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Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled Review In Progress - Bringing Jorts Back

Fri, 06/21/2019 - 14:00

The monetization of nostalgia is nothing new, but the process seems to have accelerated in this current generation of consoles. HD remasters and "built-from-the-ground-up" remakes litter store shelves, and we're invariably delighted to lap up these colorful reminders of our gaming past. Occasionally, these are cynical ways to mine our memories for cash, but other times they give old gems the polish they need to shine once again. Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is, happily, the latter, and thanks to modern updates in the right places it feels as good today as the original did 20 years ago.

There was a danger Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled would show its 1999 progenitor up to be a dated game best left in the past. Instead, developer Beenox has proved how impressive and durable Naughty Dog's original work was while also tweaking it in the right ways. The original game's list of 18 tracks has been expanded upon with 13 more from its sequel, Crash Nitro Kart, and these provide an extended list of topographically and visually distinct circuits, from underwater tunnels to ice caves to desert pyramids. Those visuals have of course also been given a facelift, and while no track looks bad, some look especially stunning. Coco Park has gorgeous pink flowers strewn across the road, for example, while Tiger Temple looks like it was taken directly from Uncharted 4 and Electron Avenue feels like racing through Blade Runner's vision of Los Angeles.

The handling takes a bit of getting used to, mind you. For anyone who's played any amount of Mario Kart, for example, over the past few years, Crash Team Racing's power slides will feel decidedly alien, at times too sensitive and at others not sensitive enough--and this leads to quite a few missed crates or headlong collisions with stationary objects. However, once you reacquaint yourself with the mechanic--which requires you to hold one bumper down to drift and press the other bumper with the correct timing to gain a boost--it reveals itself to be of greater depth than comparable turning methods in other kart racers. You can chain these boosts for even faster acceleration (but at the risk of spinning out), so while it's harder to get to grips with, Crash Team Racing's power sliding nets bigger rewards for those willing to dance with the drifting devil.

Nitro-Fueled's array of power-ups are the other obstacles in your path to the finish line. They are derivative of Mario Kart's selection--Crash's green beakers are Mario's bananas, Crash's Aku Aku and Uka Uka are Mario's Super Star, and so on--but, again, Crash Team Racing provides an interesting twist. Collecting Wumpa Fruit both speeds you up and turbocharges your power-ups. Green beakers transform into the more deadly red beakers, TNTs--which can be shaken off--become the instantly detonating Nitros, and so on. When the power-ups, boost pads, and handling combine, Nitro-Fueled boasts an exhilarating sense of speed.

These power-ups do, however, occasionally become frustrating during CTR's Adventure mode, which tasks you with coming first in every single race across the original game's tracklist, in addition to some optional challenges like beating certain times or collecting a certain number of crystals. Winning on every track is certainly manageable, barring a couple of trickier races, until you reach the boss fights, which feel a little unfair as bosses are quicker than any playable character and boast unlimited power-ups. Over time, after yet another run ruined by yet another bomb, it's enough to make you want to turn off Adventure--though perhaps just until you're back to craving that triumphant adrenaline rush the boss battles admittedly conjure.

In a welcome attempt to modernize the mode, Beenox has added a Nitro-Fueled variant of Adventure. This allows you to switch characters between races and adjust the difficulty, which goes a long way to resolving the campaign's more irritating moments. If you prefer the more punishing, "authentic" method of progressing, you can do that too. Mercifully, the game autosaves after every race, though those giant green screens are still around if you fancy saving there for old time’s sake. (Incidentally, this is an attitude Beenox has applied to the game's soundtrack, which allows you to switch between the revamped version and the original PlayStation audio--a nice touch.) Nitro-Fueled mode solves many of Adventure's problems and so allows the campaign's challenges, relics, and crystals to supply lone players an incentive to keep coming back.

Outside of Adventure, there are of course the standard single races or cups, as well as an extensive Battle mode. Within this are varied game types such as Capture the Flag and a battle royale-style Last Kart Driving. These are fun, but the relative lack of players (a maximum of eight, including AI, in local play) limits the chaos somewhat, so matches can sometimes feel a little lifeless. [Editor's note: At the time of writing, multiplayer servers were not populated enough to find a match. We will finalize our review once we've played the online multiplayer offering post-launch.]

As well as Adventure mode, character customization has also been modernized. As in the 1999 game, you can choose characters depending on your preference for higher top speed, quicker acceleration, or better handling. However, you can now also change your kart and character's appearance, with a selection of skins, badges, paint jobs, outfits, and whole new karts and characters to choose from. These are unlocked through normal play, but can also be purchased with in-game currency via the store. While they are, mechanically speaking, meaningless, they add a nice bit of flavor--and some of the outfits are pretty cool. My favorites are Robo-Cortex and the adorable Fisherman Polar. Look at him! Look at him!

Simply put: This is a remaster done right. Nitro-Fueled maintains the spirit and rock-solid foundations of a childhood favorite while building on it and modernizing it where necessary--even if the handling might take a bit of getting used to. Adventure mode's classic variant feels a little tough, but your first race on Roo's Tubes or Sewer Speedway will bring a nostalgic grin to your face regardless. When the nostalgia fades, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled remains fun and engaging enough to keep you racing on with a smile on your face for much longer yet. It's good to have Crash back.

My Friend Pedro Review - This Game Is Bananas

Fri, 06/21/2019 - 00:00

My Friend Pedro's best moment is the first time you get to use a frying pan to kill someone. This is an action game that bends over backwards to make sure you look cool, where every kill is meant to make you feel special, and the frying pan is the best realization of that vision. The bullets in My Friend Pedro will ricochet off certain objects, and if the angles line up just so--as they do the first time you encounter a frying pan--you can kick the kitchen implement into the room ahead of you, and then take out all the enemies in that room by shooting the pan, watching as bullets ping off it and cut through anyone standing nearby. It's glorious.

In these moments, My Friend Pedro feels like a beautiful, brutal ballet. Indeed, the game is entertaining for most of its runtime precisely because of how over-the-top and theatrical its kills are. Killing enemies by shooting a frying pan, ricocheting your shots off a sign, or kicking an object right into someone's face is entertaining. However, it's also a game that has fewer tricks up its sleeve than it initially suggests, and will run through most of its good ideas just past the halfway point. That’s not to say that the game gets bad--it’s fun all the way through--but it starts to feel less inventive and exciting than those pulpy, crazy earlier levels do.

You play as an unnamed, masked protagonist who is accompanied on his violent journey by Pedro, a talking banana who acts as both narrator and instructor throughout the game. It’s clear early on that there’s something a bit off about Pedro, and while there are some eventual "reveals" to contend with, he’s mostly there to lend the game a sense of weirdness and to offer hints and tips as you go. There's a thin plot, but it's easily ignored--the only really important information is that you need to run through each level killing all the enemies, and if you kill every enemy quickly without dying, you'll get a higher score. There's a score multiplier that allows you to chain kills for more points, and trying to compete for a solid spot on the leaderboards is a good incentive to replay earlier levels on more challenging difficulties.

As you chain together kills through the game's 40 levels, you have opportunities to shoot enemies while going down zip lines, riding on top of rolling barrels, jumping through windows, skateboarding, and bouncing off of walls. You can activate your focus at any moment to line up your shots and time your bullet-dodging spins perfectly. If you have two guns equipped, you can aim them independently, letting you dive right into the middle of a group of enemies with twin uzis blaring in different directions.

Shooting your enemies is a joy, for the most part, but the combat isn't without its faults. The game's default auto-aim assist locks you onto the nearest enemy or potential target if you’re pointing your aiming reticule in their direction, which can sometimes make it more difficult to pull off the stunt you’d envisioned. If an enemy is standing in front of an explosive canister, for instance, aiming past them for that gratifying explosion is difficult because your gun sight won’t pull away from them. Thankfully, you can turn auto-aim down to almost nothing, which gives you more freedom at the cost of making the game a bit more challenging overall.

My Friend Pedro suffers a bit from a lack of enemy variety, and while the style of goon you're facing changes over time--you fight assassins in the second set of levels, then professional gamers not long after--the main difference is that some of them have more health than others. There are some slight variations, but most enemies can be taken down in the exact same way: by pointing and shooting, with or without theatrics. Your enemies will shoot back with increasingly powerful guns, and while you can feel untouchable when you’re diving into a room in slow motion, they put up enough of a fight, even on "Normal" difficulty, that you need to be careful.

Every now and then you might have to deal with a sentry gun or a minefield, too, but the game is at its best when you’re proving your superiority to organic enemies. Those slow-motion dives into hails of enemy bullets that visibly crawl through the air towards you are obviously inspired by The Matrix, and My Friend Pedro gets closer to capturing the feel of that film's shootouts than many of the myriad games that have paid homage to it. There are also a few boss levels to contend with, which are brief diversions that make some attempt to mix things up, but even these peak with the first one. The game runs through most of its ideas for creative ways to kill people pretty quickly, and while that sense of wonder never quite dries up, its truly great moments become more spaced out in the second half.

In later stages, the game features numerous platforming sections as a way of keeping things fresh. They're never complicated enough to require you to really think them through, and several of them suffer from the game's finicky controls. While the movement controls are fine for combat, they're often hard to contend with when you're trying to traverse tricky terrain. When you're asked to roll and jump and slide down ropes with great precision, as you sometimes are, the game stumbles, as the controls don’t lend themselves well to exact platforming. This only really becomes a major problem right near the end, as the final few levels get extra demanding.

The level designs also grow uglier as you go, too--when Pedro explains that you're fighting gamers in the sewers because video games tend to feature sewer levels, it's funny, but not funny enough to justify the drab aesthetics that the sewers display. That's not to say that these levels are devoid of joy--a late mechanic that gives some enemies shields that need to be deactivated adds some nice strategic depth and most levels serve up at least one or two sections where you can pull off some cool moves--but overall they're not as free-wheeling and enjoyable as the game is in its early stages.

There's some padding, and the game suffers whenever there aren't enemies on screen. It's also, oddly enough, less entertaining when you start to get access to more powerful weapons--the late addition of a sniper rifle feels fundamentally at odds with the game's up-close-and-personal action, and while the assault rifle you unlock in the game's second half is powerful and fun to fire, it’s a shame they didn’t go a step further with its wildness and let you dual-wield the best guns for maximum carnage. My Friend Pedro is greatest when you're close enough to the bad guys to warrant continual cost-benefit analyses of running up and kicking them to death, but sometimes the best way to progress is to take out your enemies from a distance by pointing and shooting without much flair.

But then you get to leap through a window on a skateboard, jump and spin through the air in slow-motion, firing uzis at two enemies at once; when you kick an explosive canister around a corner and pop out to shoot it just before it hits an enemy in the face; or when you jump between two walls, spring out of a gap, and take out two guys with a shotgun before they even know you're there. My Friend Pedro might pepper its later stages with fewer exciting moments, but the moments that make the game fun never fully go away. As soon as I finished the game, I restarted at a higher difficulty, keen to test my improved skills on harder enemies.

There are sections in My Friend Pedro that are as satisfying and thrilling as you could hope for in a game like this, where it nails the feeling of being an impossible video game hero who can perform the unimaginable with great style and flair. There's a lot of appeal in replaying your favorite stages over and over, trying to move up the leaderboard. It isn't consistently exhilarating throughout the entire campaign, but My Friend Pedro is worth playing because it’s full of moments where you can jump down a shaft and shoot in two directions in slow motion, or kill an enemy by kicking the skateboard you’re riding into their face, or take out a room full of bad guys with the help of a frying pan. When it dedicates itself to letting you be inventive and weird with how you rack up your kills, My Friend Pedro is wildly enjoyable.

Judgment Review - Bar Brawls

Thu, 06/20/2019 - 23:30

It's a strange thing to knowingly bid farewell to a fictional character you've followed for over a decade, and then learn to love their replacement. I teared up a little when longtime protagonist Kazama Kiryu finally exited the Yakuza series (presumably for good) at the end of The Song Of Life. But as we wait for Yakuza to begin anew in earnest, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has crafted a different opportunity to revisit the staple setting of Kamurocho as newcomer Takayuki Yagami, a disgraced defense attorney turned private investigator. And fortunately, despite some unremarkable additions to the standard RGG template, by the end of Judgment it's hard not to feel like you want to spend dozens upon dozens more hours with Yagami and friends.

Yagami might not be a yakuza, and Judgment might not be a mainline Yakuza game, but you'd be mistaken for thinking that the overarching narrative of Judgment doesn't heavily adopt the criminal theatrics that RGG Studio has become known for. While the plot kicks off with a relatively straightforward investigation into a serial killer, Yagami's investigation into it uncovers a vast, complicated and interweaving conspiracy of secrecy and betrayal that involves the history of the cast, the Japanese legal system, the Tokyo police department, multiple yakuza factions, and higher stakes beyond. It's an unsurprising escalation, but it's told in such a way that keeps you glued to the screen--the mystery is gripping, the drama is irresistible, and the performances are excellent.

Yagami and his partner Kaito are the primary emotional conduits, and they remain incredibly empathetic and genuinely likable characters throughout. They have interesting personal dilemmas and arcs of their own, and a warm, convincing dynamic together, regularly joking around and pulling one another's chains, and sharing determination when they need to. Kaito is a former yakuza who acts as the brawn to Yagami's brains--though Yagami still manages to be an impossible kung-fu savant, for reasons that are never truly explained in any meaningful way, and in skinny jeans, no less. The two bring a delightful vibe to the otherwise serious nature of the story, and they are treasures.

In some ways, Yagami is more believable and well-defined as a protagonist than Kiryu was in the Yakuza series. Where you were often encouraged to put Kiryu, a typically unwavering deity of honor, through uncharacteristic sojourns into weirdly perverse pursuits, Yagami rarely acts in a way that feels out of character, nor are you allowed to get involved in anything that goes against his demeanor. It's a notable quality that helps to make him more consistently likable, even if he does do something you think is idiotic.

Judgment's side activities do their best to reflect Yagami's nature. Side missions are mostly framed as citizens calling upon Yagami for his private investigator services, though are still a place for RGG Studio's penchant for absurdism to get a workout. More interesting is the game's Friend system, which allows you to befriend dozens of unique individuals spread across Kamurocho, whether via side missions or their own discrete activities. Performing a variety of tasks in service of a person will level up your friendship with them, eventually giving you access to perks like secret items on a restaurant menu or a helping hand in combat. It's a nice thematic element that rounds out Yagami's character as a good-natured, friendly neighborhood PI.

The uncomfortably debaucherous side of RGG games is still present in Judgment, though it's mostly left to be associated with the more unsavory characters and aspects of the plot rather than Yagami himself. That means the saucier activities of Kamurocho are gone, including the entertaining cabaret club management minigame. Instead, there's a dating aspect where you can grow closer to women Yagami has already befriended over the course of the game, which involves regular interactions via in-game text messages, and eventually a series of dates. It feels more wholesome as a result, though only as wholesome as a 35-year-old man dating a 19-year old can be.

Elsewhere in the game's entertaining array of side distractions, Judgment features an incredibly robust Mario Party-esque board game, a two-player port of Fighting Vipers, an original light-gun shooter called Kamuro Of The Dead, an obviously-made-in-a-different-game-engine version of pinball, and drone racing. That's on top of a healthy, familiar selection of Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, Puyo Puyo, UFO catchers, darts, batting cages, Mahjong, Shogi, and various casino card games, among other activities, all seen in previous Yakuza titles.

