode lurches the game in an entirely different direction. The grind for cards that is Ultimate Team gets even more onion layers through a leveling system, player upgrades, and team tokens. Earning more stuff to apply may sound appealing, but these additions are just more gates that contribute to the mode's already brutal grind. These don't interfere with the beginning stages of the mode, but they create card inflation. For diehard MUT players this extends the experience, but for me it's more bloat. Ultimate Team gets even more competitive through 3v3 co-op MUT Squads. Its team-based play requires the coordination of seasoned players who can run a pass route and stay focused on their roles. Get two user-controlled receivers in a bunch formation, however, and things can get sloppy. The mode has its moments when everyone contributes, but even on a good play, you're often isolated on the field or arriving late to the action (although the player switching is good), limiting its appeal. MUT Squads may not always be engrossing, but you can still reap the benefits of one of its features: the new wide receiver vs. defensive back chess match mechanics where WRs and DBs use the right analog stick to get better positioning on each other. Similarly, competitive players will love playing with the target-passing QB mechanic to place the ball where only the receiver can catch it. These are features that most people won't use, but they have value. I didn't use target passing much because keeping track of the extra cursor isn't easy, but I was elated when I threw a pinpoint bomb to the sideline. When I disrupted a WR's route long enough to cause a coverage sack while playing defensive back, I felt like I was standing on my own Revis Island. The value of these features isn't measured in the total time you use them, but in the enjoyment you get and their usefulness, so give them a try. Another thing that both hardcore and casual players can savor is the feel of the running game. It controls smoothly with just the left analog stick, and from there you can add jukes and spins, which have extra importance. Overall the game has more big runs and crushing hits than last year, particularly in the optional competitive play style. Madden 18 exhibits a split nature in other ways. The Frostbite engine adds great detail and a color warmth, but the framerate stutters. The offensive line does a great job getting to the second level and opening up more visible running lanes, but magnet tackles still rule behind the line of scrimmage. More QB incompletions occur, but some beggar belief, such as when your QB plants his feet and misses a wide-open receiver by a mile just because a defender was closing your pocket. The commentary includes added lines tying in the situational context of the game, but some of the info mentioned is wrong. As for CFM, it has its own contradiction. The mode is largely the same, but its stasis feels different because with more short and mid-length injuries, team depth is paramount. This puts a renewed importance on your scouting, drafting (which now lets you create a custom draft board), and free agency even though these areas need overhauls to import more NFL drama, user options like more complex contracts, and an expanded coaching staff to reflect the importance of a good team structure. The tweak to injuries is not the complete rejuvenation I wanted, but it provides a spark nevertheless. Madden 18 is missing a host of fixes, wishlist staples, and improvements, but it doesn't have to appease to have worth. It captures the joy that I find in playing video game football even after all these years. That's not just a love of the sport with a license slapped on it; it's the continuing refinement of gameplay and modes that still has the ability to surprise and excite. For more on the Longshot story mode, check out my primer and take a look at it in action. Also read my guide on Madden 18's Target Passing. View the full article
  21. Nathan Drake’s days of adventuring are over. As we watched him hang up his holster and rope to begin a new chapter in his life, Naughty Dog’s scribes doubled down on the message of “it’s over.” Video game protagonists rarely walk off into the sunset, but Drake’s farewell is as definitive as they come. Naughty Dog wrote Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End as a conclusion to Drake’s story, and it ended on a poetic and satisfying note. To bring him back in starring role would be foolish. It really is over. Is Drake’s name synonymous with Uncharted? He’s wonderfully charismatic and endearing, but we now know he isn’t the lifeblood of it. The Lost Legacy is every bit as riveting and accomplished as any Uncharted title. We learn that the heart of the adventure trumps everything else, and can extend to any character. Chloe Frazer fits into the starring role admirably, but never once is written in a way where you feel she is replacing or replicating Drake. She’s just as playful, but she’s wired differently; she’s more than the untrustworthy hustler we briefly got acquainted with in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Figuring out who she is takes time in The Lost Legacy, partially because she’s incredibly guarded, but also because you are getting to know her in the midst of an adventure. Chloe