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Resident Evil 3 Remake Review In Progress

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 02:00

Editor's note: This review in progress covers the single-player content of Resident Evil 3. We will be playing the multiplayer part of the Resident Evil 3 package, Resistance, over the next few days and finalizing this review once we've fully tested the mode.

The opening hours of Resident Evil 3 are incredibly effective at putting you on edge. A remake of the original 1999 game, Resident Evil 3 puts the volatile and intense conflict between protagonist Jill Valentine and the unrelenting force of nature, Nemesis, front and center--giving way to some strong survival horror moments that show off the best of what the series can offer. But after that solid start, this revisit to a bygone era not only loses track of the type of horror game that Resident Evil once was, but also loses sight of what made the original so memorable.

Much like 2019's Resident Evil 2, the remake of Resident Evil 3 interprets the classic survival horror game through a modern lens, redesigning locations and altering key events to fit a significantly revised story. Resident Evil 3 doesn't deviate too much from the formula set by the RE2 remake, but it does lean harder into the action-focused slant the original version of RE3 had, giving you some greater defensive skills to survive. RE3's introduction is a strong one, conveying a creeping sense of paranoia and dread that's synonymous with the series, and Jill Valentine once again proves herself to be a confident protagonist to take everything head-on.

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Corruption 2029 Review - Lost Soul

Tue, 03/24/2020 - 10:31

In the banal future-war fiction that serves as set dressing for the battlefields of Corruption 2029, soldiers are remote-controlled living machines. These humanoid husks are devoid of humanity, mechanized units designed to be disposable as they fight the second American civil war. Both sides sport bland three-letter initials, the NAC (New American Council) and the UPA (United Peoples of America), their full names reading like soulless corporate think-tanks, their motives as opaque as they are forgettable. Actual people are seemingly absent in this conflict. Lifelessness permeates the entire experience, sapping all interest in what is otherwise an accomplished tactical combat game.

In this sense, Corruption 2029 is a disappointing step backward from the developer's debut title, 2018's Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, a game that elevated the XCOM formula primarily through a charismatic cast of characters. The mechanics of combat work in essentially the same way they did in Mutant Year Zero with similarly distinguished results. You control a squad of three units (and occasionally a fourth unit you might acquire mid-mission) and you're able to explore the map in real-time until the enemy spots you or, preferably, you trigger an ambush. Once the fight's underway, you and the engaged enemies alternate between ducking behind cover, firing your weapons, lobbing grenades, and deploying special abilities in turn-based combat.

The tactical combat is a triumph of clarity. The UI conveys all the pertinent information flawlessly, leaving you reassured that each move you make is going to play out with a high degree of certainty and few unintended consequences. When deciding where to move, for example, you can hover over each accessible square on the grid and see your exact chance to hit every enemy in range with the weapon you have equipped. Swap that weapon and all the percentages update. Clear icons inform you that the destination is in low cover or high cover and if an enemy is currently flanking that position. Having these details reliably presented on-screen is a constant benefit to the decision-making process and goes a long way to ensure success in each combat encounter is determined by preparation and smart choices rather than an unexpected fluke.

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Half-Life: Alyx Review - Full-Life Consequences

Tue, 03/24/2020 - 04:00

Naturally, monumental expectations accompany the first Half-Life game in 13 years, and for the iconic franchise's return to come in the form of a VR exclusive is undoubtedly bold. But at each step of the way, Half-Life: Alyx proves that almost everything the franchise did best is elevated by VR: the environmental puzzles that require a keen eye, the threat of a headcrab jumping for your face, the cryptic storytelling. The series' staples are as great as ever here, and in its most powerful moments, Half-Life: Alyx confidently shows you why it couldn't have been done any other way.

What's a day in the life of Alyx Vance? In true Half-Life form, the entire game goes from morning to night in a single shot of first-person action in which you, as Alyx, trek through the undergrounds and abandoned zones of City 17. At first, it's to save your dad Eli Vance from the clutches of the Combine. However, you're subsequently led to uncover the nature of that massive floating structure that hovers over City 17, referred to as the Vault. With a cheeky sidekick Russell in your ear, and a trusty, prophetic Vortigaunt who comes in clutch, Alyx is more than prepared. A basic premise for sure, but the journey is thrilling, and the payoff is immense.

There's a newfound intimacy captured in doing the things that Half-Life always asked of you. Because it's a VR game, the way you look at and process your surroundings fundamentally changes, thus making the solutions to environmental puzzles more of a personal accomplishment than before. Simply finding the right objects to progress was fine with a keyboard and mouse, but when it's your own hands turning valves, moving junk to find critical items, pulling levers, or hitting switches while turning your head to see the results of your actions, these become enticing gameplay mechanics rather than means for breaking up the pace. Without waypoints or objective markers to guide you, subtle visual cues and calculated level design lead you to the solutions, and progress feels earned because of that.

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MLB The Show 20 Review - Bases Loaded

Sat, 03/21/2020 - 09:57

MLB The Show 20 suddenly finds itself in an unprecedented position. The COVID-19 coronavirus has disrupted sports across the globe, and baseball is no different, as Opening Day of the 2020 Major League Baseball season was recently postponed for at least the next two months--and even that seems optimistic. It's an unfathomable turn of events, yet it also means Sony San Diego's latest baseball sim is now one of the only ways to experience the 2020 season of America's favorite pastime. It's a good job, then, that MLB 20 maintains the series' consistently high quality. Refinements to fielding and hitting may only be incremental this year, but they add more depth to what is still one of the most compelling sports games on the market, while new additions and modes off the field increase the game's variety as you chart a course towards World Series glory.

