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Disco Elysium Review - Pure Dynamite

Tue, 11/05/2019 - 07:00

Memories can be painful. Recalling them can result in feelings of regret, anger, shame, embarrassment, and worse. Much, much worse. In Disco Elysium, a mesmerising, hilarious and at times harrowing narrative-heavy RPG, recollecting a memory can prove fatal. For an amnesiac, alcoholic cop struggling with a new murder case with elusive details, and the world's worst hangover, remembering the person he was offers a path to redemption for the person he might become. After all, memories that don't kill you make you stronger.

Disco Elysium presents as an RPG in the mold of Baldur's Gate or Divinity: Original Sin. Indeed, it opens with a nod to Planescape Torment with a semi-naked figure lying on a cold, hard slab before slowly rising to his feet--only the slab isn't in a mortuary, it's in a cheap motel room, and the figure wasn't recently dead, he's just still drunk. Very, very drunk. It proceeds with the traditional top-down view of the world, your party members traversing beautiful, hand-painted 2D environments, pausing to inspect objects and talk to people. There are quests to initiate, experience to gain, levels to up, dialogue trees to climb, and skill checks to fail. Yet in all kinds of other ways--thematically and mechanically--Disco Elysium is very unlike other RPGs.

On the one hand, it's a detective game. Your amnesiac cop quickly discovers he's been assigned to investigate a murder--what appears to be a lynching--in a small, seaside town. You and your new partner, the unflappable and eternally patient Kim Kitsuragi, at first inspect the body, interview potential witnesses and generally gather clues to identify the victim and track down the perpetrator. Played straight, there's a meticulous satisfaction in assuming the role of by-the-book cop. You can grill suspects about their movements on the night of the murder and look for holes in their stories about what they saw. You can call in to the police station and request they retrieve further information about leads you've uncovered and, if there's anything your booze-frazzled brain has forgotten, Kim is always there with a gentle reminder of the finer details of effective police work.

Of course, you don't have to play it straight. Disco Elysium provides a staggering amount of options, letting you choose and role-play the type of cop--indeed, the type of person--your amnesiac detective is going to remember himself to be. As such, you're welcome to walk out of your shitty motel room with just one shoe on, and you're able to tell the manager you're not paying for the room, nor the damage you caused, and he can frankly go screw himself. In his impeccably dry way, Kim will suggest this is not exactly appropriate behaviour, but he's also not going to stop you from reinventing yourself as a cocky superstar cop, a rude asshole cop, a wretched nihilistic cop, a bungling apologetic cop, a mortified repentant cop, or some tempered combination thereof.

Even during what could be considered rote casework, Disco Elysium provides so much opportunity to express yourself. There's a scene in which you and Kim are conducting an autopsy; while Kim got his hands dirty, I opted for the paperwork. It's a very lengthy back-and-forth between the two cops, you prompting him through a dialogue tree of step-by-step instructions and filling out the proper sections of the form, and Kim voicing his observations as he examines the body. This scene, which should be aggressively dry, is instead wonderfully written, creative and entertaining, every new selection of dialogue options presenting you with little decisions about how to play things--do you agree with Kim's assessment or try to argue with him, or do you just crack a joke instead? And every detail you read about Kim's actions--his muttered asides, his matter-of-fact commentary on the decaying corpse, his raised brow in response to your nonsense--paints a vivid, indelible portrait of a man you've known for less than a day.

The full range of the game's tonal spectrum is on display in this one scene. There are flashes of surprising camaraderie as you and Kim nod respectfully at each other's insights. There's playful humour as you make fun of the bureaucracy that requires such convoluted autopsy forms, and crude gags as you request Kim double-checks if he's missed anything inside the dead man's underwear. There's the more sombre tone struck by the at times repulsive descriptions of the body's state of decomposition, and threaded throughout is the satisfying accumulation of clues, the central mystery contracting and expanding as new information answers questions and asks further ones.

But Disco Elysium is not just a commendable detective game. It is a deeply political game that tackles issues of ideology, privilege, racism, and class in a thoughtful and provocative fashion. The small, seaside town you've been summoned to is in fact the neglected working class district of Revachol, a city built to "resolve history" in the wake of a failed communist revolution that now sees it governed by a coalition of foreign nations.

The murder you're investigating at first seems tied to a months-long labor dispute. Negotiations between union and corporate leaders are at a stalemate, striking workers have shut down the harbor, scab laborers are picketing in the streets, and road transport in and out of town is at a standstill. More deeply ingrained are the painful memories of the wars that first beheaded the Revachol monarchy and then quashed the revolution, and the lingering darkness of centuries-old racial resentments fuelled by the "economic anxieties" of industrial change. It's a remarkable, nuanced circumstance--tensions are high, violence feels inevitable, and the future of Revachol has never felt more uncertain.

...in all kinds of other ways--thematically and mechanically--Disco Elysium is very unlike other RPGs.

The case you're working intersects with the political arguments of the town. Navigating such intricacies can be tricky, though the amnesia conceit gives you a good excuse to ask what might otherwise seem like basic questions. You're given openings to sympathize with or reject various political views, and your character stats do in fact track how much of a communist, fascist, ultraliberal, or moralist you are. There's a tongue-in-cheek approach here, as when you're given the option in favour of your preferred ideology it's, without exception, an utterly extreme version of it. Moderate paths don't exist--there's no room for a "public option," the communists are all about jumping straight to the "eat the rich" stage.

Indeed, Disco Elysium isn't especially interested in the typical binary ideologies explored in most RPGs. It pokes fun at extremism and at the same time chides you for any attempt to retreat into non-committal centrism, and it's even less interested in trying to dodge politics. Instead it wants you to focus on the dynamics of power that structure society and the systemic changes required to repair the inequities of those relationships. This is a game with a specific, if complex, point of view and it's not afraid to remind you of it even when it's leaving room for you to explore other ideas.

At the centre of all this ideology is the matter of your privilege. Disco Elysium remains very much aware that you are playing a middle-aged, heterosexual, white man--a policeman, no less--and that fact grants him a heightened degree of privilege to express himself. You're able to reinvent yourself, to choose to be this or that type of person, without much in the way of repercussions, save the odd disapproving glance from Kim. Meanwhile, many of the characters you meet aren’t possessed of the same privilege; they’re the downtrodden, exploited by authority, trapped in systemic poverty, or just desperately trying to escape their circumstances. The contrast makes this point with piercing clarity.

Yet Disco Elysium isn't just a formidable game of politics and detective work. It also jettisons a bunch of standard tropes of RPG interaction and replaces them with new systems that delve deep into your character's psyche. There is no combat to speak of--at least not in the conventional sense. There are moments where you can suffer damage to your health and morale, the two stats that determine whether or not you remain alive. For example, one early incident saw me discover that reading a book can cause actual physical pain. And there are certain, shall we say, encounters that play out like combat analogues, except you're not choosing to attack or defend. Instead you're picking from a selection of actions and lines of dialogue, where success or failure depends on the skills you've prioritised and the luck of the dice.

During character creation you cannot alter the physical appearance of your nameless cop. You can, however, drop points into a bunch of entertainingly unusual and evocative skills, 24 in total across four broad categories. Among them, Drama allows you to lie convincingly while also detecting the lies of others, while Inland Empire, refers to your gut instinct by way of David Lynch; Savoir Faire assesses your expertise with the intersection of grace and style; while Shivers--my favourite skill--to "raise the hair on your neck" and, in essence, gain a greater awareness of the physical environment, both immediate and occasionally miles and miles away.

Disco Elysium’s skill system is refreshingly original. The entire fascinating suite it posits serves as a captivating exploration to your character's inner life and echoes his journey of self-rediscovery. Skill checks are being rolled all the time to see if there's something you should know. It could be as simple as checking whether your Perception means you notice a particular object. Maybe you see or hear a word you don't recognize and your Encyclopedia skill interrupts to provide a definition. Perhaps you're walking down the street and, Shivering, gain a deeper, more poetic understanding of your place in the world. These pop up like typical dialogue boxes on the right edge of the screen and you're often able to conduct conversations with your skills, digging for more information or telling them to pipe down, a little chorus in your head filling the gaps and prodding you into action. These competing, often uncalled-for, voices add up to a remarkably successful simulation of how the mind works.

Skills intrude during conversations with other characters, too. Reaction Speed might let you pick up on an unusual turn of phrase and give you an additional response to pursue, letting you uncover a clue. Sometimes your skills offer conflicting approaches. Drama might be urging you to make a big scene right now--"This is your moment!" it's yelling in your ear--but Composure is pushing back, coolly arguing for restraint. The specific voices that you decide to listen to may be influenced by your strength in each skill or the type of person you want to become. They also connect back to how the game wears its politics, as many of the unpleasant things you can say are the result of failed skill checks. It can feel weird to have your character do something you didn't quite intend, or to have your dialogue choices restricted to three equally offensive alternatives, but there's something pleasingly authentic in the way things don't always go according to plan.

Supporting the skill system is what the game describes as your Thought Cabinet, a kind of mind map that charts your collected understanding of the world. Critical moments of awareness will enable you to access a particular thought, which you can then research to unlock a range of benefits. An early realization that you are in fact homeless triggered the "Hobocop" thought. While mulling over the very strong possibility than I was more hobo than cop, I suffered a penalty to all Composure checks; once my research was complete and I had decided I was now committed to the hobo life, I regained my Composure and took my dumpster-diving abilities to another level. More than a seamlessly integrated perk system, the Thought Cabinet manages to successfully reposition character development as a kind of intellectual deconstruction. It's incredibly satisfying to look back on the completed cabinet at the end of the game and see it as a neat summary of your character's defining moments, the points at which you learned something about yourself and were able to grow.

Learning to read Disco Elysium, through what can initially feel like a mad jumble of competing voices, is the essential first step of attuning yourself to the type of experience it wants to deliver. This is a game with, let's be honest, an absolute shit-ton of words to read. Literally everything you do, save walking from one place to another, is conveyed and accomplished through text. There are item descriptions, branching dialogue trees where it's not unusual to have a large handful of options at any one time, skills interjecting with new thoughts and random asides, and even books to read. I cannot verify the developer's claim that there are one million words in the game, but I can attest that I spent the overwhelming majority of my 50-odd hours with Disco Elysium utterly enraptured by the words it sent my way.

And what beautiful, bonkers, bold words they are. Disco Elysium is easily one of the best-written games I've ever played. There's a swagger and a confidence here that's rarely seen. There's a masterful ability to transition from drama and intrigue to absurdist comedy and pointed political commentary in the space of a few sentences. One moment you're elbow deep in the grim details of police procedure, the next you're contemplating some metaphysical wonder; later, some hilariously grotesque joke is followed by a spell of genuinely moving emotional vulnerability. It might sound all over the shop, but it works because it all rings true to the fascinating, multi-faceted central character.

Your nameless cop can be charming, offensive, understandably confused, brimming with completely unearned optimism, flustered, unguarded, or simply sick of everything he's had to endure. Your skill selections and dialogue choices nudge him in these directions, but of course the reality is that he's always all of them. The man whose "armpits are lakes, a scythe of booze" preceding him, as he's first introduced, is the same man who licks congealed rum off the counter of the bar, is the same man who, locked in a tender embrace with a strange woman, vows to spread peaceful communist revolution one hug at a time, is the same man who passes the time sitting on a playground swing, whistling a tune with his detective partner. A writhing mass of contradictory impulses and behaviour, as human as the rest of us.

Disco Elysium is a mad, sprawling detective story where the real case you've got to crack isn't who killed the man strung up on a tree in the middle of town--though that in itself, replete with dozens of unexpected yet intertwined mysteries and wild excursions into the ridiculous, is engrossing enough to sustain the game. Rather, it’s an investigation of ideas, of the way we think, of power and privilege, and of how all of us are shaped, with varying degrees of autonomy, by the society we find ourselves in.

Death Stranding Review - Strand And Deliver

Fri, 11/01/2019 - 18:01

America is broken, and it's up to you to put it back together again. It's a tall order. A lot of people believe in it, but you're not sure you do. It'll take a lot of lonely, dangerous walks and exceptionally heavy lifting, and it's not really clear what America means in the first place. For some reason, you set out anyway, trudging through wetlands and rocky hills on foot, not fully knowing or understanding where you're going. Other than the monsters you can't quite see, there's not really anyone else around most of the time--just you and your thoughts, one foot in front of the other.

On one level, Death Stranding is about America. But your actual goal in setting out across the country is to help people, bring them together, and forge connections, not for the vague concept of America but for the sake of helping the people within it. Death Stranding is unrelenting in its earnestness and optimism--certainly not without its critiques of America, nor without its challenges and setbacks, but inherently hopeful nonetheless. It is a dense, complex, slow game with a plot that really goes places, but at its core, it never stops being about the sheer power and purpose we can find in human connection, and that is its most remarkable achievement.

Hands Across America

Rebuilding the country is as simple as getting every far-flung city, outpost, and individual onto one network, the bones of which were laid down by a pseudo-government organization called Bridges. As Sam Porter Bridges (played by Norman Reedus), all you have to do to win people over is bring them packages; most people never go outside due to mysterious monsters called BTs, but unlike most people, Sam can sense them enough to sneak past them and get important cargo to its destination.

Deliveries can be arduous. You're evaluated on your deliveries across a few categories, but the condition of the cargo can make or break a run, and there are a lot of factors working against you. The landscape can be extremely punishing, from expanses of exhaustingly rocky hills to rivers that are too deep and wide to cross unaided. On top of BTs, you also have to contend with Timefall, a kind of rain that rapidly accelerates aging and deterioration for most of the things it touches. Extended exposure to Timefall can damage or completely ruin your cargo, as can slipping and falling, getting hit by an enemy, or, in some cases, just being a little too rough with it. Even the smallest rocks can trip you up, too. In order to keep your footing, you need to pay close attention to where you're stepping, keeping your balance with the triggers while on rough terrain or when carrying a lot of stuff.

Once you reach your destination, though, you're showered with praise. The recipient will likely thank you to your face (albeit as a hologram), and then they'll give you a series of social media-style likes. You're inundated with a multi-page results screen itemizing all the likes you received for the delivery and in which categories, plus an overall rating for the delivery itself, no matter how small--it's positive reinforcement turned up to 11. These likes then funnel into each of the delivery categories like experience points, and as you level up, you can carry more weight or better maintain your balance, among other benefits. Deliveries also feed into a connection rating with each city, outpost, or person, and as that increases, you acquire better gear and sometimes gifts to reward your efforts further.

In short, you give a lot and get a lot in return. There is a relatively small number of mandatory deliveries to advance the story, but there's a seemingly unlimited number of optional deliveries, and I often found myself picking up orders destined for any place that was on my way. It's a cycle that's easy to get swept up in; no matter how difficult a delivery or how far the distance, you will at least be met with gratitude, likely feel fulfilled from having completed a tough delivery, and often given a tool to make future deliveries a bit easier. Most importantly, though, increasing your bonds with people is how you get them on the network, and the network is what elevates this core loop beyond the simple satisfaction of completing tasks and getting rewards.

The chiral network is a kind of souped-up internet that allows you to 3D print objects, which is incredibly useful and a strong incentive in itself. When at a terminal connected to the chiral network, you can print ladders and ropes for traversal, new boots as yours wear out, repair spray for damaged containers, and basically anything else you need to safely deliver cargo so long as you have a blueprint for it. You can also print a portable printer that builds structures for you out in open areas covered by the network--things like bridges, watchtowers, and generators, the latter of which are critical as you start to use battery-powered exoskeletons and vehicles.

The chiral network also grants you access to the online component of the game, which is absolutely essential. You never see other players in the flesh, but their impact is all around you; once an area is on the network, you can see structures and objects left behind by other players in the course of their own journeys, plus helpful signs they've put down just for those who come after them. You can pick up someone else's lost cargo and deliver it for them, too, knowing that someone else may find yours at some point and do you the same kindness.

In Death Stranding's best moments, the relief and gratitude you can feel toward someone you don't even know is an unrivaled multiplayer experience. At one point in my playthrough, I was being chased by MULEs, human enemies who love to steal cargo. I was on a bike, tasked with a time-sensitive delivery, almost out of battery and totally unequipped to deal with external threats. In my panic, I drove my bike into a ravine. As I slowly made my way up and out of it, I watched as my bike's battery dipped into the red, and I dreaded getting stuck with all my cargo and no vehicle, still quite a ways away from my destination. I rounded a corner and found myself in the charging area of a generator placed by another player, as if they'd known I'd need it in that exact spot at that exact moment. They probably just put it there because they needed a quick charge, but to me, it was a lifeline.

