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Jurassic World Evolution Review: Life Finds A Way

17 hours 15 min ago

Whether you're reminded of vicious raptors hunting terrified children, placid Brachiosaurus strolling verdant hills, or a scientist reaching elbow-deep into a mound of Triceratops dung, the words "Jurassic Park" can evoke some pretty powerful memories. Jurassic World Evolution reinforces these associations with its take on dino-park management, and all the good and bad that comes with such a brazen endeavor. It can be a bit clumsy at times, but Evolution ultimately finds a comfortable middle ground between establishing deep mechanics and maintaining accessibility for the average dino enthusiast.

Your venture kicks off with a warning from Dr. Ian Malcolm--voiced by Jeff Goldblum himself--who ruminates about the inevitability of disaster before dropping you straight onto the first of the game's five main islands. To successfully run your new park, you need to maintain a variety of dinosaur species and build facilities to protect and entertain paying customers. Do well enough and you unlock additional islands for your expanding park, each with a new curveball to keep you on your toes, be it aggressive weather systems, unique financial constraints, or limited construction options.

After learning the basics of construction and dinosaur creation, you're introduced to the three divisions that make up your park's staff: science, entertainment, and security. Each division will offer contracts that, when completed, give you cash and raise your reputation with that division. This unlocks further items and buildings for research, as well as that division's story mission. While contracts are a good source of money in the early game, they come with an odd complication: completing contracts for one division lowers your reputation with the other two. This creates a nonsensical balancing act that, whilst not difficult to overcome in the long run, feels arbitrary in context.

Building a good dinosaur park isn't as simple as putting down some fences, incubating dino eggs, and sitting back to watch them majestically take their first steps into the world. You'll need to manage everything from dig sites and DNA extraction to general park maintenance via your rangers--who will fill feeders, fix fences, and keep everything in working order. In an awesome twist, you can manually control the rangers' Jeeps or helicopters from a close third-person perspective, leading to some surprisingly beautiful and memorable moments as you mingle with the great beasts inhabiting your park.

If you've played any kind of park management sim before, you'll feel right at home with how everything works thanks to streamlined controls and an elegant UI. Console players can similarly rejoice as controller configurations are surprisingly intuitive, making navigating everything a breeze.

With the exception of cash, all your research and item progression is shared across each of the islands, and you can freely move between them at will once they're unlocked. If you've got something you want to research but you're struggling with funds in your current park, switch back to your previous one and spend their money on it instead. Although it would be a time saver to simply let you funnel cash from one park to another, going back to old parks never feels you're like taking a step backwards. Research progression is skewed so that you'll unlock the next park before you've unlocked all the research items in your current one, so you'll always feel like you're achieving something worthwhile, even if that means re-visiting old areas.

Interestingly, unlike most other park management sims, you can't speed up the flow of time while waiting for tasks to complete, but it's not as detrimental as it sounds. It's rare that there isn't something in the park needing attention, and more often than not you'll be thankful for the time.

Each of the dinosaurs in your menagerie have particular needs--some are placid, solitary creatures who are super chill, while others are quick to go on high alert. Put a herbivore in a pen full of meat-eaters and it will (understandably) panic. Put two aggressive meat-eaters next to each other and they'll probably fight to the death, unless you can get your rangers in there to tranquilize and then separate them both before any real harm is done. Learning the differences between each species is an important part of keeping your park operating smoothly. But even when things are going well, calamity never feels that far away.

From rampaging dinosaurs and tropical cyclones to internal sabotage, there's always something ready to trash your hard work. While dealing with these hazards can be exciting in your early hours, the fifth time your Ankylosauruses make a break for it because they don't like being around other dinosaurs can get tiresome. Attacks on park goers can initially be costly; later on, when you've got money to burn, a few lawsuits digging into your bottom line doesn't matter much. But while the lack of surprises and stakes after 20 or so hours is a bummer, it's never enough to take away from the joy of watching your creations live out their lives in structures you've meticulously designed and maintained.

Evolution captures the essence of Jurassic Park while being a good park management sim in its own right.

When your coffers fill up, you can really cut loose with how you build up your parks across each island. A maxed-out park is a sight to behold as thousands of guests wander the attractions. Hotels let you increase your parks' capacity to house more people, while shops and arcades will keep them entertained for when they aren't gathering in one of the many viewing platforms that line the fences keeping your dinosaurs in. When it's all working, it's like watching the components of a well-oiled machine tick over. Though it's similarly fun, albeit sadistic, to watch a full park of guests scramble for the emergency shelter when you trigger the alarms.

If there's one word that could easily describe Jurassic World Evolution, it's "faithful." Taking control of a ranger behind the wheel of a Jeep in the rain and sidling up to a pack of socializing Stegosaurus is as epic as it sounds and is a definite highlight, as is releasing a newly recovered species into your park. Despite the campaign stumbling over itself and losing focus towards the end, Evolution captures the essence of Jurassic Park while being a good park management sim in its own right.

Mario Tennis Aces Review In Progress: Aim High

Wed, 06/20/2018 - 22:00

When the credits rolled on Mario Tennis Aces' Adventure Mode, I vowed to never again laugh at a tennis player having an ugly meltdown on the court. I had felt the volcanic surge of adrenaline that comes when a rally has gone too long. I knew the sense of high alert while trying to suss out which corner of the court an opponent is going to attack next. I have spliced and invented new curse words to mutter when a ball goes out of bounds. Off-beat stages and creative use of characters from the Marioverse ensure that you'll never lose sight of simply having fun, but don't let the adorable exterior trick you; Aces takes its unorthodox tennis very seriously.

Mario Tennis' renewed vigor is driven by a suite of new mechanics that force you to make pivotal risk-reward decisions. Special shots are now tied to a meter that fills a little with every shot fired back at your opponent, more so if you're able to charge your swing ahead of time. Once the Energy Meter is at least a third full, a ball landing on your side of the court will be forecast by a glowing star. Initiating a special swing while standing on a star activates a first-person view that lets you aim a powerful Zone Shot.

When the Energy Meter is completely full, you can unleash your character's Special Shot. While Specials don't unleash the cavalcade of effects they did in Wii U's Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, they do fire a lightning-fast ball that requires exacting maneuvers to return without incurring any harm to your racket--destroy your collection of rackets during a match, and you lose.

Holding the R button slows down time at the cost of meter, allowing you to stroll over and hit hard-to-reach shots or gain a slight advantage when returning racket-breaking shots. Alternatively, a Trick Shot can be activated by tilting the right stick, which causes you to leap across the court at the last second . You can get away with basic shots during simple face-offs, but in advanced matches the exchange of powered-up strikes feels like a breathless symphony that requires you to be at the top of your game and on top of your options.

Even veterans of the series have a little bit of a learning curve to overcome, but Aces' Adventure Mode does a good job of both entertaining you and teaching you how and when to use your new tools. The story itself is ridiculous, but ridiculous in that very specific, quirky way Nintendo has been getting away with for decades. During the Mushroom Kingdom's annual tennis tournament, an evil tennis racket--yes, really--named Lucien takes possession of Luigi and flies off to find five Power Stones that will help him take over the world.

Instead of settling for a revolving door of opponents along the way, you're challenged to utilize Ace's new mechanics in a range of unusual scenarios. An average stage might simply challenge you to keep a rally going for a certain length of time, but bosses and puzzle stages require a greater level of ingenuity. You have to figure out how to disable protective barriers, earning enough energy to perform a Zone Shot, and aim at the right part of the court to inflict damage. Bosses also initiate hurdling challenges mid-match that reward precise use of your leaping Trick Shot. Adventure Mode mixes up your objectives from one stage to the next to ensure you're never simply going through the motions to progress.

Mario Tennis Aces does what this series has done best, and improves what it's rarely gotten right prior.

Aces is more difficult and devious than you might expect, especially in the latter half of Adventure Mode. Though not required, grinding through matches can improve your chances on the court. Win or lose, you earn experience points for every match played, allowing you to improve Mario's speed, power, and agility over time. But no matter how much XP you earn, the only way to make it to the end of Aces' campaign is to master its unique tennis mechanics. Those who persevere will find themselves better equipped and prepared to face anything the other modes have to offer than ever before.

Outside of Adventure Mode, you'll find a rather plain assortment of activities: a bracket-based tournament mode, exhibition matches against the computer or another friend, online modes, and the ability to play doubles matches, which can turn into downright anarchy before you know it. Online matches will be the true test of Aces' depth, but pre-launch servers being what they are, we still need to spend time playing once the game releases to form a solid opinion of its netcode and the competitive scene.

Perhaps the one major and surprising misstep is Swing Mode, where players can swing Joy-Cons like proper tennis rackets, similar to Wii Sports Tennis. At first it seems odd that this control scheme is isolated to a specific mode, but within a minute or two, it's obvious why: playing with Joy-Cons feels too imprecise, and even just executing a simple backhand was a twitchy comedy of errors. It's too bad that the motion controls seem to fall apart so easily, but considering that, it's probably best the option is siloed away.

It's not like Aces needs a gimmick like motion controls to win you over, anyway. The Tetris Effect is in full swing here; days after the credits rolled, I still crave the satisfying thwack from a Power Shot, mentally replay matches and imagine how I might do things differently given a bit more focus and know-how. Mario Tennis Aces does what this series has done best, and improves what it's rarely gotten right prior. Fingers crossed that the online support stands up to the rest of the game after launch.

Unravel 2 Review: Partners In Twine

Wed, 06/20/2018 - 02:00

With its warm, rustic setting, and an instantly endearing protagonist, the first Unravel had the outward appearance of a happily nostalgic adventure. That initial fuzzy feeling, however, gave way to a series of frustrating puzzles and a story that took some unexpectedly dark turns. In the game's final hours, the poor little hero Yarny was left all alone in a hostile world. What a relief it is to see him in a better place in Unravel Two, the sequel that's notably comforting thanks to the introduction of a second yarnling. Once they meet, Yarny and his new friend immediately hit it off and set out on a new adventure.

Similar to the original game, Unravel Two has ethereal slice-of-life scenes that play out in the background of each stage. This time, the literal background story involves two youths making the drastic decision to run away from their hyper-religious families. Yarny and his new partner make their own journey through the small town they live in, inadvertently helping the kids along the way with each new platforming challenge they surmount. Despite trips to more urban settings, the design philosophy and earthy aesthetic that made the first game such a visual treat haven't been abandoned. Aside from some mild industrial chaos--traipsing around construction sites, messing with the ventilation systems in a factory, and the like--much of what you experience is delightfully serene.

Once again, we witness the world from Yarny's tiny perspective. You run through misty city streets at night under haloed streetlights. You push toy trucks around backyards on sunny days before riding off into the blue yonder on the back of a swan. You jump across rooftops at midnight, a skeleton city of antennas and vents where only the pigeons are awake. One of the most beautiful areas of the game has Yarny making his way along a stream of rushing water in a creek, letting the tide build up the momentum you need to get a full head of speed up for a jump. There's still such a sense of awe to how tangible and real Yarny's world is, but it never feels like a place where Yarny is in peril. Though it takes place in more challenging environments, it's a world where what little danger there is feels magical, and Yarny has never been able to move through it in as invigorating a way as he can with a partner in Unravel Two.

The swing mechanic--where Yarny can latch yarn onto a grapple point and either rappel up and down or swing to launch himself onto a higher point--has returned, but with a newfound kineticism. Many stages push you to swing across multiple wide chasms and tight gaps in quick succession, and soaring and flipping through these trials is always a thrill.

There will come times when you have to stop and figure out a way past complicated obstacles, and this is where Unravel Two's co-op nature shines. Obviously, the ideal way to manage two characters is to have a friend sitting next to you on the couch, controlling Yarny's new ally while you plot solutions. But even a single player can make use of both characters, switching back and forth between the two onscreen with the push of a button. When playing solo, the character you leave behind will continue to hold onto whatever they were holding, meaning you can always place your partner wherever you need them. You can even carry your partner through danger by absorbing them into your own yarn body--mildly disturbing but helpful nonetheless.

With its charming yarnlings and a newfound style of platforming, Unravel Two remains welcoming even at its most foreboding.

With the two Yarnys tethered together, most puzzles are resolved by forming makeshift pulleys that allow you to create opportunities the environment wouldn't normally afford a single Yarny. Puzzles are typically open-ended and can be solved in a handful of ways. The only real barrier, besides pure logic, can be the game's control scheme. The same button used to jump is used to extend the tether between the two Yarnys, and it's fairly easy to accidentally send your partner plummeting to their doom. Unravel Two is undoubtedly a more welcoming and accessible game than its predecessor, but there are still demanding trials for those who want them, especially with around two dozen extra-challenging stages that are available.

