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Rad Review - Welcome To The New Age

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 08:43

It's a tale as old as time: The maniacs have blown it all up, and the few unlucky survivors are forced to pick up the pieces and begin civilization anew. Double Fine's Rad, however, takes it one step further. A second apocalypse has happened, and according to the omnipresent narrator, the survivors' one-word reaction is actually the correct and logical one: “Seriously?”

From the second pile of ashes, however, a new hero arises. You, the Remade, a blunt weapon-wielding child of the endtimes who has been tasked by the Menders--the new architects of the age--with going forth into the treacherous radioactive hellscape armed with nothing more than a baseball bat and a host of ungodly but powerful bodily mutations to find a new source of power for humankind.

On paper, that sounds dreadfully serious. In practice, however, it's Double Fine, a developer that seems physically incapable of making a game that's a downer. The Menders give the Remade their powers using a magical keytar, for crying out loud. Indeed, right off the bat, the most striking and engaging thing about Rad is the look of the apocalypse. Earth is most certainly ruined, nuclear-blasted several times over, but it's reached a point of being overgrown with luminescent plants, snaking, sentient vines, and neon shocks of pinks, greens, and purples. This is less the dead worlds of Fallout or Rage and more like a bizarre Saturday morning cartoon of Alex Garland's Annihilation.

Rad, however, is a double entendre of a title for the game referring not just to the irradiated nuclear landscape, but to the overwhelming 1980s nostalgia. The booming narrator could be ripped out of any number of classic action movies. The hub world where the last humans make their home is an oddball microcosm of early '80s bric-a-brac, right down to the humorous, smart-alecky characters all bearing the names of famous characters from '80s movies (Biff, Lorraine, Sloan, etc.). The soundtrack is full of incredibly catchy off-brand riffs on famous tunes like Van Halen's Jump, Michael Jackson's Beat It, and Stan Bush's The Touch. You can push the '80s vibe even further with some of the CRT filters in options, but It makes an already busy aesthetic look nearly indiscernible.

And best you believe, you need all the advantages and awareness you can get. As cool and fun and inviting as Rad appears on the surface, it becomes clear very early on that Rad is, above all else, aggravatingly hard. It's a roguelike, so the levels are all randomly laid out, but it's otherwise a deceptively simple old-school, top-down action game. When you first make your way into the wasteland, you can jump, hit stuff with a bat, and dodge. There are some unique tricks you can employ that can help, like a jump kick, an aerial smash attack, and a distance-closing lunge, but the game doesn't tell you about any of this at the outset. There's no real tutorial or in-game hint system. Instead it just drops occasional new tips during its extensive loading screens. It was hours into my playthrough before the tip came up informing me about the lunge attack, and it felt like hours prior had been wasted not knowing it was there.

A mild learning curve would be fine if the wastelands weren't so unforgiving, but despite a wide variety of enemies, with fairly predictable attack patterns, you're just far too fragile for far too long in this game. When things kick off, you get three hearts. Enemy hits strip away half a heart generally, and once they're gone, you're starting over. There are power-ups you get after every boss that grant extra hearts and/or split one of your hearts into thirds instead of a half, but you'll be surprised how little a difference that makes. If there's more than one enemy onscreen at any given moment, cheap hits are a constant danger, and no matter how well you're doing on your run, walking into the wrong area and into the wrong group of enemies all striking at the wrong time means it could be game over in seconds. In the instances where it's not, health is such a frustratingly rare commodity that even taking extra care from then on means possibly going for quite some time with only half a heart, bleeding to death all over the cracked pavement. Yes, that's a staple of the genre at this point, but in the best examples of it there's a level of preparation you're able to have where you at least feel like you have a fighting chance. That doesn't happen often in Rad.

What you do get is this: Every enemy you kill generates a certain amount of radiation that you can soak up, essentially acting as XP. Once you've leveled up, your body gains a random new freaky mutant power. This is Rad's biggest hook. The powers themselves are wildly imaginative and wonderfully animated. You could wind up with something as simple as a set of bat wings, allowing you to essentially gain a double jump and glide ability, or being able to throw your arm like a boomerang. Or you could end up with something just bonkers, like having a deformed twin grow out of your weapon arm to extend your range and attack power or the ability to give birth to two spider-baby versions of you who'll run into combat and attack enemies. When you go back to the hub world with them, the NPCs' reactions are some of the most hilarious dialogue in the game. As conceptually imaginative as those powers are, some are vastly more useful than others, and given how swift death comes for you in this game, getting a lame one at the outset basically means your entire run is doomed.

That's generally the case for just about everything meant to help you in Rad: A bit too much of your success is dependent on sheer luck more than skill. You can collect cassette tapes--the game's currency--and either deposit them at the bank between stages or spend them on items with some of the scattered merchants around, but not knowing what new creatures to expect in an area or what attacks the boss will throw at you means running the risk of spending money on a powerup that's essentially worthless during your current run. There are on-the-fly powerups called exo-mutations you can find in some of the underground areas of the game, and while they're generally helpful at first, you can wind up drawing a handicap like extra vulnerability to attacks or a distorted screen, and that, too, can spell the end of a good run faster than it should.

The good news is that the longer you play, the better your chances of finally earning permanent upgrades that make the early stages more of a breeze. There's a completely separate pool of permanent XP that you earn after you die that unlocks new characters, game variants, and upgrades. You earn the ability to buy items on credit after you've deposited enough tapes into the bank, and the local shopkeep gets better and better stuff the more you buy. There are just so many blind, stupid, aggravating deaths to be had to get to that point, though, and it's not hard to imagine throwing in the towel long before then.

There are certainly things that make fighting the good fight worth it. The story does take some subtle twists and turns as the largely teenage population of the hub world starts wondering about the point of all these legends. The boss fights get increasingly audacious in design as you go along. I'm still discovering new mutations even on the first upgrade after playing for hours. And despite an element of visual clutter, this is a compellingly colorful world to hang out in for a while. It's just that the joys of Rad require more work than necessary to obtain, and that work can feel awfully thankless at times. Double Fine's hyper-colorful take on an '80s synthpop apocalypse makes for some gratifying nostalgia at the best of times, but there's a reason why, eventually, we all moved on to grunge.

Darq Review - Beast Under Your Bed

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 09:30

Sleep is meant to be a rejuvenating and relaxing part of your daily routine, but in Darq, it’s a gauntlet of danger that repeats night after night. Taking place in the lucid dreams of its main character, Lloyd, Darq is eerie and unsettling, its contorted world home to shocking figures of pure body horror. But it’s also a world held together by some intriguing puzzles, each of which delicately builds upon another to provide satisfying solutions to uncover.

Darq’s main mechanic is the ability to manipulate gravity. When pressed against a flat surface, you can shift gravity towards it, flipping whole rooms onto their side and letting you explore a familiar space from a whole new perspective. Obscure passageways and interactable objects are hidden from certain angles, which makes getting around a puzzle in itself. Exploration is at the heart of Darq, as you hunt down items you’ll need to solve specific puzzles throughout its seven chapters.

Your progress through a chapter is inhibited by your ability to find the right item for the job. There aren’t obscure solutions for the most part, either, allowing you to focus instead on the challenge of finding ways to change your perspective. A cog, for instance, is used on machines where it is evident that they are missing, while a key will be labelled for the object it’s meant to unlock. Given the dream setting, there are a few instances where the items you need to solve a puzzle don't make sense--a wristwatch grows and bridges a gap in the floor, or a snake is used to mend a broken electrical circuit--but given that you never hold more than just a handful of items at a time, it's easy enough to eliminate ones that won’t work and experiment with the rest without getting frustrated.

Each of Darq’s chapters is themed around a new mechanic, which is then carried through to subsequent levels. You start by only having to worry about shifting gravity, but it’s not long before you have to consider levers that rotate whole rooms or switches that throw you backwards and forwards through an otherwise 2D plane. Each of these is introduced with well-constructed puzzles that gently show you the possibilities, eventually culminating in later levels where all of them are used together to create tricky conundrums. A just-out-of-reach gear suggests to you that there must be a new mechanic that allows you to reach it, for example, eventually teaching you that you can walk on walls without the need for tutorialized text. Darq isn’t incredibly challenging, but after learning the ins and outs of different mechanics over the course of the game, it's satisfying to solve a puzzle that combines the principles you've mastered.

Navigating levels and figuring out their multiple routes is a joy, but exploration is occasionally tripped up by enemy encounters. The few monsters in Darq are shocking figures with contorted appendages and bizarre experimentations that are quick to attack, tearing you apart violently should you get too close. Stealth is your only option in these instances, but it's limited in execution. Most of the time you simply wait for an enemy to pass an obvious hiding spot before darting into it and waiting for them to pass back around, stripping you of any creativity to your approach. These sections are little more than forced frustrations, some of which you’ll have to repeatedly engage with when backtracking through levels. In contrast to the thoughtful puzzles that surround it, Darq’s stealth is underwhelming.

The haunting monsters present a real threat in what is otherwise an entirely made-up world, with the underlying premise of lucid dreams allowing for all the otherworldly mechanics that Darq offers. Its vision of the subconscious can easily be compared to classic Tim Burton films. Your character features stick-like appendages and empty black eyes which match well with the gloomy, dreary world filled with oppressive grey hues and a pervasive industrial revolution theme. The variety in levels, from an abandoned hospital to a coal-drenched locomotive, does a lot to flesh out the world. Darq runs the gamut on cliché spooky spaces, but it realizes them so well in its visual style that they feel fresh rather than cheesy.

Part of what makes each of these spaces stand out is the exceptional sound design. Darq can be terrifyingly silent at times, with only your footsteps echoing into the distance for long stretches at a time. But the silence only accentuates the quality of a creaking wheelchair moving slowly towards you or the sharp screams of enemies alerted to your presence when entering a room. Interactions with puzzle elements are often accompanied with loud, sharp sound effects that pierce through the quiet halls of the levels they’re in, always instilling a sense of unease when you’re poking around Darq’s dreary world.

It’s a shame then that with all this delightfully spooky atmosphere, there’s not much else to do once Darq’s seven chapters are over, which took me just over two hours. Each stage barring the finale contains a single collectible to find if you’re itching for an additional challenge, which can make return visits mildly rewarding. The brevity of Darq is, however, disappointing because of the potential left on the table. The beginning chapters are too short and the finale breaks the structure of every chapter before it, leaving most of Darq's most compelling pieces in its middle. On top of that, each level isn't given enough time to really explore the breadth of its unique puzzle mechanics, bringing about the end just as it feels like momentum is starting to form.

As brief as it is, Darq does offer well-designed puzzles that are incredibly satisfying to solve on your first playthrough, each one building upon the last in intelligent ways. Darq never fully stumbles into frustration, even if it is tripped up slightly by underwhelming stealth sections. But its gloomy atmosphere and exceptional sound design enrapture you in its dreary world of dreams. Darq is full of great ideas that contribute to a tight and brief package, but it’s hard not to want for more once it’s done.

Metal Wolf Chaos Review - Red, White, And Blue Tinted Glasses

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 02:00

From Software wasn't always the renowned developer it is today, but by and large it still produced interesting, worthwhile games in the early PlayStation and Xbox days. The studio's rich history is absolutely worth exploring, and once you start down that rabbit hole, 2004's Metal Wolf Chaos is sure to catch your eye. A game starring the fictional President of the United States is an intriguing setup. The fact that he pilots a mech stuffed to the gills with an arsenal of giant weapons is a near-irresistible premise. Metal Wolf Chaos is one big schlocky joke at the US' expense delivered in the form of an action game, and because there aren't many nations or cultures that are fit to be mocked with such gusto, it feels like a rare opportunity that warrants investigation.

Perhaps for obvious reasons, Metal Wolf Chaos never completed its planned journey westward back when Bush was in office and the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put us on more international shitlists than usual. Fifteen years later, amid very different (though arguably worse) political and cultural climates, From Software's tongue-in-cheek parody of US stereotypes is finally open to widespread interpretation. There are aspects of its bombastic campaign that coincidentally bring to mind the worst of our current predicament, but the Metal Wolf President Michael Wilson, his secretary Jody, and the main villain, Vice President Richard Hawk, never let you forget that this is first and foremost a series of surface-level jokes played up with B-grade voice acting.

"Jody: Mr. President, I haven't been this happy since...Since that supermarket going-out-of-business sale, when I was searching for my favorite candy and...I found the last bar all covered in dust at the back of the rack! And the expiration date was still good!

Michael Wilson: I know the feeling, Jody."

Once you dive into missions, any goodwill earned by these ludicrous exchanges--in the face of a coup d'etat--eventually fades. The Metal Wolf mech is a bullet-belching powerhouse that carries four weapons on each side (from a wide range of pistols, bazookas, flamethrowers, you name it), and cycling through its arsenal quickly becomes second nature as you need to contend with limited ammo and a small variety of enemy types. Wreaking havok and causing massive explosions is gratifying for a while, and the only argument for actually playing the game versus watching a recap of the cutscenes online.

Otherwise, the missions you face are largely rote and devoid of merit. Optional tasks like rescuing hostages--by destroying cages with small-arms fire--and poking around levels for unlockable weapons aren't much of a draw either. Perhaps they would be for a completionist looking for an excuse to get more out of the experience, but the net gain from these activities never makes them feel essential or worth deviating from your path of destruction. The variety of locales and scenery is appreciated and does help renew some curiosity, but the look of a stage only takes you so far, and a new map layout doesn't mean a whole lot without clever moments to make it shine.

Some stages try harder than others, but seemingly without the intended results. Heading into the mission based in Arizona puts you in the middle of a dense Old West town with streets just big enough for some happy-go-lucky mech action. It's also one of the few missions that puts you toe-to-toe with another mech--three at once, in this case. Doing battle in the confined corridors is more interesting than fighting out in the open (as experienced in other missions), but it also means that you can find ways to trick the shallow AI into getting stuck on the corner of a building. It's easy pickings at that point as you fire away on your hapless foes. It's neither challenging nor enjoyable, perfectly illustrating the fact that gunplay and explosions alone can't resolve Metal Wolf Chaos' consistently mediocre designs.

A lot of time has passed since the original release, and there's reason to expect that certain aspects could have been ironed out in preparation for Metal Wolf's formal reintroduction. That's not to say the entire game should have been reconsidered, but there's definitely room for less-intense changes that could make a major impact, such as adding mid-level checkpoints. Simple as they are, Metal Wolf's levels can be very long and drawn-out, coming close to the 15-minute mark in many cases. So often there are either surprise difficulty spikes or threats of instant death, and if you fail to survive because of a momentary lapse of judgment, you will have to play the entire level from the beginning. Fall off a dock mere meters from the shore? You're dead. Accidentally cause collateral damage at the wrong time? You're back at square one. When death can come in a flash, to have to go back to the beginning of a long level that's achingly routine feels like a great excuse to put the controller down and walk away.

Metal Wolf Chaos is an old game with a wild reputation, and though it lives up to it in some ways, it's not good in general. At best, it's a curio that helps inform the story of From Software's trajectory over the years. At worst, it's a frustratingly shallow experience that fails to capitalize on it's best qualities. The From Software of yore deserves applause for punching up so confidently, and in style, to a degree, but Metal Wolf Chaos doesn't live up to the hype that's been building for well over a decade.

Rebel Galaxy Outlaw Review - Space Truckers

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 06:45

Rebel Galaxy Outlaw sits at a crossroads somewhere between American Truck Simulator's slice of trucking Americana and the iconic combat of Freespace 2. It's a highly competent, single-player space combat sim complete with warring factions, pirates, corrupt cops, and dubious sectors filled with all manner of undesirables, a nicely detailed trading system, and stellar combat. While intense difficulty spikes and lacking mission information leaves some scarring on the hull, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw delivers a worthy payload.

You play as Juno Markev, a pilot stuck between the search for her husband's killer, her need to make cash to cover the debt of replacing her recently junked ship, and her shady past. Told largely through comms messages and cutscenes between missions, many of the characters you meet are fairly archetypal, but share a sense of relatability and groundedness that lends them a lot of their charm. Character animation in story cutscenes can feel quite stiff, lending them an uncanny valley vibe, but these moments are short and don't distract from the wider storytelling. Juno herself is a big highlight; her endearingly grounded sense of self-belief and her inability to suffer the fools she finds herself constantly dealing with always makes for fiery dialogue.

Story threads are easy to lose track of due to the sheer number of things to do. When it's just you and your ship, it's all about surviving the hustle of being a space trucker; trading and smuggling goods, taking mercenary jobs, mining and selling resources--anything you can do to keep those credits rolling in so you can upgrade or outright replace the colossal junker of a ship you're given at the game's outset. In the opening hours, your travel is limited to one system and a handful of local missions, but once you get your hands on a jump drive you can start making your way across the galaxy, and things start to open up some more.

