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Frostpunk: The Last Autumn Review - Winter Is Coming

Sat, 01/25/2020 - 05:53

In Frostpunk's main campaign, you already know the stakes. A winter of biblical proportions has descended upon Industrial Revolution England, driving its citizens into the frozen unknowns to seek out life-giving generators. In The Last Autumn, you are in charge of making one of those very generators a reality--one that will hopefully save lives in the future. Winter lies in wait on the periphery, so you have to worry about new means of resource gathering, timed objectives, and social challenges rather than staving off the flu. It dresses the familiar gameplay elements of Frostpunk up differently, demanding a new type of strategic thinking that reinvigorates the already satisfying formula at its core.

With the cold weather encroaching on Liverpool, you lead a handful of workers and engineers on an expedition to a cove on the edge of the country. Near-freezing sprays from the nearby ocean splash against treacherous rocky beaches, with only a small space to build upon peering through the thicket of trees outlining the coast. This limited space is immediately stressful--a massive generator needs to be built, resources around you already seem scarce, and the space you must work with doesn't allow for many placement mistakes. The odds are stacked against you from the start of Last Autumn's campaign, but some new tools provide reprieve in distinct ways.

Instead of gathering resources from deposits around you, you can build new harbors on limited coastline spaces to collect what you need. You have to choose which spaces are dedicated to fishing for food and which others can be set up as large ports, allowing ships with stockpiles of wood, coal, or steel to dock and unload. Shipping resources in is only one part of the supply chain, too. With new depots staffed with workers, you can quickly supply your main city with resources nearly as fast as they're unloaded, which vastly improves upon having workers manually carry them from the docks. Each of these structures requires some of your more limited resources, though, making each micro-decision carry more weight than before. When each ingot of steel feels as precious as the last, you'll rarely find yourself overwhelmed as was the case in some previous scenarios, escalating the overall tension as a result.

Other new structures are intrinsically tied to your new objective of building a central generator, each of which are used to build specific pieces of the giant contraption. You have a total of only 45 game days to achieve this goal, without any preparation time to make provisions for a stable resource supply line and citizen housing. It makes each of the four impending milestones immediately stressful, but it's all initially more confusing than it needs to be. The Last Autumn features the same useful tutorials from the main campaign to make picking up its new mechanics easy, but it doesn't do a good enough job surfacing the menus you can utilise to measure your progress towards the next milestone. It ultimately ruined my first run--I missed my first milestone without realizing that it even existed, making it impossible for me to hit subsequent ones on time before being fired. For all the good The Last Autumn does surfacing nearly every other facet of its new mechanics, it's frustrating that it takes some lost progress to truly understand its overall tempo.

Once you come to grips with the time limits imposed on you, you can focus more on The Last Autumn's new Motivation meter, which joins the returning Discontent meter from previous scenarios. Each is fairly self-explanatory--the first one measures how much motivation your workers have to get the job done, while the other indicates how unhappy they are with their current living situation. Unlike previous campaigns, though, letting either one get too high or too low doesn't end your game. Instead, Motivation determines just how efficient your workers are at the jobs they're assigned to, while Discontent alters how likely they are to put down tools entirely and walk out on strikes. Keeping Motivation high and Discontent almost non-existent at first is easy, but as the impending winter approaches and the realities of your encroaching deadlines loom, unavoidable, scenario-specific modifiers to both make their upkeep a true challenge.

Strikes are a new social aspect you'll need to contend with, going hand-in-hand with new metrics measuring the safety of workplaces in place of worrying about their overall temperature (given that winter hasn't yet arrived). Workplaces that are consistently dangerous and staffed with workers working either long or double shifts will quickly drive their occupants to down their tools and picket outside, forcing you to negotiate before returning to work. Worker requests will require you to pass new laws affecting either their work hours or living conditions, often demanding more resources from you or a tolerance for their slower pace of work in order to get them back into their factories and mills. The knock-on effects of these decisions can sometimes feel absent at first but come back around days later to haunt you, making each strike negotiation important to carefully consider. Even simply delaying your decision with handouts of rations often results in more strenuous demands from your workers, turning strikes into worthy headaches that compound the satisfyingly stressful symphony of systems present already.

With new mechanics to contend with and different ways to approach Frostpunk's strategic formula, the new laws that it introduces make tackling both as morally challenging as ever. Your base set of laws returns from previous scenarios, but the branches that come with siding with either labor or your engineers expand on them extensively. In one of my successful runs I passed laws in the engineering path that allowed me to ship in prisoners for cheaper labor, while constructing oppressive security towers and multiple penitentiaries to keep everyone in line. The authoritarian approach didn't sit well with most citizens, but it made sense to grow my workforce rapidly without needing to worry too much about the needs of my new laborers. Eventually I unlocked an ability to turn regular citizens into criminals without trial, giving me the chance to boost efficiency in workplaces solely staffed by criminals as a result of their supposed disposability.

None of these decisions are easy to make. Frostpunk has always made each of your decisions feel like choosing between two evils, and The Last Autumn maintains that. When shipping in criminals I was constantly reminded of how terrible some of their crimes were and how they might introduce problems to my other citizens if not policed correctly. But even introducing a growing security force presented issues. Empowered citizens imposed their authority incorrectly at times, which in one case drove one of my citizens to death after consistent harassment that I ignored so that my criminals could be kept in check. Seeing small stories like this emerge from decisions I made hours before was equal parts gut-wrenching and fascinating, encouraging me to explore new laws and regulations to see what effects they might have.

Because bad Motivation or Discontent don't end a run and only the stress of missing deadlines to contend with, The Last Autumn allows for more flexibility in your strategy. It lets you stretch the boundaries of what its new laws offer, offering you the chance to drive forward with increasingly morally dubious decisions if all you're focused on is getting the job done. It doesn't come without consequence, though, especially when the cold arrives near the end of the run and introduces further restrictions on resource gathering as well as the familiar temperature monitoring in workplaces and citizen residences. By the end of my own run I was furiously converting citizens into criminals to increase my workforce without new shipments of workers coming in, exponentially increasing the size of my required security force too. The last few days felt like a battle of attrition--I wasn't allowed to let up on longer shifts but also incapable of dealing with the living needs of my population without diverting resources from the work on the generator. Within just a few days nearly half my society had succumbed to illness and died, eventually allowing me to reach my goal but with hardly any of the people responsible for it alive to see the fruits of their labor.

Outside of small stories that your decisions generate and influence, The Last Autumn does attempt to conclusively confront your choices by its conclusion. With the generator built and your citizens sent to the next site that needs work, you're presented predictions for how effective your generator might be and just how many citizens it could save in the future. Based on how many milestones you missed, how many concessions you had to make to get there, and the number of people you lost along the way, the hard-fought victory might be met with depressingly low odds of success in the long run. It stings to have that presented to you after making sacrifices for what you assumed would be a greater good, forcing you to reevaluate your overall strategy and try again for a better outcome.

The Last Autumn demands a lot from you, but it's also a deeply engrossing evolution of the formula that Frostpunk is made up of, changing the core rules just enough to make all your previous strategies feel insufficient. Whether it's deciding on which resources to order and how to distribute them or which parts of your workforce to push just hard enough before they reach their breaking point, The Last Autumn maintains the morally challenging and consequence-riddled decision-making of the core game while giving you new laws to experiment with and master. It's a welcome return to an already fantastic strategy game that shouldn’t be glossed over.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot Review - Sparking Joy

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 05:30

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot begins right where the anime does: introducing us to Goku and his son Gohan just before the Saiyans are set to invade earth, revealing Goku's true Saiyan heritage and setting off a chain of events that threatens the entire universe. It's a story we've seen played out in many Dragon Ball Z games over the years, but unlike recent examples, Kakarot tells its tale by way of a narrative-driven RPG rather than a strictly combat-focused game. It gives life to the world and story of DBZ in a refreshing way, offering us a glimpse into what life is like for Goku and his many companions outside of battles to decide the fate of the universe.

All of Dragon Ball Z's major story arcs are contained here: the Saiyan invasion, the showdown with Frieza on planet Namek, the Androids, the fight against Cell, and Majin Buu's story. But among all of these massive, earth-shattering sagas and intense fights are numerous smaller stories and character interactions that many games have simply glossed over.

The game's structure is split into parts: free-roaming/exploration sequences with a semi-open world, battle scenes against foes big and small, and cutscenes where you watch some of the most dramatic story moments of DBZ play out in gorgeous in-engine renditions. There's a good balance between all of these; it rarely feels like you're spending too long watching a cutscene or that you're thrust into constant battle without being able to take a moment to catch your breath. Sometimes the exploration sequences can seem overlong, but a lot of that depends on how much time you want to spend doing side quests and hunting collectibles like power-up orbs, food supplies, and materials for side pursuits like cooking and crafting. It's not essential to spend a lot of time on side pursuits, but it does provide benefits--and while you're flying around the big, vibrant environments, it's easy to be swept up in exploring the DBZ world itself, which is filled with giant fish, rampaging dinosaurs, and futuristic cities.

One striking thing about DBZ: Kakarot is how it showcases the large cast of the anime. You begin the game as Goku, but as the story progresses, you assume control over several other characters, like Gohan, Piccolo, Vegeta, and Trunks, to name a few. Familiar faces like Krillin, Tien Shinhan, Yamcha, and Android 18 also appear to aid you in combat as assistants. Many of the other supporting DBZ cast members make cameos in side quests and story scenes as well. Building friendships with characters through questing and giving gifts rewards you with a character emblem, and by placing it on a “community board” that represents a group of Goku's companions, you can earn assorted boosts to combat, item-gathering, cooking, and other adventurous pursuits.

But these rewards are only part of what makes DBZ: Kakarot's adventuring feel satisfying. Dragon Ball Z is a series where character relationships and interactions are important, and that really comes through in the non-combat story bits. You see Piccolo warm up to young Gohan, Chi Chi's tough mother role, the fighters bonding outside of battle, teenage Gohan doing his goofy Great Saiyaman shtick, and much more. Even relatively minor characters like Yajirobe, Launch, and Puar have side quests that showcase funny interactions, silly scenarios, and genuinely sad and touching moments. Seeing so many DBZ characters given their moment to shine is great, and it helps you forget that a lot of the side quests are fairly typical RPG kill-these-enemies or collect-this-item affairs. As someone who thinks some of the “filler” and comedy episodes of DBZ are among the series' best, I really appreciated an increased focus on these stories in DBZ: Kakarot.

Of course, it wouldn't be Dragon Ball Z without combat. While the 3D, action-driven combat takes some getting used to at first, once you've got a decent handle on the controls, you'll be flying around, shooting off ki blasts and Kamehamehas like a pro. You control a single character who has two basic attacks--up-close melee strikes and ranged ki blasts. If you have companions in the fight, the CPU will control them, and you can command them to make use of special attacks. Besides your basic strikes, you have several powerful special skills, a boost to get up close to the opponent, several defensive techniques to guard, dodge, and catch an attacking opponent off-guard, and even (eventually) the ability to transform into stronger forms. Many of these abilities cost ki, which can be charged mid-battle but leaves you vulnerable when doing so, making ki management very important. A tension gauge fills over time, and when it's full, you can send your warrior into a superpowered state where you can chain special attacks into each other, causing some serious devastation.

It's an intriguing combat system, and the 3D aerial movement element is unique, but there's a lack of depth--most normal enemies and even a few bosses can be patterned to make fighting them much easier. On top of that, enemy variety outside of main story battles tends to be lacking, particularly the annoying cannon-fodder foes that will interrupt you during times when you just want to explore. But fighting still has some standout moments during big boss fights when enemies whip out massive, incredibly damaging energy attacks that force a rapid change in strategy. Overcoming some of the nastiest things Dragon Ball Z's iconic villains toss at you with skillful dodging and well-timed attacks is immensely satisfying, and it somewhat makes up for all of the combat time wasted punching the same robots over and over again.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot's modern, semi-open approach to telling the saga of DBZ--despite some minor issues--is a good one. Zooming around the environments and seeing the world up close is a blast, and it's great being able to interact with so many fun DBZ characters and see stories that usually get passed over for game adaptations. And even though combat can be a bit lacking, when the big battles happen, they feel suitably epic and engaging. If you're looking for an enjoyable way to see the life and times of adult Goku through a new perspective, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot will grant your wish.

Unity Of Command 2 Review - Lifetime Supply

Sat, 01/18/2020 - 02:00

At first glance, Unity of Command 2 may look intimidating, the familiarity of the pint-sized tanks and military men that populate its World War II battlefields obscured by an impenetrable fog of unintuitive jargon and confounding icons. But once the confusion clears it reveals a surprisingly straightforward wargame whose keen focus on establishing and severing lines of supply delivers remarkable strategic depth.

This isn't really a strategy game about marching your troops forward to attack the enemy. Unity of Command 2's twist on the genre makes it a game about manoeuvring your units to occupy spaces that maintain clear supply lines to your forces and deny supply to the enemy. In fact, the winning move often involves holding your position. Sometimes you don't even need to engage the enemy at all; you just have to starve them out.

Placing you in charge of the Allied forces in 1943, the campaign opens in North Africa before pushing up through Italy and into the heart of Western Europe. Missions arrive in groups known as conferences, one of the first off-putting terms you'll encounter. At the start of a conference, you can spend prestige points on upgrading your field headquarters, extending their range and efficiency during combat, and on purchasing theatre cards that you can play in battle to grant additional abilities. Beat all the missions in a conference and you unlock the next, along with another chance to upgrade and purchase.

Luck and short-term planning combine here in an interesting way. The cards available to purchase are shuffled randomly, meaning you can't always rely on picking up a favourite and may need to accommodate a curveball or two. And the choices you make are locked in for the duration of the conference, so you've got to manage with what you've got in terms of HQ upgrades and make those cards last over several missions. Knowing you have only three opportunities to use a naval bombardment over the course of a single mission does a lot to focus the mind. Such constraints force you to make bold choices about which targets you absolutely must hit and when precisely is the right time to do so. Get these plays right and you feel like the greatest general the world’s ever seen. Extra cards can be collected during missions as you complete certain objectives, but they arrive more as a relief package--an unexpected boon to your cause rather than a way to undermine the decisions you finalised at the last conference.

At the outset of each mission you're able to survey the map and plan your approach. Usually there are a couple of primary objectives that must be fulfilled to complete the scenario, accompanied by a few secondary objectives that, if achieved, offer a bonus reward or even a slight tactical advantage in the next mission. These objectives are designed in such a way to guide you across the map, and the attentive player will glean useful advantages from them. For example, if the objectives ask you to take a certain town by turn 5 and a second town by turn 8, then it's likely that taking the first town will be beneficial to your efforts to take the second. And if you're tasked with taking and holding a location then doing so will undoubtedly accord an ongoing advantage. Clear, concise objectives provide a structure to each mission that makes it easy to digest what's expected of you, and when you should be aiming to have it accomplished.

Rounding out the preparatory phase, the units at your disposal are pre-assigned as per the scenario, so you're never burdened with choosing whether or not to deploy the US 13th Airborne or the 7th British Armoured Division--they're already there, conveniently positioned on a hex, ready to go. Although units come in only two types--tank and infantry divisions--there's a host of critical attributes that can distinguish one tank division from the next, assuming you can get your head around the collection of arcane icons used to describe them.