Fielding and defense received a lot of love in last year's game, so MLB 20 adds a few more wrinkles without rocking the boat too much. The distinction between Gold Glove caliber outfielders and mere mortals is now slightly more pronounced, particularly when the CPU is in control. The best outfielders in the game are much more dialed in this year, reacting to the ball off the bat with authentic accuracy and a dependable first-step. On the flip side, the square peg you've lodged into the round hole in left field might struggle when it comes to reading the flight of the ball, committing a fair few errors over the course of a season as balls careen off the edge of his glove instead of nesting in its palm.

There's also a new Extreme Catch Indicator that identifies those bloop singles and hard-sinking line drives that are right on the edge of being catchable. If you have a player like Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton patrolling the outfield, you might take a chance and attempt a risky diving catch on one of these tough-to-reach balls, knowing full well that he's skilled enough to pull off a spectacular grab. With an average defender hustling towards the ball, however, you might prefer to play it safe and get yourself in position to gather the ball after it bounces. Surrendering a single is a much more positive outcome than laying out for a catch and completely missing the ball, resulting in a triple for the fortunate hitter.

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Call Of Duty Warzone Review - Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 06:29

The latest Call of Duty from Infinity Ward shipped without an answer to Black Ops 4’s Blackout, but it has since been supplemented by Warzone--a completely standalone battle royale built off of the backbone of Modern Warfare. Not only is it a smarter way to ensure it's not tied to each annual release in the series, but Warzone gives the series its own identity within the competitive genre.

It might not be apparent at first, though, especially when you take into consideration how much Warzone borrows from other popular battle royale games. It incorporates a ping system similar to the one in Apex Legends, letting you tag enemy positions, points of interest, and loot for teammates at the press of a button (albeit mapped to a button that's harder to reach quickly, mitigating some of its convenience). It plays out on a massive map akin to PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, where large swathes of open land are ripe for snipers while dense suburbs make for exhilarating and chaotic close-quarters skirmishes. And like the ones in Fortnite, color-coded chests overflowing with loot are easy to hunt down when you are within earshot of their signature emanating jingle.

None of these competitors are defined solely by the elements Warzone borrows from them, and Warzone isn't defined by the sum of their parts. Instead, Warzone uses them to establish a solid foundation for its own distinct elements. It starts with a larger player count than the aforementioned battle royale games, with Warzone currently supporting up to 150 players per match, with modes for three-person squads or solo play. Having so many players active at once keeps you constantly on alert, but also increases the odds that you'll at least have some action (and likely a handful of kills) each match. This makes even some of the least successful drops feel worthwhile--even if your entire match lasts only a handful of minutes, you'll likely get some valuable time in with some weapons, better preparing you for another fight in the next match.

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Doom Eternal Review In Progress

Wed, 03/18/2020 - 01:00

Editor's note: We will be finalizing this review once Doom Eternal has officially released and its multiplayer servers become available. Look out for an update after the game launches on March 20; for now, read on for our full thoughts on the single-player portion.

Id Software's return to Doom in 2016 was a phenomenal update of the franchise's classic shooter formula. It was fast and intense, full of huge monsters and scorching metal tracks, modernizing the feel of the 1990s original while adding some new-school flourishes. Where Doom 2016 brought the original Doom into the present, Doom Eternal feels like a big step forward in making the franchise something new: It's a master class in demon dismemberment after the introductory course to ripping and tearing of four years ago. Like its predecessor, Doom Eternal makes you feel like a monster-shredding badass--not just because you're the strongest Doom Slayer, but because you're also the smartest.

Doom Eternal is all about effectively using the huge amount of murder tools at your disposal. Health, armor, and ammo pickups are at a minimum in Eternal's many combat arenas, and the game instead requires you to earn these by massacring monsters in a variety of different ways. Stagger an enemy and you can tear them apart with a brutal glory kill, which refills your health; douse a demon with the new flamethrower and they'll start to spout armor pickups; or cut them in half with the chainsaw to grab some much-needed ammo.

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Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review In Progress

Tue, 03/17/2020 - 01:00

There's only so much you can do every day in Animal Crossing. Part of the fun of its real-time clock is going to bed wondering what you might wake up to in the morning--how your town might change, who might move in, what special visitor might be there tomorrow. So far, I've played Animal Crossing: New Horizons for 80 hours over 17 days, and that anticipation hasn't yet gone away. While I've spent a lot of time developing my island so far, I still feel as if there's plenty left for me to do and see--there's a lot in New Horizons to occupy your time with.

Unlike in previous games, you're not moving to a lived-in town in New Horizons; the island is completely empty when you and two animals arrive as part of Tom Nook's "getaway package," save for the tiny airport. There's no store or museum, all three of you live in tents, and Tom Nook himself operates out of a tent that he shares with his adorable nephews, Timmy and Tommy. Tom Nook clearly expected this whole thing to be a bit more glamorous (or at least popular), and in typical Tom Nook fashion, one of his first actions is to put you to work collecting tree branches and fruit to make a fire pit and drinks for a welcome party.

The party serves as an introduction to the resource-gathering aspect of New Horizons' new crafting system, but it's also the first of many endearing moments with the animals. In their high-pitched, sped-up way of talking, their chit-chat centers around friendship and helping one another on the island. One of my villagers played a tambourine, shifting back and forth to his own beat while smiling, while the other sipped juice by the fire. Tommy, the more precious of the Nookling duo, stood by the tent, holding a small flag that seemed to be part of his welcome getup. It feels like a proper community from the start, despite the small population size and total lack of amenities on the island.