With its charming yarnlings and a newfound style of platforming, Unravel Two remains welcoming even at its most foreboding. Sure, a forest fire breaks out in one of the latter stages, but even then, the race to keep ahead of the blaze is fun and frantic instead of stressful. In almost every moment you're given ample time and space to breathe and take in the stunning photorealistic world from the viewpoint of the tiniest creatures. It's a game with boisterous birds, chases through meadows, and most importantly a cheerful partnership with a companion who's always got your back. With only six chapters that run roughly 30 minutes apiece, Unravel Two doesn't last long, but it's a game where the time you have is meaningful, memorable, and downright pleasant from beginning to end.

Moonlighter Review: Open For Business

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 06:00

Dulcet tones and somber notes played in time represent the curious duality of Moonlight. It is, at once, a heroic adventure and the name of the subdued storefront that you alone run. Centered in the heart of a once-bustling town, all the greats, the audacious plunderers of dungeons that were sealed long ago, have died out. The markets and the merchants of your hamlet have all but vanished alongside them. Always looking to the horizon, you see what could be--in both yourself and the town--and set out to claim your glory and bring riches back from the depths of dangerous dungeons.

On first pass, that's a tall ask, and one that doesn't necessarily fit together the way you might think. This isn't quite the same as saving a town the way you might in a classical Zelda game --though references to those nascent adventures abound. Instead, your eye is on unearthing the depths of five dungeons that lie just north of town. Each is like a world unto itself, and getting into and out of these spaces is often a feat--made that much more treacherous by the monsters that inhabit them. Still, the depths hold untold riches, artifacts, and supplies that were once essential for trade.

The balance that Moonlighter strikes then, is tasking you with battling beasts and carefully collecting trophies and supplies based on the needs of the people in your town. Instead of gathering loot and hauling it back to a shopkeep as one does in just about every similar adventure, you're on both ends of the equation and the way that your two pursuits play into one another essentially is the game.

You'll need to mindful of supply and demand and as well as good tips and gear for adventuring. Dodging monsters to jab their weak spot, before hopping away and nabbing their leavings is a regular cycle. But that, in itself, hides a lot of the nuance on offer. Prying the core of a mechanized stone golem and bringing it back to town will fetch a tidy price--but only a few times. People don't know how to use them, per se, nor do they really need that particular item. It's neat (and rare), but that's all, really.

Add to it the fact that few have seen such trinkets since heroes swarmed through these dungeons, and that immediately complicates the equation. You don't know what the value of it really is, because you're the shopkeep. It's worth what others will pay. So it falls to you to make educated guesses, learn from your customers reactions and hope that your initial prices aren't so low that you're getting ripped off or so high that customers balk and walk off.

Those same assessments follow with every item you plunder, meaning that you're always working the numbers, figuring out what you can carry up, and how it's going to affect your bottom line. This also keeps you from always gathering up the most valuable items. If you only grab the best loot, you'll quickly flood the market and bottom out your sales, and the same goes in reverse for the most basic stuff. Wood and vines can be valuable (though rarely). And all that calculus compounds when you begin examining the supplies you'll need for your own gear. Potions and new equipment don’t make themselves. Indeed, when you start, none of those types of facilities are even available in town.

This ties a lot of the game's progression directly into your choices, and gives you a powerful through line and a sense of thematic goals that tie into your physical journey. That feeling is fantastic, and grows every time you think back to the sparse hamlet you began with, and track just how far your adventure and the arc of the town itself join and progress together.

Saccharine melodies that playfully evoke the 16-bit era help sell the narrative as well. Few openers are as immediately alluring as Moonlighter’s theme. Melancholic notes blends with the sweet sounds of your hamlet, filling you with a sense of loss--for what your town once was. Because of the aesthetics, many of those feelings also get blended with kernels of nostalgia, particularly for those fond of the Super Nintendo era.

Bright colors, and a sharp aesthetic are backed with crisp animations that not only sell the world, but help it breathe. Fireflies drift about town, settling near trees, illuminating the wooden giants. Down in the dungeons, spiders and moths flitter to and fro, while your battles with golems and monsters play out.

Now at this point you may have noticed that there not much has been said about the combat. And sadly, that's because it's the weaker half of this outing. There are five distinct dungeons, each with their own environments, foes, and array of tricks and traps to throw your way. But across them all, you use the same core movement--and it consists of two types of moves and a dodge. If you've got finesse, you can string some actions together, though. You can attack with one weapon, dodge, quickly switch, and then resume the onslaught. Or switch between a sword and shield for defense (where the secondary "move" would be a block), and a more offensive weapon. But that's generally the sum total of your combat choices. Combat, then, is thin and there's only so much that can be done with massively varied environments and a limited pool of combat techniques.

None of this to say that battles in Moonlighter are bad. Far from it. What it manages with those limited sets is quite impressive, and there will be plenty of moments when you dodge over bottomless pits that line a snaking path to approach an enemy from a novel angle. But they aren't common enough or varied enough to really get the full potential of what's here.

In some ways, the same could be said of the keeping the shop running at peak efficiency, but there's enough interplay with managing your limited baggage space and just enough anchored in supply-and-demand systems that it comes together nicely. It's a shame, then that Moonlighter's also a bit on the short end, as some of these ideas would do well with simply more--but then the combat would like thin out even more. Still, what's here is refreshing, and the balance struck between crawling through dungeons and working with the economics of the town are a good combo while it lasts.

Sushi Striker: The Way Of Sushido Review - Cartoon Cuisine Combat

Sat, 06/09/2018 - 02:00

Like many of Nintendo's most memorable video games, Sushi Striker: The Way of Sushido takes a seemingly mundane fixture of life and extrapolates it into a novel gameplay idea. In this case, co-developer Indieszero (Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, NES Remix) has built an action-puzzle game around conveyor-belt sushi, which serves as a vehicle for its match-three-style duels. And thanks to a knowingly zany presentation and regular stream of new mechanics, Sushi Striker is a fun and consuming puzzler unlike anything else currently on Switch, despite a few niggling issues.

Battling foes by throwing plates of sushi is an inherently silly premise, and Sushi Striker fully embraces the concept by wrapping it up in an even more ridiculous story. The game begins in the aftermath of the Sushi Struggles, a bitter war that took the parents of protagonist Musashi (who can be either a boy or girl) and resulted in the Empire gaining complete control over the world's sushi supply. As it happens, Musashi displays a preternatural gift for Sushi Striking--the ability to conjure plates of sushi and throw them in battle--and soon joins the Sushi Liberation Front, a Republic force fighting for the noble cause of sharing sushi with everyone. The tale only gets more absurd from there, but it remains delightfully charming throughout thanks to the hilarious writing and amusing anime cutscenes.

Musashi's journey encompasses more than 150 puzzle battles, which offer a novel and deceptively simple twist on match-three gameplay. The object of these is to link together plates of the same color as they whiz by on the conveyor belts in front of you, then throw those plates at your opponent to dish out damage. You have seven seconds to match plates; the more you're able to link up at once, the taller your stack will be, which in turn will inflict more damage when thrown. You can also chain together combos by throwing stacks of the same color consecutively, further racking up your score and increasing the amount of damage you deal.

As a result, battles are simultaneously frantic and strategic, as your success--particularly in the later stages of the game--hinges on effectively creating large stacks of plates before they disappear and chaining them into combos. The game also regularly introduces additional gameplay wrinkles as you progress through the story, which add further layers of complexity to battles and help keep the encounters fresh and exciting.

Chief among these are the Sushi Sprites--Pokemon-like magical creatures that can be called upon to unleash special skills. These abilities can be activated once you've eaten a sufficient amount of sushi, and they provide a temporary power that can help turn the tide of battle. One, for instance, imbues your plates with electricity, causing them to deal more damage; another turns all the plates on your lanes into the same color, allowing you to chain together a huge stack. There are more than 30 Sushi Sprites to collect in total, and experimenting with different combinations and devising the best way to leverage their abilities is one of the most satisfying aspects of the game.

On top of that, many battles introduce special capsule items, such as stopwatches or bombs. These randomly appear among the sushi and can be used against your opponent, provided you're able to link up the requisite number of plates before the item disappears. You can also outfit Musashi with different gears that alter the speed of your conveyor belts, as well as select a favorite variety of sushi; eat enough of it during a battle and it'll confer another passive ability, from an attack buff to health replenishment.

There's a lot to digest in Sushi Striker, but the game does a good job of parceling out new elements and gameplay ideas over the course of its single-player campaign, keeping it surprising and engaging for the majority of its duration. That said, the campaign does begin running out of steam toward the end. Later stages start to recycle earlier gimmicks without building on them (besides by imposing harsher restrictions), which results in some frustrating encounters. In particular, a stretch of late-game stages reintroduce wasabi plates. These temporarily stun you when eaten, slowing down the pace of the game considerably as you (often unsuccessfully) try to avoid grabbing them.

Likewise, while Sushi Striker generally plays well on Switch, it was clearly designed with the 3DS in mind, and the controls didn't translate quite as well to the hybrid console. You can play the game with either a controller or the console's touchscreen, but the latter is much better suited for the fast-paced gameplay. Using a control stick to toggle between different plates of sushi is imprecise and often frustrating, as you'll struggle to select the right plate as they roll by. Linking plates with the touchscreen, by contrast, feels more intuitive, although the game would still have benefited from the precision of a stylus.

Both the Switch and 3DS versions support local and online multiplayer, although curiously, these options need to be unlocked as you progress through the story, and there is no cross-play between platforms. In either case, you can take on rivals in two game types: Tasty Battles, the standard mode that only features sushi, and Chaos Battles, which throws capsule items into the mix as well. Additionally, the Switch version allows you to play locally on a single console. Multiplayer battles don't have the same element of surprise as the single-player encounters, but they're still fun and strategic, as you can test your best Sushi Sprite combinations out against other human players.

Despite its imperfect transition to Switch, Sushi Striker is one of the more enjoyable puzzle games in the console's library. With a substantial campaign that's propped up by clever mechanics and a charmingly ludicrous story, the game offers a wealth of single- and multiplayer content to dive into. The controls suffer a bit in the move to Switch, and the campaign is stretched out for too long, but the fast-paced puzzle-matching gameplay offers a surprising amount of depth and is a real treat.

West Of Loathing Review: The Wild Bunch

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 10:00

West of Loathing is not as simple as its art style might lead you to believe. Its black and white color palette, stick-figure characters, and crude hand-drawn art might appear to be devoid of personality. But in practice, its visual simplicity acts as a malleable canvas for its imagination to run away with reckless abandon. West of Loathing is an involved Western adventure game/RPG hybrid that embraces absolute absurdity with mechanical flexibility and comedic personality, making role-playing in its monochromatic old West thoroughly entertaining.

The backbone of the game is its jokes and ingrained humor. Every little thing in West of Loathing serves as either a punchline or the lead-up to one. It exists in the writing naturally--the main narrative involves a bizarre cataclysmic event involving demon cows and rodeo clowns. The flavor text is filled with irony and wordplay, and conversations with characters play out like short sketches. The sheer amount of jokes draws you into Loathing's crudely drawn and ludicrous world, but what's more impressive is that they rarely fall flat, and if they do, there's often another to draw your attention away immediately.

But West of Loathing's consistent sense of humor runs deeper, woven throughout your interactions and the game's menus and UI. Attempting to search spittoons for items will engage you in long lectures from the narrator as they attempt to stop you from doing so by describing, in great detail, how disgusting what you're trying to stick your hand into is. Choosing to playfully boast that "Sneaky" is your middle name will discreetly change your middle name on your character screen to just that. Searching a shelf and finding a book entitled "The Art of Silly Walking" will unlock a new character perk, which adds a new toggle in the game's system menu to visibly change the way your character moves in-game to everything from cartwheels to swimming. These are just a few very early examples of the game's sense of humor, but West of Loathing's commitment and follow-through on its jokes will surprise and delight you throughout its entire duration.

You begin the game by selecting from one of three different classes--farcical takes on familiar RPG character tropes. The Cow Puncher is a warrior-style class, the Bean Slinger uses legumes as a source of magic, and the Snake Oiler is the rogue equivalent. But although each class comes with their own set of unique skills, and a convenient option for auto-leveling will build out a nicely rounded character for you of that archetype, West of Loathing also allows you the flexibility of manually assigning experience points to build whatever kind of character you want. That means there's nothing stopping you from having a physically adept Bean Slinger who can also pick locks, or a Cow Puncher with a high moxie stat and the cunning required to outfox his opponents.