There are plenty of other familiar aspects that return from previous Yakuza games, but not all of them shake out to be in Judgment's favor. For example, while the game's major cinematics are lovingly rendered and animated as always, lesser, more stilted character models with cold, dead eyes still dominate a lot of the game's cutscenes and suck some emotion out of the otherwise excellent drama.

Kamurocho is another weary aspect, which is an admittedly blasphemous notion at first--the district itself still feels lively, bustling, and full of things to do--but this is still very much the Dragon Engine-era Kamurocho from Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami 2, both of which released a year prior. But it's not just the fact that Kamurocho is still relatively fresh in your mind if you've been following the series closely (there are only a handful of new interiors), it's Judgment's lack of a meaty palette cleanser--nearly all Yakuza games since the 2005 original have featured an additional city to free-roam in, or at least additional protagonists to help add a bit of excitement to the series' familiar formula. Judgment has a tiny additional interior location situated outside of Kamurocho, but it's purely a story setpiece.

Conversely, many of Judgment's attempts to add to the core Ryu ga Gotoku template wear out their welcome almost immediately. Yagami's position as a lawyer-turned-private-eye means there are a lot of segments that involve tailing and chasing people, getting into places he isn't supposed to, searching for clues, and making deductions. The prospect of performing all of these thematically appropriate activities would be attractive were they not all mechanically boring in practice.

Tailing and chasing people are the biggest offenders, made worse by the Judgment's heavy reliance on them. Slowly following targets through the city while trying not to let the targets spot you (they're all very on edge) is a dull, slow, and arduous process which is often made more frustrating by the infamous RGG Studio movement system, which is clunky at the best of times. A reliance on predetermined hiding spots strips the act of any dynamics and creativity. Chases are faster but equally monotonous auto-running sequences where you need to steer Yagami left and right within a set path, avoid any obstacles, and perform the regular quicktime event to keep up with a target. With the exception of one amusing sequence on a skateboard, the game's numerous chases are all ultimately stale, when they should get your heart pumping.

Searching for clues and making deductions are poised to be the more attractive mechanics due to the game's legal bent--Yagami will sometimes need to search an area in first-person for clues or explain a hypothesis or contradiction. But these moments are let down by being incredibly straightforward, and expecting something that sits anywhere near to what you might find in a Danganronpa or Ace Attorney game would be misguided. You're provided with a checklist of things to find during search scenes, meaning the discoveries don't feel revelatory--but finding the hidden cats is the real treat here. Deduction segments feel more like opportunities for the game to make sure you've been paying attention to the story so far, rather than a chance for you to join the dots and stumble upon the discovery for yourself.

While the mystery in Judgment is certainly a journey that you're merely accompanying Yagami on, the lack of player agency in the detective segments makes them feel like a useless chore. There are two different types of lockpicking minigames--which are fine, if uninspiring--and there's also a bizarrely unexciting mechanic where you have to choose which key on Yagami's keyring to use when entering certain doors. The most interesting new idea is the addition of a couple of brief sequences where you play as one of Yagami's co-workers and go undercover, which only left me wanting to see that idea explored even further.

Ultimately, most of Yagami's progress is made by doing what all good protagonists in RGG games do best--kicking the shit out of people. Yagami has two different kung-fu influenced fighting styles: Crane style is designed to deal with groups of enemies, whereas Tiger style focuses on single-target damage. Fighting starts off feeling a bit clunky and limiting--especially the flashier Crane style, whose moves come with long recoveries and see Yagami spend more time doing flips than landing hits--but this changes over time as you upgrade Yagami's combo speeds and attack damage, making the risk of opening yourself up more viable. Tiger style is more intricate and versatile, however, with a much larger and more powerful variety of moves to unlock and use--including an exploding palm technique that's a blast to use again and again.

Additional fighting techniques are introduced to flesh out Yagami's flashy, acrobatic style and include the ability to leapfrog enemies, wall jump, and link attacks off those maneuvers. The Yakuza series' explosive "Heat" moves appear as "EX" moves, allowing you to execute devastating cinematic special attacks, reliant on specific environmental and combat situations. Despite not being a Yakuza game, combat is your primary interaction with the world in Judgment. Fighting all sorts of delinquents, gangsters, and at one point, a group of academic researchers is still very entertaining, though, and it's great that there are abundant opportunities for you to lay down some street justice.

It's disappointing to realize that Judgment is at its best when it veers closer to the mold that it came from. Even though the game's familiar fighting and side activities will happily keep you occupied, it's a shame that the most intriguing and unique additions are also the dullest things about Judgment, because the new roster of characters have been wonderfully crafted otherwise. Yagami, Kaito, and the supporting cast are incredibly endearing, and following their every move as they unravel the sinister machinations looming under the surface of Kamurocho is a sensational journey. I can't wait to return to these characters, but I'm hoping we can all do something different next time.

Mordhau Review - Die By The Sword

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 10:51

The sun beats down on the battlefield as the war cries of my fellow soldiers ring out. Catapults pelt us from a distance and the giant boulders explode onto the ground around us with a great thud, thinning our numbers before we can reach the contested checkpoint. Those who make it through are greeted by a line of enemies hastily building a blockade, but we tear through them like a hot knife through butter and take the checkpoint in a flurry of steel and blood. As I stand over the decapitated body of a downed enemy, a spear flies out from behind a barrier and catches me unawares, putting me down on the spot with a sickening, meaty crash, before I respawn back at the camp I'd just come from.

This is the bloody brutality of Mordhau, a strategic, punishing and ultimately satisfying first-person multiplayer medieval combat game. You need patience and perseverance to overcome the steep learning curve of its melee mechanics. Far from being a simple hack-and-slasher, Mordhau focuses largely on learning and executing the finer points of melee combat, from footwork and positioning through to timing numerous attack and defensive maneuvers. It feels clunky at first, but once it clicks, it's brilliant. Timing a riposte--a parry followed up by a quick counter-attack--feels great, and even better if it causes heads to roll. But there are several hours of less-thrilling learning to do first, and despite its attempts at onboarding, the game could do more to help new players get up to speed.

A 15-minute tutorial will run you through the basics, asking you to prove you can perform a series of slashes, parries, and other moves. Helpful to a point, these lessons fail to provide the feedback needed to work towards more sophisticated techniques. Some, like chambering--a complex maneuver where you counter an attack with an attack of your own from the same angle, executed at the exact moment you're about to get hit--require pinpoint timing and are difficult to execute successfully. The lack of visual feedback makes learning when to strike a process of trial and error, which, in the relatively safe confines of the tutorial, means taking a few extra swings at your NPC trainer until you get it right. But during a match it's a slow, merciless grind of death after death, waiting to respawn then charging back to the action against the might of more experienced players.

Because of this, the first five or so hours online feel like a gauntlet in the worst way. You will be cut down time after time and not really understand why, and it's here that most players will bounce off Mordhau. Annoyingly, you also don't earn any progress when playing against AI offline, and they aren't effective training dummies either--they mostly follow each other in long lines and clash in groups, slashing and stabbing wildly. So you're essentially forced to head into the online meat grinder to progress.

Weapons mastery aside, progress comes in the form of gold, which is used to purchase items, armor, and weapons, as well as XP, with which you can unlock new gear to then buy with gold. As the hours tick over, not only does your character level grow, but you slowly become better at the game, and suddenly what seemed at the start like an impossible hill to climb begins to feel a lot less intimidating. The subtle windup of enemy attacks begins to stand out more, making parries and ripostes far simpler. You start to carefully change the timing of attacks by leaning in or out of each swing, and it's once you start to grasp these more detailed nuances that Mordhau truly begins to shine and the real potential of its wonderfully intricate combat begins to show itself. Opening up an opponent after a successful parry, taking aim at their exposed points and landing the killing blow only takes a couple of seconds but requires the utmost control to execute, making every kill feel earned, and the open combat is more enjoyable and expressive than simple hacking and slashing.

There are three main game types to choose from--Frontlines, Battle Royale, and Horde--though you can also privately set up your own deathmatch or team deathmatch servers. Frontlines is the main mode, with two teams of 32 fighting to secure and hold each checkpoint until one either dominates the map and completes the objective or eliminates the opposition by clearing their respawn tickets. Battle Royale is a solo, winner-takes-all round where everyone starts with nothing and has to scavenge for weapons and armor in order to survive, while Horde lets up to six players run together in wave-based, PvE combat. As you clear each wave, you earn more gold that can be used to purchase items and weapons during the round at different points across the map.

Frontlines feels the best of these thanks to its objective-based gameplay, letting those less skilled with the weapons make an active contribution--though if the spectacle of battle does nothing for you, charging into the fray with your screaming teammates certainly will. It can be simultaneously chilling and empowering. As a single death ends the round in both Battle Royale and Horde, they're far less forgiving compared to Frontlines and feel more geared towards experienced players. Once you know how to wield your weapon they can be just as rewarding, though, if a little slower in terms of action.

You can choose several loadouts with varying styles of armor and weaponry from the outset of each match. With less armor, you're lighter and can move faster but are more susceptible to sword attacks, whereas heavily armored characters offer more protection against swords but are slower all around and can be more easily bested with blunt weapons. Each weapon type fits into varying play styles that all feel effective in their own right, but each has a more functional role depending on where you are on the map. Longer weapons will naturally have a longer reach but can't be swung side-to-side in tight spaces as they'll catch on the walls and obstacles, so they can only be thrust or swung overhead instead. Spears and other one-handed weapons can be thrown if need be, while larger weapons can use an alternative grip to better knock off opponents' armor. There are always options for whatever situation you find yourself in, adding to the already excellent fighting experience by offering solid alternatives, provided you've got the right loadout.

The maps themselves are large, ranging from a snowy mountain castle to a wide-open battlefield with fortress encampments at either end of a rolling valley, but the game could still do with a bit more variety. There are seven maps in all, though some are limited to certain game types. They're also a little static--you don't have to worry about weather or adverse conditions--but they still look the part, especially when bathed in the bloody aftermath of combat. Battles can look spectacular from afar, but never quite as good as they do up close, where the raw energy is palpable and intimidating. Ragdolled bodies are stretched across the ground and blood washes over the landscape as the battle rages, leaving a trail of brutality in its wake as the fight moves from checkpoint to checkpoint.

Mordhau is tough, violent, beautiful, and doesn't pull its punches. Despite an intense learning curve that could be better alleviated with more tutorials or better practice tools, its supreme swordplay and combat mechanics eventually outshine any initial frustration. The scale of battle is overwhelming and chaotic, but there's a definite sense to all the nonsense that, once you uncover it, gives you an incredible rush every time you go toe-to-toe with the enemy--even if you don't come out the other side intact.

Imperator: Rome Review - Rome If You Want To

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 10:31

The latest grand strategy game from the genre's current leading light, Paradox Interactive, puts you at the helm of one of the great powers of the late 4th century B.C. and asks you to conquer the world from western Europe to southern Asia. At the same time, it can also leave you in charge of one of the region's meekest tribes and ask you to accomplish little more than its survival. Regardless of your chosen nation, Imperator: Rome is a stubbornly single-minded strategy experience that borrows freely from its Paradox stablemates (Europa Univeralis, Hearts of Iron, and Crusader Kings), culls much of their personality and complexity, and marches into battle with a steely-eyed focus on military conquest.

At heart, Imperator: Rome is a game about building armies and marching them into foreign lands. You recruit troops, secure the strategic resources necessary to recruit upgraded troops, assign generals, point them towards the target, and let them loose. There are technologies to research, civic matters to pursue, and religious concerns, but these are secondary factors, each just another gear in the military machine.

Combat is intuitive and uncomplicated. Armies are routed when their morale breaks, while strict supply costs in each territory work well to prevent amassing units in ludicrous "stacks of doom." Meanwhile, the need to lay siege to an enemy fort for up to several in-game months at a time helps to put the brakes on any notion of steamrolling. You can holler the occasional tactical instruction, but when it comes down to it, the winner in battle will be whoever has the greater numbers. And if your opponent has the terrain advantage then you're going to need an even greater numerical advantage to overcome it.

While I definitely prefer a strategic game that offers varied paths to victory, there is a simple pleasure in Imperator: Rome's rigid insistence that all you have to do is paint the map the same colour. You don't have to play as Rome, of course, but it does make things more straightforward. Your choice of nation is a de facto difficulty slider, with Rome (situated among compliant vassals and easily overrun neutral states) offering a gentle introduction and Phrygia (larger than Rome but riven with internal division and despised by its neighbors) tossing you right in at the deep end. There are hundreds of nations from which to select, spanning half the globe from Britain to North Africa to Scandinavia to Sri Lanka, and you can play as any of them. More than a difficulty setting, however, your choice of nation sets expectations.

Rome is well-known, though not as well-known as Macedon or Egypt, and so the effects of its actions will be felt further and wider, rippling out in diplomatic waves over the Mediterranean and drawing condemnation or perhaps congratulations from its rivals. As a major power, you've got weight to throw around, but other powers take notice and react, adding their own weight to the scale. The result is a world that feels dynamic and connected, at least to the extent that you can appreciate territories on the political map flipping back and forth between your own nation's color and those of your enemies.

When playing as a smaller nation, though, you have no weight at all. You control very little territory, you've got a tiny army, and your choices are extremely limited. The world most likely doesn't even realize you exist. If they do, it's probably because they just noticed you have something they want, or worse, you're merely a slight speedbump on the way to what they want. Played in this way, Imperator: Rome feels oddly timid, an unsatisfying waiting game momentarily brought to life through tentative forays into expansion while you hope no one important notices.

The asymmetry of the starting positions, and the resulting diplomatic relations maintained by each nation at the outset, lend variety to the early stages of each new game. Beyond that, though, the heavy focus on military conquest and lack of options in both empire management and international relations place severe limits on the breadth and depth of strategic tinkering available to the player.

A major problem is the implementation of Paradox's "mana" system, as it is colloquially known. These are the pools of resources--military power, research, oratory power, and religion--you accumulate over the course of the game and which fund many of the decisions you make. Mana increases as you play, based almost entirely on the randomly rolled stats of your leader and those you have appointed to your government. When you have saved enough, you can spend it on extra discipline for your troops, a small income boost, or any number of so-called technologies.

The pacing is all over the place, though. You can hit pause, buy up a bunch of diverse tech, and unpause--and in an instant, your empire is improving its diplomatic relations or collecting more tax. It feels backwards, like you're not planning toward something by investing in a particular resource to work toward a strategic objective, but rather slapping band-aids on immediate problems. It's not even that Imperator wants you to focus on short-term issues, it's more that the game is quite content to let you snap your fingers to magically make problems disappear.

Religious power is the most undernourished of the mana resources. Aside from a very minor buff you can apply every five in-game years, the chief use of religious power is to preserve the stability of your empire--itself a nebulous status that imparts positive or negative modifiers to your loyalty, popularity, and so on--by making a sacrifice to the gods. This dramatic-sounding gesture involves clicking a button to convert a variable amount of religious power into one stability point. That's it. And suddenly the empire is stable again.