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Nioh 2 Review - Get Good And Die Trying

Fri, 03/13/2020 - 11:28

Nioh 2 is not to be trifled with. Building on the original's tough-as-nails reputation, Team Ninja's second samurai action-RPG brings back the original's penchant for punishing and highly nuanced combat. The sequel hones the original's distinctive take on the Souls-like without completely reinventing itself. The result is a long, tough slog that will push even the most challenge-hungry players to their breaking points as they fight for every inch of ground and become master samurai.

Despite the title, Nioh 2 is a prequel, revealing the secret history of a decades-long period of war in medieval Japan. As the silent, customizable hero Hide, you fight to uncover the secret nature of "spirit stones," which grant supernatural power, and defeat hordes of Yokai across the country. The plot, which you mostly hear through cutscenes and exposition between missions, has an interesting historical bent, but it is really just glue to hold the levels together. Historically relevant names like Nobunaga and Tokugawa play into the saga, but whatever flavor they add in the moment fades the second you take control and it's time to start killing demons.

But that's okay. Nioh 2's story gives just enough context for you to follow along and make you feel like you're making progress without getting in the way of the gameplay. Nioh 2's definitive feature is its challenge. With core mechanics refined from the bones of Dark Souls, Nioh 2 boils down to a series of battles and duels in all kinds of situations. These battles demand intense precision: Not only are your attacks and skills limited by a stamina meter--called Ki--but any extra attack or mistimed movement will leave you exposed, often to an attack that will cost you a substantial amount of health. Like other Souls-like games, there is a painful pleasure in mastering whatever opponents the game throws your way.

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Mindseize Review - Metroidvania Fusion

Fri, 03/13/2020 - 07:57

If you had asked me to write out a checklist of features I would expect to find in a Metroidvania, my final list would be pretty close to what I found in Mindseize. It's a decent one, too. Solid, even. And, for all that, just a little bit dull. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with an unimaginative adherence to the basic Metroidvania formula, but Mindseize also fails to inspire with its approach to theme-setting and story development. The final result is a competent but unspectacular action-platformer with precious few ideas of its own.

You play a father bent on exacting revenge on an evil sci-fi organisation that, uh... seized the mind of his daughter. An early unsuccessful encounter with the Big Bad leaves Angry Dad disabled but, with the help of a good sci-fi organisation, able to continue his crusade by transplanting his own mind into a robot. It's nonsense, of course--though it's inoffensive nonsense, sparing in its narrative dumps and blessedly easy to ignore.

More urgent matters involve exploring the various planets, each of which is presented as a vast network of 2D platforms appropriated from conventional stock--the jungle area, the industrial factory, the rainy dystopian nightscape, the caves littered with glowing crystals, and the caves that are a bit darker because there are no glowing crystals. They're all there, present and correct, and no more imaginative than similar scenes in countless other games.

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Ori And The Will Of The Wisps Review - Light On Your Feet

Wed, 03/11/2020 - 11:47

Ori and the Blind Forest was a delight in 2015--a tough-as-nails combination of a metroidvania structure and Meat Boy-like demands with a surprising amount of heartfelt heft. Five years later, Moon Studios' followup, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, is every bit as graceful and lovely as its predecessor, even if some of the emotional beats and exploration feel a little less novel the second time around.

Will of the Wisps picks up almost immediately where Blind Forest left off, with Ori's patchwork family unit welcoming a new member, the owlet Ku. The family is happy and loving, but Ku wants to fly and Ori wants to help her. Soon the two are swept off in a gale to a new forest deep with rot, which begins the adventure in earnest.

Because this setting is disconnected from the one in Blind Forest, the geography is new, yet familiar. The painterly imagery is comforting, especially in the opening hours as you explore similar biomes. They're beautifully rendered again, but a little samey if you've played the first game. After a while, Will of the Wisps opens up to more varied locales, like an almost pitch-black spider's den or a windswept desert. The theme throughout the story is the encroachment of the Decay, a creeping evil that overtook this neighboring forest after its own magical life tree withered. But if it's meant to be ugly, you wouldn't know it from many of the lush backgrounds--especially in the case of a vibrant underwater section. Ori is often swallowed up by these sweeping environments, emphasizing just how small the little forest spirit is compared to their massive surroundings.

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Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX Review - Better Than You Remember

Fri, 03/06/2020 - 11:59

When the original pair of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games were released in 2006, they were received as the ugly Duckletts of Pokemon spin-offs. Now, almost 15 years later, it is clear how wrong we were to write off Spike Chunsoft's ambitious take on the titanic series: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX for Switch is wondrous to play and, in a way, boasts a substantially more resonant fable than most other recent Pokemon games.

You wake up one morning and everything seems pretty ordinary, at least until you realize that you're not a human anymore. Instead, you've magically and mysteriously metamorphosed into a Pokemon--which exact species is determined by a fun little personality quiz you take at the beginning of the game. Before long you make a new best friend, who is also a Pokemon, and you decide to form a rescue team together. Why? To save foolish Pokemon who have ventured into dangerous dungeons stricken by environmental disasters, even though they're totally aware of said environmental disasters. Over the course of the game, you embark on arduous odysseys to the many dungeons scattered sporadically across the world of Pokemon, each of which contains several 'mons in desperate need of help and lots of others who are a bit aggravated by the daily earthquakes.