You can give and receive likes for these player-to-player structures, and just like with standard deliveries, it's a strong incentive to do something helpful for someone else. In the earlier sections of the game, I was using other people's structures far more than I was leaving behind help for others. But I wanted to pay it forward and know that my help was appreciated, so I started going out of my way to build structures I myself didn't really need; the map shows the online structures in your instance, making it easier to spot areas you could fill in for others. At first, the likes system seems like a pretty obvious commentary on social media and our dependence on external validation. But it's not so much a critique as it is a positive spin on a very human need for acceptance, and the system does a remarkable job of urging you to do your best for those around you, NPCs and real people alike. Feeling truly appreciated can be a rare occurrence in life, and it's powerful in its simplicity here.

The Super BB Method

The first few hours of the game are the slowest, and a large part of that is because you don't have access to the online component right away. It's an incredibly lonely stretch of time during which you mostly just walk; the work you do early on is especially laborious in the absence of advanced gear, and it serves to give you an appreciation for other players and better gear as you move forward.

Even as the gameplay opens up, you continue to get a lot of story exposition with almost no explanation. It can all seem kind of goofy at first, and you can get lost in the metaphors; every city you need to add to the chiral network has "knot" in its name, for example, and they are all referred to as "knots" on a strand that connects the country. There's bizarre and unwarranted product placement in the form of Monster Energy drinks and the show Ride with Norman Reedus. Guillermo del Toro's likeness is used for a kind of dorky character called Deadman, and there's a woman named Fragile in a game about delivering packages.

But the story really does go deeper than that. In keeping with the theme of human connection, each of the core characters you meet and work with has their own story to tell. They all have a unique perspective on death that lends them an equally unique perspective on life, and unravelling their characters, down to the true origins of their often literal names, contributes to the overall tapestry of Death Stranding's take on the human experience. As they open up to Sam, Sam opens up to them in turn, developing into a distinct character in his own right out of the reserved, emotionless man he appears to be at the start. I grew to love Sam, Fragile, and Heartman especially, and even the characters I didn't like as much add to the game's overall message about hope and love in the face of adversity.

By far my favorite character--and the most important one--is BB. BBs are infants in pods that can detect the presence of BTs, and they're issued to porters like Sam to help them navigate dangerous territory. You're told to treat BBs like equipment, not real babies, but it's impossible to think of your BB that way. It's full of personality, giggling when happy and crying when stressed out; it even gives you likes from time to time. There aren't many children left in Death Stranding's isolated, fearful world, but BB is your reminder that the future is counting on you, regardless of how you feel about America itself. The love that grows between Sam and BB is nothing short of heartwarming.

Connecting with this story, just as with connecting with NPCs and other players, can take work. It's not a story that immediately clicks on a surface level, and the dramatic mystery and off-the-wall science don't make too much sense at first blush. But it's an emotional story first and foremost, and making sense of things--while entirely possible, particularly if you read the letters and interviews that detail small bits of lore as you go--is not as important as reflecting on how it makes you feel.

You have plenty of opportunities to do that, too. In the quiet moments of travel, usually as you near your destination, music might start to play. The soundtrack, which is largely composed of one band--Low Roar--is phenomenal, the kind of contemplative folk-ish music that suits a trip alone through a meadow or down a mountain. Because the act of walking is so involved, it's not a time to detach completely and zone out; it's a time to feel your feelings or at least consider what's next in your travels.

Fight, But Not To The Death

You can just as soon be ripped out of that headspace, though, by a shift to the haunting music that signals BT territory. The otherworldly growls of BTs as they close in on you can be terrifying, and early on, your best bet is to freeze in your tracks and hold your breath for as long as you can so you can quietly sneak by them. But there are times when you have to fight a BT in its true form, and for that, you have specialized weapons to take them down. These BTs aren't the ethereal humanoid shapes that float above the ground but huge eldritch horrors that screech under clouds of blood. The combat is mechanically simple--you mostly have to move around a bit and hit them before they hit you--but the sequences are visually and aurally arresting.

You don't get a gun that works on live enemies until 25 or so hours in, but even then, it's non-lethal. You are actively guided away from killing in Death Stranding, because when people die, their bodies basically go nuclear and level cities, leaving nothing but craters and BTs in their wake. On top of that, the main human enemies are MULEs, former porters just like Sam that have been corrupted by an automated world--they've essentially become addicted to snatching cargo in their desperation to have a job and a purpose as more and more people become replaced by machines. They're not evil, and killing them seems like, well, overkill; it's easy enough to knock them out with the nonlethal methods you continue to unlock as the game progresses. I didn't kill a single one in my playthrough, though punching them is satisfying.

While BTs and MULEs are a concern when delivering cargo, there's also Mads Mikkelsen's character, a man who's introduced through memories Sam sees when he connects to BB's pod. He gets his own dedicated segments that punctuate hours of simple deliveries, and these highly contained, much shorter sections are striking in their art direction and juxtaposition to the rest of the game. It's not immediately clear what he is, whether it's an enemy, potential friend, or something else entirely, but he's captivating in his ambiguity.

The most cartoonish enemy is Troy Baker's Higgs, a terrorist whose depravity seems to know no bounds. Of all the characters, Higgs is the weakest, with far less nuance to him than anyone else in the cast. He's really just there as a Big Bad to motivate you in a more traditional video game sense than delivering packages and helping people, but he and his band of faceless terrorists are more a means to an end than full-fledged villains. He's the catalyst for some of the major BT fights, and in the end, perhaps an extreme reminder that it's possible to stay hopeful even when things are darkest.

Death Stranding argues in both its story and its gameplay that adversity itself is what makes things worth doing and life worth living.

Death Stranding is a hard game to absorb. There are many intertwining threads to its plot, and silly names, corny moments, and heavy exposition belie an otherwise very simple message. That comes through much more clearly in the game's more mundane moments, when you find a desperately-needed ladder left behind by another player or receive a letter from an NPC thanking you for your efforts. It's positive without ignoring pain; in fact, it argues in both its story and its gameplay that adversity itself is what makes things worth doing and life worth living. It's a game that requires patience, compassion, and love, and it's also one we really need right now.

Call Of Duty Mobile Review - Don't Call Me Shirley

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 07:22

Translating the speed and precision of Call of Duty's multiplayer to a touch screen sounds like a no-brainer. You want the same high-octane action on the go, and now that most phones support Bluetooth controllers, the issue of virtual buttons and joysticks bogging down the experience is a moot point. It's both curious and surprising then that Call of Duty Mobile not only doesn't make use of more traditional controllers, but that it also doesn't feel like it needs to. Its smart control scheme is core to why this scaled-down version of one of the most popular shooters in the world doesn't make drastic compromises to get there.

Call of Duty Mobile is like a greatest hits tour of the best aspects of the series' console multiplayer. It features the most popular game modes and some of the best maps from Modern Warfare and the first two instalments of Black Ops, faithfully recreated to give you the same sight lines and choke points you're familiar with. It looks great, too. Playing on an iPhone 11, I was surprised at how much detail is packed into each map while the game sticks to a silky-smooth frame rate, only briefly dipping with large amounts of action on the screen or out in the more graphically challenging open environments of the included Battle Royale mode. Weapons feature their signature punchy animations and sound effects, killstreaks retain their destructive glamor, and a variety of cosmetic options keep things from drowning in boring military styles. There's no mistaking it: This is Call of Duty.

It does, however, leave out controller support, despite Android and iOS supporting it widely. Instead you have to use on-screen touch controls, with a handful of buttons and two virtual joysticks controlling the action. First-person games with this type of control scheme have been attempted numerous times, and they've hardly stuck. The inability to continue firing while both moving and adjusting your aim is the issue, typically requiring you to sacrifice one or the other to use a finger to hit the trigger. This is how both Fortnite and PUBG work on mobile, but Call of Duty Mobile gives you numerous options to tweak it for the better.

The default mode removes manual shooting altogether. Instead of tapping a button to fire, it's triggered automatically when you keep your reticle fixed on an enemy for a short amount of time, which is drastically reduced if you're also aiming down the sights. This lets you focus on keeping aim on an opponent at all times without having to temporarily stand still to hit fire, allowing the action in Call of Duty Mobile to remain fast and fluid. Additional options allow you to make minute changes to the controls, too. You can choose which type of weapons use automatic or manual firing (snipers, for example, benefit from more precise firing) and finely adjust how closely you need to be aiming at an enemy to trigger a shot. Its flexibility lets you experiment with what setup suits your playstyle best while keeping everyone using the same input method for balance, and it works really well.

A well-placed action bar at the bottom of the screen and contextual buttons for equipment, like grenades and killstreaks, keeps all your actions within reach, letting you tap them quickly enough to not seriously affect your ability to continue moving and shooting. Battle Royale also includes the same automatic pickup systems featured in Black Ops 4's Blackout, and feels far more suited for this constricted control scheme. Attachments and weapons that outrank those you currently have will automatically be picked up and equipped as you hover over them, while additional ammunition and healing items will be added in the same breath. There are instances where you'll have to dive into your item menu and make quick, small changes to suit your preferences, and navigating this on such a small screen is cumbersome. But for all the potential areas where Call of Duty Mobile might have had a problem with its interface, it approaches the majority of them with smart solutions that let you just focus on the action without worry.

Being free-to-play, Call of Duty Mobile does come with a recognizable suite of microtransactions and blind loot boxes for you to purchase, the majority of which only contain cosmetic items such as weapons and equipment skins. It's typical for the game to bombard you with messages when launched about new in-game currency offers, Battle Pass exclusives, seasonal events, and more, which is frustrating if you're just trying to log in for a quick game. Whenever you earn a loot box through natural progression, you'll be reminded of how much better its contained loot would be had you splurged on the Battle Pass, offering yet another pop-up to route you towards its purchase. Call of Duty Mobile is unrelenting in the way it tries to steer you towards options that require your credit card, but thankfully it has a miniscule impact on gameplay.

Traditional progression governs when you unlock new weapons and equipment, and there's no way to pay money to speed this process up. As you rank up, you'll unlock new custom class slots, tactical equipment, weapons across all classes, and special weapons that you can use in a similar fashion to the hero abilities in Black Ops 4. Where it deviates is with weapon attachments. Each weapon you use has an associated level. The more you use a weapon, the more attachments you unlock for it. Although you can't outright purchase new weapons, you can purchase weapon XP vouchers that can drastically speed up the process of unlocking attachments for them. With just a few you can take a brand-new weapon to its maximum level in a few seconds, circumventing the grinding you'd have to put in otherwise.

This can give you an advantage, as spending money could allow you to more quickly unlock a precise red dot sight to improve your aim or a foregrip to steady your shots. It is easy enough to earn these vouchers through regular play, which mitigates the gap between paying and non-paying players to an extent, but if you're not looking to spend anything you'll have to play a couple of games with a slight disadvantage once you've settled on a new weapon. But once you've reached the maximum level for your preferred weapon, the playing field is entirely even again.

Beyond its messy microtransaction menus and the slight time-saving purchases, there's not much else in Call of Duty Mobile that detracts from its faithful recreation of the exhilarating and fast-paced multiplayer action of the core series. It's flexible and easy-to-use control scheme mitigates the lack of controller support, and its celebration of the best modes and maps the Black Ops and Modern Warfare series have produced makes it a pleasure to line up game after game.

WWE 2K20 Review: Botchamania

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 08:52

WWE 2K20 feels like a transitional entry in 2K's pro wrestling series. With longtime developer Yukes splitting from 2K in August this year, Visual Concepts took over sole development of the series after the two developers previously worked on the games together. The end result is a buggy mess of a game that takes several Big Show-sized steps backwards from its predecessor. It doesn't just lower the bar, it breaks it.

The problems begin with the sheer abundance of bugs and glitches found in almost every match and menu screen in 2K20--it borders on the absurd. I've seen superstars teleport across the ring and float in midair. Oftentimes objects will violently vibrate on the spot or sink into the floor. Characters have a tendency to get trapped inside the ropes, whereby their bodies will stretch and contort in ways the human body isn't supposed to. Sometimes wrestlers are invisible in cutscenes or duplicated in matches. Other times they'll completely stop moving, forcing you to restart the match over again. If you put a custom logo on your created wrestler, the game will crash whenever you try to start the MyCareer mode--this is something I frequently experienced and also has been widely reported as an issue. It will also crash if you try to create an arena, or during loading screens for no reason at all. Commentary will suddenly become fixated on talking about attacks to the core, even if you're hitting your opponent in the head, while every online match begins with around a minute of lag that's so bad the in-ring action resembles a slideshow.

Not all of these issues are entirely new considering the series has been riddled with glitches for a number of years now. But their pervasiveness is much more frequent in 2K20, with some kind of bug appearing in near enough every match if you're unlucky enough. Obviously, your mileage will vary when it comes to technical issues like this, but with the plethora of glitches lurking in every nook and cranny of 2K20, it's a matter of when you'll be afflicted and not if. Some of these glitches are hilarious, there's no denying that, but it doesn't take long before they lose their charm--even if they do add a goofy element of entertainment to matches that are painfully dull otherwise.

This is because the actual wrestling in 2K20 is significantly worse than it has been in previous years. The only new addition to gameplay is a reworking of the controls that makes it slightly less cumbersome to perform certain actions. Beyond this, the in-ring action is still overly-reliant on a binary reversal system and plodding combat. It's an acquired taste, for sure, and it's been solid enough in the past, but 2K20 undoes all of that goodwill by removing any semblance of the series' previous competence. Targeting and hitboxes are frequently terrible, resulting in numerous whiffs between both yourself and the AI, particularly when weapons are involved. The controls are unresponsive a lot of the time, and sometimes the reversal prompt will just refuse to appear. The AI will also occasionally forget it's in a wrestling match and stand still for 10 seconds at a time, or it will continuously run into things and wind up jogging on the spot until you bother to interrupt it. Some of the animations look good, but they're mostly stitched together with missing frames that just make everything feel slightly off. There's no real flow to the combat either, or any sense of hair-raising momentum. Matches are lifeless affairs that lack any sort of excitement, falling into the category of being either mind-numbingly boring or incredibly frustrating.

In terms of game modes, this year's MyCareer puts you in the laced-up wrestling boots of platonic best friends Tre and Red. The story begins with the pair reminiscing about their wrestling careers before they're inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, charting a course from high school to the main event of WrestleMania 2029 as they try to complete a literal to-do list of WWE dreams. The writing in MyCareer falls into a lot of the same pitfalls as modern WWE shows, presenting smug, unlikeable babyfaces that continually make poor decisions and lack any sort of depth or character development. Red is the angry hothead with lines like "I'm going to give your grandmother bed sores!", while Tre is an idiot who turns everything he says into a painful joke. Wrestling is inherently corny, but the writing in 2K20 is often insufferable, and its protagonists are impossible to care about.

The writing in MyCareer falls into a lot of the same pitfalls as modern WWE, presenting smug, unlikeable babyfaces that continually make poor decisions and lack any sort of depth or character development

MyCareer is at its best when you're interacting with current WWE superstars. Samoa Joe turns in an excellent performance as one of Tre's main rivals, and there's a delightful scene with Broken Matt Hardy when you're on a journey into the underworld to find the Undertaker. While the characters we see on TV each week are confined to the realms of reality, the writers on 2K20 are able to indulge in otherworldly fantasy elements and play around with the WWE's more eccentric personas. These moments are few and far between, though, and it takes far too long before you eventually reach the WWE. The first few hours of MyCareer are spent fighting on the indies in meaningless matches where the focus is entirely on Tre and Red and the inconsequential secrets they're hiding from each other, while the final act centers on Red's boring rivalry with her old school bully. The story's overlong and just drags for the vast majority of its runtime, making it a chore to play through.

Character progression is another sticking point in MyCareer, both in regards to customizing your characters and leveling them up. Almost every item included in 2K20's substantial creation suite--including hairstyles, attires, moves, taunts, and so on--is locked. The only way to gain access to all of this content is by praying to the RNG gods that you get what you want in loot boxes, or by buying each item outright for a considerable portion of your in-game currency. Thankfully, there's no real money involved, but structuring unlocks in this way is still a needless hassle that arbitrarily restricts your ability to create the kind of character you want to create--which is only exacerbated now that you have two characters to customize.