West of Loathing's combat consists of a simple turn-based system situated on a 3x6 grid. There are some small nuances to consider regarding positioning and using cover when facing opponents with ranged attacks, and a number of consumable items can be used in battle to cause various effects. But aside from the novelty of seeing the amusing enemy and ability designs in battle, combat is a straightforward affair.

What's more interesting about West of Loathing's mechanics is that it is as much of an adventure game as it is an RPG, and one of the by-products of this is that there are multiple solutions to any given problem--and there is nearly always a completely viable alternative to engaging in battle. Having the right item in your inventory (some of which have multiple uses both in and out of combat), enough points in a particular statistic, or certain abilities unlocked means that you can complete quests or resolve random encounters without violence and still get enough experience points to spend on character progression. If you don't have the goods to pass these skill checks when you first encounter an obstacle, West of Loathing allows you to come back later with the right stuff if you so desire; it doesn't force you into any combat situations without warning, and it's a very welcome, player-friendly decision.

There are a few minor issues--inventory management on Switch becomes cumbersome as you collect an increasing amount of things, fights with a lot of enemies can obscure some pertinent information, and the stakes sometimes feel a little too low to be completely motivating. But West of Loathing's focus on maintaining a flexible, open-ended nature and lighthearted, humorous feel keeps you engaged in what feels like an imaginative pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons campaign, led by a game master whose only goal is to make sure you're laughing and having a fun time. West of Loathing's visuals are monochromatic, but there's enjoyable comedy painted between every line, a pitch-perfect Spaghetti Western soundtrack, and a full spectrum of role-playing possibilities to choose from that make it a consistently enjoyable madcap cowboy jaunt.

Onrush Review: Push It To The Limit

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 10:00

Calling Onrush a racing game is a tad reductive and maybe even a little disingenuous. Sure, there are two- and four-wheeled vehicles careening around a track with reckless abandon. But with no finishing lines in sight, achieving victory in Onrush is about much more than simply seeing who can reach a chequered flag first. This bold idea for an arcade racing game comes from a new studio formed out of the remnants of Evolution Studios. It's a curious transmogrification of various genres and styles, taking elements from the high-octane takedowns of Burnout, the multi-vehicle chaos of Evolution's MotorStorm, and the class-based competitive action of a hero shooter like Overwatch. These influences might be unmistakable, but developer Codemasters has crafted a wholly original and innovative racing game that's quite unlike anything you've ever played before.

Describing how this off-kilter mixture functions is best achieved by explaining Onrush's Overdrive mode, which dilutes the anomalous experience down to its purest form. Here, two teams of six go head-to-head in up to eight diverse vehicle classes, with victory achieved by chaining together boost multipliers in order to rack up points. Earning boost is done by hitting jumps, wrecking opponents and weak fodder vehicles, performing bike tricks, and other actions that are tied to specific vehicle classes. Once you've depleted enough boost you can unleash the cathartic Rush Ultimate, which propels you forward at lightning speed and provides a bonus ability that is, once again, tied to your vehicle class. Overdrive is relatively simple and doesn't have the same depth as some of Onrush's other modes, but as an introduction to this brazen new style of game, it's a clear signal of intent: this is not a traditional racer by any stretch of the imagination.

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Part of Onrush's ingenuity comes from its rubber banding, which sounds absurd until you see it in motion. Both teams are congregated together with the AI fodder vehicles in a pack known as The Stampede. Fall too far behind and you'll be teleported straight back into the maelstrom of crunching metal for a sustained period of high adrenaline driving. Not only does this keep everyone in the thick of the action at all times, but it tears down the divide between newcomers and veterans alike. You don't have to be amazing at racing games, or even have previous experience in the genre to feel like you're contributing to each match because you're always in amongst the histrionics. And this attention to inclusion is reflected in Onrush's other game modes, vehicle classes, and its driving model, too.

The bar to entry is quite low with the kind of straightforward driving mechanics you would expect from a thrills-and-spills arcade racer like this, so it's relatively easy to get to grips with the basic framework. But the skill ceiling is high enough for those looking to improve their play and delve into the intricacies of how to successfully line up pulverising takedowns and maneuver out of harm's way. There's a discernible sense of weight to each vehicle, too, that translates into a tangible heft that dismisses any thoughts of floaty handling. You're also afforded a degree of aerial control that allows you to exert downforce and crush any opponents unfortunate enough to find themselves beneath your tyres, representing the most satisfying of all of Onrush's myriad takedowns. Despite this subtle depth, however, Onrush's primary challenge still derives from your vehicle choice, and how you manipulate it to cater to the current game mode and your team's makeup.

During Overdrive, for example, you might want to play more of a support role, using Dynamo's special ability to drop boost pick-ups for your team to collect, and utilising its Rush Ultimate to supply any nearby teammates with a dollop of sustained boost that will extend their multipliers. Or perhaps you're in a game of Countdown, the mode that most closely resembles a traditional racing game, as both teams battle it out to drive through checkpoints to add incremental time to an ever-depleting clock. The speed and agility of the Blade motorcycle might come in handy here, especially with the whole Stampede moving in the same direction, as Blade's Rush Ultimate leaves a destructive trail of fire behind its two-wheeled fury. On top of this there are other classes that grant you improved magnetism on in-air attacks, ones that drain your opponent's boost, and others that deploy shields for teammates. The latter comes in particularly useful during Lockdown, which is essentially King of the Hill on wheels, as both teams fight for space in order to capture a moving zone.

You don't have to be amazing at racing games, or even have previous experience in the genre to feel like you're contributing to each match because you're always in amongst the histrionics

There's a robust single player mode that does an excellent job of teaching you the ins-and-outs of each vehicle class and game mode, with challenges that encourage you to focus on particular areas--whether it's using the hulking 4x4 Enforcer to blind opponents, or taking down vehicles in the Lockdown zone, and so on. It's a good primer for what's to come, as Onrush really comes alive once you hop online and start tearing it up with other players.

If you have like-minded friends, there are tactical opportunities to work together to wreck opposition vehicles with coordinated attacks, and use your class abilities in tandem to get the most out of each one. If you're only playing alone, however, the experience isn't impaired in any way. With every driver in close vicinity and a plethora of useful visual cues, it's relatively easy to aid your teammates despite having no direct communication. The only negative arises in Lockdown, where a recurring glitch captures the zone when nobody's in it. Wrecks can also be a bit finicky at times; on some occasions you'll total your car after scraping a wall, while at other times a head-on crash will have no effect.

There are also loot boxes, although they’re not the heinous kind likely to incite an angry furore. By completing matches you’ll earn XP that goes towards an overall level. Each successive level unlocks a loot box containing three random items of varying rarity. These can be things like new bodies and paint jobs for your vehicles, tombstone emojis that are left behind after you wreck, and different clothes for the largely inconsequential avatars. You can also buy any of these items using in-game money that's also earned simply by completing events. There are no microtransactions in sight, this is just a way to gradually dole out cosmetic items that give your whole style a sense of ownership.

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Visually, Onrush is a beautiful showcase for electrifying particle effects, dynamic lighting, and increment weather, with each of its 12 tracks catching the eye due to their diversity and multi-faceted aesthetics. The sun-kissed Whitewater Canyon, for instance, uses a vibrant, almost otherworldly, colour palette to illuminates its red rocks, while Glory Dam propels you through a winding forest before spitting you out into a dam that's adorned in vivid street art, and Big Dune Beach offers a glimpse of the Northern Lights in its night sky. Each crash and exertion of boost is also complemented by a curated concoction of popular, licensed music, usually remixed to be more up-tempo and chaotic, in case trading paint wasn't hectic enough.

When it comes to crumpling metal and high speed thrills, not all of Onrush's game modes are on equal footing in terms of consistent excitement. Yet its foundations are so strong, and so unique, that it's easy to lose hours upon hours barreling around these disparate tracks. The question of longevity will, of course, depend on post-release support, with new classes, game modes, and tracks potentially on the horizon. Considering you need 12 players to fill a full room, it would be a shame if Onrush doesn't find the kind of audience that will give it the lifespan it deserves. Part of this will depend on how Codemasters iterates on the game from here on out, but they've shown a proficiency in knowing how arcade racing games click, and Onrush is such a bold, refreshing twist on the genre that there should be little hesitation in putting your faith in them to succeed.

BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle Review - The Tag Team Dream

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 03:00

2D anime fighters like the BlazBlue series are often intimidating for their elaborate movesets and demand for precise execution. However, BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle breaks from tradition by simplifying its gameplay systems, and bringing in characters from three other franchises to join the fight. By no means does the simplification make Cross Tag shallow--the dynamic tag system and the clever ways you can mix mechanics are where Cross Tag shines. Factor in the charm of these distinct worlds and you'll have plenty of reasons to consider this fast, flashy, and endearing fighter.

Across four mainline games, BlazBlue developed a complex fighting system, while Persona 4 Arena and Arena Ultimax distilled the formula and captured the charisma of the eponymous RPG. Under Night In-Birth (from developer French-Bread in collaboration with Arc System Works) had its own twist on a deep, yet accessible fighting game. The RWBY animated series makes its fighting game debut, and the cast's talents and flair make the transition incredibly well. Cross Tag Battle unifies all four series as a five-button fighter with two main attack buttons, a universal overhead attack that can also function as an EX attack, a tag button, and the partner skill. While it may seem a bit too straightforward, even the most historically complex characters on the roster remain true to form where it counts. By distilling classic fighting mechanics, the focus is shifted from performing elaborate directional inputs to creating openings for sweet high-damage combos through easy-to-execute attacks.

You'll recognize familiar moves with similar properties from respective games, but the conditions for execution have changed. Basic attacks, smart combos, and even Supers (called Distortion Skills) are easy to pull off, though the number of techniques mapped to the limited controls can cause some inadvertent activations of very different moves--particularly throws and Distortion Skills. Auto-forward dash on most characters may also be jarring to fighting game veterans. But it doesn't take much effort to adjust to this game's quirks and pace.

Partner skills will take time to grasp; every character has unique back, forward, and standing assist attacks where they fly in from off screen to lend a hand. Cross combos take the tag system one step further by letting your duo pile on damage simultaneously; pulling these off will make short work of opponents if you can expertly control your tandem. These are key to maximizing the effectiveness of combos, creating openings, or pulling yourself out of a rut. With this in mind, you're encouraged to either experiment using different duos or form your own collaborative attacks with the pair you love most. It's chaotic and tough to nail down in live matches, and it's where the depth of combat comes from.

Most of your advanced moves require you to expend meters that charge during the course of combat and it's critical that you keep an eye on them at all times. Meter management requires you to think about using up the skill gauge for distortion skills, laying down EX moves, or saving up for back-to-back supers with your tag partner. Cross combos and tag counters to get out of combos use up the two-bar cross gauge. And when you're down a fighter, the Resonance Blaze (the comeback mechanic) kicks you into overdrive for 15 seconds by regenerating health, adding chip damage, automatically filling the skill gauge, and strengthening Distortion Skills--be sure to use that time wisely.

All the pieces of a fast, smooth, and endlessly fun fighting game exist within Cross Tag, but it truly shines by channelling and fusing the personality and charisma of each franchise.

Cross Tag Battle has a lot to absorb, and it'll take time to get comfortable with the fighting system and unravel all its intricacies. Thankfully, the onboarding process is top-notch. Tactics Mode walks you through the basic terminology, mechanics, and their use-cases, and each character has a tailor-made tutorial that gives you the opportunity to perfect specific combos. On top of that, there's a slew of missions in Tactics Mode that pit you in difficult challenges to build awareness of the more specific situations you'll encounter in matches.

All the pieces of a fast, smooth, and endlessly fun fighting game exist within Cross Tag, but it truly shines by channelling and fusing the personality and charisma of each franchise. Whether it's the stylish super moves, battle cries, or fluid animations, this large cast is bursting with charm. While many of the assets have been repurposed from previous games, this is the first time we see members of RWBY in 2D with anime-inspired models. Under Night's cast also gets redrawn portraits to better fit the BlazBlue aesthetic. Despite their differences, the combination of worlds works so well that each fanbase will find something to love about seeing their favorite characters in unexpected scenarios.

