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Noita Review

Wed, 10/21/2020 - 08:26

One of Noita's best spells is the ability to summon a torrential downpour from thin air. A heavy, magical cloud bursts open above you, extinguishing damaging flames or washing away toxic poisons. Having this ability on one of my many runs always reassured me that I could be a little more reckless with my navigation through Noita's dangerous biomes--at least it did, until I discovered that I could just as easily drown myself in many of its narrow and twisting procedurally-generated mazes.

A big part of Noita's appeal is watching how all its physics-based systems interact with each other. This 2D roguelike's dynamic world is brought to life with vibrant pixels, each one reactive to the world and circumstances around it. Fires will spread and engulf nearby wooden structures, slowly burning them away. Those wooden structures might support a giant vat of toxic sludge, which will quickly pour through the tunnels of a mine once its supports are gone. This sludge, in turn, can erode enemies, infect life-giving pools of water, and melt away the ground. But it can also just as easily kill you. The simple act of knocking down a lantern creates a deadly domino effect, and part of Noita's appeal is learning to spin that into an advantage.

Noita doesn't give you the means to control this chaos, but with a variety of wands and spells you can learn how to nudge it in advantageous directions. It's easiest to think of wands in Noita as weapons, while spells are the ammunition loaded into them. Each wand features slots for spells, as well as attributes determining casting speeds, delays, and whether spells are shuffled when cast. Spells, on the other hand, determine your overall damage output and effects. This can range from the expected arcane fireballs and small jolts of electricity to the more absurd, such as combining specific spells to summon terrain-consuming black holes that spit out explosives or create magnificent electrical storms that spew out toxins.

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Amnesia: Rebirth Review

Tue, 10/20/2020 - 00:00

Back in 2010, developer Frictional Games set the tone for PC indie horror games with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Focused heavily on story, it created its scares through an intensity of atmosphere and an emphasis on powerlessness. With Amnesia: Rebirth, it feels like Frictional has fully refined its particular approach to horror. You're trapped in a deadly, smothering world, struggling against your character's limitations and even her perceptions. Rebirth is Frictional's best game yet, marrying a deep, mysterious story to the signature mechanics the developer has been refining over the course of 13 years of horror games.

Amnesia: Rebirth continues Frictional's specific approach to story and horror, which emphasizes avoiding conflict, hiding, and mastering your character's own fear. It also adds to the story told in The Dark Descent, although you don't need to know that game well to follow this narrative of this one. (The narrative doesn't link to Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the 2013 follow-up to The Dark Descent.) You play Tasi Trianon, a French woman who joins a mining expedition to Algeria in 1937. In the opening moments of the game, the expedition's plane experiences some supernatural shenanigans that cause it to crash in the desert. Tasi wakes up soon after, alone in the plane, with few memories of what has happened and strange black tendrils creeping into her vision. As she goes searching for survivors, she discovers that the strange bracelet she wakes up wearing can open portals to a dark, ruined parallel world. Tasi goes searching through caves and tunnels for her friends, and the story often pulls her into the alternate dimension as she tries to find her way forward.

Rebirth brings back the main mechanics from The Dark Descent, and really, all of Frictional's games deal in similar sets of ideas. You trace the survivors' path, gathering notes and uncovering clues as to what happened. As you explore the caves, you're quickly plunged into darkness, and as in The Dark Descent, the dark increases Tasi's fear and has palpable effects on her psyche. You're not dealing with a loss of sanity that changes how you perceive the world like in that game, however. Instead, Tasi's increasing fear causes the black tendrils to reappear and her heart to start pounding, and if she gets too afraid, the blackness overtakes her entirely, causing her to lose herself and wake up somewhere else with no memory of how she got there.

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Ring Fit Adventure Review: One Year Later

Mon, 10/19/2020 - 00:00

Editor's note: Ring Fit Adventure first released on October 18, 2019. Because we were unable to review the game back then, we're taking this opportunity--the one-year anniversary of its release--to give it a full evaluation now. In this review, Jenae Sitzes reflects on a full year of on-and-off workouts with Nintendo Switch's premier fitness game.