Leveling up each character isn't much better, either. At the outset you're asked to choose from a number of wrestling archetypes, such as luchador and technician, before gaining access to a mammoth skill tree. The problem with this is that the vast majority of said skill tree is hidden until you unlock an adjacent hex, making it impossible to plan out your character's build beyond the next few upgrades. Admittedly, this would be more annoying if improving your characters wasn't as unsatisfying as it is. The attributes you unlock provide such minuscule increases in your skills that they're almost imperceptible once you're out in the ring, to the point where I would go hours without bothering to level anyone up.

The other significant mode in 2K20 is Showcase Mode, which focuses on the Four Horsewomen of the WWE: Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, and Bayley. It explores how the four superstars ushered in WWE's women's revolution, focusing on the most important matches of their careers thus far, from the tremendous fatal-fourway between the four competitors at NXT Takeover: Rival, Sasha, and Bayley's redefining match at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, and culminating with the main event of this year's WrestleMania between Becky, Charlotte, and Ronda Rousey. The video packages before each match are enjoyable if you have a fondness for these characters and those early days of NXT, even if the video quality is abysmal. But the matches themselves run into the same problems as the Showcase Modes of the past. During each match you're tasked with completing myriad objectives in order to recreate what actually happened to a certain degree. This results in some matches lasting upwards of half an hour, and with no mid-mission checkpoints, losing a match either because you were pinned, the AI was pinned, or because one of the glitches caused the game to break, is incredibly disheartening.

WWE 2K's annual release schedule has felt superfluous for a number of years now. This has never been more apparent than with WWE 2K20, a game that's not only riddled with frequent technical issues, but one that's notably worse than its predecessor in almost every area--whether it's the dull and unenjoyable combat, the fact half the roster look like terrifying goblin facsimiles of themselves, or MyCareer's obnoxious and tedious story. This is the moment the WWE 2K series hit Rock Bottom.

Manifold Garden Review - Stairways To Puzzle Heaven

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 02:00

You stand in a room and the floor is the ceiling, or maybe it's the other way around? No, everything is the floor and you're falling through infinity. Welcome to the Manifold Garden, a game where you need to prepare to have your mind warped by the beauty of repetition and some seriously impressive puzzles. It is an Escher-inspired fever dream of a game--you have the ability to allocate gravity to any side of an environment at any time, and it's surprising just how many different puzzles the game manages to pull from this concept, with new elements gradually being introduced at just the right pace to grant further complexity without being completely daunting.

To start, there are colour-coded cubes which need to be placed on switches to open doors or other mechanisms. It doesn't take long to discover these colours are also relevant to their own personal gravity and as such, cubes can only be moved when the world is in that orientation. Add stairs going in different directions, switch combinations, and staggered environments, and even these relatively basic puzzles take some mind-bending to get accustomed to, which makes for further payoff when solutions come.

It takes a while to adjust to the changes in orientation, so for the first few hours, I often found myself getting lost and even feeling a little nauseous and headachy (though it's worth noting that there are settings to adjust field-of-view, which helps). I found that the more I came to understand the concepts, the less this happened, as my mind stopped fighting what it was seeing. Towards the end of the game, I could rapidly make these changes; I could almost hear the click in my brain when everything started to become intuitive and second nature. Things that weren’t immediately obvious, like understanding that the gravity of one block can be used to stop another from falling in order to trigger a seemingly impossible switch, went from edge-of-the-brain concepts to be instinctual.

There was one particularly devilish puzzle where I had to use several different cubes to hold a single, vital cube in place. It had to be done in a specific way and sequence to take advantage of their individual gravities. When I first approached this problem, it hadn’t previously occurred to me that this was even possible, and I was left stumped for ages. The payoff for working it out, however, was not only immensely satisfying but helped open my mind for further puzzles. I began using cubes to hold various things in place, and even as steps for myself (even when it was unnecessary to solve an actual puzzle). It’s in these moments where I felt like my power in this ever-changing space was growing, where the game made me feel like a master of my own domain.

The aesthetics of Manifold Garden are confrontingly beautiful, in that they are both stark and complex. The music is minimal, though it builds in peak moments with intense synths which seem to mirror the environment. There are practically no textures to speak of and almost everything is made of simple polygons; the environments are littered with stairs which seemingly go in every direction, whether or not you know that's what they are at the time. Some of the environments are simple, like a beautiful block tree with running water displays in a sort of Japanese garden aesthetic. Others are incredibly complex with moving parts in multiple directions. When looked at up close, it can appear dull and barren, but a step back will often reveal the psychedelic beauty in greater patterns.

The physical stages themselves actually repeat endlessly into the void of the world, and this is more than just an aesthetic choice--it allows you to fall off a ledge forever and then land back on otherwise unreachable areas, creating another obtuse mechanic that comes into play during later puzzles. In every way, Manifold Garden's world challenges you to think differently while maintaining that you're always safe--there isn't death or fall damage of any kind. This allows you to explore without fear, while also taking the time to internalise the game's logic.

As you progress through the increasingly layered architectural stages, you'll find little-to-no hand-holding and for the most part, this is fantastic. There's just enough direction that you get the satisfying sensation of working things out yourself, which comes with a deep feeling of accomplishment. Even as new, unexpected elements are added, they're grounded with enough familiar imagery that you can eventually decipher new solutions with minimal prompting. For example, cube trees grow cube fruits, which can be planted in special areas and given water to provide new trees and more fruit; water can move a turbine to provide the power that opens a door, allowing you to move forward. I was stumped multiple times throughout my playthrough, but it was never due to an obtuse new mechanic being added. Instead, the puzzles are all legitimately clever and tricky, which required me to look at them from literally all angles in order to work out a solution.

There's also an incredible density of puzzles. Sometimes, even traversing from one room to the next provides you with a new obstacle to reconcile your way around. Very rarely did I feel like Manifold Garden provided much reprieve. Instead, it keeps your mind constantly thinking, always looking for new angles, and firmly on the tips of your toes. But, there's also no pressure--no enemies, no time limits--and this makes Manifold Garden feel like an intensely cerebral experience from start to finish.

There was one puzzle in Manifold Garden that was so tricky I couldn't solve it myself--and I later discovered it was only because I'd missed something from an area I thought was finished. The game doesn't always do enough to provide you with clues to solve its problems--in this one occasion, I wasted possibly over an hour trying to find a solution where there was none. There were a few other moments where I felt that a little more direction would have been welcome, or where I solved a puzzle on accident and missed an important lesson as a result. However, being forced to work out every other problem in the game for myself was so gratifying that in the end, I felt like it was worth the hours lost to obscurity.

As I stood in the impossible world of the Manifold Garden, I felt tested and worthy. Its puzzles are incredibly satisfying and offer a very clever blend of step-by-step knowledge-building with increasingly challenging solutions. The environments are awe-inspiring in their endless repetition, but repetition isn't a trait reflected in the game's challenges. There is always something new, or a new way to look at something old, as you traverse through the infinite horizon. Manifold Garden is a feast for the eyes and the mind, so long as you can wrap both around what it has to offer.

Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD Review - All Monkey, No Magic

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 01:00

Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD is, incredibly, the first Super Monkey Ball game to use a full-size analog stick since the GameCube era. The 3DS and Vita games in the series were beholden to smaller, less precise sticks, but playing with a DualShock 4 is like a homecoming. The original Super Monkey Ball felt designed to take advantage of the precision and range of motion, which the Gamecube controller offered, but only now has the series returned to the purity of the original game's design.

Because of this, the opening moments of Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD, a remake of a Wii launch title with the motion controls ripped out, are lovely. Guiding your monkey through those first few goals is immediately familiar if you've played either of the series' GameCube outings, but even if you're not, there's an inherent pleasure to the precision of the controls here. By tilting the stick you shift the level itself, rather than controlling the ball directly, and having analog control allows for a greater level of finesse than has been possible for a long time--at least at first. At its best, Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD feels like the series' latest love letter to the analog stick--you need to be sensitive and subtle with your movements, and being able to make tiny adjustments on the move is satisfying on a level that you might not expect from a game about rolling monkeys around in balls.

Unfortunately, Banana Blitz HD retains some of the original Wii game's problems--terrible boss fights, unimaginative level designs, the questionable addition of a jump button--and adds in a few of its own. It makes for a Monkey Ball game that shows the promise of the series, and reminds you of just how much control an analog stick can give you, but fails to live up to it.

Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD gives you 100 levels to roll your monkey through--the same 100 featured in the original, updated with a half-hearted graphical upgrade that still makes the game look a little dated. After choosing your preferred primate (each of which have different stats that impact how fast they go and how high they can jump), you're tasked with tackling all 10 worlds, made up of 10 levels each, in order. In each level, you need to roll and jump your way through a treacherous stage to the goal at the end without falling off the edge, and the first 60 or so are easy. This was a game originally designed with motion controls in mind, and it's clear, playing with an analog stick, where concessions were made.

The extra precision afforded in this version makes the game more enjoyable to control, but it also means that I was able to blaze through these stages quickly. Super Monkey Ball was a series praised for its challenge back in the day, and it's hard not to feel disappointed at how easily you can rush through so much of it. There are worse things for a game to be than easy, of course, and I still had some fun with a few of the more imaginative levels, but there's little incentive to go back and try to collect more of the bananas scattered around each level or record a better time. The time trial leaderboards are bizarrely split so that you can't simply go back and record your best time on a single world except for the first, so there's little reason to really become an expert.

But then, for a brief, shining run--around the game's sixth 10-level world--Banana Blitz HD's difficulty curve hits a sweet spot. It's trickier without being obscene or seeming unfair, and the level designs start to get more inventive. You find yourself navigating your monkey through huge rolling wheels, up towers, through moderate maze-like levels, and across other stages that feel like they have a clear sense of purpose and design. The best levels in the series are literal and metaphorical balancing acts--you need to be very careful with your movements, and the level needs to be designed so that you'll keep playing, believing that you can right your own mistakes. Banana Blitz briefly hits that balance and feels like a proper classic Monkey Ball experience, one that pushes your skills and patience but rewards your efforts with the satisfaction of having mastered a difficult task. Unfortunately, the fun doesn't last.

Changes made for this version, and the ease of breezing through the less challenging levels, result in a severe difficulty spike in the game's final third. In the original Wii release, several levels featured parallel rails that you could slot your monkey into and roll along. This meant that while you had to make subtle movements and adjustments to ensure that you didn't fall off, there was some protection from plummeting. This design helped to compensate for the added difficulty of motion controls; the HD version replaces these rails with thin beams to roll across, which beefs up the challenge dramatically.

There were a few stages that stopped me dead in my tracks and forced me to retry repeatedly, and it was often levels that had been redesigned since the original Wii release. While I prefer stick controls to motion controls for this series, the fact that these levels were originally meant to be played with motion controls in mind makes for a less satisfying experience--the Wii version had a more refined difficulty curve. Early on the game doesn't beef up its challenges enough for the change in controls, whereas later it feels like it has overcorrected, and it also means that the difficulty can fluctuate--some later levels still feel very simple and a lot easier with stick controls. In other instances, levels simply feel like they lack finesse in their design or clear lines through them, especially the ones where making jumps is a necessity.

It also becomes clear in the later levels just how much of a burden the jump button is. In the Wii version you could control the camera with the Wii Nunchuk stick, since you weren't using it to steer; this option has been excised from the HD release. Jumping in a 3D space without total camera control leads to headaches, especially since you're not actually controlling the monkey, but rather the level below them. Jumping feels like an imprecise act in a game that is all about the pleasures of precise movement, and it makes the game far more frustrating than other, comparably difficult entries in the series.

Every 10 levels you hit a boss fight, which feel uniformly out of place. Boss fights usually take place in small arenas and pit your monkey against an enemy with a glaring weak spot that you need to jump into. The difficulty curve is, again, way off here; the second boss is much more difficult than most that follow, as it fires rockets that you must hop on top of to redirect, which is an extremely fiddly process. Tellingly, the best boss fight plays like a standard level with a "weak point" at the end of it instead of a goal; otherwise, these fights feel completely at odds with what Monkey Ball is all about.

The multiplayer mini-games have been cut back, too. Part of the Wii version's appeal was that the 50 mini-games included showed off the many things the Wii remote was capable of. Banana Blitz HD trims the collection down to 10 games that are all mapped to a controller, and they range from okay to atrocious. The best ones are Dangerous Route (an okay three-level top-down reinterpretation of the series' standard rolling gameplay) and Monkey Target, a hang-gliding game that tasks you with landing on a distant target (which was perfected in the original GameCube Super Monkey Ball and is greatly simplified here, but still enjoyable). None of them are particularly deep, and much of the control mapping from a Wii remote to a controller is terrible. You can compete in the single-player 'Decathlon' mode, which strings all ten games together and lets you place on an online leaderboard, but personally, I never want to play the awful Hovercraft Race or Whack-A-Mole events--both of which control horribly--again.

It's lovely to have Super Monkey Ball back, but Banana Blitz HD is not a good showcase of what made the series work. It's a remake of a game that was originally designed for a very different, specific purpose and control scheme, and the efforts made to update it for 2019 have made for a lesser game. It's a shame, because a glimmer of what made the series great remains, and it's enough to make us hope that someday we get a new entry that properly returns the series to its roots.

MediEvil Review - Bones 'n Brawn

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 00:00

As a remaster of the 1998 puzzle-platformer of the same name, MediEvil holds up reasonably well. Its cartoonishly charming characters and varied, if relatively simplistic, level design both stands the test of time and looks better than ever thanks to a complete graphical overhaul. But as much as MediEvil can feel like a warm blanket of nostalgia--especially for those of us who played the game 21 years ago--it also feels incredibly dated, with jittery controls and camera issues that regularly get in the way of progress.

You play as Sir Daniel Fortesque, a dead knight who is returned to life when the sorcerer Zarok makes an unexpected return to Gallowmere, bringing with him hordes of monsters. Fortesque remains every bit as charming a character as he was; his gnarled teeth, warbly voice, and single, rolling eyeball lose none of their charisma in the remastering process. Zarok's design hasn't aged well, though, and the new visuals leave him looking like a plastic doll who’s been left out in the sun too long. Enemy designs are otherwise just as fun as ever, with many tying in closely to their given map’s visual themes.

Challenging puzzles, light platforming, and hack-and-slash combat make up the bulk of what you do in MediEvil. The land of Gallowmere feels stuck in a perpetual state of Halloween, with each level brandishing its own delightfully spooky artistic twist to it. The diverse range of locations makes for some wonderful variety in the look and feel of each level; a graveyard, a pumpkin patch, a large hedge maze, and a floating town in the middle of a lake are a small selection of the good choice of maps to slash your way through.

Combat is reliant on simple hack-and-slash controls, and this feels underwhelming in the beginning--not only do you feel initially weak, but one of your two main attacks is so slow and unwieldy that it's borderline useless. Most frays are chaotic at best, rarely involving anything more than mashing the attack button while running around to avoid damage, so having one of your main attacks feel pointless is a real bummer. A handful of new abilities that you gradually learn spice things up a touch but also feel awkward to use, like a charge attack that lets you force enemies off platforms by charging into them with your shield up.

However, combat gradually improves as you earn more powerful weapons and start to deal a more satisfying amount of damage. You earn new weapons by killing enough of the enemies wandering around a level, which will fill and reveal a hidden chalice. This grants you entrance to the Hall of Heroes--an in-between level where characters from Daniel’s past offer up new weapons. Filling and finding each chalice isn’t essential for progression, but the extra effort it takes to do so is very much worth it.

Because it's a straightforward remake, a big issue with MediEvil are the aspects that feel dated by modern standards. Progression often relies on some variety of fetch-quest, like collecting the right runestones to unlock the next door or gathering a few items to encourage some help from a new character. This encourages exploration around hidden corners or through smashing boulders blocking a new path, which can be rewarding when you find a stash of gold or a health-extending life bottle, it can also lead to much annoyance as you grapple with the game’s occasionally nonsensical camera.

When in an open area, the camera acts like any other third-person camera and can be controlled with relative ease, only rarely getting caught in the world geometry. But when inside a cave or a building the camera switches to a fixed view, doing so regularly and without warning. Not only does it look and feel clumsy, but it also switches the movement to tank controls for as long as the camera is stuck in place, which is a tremendous hassle. The result is often jerky and awkward movement, which can be a killer during combat, and these controls are even worse when trying to navigate puzzles and platforming sections.

Adding to these frustrations is the fact that mid-level checkpoints are non-existent, so when you die, you go back to the beginning, which becomes a problem when combined with MediEvil’s annoying movement and another one of its aging design concepts: watery death. It can be so easy to fall foul of some bad geometry and slip to your death that any surface around water will become instantly anxiety-inducing, such is the consistency with which I found myself in this situation.