Indeed, there's a lot that can simply be flipped on a dime. On the surface, the diplomatic game looks sophisticated. You can send gifts and insults to other empires, form alliances or undermine a rival's current regime by supporting rebels, and more. Managing diplomatic ties across dozens of relations should require balancing a host of competing interests, and at times the systems here do allow for such finesse. But at other times you can flip a switch, spend some oratory power, and now Armenia doesn't mind that you've fabricated a claim on Albania. It's all very "Friendship ended with Scythia, now Carthage is my best friend!"

Elsewhere, lots of small choices add up to very little. When establishing that trade route, do you want to secure access to fish and the 0.02% population growth bonus? Or would you prefer to import precious metals and gain 0.01 loyalty in your provinces? It's difficult to look at such numbers and understand how a particular choice might benefit your overall strategy. So you pick one, cross your fingers, and, in all likelihood, forget about it for the rest of the game. Rulers ought to feel the weight of their decisions, and few such choices here hit heavily.

Imperator: Rome feels undercooked. As it stands, it's a strange mish-mash of several of Paradox's existing (and, let's be honest, superior) games without much to distinguish or recommend it. Paradox recently outlined a "One Year Plan" for the title in an effort to reassure players that they are aware of its shortcomings and intend to address them. That roadmap appears insubstantial to my eyes, but we'll see when we get there. For now, Imperator: Rome remains a decidedly modest strategy game.

Cadence Of Hyrule - Crypt Of The NecroDancer Featuring The Legend Of Zelda Review

Mon, 06/17/2019 - 10:04

The most surprising thing about Cadence of Hyrule, despite being so unusual, is how much it immediately feels like a Zelda game. Aesthetically, it sits somewhere between A Link to the Past and the cartoonier Four Swords games, but its Zelda roots run much deeper than that; This is not just Crypt of the NecroDancer reskinned. Much like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on 3DS, Cadence is a shorter, smaller riff on the classic 2D Zelda template with a unique twist, a game that will strike a chord with long-time fans but also feels fresh and exciting.

In the game's opening, Cadence (the protagonist of Crypt of the NecroDancer) is dropped into Hyrule by a mysterious vortex and must choose whether to awaken either Link or Zelda. From there, the game is pretty open--you explore a randomized overworld map in search of classic Zelda items and the four dungeons that need to be completed before you can storm Hyrule Castle, which has fallen to the game's big bad, the villainous musician Octavo. You'll eventually unlock both characters (and, potentially, two others), but being able to play as Zelda from the outset is wonderful and feels like a long-overdue correction of the series' namesake frequently being sidelined.

The game doesn't tell you exactly where to go at first, but thankfully the initial hour or two of simply moving between screens, uncovering your map and figuring out how your procedurally generated version of Hyrule fits together, is exhilarating. If there are monsters on the screen, you'll need to move in time with the beat of the game's music, indicated by marker at the bottom of your UI, timing your movements in four directions to avoid and attack enemies ripped from the Zelda universe. Each enemy has its own attack pattern and most have a clear "tell"--if a wolf looks like it's about to pounce, for instance, you'll want to make sure that you're not on the square in front of it on the next beat, whereas bigger enemies might have larger attack areas that will be marked on the ground one beat ahead of their assault. It's a system that the game frames as a "dance" between you and your enemies, and this is apt, as I would nearly always find myself bopping and tapping my foot alongside my movements.

Learning the rhythmic patterns of enemies, and reaching the point where you figure out how to best attack them so that you can properly counter-attack or defend yourself, is a consistent pleasure. When you slip into the zone and feel like your movements and steps are perfectly in sync with the rhythm and movements of your enemies, it's extremely satisfying, especially as you find new areas and monsters throughout the game and slowly conquer them. Coming back to an area you found intimidating early in the game and handily slaughtering all of the enemies, which causes the music to calm and loot to drop, feels fantastic.

Attacks and interactions are automatic depending on where you're standing, with each screen being divided into grid-based titles that you move between. There's an emphasis on being mindful of your movements and your surroundings on a beat-by-beat basis throughout the entire game, so it's handy that every song follows the same tempo--once you're tapped into it, your ability to move through the game is dependent on your ability to read the many different enemy animations and quickly plot out your movements on the fly. The only exceptions are certain hazards in the game world that slow or speed up the beat, and one inspired puzzle which asks you to step to the beat of a familiar piece of Zelda music.

The entire soundtrack is made up of beautifully reworked pieces from the Zelda series, with a number of tunes featuring as speedier, upbeat variations. They're all wonderful remixes of tracks that many players will already feel a strong attachment to, and the mostly consistent beat throughout the game keeps things manageable since you only really need to learn and become accustomed to one rhythm. There are plenty of fun aural Easter eggs for long-time Zelda fans, too. It's worth noting that there is also an accommodating accessibility option called "fixed beat" mode which stops enemies from moving unless you're moving, removing the need to follow the rhythm.

Cadence of Hyrule also has light roguelike elements, but it's a very generous system that encourages you to use your consumable items rather than stockpiling them. When you die, you lose any keys you've collected, all rupees, your shovel, your torch, and any stat-boosting items you've picked up. Your vital gear stays with you, though, as do all the weapons you've found. You won't need to do anything as drastic as finding your best sword or the hookshot again, which mitigates any frustration and keeps you focused on pushing forward.

Many of these classic Zelda items are hidden away in the overworld, but none of them are actually necessary to progress through the game. In fact, it's entirely possible to simply make a determined beeline towards each dungeon, and the game's timed leaderboards will likely entice many a speedrunner. For the rest of us, though, making the effort to find and use all the classic Zelda items will make the challenge easier, and going to the lengths to locate the items strewn throughout Hyrule is a hunt worth taking because simply playing the game is a joy in itself.

Cadence of Hyrule understands how much the pleasure of playing a Zelda game comes from the feeling that you're rising to the challenge of your environment, and after hours of learning and internalizing the rhythms of various enemy attacks, finding yourself less intimidated by all the creatures the game throws at you is a great feeling. Some items do end up feeling quite superfluous by virtue of not being necessary, however--I never once effectively used the boomerang, for instance, and even the bow (which can be equipped with numerous different types of arrows) feels inconsequential.

The dungeons are fun but short, requiring you to venture through randomly generated floors full of monsters and, eventually, combat musically-themed takes on classic Zelda bosses. These bosses all have wonderful designs that merge old favorites with new instrument-based powers, complete with genuinely funny pun names. There are very few puzzles in the game; the dungeons are entirely focused on combat and exploration. I found that the last two of the initial four in the overworld were extremely easy, as my version of Zelda had become quite powerful (I was on a long undying streak, equipped with some very useful buffs). But Cadence of Hyrule more than makes up for it with the challenge of the final trek through Hyrule Castle, which makes the extremely fun final boss battle, and the credits that roll after, feel well earned.

Once you're done, there are plenty of enticing reasons to come back, too. Hunting down every piece of treasure is a fun reason to spend more time exploring and fighting, and if you've found the right items the map will tell you exactly where unclaimed treasures are lying and let you warp around at your leisure, allowing you easily mop up any that you've missed. If you start again, the fact that the map randomizes each time means that you'll have a different experience, as areas will look different or have altered layouts.

There are also daily challenges, which plop you down at the beginning as either Link or Zelda and let you compete on a leaderboard to see how far you can get on a single life, as well as a permadeath mode. These modes are really just there for more avid players looking to master the game, but it's good to have the option. You can also play through the entire game in co-op, with one player taking control of Cadence while the other plays as Link or Zelda, which is a great addition. If one player dies you both go down, and if one of you moves to the next screen the other player will be warped there too, so working together to line up on the beat is important. The game works better as a single-player experience, but it's a nice choice to have.

Cadence of Hyrule is a fantastic Zelda game in its own right, even though it adopts the gameplay mechanics of another series. Beyond the aesthetics, it nails the satisfying sense of exploration and increasing power, and it revels in the joy of discovery, as all the best Zelda games do. It's an extremely successful melding of two great game series and an experience that makes you feel eager for Nintendo to do more interesting things with their major licenses.

Outer Wilds Review - Extraterrestrial Investigation

Sun, 06/09/2019 - 11:44

For a game about interplanetary exploration, Outer Wilds can often feel incredibly small. Flying from one planet to the next takes a matter of seconds, making it easy to ping pong around the game's singular solar system. The brevity of traveling through this handcrafted collection of areas to explore might seem strange at first--especially when the opening minutes of Outer Wilds place such a heavy emphasis on the importance of your mission to document the unknown. However, it doesn't take long for your expectations of Outer Wilds to be completely flipped on their head, giving way to captivating mysteries to solve and difficult questions surrounding mortality to confront. These questions lead you on unforgettable adventures in which each piece of the story you unearth feels as rewarding as the last.

You play as a citizen of a race of four-eyed, jolly-looking aliens, and you have been selected as the next of your kin to take to the stars. Nestled in the cozy forests of a small planet called Timber Hearth, you and your brethren contemplate the same questions that you've likely thought of before. Just where did we come from? Have there been others before us? And if so, where are they now? These questions drive you to explore the solar system you're in, risking your life in search of answers. Armed with nothing more than a spacesuit, a nifty language translator, and tools for surveying anything from distress signals to harmful invisible gases, you're left to take flight in your crudely constructed spaceship and venture off in any direction.

With suggestions that other life existed in this solar system before you, you're tasked with finding evidence to support that claim. Dilapidated architecture from a forgotten age can be found on most planet surfaces, with translatable foreign texts allowing you to piece together the mystery of where these civilizations are today. Your exploration is restricted by a celestial ticking time bomb: The sun at the center of the solar system implodes after 22 minutes and sends you back to the same dreamy campsite on your home planet to start this Groundhog Day loop again. With each new run you can collect more pieces of Outer Wilds' narrative puzzle, slowly piecing together what might be causing the rapid decline of your neighborhood star, before embracing each inevitable death.

Death isn't detrimental in a traditional sense in Outer Wilds. In a way, it's beautiful. The somber tune that plays moments before the light disappears from the solar system signals your death, but it's also an indicator of how much you might have discovered in that one life. It's satisfying to have a productive run that unlocks multiple new threads for you to follow up on in your next attempt, pushing you to new planets to explore and narrative puzzles to solve. Other times it's just as poignant to accept an uneventful run and just embrace the gorgeous scenery around you. Sitting on top of a peak and watching the sun die out is oddly soothing after uneventful expeditions, letting you reflect on your misguided choices and realign yourself for the next journey.

Exploration and the knowledge you obtain with it is the only way to progress through Outer Wilds. As you come across clues and discoveries, they're recorded in a useful log aboard your ship. These clues are stitched together and color-coded to help guide you along the various dangling threads of the story. The game's open-ended structure lets you tackle whichever parts of the mystery you want to, in any order, before they inevitably start linking together to bring the bigger picture into focus. These links aren't clear directions towards the next piece of the puzzle, but instead are suggestive nudges that help you determine when it's safe to move on from one discovery to another. This helps make each of these discoveries feel earned while also avoiding potentially frustrating barriers to your progress.

Strong writing brings you into Outer Wilds' world, and unearthing even the smallest bits of this larger story is a rewarding undertaking. Its myriad of uncoverable dialogue records are charming while always maintaining a purpose, giving you small nuggets of information to ponder even in the most seemingly throwaway conversations. The preserved exchanges between children might describe a game they created to pass the time in dark and gloomy catacombs beneath a planet's surface, which contains a helpful clue for how to get to a hidden area. By contrast, you can also stumble upon the bleak distress signals that never reached their intended saviors or complex plans for alien contraptions that drove past civilizations to make alarmingly dangerous decisions. You grow attached to the recurring names in conversations and become invested in their stories, even when you know many of them don't have happy endings.

Without an explicit guide to point you in the direction of your next great find, each new discovery feels like a hard-earned reward. You'll slowly be able to piece together events taking place on other ends of the solar system, slowly letting your own theories make way for a clearer understanding of events that truly transpired before presenting even more questions. This loop of discovery drives you towards exploring every inch of every planet you can, each of which holds its own delightful little puzzles to solve.

Outer Wilds features just a handful of planets and other celestial objects that you're able to explore on foot, but no two are exactly alike. They each feature unique characteristics that present different challenges you need to overcome to simply explore them. The Hourglass Twins, for example, closely orbit the sun but stay dangerously close to one another, with the gravitational pull of one absorbing the sandy surface of the other and slowly unearthing new areas for you to explore over time. A fast-traveling comet known as the Interloper has an icy exterior that hides a labyrinth of caves underneath its crust, which can only be explored once it travels close enough to the sun for entrances to be melted open. An orbiting moon littered with erupting volcanoes that project volatile balls of lava into space makes simple surface exploration of Brittle Hollow treacherous. You have to uncover a way underneath the Hollow's crust to safely traverse it, discovering previous civilizations that grappled with the same dangers seemingly eons ago.

Figuring out how to safely traverse each planet is an engaging puzzle to solve, especially when it requires an understanding of their positions within the solar system and at what times they're best to tackle. Stumbling upon entrances to new areas by accident or observing mysterious behaviors when exploring a planet make each of these spaces more detailed and expansive than their small physical sizes suggest, and it's even more surprising when many of them contain large cities hidden underneath their crusts waiting to be picked apart. The mechanical and visual variety of each of these planets makes exploring each new one a tantalizing treat.

It's disappointing then that the rules governing simple movement and space flight in Outer Wilds are counter-intuitive to this curious poking and prodding of its world. Space flight in your ship and planetary surface exploration with your jetpack is strictly bound to the rules of physics. You need to wrestle with different gravitational magnitudes and directions as you navigate using thrusters that fire off in six directions, adding or subtracting to your motion in each associated direction.

The somber tune that plays moments before the light disappears from the solar system signals your death, but it's also an indicator of how much you might have discovered in that one life.

It takes time to learn when to start applying reverse thrust on an approach to a planet or how to delicately jet upwards on a planet's surface without accidentally breaking through the atmosphere and into space, but no matter how much you practice, these actions never feel completely natural. Small errors are punished with untimely, frustrating deaths. You can spend minutes waiting for the right time to navigate to a certain area, only to waste all of it over a mistake brought on by Outer Wilds' unintuitive control scheme. It's at odds with the rest of the game.

Outer Wilds’ deeply captivating narrative and plentiful mysteries push you further into exploring its richly varied and stunning solar system. The time loop you’re trapped in lets you craft bite-sized expeditions that all end up telling their own stories, irrespective of whether you make a monumental discovery or simply encounter a playful interaction. Having a tool to neatly document your discoveries helps you slowly piece together a tale filled with charming writing, and one that presents its own open-ended questions that add emotional heft to the numerous exchanges you parse through during your travels. By letting you chart your own course and piece together its mystery at your own pace, Outer Wilds makes each of its expeditions feel incredibly personal and absolutely unmissable.

Persona Q2 Review - You Oughta Be In Pictures

Fri, 06/07/2019 - 08:24

It looks like the 3DS's time in the spotlight is over. We've seen 3DS support dwindle over the past few years, but there's at least one more show to see on the long-lived portable before it takes a bow. Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth brings the familiar casts of Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 5 together for a meaty RPG adventure that lives up to the reputation of its big-screen counterparts. If Persona Q2 winds up being the last big event on the 3DS, it's a fine way to end the handheld's run.