Over the past decade-plus, Nintendo has established itself as the home for fitness games. Wii Fit and its enhanced version, Wii Fit Plus, have together sold over 43 million copies worldwide, so it was only a matter of time before the company attempted to replicate that success on Nintendo Switch. Fortunately, Wii Fit's successor is far more ambitious than many people may have anticipated. Released one year ago on October 18, 2019, Ring Fit Adventure is not Wii Fit 2.0, but rather a full-blown fitness RPG with an overarching story, skill tree, and vibrant, lively landscapes. Not only is it far more ambitious in terms of scope than its predecessor, but it also fosters a healthier attitude toward fitness and a friendly tone that's relentlessly encouraging without a hint of judgment, even when it's been weeks--or even months--since you last logged in.

In Ring Fit Adventure, you team up with a magical pilates ring to track down and defeat an evil bodybuilding dragon named Dragaux, who is spreading a dark influence across the land. In your pursuit of Dragaux, you jog through beautiful landscapes and engage in turn-based battles against fitness-themed monsters (such as a feisty dumbbell or mischievous yoga mat). In order to attack or defend, you'll have to perform exercises, and the game eventually introduces type matchups--some monsters will be particularly weak to leg moves, for instance. With four different move types available (leg, arm, abs, and yoga), Ring Fit Adventure provides a great full-body workout, and even though some levels may focus on one muscle group over the other, the option to use different move types keeps workouts balanced and prevents you from tiring out too quickly.

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Ikenfell Review

Sat, 10/17/2020 - 10:10

Ikenfell is a magical school in its seemingly natural state: peril. Students have gone missing, strange trees are cropping up, and other magical anomalies plague the land. As Mariette, the non-magical yet still worried sister of one of Ikenfell’s students, you embark on a journey through this pixelated 2D RPG adventure to save her, the school, and maybe the whole world. A number of interesting ideas in both story and combat make Ikenfell an appealing prospect, but since some prove stronger than others in execution, ultimately it's a journey with more than a few bumps in the road.

As the game begins, Mariette almost immediately gains supernatural pyromantic abilities thanks to strange magical occurrences. It actually feels a bit at odds with the message of not needing to be magical to be heroic, which throws the vibe off kilter right from the beginning. The conceit does make sense within the context of the story, though, and sets out one of the first mysteries in the game. New forms of magic are cropping up, and even some who previously had no magical powers suddenly find themselves wielding elemental magic. Mariette can use her new fire power to take on the various magical enemies of Ikenfell in turn-based isometric grid battles, with a bit of a twist.

Ikenfell captured on Nintendo SwitchGallery

Combat is a fairly large part of the game and is mostly turn-based. Turns are split between a movement phase, where you position your team on the battlefield, and then an attack phase where you select from combat options that have their unique ranges and damage, and sometimes added effects. Starting out you’ll have basic attacks which do moderate damage to a single enemy in front of you on the grid. As levels are gained, party members added, and moves are unlocked, more strategies and styles open up.

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NHL 21 Review - Score

Fri, 10/16/2020 - 18:01

EA normally releases new NHL games during the Stanley Cup playoffs when the sporting world is focused on hockey, but complications due to COVID-19 led to a delay for NHL 21. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup weeks ago, and as a result, ice hockey has escaped the wider public sports consciousness as other leagues take hold. But NHL 21 is a compelling reason to care about hockey again, as this year's game delivers a major improvement to the story mode, adds a flashy new arcade-style mode in HUT Rush, and makes the on-the-ice gameplay better than ever thanks to a series of new skill moves that let you play with more style.

Be A Pro 2.0

The biggest new addition for NHL 21 is the expanded and improved Be A Pro. After NHL 20 delivered basically no updates on the career-focused mode, NHL 21 offers a huge step forward thanks to a cinematic-style campaign of sorts, where you create a character and guide them through their career, beginning in either Europe or the Canadian Hockey League and competing for a spot in the NHL. The story beats play out through non-voiced dialogue sequences and cutscenes with coaches, media, and teammates. The main choices you make come from the Team or Star paths, and both have pros and cons to consider as you weigh your options to shape your career in the way you want to.

As an example, my agent called me to ask if I wanted to attend a charity event for a wildlife protection company. I chose the "Team" response, and my brand rating improved because the simulation suggested my fans would see this as a sports star being humble and genuine. However, choosing this option came with a negative effect, too, as my agent told me it was a noble choice but I should also plan for my life after hockey and try to make as much money in my prime as possible. I enjoyed the struggle of making these choices, and I found myself choosing one option and then loading a previous save to see how things would have played out differently. The choices you have to make can be real head-scratchers and they generally seem believable and taken from real-world headlines. But while the conversation system and cutscenes are generally enjoyable and a step up from the past iterations of Be A Pro, they are at times very cheesy and contrived, so the conversations and their impact don't always resonate.