Units are composed of "steps," an offputting, unfamiliar term that basically measures the health of the unit. All else being equal, a five-step unit will beat a three-step unit. Yet in these variable battlefields, things are rarely equal. Tiny stars and crosses next to a unit indicate whether it's an elite, veteran or regular unit, but these icons are all-too-easily missed, and even after dozens of hours of play I still found myself occasionally not noticing I was sending a regular infantry to their doom against an elite. Other, multi-coloured symbols represent various specialists serving in the division, but there's no tooltip or in-game explanation as to how a specialist can benefit a unit. I had to rely on an external guide, alt-tabbing out to remind myself that the dark blue icon with the chevron indicated a self-propelled anti-tank specialist while the chevron and dot meant it was a towed anti-tank specialist. There's a lot to remember and keep track of, and unfortunately, the tutorials and in-game tooltips aren't up to the job.

However, once you've taken stock there's the opportunity to make some last-minute adjustments, adding more regular or specialist units to this squad or that, to better suit the strategic gambit you wish to employ. Deploying an engineer specialist to the siege at your primary objective will help whittle away the enemy's fortification bonuses, but maybe you're better off assigning them to the infantry in the east to help ford all those rivers and secure a secondary objective? All these resources are limited, though, and the trade-offs you're forced into always carry weight.

The importance of every decision you make is heightened by the tight turn limit applied to each mission. Of course, you're free to take all the time in the world on each turn. But Unity of Command 2 is a wargame with a fast turnover, and that's precisely what makes it so accessible. Brief skirmishes are the order of the day rather than long, drawn-out stalemates. Often you'll be asked to tick off secondary goals within three or four turns while 10 or 12 turns is a generous amount of time to secure the primary objectives. Experimentation is encouraged by the short time scale. Roll the dice on one strategy, fail quickly, and then before you know it you're back at the battle planning stage, pondering a more effective approach based on the lessons taught by your unsuccessful sortie.

Battles are won through a combination of clear, decisive strikes and a conservative support structure that can swiftly respond to any breach in your line. The way you have to manage logistics through the supply line system turns what could have been a puzzle game about finding the correct solution into a meaty strategy game brimming with flexibility. Victory is all about identifying where you really need to break through the enemy line to secure that vital railroad junction that will cut off supply to every enemy unit in a particular region of the map. Or it's about realising that you can drop those paratroopers behind enemy lines to blow up a bridge that will deny the Germans' ability to keep supplying the frontline. Seeing your plan executed successfully is incredibly satisfying, but at the same time, it's still entertaining to see a plan fall apart as enemy tanks overrun a key chokepoint, suddenly finding yourself scrambling to hold the line and divert supply to your now-stranded troops.

Unity of Command 2 is an overall excellent wargame. The early going can be tough as it takes time to acclimatise to some idiosyncratic terms and learn to interpret the raft of poorly-explained icons. Persistence--not to mention some handy community-written guides--does pay off, though. Stick with it, and you'll be rewarded with one of the finest strategy games in recent times.

Wattam Review - Forever Wondering

Thu, 01/09/2020 - 06:32

There's a part in Wattam where your friend (an old-fashioned telephone) is crying because the sun took its receiver and is making a long-distance phone call. To solve this cellular problem, you have to gather all of your friends, stack them up, and climb on top of them so you can explain the situation to the sun and ask for the receiver back. Once you get up there, the sun gives it back and apologizes for the misunderstanding. The telephone says that it's okay, and then you carry on with your day.

That might sound like a hallucination, but that's the heart of Wattam. It's a bunch of silly concepts and weird actors being constantly thrown into head-scratching scenarios that you have to solve. In this world, it doesn't really matter that everything is so bizarre. What matters is ensuring all of your friends are happy, and every character would do absolutely anything possible to make their reality a friendship utopia.

Every character in Wattam is a vibrant random object that changes shapes, forms, and sizes the more you progress and interact with the world and its environment. The game starts with one character, but you meet plenty of new pals, and later in the game the screen becomes charmingly cluttered, like a kid dumped a bunch of their toys on the floor and didn't clean it up. Among the characters are trees that can gobble up others and turn them into a fruitified version of themselves, a toilet named Linda that can turn characters into poop, and a nose named Ronald that can sniff up characters that are buried underground. The characters always seem to be having fun, embracing the change and sometimes adopting new personas and using catchphrases to parody genres like action movies and whodunits. They treat each other like old friends and run around and play with each other even when you're not controlling them. Watching them all interact and utilize their powers together adds a sense of life to this zany world--it may be weird, but they have their own fascinating ecosystem going on.

The main character is a green cube with a bowler hat named The Mayor. At the start of the game, The Mayor finds out about "Kaboom," the hidden power of its hat which launches everyone in the nearby radius into the sky in an explosion of laughter (the people love a good Kaboom). With your newfound ability and the strange charisma of a cube, it's your job to explore the world, learn its history, and keep everyone happy. Most of the time you're acting as a mediator, walking up to whoever is crying at the given moment, asking them a genuine "What's wrong?" and then solving their problems via a mini-game. It's tough work at times due to some pushback from awkward controls and sudden frame rate drops, but it never gets frustrating. You just look down and realize you're playing as a cool little apple who loves to dance and you finish the mission. It's also satisfyingly worth it at the end of each puzzle when you see your motley crew of inanimate objects cheering you on and having a blast together in this world you helped soothe.

You can play as anything on the screen, and when you swap into a character, it changes the main instrument in the song that's playing in the background. Each character has their own designated sounds: If you switch to a plant bud you'll hear the theme with a xylophone, for example, and if you switch to a poop you'll hear fart noises. Each quirky object has a clear and thoughtful theme tune, and the soundtrack as a whole always has you grooving. Sometimes I'd take a break from the main story to swap to a character and just listen to how the songs sounded from their perspective. There's a jazz song on the soundtrack called "A Long Time: The Six Years" that has no business going that hard.

Wattam is a collection of plotlines with objectives that can be completed in a few minutes, so each time you go back to the game it feels like a vastly different experience than what you were doing half an hour previously. One moment you could be running around as a miniature acorn, trying to find a spot to bury yourself, and the next you could be meeting a golden bowling pin that wants you to stack your friends to its exact height. It could so easily have been disorienting to be forced to constantly learn new mechanics and to always be playing the game in new ways every few moments, but Wattam isn't overwhelming. There's a sense of intrigue whenever a new character needs help, because whenever you help one, something in the game changes significantly--someone will gain a new power or maybe a mysterious staircase will emerge for you to investigate.

While it's essentially an anthology of short mini-games, Wattam has an underlying plot that's revealed over the course of a few cutscenes. These stop all the tomfoolery to tell a story of the apocalyptic events that happened right before the start of the game; it's a surprising tonal shift but it still fits very well with Wattam's ethos. Wattam is cool because it isn't just eccentric for eccentricity's sake--it also has a message it wants to share. You meet a few characters that come in the form of scroll, a book, and a futuristic floppy disk that explain that message and why connections and bonds are so important in this world. While they aren't the deepest cutscenes in the world, Wattam's message inside of them is ultimately heartwarming and offers context to things you wouldn't think are connected.

It isn't often that you play something that is so pure and unapologetically itself, but that's Wattam. I don't know if I'll ever play another game that makes me turn all of my friends into fruit so I can progress. It oozes passion, and it has an infectious enthusiasm that's present in each and every aspect of it. Wattam never takes itself too seriously, and that makes it easy to buy into its world and suspend your disbelief. While the gameplay is all over the place, Wattam is held together by themes of friendship and a cohesive soundtrack that actually leave you grinning long after you're done.

Supermash Review - Flop Jam

Sat, 12/21/2019 - 09:52

It's easy to think of how some of your favorite video game genres might fit together. In the space of just pure imagination, it’s possible to completely deconstruct familiar tropes and wildly throw them against a wall to see what sticks, challenging established norms without consequence. It’s this sort of unhinged creativity that makes Supermash initially hard to ignore. By making it easy to choose two genres and mash them together with randomly determined results, Supermash seems to promise a near endless supply of retro concoctions. But instead of delicately blended results, the games that Supermash does spit out lack any identity, while feeling too similar to one another when they do work and downright frustrating when borderline broken.

The core conceit of Supermash is the ability to create new games from templates of genres. The genres on offer are varied, ranging from a classic NES action adventure in the vein of The Legend of Zelda to the sneaky steps of a Metal Gear-inspired stealth game. Each genre template plucks a core idea from its inspirations and uses that as the core mechanic for your eventual combinations. For example, a JRPG will lend turn-based combat to any game it’s matched with, while a shoot-'em-up will introduce vertically scrolling terrains to whatever other genre you choose to pair with it.

Supermash is incredibly easy to get going--pick two genres, decide on a desired game length and difficulty, and use mostly single-use collectible cards to make small cosmetic and gameplay changes to the initial result. The rest is handled by Supermash’s procedural generation, which doesn’t always do the best job of masking the limited templates it's clearly working with. Within an hour, I was recognizing the same layouts in both stealth and action adventure mashes, and even routinely seeing the same visual palates used to dress them up in. Seeing the strings behind the puppetry would’ve been disappointing but forgivable, though, if the games themselves were any fun to play.

Most of the creations lack any substantial differences between them. Whether you’re playing a shrunken-down Zelda-like dungeon or jumping through a Mario-inspired platformer, you’re generally doing one of three things: finding a specific character, retrieving a specific item, or killing a certain number of a specific enemy, all within a short timeframe. These don’t change with the genres you’re putting together, which often makes genres meant to be less linear pointless. Genres like JRPGs or metroidvanias are much more than just their styles of combat or collectible upgrades, but Supermash never gives you levels or goals that reflect this. And even when the objectives do coalesce with the main genre influence, they’re just unsatisfying to play. Platforming feels floaty and imprecise, dungeon crawling becomes nothing more than a repetitive checklist, and shoot-'em-ups never capture the exhilaration of their inspirations.

Randomly assigned modifiers called "glitches" can somewhat differentiate one mash from the next, but more often than not, they result in more game-breaking issues. A glitch can, for example, spawn a new enemy every time you attack, or conversely heal you every time you take damage. These serve to either eliminate any challenge or increase it to frustrating levels, regardless of the difficulty setting you assign prior to making the game. Others are more frustrating, though. I had a glitch that moved me in a random direction for a few seconds after each attack, which made simple movement a chore. It forced me to just forgo combat entirely while navigating a dungeon, further restricting the already limited actions I had. There’s no way to turn these randomly assigned glitches off either, so when you’re dealt a bad hand, you just have to restart and hope for a better result next time.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some combinations that aren’t at least amusing. Playing a 2D stealth game with the turn-based combat of classic Final Fantasy games doesn’t work mechanically (having to go into an action menu to perform a stealth kill is ridiculous), but it does remind you of how good each of the individual parts are in other games. But Supermash’s multitude of little games never come close to reaching the entertaining heights of the genres they attempt to recreate, which makes it difficult to want to test the abilities of its random generation further after your initial attempts.

Encompassing all of this experimentation is a thin story about three friends trying to keep their video game retail store open, with the crew hoping to package and sell some of these new creations to spark some interest. Story objectives set some parameters for your next mashup, indicating what genres and modifiers to use, without really steering you towards any great outcomes. There’s an additional journal to work through with objectives tied to each genre you have at your disposal, each connecting small but throwaway stories within them.

Progressing this journal is incredibly frustrating, though, since the items required for completion are populated into your generated levels at random. You’re forced to repeatedly mash together the same genres in the hopes of finally getting one that has what you need, which only serves to expose the repetitive nature of them even faster. Each chapter culminates with a boss fight specific to the genre you’re completing, and despite being some of the only handcrafted bits of retro action in Supermash, they fail to be any more exciting than the random contraptions you put together. Most are one-note and devoid of challenge, only requiring repetitive attacks and simple movements to overcome. They’re not worth the time you need to invest to unlock them.

It’ll be rare for you to want to save any of the creations Supermash lets you construct, which is indicative of how shallow and unsatisfying they all are at their core. In a bid to try and do so many things right, Supermash forgets the fundamentals of all the genres it tries to encompass, while also overreaching by trying to make them all work in some way together. None of Supermash’s creations feel close to replicating the joy of their inspirations, and instead serve as reminders that there are far more focused and polished attempts at each individual one that will reward your time better. There’s no doubting the imaginative idea at Supermash’s core, but it ends up choking on its ambition.

The Touryst Review - Life's A Beach

Sat, 12/21/2019 - 04:00

The first island you visit in The Touryst is a tiny, perpetually sunny place, and it's full of spots to have a sit or a lie down. Having a rest doesn't achieve anything, but I found that my immediate instinct was to give my character a moment to luxuriate on a bed in one of the island's small personal rooms--this is a game about vacationing, after all, and on any vacation it's important to relax. The Touryst is a soothing and relaxing experience thanks to the lovingly rendered voxel graphics and the (mostly) gentle gameplay, and despite some occasional moments of frustration, playing it really does feel like taking a mini-vacation.

You play as a moustachioed man in a loud shirt who is tasked with travelling between different island vacation spots and collecting cores that rest within the game's scant few monuments--essentially short dungeons. You move between beach parties under orange sunsets, lush tropical expanses, and Mediterranean tourist spots, before diving into murky underground caverns that contain jumping puzzles and non-violent boss encounters. It's a strange combination of elements, but The Touryst wears its strangeness on its sleeve.

This is, above all else, a game about the joy of a holiday. As you play, you unlock new islands to visit, and while each one is small, they also all have their own distinct flavor, as well as unique activities to discover and engage with. The superb voxel art style imbues each setting with personality and makes the simple act of sightseeing a pleasure. Simply existing in these beautiful locations is inherently enjoyable, and while each new setting won't take long to fully explore, I found walking around each one calming.

The monuments themselves contain puzzles and tests of your dexterity, and working your way through them is essential to unlock every island and complete the game's story. They're ultimately the least interesting part of the game, but they're certainly not without their charms. They can be quite challenging, but the key is usually to just remember that there's an optimal solution to the puzzles, even when it seems like they're just asking you to nail precise jumps. Often, how you're manipulating the camera to line up your angles and judge the space you're in is as important as your ability to control your trajectory; if you're messing a jump up often, it's because you haven't quite cracked what that room is asking of you.

Even so, every now and then, the game asks for a greater level of precision from your actions than the controls want to give you. The controls are a bit floaty for how small some of the platforms you're landing on are, and one jumping puzzle took me, at a conservative estimate, 25 attempts to get. The rooms inside monuments are viewed from an isometric perspective, which can make judging gaps difficult. Any situation that requires you to throw an object with great precision is frustrating too because of how the throwing arc works, but these moments of frustration only stick out because they are rare.

Outside of these moments, The Touryst is a game with a lot of chill. One island doesn't even have a monument at all--instead it has a movie theatre that shows a short highlight reel of moments from the rest of the game, an art gallery that you'll eventually populate with your own photography, and, best of all, a retro arcade with three cabinets. There's a racing game (based on the studio's own Switch game Fast RMX), a strange platformer, and a Breakout clone, all offering brief diversions that successfully sucked me in for an hour. Completing the high scores in these arcade games (and earning the arbitrary cash reward) is challenging, but there's something almost zen about a game that encourages you to waste your time like this--it perfectly captures my very specific childhood memory of discovering arcade machines in local pubs while on holiday and shovelling coins into them. The Touryst, appropriately, frames everything you do as an act of tourism.