What's important about Mystery Dungeon carving itself out a new home on Switch is that DX isn't just some sort of lazy rehash. Perhaps the most striking thing about this reworked spin-off, at least at first, is its revised color palette. It's pretty different to the old Mystery Dungeon games, sporting a warm painterly style to replace the originals' GBA-era pixel art. The revamped rescue base you get about halfway through the game is especially gorgeous, while the relentlessly upbeat soundtrack is capable of both intensifying the charming tone of the art and flipping even the tensest moments on their head. This is an essential part of the game's overall appeal, as it goes hand in hand with the fact that Mystery Dungeon is ultimately about overcoming adversity with a smile on your face. One second it seems as if you're on the verge of the inevitable apocalypse, the next you're bobbing along, beaming for no reason, ready to hurtle headlong into a procedurally generated dungeon to save some 'mons and make some money.

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Granblue Fantasy Versus Review - Fighting Fantasy

Tue, 03/03/2020 - 12:00

There isn't a lot of room for newcomers in the fighting game genre. Veteran franchises like Street Fighter, Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and Guilty Gear have dominated the space for years, so the new challengers that do choose to step into the ring usually have the backing of a popular license. Granblue Fantasy Versus is just that kind of rookie fighter; it's based on a property that's incredibly popular in Japan thanks to a successful mobile gacha (virtual capsule-toy vending machine) game with RPG hooks, but relatively unknown everywhere else. Versus is, for all intents and purposes, Granblue Fantasy's debut on the world stage.

Developed by Arc System Works--known for excellent fighting game adaptations of Dragon Ball Z and Persona 4--Granblue Fantasy Versus has a strong core thanks to unorthodox gameplay mechanics that delicately balance depth with approachability, while introducing interesting new ideas of its own. The extra flourishes that serve as a nod to fans or aim to adhere to RPG roots whiff on occasion, but the experience as a whole holds its own thanks to the strength of its fundamentals.

ArcSys has made strides in improving the approachability of its anime fighters more with simpler inputs and easier-to-understand systems, but for Granblue Fantasy Versus, it has moved away from the breakneck pace, air-dashing-oriented, aggressive playstyle of anime fighters to something more traditional. As a ground-based fighting game, Versus has a much slower pace of play and places heavier focus on normals and special moves instead of partner assists and lengthy touch-of-death combos. In that respect, it can be likened more closely to Capcom fighting games such as Street Fighter. The emphasis is on timing and spacing your attacks properly to create opportunities for follow-ups or set up situations where you have an advantage, but not necessarily an almost guaranteed victory. At a higher level, it's about footsies, precisely executed mixups, smart use of the universal overhead, and the occasional frame trap. For newcomers--of which there's likely to be many, given the popularity of Granblue Fantasy--it's much more stable ground to find footing. Fighting game veterans will naturally have an advantage, but for everyone else, the mountain doesn't seem as steep to climb, so the idea of walking the path to mastery is much more inviting.

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Dota Underlords Review - Overwhelming Odds

Tue, 03/03/2020 - 04:00

The auto-battler revolution of 2019 saw a flurry of activity from publishers as they tried to take advantage of the latest craze: Dota 2 Auto Chess. A custom game mod built using Dota 2 itself, Auto Chess was another product of the endless iteration found in the custom map modding scene--Dota was born out of a Warcraft 3 custom map, which iterated on a StarCraft custom map, and Auto Chess itself iterated on a separate Warcraft 3 map, and so on. A year later, Valve's free-to-play interpretation of Auto Chess is one of the few left standing, and for good reason: Dota Underlords is a thrilling game that promotes layered strategy, mental acuity, and the rush that comes with beating overwhelming odds, making it a continually diverse and compelling experience.

Unlike Dota 2, Dota Underlords is a straightforward game. You can easily think of it like a deck builder or drafting game with multiple economies--Dominion, Ascension, or the Legendary series are some good touchstones. Facing off against seven other people, you have to build a team from a selection of heroes presented to you, and that team will then fight in head-to-head battles with others over a series of rounds until only one player remains.

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Wolcen: Lords Of Mayhem Review - Choking On Ambition

Sat, 02/29/2020 - 10:32

There's an air of familiarity to Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem. It's an action role-playing game with heavy inspiration from Diablo and Path of Exile, from their high-fantasy gothic settings to their destiny-bound protagonists and plethora of abilities to dabble in. Wolcen wears its influences on its sleeve, and while it makes changes to their established foundations, it stumbles so many times along the way that it just feels lost by the end of it.

Wolcen's opening obscures some of its more novel ideas, with a stale and predictable narrative that makes it feel generic. You play as one of three siblings born and bred for battle, but cast out from the only family you know when an unknown power awakens within you. It's a plot filled to the brim with exposition, riddled with vaguely explained fantasy jargon and worldbuilding that never clicks into place. It's easy to forget about entirely after the first few hours, with only the stilted dialogue and awkward cutscenes reminding you of the uninteresting events dressing Wolcen's main draw.

The setting, however, doesn't fall prey to the same oppressive medieval look. Gloomy caverns and bright, colorful forests are equally impressive backdrops for the equally outstanding visual details buried within them. The variation across Wolcen's three acts is impressive too, as it whisks you between the opulent, gold-laden halls of an ancient sacred ground to the blood-drenched trenches of a chaotic battlefield.

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Bloodroots Review - Wilder West

Fri, 02/28/2020 - 01:00

Have you ever seen an old cartoon where a fight breaks out and the brawlers turn into a cloud of punches that flips tables and breaks everything it touches? Bloodroots, a breakneck action-puzzle game from Quebec developer Paper Cult, lives inside that cloud. A short, speedy tale of mayhem and revenge, Bloodroots dares you stab, bludgeon, squash, and otherwise murder dozens of thugs with the ruthless efficiency of the Wild West’s greatest outlaw and the zany gusto of Bugs Bunny trolling Yosemite Sam. Whether you do this for the sake of its well-written story and/or the thrill of a score chase, Bloodroots can be stylish, graceful (once you know what you’re doing), and surprisingly easy to pick up despite demanding a tremendous attention to detail. In its pre-release state, however, its most elating moments are easily and frequently disrupted by technical issues, keeping you from really hitting your stride as often as you should.