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Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit Review – Making Tracks

Thu, 10/15/2020 - 00:00

There's an old truism in gaming circles that Nintendo is a toy company at its core. This is both praise and critique, expressing a sense of wonderment over the company's ability to tap into childlike playfulness and bafflement at some of its esoteric hardware decisions. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit may be the purest recent expression of the "Nintendo as toy company" ethos. For one, it revolves almost entirely around an actual toy: a tiny camera-equipped go-kart that you race around your real-life house. But more broadly, it behaves the way the simplest toys do, by giving back only as much as the effort you put into creative play.

That's because the core pillar of Mario Kart Live is making your own tracks. The game comes with four numbered gates that help define your track. These are made out of unfolding cardboard, like the natural evolution of Nintendo Labo. Once you've laid down your track and any real-life objects as hazards, you need to run through it once, pace-car style, before starting the race. Choosing the main Grand Prix mode populates your Augmented Reality (AR) track with four Koopaling opponents, and then you're off to the races.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit screenshots provided by Nintendo

Once you're actually in a race, it operates like any other Mario Kart game. You keep your eyes on the screen--watching your real-life kart is a surefire way to lose--and you see visual effects like Item Blocks and virtual hazards littering the track. And while the kart actually moves relatively slowly in its slowest setting, it actually looks reasonably fast on-screen with the camera set so low to the ground.

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Genshin Impact Review – Direct Hit

Wed, 10/14/2020 - 08:52

When you hear the words "free-to-play," you probably think of very specific kinds of games: mobile time-killers, first-person shooters with loot boxes, MMORPGs. However, a story-driven, open-world action-RPG in a similar vein to Zelda: Breath of the Wild is probably not what springs to mind. But that's exactly what Genshin Impact aims to be. It delivers a large, lore-filled, graphically lush world with nuanced combat, character-building, exploration mechanics, and co-op crossplay across multiple platforms at the most appealing price point possible--free! And while it succeeds admirably for the most part, it stumbles in a few key ways that remind you that there's no such thing as a fully free-to-play game.

Genshin Impact makes a great first impression. The anime-inspired visuals are inviting and colorful, and the fully voiced, nicely choreographed cutscenes give the game the feel of a premium product. It also gets you going with the gameplay very quickly; thanks to solid control design, you'll be running, swimming, climbing, dodging, gliding, fighting slimes, and slinging spells just a few minutes after the intro cutscenes wrap up. And once your first additional party member officially joins your posse, things start to get very interesting, as you'll start to learn the ins and outs of the elemental interactions that make Genshin Impact unique.

Each character in Genshin Impact has one of seven elemental properties tied to them, which greatly affects what they can do for combat and exploration. While systems of strong and weak elements are extremely common in games, Genshin Impact takes things a step further, introducing unique and interesting ways for multiple elements to interact with objects and enemies. It starts with simple interactions: an object aligned with Dendro (nature) like a wood shield or structure burns with damaging flames when exposed to Pyro attacks, while pools of water can be frozen with Cryo element skills or used as a conduit for causing Electro damage in an area. Experimenting with other elemental combinations will yield more interesting results; setting an enemy on fire and following up with an Electro attack overloads them with energy and causes area damage, while using a windstorm can blow another source of elemental damage like Pyro or Hydro elsewhere while augmenting its strength.

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Star Wars: Squadrons Review – Catch Me If You Can

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 11:30

For all the ups and downs I've had with various Star Wars media products over the past few decades, the formative space combat simulations of X-Wing and TIE Fighter on MS-DOS (or at least, my memory of them) have always been a fixed highlight. It's hard to go astray when you're focused on the minutiae of inherently cool sci-fi fantasy planes, as opposed to whatever's going on with Jedi lineages or space politics now.

There have been a few arcade-style Star Wars space combat games that filled the 20-year period since the last flight simulator, and some of them were even good. But Star Wars: Squadrons is now making a welcome return to some of the simulator intricacies, while still retaining a large degree of the approachable spectacle of the arcade-style flight games. And the balance Squadrons has settled on works very well in creating an experience that makes you feel as if you're really an active participant in a Star War.