Persona Q2 begins with Persona 5's Phantom Thieves on a routine mission when they find themselves in a movie theater with a creepy projectionist and two avid filmgoers. With seemingly no way out of this strange miniplex, the team find themselves engaging with film on a whole new level: exploring the elaborate, first-person dungeons contained within the projections. These twisted takes on superhero, disaster, and sci-fi films aren't just dramatizations; they feature familiar faces and scenarios with potentially deadly consequences for the Phantom Thieves. It also appears that a few other folks may have stumbled into the cinema world, so it's up to you to find the others, help them all band together, and reveal the mystery behind this strange theatre as one big Persona-using team.

Much like the previous 3DS game, Persona Q, Q2 eschews many of the concepts seen in the primary Persona games, instead going with systems derived from Atlus's Etrian Odyssey series of first-person dungeon-crawlers. You conduct careful, step-by-step mapping of themed labyrinths, but rather than explore with your party and enemies visible on a map, you face random encounters. While Persona proper has you exploiting enemy weaknesses for extra turns in combat, in Persona Q2 critical hits and enemy weaknesses boost your combatants for their next strike. Limited-inventory item management, side-questing, and team composition are all crucial, and Q2's stand-in for Etrian Odyssey's freeform character-building--the ability for all characters to equip power- and skill-augmenting sub-Personas--allows you to assemble a team of formidable fighters provided you make good calls with Persona fusion and skill inheritance. It feels like Atlus took the best elements of both game series--Etrian’s sense of adventure, exploration, and danger, and Persona’s elaborate collection/fusion systems and character interactions--and worked to make them meld together as best they could.

The stark differences in gameplay might throw Persona fans who aren't familiar with Etrian Odyssey's quirks for a bit of a loop, but Persona Q2 has some nice quality-of-life enhancements to make things a bit easier to adjust to. For starters, you can set the game to auto-map a good chunk of the dungeon on its own, saving you time you'd normally spend drawing squares and walls for your map on the bottom screen--though you'll still need to fill in some other details on your own. Helpful indicators aid you with planning for battle; an icon indicates how close you are to a random encounter happening, while dots on the map indicating the fearsome roaming FOE sub-bosses change color based on how much of a threat they are to the party at their current level. Enemy weaknesses in battle will be highlighted once they have been discovered, and should you ever find combat a bit too much to handle, you can freely change the difficulty via the in-game options to make things a bit easier. And if things go south, you'll be automatically healed to max the moment you step outside of the dungeon. This helps make things more inviting to new players who might not be used to the Etrian Odyssey style of play, and are good quality-of-life improvements in their own right.

But while the gameplay needle swings further to the Etrian Odyssey side of things, the presentation of the story, character interactions, visual flair, and music are pure Persona through and through. From the moment the bite-sized Persona 5 cast first appears on the screen, you know you're in for a game full of cute, fun character interactions. There's plenty of story and dialogue both in and out of the dungeons, and while there are some serious moments, it tends to be more on the humorous side overall. (It's several hours of game time before most of the Persona 3 and 4 cast show up, so if you're a purist fan of either of those two titles, you might be waiting a while before your favorites join.)

There are even character-bonding “Special Screening” side-quests that are somewhat similar to Persona’s much-beloved Social Links, but with a lot more dungeon exploration and fighting. These are a smart way to bring Persona’s social-development gameplay into the mix while giving the player more gameplay meat to chew on. Finishing these quests can yield extra Unison Attack skills between characters (with a supremely adorable associated animation) that provide varied beneficial effects.

Visually, the game makes the most of the 3DS' limited hardware. The characters' tiny renditions are charming and faithful to their original designs, the environments are distinct and memorable, and many of the game's cinematics are rendered in-engine, adding to a strong overall sense of visual coherency. The only real knock here is the recycled enemy designs, many of which are still leftover from the days of Persona 3 on the PS2. The music is also top-notch, featuring many new and familiar compositions that are as earworm-y as you'd expect from a series known for catchy tunes.

There are a few minor irritations, but they don’t steal the show. Having a big crossover cast from Persona 3, 4, and 5 is great for story and character vignettes, but there's so much overlap between character combat archetypes and specialties that you'll probably wind up sidelining most of them. That might not sound so bad, but there's no passive EXP gain, and sometimes you'll encounter lucrative Special Screenings where you're asked to use a specific character or a difficult battle where one character archetype works particularly well -- and those members lagging in levels will be a pain to level up unless they’re “motivated.” (There are items and quests that expedite this somewhat, but many of the items are paid DLC.)

Combat can also feel wildly unbalanced at times. In an effort to add Persona-style elements to Etrian Odyssey's combat, Persona Q2 incentivizes you to knock enemies down and boost your fighters by targeting enemy weaknesses or landing critical hits, somewhat similarly to Shin Megami Tensei IV. However, fighting sometimes feels so skewed towards weakness exploitation that it can make the difference between a quick, momentary encounter and a drawn-out, messy slog. If you don't have access to whatever skill an enemy's weak to, you're generally forced into less effective physical combat in an effort to conserve valuable skill points, and your ability to lock them down goes out the window. It's frustrating to wander into a new area, fight a new enemy, and then watch them mop the floor with your team because you don't have the one thing they're weak to on your current squad. Not being able to swap Personas mid-battle, as you can in mainline Persona games, makes this issue worse. Thankfully, once you do know and prepare in advance for enemy weaknesses, it’s much easier - but the trial-and-error part can be somewhat irritating.

But a few annoyances don't drag down Persona Q2 significantly. As a dungeon crawler, it's challenging and engaging, but doesn’t drag or feel overwhelming. As a piece of Persona fan service, it delivers the goods with delightful crossover character antics and an enjoyable theme. It all combines into a solid little RPG that can keep you hooked for its entire runtime. The curtains may be closing on the 3DS, but Persona Q2 is a terrific way to end the show.

Trover Saves The Universe Review - Chair-iots Of The Gods

Fri, 05/31/2019 - 04:53

If Justin Roiland's name wasn't on the title screen, it would still be glaringly obvious who was responsible for Trover Saves The Universe. It would be clear within 10 seconds of hitting the start button when a massive blue alien shaped like the galaxy's most abominable chicken nugget shows up and uses your two adorable pet dogs as his new eyeballs; it would be undeniable the second our hero, the neurotic purple alien Trover, opens his mouth and the voice of Morty comes streaming out. The fascinating thing isn't that we've got another video game from the twisted mind behind Rick & Morty. It's in watching those twisted M-rated ideas mingle with all the trappings of a bog-standard 3D E-for-Everyone platformer.

The bonkers premise is that the aforementioned chicken nugget, named Glorkon, has somehow obtained god-like power from sticking your dogs in his eyes and will be kickstarting the apocalypse post-haste. You, meanwhile, are a hapless, milquetoast sucker from the suburban world of Chairorpia, where the entire population is bound permanently to floating couches, doomed to forever watch a soap opera that suspiciously feels like it's trying to teach you the game's controls. Our hero, Trover, eventually shows up on your doorstep and tells you he needs your help to take down Glorkon. Using the unstoppable might of power babies--an entire species of adorable multicolored cherubs who actually belong in the eyeballs of Trover's people--and with you at Trover's back controlling his actions, the two of you set out on a galaxy-spanning quest to figure out how to take Glorkon down.

There's a lot going on there, and it's not even scratching the surface of the absolutely bewildering cavalcade of profane oddity that follows. The very first level, your quest for a special crystal that will allow you to visit Glorkon's home dimension, is interrupted by an annoying little cuss named Mr. Popup who tells you about an alien neighbor who not only ate his family and is holding several pregnant Popup species females hostage so he can eat their babies, but more importantly, has no regard for his neighborhood's real estate zoning agreements. That's what kind of ride this is, and it only gets weirder and darker from there. Probably the best running gag in the game is a recurring one in which you inadvertently ruin the lives of the misshapen folks who sell you upgrades, each time accidentally killing their pets or relatives. Conceptually, it's wonderfully devious and outlandish, peppered in with moments of stomach-churning bodily function humor.

It's the execution that's less consistent, mostly due to the long, stuttery, and often yelled improv takes of Roiland and the rest of the cast just endlessly riffing to fill time. The game rarely allows for moments of silence to let the jokes that work land. More annoyingly, it allows too much time for the more obnoxious characters to work your every last nerve. Meanwhile, there's rarely enough silence to think your way through the more involved puzzles, which sometimes turns tricky into infuriating unless you turn down the dialogue for a couple of minutes. And that's a shame, because many of the dialogue-based jokes often do land, though you'll just have to take my word on that since absolutely none of the best examples are even remotely repeatable here. What I can say is the runtime of my first playthrough was likely tanked because I would spend minutes on end just listening to unaware enemies talk amongst themselves about being clones of Glorkon, going on about their workout routines, their weird alien sex lives, and how they'd kill Trover and how much he sucks.

Eventually, though, you need to take out some of those hilarious guards, and unlike Squanch Games' previous title, the too-obtuse-for-its-own-good Accounting+, Trover Saves The Universe is almost laughably simple when it comes to the action side of being an action platformer. You can jump, deal both light and heavy attacks, and roll. It's all much like the most elementary action-platforming principles in recent memory, with very few surprises or close shaves or tension until the latter hours. The only real complexity comes from the fact that the game is predominantly designed around VR. The game can be played without it, but the camera in particular is locked to fixed points in the stage and only reorients when Trover stands in a specific point along his path, allowing you to hit a button and teleport to his location. You can raise and lower your chair in-game to get a better vantage point, but the angles still aren't always where you want them to be, and it's awkward overall.

There's a telekinesis ability you pick up later to move blocks and environmental items around, and it's not nearly as intuitive using the right stick instead of your head to swing the camera around. For most of the game, though, there isn't really anything you need to formulate strategy around. Enemies are painfully basic grunts, usually taking three or four hits to go down. Shielded enemies have only one attack with a huge wind-up. Combat only gets harder extremely late in the game once enemies with body armor, who can only be taken out using Telekinesis, show up. The only real trick is getting the right perspective to see everything in the environment. You need to be diligent about this to find the extra power babies hidden around every stage, which are worth collecting; they give you extra health, and the descriptions for each are some of the best writing in the game.

Ultimately, even with all his neuroses and nonstop running mouth, Trover is the game's saving grace.

There's nothing special about Trover Saves The Universe from a gameplay standpoint. There's some lip service towards branching paths depending on decisions made during gameplay, but none of them drastically change the game one way or the other, aside from some alternate dialogue in the ending and a few extra trophies (the descriptions for which are hilarious, I might add). That leaves it to the comedy and concept to do most of the heavy lifting, much of which is very aware of its basic nature, and it makes it hard to be bored or unmotivated by how rudimentary it all is when Trover and many of the characters in the world around them are just as irked as you are at having to deal with a lot of the middling parts. Ultimately, even with all his neuroses and nonstop running mouth, Trover is the game's saving grace. The more Trover adjusts to being your sidekick, the more invested he gets in seeing this quest through, and the more relatable he becomes (even if he is, by his own admission, racist against Chairorpians). He's the guy trying to save the universe, but just so he can get back to his original plan, which is telling his boss off and getting sloshed at his favorite bar.

Essentially, Trover Saves The Universe is a really messed up alien buddy comedy. The work involved in spending time in this universe with these creatures is easy to a fault, but it's work being done with a hilarious partner who's often just as bored, annoyed, angry, or grossed out as you are. It's not the smoothest ride, but you've got the right company.

Pathologic 2 Review - Sick, Sick, Sick

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 16:00

Twenty-three people died last night. I couldn't do anything about it. Even if I had known how to save them I doubt I'd have been able to succeed. In Pathologic 2--a reimagining of the original Pathologic, itself a nightmarish adventure game from another era--you play a doctor who can barely save himself, let alone the wretched lives of those he encounters. Failure is your constant companion. Some games make you work hard for success, promoting that the rewards taste greater this way. Here, you're reduced to a beggar, pleading for the merest scrap, and even then Pathologic 2 will likely deny it to you.

Right from the outset, Pathologic 2 leaves you feeling disoriented. The prologue flits from one short, cryptic scene to the next, pausing only to let you ponder whether what you just experienced--a man waking from a coffin on a train, a fistfight among stone monuments, a giant bull, you murdering three men--actually happened or if it was a dream sequence or even some kind of hallucination. Once you've reached the game proper, two things become clear. One, you have arrived in town at the summons of your father, a respected surgeon, only to find him dead and you a suspect. Two, no one can give you a straight answer about anything.

This may give the impression that Pathologic 2 is something of a murder mystery. And in a sense, it is. Your father's death is the driving narrative force behind your exploration of your childhood home town. However, as you wander the streets seeking answers from important figures and old acquaintances, you reveal more mysteries to investigate. Why is the supply train late? Why are crows suddenly circling the old cathedral? What is this game the gangs of street children are inviting you to play? What's up with the impossibly-designed structure looming over the western horizon? And most notably, what's behind the apocalyptic plague now sweeping the town?

For the most part, Pathologic 2 is content to provide little in the way of answers to such questions, preferring instead to deal in metaphors, obscure Steppe mythology and sudden leaps of dream logic. Talking to a major NPC can very often feel like two people slinging nonsequiturs at each other until dialogue options are exhausted and the plot ticks inexorably forward. The writing here is mostly good, drawing on a range of rich imagery, so this is a deliberate stylistic choice to unsettle players through confusion and obfuscation rather than the result of inadequate translation from the developer's native Russian.

This sort of scattered, dizzying feeling of events that just won't quite come into focus is illustrated by what passes for the game's quest log. As you accumulate clues, they are added to your Thoughts screen and are represented by a floating collection of nodes, each one an idea or hunch that may connect to others or may be drifting all alone. Some of them do correspond to specific locations on the town map, helpfully proffering a rare moment of explicit instruction to "Go here," but typically they're little more than reminders of leads you should try to follow up somehow, if you have the time.

The passage of time is a constant pressure that reaches its heavy, nagging hands into every aspect of your travels. It's there in the day/night cycle that sees the streets become dangerous when the sun goes down and the plague's death toll ringing out when the clock strikes midnight. And it's also in the urgency felt by leads that expire if their deadlines pass unattended, causing you to lose out on experiencing situations that only occur at certain hours. You can't be everywhere and you can't save everyone, as the loading screens are at pains to frequently remind.

It's hard enough finding the time to save yourself. Not because you've been accused of murder and it's going to be difficult to clear your name, but because Pathologic 2 is a survival simulation at heart, and one that is unusually obsessed with the physical body. You have an overall health bar that is supported by secondary hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and infection meters, and it is to the game's detriment that you spend most of your time fretting about survival instead of contemplating the more metaphysical matters of the story.

These survival mechanics might have made you feel stressed about the dire circumstances you're in--and on a deeper thematic level got you thinking about the collection of blood, nerves and bones you comprise--but the execution here is lacking. You're in a desperate situation, there's a plague that has everyone scared, there's a genuine shortage of supplies, so yes, it makes sense that you'd be forced to scavenge for scraps of food and barter with other townsfolk for some repairs to your clothes. The idea is sound. In practice, Pathologic 2 has you rummaging through every trash can, hitting up every NPC for a trade, and breaking into every home you pass in the hopes of finding a way to support the dozen or so meals you need to consume each day just to stay alive.