Bloodroots puts you on the warpath with the Wild West outlaw Mr. Wolf, who’s out for revenge against his gang, the Blood Beasts. The Beasts, who all wear animal skins and go by Reservoir Dogs-style code names like Mr. Boar and Mrs. Crow, betray and nearly kill him after murdering an entire town in the name of their new leader, Mr. Black Wolf. From the moment he recovers from his attempted assassination, Mr. Wolf has one goal: to kill his former gang and anyone who gets between them.

The story, though simple and predictable, is made compelling through strong dialogue that forges complex characters. Though Mr. Wolf rarely speaks, you learn a lot about him; his story and the history of the gang are told in carefully constructed interactive flashbacks and through his encounters with the Beasts. You don’t spend too much story time with any one character--this is an action game and the gameplay comes first--but in tracking down each former partner, you come to understand and savor your time with them. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in Bloodroots is a bad guy, but you come to see that every character has their own perspective on how the gang rose and fell. In hearing about Mr. Wolf’s past from the Beasts, in their own unique voices, you not only understand the situation better, but come to understand that there’s more in their lives than a single act of vengeance. That isn’t to say you won’t have reservations about your mission--they’re bad guys through and through--but you understand why they made their choices, which makes your hunt more satisfying.

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Snack World Review - Cheers, But I'm Full

Tue, 02/25/2020 - 11:58

From the Minestrone Mines to Gumbo Grotto, Snack World is an RPG universe entirely founded upon various types of cuisine. But although this base is admirably creative, Snack World's failings outweigh its strengths. Although it is conceptually innovative, the execution never quite lives up to ambition.

Right from the get-go, Snack World acknowledges the tropes it attempts to riff off of. You awaken as an amnesiac hero, conveniently discovered just outside the castle gates. You earn an audience with the king, who is simultaneously jovial and relentlessly selfish, and he tasks you with a variety of quests to satiate his daughter's fleeting desires--most of which she no longer cares for by the time you retrieve your boon.

Once you embark on an odyssey to regain your memory while becoming a dungeon-crawling virtuoso, you're quickly bombarded with a hefty amount of information tied to the game's various systems. Although they are relatively straightforward and conventional--character traits, codex entries, and opportunities for dungeon co-op--the explanations are buried under esoteric apps on a phone-like device called a Pix-e Pad. It's an interesting idea, but they're unnecessarily facetious, confusing nuance with jargon.

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Dreams Review - Create And Play

Sat, 02/22/2020 - 11:03

The first game I played in Dreams was a cute Captain Toad-inspired puzzle platformer called Pip Gemwalker. It's about a Sloth who has to collect hidden gems across seven increasingly-complex levels. The second game I played was Blade Gunner, a Resogun-style twin-stick shooter with upgrades, an in-game store, and online leaderboards. After that I hopped into Art Therapy, a first-person game where your goal, as a disgruntled artist wielding a baseball bat, is to smash your way through a museum without any of the guards catching you in the act. The fourth was Shadows Dance at Olivetop Reach, a fantasy RPG with turn-based combat and an XP-based levelling system.

Each of these games is vastly different from the last, not just in terms of genre and gameplay mechanics, but their use (or disuse) of cutscenes, voice acting, art style, music, narrative, and so on. The one thing they each have in common is that they were all created using the exact same set of tools. That's Dreams in a nutshell: a platform where you can create pretty much anything you can put your mind to. Developer Media Molecule has continued the mantra of "play, create, share" that it used to define the LittleBigPlanet series and applied it to a much more ambitious concept with a significantly broader scope. Metaphorically speaking, if LittleBigPlanet is a single country, then Dreams is the entire universe. There's just so much promise and potential for the burgeoning Dreams community to create some innovative and inspired art, all by using an intuitive toolset that's made accessible via a streamlined creation suite and the use of informative hands-on tutorials. Whether these creations take the form of an hour-long video game, a short film, a simple visual spectacle, or something as simple as a sound effect that another player can use in their own project. The possibilities are endless, which I know is a tired cliché, but in Dreams--more than anywhere else--it actually applies.

There are two parts to Dreams which both branch out like roots from a tree. DreamShaping is where you can begin creating your own projects and find myriad tutorials that will teach you how. DreamSurfing, meanwhile, lets you find other people's creations and play them for yourself. It's also where you'll find Media Molecule's own creations, including Art's Dream. If you want to construct a level in LittleBigPlanet, you are always confined to the base template of a side-scrolling 3D platformer. Inevitably, some people found inventive ways to circumnavigate this template, but compared to what you can do in Dreams it's overly restrictive. To demonstrate the monumental shift between LittleBigPlanet and Dreams, Media Molecule has created a showcase of sorts, placing Art's Dream front and centre when you jump into DreamSurfing for the first time.

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The Pedestrian Review - A Sign Of The Times

Sat, 02/08/2020 - 04:00

It’s human nature to be curious about what seemingly mundane and inanimate things get up to while we’re not looking. Such thinking spawned mythos like fairies in people’s gardens, borrowers, and the Toy Story saga, and now we come to street signs. What do those little human figures get up to when no-one is around? If The Pedestrian is to be believed, the answer is 2D platforming, solving lots and lots of puzzles, and taking control of electrical devices in an attempt to escape their confines.