Completing sidequests will earn you money, but cash is largely inconsequential to completing the game--by the time the credits rolled I had hundreds of coins left with very little to spend them on. The sidequests play into the shaggy nature of the game--you don't complete them because they're helpful, but because you want to see everything the game world has to offer. I spent a long time down a mine you encounter on one island, engaged with a spelunking challenge that lets you collect gems that can then be exchanged for money. I spent so much time down there not because I needed money--I never even traded the gems in. I did it because the mines are particularly enjoyable--they let you abseil down cliffs, swing between ledges, and even ride rickety minecarts as you delve deeper and deeper.

There are plenty of other activities scattered across The Touryst's small world. You can fix up a boring beach party, then liven it up further by buying new records for the DJ; you can show off your sporting prowess in surfing, soccer, and pull-up minigames; you can search the game world for photography subjects with the camera you're given early on, or hunt down several carefully hidden scrolls. The sidequests are often very simple and easy but watching as island life slowly shifts and changes based on your actions is a delight.

I found that as the credits rolled on The Touryst's strange ending, I was keen for them to finish so I could jump straight back in and mop up the remaining objectives. Admittedly, even if you want to do absolutely everything, The Touryst isn't very long—my completion total sat at 94% after five and a half hours. But perhaps it's better this way--after all, the best vacations often end before you've had a chance to really get homesick. It's the next best thing to an actual holiday.

Phoenix Point Review - The Life Aquatic

Thu, 12/19/2019 - 04:00

You've earned the right to mess with the XCOM formula when you're the person chiefly responsible for it. Julian Gollop was the co-lead designer on the original XCOM: UFO Defense in 1994, and Phoenix Point, from Gollop's new studio Snapshot Games, is a self-described spiritual successor to XCOM. At first it feels all too familiar: You play the eponymous private military organisation defending Earth from an alien threat, patching holes in the sinking ship via tactical combat and strategic upgrades. But Phoenix Point reinvents the formula in both big and small ways, sending changes rippling across the strategic map and tinkering with the nuts and bolts of close combat. Not every new idea is equally successful, though many of them are welcome, and in sum deliver a refresh that points the genre in an exciting new direction.

As with the first XCOM sequel, Terror from the Deep, the threat here comes from the ocean. A mysterious mist is creeping at the coast, luring people into the sea and returning them as Lovecraftian fish monsters--all scaly-skinned, newly betentacled, and packing crustaceous heat, an army of soldier crabs. Phoenix Point is joined in defending the planet by three ideologically distinct factions: New Jericho want to destroy the aliens, the Synedrion want to coexist with them, and the Disciples of Anu want to synthesize human and alien life. Many of the missions you undertake will inevitably involve offending at least one of the factions and so, no matter how impartial you to try to remain, eventually you're going to have to choose sides. It's a depressing, relevant example of humanity's failure to come together in the face of existential catastrophe.

On the world map, presented here as it was in the original XCOM as the Geoscape, a rotatable globe pockmarked with scouted points of interest, the mist is a red miasma slowing enveloping the planet, a Doomsday Clock ticking closer to midnight one continent at a time. This strategic layer runs in real time as your Phoenix squads fly from one flashpoint to the next, while you work on increasing base capacity, manufacturing new arms, and researching new military solutions. All the while the red mist spreads, escalating the danger as new nests appear and strangling your ability to fight back as faction outposts fall. It's the perfect visual representation of the odds you're facing and the seeming inevitability of defeat. Despite the abstraction, it's genuinely painful to see the mist consume a settlement you had heroically rescued only days earlier.

At a strategic level, Phoenix Point wants to let you pick your own path. The Geoscape is at the start shrouded in the fog of war. Through scanning nearby areas and aerial exploration it soon becomes a sprawling, cluttered morass of multi-coloured icons describing your own bases, factional havens, key quest destinations, potential scavenging sites, neutral colonies, alien nests, and other unidentified locations. You have considerable freedom in navigating your own route across this world. You can basically travel wherever you like and, when you arrive, you can usually decide whether or not to take on the mission you've encountered. Want to save this low-threat scavenging mission for some new recruits further down the line? Just hit abort and fly your veteran squad into more dangerous territory.

It's liberating, at least early on, as you jet around, scouting the map, picking and choosing your next mission. Yet by the time you have multiple squads traversing the globe, and you're juggling a handful of different flight paths across a Geoscape that has exploded into a galaxy of competing icons, that liberation is swamped by confusion. It's not that it's hard to tell what you could do next--important story missions and factional quests are highlighted--it's more that there are so many things to do that it's easy to lose yourself in endless distractions or worse, drown under an overwhelming wave of map markers.

Indeed, the chaotic, confounding clutter of the Geoscape is emblematic of some wider interface issues. The research screen throws every possible tech into a long list with scant attention given to how useful it might or where it might lead. There's a research order function, but you can only send one tech to the front of the queue, not adjust the order further down. Inventory management is a mess when it comes to comparing different weapons to equip and deciding which new gear to manufacture.

The the freeform structure of the Geoscape guarantees no two campaigns will play out alike. What those campaigns have in common, however, is a mentally exhausted player. You're pulled in so many directions. Two colonies are under attack in India but an alien nest needs eradicating in Malaysia. New Jericho wants to assist its research in China but the Synedrion wants you to sabotage Jericho's research lab in Australia. And all the while there are dozens of unexplored spots in Africa that you haven't even visited yet. But it’s worth battling through the stress and clutter to get to the combat.

What typically awaits at a destination is a bout of small-scale, turn-based combat. Occasionally you will stumble upon a simple narrative event that will give you a decision to make and readjust your resources or factional reputation in response, but for the most part, you will find yourself engaged in a firefight.

At a combat level, Phoenix Point is all about tactical flexibility. There are four primary classes--heavy, assault, sniper, and melee--but perk trees are semi-randomly rolled for each soldier, and you can also allow them to multi-class. This means no two soldiers have to be the same, and you have a lot of room to tailor each six-person squad to suit your preferred style of play. My first heavy was the typical tank character, lots of health and a big cannon, but later adopted a secondary class and would jet pack onto a roof and launch a few grenades to destroy the enemy's cover before switching to a sniper rifle to finish them off.

Many of the man-made structures on a map can be damaged and destroyed. Grenades and other heavy weapons can remove that pillar you were relying on for cover. Even the humble pistol can shoot through a thin wall, hitting anything that was on the other side and leaving them more exposed for a follow-up shot. My jet-packing heavy nearly bit the dust one time when the roof they'd landed on gave way in an explosion, dumping them into the room below where a nasty crab creature lurked. Fortunately, on the next turn, they were able to jetpack to safety out of the newly renovated ceiling.

When you take a shot, you aren't given a percentage chance to hit while some dice are rolled to see if you did any damage. Instead, bullet trajectories are said to be physically simulated, meaning if you can see something, you can hit it. There are two ways to take a shot. The default has you aiming generally at the centre of the target's mass. Take an aimed shot, though, and you're given a first-person view where what you point at is what you'll shoot. You can target an enemy's limbs or their weapon or even another object in the environment, and for the most part you're likely to hit it. There is a degree of fuzziness here--you'll see the crosshair surrounded by two rings, the inner one indicating where most of the shot(s) will hit and the outer accounting for any remainder--and the accuracy and damage of any particular shot is still affected by the weapon's range and other stats. But it's very satisfying to destroy an enemy's shield with one well-aimed sniper shot, then follow it up with an assault rifle round to the now-exposed head.

The ability to target specific limbs becomes vitally important as more diverse enemy types start populating the battlefield--you'll very quickly need to worry about more than those wielding shields. The sheer variety of enemy types and behaviours issues an interesting challenge every turn and have you constantly thinking about cover, height, range, support, supplies, teamwork and priorities. In addition, every enemy is susceptible to a well-aimed shot that cripples a specific limb, thus slowing its movement, nullifying its special ability, destroying its weapon or inhibiting its mode of attack. As a result there's so much more to think about in combat than just methodically moving your squad forward and shooting the enemy when they appear.

The flexibility is heightened by the action point system that provides more options than just moving and shooting. Every soldier has 4 APs, but different weapons and abilities use different amounts, and the ground a soldier can cover in 1 AP is affected by their speed stat. Two of my assault troops worked in perfect tandem: one was a shotgun expert with the speed to close quickly on their target and use a debuff that reduced the APs of nearby hostiles, the other hung back a bit, offering support with their longer-range rifle, entering overwatch every turn thanks to its cheaper cost, and running in with a medkit if the other took damage. Both characters started out the same, but the wildly different level-up choices I made for them, coupled with the capacity to spend their APs every turn on a mostly unique suite of options, meant they felt distinct--like characters whose behaviour I had authored and who I was personally responsible for. I'd invested in their stats, tweaking them in parallel to become complementary, and as a result, had become emotionally invested in them.

When you lose a soldier it hits hard, of course. Any soldier that goes down in a fight is permanently dead, and you have to recruit a novice to replace them. Yet while your emotional investment can never be fully recovered, the stat investment can be at least partially reclaimed. This is because experience points earned from completing missions is awarded to each individual soldier who participated and to a common pool. You're free to dip into this pool whenever you wish--maybe you just need a few more points to unlock that next tier perk you've had your eye on--but my strategy was to save the pool for new recruits. Every time I hired a new soldier I was able to level them up several times before they had pulled a trigger. It's a clever, flexible system that means veteran troop losses are a setback, but never a debilitating or irredeemable one.

The tactical combat doesn’t suffer from the clumsy interface design that plagues the strategic layer. There are convenient overlays informing you of movement ranges, AP consumption, and targeting possibilities, it’s easy to scroll between different terrain heights, and everything requires deliberate selection so you don’t end up performing an action you didn’t intend. However I did very, very occasionally run into a problem where the overlay would tell me I had line of sight from a certain tile if I moved there, only to move there and discover I couldn’t actually see the enemy. And after dozens of hours of play, I still have no idea why my soldiers would sometimes start a new mission with their weapons needing reloading, nor indeed how to reload them when not in a mission. But these feel like trivial concerns in the grander scheme of what is an overall robust combat engine.

Phoenix Point has plenty of bold new ideas for the XCOM genre, but not all of them have the same level of shine. It can feel a bit unwieldy at times, a bit less user-friendly than you'd hope. But it's a game that feels more concerned with experimentation than perfection, that's more interested in discovering new paths to take than walking one that's already well-trodden. As a hybrid tactical/strategy game, it's dynamic and deep with the occasionally disorientating misfire along the way. As a contribution to the genre XCOM first defined, it's a well-aimed shot.

Darksiders: Genesis Review - Lucy And The Horsemen

Wed, 12/11/2019 - 11:42

Hell is teeming with demonic masters tricked into subservience by Lucifer himself--or Lucy, as Strife affectionately calls him in Darksiders: Genesis. An isometric hack-and-slash bonanza, the latest instalment in the Darksiders series sees you puppeteer dastardly duo War and Strife in a combat-fueled romp filled with bombastic brawls, infernal abominations, and quippish one-liners.

The protagonistic pair form one cohesive half of the Four Horsemen--a parade of soldiers born from the ungodly union of angels and devils. And yet Genesis' story is wonderfully witty and whimsically warm. War is a belligerent and straight-laced gladiator who takes everything very, very seriously, and Strife has brilliant fun hurling droll jests his way. "Knock knock," opens one exchange. "What?" replies War. "You're supposed to say 'Who's there?'," retorts an incredulous Strife. "Why would I give away my location? I would simply smash through the door and face my assailant," reasons War.

The pair are so radically different to one another that the writing really has room to blossom into something special. To make this even more charming, the majority of Genesis' cutscenes unfold in a comic-book panel aesthetic--much like previous Darksiders games. The animation is stylish and memorable, and helps to ensure that Genesis never gets too grave--quip after quip, panel after panel, it's a game about Hell and the end of the world that maintains a delightful degree of charisma and warmth. It's also spectacularly garish, to the extent that its inherent campiness becomes its biggest strength.

Each of the two characters has their own distinct playstyle, both of which are excellent. War uses his gargantuan sword, Chaoseater, to tussle with enemies at close-range--he's a big, hulking bruiser that enjoys a good knock. Strife, on the other hand, has a pair of trusty pistols and excels when quickly moving about the battlefield. Like his wit, his movements are sharp and precise, and he's very well-suited to players who enjoy pummeling bosses in between choreographed sequences of fancy footwork. Being able to switch between the two on the fly allows for a massive amount of diversity in combat.

Although the genesis of Genesis is the relationship between its joint protagonists, these differences in combat style are what make it shine as a Darksiders game. It may seem as if this is budget Darksiders--an isometric camera angle and a short but sweet story. It's the opposite. You emphatically feel like a member of the Four Horsemen. As you learn new abilities--called Enhancements in Genesis--you gradually gain access to combos so devastating that it makes sense for the masters of Hell to fear you. War can channel lightning into his sword and unleash it upon his enemies, whereas Strife can shoot legitimate lava bullets from his pistols--he's half-gunslinger, half-volcano.

You have two different variables to pay attention to while you're in the thick of it: Health and Wrath. The former is a straightforward vitality meter, whereas the latter is tied to special abilities. For every Wrath bar you fill, you can use one of these powers--maybe you'll do a flaming somersault or create a clone of yourself to serve as a decoy while you leg it back to safety.

However, the real fun starts when you fill your Wrath meter right up to the brim and then some. After achieving this, you gain access to your Chaos mode, which causes you to temporarily become a colossus. War lights himself and his sword on fire, while Strife gets a gun that seems to shoot space dust. If you're clever, you can deprive a boss of half their health with a single Chaos transformation. It's an excellent mechanic because it's difficult to obtain and necessitates a lot of risk--you can't spend your Wrath bars on standard abilities if you're saving up to go Plus Ultra, Darksiders style. However, when you pull it off, you become a force of nature wreaking havoc on the hordes of hell and reminding their infernal lords that the Nephilim are not to be trifled with. It's almost as if they seem to forget that one of you was literally named after war itself.

You improve your Health, Wrath, and general attack power by investing in what's more of a skill map than a skill tree. Because it's refreshingly easy to navigate this skill map, you can experiment with a variety of combat styles without having to pump hours into trying different permutations. Although each character only has a single, distinct build, the wide range of enhancements and abilities available to you begets combat that never truly becomes boring or laborious, which is a massive testament to why the game actually works. One minute you're using your sword to rip up the ground and shoot a shock wave at your opponent, the next you're putting on a red Iron Man-esque gauntlet and smashing hordes into bits from above. The more fights you pick, the more the game opens up for you in terms of varied belligerence.