There are five ships you can purchase from various stations, each with traits that make them suitable as freighters or as fighters. While some ships are better suited for certain tasks than others, you're not locked into a playstyle because of your choice. Fighters can add cargo bays to move more items, and you can take a freighter fully kitted out with advanced weapons pirate-hunting and it'll still feel pretty good.

The beautifully detailed cockpit is the default view, and it is daunting at first--though you can also play in third-person--which seems weird given that you play an experienced pilot; the numerous switches, lights and dials each flicker away, and you're not really sure what they do at first. There's no tutorial to help with this, so it can feel like you're being thrown in the deep end. But while it takes some time to understand what the ship systems are telling you, it's not long before you're fluent in reading the controls and gaining a better grasp on any given situation. There is support for a flight stick and a HOTAS, but I found it best with a gamepad as everything you need is right at your fingertips.

Stations are where everything outside of combat happens, although you don't hop out of your ship and wander around. Instead you browse a handful of menus to get what you need before setting off on your next journey. This is where you make repairs or ship upgrades, handle commodities trading, sign up to one of the guilds that offer side missions, or browse the standard side missions for that station. It's an elegant way of handling station traversal, and the nice visual shots and animations of the station internals give you a sense of what type of station you're in and the kinds of things you might find there. You can bother the local bartender for helpful gameplay tips, sector news, or other information or play one of the handful of trite but fun mini-games like slots, 8-ball, or Star-Venger, a simple take on an Asteroids-based sprite shooter.

Missions are either picked up from stations or, in the case of story missions, given through dialogue. They generally amount to going to a waypoint and finding or killing something for varying factions. Some of these have an effect on your standing with different factions, which can change who treats you as hostile when out amongst the stars as well as the stations you can land at. Missions also show a level of risk from mild to extreme, but these aren't a great benchmark, as countless times I warped into a mission zone of mild-to-low risk only to be completely overwhelmed within 10 seconds of my arrival. At least a reload after death is super fast, returning you to the last jumpgate you took or station you'd left and allowing you to do something else for a while before coming back to try again. But this is also a huge source of frustration as the only way to push through these difficulty spikes is to grind for credits and ship upgrades.

The tension in a good firefight is wonderful. When you're not tuned in to one of the seven different radio stations that broadcast throughout the galaxy, the game's southern hard rock soundtrack kicks into overdrive as the lasers start flying. Firefights will sometimes offer up instant rewards, either as bounty credits or loose cargo that's been freed from the breached hull, and you can freely engage the tractor beam to suck these up in order to sell on yourself and reap the benefits. In some cases you may also find an ejected pilot who you can haul in for detention, or you can enslave them and sell them on the black market, though doing so will put you on the wrong side of the space cops, which can make life in the outer rims much harder than it needs to be.

The cockpit views on each of the game's crafts are tight, and there's no option to move your head around, so you rely heavily on your radar to know where to go and what's around you. It's invaluable when in the thick of the action, which can very quickly get overwhelming unless you act decisively. Power management is a big part of this, and it's a system that adds a nice slice of tactical thinking to the visual feast of the combat. Weapons fire has two modes, linked and staggered, and while linked fire will unleash the full power of your hardpoints, it'll drain your available power quickly and severely limit your ship's capabilities. Staggered fire only fires one hardpoint at a time, meaning it uses less power overall, but can be sustained for longer. You can also quickly reroute power between the engines, weapons and your shields, but as there's only so much to go around you're always settling on a compromise between offense and defense, so the system as a whole works wonderfully well as a test of situational awareness.

Rebel Galaxy Outlaw's gorgeous visual design is one of its biggest strengths. There's a huge assortment of stations, ships, planets and other things to see while out in the vastness of space. From the huge casinos of the Nevada sector to the glass-capped atriums of Hobbes Station, there are postcard moments to be found almost everywhere in the galaxy. There's also a wildly in-depth and excellent ship painter that lets you completely redesign the paint job of your ship, so you can customize to your craft's look down to minute details. That extends to the combat, too, with under fire shields flashing in protest and hull plating falling apart as its struck by cannon fire before bursting into a flaming wreck in front of you. Distant firefights look like a laser light show.

There is a lot to do in Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, so much so that it's easy to lose yourself among the myriad of activities beyond flying around and shooting things. Juno is a great character despite her sometimes jarring movements, as are much of the rest of the charming cast. The combat is fast, frenetic and consistently challenging, although that challenge can sometimes feel impossible without stepping back and grinding out some progress elsewhere, which quickly gets frustrating. Thankfully the core of the game--its combat, trading, and space flight--are all superb and had me launching into the stars for many hours of galactic trading and explosive firefights.

Dicey Dungeons Review

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 02:00

Dicey Dungeons, from Terry Cavanagh of VVVVVV and Super Hexagon fame, is a roguelike deck-building dungeon crawler framed as a game show presented by host Lady Luck. You play as one of the show's six adorable contestants, all of whom are anthropomorphic dice, because this game really is all-in on loving dice. But while the game's clever combination of cards and dice make for an entertaining gameplay system, it can't escape the occasional frustration that is inherent to rolling a die.

In each episode your chosen die heads into a six-level dungeon to defeat enemies, opening chests and visiting stores while building up a deck of cards capable of defeating an end boss. The dungeons are presented as a series of nodes you can move between, with shops, health-restoring apples, and enemies placed on several of them, and to progress you need to fight enemies and reach the node that features the trap door to the next floor.

Each character can equip between three and six cards (you have six slots on your inventory screen, and some cards take up two of them), all of which are powered by dice. Each card requires something different; some are affected by how high the number on the die is, or have maximum or minimum numbers, or will only take odds or evens. Still others might introduce effects or buffs. A card might "shock" your opponent, for instance, meaning that one of their cards will be locked next turn unless they spend a die to unlock it, or induce a "freeze" effect that reduces their highest dice roll down to a 1. A good deck will let you be adaptable depending on what you roll, but there’s not a huge number of cards and enemies in the game, meaning that the same ones will pop up frequently--10 hours in I would still occasionally encounter something new, but not as often as I would have liked.

A charming art style works wonders in glossing over this sense of repetition, however, with each character having a distinctive personality despite the game being light on dialogue. And although their animations are limited, the enemies are charming, too. The character designs and poses are consistently delightful, so you'll always feel a little bad taking down a direwolf puppy because of the huge grin on their face. The gameshow motif doesn't stretch that far, but the upbeat soundtrack and the little check-in scenes with Lady Luck before each adventure is an effective way of giving you a sense of purpose.

The six characters each have a unique playstyle, which helps to give the game some sense of variety. The thief copies one of its opponents' cards in each match, for instance, and the inventor will always sacrifice one of their cards at the end of each fight in favor of a new ability for the next round, which can be activated just by clicking on it without needing to worry about dice. Some get more radical still, like the witch, who attacks using a "spell book"--when you roll a die you can either spend it on one of the four spells you have selected on your screen, or you can throw it at the spell book in lieu of using an ability and get whichever spell is assigned to that dice number. It's a great system because each character feels completely different, and while the central combat system of laying dice onto cards doesn't change, the mechanics by which you acquire those dice and cards do.

For the first few hours, as you're moving through the initial dungeons for each character and getting to grips with how they play, Dicey Dungeons is a delight, albeit one that's light on challenge. But once you've played a round as each of the first five characters and unlock each character's more difficult episodes, there's a steep difficulty curve to overcome. Each one introduces modifiers that make the game more challenging--you might lose health instead of gaining it every time you level up, duplicate dice might immediately disappear, or you'll only roll 1s on your first roll of a fight, 2s on the second, and so on.

These episodes are where you'll really start to learn the different strategies and combos that are essential to mastering Dicey Dungeons. Using your Limit Break ability (a character-and-episode specific ability that is usable only after you've taken a certain level of damage) and making sure that you're making good use of buffs and/or debuffs are vital to success. After a while, you start to figure out which abilities work best against which enemies--freeze is particularly useful against creatures that can only roll a single die, for instance, whereas shock is useful if an opponent has few cards. Some enemies are also weak to particular elements, so if you see an enemy on your level who you know is weak to shock attacks, you can plan accordingly. You'll need to remember these details yourself, though, as the game will not remind you of an enemies' abilities and weaknesses until you're actually in the battle.

Whether or not Dicey Dungeons becomes too difficult after the initial episodes will depend on your patience and your willingness to play through the same scenarios repeatedly. It can feel like butting your head against a wall at times, though, because if a single episode takes you multiple attempts to beat (and many of them will), you’re going to end up rolling through the same enemies several times. You might try out different card combinations, but it's going to be from the same small pool of potential cards and facing off mostly against the same enemies that got the better of you last time. A loss can sometimes feel out of your hands, too, if an early enemy just rolls too many sixes or the final boss just happens to be immune to the debuff you built your deck around.

But this also means that figuring out and implementing a winning strategy can be very satisfying. It took me six attempts to beat the second episode for the Warrior (the easiest character), but once I built a deck that was high on freeze cards I was able to deal with the later enemies easily enough, even if the end boss who was immune to freezing almost tripped me up (ultimately I got lucky on dice rolls). In a game so heavily themed around dice there's always going to be an element of luck, which can be gratifying or exhausting depending on whether it goes your way or not.

The charm of Dicey Dungeons can start to wear thin when you're stuck, but when you bypass an episode that was giving you grief, it feels great. I found myself frequently quitting out of the game, pacing around my house, and returning to it again 10 minutes later for another go. No matter how annoyed I might get, it's never difficult to come back to Dicey Dungeons, and the challenges never feel insurmountable--it's always plausible that your next attempt could be the one where you crack it. Dicey Dungeons is a charming and often rewarding game, as long as you learn to accept that sometimes the dice won't roll your way.

Age Of Wonders: Planetfall Review

Thu, 08/08/2019 - 11:00

The fifth and latest in the long-running Age of Wonders series is the first to trade in the staple high fantasy setting for a sleek and shiny sci-fi theme. Despite the change of scenery, it remains true to its roots, delivering a very good hybrid between turn-based tactics and 4X strategy game that is at its best when it focuses on people--both the people you meet and the people you send to war.

4X strategy games tend to present the lands they ask their players to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate as uninhabited. It's common to begin a new game with a settler unit and the implicit promise that this is a world yet to be settled. It's there for the taking. The colonialist fantasy extends to indigenous populations, if they exist at all, being treated as incidental. At best they are neutral props without any ambition of their own; at worst they are nothing more than vermin to be eradicated.

Age of Wonders: Planetfall offers a different perspective. Instead of conquering a new world, you are returning home ages after a calamity drove your ancestors away. There is still war to be had, there are still peoples to displace--this remains a 4X game in the Sid Meier tradition. But in the light narrative touch of a quest system that gives voice and purpose to everyone you meet, there are moments of reconnection and rediscovery. In a sense it becomes a 5X game, allowing you to exhume and reclaim traces of your civilization's history.

This emphasis on archaeology is more prevalent in the surprisingly substantial campaign mode than in the randomly-rolled maps of the scenario mode. The 13 campaign missions, which let you play as all six of the game's half-dozen factions, are peppered with scripted story beats that succeed in fleshing out the history of and relations between the various civilizations. Visit a foreign colony and you might trigger a conversation between your commander and another faction leader in which you're asked to perform a quest to gain their favor. Later you might encounter a third faction who promises you some vital insight into your own objectives in return for betraying the friendship you recently forged.

Such choices are fraught. Each faction, even the minor indigenous ones, is busy cultivating relationships with the others, and it soon becomes clear that every new decision you make will ripple out and meaningfully affect your standing in the world.

The random scenario mode can't rely on the scripted story of the campaign, but each procedurally generated map still supports the same dynamic quest system. One faction might task you with helping them complete some important research, while another urges you to hunt down a pack of troublesome enemies pillaging their lands. Such quests not only keep you engaged with interfactional diplomacy but also serve to provide clear motivation for exploring new areas and expanding your borders in specific directions.

Regardless of whether you opt for the campaign or a scenario, you begin with a single settlement and gradually take over adjacent sectors to secure access to their resources. You build military units to go to war or to protect your newly acquired holdings. You colonize unclaimed sectors and upgrade them to specialize in supplying your colony with food, energy, research, or production. You have to get your head around the unintuitive sci-fi names of many technologies, structures, and units, but hover the mouse over Kinetic Force Manipulation to bring up the tooltip and you quickly realize it simply means "Better Guns."

Indeed, it's all fairly straightforward for anyone who has played Civilization or dabbled in the strategic layer of a Total War, though sometimes it does feel like expansion decisions are not really choices at all. When faced with the prospect of expanding into one of two possible sectors, you're always going to pick the one that receives bonus production from its quarry over the one that offers no bonuses of any kind. Occasionally you'll have to weigh the benefits of one resource over another, but they aren't genuine either/or choices--they're more akin to whether you need that food-rich river sector now or whether you want it a little bit later.

Among the structures you can build with a colony, there's also a disappointing lack of variety. Most of what you can construct are incremental upgrades that boost resource production while unique buildings, like the world wonders in Civilization, or anything that truly changes your style of play (rather than merely accelerating it) are felt only in their absence.

More interesting decisions arrive in combat. Armies can contain up to six units and are lead by a hero unit commander. When two or more hostile armies meet on the world map, combat is resolved via a remarkably full-feature XCOM-style tactical battle. Every unit can move individually, take partial or full cover, attack in melee or at range, and call upon a number of specialized abilities. The range of options at your disposal here is dizzying.

Each unit can be outfitted with primary and secondary weapons and up to three ability mods earned through quest rewards or unlocked on the tech tree. You can apply a template to all units of the same class, so that newly recruited infantry, for example, will all have increased accuracy and healing. But if you're like me, you'll enjoy rolling up your sleeves to customize every single unit in your army. Adding to the complexity, hero units can learn skills that not only enhance their own abilities but confer buffs to the units they lead.

I loved having the authority to develop specialized armies. In my current game, I have one army composed of snipers led by a commander who uses mind control debuffs and a second army focused around a melee tank supported by defensive grunts who can throw down portable cover anywhere on the battlefield. The degree of customization allowed is both flexible and powerful.

This sort of specialization matters because you can bring multiple armies into the same fight--and indeed, it becomes essential as you encounter tougher armies into the mid- and late-game. Any army on the world map that is situated adjacent to the hex where combat is initiated will be drawn into the conflict. Thus, a huge part of the tactical considerations at work here comes from maneuvering your troops to outnumber the enemy. Combat can be auto-resolved, allowing you to either watch the AI simulate the tactical battle or skip straight to the outcome, but doing so results in unnecessary losses in all but the most lopsided contests.

Overall, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a robust package for 4X players who want to test themselves against a more in-depth combat system than is typically found in the genre. It suffers a little from its sci-fi setting making things just that little bit harder to relate to than, say, actual human history, but it compensates by creating a cast of fictional alien civilizations that are worth getting to know. It might not quite feel like home at first, but you'll quickly settle in.

Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot Review - Old Fashioned

Sat, 08/03/2019 - 08:32

With MachineGames at the helm, Wolfenstein has enjoyed a resurgence during the last couple of years. Wolfenstein has managed to captivate with its strong characters and intriguing world-building, giving you a glimpse into an alternate future where the rules are rewritten and whole new terrifying possibilities are waiting to be explored. None of this is present in the series' first venture into VR, however. Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot isn't just lacking the elements that make its universe intriguing, but it's also dated by recent VR standards, with flat, unexciting action and little reason to return after one short playthrough.

Set in 1980s, Cyberpilot puts you in the shoes of a pilot working for the French Resistance at the same time as the events in Wolfenstein: Youngblood. Your piloting skills are alluring to two French hackers who have managed to smuggle away a few Nazi war machines, giving you the chance to aim these monstrosities back at their creators. If you've ever cursed at being mauled by a Panzerhund, Cyberpilot initially seems like a great opportunity to flip the script.

It doesn't take long for that feeling to fade, though. Three of Cyberpilot's four missions give you control of a new machine to pilot. The Panzerhund lets you dash towards enemies before melting them down with a mouth-mounted flamethrower, a small airborne drone makes sneaking around a Nazi bunker simple, and the more straightforward Zitadelle arms you with a high-powered machine gun and rocket launchers. Despite these varied abilities, Cyberpilot doesn't provide interesting challenges for you to test them against. Each mission is linear and frustratingly one-note. You keep moving forward through cramped and visually bland spaces, mowing down enemies in your way and occasionally taking a breather to heal up before the next encounter. The drone mission at least tries to shake things up by pivoting from all-out action to stealthy engagements, but the unresponsive AI and cramped level design don't allow you the satisfaction of a well-planned stealth kill.