Furthermore, character health is continuous across the game--finish a level with low health and you’ll either have to tackle the next one with what you’ve got and hope for the best, or backtrack to a previous one and try to find as much health as you can before attempting to move forward. Stack that on the ever-growing pile of issues, and MediEvil becomes the kind of grind that makes you want to put it down and never come back to it.

MediEvil does have some nostalgic charm, but due to its bevy of issues, it feels not just old, but undeniably outdated. For every part that helps us look back fondly on a time when games were made differently, there’s another that reminds us of how far we’ve come in those years since. MediEvil's delightful level and character design mostly still stands tall, but its combat and controls largely fall well short of what feels tolerable by modern standards, and it left me feeling wholly ambivalent to its existence.

Luigi's Mansion 3 Review - Family Friendly Frights

Tue, 10/29/2019 - 01:00

Luigi's Mansion may directly trace its lineage to the Super Mario franchise, but the series is in many ways its complete antithesis. Whereas Mario's adventures whisk players through vibrant worlds laden with pits, lava pools, and other platforming challenges to overcome, Luigi's have been decidedly more methodical, trading the colorful backdrops of his brother's titles for cobwebbed corridors, and emphasizing careful observation over quick reflex. Luigi's Mansion 3 very much continues this tradition, but the tightly crafted set pieces developer Next Level Games has assembled here illustrate just how compelling this style of gameplay remains, and the new mechanics and freer structure make it perhaps the best installment in the series yet.

Once again, Mario's cowardly brother finds himself unwittingly thrust into the role of hero when Mario, Princess Peach, and her entourage of Toad attendants are kidnapped shortly after the group checks into the ominously named Last Resort hotel. Luigi narrowly avoids this same fate by escaping down a laundry chute and landing in the hotel's basement, where he soon reunites with eccentric paranormal researcher Professor E. Gadd and his trusty Poltergust--a modified vacuum cleaner that can suck up ghosts.

The Poltergust serves as the basis of Luigi's entire range of actions in Luigi's Mansion 3. Despite being a more adept jumper than his brother, Luigi doesn't display any of his leaping prowess here; the lanky plumber's feet are planted firmly to the floor throughout nearly the entire adventure. His primary means of interacting with the environment instead comes through the Poltergust's numerous abilities. On top of being able to suck up debris and blow out air, the vacuum comes equipped with both the Strobulb and Dark-Light from Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon; the former releases a blinding flash of light that can stun ghosts and activate certain switches, while the latter reveals invisible objects and enemies.

Complementing these is a handful of satisfying new abilities. The Suction Shot fires a plunger that can attach to certain objects, allowing Luigi to swing or pull them, while the Burst releases a gust of air that knocks crowds of enemies back and lifts the plumber momentarily off the ground. The most vital addition to Luigi's ghost-hunting repertoire, however, is the ability to slam ghosts. Latch onto a spectre with the Poltergust and you'll charge up a meter that lets you bash them repeatedly on the floor, inflicting extra damage.

Not only do these new abilities feel like natural extensions of Luigi's skill set, they inject a welcome bit of action to the gameplay. They also open up new approaches for taking on adversaries. In past games, ghost encounters typically amounted to first stunning them with your flashlight, then vacuuming them up. You'll still rely primarily on the Strobulb to control crowds of enemies, but now you can slam one ghost into any others that are nearby, damaging multiple foes at once. Later encounters will force you to use the other skills at your disposal as well, making battles consistently enjoyable.

Outside of combat, the Poltergust's most significant new feature is the ability to summon Gooigi--a gooey doppelganger of Luigi originally introduced in the 3DS remake of the first game. Gooigi's role has been expanded here, opening up a new range of puzzles to overcome. The goopy clone retains the same abilities as Luigi, but his gelatinous body can slip through fences, grates, and even spike traps, allowing him to bypass seemingly insurmountable obstacles and discover hidden corners of the hotel. Moreover, certain enemies and objects will be much too large for Luigi to swing on his own, requiring the extra set of hands Gooigi provides, and a number of rooms feature pressure-sensitive tiles that one character will need to stand on while the other vacuums up whatever emerges.

Once you unlock Gooigi, you can play through almost the entire adventure cooperatively with another nearby player, and the game lends itself well to either co-op or solo play. Many of the puzzles you'll encounter require Luigi and Gooigi to work in tandem, which makes exploring the hotel with a friend enjoyable. Solo players, meanwhile, can swap between Luigi and Gooigi by pressing the right thumbstick in, allowing you to quickly take control of either character as the situation demands. You'll never encounter a scenario that cannot be overcome solo, although a handful of bosses and puzzles are clearly designed with a second player in mind. While these are still very much beatable on your own, they are a bit more cumbersome when you're juggling control of both characters.

Much like Dark Moon, Luigi's Mansion 3 makes clever use of your small clutch of abilities. Every puzzle you encounter while exploring the Last Resort can be surmounted by observing your surroundings and employing some combination of these skills, although it certainly won't seem that way for many. You'll frequently come across puzzles that offer no obvious solution, which makes finally sussing out the answer all the more satisfying. The game rarely reuses ideas as well, so each challenge you face feels fresh.

On top of that, the hotel houses a wealth of collectibles to find. Coins, pearls, bars of gold, and other valuables are copiously tucked away in treasure chests, drawers, toilets, and any other compartment you can imagine, encouraging you to poke around. Most enticing, however, are the six unique gems on each floor. Many of these are deviously hidden, and you'll need to study your surroundings carefully to figure out how to uncover them. Even the gems that are in plain sight will often require an outside-the-box solution before you can actually collect them, which makes taking the time to explore every nook and cranny of the building constantly rewarding.

Each floor of the Last Resort acts as its own self-contained level and adheres to a different theme, running the gamut from typical hotel amenities like restaurants and gift shops to more outlandish lodgings such as medieval castles and ancient Egyptian pyramids. Despite these disparate themes, the floors all feel of a piece, and the variety keeps the adventure pleasantly surprising throughout. Gaining access to a new floor is always a delight because you never quite know what to expect when the elevator door opens. Moreover, the game eschews the mission-based nature of Dark Moon in favor of a much looser structure. Barring a few instances, most of which occur early on in the adventure, Luigi won't be recalled to E. Gadd's lab after completing objectives, allowing you to explore the hotel at your leisure.

When you first begin your quest, however, you'll only have access to the basement and main lobby; to reach the rest of the hotel, you'll need to track down elevator buttons to the other floors, and these are typically in the possession of a boss ghost. These boss encounters are another highlight; each one has a distinct personality that's charmingly conveyed through their animations, and you'll come across all manner of characters, from a film director melodramatically mourning the loss of his beloved director's cone to a skittish security guard who is just as startle-prone as Luigi. These personalities help elevate the bosses above the rather forgettable ones from Dark Moon, and each battle makes use of Luigi's skill set in clever ways.

The controls, however, will occasionally get in your way. To shine the Dark-Light, you need to hold the X button, which means you can't move the right analog stick to adjust your aim while using that ability. The game compensates for this by letting you aim using motion controls, but it isn't a proper replacement for dual analog; you're limited to aiming up and down, making it an inelegant solution. The Suction Shot suffers from a similar issue; you'll often need to hold the button down to line up your shots, making it likewise difficult to aim, particularly during high-pressure situations. None of these issues are severe enough to detract significantly from the game, but they are an occasional annoyance.

Rounding out the package are two dedicated multiplayer modes: ScareScraper and ScreamPark. The former plays out much as it did in Dark Moon, challenging up to eight players--either locally or online--to complete successive floors of a tower within a strict time limit. Each floor has a specific objective, such as defeating every ghost or collecting a certain amount of money, and you'll need to work together to clear the challenges. ScreamPark, meanwhile, is a local-only party mode in which two teams compete against each other in mini-games. There are three different mini-games to choose from; one has teams vying to suck up the most ghosts within the time limit, while another has them floating around a pool, collecting coins while avoiding mines. Both modes can be fun diversions, particularly ScareScraper, which straddles the line between competitive and cooperative. As they stand, however, they're comparatively shallow and lack the same appeal as the main game.

But while the multiplayer modes may not hold your attention for long, the strength of the Luigi's Mansion series has always stemmed from the satisfaction of exploring its carefully constructed settings, and in that regard Luigi's Mansion 3 certainly succeeds. The game may not radically diverge from the series' formula, but it offers up another meticulously crafted set of challenges to overcome while smoothing out some of the issues that held Dark Moon back, and the sense of accomplishment you feel when you clear a particularly head-scratching obstacle is just as potent now as the first time Luigi unwillingly strapped a vacuum to his back and stepped into a haunted mansion.

Afterparty Review - Hell Is Other People

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 15:18

Afterparty's version of hell is less fire and brimstone and more cocktails and ennui. Sure, its human inhabitants are still damned for eternity and demons still flagellate them for their sins, but that's just the nine-to-five. To escape the drudgery of everlasting torment, demons and humans alike flock to bars and other seedy hangouts between the days' torture. It isn't the flashiest take on the afterlife, but that's kind of the point. Afterparty revels in the small, personal acts of cruelty and kindness that define us, and while the ways it imparts lessons aren't always up to task with the material, it nonetheless treads exciting ground as a story about the work it takes to be a better person.

Developed by Oxenfree creators Night School Studio, Afterparty follows Milo and Lola, a pair of recent college grads who've just found out they face eternal damnation. After some quick onboarding on how they're to be tortured for the rest of eternity, the pair get a break when their turn in line comes just as the workday ends, giving them a night's reprieve. They then learn there's a way out of their predicament: If they can outparty The Prince of Darkness himself, they can return to the world of the living.

Mechanically, Afterparty keeps things simple. As you walk across rich and detailed 3D backgrounds along a 2D plane, most of your interactions involve talking to the right person at the right time. This puts the spotlight on Afterparty's strongest asset: incredibly verisimilar conversations. The dialogue is lifelike in a way you don't find in most games; characters restart their sentences, which often have a fantastically ad-libbed quality to them; the main voice cast features whip-smart performances from Janina Gavankar, Khoi Dao, Ashly Burch, and Dave Fennoy, who all sell their cartoonish characters' maladjustments without making them overbearing.

Afterparty touches on several topics, including the layout, structure, and the underpinnings of its underworld, which pull heavily from the Bible and Paradise Lost. It makes easy connections between businesspeople and demons, or social media platforms and hellscapes, though the comparisons are all coated in a thick veneer of simmering snark and clever turns of phrases that make the comparisons fun, even if they're not the most imaginative ones.

Afterparty is most at home and most cutting when it delves into more intimate topics. Sister May Wormhorn, a personal demon created to harass Milo and Lola as they try to get the approvals necessary to outparty Satan, torments the pair by sifting through their rougher memories. These end up being not one-off, traumatic events, but rather the kinds of smaller slights and moments that bring out their various hangups: Lola's ostracization from her family due to not only her complex family situation, but her skepticism in the face of her sisters' faith; Milo's demanding parents and search for an identity as the child of an immigrant family. These points come through in ways that are direct, but not didactic, and they make for some of the game's strongest moments.

The aloof but clear sense of resignation that permeates throughout hell's inhabitants also sells Afterparty's vision of the underworld not as a prison for the world's most violent criminals, but as the banal hangout spot for those who simply failed to do enough good. In an early exchange, Milo asks Satan what he and Lola could have done to deserve eternal damnation. Satan cuts back with a pithy anecdote about a man who will ask him the same question 50 years from now, after having set out a dress for his girlfriend knowing it would be too revealing to keep her warm in a movie theater. "The real question, Milo, is, what did you do to deserve anything else?" The way Afterparty imparts this lesson both explicitly, in the moral quandaries its explores in its characters, and in its vibrant-but-benumbing clubs, parks, and sights, makes for a powerful atmosphere.

Not every beat lands, however. The main plot, the one about trying to drink Satan under the table, ends in somewhat anticlimactic fashion, and the threads leading up to that finale are underwhelming. That's in part a result of how the quandaries its characters tackle don't have solid, definable solutions that could make for a more exciting conclusion. But it's also because the overarching plot acts as more of a vehicle for characters to vent their frustrations with the world, the underworld, and each other than a real compelling story on its own. The snarky tone also keeps things from getting too dark, and while I appreciated the lighthearted approach, there were times I wish it would have delved into the darker, riskier territory a game set in hell might invite.

Most of Afterparty has you simply taking in and reacting to conversations, but the ways you interact with those conversations break immersion more often than they deepen it. You interact with conversations largely by deciding when to butt in and when to say nothing. You have a limited but generous timer on how long you can respond to something before it's no longer an appropriate response, though I did find a few spots where dialogue would skip inadvertently. The conversation choices are fairly limited, and in the instances where I was able to play through a section of dialogue a second time through, my choices didn't actually alter the plot all that much, which made the conversation more interactive as a way to keep the game from being one long monologue than anything else.

As you hash out the various problems of demons and humans alike, you're going to want to drink. Imbibing one of the underworldly cocktails you find at bars unlocks new dialogue options; chugging a Blue Devil (potato vodka, cigarette butts, the wailing of injured children, and a melted antoninianus coin) will make you more of a rich jerk, while a Grand Exhibitionist (bourbon, mint, sugar, and a frog's vocal sac) will make you more of a "witty vaudevillian." Many of these are for kicks (you can sound like a pirate while making a point if you really want), but often, you'll need them if you want to branch a conversation a different way or build up the courage to perform certain actions to progress.

Afterparty is most at home and most cutting when it delves into more intimate topics.

It's a neat hook that ties into the themes of the story, but it lacks depth as a central conceit. You get a flourish here and there as you affect different octaves or do impressions as you try to get two lovers to get back together, but none of the branches I went down seemed particularly influenced by my drink of choice. On a couple of occasions the game slyly hints that you should replay it to see different effects for all of your choices, but never really earns it. It highlights the larger choices you make, such as whether you turn in one of two suspects who may be a human sneaking into hell for the fun of it, in review sessions with Wormhorn (who belittles you regardless of what you pick). But aside from one major choice, I wasn't too compelled to see other ways situations could have happened.

Beyond that, Afterparty is fairly straightforward; its puzzles are barebones (the most complicated one involved talking someone into giving me their trenchcoat so Milo and Lola could sneak into a club), and most of the drinking and club mini-games that pop up when it's time to earn a demon's approval are disappointing. That Afterparty keeps its interactions light is mostly to its benefit, but when it tries for something else, it doesn't offer the kinds of powerful moments that come from a game's mechanics and story working together to drive home a point.

Thankfully, Afterparty sticks mostly to unpacking its characters, world, moral quandaries, and how we may not always see those quandaries for how they define us. When it hits those strides, it's a novel look at what hell might look like for most of us, a vision that turns the concept of eternal damnation into something more palpable and threatening. It fumbles when it reaches outside its comfort zone, and the focus on small moments means it lacks the grandiose ones that make our lives feel more meaningful than they might otherwise be. But again, that's kind of the point: After all, what did we do to deserve anything else?

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare Review In Progress - Shock And Awe

Fri, 10/25/2019 - 12:00

The Modern Warfare series has always been about the messiness of modern war--the fundamentally different rules of engagement that come with a battle that has no set battlefield. When the fight could be anywhere at any time, where do you draw the line between doing what's right and doing what has to be done?

Throughout Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's campaign, that line is chemical weapons. It's a safe line to draw; people are largely in agreement that chemical weapons are beyond horrific. But there are other horrors of war, some of which Modern Warfare depicts, starkly, in strong but uncomfortable missions. Just when it could really make a point about any other aspect of modern war, it pulls back. Modern Warfare makes old observations and presents them with new flourishes. Those new flourishes do make for a good campaign and solid multiplayer. But it's when Modern Warfare asks you to think harder that it falls short.

Campaign

In one of the game's most distressing levels, you play Farah, a young girl in a fictional war-torn Middle Eastern country as she hides from both a Russian terrorist and the deadly gas his cohorts have unleashed on her town. To escape, you have to kill a man twice your size with his own gun. It's a deeply uncomfortable experience. But the flashback serves to illustrate why Farah, now the leader of a group of freedom fighters, refuses to use chemical weapons or associate with anyone who does. It is a hard line she won't cross, even though she's had to face a lot of ugliness in the course of defending her country.