However, the isometric camera angle is not well-suited to the game's platforming sections whatsoever, which means that any puzzle that requires mobility to solve is a nightmare, especially on mouse and keyboard. At times, movement seems entirely arbitrary, as moving right in one section might have the same directional effect as moving up in another, even when tied to the exact same angle and situation. Most of Genesis' puzzles are intuitive, especially in co-op where the gear system really gets to shine--War and Strife each have access to three tools, which are used for problem-solving. However, once traversal comes into the question, puzzles become chores, and the momentum of an otherwise excellent game slows to a disheartening standstill.

There are also quite a few bugs in Genesis, but they're relatively minor and can be easily rectified. I got stuck in rocks on at least five occasions, but because the game auto-saves so regularly, a soft reboot fixed these pretty quickly. However, a more serious bug can occur in co-op. The host is fine, but the person playing in their friend's server can automatically switch to first-person mode, which isn't even supposed to be an option as far as I know. Being forced to wander around a world designed for third-person in first-person is far less than ideal. This issue can be fixed by summoning your horse and immediately dismounting it, but you can't summon a horse in dungeons or tight spaces, and even though these bugs may be co-op specific, they break the game. A shame, really, because co-op is where puzzles become complex endeavors that necessitate proper teamwork, and where boss fights encourage synergized button-mashing instead of 100 slightly-concentrated mouse-clicks a minute--not that rapid clicks are a bad thing in a good hack-and-slash. It's just more satisfying to strategize and quickly dispatch enemies with a partner.

Despite these issues, Darksiders: Genesis is a very worthy prequel to an established series. The combat is excellently engaging, the writing is genuinely funny without having to try too hard, and the art is consistently captivating. It's a shame about the dodgy camera angle--this is a game that doesn't really benefit from an isometric perspective for the most part, despite the hack-and-slash aspects being easy to control in top-down view. But at the end of the day, Darksiders: Genesis has a clear identity. It's not the most experimental game in the world, but it takes a variety of tried-and-tested systems and executes them with bravado and grace.

Shovel Knight: King Of Cards Review - Royal Refinement

Wed, 12/11/2019 - 10:35

King of Cards, the third (and final) Shovel Knight expansion, feels almost like a full-blown sequel. Starring the memorable King Knight, it harkens back to the gameplay of the original Shovel Knight adventure in both structure and execution. It's filled to the brim with varied and challenging levels, each more refined and focused than before by building on the many established strengths of this enduring franchise.

Shovel Knight: King of Cards acts as a prequel to the events of the original game in the same way that Specter of Torment did, following King Knight prior to his induction in the Order of No Quarter. It's a humorously written tale that gives more insight into the petulant and egotistical (but consistently entertaining) self-proclaimed King as you battle across the land to claim your namesake through a frivolous Joustus tournament. This is a new card game sweeping the kingdom, controlled by three of its best players in each of the regions you'll visit and claim for yourself.

King Knight's adventure falls squarely into standard Shovel Knight fare, with King of Cards feeling the most similar in structure to the original adventure out of the three expansions and the closest to a sequel in its scope. There's the same Super Mario Bros. 3-styled overworld map that you can work through in various ways. You can choose the shortest path to the region's boss battle or enjoy exploring by using alternative exits in levels to create paths to secret stages filled with valuable loot or new weapons and abilities. Side boss battle and optional treasure challenges pop up on the map to tempt you into treading off the beaten path, rewarding your detours with unsurprisingly stratifying platforming puzzles or nail-biting bouts that the series has become known for.

Stages adopt familiar themes from the series, from the neon-soaked labs of Plague Knight to the gold-laden walls of King Knight's future abode. Revisiting these areas is initially welcoming--a trip back to a familiar world--and does make some of the newer stages stand out more, given that you're not seeing them for potentially the fourth time like with the returning ones. King of Cards often feels like a celebration of Shovel Knight and its world, but it can at times feel overindulgent in its return to boss fights and stages you may have experienced multiple times already. While stages are altered enough to feel different beyond their visual makeup to account for King Knight's new moves, boss fights can feel much easier given that their attack patterns and abilities haven't really changed since their first appearance in the original Shovel Knight.

King Knight's own move set does make combat and platforming feel fresh, though, while also feeling faithful to the original flow of Shovel Knight. His standard attack is a horizontal dash and bash, flinging you into the air on contact with an enemy or a wall. When launched into the air, King Knight pirouettes into a dangerous spin, letting you hop between enemies while damaging them until you hit the ground again. It's reminiscent of Shovel Knight's vertical attack without the added benefit of choosing when you can enact it. Instead you have to carefully connect multiple dashes with reactive movements in the air that keep the chain going for the best effect, studying enemies' various attack patterns to pick the right moment to engage and the best window to get out. It gives combat a much quicker pace than any other previous protagonist, and retains the satisfaction of it despite the recycled enemies.

This puts a different spin on platforming, with each stage being suitably designed to challenge your understanding of King Knight's unique movement. While Specter Knight was able to wall jump and glide through lanterns, King Knight feels more restrained. Most walls can be dashed into to initiate a higher jump, but levels will routinely shake things up with elements that both restrict and change the way you perform this simple action. Slippery, ice-slicked platforms add a dangerous momentum to each of your landings, for example, while walls overgrown with vines prevent you from jumping against them from certain angles. Learning when you can chain together dashes and jumps and using the opportune positioning of enemies to bounce between long stretches of dangerous falls feels great. The designs of each stage make you feel like you're constantly on the brink of failure, but are forgiving enough to make each attempt feel fair. It's incredibly rewarding to push past each of King of Cards' challenging platforming gauntlets, and the varied level design makes consistent use of your limited movement in inventive ways.

King of Cards features many, many stages for you to tackle, and scratches the same sort of itch previous entries in the series have. But it also features an entirely new avenue of play in Joustus. Central to King Knight's quest is a card game that has captivated the land, filling taverns in each of the game's unique areas with challenging opponents. In Joustus, you use a deck of 16 cards to strategically move cards you've placed on a board onto green gems. Once the board is full and a player can no longer make a move, the player with the most cards on the gems on the board wins. Unlike card games such as Hearthstone or Gwent, Jousts feels more akin to strategic games like Go. It's less about individual card abilities and more about using specific cards to push around ones on the board, where thinking three steps ahead of your opponent and anticipating how they might affect the board is paramount to victory.

Vendors and beaten opponents will reward you with cards to build your deck, with their unique abilities adding to the complexity of the matches that follow. Initially, cards are inscribed with arrows that indicate directions that can push others on the board, but it doesn't take long for them to include effects that let you destroy other cards, alter their player allegiance, or push them much further than the standard single square. It takes some time to adjust to the rhythm that Joustus demands, especially when thinking about how your cards on the board can be moved around into inescapable areas. But it's a challenging side activity that acts as a rewarding respite from the demanding platforming, balancing the overall pacing of King of Cards.

Standard progression isn't gated by Joustus if you choose not to engage with the card game at all, despite the rewards attached to them. Vendors even offer cheats that turn each Joustus game into a trivial affair, letting you reap the rewards without needing to engage with deck construction and card collection if you're just here for standard Shovel Knight fare. It's easy enough to ignore the cheats if you want to feel the rush of a strategically demanding game of Joustus, but not obscure enough to miss if you're just looking for an easy way out.

Whether you're challenging foes at a table in a tavern or bashing them into oblivion with your scepter, King of Cards is like comfort food if you already have a taste for Shovel Knight. It doesn't stray from its established formula and often sticks closer to the format of the first game in the series rather than the more experimental expansions that came after it. And while its well-balanced platforming and demanding combat are a treat, its use of existing boss fights and enemies with little to no change in their mechanics saps some of the surprise out of these exciting encounters. It's been a persistent issue in each of Shovel Knight's expansions, but the King of Cards' attention to level design and deeply engrossing gameplay do help mask it better than before. If this is meant to be a farewell to Shovel Knight's first adventure, it goes off with all the spectacle and confetti it deserves.

Life Is Strange 2: Episode 5 Review - Beyond Good Or Evil

Tue, 12/10/2019 - 10:34

It's been some time since the explosive events of Haven Point, and even longer since Sean and Daniel Diaz's journey first began in Seattle, but the end of Life Is Strange 2 has finally arrived, and with it a satisfying conclusion to the tumultuous and emotional story we've witnessed thus far. Episode 5 abandons the goofy villains and cliches of Episode 4 and reconnects us with what makes Life is Strange 2 work best: nuanced characters, deep relationships, and a narrative that is unafraid to show the ugly side of present-day America while still spending plenty of time unearthing the beauty that lies beneath.

No matter what kind of relationship you've built between Sean and Daniel so far, the game kicks off with the two camping out under the stars in Arizona, during which Sean says to Daniel, "I love you no matter what happens, okay?" This scene illustrates a significant strength of the series which has carried through from Episode 1--while you can guide Sean's choices and morality and the impact that has on his little brother, no choice you make will change the love they have for each other. Even a low-morality Sean with a penchant for stealing who swears like a sailor will still love Daniel and protect him at all costs. The stellar performances delivered by each of the brothers continue to make their connection believable and their sibling affection palpably relatable.

Sean's spot-on characterization makes him a fantastic conduit to understanding the beauty in the characters you meet, the pain in the vile circumstances he so often finds himself in, and the overwhelming adoration he has for his brother. You love Daniel because Sean does, do your best to trust your estranged mother because Sean does, and feel palpable terror in the face of the worst of America because Sean does. His sense of self remains intrinsic to any version of his character and that is vital to your ability to empathize with him. As for the impact you can have, Daniel's personality can shift depending on how you've treated him and the choices you've made in previous episodes. He will have increased or decreased morality, and that trait will drastically change how he acts in the dramatic final moments of the series. As a result, your ending to the story will likely feel earned and satisfyingly in line with the events in your journey.

The inclusion of Sean and Daniel's mother is explored in more depth and with greater nuance than in Episode 4, where her appearance was overshadowed by the tonally inconsistent plot. The layers of her character and preference for isolation are cleverly mirrored by the first major location you explore in Episode 5, called Away, a community of people who have shunned society in favour of a self-sufficient life in the desert. The strength of Life is Strange 2's writing buoys up its new characters in the final episode, most of whom feel complex and well rounded. You meet a middle-aged gay couple whose familes' homophobia has driven them to a quieter life outside the city, a familiar face from Life is Strange 1 who gets the chance to exhibit the growth they appeared capable of in the previous series, and Diego and Carla, a Mexican man and his pregnant wife trying to build a better life by immigrating to America.

The latter example in particular is a testament to another of Life is Strange 2's greatest strengths: its willingness to ask complicated questions, amplify marginalized voices, and attempt to explore the complicated sociopolitical climate of present-day America. This difficult undertaking isn't always executed flawlessly, and some of the more extreme representations of xenophobic Americans can come off a little on-the-nose. But the larger themes of politics, racism, and differing perspectives as a result of ethnicity and privilege are effective due to the nuance and believability behind Episode 5's characters. Because of this, it's the quieter moments that deliver the themes most effectively, such as when the Diaz brothers arrive at the Mexican border and Daniel asks if there is also a towering border wall between America and Canada. Or when a particularly tense moment in the game is broken up by Sean meeting Carla and Diego, who engage with Sean entirely in Spanish and explain why they're so desperate to flee Mexico to provide a better life for their child.

However, some interactions in Episode 5 remain a little too hard to swallow. An entire encampment of social outcasts deciding they aren't phased by a 10-year-old with superpowers is unlikely, and sometimes otherwise intelligent characters seem to have inconsistent lapses in judgment or logic. That said, ignoring the social impact of Daniel's powers lets the plot to move forward without belabouring well-trodden ground, which returns the focus to the characters whose stories often paint a relatable picture of people's attempt to do right by others as they do right by themselves.

The impact of Episode 5's interactivity also falls flat in some places. Despite some heart-pounding events late in the game, the use of Daniel's powers doesn't amount to much as a mechanic. While awe-inspiring to behold in a cutscene, there is little weight behind actually using them. You mostly point at very clearly highlighted interactables and watching Daniel unleash his power on them. Save for a section with some variable choices late in the game, this is almost always too simplistic, as was the case in previous episodes, making the act of using Daniel's powers feel less exciting than it should, even in the emotionally-charged final moments.

The multiple endings to the series are significantly different and largely reflected how I had interacted with Daniel in both of my playthroughs. Both endings I reached were truly satisfying in their own way, and in the case of my main playthrough, heart-wrenchingly sad. There are no easy answers which feels appropriate, but there is positivity to be found in each possible conclusion. Coming to the realization that there is unlikely to be a purely happy ending for the Diaz brothers is disheartening, but it works to solidify the thematic undercurrents of Life is Strange 2's story--the troubled state of the current sociopolitical climate, identity, brotherhood, and what it means to be American.

Saying goodbye to the Diaz brothers is as difficult as it was to leave Chloe and Max in the original Life Is Strange, which is a testament to the extraordinary strength of the game's character building. Though the story of the Diaz brothers arrives at some kind of ending, the larger implications of the story and its politically-charged themes raise more questions than they can possibly hope to answer, though to even ask them feels like an admirable feat. As the game itself states within the blog of a gone-but-not-forgotten ally from Episode 1, "It's not a happy ending, but maybe it can be a hopeful one."

Audica Review - Electronic Gun Music

Sat, 12/07/2019 - 10:35

Before it made games that just dropped the pretense altogether and used plastic instruments, Harmonix was already the master at turning your average, run-of-the-mill controller into an instrument of musical chaos in Frequency and Amplitude. That same ethos is the engine driving Audica, which seeks to do the same for VR motion controllers. It's a game with a killer idea, but the execution is just short of the mark.

At its core, Audica is a VR shooting gallery that makes music. In a world where stylishly slicing boxes with lightsabers is the current gold standard for rhythm games, stylishly making music with blasters was pretty much the logical--even welcome--next step on paper. Your instruments are two neon laser tag guns. Colored targets fly toward you to line up with a circle on a specific beat in a song, and your job is to shoot that target on the beat with the correct colored gun for the maximum amount of points. The game does throw curveballs at you--some targets require you to hold your gun sideways, for example. But, by and large, Audica's premise is simple: make music with laser pistols. Despite this simplicity, though, making beats with bullets feels great in Audica.

Your lasers feel appropriately futuristic; by default, they're cool, reflective cannons with mirrored blades attached to the barrel that convey a sense of power. That feeling of power is all the more pronounced once you start firing away at targets and get in sync with the ebb and flow of a song's note pattern. Every successful hit generates a slick, track-specific "thwap!" that punctuates every note.

Screenshots were provided by the publisher

If, for whatever reason, the default sound on a track doesn't work for you, you do get the option to customize the effect. That same level of customization carries over to the calibration options, with some extremely user-friendly settings to account for your sense of rhythm or lack thereof. That's even more crucial in virtual reality, and Audica aces it, weaving the calibration tools in with the beat and targeting tutorials rather elegantly before you even start the game proper. Even with the calibration, the game is extremely forgiving when it comes to perfectly hitting a target dead center, though perfect aim does help achieve the best possible scores on a song. Still, just jumping into a track and firing at will is a blast because Audica is so approachable.