Since you're using machines armed with flamethrowers and unlimited rockets, combat should presumably be explosive and adrenaline-pumping. But Cyperpilot gives so little feedback to your actions that it's difficult to feel their impact at all. Enemies, for example, make no sounds when engulfed in flames or blown back by nearby explosions, and they almost always use the same animations when dying before disappearing from sight. The devastating weapons at your disposal offer no satisfying animations and subsequent sound effects that give them a real kick, which makes action feel limp and uninteresting.

In between each mission, you can explore a multi-floored resistance bunker, using a lift to transition from a spacious loading bay to a dimly lit reception area adorned in abandoned Nazi regalia. These spaces look great and do a good job of reminding you of the imposing grip your enemies still have on European soil. Although this bleeds into the handful of missions you're sent on, Cyberpilot doesn't offer anything new or interesting to say about this alternative perspective on the resistance. The only other characters are your resistance handlers, who occasionally engage in some quirky banter between each other, but outside of that you're nothing but a tool to them, and you disappointingly get no new insights into Wolfenstein's world as a result.

These brief interludes between missions also introduce you to each new pilotable machine in intimate fashion. Before being able to remotely control them, you need to hack your way past their security, which Cyberpilot makes out to be far more complicated than it really is. While you're being fed descriptions of intricate wiring and defensive subroutines, all you are doing is using motion controls to remove a chip from the machine in question, plugging it into a nearby monitor, and then replacing it after a brief pause. Getting to see the details of each chillingly monstrous Nazi machine up close, in VR, without fearing death is surprisingly fascinating, but there's not much else to do during these sequences. That makes each of these forced interludes feel drawn out and unnecessary.

Cyberpilot can be played with either the PlayStation Move controllers or a DualShock 4, and neither is great. With a DualShock 4, combat feels more familiar. You use the thumbsticks to freely move around and rotate (either smoothly or in adjustable segments) while using motion control to aim. In this configuration, your two hands move as one, which makes activities outside of combat a chore. The PlayStation camera can only track the front-facing light from the DualShock 4, so reaching for objects on either side of you is borderline impossible in some cases.

Using the Move controllers changes that immediately, and also gives you more freedom in combat. Moving your arms independently from one another lets you bash on your special attack button and heal at the same time, which is impossible to do when you're tethered together by a seemingly invisible set of handcuffs. As a tradeoff, movement is trickier using the Move controllers. Rotation is mapped to face buttons while lateral movement is controlled using the big, mushy PlayStation button on the face of the controller. It's far less ideal than the DualShock 4, leaving you with a decision to make between the lesser of two evils.

There's no reason to jump into Cyberpilot if you're looking for another avenue to explore more of Wolfenstein's world.

You won't have too much time to adjust, either, given that Cyberpilot's four missions can easily be finished in less than 90 minutes. Beyond reaching its flat ending, there's nothing else to do to make what time you do have more engaging. There are no collectibles to find, alternative mission routes to explore, or exciting mission set pieces to replay for the thrill of it. It gives Cyberpilot a distinct tech demo feeling; since VR games have become increasingly more adept at using the hardware in unique ways, Cyberpilot feels outdated by comparison.

There's no reason to jump into Cyberpilot if you're looking for another avenue to explore more of Wolfenstein's world. This straightforward shooter lacks the punch to make its action exhilarating and breaks up combat with even more repetitive and slower-paced interludes where you'll do the bare minimum with motion controls to achieve simple and mundane repair tasks. Beyond looking striking for a VR game in some places, there's nothing about Cyberpilot that warrants your time.

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden Review - Nintendo Switch And Seeds Of Evil Update

Fri, 08/02/2019 - 11:00

Mutant Year Zero took me by surprise. When you tap the space bar to switch from the real-time exploration mode to the turn-based tactical mode, it's not considered activating combat. You're not entering into battle. The word “Fight!” doesn't leap out of the centre of the screen. Instead, the space bar is labeled “Ambush” and, while pressing it does indeed initiate a turn-based XCOM-style encounter, the semantics make all the difference.

Road to Eden is all about using stealth to thoroughly scout dangers ahead, then applying that knowledge to maneuver your squad into position for the perfect ambush. Do your research and plan well, and you can take out your target without them (or their cohorts) even realizing what has happened. Proceed without caution and you'll soon be bleeding out, your impatience severely punished. Approached properly, Mutant Year Zero isn't a difficult game; it’s a tight, cohesive tactical masterclass that rewards the diligent player.

Road to Eden depicts a post-apocalyptic Scandinavia where resources are scarce and knowledge of what the world used to be is even harder to come by. Stalkers are sent from the Ark, one of the few remaining hubs of human civilization, into the Zone to scavenge for scrap and fend off the bandits, ghouls, feral dogs and worse that now occupy the ruined towns and suburbs. Everyone, even those safe in the Ark, has been touched by mutation. But Dux and Bormin, the two starting playable stalkers, are different; they're mutated animals, a duck and a boar, respectively.

At first glance, there's a lot you can do to customize each stalker and gear them up to specialize in certain fields, letting you mix and match your active squad based on the task at hand. The limited number of weapons and sheer expense of upgrades means you're forced to make tough choices. Should you spend literally all your weapon parts on the close-quarters effectiveness of Bormin's scattergun, or are you better served improving the ranged potency of Dux's crossbow? You can only afford one right now and, since there's no capacity for grinding, it may be some time before you can afford the other.

Sometimes the decisions are easier. Up against robots? You'll want at least one stalker, probably two, with an effective EMP attack. Up against dogs? You'll want at least one stalker, probably two, with crowd control abilities to prevent their melee rush. If you've done your scouting properly, you'll know what's coming and know which stalkers to swap in and out before you tap that spacebar. But don't tap that spacebar just yet. You're not quite ready.

The Zone is divided into a couple dozen maps networked across southwest Sweden. They're not especially large--bigger than an XCOM map, but hardly sprawling--and typically centered on an identifiable feature: a scrapyard, a school, a subway station, a fast food restaurant, and so on. When you first enter an area you're in exploration mode and free to walk around in real time. When you spot an enemy you can enter stealth mode by switching off your flashlight, thus slightly reducing your visibility but also greatly reducing the distance at which the enemy will spot you. You're still moving around in real time, just slower and more discreetly.

The tension is ratcheted up during this pre-combat exploration phase, as you're tip-toeing into hostile territory, identifying how many enemies await you, what types they are, what levels they are, whether they're patrolling, where those patrol routes take them, where their vision cones intersect, and so on. You've noticed one enemy's patrol route takes him away from the others. You hit F to split up your party and guide them individually into position. Bormin has his back to a tree, Dux is on the roof of a nearby building, and Selma is crouched behind a rock at the end of the unsuspecting enemy's patrol route. He's there now. Time to hit the spacebar.

It's all about the ambush. It's about analyzing each scenario in the exploration phase and identifying which enemies you can eliminate, one by one, without alerting others. But pulling off a series of clean hits isn't always possible. Inevitably something will go wrong--you'll miss that 75% chance shot you were counting on or fail to do quite enough damage before the enemy gets its turn and calls out for reinforcements--and suddenly the whole area is on alert and you're scrambling to improvise a new plan. In these moments of high chaos, when the rug is pulled out from under you, this is where the game really shines.

The tactical combat engine borrows a lot from Firaxis' revival of XCOM and offers as much depth alongside a presentation that ensures all critical information is clearly communicated at all times. And you need to be well-informed, because most of the time--outside of the odd simple skirmish that introduces a new element--there's an awful lot to think about. Enemy variety is key; there are basic brutes who charge you in melee, snipers who hunker down on overwatch, shamen who can call in reinforcements, and medbots who can revive enemies, pyros who flush you out with molotovs, and that's just the early stages. Later, there are high-HP tanks who can ram your cover, priests who can buff fellow enemies or deliver chain lightning attacks, giant dogs who can knock you over and maul you for multiple turns, while others possess mind control powers and more. Tackling groups of enemies drawn from several of these types can be hugely challenging, even when you've culled their numbers with some decisive early stealth takedowns.

The stakes are high, especially on the harder difficulty settings. Your stalkers' health will be measured in single and low-double digits for much of the game, meaning it only takes a couple of direct hits to put them down. Similarly, your weapons can only fire once, twice, or if you're lucky, three times before you need to use up valuable action points to reload. These limited resources echo the post-apocalyptic themes of scarcity and survival while also raising moment-to-moment tactical considerations in combat.

Juggling all the demands of combat, from patiently surveying the field beforehand through to learning how to best counter each enemy type and improvising a new strategy when it all goes horribly wrong, make for an immensely satisfying tactical experience. But as enjoyable as the predefined encounters on offer over the course of Road to Eden's mostly linear story are, it's still a linear story. On a new playthrough, that same map will still feature the same enemies standing in the same spots or running the same patrol routes. Outside of testing yourself against the hardest difficulty and a permadeath mode (assuming you don't opt for these first time through), there's not a lot of replay value to be found.

It's a shame, because the combat engine is so robust I would love to continue pitting myself against some sort of randomly generated map long after completing the main story. Mutant Year Zero's clever focus on stealth and pre-combat preparation reward your diligence, its turn-based combat encounters are complex, and they help bolster its all-encompassing post-apocalyptic atmosphere. It is a superb tactical combat campaign that you shouldn't let sneak past.

[Update, 08/01/2019: Mutant Year Zero: Deluxe Edition is now out on Nintendo Switch, and it includes new expansion, Seeds Of Evil. While this version runs smoothly, it exhibits poor visual fidelity compared to its console and PC counterparts. Whether in handheld or docked mode, a low resolution and blurry overall look reduce the luster of post-apocalyptic Sweden. It also makes scavenging areas for scrap and weapon parts--essential to keeping your Stalkers well-equipped, and already difficult items to spot--a lot harder.

The Seeds Of Evil expansion, also available on other platforms, expands the game's story past the somewhat abrupt ending of Road To Eden. Additional map areas and new enemy archetypes introduce challenging new scenarios; a new character, additional weapons, and upgraded perks give you more options to consider as you plan your ambushes. Seeds of Evil also adds a system that will occasionally repopulate existing map areas with enemies and items, which effectively adds a continual stream of optional encounters and mitigates the base game's issues with replayability. These new additions feel like a natural continuation the game's already robust tactical offering, both in terms of its plot and difficulty scaling, and comes recommended.]

Madden NFL 20 Review - Some Stumbles, No Fumbles

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 09:09

Continuing the Madden franchise's recent tradition of story modes, Madden NFL 20 introduces a new narrative campaign. This new mode generally falls flat, but the pro football sim stands out on the field, with new additions that faithfully capture the essence of the NFL experience while making it fun to play again and again.

The new story mode, QB1: Face of the Franchise, replaces the Longshot story mode that was featured in Madden 18 and 19. Unlike those campaigns, which featured a pre-set character, Madden 20's QB1 mode lets you create an entirely unique football star and guide him through the final stages of his collegiate career with the hopes of making an NFL starting roster, and, on a longer timeline, complete a journey to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the Super Bowl.

QB1's story picks up as you decide which college to attend and play for. However, the college football elements within Madden 20 are not anything significant. You select a school from 10 options, including heavyweights like Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and Clemson. It's a treat to see fully licensed college football teams, complete with true-to-life jerseys, logos, stadiums, and marching band songs, but the gameplay experience in reality is limited to two games in the College Football Playoffs--and you can't play the college teams in quickplay later on.

After winning the National Championship against all odds, you're off to the NFL Combine where your performance in front of scouts and GMs determines how high you go in the draft. There are some genuinely funny moments here with your aloof agent Les Moore, and interactions with him are some of the best character moments in the story mode. After making it to the NFL, the game then disappointingly becomes the standard Franchise mode, except your character has more backstory that acts as fuel to drive you to succeed on the field. That's the idea, at least; in practice, it leaves much to be desired.

In part, that's because QB1's cinematic cutscenes and Telltale-style choices end once you get to the NFL. At that point, the narrative beats play out through text messages you receive from fans and other players from around the league. This delivery method makes conversations awkward and ultimately forgettable. There is one storyline in particular involving a sick child rooting for you that falls flat; it tries too hard to tug on your heartstrings, moody piano pieces and all, without earning any payoff. Without giving too much away, another major storyline in QB1 involves your college teammate and friend, and it ends abruptly, with the strong suggestion that the story will continue in Madden NFL 21. That's too bad, because this character, in the limited screen time he gets, is far more interesting than the cookie-cutter, run-of-the-mill one you create.

In general, QB1 moves at such a fast pace that it doesn't allow for thoughtful character development. Not only that, but the story that QB1 does tell is hokey and clumsily unraveled. The story overall feels barebones and incomplete, with the entirety of the QB1 mode feeling like a half-baked idea in the end.

Despite the lackluster story and the way it's delivered, QB1 succeeds in connecting you to your on-field performance and inspiring you to improve or play differently each week once you've made it to the NFL. The text message system, while not the best avenue for full conversation, is better utilized in delivering week-to-week objectives and challenges. You can complete these to earn XP, which you can then invest into your character in an RPG-lite-like system where you choose which aspects of your game you want to develop.

As an example, I responded with some trash talk against one of the league's best cornerbacks, Richard Sherman, and my Game Day Goal, as it's called, was to achieve 400 yards or more of offense and a 60-yard pass--not an easy task with Sherman in the backfield. The system is dynamic and responsive to what happens on the field week-to-week, and this is a nice touch that provides a further level of connection to your character and their status in the league.

Madden 20's standard Franchise mode, which is separate from the QB1 mode, gets a welcome update this year. Its implementation of the new Scenario Engine, which lets you interact with players and coaches through the aforementioned text-message system, is the best new feature for Franchise. Like with QB1, having weekly objectives that you decide on is a compelling way to keep you interested and engaged in a 16+ week season that can otherwise get monotonous and repetitive. However, Franchise mode overall doesn't get any other significant or meaningful updates this year, which might be a bummer for seasoned players wanting more.

Perhaps the biggest and most exciting change for Madden 20 are the new X-Factor and Superstar abilities. 50 of the league's best players have been given these super abilities, and they revamp the fundamentals of Madden playmaking. X-Factor abilities are unlocked when you meet the qualifications to get "in the zone"--for some QBs, it's throwing for 5 or more yards in the air multiple times without making a mistake--while Superstar abilities are passive traits tied to your player that are always active.

The new X-Factor abilities are truly game-changers, and they further emphasize the distinction between the average NFL player and elite athletes. For example, the Gambler X-Factor ability--which only Aaron Rodgers has--makes it impossible for AI defenders to intercept his passes. Similarly powerful X-Factor abilities are available for defenders as well, and that helps balance things out. Not only that, but X-Factor abilities can be lost quickly; a QB who takes a sack is immediately out of the zone, while dropped passes and fumbles also cancel out these abilities.

These abilities, when combined with an elite player like Madden 20 cover star Patrick Mahomes (who has incredible baseline stats to begin with), become overly powerful in some instances. Mahomes' unique passive Superstar abilities give him immense speed and dexterity out of the pocket, on top of his already powerful and accurate arm. When teammate Travis Kelce unlocks his own X-Factor ability (which gives him a guaranteed aggressive catch on any single-man coverage), it becomes simply too easy to complete big plays down the field.

Outside of that issue, the new X-Factor and Superstar abilities introduce a level of strategy that the Madden series has never seen. I found myself often weighing up whether I should pursue the X-Factor qualification conditions or choose lower-risk plays that are more likely to be successful. At pivotal stages, like in the fourth quarter or in a third-and-long situation, this level of risk/reward is heightened. Not only that, but with 50 X-Factor abilities spread across players on the 32 NFL teams, it encourages you to try new teams and strategies.

Importantly, X-Factor abilities do not feel gimmicky or too overpowerful for the most part as they're difficult to unlock and have numerous counters. Stephon Gilmore of the New England Patriots, for example, has an X-Factor ability called Acrobat that allows him to perform a diving move where he makes an incredible pass breakup. Some pass-rushers, too, including Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams, can shred the defense and break the O-Line easily to sack the quarterback for a big loss. The saying "any given Sunday" is truer than ever in Madden 20 thanks to the X-Factor abilities.

Overall, the on-field action in Madden this year is better than ever. The game provides more on-screen info than last year's iteration, making it easier to see things like decision-making specifics (such as average yards-per-play or yards given up) and which elite offensive and defensive players have X-Factor and Superstar abilities. This makes for an easy way to help you see the odds of having success with a play before the snap. The playbook menus (and menus overall, for that matter) are cleaned up and brighter, which helps you see important information at a glance.

