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Ashen Review - Relationship Souls

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 16:00

Telling a story of the cyclical nature of light and dark and possessing both stamina-focused combat and larger-than-life bosses, Ashen is easy to compare to From Software's Dark Souls. However, Ashen establishes its own identity by delivering an experience that focuses on creating a sense of community and trust with those you meet. The weapon system can occasionally take away from some of the more strategic elements of the game's combat when playing solo, but Ashen still delivers an incredible adventure, regardless if you play by yourself or with others.

In Ashen, you start as a nameless nobody listening to the origin of your world, its three races, and how everything became blanketed in darkness after the disappearance of the Ashen--a god-like figure of immense power. When a sudden explosion briefly brings light back to the land, allowing everyone to see clearly for the first time in years, it sparks a search for the Ashen in hopes its return will push the last vestiges of darkness away. Leading the charge, you take over a bandit camp and transform it into an outpost called Vagrant's Rest. From there, you set out into the world in search of people to join your new home, as well as a means of finding the Ashen.

Your journey takes you from one fast travel point to the next within an interconnected series of open environments, and you'll find a diverse assortment of enemies along the way. Caverns and dilapidated castles entice you to explore off the beaten path and enjoy lengthy expeditions for hidden weapons, armor, and treasure. You'll need to sprint and jump your way through most of it at the start, but Ashen's controls are fairly tight and ledge grabs ensure you safely recover most of the time. It never feels like you're unfairly leaping to your death over and over again, and unlocking a fun new navigational ability halfway through the game will see you returning to old locales to search for secrets you couldn't leap to before.

There are very few options for long-range combat in Ashen so for the most part, you're in the thick of things with your opponents and trying to out maneuver each other. Attacking, defending, and dodging all use different amounts of stamina, and carefully managing how much you have left is key to survival. If you've played a good Souls-like game before, Ashen works exactly as you would expect. The controls produce a methodical approach to combat that's enjoyable to just lose yourself in.

On your travels, you'll recruit characters and send them back to Vagrant's Rest to set up shop, where you can interact with them again for side quests and special items. Most will even join you on your adventure whenever you exit camp, aiding you in combat and reviving you if you happen to fall. They can also help with exploration, too, as dungeon doors require two people to open and some ledges can only be reached if a team boosts each other up. As more people join Vagrant's Rest and you complete more quests for them, your settlement will grow. Roads are paved, structures are built, and the community becomes a thriving town. You can't manage how Vagrant's Rest grows, unfortunately, but there are fun little nods to the quests you undergo. Vorsa wears an outfit composed of the pelts from the animals you hunted for her, for example, and Eila constructs a dock so you can ride down the nearby river in a barrel--an activity she speaks of when you first meet her. In a game where enemies are constantly respawning, it's incredibly fulfilling to see your hard work actually having a permanent impact on your corner of the world.

You can forge relationships with other players, too. If you play Ashen online, you enter a shared world where you can encounter people. Other players will appear as the NPCs you've recruited to Vagrant's Rest, and whether or not you choose to interact with them is up to you. With no voice chat, actions define a person's character, and this can form powerful bonds that last for the entire game. For example, seeing a player-controlled Jokell silently step in front of my character and take a spear to the chest when I had a sliver of health has, for me, left a long-standing positive impression for the pipe-smoking explorer. I brought a computer-controlled Jokell along with me every chance I had after that, cheering for him when he did something incredible and dropping everything to revive him when he fell. It's a rather simple example of transference at work when all is said and done, but it's remarkably effective at creating trust (and I imagine distrust in some cases) with the characters you meet.

If working with others isn't really your thing, you can play offline with NPCs or use an early game item that allows you to play completely solo. It certainly ups Ashen's difficulty to play without others and it creates a more traditional Souls-like experience. However, the greater challenge of playing completely by yourself isn't worth losing out on the misadventures you find yourself in when traveling with another character. Even if you play offline with computer-controlled characters, you'll still form bonds with a one or two of them, and that improves Ashen's entire experience. If you really want that greater challenge, there's a mode that lowers your max health and stamina, which is a much better way of making the game harder.

There is one unfortunate wrinkle that becomes apparent when playing with computer-controlled characters, however, and it has to do with Ashen's weapons. Weapons can be one of three types--axe, club/hammer, or spear--but tools from the same class can attack very differently. Some axes use a leaping vertical slam animation that allow you to get the jump on your enemy before they react, while others have a horizontal slash that can more easily hit multiple targets, for example. This adds additional levels of battle strategy other than simply picking whatever in your inventory is strongest. Problems arise when you're playing with NPCs though, as you're unable to choose which weapon a computer-controlled character brings into battle. Pretty much every enemy in Ashen can be tackled with whatever weapon you want, but there are a few locations and one boss battle where a weapon's animation speed has a pretty substantial effect on you and your partner's chances of survival. Not having the choice to pick your partner's weapon introduces an unfortunate element of luck into some battles that should be entirely based on skill. It rarely happens, but it's noticeable when it does.