The basic mechanics will be familiar if you've ever played any kind of flight game. You pitch your fighter up and down, you bank it left and right. You fly forward, not backward, and you can twirl until you feel sick. You maneuver your crosshairs onto an enemy and then fire lasers or missiles at them. You're locked to a first-person cockpit view of the action, but all of Squadron's missions are in space, which means maintaining altitude isn't something you have to worry about, and instead, you get the wonderful freedom of being able to fly along any axis--rolling your ship and flying upside down is a hoot. It feels like you could feasibly finish the Squadrons campaign relying mostly on those principles if you wanted to, especially on lower difficulty levels, and that's great. But Squadrons digs a little deeper with the ability to reroute power on your ship, a system that brings a nice layer of complexity in the advantages that it can open up for you and the considerations that come with that.

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I Am Dead Review – Staying Alive

Sat, 10/10/2020 - 09:03

It's common in games for death to go unexplored. When it's not used as a narrative device to motivate living characters, it's brushed aside as collateral for a game's mechanics, with few interrogating the effects of your actions. I Am Dead is nothing like that. Not only do you play as a recently deceased protagonist, but its warm and welcoming tale explores themes of what it means to leave a legacy--however big or small--on the people you shared your brief time with while alive.

Playing as former museum curator Morris Lupton and guided by his equally dead pet dog, Sparky, you explore the recent history of the fictional island of Shelmerston in search of a new guardian for the tranquil settlement. The island's dormant volcano is being kept at bay by the waning spirit of a former inhabitant, forcing Lupton to search for a replacement from a handful of other Shelmerston inhabitants that have recently found themselves in the afterlife. With the ability to explore some of the island's picturesque locations and interact with objects in ways unique to your spectral form, you slowly unearth the island's history and touching vignettes of some of its residents.

Before being able to ask a friendly resident ghost if they're up to the task of watching over Shelmerston, you need to first learn about their lasting impact on those who are still alive. This manifests in distinct levels where you explore stories of each character through the lens of those who remember them. The devout followers of a yoga instructor who reside in a repurposed lighthouse recall the calming nature of their late leader, coloring in his complex relationship with past trauma and how it shaped his pursuit for inner peace. Another tale set in the island's bustling port town tells the tale of a blossoming romance between two youths who both discovered more about themselves when apart, which cemented their relationship further when reunited. These stories help introduce you to the would-be caretakers before you get to meet them, giving you all the context you need to understand their decision to either accept or decline the position of island custodian.

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Super Mario Bros. 35 Review – Mario Royale

Thu, 10/08/2020 - 11:30

Super Mario Bros. 35 marks something of a historic moment for the multitalented plumber. In Mario's extensive past, there have been plenty of multiplayer games, but many of these come in the form of sporting spin-offs or asynchronous multiplayer where you take turns attempting levels. Even the likes of New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario 3D World--both of which feature competitive elements--ultimately revolve around a shared goal of completing levels together as the main objective. This is where Super Mario Bros. 35 stands out; Mario's latest in a long line of entries is the first time you compete synchronously against other players on traditional platforming courses. It's a significant achievement both in and of itself and as an online multiplayer experience, even if there can be a few dull moments.

In the vein of fellow Nintendo Switch Online release Tetris 99, Super Mario Bros. 35 has you compete against up to 34 others simultaneously to be the last Mario standing, playing levels from the original NES Super Mario Bros. Like Tetris 99, your play area takes up the center of the screen while everyone else's concurrent games form a surrounding border, allowing you to glance at opponents' progress as you jump your way through course 1-1 and beyond. Essentially, the main two factors separating Super Mario Bros. 35 and Super Mario Bros. is the pressure of competition, plus a lot more enemies to navigate.

As is the case with most of Mario's platforming adventures, running out of time or dying are your only two methods of failure. However, there are no extra lives to be had here, only one chance per round to become the only Mario remaining. In your quest to be the number one mustachioed Italian man, you disrupt other players by defeating enemies, who will then be sent over to other courses. Additionally, taking another note from Tetris 99's playbook, you can select who to send those Goombas and Koopas to or let a preset choose--such as who has the least time remaining or anyone who's actively targeting you.