is nearing the end of a heist she organized with Nadine Ross, the former paramilitary boss turned treasure seeker from Uncharted 4, who is in many ways the polar opposite of Chloe, pragmatic and fixated on results. We are left wondering why they are together for a little too long, but satisfying answers eventually arrive. As the confusion melts away, Chloe and Nadine settle into a nice (yet somewhat turbulent) groove, and end up being a fascinating duo to track. They’re funny, terse, and wonderfully unpredictable in both their actions and words – their chemistry works even as they frequently butt heads. Chloe and Nadine are in hot pursuit of the Golden Tusk of Ganesh, which they believe is located in the long-lost ruins of the Hoysala Empire located in India’s Western Ghats, another part of the world Naughty Dog turns into a scenic work of art for players to explore. The duo are soon at odds with an insurgent rebel leader named Asav, who initially appears to be just another madman who loves treasure, but is later revealed to be far more dangerous and cunning than anticipated. Asav moves the narrative needle just as much as the heroes, and the story soars from the uncertainty of his actions. I just wish Naughty Dog wouldn’t have felt the need to reference the Drakes so often – a distraction that frequently entertains and can be interesting, but is placed more in the spotlight than is needed and diminishes Chloe and Nadine’s ownership of the adventure. The Lost Legacy was originally intended to be a bonus episode for Uncharted 4, but ends up being a legitimate sequel that is every bit as fully featured as any of Drake’s adventures – it’s just a little shorter. I would never say any of the Uncharted games are too long – they always leave me wanting more – but this new entry demonstrates brevity works just as well, as the journey feels more urgent and streamlined. The Lost Legacy’s gameplay is a direct continuation of Uncharted 4, hanging its hat firmly on the same grapple hook, stealth, and open-world exploration Drake used. Outside of a lock-pick mechanic – which can deliver high intensity when used in areas where enemies are on patrol – Naughty Dog doesn’t introduce much that can be classified as “new.” As I worked my way across India’s lost ruins and gorgeous jungles, I never felt the gameplay needed a shot of something different. The spectacle is always so huge, and the next discovery is always so enticing that I didn’t think about the actions that got me there – other than they are fun and reliable. (Please visit the site to view this media) Although the gameplay mechanics fit like a well-worn glove, Naughty Dog still has a few tricks up its sleeves. The puzzle contraptions that were invented to hide the Golden Tusk of Ganesh are challenging, clever, and again all about spectacle. Two of these puzzles rank among my favorites in the series – one dealing with platforms and swinging axes, and another that uses silhouettes in a fascinating way. I’d even say these slower gameplay moments are more impressive than the series’ signature setpieces, where everything explodes and collapses. Yes, Lost Legacy has plenty of that, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Given just how fully featured this adventure is, Lost Legacy could have easily been Uncharted 5. Where Naughty Dog goes next is anyone’s guess, but I would love to see Chloe and Nadine return for another hunt, as they’re every bit as engaging as the Drake family. They make a hell of a team. Multiplayer Worth Your Time The Lost Legacy comes packaged with all of Uncharted 4’s multiplayer content, along with a fun cooperative Survival mode for up to three players. People jumping into The Lost Legacy’s multiplayer join the existing base of Uncharted 4 players. The release of Lost Legacy brings a few additions, including a new Survival Arena mode, featuring 10 waves of combat, some ending with warlord boss fights. You’ll also find Asav as a playable character. New skins are included for Lost Legacy’s notable players. I enjoyed Uncharted 4’s multiplayer thoroughly for its combination of run-and-gun and traversal mechanics. This is yet another chance to see just how fun it can be. View the full article
  22. The premiere episode of Minecraft: Story Mode's new season faced pacing issues, but it effectively set up the rest of the season with an interesting antagonist that rivaled the Wither Storm from the first season. With that in mind, I looked ahead with curiosity on where the next entry would take Jesse and friends, and this episode delivers on the promise of a threatening big bad, and the improved pacing makes Minecraft: Story Mode's aging formula as enjoyable as it's ever been. By now, veteran players of Telltale's episodic adventures know what to expect; each episode presents you with a series of scenes that have you complete quick-time events, choose dialogue, and solve exploration-based puzzles. Along the way, your choices loosely influence the way the story plays out. Minecraft: Story Mode is no different. Giant Consequences is light on combat, but it makes up for it with lots of quick-time events to capitalize on big set-pieces and a fun shooting-gallery mini-game. Early on, you face off against a massive creature controlled by the Admin, a seemingly omnipotent creature