Mixing up teams brings about collaborations I've always wanted to see. Sure, Hyde, Ragna, and Narukami may play like the standard sword-wielding boys from their respective worlds, but having either of them work together makes for a badass team. As a die-hard Persona fan, having the Investigation Team reunited at Yasogami High for a hectic brawl while bumping the Arena mix for Reach Out To The Truth warms my heart. Especially smaller moments, like the unique chatter and interactions between two characters before fights commence, makes this feel like more than a rehash of multiple assets or collection of characters thrown together all willy nilly. When I'm hopping from Under Night's Riverside stage in one fight to BlazBlue's Cathedral the next, using my favorite duo of Chie and Ruby while listening to Hyde's battle theme, Cross Tag Battle evokes and amplifies the fondness I have for this roster.

The crossing of worlds primarily plays out in the Episode Mode, where the four factions of fighters are forced to fight in a fake realm by a mysterious, omnipresent AI that creates arbitrary rules. By obtaining color-coded keystones, and eventually uniting to fight this AI, they'll be able to return home. The overarching plot sounds ridiculous, and it's borderline nonsensical. Each of the four campaigns play out as a visual novel with static character portraits and fully voiced dialogue; actual fights are embedded within each chapter to keep you an active participant. It's all quite trite, sometimes eye-rolling.

Cross Tag Battle has a lot to absorb, and it'll take time to get comfortable with the fighting system and unravel all its intricacies. Thankfully, the onboarding process is top-notch.

Some character appearances feel shoehorned for the sake of making an appearance, but despite its absurdity, moments of cross-franchise fan service stick the landing. Ruby's obsession with fancy weapons permeates her encounters with the likes Ragna and Hyde. References to Chie's obsession with steak, and Yukiko's inability to make curry call back to the moments I first met them in Persona 4; even Noel gets caught up in the mix as she's completely oblivious to how bad it'll taste. And as each episode concludes, I was rewarded with heartfelt scenes that reminded me of why I'm invested in these characters.

Story mode highlights something odd, though. DLC characters take part in the story as opponents despite not being available in the playable base roster. Their movesets, character models, theme songs, and voice lines are in the game, but they're gated as add-on content. Half of RWBY's cast is offered for free, but to see several Persona, BlazBlue, and Under Night folks so obviously withheld feels unfair.

Taking the fight online is where you'll spend most of your time after getting your feet wet in single-player. Cross Tag online component consists of multiple lobbies for different skill levels where players walk around as chibi versions of their favorite character. Customizing your player card with character portraits and familiar catchphrases is another avenue to express your love. It's cute and lighthearted, magnified by the adorable batch of emotes that often take the edge off exhilarating fights. And thankfully, jumping into matches works seamlessly. After hundreds of rounds online, both in the casual lobby and ranked matchmaking, we can say that netcode is solid and that latency is a non-issue with a decent connection.

Players that want a more competitive environment should be happy to know that we had little trouble finding a fair fight in ranked matchmaking. In both victory and defeat, memorable moments abound. Although it can be frustrating, I'm always taking note of how high-level players get the better of me. I'll also never forget making a comeback from being down a teammate, activating resonance blaze and perfectly timing both Chie's power charge and God Hand super while my opponent was in mid-tag to take them both out in one hit.

Whether playing through the story mode alone or against hardened opponents online, Cross Tag Battle is an absolute joy with a surplus of possibilities within its wide roster and versatile fighting system. Even with all the ridiculousness of the overarching plot, I reveled in the charm of my favorite characters and embraced the many moments of fan service. It's a masterful unification of styles and mechanics from four different universes that compels you to dig deeper and dedicate the time to getting the most out of the beloved members of this cast.

Golem Review: Hidden In Plain Sight

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 02:00

Golem often feels at odds with itself. This gorgeous puzzle-filled adventure successfully wraps you in a mystical world, where bright hues and cheerful melodies set the mood. But beneath this inviting exterior lie disjointed challenges that no amount of whimsy can sugarcoat. Even with smart mechanics that are introduced at a sensible pace, Golem's rhythm is regularly disturbed by jarring difficulty spikes and obtuse solutions.

A vague narrative tells of a lost civilization that once upon a time used magical stone creatures to build and maintain its structures. These beings, or golems, are practically extinct, save for one you're tasked to rebuild throughout ten puzzle-filled stages. Starting as a lifeless ball, the golem feels like a nuisance at first, which only serves to make its eventual evolution that much more gratifying.

As your golem is slowly pieced back together, new mechanics are introduced to allow for more complex puzzles. When it gains the ability to walk on its own, for example, you will have to accurately predict its movement while manipulating the environment to clear pathways at the right moments. Later, it evolves into a dog-like creature that you can command to move to specific locations, and will eventually grow strong enough to carry you across treacherous tracts of land that are otherwise impassable.

Golem's ten stages act as large puzzle rooms, each with the objective of going from one end to the other. This traversal is restricted by your golem's growing moveset, which puts the onus on you to chart an appropriate course. This can be as simple as moving a rock pillar to close a gap, or as complex as activating a series of switches to resuscitate an old, aging turbine that in turn spins up other nearby mechanisms. Regardless of the conceit, the goal remains the same but with shifting responsibilities. Your golem will sometimes, for example, need to be precisely placed to apply pressure to a switch, giving you access to a new area via a now moving railcar. In turn you might need to ensure that your ally has a clear path to the next hurdle. If you've gone one step too far without a clear solution in sight, backtracking and starting from scratch may be your only option.

Herein lies one of Golem's most frustrating aspects. Puzzles ought to require intricate solutions that make you second guess your instincts, and the best of them give you that "aha" moment, when you recognize that the blueprint to success was evident from the start--you just hadn't yet learned how to see a certain number of steps ahead. Golem instead obscures your view of many puzzle elements, forcing you to succeed through trial and error as opposed to relying on foresight and analysis. Golem also regularly fails to make some unique interactive objects standout from the background, which forces you to tediously move your mouse around the screen to determine what is or isn't useful. Basic switches and levers, on the other hand, are clearly marked; an inconsistency that makes it hard to trust that the game is always playing fair.

Moving about a stage isn't a fast or free-flowing affair, but instead a point-and-click style dictation. This systematic process and your character's slow movement speed is mercifully compensated for with the inclusion of a fast-forward button, which you’ll use frequently. And just like the indiscernible key items throughout each stage, walkable pathways are often indistinguishable from off-limits areas. The inconsistency of Golem's visual language leads to tiring efforts of just clicking on possible destinations in the hopes of finding one that's actually accessible.

Golem confuses size with ingenious puzzle design, which just dilutes the euphoria it aims to generate on completion. Yet it still conjures infrequent moments of bliss that re-establish a sense of wonder. Golem’s vast, mysterious world is ultimately inviting to poke and prod around in, even if its stringent mechanics don’t allow for looking further beyond the stage at hand. There’s an underlying drive to discover what this world is about, what secrets its lost inhabitants might have held, that prevent temptations to just leave it entirely. Golem’s puzzles might feel shallow, but its saving grace is the captivating setting it desperately latches them onto.

It's the fizzle at the end of the fuse that encompasses a disappointing journey into an otherwise visually captivating world. Golem attempts but fails to find harmony in bringing a vague tale together with any sort of emotional resonance. That might have been easier to forgive if the journey itself was exceptional. Instead Golem's inconsistent puzzles and jarring difficulty spikes will infuriate you more than they infatuate.

Yoku’s Island Express Review: A Breath of Fresh Air

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 02:00

Metroid-style platformers have become more common recently, which makes standing out from the pack a daunting task for new games in that style. Yoku’s Island Express overcomes this hurdle by creatively combining both Metroid-style exploration and pinball mechanics into one unique product. This combination sounds unusual at first, but the final result is a charming, delightful, and wonderfully satisfying hybrid.

You play as Yoku, a cute little beetle who has a ball attached to his hip with a string, and it's his first day as postmaster on Mokumana Island. The story is cute and straightforward, and there’s a large amount of backstory sprinkled throughout the game, but it doesn’t take long for the rest of Yoku’s Island Express’ beautiful game design to quickly take the spotlight.

The world of Mokumana Island is gorgeous, and the delightful painterly art style realizes each of the game's different stages with vibrancy--lush jungles and dark labyrinths blend in seamlessly with stunning snow-covered mountains and underground caves, and the background scenery is just as beautifully detailed as the foreground. Every environment is perfectly accompanied by sound design which gives everything a cheery and quirky atmosphere, and the charming background music keeps things light and breezy throughout. The roster of supporting characters is also a delight to meet. Ranging from animals and plants to imaginary creatures, the large cast of NPCs are all amusing in their own ways. Some give you side quests, some give you exposition regarding the main story or island lore, and some are simply there for a quick quip or two.

Yoku can only move left and right, and can't jump. However, flippers and platforms can be found all over Mokumana Island, which can be operated by using just two buttons, much like in pinball. These devices are all used to fling Yoku and his ball (which doubles as a pinball) in helpful directions to help you find and explore new paths of game’s cleverly branching world.

If Yoku is the pinball, then Mokumana Island is a giant pinball table. One minute you could be strolling through the jungle, the next you might find yourself seamlessly dropped into a literal pinball puzzle carved out of the environment. Familiar pinball mechanics, like lanes and bumpers, are all there and completing these challenges will reward you with fruit (the game’s currency) and unlock additional paths around the island. Though the puzzles require precise timing demands, and there are many moments when your skills and reactions feel tested, no puzzle feels impossible. Most can be completed in only a handful of minutes, but there's a lot of variety to the boards which help keep the game incredibly engaging.

Mokumana Island is surprisingly large, and filled with secrets and collectible items. A sprawling story quest and numerous side quests constantly push you in different directions, and there’s a lot of traveling and pinballing to be done. It’s also easy to get sidetracked from your tasks in favor of searching for the game's many secrets hiding within the beautiful island stages.

Exploring becomes even more exciting as Yoku learns new, goofy abilities, which are used to overcome hurdles in a lighthearted fashion, like removing boulders using an exploding slug vacuum cleaner. These fun and practical abilities add extra layers of cheery personality to an already joyful game, and as common in the genre, they make you feel excited to backtrack and unlock previously inaccessible paths.

Traveling back and forth from one end of Mokumana Island to the other can sometimes become tedious, however. A fast-travel system isn’t unlocked until later in the game, but even that is quite limited in regards to where you can and can’t travel. Some areas require you to complete a pinball puzzle in order to get from point A to B, which makes retreading quite repetitive and occasionally frustrating, particularly when the pinball puzzle is a complex one.

Yoku’s Island Express takes two unlikely genres and combines them into one playful, natural experience. The game’s audio and visual design is simply joyous and the large game world seamlessly combines its pinball puzzles with some brilliant level designs. While traversing the large map does get frustrating at times, Yoku’s Island Express’ main quest never drags, and with its slate of fun abilities, quirky supporting characters and a generous amount of optional content, Yoku’s Island Express is a unique journey that’s refreshing and just straight up fun.

Vampyr Review: The City That Never Sleeps

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 08:17

Vampyr may seem an unlikely game from the studio that made the narrative-focused Life Is Strange, but being an action-RPG doesn't preclude it from being a great vehicle for storytelling. It's set in a harsh city in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, and much of the game involves potentially becoming the savior the world so desperately needs. If anything, Vampyr feels like the spiritual successor to the beloved cult hit Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, but with much of that game's vampire politics replaced by heartfelt interpersonal drama. It's a story strengthened through the power of choice, with the fate of thousands resting on your ability to sacrifice your needs for the greater good.

Vampyr takes place in England, 1918, at the height of the Spanish flu pandemic. You play as Dr. Jonathan Reid, a renowned doctor just back from the frontlines of World War I. Not even minutes off the boat, he's violently welcomed back to his homeland by a vampire and subsequently shoveled into a mass grave. When Reid reawakens, confused and stark-raving mad with bloodlust, he attacks the first person he comes across. Before he's able to process his profound grief and confusion, a guild of vampire hunters chases him off into the night.

How deep you're able to dive into Vampyr's narrative rabbit holes depends on your dialogue choices, and whole subplots can be blocked off permanently by not correctly identifying what a patient needs or wants to hear.

Thanks to the help of a sympathetic stranger, your time scared and alone is graciously brief. It's not long before you're employed for the night shift at a hospital, and it's there that you also gain the support of Lady Ashbury, another vampire hiding in plain sight. Once acclimated, Reid aims to come to grips with his afterlife, maybe find a cure for his vampirism, and get some much needed answers as to why he was turned to begin with.