Worse, this tedious busywork is a huge distraction from the reasons why you're doing any of it. I love all these strange people, and their haunting, inscrutable ways. I want to understand their strange, bleak lives in this strange, bleak town. But the trials you're forced to endure to reach that understanding are too painful. It hurts. Ultimately I just wanted to walk across town to chase up a plot thread without having to first break into a house to find some peanuts in a drawer that I could trade with an urchin for a fish that I could eat so as not to collapse from hunger before I reached my destination.

Pathologic 2 is the product of a perverse design philosophy. It's alternately intriguing and off-putting; it draws you in with its eerie, dreamlike setting and cast of unnaturally eccentric characters, but then it pushes you away with its nagging, mundane demands. In the end, I was resigned to let failure take me.

Blood and Truth Review - Move, Britannia

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 10:36

As it's a first-person shooter, it's not hard to imagine Blood and Truth working without VR. But the ways it reinvigorates some of the genre's mechanics also wouldn't be possible without it. Its first-person shooter action is still beholden to some of the inaccuracies and annoyances with PSVR and its less-than-precise tracking. But it also uses these forms of input to give you a satisfying amount of control over each firefight and the various activities between them. Whether it's tearing off grenade pins with your teeth or hanging from scaffolding while returning fire, Blood and Truth does an admirable job expanding on familiar shooter concepts while maintaining a comfortable VR experience.

Blood and Truth can only be played with two Move controllers. You're explicitly told to play from a seated position, and you’re given numerous points around your torso to interact with. Putting a hand to your chest, for example, will let you grab stored ammunition for reloading, while you can find handgun holsters on both your hips and slings for larger weapons behind your shoulders. Blood and Truth makes you move to reach the weapons you need at the moment you need them, while also making these movements easy and natural to remember.

There's a slightly long calibration process that helps make each of these motions smooth and accurate. A lot of care is taken to ensure that you're being tracked correctly at all times, which helps when you're flung into some fast-paced shootouts. The accurate tracking produces one of the most comfortable experiences I've ever had using PSVR. Although Blood and Truth doesn't completely eradicate some tracking issues (which are more hardware related), it entirely sidesteps common issues such as camera drifting and annoyingly erratic motion-tracking losses.

That isn't to say issues aren't frustrating when they do crop up. It's common to wrestle with a two-handed assault rifle and its attached scope while the game struggles to determine the angle that you're trying to aim at. This leads to numerous frustrating deaths when the situation demands more dexterity than the hardware is capable of providing you, deflating otherwise challenging encounters with failures that feel out of your control.

Blood and Truth almost successfully distracts you from this by giving you much more to do with your hands, enhancing its otherwise rote first-person shooting. Weapons such as a pump-action shotgun feel more satisfying to use when you're grasping the pump handle with your free hand and actively pulling back to reload after every shot, while a silenced pistol has tangibly more accuracy after you rest your free hand over to the side of it for added stability. Blood and Truth lets you get ridiculous with how you approach combat, too, allowing you to wield a powerful assault rifle in one hand and a sawed-off shotgun in the other at the expense of accuracy.

Your movement in Blood and Truth is limited, but that helps the action flow smoothly. Blood and Truth only ever has you facing in a direction it determines, giving you the control to move to predetermined areas in front of your or strafe to the side at the press of a button. There are no confusing segmented rotations to grapple with, so you're free to focus on how to navigate your way forward and use what cover is available in effective ways.

With this in mind, it's comforting that enemies can't find themselves in inaccessible spaces behind you, and you have enough choices in a firefight to keep it dynamic rather than simply on rails. Transitioning to new cover and the freedom you're given to make slight adjustments to your firing angles with strafing are smooth and responsive, letting you satisfyingly flank enemies with ease. There are some sparse stealth sections to break up the sometimes unrelenting action, giving you options to navigate through cramped office spaces or derelict apartments and pick off enemies with silenced weapons. It is exhilarating to string together a number of silent kills before being spotted, again highlighting how much space Blood and Truth gives you to work with despite being so restrictive with your movement.

When you're not poking your head out in between gunshots, you're doing anything from picking locks to shimmying your way across construction supports and crawling through open vents. Each of these actions (and more) make good use of the Move controllers, making your movements feel more intimate than they ever could with a standard controller. Lock picking, for example, tasks you with rotating one Move controller slowly and then using the other to quickly lock the pin in place when in the right position. It feels both precise and natural, and goes a long way to making the otherwise mundane action of unlocking a door surprisingly engaging.

Although Blood and Truth doesn't completely eradicate some tracking issues (which are more hardware related), it entirely sidesteps common issues such as camera drifting and annoyingly erratic motion-tracking losses.

The same can be said for the many ways in which Blood and Truth lets you climb around its many environments. You'll have to reach out to grab overhead bars or protruding rebar pieces from walls to gracefully pull yourself upwards, carefully making sure not to unclench both hands when you're dangling over a deadly plunge. Some set-pieces make use of this to create some memorable shootouts, as you hang for your life using one arm and frantically return fire with the other. Having to physically grip to hold on, while remaining aware of where your hands are positioned, makes these actions feel all the more natural and satisfying.

With some strong action and creative uses of VR, it's a shame that Blood and Truth fails to encapsulate all of this into a story that doesn't feel as disjointed and hokey as it does. Following the escapades of a London-based crime family under threat, Blood and Truth flicks through every gangster story cliche in the book. Moments of gravitas are undone by stilted voice acting and poor writing, while others can't decide whether they're trying to be a grounded crime tale or a globe-trotting James Bond imitation. Blood and Truth never settles on a consistent tone that helps move its story along, which make its narrative-focused stages (that feature no action) drawn-out and dull.

Blood and Truth is uneven, especially when it's determined to get you to focus on an uninteresting story while you're putting up with the shortcomings of VR. But the beauty of Blood and Truth is that it also does marvelous things with the platform. The addition of motion control make familiar and mundane mechanics engaging, while also breaking up the smartly designed first-person shooting and establishing a great rhythm to the six-or-so-hour campaign. Blood and Truth doesn't manage to stick the landing in all aspects, but it's definitely a step forward for PSVR shooters.

Dauntless Review - A Whole New World

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 14:00

Dauntless brims with energy. It's in everything from the exuberant use of color to the larger-than-life Behemoths with cheeky nods to the developer's Canadian roots. Monster Hunter: World's high-realism design almost feels grimdark in comparison to the Shattered Isles' Crayola color scheme of glamors and on-the-nose armor designs. The game has chutzpah, but it lacks that little bit more to keep you properly engaged in its monster hunting fracas.

At first glance, Dauntless looks and appears to play like a beginner-friendly version of Capcom's monster-slaying franchise. After a robust character creator (which features some nice non-gender conforming options), you're thrust into a dangerous world via an unceremonious plane crash. The premise behind your existence here is a simple one which isn't really brought up ever again: you need to kill things that are making the place dangerous, and killing these enormous things sometimes involves calling upon your mates for help. Hunt, slay, repeat. Hunting the giant monsters that stalk the Shattered Isles, slaying them, and repeating it until you've gathered enough parts to make a cape out of tailfeathers is something that you repeat ad infinitum.

The game's Behemoths are intelligent, deadly, and initially occupy a strange space between fantastical and woodland creatures. You find yourself taking up arms against killer beavers, oversized owls, and angry turtles. The beaver feels like a tongue-in-cheek nod to the developer's Canadian origins, and because the early reference points are mostly animals that we're familiar with (as opposed to more esoteric dinosaur-dragon hybrids), it means that there's a level of innate predictability in how some of these creatures fight. The Gnasher, our beaver-like friend, will slap you around with its oversized tail. The Shrike, a gigantic killer owl, flies around and uses its wings to create tornadoes. The Embermane, an analog for a lion, prances and pounces like the best of them in the Serengeti. The fact that these initial monsters have physiques and species archetypes that occur naturally in our world makes them less, well, daunting. Behemoth designs become more intricate once you've left the relative safety of the first few locations and have to contend with insects shooting deadly lasers at you, but by and large, you're fighting creatures that you can intuit a solution for.

This means that the beasts can lack the same gut-punch effect upon first sight that you may be used to from facing down prehistoric nightmares in other games, exacerbated by the cartoony art direction and the game's straightforward approach to hunting. Dauntless gives you access to an assortment of weapons which all vastly affect the hunting experience. From dual-wielding guns to teleporting with chain blades, there's a good variety that caters to different styles. Bladed weapons are better for slicing off monster parts, while others crush skulls more effectively. No matter what you pick, you're going to be able to bring something valuable to a group situation.

That being said, once you figure out the basics of knocking bits off Behemoths using a mixture of heavy attacks, light attacks, and special skills, that's really all you've got to worry about in the heat of the moment. The only concern in any hunt is the slavering monster trying to eat you up--no need to worry about finding respite, concocting traps, or anything related to the idea of tracking your prey. Dauntless isn't drinking from the well of realism by any means, but the lack of these touches ultimately make it hard to stay engaged in the moment. This isn't to say that the fights themselves lack the difficulty required to get your heart rate up; a total wipe becomes more common as you start throwing yourself against bigger and badder critters. That being said, the lack of verticality and overall variety in terrain means that there's simply not a lot to parse.

This same feeling of just falling a little short is also present when it comes to the fifteen or so hours of the core story. Monster Hunter: World worked off an involved, overarching single-player narrative to guide you from each unique in-game location to another in your quest to push a dying, continent-sized lizard out to sea. Conversely, Dauntless gives you an almost-administrative motivation for your actions. You need to clean things in the overworld because, well, it keeps people safe. Also, hope you've got time to gather fifteen stalks of a plant in-between trying to knock the skull off a giant monster, because a quest-giver back home is scientifically curious.

There's not much of an attempt to get you particularly invested in the main campaign, which means that if you're someone who prefers taking down ice-spewing owlbears solo, your only true motivation is going to be the satisfaction of throwing yourself at said ice-spewing owlbear. If you're playing alone, you can end up feeling isolated. This is the most noticeable in the game's hub world, Ramsgate. Even when the servers are bustling (we're talking matchmaking queues that are 100,000 players deep), there's a distinct lack of reflection of that in Ramsgate. The place feels empty, with perhaps only a handful of people standing around.

The NPCs feel like a lost opportunity in the same vein. While you will be undoubtedly happy that you can pet the dog (and hopefully, the rams), and that the local blacksmith is serving high-fashion lumberjack looks for days, the aesthetic appeal is where it ends. There's no feeling of life to Ramsgate. No roaming vendors, no murmuring chit-chat when things get busy. There are swaths of bare corridors and paths for you to sprint down, but by and large, the town exists for you to pick up collectibles and quests. Everyone that you can talk to looks like they're hiding a cool backstory, but you never get to experience it.

The multiplayer side of things is where Dauntless really shines, and the reality is that the title feels optimized for it. Cross-platform compatibility has been available since launch day, which means that regardless of whether you're slaying Behemoths on PC, PlayStation 4, or Xbox One, your multiplayer pool will encompass all three. This is advantageous because matchmaking is, in practice, refreshingly seamless. No need to fiddle with a menu or five, and it's nice that each platform's native friends lists are imported into the client. Matchmaking usually takes a matter of seconds, which makes Dauntless feel very plug-and-play in the best way.

The game is not without its quirks, however--opening up a menu as you're finishing a hunt might trap you in there, unable to exit out. Going into a hunt with a group of friends and becoming stuck on the loading screen until you relog will kick you from the party and the endeavor. You could also fall into part of the landscape at Ramsgate and be unable to extricate yourself without restarting the client. Something as simple as ensuring that the hotkey to interact with things works each and every time is not a foolproof feature yet, which can lead to repeat frustrations at inopportune times.

Dauntless is also a free to play game. It's impressive in terms of what it offers in terms of content, accessibility, and the fact that you aren't constantly bludgeoned over the head with the need to spend any real money on anything. There are dyes, cute emotes and other cosmetic improvements which are part and parcel of F2P, and also a "Hunt Pass" which rewards players for completing in-game objectives. There isn't the ability to purchase your way to a sure victory against the Behemoths and the relatively unobtrusive presence of the F2P elements like the various in-game shops means that you can spend absolutely nothing and not feel like you're missing out at all unless you're a fiend for glamoring your gear.

Overall, Dauntless is clearly an experience that has been optimized to deliver the most stress-free multiplayer session possible. From the seamless crossplay to the way that anyone can hop into a game and confidently take up arms against formidable foes, it’s refreshingly accessible and looks great to boot. While it can feel a little empty, and there are bugs that mar the experience here and there, its fresh look and lively spark are more than enticing enough to warrant a spin.

Void Bastards Review - Into The Void

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 12:45

Void Bastards never lets you get too comfortable. As you explore spaceships, scrounging around for supplies to push yourself that little bit further, your strategy has to be flexible. An electrifying zapper is good for immobilizing some enemies, but it's useless against those with shields. A lobbed grenade is handy against those shielded enemies, but it prevents you from taking more devastating firepower with you to fight beefier foes. Void Bastards forces you to make small decisions with each stop at a not-so-abandoned vessel, which makes these encounters challenging and exciting.

Void Bastards puts you in the space shoes of numerous rehydrated "clients" aboard a stranded personnel vessel, whose AI has had no choice but to rely on its dangerous cargo to repair the ship for a final jump to its destination. You are tasked with searching any nearby ships for special items and other resources, using components you find to craft new weapons and tools that will help you both evade and combat the numerous nasty enemies protecting these rewards. This encapsulates the main loop you'll find yourself in throughout the 15-hour campaign.

The game hops between a frenetic first-person shooter when you board ships and a galactic exploration adventure outside of them. Your small vessel requires fuel to travel, while you need food to survive each passing day in the empty void. Both of these resources are found on nearby ships, which you can inspect from afar to identify its possible inhabitants, lucrative rewards, and unique modifiers before making a choice on whether to board or pass by. Modifiers can include anything from security systems being graciously offline to the hallways being stripped of lights to make your journey through them more treacherous. These small modifiers keep your ventures on ships exciting, providing knock-on effects for you and its enemies to play off of.

Punchy one-liners and some dark humor drive Void Bastard's world-building, which is primarily conveyed by your AI handler and occasionally by intercom systems on ships you board. Neither expand on the lore enough to make the setting any more interesting than it is at face value, but it's entertaining enough to earn a few chuckles throughout. The story is supported by gorgeous comic book-style cutscenes that bookend each completed objective. It has a distinct style that immediately gives Void Bastards an identity.

The comic book aesthetic transitions over beautifully into gameplay, where the action looks like it was ripped from the narrative panels preceding them. Explosions litter the screen with onomatopoetic descriptions of their destructive power, represented visually with bold colors and thick black outlines. Enemies move as if they're 2D sprites living in a 3D space, rotating at fixed increments to face you. It's a striking style that makes Void Bastards immediately recognizable and imbues its adventure with personality.