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The Solitaire Conspiracy Review – Jack Of All Trades

Wed, 10/07/2020 - 01:00

As I played The Solitaire Conspiracy, I couldn’t help but wonder what other classics of tabletop gaming would benefit from the treatment that the solo card game receives here. Story-driven checkers? Chess with hero characters? Mancala with a leaderboard? The latest project from Bithell Games reimagines solitaire as a means of espionage. And while the FMV story that frames each hand is pretty predictable, the mechanical ramifications of this conceit make for a fantastic take on the traditional card game.

You are an unwitting spy, kidnapped and put to work by Protega, an intel organization working outside the confines of any nation’s government. Protega is represented to you by Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller as Jim Ratio, your handler and constant companion throughout the campaign. Ratio tells you that you need to take down a mysterious figure called Solitaire, who has shut down Protega’s means of communication with their operatives out in the field. It’s your mission to regain control of this spy network.

Your spy work plays out through games of solitaire. According to the credits, the versions of the game that The Solitaire Conspiracy takes inspiration from are Beleaguered Castle and Streets and Alleys. These variants are less popular than Klondike or Spider, to be sure, but they’re intuitive enough and easy to pick up. The board is made up of three columns, each with four rows. In the central column, you place the ace for each suit that’s currently in play, then build on it until you reach the King. You draw these cards from the outer columns, where the cards are dealt in piles. Unlike in some other popular solitaire variants, you can only move one card at a time, rather than picking up the furthest consecutive card in and moving the stack. But, you can move each card to any pile, regardless of suit, as long as the numeric value on the card is lower than the topmost card on the desired pile. These core rules are fairly simple, and will be easy to pick up for anyone who’s played a hand or two of solitaire before. But that simplicity provides a solid framework for Bithell Games to use as it builds out its unique, hero-based take on solitaire.

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FIFA 21 Review – A Goal Bonanza

Tue, 10/06/2020 - 18:01

With next-gen consoles only a few weeks away, FIFA 21 feels like a swan song for the current generation of sports games. It ostensibly wraps up an era that was defined by the increasing prevalence of microtransactions and the game modes designed around them, and FIFA 21 is no different in this regard. Ultimate Team is still front and center as the main draw for many players, but this year's game is also the most robust version of FIFA in series history. Volta Football has been expanded after debuting last year, Career Mode has finally received some much-needed new additions, and there are even new ways to play Ultimate Team. None of this is revelatory--and that remains true on the pitch, where subtle attacking changes make for a more dynamic game of football--but each of these aspects sets FIFA up for the future while also ensuring that this year's game is still worth playing.

The latest gameplay changes aren't immediately obvious when you step onto the pitch for the first time, mainly because FIFA 21 isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead, new features in attack supplement the strong foundations of last year's game, with player responsiveness and passing also undergoing slight tweaks. There's an immediacy to everything you do that makes performing sweeping attacking moves a joy to execute. Passing has been sharpened up, with fewer instances of the ball missing your intended target. Through balls are also more effective when playing a runner in behind the defensive line, with well-timed and incisive passes managing to find the feet of onrushing attackers at a more consistent rate. Even heading has returned after its metaphorical absence in FIFA 20 on accord of how useless it was, with aerially strong players able to power crosses into the back of the net with increased frequency.

These gameplay tweaks improve upon the core pillars of FIFA 21's on-pitch action, while marquee new features, such as Agile Dribbling, elevate its creativity and attacking dynamism. This new dribbling technique gives you greater control when faced with an eager defender by enhancing the speed and responsiveness of your player's footwork. It's designed to help you retain possession and create space in tight one-on-one situations, emulating the play of diminutive playmakers and fleet-footed wingers. Players who excel in these moments like Lionel Messi and Bernardo Silva are more adept at using Agile Dribbling than others, utilizing sharp changes of direction and a delicate touch to escape the clutches of aggressive defenders. It can be a powerful tool at the feet of the sport's best dribblers, but there's also a palpable learning curve that applies to using it successfully and consistently. Once you do get the hang of it, however, there are few better feelings in FIFA 21 than being able to lure an opponent in close before shifting the ball past their outstretched leg and exploding past their hapless frame into open space.