The larger story beats delve deep into the lurid lore you might expect from a turn-of-the-century vampire tale, but it's not until much later that it becomes the crux of the story. For the majority of the game, Vampyr goes all in on the idea of Reid as an altruistic doctor, a man tirelessly dedicated to the wellbeing of his patients and travelling around town seeing to their various needs. Much of the game involves chatting with fellow hospital employees, patients, and citizens about town, finding out how they're coping with the epidemic, and building a case file to get to the heart of whatever ails them. Sometimes, their problems can be fixed by simply lending a sympathetic ear. Some troubles can be fixed by concocting a bit of medicine in your lab. But the most engaging quests are resolved by getting down and dirty in an infected area of town, spearheading investigations no living person ever could. How deep you're able to dive into Vampyr's narrative rabbit holes depends on your dialogue choices, and whole subplots can be blocked off permanently by not correctly identifying what a patient needs or wants to hear.

Vampyr leans hard into the RPG side of the action-RPG spectrum, and though there's often a campy texture to the storytelling, it's very easy to get attached to its motley crew of characters. A factory worker waits on surgery to fix a near-gangrenous arm because his two attending doctors can't agree on an approach to treatment. A nurse and an ambulance driver rely on Reid to keep their interracial relationship secret. A man becomes an alcoholic due to his survivor's guilt over an anarchistic plot gone wrong. A non-ordained preacher goes around the city burning the sick alive, believing God told him to cleanse the flu pandemic with fire. Everyone you can converse with has a tale to tell, and the vast majority of them are worth the time it takes to hear them out.

It's impossible to avoid the fact that Reid needs to feast on blood in order to survive, but his thirst manifests in more subtle, diabolical ways than just a steadily declining hunger stat. Every little thing Reid does for the citizens of London adds to a pool of overall health for each of the game's four main districts, all of which contribute to the wellness of London as a whole. While that pool is useful for keeping an eye on the citizenry, it also just so happens you can explore that menu to get details on each of the citizens you've met. You can learn how nourishing their blood will be should you decide to feed on them--i.e. how much XP you'd get from taking their life--and refamiliarize yourself with their backstory. The stories of the city change depending on who, if anyone, you prey upon, and in much subtler ways than you might expect.

One of the best choices I made was to feed on a gruff man who Reid discovered was secretly a mass murderer. After his death, the man's mother, while certainly grieving her son, copes by deciding to take in the awkward orphan living nearby and giving him the love she foolishly gave to protect her own flesh and blood. Reid can certainly drive relationships into chaos in much the same way, but the fact that there's enough information to be had through your interactions to guide those decisions with is both impressive and empowering.

Walking the streets of London between residential districts, Reid is a persistent target for vampire hunters, brutal sub-human mutants called Skals, massive beasts, and highly skilled vampire elites. Encountering any of them means it's time to take a more hands-on and proactive approach. Using a combination of bludgeons, sharp implements, firearms, and terrifying vampire magic, you're quite capable of fighting your many enemies off, but these late-night battles are still difficult. Physical attacks and dodges drain a stamina meter that, if not carefully managed, leaves you utterly defenseless while it recharges. Your vampire powers are impressive and can devastate enemies, but they cost fresh blood to execute. While you can bite your enemies in combat to recover some, not only is stunning enemies to get the bite tricky--you either land enough hits in quick succession or parry an attack, which has a frustratingly small window of opportunity--the powers tend to use more blood than a single bite can replenish.

There are games that have tied survival and power to moral choice, but very few have managed to tie the lure of evil so perfectly--or seductively--to the core gameplay.

Mild combat frustrations are further amplified by performance issues. Playing on a PS4 Pro, Vampyr succumbs to frame rate drops and surprisingly frequent loading screens. You begrudgingly learn to live with these hiccups, but the most preposterous load times--stretching well over a minute--haunt you after death. In a game where enemies can one-hit kill you, and where bosses require a bit of trial and error to overcome, such long pauses aren't easily overlooked.

One of the best ways to avoid death is to trade in XP earned for ability and stat upgrades. You can increase bite damage and improve the amount of blood you draw with each attack, but the most interesting improvements come in the form of advanced vampiric powers. Some are simple, such as sharpening your claws mid-combo to increase your damage output, but you can also learn advanced spells, such as one that boils all the blood in your victim's body before causing them to explode. You can become an unstoppable force in London, but it all costs XP. And while you can gain XP from handing out meds or killing enemies, the payouts are a pittance compared to the thousands of points earned from killing just one of the proper citizens of London.

If you desire, you can work to improve the vitality (and XP potential) of everyone in town, only to drink your way through an entire district of healthy people in one night, personal connections be damned. This will make Reid nigh-invincible for hours to come, but conversely cause the district to descend into utter chaos as friends, family, and colleagues go missing, leaving those who remain in despair. Alternatively, you can play the game as a much more civilized sort of vampire, getting by only on the blood of rats and those who attack you first. Theoretically, it's even possible to play the game without killing a single soul, save the few mandatory boss fights. However, walking the path of the righteous man is the game at its hardest, especially as enemies jump up in level.

Ultimately, I opted for a balanced, Hannibal Lecter-like path: kindness and erudite mystery, coinciding with a predilection to savagely prey on the free-range scum of society--the occasional mass murderer here, a crime boss there, etc. It felt good, righteous, even, for a while. And somewhere around the time I reached level 20, I was still getting ambushed and demolished in two hits by a guy wielding a torch and cheap sword. The problem could be easily remedied by sacrificing yet another juicy, XP-heavy victim, but that could potentially put the surrounding community at risk of devastation. There are games that have tied survival and power to moral choice, but very few have managed to tie the lure of evil so perfectly--or seductively--to the core gameplay.

The narrative does take a mild decline as time goes on. The late-game answers to Dr. Reid's questions feel more focused on the game's fantastical threads than they do on Reid himself--though it cleverly delves into semi-obscure British/Celtic legend and very real macabre British history for inspiration. More and more as the game goes on, Reid's dialogue choices don't end up corresponding to the intended tone. And a few of the really huge choices to be made are no-win situations none of the characters deserve.

And yet, the credits roll on Vampyr with the realization of how seldom we see an open-world RPG experience like this, where being a citizen with a responsibility to a place and its people feels personal, even if that investment lies in who looks delicious tonight. Vampyr is certainly shaggy and rough in the technical department, but its narrative successes still make for an impactful and worthwhile experience.

Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers Review: Running On Fumes

Sun, 06/03/2018 - 05:00

Dillon the Armadillo is every stoic hero of the Old West... but as an anthropomorphic armadillo. He doesn't say much because he really doesn't need to. His prowess with weapons and dedication to defending good folks just trying to make their way is essentially his whole character. And while, until now, he's been known for his forays within small downloadable games, Dead-Heat Breakers represents a big next step for the franchise.

Most of the game makes the transition well, in part because the premise is played in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Dillon's a no-nonsense guy, and seeing him surrounded by a colorful cast of goofy sapient animals works pretty well. But, after a time there's definitely the feeling that too little game is spread out over too much time. Dead-Heat Breakers grinds to a crawl at times, and while it's far from insurmountable, it's hard to shake the feeling that in this case less would have been more.

While Dillon may be the game's namesake and main action hero, he's not the actual protagonist. When you start up the game, you'll have a Mii of your choice polymorphed into an Amiimal. And it's this "person" that the story centers around. In short, you've narrowly survived an attack on your home town, and you've gone to get help from the infamous "Red Flash," Dillon. On your way, your big rig is attacked by some industrial monstrosities and Dillon and his sidekick/mechanic Russ happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Most of the proceedings are played for comedy, poking at the classic tropes of the western, while mixing a good bit of modern absurdity. Not too long after that encounter, for instance, Russ determines that the team needs a massive gun. And they aren't kidding. He maps it all out in his head and sets to work getting the materials to build a weapon that would put World War II-era train-mounted cannons to shame.

This pair of scenes (the battle between your would-be attackers and Dillon, as well as the process for gathering materials after the fact) make up the two primary phases of play. They loosely correspond to the day and night and will follow that pattern throughout. In the prep part (daytime), you'll wander around town doing odd jobs for the people and participating in mini-games to gather up the required gear for your nightly missions. This works well for pacing at first, but you'll start to feel the drag as the cycles wear on.

Daytime will put you through a few different main activities, including time-trial races and bouts against the series' most iconic foe--the stone-headed, space-faring Groks. Here you can earn money which you can then toss to Wendon for supplies, which go to Russ for assembly into the Breaker (i.e. that giant gun). These are meant to help give you some practice for the more rough-and-tumble nighttime bouts but are too dissimilar to serve as a proper warm-up, and not unique enough to feel like a good break from the main action.

When that time does come, though, you and the Amiimals of your friends and other Miis on your system will assemble into a group, ready to tackle the big bad of the night. This is where the series' touted tower defense-action fusion comes in. Here, like in the opening segment, you'll command the Red Flash and have the option of hiring on the different Amiimals to play defense. Each carries a different weapon with their own attack styles and strengths. Ostensibly the daytime's mini-games are there to help acclimate you to these differences, but in practice, over the game's 15 missions, you'll know who does what pretty quickly and can make your own appropriate choices.

Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers is best enjoyed in spurts. Powering through the game quickly reveals its many weaknesses (the toll on your hands, and the repetitiveness of the combat and day-night cycle being chief among them), but no part of the adventure is bad, really; it simply wears thin.

Once you've made your choices, you're off to the fight. Your job as Dillon is to keep the pressure off the Amiimals. Using a powerful accelerator as well as Dillon's natural claws and thick hide, you can slam and slash your foes while zooming about the map. On the bottom screen, you'll be able to see a breakdown of the map, the attack range of your team, and which places need your help.

Recruiting more teammates helps take the pressure off you but depletes your coffers and therefore cuts your strategic options for later down quite a bit. Therein lies the big question for how to allocate resources.

Dillon himself can be great fun to play, but the controls are perplexing. Most everything is handled with the joystick and the A button; attacks are somewhat contextual but rely on holding the button down, releasing before pressing, and holding or tapping quickly to different moves. This isn't ideal as it can be occasionally easy to accidentally dash instead of landing an attack, and the constant strain on your thumb during combat sections would have been reduced if you simply used another button or trigger when your attack was ready.

Many of these sequences devolve into high-speed chases where you'll have to clear out every foe during their final assault. There's an excellent bit of white-knuckled tension as you rush from enemy to enemy, spinning up, bashing them, and slashing to bits. Combined with some smart visuals and a great system for snapping you to baddies so you don't inadvertently overshoot them makes these segments a great bit of intense fun--even if they leave your thumbs sore.

Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers is best enjoyed in spurts. Powering through the game quickly reveals its many weaknesses (the toll on your hands, and the repetitiveness of the combat and day-night cycle being chief among them), but no part of the adventure is bad, really; it simply wears thin. It's a competent, fun little outing that's almost perfectly suited for kids who need something silly and ridiculous that won't require too much thought or technical mastery.

The Forest Review: Are You Afraid Of The Dark?

Sun, 06/03/2018 - 03:00

The broad premise of The Forest is far from unique. A plane crash lands on a seemingly deserted island, and you, a lone survivor, have to figure out a way to survive. It doesn't take long, however, until blood curdling screeches fill the night and glowing eyes appear in the distance. Once it sets in that your new home isn't as empty as it first appeared, The Forest evolves into a uniquely harrowing adventure that you won't soon forget.

Cannibals inhabit the grassy fields and pristine lakes around you, watching your every move; they are the source of The Forest's ever-present tension. You might expect monsters like this to attack on sight, but their behavior is erratic. Sometimes they'll charge forward to unsettle you during daylight but stop just outside striking distance to simply stare in silence. Other times they might feign a retreat before leaping into nearby trees to quickly get behind you. The Forest's enemies aren't easy to predict, which makes each encounter thrilling.

The breadth of enemy types is impressive too, and they can get surprisingly weird. As you explore the island more and dive into terrifying, pitch-black caverns, enemies transform into terrifying body-horror figures--amalgamations of appendages that bellow deep, disturbing howls. They're frightening to behold and even scarier to fight.

The Forest does a good job of trickling out these surprises while you're already struggling to manage vital meters and resources. It's also imperative that you keep a close eye on the quality of the resources you find. Not every berry bush contains a bounty that won't poison you, and not all water is safe to drink. Meat you gather from hunted animals will rot if not cooked quickly. None of the resulting illnesses are serious enough to dissuade you from eating questionable food if you have no other choice, but needing to think about what you eat adds an additional layer to the minute-to-minute hunter-gatherer gameplay.