Also new this year are Run-Pass Options added to playbooks. These hybrid plays provide yet another way for play-callers to mix things up and keep defenders guessing. There are also numerous player-specific animations, including Aaron Rodgers' signature quick release and Patrick Mahomes' sidearm throw. This all works together to make Madden 20 closer than ever to replicating the look and feel of actual pro football. Nothing in the updated gameplay mechanics for Madden 20 is as substantial as the introduction of Real Player Motion from last year, but the controls in Madden are as good as they've ever been thanks to further refinement on last year's improvements and the introduction of some welcome tweaks and small changes. A subtle gameplay change for 2019 is that you can double press the receiver icon to pump fake; this small change makes it easier than ever to trick a defender into biting on a pass route, providing yet another level of depth and control.

The core fundamentals that underpin Madden 20's gameplay feel more solid and dependable than ever. Mistakes like poor passes, missed tackles, and bad decision-making are yours and yours alone to own because the controls rarely, if ever, let you down.

Also notable for Madden 20 is what's (generally) not there: bugs. After many hours with the game, I only experienced a handful of minor glitches, though your mileage may vary, and it's worth noting that you can continue to expect other oddities like out-of-place commentary and some sideline players executing the same animations all the time. I also experienced what felt like an unusually high number of facemask calls and injuries.

Now in its third year using EA's Frostbite engine, Madden 20 also looks very good with its better-looking player models that have richer detail and more realistic flourishes (except for Greg Olsen; what happened there?). The Madden 20 game engine also provides gorgeous environmental effects like glistening sun rays peeking through the clouds and casting shadows on the field and snow effects that limit your vision and force you to suggest playing more conservatively to accommodate for the wintry conditions.

The commentary team composed of Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis also return in Madden 20, and they are consistently a treat to listen to. Despite some lines being repeated from time to time (how many times do we have to hear that Julian Edelman was a quarterback in college or that Tom Brady was initially drafted to play baseball?), the pair deliver the right mixture of lines that keep you informed and engaged in equal measure. Madden 20's overall broadcast, presentation, and gameplay packages aim to replicate the real-life NFL experience, but it continues to be a shame that the voicelines--at least all the ones I heard in over 20 hours with Madden 20--do not comment on real-world NFL issues. As with previous years, the commentary will be updated regularly throughout the season.

Among Madden 20's other modes is the fantasy team-building card-based Ultimate Team, and this continues to be the game's richest when it comes to the sheer multitude of challenges to complete. It remains a thrill to build a fantasy team and compete either against other fantasy AI teams or the world at large through online play.

A subtle yet enjoyable change for MUT this year is how you can move from one challenge to the next without returning to the menu screen, which is great considering how many there are to complete. There is also a new "Mission" system that helps you select the right challenges to complete in order to acquire items for your deck. In years past, MUT could feel like a hard-to-parse system that you slogged through waywardly, but the new system gives you more direction, and as such it is more respectful of your time.

Ultimate Team does have issues with microtransactions, however. At the very start, the tutorial instructs you to visit the store where you can make real-money purchases, which feels like an unnecessary nudge toward spending extra. As with past iterations of MUT, it can feel like a grind to get the cards you want, which in turn encourages you to consider spending money on microtransactions when you otherwise might not. That rubbed me the wrong way, but MUT overall is still an enjoyable and engaging mode that I expect to return to again and again.

Madden NFL 20 is an improved version of the annualized professional football series that excels in some areas and leaves something to be desired in others. The new QB1 career mode--which includes a barebones NCAA football experience--overall feels like a half-baked idea that doesn't deliver anything meaningful or interesting. When it comes to the on-the-field action, however, the new X-Factor and Superstar abilities shake up the familiar gameplay formula to give seasoned players and newcomers alike a fresh way to scheme plays and orchestrate strategy on both sides of the ball.

Sky: Children Of The Light Review - Flying Free

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 04:49

When you start up Sky: Children of the Light, numerous messages shoot across the screen as it loads. Messages informing you of server connections, the reception of in-game currencies, and the like are commonplace for games with an online focus, but there’s one short message that feels uniquely descriptive to thatgamecompany’s fourth title: "Finding new friends." It's just a simple notification that you’re being connected to other players in this intimately connected universe, but it’s also a strong message of what Sky is really about. Although it mimics many gameplay elements from Journey, it’s Sky’s evolution of those ideas that makes it a fascinating multiplayer experiment with deeply meditative qualities.

Playing Sky is incredibly similar to Journey. You control a robed figure, recognizable as a small child, and navigate a series of small environments connected only by the constellations in the stars they share above. Sky keeps things simple by tasking you with navigating its environments and holding down a single button to soar into the air and take flight. Flight is central to Sky’s otherwise simple mechanics, letting you execute gorgeous maneuvers through the clouds or delicately glide between the remains of mysterious ruins. Expressive yet subtle animations make each movement in the air feel delightful, even though you’re doing little more than controlling your direction. Swooping down into the clouds only to tilt upwards at the last minute is rewarded with a cute pirouette, for example, letting the wind engulf your robe and accurately shape it in the wind.

Flight isn’t free in Sky. Flying draws light from your robe, which limits how much aerial freedom you have. Light is collected from any light source you come across, and it’s your job to spread it around in turn. You ferry around light with candles, using them to spread fire to unlit lanterns and shrines. You can also use light to burn away corrupted vegetation or scare dangerous wildlife that will attack you in the dark. Glowing, faceless children are scattered around each new area you explore, bestowing you with wings that help you upgrade the amount of light you can store at a time, in turn letting you fly longer. You can lose wings when you’re carrying no light and take damage from enemies or environmental hazards, though you can easily pick them up again. Sky doesn't feel punishing at any point, but it does use these gentle nudges to remind you of how great it feels to have a bounty of flight at your fingertips and what it might feel like to lose it again.

Collecting light is beneficial to getting around, which in turn lets you discover lost spirits that govern the central progression in Sky. Each area has a star constellation that you slowly complete by saving lost spirits and returning them to the skies above. Most of these are simple exploration puzzles. By diligently poking around, you find blue outlines of long-forgotten beings, each creating a breadcrumb trail to follow that tells a short story of the spirit it’s leading to. These are moments frozen in time, telling vague stories that can come across as anything from humorous to tragic. It’s cheerful to see a skit of two clumsy beings attempting to move objects far bigger than them from one room to another, and equally sober to witness another in anguish, mourning a painful loss. Sky’s story is intentionally vague so that you fill in the blanks, interpreting what purpose light serves in its world and why its sacrifice is meaningful.

Sky is entirely playable alone, and you're not required to find any fixed number of its spirits to finish it. But it’s also a game with a big emphasis on sharing your experience with strangers. You aren’t a unique figure in its world, and certainly not the only one carrying light to its eventual end. Instead, your journey is consistently filled with other players, each on their own adventure that you can choose to partake in for just a moment or two. You can contribute in small ways. A passing player might hold out their candle for you to light, letting you replenish their light in turn if you choose to. To befriend another player, you need to share a candle with them, permanently linking you two and adding them to your friends list (which is suitably represented by a growing constellation). You never see these players' names; instead, you name them based on your interactions with them. It feels like meeting someone new for the first time, but not immediately being able to speak to them. You can use taps to let out audio pings that help gather other players around you, but you're also able to take a seat on a bench, wait for another player to sit next to you, and engage in a more direct, text-based conversation if you choose.

The most interesting way to interact with other players is with emotes, which are unlocked with each new spirit that you free. You can use these emotes to express yourself to other players, with anything from a simple wave or a point in a direction to more intimate displays of friendly affection, like hugs. There are also separate emotes and actions you can unlock by increasing your friendship with other players. By rewarding each other with consumable candles, you’ll unlock unique abilities (which can also only be used between you two) that can change the way you navigate through each area. My personal favorite was the ability to form long chains of players by holding hands, with one player guiding the group to new places while using everyone's collective light to fuel the flight. This also helps new players see areas they might not yet possess the ability to reach, granting Sky a cooperative nature that's remarkably easy to engage with.

This simplicity helps some of Sky's more demanding puzzles, where cooperation between multiple players--anything between a single pair to a full group of eight--is required. Some doors, for example, require two players to light urns at the same time to open. Other more demanding challenges task up to eight players to gather around an octagon and light old runes in a specific order. Although these challenges are rarely hard to decipher, and finding enough players to participate with was never an issue in my time with the game, simply trying to get everyone to alight in more group-focused tasks was slightly frustrating. Since none of these puzzles are required to continue through Sky, they're easy to overlook.

Sky weaves its focus on forming friendships into its microtransaction model, too, which changes the rules of what you’ve come to expect from these systems in a big way. Hearts are used to purchase cosmetic items, but you can't buy them outright. Instead, you can purchase candles (which you can also get in-game) which can then be packaged and sent to a friend as a heart. This is the only way to earn hearts, meaning you’ll need to depend on the gracious gifts of friends you’ve made in Sky to kit yourself out in some fancy new clothing. There are also options to purchase seasonal passes that unlock more straightforward daily quests and a few pieces of exclusive clothing, but for the most part you’ll be focused on forming new bonds with strangers and exchanging gifts with them frequently if you’re invested in standing out from everyone else visually.

Your first flights through a temple in the sky or the hurried dash you need to make between awnings of large mushrooms in a rain-soaked forest are delightful.

This means that you’ll likely be playing Sky well after the credits have rolled on your initial playthrough, which can take anywhere between four to six hours. You can collect any outstanding spirits you likely missed, especially since some aren’t even accessible without having played later areas in the game. You also need to reacquire your wings for flight again, due to story reasons you learn about during the finale. All of this means that you’ll be revisiting many areas you’ve already soared through at least once before, which can remove some of the splendor you experienced the first time around. This is especially true when you’re breaking from their intended flow to poke around the environment in search of small crevices you missed the first time. This feels like it goes against the natural harmony of Sky's intended path, signposted with simple nudges that point you in the right direction. When you’re solely focusing on completion, Sky just isn’t as compelling.

Yet, there’s a meditative quality to return visits when you’re simply looking for a brief escape. Your first flights through a temple in the sky or the hurried dash you need to make between awnings of large mushrooms in a rain-soaked forest are delightful the first time around. Their mixtures of stunningly detailed environments and suitable stirring music are impactful, and less so when you’re running around in circles trying to see if there was a small crevice you forgot to explore.

Sky is both different to everything thatgamecompany has made before but also a smart evolution of what makes its games special. It's simple to play while feeling incredible at the same time, making the act of flight exciting every time your feet leave the ground. It also features a fascinating spin on in-game purchases, locking its most alluring rewards behind the action of making friends and making a positive enough impression on them. That means you have to play a lot of Sky to eventually work towards what you want, which saps some life out of the gorgeous vignettes you're free to explore. But it's no less memorable for the ideas it presents or calming in the way it gives you the freedom to pursue them, making it another journey worth seeing through.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood Nintendo Switch Review

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 09:18

From front to back, Wolfenstein: Youngblood is very much the same game on the Nintendo Switch as it is on other consoles and PC. You'll get the bombastic combat scenarios where you'll tear through Nazi trash as the charismatic, dynamic duo of Jess and Soph Blazkowicz, twin daughters of series hero BJ Blazkowicz. And you have the opportunity to play it all alongside a friend. The portable nature of the Nintendo Switch makes this an even more enticing prospect, but the platform's limited hardware hurts the game's best parts; low frame rates and muddy visuals make the action harder to enjoy. While these issues are not prohibitive, they do make the Switch version the weakest of the bunch.

Youngblood is a bite-sized spin-off that jumps ahead in Wolfenstein's timeline by taking you to the 1980s, almost 20 years after the events of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. You see an older Anya and BJ teaching their twin daughters Jess and Soph the means of survival, just before BJ goes missing. With the help of Abby, daughter of Grace Walker from The New Colossus, you're able to track him down in Nazi-occupied France, particularly Neu-Paris.

Not long after the introductory mission do you see how Youngblood breaks off from the traditional Wolfenstein structure; Neu-Paris acts as a group of separate hub areas where most of the action takes place. Many of the side quests and random events in these areas feel more like filler and will eventually have you running through familiar areas frequently. If anything, it's at least a means of familiarizing yourself with the intricacies of the Dishonored-influenced districts. Main missions branch off from the hub areas, and in these missions are where you'll find the relentless, challenging firefights that keep up a satisfying momentum. This is where Youngblood truly shines on the PC version, however, due to the Switch's technical limitations, it doesn't quite hit the same highs. [Read our PC review for our full thoughts.]

Overall, technical performance hampers some of the great FPS action as it makes aiming, movement, and reacting a bit more difficult.

Light RPG elements are new to the Wolfenstein franchise, and they don't shake up the formula too much, but make for some enjoyable twists. You'll earn XP and level up to drop points into a skill tree that grants new abilities or buffs to make you more effective in combat. You can upgrade weapons to fire with even more impact or change the way they function altogether. There's also an armor-type element to strong enemies that'll have you juggling between certain weapons to lay down the most damage. All these small changes serve to bring a slightly more dynamic edge to a solid FPS foundation.

Youngblood is wrapped in the idea of cooperative play, which is a blast. Friends (or randoms) can jump into your session easily and the game-state will remain untouched--the AI simply gets taken over by the player, and vice-versa when they leave. Pep signals are core to the co-op experience; these are cooldowns that grant useful buffs or clutch armor/health recharges. The revive system is another key to teamwork that sort of comes in place of traditional checkpoints. Outside of pep signals though, there feels like a lack of synergetic co-op gameplay features, like tag-team attacks or teamwork-centric capabilities, and it feels like a missed opportunity. It's worth noting that you will need to have a Nintendo Switch Online account to do any sort of co-op play, however.

When it comes to the Switch version specifically, the question on many minds is: how well does it run? To that, I would say: not great. The frame rate is the most noticeable shortcoming as the game generally runs at sub-30 FPS and chugs when the action gets intense in both docked and undocked modes. There's also heavy use of motion blur to help smooth over the low frame rate. Overall, technical performance hampers some of the great FPS action as it makes aiming, movement, and reacting a bit more difficult.

While not as important, the downgrade in visual quality is readily apparent. The game runs at 540p handheld and 720p docked, but uses some sort of dynamic resolution for assets and character models to help keep the frame rate in check. This turns things into blocky messes in certain combat scenarios that take place in large environments. And the low resolution and a gray foggy haze slightly obscures objects and enemies in the distance, making them difficult to identify.

Youngblood suffers as a result of the Switch's relatively underpowered hardware, but for all its technical shortcomings, the game still delivers intense, momentous, and challenging combat. Everything features-wise remains intact, and you'll get to enjoy taking a shotgun (or fully charged laser beam) to the heads of Nazi scum. The Blazkowicz sisters, Jess and Soph, bring their own unique swagger to the Wolfenstein franchise, too. So if the Switch version is your only way of playing Youngblood, you can be confident it's still one hell of a ride.

Kill La Kill The Game: IF Review In Progress - Partial Life Fiber Synchronize

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 23:00

Aside from a manga adaptation, Kill la Kill The Game: IF is the first expansion to the story of 2013's Kill la Kill, the hit anime series that put Studio Trigger on the map. Kill la Kill IF captures the unique fighting styles of the main cast of characters from the anime in arena battles, while also delivering some enjoyable missions to tackle in the single-player campaign. It doesn't manage to deliver a balanced competitive landscape, but there is a delightful collection of rewards to work towards in Kill la Kill IF--supplying a satisfying incentive for replaying the single-player content.

Kill la Kill follows Ryuko Matoi, who transfers to Japan's prestigious Honnouji Academy in hopes of finding answers to her father's murder. Her only clue is half of the giant scissor used to kill him. Honnouji Academy is run by fascist student council president Satsuki Kiryuin and her closest allies: the Elite Four. Students at the school wear Goku Uniforms, each providing enhanced strength and superhuman abilities. Realizing Satsuki recognizes the scissor blade she carries, Ryuko attacks and demands answers, only to be ultimately trounced by the president's underlings. After escaping, Ryuko stumbles upon a sentient sailor uniform who gifts her with god-like magical girl powers when it feeds on her blood. Now much more powerful, Ryuko swears to defeat the entire student body of Honnouji Academy and gain the answers she seeks.