Despite how you play, boss battles are where most of your deaths are probably going to come from, as each are five- to 15-minute affairs that push you to constantly adapt on the fly. No two bosses behave the same way, and many have a gimmick that can transform the fight. For example, one of the mid-game bosses is a staff-wielding giant woman who uses her magical lantern to deliver devastatingly powerful area-of-effect attacks and buff her health. If you put some distance between the two of you, you can bait her into throwing her lantern at you in frustration and then destroy it. Doing so allows you to carve out larger chunks of her health, but she goes into a violent frenzy and starts attacking you differently once her precious lantern is destroyed. It's up to you whether or not you destroy the lantern, and when you'll do it if you decide to do so.

In some cases, like this example, finding a boss' gimmick makes the battle much easier, but it can also just change how it plays out--which is a wonderful thing for any fight you're struggling with. Instead of feeling like you need to implement the same strategy over and over against every boss and just do it better, you're occasionally rewarded for experimenting and trying something new. It helps dull any frustration that might arise from repeatedly losing to the same foe, too.

Ashen does more than enough to differentiate it from other Souls-like games. Although its combat utilizes the same stamina-focused mechanics, the inclusion of features that promote a sense of community with the game's characters makes for a wholly different experience. It's frustrating to spawn and see that your computer-controlled partner has a weapon that doesn't complement the one you're using. However, even when playing with NPCs, your allies' efforts to assist you in battle cause you to care about the fates of the colorful cast of people you meet on your journey. The relationships you forge define your adventure through Ashen, and helping your new friends is a powerful motivator that drives you forward through the game's beautiful world.

Artifact Review - Play Your Cards Right

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 05:25

Taking nods from a number of design elements endemic to traditional trading card games and combining those with the flexibility and ease of digitized play fields, Artifact brings a uniquely compelling twist to the TCG formula. The bulk of this comes from Valve’s tentpole franchise of late: Dota 2. Artifact remixes many of the core ideas, focusing on the essentials of MOBAs to bring new layers of tactical complexity to great effect. Establishing a broad number of possibilities allows for near-limitless experimentation and development of new and complex styles of play.

Those unfamiliar with the free-to-play behemoth, Dota 2, and its competitors (League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, etc.) won’t need much additional context, but a grasp of the basics can go a long way. As with standard MOBAs, you’ll have three lanes that you share with your competitor. Monsters, heroes, creeps, and items all get funneled into one of these passages and are pit against one another. Each of you will vie for control of all three in succession, starting from left to right, marshaling what forces and powers you can to overpower your opponent and topple the tower sitting at the end.

In essence, the lanes act like as distinct play areas, though you do share a hand across them. Besides that, though what happens in one lane stays there. To win, you’ll either need to claim two of the three lanes, or manage to bring down your foe’s “ancient,” which appears only after you’ve taken a lane.

These basics are sticky to explain, but mercifully, pretty easy to grasp once you see them in action. Artifact offloads a good chunk of its calculations to computers, allowing it to be a lot more complex than a traditional card game. By taking some of that extra grunt work off of you, it broadens the possibility space beyond anything comparable. Because any number of monsters or heroes can be in each lane, it's possible that you’ll end up with 10 combat rounds or more across three lanes in a turn. That sounds like a lot, but Artifact offers up battle previews, detailing what will happen if you don’t respond. Likewise, the playable cards in your hand will glow a gentle blue, so you can save time and consider the ramifications of the play instead of burning your thoughts attempting to figure out what you even can play on top of what effect it would have.

Play proceeds in a series of rounds, where you’ll pass over each lane and resolve whatever relevant cards in sequence. Between each, though, you’ll have a chance to buy items and equipment to help in the next go around. Each creep you take down yields one gold, whereas an enemy hero yields five. Neither are necessary objectives in themselves, but creeps and heroes guard the towers, so most of the time you’ll need to be chipping away at them anyway, and the extra payout is a useful bonus that will--on occasion--affect which lane you choose to press through and when.

In truth, there’s a litany of micro-decisions like those that Artifact relies on to build itself into a fully fledged and shockingly nuanced trading card game. The fineries of play will take quite some time to master, and not because they are obtuse or particularly convoluted, but because of the tension between where, how, and when you choose to play. It can be to your advantage, for instance, to make one big push through a single lane if you don’t believe you can spread your forces effectively enough to nab two. But, even then, you’ll still need a capable defense to prevent your towers from being overrun.

All of this is covered in the tutorial, but developing a genuine sense of the game takes quite a while, simply due to the nature of its play. Normally this would be a positive trait, and the fact that learning nuances over time is encouraged is a helps create a satisfying, growth-oriented style of play. But that clashes a bit with Artifact’s pricing structure.