Chopping down trees for logs or scouting a route to clean water is paramount in your first few days on the island, and once you establish yourself, this goal shifts to fortifying your position with a base, and perhaps complex spike traps and tree swings. The sheer number of structures you're able to build is impressive, and thankfully The Forest doesn't gate your ingenuity with illusive blueprints. You're given a notebook filled with outlines at the start.

Building has a tangible effect on the island in several ways. Resources like small game and shrubs will respawn over time, but larger trees will remain felled for the entirety of your stay. You might turn a dense forest into an open field of stumps not long after you start, which gives enemies a clearer line of sight into your doings. The more you impose yourself on the island, the more aggressive your aggressors become. Patrols will grow and the more monstrous creatures will emerge from their caves for an all-out assault. The Forest doesn't force you to play in any specific way though, so a more reserved nomadic approach is sometimes safer and more viable. But the sheer delight at seeing an enemy trigger a well-placed trap during a raid is priceless, and well worth the risk of angering the locals.

There's a lot to think about when it comes to surviving in The Forest, but the balance between each of its interlocking parts keeps the game moving at a riveting pace. For every danger the island offers, there's a smart solution around the corner.

Crafting smaller items plays a big part when it comes to personal safety, too. Your inventory screen allows you to combine items you've collected to create new tools; from something as simple as combining a few sticks and stones to make an axe, to creating high-powered explosives using a combination of wristwatches, electrical boards, and spare change. The number of items you can both collect and craft is vast, but the inventory page eventually becomes cumbersome and overwhelming to navigate. And with only four customizable hotkeys, you don't have easy access to everything you want in a pinch.

Although it's constantly testing your perseverance and wants you to feel stretched thin, The Forest never feels overbearing. You'll always be able to depend on your crafted weapons as they aren't hampered by durability. Your pocket lighter will always help you see in the dark, never running out of vital fluid. This reliability frees you from the burden of worrying about the lifespan of any potential upgrades you can make to items too.

Exploration in survival games is usually tied only to your immediate well-being, but The Forest features a narrative that's slowly uncovered by exploration and incidental environmental storytelling. Abandoned camps are a great hunting ground for modern resources and offer hints at past and present events. Putrid remains of long-dead victims aren't an uncommon sight, but you'll also come across small photographs, videotapes and magazines that flesh out a conspiracy with the island at the center.

Uncovering The Forest doesn't have to be a lonely experience, and it offers co-operative play for up to eight people. The time spent getting a fortified settlement up and running is drastically reduced, but remains just as compelling. Co-operative play does, however, deflate the the feeling of being exposed. Larger groups of enemies become easier to deal with, and the fear of diving into caves alone is undercut by both voice chat and the fact that enemies don't scale accordingly. The Forest might be silly fun with friends, but it's at its best when playing alone.

There's a lot to think about when it comes to surviving in The Forest, but the balance between each of its interlocking parts keeps the game moving at a riveting pace. For every danger the island offers, there's a smart solution around the corner. Combined with unpredictable enemies and captivating horror set-pieces, The Forest strikes a compelling balance between survival and horror that you won't soon forget.

Agony Review: A Captivating Disappointment

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 02:00

Hell, by its very nature, shouldn't be enjoyed, but there's still something enthralling and entertaining in seeing creators imagine it in various ways. Agony, on the other hand, is less about Hell as a vehicle for entertainment or even fear. Agony's version of Hell is simply a place of unimaginable horror. It is depraved beyond reckoning, a place whose very brick and mortar is composed of atrocities. It is a place that never opens its sick, emaciated maw except to blaspheme and torment. Hell is terrifying in Agony, which goes hand in hand with the fact that the game is also torturous to play.

In Agony, you are a freshly fallen wretch who wakes up at the gates of Hell with his memories--including his true name--burned away during the trip down. Under normal circumstances, it'd be torture time for the rest of eternity, but somehow, the new meat walks through the gates with most of his wits about him, and only one piece of knowledge: that Hell has a guardian angel, the Red Goddess. Only she can help him regain his lost memories, and help him escape perdition. So begins a long, arduous journey of survival horror--closer in function to Clock Tower or Alien Isolation than Resident Evil--to meet the Goddess, and beg for her dark blessing.

Agony's single most breathtaking achievement is Hell itself. It is an enormous, heretical province of terror, the ungodly conceptual Venn diagram between Hieronymous Bosch, H.R. Giger, and Clive Barker. The very ground you wake up on in the game's first level is made of rotting pink flesh, the mortar made from the crushed bodies and blood of the hideous unborn, a process a later cutscene even shows you in great detail. The architecture all around you is a pulsating gothic nightmare, cathedrals of wide-eyed corpses and skeletons, some of whom are still alive, trapped twitching inside for eternity.

It's because the world itself is so impressive that the enemy design then comes across so disappointing and predictable. While beautiful in detail, demons look mostly like the typical Doom interpretation of demons, and female variants tend to veer closer to being strippers-with-sharp-teeth as opposed to something legitimately imaginative. The Red Goddess herself is a near constant source of eyerolls, mostly coming off as a bloodied burlesque performer, with an inappropriately over-the-top voice performance that wouldn't be out of place in a commercial for a sex hotline. There are design elements that push the envelope--mostly centered around some truly unsettling perversions of genitalia--but the game's ham-handed attempts to be sexy, even in a sinister manner, is incongruous with the skin-crawling nature of the rest of the game.

All the wretched humans shambling around Hell--you included--are little more than desiccated revenants. You can walk--or, more accurately, shuffle along at a snail's pace--perform a limited sprint, and jump. There are no weapons to be had, though you can pick up torches, which provide light, but little else. When you come across an enemy, you have only three options: run or hide. You can technically sneak around, and there’s even a power-up to be gained later that supposedly lessens the noise you make. It is still very, very easy to be heard and seen, hiding spots aren't always close by, and aside from a rising musical sting, there’s no indicator of where exactly an enemy is in relation to you.

There's only a few different classes of enemy you see throughout your play time, ranging from swarms of insects to Lovecraftian behemoths that can snatch up your soul. With only a couple of exceptions, getting caught by an enemy is typically a one- or two-hit death. As such, an hour's work can be flushed down the toilet just by hitting the wrong enemy in a group. Later on, you can actually possess a few classes of demon, but this is never as empowering or thrilling as you might expect. Agony doesn't seem to know how to capitalize on its most promising aspects.

You do, however, have one big trick up your shriveled sleeve: if you should die another death in Hell, your soul can actually fly out of your current body, and forcibly possess another. That's only if you can find a vulnerable victim, though, and pull off the black shroud preventing them from being possessed. Otherwise, after about 10-15 seconds of being dead again, your soul dies a true death. The trick of it is not just finding the last person you unshrouded, but typically finding them in a maze, with an extremely limited and obscured field of vision while disembodied. If/when you die, the Goddess keeps you in Hell, though, and sends you back to the last checkpoint. Even then, checkpoints are a whole other problem. They're represented by a special mirror, where a soul must be sacrificed, but the mirrors are hidden deep in each level. Agony treats basic progressional milestones the way most games treat obscure collectibles.

The checkpoint issue is one tiny facet of the game's overarching issue: Hell is too big for its own good. Your one navigational tool, the Destiny Lines, sends out a little neon cluster of lights that can point you in the right direction, but often the cluster gets just as confused as you are, leading you through walls or ceilings, instead of along a proper route, which can be difficult to discern in the chaotic and painfully dim environments. In addition, on the game's default difficulty, the Lines are a limited resource. The idea here is sound, if the idea was, in fact, to make surviving in Hell feel like a Sisyphean struggle, wandering a realm that mortal men have no mastery over. It doesn't make for an enjoyable experience.

When you're not losing chunks of progress, the rest of the game pits you up against two types of glorified scavenger hunts: collecting a small number of important objects and arranging them in a very specific way to open a door, or finding the correct sigil among dozens written in the environment that will unlock the next area. The first kind is usually easy enough, though oddly, the most difficult one in the game is right at the beginning, where you're thrown into an expansive labyrinth full of enemies, and no way to save your progress when you've grabbed any of the resources you need to continue. Others are easier, but still more of a trudging annoyance than anything. The second kind involves exploring around to find the sigil, often involving backtracks into dangerous areas, only to get back to the door and discover the sigil you picked up doesn't unlock your door. This kind of slow and infuriating repetition typifies Agony from start to finish.

These are issues ironically exacerbated by the fact that it's all taking place in one of the most abominable, depressing, and fundamentally disgusting environments imaginable. Worst of all, you grow numb to Agony's uniquely repulsive flair over time. You start thinking about the environment in practical nonplussed terms, instead of the grim wonder that strikes you in the beginning. Distress turns to disinterest, then--even as the bigger revelations about the protagonist and the nature of his torture come to light--turn to total apathy. I entered Agony’s Gates of Hell with a slack-jawed gasp. It is such a disappointment to have to have left it with a shrug.

Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection Review - Keep The Past Alive

Thu, 05/31/2018 - 09:00

The Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection is another example of Digital Eclipse going above and beyond to properly port and pay tribute to a bounty of classic Capcom games. This anthology includes 12 Street Fighter arcade ports in all, and four of the best have been updated for online play. You can also find plenty of insightful history to unpack outside of combat. From soundtracks to sprite animation breakdowns, to high-res design documents for classic and cancelled games alike, there's a wealth of high-quality reference material to round out the robust selection of games.

All told, the 30th Anniversary Collection includes the original Street Fighter, five versions of Street Fighter II, three iterations of Street Fighter III, and the Street Fighter Alpha, Alpha 2, and Alpha 3. It's great to have all of these seemingly arcade-perfect ports in one place today, and with any luck, for many generations to come. Eagle-eyed aficionados will note the absence of Alpha 2 Gold and Alpha 3 Upper, both of which were available in 2006's Street Fighter Alpha Anthology on PS2, but their omission is far from a deal-breaker.

Likewise, while it may be momentarily disappointing that your favorite console ports are missing (understandable given the lofty scope of emulating multiple consoles) what is here plays wonderfully. If you already love these games, no matter how you played them in the past, the 30th Anniversary Collection will deliver a great experience. In some cases, you may just be looking for a quick trip down memory lane, because let's be honest, the original Street Fighter isn't great by modern standards; it is nonetheless awesome to see it preserved so well and be so easily accessible.

The enduring qualities of the collection's more notable games remain as strong as ever. Capcom's prowess for making exciting and attractive 2D fighting games was almost unparalleled during the '90s, and thus a game like Street Fighter III feels only marginally retro 19 years after the fact. In a similar fashion, Street Fighter Alpha 3's roster variety and variable fighting mechanics make it a fan-favorite to this day for reasons all its own. Does every version of Street Fighter II feel worth playing? Maybe not in isolation, but the evolution of that game in particular meant a lot to the community that grew up around it, and its prominent share of the games list helps tell the complete story of an important chapter in video game history.

Street Fighter's popularity rose out of tense face-to-face arcade bouts, and every game in this collection was released before the popularization of online battles. Over the years, however, Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Street Fighter Alpha 3, and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike would wind up on various connected platforms. Those same games makeup the selection of online-enabled games here, and they exist under a single roof (one lobby can support fight requests for all of the available games at once.) Digital Eclipse has implemented a customizable framework that allows you to dial-in settings tied to input latency, giving you a small but meaningful advantage in the battle against poor network connections.

Just as the 30th Anniversary Collection breathes new life into classic games, its supplemental material helps you appreciate them in all new ways. There's an interactive timeline that chronicles 30 years of milestone and obscure events alike, often with breakout galleries accompanying the release dates of the biggest games. Each of the collection's 48 relevant characters has a dedicated profile with an interactive sprite gallery that lets you manually scrub through their most iconic attacks from each game, frame by frame. Perhaps most valuable of all, it's awesome to have complete soundtracks for each included game. There's a notable lack of video content given what was included in the 25th Anniversary Collection, but Capcom has otherwise given Digital Eclipse a ton of great and never-before-seen content to work with.

That's more or less the story of the 30th Anniversary Collection. It won't satisfy every specific demand, but it's still a big collection of awesome games and behind-the-scenes content that no Street Fighter fan should miss. Street Fighter is a series worth celebrating and Digital Eclipse has managed to do so in a manner that feels respectful to the series and to the people who keep the spirit of arcade battles alive.