Audica's big, pervasive caveat, however, is that you better like fast-paced, thumping EDM from the last five years, because there's really nothing else in the game. Constricting the pool of music causes all of the tracks to bleed together after long sessions. The DLC helps, bringing some bigger star power and at least some element of chill to the soundtrack with songs like Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger" and Billie Eilish's "bad guy," but these are also some of the trickiest songs in the game, even at lower difficulties. More than anything, those tracks are a perfect showcase of how versatile the note charting and game design can be given a bigger musical palette to work from, and highlight just how much less of that creativity gets a spotlight in the main tracklist.

Also, even by rhythm game standards, Audica is too tricky for its own good. Far too often, notes are there to taunt, trip up, and challenge instead of letting you revel in the music being played. Audica's challenges often come from deliberately destroying your groove, creating off moments that don't feel like you're supposed to get in sync with the music being created by your shots and swipes. It feels like trying to win a dance competition, and every few seconds, someone tosses an orange at your head.

In this case, that orange can take the form of frequent errant notes, targets outside your field of view, or modifiers that you can't turn off, many of which ask the unnatural--a certain modifier that requires you move your arms an arbitrary amount during the song is probably the most egregious of them. On Advanced and Expert modes, you still get a wide berth to hit the targets anywhere, but it doesn't matter if those targets appear off the beat and ask more of you than responding to the rhythm. When the game isn't getting in its own way--and the note patterns are complex, but follow a certain rhythmic logic--it does feel empowering, like you're in a breezy, futuristic version of Baby Driver. In particular, tracks like KD/A's "Pop Stars" that flit back and forth between poppy melodies and impactful hip-hop line deliveries lend themselves extremely well to punctuating every note with a pull of the trigger. But this isn’t sustained across all of Audica's tracks. Obstacles are far too arbitrary too often for that.

Mostly, though, you just can't help but get the feeling of playing a grand experiment, and it's a shame that Audica doesn't land as well as Harmonix's other rhythm games. There's a lot that's simply, innately cool about Audica's concept, the very idea of using weapons to make music, but once you reach a certain level of proficiency, the enjoyment dries up faster than it should.

Shenmue 3 Review - From A Forgotten Time

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 05:07

Shenmue III is an anomaly, a game that feels like it doesn't really exist. It's as though it was beamed here from a parallel universe where the Dreamcast was an ongoing success and early-aughts game design remained the norm decades later. The truth is much more banal, of course: It's the result of a (sometimes rocky) crowdfunding campaign and the hopes and dreams of a fervent fanbase. Unfortunately, while it's fascinating as a weird curiosity from a long-gone era of gaming, it's simply not that fun to actually play.

Shenmue III picks up right where the last game left off--as though 18 years haven't passed since players wrapped up Ryo Hazuki's last adventure--resolving Shenmue II's cliffhanger in a way that's surprisingly unexciting after such a long stretch. Once that's over with, Shenmue III's story revolves around a small martial-arts village in the middle of China (and later, a larger harbor town), as he investigates various happenings, interacts with the populace, and engages in time-wasting activities like mini-games, gambling, scrounging for herbs, and levelling up his fighting skills. In other words, it's Shenmue.

In terms of setting, Shenmue III succeeds quite admirably in making the world pleasant to be in. There are some gorgeous vistas both in and outside of Bailu village, making the day-to-day strolls warm and inviting. The village itself is a charming setting, too; it's filled with interesting landmarks that give it character, like a massive sunflower garden and a small collection of gambling facilities on the riverbed. Niaowu, the port city where the game's latter half takes place, also feels like a real and engaging place, with the massive variety of shops you'd expect from a trading city on the water. The characters who live in these places also give them a nice flavor; NPCs all look distinct, have individual quirks and personalities, and are easy to recognize--which is nice when you have to find and talk to specific people in the absence of quest markers.

Shenmue III retains a lot of old favorite activities from previous titles--collecting capsule toys, gambling with games like Lucky Hit and turtle races, simple arcade mini-games like whack-a-mole, and the all-important Shenmue staple of forklifting--while also introducing a handful of new activities. You can wander around the countryside looking for herbs, selling and trading sets for money and valuable scrolls that teach Ryo new attacks, or you can kill a few hours fishing and hope your day's catch will net you some money and a cool prize. If you need some fast cash, you can do manual labor and chop wood in a brief minigame. And if self-improvement is your goal, there's always spots to train and raise your martial arts proficiency.

Exploring all of the side activities and enjoying the atmosphere of the locations in Shenmue III is fun, but it highlights one of the game's biggest problems: How utterly boring and unengaging the main story is. Ryo is still a dull-as-dishwater character who we're told is motivated by a sense of vengeance and justice, but his wooden dialogue and complete lack of a personality totally undermine any sense of urgency or intrigue this ongoing martial-arts drama might have. It doesn't help that the main plot moves like molasses, often requiring repeated, tedious wandering and interaction to find the character or place you need to get a tiny sliver of information that moves the plot along ever-so-slightly and unnaturally gating you off from places.

For example, It takes hours to find a pair of thugs at the game's beginning that you probably could have chased down in minutes if you were allowed to enter the area they're in from the get-go. Usually games gate off areas in order to better pace out the narrative they're trying to tell, but nothing interesting happens in the hours between the game's beginning and the confrontation with the thugs. I found myself frequently opting to do everything except what I needed to do to advance the story, not because the mini-games were particularly amazing (though they are quite satisfying), but simply because the story itself was so unengaging that I preferred to spend my time doing practically anything else instead of moving it along.

It's not just the pacing of Shenmue III that's a holdover from the Dreamcast era, either. There's all sorts of mechanics that, seen through a modern lens, are downright nonsensical and only serve to make the game less fun. For example, there's the stamina system: Ryo has a stamina bar that continuously drains even if he does so much as stands around, falling significantly faster if you choose to do activities like training, working, or even just running to get to a place more quickly (since fast travel is limited). Ryo needs to eat constantly in order to refill it throughout the day, and woe be to you if you stumble into a fight with less-than-ideal stamina, since it doubles as your life bar. In a game where exploration is a focus, it's a baffling mechanic that only frustrates.

Then there's the dialogue, which is every bit as unnatural and awkward as it was in previous games. If for some reason you find yourself in a conversation you didn't want to be in, you can't just cancel or even button-mash out of it--you're going to have to listen to someone babble on until Ryo clumsily apologizes for bothering them and escapes. Since you're often in situations where you have to bother everyone you see to find a person with the info you need, you're going to hear a lot of pointless blather. While there are some fun characters with cute personality quirks that are entertaining to engage with, a lot of the dialogue seems like banal filler meant to make conversation seem substantial when it really isn't.

The worst element of Shenmue, however, continues to be the combat, which is every bit as clunky and unsatisfying as it was back in the Dreamcast days. You're forced into an awkward angle where it's hard to see everything around you (which is awful when you have more than one opponent), the button combinations needed to perform various skills don't flow together well, and it simply feels laggy and unresponsive as a whole. You can "cheat" somewhat and simply do training exercises to level up your strength and stamina if you want to struggle a bit less with fighting, but it still doesn't serve to make the combat itself any more fun.

Shenmue III has its moments. It delivers on the promise of creating interesting and engaging new environments for Ryo and friends to explore and play around in. Yet, I can't help but think that the game's dogged determination to retain the same "feel" of its Dreamcast ancestors at any cost hurts it immensely. The creative team seems determined to not move anything forward substantially when it comes to Shenmue--including the story, which ends on yet another unfinished cliffhanger. Shenmue III is certainly an interesting game thrown out of time, but that doesn't mean that it's always enjoyable to play.

Blacksad: Under The Skin Review - Dog Days

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 19:00

It is to damn with faint praise to admit my favourite part of Blacksad: Under the Skin happens within the pause menu. Specifically, the menu option called "Progress." Here you can browse a comic book that tells the story so far, its speech bubbles and illustrated frames altered to reflect the choices you’ve made. The major plot threads remain intact, but you can weave subtle changes. Once the end credits have rolled, the final comic is a tangible reminder of the course you charted throughout the game.

It’s my favourite part of the game not just because it is a meaningful nod towards Blacksad’s origin as a comic book series--created two decades ago in Spain, written in French, and set in a version of 1950s America where all people are depicted as humanoid animals. It’s my favourite part of Blacksad because it gets to the heart of what Blacksad is about: Blacksad himself. It’s a shame such a strong central character finds himself in the middle of a merely competent noir-detective story with a couple of neat ideas and a distinct lack of pizzazz.

Like its source material, the game leans very heavily, if superficially, into the stock imagery of noir fiction. You know the drill: An attractive woman walks into the office of a down-on-his-luck private eye while well-tailored men are beaten up in dark alleyways by other well-tailored men. There’s a trip to the docks at night, a tense poker game against a group of gangsters, and the underbelly of every animal is even more seedy than you imagined, especially the rhinoceros.

In the midst of all this is John Blacksad, the implausibly-named feline private investigator who, when the game opens, finds himself working a tawdry case to expose a cheating husband. This early scene sets the tone and allows you to begin colouring in your version of Blacksad. The husband, furious at having been caught in the act of infidelity, confronts Blacksad and, after violence fails, offers him 10 times what his wife was paying in order to keep quiet. You can choose whether to take the money or not--the money itself is ultimately irrelevant and actually spending it is outside the scope of this story. Determining the character of the man is the whole point.

Later, you have the opportunity to tell the wife the truth of the affair or to keep your promise to the husband, and a box will pop up in the top left corner of the screen, Telltale-style, to inform you whether you’ve lied or accepted a bribe or betrayed a promise depending on the precise sequence of events. Blacksad begins the game as a heartbroken man (his lover was recently killed) and a struggling gumshoe (the bills are piling up in his tiny ramshackle office), but from this starting point you’re given a good deal of freedom to shape his future.

The new case gets underway via a set of mechanics that are staples of the adventure genre, but lack some of the refinements of recent years. Blacksad walks around each location and interacts with hotspots to look at objects and provide a brief observation, pick up items for later use, or talk to people and ask them questions about the case. It’s not a point-and-click interface, however; it uses direct control over Blacksad and he is, rather surprisingly for a cat, a cumbersome figure to move about.

Hotspots only appear when Blacksad moves near them, and they often disappear if he walks too far past them or slightly turns away from them. As a result, navigating a location and revealing all its interactable items can prove a finicky, frustrating process. Time is never of the essence in these scenes, so you’re never punished for being too slow. But you’re never assisted either; Blacksad walks very slowly, and there’s no run modifier or option to quickly exit a screen you’ve already walked across a dozen times. In the mid-game, there’s even a room you must explore in darkness, with only the unreliable light of a Zippo to guide you towards the vital, erratically appearing hotspots. It’s infuriating.

Very little of Blacksad is skippable. You can’t speed up dialogue during conversations. Mashing all the buttons during cutscenes does nothing. When Blacksad looks at a photo on the wall, for example, the camera zooms in on it and then ponderously pans across to a second photo next to it, Blacksad’s inner monologue noting something about the situation. You can’t skip the sequence even if you’ve accidentally triggered the hotspot a second time. I’m a patient player, but Blacksad forces you to move at its pedestrian pace, and it strained even my generous limits.

The investigation fares better when the interrogations commence. The conversation wheel comes in two varieties: The first are a sort of standard, "just the facts, ma’am" set of questions that let Blacksad get a feel for what the other person knows, and the second option provides an opportunity for you to express what Blacksad himself is thinking. The latter set is often how you get to shape Blacksad’s character and, crucially, you only have a few seconds to make the choice.

Conversations can feel quite tense, especially as they go back and forth between timed and non-timed sets of responses. You’re always on your toes, never quite sure when you’re going to be called upon to make a split-second decision about what exactly is going on in Blacksad’s head. It’s effective because, from Under the Skin's opening scene, you’re aware that the game will remember what you said and remind you of your previous decisions when you say something down the line that’s consistent or inconsistent with them.

Two other, somewhat more novel mechanics come to the fore during your investigation. The first plays upon the heightened senses of a cat. At certain prescribed moments you can activate Blacksad’s cat sense and view the world in black-and-white slow motion from a first-person perspective. The idea here is that you’re able to hear, smell, and see things that someone other than a cat wouldn’t pick up on. In practice, all you’re doing is swinging the camera around until you’ve highlighted what you need to find. The slow-motion effect in these sections lends a degree of drama that the scenes might otherwise not possess, but it doesn’t enhance the feeling you’re doing any sort of extraordinary detective work.

What does a much better job of that is the second uncommon feature. Blacksad adds vital clues and important questions to a sort of mental map of the case. You can combine two or more of these to verify a particular detail, rule something out, or suggest a new path to probe. The game will prompt you when you’ve collected enough clues to make a deduction so you’re not constantly opening the menu up and trying things out. In addition, the clues as written do a good job of providing just enough of a hint to nudge you in the direction of which ones to combine, without blatantly giving the game away. Though it’s possible to brute force the correct combinations since there are never more than ten clues to consider at any moment, you’ll be doing a disservice not only to a clever system but to yourself. Putting two pieces of information together, that you suspect clears up an important part of the case, and seeing Blacksad smile and give you a hearty thumbs up to indicate that you did so correctly… man, it’s a marvellously simple and effective way of making the player feel smart.

Effective is a pretty good way of describing Blacksad as a detective game. As a noir detective game, however, it struggles. No matter that this is a world full of cats, dogs, wolves, lizards, rhinos, and horses going about their lives as people, Blacksad’s New York is well-trodden material. The main story does manage to twist and turn in unexpected ways, and the payoff, at least in terms of the central whodunnit mystery, is satisfying. Less successful are the attempts at building a larger world beyond the immediate case. There are gestures towards the racism and sexism in this society--and by implication, modern America--but they're just that, a gesture. There's no follow-up or investigation of these issues; they're just set dressing.

It also lacks a coherent noir style. Blacksad himself offers up a decent take on the noir lead, with his voiceover commentary laced with weary cynicism and flashes of tender empathy. There’s the expected sultry sax soundtrack which, coupled with numerous long, lingering shots of cigarette smoke wafting into the air, ensures everything feels like it’s been smothered in a sticky heat haze. But everything else looks drab and dull and boringly conventional. There’s very little of the high contrast lighting and off-kilter camera angles that defined noir cinema. For a genre synonymous with style, it’s disappointing to see something so lacking in it.

Blacksad: Under the Skin works, it's a solid detective game that serves up a case worth cracking, a charismatic lead whose character you can shape in meaningful ways, and an investigation method that successfully wraps you in a brown trenchcoat. But when it doesn’t work you'll find yourself bogged down in the tedium of traipsing around another uninspired location, searching for that final wayward hotspot, and the atmosphere is sucked out of the room.

Planet Zoo Review - Spreadsheet Safari

Thu, 11/21/2019 - 12:23

Planet Zoo is a beautifully detailed and mechanically rich management sim that sometimes stumbles under the weight of its own systems. The diverse lineup of exquisitely rendered animals is utterly delightful, and the tools you’re given to build your dream zoo with are mostly intuitive, though there are exceptions. Though hampered by slow progression and a frequently cumbersome UI, it’s chock-full of all the detailed options you want from a good management sim and offers both a rewarding and educational experience.

Building a successful zoo is all about making sure everyone and everything in it is happy, working, and well-looked after. Animals need to be kept in the right climate and conditions to keep their welfare in check, which is no mean feat in itself. Career mode is the best place to start out, offering a helpfully structured and much-needed tutorial across its first few scenarios that show you the ropes of how to make your zoo tick along. If you manage to complete all the given objectives you’re free to move on to the next scenario or continue on running the zoo as you please with the training wheels now off. There are also modes that allow you to start from a blank slate, as well as a sandbox mode that eschews the game's economy entirely.