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Kirby Fighters 2 Review – 2 Kirby 2 Furious

Fri, 10/02/2020 - 23:00

Kirby Fighters 2 has somewhat of an adorable identity crisis on its puffy, pink hands. It initially comes across as a gateway fighting game, an entry step even before the widely-loved Super Smash Bros. series. Approachable in both controls and tone, Kirby Fighters 2 is a mostly pleasant brawler bursting with charm. A slender content offering and some bizarre difficult spikes notwithstanding, Kirby's latest spinoff is a capable combatant.

There are no stage knockouts or lives here, just a scrap until someone gets knocked out. Also, most of the characters are Kirby--well, a variety of Kirbys equipped with different copy abilities, alongside some other familiar characters who aren't Kirby to round out the roster. Among the pink puffballs of pain are series classics such as the Link-wannabe Sword Kirby, Artist Kirby who draws minions to cause damage, and Bomb Kirby, who does exactly what you think. My personal favourite is Wrestler Kirby, thanks to his stylish little lucha libre-inspired mask and utterly brutal throws.

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Crash Bandicoot 4 Review – Bandicoots Are Forever

Fri, 10/02/2020 - 07:43

The increasingly popular reboot-sequel is a hard needle to thread. You have to create a game that hews close enough to the original to make nostalgic fans happy, while modernizing and innovating enough to resonate with new players. Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time balances the two effortlessly. It impeccably preserves the vibrant look and feel of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy, while integrating new ideas and platforming possibilities. And like the original Crash games, the hybrid of Crash's old and new ideas will test your platforming skills in interesting new ways.

Like its groan-inducing dad-joke of a subtitle says, Crash 4 is about time… travel. When the villains of Crash's past open an interdimensional portal, Crash and Coco have to collect a set of quantum masks in order to set things right. As with past Crash games, small exchanges in cutscenes between levels do a lot of narrative legwork. It's not much of a "story" per se, but Crash and his friends' charm fills in the gaps and makes you care enough to follow along.

Crash 4's time-traveling story takes you to all sorts of times and places, including dinosaur-infested jungles, futuristic cities full of flying cars, and sunken pirate ships. Every place you go feels lush, full of color and detail, with a painterly quality that's simply wonderful to run through. My favorite is the Mardi Gras world, where Crash and Spyro balloons float in the background as you hop over neon-colored flames and trumpet valves. Occasionally, you'll run through an area and the camera will pull back to let you take in the scenery. The environments never failed to impress me with their visual depth.

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Pendragon Review – History Repeating

Sat, 09/26/2020 - 05:00

Legends are slippery things. One tells of Arthur, the once and future King of Britain who united the realm against the Saxon invaders. Where historical fact is elusive, literary fancy has imagined Arthur's idyllic court of Camelot, its chambers populated with knights, wizards, and witches, its halls reverberating with chivalry, romance, and betrayal. In exploring the legend of Arthur, Pendragon mixes interactive fiction and tactical combat within a short-form roguelike structure to tell myriad tales. As a study of how myths are formed from countless half-truths, it's effective. But as a narrative journey, it feels slight, its more admirable efforts undermined by repetition and an uneasy relationship with combat.

In this particular rendition of Arthurian legend, the story always begins in 673 A.D., about a week before Arthur reaches the castle of Camlann to face his son, Mordred, whose challenge for the throne has ignited a civil war. Each time you roll a new game, you'll play as one of Arthur's court--his estranged wife Guinevere, her possible lover Sir Lancelot, the enigmatic Merlin, to name three of the more familiar characters--dashing across Britain to aid the king in the climactic showdown. En route, you will run into characters that you can convince to ride with your banner, others you'll need to put to the sword, and an alarming number of wolves, snakes, giant spiders, and rats to fight or flee from. Though rest and rations will help the wounded recover, all members of your party--even your starting character--can die permanently, and the journey is over if everyone falls in battle. A complete run will typically take only 20-30 minutes, depending on how quickly you find Camlann.

The rapid turnaround of a run serves to highlight the dynamic nature of Pendragon's storytelling. By embarking on a new journey, you'll quickly find yourself exploring a reconfigured map, discovering new locations and story events, and accumulating alternate perspectives on the core myths of the land. And the game does a remarkable job tying together the many disparate narrative threads you can follow throughout one run. In one run, I began as Morgana Le Fay before meeting and recruiting Guinevere. Morgana was later wounded in battle while Guinevere fled, leaving me to play on as the latter. By the time I reached Camlann, Guinevere too had perished and so I ended up facing Mordred's knights with just Arthur's brother, Sir Kay, and a strong-armed peasant blacksmith in tow. What's impressive is that the dialogue doesn't miss a beat; conversations feel coherent and reactive to whatever choice and chaos has occurred along the way.