who is said to have built the world that Jesse inhabits. The scale of this encounter is reminiscent of the climax of season one, and the banter between Jesse and the Admin is entertaining. Hearing the Admin recite parts of Jesse's adventures from the first season is a sobering reminder of just how powerful he is. (Please visit the site to view this media) Though I was unsure of Jesse's new party of adventurers for season two, I warmed up to most of them throughout this episode. The delusional wannabe-rival character Stella still irks me, but she's supposed to. Characters like the gruff Jack and the underdog Radar grew on me as their arcs matured and their charm shined through. I liked watching the constantly doubted Radar overcome his fears to try and prove the naysayers wrong. And while I don't want to spoil anything, I enjoyed a couple of the characters deliver some fun reveals near the end of this episode. The first episode of this season introduced improved combat that added new elements like dodge-rolls and a stamina bar, as well as a new way to craft entire structures using the resources in your inventory on a grid-based platform. I was delighted not only to see the structure I built in the first episode reappear in Giant Consequences, but also the opportunity to build a new structure that I hope will make an appearance in a future episode. By allowing players to flex their creativity in new ways, Telltale is giving its Minecraft series more of what made the masses fall in love with that property in the first place, and helping to further differentiate it from its plethora of other licensed series. With a breakneck pace and action-packed events, the sophomore episode of season two has me hoping that the series can carry this momentum forward. Though I'm anticipating the typical Telltale pattern where all your choices end up not making much of a difference at the season's conclusion, I'm at least enjoying the ride to that point. View the full article
  23. In many ways, Agents of Mayhem feels like a child smashing action figures together and making explosion sound effects. On one hand (the one holding the bad guy), the game is a shallow rumination on good versus evil. On the other hand (the one holding the hero), it’s silly in all the right ways that make it entertaining and fun to play. The imprint of developer Volition’s previous series, Saint’s Row, is impossible to ignore. Both are open-world games with over-the top characters and explosive action, but despite that heritage, Agents of Mayhem finds an identity of its own thanks to the memorable characters, even if the action is familiar. Agents of Mayhem is an open-world game with all the familiar trappings of the genre. You can steal cars and drive them around with reckless abandon, tackle sidequests littered across the map, and shoot your way into and out of trouble on your mission to disrupt the bad guys’ plans. It sets itself apart from other open-world games in a few ways, however. Seoul is small, meaning you never have to drive far to get in trouble, and the car you can instantly call in at any time is always far superior than anything you can find in the wild. You also switch among a cast of unlockable playable characters each with distinct abilities and playstyles. Volition once described Agents of Mayhem as being similar to a Saturday-morning cartoon like G.I. Joe, and the comparison is apt. All major cutscenes are animated like an ‘80s cartoon, which helps. Each of the 12 playable characters, the assorted support and side characters, and all the villains are completely different. They look like they were designed to be action figures from the start, except they have no qualms with profanity and cheer when a particularly troublesome bad guy gets his head violently blown off. The characters are juvenile, and they are participating in an immature story, but they’re well-realized and I like them for different reasons – like Daisy’s drunken disdain for authority, or Rama’s mission to save her homeland from a seemingly unstoppable disease. Some characters are serious, but most are goofy weirdos, and I like spending time with all of them. Beyond their unique personalities, each playable character feels different and uses different weapons. I quickly gravitated toward Fortune with her fast movement and awesome jumping animations, but you can also forgo guns entirely and use a character like the melee-focused Scheherazade, or use both. You take three Agents with you to most missions, which lets you experiment while still keeping your favorites in rotation. The shooting (explosive barrels are everywhere), driving (ramps are easy to find), and jumping feel great, making each agent a super hero in their own way, but I did run into physics hiccups occasionally. Some actions feel too slow, like switching between your three characters or using a special ability, leading to the occasional unfair death. (Please visit the site to view this media) The futuristic version of Seoul which serves as the setting for all the action is bland with few memorable locations. It hampers the experience as an open-world game, but its variety of missions makes up for it. Agents of Mayhem is an underwhelming open-world game, but it’s a great action game. The story is stupid, but I mean that in a