Quarantine Circular Review: Who Are We, Really?

Wed, 05/30/2018 - 05:30

Much like its sudden release, Quarantine Circular aims to surprise. The second installment in Mike Bithell's short-story series doesn't have a direct narrative connection to the first game, Subsurface Circular, but it carries over the same sharp writing and intriguing central premise. This time the story jumps between characters instead of delivering its tale through a single lens, and while this structure leads to some tonal inconsistencies, Quarantine Circular is still a thought-provoking experience worth seeing through.

Like Subsurface Circular, Quarantine Circular is a straightforward narrative adventure. You never take control of its characters beyond determining how they respond to others during a conversation. A directed camera does a good job of keeping you engaged, utilizing sharp cuts and slow pans to evoke tension and serenity at the right moments. Its soundtrack, too, does an excellent job of setting the tone of each scene, especially after a sensational opening sequence.

Humanity is facing an extinction event in Quarantine Circular, which makes the simultaneous arrival of extraterrestrial life both inconvenient and suspicious. Taking place aboard a vessel tasked with maintaining a quarantine in a vulnerable city, you shift between multiple perspectives while trying to determine why the aliens have arrived and if they might be linked to the plague that's ravaging life across the globe. Although you never see the effects of the plague in action, Quarantine Circular ramps up the stakes quickly with a trail of clues that hint at what's happening outside the ship's confines. There's a palpable sense of urgency befitting the impending collapse of civilization.

Despite its brief two-hour runtime, Quarantine Circular manages to raise intriguing ideological questions about evolution, human nature, and tribalism. The arrival of extraterrestrial life opens questions about life beyond our planet at a time when there's little chance to preserve it. Issues concerning evolutionary fate and the human race's mistakes act as a centerpiece for the core conflict, which has some surprising twists before somewhat stumbling to a deflating conclusion. But it's a tale that will have you laughing moments before pondering deep existential questions, and it manages that balance with grace throughout.

Without the ability to see characters' expressions due to their bulky biohazard suits, dialogue has to do most of the heavy lifting.The color coding of each character helps keep things from getting too confusing, and it doesn't take long for Quarantine Circular to establish a strong sense of identity for each concealed face. Marc Peréz, for example, is a great early-game character with a contagious sense of optimism, and his inquisitiveness when coming face to face with the alien visitor for the first time mirrors your own. He eventually gives way to a set of characters with varied ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, all of which introduce differing yet surprisingly relatable perspectives for you to consider.

Conversational choices are often linear, giving you a handful of responses that sometimes loop back to the same outcome. They always align with the personality of the character you're guiding; you can't, in other words, role-playing however you see fit. You can't make a brooding security specialist suddenly sympathetic to a cause she doesn't believe in or work around the naivete of a young scientist. Quarantine Circular lets you make choices that affect events in some unexpected ways (so much so that you'll be enticed to replay certain sections to see alternative outcomes) but it never lets you mistake your role in its tale.

You also have the option to dive into alternative points of conversation that flesh out the premise and surrounding events. Sometimes you'll be limited as to how many of these conversational diversions you can take, and some choices lock out others. You'll never feel as though you're missing out on anything specifically crucial with your decisions, but your curiosity is often rewarded with morsels of information that influence more important choices down the line.

Infrequently, these focus points are used to inject some light puzzles into the story, which doesn't always work in the dialogue-heavy structure of the rest of the game. There's a section at the end that is specifically guilty of obstruction, bringing a powerful decision-making moment to a crawl as you rummage through character notes to hunt down a password. It breaks the flow of the game, but thankfully it's not a persistent hindrance.

What is slightly more annoying is the frequent hopping between characters. Quarantine Circular can shift perspectives multiple times in a single act, which gets confusing with the strict response options you have to choose from. The cuts feel jarring, and the writing is sometimes forced to acknowledge it. One scene cuts so rapidly that the responses are sign-posted to ensure you know who you're replying as. It's disappointing, too, when you're forced to change your perspective on a given situation during its potential climax, as it undercuts the emotional resonance the scene had built up all along.

Quarantine Circular's endings also struggle to prop up the stories that led to them. They aren't as surprising as the tales that they're meant to be rounding out, often concluding in transparent ways. They might factor in small decisions you considered inconsequential at the time, but the endings fail to encapsulate all the questions the story asks into a thought-provoking final message. Quarantine Circular ends too abruptly, and without much impact.

But it's still a tale worth giving the little time it asks of you, if only to be entertained by its intriguing characters and inspired by their existential pondering. Quarantine Circular is a mostly well-written sci-fi tale that doesn't succumb to tired tropes or obvious plot contrivances to draw you in. Instead it uses its limited working space to deliver a captivating tale about human nature and our theoretical place within the universe.

Wizard Of Legend Review: Fast-Paced Action

Sat, 05/26/2018 - 03:48

Roguelike pixel-art games are so common that it almost feels like a cliché. Without a great hook, many of these would-be indie hits wind up lost among ever-filling digital storefronts. However, Wizard of Legend, despite a painfully generic title, manages to distinguish itself from its peers with fast, challenging gameplay. Despite a few missteps, it successfully delivers an engaging and endearing experience.

After a breezy tutorial framed as a series of interactive wizard museum exhibits, you finds yourself whisked away into a new dimension--one with an ever-changing, multi-floor dungeon inhabited by three all-powerful wizards. The challenges you face in this dungeon are called the Chaos Trials, and only wizards of truly exceptional skill have ever conquered them…meaning, of course, that you need to become a wizard of exceptional skill.

Your wizard character has animpressive moveset, with a basic melee spell, a dash/dodge spell, and two powerful techniques with cooldowns mapped to each of the controller's face buttons. While a lot of roguelike games focus on smart usage of the random resources you find on any given run, Wizard of Legend's emphasis is more on skill-based action gameplay. By using your spells and movement skillfully, you can create powerful combos, stunlocking enemies with a flurry of melee attacks, ranged magic, and dashes. The fast, fluid movement of your character and timing-based combos make Wizard of Legend feel like classic action-RPGs of yore--a welcome change from the generally slower rhythm of similar procedurally-generated games.

Finding and learning new arcana magic inside and outside of the dungeons can also affect your gameplay; you might have acquired a really cool and powerful spell, but it's practically worthless if you don't learn to use it well in tandem with your other skills. The process of experimenting with the magical combinations you acquire--and augmenting their effectiveness with various artifacts--allows you to personalize your wizard's playstyle to suit your strengths. Just don't get too attached to the spells and items you find inside the dungeons--most of those won't be coming home with you after death.

As you make your way through the Chaos Trials, you'll encounter a variety of obstacles, enemies, places of interest, and treasures scattered throughout the catacombs. Defeating enemies and collecting treasure chests yields gold and gems; gold can be used to buy goods and services within the dungeon, while gems stay with you even if you're defeated and allow you to buy new spells, clothes, and artifacts in the shopping area before a new run. Only the goods purchased outside of the dungeon are permanent--with a few rare and valuable exceptions--making hunting for and collecting gems an important part of exploration. That doesn't make gold worthless, however, as you can use it to purchase temporary upgrades, health restoration, and additional, powerful spells. Yes, you'll lose all the stuff you bought with gold if you perish, but these skills and items can help make a run last a lot longer, which means more potential permanent loot in the long term. It never feels like a serious setback when a run goes bad; you just buy a few goodies, practice your new arcana, and jump back into the game.

It's plenty of fun, but there are a few annoyances. The environments are dull and lack visual variety, and in some cases it's hard to discern what things are due to the colors used and a lack of detail. The dialogue, sparse as it is, also feels like it's trying just a bit too hard, particularly when it goes for lousy puns. It's also an unforgiving game for newcomers, as enemies are relentless straight from the get-go, making the learning curve steep. But no matter how good you are, sometimes you'll just get a really terrible, unescapable battle in a room filled with hazards and projectile-slingers that feels like it's there simply to ruin your run. While the randomness in Wizard of Legend feels like less of a run-killing factor than in other games of this sort, when its RNG decides it doesn't like you, you'll know it.

With a buddy, however, things get easier. You can play local co-op with a friend, with the both of you sharing a common pool of permanent items and arcana picked up from all your runs up to that point. Having two players makes the more difficult enemy encounters and combo challenges feel less overwhelming, and a generous revival system that involves picking up energy from defeated enemies lets a fallen player hop back into the action fairly easily. However, one major fault is that both players must occupy the same quadrant of the screen, which makes for restricted movement in certain situations--like when one player is working to get in for melee strikes while the other is trying to zip around to set up ranged skills. Giving the camera the ability to zoom out during these situations would have been nice. (Also, as of this writing, you can only play local co-op on the Switch using the Joy-Cons, so forget about using that Pro Controller when your friend's over.)

Overall, though, there's a lot to love about Wizard of Legend. While it does have some issues, the cycle of exploration, discovery, failing, learning, and exploring again will keep your determination to conquer the Chaos Trials high. Wizard of Legend might not look like much on the surface, but there's some good magic underneath.

Conan Exiles Review: Dull And Dense

Fri, 05/25/2018 - 09:00

For a game that’s based on the world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, Conan Exiles has remarkably little to do with any part of that universe. It’s a big, open-world survival sim that sticks true to its initial hardcore vision to a fault. When you combine the steep learning curve of a deep but confusing crafting system with largely monotonous gameplay and a spectacularly awful UI, Conan Exiles feels like it does everything it can to push back on those curious enough to step into its admittedly intriguing but highly flawed world.

The game opens as you regain consciousness in the scorching desert, completely naked and vulnerable. As an exile, you are trapped in a doomed and cursed land with nothing but the faint memory of being cut down from your crucifix by Conan, the giant hunk of man-meat himself. From there, you’re free to wander off into the wild yonder. The exiled lands are massive, made up of different environmental biomes that can be explored freely from the outset. Spectacular-looking sandstorms can roll in out of nowhere, forcing you to seek shelter lest they consume you. You can climb anything from mountains and trees to walls and buildings, provided you have the stamina. This adds an extra dimension to exploration, with the added payoff of some lovely views of Conan's varied world.

You start out small, picking up rocks and sticks and crafting simple tools. Almost everything you find can be broken down one way or another, and while it's neat to watch rocks chip apart and trees topple over as you hack into them, the humdrum motion of harvesting never feels rewarding. Eventually you’ll need to build shelter and a bed, which becomes your new spawn point. Given the game’s brutal permadeath mechanic, doing this sooner rather than later can save you some real heartache.

Shelter can mean anything from a small stone shack all the way to a giant castle, complete with reinforced walls, towers, and even a trebuchet. Building is block-based and relatively free form, allowing for hugely elaborate base designs that can be some fun to build, provided you take the time to gather the raw materials to build everything you need. That's all well and good, except for the part where you aren’t shown how to do any of it. It’s all up to you to simply figure out or dive head first into a wiki to have anything explained in detail.

If you aren’t motivated by curiosity, Conan Exiles' single-player mode will feel empty and largely aimless. It's more like a practice mode, with only a handful of NPC outposts and structures to find. When you do, most of them are hostile, and the few that aren’t only offer minimal interaction. Multiplayer changes this up for the better in a few ways, mainly through the addition of other human players.

More importantly, though, multiplayer gives you more purpose and clearer goals to achieve. This includes defending your base from other players as well as The Purge, an army of NPCs that might attack and destroy your base as you gain XP. You can also join Clans, which will allow you to build collectively, either on or near clanmates' already-laid foundations. For times when you do have to leave home behind, you can create Thralls--human NPCs with specialised abilities you can knockout, bind, and drag back to base to enslave--to help protect it, and they do a decent enough job.

Character progression in both single and multiplayer takes place in the Journey, a series of tasks grouped into chapters that, when completed, grant you attribute points to spend on any one of seven main ability slots. You also gain knowledge points to unlock new crafting recipes, of which there are a lot. The number of things you can craft is staggering; weapons, armor, survival items, and even religious altars to help to deify the gods of the world and earn their favour.

Once you start crafting more complex items, you get better acquainted with one of the game's worst aspects: its UI. There’s nothing intuitive about it, and like the rest of the game, there’s very little explanation given as to how it works. On top of that, it's overly complicated, requiring you to place the resources along with any fuel required into the crafting bench first, select what you want to build from the menu, and then hit the play button to actually craft it. There’s also almost no difference between the console and PC UI, so it's an absolute nightmare to do any kind of inventory management with a controller. And like in most survival sims, it’s what you inevitably spend a significant amount time doing, making it a constant source of frustration.