In taking control of a human figure (either with or without a dress) your adventure in The Pedestrian is mostly confined to various street signs, blueprints, and other 2D surfaces. In the background, blurred into obscurity, are the beautiful 3D landscapes of the world they exist in. You can run, jump, and climb with light platforming maneuvers to get to new areas, but the crux of The Pedestrian's puzzling comes from the ability to zoom out and rearrange the positions of the 2D signs and flat surfaces, creating doorways and new paths. Once you regain control of the person symbol, you can then use these new doorways to access the other signs to complete puzzles and move forward. Rearranging the playing field adds a layer of complexity that will have you thinking about obstacles in two different ways for the majority of the experience.

There’s a satisfaction in ordering the panels of a level in your own way, which then allows you to jump back in and complete the puzzle. The process is not totally freeform, as doors and ladders on one panel will only connect to those on another if they are properly aligned, and there are often obstacles in the way that might impede a certain way of doing things. However, there's definitely a very godlike feel to the control it gives you. Occasionally my solutions felt so chaotic that I wondered if they were the intended direction; other times the puzzles felt intentionally crafted to lead me to certain results. But there is overall a nice feeling that you are figuring out things on your own, in your own way.

Extra difficulty lies in the fact that you can’t make most changes to the arrangement of your 2D platforming world without resetting other things--activated switches will deactivate, and key items will be lost, so you need to go in with a plan. Sometimes resetting is necessary, especially if you hit a dead-end, but later you'll be able to freeze some signs to prevent them from resetting, keeping the elements there active for your next attempt. The concept moves you to start thinking about puzzles in a way that's almost akin to time travel. Having to manage a puzzle board full of different segments filled with switches, keys, and laser beams, among other things, and then literally having to manage time and space to reach a goal provides some surprisingly challenging and satisfying scenarios.

The Pedestrian serves out these scenarios in bite-sized pieces. Even when presented with a larger puzzle, it’s still broken down into several smaller sections, which certainly makes them easier to comprehend. However, because of this structure, The Pedestrian can begin to feel a little too samey, especially when the reward for completing a puzzle is almost always more puzzles. It works very well as a game to spend half an hour with and then return to later, rather than slog out the whole four-hour duration in one unending sign barrage. I’d often find myself leaving it due to puzzle fatigue or being a little stuck, then come back to it later with renewed inspiration to immediately solve the troublesome puzzle, ready for a little more.

The introduction of new concepts and escalation in difficulty are gently paced, and only when new elements are first added does it really ever feel daunting--some of the puzzles I spent the longest on were just working out exactly how a new mechanic worked or could be used since the game doesn’t often provide much direction. Instead, the Pedestrian then gives you plenty of opportunities to explore and understand new features in subsequent levels and encourages you to work things out for yourself. The initial frustration is always made up for by the enhanced understanding and satisfaction of working it out on your own. It also ensured I completely grasped all the concepts, which allowed me to then solve increasingly difficult puzzles I’m sure I would have been stumped by otherwise. The payoff for making me feel stupid for one puzzle allowed me to feel incredibly smart for many other harder challenges.

There’s a real freshness to The Pedestrian's take on puzzle-platforming and world manipulation. The constant introduction of new, sometimes surprisingly complex ideas means there’s enough to keep you moving through the nicely segmented challenges. The levels themselves can be quite repetitive in both look and feel, making the game tiresome during long play sessions, but it lends itself well to short-burst experiences and never lets you feel too lost. The Pedestrian executes its charming premise well, with just enough complexity to keep your brain pleasantly stimulated.

Through the Darkest of Times Review - The Good Fight

Sat, 02/08/2020 - 04:00

I push past a group of brownshirts threatening a Jewish shopkeeper. They're holding placards that read "Don't buy from the Jews!" and accusing the owner of being a parasite on the German community. The woman inside cringes as I enter the shop and warns me the men outside won't like it if I buy anything. But I insist and hand her my grocery list. At the end of the exchange I have three dialogue options: "There will be better times ahead," "I'm so sorry," and "I don't know what to say." All of them feel devastating and inadequate.

When you're one person trying to resist the Nazi juggernaut in 1930s Germany, your best course of action is not at all obvious; indeed, anything you choose to do can often feel futile. There were so many occasions during Through the Darkest of Times that I questioned whether I was doing the right thing or if anything I did could even make a difference. Frequently, I simply didn't know what to say. All I knew was that I had to keep fighting, keep surviving, keep resisting, and hope that it would be enough.

Through the Darkest of Times is billed as a historical resistance strategy game and plays out akin to a kind of narrative boardgame as you lead a band of as many as five freedom fighters against the Reich. Its story begins in 1933 as Hitler's appointment as Chancellor confirms the Nazi party's seizure of power. The four-act structure skips ahead to 1936 and the Berlin Olympics, to the occupation of France and invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and to the final months of the war, before a brief epilogue in 1946, a year after the Allied victory. The time periods it visits chart an emotional journey that feels authentic: Disbelief gives way to anger and fear as the truth about the Nazis' goals is revealed; suffering and grief lead to the steeling of a righteous fury; and finally, glimpses of cautious optimism are tempered by an uncertain future.

Each turn you play your hand, as it were, assigning resistance members to undertake missions across a map of Berlin. After ending a turn you see the results come in: Charlotte managed to get those leaflets printed; Arthur collected donations down at the factory but may have been spotted by the authorities; Gerhard was arrested while painting slogans on the campus walls. You're managing assets and resources--we need two people for this job, a truck and some explosives for that job--and getting the logistics in order becomes the primary focus. Always the director of operations, never the operative.