In many ways, Farah is Modern Warfare's moral compass. There are a few key players in Modern Warfare's proxy war, and everyone you play as--Sgt. Kyle Garrick from the UK, rogue American soldier Alex "Echo 3-1," and sometimes Farah herself--abides by her one rule. Outside of that, though, the rules are much murkier. In getting pulled into a war between the Russian terrorists, a separatist group from Farah's country, and the freedom fighters, US and UK military personnel disagree on how best to proceed with the situation--matters of disobeying orders, sacrificing some lives to save others, taking civilian hostages, and even torture. And on these matters, the moral compass is Captain Price.

A returning face from the original Modern Warfare and undeniably a problematic fave, Captain Price is the seasoned badass who takes the lead in most Garrick missions. Early levels with Price are among the best. As a rash and impatient Garrick, you follow Price's directions in order to save as many people as possible from terrorists--though more than once that means watching as innocent people die while you wait to make the best possible move.

These missions range from large-scale, high-octane firefights to a carefully planned raid on a terrorist hideout with less than a dozen enemies total. You direct a woman through an embassy under siege using security cameras to make sure her path is clear. You quietly search a compound for an enemy using night vision goggles as Price watches overhead, shooting out lights to keep you hidden. Price guides you through the different approaches you need for each mission, and his mentorship--both in the mechanical skills you need to be successful and the hard choices you have to make along the way--makes these missions memorable.

While Alex's missions don't stick out quite as much in a gameplay sense, he gets a sniping level reminiscent of the original Modern Warfare's "All Ghillied Up"--though with more enemies--and otherwise a few cool gadgets. His dynamic with Farah is strong, though. He follows Farah's lead on her turf and on her terms because he believes in the cause, and they share mutual respect.

It's disappointing, though, that Farah doesn't play more of a role. While she is a key part of Alex's missions and the driving force behind much of the story, you only play as her a few times. On top of the childhood flashback, there is an even more disturbing flashback later on in which you see the full extent of Farah's resolve. Experiencing her suffering this way borders on unnecessary, as it's already established in Alex's missions that she's a respected leader and a strong-willed person in general. While I liked Alex, I would have rather just played as Farah in those missions than get to know her character largely through her trauma.

I already liked and respected Farah without that context, and despite some questionable decisions, I liked each of the main characters and their small but crucial differences in working toward the same goals. Farah and Alex are principled, whereas Garrick and Price are results-driven. Alex goes so far as to disobey orders in favor of doing what's right, and when he's told that would be illegal, he responds, "I'm pretty sure everything we do is illegal." To Alex, it's a criticism; to Price and Garrick, it's an excuse.

That tension builds up over the course of the campaign, and because the characters are likable, it's easy to at least consider each one's view of what's right. But in the end, all you get is a vague "we all did what we had to do" sentiment rather than anything more substantial or interesting. Quite a bit of what you had to do--as Garrick, as Alex, and as Farah--was unpleasant or distressing, but the questions raised by your actions aren't interrogated further, especially the questionable side of Price's approach. Modern Warfare's ending isn't bad, but it is a safe one, leaving you to think on the harder questions yourself.

If anything, Modern Warfare lets Farah down with the bizarre and much-discussed inclusion of white phosphorus as a killstreak in multiplayer. Given how strong the campaign's emphasis is on chemical weapons being a reprehensible war crime, it's tone-deaf to include one in multiplayer, even though one could argue--much like Alex does--that pretty much all of it is illegal at the end of the day.

Multiplayer

Outside of any thematic contradictions, Modern Warfare's multiplayer is up to par, with a variety of game types for different kinds of players. Across all the modes, maps move away from the obvious three-lane structure in favor of nooks, crannies, and tons of cover; there's generally a balance of close-quarters and long-range approaches. The standard, highly customizable toolkit for your chosen loadouts returns, with a good selection of perks to suit different game types and playstyles. Modern Warfare largely stays within the strong foundations of Call of Duty multiplayer without pushing them much, with the exception of the excellent Realism mode.

Undeniably the highlight of Modern Warfare's multiplayer, Realism mode is somewhere between the familiar Core and Hardcore modes, bridging the gulf between them. Oddly enough, in a mode called "Realism," you can take more damage than in Hardcore, and your health regenerates like it does in Core. But Realism removes the HUD entirely, going beyond Hardcore to strip out the kill feed on top of everything else. In order to confirm a kill, you have to listen for the sound effect that plays upon death, and you also have to listen for NPCs over the comms alerting you to available killstreaks and enemy intel. It's a fantastic balance for those who want more of a chance to survive a scrap, rather than dying in one or two shots like in Hardcore, but with the rest of the challenge intact. It's a smart, satisfying evolution, and as a stubborn Hardcore-only player, it's one I could see myself playing exclusively going forward.

While none of the new game types are earth-shattering, some are better additions than others. TDM 20, a 10v10 version of the classic 6v6 Team Deathmatch mode, is the least inventive or warranted of them, instead functioning as a more bloated version of regular TDM with bigger maps that can make getting back into the action an overly long process. One of the two maps I've tried, Euphrates Bridge, also suffers from balance problems on top of that; of the two spawns, one is much closer to the bridge dividing the map, and the closer side was almost guaranteed victory in every match I played. My team once managed to flip the spawn mid-match after struggling against snipers on the bridge for a while, and from there we were able to gain the lead relatively easily.

Gunfight is the antithesis of TDM 20. It's a one-life, 2v2 mode in which your loadout rotates each round, and the goal is to kill your two opponents with the means available to you before they get you first. Gunfight features small maps with two main routes on each, and quick coordination with your partner--a "you go left, I'll go right" at the beginning, plus callouts over voice chat if things go haywire--can make or break the fight. With a relatively level playing field, battles are often exhilaratingly close, and it's hard to get discouraged by a loss since rounds go by so quickly. There's also a version where you start without any weapons and have to find a gun in the map, which is a fun scramble before the frenzy of Gunfight itself. Either way, the more arcadey bent to Gunfight keeps things light and makes both versions a great addition to the multiplayer suite, if not a huge draw.

Ground War is somewhere in the middle. Maps are sprawling, with five control points to capture and one safe zone for each team on either end. Unlike in TDM 20, you can pretty easily get back to the fight after dying by respawning at any capture point your team owns, or on vehicles or your teammates (provided they're not actively in a fight). Having objective points is also helpful for keeping such a large game type--it supports 64 players currently--more structured than the free-for-all of TDM. That said, matches can drag on a bit too long, as there isn't anything to break up the constant tug-of-war for capture points.

There's also a night vision mode, NVG, for a different take on the same maps, and by its nature it makes things a bit more tense. It pretty much plays the same as the other game types, but you don't aim down sights in night vision--you have a laser, and that laser is easy to spot. You have to be extra cautious when lining up your shots, paying close attention to sightlines and who might see where your beam is coming from. Like in the campaign, the threatening glow of these beams cutting through the darkness looks excellent, and the slight change of pace NVG affords is enough to keep it interesting and distinct from the daytime modes. Editor's note: As of October 24, Infinity Ward has removed NVG maps from the rotation and has said it will add them in at a later time. Stay tuned for updates.

Spec Ops

As of this writing, Spec Ops is the mode I've had the least experience with, though it's not one I particularly want to play much more of. On paper, it's a co-op mode where you and a team complete a set of objectives and are rewarded with some story. You can choose one of several roles at the onset, each with its own ultimate ability--there's a medic, for instance, that can revive fallen teammates--and as a group, you have to work together to overcome enemies while gaining intel, heading to specific objective points, and so on.

In practice, my team of four could barely complete a handful of the objectives on both of the missions we attempted. This was largely due to frustrating enemy spawning--enemies seem to generate endlessly from all directions, and it's all too easy to get overwhelmed by them. To add insult to injury, there are also no clear waves. It's just enemies, from everywhere, at all times. After struggling to fight them off, reviving each other was we each inevitably died, we would end up running out of ammo and dying for good.

We tried a few different approaches on each of the two missions to try to figure it out. Splitting up was a disaster; stealth seemed to have no impact whatsoever on the number of enemies; different loadouts with PvE-friendly perks helped marginally. No matter what we did, it didn't help our understanding of the mode itself. It's just frustratingly, inexplicably hard. That said, I will be trying it again in the coming days to see if there was anything we were missing, and I also have to play the PS4-exclusive Survival mode as well as Spec Ops' Classic mode.

But the pitfalls of Spec Ops don't detract from what Modern Warfare does well. Realism mode is an excellent addition to the slate, and although not all the new multiplayer modes are great, Gunfight and the Night Vision playlist are refreshing standouts. And while the campaign ends up playing it safe in the end, it's still a memorable one, and it lays a strong foundation for where the Modern Warfare series could go from here.

Editor's note: This review, including the score, will be finalized once we've tested multiplayer on live servers and played more Spec Ops.

The Outer Worlds Review - The Right Stuff

Wed, 10/23/2019 - 00:00

The Outer Worlds plays just like a Fallout game. That's a pretty tepid description and an obvious comparison. It's easy to take one look at the game, which strongly echoes the mechanical form of the Bethesda RPGs, and think you know what to expect. The developer, Obsidian Entertainment, was responsible the cult-favourite Fallout: New Vegas after all. But The Outer Worlds doesn't just play like a Fallout game. It is, surprisingly, the best possible version of a Fallout game--a potent distillation of what made that series so beloved in the first place.

The Outer Worlds adopts the most compelling innovations of modern Fallout games, emphasising immersive exploration and impactful, action-oriented combat in a game engine (Unreal Engine) that actually makes those things feel good by contemporary standards. It shares Fallout's satirical but incredibly bleak look at the future, but is free of its tired tropes. Critically, The Outer Worlds exhibits the same depth of soul as the early Interplay and Black Isle Fallout games (as well as other games in the '90s PC RPG genre) with a genuinely complex, interconnected narrative web of relationships and events that feel like they can change in a seemingly infinite number of ways based on the character you want to be, the variety of choices you can make, and the actions you take.

Given the studio and the key people responsible (original Fallout creators Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky), that last trait isn't surprising. But it's not the only element that makes The Outer Worlds an excellent space Western adventure--that's just the incredibly sound foundation that elevates the game's great world-building, wonderful characters, and multi-layered quest design, on top of punchy combat and consistently sharp writing.

In The Outer Worlds, you are just one of the thousands of people left in hibernation on an abandoned colony ship, when a scientist of possibly ill repute frees you and enlists your help in saving the rest of your frozen peers. After a rigorous character creation process--involving a slew of variable attributes, perks, and aesthetic customization--you crash-land on a planet, alone, and from there, how you make your mark on the Halcyon system is up to you.

The crux of this sci-fi setup is that, among other things, the Halcyon system is owned and run entirely by a board of corporations, and their presence is a big deal. Whole planets are owned by corps looking to use their ecosystems as part of a larger supply chain, and numerous vending machines from different companies populate towns, trying to attract you with their bright logos and jingles. In fact, The Outer Worlds is saturated with strikingly colourful locales; the planets you'll visit are impressively varied and sometimes beautiful, flaunting an H.G. Wells-like retro-futuristic aesthetic, the antithesis of grimdark cyberpunk.

On the first impression, corporations appear as a mostly aesthetic layer folded into the world. A number of the companies mentioned seem to mostly just exist as manufacturers of weapons and consumables--a piece of flair to keep the tone light in the same way that the Circus of Values exists in BioShock, but it's far more ingrained than that. Corporate capitalism so deeply affects everything in The Outer Worlds, and explorations into how it can affect society on a variety of levels is a surprisingly well-considered constant, despite the semblance of parody. You'll meet sympathetic workers whose livelihoods are only made possible by offering themselves to exploitation and indentured servitude, white-collared outlaws who are more bureaucrats than pirates, and well-meaning middle-managers who are trying to change the corporate machine from the inside. You'll find moderates, idealists, extremists, and most things in between and around the fringes, all of which have their own feasible ideas about how to best serve the colony or themselves. By the time the climax hits, it's clear that The Outer Worlds has its own stance on this bleak future, but that doesn't stop the world it creates, the sojourns you take, and characters you meet along the way from being any less fascinating.

There are plenty of characters in The Outer Worlds who I didn't like. Reed Tobson, for example, is a snivelling factory chief in the early hours of the game who I didn't have to think twice about undermining, and Felix, one of your potential companion characters, had such an annoyingly naive personality I avoided talking to him as much as possible. The Outer Worlds allows you to kill any character in the game (bar one), and the world will reshape and move on without them, but there's something to be said for game's depiction of its unappealing people, whose portrayal I admired despite my distaste. You'll talk to a lot of people in The Outer Worlds. How much you do is up to you--you're allowed to cut straight to get to the point or dive deeper--but chatting to the game's entire supporting cast of non-player characters is something that never gets tiring, even if you don't care for them, purely because of how strong the game's writing and vocal performances are.

I never felt like I had to endure stretches of pointless or overly dramatic exchanges, both because of how focussed and subtle the script seemed to be, as well as the variety of response options for my player character which kept conversations flowing in largely natural ways. Numerous considerations for the world state let conversations take into account things you may or may not already have done throughout your campaign; brief and subtle injections of worldbuilding and lore stop conversation from being too matter of fact without losing the game's identity, and some exceptional low-key wit works very well in sparking a periodic laugh without humour feeling like a sticking point. Solid, consistent voice direction helps keep the tone firmly measured, meaning the hours you spend absorbing the world through its people are always engaging.

Nowhere does the strength of the game's characters shine more strongly than in your companions, however (except for Felix; that guy is a weenie). You have the option to recruit six predetermined characters to accompany and assist you in your adventures, though the game does have tools to bolster a lone wolf character too. But having companions along for the ride is a delight, and that's, again, because of the strength of the character writing. Companions instantly feel like fleshed-out characters of their own accord, not like they simply exist to revolve around you. They'll converse privately with each other and chime in on conversations you have with other characters in the world, acting as sounding boards during key moments. They can, in extreme situations, leave you of their own accord if they strongly disagree with a course of action. It's all mechanically conditional, of course, but the illusion the game builds is so endearing--spending time with these folks feels just as valuable as your pursuing the overarching goal.

Companions have their own customisable skill trees, equipment loadouts, combat tactics, and special abilities you can command them to use, which, with their cinematic camera angles, inspired battle cries, and useful status effects, never become unsatisfying to initiate. The other major tool at your disposal in combat, provided your character's weapon skills are high enough to use it, is Tactical Time Dilation (TTD)--a time-bending mechanic that slows the action to a crawl, allowing you to give yourself some breathing room in order to analyse enemies and take the time to execute precision attacks. Hitting certain locations on enemies will let you do things like cripple or maim them, or inflict weapon-specific effects like bleed damage or knocking them unconscious. Using TTD tactically to take out key targets and attempt to control the flow of battle makes it an entertaining and useful tool, but its availability is limited and not something you can rely on entirely until you get to meaningfully upgrade it much later in the game.

Despite having strong RPG foundations, the combat in The Outer Worlds is very much focussed on first-person action, incorporating things like parries, blocks, and dodges on top of an array of melee weapons and firearms. There's a hectic and fast-paced fluidity to combat that feels very good, however. That's aided by some enthusiastic sound design, which does most of the heavy lifting in giving all weapons some satisfying feedback. A range of "Science weapons" bring some creative diversity in your arsenal, and features guns that have unique, entertaining properties like shrinking enemies or turning them against each other.

The only problem with combat is that on the game's recommended Regular difficulty, it eventually turns into a cakewalk. This is satisfying in a way, of course--all the points I pumped into maxing out my handgun skills, thus becoming best gunslinger in the galaxy, did actually make me feel utterly invincible. But, it also meant I didn't feel pushed to explore the game's slew of combat-adjacent mechanics nearly as deeply as I would have hoped. Things like elemental damage, equipment modding, companion synergies, and the special effects allowed by consumables (which, by the way, are incredibly difficult to parse in the game's icon-heavy menu), could all be safely ignored. The Outer Worlds has a "flaws" system that lets you purposefully shoulder restrictive debuffs in certain situations in exchange for an extra perk point, but it's completely optional and rarely worth the tradeoff. Jumping into the "Supernova" difficulty level in a subsequent playthrough changes all that, however--combat danger increases, your ability to save your game becomes restricted, and survival mechanics like hunger and thirst are introduced, making all of the game's mechanical considerations feel far more vital. The game is more challenging and interesting because of it, but its demanding nature definitely makes it more of a second-run option.