Kill la Kill IF is a "what if" scenario, asking, "What if Satsuki was the protagonist of Kill la Kill?" The hypothetical is explored in the game's campaign extraordinarily well, putting forth the theory that Satsuki may have been the brilliant mastermind behind the anime's entire narrative from the very beginning, tragically refusing the spotlight she wants because she believes her plans for a better world will work out for the better if Ryuko is the main hero. It's a fascinating addition to Kill la Kill's lore, and it provides plenty of incentive to see the game's two-part campaign all the way through.

Combat in Kill la Kill IF is pretty easy to pick up, with your staple combination of close-range, long-range, aerial, guard-break, and special attacks. There's also a rock-paper-scissors-style clash system that allows you to buff yourself if you're lucky enough to win. Though every character controls the same, each has a completely different specialty and unique playstyle. Masochistic Ira Gamagoori becomes more powerful by whipping and damaging himself, for instance, while petite Nonon Jakuzure excels at shooting her opponent from a distance and manipulative Nui Harime relies on decoys to overwhelm her opponents from multiple angles. Though the roster does offer a diversity of playstyles, there are only eight options to choose from at launch. That's a pretty small pool for a fighting game--disappointing given how massive Kill la Kill's cast is. This is slightly offset by the alternate costumes that change how certain characters attack, but the adjustments aren't enough to make the variants feel like brand-new fighters.

Exciting though the colorful combat may be, it also feels lopsided with no reliable means of defending yourself. Every fighter can block and dodge, but both moves are pretty slow so it's fairly easy to just overwhelm opponents with aggressive close-range characters. Once caught in a combo, there's only one way to recover, and that's using a counter burst--a move that uses up half of your special attack meter. You have to deal out or endure quite a few hits to fill up the meter, so you can't regularly rely on having a counter burst at the ready. And if you are caught in a combo and you don't have that 50% of meter to burn, you just have to wait until your opponent stops attacking you. As a result, juggling can be a pretty big issue against difficult AI opponents or advanced players that know how to pull off the game's longer, more devastating combos--which can lead to unfair and unfun matches.

Despite the issues with combat, battles in the game are wholeheartedly Kill la Kill, and they're typically glorious fun as a result. Characters yell out the name of their special attacks--some with barely contained rage and others with malicious glee--in epic battle cries, each one animated in a cel-shaded rendition of Kill la Kill's over-the-top style. The most powerful blows land with an impact, slowing down the action just long enough for you to understand the recipient is about to be very hurt. The addition of the luck-based clash system feels right at home too, giving you a last-ditch effort to maybe make a comeback--randomly screaming during a battle and luckily finding a deeper well of strength is extremely Kill la Kill. Sure, the lack of a reliable counter system means winning in these battles is less about skill and more about who can press the attack buttons more quickly, but that doesn't change that most matches are still explosively epic, full of silly puns, and just enjoyable to play. This is especially true for most of the battles in Kill la Kill IF's campaign.

There are a variety of obstacles to overcome in the campaign as the game offers more than what's usually expected from arena fighters. Though there are still traditional one-on-one fights, Kill la Kill IF's story mode is a mixture of various mission types. The most interesting ones take advantage of the constantly shifting alliances in the narrative. One battle has Satsuki, Ryuko, and Nui all fight in a three-way free-for-all, for instance, and another sees Satsuki go up against the brain-washed Elite Four in a one-on-four fight. Wave-based battles against a horde of enemies are thrown into the mix, too. The variety keeps the campaign from getting stale.

Though these types of missions offer a welcome change of pace for an arena fighter, they're also held back by Kill la Kill IF's traditional mechanics and features. Most arena fighters don't need a mechanic to specifically focus on one combatant or a feature to alert you when an off-screen target is about to attack, as fights are pretty much exclusively one-on-one. In Kill la Kill IF's campaign, where you occasionally fight multiple enemies at once and the only way to remain focused on a character is to stay near them, the absence of any such mechanic or feature is far more noticeable. It's tricky to stay focused on the fighter you want when you and your opponents are being smacked around the arena, and it's frustrating when you're in the midst of a combo and you don't know whether you need to suddenly dodge or block because you're about to be attacked from outside your field of view.

Outside the campaign, Kill la Kill IF offers Practice and Versus modes, as well as a horde challenge and figure posing gallery. Given the risque nature of Kill la Kill, it's a nice surprise that the figures' available poses aren't all that leery, though the offering of shots you can produce is a little sparse. The gallery feels tacked on as a poor replacement for a photo mode, which is a shame given how gorgeous many of the characters look while in motion. Offline Versus works without issue; however, as this review in progress is going live the day of Kill la Kill IF's official international release, we haven't had adequate time to put the online version through its paces. We'll update this review once we do.

Both the Japanese and English dub anime voice actors reprise their roles in Kill la Kill IF, so you can enjoy whichever cast you prefer (it's something a lot more anime games should do, frankly). Unfortunately, the English dub doesn't perfectly match up in certain animations, so there are quite a few moments where characters are technically done speaking but their mouths keep moving. It's no deal-breaker, as both sets of voice actors do a great job once again bringing their respective characters to life. The voices aren't the only sound from the anime to make it into the game either. Songs from Kill la Kill are regularly intermixed into the originally composed soundtrack, including fan-favorites "Before My Body Is Dry" and "Sirius," augmenting every battle and emotional moment with the same epic sensations as the anime.

The voice actors and soundtrack provide the biggest motivation to keep playing Kill la Kill IF. As you complete the story and win matches, you'll unlock in-game currency that you can use to buy songs and special recorded messages. The messages that seem to be from the characters' perspectives are an absolute delight, like Satsuki providing words of encouragement to those living in "this cruel world," but most are from the voice actors themselves--Todd Haberkorn (Shirou Iori) teasingly relaying congratulations for beating the game, for instance, or Carrie Keranen (Satsuki Kiryuin) revealing just how much it meant to get a chance to do voice work for Kill la Kill again after nearly five years. It's all phenomenal content--ranging from hilarious to heartfelt--which provides plenty of incentive to keep playing and earn more in-game currency.

Kill la Kill IF is clearly designed for fans of Kill la Kill who are looking for more ways to enjoy the characters, music, and battles of the anime series. Each fighter behaves as they do in the anime, and the excellent voice actor rewards provide a nice incentive to keep playing even after you've mastered every character. However, as a fighting game, Kill la Kill IF doesn't deliver the expected harmony of offense and defense. And though campaign battles that are beyond the one-on-one formula are an awesome addition, the traditional arena fighting game mechanics aren't designed to adequately handle multiple opponents. The campaign's startling revelation is a fascinating turn of events for Kill la Kill's story, though, creating a new and intriguing interpretation of one of 2013's best anime series.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood Review - Blood In, Blood Out

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 04:55

In Wolfenstein's alternate 1980s, Nazis remain a tyrannical force of evil and oppression across Europe, even after Hitler was killed by series protagonist BJ Blazkowicz. Thus, the Nazi killing continues as the Blazkowicz twins, Jess and Soph, pick up where their parents left off for a spin-off in Wolfenstein: Youngblood--a relentless co-op shooter driven by an unapologetic, youthful attitude. It may not reach the same narrative heights of its predecessors or land every idea borne out in its new approach, but Youngblood hits where it counts.

Our introduction to Jess and Soph shows how their parents, Anya and BJ, taught them the means for survival on their rural Texas homestead. There's a tense tone of protective parents who've been through the worst and are preparing their daughters to be able to handle the same, which is quickly juxtaposed with the twins' carefree exuberance when alone together. Bring in the wizkid best friend Abby, daughter of Wolfenstein 2's Grace Walker, and you have a trio that brings their own unique swagger to the Wolfenstein name.

Their personalities immediately come to life. Jess and Soph are boisterous and sometimes dorky, the same way many teenagers and young adults are, and it gives them genuine personalities that mostly just come off cool as hell, especially with stellar voice acting. They'll go back and forth about their favorite superspy novel series Arthur & Kenneth, even imagining themselves as their beloved in-fiction duo. They'll refer to things their parents have done, hype each other up in combat, and just straight up act silly in the elevator loading screens to the tune of '80s synthpop background music, breathing new life into the Blazkowicz family.

The game is less about a bold, fleshed-out narrative and more about instilling an infectious charisma in its star characters to match the over-the-top action and sow the seeds for what's next in Wolfenstein.

It's not long before they take a turn for the absurd; with BJ gone missing, they uncover clues to his disappearance and take matters into their own hands. But they're not exactly sneaking out of the house or secretly taking their parents' car out for a drive. They're taking a military-grade helicopter to Nazi-occupied France to find their dad, and well, kill Nazis. As either Jess or Soph (with your co-op or AI partner as the other sister) and equipped with high-tech Da'at Yichud battle suits, you join a French resistance movement in Neu-Paris, which quickly boils down to you raiding Nazi outposts and strongholds.

With Jess and Soph inseparable, co-op is at the heart of the experience, and thankfully partnering up online is a breeze. As a host you can have friends (or randoms) jump into your session seamlessly without interruption; the AI will assume control until a player connects and again right as a player leaves. If players have identical missions in the quest log, completing it will record progress for both players. And if you'd rather go it alone alongside a decent AI companion, it's just as viable an option for the entire game.

Youngblood captures that familiar Wolfenstein feeling of taking an automatic shotgun to a Nazi soldier, melting an armor-clad supersoldier with a laser rifle, or zapping a horde with a lighting coil, and what a powerful feeling it is. But what's new is that tougher enemies have one of two armor elements that are weak to corresponding weapons, encouraging you to actively juggle your varied arsenal. Furthermore, a slightly more diverse weapon upgrade system helps flesh out some familiar firearms to get them to function the way you prefer and tear through enemies more efficiently.

Light RPG elements also make their way into the character progression system; you rack up XP then dump upgrade points into new skills and perks, like raising health/armor caps, increasing cloak times, stocking heavy weapons, and much more. Enemies scale to your level, and only a few sections are defended by near-impossible enemies early on. It's a simple system that helps facilitate steady unlocks, making you feel like you're getting ever more devastating, but never overpowered.

Solid gunplay and some neat mechanics wouldn't mean much without the proper combat encounters to complement them, and Youngblood delivers. You'll often find yourself pulling out all the stops to either finish combat scenarios or realize you have to retreat and rethink your approach. A completely stealthy approach isn't as viable as it was in previous Wolfenstein games, even with the new cloaking ability, but it's a good way to thin out the opposition before going all-out guns blazing. It can get overwhelming when supersoldiers, massive mechs, and a bomb-strapped panzerhund bear down on you, but that's when Youngblood is at its best. Intense firefights can break out anywhere with little warning, and the main missions manage to keep a consistent action-packed momentum throughout.

Youngblood captures that familiar Wolfenstein feeling of taking an automatic shotgun to a Nazi soldier, melting an armor-clad supersoldier with a laser rifle, or zapping a horde with a lighting coil, and what a powerful feeling it is.

Admittedly, co-op centric features are a bit sparse. Each sister has a roster of emotes and motivational quips called pep signals that provide stat buffs or much-needed armor/health. However, that's pretty much what you get in terms of tandem abilities, and the absence of some sort of joint attack or tag-team abilities feels like a missed opportunity. In the fray, partners will be frantically trying to revive each other or falling back on shared lives which work like instant continues, taking the place of a traditional checkpoint system. It can be frustrating to make it to the final fight of a main mission, run out of shared lives, and be sent back to the very beginning of the mission. But if anything, it's a crude way to emphasize cooperation and tactical gameplay.

Overall, Youngblood leans more into an open structure by making Neu-Paris a group of separate districts (open hub areas) where you find your missions. After a brief introduction, you're tasked with assaulting three "Brother" towers--your main quests--attached to each hub area. Out on the streets, though, side missions and random events fill in the spaces and are conducive for racking up early XP, getting familiar with district layouts, and soaking up the vibe of a downtrodden 1980s Paris, but these missions quickly feel like filler that bulk out your to-do list.

The design of the districts are striking, however, and you'll see hints of Arkane Studios' influence; when I'm double jumping and mantling to the rooftops and top floors of buildings, I'm reminded of Dishonored, especially as I search for collectibles and chests full of currency. This approach also spices up combat with some verticality and the opportunity to flex the agile capabilities of those slick Da'at Yichud suits. The Brother towers even have alternative entry points that you'll have to discover yourself or find through side missions. It's a successful incorporation of that studio's strengths, and the game is better for it.

The Paris catacombs acts your safe hub in Youngblood, and it's where you accept side missions from resistance members, stock up on supplies, or hit up the old knock-off Wolfenstein 3D cabinet. It's not as extensive as The New Colossus' U-boat home, and you won't get much from its inhabitants--they're nowhere near as involved as Wolfenstein 2's supporting cast since they're just quest givers. However, Jess, Soph, and Abby are there to pick up the slack.

They might be polar opposites of their parents, but it gives Youngblood its own flair. BJ's inner monologue and struggle internalizing life-long trauma is at the heart of modern Wolfenstein games, and Anya has seen the pure evil of the Nazi regime first hand through the years. Naturally, Jess and Soph have vastly different characterizations, only knowing a post-war world and presumably growing up in a stable household. They capture the spirit of a carefree youth, yet they share the same unfettered motivation for killing Nazis; it would seem that Anya and BJ taught them well.

The story doesn't reach the same highs as mainline Wolfenstein games, namely The New Colossus. It’s an incredibly tough act to follow, really. But aside from a cheap plot twist and underwhelming villains, most of Youngblood's lean story is quality stuff. To that end, the game is less about a bold, fleshed-out narrative and more about instilling an infectious charisma in its star characters to match the over-the-top action and sow the seeds for what's next in Wolfenstein. Despite Youngblood taking place after events we've yet to see unfold in the mainline games, it leaves the door open for some exciting, wild possibilities for where the series could go.

Jess and Soph are boisterous and sometimes dorky, the same way many teenagers and young adults are, and it gives them genuine personalities that mostly just come off cool as hell...

Throughout Youngblood, traces of an ongoing game structure become more pronounced once you finish the main story. You can take on daily and weekly challenges as they cycle into the game, which offer some additional XP and currency to unlock any remaining abilities and weapon mods. What's a bit more substantial is the option to replay story missions on harder difficulties (hard, very hard, and challenging) for increasing amounts of XP and currency. While it's a bog-standard way to keep the co-op experience going, they at least offer an outlet to try new tactics, as these harder modes can become quite unforgiving. The endgame may not be extensive, but the ride was exciting enough that the content feels like a little value added.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood has the series' signature first-person shooting thrills that'll have you gladly busting shots and blasting lasers in the face of Nazi trash--and the opportunity to do so alongside a friend. It incorporates some new ideas which are serviceable for the most part, but hits more of the right notes in RPG elements and level design. It also knows the resistance doesn't end when one person cuts the head off a monstrous regime; the fight continues, sometimes into the next generation. And the way this brief spin-off broadens the saga with the Blazkowicz twins makes you wish there was more to see from this new cast of lovable knuckleheads. Jess and Soph--and Abby too--learned from the best, and embrace their newfound duty of ridding their world of tyranny while being cool as hell doing it. Youngblood is short, but oh-so sweet.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review - Train And Fight

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 00:00

Fire Emblem: Three Houses asks a lot of you. Every piece, from battle to friendships to training your units, must be managed both individually and as part of a whole. It can be intimidating, but when it all clicks together, it really clicks. Mastering the art of thoughtful lesson planning as a professor improves your performance on the battlefield, where success relies on calculated teamwork and deft execution. Cultivating relationships during battle in turn draws you closer to each of the characters, who you then want to invest even more time into in the classroom. Every piece feeds into the next in a rewarding, engrossing loop where you get lost in the whole experience, not just in the minutiae.

Three Houses casts you as a mercenary who, while out on a mission with their father, runs into a group of teens under attack. After a brief introduction and battle tutorial--which you shouldn't need, since you're apparently already an established mercenary, but we'll go with it--you learn that they are students at Garreg Mach monastery. Each of them leads one of the school's three houses: Black Eagles, Blue Lions, or Golden Deer. At the behest of the church's archbishop, who definitely gives off nefarious vibes but is also a gentle mom figure, you end up becoming a professor and must choose which of the houses to lead. There is a lot of mystery to the setup, with consistent hints that something is not quite right, and it's easy to get absorbed in trying to figure out what the archbishop and various other shady figures are up to.

Your main role as professor is to instruct your students in matters of combat and prepare them for story battles at the end of each month. Battles in Three Houses feature the same turn-based, tactical combat at the heart of the series, albeit with some changes. The classic weapon triangle is downplayed quite a bit in favor of Combat Arts, which have been altered somewhat from their introduction in Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Combat Arts are attacks tied to a weapon type and can boost a unit's attack power at the expense of weapon durability; some are effective against specific enemy types, like armored units. You can also unlock skills outside of Combat Arts that grant you better stats with certain weapons, like a heftier boost for using an axe against a lance user, similar to the old weapon triangle. It's the same complexity the series is known for but less abstracted, making it a bit easier to strategize without sacrificing depth.