With its rogue-lite structure, Void Bastards is as much about staying alive as long as you can as it is about dying. You won't lose all your progress when your current character expires, but you will lose any hoarded ammunition, fuel, and food. You'll also lose your current character, who might be equipped with both useful and detrimental abilities. One might be capable of silently sprinting, letting you get by enemies faster without alerting them. Another could do the exact opposite by randomly coughing and giving away your position. It's fun to work with and around these traits, but Void Bastards graciously lets you keep any weapon and gadget upgrades as well as objective progress intact should you lose a character early.

Crafting these items is streamlined, too. A clear and concise upgrade tree shows you exactly what you need to build a new item, as well as what components you should look out for to upgrade them a tier. You can even tag certain pieces of gear and have any possible nearby locations with their required components show up on the galaxy map, clearly charting you a course towards them. Void Bastards rewards you with items for upgrades frequently. You'll likely have something new to craft after most dangerous expeditions onto nearby ships, which not only helps shake up each combat encounter with some new weapons and toys, but also expands your options for engagement with the numerous types of enemies you'll come into contact with.

The game's enemy variety is key to keeping each expedition surprising, and they start off simple enough. Slow-to-react but explosive blue alien blobs and dim-witted Janitors litter the halls of your first few ships, eventually giving way to quick and foul-mouthed Juveniles and skittish Scribes that run away from danger. As you descend into deeper nebulas with more rewards, the dangers increase, with formidable variations on previous enemies. Hard-hitting Stevs will make quick work of your health bar while Secs can quickly render your loadout redundant, as their impenetrable shields block everything you throw at them.

The randomized selection of enemies on ships and their increasing ferocity keeps you thinking about which weapons to take on board, as well as how they can combine for particular strategies. You're given the choice of three items to bring with you as you dock, and your loadout cannot be changed once you've boarded the vessel, making your understanding of the perils aboard paramount to your selections. For example, if a ship's security systems are down but it's overrun with hulking Stevs, it might be better to leave behind a stun gun and bring along the autonomous and explosive Kittybots, which do a great job of distracting foes as you slip past. Ships with smaller enemies in large numbers might benefit from a weapon with a faster rate of fire over a semi-automatic pistol. Since each slot serves a purpose (weapon, explosive and gadget) it's fun to play around with different combinations and see which combine in both creative and effective ways.

There are hundreds of weapons at your disposal, but the variety between them and the tools you have allows for this experimentation. It's satisfying to use an immobilizing stun gun to freeze groups of enemies in place before launching a package of small grenades that bounce and ricochet off the walls of a narrow walkway to deal devastating damage. A silent dart gun can let you poison enemies from afar, letting you watch them slowly die as you soak up their incoming fire with a personal shield should you be spotted. Or you could take a more indirect approach by sucking up an enemy into your rift gun, placing them in an airlock and launching them out into space. The careful distribution of ammunition for each weapon prevents you from stockpiling enough for your favorites all the time, which pushes you to become familiar with your entire arsenal too. It avoids being frustrating because of how fun each weapon is to use in the right situation, but also makes you carefully consider when to use the right tool for the right job.

The ships you board can also throw up strategic combat options for you to exploit through their randomized construction. Simply being able to lock doors lets you create traps for enemies to wander into, letting you slide in a few explosives before locking them into a hallway with no escape. You can override security systems and make them fight for you if you have enough credits to spend, while environmental hazards such as nuclear spills and severed electrical cables can serve as nuisances or convenient traps depending on whether you see them in time or not. Void Bastards gives you maps for each of the ships you board from the start, letting you focus on the foes lurking in their halls rather than remembering how to get back to your exit. Resources are hidden between enemies and hazards; this keeps exploration fun and interesting while ditching the tedium of basic navigation.

Void Bastards succeeds because it keeps you moving forward and rewards you on the way, without feeling like a pushover as a result.

Void Bastards doesn't introduce changes to its gameplay loop throughout its course, and its narrative objectives don't shake it up meaningfully. But there's a steady flow of new weapons and suitably challenging enemies to test them on, so you don't get stuck in a rut. And because you maintain some progress between deaths, dying doesn't dissuade you from jumping right into the next run. Void Bastards succeeds because it keeps you moving forward and rewards you on the way, without feeling like a pushover as a result.

This delicate balance highlights the assortment of randomized levels, enemy compilations and uniquely designed weaponry that all make Void Bastards an absolute delight. It's wildly entertaining to go from ship to ship and eradicate enemies with constantly shifting strategies, and equally engaging to use your scavenging gains to make yourself feel increasingly powerful. It's a satisfyingly stylish shooter that manages to play as well as, if not better than, it looks.

Draugen Review - Mystery Loves Company

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 12:29

"This isn't Agatha Christie. There won't be a convenient set of clues leading to a tidy conclusion." That's what protagonist Edward Charles Harden tells his 17-year-old ward Lissie, and by extension the player, halfway through Draugen's fjord-noir mystery. A good ending is only as important as the joy of the journey to get there, but can a fascinating mystery succeed in its own right without a Christie-style "tidy conclusion"? Draugen's conclusion is certainly an untidy one, but regardless of whether you like your mysteries neatly solved, the somewhat unsatisfying ending does not eclipse the fascinating characters, gripping story, and breathtaking town of Graavik.

It's 1923 and Edward and Lissie have traveled from Hanover, Massachusetts to a fishing village in Norway in search of Edward's younger sister, Elizabeth, who has gone missing. Everything you learn about these three central characters is through conversations between the stoic academic Edward and his vivacious young ward. The interplay between the two is delivered through naturally flowing dialogue; you can interject, begin conversations, continue them, or choose to stay silent. This enhances your involvement in embodying Edward, which is important, as he is otherwise a fairly single-minded character in a linear narrative.

In stark contrast, Lissie has a wild and liberal approach to life. In fact, Lissie is the antithesis of Edward, a fact that becomes more significant as the central mysteries of the game wear on. On top of that, the strong performances behind each of the central characters bolster their personalities. In particular, Edward's mutterings, pauses, and audible skimming through letters and selecting what to read aloud to Lissie makes those interactions feel more genuine.

The countryside village of Graavik is positively beautiful. Sunlight filters through glowing orange leaves on trees, shadows drift across your path, and the snow-capped mountain tops are such a bright white that they fade into the clouds. Lissie is animated with a loving attention to detail; the minor curve of her lips or a slightly raised eyebrow do much to convey her opinions and relationship to Edward. Alongside the stunning vistas, the sound design establishes a palpable sense of place; the wind is constantly roaring through the mountain valley and rustling trees, and there are rushing falls and singing birds. Everything is, in fact, so perfect that it feels unreal, and it's no mistake that that is one of the central dualities that underpin the narrative. The town is, as it happens, completely empty, and all of that natural beauty gives way to a tangible tension as you uncover how deep secrecy and tragedy run in the otherwise unassuming village.

Because it's a first-person exploration adventure, the familiarity of certain narrative tropes that have become expected in this genre--a creepy mine, an abandoned house, a curse, a gregarious companion--have less of an impact. Draugen is most effective when it steps away from expectation--when you engage in and explore the curious relationship between Edward and Lissie, when it calls upon you to second-guess the assertions of its protagonists, and when the imagined blurs with reality, sometimes imperceptibly.

The central mystery of the town revolves around unique and interesting characters with intricate lives, but it's Edward's personal character arc that takes precedence. Draugen deals in simple themes, like its noir whodunit narrative, and more complicated ones, like psychology, trauma, and the perils of isolation. The complex ideas are explored more thoroughly through Edward, forcing the base mystery into the back seat. Though this creates a more satisfying psychological journey for Edward, it rips the narrative away from the mystery of Graavik's inhabitants at a pivotal moment. Edward carries a journal with him, though there are no consistent entries; rather, it houses an annotated map and his drawings of the town. Given Draugen's focus on Edward's evolution and motivations, it's a missed opportunity that his journal doesn't offer up a deeper analysis of his inner workings. But while some elements of the game's mysteries remain unresolved, Edward's literal and emotional journey is ultimately satisfying, and his character becomes extremely sympathetic.

To explain much more would be a disservice to the joy of unraveling Draugen's mysteries for yourself. It's exciting to piece apart the history of the abandoned town, and the horrors the befell it, even though it's up to your interpretation to decide if there's supernatural elements or foul play at work. There is a central narrative path to follow, though even if you pore over all of the intriguing newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, and other optional documents, the story comes to a close in three hours. The final chapters are somewhat abrupt, and while certain elements--like the character arc of Edward--are satisfying to see come to their natural end, it feels as though there's too much left undone. My laundry list of questions upon finishing the game would be a frustrating final takeaway, were it not for the joy of watching Edward and Lissie evolve, running the gamut of serene to terrifying moments, and ultimately echoing one of Edward's final utterances: "I almost wish we had more time to dig into the history of Graavik."

Leaving questions unanswered doesn't present a failure in the narrative, but rather the notion that Graavik feels like a town with so much more to say, whose inhabitants deserve to have more of their stories told. It's a theme the game vocalizes through Lissie's dialogue several times, and yet it rarely provides concrete answers as to what precisely happened in the town. In this way, leaving Graavik behind is disappointing--but more significantly, that feeling is a hallmark of how fascinating the world and its characters are. Graavik is beautiful and unforgettable, and the joy in watching Edward and Lissie grow and change is the core of Draugen's success in character building and writing. The puzzle pieces of the central mysteries you can slot together are satisfying, and the picture they begin to create is truly captivating, even if you are left wishing you could see just a bit more of it.

Layers of Fear 2 Review - Ghost Ship

Sat, 05/25/2019 - 06:21

Peel back the layers and there's a clear connective tissue tying Layers of Fear 2 and its predecessor together. Both games are centered around an artist gradually losing their grip on reality. While the original game focused on a struggling painter in an opulent Victorian mansion, Layers of Fear 2 shifts art forms to tell the story of a Hollywood actor during the Golden Age of cinema, as he embarks on a new role in a movie being shot aboard a decadent ocean liner. Developer Bloober Team has created something more varied and ambitious than its past work, taking inspiration from iconic film directors like Georges Méliès, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock. And while it is a visually striking horror game, Layers of Fear 2 struggles to establish its own identity and explore its themes of anguish and despair in meaningful ways.

The story itself is like a jigsaw puzzle; some of the pieces come together as the narrative unfolds, but others are scattered across the environment as notes, optional puzzles, sound recordings, and paraphernalia that provide new details on your character's troubled past. You might not be able to put the whole picture together before the game's conclusion, but it's a familiar and clichéd tale that isn't too difficult to discern once events begin to wrap up. Childhood trauma is the key motif, built around the relationship you had with your sister, but Layers of Fear 2 regularly uses routine horror tropes as opposed to something more personal. This decision doesn't coalesce with the story to provide a sense that your character's state of mind and past anguish are shaping what's happening. During the first act you catch spectral forms out of the corner of your eye, and this eventually evolves into frequent appearances from crudely assembled mannequins and a formless monster that stalks you through much of the game. These creatures are unnerving, but they're not really specific to the game or this character, failing to capitalize on the strengths of psychological horror and the inherent importance of a character's fears and trepidations in manifesting intimate threats.

Similarly, much of Layers of Fear 2's art design is wrapped around the classic films that inspired it, which doesn't always come together in a consistent way. Saying it takes place aboard a ship is a tad disingenuous, as the setting is constantly shifting and transporting you to a variety of disparate environments. Overt homages to films such as The Wizard of Oz, A Trip to the Moon, and Nosferatu are littered throughout the game. Some of them are deftly woven into the narrative and the game's own art style, but others lack context and fail to rise above being mere visual spectacles, foregoing any semblance of cohesion with the rest of the game. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you have an appreciation for this era of cinema, but it also makes Layers of Fear 2 feel like an inconsequential mishmash of film references without any clear significance to the story it's trying to tell.

Much of Layers of Fear 2's art design is wrapped around the classic films that inspired it, which doesn't always come together in a consistent way

Your interactions with the world are very tangible, which helps ground you in the game's setting even when the threads of reality are stretched thinner and thinner. The majority of your time is spent simply exploring each space, gathering knick-knacks to fill in the story, and solving puzzles to progress. The conundrums it places before you are never particularly challenging or memorable, whether it's using a dial with 10 numbers to multiply up to a specific digit or manipulating a roll of film to create a doorway. Some of them are in keeping with the tone of the game and its cinematic feel, but others are so inane they just feel out of place.

What Layers of Fear 2 does do well is build atmosphere and an ever-escalating sense of dread. The score is ominous, utilizing string instruments to send a chill down your spine. But there are also plenty of opportunities for the sound design to breathe on its own, too. The creaking of wooden floorboards, rats scurrying past your feet, and the plip-plop of dripping water create tension despite their mundanity. It also makes you hesitant to simply turn around, as the environment toys with impossible spaces, distorting the world around you when you're not looking. When you walk into a room and find a locked door with nowhere else to go but back the way you came, the suspense hits, tapping into that fear of the unknown--of what's waiting to greet you once you turn your head.

Unfortunately, these anxiety-inducing feelings diminish as the game progresses and it leans too heavily on tried and tested tactics. The aforementioned mannequins are consistently impressive due to their creepy stop-motion-esque movement, but they're featured so heavily that their effect as something to be scared of is severely diminished. This is a problem with Layers of Fear 2 as a whole; the protracted playtime of around 10 hours struggles to maintain its early momentum through the last couple of chapters. The formless creature that oftentimes stalks you adds some urgency to what is otherwise a methodical affair, but the most terrifying thing about the chase sequences is the threat of having to redo them if you fail. Sometimes the monster's arrival comes so suddenly that you're dead before even realizing what's happened, and these cheap insta-kills mean you're frustratingly subjected to the same death animation over and over again.

There are remnants of an excellent horror game submerged just below the surface of Layers of Fear 2. Horror icon Tony Todd--of Candyman fame--lends his bassy growl to the disembodied and omnipresent voice of the film's eccentric director. Each word he bellows is a sonorous treat, no matter how terrifying his performance is. The art design, too, while disjointed, conjures some breathtaking imagery that you can't help but marvel at. It's just a shame that Layers of Fear 2 frequently pays lip service to the films and games that clearly inspired it while struggling to find a voice of its own. The story is too hazy to latch onto until the latter stages, and then nothing about it is particularly engaging, with its central mystery building towards something we've seen numerous times before. It occasionally hints at interesting themes but fails to go anywhere with them, falling back on telegraphed jump scares rather than delving deeper into the psychological horror it can only tease at. For every piece of good work there's an analogous aspect that lacks focus and direction. Layers of Fear 2 feels lost at sea.

Observation Review - Space Madness

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 09:00

In Observation you play as SAM (Systems Administration and Maintenance), the AI assistant of a space station that represents the joint efforts of Europe, China, and Russia. Your abilities are limited by your absence of a corporeal form--for most of the game you're controlling the cameras dotted around the station and interacting with any computers or digital panels within their range of vision. You have access to a station map that expands over time, and you're able to jump between cameras across the entire ship at will. It might sound like a limiting conceit, but Observation uses your unique position of omniscient claustrophobia to craft a compelling, creepy, and extremely original narrative experience.

The year is 2026, and you're on the station with Emma Fisher, a European crew member who awakens at the game's beginning to find that she has no contact with the rest of her crew on board. It's immediately clear that something catastrophic has happened; the station is no longer in Earth's orbit, and no-one is answering her attempts at communication. To say much more would be to spoil elements of a plot that are best left to surprise you--the first major twist happens within about 20 minutes. Suffice it to say that Observation's narrative unfurls slowly across the entire length of the game, with its mysteries growing all the more complicated and your sense of dread deepening as the game goes on.