Toe-to-toe combat is not the only solution to your problems. The Outer Worlds allows for a variety of avenues for alternative and passive solutions--stealth, hacking, and speech-related options are available throughout the game, provided you pass the skill checks. It's nigh impossible to complete the game without getting into at least some combat, unfortunately, but to the game's credit, virtually every quest in the game, big or small, features branching options in terms of their paths to success and how you deal with the big, final choices you have to make to resolve disputes, which are often deliciously grey. It's at the level where you'll always be considering the additional ways you could have achieved something, whether that be taking a different route, finding more information out in the world, or killing the quest giver and everyone else in the town.

When you hit the end, the game runs through a whole slew of epilogues that describe how you resolved the game's numerous major variables and what became of them, and being shown all your exploits after some 30 hours makes the whole journey and your unique path through it really feel quite meaningful. It's difficult to know the full extent of just how many directions something can go, and the end result of many quests can likely only ever differ in a small handful of ways, but this perception of freedom and possibilities on your first run is inspiring.

I finished The Outer Worlds wanting more, eager to jump back into the world to see extra things. It's not a short game, but it's one packed with such a steady stream of wonderful characters to meet, interesting places to explore, and meaningful, multi-layered quests to solve, that it didn't feel like there was any room to get tired of it. I wanted to rewind the clock and do everything in a completely different way. The Outer Worlds is consistently compelling throughout, and it's a superb example of how to promote traditional RPG sensibilities in a sharp, modern experience.

Felix The Reaper Review - Grim Adventures

Sun, 10/20/2019 - 03:00

For an agent of the death, Felix is an oddly loveable goofball. He doesn’t wear a pitch-black cloak or brandish an ominous scythe, but his job is pretty much what you think it is. He inserts himself into everyday life, manipulating events from the shadows to execute a well-orchestrated plan of death. It’s grim work, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have fun while doing it. Felix cannot contain his love of music, treating each level as a dance floor as he shuffles, twirls and wobbles through them. Felix is charming, but that energy doesn’t translate over to the puzzles you have to solve.

As an employee of the Ministry of Death, your job as Felix is to set up the deaths of mortals on earth. These are multi-staged tasks, taking place over numerous levels contained in themed chapters that span various time periods. The first, taking place in a long-forgotten ice age, has you setting up the comedic death of a nomadic hunter by dropping a moose head on him and attracting the attention of his companion nearby, who doesn't hesitate to use a spear on his mistaken prey. Each death in Felix the Reaper hits an entertaining punchline, letting you witness all of your previous efforts unfold in a satisfying way. Just like the board game Mouse Trap, it's fun to see each individual piece of each puzzle link up, but it’s an absolute chore getting to that point.

Felix can only move around in shadows, so you primarily reposition objects to cast their shadows along paths you plan to take. You can shift the direction of the sun by 90 degrees at a time, too, bathing new areas in dangerous sunlight and opening up new paths for you to safely walk through. Most puzzles work this way, with you moving a specific object from one side of the level to the other and using an assortment of other objects to construct your path. It rarely deviates from this. Felix the Reaper shows its entire hand within the first handful of levels and never evolves further.

The formula grows tedious rather quickly. Getting to the end of a level isn’t rewarding but a relief as you look back at all the steps you had to take to get there. Felix the Reaper makes it clear that all of its puzzles can be solved in just a handful of moves (which you’ll need to do on subsequent replays if you want to unlock some bonus stages), but it dangles this fact in front of you like a cheeky taunt when you’ve spent the better half of an hour undoing mistakes move by move before you finally find the right combination of steps to succeed.

The culprit here is the inflexibility of the puzzles, which require extremely specific movements to solve. Sometimes this boils down to shifting an object one block at a time to carry a shadow with you as you go, which is bogged down by the same animations to pick up and place items. When you make a mistake it’s not immediately clear that you have, and when you eventually succumb to asking for a hint you’ll likely have to backtrack through your last few moves to reset your position and work towards the solution. Even with hints of where to place an item, there's no help in getting you there. And since there are specific steps you have to take, it can take a frustrating number of attempts to just set down one piece of a larger puzzle.

Control issues don’t make this any easier. Playing on a Nintendo Switch, I struggled to get comfortable with the camera controls, which would sometimes result in me losing my tiny mouse-like cursor from view entirely. There’s a button to re-center the cursor in the middle of the screen, thankfully, but it occurred far too frequently for me to ever feel confident in making quick moves, another requirement if you want to complete levels fast enough.

It’s a pity that actually solving Felix the Reaper’s puzzles is so unrewarding when it has so much character lovingly imbued into its presentation. Felix is never idle in a stage, always breaking out a dance move to the pulsating beats reverberating through his headphones. His ultimate goal is to eventually bump into the love of his life while out doing his job--she's a lingerie-clad agent of the Ministry of Life seeking to undo the very actions Felix is undertaking. It’s a strange but comical narrative layer that doesn’t serve much else beyond giving you a reason to hop from one chapter to the next, but it’s a setup that's so absurd that you can’t help but find it somewhat endearing.

Visually, Felix the Reaper is unique, too. The humans you eventually lead to their deaths are made up of strange shapes and sizes, with ghoulish scribbles for faces that emote in uncomfortable ways. It's not beautiful, per se, but it does establish a look and feel for the game that really makes it stand out. Felix’s marshmallow-like form complements his energetic dance moves well, animating with a kinetic motion that doesn’t wear over time. He reminds me a lot of Baymax from Big Hero 6 in this regard--he's fun to just watch in motion, and I desperately wanted to give him a hug when he was sad.

But there’s no amount of visual charm or dark humor in its violent deaths that make the effort of sticking with Felix the Reaper worth it. It’s a thoroughly enticing setting and premise that is misguided by puzzle mechanics that aren’t that aren't fun to play around with, and then fail to meaningfully build on their foundations in any way after that. Felix the Reaper might be able to drown out his surroundings with music, but that doesn't make his job any less mundane to perform.

Little Town Hero Review - Small Deck Energy

Thu, 10/17/2019 - 09:48

Little Town Hero, developed by Pokemon studio Game Freak, tries to do a lot with a little. Fast-traveling from the mines near its titular town to its main street, the two furthest points on the map, only saves you about a minute or so of travel time. But the game wants its small village to matter, as it spends several hours familiarizing you with the small area and its residents. Its gameplay works the same way, doing for card-battlers what Pokemon did for party-focused, turn-based RPGs: distilling it into something the average person can wrap their head around.

And it works, sometimes. When you face down an imposing monster and cobble together a hard-earned win with all the tools at your disposal, it can make the equipment upgrading, crafting systems, and myriad currencies of other games feel like bloat. But more often, Little Town Hero doesn't leave the strict confines it creates for itself; instead, it plays things safe by constraining your options so things don't get too out of hand. While that occasionally produces some challenging moments, battles quickly begin to repeat themselves, making you wish you could see what its combat might be capable of if it weren't afraid to take more risks.

The star of Little Town Hero's tiny village is Axe, a young troublemaker quickly thrust into defending his home from monsters after he acquires a red stone that gives him an edge against them in battle. Because the village is protected by a castle and surrounded by steep cliffs, no one knows where the monsters are coming from, so Axe and his friends begin tracking down their origins.

The crux of Little Town Hero is its turn-based gameplay, which borrows elements from card games but throws in a couple of twists. Fights revolve around a small deck of cards, called Ideas. Cards can be red (which have high attack values and can damage the opponent directly), yellow (which can fight multiple times a turn as long as they have the health for it, but can't damage your opponent), or blue (which don't have attack or defense values but activate powerful effects). The goal in most fights is to break all three of your opponent's hearts by destroying all of their cards in a single turn by having them trade hits with yours, then attacking them directly.

Unfortunately, this setup lacks key aspects of other card games. The most glaring omission is that you can't actually build a deck of your own; for most of the game, you're stuck with a deck that caps out at just 13 cards. You can't alter or customize which cards you bring to battle, so standard battles play out predictably; you look at the defense of your opponent's cards, match them with the cards that can break them, and see if your hand can break theirs. Some cards have special effects, but you won't see any outlandish gameplay mechanics; most effects either buff your current cards, deal damage, or add another card to your hand. Fights get boring quickly, especially after you upgrade your cards by working your way through the skill tree using the Eureka points earned from fights.

You can also mitigate much of the luck that factors into most other card games, which makes it easier to get the cards you need but also drives home how simple the strategy behind each fight is. In order to survive longer fights, you need to recycle cards by either losing a heart or spending BP (a resource you build whenever you destroy all of your opponent's cards but don't have a card to break through and damage them directly). You can even swap out cards in your hand for those in your deck at the cost of BP.

While this curbs the element of chance that can sometimes be aggravating in card games, it also emphasizes just how often you end up using the same strategies each fight. Already used the card you needed to pierce through a boss' defense to win the last round? No problem; with 3 BP, you can revive your entire deck and add that car right back into your hand. You end up sticking to one or two strategies and running them time and again because, again, your deck is made up of just 13 cards.

Because of how small your deck is and how well you can mitigate the element of chance, decision-making is crucial, and I did have a few of the a-ha moments where I was backed into a corner but, through a series of smart decisions, came out on top. But those moments quickly give way to going on autopilot. There might be a few deviations based on whatever tricks your opponent pulls or which cards you draw in the first turn, but at some point, I was able to run my plan of making several of my defensive cards invincible, steamrolling whatever offense the boss had, and hitting them for obscene amounts of damage in a single turn.

Boss fights are a little more exciting, since they introduce a couple of strategic layers. Instead of fighting in place, you take on monsters across a large swath of the village, mapped out like a small board, moving a random number of spaces each turn (though you can control where you move with certain cards). Most spaces on the board have a special effect when you land on them, granting access to an ally who can deal direct damage, allowing you to combine two cards into one, or letting you use certain cards to activate explosive barrels or cannons. Some villagers might even have suggestions, like punching a monster in the nose, that add new, one-use cards to your deck specific to that fight. Planning out where I'd travel across multiple turns depending on which cards I had that turn made from some well-timed plays that won me some fights.

To counter these powerful bonuses, bosses offer up the kind of challenge the rest of the game lacks. Each boss has its own gimmick that nudges you toward different strategies; one boss might counterattack when you hurt it (encouraging you to find more indirect ways of wearing it down), or introduce cards that add a short timer to all of your moves until they're destroyed, forcing you to be quick and possibly screw up. For the first half of the game, I had a tough time against monsters, since it seemed like they always had the upper hand. As I upgraded my deck, that tide slowly shifted.

This doesn't make later boss fights breezy--some of them are tough. But even here, because you don't have that many options to choose from, your path to victory doesn't feel personal or creative. It also doesn't help that during boss fights, both sides gain a protective shield that has to be whittled down before hearts will take damage, which makes boss fights take longer than regular fights--certain battles took the better part of an hour to get through. The combination of the gradually lowered difficulty and increased length of battles meant I knew I'd emerge victorious, but I dreaded the 15 to 20 turns it'd take to get there.

Outside of battles, you can trek back and forth across the village to run errands for shopkeepers and complete side quests that earn you Eureka points. But the village itself isn't big enough to hold your attention for long; there are no other meaningful ways to engage with anyone outside of the couple of times they might ask you to get something for them, if at all. The only resource you have are Eureka points, so there are no minigames, equipment to buy, or anything else that might give combat more depth or provide an alternative from all the card-battling. The town only comes alive when monsters attack it.

Little Town Hero finds some success in avoiding some of the complex systems and tedious menus that can bog down other card games and RPGs, but it ends up suffering for it.

The story you unravel along the way and strings all the fights together is somewhat involved, but predictable and boring. Discovering the origin of all the monster attacks has a couple of twists, but mostly leads to a predictable story that moves at a crawl. Characters are largely forgettable, quickly fall into archetypes, and play out their roles without much room for nuance. A couple of later moments get some emotional weight thanks to a strong score from Undertale creator Toby Fox and longtime Pokemon composer Hitomi Sato, but characters are too shallow to hold up their end of the bargain, and the town doesn't have enough going on to make it worth exploring beyond where quests tell you to go.

Little Town Hero finds some success in avoiding some of the complex systems and tedious menus that can bog down other card games and RPGs, but it ends up suffering for it. Keeping your card options limited allows you to approach encounters with clever instead of relying on luck of the draw, but the deck size is too limited to break the mounting doldrum of subsequent fights. And while I did get to know this town pretty well, that's because of how small and suffocating it feels as it refuses to push outside its own boundaries.

The Witcher 3 Nintendo Switch Review - Wind's Howling

Wed, 10/16/2019 - 11:28

The dichotomy of beauty and violence has always been a driving theme in The Witcher series. The Northern Realms' gorgeous vistas are dotted with war-torn battlefields, kindness--no matter how fleeting it may be--is often juxtaposed with savagery, and even the warmest characters have a cold and calculated side to them. That neverending tug-of-war is ever-present in The Witcher 3, even when its stripped-down visuals may obscure some of that beauty.

Everything is here in the Nintendo Switch version--The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, its two expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, and all of its DLC. The main game alone offers dozens of superb quests filled with interesting characters, fantastic twists, and rewarding combat encounters. As Kevin VanOrd said in GameSpot's original review, "Excellence abounds at every turn in this open-world role-playing game." The same is mostly true for the Nintendo Switch version.

As you'd expect, the visuals have been pared down significantly. The textures are muddied, the draw-distances are reined in, and the resolution has taken a hit. These issues are exacerbated during docked play. While it technically runs at a higher frame rate and resolution docked, these visual issues are all the more noticeable when projected onto a larger screen.

The standard Nintendo Switch's 6.2-inch screen does a great job of hiding the blemishes. Even though it's running at a lower resolution, the smaller screen gives it a much crisper look, so the poor textures and pop-in are less apparent. If you do plan on playing it in handheld mode, you can, thankfully, adjust the size of the HUD to make things easier to read.

C'mon, this is what you're really here for

For returning players, the visual downgrade may require some getting used to. However, focusing solely on The Witcher 3's visuals does this port a disservice. Four years later, the game is still massive in scope, and seeing the battle-scarred swamps of Velen, jagged peaks of Skellige, and sprawling countryside of Toussaint on a technically inferior platform is still a sight to behold.

More importantly, the grittier look of the Switch port doesn't affect The Witcher 3's core gameplay. The combat and exploration may be smoother on a PC, Xbox One X, or PS4 Pro, but I found performance to be consistent throughout a wide variety of combat encounters and locales. After nearly 30 hours, I haven't experienced any significant frame rate dips. Even the swamps in Velen--an area notorious for causing frame rate issues on PS4 and Xbox One--are comparable to the rest of the experience on Switch. According to developer CD Projekt Red, the frame rate should range between 24 and 30 frames per second. In populated areas like Novigrad, the frame rate dipped to the lower end of that range. Given the slower pace of The Witcher 3, I never found these dips to be an issue, even in the heat of combat.

The Witcher 3's visual prowess may have been a selling point for some in 2015, but the Nintendo Switch version is a reminder that there is far more to this adventure than a pretty picture. Even today, there are few games that can rival the storytelling and worldbuilding on display here. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and every thread you pull on reveals enticing new details about this world and its characters.

The Nintendo Switch version is a reminder that there is far more to this adventure than a pretty picture

The vast web of decisions and consequences is just as impressive as it was in 2015. While it may not be apparent on your first playthrough, your actions--both big and small--can have serious repercussions, even if you were trying to do the right thing. What's more impressive is how well fleshed-out each of these paths are and how they ebb and flow through main quests and side quests. While many outcomes are bittersweet by design, none feel underdeveloped.

Where The Witcher 3 continues to shine is in its many deeply human stories. While the political aspects of the main story give context to the world and the characters that inhabit it, it's the interactions Geralt has with its denizens that gives weight to the experience. There are no good guys or bad guys. There are just people fighting to find hope in an oppressive world. Many of the quests provoke questions like: Would you hurt others for those you love? Can even the most vile of men be forgiven? How far can fear drive someone?

The superb storytelling continues in the game's two expansions. Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine. While not necessary to the main narrative, these two expansions are thoughtful addendums to Geralt's story. Blood and Wine in particular is a heartfelt send-off for the storied series. If you're jumping back into the game and just want to experience these, you can skip to them right when you load it up for the first time.

Although the Nintendo Switch might not be the best platform to play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, it's still a fantastic experience that shouldn't be missed. If you are looking to replay The Witcher 3 and bask in its detail and beauty, the Switch port may not quite scratch that itch. However, what makes this game excellent isn't its graphics, but the powerful stories it tells, and those are as vivid as ever on Switch.