Strategic decisions are forced through scarcity. A 20-turn limit is applied during each act, which is nowhere near enough time to do every available mission. Major missions often have plenty of prerequisites, too. If you want to eventually bust a group of prisoners out of a torture camp, you're going to need some brownshirt uniforms, and to get those you're first going to have to do a recon mission. Constant is the pressure to stop and think about what you realistically have the time and resources to accomplish.

Throwing a spanner in the works, certain actions can also trigger new missions that might only be available for a handful of turns. Can you afford to spare someone to tackle a side mission without disrupting your main goal? Meanwhile, you're now running low on funds to get those books printed, so Angelika is probably going to have to ignore that meeting with a British Secret Service contact and instead try to steal new funds from the SA, the Nazi militia. The decisions swiftly pile up over the course of 20 turns and with them comes a growing anxiety that there simply aren't enough turns to get anything done.

At times I felt like I was drowning. Aside from a few narrative threads that run through the whole game, and your early choices flowing on accordingly, the start of each act essentially resets the strategic layer. You keep your recruited members and their gained experience, but all your resources--your money, all that paper and paint you'd bought, that precious intel, the medicine, gasoline, bicycles, and so on--are returned to square one. So you've got to build it all up again. With each reset, and, indeed, even on a second playthrough, I'd begin with a clear head, pick one specific goal and tell myself that was my sole focus. But every time, without fail, by halfway through I'd find myself pulled this way and that, only able to partially complete a few mission chains but never managing to pull off something big. It's immensely frustrating, that feeling of there simply not being enough hours in the day to get it all done. Looming over it, the knowledge of all that partial progress going to waste and ultimately counting for nought.

It wasn't just me feeling this way. The members of my resistance movement, as they met up each week to discuss their next moves, would also find themselves experiencing a similar sensation of despair. Peter would fret about whether they were doing enough. Juliane would worry that the situation was hopeless. I found it reassuring that I wasn't the only one struggling to find the motivation to continue.

Away from the dry mechanics of the strategic layer, it was during these narrative interludes in between turns that I truly connected with the plight of the German people. One day Rosalinde found out her brother had joined the SA. She was despondent, but I was able to encourage her to take advantage of this and get information out of him. A few weeks later she raised fears that her brother now suspected her of being a resistance member and I had a choice: tell her to leave the group for her own safety or force her stay. The brother had inadvertently given us valuable intel, but I'd grown to care for Rosalinde and couldn't bear the thought of her being discovered. Reluctantly, I asked her to leave.

On a second playthrough, I decided to run a more ruthless ship, to be the type of revolutionary who would stop at nothing. So when Lotte told me she was pregnant and wanted out in order to protect her imminent child, I demanded she remained with us. Morale in the group plummeted and, one day, Lotte just never showed up for the resistance meeting. Later I discovered she'd lost her baby and fled. It stung, of course, though I was able to coldly characterise her exit as a betrayal of the cause, thanks to the flexibility of the dialogue choices offered during these scenes.

Given the particulars of the premise--you're absolutely not doing anything other than fighting back against the Nazis here--I was pleasantly surprised to see how different choices I'd made across two playthroughs could shape two such wildly different personalities. The strategic layer seems readymade for replays, as you strive for efficiency to reach those end goals, but I was initially worried that the story scenes wouldn't withstand repetition. To an extent, that is the case, and on my second playthrough I found myself fast-clicking through conversations I'd already seen. But making different choices allowed me to interpret our struggle in a new light, and as a result, grow attached to a second collection of otherwise randomly-generated characters.

The tone is bleak, as you'd expect, almost unrelenting in its horror. A trip to a camp where the Nazis have rounded up Berlin's Romani population is grim, especially when you witness children being separated from their parents by brownshirts and taken away for unexplained medical reasons. I met a Russian woman who had escaped a massacre on the Eastern Front and made it to Berlin. She told me of the German army's scorched-earth approach in the east, of the mass graves and hangings of Russian civilians. It was heart-wrenching and, at times, almost too much to handle.

Yet there is some respite. Angelika got married and we celebrated with a party in the park. We managed to track down Monica's missing husband and reunite her family. Even as I fled to an underground train station to find shelter from an air raid, I was able to stop and help a Jewish man who was trying to hide the star on his coat that would preclude him from accessing the shelter. Such moments of community, of kindness, of hope that there's still something worth fighting for, are peppered throughout Through the Darkest of Times, seemingly appearing just when the desperation of the strategic layer had left me at my lowest ebb.

The twin aspects of the game could be better integrated. The narrative scenes are vividly realized despite the minimal presentation, often profoundly moving, and filled with choices that carry weight that can be felt weeks and occasionally years later. But outside the story interludes, there's a frustrating lack of specificity. You distribute "leaflets" and paint "slogans" and smuggle "books" and recover "intel," but none of it is described in any detail. The content is void on the strategic side, its components reduced to mechanical symbols. True, there is some overlap--a story scene might prompt a new mission on the map--but it's all one-way traffic, and your choices in one sphere are of disappointingly little consequence to the other.

Through the Darkest of Times paints what feels like an accurate portrait of life in Nazi Germany. Cherry-picking major events, like the Reichstag Fire or the opening ceremony of the Olympics, it convincingly places you at the scene, putting you in the shoes of a regular German trying to come to grips with how one person--or even five people--can respond in the presence of evil. It depicts everyday life, and everyday people, both those seduced by ideology and those finding the strength to rally against it. I'm not sure it offers any answers--indeed, I suspect my frustrations with futility were intentional. One person alone can't change the world. But that's no reason not to fight for it.