One of the big combat additions is battalions, mini armies you can equip that provide various benefits to a unit during battle. They also give you a new type of attack called a Gambit, which varies based on the type of battalion--magic-focused, brute force, and so on--and stuns the enemies it hits. Gambits are limited-use and can be incredibly powerful against the right enemies. You can increase a Gambit's effectiveness even further if one or more of your other units are within attack range of the target, a tried-and-true Fire Emblem concept that applies to all kinds of attacks. There's also an anime-style splash screen as you attack that shows each character involved in the Gambit looking fierce, which adds a nice bit of drama.

How much you use Combat Arts and Gambits depends on what difficulty you're on. On Normal difficulty, well-trained units will likely be able to dispatch most enemies in one or two hits without the help of Combat Arts or Gambits. On Hard, however, enemies hit harder and withstand your attacks better. You have to think much more carefully about unit placement, the best time to use a Gambit and take advantage of its stun effect, and how many Combat Arts you can fire off before your weapon breaks. This is where things get exciting; after a few turns of cautious setup, you (hopefully) get to knock out tons of enemies as your plans fall into place.

Some of the early-game and optional battle maps are open spaces that don't require you to think too hard, especially on Normal. But the story battles throughout feature a variety of map layouts--from pirate ships to what appears to be a lava-filled cavern--that challenge you to consider where your units need to be, both in the next turn and several turns down the line. Many of them have different routes, enemies coming at you from multiple angles, optional treasure to chase, and other quirks that require you to split your party up or change their equipped classes to suit the situation. Thieves, for instance, can open chests and doors without a key, while flying units don't take damage from ground that's on fire.

The depth of strategy in these elements really shines on Hard difficulty, but especially so when coupled with Divine Pulse, another limited-use ability. Divine Pulse allows you to rewind time in order to redo all or part of the battle, usually if one of your units dies. Rewinding with Divine Pulse shows just how important unit placement and attack choice can be, as even a slight change can make or break the encounter. It's also just a nice quality-of-life feature if you play on Classic mode, in which units who die in battle are lost forever and can't fight or train anymore. You might still soft reset from time to time, but it's great to be able to rectify a mistake right away and get a shot of instant gratification for a job well re-done.

Battling, of course, is only one part of life at the monastery. The backbone of Three Houses is the monthly school calendar, and if you like organizing things, planning ahead, or school in general, this can be the most engrossing part. On Sundays, you have free time you can spend in one of four ways: exploring the monastery, participating in side battles, holding a seminar to improve your students' skills, or simply taking the day off. Mondays are for instruction, which consists of selecting students from a list and choosing a few of their skills to boost. The rest of the week goes by automatically, with a sprite of the professor running along the calendar and stopping occasionally for random events or story cutscenes. It sounds a bit hands-off, but there's a lot to think about as it is, and the week-by-week rather than day-by-day structure keeps things moving and ensures you never have to wait too long to progress in any area.

The predictable structure of each month--and the fact that you can see the full month's schedule with events listed ahead of time--gives you the foundation to make effective plans. All that time management can definitely be overwhelming, at least at first. You have to keep tabs on your students' skills and study goals, your own skills, everyone's inventory, and various other meters and menus while planning for the lessons and battles to come. But you're treated to a near-constant stream of positive reinforcement as those meters fill up week by week and your students improve their skills. You're always moving toward the next thing: the next level up, the next skill you need to develop, the next month and what may unfold.

To complement this, your activities when exploring the monastery (as well as how many battles you can participate in, if you choose to battle on your day off) are limited by activity points. You get more as your "professor level" increases, which means you have to balance activities that boost your professor level with ones that help your students grow. Activity points also ensure that the month continues at a healthy pace, preventing you from lingering on any one Sunday for too long. Seminars and rest days just eat up the whole day without consideration for activity points, which can break up the more involved weeks and provide their own benefits.

How you choose to spend your time also comes down to how motivated your students are to learn. Each of your students has a motivation gauge that's drained when you instruct them, and they can't be instructed again until you interact with them and get their motivation back up. You can do this most effectively when exploring the monastery--where you get to talk to different characters, give them gifts, and share bonding time with them--whereas battle only rarely increases motivation levels. While you can skip a lot of the school life bits and even automate instruction, you won't get the best results. You're directly at a disadvantage in combat if you don't make time for your students, which is by design.

Like all recent Fire Emblem games, keeping you invested in your units and their relationships is the glue that binds the whole experience together. It's incredibly effective in Three Houses, where your direct involvement in nearly all aspects of a unit's growth trajectory gives you a special stake in their success. After spending time and effort to help a character achieve their full potential, you're not just satisfied when they win a fight--you're proud. And the more you invest in someone--both emotionally and through months of lesson plans and instruction--the more cautious you'll be about putting them in harm's way, and the more you'll work to come up with a solid battle strategy.

Considering you're a teacher, it's good rather than disappointing that there's almost no romance to speak of. Some students are flirty, but mainly, you're fostering camaraderie rather than playing matchmaker or romancing them yourself. As you unlock new support levels with different characters--both by interacting with them at the monastery and by using teamwork in battles--you get cutscenes that flesh them out more. Some are charming, lighthearted conversations between two friends, while many of them give you insight into more serious matters--a father forcing his daughter into marriage, discrimination within the monastery, the dark reason behind someone's lofty ambitions. For the most part, each support conversation is just a piece of who a character is, and as you slowly build support levels over time, you begin to uncover the full picture of each person. As a result, learning more about each of the characters and their place in the monastery is as much a reward for progress as the level bars that tick forever upward as you go.

Every NPC is fully voiced in both English and Japanese, which brings a lot of life to the brief support conversations. Disappointingly, though, the professor is silent. They do have a voice--they'll occasionally say a line when leveling up or improving a skill--but in cutscenes and when talking to students and faculty, they just nod or shake their head flatly. There are brief dialogue options during conversations, but where they could give way to a full, subtitled sentence or two from the professor, you're just left with the other character's reaction. Characters do, however, refer to the professor's personality and how they come across throughout the game, which is odd considering they mostly nod at things. This puts distance between you and the characters you're bonding with, and it's a missed opportunity in a game where the protagonist has an otherwise set look, personality, and backstory.

It's not hard to like a lot of the characters, though. They draw you in with anime archetypes--the ladies' man, the bratty prince, the clumsy but well-meaning girl--and surprise you with much more nuance under the surface. Some of the funniest scenes early on involve Bernadetta, a shut-in with extreme reactions to normal social situations, but her inner life is a lot darker and more complicated than those early conversations let on. You might discover a character you thought was a jerk is actually one of your favorites or slowly stop using a less-than-favorite character in battle. You also have the option of having tea with someone, during which you have to choose conversation topics according to what you know about them, dating sim-style. Knowing what topics they'll like is actually a lot harder than it sounds, and successfully talking to a favorite character--even if the tea setup can be a little awkward in practice--is a small victory.

Each house's campaign feels distinct but not so different that one seems way better than the other. Every house has a mix of personalities and skills, and they all have their own advantages and disadvantages. Students from different houses can form friendships with each other, too, and you can eventually recruit students from other houses to join yours. Rather than being repetitive, on a second playthrough, recruiting gives you access to different relationship combinations; you can see a different side to a character through a different set of support conversations. And while the overall setup of the game is largely the same across the three houses, each has its own web of B plots, and the second half of the game will look very different depending on who you're with and the choices you've made.

The first half concerns the church, its secrets, and the fact that the professor knows very little about their own identity. As the basic loop of each month pulls you forward, so too does the promise of learning the truth about something, whether it's why the archbishop wanted you to be a teacher in the first place or who a suspicious masked individual is. These threads remain pretty open, though, at least after one and a quarter playthroughs. You get different details in each route, and so far it's been a long process to piece everything together.

Learning more about each of the characters and their place in the monastery is as much a reward for progress as the level bars that tick forever upward as you go.

After a five-year time skip, you enter the "war phase" of the game. While the structure of the game is the same--you even instruct your units, since you still need to train for battle--the focus shifts to the house-specific stories. They involve a lot of hard decisions, with old friends becoming enemies, people you wish you didn't have to kill, and students who've changed either in spite or because of your guidance. Late-game battles are especially challenging, with higher stakes and multi-lane layouts that require a lot of forethought. Success in these battles is incredibly rewarding, as you're seeing dozens of hours of investment in your students reach a crescendo, but they're bittersweet in context.

When all was said and done, all I could think about was starting another playthrough. I was curious about the mysteries left unsolved, of course, but I also hoped to undo my mistakes. There were characters I didn't talk to enough, students I didn't recruit, and far more effective ways to train my units. A second playthrough treads familiar ground in the beginning, but after learning and growing so much in the first, it feels fresh, too. That speaks to Three Houses' mechanical complexity and depth as well as the connections it fosters with its characters--and whether you're managing inventories or battlefields, it's the kind of game that's hard to put down, even when it's over.

Warframe Review (2019) - Free To Frame

Sat, 07/20/2019 - 05:00

Editor's note: GameSpot originally reviewed Warframe in 2013 and gave it a 6. Due to substantial revisions and new content since its debut, we have re-examined Warframe as it is in 2019 and produced a new review to reflect its current state.

To play Warframe is to reconcile yourself with the sensation that you're always a bit in over your head. Even six years after its debut, it's still something of an oddity within the realm of online action-RPGs. With an expanding universe housing a wealth of content, the free-to-play game offers a stellar amount of freedom to explore, uncover loot, and take on missions with its cast of stylish space ninjas. It takes a decidedly unorthodox approach with its non-linear adventure--sometimes frustratingly so--yet journeying across Warframe's massive universe is as satisfying as it is endearing.

In GameSpot's original 2013 review, we praised the game's agile and hard-hitting combat but criticized the lack of meaningful features that effectively took advantage of those strengths. In the broader sense, the Warframe of old was a promising sketch of an idea that lacked reasons for investment. The Warframe of today, however, has filled out the bigger picture. Its vision is clearer, and it's now so much more than just space ninjas brawling in corridors. Some of Warframe's best moments involve venturing into the realms of deep space, exploring open worlds and, yes, engaging in combat to power up and take on greater challenges.

When it comes to its gameplay and narrative, Warframe always seems to chuck you into the deep end. The larger story focuses on an interstellar clan of warriors known as the Tenno as they reacquaint themselves with a grander universe in perpetual conflict. You take control of a reawakened Frame--revitalized Tenno fighters from the distant past--to engage in missions against a myriad of enemy factions. This conceit of spacefaring ninjas slashing and shooting across the universe holds the loose narrative together while also giving you an impressive amount of freedom. Several cinematic quests shed light on the history of the Tenno, leading up to some profound moments that reveal a surprising depth for your character and their place in the galaxy.

Warframe is a massive game with numerous, complex systems to dive into--but therein lies the rub. It's a challenging game to crack; even with hundreds of hours under my belt, I can still feel overwhelmed by how much game there is to unpack. However, the trick to understanding this game lies within finding your own focus in the nebulous grind--whether that's taking on a variety of side-activities and missions on a series of planets or investing time to customize, experiment, and tweak your favorite Frames.

It can often feel like playing catch-up, considering there is six years' worth of content in the package, but it's a game that rewards taking the time to soak it all in, instead of rushing through. How you get accustomed to this surprisingly sink-or-swim structure will determine the mileage you get out of it. Most missions are singular, discrete encounters across the solar system. This piecemeal structure ultimately makes the massive game more digestible. There's a staggering amount of activities to dive into, and with over 40 hyper-stylized Frames to utilize, there's a constant sense of fun and surprise when discovering how deep it all runs. However, while the opening missions do well to get you into the basic swing of things when it comes to its core gameplay, the more in-depth systems are left for you to decipher on your own.

The overall speed and flexibility in its action is something that it continually excels at, and there's a constant sense of grace and finesse that can make even the ordinary missions thrilling.

This mostly hands-off approach in getting you acclimated can sometimes manifest feelings of aimlessness. And it's magnified when it becomes apparent that there isn't a traditional endgame to work up to. There are higher-end missions and stories designed for more experienced players, some focusing on endless fights against waves of enemies, but there isn't anything like raids to unlock later on. In many ways, you're introduced to that familiar endgame grind from the onset, and that often entails fine-tuning your suite of Frames to tackle many of the game's tougher challenges.

The true star of Warframe are the various Frames, with each possessing their own unique designs and abilities. The pursuit of new characters to play as is one of the many constants in your journey, often dictating where you should invest your time. It always feels rewarding when you find a new Frame, especially when it's one that stands apart from the others. Some are highly specialized, such as the stealth-oriented Ash or the aquatic, alien-tentacle-summoning Hydroid. Another standout is Octavia, a Bard-like Frame that lets you craft custom music to amplify your abilities and attack enemies. One time, a squadmate of mine used Octavia's skills to effortlessly clear a hallway full of enemies--all to the tune of Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It."

There is a ridiculous amount of room to experiment, and it can be especially fun strengthening one of the beginner Frames with powerful mods and armaments that can melt through enemies. It's also impressive how in-depth customization and personalization is in Warframe--you can apply different shaders, accessories, and even alter their particular animation set, and it's rare to find another player who has the same style and loadout.

It's a necessity to get your Frame to reach its potential for them to be viable for more advanced activities. If you don't apply the correct mods and buffs to your character, it can often stop you in your tracks at some inconvenient moments in your progression. If you're committed to figuring out the intricacies of the game, then using online guides to understand these advanced mechanics, much like with other aspects of the game, is a must. These resources are a big help, but it's disappointing how often you have to use them, as opposed to the game teaching you the same information. Without them, learning these systems on your own can be a significant test of patience.

You'll quickly find yourself in a rhythm of cutting down mobs of enemies and boosting your Frame's strength by collecting mods and earning experience as new gameplay systems and events open up. While the core gameplay is often satisfying, it's still common to see a streak of highly repetitive missions, most of which re-use tile-sets for procedurally-generated levels and objective types. This repetition can create a recurring feeling of déjà vu throughout, and there were times when this left me feeling exhausted after an extended play session with the game.

To help ease this sense of repetition, Warframe does inject a number of variations on standard missions, as well as adding in new activities. Along with Nightmare challenges, harder versions of previously completed levels, several missions even remix past stages by including multiple enemy factions within one level, making some standard objectives far more hectic. Some objectives feature totally different gameplay modes, in particular incorporating the Archwing, which switches up the familiar action sequences with Wing Commander-style shooter levels. There's even a set of PvP game types, such as the Conclave and Duel modes, with the latter letting you invite another player to a player-made clan dojo to engage in a solo fight. Unfortunately, the PvP activities come across as exceedingly basic and clunky compared to the core PvE experience.

Despite how much the game has grown over the years by adding in game-changing features, Waframe's roots are still planted firmly in its fast-paced and satisfying core combat. The overall speed and flexibility in its action is something that it continually excels at, and there's a constant sense of grace and finesse that can make even the ordinary missions thrilling. It often shows similar shades to a fast-paced corridor shooter by way of a stunning character-action game, with your squad tearing through enemies using myriad skills and armaments.

The core combat and general traversal of Warframe can move at a blistering pace. Despite how complex they can get, they're still intuitive enough to dive into, and you can pull off Warframe's advanced acrobatics like gliding, wall-runs, and the appropriately named "Bullet Jump"--which darts your character in any direction--reasonably quickly. Melee combat also features its own complexities, allowing you to use an assortment of combos and aerial abilities to cut through legions of foes in flashy display. Over time, chaining together slick parkour leaps into fast strikes with your weapons can become second nature, resulting in Warframe's most gratifying and stylish encounters.

Warframe can be daunting for newcomers, yet it can also prove a challenge for players--like myself--who take an extended break and have to learn the basics of new features while simultaneously unlearning outdated ones. Such is the case for online games, and fortunately, Warframe does have an active and open community to trade with and seek assistance from, and you can directly interact with others at various social spaces across different planets. It's common that you might have to consult outside resources in order to figure out what to do next, or else your progress might come to a halt abruptly.

Stick with the game long enough, and you'll unlock access to the more involved cinematic story missions and open-world settings that best show the game's considerable growth. Unlike the fragmented storytelling in most of the game, these two pillars present a more guided plot that offers memorable narrative and character moments. Some of these missions even include the surprising addition of a dialogue system, which can result in some slightly different events in questlines.