The Zoopedia--the in-game encyclopedia full of useful animal facts and stats--gives you all the basic information you need to know before setting up an enclosure, but the process really starts once you move your animals in and can properly gauge how they’re feeling about their surroundings. You’re encouraged to really consider the finest of details. Is the enclosure laid out with the right plants from the right continent? Is there enough shelter from bad weather? Is the herd made up of the right ratio of males to females? But while it’s easy enough to spot these problems, finding the right answers can be a pain as you’re forced to trawl through different sub-screens that are hidden within a myriad of menus and icons. While there are warning notifications for these issues, you have to hunt down the right menu yourself just to make the fix.

Conservation credits play a big role in advancing your zoo's rating with visitors. These credits are an in-game currency you earn for doing various tasks, from logging into your online game and completing community challenges to releasing animals into the wild. They’re used to adopt new animals from the animal trade centre, which helps you expand your zoo as well as encourage breeding. This nets you a spike in visitors--baby animals are cute as heck--and, more importantly, an animal with stronger genes, making it more valuable to trade for cash or release for credits. But while conservation credits are easy enough to earn when using the offline economy, online is a different story, with credits being doled out sparingly at best, especially in the early game. This causes some problems in the game’s online Franchise mode, where the animal trade centre is populated with creatures exclusively from other online players, and almost all of them can only be bought with credits. This slows the pace early on, forcing you into a cycle of breeding and releasing animals until you can finally start populating the zoo with the ones you actually want.

As for the humans in your zoo, visitors need to be both entertained and educated through having a wide variety of animals to see and learn about, and your workers need to have all the right facilities so they can keep things from descending into chaos. Your staff will mostly wander autonomously, though you can create helpful work zones to assign them to watch over. Animals can get upset if their enclosure is always dirty or if their food isn’t being refilled, and while you can set how often some worker types visit an enclosure, work zones let you keep the right people near enough of the right places.

When starting to flesh out the facilities of your zoo, you begin with a small selection of shops and staff quarters, unlocking more by assigning your staff to research them. The more you research, the better and broader variety of buildings you have. Building isn’t perfect--paths will often fail to connect up, and it took some time to wrap my head around the concept of building storefront facades and then placing the store inside them, rather than plonking the store down and having it just work. But it’s ultimately for the better as it creates flexibility for user-created designs.

You’re offered a full gamut of individual building parts that you can use to create your own blueprints, which can be shared via the Steam Workshop. Most of the basic pieces--walls of varying shapes, roof tiles, doors and window frames--will snap together on a relative grid, letting you put your designs together like building blocks. Although some of the manipulation controls aren’t immediately intuitive, with a little time, creating your own style of buildings gets simple enough that you can focus more on refining your creative ideas for that new toilet block or burger stand, rather than working out why your walls won’t connect up.

The animals themselves are the absolute stars of Planet Zoo. They’re all gorgeously rendered and look wonderfully detailed up close, their fur waving back and forth as they graze and prance about. Some of their animations can be a tad janky, but for the most part, watching your animals wander and interact is the biggest joy to be found in Planet Zoo. Whether you’re watching a lion cub nervously sidle up to water before turning to squeak at a nearby adult, a herd of springboks pouncing about together, or a lonely adult orangutan sitting on a rock in the tropical rain, I never failed to be moved by how they looked as they went about their business, feeling a real connection with and responsibility towards them.

Despite a slow burn in online mode and a bloated user interface that gets in the way of fully enjoying the finer management aspects of Planet Zoo, there’s still more than enough here to get something out of your time with it. It’s got its janky moments, but the animals are all rendered sublimely, the management sim mechanics are smart, and the sensible building controls will encourage and help you to build the best park you can for the animals in your care.

Sparklite Review - Shine A Light

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 13:00

The premise for Sparklite sees a world where constant earthquakes shake up environments and the only true refuge is in the sky. Everytime you drop to the world below it’s both familiar and different; the environments are made up of different tiles, and like a game of Catan, they’re shuffled anew on every trip. It’s your job to learn and navigate this ever-changing land while upgrading your abilities so you can take down Mining Titans bent on further destroying the world. It starts off as an exciting adventure full of challenge and variety, but that's not something that lasts forever.

Sparklite is a 2D roguelite whose bright and vivid pixel art environments feature prominently. The main world is shrouded when you first enter it and is divided into squares which take up the whole screen, much like a classic Legend of Zelda game. Moving through and uncovering the layout of the area provides a sense of discovery, especially in the early runs, and each square presents a scenario which will become familiar over time--the layout and enemies for map squares will stay the same, but you won’t know which variant you'll get until you arrive. Each scenario feels like a crafted experience, each featuring its own unique little challenge or puzzle, but they still have random elements that keeps things fresh--hidden elements can be found breaking boulders or digging up treasure.

This structure, along with the visual flair and the rousing score full of synths and horns, help to evoke the adventurous feelings of classic JRPGs. The pixel art is exciting and bright, and the enemy and world designs have a stoutness that is reminiscent of a very particular style of top-down console adventure game. But despite being a throwback game, Sparklite's movement and combat feel modern--they're responsive and smooth. There are two different strengths of melee attack, and as the game progresses, different ranged weapons also become available to you. Ranged weapons rely on a form of energy generated by attacking enemies with your melee hits, and this creates a satisfying flow. There’s no standing back and trying to pick off enemies from a distance; instead, the game forces you to focus on the melee moves, which means you’re always in the thick of things. It's an exciting challenge to be constantly on your toes, never able to totally avoid danger, and learning enemy patterns to stay alive.

This is made especially engaging because of all the different enemy types. Every time you enter a new environment you’ll discover new creatures who have different attack patterns, defences, and behaviors to learn--some will even let you by peacefully. There’s a real sense of danger when going to an unknown place, which later evolves into a sense of mastery once you’ve gotten a handle on the enemies there.

This goes doubly so for Sparklite's intense bosses, as each of the five Mining Titans bring a slew of unique moves to the table. Every time I encountered a new boss I’d die, baffled at how to proceed. One boss in particular presented only one weak spot on its front, but that's also where it would readily produce pincers. It could shoot missiles and laser beams, as well as cause sinkholes with a stabbing scorpion tail. I found myself mastering the pattern for one series of attacks only to quickly get taken down by the other. Overcoming these fights requires you to learn how each enemy attack works in tandem, on top of finding a safe opening to attack. Learning a little bit more after each death is a great sensation, and Sparklite definitely offers a real sense of accomplishment when you finally come out of the other side of what was once a difficult fight with barely any damage.

However, there are some occasions where combat just feels unfair. Little things, like enemies being able to hit you when they're not even on the same screen as you, or being perpetually frozen by two enemies shooting staggered ice balls, can be incredibly annoying. I felt this especially hard during the final boss battle, where a bombardment of enemies would all jump on me in a staggered pattern, keeping me in an indefinite loop of knockdowns. There are ways to try to avoid all of these situations, but if you’re unlucky enough to get caught by them, they’re nigh impossible to get out of, especially if you're already low on health.

Consumable items also play a large role in combat. You can find and collect an array of bombs, buffs, and healing items every time you drop down to the planet’s surface. They offer new strategies to defeat tough enemies or increase your survivability. However, you don't keep any of them when you die. This creates the risk-reward dynamic seen in most roguelites--is it worth stockpiling items for an upcoming boss, or better to use them now and increase your chances of survival?

The downside to items in Sparklite is that most of them take a while to activate, and while you can get permanent buffs that help with this, using them during tough combat encounters is often more of a liability, which makes certain items feel useless. In some boss battles, I found bombs could be quite effective, for example, but in others, finding the downtime to set them off is often just too risky. Even taking the time to heal can be a tough and dangerous choice, so learning when to do so becomes crucial. Weapon items that I wanted to use and make me feel powerful often felt like they got me killed, and with such limited opportunities to use items, I ended up using them very sparingly and with trepidation.

Items are also completely random, so it’s easy to find yourself stocked with a bunch of things you may not even need. One item’s sole job is to illuminate dark areas, and there are only so many times you’ll ever want to use it. On the other hand, health is few and far between so repeatedly getting one item over the other can be very frustrating.

Randomness can also negatively affect your experience with other systems, like permanent upgrades. Permanent items are kept upon death, which means that death doesn’t usually feel too punishing, and instead feels like an opportunity to go back to the Sky Refuge and rework your loadout. You equip upgrades by slotting them into a grid--some will be larger than others, and you have to prioritise what you think you’ll need. It's a neat little system, and experimenting with it is a rewarding exercise because you can see a tangible difference reflected in your character. However, this is the only way to level up your character, and though the game will let you buy some upgrades (like health buffs) as a guaranteed item, others are up for you to stumble across randomly, which can affect your trajectory of progress. This is a characteristic of the genre, of course, but that doesn't mean it isn't frustrating at times.. It wasn’t until I was facing one of the final bosses that I finally found a second damage upgrade, for example, something I desperately needed and explored the map several times in search of.

I also encountered a few frustrating bugs in the Switch version of the game which interrupted my progress; crashing during loading screens made me sacrifice more than one of my more lucrative runs. Even aside from bugs, sometimes loading screens seemed ridiculously long as I got into the later areas--areas which also felt like they weren’t anywhere near as diverse in design as earlier ones. Even the random dungeons, which you can find by breaking objects on all the maps, repeat far too often and by the end I could tell which one I’d dropped into immediately. Skipping these dungeons means fewer items and less currency, which in turn means a lower chance of survival or an inability to afford bigger upgrades. Their necessity means it eventually becomes a chore to do the same thing over and over again for random, often disappointing rewards.

This repetition in design seems especially odd when you consider that other puzzle aspects of the game are often introduced once and barely used again. For example, each time you discover a new ranged weapon, you’ll have a comprehensive tutorial on how to use it so you understand what puzzles it’ll work for. Several of these items went almost completely unused after I’d acquired them because I never came across an opportunity for them.

Sparklite has a great amount of challenge and diversity--until it doesn’t. When things are going well in the early game, progress always feels real and attainable, so it's enjoyable to go exploring the world for whatever you’ll find next. The game's upgrades are satisfying to implement (so long as you can find them) and there’s a real sense of growth and achievement. But when Sparklite gets you with an unfair death or technical issue that sets you back, and later causes you to do the same thing over and over again, it's hard to endure. In the moments where I didn’t encounter these kinds of setbacks, I felt consumed by the desire to find more upgrades, learn how to defeat that boss, and unlock a new area. Sparklite's loop can be rewarding, but not when it's extended beyond its means.

Layton's Mystery Journey: Katrielle And The Millionaire's Conspiracy Review - Merry Old England

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 12:03

So much of the appeal of the original Professor Layton games on Nintendo DS comes from the sheer warmth. It's a mahogany-toned warm blanket of a series of detective games. The puzzles might be non-sequitur brain-busters, but when it's all over, you're welcomed back into the game's world with all the comfort of a cup of tea. Come now, chin up, don't worry about how annoying that last one was, here's another bad pun to soothe what ails you.

Layton's Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires' Conspiracy walks the series back to that original warmth of its humble roots in the visual mystery novel genre. It's a game that revels in its relative simplicity the way the series hasn't in some time. Dig in deep enough, though, and you'll find a game that conceals more than a couple of devious surprises under its sunny exterior.

The latest entry in the Layton's Mystery Journey series once again takes place in a sort of Studio Ghibli-fied version of turn-of-the-century London. The hero detective this time around is the good professor's cheery, aloof, and persistently hungry daughter, Katrielle. She's joined by Ernest Grieves, a straight-laced and faithful assistant if there ever was one, and a basset hound who Kat names, in the game's single laziest pun, Sherl O.C. Kholmes. As it turns out, Sherl is actually suffering from Detective Pikachu Syndrome: He's able to talk to a select few humans, but he also has amnesia so he has no idea how exactly he got into this mess. Unfortunately, poor Sherl has to stick it out for a while longer, since the intro is the last time the game addresses his whole predicament in any meaningful way.

The game's lack of an all-encompassing narrative is par for the course, however, and for most of the play time, it's not necessarily to its detriment. The usual Layton series storytelling returns: It's a visual novel at its core, with long stretches of dialogue with various characters broken up by point-and-click puzzles. As opposed to the earlier games' overarching mysteries, however, Katrielle's first outing is actually an episodic affair, where each case is its own self-contained little tale of low-stakes peril, ranging from the minute hand going missing from Big Ben to a wealthy madam's missing cat, disconnected from any larger character development for the main protagonists until the literal final hour. What the game lacks in straightforward character arcs that build over the entire playtime, it makes up for in building an enormous and eclectic cast of oddballs and weirdos with hilariously punny names and peculiar quirks. Katrielle's relationship with each character may only last for a single case, but each case is structured in such a way that the broad strokes--the frequent clapbacks, one-off zingers, friendly jabs at everyone's expense--are allowed to make an impression. As far as the narrative is concerned, each new character is made to be memorable, not practical. And the episodic format makes it easy to enjoy the game in short bursts. Even if you only have a few minutes to spare, you can meet someone new, push the story forward, or finish a crucial puzzle.

Well, you can try to finish a crucial puzzle at the very least, but not all of them are pushovers. In lieu of any legitimate detective work, most of what you'll be doing to help take a bite out of English crime is solving a vast series of one-off puzzles of various sorts for whoever asks. Some are just basic spatial problems, such as having a vat that holds five gallons of liquid and another that holds three, and trying to figure out how to get four gallons. Others are quirky little mini-games more akin to what you may find in WarioWare, just with a tricky twist like having a limit on how many moves you can make to finish the game. Some, however, are just flat out riddles, and these tend to be the ones that may leave you white-knuckle frustrated.

The game fires its first warning shot early on, with a riddle about the minimum number of times you need to touch a clock to get it to display properly. It's a problem that's very easy to overthink, not because the solution is simple, but because the description of the problem begs additional questions that the game does not answer.

Thankfully, for the vast majority of puzzles, sheer persistence is enough to power through and guess correctly. There are also tokens you can find scattered around every environment that allow you to unlock hints. However, even in cases where the hint walks you right up to the solution, the answer and its explanation can defy common sense in a truly underwhelming way that leaves you less with an "aha!" feeling of brilliance and more of an "oh, come on" feeling of disappointment.

That flaw is even more mind-boggling considering just how well localized and executed the game is otherwise. Each character is charming in their own right, rife with British affectations and deep-cut historical references--the Mayor's name is a play on London's original name from centuries ago. And when the game slips into its all-too-short and oddly placed stretches of voice acting or fully animated cutscenes, it's chock-full of naturalistic and pleasant performances across the board, from Katrielle's gentle lilt to Sherl's stiff-upper-lip aristocratic grumble. No small effort has gone into truly realizing this world, causing the lack of clarity when it really matters to sting all the more.