Killer Queen Black Review - 'Cause I'm Having a Good Time

Sat, 10/12/2019 - 11:42

If you're fortunate enough to have a barcade in your neck of the woods, you have probably seen it: a huge, imposing pair of arcade cabinets with "Killer Queen" emblazoned on the marquee in blue and gold. Maybe you've even seen or played a versus session, with five players gathered around each screen attempting to work together and clutch sweet, sweet victory. Killer Queen is ideal for arcades, it's a unique game built around the camaraderie of being together in a public space--a vibe that's difficult to translate to the often solitary online experience PCs and consoles offer.

Enter Killer Queen Black, the first appearance of Killer Queen beyond the dimly-lit neon lights of modern social arcades. While it isn't a 1:1 port of the arcade original, Killer Queen Black nonetheless delivers a tremendously fun and engaging multiplayer experience, whether you're playing with a bunch of friends at home or joining in random battles online.

It's important to realize that Killer Queen in any form is, fundamentally, a multiplayer experience. That means that if you don't plan to play with local friends or take the game online, there is little that it will offer you beyond a brief tutorial mode and the ability to play with CPU-controlled teammates and enemies. But when you do get a party started, Killer Queen Black realizes its full fun and frenetic potential.

Killer Queen Black has you playing in two teams of four players (down from five in the arcade original), with one player assuming the role of the insectoid Queen and three being worker drones who aid her. Each player has an important role; while the Queen is the team's anchor and has access to powerful attack skills, the infinitely-respawning drones can pick up berries, ride snails, and upgrade in special pods to gain super-speed or become weapon- and shield-bearing warriors. Victory is achieved in one of three ways: by killing the other team's Queen three times, collecting and storing enough berries to fill your team's base, or riding a sluggish snail to your team's goalposts.

The game's varied roles and three means of victory offer up a lot of interesting strategies. Do the drones all opt to forfeit the ability to carry berries and ride the snail to gain weapons to go on an all-out offense? Or maybe only a couple should grab gear while one tries to bait the opposing Queen by riding the snail? Maybe your team's Queen can dodge and counterattack enemies, distracting the opposing team and claiming their power-stations while your drone friends hoard berries or inch the snail to the goal. You can even put yourself in the snail's jaws to stymie a riding opponent, allowing your weapon-wielding teammates an opportunity to kill off threats. There are many possibilities, and while a lot is always going on at any one time in Killer Queen Black, learning its basic rules and controls is easy enough that most anyone can jump in and quickly enjoy the strategic depth the gameplay has to offer.

Graphically, Killer Queen Black has received a significant overhaul from the arcade original. The arcade game employed a detailed retro-pixel art style, and that carries over to Black. However, the detail on the characters, animations, and background elements is significantly improved, adding a lot to the atmosphere of Killer Queen's strange humanoid-insect world. As a result it's not too tough to follow the action, even on the Switch's comparatively smaller handheld screen, Along with the graphical overhaul comes some all-new maps, many of which emphasize the clever use of screen-wrapping to enhance strategic play by letting you quickly move from end of the screen to the other.

There are many ways to enjoy the game's multiplayer modes. You can link a pair of Switches together via a local network for eight-player action, you can hop online in a custom room with friends or an assemblage of random players--you can even take a local team of up to four players online to battle against another group online.

In our testing, online play was generally smooth sailing, though it was pretty easy to tell when players' connections weren't ideal; you could see their character jumping abruptly around the map as the game struggled to catch up with their location. (To its credit, the game tries its best to match you with others based on region.) There's online voice chat for each team to coordinate strategy--though, if you don't have access to voice chat (a likelihood for the Switch version), you can also communicate through a simple emote and emphasis system that draws attention to places on the map. If there's one major gripe about online, it's a lack of options; you can turn certain maps on and off, but that's about it. With only six maps in the base game (that often repeat multiple times during a five-round set), the scenery starts to feel a stale pretty quickly.

Minor gripes aside, Killer Queen Black is the very definition of a great multiplayer game: easy to learn, fun to jump into, and packed with the sort of clutch moments that make you jump up and cheer. The satisfaction of spur-of-the-moment decisions, like sniping a Queen from the other side of the map with a carefully-timed laser gun blast, knocking an attacker pursuing your Queen off-kilter with a thrown berry, or eagerly shoving yourself in a snail's mouth pixels from the enemy goal in order to buy your teammates time to complete your berry hoard is consistently engaging. If you're looking for a unique, competitive multiplayer experience for online or local group play, Killer Queen Black is the bee's knees.

What The Golf Review - Swing And A Hit

Wed, 10/09/2019 - 19:00

What the Golf prides itself in being a golf game for people who don't like golf. Its absolute irreverence means that, for long periods, it only resembles golf in that the controls are similar to other touch-screen golf games, especially Desert Golfing--you aim in a direction, pull your finger back to gauge your distance, and then let go for the swing (although here you're just trying to hit the pin, not land in the hole). But as often as not, you're not actually shooting a golf ball here. Sometimes you're firing off a soccer ball, or hurling a golf club, or an object that's not even golf-adjacent like a rocket that needs guiding through a mess of trees or a crab that must be protected from rising tides. What you're doing changes completely, but the controls, and the humorous sense of surprise, remain unchanged for the majority of the game.

Often, the first shot on any course is a punchline. On one early level, you go to shoot the ball, but on release, the on-screen golfer gets flung forward instead, rag-dolling towards the green. In other instances, the punchline comes at the end of the hole: you'll hit the pin and discover that the whole reason for putting in a level about driving a car was so that they could hit you with the pun 'driving range'. What the Golf is an inventive, charming and funny game, one that speeds through ideas, jokes and oddities at a steady clip so that none of its ideas ever have a chance to get old. It's fast, strange and pretty easy--the exact opposite of real golf, and all the better for it.

What the Golf's high-concept golf japery isn't trying to deliver a serious or deep experience. Each level is short--getting the ball (or equivalent) to the pin rarely requires more than a few shots, and while the overworld that you navigate through to access each level contains only the mildest of traversal puzzles. The whole point of the game is to make you laugh at how flexible its internal definition of 'golf' is. It's literally a weird flex, but it's more than okay.

The game's irreverence for golf doesn't tick over into malice, nor are there any real elements of parody--golf simply provides a rough framework and theme for the game to build on. Levels are divided up by rough themes and concepts: some levels are set in space, for instance, or based on other sports, or require you to switch your phone orientation, switching to a first-person control scheme. Some even bring in augmented reality elements, asking you to move your phone around to fully comprehend a 3D level. The level of creativity on display here is what makes the game so charming, and right up until the end it's still finding new ways to wring joy out of some very simple control mechanics.

It's literally a weird flex, but it's more than okay.

Unfortunately, if you're playing on PC, some of these fun gimmicks have been excised or cut back--this is a game clearly designed with mobile devices in mind. It's also not as intuitive to control, as moving a mouse is not as immediate or satisfying as using a finger, especially in levels that require you to take numerous shots in quick succession. But the game remains very funny, no matter how you play it. To explain too many of the game's gags would dilute their power, but it does a very good job of baking the comedy into the mechanics. What the Golf repeats the same basic gags often to great success--a favourite is when you think you're controlling the ball, but when you take your shot some other object gets propelled, which is somehow funny every single time. Even the soundtrack, which is largely made up of discordant tunes and singers singing "what the hell" and "golf" repeatedly, is funny.

The game is at its most fun the more recognisably connected to golf it is, although that doesn't mean that all the best levels have you shooting a ball at a pin. The game turns into a spot-on homage to Superhot for a few levels, for instance, where you pick up new clubs to fire balls at enemies who only move--and shoot--when you do. It's a committed homage, right down to the “SUPER. PUTT.” voiceover after you complete each level. There are other direct game parodies in here (and even one challenge that feels like a direct homage to Untitled Goose Game), and most of them are a delight. At a few other points, though, the game stumbles somewhat--some levels have so little to do with golf that the game's central joke feels briefly abandoned, and it would be nice to have a few more levels that required some outside-the-box thinking. Even with all the zaniness, a lot of the gameplay boils down to simply pointing at the pin and firing, and some more puzzle-based levels would not have gone amiss.

Thankfully, the two extra challenges holes attached to each level do a lot to flesh the game out. You can finish What the Golf in about two hours, but it's worth going back and trying to 100% it (which can still be done in about six hours). These extra levels are a 'par' challenge, and then another level that usually provides a significant shake-up, one that's often unrecognisable from the hole's first challenge. Often there will be new gags or ideas to enjoy tucked away in these challenges, so it's worth going back for them.

What the Golf is a comedy game first and foremost, and it succeeds at its primary goal. Perhaps the game's most telling feature is the 'Show To A Friend' option on the main menu, which runs you through a quick playable "best of" reel of some clever challenges the game offers up. What the Golf is an experience that can be shown off, fully understood, and effectively sold to a player in the span of about two minutes--and like all great jokes, you'll want to share it.

John Wick Hex Review - Beware The Boogeyman

Wed, 10/09/2019 - 06:50

John Wick is an orchestrator of death. He efficiently uses both the tools and space around him in a fight, delicately flowing between enemies and intelligently picking them off. John Wick Hex effortlessly replicates the slick violence of the films, allowing you to embody the feared assassin in combat scenarios that are both challenging and satisfying to overcome. It also introduces a fast-paced spin on traditional turn-based action, letting you think and act like the elusive Baba Yaga while also looking as refined and controlled as he is.

At the core of John Wick Hex is an overhead timeline, which records actions both you and enemies take. Each action takes a set amount of time, represented plainly in the timeline to give you a clear view of when you’re taking a shot versus when you have to dodge an incoming one, for example. After each turn, the action you’ve made plays out in real-time, only pausing if a new enemy enters your line of sight or if you take damage to let you adjust accordingly. You’re always aware of how the action is going to play out when it starts moving again, which lets you plan ahead and position yourself for your next turn.

The choices you make in combat are vital, though. Sometimes an enemy might be quicker on the draw than you, forcing you to decide between potentially taking a hit or throwing your gun to stun them in time. This has its own set of consequences. If the enemy is too far, you’ve now disarmed yourself with too much ground to cover for a close-quarters takedown, or left yourself vulnerable to the surprise appearance of another foe. Each turn is a new step in a moving puzzle, rewarding careful consideration of positioning, sight lines, and resource management with a graceful flow of murder.

Aside from health, you have to consider both ammunition and a resource called focus. John Wick is great with a gun, but Hex limits the number of bullets you can carry at a time to force you to experiment with new weapons that you find. Knowing how many bullets you have in the magazine before a fight helps you manage how many enemies you think you can dispatch before needing to find a new one, which in turn helps you move efficiently from one kill to the next, collecting dropped firearms in the process. It’s a satisfying balance; I constantly had to adapt to the firing speeds and effective ranges of new weapons, which in turn changed the way I advanced on or retreated from a fight.

Focus governs most of your actions outside basic movement and shooting. Everything from performing an instant melee takedown to reloading your weapon requires some focus points, making it the backbone to most of your available repertoire. Although it can be replenished easily enough, finding space in a fight to do so without taking too much damage is tough, encouraging you to only bite off as much as you can chew and space your enemies out to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Your successes and failures are governed but how well you’re able to manage both ammunition and your distribution of resources, with Hex focusing less on hit percentages and random rolls and more on the choices you make and your ability to anticipate how things will play out.

Levels are designed to challenge your understanding of movement and its inherent risks, too, stuffing you into long, cramped corridors laden with doors that enemies can spawn through at any point. Sight lines are obscured to keep you guessing about who's just around the corner; a reckless roll could put you in the firing line of a group of previously hidden enemies. Each step you take towards the exit of each level has to be a calculated one, taking into account acute angles of doorways and the benefits of elevation from overhead balconies.

When you hit a stride with this balancing act, John Wick Hex feels like it’s almost moving in real time. Your decisions will start feeling instinctive, with moves playing out as if you’re beholden to a ticking clock. Hex is tuned to make you feel like you’re always one step ahead. Because you have a beat or two to react to new enemies before they make their moves, you'll often feel like your reaction times are split seconds ahead of them--so long as you're thinking carefully. But it’s equally unforgiving if you’re too bold. If you don’t learn how to break sight lines while moving, you’ll quickly find your timeline overwhelmed with enemy actions that you can’t address entirely. Hex is a power fantasy with the odds ever so slightly tilted in your favor, but it’s also a game that wants you to understand the fine margins that John Wick operates within during every fight.

With such dynamic and engrossing combat at its center, it’s disappointing that John Wick Hex’s original story fails to live up to the same standard. It takes place well before the events of the first film--when John was the most dangerous weapon the High Table had in their employ, and before he ever met his wife--with John searching for series stalwarts Winston and Charon, reprised by Ian McShane and Lance Reddick respectively (Keanu Reeves' likeness is used in the game's stylized cartoonish aesthetic, but John Wick has no dialogue to speak of). Hex, a new villain to the series, has kidnapped the pair in an attempt to dismantle the High Table in a fit of revenge, inviting the wrath of John Wick as he ruthlessly hunts him down over a variety of locales, like neon-soaked night clubs with harsh electronic music and silent, snow-slicked forests which quickly become drenched in bright pink streaks of blood from fallen foes.

While the narrative gives the game a reason to bounce from one location to the next, it never taps into the intriguing layer of lore that sits on top of the high-octane action from the films. You’ll learn nothing new about the High Table or their seedy, mysterious Continental hotels, and even less about John’s time before giving up his assassin lifestyle in pursuit of something quieter. Hex’s revenge tale also fails to establish any interesting backstory or lasting impression on the franchise, making the story feel meaningless in the grander scheme of things.

It’s a disappointing thread that ties together the exceptional gameplay, which faithfully captures the feeling of being John Wick in a strategic and pulsating formula. John Wick Hex has turn-based gameplay at a pace you’ve likely not experienced before, and it intricately balances its systems to give you a sense of being an expert hitman while also making it feel earned. It’s a slick and well-oiled game that succeeds in giving you a new, engrossing way to experience John Wick and its signature brand of chaotic action.

Concrete Genie Review - Paint The Town LED

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 21:30

Restoring the place which harbors your fondest childhood memories is a cute and almost noble goal. In Concrete Genie you get to take something drab and dead and bring it back to life with colour, love, and warmth. It's a very simple and short experience that focuses mainly on light puzzling, 3D platforming, and a little stealth, but its charm and general sense of playfulness really make it a worthwhile adventure.

In Concrete Genie you play as Ash, a boy who dreams of bringing his former home, a fishing port called Denksa, back to life. The town has been corrupted by an oil spill and negative emotions, and is now a desolate maze-like neighbourhood by the water. Ash's love of art and memories of better days draw him to the run-down area, despite his parents' warnings. Unfortunately for Ash, his bullies also enjoy running amok in the ghost town; they tear up his art book and push him into a cable car bound for Denska lighthouse (known for housing a ghost), starting him on a new journey.

Small drawings of the genies Ash drew as a child are scattered around the city and, when combined with the power of the lighthouse ghost, bring his paintings to life. These friendly genies bid him to use his artistic talents to paint the town using a new magic brush, which restores the electric lights in the area. He sets to work, using his vibrant artworks to push back the darkness infecting the town. The premise doesn't make a tonne of sense, but its message and execution are sweet and full of heart, much like the rest of the game.

Ash is determined to restore Denska to its former glory and each area of the town, including the lighthouse, has hanging fairy lights over some parts of buildings. Painting these areas will clear the dark vines that block your path to the next section. Mechanically, painting is more like placing large dynamic stickers rather than using your own brush strokes. You choose whether you want to paint something like a rainbow or a flower, use either motion controls or the right stick to choose its location, then drag across the screen to determine the general size and shape of the object.

Concrete Genie fills in the rest, adding fine details that can vary depending on the sticker. Flowers may create extra grass, and trees can grow additional branches, but it all works to make whatever you're creating far more impressive. The artwork is made of light and genuinely quite beautiful--if a little overbearingly bright at times. Much like projected light art or bright neon signs, they work well in moderation but can get overly busy. You do have to go quite overboard to create something that's actually ugly, which makes the act of painting the town really satisfying--you get to watch a boring dull environment become something quite pretty with very minimal effort.

To light up the hanging lights, any painting will do. This means that sometimes, for simplicity's sake, I used the same art over and over again, covering the walls with butterflies or stars out of laziness. Occasionally, you may need to paint something specific, but even then it can get a little repetitive. All of the paintable objects come from your sketchbook the aforementioned bullies tore apart, and these pages are scattered all over Denska.