Observation absolutely nails its distinct lo-fi, sci-fi aesthetic. The cameras crackle and jump as you shift between them, and the stylistic film grain and distortion over every visual emphasizes your slight removal from the reality of the situation Emma is facing. Like many science fiction works of the last forty years, Observation is indebted to Ridley Scott's Alien--some of the tech aboard the space station feel like antiquated products of a decade long past. This aesthetic, paired with the game's too-near future setting, gives Observation the pleasant feeling of an uncovered classic or remake of an ambitious, older piece of work. SAM is far and away the most advanced piece of technology on the station, and even when you load up your own system menu (which lets you view the map, check system alerts, and perform other functions that unlock during the game) you're treated to some pleasantly analog and retro buzzing and whirring sound effects.

You experience most of the game through the slow panning and zooming cameras, an effective tool at creating a creeping sense of tension, although the occasional cutscene is used to better capture action at a crucial moment. It's not about jump scares or personally being in danger; again, to say too much more would be to spoil the game's clever pacing, but it's a game that's incredibly effective at building dread more than overt terror.

The actual gameplay is, for the most part, pretty simple. You need to explore the ship as much as you can from your various vantage points, scanning every document and inspecting every laptop you encounter, opening and shutting hatch doors, and interacting with the station's equipment. The bulk of the puzzles boil down to figuring out how to operate SAM's interface, finding schematics to help you operate certain programs, and learning the necessary procedures for the instructions you are given.

The game does an excellent job of taking complex ideas and procedures and presenting them as simple operations. Everything from opening the airlock to securing the doors between sections of the station boils down to a few button presses; occasionally you'll have to take part in what is essentially a timed mini-game, but for the most part, you're just following basic instructions. The main challenge comes from figuring out how the different parts of the ship all work together, and reasoning through the impact of your actions and what information you do and don't currently have access to.

At certain points, you'll need to control a spherical droid that can float around the station--and, more excitingly, outside the station--freely. It's a bit of a pain to control in tight spots, and it's easy to lose your bearings because the concepts of up and down are relative in zero-gravity environments. But there's a real thrill in breaking free from the static cameras and floating through the station, and in getting used to the sphere's limitations. Observation doles these sections out expertly, using the droid when it needs to make you feel more a part of what is happening. It plays on the droid's symbolic sense of place extremely well; it's the physical element of SAM that sells Emma's growing friendship with him.

Often what you need to do next, and how to do it, will be spelled out extremely clearly, though the game's instructions could stand to be a tad clearer in a few sections. One time it seemed like I had hit a particularly abstract puzzle, but it turned out that I'd actually encountered a glitch where a certain event didn't trigger properly, which necessitated a quick checkpoint reset. This was a pain, as the game's checkpointing can be a bit strict--you keep any information you've collected through scanning objects, but it doesn't save after major actions, so it's hard to know exactly what you'll have to redo when you exit out. But it's not too big an issue, as I never lost more than a few minutes of progress.

Slowly discovering every system on board, inspecting every room, and unlocking more menus and commands within SAM's UI is an absolute treat. Observation is a visual stunner, with only the odd lip-sync issue occasionally distracting from the level of polish and craft on display. Later events ramp up the inherent creepy isolation of a space station perfectly, too. The story is compelling and exciting right up until the credits roll, and the game doesn't let up on revelations, twists, or the increasing tension of knowing that the game is building towards something wild. Observation also achieves the extremely rare feat of containing audio logs that are both compelling and make sense within its world.

Observation is a wonderful example of how to do focused, self-contained science-fiction storytelling in a game. It's well-written and clever, and nails the sci-fi tropes and aesthetics it both plays to and builds upon. It's a game that demands to be analyzed and thought about further once you're done with it, and while the internal world of the game is small, inhabiting it is a real pleasure.

Everybody's Golf VR Review - Bogey

Wed, 05/22/2019 - 03:46

The latest title in Sony's long-running golf series, Everybody's Golf VR is the first to bring the series to virtual reality. The transition isn't without its bumps, with the biggest being a lack of Everybody's Golf's traditional competitive modes. But the PSVR golf game does deliver a fairly realistic golfing experience that's both accessible to play and fairly challenging to master.

Everybody's Golf VR abandons the franchise's usual third-person view for a first-person perspective. The three-click swing mechanic (commonly seen in most of today's golf games) is also gone. Instead, you swing your clubs with a PlayStation Move or DualShock 4 controller, hopefully in one smooth motion. The direction of the ball is determined by the angle you hit it, and distance is calculated by how hard you swing. There are other factors to consider when you're on the course as well, such as wind direction and your elevation in relation to the hole.

Actually swinging your arms to hit the ball takes a bit to get used to, but the motion controls are remarkably responsive with a DualShock 4 controller. Once you've got the form down on your swing, you'll be able to reliably hit the ball the way you want to. The same can't be said for the PlayStation Move controller. Occasionally, the Move controller works fine, but I found myself more often than not being unable to even reach the ball with my club while swinging the Move. I ultimately just had to stop using it, as it became too frustrating to play a near-perfect hole only to be stopped short just because my club would not reach down far enough to hit the ball no matter how much I crouched.

In Everybody's Golf VR, the golf balls behave as they're expected to, obeying the laws of gravity when it comes to the arc of your shot or elevation of a slope, and their roll realistically heeds to changes in friction when terrain is affected by different weather patterns, like rain. As previously mentioned, the motion controls are pretty precise. The camera measures whether your swing misses the ball, glances off of it, or makes full contact, and then takes the angle and power of your swing into account. Shifting too much of your body weight to one side or curving your swing typically results in a lousy shot, while maintaining good form sends your ball flying straight as an arrow (provided there are no environmental factors to take into account as well). The game isn't an exact representation of reality--you don't have to swing nearly as aggressively as a professional golfer to achieve distances like one--but Everybody's Golf VR sells you on the experience that you're actually playing golf in your living room.

There's a welcome variety of customization options in Everybody's Golf VR, allowing players of all skill levels to enjoy time on the course. If you're having trouble putting, for example, you can turn on vacuum holes--which suck the ball in provided you get your shot close enough. For a more challenging experience, you can tee up on longer versions of the courses where it's harder to hit par. There are some nice accessibility options as well, such as the choice to play while standing up or sitting down, the option to change your dominant hand from right to left, and the freedom to choose between several sets of clubs--including one that makes it easier to hit the ball straight if you have limited mobility in your arms. There's plenty in Everybody's Golf VR to make the experience appealing to all types of players, and helpful tutorials give newcomers a chance to grasp the basics of the sport until they can get the swing of things.

Everybody's Golf VR's courses are populated with everything you'd expect to see in a golf game, like sand traps and trees, as well as a few things you might not, like dinosaurs. Occasionally, a bee flies in your face or the sound of a wave crashes onto a nearby beach. These sights and sounds are never distracting, but via a PSVR headset and headphones, they do make it feel like each golf course is full of life. Decide to look closely enough, however, and you'll notice the golf resort's reception area and each course is always eerily empty save for your character and either the receptionist or your caddie. It's a tad unsettling.

Though it runs out of steam quickly, Everybody's Golf VR is fun while it lasts, and there are satisfying goals to chase for a time.

Each distinct environment provides more than just a cosmetic change, as a course's aesthetic translates into different environmental hazards to deal with; the Seaside Course is very windy, for example, and its holes have a lot more sand and water traps for your ball to be blown into. A course's hazards aren't enough to force you to drastically change how you play, but they do provide just enough of a welcome challenge to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. It's fun learning about how a new course works, and satisfying to successfully deduce how to adapt to it. In the Seaside Course, for instance, you can risk timing your shot to a powerful gust of wind in hopes it will send your ball flying over an out-of-bounds area--which could save you an entire swing in the long run.

Unfortunately, there aren't many courses for you to play on. And other than Practice Range, the only game mode in Everybody's Golf VR is Course. In Course, you do have the choice of whether you play a random three holes from a course, the first nine, the last nine, or all 18. But with only three courses total, you'll end up replaying the same holes repeatedly in order to unlock all the in-game rewards. It gets tedious after a few hours.

The lack of additional modes in Everybody's Golf VR is a step back in comparison to previous titles in the series, many of which have one or two modes where you can face off against NPCs. As is, the only thing you can do in Everybody's Golf VR is play a course by yourself while your nearby caddie yells words of encouragement. Everybody's Golf VR does lessen some of its tedium with those caddies, though, as the eagerly helpful Riko and teasingly friendly Lucy help make your repeated trips out to the same collection of courses far less lonely.

Replaying courses allows you to unlock additional outfits for your caddie to wear, which is a fun cosmetic reward to chase after. You can also unlock a handful of Events by partnering with a caddie long enough. Some play out like romantically-charged mini dates, but most are just goofy distractions good for a laugh or two. Each caddie has her own unique set of four Events, and though their unlock rates are spread out enough that it will take you a few hours to see them all, once you do there's nothing compelling to work towards in the game.

Despite the lack of different activities in Everybody's Golf VR, the one thing it does do--provide a means of playing golf without actually having to go outside--is relatively enjoyable. Though it runs out of steam quickly, Everybody's Golf VR is fun while it lasts, and there are satisfying goals to chase for a time. Everybody's Golf VR's best feature is its assortment of customization and accessibility options, though, as they allow both golf newbies and veterans to curate their desired experience and just enjoy playing a round.

Team Sonic Racing Review - Something Borrowed and Blue

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 23:00

Team Sonic Racing is a wonderfully varied, fast and frenetic kart racer that, while a little derivative on the surface, successfully carves out its own space with a focus on team racing. Although Sonic, Tails and the gang might not carry the same weight as their mustachioed counterpart in red, and despite a few technical hiccups, Team Sonic Racing stands tall on the podium as a fun and colourful arcade racer that’s easy for anyone to enjoy.

There are numerous types of races to kick things off with, including your standard four-race Grand Prix, Quick Races, Time Trials and both local and online multiplayer. However, most of the characters and circuits are locked behind progress in the game’s Team Adventure mode. Oddly, this mode features a fully-voiced, yet conveniently skippable story that you have to hit a specific button to see (on PS4 you hit Square to play the story at the start of a race or X to skip to the race only) making it very easy to miss entirely. But while the accompanying story is quickly forgettable, the mode itself gets a lot right in terms of variety and structure, which is great, because that's where you'll spend the majority of your hours trying to progress.

In Team Adventure, completing objectives throughout each event will unlock the next event along the overworld path, along with more of the story. But the real focus is obtaining new car customizations, characters to race with, and tracks to race on in single-player mode. Car upgrades are gained by spending credits earned through races on Mod Pods, an unexciting form of loot box that reward you with vinyls to paint your car with, or new parts to change its handling characteristics. The system feels tacked on and arbitrary; a simpler structure of doling out upgrades as rewards post-race would have been more fulfilling.

There are 14 different race variations altogether, and Team Adventure uses a mix of them all, breaking up the eventual monotony of the standard races. There are more hits among these modes than misses, like an excellent car handling challenge where you need to skim star gates on the track while drifting, without hitting them--the closer you get to each gate, the higher your score goes. Another highlight is a mode where your only goal is to take down as many of Dr. Eggman’s Eggpawns on the track before time runs out. But others, like a timed race where the checkpoints move around on the road while you dodge traffic, lack the enjoyable flow present in the stronger circuits due to a stop-start nature. Team Sonic Racing feels its best when it’s moving fast, not when you’re trying to get back up to speed.

There are seven worlds with three tracks each, and they each have their own sense of place and vibrancy. Casino Park is a maelstrom of colors, music, and slot machines, while Seaside Hill shows off circuits by the sea, replete with wildlife like a giant mechanical squid or a massive flipping orca. Many of Team Sonic Racing’s 21 tracks feature branching paths, with some opening up shortcuts or secret areas to discover. Stumbling across these always feels fruitful as they’re often filled with rings to collect, as well as helping you gain a few positions on the track.

Teams are made up of three drivers each, one from each available class: speed, technique, and power. Speed drivers can repel enemy projectiles by timing their boosts to perfection. The Technique class is more handling-focused and drive over different surfaces without experiencing any slowdown, while Power class characters can knock opponents out of the way more easily as well as crash through any structural obstacles without slowing down or being damaged. There is a tangible difference to how each class and character feels in terms of speed and handling, meaning there's an advantage to picking a more favourable class for different individual events, but that’s not to say you can’t get it done with whichever character you like. Overall car handling feels wonderful, and drifting between corners flows like a breeze.

Out on the track, while your overall focus is on your own performance, the added element of team racing gives you a lot more to think about while sliding through corners and dodging rockets. If you spot a teammate stopped on the track, you can skim past them to give them a speed boost and get them back in the race, and you can follow the visible wake from your team’s leading driver to get a slingshot past them. If each member times it right, it’s possible for your team to leapfrog to the front of the pack in convincing fashion, and that feels excellent. Annoyingly, it’s nigh on impossible to practice something like this outside of multiplayer, as the AI aren’t quite up to pulling off this kind of strategy with great reliability.

Special items and boosts--known as Wisps--are laid across the track in various places, giving you an item to help your team or hinder your opponents with. Mechanically, many of these items and boosts bare a strong similarity to what you find in Mario Kart 8. While they achieve their purpose of helping you gap the field or compress the pack all while looking flashy, none of them are as amusing or fun as the Grey Quake, an item that flies out in front of the leader and grows huge rocky spires out of the ground, blocking the track.

There’s also a neat sharing mechanic that lets you request or share spare items with your teammates, and it comes with several cool advantages. Shared items are stronger and can often be used more than once, plus they fill your Team Ultimate meter. When this meter is full, you and your team can each unleash a powerful boost that not only makes you invincible, but also a wrecking ball, pushing anyone and anything out of your path to the front of the field. Timing the activation of the ultimate with your teammates also increases boost power, furthering the importance of keeping in sync. I did notice some consistent graphical stuttering whenever triggering the ultimate, but it only lasts a few frames and doesn’t really disrupt the action that much.

There’s both casual and ranked multiplayer, and while it remains to be seen how busy the ranked servers will be, our testing of the casual matchmaking prior to the game’s release was as smooth as expected. It could be a little snappier between races, but aside from having to be a little patient while the scores tally, it’s everything you can expect from an arcade racer. What is a little disappointing is the game’s performance in couch co-op. While not unplayable by any stretch, the framerate while playing two-player split screen on the PlayStation 4 Pro was surprisingly inconsistent, never feeling as smooth as you’d want, and certainly never matching its reasonable single-player performance.

The essence of Team Sonic Racing is good; its handling feels tight and smooth, drifting has a good flow to it, and the items are fun to use, as are the tracks to race on. It doesn’t bring much new to the genre, but it delivers where it counts. The racing is fast and fun, and the team aspects offer enough of a change to the formula to make Team Sonic Racing the endearing arcade racer it is.