complimentary way. Agents of Mayhem thinks it’s funnier than it is, but its lighthearted atmosphere and goofy characters make the hundred jokes that flop forgivable when you do run into one that hits and makes you chuckle. I wasn’t so much engaged in trying to uncover everyone’s motivation and stop the bad guys as much as I was eager to see the new character interactions and perform the next bizarre task. One boss fight, for example, has you trying to hack the autotune software of an evil popstar between bouts of gunfire so his fans hear his true voice and turn on him. Even the optional side missions introducing the new playable characters are weird and fun. To unlock Daisy I had to retrace the steps of her bender from the night before to figure out how and why she drunkenly entered a robot-fighting tournament and tried to steal art from a collector. Every character, even the ones you aren’t using, level up at a steady clip earning new abilities you can apply any time you want – handy when you bring in a new character, but forget to upgrade them before leaving. You can also send unused agents out on missions to earn money and rewards in the background and level up broader abilities affecting everyone, like faster cooldowns and experience multipliers. The result is an excellent pace of rewards for nearly every action that make the characters stronger and offer more options to customize them to your personal playstyle. Agents of Mayhem is cheesy, rarely funny, and generally ridiculous, but I was eager to play for long periods of time. The action is frenetic and fun, with room for strategy using all the characters’ assorted abilities. Even if Seoul ends up being a bland backdrop, I enjoyed being in the world and causing explosions in at every opportunity. View the full article
  24. Housemarque has made its named developing fast-paced arcade shooters like Super Stardust, Resogun, and Nex Machina. These games delight in colorful explosions, velocity, and thumping soundtracks. The developer’s latest, Matterfall, has all those qualities, but also stands apart from the pack with its interesting combination of twin-stick shooting and platforming. Matterfall’s story barely exists. You play an exosuit wearing, jump-jet using freelancer tasked with clearing a planet of a hostile alien presence and rescuing civilians. The straightforward levels have you moving from one end to the next, blasting enemies while dashing through checkpoints and jumping across moving platforms. You have a variety of abilities at your disposal, including an arm cannon, a dash attack that lets you phase through bullets and stun enemies, and augmentation slots that let you equip secondary weapons and mutators. The game controls well, giving you a lot of mobility when it comes to dodging enemies and threading the needle during platforming sections, though occasionally I noticed that my freelancer would shoot upward when I meant for them to dash right. This was rare enough that it wasn’t ever a huge issue. The augmentation slots are Matterfall’s greatest strength. Rescuing civilians lets you access more augmentations, and you can have three of them going at any time. Some of them are weapons with a small cooldown, such as a shotgun or railgun, while others give you buffs, like increasing the chance of a powerful bomb you can use against enemies appearing or making your dash capable of dealing light damage to foes. The ability to swap augmentations out on the fly is useful; while a grenade launcher might not save you as swarms of enemies encircle you, a blast from your shotgun could eliminate enough of them to give you an opening to dash through and escape. Every kill you get and civilian you rescue contributes to a score tracker. The longer you stay undamaged, the more your combo multiplier builds. You don’t earn any unlockables with a higher score, but a strong sense of satisfaction comes from seeing your score climb as you deftly move throughout the world like some ballerina of death – if you’ve got the skill. Matterfall is one of the hardest action games I’ve played this year. Later stages border on being cruelly unfair, but the arsenal of tools you have at your disposal gives you enough tactical options to survive. At its best, Matterfall is great at making you feel a surprising amount of tension as you fend off countless enemies surging toward you with speed and elegant maneuvers. You never have much time to strategize so every encounter is about your intuition and the rapidness of your physical response to plans you’re making on the spot. I often felt like I had gotten away with some great, exhilarating crime by just surviving an encounter. However, the flip side of this is that the game devolves into cheap death after cheap death in rough sections toward the end due to the demand that you master both platforming and stick shooting at the same time. I was more thrilled than annoyed by the challenge, but the difficulty spikes can prove tiresome in the last hour. The campaign is on the short side, but enough secrets are scattered throughout every level that it’s worth replaying, especially if you’re someone who loves pursuing the top spot on online scoreboard. Even if you’re not into competition, it’s unlikely you’ll unlock all your augmentations on your first run, so it’s fun to dive back in and hunt down the rest of them and mix and match them with your subweapons. Matterfall’s brand of action is simple but refined, producing many doses of adrenaline as you survive overwhelming odds again and again. The shooting is satisfying, and zipping across stages while blasting foes is a great, dumb time. For those who like their action simple but visually pleasing and challenging, Matterfall is an easy recommendation. View the full article