Kunai Review - Seeing Red

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 01:00

Kunai's premise is a familiar one. Humankind has reached the pinnacle of technological advancement and brought about their own downfall, inviting an army of AI-controlled robots to nearly wipe out all life on earth. A small resistance of remaining humans and conflict-averse droids begin fighting back, but without a miracle, that battle is all but lost lost. Tabby, a cheerfully emoting tablet in ninja robes, is that miracle.

Kunai is both outlandish and endearing, starting squarely with its odd protagonist. Tabby--a dexterous tablet in a world dominated by robots with CRT-like heads and barely any traces of humankind--is on a quest to extinguish an AI uprising and prevent humanity's extinction. Kunai's world is fragmented into varied areas, giving you multiple paths to explore in its opening hours, with your growing toolset opening up new avenues to explore as you progress. Kunai features the familiar DNA of action-platformers and Metroidvanias, combining satisfying platforming and engrossing combat to great effect.

You start out with just a sword, and you can use it to quickly carve through the metal exteriors of robot foes and stylishly protect yourself from projectiles with a flurry of swings. You have a generous jump, too, that allows you to attack from above and continuously bounce between enemies after each swipe. Getting into a rhythm of bouncing off one enemy and directly onto the next while not missing an attack in between is both easy to grasp and satisfying to pull off. Kunai's combat scenarios generally feature only a handful of enemies at a time, too, giving you ample space to feel like a kickass ninja consistently.

Adding to your airborne maneuverability early on are the kunai, a pair of grappling hooks equipped in each hand that let you swing around environments with ease. Augmenting standard movement with the aerial freedom of your kunai injects combat with a captivating sense of flow. It's effortless to chain together swings to maintain airtime while bouncing between enemies to attack.

A variety of layouts from screen to screen challenge you to use your tools creatively. More open expanses let you freely hop around, but don't offer many points for you to hook your kunai into. Cramped pathways limit your aerial maneuverability, encouraging you to deflect more projectiles and choose your attacks wisely. Each area throws in unique elements that supplement this--the dense forest features vines that you can use to climb on while mines feature fragile walls that crumble if you swing from them--keeping platforming and combat entertaining throughout.

You're free to explore the multiple areas of Kunai's large map as far as your equipment will take you. Each new item you find doubles as both a weapon and a tool to navigate the world in new ways. Your dual machine guns, for example, act as both a powerful medium range attack and a creative means to float over large gaps, since you can use downward fire to sustain your jump for as long as you have bullets to fire. Each new item's use is also easy to understand from the get-go, calling to mind locked doors or obstructed pathways that can now be cleared with your new abilities, making it easy to decide where to push onto next.

Each new item expands your limited moveset in exciting ways, but navigating to each specific part of the map where they might be useful becomes taxing quickly. Individual segments in Kunai's areas offer up enough variety in their construction to encourage different combat strategies, but they don't coalesce in a way that makes navigating the same spaces as interesting on return visits. In some cases coming to the end of a critical path and reaching its respective goal is deflated by the realisation that you need to navigate all the way back to where you started, sometimes without anything new in your arsenal to shake up the return journey. It's disappointing to brush through an area with a fine comb only to be contacted over radio and redirected without any real narrative progression, especially when there are no fast-travel systems to alleviate the backtracking.

This is exacerbated in some later stages in which it can be unclear where your next objective lies, with all possible paths requiring a tool you don't yet have. The aimless wandering is especially tiresome because poking around Kunai's world isn't incredibly rewarding either, even with optional chests hidden throughout each area for you to uncover. Some contain cosmetic hats for some visual variety while others hold valuable in-game currency for upgrades, but it's the few featuring parts of a health upgrade that are worth seeking out. The issue is that the majority of the chests lie at the end of passageways hidden entirely from view, only revealing themselves when you accidentally brush close to their entrance and cause the textures obfuscating them to fade away. It's a disappointingly basic way to hide them, making your discoveries feel more lucky than well deduced.

Although navigating each area multiple times isn't as fun as it should be, the gorgeous visual shifts between them are a delight. Kunai's limited color palette is used to accentuate its varied areas with subtlety. Each of the areas features different muted colours for their backdrop, such as the flat greys and dim blues of its opening factory and the bright greens of its AI-infested forests. The variation makes shifting between each area not only clear but visually delightful too. While most colors are muted, bright reds are especially prominent. Not only does it help make enemies and points of importance stand out from the background, it imbues each slash of your sword and subsequent connecting strike with a powerful punch that bathes the screen in sharp, contrasting red hues. It works in tandem with a well-measured screenshake effect that gives Kunai's combat a stylish look in motion.

This sense of style doesn't transition, however, to Kunai's limited story. It sets up an initial premise and gives you an understanding of what you're fighting for, but doesn't leave much for you to uncover about its world beyond that. The only avenue for learning more about Kunai's world is through limited but surprisingly entertaining interactions with other resistance robots. Usually denoted by their chunky CRT monitor heads and calming blue shading, these side characters add some levity to the setting by making light of disastrous events with silly puns and small, humorous anecdotes. Although there are other important named characters that are meant to add more to the narrative, they don't stand out as much as each brief interaction you have when arriving at a new camp.

It's disappointing that there isn't more to dig into when it comes down to Kunai's set dressing, especially when it's paired with such a striking visual style and engrossing combat. Kunai's level design pushes you to keep adapting while affording you the space to finish off a group of enemies with a series of pinpoint grappling hook swings, precise double jumps, and intelligently integrated swings of your sword. Kunai loses some of its momentum far too frequently, but when it hits a balance between its engrossing combat and satisfying platforming, it's difficult to put down.