Total War: Three Kingdoms Review - A Dynasty Of Warriors

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 00:00

You're facing down the scattered remnants of the last, great Han warlords, and your entire adult life so far has been building to this moment. Ever since you first took up arms at the age of eighteen against the corruption bleeding China dry, vengeance has been the one thing driving you forward. People call you the Bandit Queen, spitting the title at your feet in battle before your twin axes cleave their heads from their shoulders. As your forces pursue routed, scarlet-clad warriors, you feel the gaze of one of your lieutenants upon you, pivoting almost too late to meet their steel with your own. However, you're resigned to this by now, and he meets a gurgling end like so many before him who disagreed with your methods. No general suffers any threats to their rule, even when the peasantry starts to mutter about you and the old tyrant, Dong Zhou, in the same breath. There are no saints in Total War: Three Kingdoms, just a castell of death and destruction with its apex pointed squarely at the throne.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is essentially the Chinese version of The Iliad in construction. Larger-than-life characters, an at-times heady mix of romance and intrigue, and a hell of a lot of fighting are what define it. However, it's almost entirely unique as a text because of the fact that it is widely treated as a reasonable record of the events of the turbulent period of 169 AD to 280 AD in Chinese history, despite embellishment. The Total War franchise is no stranger to adapting the militaristic trials and tribulations of our world's past, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a work that has at times straddled the dual worlds of academia and fantasy.

While the popular Dynasty Warriors games have very successfully depicted the fantasy, it's not been as easy to capture the intricate, personal stories of now-recognisable figures like Cao Cao, or to capture how they played into the wider scheme of the world as we know it. Total War: Three Kingdoms focuses keenly on those key figures and their motivations, using the literature's extensive canon as fodder for your own strategic in-game actions. Thrown into the thick of the battles and diplomacy of 190 AD, you'll need guts, gore, and perseverance to either unite China or to break the chains of oppression that hold its people fast, and Creative Assembly has succeeded in translating the themes from a decades-long, larger-than-life epic into a form that will appeal to both Total War enthusiasts and rookies alike.

For the uninitiated, Total War is a mix of turn-based strategy and real-time battles where you take full control of squadrons of warriors and watch them duke it out against your foes on a picturesque patch of blood-stained grass. When you're not exerting military might on everyone else, entries in the series have historically focused on strategy elements akin to those that you would see in traditional 4X games like Civilzation. You have to balance expanding cities with diplomacy, manage population growth and happiness, and also deal with the very real concerns of keeping enemies off your tail. You do this by managing a series of complex, interconnected systems that influence everything from your inner circle to what a certain township might have to trade in winter. Give a town a governor with a green thumb and see trade flourish, or marry off a dissenter to an enemy and see previous peace treaties wither. As with every strategy title, the consequences of your choices are far-reaching, and Total War is an exercise in choosing wisely.

The first thing that will stand out with Three Kingdoms is how it puts its best foot forward on its production values. Dynamic weather, lighting, and beautiful watercolour environments--ranging from mountains to besieged cottages--paint a striking backdrop for the conflict and bloodshed to follow. Your generals themselves remain rendered larger than life and in great detail, and their idle chatter (fully voiced in Chinese, if you so choose) lend them a lot of personality when you're taking your time deciding on your next move. The UI is also clean and well-designed; Three Kingdoms is a return to the usual gamut of interactive windows providing the minute details and statistics seen in older Total War titles, but information can be pinned and dismissed at will so you aren't fighting a battlefield of clutter.

Detailed mechanics from previous titles return, which means a lot of information for more recent Total War fans to contend with. This is particularly noticeable when wrangling your allies, which is now essentially a full-time job. Managing relationships within your own coterie is no longer as easy as paying them to look the other way, nor are the effects almost instantaneous. It's now a long game of min-maxing retinues, victories, ideal reforms, and placation. While you're picking a general, faction identities are not as set in stone in practice as they may have been in previous titles. Playstyles ranging from expansionist and war-mongering to diplomatic can all be found in the same faction, and this translates nicely to create a dynamic inner circle.

Some of the streamlining done in recent Total War titles has been walked back, potentially to emphasize Three Kingdom's focus on cults of personality in adherence with the source material for the game; your advisors and family members are all fully-fledged characters of their own with personality traits that will conflict, sometimes fatally, with your ethos. Making concerted decisions over a long period of time that are in line with your vassals' beliefs are necessary to keep them keen, lest you cop a challenge and a sword in the back when you least expect it. The threat of defection from your wider allies is always on the horizon too; the factions fighting over China are as fractured as the land itself. Where Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia invited you to ruminate upon keeping your faction cohesive so as to ensure that your reformations would live on, diplomacy and faction politics in Three Kingdoms feel much more like putting pressure on a bleeding wound. Everyone starts at each other's throats, with the major balance of power being in favour of the Han Empire.

Whether you were part of the Yellow Turban rebellion, an independent warlord, or a former seneschal of the Empire, everyone at the time was clamoring for a piece of the pie, and having that reflected in Three Kingdom's mechanics is a nice touch. But you can sometimes feel pigeon-holed into conflict in a way that restricts your agency as a player. War declarations come hard and fast, with AIs as mercurial at decision-making as their portrayals in the source material. Sure, you can suggest marriage or pay a tithe, but taking the peaceful road often shakes out to be incredibly costly in negotiations. By the time you're staring down a line of cavalry encroaching on your territory, you can often feel like you only have one real option: to fight to the death.

Combat in Three Kingdoms' main campaign has two distinct strains depending on which mode you're playing in: Romance, or the more traditional Historical option, which is more reminiscent of how Total War usually operates. While you can delegate combat to a dice roll of AI-generated auto-battling odds, getting bogged down in the minutiae of the battlefield is incredibly thrilling. You'll marshal your forces and pit them against those of your foes' in the pseudo weapons triangle of cavalry, infantry, and assorted others, all in real time. Whether it be a relentless siege against a settlement, meeting the Han empire in open combat, or simply trying to hold it together as someone else knocks on your gates with axe-wielding bandits, Total War's depiction of battlefield conflict is where it has always excelled, and Three Kingdoms is no different.

However, the distinctive, much-trumpeted difference between Three Kingdoms and previous titles is the aforementioned Romance mode. This is where the fantastical merges with the historical in a way that offers you a new way to dominate opponents on the battlefield. In this mode, your generals stand head and shoulders above the rest, capable of single-handedly taking out entire squadrons on their own even as they yell out orders to the men rallying around them. In Romance mode, the strength of said generals grows in epic scale and scope over time, much in line with the fantastical deeds they perform in the source material. Generals also have the option to engage in duels with each other, which provides a spectacular, clash of the titans-style combative satisfaction. Three Kingdoms also lets you take these types of confrontations one step further in the new Battle mode, which lets you reenact famous skirmishes from Chinese history as these storied generals. It's both nicely educational and a refreshing change of pace.

The game's tutorial is decent at helping you parse the essential mechanics from the math soup, but it feels like a large expository information dump as Three Kingdoms attempts to get you up to speed on both the world's ingrained politics and what to do with all these damn menus and buttons. You're given a crash course in everything from how to wage war to how to manage the people under your rule within the first 20 turns, which is mechanically almost a lifetime in-game, but not very long at all for someone who isn't familiar with Total War or the Three Kingdoms story to get properly acclimatised. But to its credit, Three Kingdoms does provide plenty of helpful supplementary material and difficulty adjustments to help rookies learn what they need to know to succeed, given enough time--from instructional videos to the pace in which the game unravels its conflicts on Easy difficulty, as well as the ability to streamline processes like waging war and building prosperous townships (the latter mostly through a one-size fits all approach to reformation). With enough patience, it's easy to be infected with Total War once you finally get your mouth around that first, overly-large bite.

Three Kingdoms feels like a breath of fresh air. By harkening back to the intricacies of older titles and builds on some of the foundations laid by Thrones of Britannia, it offers a distinctly contemporary and thorough experience. This is the most ambitious that Total War has ever been, from the variety of different ways that you can enjoy the game to the sheer scope of the stories that they've weaved around each unique character's playable experience. Three Kingdoms feels like the rightful evolution of the series, pulling from its roots in historical military tactics to come up with an engrossing modern strategy game that is always a delight, even in its less well-oiled moments.

Darkwood Review - Welcome To The Forest, Meat

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 03:46

When Darkwood originally launched in early access in 2014, it was an ambitious game that suffered from clunkiness and a lack of identity. In GameSpot's early access review, writer Brett Todd admired its willingness to experiment with aesthetics and rework the concept of permadeath, but couldn't get past the fact that it wasn't quite ready to go on sale. Now, in 2019, Darkwood is an entirely new game.

It was inevitable that Darkwood would be compared to similar open-world survival games like the Burtonesque Don't Starve, and from a gameplay standpoint their top-down perspectives and day/night cycles are similar. However, the most recent iteration of this macabre indie game is unwaveringly confident in itself. Darkwood revels in its eponymous darkness--even its daytime cycles are subjected to limited visibility, courtesy of its field-of-vision illumination. The best thing about this is that it doesn't rely on nighttime to be scary. Even at the crack of dawn, venturing too far from your hideout can result in you coming face to face with blood-curdling, satanic sadists hellbent on mauling you to death.

The game assimilates a plethora of systems into its makeup, including crafting, bartering, and combat. Although the mechanics are quite complex, Darkwood offers an intense but fair learning curve. While the controls are clearly mapped out on the pause menu, learning how to manipulate some of the game's ostensibly unimportant mechanics can give you a major edge as you progress into its more difficult areas. For example, the game affords you skills in exchange for cooking in ominous ovens. These skills usually only have a minor impact on the game, allowing you to benefit from a daily single-use perk such as running without taking stamina into account. However, these perks come at a cost: For every skill you gain, you must apply a negative effect designed to hinder you for the rest of your playthrough. These are incredibly minor, but in a game as brutally unforgiving as Darkwood, it's essential to level up with caution, which subverts the entire idea of leveling up rapidly in the first place.

As a result, opting to favor survivability over gratifyingly quick forward momentum often allows you to live longer in the end--something that's absolutely essential on Darkwood's harder modes, where lives are limited. But even on Normal difficulty, it's important that you recognize that this is an ambiguous world that necessitates experimentation. As the world deteriorates into madness around you, the only way to survive is to adapt alongside decay. Rather than help you, Darkwood's systems affect you in a much more neutral way. I spent a night boarded up in a hideout that was fortified to the teeth with barriers only to be attacked by packs of demonic dogs moments before the saving grace of the sunrise. However, I also happened to survive three nights in a row by hiding inconspicuously in a cramped corner, praying that I wasn't overwhelmed by hordes of red chompers in the twilight.

Because you're never truly safe in Darkwood, it's easy to lose track of time. Eventually, days seem to merge into one another, and it becomes startlingly clear that the majority of society has descended into an irreparable state of madness. People live in a perpetually frozen cycle of day and night in which there are only two recurring parts of the same day, repeated eternally. The characters you meet are mostly uninterested in speaking with you, but among the Silent Forest's more amicable residents are an aspiring astronaut named Piotrek, who is attempting to build a rocket ship out of hunks of scrap metal, and a muttering musician who plays dissonant, apocalyptic notes on a broken violin in an effort to win the hand of a woman kept locked in the basement by her older sister--something made all the more horrifying by how poorly he performs. These post-plague virtuosos are at home in Darkwood's chaos, and their chosen vocations reflect the fact that they've already been absorbed by the chaos of this dynamic and disintegrating world. That's one of the most horrifying things about Darkwood: the way in which humanity learns to use madness as an asset in a world without order.

That's one of the most horrifying things about Darkwood: the way in which humanity learns to use madness as an asset in a world without order.

There are, however, some aspects of Darkwood that indicate the transient nature of life in the forest. At the beginning of the game, you're given the opportunity to euthanize your wounded dog, who sits outside your house whimpering in pain. If you choose not to, the dog transforms into a vicious varmint by the time you return later, ferociously clawing and gnawing at you in a deranged state of mindless violence. Darkwood's narrative is ambiguous at the best of times and is mostly to do with choosing which NPCs to favor in various subplots, but easily-overlooked details like this dog's fate tell disturbing tales of their own. As a result, some subplots only tell part of the story. Other details are intricately interwoven into the environment, and these narrative manifestations and the more ostensible plot points are of equal importance in understanding the world at large.

That's what makes Darkwood so brilliantly-suited to console. Although on the surface a keyboard suits the game's mechanics--namely its hotfixed inventory system and the quickfire solutions that are often necessary for survival in the night--there's something much more visceral about playing with analog sticks and haptic feedback. Instead of simply pressing a combination of keys to attack anathemic abominations, you need to use hyper-sensitive camera control to succeed in combat. Dodging is mapped to an analog click, whereas shooting a gun genuinely feels instinctive because enemies close distance at an alarming rate. It's easy to miss point-blank because of a knee-jerk reaction, and it's the fact that you can be punished once and for all for doing so that makes the game all the more hair-raising.

What makes Darkwood truly special, though, is its world. At one point in the game, you visit an area simply known as "The Village." Here, a group of deranged denizens worship a gnarled sow, deifying it as "The Mother of all Pigs." Almost everyone in the village has descended into a state of utter insanity, with one of the town’s most domineering residents having developed a gravitation toward chickens after locking up her own sister to save her marrying a chagrined musician. Most of the citizens here immediately associate you with an aura of antipathy, but the fact they live in such an aloof society is horrifying. All around, the world is darkening and fading, and this singular town, serving as a bastion against a descent into savagery, is inevitably lost. Because you, the safe and sound player, get to witness it from an external perspective, The Village's encroaching demise is drastically more affecting. This is the last of the world, and it's due to go out not with a bang, but a whimper.

While Darkwood is an absolute marvel in terms of its aesthetics and gameplay--as well as its disarmingly dissonant score--I experienced several bugs that caused me to lose minor progress. In one case, I was trapped behind a disassembled tractor, which forced me to quit to the main menu and restart the game in order to press onward. On top of this, one of the game's areas caused the frame rate to drop so dramatically that playing became a chore. This was easily rectified, again simply requiring a soft reboot, but these glitches are a disappointing nuisance plaguing an otherwise exceptional game.

However, these bugs aren't game-breaking. And even though they irritated me, I couldn’t pull myself away from Darkwood, no matter how much its uncanny world made me audibly squeal. Rather than relying on jump scares--although they are present, to a minor degree--Darkwood psychologically unhinges you. You’re consistently lured into a false sense of security as you hole up in an ironclad hideaway before night falls, or when seemingly benevolent NPCs beguile you with promises of collaboration against the hordes of darkness. It’s horror by subversion, because it’s only when you’re safest that you let your guard down--and it’s only when you take that singular breath of respite that you concede to utter susceptibility. There’s nothing quite as scary as momentarily looking away before being drawn back in by a sound cue or a controller vibration. And before you know it, it’s fight or flight, as you fall into the fray of the unforgiving darkness and are forced to compose yourself within a split second or risk losing half your inventory.

In Darkwood, there’s an item you can show several NPCs called "photo of a road." What’s interesting about this is that several of these entirely disparate wanderers have the exact same response to this curious snapshot. "Around here," they say, "all roads lead to nowhere." And as Darkwood’s forest is guzzled up by the rapidly encroaching night, roads are no longer places-between-places. Instead, they’re a communal necropolis, waiting for the creatures of the night to tribute more destitute dupes to its earthy, deathly soil.

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