But, perhaps more than any other game in the series, there's plenty here allowing you to step back from the source of your aggravation and recharge. Exploring each environment turns up special coins that allow you to unlock new outfits for Kat and new furniture for her office. As you progress, you also unlock mini-games that are completely disconnected from the main quest--you can help a local chef cook a perfect meal for the residents of Kat's neighborhood, you can run a maze where you have only a limited number of moves, or, you can play any of the dozens of additional puzzles that aren't connected to progress in any of the actual cases. On mobile, this content was parsed out, piecemeal, over time after release. On the Switch, the game is overwhelmingly generous with content within an hour of starting, and most of it is just as charming and endlessly replayable as the rest of the game.

If there's any one thing truly getting in the way of your joy, it's the Switch itself. The Professor Layton games were staples of the Nintendo DS, taking full advantage of the added screen real estate so whatever you did on one screen didn't block what was happening on the other. The Switch, however, has limitations the DS didn't. Playing in docked mode means using the Joy-Cons to move your cursor around like a mouse, which is nice, but also a bit too fast and twitchy for many of the puzzles. In handheld, you have the option of using the analog sticks to move your cursor, which has the same problem with even less precision. You can also use the Switch's touchscreen, but your fingers are too often in the way of the rest of the screen. This is a game that simply begs for a stylus.

In Katrielle Layton's London, it's a season of golden leaves, stiff breezes, and sun that provides light but less warmth. It's the perfect atmosphere for a game that provides such quaint joys for hours on end, cackling at its next pun, zippy one-liner, or absurd new scenario while putting creaky parts of the brain to good use. Sometimes the breeze is a bit too cold, or there's rain, or, oh, you know, the solution to a logic problem you've been staring at for 45 minutes might be “air” and you hate everything for a few minutes, but it doesn't last, and the next pleasant moment is never too far away.

Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order Review - The Friends We Made Along The Way

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 16:00

Star Wars games often feel estranged from the franchise that spawned them. Video games have gotten very good at capturing the aesthetic of Star Wars--the cold metallic angles of Imperial architecture, the powerful hum of a lightsaber, the electric snap of a blaster bolt hitting home--but can struggle to get beneath the surface. It's the rare Star Wars game that reaches beyond how Star Wars looks to explore what Star Wars is really about.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the latest game in the canon, is one of the better offerings specifically because it tries to look beyond the trappings of Star Wars. It's not just another Jedi power fantasy, although wielding the Force with skill and resolve will certainly make you feel powerful. Like the best Star Wars games, it's one that adds to the ideas of the films and other material, exploring new corners of the galaxy while focusing on the core themes of the franchise: knowing yourself, fighting your own darkness, and braving adversity with the help of friends.

Friendship has always been one of the main drives of Star Wars, especially in the original film trilogy, and it's the core of what makes Jedi: Fallen Order work in both story and gameplay. The primary relationship of the game is between Cal Kestis, a Jedi padawan in hiding in the aftermath of the Jedi Purge that took place in Revenge of the Sith, and BD-1, a droid entrusted with a secret mission by the Jedi Master that previously owned it. Once Cal and BD-1 meet, they become inseparable, working together as partners to solve puzzles in forgotten ruins, navigate alien environments, and beat back the Empire.

The pair work throughout the game to complete a scavenger hunt created by BD's last companion, Master Cordova. Before he vanished, Cordova locked away a list of Force-sensitive children throughout the galaxy that could be used to resuscitate the destroyed Jedi Order and challenge the Empire. He left clues to how to retrieve that list hidden in BD, requiring Cal and the droid to travel to various worlds, following in Cordova's footsteps to free up BD's encrypted memories.

Functionally, BD is Cal's constant companion as he rides around on the Jedi's back, and Cal regularly talks with the droid as they explore Fallen Order's planets. BD also serves several support functions in gameplay. Most importantly, BD provides Cal with "stims" that allow him to heal himself in the middle of Fallen Order's often-oppressive combat. He can also function as a zipline, unlock doors, and hack certain droid enemies to turn the tides of battle. BD is just enough a part of any given fight or puzzle that you're always aware of his presence and his help, but it's Cal's constant interactions with the little droid that really build out their relationship.

You definitely need BD's help and the upgrades you find for him throughout your journey, because Fallen Order can be punishing. It lifts a number of gameplay ideas directly from the Soulsborne genre; enemies are often tough-as-nails and can deal big damage if you're complacent, whether they're Imperial stormtroopers taking potshots or two-foot rats leaping out of burrows to snap at Cal's throat. Fighting isn't just about wailing on everyone with your lightsaber, but rather relies heavily on blocking and carefully timed parries if you mean to stay alive against even the most run-of-the-mill foes. You and your enemies also have a stamina meter to manage, which dictates how many blows you can defend against before you stagger, and adds a strategic element to duels. To win a battle, you need to whittle down an enemy's stamina while blocking, parrying, and dodging to manage your own. Since every blow you sustain can be devastating, combat becomes an exciting, cerebral exercise in pretty much every case. You'll spend a lot of time not only honing your parrying skills, but also making quick battlefield decisions about how you can isolate dangerous enemies or use your Force powers to even up the odds.

You can only heal from a limited number of stims or by resting at periodic meditation points, similar to Dark Souls' bonfires, and using them respawns all the enemies in the area, which makes being a smart combatant even more critical. Killing enemies and finding collectibles nets you experience, which accumulates into Skill Points you can spend on new abilities for Cal. But dying costs all the experience you earned since your last Skill Point unless you can find and damage the enemy who bested you.

Though the elements of Fallen Order are Souls-like--it's probably most closely comparable to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, in fact--on most difficulty settings, it's far less brutal than From Software's games. Fallen Order might be considered Soulsborne-lite, making use of the same elements but to a different effect. It's tough, even occasionally frustrating, but not nearly so much as the games from which it draws its inspirations. That balance achieves something that feels essential to Fallen Order's identity: It makes you a powerful Jedi Knight, without turning you into an unstoppable Force-wielding superhero. Ratcheting back on the Jedi powers (and forcing you to unlock them as you work through the story and deal with Cal's past) helps Fallen Order's take on the Star Wars universe feel grounded and believable--a place where people could actually live.

Your lack of overwhelming power also helps make the ever-looming Empire a frightening threat, even as individual soldiers comedically call out their own ineptitude in pretty much every battle. Cal spends the entire game hunted by the Inquisition, a subset of the Empire's forces specifically tasked with exterminating Jedi. Because every fight is potentially deadly, running into the game's specially trained Purge Troopers is always an event, and you're forced not only test your lightsaber skills and timing, but to consider all the abilities at your disposal to make it out alive.

The rest of the game often has to do with clambering around the environment and solving puzzles, not unlike Tomb Raider, God of War, or Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Navigating the world is as much about using observation and problem-solving skills as your Force tools. Respawn's Souls-inspired map design allows you to explore off the beaten path without ever really getting lost, and each planet is richly realized and fascinating to explore. The intricate pathways encourage you to wander off and visit each planet's varied environments to see what you might uncover, and Fallen Order always make sure you're rewarded with a bit of story, a cosmetic item, or even an optional miniboss fight.

When you're between missions on planets, you're spending time with Fallen Order's two other major characters, Cere and Greez. They're the pair who manage to save Cal in the early hours of the game when his Jedi nature is discovered by the Empire, and they put him on the quest to find the list of Force-sensitives before the Inquisitors can get their hands on it. Though the story is a little rough in the early going as Cal is thrown directly into the quest with little lead-up or explanation, Fallen Order's story starts to excel around the halfway point as his relationships with BD, Cere, and Greez really start to develop. Once Fallen Order starts to invest in the interpersonal dynamics and deepening friendships of its cast, it really hits a stride--and its quest feels less like an elaborate series of tasks to fetch a MacGuffin, and more like an essential addition to the ongoing Star Wars saga.

It does take Fallen Order a while to get there, though. The first few planets are a bit on the dull side, rushing to get Cal on his quest through the galaxy without really establishing why you should really care. Until it starts to click later in the game as you unlock more Force powers, combat can be a hassle, especially at certain boss battles or chokepoints, when your last meditation point is some distance away and you have to navigate through the same chunks of the map over and over. And while parrying is an essential part of the game, at higher difficulties, the timing can feel finicky and unreliable.

The game also loves to throw handfuls of enemies at you all at once, which can be overwhelming, and combat against lower-tier enemies is built to lock you into finisher animations in a lot of cases. Instead of making you feel like a cool, well-trained warrior, these usually just leave you open to some Imperial dork wandering up with an electrobaton and clocking you in the head. It's only after you get enough Force powers to effectively control the crowds that these moments become more exciting than irritating. But throughout the game, there are always times when an enemy you couldn't see because of the game's tight targeting lock system gets in a cheap hit, forcing you to replay a fair stretch of its large, interweaving maps.

But especially as it wears on, Fallen Order becomes perhaps the strongest conception of what playing as a Jedi Knight ought to really be like. It's true that Fallen Order borrows liberally from other action games, but those elements work together with Respawn's combat and environment design, and a story that finds humanity in the Force and in its characters, to hone in on what makes the world of Star Wars worthy of revisiting again and again. Even with some rough edges, Fallen Order represents one of the most compelling game additions to the Star Wars franchise in years.

Need For Speed Heat Review - Getting Warmer

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 10:09

Racing in Palm City--the fictional street racing capital of the world--is all about earning money and building a reputation. During the day there are sanctioned races on closed streets, with safety barriers, an adoring crowd, and substantial cash prizes awaiting those who cross the finish line. At night, illegal street racing engulfs the city's neon-soaked roads, and the police respond in kind, blanketing the star-lit sky in the sound of thunderous V12s and whirring sirens. This dichotomy between day and night sets Need for Speed Heat apart from its contemporaries, and makes for Ghost Games' best entry to date, stripping away a lot of the series' needless baggage to get to the heart of what Need for Speed is all about.

There's still a hackneyed story about crooked cops and racing crews that take themselves far too seriously; it's full of corny dialogue, farfetched stakes, and irritating characters that wouldn't make the cut in earlier Fast and Furious movies. Story missions occasionally crop up, too, forcing you to follow a character while they talk at you, and there's even one instance of a dire tailing mission. Aside from this, however, the narrative is mostly relegated to background noise that's easy to ignore, especially if you opt to skip any of its cutscenes. Need for Speed Heat is mostly focused on getting you behind the wheel of a car you've customized yourself, altering everything from the ludicrously oversized spoiler on the back, right down to the distinct sound of the engine.

Each aspect of the game's design is built around the core dynamic between day and night. Official circuit races dominate the faux-Miami streets when the sun is beaming, rewarding you with cash that can be spent on new cars, parts, and visual customization options. The autoparts companies and car salesmen in Palm City are a peculiar bunch, though. They won't sell to just anyone--such is their love of cars. They have to know that you're "cool" enough and are going to put their parts to good use, so the dead of night is spent competing in illegal street races to earn rep and convince them of your pedigree. This creates a clear divide between day and night that gradually cultivates this enjoyable flow, as you switch back and forth between the two time frames depending on whether you need money or rep.

The duality of this concept establishes an unmistakable vibe to each time of day--almost like they're two completely different worlds. The sunlit streets feel relatively safe, with sanctioned events emanating a casual, crowd-pleasing atmosphere. Courses are clearly marked with barricades, there's room to drift your car sideways around most corners, and the only thing you have to worry about is beating the other competitors to the finish line. By contrast, Palm City's nightlife is risky and fraught with danger. Rain that was previously casting a gloomy shadow over the day's races has now settled onto the surface of the road, as visually-striking puddles absorb the city's neon haze and reflect it back. Traffic clogs the streets, making races feel more claustrophobic, and the threat of the police getting involved is a perpetual source of concern.

Cops in Need for Speed Heat introduce a unique sense of dread because of the way they're intrinsically linked to your rep. As you win races and accumulate more and more rep during a night's work, your Heat level will steadily rise. Catching the attention of the boys in blue will expedite your Heat's ascension, with cops becoming more aggressive and plentiful the higher it climbs. There's an element of risk and reward here, as a higher Heat level means a larger multiplier for all of the rep you've accrued in a single night. The only way to bank that rep is by escaping the police and reaching a safe house, but this is easier said than done when the police are on your tail like a bad rash. You can play it safe and store what rep you have, or extend the night by antagonizing the police in the hope that you'll be able to shake them when your multiplier is higher. Need for Speed Heat's best moments come when you've led the fuzz on a jolly merry-go-round and manage to ditch them by the skin of your teeth to bank a considerable amount of rep.

Although the police do have a tendency to feel unfair. If they get close enough and bring your car to a sudden halt, a "busting" timer appears, automatically signaling an end to your escapades if it ticks all the way down. The problem with this, aside from how fast it runs out, is that it will continue to count away the seconds even after you've accelerated away from the police. It should be difficult to escape the cop's clutches, but since you can get arrested if they total your car, ending up in cuffs because an arbitrary timer counts down when you're not even penned in is frustrating. There are also very obvious moments when police cars will spawn directly in front of you to prolong a chase. Sure, they might be crooked cops, but that doesn't stop their blatant cheating from dulling the pulse-quickening thrill of each hot pursuit.

These scenarios can be thrilling, however, especially when you push your car into top gear. There's a fantastic sense of speed in Need for Speed Heat, as cars and lights blur past your wing mirrors at what feels like 300 miles per hour. A noticeable lag on your steering inputs does make each car feel slightly heavier than they otherwise should, though. The handling model also doesn't have the malleability to alter the handling from one car to the next, so they all end up feeling relatively similar to drive aside from variations in speed and acceleration. Drifting is also a tad iffy, borrowing its mechanics from the likes of Ridge Racer as opposed to Need for Speed's past. Rather than feathering the brakes to get your car sideways, Need for Speed Heat asks you to let go of the accelerator and then pump it again in order to achieve a successful drift. It's a realistic approach, boiling drifting down to deft throttle control, but it can be difficult to get a handle on at first, namely because pumping the brakes feels much more intuitive due to the past 15 or so years of racing games adopting this method. Thankfully you can alter the control scheme, and drifting is generally quite fun regardless. It feels a lot slower than it has in the past, but you have much more control over angles and potentially extending the length of your car's rubber-burning slide.

There are dedicated drift events, too, which require you to purchase the appropriate parts if you want to come out on top, and it's here where Need for Speed Heat significantly improves upon its immediate predecessor, Payback. There are no luck-based Speed Cards needed to improve your car, nor are you limited to using specific vehicles in designated events. Instead, the upgrade system in Need for Speed Heat gives you the freedom to take a Nissan Skyline and mix and match parts such as the suspension, tires, and differential, until you have a car that can compete in road races, off-road races, and drift events--it's just a shame there aren't a few more event types to partake in. On top of that, there are also myriad parts available if you want to fully upgrade each car's performance, along with a veritable bucketload of customization options, just in case you've ever wanted to control how much fiery overrun spurts out of the exhaust pipes. Each part is moderately priced so money is never much of an issue, and better parts are unlocked simply by increasing your reputation.

With only a select few events, no discernible difference between each car's handling, and a simplistic driving model, Need for Speed Heat does stumble into repetition during its final few hours. It's not quite a rip-roaring return to form, then, but this latest entry puts the Need for Speed series back on the right track. The duality of its day and night events props up what would otherwise be a fairly run-of-the-mill racing game, but the renewed focus on hurtling around the track, racing wheel-to-wheel, and customizing each car in numerous ways, taps into the essence of what Need for Speed used to be about. Need for Speed Heat may not revolutionize racing games, but it's the best the series has been in a long, long time.