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Serious Sam 4 Review – The Fourth Encounter

Fri, 09/25/2020 - 10:54

In Serious Sam 4, the long-running FPS series may have finally found a workable identity. Through each entry, developer Croteam has held onto the core gameplay loop that defined Sam's initial jaunt across Egypt. You will always back-pedal, you will always circle-strafe, and you will always fight dozens of Sam's memorable cadre of alien enemies at once. But, at times, that loop has been obscured by some of the strange decisions Croteam has made with the series. It was never broken, but each game finds the developer trying to fix it.

Enter Serious Sam 4, yet another reinvention that seems to draw from every period of the series' long life. As in Serious Sam 3, the graphics are realistic (though a little stiff). As in Serious Sam 2, there's vehicular combat and humor to spare (and a surprising portion of the jokes land). And, as in First and Second Encounter, the gameplay is razor-sharp and front-and-center. It's been nine years since the last mainline entry, and in that time we've witnessed the revival of circle-strafing shooters thanks to games both big (Doom) and small (Dusk). But, in this newly crowded landscape, Serious Sam 4 has a secret weapon. Croteam is simply willing to throw a ridiculous number of enemies at you at all times and it has the tech to pull it off.

In this outing, which functions as a prequel to The First Encounter, Sam and a small group of resistance fighters are attempting to push back the villainous Mental's assault on Earth. The alien horde has already won, but the resistance hopes to score a strategic advantage by tracking down the Holy Grail, which is actually an alien artifact hidden somewhere among the art and architecture of an impressively unspoiled Italy.

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Mafia: Definitive Edition Review – An Offer You Could Probably Refuse

Fri, 09/25/2020 - 01:00

Mafia: Definitive Edition may look like a contemporary video game, but it doesn't exactly play like one. This shouldn't be too surprising considering it's a remake of the classic 2002 mobster epic, but it also doesn't play like that game either. This is a remake that's been built entirely from the ground up, with a stunning visual overhaul, expanded story, and greater sense of place. Yet its gameplay systems have only been modernised to a limited extent. As a result, Mafia: Definitive Edition feels archaic as it covers the well-trodden ground of its contemporaries, hindered by many of the same ailments that held back Mafia III, despite that game's strong narrative.

The same is true here, as Mafia: Definitive Edition's story is far and away the best part of this remake. You play as Tommy Angelo, a timid cab driver who gradually turns to a life of crime in the fictional city of Lost Heaven during the 1930s. Tommy's an interesting and often conflicted protagonist, and a few new scenes have been added to the original story to flesh out the rest of the cast and inject some levity into Tommy's tale. Characters like Don Salieri have been given more ambiguous motivations, while weapons supplier Vincenzo is now a point of comic relief instead of the self-serious tough guy he was before.

Dialogue has also been reworked and sharpened throughout, although the main story beats of the original game are still present. It's clichéd at times, and sometimes relies on homages to classic gangster cinema, but it's easy to become attached to its relatively small cast of characters, particularly now that each one has been enhanced with new voice work and facial capture from its accomplished cast. Aside from looking a whole lot better, these new performances allow for more subtlety in each scene, as facial expressions are able to express more than words often can.

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NBA 2K21 Review – Ball Another Day

Thu, 09/24/2020 - 19:30

With NBA 2K21, you just know what you're getting into--a basketball simulation with the presentation chops, star power, and gameplay mechanics to embody the sport on a professional and cultural level. You know you'll build a custom player to go through a story that leads into a full career and take to the streets and rec center for pick up games. You know you can play a management sim through MyGM or build a playable fantasy team through card packs in MyTeam. And you also know all too well about the scheme of VC that looms over it all, which remains one of the prominent offenders of intrusive microtransactions.

At this point, NBA 2K21 suggests that the franchise is out of surprises. It comes with a robust suite of modes, but despite minor remixing year after year, the annual releases are starting to blend together (if they haven't already). Mechanics get minor tweaks or additions, but largely remain untouched. So, for those embedded in the 2K cycle, you know what the deal is, but because this year's game changes things mostly on a surface level, it's hard to be excited about yet another entry.