When you get tired of chipping away at trees and rocks, which you will, you can chip away at creatures or other humans instead. There are all manner of things in the exiled lands for you to kill or be killed by, from animals and beasts to monstrous boss creatures like a giant black spider and a huge, spiked Dragon. But despite the sizeable enemy variety and the large array of weapons you can smith--from daggers to axes and giant mallets--combat is just plain bad. Both light and heavy attacks feel unwieldy thanks to sluggish animations, and weapon strikes lack any impact, resulting in dull and monotonous fights.

Conan Exiles is one of the most unsatisfying games I’ve ever played.

To top it off, Conan Exiles just feels really unpolished. The bodies of harvested enemies simply disappear into thin air, and large areas of the world can pop in and out of view at any time, clipping your character through the ground then respawning you somewhere else on the map. When the night starts to come, the moon’s light casts upwards from the ground, creating an bottomlit effect that looks atrocious. It’s also not in the most stable condition, with a number of crashes affecting gameplay randomly on both PC and Xbox.

Ultimately, Conan Exiles is one of the most unsatisfying games I’ve ever played. Its crafting and resource systems may be dense enough that the ultra-patient could find something to enjoy here, but anyone else would likely walk away with their hands thrown up in defeat. The mind-numbing tedium of harvesting resources, woefully boring combat, and a slew of bugs left me feeling completely underwhelmed and unimpressed when it was all said and done.

Detroit: Become Human Review - To Err Is Human

Thu, 05/24/2018 - 22:00

Detroit: Become Human posits a well-worn future, when androids have become so lifelike and so deeply integrated into human society that surely it's only a matter of time and circumstance until they break through to the other side and achieve consciousness. There isn't much time spent examining how such a seemingly preventable event might be possible; Detroit is primarily focused on androids' experiences during the process of their awakening, and their shock when looking at humanity with eyes unclouded for the first time. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide how they react in the face of adversity.

It is a gameplay-light experience broken up into dozens of chapters with hundreds of decisions to make during cutscenes and explorative sequences. The only real challenge is to be fast, thorough, and perceptive enough to guide characters towards decisions that match your moral compass--or not, if you prefer your stories messy and chaotic. As a result of the myriad crossroads in Detroit, few players will experience events in the exact same way. Pivotal moments gone awry can lead some characters to premature deaths, but even small deviations can have a lasting impact on the state of the people, places and events you encounter throughout. Many of the decisions may seem mundane at first, but however benign a choice may seem, they add up, and gradually draw you into each character's individual experience.

Detroit is purposefully designed in a disorderly fashion, leaving you with mini cliffhangers throughout the game as it cycles from one character's perspective to the next at the end of every 10- to 20-minute chapter. This may sound messy, but it actually works in its favor as the main characters Kara, Connor, and Markus each bring something different to the table. That variety ensures you're never bored and almost always surprised by what happens next.

Kara, a housekeeper android belonging to an abusive, drug-addled single father at the start, becomes a guardian on the run protecting Alice, the little girl she watches over. Kara is unfortunately naive, and as a result finds herself (and Alice) in trouble on a regular basis. The fact that danger for Kara also means danger for a young child significantly raises the stakes when push comes to shove. You strive to protect them from the worst examples of humanity gone astray, and though it's easy to identify the right choices to ensure their safety, getaways are rarely clean, and often messy.

By comparison, Connor's chapters are more personal and inquisitive. He assists a worn-out detective named Hank who loathes his presence due to a deep-seated prejudice, and the two must work together to solve a series of murders tied to rogue androids. Connor's partner isn't very likeable. He is gruff and rough around the edges, but he is nonetheless a good foil for you to play off of. Where Kara's owner is onenote and unbelievably harsh, Hank can be swayed to trust you over time and overcome his cynicism. It's not always easy to know what will convince him of your worth. Some answers may feel "right," but Hank knows better than to listen to someone who only tells him what he wants to hear.

Hank and Connor will regularly investigate crime scenes together where you're required to analyse your environment, gather clues, and recreate events by interpolating evidence. Not every crime scene tells a compelling story, but the process of investigation is consistently engaging. Conor's allegiance to humans (and his first hand experiences dealing with Hank's blunt hatred) gives you a chance to better understand both sides of Detroit's embroiled society. If there's one android in Detroit who deserves his own story to be blown up and given more screen time, it's Connor.

The most pivotal character of the lot is Markus, and while he is involved with some of Detroit's most creative scenes, he is remarkably lacking in nuance. At the start, he has the most fortunate existence. His owner is a kind, elderly painter who encourages free thought and treats Markus as though he was his son. Meanwhile, the painter's actual son is a complete jerk who runs the risk of ruining his father's and Markus' well-being. This inevitably comes to pass, and it's from here that Detroit's big-picture plot kicks off: the fight for android equality.

The discussion is a valid one to have given the context at hand, but the way that the social disparity between humans and androids is conveyed in Detroit is such an on-the-nose series of references to the American Civil Rights Movement that it's hard not to to be taken aback. Androids are forced into the back of buses, segregated from some public areas and private establishments, and made to use the stairs instead of escalators… for some reason. When Markus rallies other rebellious androids and you get to pick their protest slogan, you are actually given the option to choose "we have a dream." These references are distracting, and at no point does it feel justified to lift from the history of actual people who've suffered--and continue to suffer--in the real world.

These moments are unforgettably lame, but it's a testament to the story's strengths elsewhere that they don't completely drag the experience down as a whole. Detroit excels at presenting dire situations. Danger seems to lurk around every corner, and because you are expected to react quickly under stress, you can't help but feel anxious when either Kara or Markus are at risk of being discovered by humans after going rogue. These moments can be quiet, slice-of-life scenes, but that would-be serenity only amplifies the tension; sometimes one misstep is all it takes to upend an otherwise peaceful chapter, and you don't want to feel responsible for triggering a chaotic turn of events. Generally, you still have a chance to fix a bad situation, but with so many potential ramifications in the air, Detroit always finds a way to leave a scar you won't soon forget.

Even if Detroit stumbles on a semi-regular basis, it is almost always captivating to behold.

For as powerful as those chapters can be, it's Detroit's most dreadful and horrific scenes that leave a lasting impression. Kara faces her fair share of terror, but Markus' transition to freedom is a hellish trip into the darkest corners of this fictional version of Detroit that's truly unforgettable. Detroit wouldn't be so effective at bringing you into this world if not for its overall stellar presentation. Some NPCs and secondary characters do stand out due to below-average production values, but it's only because most characters and scenes are so beautifully rendered. Even if Detroit stumbles on a semi-regular basis, it is almost always captivating to behold.

Writer and director David Cage is known for crafting these sorts of games (Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls), but Detroit marks the first time you are presented with an explicit breakdown of the choices you made at the end each brief chapter--or during the chapter if you look in the pause menu. This is positioned as a feature, one that allows you to reflect on your actions and realize what you could have done differently, and if you so choose, to immediately go back and make different decisions. But in effect, this feedback methodology is ultimately detrimental, destroying your immersion by reminding you of the game you're playing, and reducing your influence to a point score that can be traded in for unlockable character models and documentaries. So far as I can tell, there's no narrative or meta significance to justify thrusting this information to the forefront before the game is finished. It's useful if you want to chase trophies or shy away from facing the consequences of your actions, but it sucks to be treated as if that's your default approach. There's no way to disable these flowcharts, and I really wish there was.

These unavoidable flowcharts, like the blatant and cheap appropriation of American history, drag down Detroit's otherwise gripping tale. It has the makings of a truly memorable game, and in many ways, pieces of it will stick with me for a long time. It is too beautiful, too haunting, and too impressive to forget.

Despite being built for multiple playthroughs, it's difficult to imagine jumping back in to fix "mistakes" or exhaust every possible outcome for the sake of completionism. I played with my best intentions. Things didn't always go the way I wanted, but that was a burden I chose to bear, and the story benefitted from my commitment, flowcharts be damned. After completing the game, I tried to go back and fight my instincts to see what would happen if I chose a darker path. It never felt justified nor worthwhile. Detroit is well worth playing, but it struggles to strike the right balance between giving you freedom of choice and reminding you that it's all a game in the end. Cage and Quantic Dream are getting closer to nailing this style of game, but it's obvious that there's still room to grow.

Runner 3 Review: A Bit Of A Trip

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 04:40

Out of the numerous games to spring up under the Bit.Trip umbrella, it's not exactly a surprise that the most accessible of the bunch, Bit.Trip Runner, would be the one to transcend its retro-styled roots. In bringing the Runner games' mechanics to a fancier playground on the Switch, developer Choice Provisions has made its most ambitious game yet--but in doing so, may have revealed the limits to how far it can push the concept. It's also the most difficult, and if you haven't already invested in a good sturdy case for the Switch that might stand up to having the system thrown at terminal velocity out of a living room window, now would be a good time.

On paper, the gameplay is as deceptively simple as it's always been. Your character runs forward automatically, and it's up to you to jump, duck, slide, and kick down obstacles until you reach the finish line. The secret sauce of the Runner series is that every action and every item in a stage is plotted to work with its music, a whole game trekking along to simple melodies. Stages can be unpredictable, but if you have any sense of rhythm whatsoever, losing yourself to the music can get you through the tougher moments.

None of Runner 3’s tunes are terribly catchy, and quite frankly, it makes me wistful for the innovative chiptunes that accompanied the original Bit.Trip Runner. Most of the tracks settle for rudimentary and quirky when they could’ve absolutely gone big and eclectic. The furthest Runner 3 branches out in that regard is in the Danny Elfman-like haunted house tunes that accompany much of the second area of the game. At most, the music does the bare minimum: providing a beat for you to follow.

Most people will be able to blast through the first few stages easily, but Runner 3 ramps up the difficulty early on. Around the halfway point of the first area, stages start changing perspectives to an angle, but the shifts in viewpoint can make some of the jumps trickier than they need to be and obscure some obstacles. At its most aggravating, it's difficult to suss out where it's safe to land or what the timing needs to be to kick something out of your way. There are also moments where the game is too complex for its own good; for example, a machine that builds platforms as you run along, making anticipation impossible except through sheer trial and error--which can feel immensely cheap, especially as you get closer to the finish line.

That problem is made worse by the sheer length of each level. Although there are fewer stages in Runner 3, they go on longer than ever--a perfect run with no deaths can sometimes stretch on for four or five minutes. There are still checkpoints at the midpoint of each stage (and as before, if you like living dangerously, skipping the checkpoint gives you a ton of points), but each stage is so densely packed with obstacles this time around that those two minutes to get to safety can feel like an eternity. On top of that, the difficulty is wildly inconsistent; you might get stuck on an early stage that throws bizarre off-kilter obstacle patterns at you, and the next two stages could be walks in the park.

Compared to the relative austerity of the previous titles, Runner 3's environments go full-tilt wacky, overloaded with comical flourishes. The very first stage has you running through a breakfast island, a place where the palm trees are slices of cantaloupe and grapefruit, the rivers flow with milk and cereal, and the high roads are paved with waffles and toast. Later, another stage in Foodland sends you running through a giant refrigerator, bouncing off Jell-O cubes and jogging past some of the most outlandish and gross fake food products imaginable (personal favorites: Fish Errors, Beefmilk, and Cup O' Lumps in Milk Brine). Runner 3's levels are so immensely packed full of random amusements that you're equally likely to fail because you were busy staring at some visual gag happening off in the distance.

For those who do want more of a challenge, there are Hard variations of each stage, and ironically, there's a more gradual climb in difficulty with these than in the normal stages. In addition, the branching Hard routes tend to be where most of the game's collectibles are hiding, giving even more incentive for multiple playthroughs of an area. Said collectibles unlock a sizable amount of content, from the truly infuriating Impossible stages to new runners--with recurring characters from previous games rubbing shoulders with Shovel Knight and, for some reason, Eddie Riggs from Brutal Legend--to Retro stages which are built on a Hanna-Barbera aesthetic.

The greatest compliment to be paid to a game like Runner 3 is that after feeling the urge to toss a controller, it's hard to think of anything else except trying again. Runner 3’s greatest strength is in rewarding that perseverance. Getting through each stage means more jokes to see, more characters to play around with, and more secret stages to explore. Runner 3, over time, reveals itself to be a veritable buffet of weird and whimsical environments, and thrilling, precision-based gameplay, but make no mistake: you will have to work for your meal.