In the open-world settings of the Plains of Eidolon and the Orb Vallis, which open after you reach the planets they're located on, you can take in the sights of the large-scale worlds, take on dynamic bounties and events with squads, and even learn more about the brewing conflict within each setting. The Vallis' story is especially engaging, dealing with workers' rights and the perils of late-stage capitalism in the interstellar age. Though these main stories set in the open worlds tend to end far too quickly, the amount of nuance and narrative packed in was impressive, which left me wanting to spend more time in the settings to continue interacting with its characters.

I'm continually pleased with the flexibility of Warframe's many systems, and how it allows for you to attain a variety of rewards and unlocks at your own pace. Of course, there is an assortment of items, weapons, and even Frames to purchase with real money or with Platinum, Warframe's premium currency. Fortunately, most items in the game are attainable through gameplay, allowing you to get into the nitty-gritty of the game's content mostly unabated. The in-game economy of Warframe is very active, and if you're resourceful enough, you can even trade some of your own gear and blueprints with other players for Platinum as well.

When new content is introduced, the pathway to experiencing the quests or acquiring the next Frame is available to all players. This relaxed approach is reassuring, especially for a game of this magnitude. I generally find acquiring gear and new classes to be quite manageable. However, there are still some time-sinks that feel mostly arbitrary, resulting in the expected and sometimes lengthy grind that's commonplace in free-to-play games. To that end, the primary intent of Platinum is to circumvent both investments of time and resources.

Thinking back to GameSpot's original review, it's interesting how much the game has improved, yet also how much has stayed the same. The game still has issues with repetition and lack of explanations for its more complex systems, but it's managed to overcome their severity by introducing so many events and revisions that continue to elevate it. While there are inevitable bouts of frustration here and there, I always manage to center myself once I move on to other opportunities. In a lot of ways, that's what Warframe manages to do best. One moment you're taking part in a random spy mission on Saturn, and the next, you're partnered up with a powerful squad of players that help you through several void fissures. Just when you feel like you've hit a lull, a better, and more fulfilling opportunity will likely present itself. Perhaps most importantly, Warframe makes sure that the time spent in its world is almost always well rewarded.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order Review In Progress - Superpowered

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 09:00

Marvel's popularity has grown exponentially in the 10 years since Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 was first released, as forays into shared universes in both film and TV have propelled the company to the forefront of pop culture relevance. Previously obscure characters such as the Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel, and Black Panther have risen to prominence thanks to appearances in movies, becoming household names, while new characters like Miles Morales, Ms. Marvel, and Spider-Gwen have made their debuts in the vibrant pages of comic books. The stacked roster in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order reflects the past 10 years of Marvel's history, assembling a cast of beloved characters, both old and new, that extends its reach into almost every corner of the cosmos. The diversity of Ultimate Alliance's playable characters has always been the series' strongest aspect, and that remains true in Ultimate Alliance 3, where our favorite heroes team up for an enjoyable adventure brimming with synergized action.

Much like its predecessors, Ultimate Alliance 3 is an isometric action-RPG, hack-and-slash hybrid featuring four playable characters at any one time that you can switch between on the fly. There are a couple of left-field character inclusions counted amongst its comprehensive roster, like the monster-hunting Elsa Bloodstone and The Inhumans' Crystal, but it's an otherwise familiar list of names that features everyone from Hawkeye and Doctor Strange to Iron Man and Thor. Somewhat predictably, the plot revolves around the Infinity Stones after a Guardians of the Galaxy-related mishap scatters them across the Earth and into the hands of the evil-doers in Marvel's rogues' gallery.

Thanos and his ruthless Black Order play their part, but the story is less Marvel Cinematic Universe and more Saturday morning cartoon. That works in the game's favor, and the light-hearted writing and enthusiastic voice acting carry a narrative that does as much as it can with so many characters vying for screen time. There are fun one-liners, and the characters feel true to the ones we know, with their iterations pulling from the MCU, comics, and TV. It also helps that this isn't simply a rehash of well-trodden ground, despite the presence of many common elements. Instead, Ultimate Alliance 3 tells an original tale that takes some inspiration from 1991's The Infinity Gauntlet, while also encompassing various aspects of Marvel's films, comic books, and TV shows to create something of its own.

You only need to glance at the roster to see how Ultimate Alliance 3 pulls from every eclectic branch of the Marvel machine. Costumes and character designs are judiciously plucked from numerous sources--all homogenized by a uniform comic book-inspired art style that's full of color. The most important thing about these characters, however, is how each of them feels to play. Each hero has light and heavy attacks that can unleash various combos, as well as four super abilities that are gradually unlocked as each character levels up. There's also a block that negates some damage and a handy roll for dodging out of danger. Simple stuff. What elevates Ultimate Alliance 3's combat is the variety inherent to each of its heroes and the numerous ways in which they work in tandem. Take someone like Captain America, for example, who's all about punching enemies in the face and following up with a vibranium shield to the ribs. He plays a lot differently to a ranged character like Star-Lord, who is ideally suited to fighting from a distance with his dual elemental pistols and flight-enabling jet boots. The differences aren't just restricted to each hero's choice of weaponry or traversal, either; the Hulk is a lumbering force of nature, Wolverine strikes with quick and agile ferocity, and myriad damage types like piercing, ethereal, fire, and ice differentiate each character even further.

Then there are the abilities that tap into every hero's spate of superpowers. An energy meter governs how often you can let loose with these snazzy attacks, but Ultimate Alliance 3 is fairly generous about replenishing any lost energy in rapid fashion. This is important because using these abilities with abandon and combining them with others is a ton of fun. The basic light/heavy combat is satisfying on its own. There's a lot of button mashing, but fights can get pretty hectic when enemy projectiles are bouncing all over the screen, so you still need to be wary of your positioning and be able to avoid danger. Abilities add another layer, letting you blast away a crowd of goons with a wrecking ball comprised of Spider-Man's webs, spin Mjolnir around in a deadly electrified circle, or mow down anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way of Ghost Rider's hellfire bike.

Proximity to teammates also allows you to combine certain abilities with others to unleash devastating synergy attacks that amplify their damage output, whether it's Iron Man reflecting his beam off Captain America's shield or Deadpool tossing a deluge of grenades as Storm shoots a bolt of lightning out of her fingertips. Dole out enough punishment and you can activate a big Alliance Extreme attack that triggers all four of your character's synergy attacks at once, filling the screen with a vivid cascade of particle effects, explosions, and ever-increasing damage numbers. The frame rate can take a hit during these moments, but you're just watching the fireworks at that point, so it isn't really an issue in gameplay.

The diversity of Ultimate Alliance's playable characters has always been the series' strongest aspect, and that remains true in Ultimate Alliance 3, where our favorite heroes team up for an enjoyable adventure brimming with synergized action

The level design is fairly straightforward, funneling you down corridors and into more open areas with little deviation. This does, however, lend itself to a sense of forward momentum as you're constantly encountering new foes to fight. The only thing that slows it down are some terribly dull puzzles that are fortunately few and far between, revolving around pressing levers and pushing boxes, and a camera that has a tendency to get stuck behind objects or jitter up and down when not completely stuck. This is an occasional problem during combat when you're momentarily blind to enemy attacks, but it can be an annoyance when simply traversing as well.

It's a shame you can't just forget the camera is even there because each level takes place in a new location and the environments on show are fantastically varied. Dimension-hopping allows the action to venture away from Earth and into some of Marvel's more outlandish settings as you barrel towards the end credits, and Ultimate Alliance 3 makes good use of the sheer number of enemy factions that exist in the Marvel universe. Within the first couple of hours you'll brawl your way through The Raft and tangle with Spider-Man's nemeses before joining Daredevil and Iron Fist in a battle against The Hand's ninja army. This makes for a disparate mix of enemy types and aesthetics that keeps each level feeling fresh, and the same can be said of the plethora of boss fights you regularly encounter, too.

Facing off against the likes of Green Goblin, Dormammu, and Ultron can be quite challenging by yourself on the default difficulty level. Fortunately, there's a surprising amount of depth when it comes to upgrading each hero. Aside from accumulating XP to unlock more abilities, you can also spend currency to enhance each of their powers, reducing the energy cost or improving their potency. There's also a sprawling hexagonal skill tree that allows you to purchase stat increases that are applied to every hero on the roster, whether you're improving their strength, vitality, and resilience or unlocking various offensive and defensive buffs. Meanwhile, ISO-8 crystals give you the opportunity to apply additional bonuses to specific heroes. It's minute stuff like increasing health or decreasing damage under certain conditions, but it makes a difference and gives you a degree of customization that can be used to turn the tide of battle--and that's without even mentioning the importance of your chosen team's makeup.

Picking heroes that work well together applies various team bonuses that can further enhance their stats. This is based on tangibles like their team affiliation, intelligence, agility, and so on. You could assemble a team of the original Avengers, the X-Men, Defenders, or Midnight Sons and see an increase in particular stats that will also take into account whether any of the heroes have shared traits like "wisecracking warrior" or "anti-hero." Maybe you want to compile a team of web-slingers, Marvel royalty, or one that encompasses the women of Marvel. You have the opportunity to recreate canon teams or mix and match to create your own based on which bonuses are applied and how they can benefit you.

The only problem with all of this is that heroes only level up when you use them. Increases in strength, vitality and other similar skills are applied to everyone, but as you reach the latter half of the campaign, the lack of abilities, their upgrades, and the capability to equip multiple ISO-8s is keenly felt in your lower-level heroes, which means you end up neglecting most of the roster because they just aren't powerful enough. The workaround for this comes in the shape of XP boosts you can discover within levels and by completing optional Infinity Rifts that task you with repeating modified boss fights and challenges to earn different rewards. Getting enough XP boosts can be a long, grindy process, though, and that's just to get enough to significantly level up a single character. The diversity of Ultimate Alliance 3's roster is one of its core pillars, so feeling restricted to only using a few heroes during its final hours is a glaring disappointment.

More so than its predecessors, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order excels because of its character diversity and the ways its disparate heroes work together. For this reason alone it's an ideal co-op game, whether you're playing with another friend in the same room or with three friends online, but the AI more than holds its own if you're playing alone, too. It falters in places, but there's still nothing quite like the Ultimate Alliance series, and this long-awaited third entry makes it a triumphant return for a superhero brawler that feels more relevant than ever.

Editor's note: This review will be updated and finalized once we've tested more of the cooperative multiplayer, both locally and online, after the servers are populated.

Etherborn Review

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 23:00

The manicured lawns in Etherborn are minimally sculptured. Their soil is thinly layered with patches of grass contained within grey slabs of concrete, and they stand in stark contrast to a backdrop of crumbling pillars and decrepit buildings. And like examining the self-contained scenes of a diorama, you'll find yourself ruminating over these landscapes as you unravel the puzzle of how to traverse them. But while Etherborn's minimalist beauty carries suggestions of loftier and more ambitious storytelling it's instead hampered a dissonant narrative, and a brevity that makes it feel lacking.

Like many platformers, Etherborn seems deceptively simple initially: just leapfrog your way towards the level's finale while collecting crystalline orbs that unlock previously inaccessible areas. In fact, some of Etherborn's geometric planes and architectural complexity very much harken back to Monument Valley, a title that famously plays on optical illusions and the mathematically-inspired art of MC Escher. What makes this puzzle game different is that its laws of gravity aren't like our world's. You can simply walk across any surface--even those perpendicular to your character--as long as there's a curved edge that connects them. However, you're still vulnerable to injuries and death; accidentally sliding off these landscapes and into the endless void below is a possibility.

Scaling these lopsided grounds introduces another dimension and new, unforeseen challenges. Etherborn often manipulates your perspectives, challenging you to find the abstract solutions to its puzzles. There are occasions where I was left baffled, unable to move on, only to realize much later that I didn't notice a few platforms I could jump on because they were turned onto their sides. At other times, you may even spend the bulk of a level on a horizontal wall and leaping over chasms within the same plane--a perspective that's tough to get the hang of. It's highly likely that you'll slip through the cracks at least once or twice due to the obtuse angles and see yourself spiraling downwards into the emptiness below (or sideways, given the game's unconventional gravitational pull).

Key to solving some puzzles is a keen eye for detail, which can help you to spot obscure passageways that open another route to your goal. Becoming intimately familiar with the nooks and crannies of every miniature world is something you'll want to do not only to satisfy your curiosity about the environment--it's also necessary if you want to get through the game's levels. Upping the ante in later chapters are shifting monochrome blocks, which expand and retract depending on where you are--and they can be a great source of grievance when they hinder your path.

It would have been a drag to commit to all these efforts if Etherborn's ecosystem were a lusterless one. Luckily, wandering and discovering each microcosm is mostly joyful and even oddly meditative. You can hike along the side of a flight of steps and find a starkly different landscape tucked away underneath, or run along the contours of the structures surrounding the island. Even though Etherborn's world is sparsely decorated and may even appear sterile, with only a few shrubberies, dandelions and elements of urban decay adorning each world, it is a universe still feels genuinely intriguing.

Discovering a hidden passage or a curved pathway as a new means of moving forward toward uncharted surfaces is hugely gratifying. Given that you'll probably be devoting a fair amount of time tinkering away at its puzzles, it also helps that the orchestral, instrumental soundtrack is soothing and non-intrusive. And while there are only five chapters in the game, each will probably take you at least an hour to figure out. Coupled with its steep levels of difficulty, it's also comforting that mistakes via accidental deaths are also quickly forgiven, with the game swiftly transporting you back to the state you were in a few seconds ago.

What's decidedly less impressive, however, is how hard Etherborn tries to shoehorn an ill-fitting narrative within the puzzles. You're a featureless, transparent humanoid figure with a very visible circulatory system, a character vaguely resembling the human anatomy mannequin found in a biology classroom. At the behest of an incorporeal, hallowed voice, you're tasked to travel across these lands in search of a series of waypoints. Tapping on these will eventually reveal various paths on a massive tree called the Endless Tree, its bark gradually peeling off to expose a meandering, vein-like system across its trunk that ties all the chapters together. It's a nifty inclusion that references the game's imagery of humanity and anatomy, but ultimately an inconsequential one.

Even as this disembodied voice tells a story that alludes to the beginnings of human civilization, the plot feels perfunctory and strangely divorced from its puzzles. Aside from introducing each chapter, the voice doesn't influence the game very much; instead, it simply delves into vague parables about the folly of human nature, without really explaining the significance of your mannequin character and this exotic world. This sense of dissonance makes the tale rather tenuous to follow. Exacerbating this is how the dialogue is filled with abstract ideas that teeter on pretentiousness, bloated with lofty lines like, "And so, their vast ego was also reduced to mere language." Etherborn would have been even more intriguing had it allowed you to project your own stories and interpretations onto this universe--like many curious onlookers would as they peer into a diorama.

The highlights of Etherborn are undoubtedly its inventive puzzles and its constellation of small, compelling worlds. But with just five chapters, its brief runtime feels lacking, and it left me wanting for more puzzles to solve. Etherborn attempts to compensate for this by unlocking a new game plus mode after you've completed the game, which lets you dive into the same worlds once more. This mode is largely similar to the original one, the only difference being the crystalline orbs, which are located in harder-to-reach places. Apart from the slightly more challenging platforming puzzles, however, the electrifying thrill of discovery has largely subsided--you've already found all the secrets, after all--and there's little incentive to revisit it. By the end, even the allure of these small worlds isn't enough to make you return, with only the yearning for more remaining in its wake.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 Review - Building On A Strong Foundation

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 04:31

The old adage of "don't judge a book by its cover" doesn't just apply to printed matter. When you first see images and screenshots of Dragon Quest Builders 2, it's easy to write the game off as yet another blocky-building sandbox game. But Dragon Quest Builders 2 is more than just your run-of-the-mill material-gathering, object-crafting, block-laying game. Its virtual community-creating gameplay stands out among the crowd, jam-packed with the warmth, joy, and charm that makes the Dragon Quest series so delightfully memorable.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 begins with your player character, a Builder with the ability to move and create objects, winding up stranded on a strange archipelago. Long ago, these islands flourished with a great civilization--up until a cult called the Children of Hargon gained power, destroying all that existed and forbidding those in its thrall from creating anything new. It's up to you and your mysterious friend, a snarky, aggressive boy named Malroth, to destroy the cult's hold on the people and restore these islands to their former glory, one block at a time. Much like how the original Dragon Quest Builders was a take on a what-if ending for the original Dragon Quest, Dragon Quest Builders 2 takes the ending of Dragon Quest II and turns it on its head--but you don't need to be familiar with that game to get a lot of enjoyment out of this one. (You will appreciate several of the callbacks, though.)