Sometimes you might not have the page you need yet, but setting out to find them gives you a genuine reason to explore the environment and fortunately, it's really fun to do so. Ash is just a kid and doesn't have superpowers, so he can't jump particularly high or survive large falls, but he does have a spirited spring in his step. Clambering up the sides of buildings is quick and efficient while still feeling grounded and not at all floaty. Even if you do fall to your death, you're immediately returned to where you fell from, and daredevil actions like sliding down power lines make getting around enjoyable without fear of punishment. There's a really nice fluidity to his movements, which emboldens you to explore every nook and cranny to hunt down your strewn pages.

Along the way, you'll also find spots to create new genies, which will in turn help you solve puzzles and access new areas. These genies have set colours which allow them to solve different elemental puzzles--red genies can burn down a tarp, for example, whereas blue ones can blow on specific objects, and yellow ones generate electricity to power various doors and switches. The downside to the puzzles is calling one genie to solve a problem calls all who are available to come, so often there's not much active work on your part to solve them--Instead, the genies come along and, aside from a few exceptions, they'll just solve it on their own. As genies are still technically paintings that exist on the walls they were painted on, they can only travel on connected walls and are locked in their own areas. This means you may need to have found the painting spot for the type of genie you need first, but this still isn't very difficult.

You also have a fair amount of control over how your genies will look, depending on how many genie design pages you’ve collected. The choices you make can impact their personalities, which can make interacting with them incredibly endearing--it's also very easy to make some hot mess genies, but they don't seem to mind their appearance. The interactions between Ash and the genies are very sweet--you can hang out with them, play games together, and paint things for them. Keeping your genies happy also makes them more likely to help you solve puzzles and provides you with Super Paint, which is required to paint over some surfaces, so the whole interaction with the genies feeds back into the positivity of the game.

Concrete Genie takes a surprising turn in the final act, when combat suddenly makes an appearance. As a part of the narrative, it makes sense and is an enjoyable twist, but because it's such a short-lived mechanic it feels under-developed. Like the elements of the genies, you are granted three different elemental attacks that need to be used to take down different shields. The half-hour dedicated to combat, mostly involving boss fights, doesn't give much opportunity for you to experiment with it. I'm still not sure if all the attacks did damage or whether some just caused status effects because there wasn't enough time or enemies to organically work it out.

When you're granted combat, you also gain new movement abilities, which include paint skating. This means you no longer have to run so much and can instead essentially skate on magical painted shoes. It makes getting around even more fluid than it was before, and unlike your ability to shoot elements, you get to keep this one even after the main story is completed. Because it's introduced fairly late into the game, it makes jumping back in after the story to clean up collectibles really enjoyable. The game itself only takes about six hours to complete on an initial playthrough, and once it's "over" you really do want to play more. But even with the 10 or so hours I spent finding all the secrets and collectibles, it still feels like some concepts could still have been explored to a greater degree.

Most of what Concrete Genie has to offer is fun and beautiful in a sort of childlike way. The game is not particularly difficult, and overcoming a puzzle or combat scenario isn't always satisfying. But it's ultimately still an endearing experience throughout. There's plenty of enjoyment to be found just from the act of exploring, and little hidden secrets along the way help make it worthwhile; I just wish Concrete Genie had more adventure waiting for me.

Indivisible Review - Bahala Na

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 00:00

There's nothing quite like the bright, beautiful, and sometimes distraught world of Indivisible. It's one that wears its Southeast/South Asian influences on its sleeve, and pulls you into places you want to be in with characters you want to be around. Developer Lab Zero blends several genre elements to create a system of combat and platforming that flows seamlessly between Indivisible's seemingly disparate parts. It has so much going for it that it's disappointing when heartfelt exchanges and pivotal moments lack the gravitas they deserve or are simply glossed over. While Indivisible has trouble following through narratively, I can't shake its enjoyable moments and the sense of cultural visibility it gives a region I'm connected to.

Your journey across Indivisible's world revolves around Ajna, the hard-headed but full-hearted protagonist who perpetually stumbles into revelations about her true nature. She makes new friends along the way who either have mutual goals in mind or don't need much convincing to join her cause. Other than brief surprise, no one seems to bat an eye at the fact that they get physically absorbed into Ajna's consciousness--a separate plane of existence that acts as a sort of hub area--only to be summoned in battle or in conversation. You'll have to concede having deeper explanations other than Ajna's supernatural powers and third-eye chakra which are connected to the ominous villain Kala, goddess of destruction and creation.

A diverse cast of characters and a creative combat system make Indivisible's fights stand out.

Although a handful of key characters are central to the story, you assemble a party of four from a large and varied roster that's built up rather quickly. You assign a party member to a position in combat that corresponds with a face button; this is how you actively send them in to deal damage in real-time during an offensive phase and have them individually defend when enemies initiate attacks. Getting the hang of Indivisible's hybrid of turn-based and real-time mechanics opens you up to inventive ways of combining different characters' movesets and timing their specific attacks at the right time. It's easy to see how Lab Zero channels elements of its previous game, Skullgirls--there's a slight fighting game touch with combos, directional attacks, guard breaks, perfect blocks, and air juggling attacks. You also build up a meter, called Iddhi, which represents Ajna and friends' ability to go into overdrive for executing powerful special attacks. Battles tend to move fast, and this layered combat system makes you eager to get into the next fight.

It's not necessary to learn every character as it's viable to stick with a handful of your favorites to cycle between for certain situations (they all level alongside Ajna so no one gets left behind). But as great as combat can be, you'll be disappointed to know that its wonderful complexities are squandered by a lack of challenge towards the end of the game. Your party becomes so powerful that simple button mashing will get you by most, if not all, enemies and bosses. You'll continually recruit new members in the late-game, too, but with little reason to get in tune with their mechanics. Combat's biggest enemy is the lack of difficulty right when the stakes should be the highest.

Fighting is only half of Indivisible, gameplay-wise, though--it's partly a 2D side-scrolling adventure that draws from Metroidvania-style exploration. As you accumulate new tools and powers, so too does your means of traversal. Ajna starts with an axe that she uses to propel herself upward to higher ledges, but she'll soon be pole-vaulting, pogo-sticking, and monkey-swinging with a spear to avoid hazards and reach new areas. Her own superpowers eventually let you dash across wide gaps, jump to greater heights, and break through walls. What makes all these mechanics fun to use is that you face a variety of obstacles that force you to think about the clever ways you need to string together your toolset and abilities to overcome these platforming challenges.

Unlike combat, platforming steadily ramps up to a satisfying difficulty towards the end, but it's never frustrating since you only face light punishment for death. Rather than loading a previous save, you get brought back to a generously placed checkpoint should you fail a sequence. What's more, a number of boss battles merge the two gameplay styles and test you to juggle both at a rapid pace. That could sound like the game biting off more than it can chew, but the pace at which you transition between the two phases keep things moving seamlessly.

From one location to another, Indivisible's imaginative art style gives you an unmistakable sense of where you are and the things that happen there. I'm still thinking about the rough streets of Tai Krung City, which come to life through neon signage, quirky apartment setups, lavish clubs, and sketchy alleyways. Even the grimy, oppressive Iron Kingdom clearly communicates a hardship among the common folk who inhabit the cobblestone roads, and you feel the bustle of the markets that occupy the colorful seaside town of Port Maerifa. That rich sense of style extends to each of the characters, who are beautifully realized in expressive, hand-drawn artwork. It's an evolution of the imaginative style and designs from Skullgirls, and it helps distinguish each member of the wide, diverse cast.

Excellent platforming scenarios challenge you to use all your tools and powers.

Indivisible's sensational soundtrack tops off the joy of exploration and complements the feelings you get from soaking in the beautiful visuals. The infectious tunes solidify the personality of Indivisible's locations, a favorite among the tracks being the song that plays in Tai Krung City--its steel drums and upstroke guitar riffs hook you, but its somber melody reflects the town's dreary side. And the energetic tempo and horn section of the club area's song propels you to keep going, especially when it doubles as the battle theme. The Pacific Islander-influenced region of Kaanul features a theme with catchy woodwind instrumentation and a solemn string section. Indivisible's soundtrack is very much part of the atmosphere it aims to build, and it's one that's worth listening to on its own.

I want to love Indivisible unconditionally; it has so many great pieces, and it's a special thing to feel seen. I'm happy to have a game that's distinctly Southeast Asian, giving some earnest representation to a part of the world I belong to and one I'm even more curious about now.

Indivisible roots itself in broad-reaching concepts from Southeast/South Asian mythologies and history. Every in-game region's introduction is written in Sanskrit. Mount Sumeru, the critical location for which Indivisible starts and concludes, is derived from the sacred mountain in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain mythology that harnesses all things physical and spiritual. An important character, Thorani, who treats Ajna as one of her own, calls her luksao, the Thai word for daughter. You can also spot smaller pop culture references, too--special shout out to the Jollibee reference in Tai Krung City, and a charming wannabe-Kamen Rider stand-in. Even down to character names, there are so many more connections to draw. While Indivisible doesn't necessarily explore these cultures in any particular depth or in more meaningful ways, it gives the stage to a diverse region to tell a simple story of personal growth, self-acceptance, and sacrifice.

I wonder how the three-piece chickenjoy and halo-halo are at Jolly Katydid.

With that said, while Indivisible has the foundation to portray something powerful it doesn't exactly follow through. Many of Indivisible's major story beats lack the necessary impact they need to stick with you and get you fully invested in Ajna's fight to save the world. While there's an assortment of likeable personalities and quips between characters, and the voice acting performances shine, many dialogue sequences don't reflect the gravity of the situations that unfold. For example, Ajna internalizes life-altering events in ways that frame them as frustrations to her rather than tragedies. And when she inadvertently causes destruction, it's largely brushed off as an accident with consequences that aren't communicated. Characters are quick to change their minds about things without portraying the process through which they came to their conclusions, undermining possible emotional stakes.

There are key moments when other characters push back and confront others to think harder about what they're doing. Whether it's characters who open themselves up to feel any sort of positive emotion, go through a sincere redemption arc, or provide unquestioning support, you can identify the times Indivisible gets it right. I can't help but wish that the story contained these highlights more often than not.

I want to love Indivisible unconditionally; it has so many great pieces, and it's a special thing to feel seen. I'm happy to have a game that's distinctly Southeast Asian, giving some earnest representation to a part of the world I belong to and one I'm even more curious about now. As a whole, it sometimes doesn't come together; it's missing weight to its narrative and the challenges necessary to flex its wonderful combat system. But it stands out as an RPG that's doing something genuinely different, and it brings joy to its clever platforming with the tune of an infectious soundtrack. For all its faults, Indivisible has its heart in the right place.

Yooka-Laylee And The Impossible Lair Review - Uninvited Nostalgia

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 03:00

It's easy to love Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair when you start. The platformer is bursting with bright, saturated hues at every turn, with a whimsical soundtrack that's as catchy as it is cheery. It's a delightful veneer that quickly gives way to an otherwise predictable and unremarkable platformer. Despite changing its formula from full 3D to 2.5D, Yooka-Laylee is still too firmly rooted in a bygone era for platformers.

This shortcoming is hard to see at first, especially with Impossible Lair's intriguing setup. In theory, the Impossible Lair is an endgame challenge you can attempt in the opening moments of the game. It's a gauntlet of spike traps and moving platforms, populated to the brim with enemies ready to chew you up and spit you back out. Each stage outside of the Lair is meant to help you with this. You’re rewarded with a bee when you complete a stage, each acting as an additional hit point when you attempt the Lair once more. Gathering as many bees as you can lets you push further in while affording you more mistakes. This entices you to check back in with the Impossible Lair from time to time, seeing how well your new health pool holds up and if that (combined with your improving platforming skills) are enough to best it.

In practice, though, you're going to need pretty much every bee Yooka and Laylee can find, mostly due to how ridiculously difficult the Impossible Lair is compared to the rest of the game. It lives up to its name almost too closely, with no checkpoints throughout and long stretches of deadly chasms that will reset your progress significantly should you fall. It's completely different from the rest of the game's stages, which are well-paced with checkpoints and feature options to skip entire segments if you just can't get them right. The shift from accessible, pleasant platforming to a poorly balanced test of skill isn't an inviting one, and it sullies the otherwise interesting idea of having the Impossible Lair accessible at all times.

Outside of the Lair itself, this half-sequel, half-reinvention splits up into two distinctly different types of games. Individual stages are standard 2.5D platforming fare, tasking you with moving from start to finish, while a handful revolve around hunting down collectible items for completion. You navigate through spike traps, swinging ropes, rotating platforms, and dangerous cannons; everything feels familiar enough if you've played a platformer before. Enemies come in different varieties--some will hop in the air, others will charge at you on sight, and still others will simply move between ledges--but their designs aren't visually exciting enough to be memorable.

As familiar as they are, it's not long before stages start to feel like chores. Part of the problem is the merely serviceable platforming at its core. Yooka and his companion Laylee don't feel bad to control per se, but there's nothing exceptional about their move set either. Jumps feel a little floaty and it's annoying that your only attack is mapped to the same button as your roll (any hint of directional movement initiates the latter, and there's no way to change the control scheme), but outside of that there's really nothing remarkably good or bad about making your way through stages. It just feels far too routine, which quickly becomes boring no matter how varied the stages get as you progress.

There are technically 20 distinct stages, but in practice it's double that. Each stage can be manipulated in the hub world to alter both their makeup and challenge. For example, one level entrance on land can be submerged in water, flooding it and making new routes accessible via swimming. The changes are sometimes substantial, like introducing massive gusts of wind to help you float through the air or lasers that chase you through a route that was otherwise safe before. There are routes you'll see on your first run through a stage that are clearly meant for your inevitable return visit under different circumstances, which is a nice touch to their overall design.

Outside of these stages, the game transforms into an isometric 3D platformer, which lets you navigate through a relatively large world as you hop between individual stages. This area is more than just a hub for the real platforming awaiting; it's a self-contained stage unto itself, filled with its own puzzles, secret areas to uncover, and characters to interact with. Each part of the map is themed--there's one with large sentient fans that block paths with gusts of wind and an arid desert with a winding pipe system encroaching on its sparse wilderness, for example--which keeps things fresh as you travel between them.

Solving puzzles in this hub world rewards you with some additional bees for the Impossible Lair, but also with quills and tonics. You collect thousands of quills throughout your time in the game, using them to unlock the abilities that tonics offer, which can be incredibly useful in some tricky stages. One will force Laylee to stick around longer after getting hit, giving you more time to recover her and regain both her abilities and an additional hit point. Others let you glide for longer after a jump or lets Laylee emit a sonar pulse to reveal nearby collectibles. Others are just cosmetic. You can drench the screen in a variety of filters using FX tonics, or marvel at what a modern platformer would look like in a 4:3 aspect ratio before switching it back. They're good for a giggle or two, but not much beyond that.

Finding tonics is more fun than messing around with the abilities they offer. Secret paths are obscured slightly with the fixed camera angle, which makes picking apart your surroundings and uncovering them a treat. Others require some lightly skilled platforming to reach entrances to small caves (which themselves are sometimes locked away behind rocks you need to demolish or prickly shrubs you need to burn away) or the deciphering of clues from other characters to find keys to locked chests. It gives you more reasons to interact with the hub world behind just shepherding yourself from one stage to the next and lets you tackle them in your own time.

The Impossible Lair is definitely a better attempt at capturing the magic of platformers than Yooka-Laylee's first crack at it, but it's still not remarkable.

What isn't as engrossing is the progression system that governs how you move between each part of the hub world. Gates, jokingly referred to as paywalls, are erected throughout the world, and each requires T.W.I.T coins to unlock. There are five T.W.I.T coins in each stage, hidden in shrewdly obscured rooms or located at the end of particularly challenging platforming routes, both of which are satisfying. Initially it's pretty easy to get by using the few you find naturally through playing. But the high requirement for later gates means replaying stages you've already completed is unavoidable, which quickly introduces an unpleasant pattern of repetition. It's a slog to have to slowly comb through levels you've finished to find one or two coins at a time just so that you can continue on the game's main path.

Having to backtrack through stages to eventually reach and tackle the Impossible Lair would be more tolerable if the final encounter wasn't such a steep difficulty spike, but in truth it's likely you'll tire of its routine platforming well before that disappointment sets in. The Impossible Lair is definitely a better attempt at capturing the magic of platformers than Yooka-Laylee's first crack at it, but it's still not remarkable. If you're itching to return to a bygone era, then The Impossible Lair might scratch it. Just don't expect much beyond that.

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