  25. If The Long Dark teaches you one thing, it’s that the wilderness is terrifying but beautiful. Danger lurks around every corner, and you can succumb to death in even the calmest moments. With its hyper-realistic mechanics, this difficult-but-satisfying survival game plunges you into the depths of a harsh Canadian winter. The Long Dark is about managing your time and resources, which makes for a tense trek across a beautiful, snow-blanketed wilderness known as the Great Bear. Every action has consequences – even sleeping. To survive, you need to keep a keen eye on your body temperature, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. Whenever one of these drops too low, you become at risk for hypothermia, illness, and even death. You micromanage every detail, which is overwhelming when learning the ropes, but enjoyable in the long run once you establish a rhythm. Your overall goal depends on which mode you’re playing, but you’re primarily trying to stay alive with whatever resources you can find by searching, crafting, and hunting. With its three modes (story, survival, and challenge), The Long Dark offers several ways to approach the wilderness. Story mode tells a unique narrative that also acts as a tutorial, survival mode is an open-ended sandbox where you try to stay alive as long as possible, and challenge gives you specific quests to complete. Story mode, known as Wintermute, is a good point of entry for new players since it teaches you how to survive along the way, but it comes with a host of problems. You play as a pilot whose plane crashed due to a mysterious storm. In the aftermath, you must search for your estranged wife and learn how to survive the cold. Having quest objectives gives the experience a focus, but the story isn’t engaging. Your wife never gets enough screen time before she disappears in order for you to form a connection, and this didn’t give me much motivation to continue. However, since story mode is told in an episodic format with two episodes currently released and three more on the way, there's a chance for the tale to improve. (Please visit the site to view this media) The NPCs you meet during story mode don’t feel like fleshed out characters, but instead act as guides for tutorials to teach you how to survive. But even as tutorials, these are integrated poorly. For example, when helping an old lady stock up food for the winter, I had to starve myself in the process. It was a long, laborious, and frustrating quest as I attempted to find enough food for the both of us. Other times, I found myself learning things better through trial-and-error rather than through a quest, such as finding natural plant remedies on my own. The survival mode is most fun on higher difficulties where you face not just the treacherous cold but also wild beasts. I found the challenge mode the most engaging, where you’re tasked with specific goals, such as trying to reach different locations before dying, or going face-to-face in a fight with a grizzly bear. The locales you explore are detailed and the abandoned homes you ransack feel like they were once lived in, with empty soda cans scrunched on a table or beds half-made. I enjoyed making my way through these areas, and reading notes from people that used to live there. The wilderness itself is beautiful, with sunsets glowing a deep orange and a dizzying view of stars in the night. How easily you can fall ill or get injured makes for a realistically tense experience. Failing to boil water before drinking it can poison you, and a wolf attack can kill you if you don’t tend to your wounds quickly enough. Time management is key as you try to feed and take care of yourself in the daytime hours, whereas nighttime becomes incredibly dangerous. Lighting resources are scarce, and fuel for lanterns or flare shells for a flare gun are even scarcer. Even building a fire can take several tries, which adds to the realism but isn’t entertaining. The amount of detail is astounding and it adds depth to the experience, but it can also be more frustrating than fun. Tripping while descending a cliff’s edge can injure you even if you’re careful, and accidentally walking into a campfire leaves you with burns. Save points are rare, happening only during checkpoint story moments or when you sleep. Dying can mean redoing much of the work or exploring that had already been completed. Unfortunately, my experience was also plagued by crashes that hindered steady progression. With its stellar survival mechanics, The Long Dark makes for a brutal experience that requires patience and micromanaging to fully appreciate. However, it’s brought down by some bugs and a story mode that leaves much to be desired. It’s nonetheless a satisfying test of survival in a gorgeous setting – as long as you can brave the frigid cold. View the full article