Pokemon Sword & Shield Review - The Cliffs Of Snover

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 01:00

With each new Pokemon game comes a new set of Pokemon, mechanics, and a region to discover, and Sword and Shield are no exception. The vibrant Galar region is a consistent delight to explore, incentivizing and rewarding collecting and battling in equal measure, and grandiose battles add an exciting dimension to the familiar Gym formula to deliver an engaging adventure beginning to end. But most notably, Sword and Shield cut down on the tedious and protracted elements from previous games in favor of amplifying what makes Pokemon great in the first place. This is the most balanced a Pokemon game has felt in a long time, and with that, Sword and Shield mark the best new generation of Pokemon games in years.

The games waste no time in getting you a starter Pokemon and off on your way to becoming the Champion. You can even skip some of the hand-holding you'd get in previous games, including the "how to catch Pokemon" tutorial, which hasn't been done since 2001's Pokemon Crystal; if you simply catch some Pokemon right away, the character who would have taught you acknowledges that you're already good to go instead. You can reach the new Wild Area, an open-world expanse filled with all kinds of Pokemon of all levels, within an hour or so of starting your adventure.

And the Wild Area is the show-stopping feature of this generation. Pokemon roam the fields and lakes, changing with the day's weather. They pop up as you walk by, and you can even identify Pokemon out of your direct line of vision by their cries. It's all too easy to set out for one destination only to be distracted by a Pokemon you haven't caught yet, an item glittering on the ground in the distance, or even an evolved form of a Pokemon that you didn't realize you could catch in the wild. There's constantly something new to do or discover, and it's there to engage you right out of the gate.

Both in the Wild Area and outside of it, the Galar region is stunning. Locales from industrial city centers to rolling hills in shades of green and gold are vivid and beautiful, and small details, like Wooloo playing in a field, add a lot of charm. The United Kingdom-inspired motif includes both crumbling medieval castles and booming football-inspired stadiums, punk musicians and posh snobs--though Galar is still surprising to explore, not adhering so close to theme as to be totally predictable. I even found myself pushing ahead to the next town hoping to find a boutique with new clothes and accessories, on top of everything else waiting to be discovered in each locale, because the UK-inspired plaids and streetwear looks are cute.

You're given much more freedom to explore than in previous generations. Sword and Shield go even further than Sun and Moon did in banishing HMs for good; you can fast travel to locations you've visited before from anywhere outside starting quite early in the game, and you have a bike that can later convert to a water vehicle to replace Surf. All other roadblocks, like trees in your path you need to Cut or large stones you need to move with Strength, are relics of the past. There are still hooligans that will artificially block your path at certain points in the story, but the actual hurdles to movement are completely gone.

Random encounters are also gone, and instead, you see Pokemon roaming all of Galar--even in the traditional routes and caves--which helps distinguish one area from the next. There are some Pokemon that remain hidden in the tall grass, denoted by an exclamation point, but you have to run toward the rustling grass to actually initiate the fight, so you're never caught totally by surprise. Some Pokemon can only be found this way; this further encourages you to explore each locale thoroughly while making return trips painless, free of constant interruptions by wild Pokemon or stopping to use Repels to keep them away.

For wild Pokemon, battles are true to the established formula, but for big battles, Sword and Shield strip out Mega Evolution and Z-moves in favor of a new battle mechanic, Dynamaxing, which is sort of a combination of the two and can only be activated in certain locations. A Dynamaxed Pokemon grows to a massive size and is stronger overall, and its moves convert to superpowered ones based on type. It's much more bombastic than Mega Evolution or even Z-moves, but functionally, it's simpler--and that's refreshing. After years of using both Mega Evolution and Z-moves in high-level battles, Dynamaxing is a welcome reset that also feels like a natural evolution of the increasingly high-octane battle mechanics of recent games. Any Pokemon can Dynamax, too; you're just limited by location rather than an item, so it's a more flexible way to battle that works for relaxed and competitive battles alike.

Dynamaxing is a fixture of the new Max Raids, in which you and three other people or NPCs take on a giant Pokemon at certain locations in the Wild Area. Raid Pokemon can vary from run-of-the-mill, easy-to-catch Pokemon to ones that are incredibly hard to find in the wild, but regardless, the rewards are fantastic; completing a raid, even if the Pokemon escapes and you fail to catch it, nets you tons of rare and important items. Plus, the Pokemon you get from raids are guaranteed to have some perfect stats, so even duplicate Pokemon are worth catching again.

At the lower levels, the raids are pretty easy, and you'll likely have no trouble taking them on with only NPCs in tow. But the four- and five-star raids are challenging to the point where I couldn't even complete some of them without the help of other human players. This is a welcome level of difficulty in the post-game, and communicating locally to get a raid group together is seamless--all you have to do is put out a call for raid partners (or people to trade or battle with in general), and nearby players will get a notification and have the option to join you from the social menu. It's a great alternative to traditional competitive play after you've beaten the game, and while it does feed into competitive battling in both the item rewards and the caliber of Pokemon you're catching, it's satisfying just to overcome the challenge with friends.

The new Pokemon themselves are fantastic as a set. Quite a few of them seem geared for competitive play, with abilities and moves that inspire interesting strategies. Galarian Weezing, for example, has an ability that neutralizes opponents' abilities; because many battle strategies involve use of abilities like Intimidate or Sand Stream to set up the battlefield to your advantage, Weezing could be a serious threat. There are also the aesthetically-inclined Pokemon, like the incredibly goth Corviknight or the adorable electric corgi Yamper, to inspire collectors. Throughout my journey, I was consistently delighted to discover each new Gen 8 Pokemon and the Galarian forms of older ones.

The starters, sadly, are among the worst of the new Pokemon; while they're cute at first, their final evolutions are all not great. Each fits the British theme in a clever way and has a unique move to go with it, but on a purely visual level, all three are awkward with no clear winner among them. I still feel guilty confining my starter to the Pokemon Box, but it at least freed up a spot in my party to try out the new Pokemon I do like.

The Pokedex features a healthy mix of old Pokemon from each previous generation as well. There are certainly surprising omissions, but like with the new Pokemon, the list includes both fun Pokemon and competitive ones, plus an even spread of types. Sword and Shield might not have every Pokemon in existence, but what's here is balanced exquisitely for battle, cuteness factor, and type. And because there are items that give Pokemon experience points now--and because you can access your Pokemon boxes almost anywhere--you can easily change up your team on the fly without having to stop and grind just to get a new Pokemon caught up in level. I experimented with different Pokemon more during Shield's main story than I ever did in a previous Pokemon game, and it made me appreciate the Gen 8 Pokemon even more.

It also makes for a more digestible experience. The Wild Area is expansive, and because the available Pokemon change with the weather, it can look very different from one day to the next. There are enough Pokemon to keep things dynamic and surprising as you explore each day, but with some consistency across each biome so you know at least what kinds of Pokemon to expect. Even after 55 hours, there are still Pokemon I have no idea how to find, and uncovering the Wild Area's secrets bit by bit has been a treat.

If anything, the constant draw of the Wild Area made the pacing of the story a bit choppy. I wandered and explored for five hours before challenging my first Gym, then defeated the next two in quick succession before breaking again to revisit the Wild Area. That said, I also was never too over- or underpowered for each Gym, and I was eager to explore in between them regardless. You can also do more in the Wild Area than just battle and catch Pokemon--you can camp out and make curry with your Pokemon, and that ended up being a lovely distraction. Making curry and playing with my Pokemon was a great way to break up longer excursions, plus a convenient way to heal everybody at once, and it's really just an adorable way to spend a few minutes.

The Gyms themselves are a refinement on the longstanding formula in which you would have to go through a maze or solve a little puzzle to reach the Gym Leader. Similarly, each has a Gym Challenge, but they vary from herding Wooloo to competing with NPC trainers to catch a Pokemon, and this keeps things from getting stale. Dynamaxing combines with anime-style drama to make the Gym battles themselves appropriately exciting, too, as your opponents tend to put on quite the show when they enter the stadium. While the Gym and other story battles are largely pretty simple, some of the later ones do take more thought (and a few revives, in my case).

For competitive battles, small but significant quality-of-life tweaks greatly reduce the remaining barriers to entry. There are now items that allow you to change a Pokemon's nature, which was the main missing piece in getting Pokemon battle-ready without hours and hours of tedious breeding and soft-resetting. You can also leave two Pokemon of the same species in the Daycare together, and one can pass Egg Moves to the other, meaning you don't have to re-breed a Pokemon just because you forgot to put one Egg Move on it or changed your strategy a bit. The post-game Battle Tower also includes rental teams right off the bat to introduce you to some basic strategies, which also means you can start climbing the ranks without scrambling to prepare a slipshod team of your own first. All of this gets you battling at a competitive level much more quickly than was possible before, which is the whole point.

In collecting, battling, and exploring, Sword and Shield cut out the bloat and focus on what makes these pillars of the Pokemon games so captivating in the first place. You're not held back by overly complicated back-end systems or hoops to jump through; from the outset, you can start wandering the Galar region, seeing its new Pokemon, and trying out its new battle strategies with very little in your way. This leaves you free to enjoy what Pokemon is all about, and that makes for an incredibly strong showing for the series' proper debut on Switch.

Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 Review - Gotta Go Fast

Wed, 11/13/2019 - 01:00

After 12 years and five games, Mario and Sonic competing together at the Olympics is no longer shocking. The animosity of the Sega/Nintendo '90s console war has long subsided; Mario and Sonic have faced off across three generations of Smash Bros games, and the blue blur has starred in numerous Nintendo console exclusives. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 seems to recognize this, and does not lean in too hard on the gimmick; in the series' first story mode, for instance, the characters from the Mario and Sonic universes chat and mingle without much fuss or fanfare about their worlds colliding. Instead of relying on brand recognition, Tokyo 2020 succeeds by being the most fully-featured and content-rich game in the series, serving up a lot of enjoyable, accessible minigames.

The game features 34 distinct events (including 10 rendered in a retro style to commemorate the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), 10 bonus minigames, a story mode, and online play. Events range from athletic button-mashers like the 100m and swimming races to sports like boxing, equestrian, and archery, all of which are easy to pick up and understand. The controls for every sport are extremely simple, occasionally to the point of being reductive--you're not actually in control of your character's movement in badminton and table tennis, for instance, only controlling where and when you hit the shuttlecock and ball. But some events feel more fleshed out, like soccer and rugby sevens; they won't give FIFA or Madden a run for their money, but they're a nice representation of the sports with all the edges and requirements of expertise sanded off, and make for an enjoyable casual take on the sports they represent. There are no absolute duds in the package, which makes for an unusually high hit rate for a game of this type.

Every event has a "buttons only" option and can be played with any controller (including a single Joy-Con) without issue, but several also allow for motion controls. It's good that motion controls are completely optional, because their implementation is inconsistent. Any mini-game that requires accuracy, or returning the controller repeatedly to a central point, is better off with a controller in hand. Simulating a sprint by pumping your hands is entertaining, as is manipulating a Joy-Con like a skateboard. But strangely, sports that require the use of hands, like sports climbing and boxing, can feel messy and imprecise. The motion controls aren't exact enough that they'd be my preference in any event, but thankfully you can avoid them entirely if you want.

Every event also features a bit of video game flourish, allowing you to pull off special moves to score more points or overwhelm your opponents. Each 2020 event has some sort of "Super" mechanic that kicks in if you press R at a certain point or perform an action perfectly. Depending on the event this can mean you get a burst of speed, extra power, or double scoring. Curiously, beyond this, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 often feels quite straight-laced and sincere in its approach to these sports. The exception to this is in the three "Dream Events"--a hoverboard race, a competitive motion-controlled shooter event where players shoot targets and kites as they pop up around a castle, and a karate variant that transforms the dignified martial art into something more akin to Power Stone, as four players fight simultaneously in a 3D arena. The race is by far the most enjoyable, riffing on the old Sonic Riders series, although it's limited to a single course; the other two do not make much of an impression.

Some events are unlikely to hold your attention for long or bring you back often to try for a high score. Surfing feels good thanks to some strong animations, but there's not enough variation between waves to hold your interest long term; skateboarding looks great, but the simplicity of the control scheme becomes stifling after a few rounds; the kayak event is controlled by rotating the stick, which is tedious. But most games hold up well in local multiplayer, as the simple controls (most only use two or three buttons) mean that they're easy to pick up and learn. Mastering the exact timing on the 100m sprint and relay races, or working to get your best distance in long jump or javelin throw, makes for an enjoyable experience--especially if other players are involved.

It's a shame that the multiplayer options are so limited--you're limited to simply going through the events in "quick play" and going through them one by one. There's no opportunity to arrange multi-event tournaments, for instance; it's just a matter of picking which events to play, and then playing them. Casual and ranked online play is included as well, but I did not have much success finding lag-free games, and it's not the sort of experience that translates well to online play. It's much more enjoyable when your opponents are in the room with you, all desperately trying to bash the 'A' button or master an equestrian course.

The major exciting addition in Tokyo 2020 are the new "Tokyo 1964" events, which render the action in a manner fitting somewhere between 8- and 16-bit graphics. They're designed as though they were NES games, confined to two buttons, and super moves have been excised. You can turn on a CRT filter for these events to replicate the NES era better, and the minigames pay homage to the button-mashers of the time, albeit with less punishing controls (even if, yes, you'll be asked to mash A as fast as possible). The highlight is a tremendously strange take on running a marathon, where you need to gauge your stamina, grab water cups from tables, ride the wakes of other runners, and aim for boost pads to reach the front of the pack.

Tokyo 1964 is a fun bonus, and it's surprisingly integral to the Story Mode. The plot concerns Mario, Sonic, Bowser, and Eggman being sucked into an old game console to compete in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and they have to run around to win medals that will ultimately restore them to the present. This mode is a big bogged down by lots of text-only conversations of little consequence, but the overarching plot is appealing goofy, at least. The highlight is seeing game's take on various iconic Tokyo locations, like Shibuya Crossing and Tokyo Skytree, lovingly rendered and filled with Mario and Sonic characters. They're beautifully realised, and I found myself getting unexpectedly invested in the upcoming Olympics as I played through, visiting each venue and reading the collectable chunks of Olympic trivia that pop up in each environment.

The story is largely an excuse to run through most of the events in the game, and the difficulty is turned all the way down: if you fail an event three times you can skip it. You also unlock a handful of new playable guest characters for Quick Play (who are only playable in certain specific events, strangely) and a further 10 minigames by playing through the short campaign. Some of these minigames are amusingly bizarre--I certainly didn't expect a retro-styled stealth game in the middle of my Olympics experience.

Mario & Sonic at the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 is an entertaining take on the sports-event genre that has, by and large, disappeared in the modern-day. The game aims for accessibility at every opportunity, and while nothing about it is particularly exceptional, it still has plenty of unique flourishes to offer, and the wealth of different events and simple controls make for an appealing casual multiplayer title. Thanks to a generous selection of events and a few neat gimmicks, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is the best entry in this series.

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