Your player in MyCareer starts in high school, goes through college for a short time, then gets drafted.

Don't get me wrong, as a lifelong basketball fan who embraced the culture as a wee lad and cherishes street ball memories from back home, I'm still a bit in awe of how well the sport has translated into video game form (I said as much in my NBA 2K19 review). And that doesn't just come from the player likenesses, character creation tools, or the broadcast-style presentation; it's a matter of the core gameplay, too.

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13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review – Wow, Cool Robot!

Sat, 09/19/2020 - 08:41

Despite what the box and blurbs might tell you, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim isn't really a game about piloting giant robots. I mean, sure, you do fight off massive swarms of building-sized creatures hellbent on total destruction in an alternate-universe 1980s Japan at some points. But these seemingly model-kit-ready metal combat suits are just a plot device, a cog in the story. In actuality, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a character drama: a twisting, turning sci-fi epic jumping through time and dimensions as it follows the lives of its numerous teen protagonists. Missiles, Gatling guns, and armor-crushing metal fistcuffs are merely a side event to the everyday drama of highschoolers who find themselves unwilling pawns in a bigger game with the fate of the world at stake. And you know what? That's great. Once the narrative of 13 Sentinels sinks its hooks into you, you want nothing more than to go along for the ride up until the very climax.

13 Sentinels is a unique, genre-mixing experiment. It takes elements of point-and-click adventure games, visual novels, real-time strategy games, and tower defense games, mixing them together to create an experience that's quite unlike anything else out there. Things get rolling when young Japanese highschooler Juro Kurabe is called upon to fight a horde of alien invaders in 1985, only for the story to flash back to earlier that year, then over to young soldiers in 1945 wartime-era Japan, then to two schoolgirls witnessing a crisis in the year 2025. You immediately meet a huge cast of characters across different eras, learning that there is one constant: the existence of Sentinels, massive human-piloted robot weapons who exist to protect the world from otherworldly monsters.

The game is split into three parts: a Remembrance mode where you uncover the story piece by piece, a Destruction mode where you use giant Sentinel mechs to protect the city from invasion, and an Analysis mode that collects all of the information and story scenes you have discovered through gameplay. Remembrance is presented as an episodic series where you explore and interact with various environments and characters to advance the plot. Destruction, in contrast, is an overhead-view strategy segment where you use the Sentinels to defend a critical underground access point from invading forces.

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Hades Review – To Hell And Back, Again And Again

Fri, 09/18/2020 - 12:12

The first time I beat the final boss in Hades, I felt an enormous sense of relief. I'd been fighting to see this ending for hours (months, technically, if you count my time in early access), and in roguelikes, it feels better than usual to see an ending. But while I was definitely a little too proud of putting together a set of abilities and perks that shredded the boss after they wrecked me just a few tries ago, that wasn't why I felt tears welling up. I'd gotten so caught up in the story of my character, Zagreus, and the heroes, villains, and gods that had helped him here that I was elated to have finally gotten him to the end of his journey. What sets Hades apart isn't just that it's a great roguelike with the kind of repeatable depth that makes it engrossing to play for hours, but also how it uses its structure to tell an ongoing story about family, secrets, and resolution.

That Hades' narrative is so entwined with its combat is nothing new for the developers at Supergiant Games, who've established themselves as masters of putting your actions in sync with the stories they tell. In a roguelike such as Hades, it means playing as Zagreus, a god of rebirth. Tired of living under his father Hades' thumb and seeking answers about where he comes from, he sets out to escape to the world of the living, battling various undead monsters, living creatures, and mythological figures on his way out.

Hades captured on Nintendo Switch

Your godliness justifies the endless runs through the depths of the underworld, since dying and coming back to life is par for the course in Greek myth. One of the best parts of Hades, in fact, is returning to the House of Hades time and again after you die. It's not just a pit stop on the way to the next run--it's the centerpiece Hades hinges on. There, figures such as Achilles, Hypnos, and Nyx console you after your deaths, praise you for making progress, and confide in you about one another. You chat with them, undertake side quests, and exchange gifts to deepen your relationships. Eventually, they become vital allies on your quest, even if they're not in the thick of combat with you.

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