The core gameplay loop in Dragon Quest Builders is immensely satisfying. You have a central island, the Isle of Awakening, that acts like one big sandbox, along with several other islands both large and small that you can visit to gather materials and advance the main story. The larger islands all feature a big, overarching quest to restore a destroyed population center, which you'll accomplish by completing numerous smaller sub-quests to build facilities, find new materials, help individual NPCs, and explore different areas. Completing these quests rewards you with the gratitude of those you've aided, which in turn yields new item-creation recipes, improves the skills of the NPCs at the base, and brings more characters to the area to help with building, farming, mining, and monster-slaying. When you finally complete the lengthy main quest on each of the bigger islands, several of the NPCs will return with you to the Isle of Awakening, eager to aid you in building your own unique city and letting you run absolutely wild with your creative town-building concepts.

Part of what makes this gameplay loop so fulfilling is that doing these dozens upon dozens of small errands for NPCs rarely becomes tedious. The characters you meet in Dragon Quest Builders 2 are lively and full of personality (and funny accents), and helping them out with their needs to receive their heartfelt thanks just feels really, really good. You also get the joy of watching a town transform from a barely-functional series of ramshackle hovels into a thriving community thanks to your persistence and kindness. When you finish a new building or complete a task, the populace gathers around to showcase their elation and shower you with gratitude points--a simple reward that nonetheless feels wonderful to get.

It also helps that the world itself is tremendously fun to explore. The varied settings you encounter in your quest offer a variety of things to discover: towering hills, sandy beaches, secret underground caverns, ancient ruins, waterlogged bogs, and so on. You'll find plenty to do out in Dragon Quest Builders 2's expansive environments, and by exploring, you're amply rewarded with rare materials, optional side quests, some new NPC companions, and even a few simple puzzles that yield nice rewards upon completion. There are even a few randomly generated small islands you can sail out to that offer fresh experiences every time you visit, allowing you the chance to see interesting procedurally-made environments, collect lots of unique, rare materials and bring them all home to build the city of your dreams.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Dragon Quest game without many of the series' beloved monster designs. While a few non-humans are friendly to you, most of the monsters you encounter are strict adherents of the Children of Hargon and want nothing more than to destroy you and everything you've made. You'll have to fight them off if you want to keep on building. Unfortunately, you're a Builder, not a fighter, so your combat prowess for a lot of the game feels quite lacking.

As a result, combat winds up being the weakest part of the game. While it's a marked improvement over the original Dragon Quest Builders, offering you a lot more control over your character and bringing NPCs into the mix to aid you in fighting, it still feels quite bland most of the time--you'll just run up to enemies, whack them with a few basic weapon strikes, and hope they die sooner rather than later. The NPC warriors that join you on expeditions and when your bases and city need defending are far more useful for fighting off enemies than you are most of the time, particularly Malroth, who is an absolute beast when it comes to monster-mashing. I frequently found myself just waiting for Malroth to whittle down enemies' health before I went in to finish them off and collect EXP and loot. The boss fights utilize some gimmicks involving your Builder abilities that make them significantly more interesting than normal fights, but they're few and far between. At least combat isn't a primary focus of the game, and new abilities and items you build as you progress help with enemy destruction--but combat never really stops feeling like an annoying distraction to what you want to do most: explore and build stuff.

But whatever problems the game has are quickly negated by everything else Dragon Quest Builders 2 does well. Characters are quirky and memorable with wonderfully written dialogue (though they're sometimes a smidge too chatty), you get lots of cool materials to work with over the course of the game to build and customize your city, and everything, from the controls to the visuals and audio to the interface, feels inviting, engaging, and fun. Occasionally there's a bit of tiny text that's hard to read (a problem made worse when playing in handheld mode on Switch), but the vast majority of the time you'll be too busy building away to care about the game's small irritations.

Online co-op play opens once you have cleared the game’s first major quest. Unfortunately, while you can’t play the campaign in a co-op session, you are still allowed to build on the Isle of Awakening alongside a buddy or three. Working together to build your island is as fun as playing solo—maybe even more so—and the various customization items you can craft to wear during these sessions add a lot of goofy charm to the proceedings. In our testing, sessions with other players located in North America went smoothly, with few noticeable lag hiccups. If you want to show off but don’t feel like having a virtual block party, there’s also a bulletin board where players from around the world can post, tag, and share screenshots of their creations in-game.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a great game, combining exploration, sandbox-building, questing, and town-management into a delightful package that will gladly suck up your time and put a big smile on your face. It's the sort of game that you'll intend to play for a little while, only to find that hours have flown by once you manage to actually put it down. Don't dismiss this one when you see big square blocks on the box--you'll be missing out on a very fun twist on an excellent gaming foundation.

Night Call Review

Wed, 07/17/2019 - 23:00

The taxi cab is refitted as a confession booth in Night Call, a noir-styled visual novel that interweaves a series of murder mysteries through the tales of dozens of ordinary Parisian. The threads of their lives intermingling as you crisscross the streets of the city; Everyone's a little frail or fragile, much like the fabric of the game's core investigation, and it's the insights into people's everyday hopes, fears, and secrets that linger long after the end credits have rolled.

You play as Houssine, an Algerian immigrant living in Paris. Much of his background is elided, or only revealed in suggestion over the course of the game, but he is Muslim, sports a thick, dark beard, and works as a cab driver on the night shift. Houssine is recently back behind the wheel after an assault that saw him hospitalized and, because of who he is, a suspect in the very crime of which he was a victim.

Houssine understands what it means to feel like an outsider. There's been a terrorist attack recently, the details of which remain unspecified, but Arab men like Houssine are singled out for suspicion, their mere presence a cause for concern. His assault also resulted in the death of another person, the latest in a series of deaths that the police are keen to pin on him. One detective, however, disagrees and offers Houssine a deal: Help her investigation into the murders and he'll walk free.

It feels right that Houssine would be of interest to the police given the political climate (both current and echoed in-game) and the hints at his troubled past. And it feels authentic that someone would pressure him to essentially become an informant, the kind of blackmail that insinuates that inside the moral grey area of society lies a corrupt, black core. These themes--of feeling like you don’t belong, of a rotten system operating to exclude all but the privileged few--infuse not just Houssine’s personal experience but of many of the people he encounters, and work well in linking together an otherwise disparate collection of stories. At one point a young black man from Chicago (he’s in Paris studying to become a mime, hilariously) gets into Houssine’s cab after a humiliating run-in with the police, and they bond over their shared experiences. “I’d say the police have a problem with black people,” Houssine says, then grins, “... and Arabs.”

Each night, Houssine hits the streets to track down clues and follow up leads, all while performing his regular job. From a map of the city, you select a fare to take and watch a yellow arrow navigate to its destination, the scene then overlaying an interior shot of the cab with Houssine front right and his passenger(s) in the back seat behind.

At this point, the only thing to do is talk. Conversations are entirely text-based, with you selecting dialogue options on Houssine's behalf interspersed with his internal observations. Despite being minimally animated, with a handful of poses and expressions each, each character conveys a remarkable range of emotion and succeeds in bringing to vivid life each new person you encounter.

It's a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, too. In total there are 75 passengers to meet over the course of the game, drawn from a broad range of ages, social classes, ethnicities, sexualities and, in one or possibly two cases, dimensions. They each have their own stories to tell, and Houssine seems to be the man chosen to hear them all.

That's because while he's an outsider, as a cab driver, Houssine's difference is camouflaged. Many of the people he picks up are oblivious to him, at least at first. Couples discuss private matters as if he is not there. Lone passengers mutter to themselves, seemingly unaware of the possibility there's a real human being sharing the vehicle with them. When they do notice him, one passenger scoffs at the idea that a lowly cab driver could have any useful advice. Another passenger assumes Houssine has certain political sympathies because he's a brown, working-class man. "According to the people of this country, you don't count," one character tells him, with weary resignation. Houssine is both othered and unseen, tagged as different and yet simultaneously erased.

However, some passengers are immediately warm towards Houssine, while others, if distant or cautious to begin with, soon find themselves disarmed. Regardless of their disposition, however, they're all willing to reveal the most intimate details of their inner lives with often only the slightest bit of delicate prodding. There's the politician who is at the end of his tether over endemic corruption and pleads with Houssine to help him leak confidential documents. There's the lesbian couple who are loudly debating the merits of the prospective sperm donor with whom they have just concluded a "date." There's the former porn actress who is eager to talk all about her new pro-union production company making gender-positive porn movies. These tales are often funny, moving, and sweet--but moreover, they're always fascinating and exceptionally well-written.

In between these fares, Houssine can visit various locations to further his investigation. He knows someone who works somewhere who might have some information, that sort of thing. But these scenes don't feel as fleshed out as the cab ride conversations. It's not made clear how Houssine knows to go to these places or why many of these contacts are able to help him. Indeed, much of the casework he's pursuing is obscured, as if key details have been intentionally, frustratingly, left out of reach. When Houssine returns to his apartment each morning and assesses the clues he’s uncovered--presented as hand-written notes pinned to a board--I found it difficult to interpret what much of it meant. By the time Houssine was called upon to accuse a suspect, I made an unconvincing guess that just happened to be correct.

The structure of this series of murder mysteries is strange. There are three cases to choose from when you begin a new game, and each is framed the same way: Houssine finds himself the inadvertent victim of a serial killer and strong-armed by a detective to assist the investigation. Recurring characters populate each case, though if you meet someone in one case, that relationship won't carry over into the next one. It was very odd to give a ride in the second case to the very same person I'd revealed as the killer in the first. I did learn some more things about him that complicated my feelings about how the first case was resolved, but I couldn’t help but wish I’d encountered this conversation while pursuing that first case.

Houssine can't just focus on his detective work. He needs to earn a living, too. Fuel for your cab, daily car maintenance, and repayments on your cab license are all a drain on your bank account that can only be plugged by picking up new fares. Your boss says you're like a son to him, but if you don't make enough money from your shift and can't afford to pay his cut, the car maintenance, and the license fee, he fires you on the spot and it's game over.

I like the theory behind this slight economic sim layer. It's there to ensure you feel the precariousness of Houssine's existence while also nudging you towards interacting with all the characters who don't really have anything to do with the core mystery. But my experience of the normal difficulty setting was that it felt too punitive. On my first case, I entered an all-too-real downward spiral where I simply couldn't pull Houssine out of the red and had to abandon the game. On the easy difficulty, Houssine still loses money each night, but he starts with a buffer sufficient to see the story through.

If you're going to play Night Call, then play it on the "Story" setting. The normal difficulty claims it is "the way Night Call is meant to be played." I disagree. Night Call is at its best when you're behind the wheel, gliding through the rain-kissed boulevards, lost in conversation with whichever lost soul just happened to appear in the back seat of your cab. It presents itself as a noir mystery, but the murders you’re investigating are the least interesting narrative element. Night Call’s real strength is in the stories it tells about Paris, about the people who live there and the meaningful connections you can have with them no matter how brief or unexpected. It's these people you'll remember once you've solved each case, not the fares you charged them.

SolSeraph Review - Play God

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 05:00

SolSeraph is overtly inspired by the Super NES cult classic ActRaiser. If there was any shred of doubt of its roots given its mixture of action-platforming and sim-style management, that was removed when it opened with a slow spinning first-person view barrelling towards the earth--an homage to ActRaiser's Mode-7 showpiece so specific that it virtually winks at the audience. Curiously, though, it's some of SolSeraph's departures from ActRaiser that let it stand on its own, for better and for worse.

SolSeraph puts you in the divine boots of Helios, the Knight of Dawn, as he helps build civilization and fight against a set of Younger Gods who each manifest as the embodiment of a natural disaster. There is a hodge-podge of religious iconography at play, and Helios looks especially angelic, but this isn't tied to any specific faith. Instead, SolSeraph invents its own mythology, borrowing bits and pieces from world religions.

Each of the five territories consists of two distinct game types. To begin, you fight through monsters to unlock a new civilization. Each one is housed on its own environment type which presents its own set of hazards. An island nation is prone to constant flooding, for example, while the snowy northern tribe has trouble tending farms and needs to rely on livestock instead. You guide the people to manage their population and resources, like food and lumber, while also building defensive structures to fend off attacks from monsters. Then you can build a temple near one of the monster lairs, take part in another action-platforming or arena battle to clear it, and continue until you unlock the final portion that houses the Younger God boss.

This all may sound very familiar to ActRaiser fans, but the focus on defending against waves of monster attacks is actually a wild departure. SolSeraph's approach is more akin to a tower defense game, as the waves of monsters all march on a set path toward a centralized base marked by a campfire. Defeating waves of monsters takes a variety of defensive structures, even earning its own part in the radial menu, along with the godly powers to summon lightning or dispatch a guardian. In short, it takes the formerly minor threat of monster attacks and makes it much more active and central to the experience.

On one hand, this change makes the sim portions feel that much more dynamic. Protecting your people from brutal waves of monster attacks can be much more frenetic than the relaxed, casual sensation of watching your society grow and occasionally guiding your people in the right direction. On the other hand, this approach comes at the expense of what made ActRaiser such an interesting examination of faith.

In ActRaiser, society grew on its own as you mildly steered them, and your tools were limited. You could summon an earthquake to destroy houses and encourage stronger building, but you couldn't meticulously place each individual building on a grid. In some ways, ActRaiser functioned as a reflection on the limitations of divinity. Interactions were indirect, and the stories that played out were sometimes tragic. The people assumed it must be the will of a higher power, but in reality, you were powerless to stop some events that they had set in motion by their own free will. It's a powerful idea that, in SolSeraph, is undermined by having such direct control over everything your civilization does.

The spirit is still there, to a point. The people pray to Helios without ever hearing an answer, so the idea is still present that they're operating on faith and hoping some dispassionate deity will end their struggles. But this is present only in short story sequences, and it's discordant with the mechanics of the game itself. There is no sensation that the culture is flourishing on its own. You aren’t gently guiding as much as dictating, which feels oddly out-of-step with the idea that the people have unproven faith in a higher power.

Functionally, the sim segments are relatively simplistic but often unintuitive. Monster waves come infrequently enough that it's often easy to build up a massive arsenal of defenses before the first attack ever comes. There's no real penalty for failure, and in fact getting a game over screen just starts the monster clock over again from zero while keeping all of your recent building changes. At the same time, it isn't always clear where the monsters will be coming from or in what numbers. Building temples to clear monster lairs relies on meeting a threshold of "Souls," which are gathered from defeated monsters. This can be counterintuitive in a game about a god gathering worshippers, who could also logically be counted as souls and more sensibly connect to building a worship temple. Instead, the population only matters inasmuch as it gives you bodies to assign to defensive structures and farms. There is no counter for your total number of assigned versus idle villagers, which means you may reassign them at a critical moment by accident.

The game’s other half, the action-platforming segments, can be unforgiving. The controls are rigid and monsters come from all sides, which often makes it difficult to turn quickly to take on different threats. Life comes at a premium, with very sparse health regen and a magic spell that only recharges one measly health point at a time. Checkpoints are often nowhere to be found, which is especially frustrating when you accidentally wander into an optional area with a tougher battle that grants some small permanent reward like extra Weather Magic for the sim portion.

Much more problematic in the action sequences is the interplay between the foreground and background. Helios does his battle strictly on one plane, but enemies often approach from the foreground or background. You can see them approaching, but until they reach your plane, slashing with your sword won't touch them. The transition between untouchable and vulnerable isn't clearly signaled, so oftentimes your best bet is to slash wildly at an approaching enemy until it takes damage--but since some of them fly diagonally towards you, this isn't foolproof. The interplay between these areas can present a good challenge when it's just background characters firing projectiles that you'll need to dodge, but the tendency for enemies to cross from one plane to another just creates more frustration than it's worth.

The Younger Gods boss characters are the exception to this rule and where the combat shines. The old-school challenge isn’t hampered by the gimmick present in normal enemy encounters. Better yet, the collection of boss designs are largely a creative mixture of different cultural traditions from around the world, and each one’s power set and attack patterns connect with the natural disasters they have represented for your people. Defeating them grants you a new power, but it’s nearly as satisfying to have defeated the personification of floods, drought, or wildfires, after watching your culture struggle with them.

SolSeraph could have hemmed slightly closer to the conventions of its clear inspiration, and it may have been better for it. The changes to the sim aspect create gameplay depth at the expense of tonal depth, and the action segments can be annoyingly clunky, especially with the unnecessary addition of enemies that are untouchable until an unclear point in time. The willingness to riff on one of the most beloved classics of an entire console era shows a remarkable amount of audacity, and it actually halfway works. It's the half that doesn't that makes SolSeraph such a qualified recommendation.

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