Buying the game gets you a starting deck as well as several booster packs to round out your starting set. But from there, you’ll either need to trade and sell cards on the real-currency marketplace to fill out your decks, or compete incredibly well to win them. Competing would be fine, too, but the number of matches you need to win and the rewards you get from there are scant enough that most new players will need to put in some extra cash.

The fineries of play will take quite some time to master, and not because they are obtuse or particularly convoluted, but because of the tension between where, how, and when you choose to play.

This has been helped somewhat by the post-launch addition of a free draft mode (previously it had been behind a paywall). Here you can play all you want and experiment with whatever cards come up in the draft. Players looking to build their actual decks, though, may be disappointed. I say may because the market’s prices are extremely variable, shifting quickly as the market gets more and more rare cards and the metagame evolves. It isn’t clear, however, at this stage, what developer Valve will be doing in terms of restricting card rarity to keep prices stable down the line--or if there are any such plans at all. It may be that in two weeks’ time, competitive decks are dramatically cheaper to field. As it is, Artifact is dramatically cheaper than high-end Magic or Hearthstone, but it may feel less welcoming to passive fans who want to avoid any significant financial investment.

In aggregate, though, Artifact works far more often than it doesn’t. While the volatility of the market is one thing, play on its own is more challenging and engaging than many of its contemporaries. Play moves remarkably fast, too, shuffling between the lanes and then back to the start sometimes in under a minute. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s put together well enough and propped up by enough card playability hints and subtle calculations that it rarely ceases to delight.

Production and animation help a good chunk with that, too. Play will frequently shift between the board as a whole and the specific play space on which you’re focusing. Between lanes, though, you’ll have a fluttering imp that manages your deck, carrying it seamlessly to the different play areas between rounds. They don’t affect play, only adding to the aesthetic presentation of the game and the visual language of how your deck and hand move across the board to each miniature arena, but they’re a nice touch. Similarly, the crack of a spell or the soft trickle of the stream that runs the length of the board are engrossing touches that bind the field together and give the game an added visual flair.

All-told, Artifact is a capable reimagining of modern trading card games. It plays quite a bit differently than just about any of its contemporaries--digital or not--and while the marketplace is volatile to say the least, there’s little evidence that the pricing is straight-up predatory. Just note, however, that the game is not free-to-play and be prepared to spend some additional bit of money coming in. It would be nice to see some more extensive options for those wanting to play by themselves or in non-competitive settings, but beyond that, Artifact is a great showing.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review In Progress

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 00:00

The idea of what the Super Smash Bros. games are, and what they can be, has been different things during the series' 20-year history. What began as an accessible multiplayer game also became a highly competitive one-on-one game. But it's also been noted for having a comprehensive single-player adventure, as well as becoming a sort of virtual museum catalog, exhibiting knowledge and audiovisual artifacts from the histories of its increasingly diverse crossover cast. Ultimate embraces all these aspects, and each has been notably refined, added to, and improved for the better. Everyone, and basically everything, from previous games is here--all existing characters, nearly all existing stages, along with the flexibility to play and enjoy those things in different ways. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a comprehensive, considered, and charming package that builds on an already strong and enduring fighting system.

If you've ever spent time with a Smash game, then you likely have a good idea of how Ultimate works. Competing players deal damage to their opponents in order to more easily knock them off the stage. The controls remain relatively approachable for a competitive combat game; three different buttons in tandem with basic directional movements are all you need to access a character's variety of attacks and special abilities. There are a large variety of items and power-ups to mix things up (if you want to) and interesting, dynamic stages to fight on (also if you want to). You can find complexities past this, of course--once you quickly experience the breadth of a character's skillset, it allows you to begin thinking about the nuances of a fight (again, if you want to). Thinking about optimal positioning, figuring out what attacks can easily combo off of another, working out what the best move for each situation is, and playing mind games with your human opponents can quickly become considerations, and the allure of Smash as a fighting game is how easy it is to reach that stage.

Complexity also comes with the wide variety of techniques afforded by Ultimate's staggeringly large roster of over 70 characters. Smash's continuing accessibility is a fortunate trait in this regard, because once you understand the basic idea of how to control a character, many of the barriers to trying out a completely new one are gone. Every fighter who has appeared in the previous four Smash games is here, along with some brand-new ones, and the presence of so many diverse and unorthodox styles to both wield and compete against is just as attractive as the presence of the characters themselves. In fact, it's still astounding that a game featuring characters from Mario Bros, Sonic The Hedgehog, Pac-Man, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and Street Fighter all interacting with each other actually exists.

On a more technical level, Ultimate makes a number of under-the-hood alterations that, at this early stage, seem like positive changes that make Smash feel noticeably faster and more exciting to both watch and play. Characters take more damage in one-on-one fights; continuous dodging is punished with increased vulnerability; fighters can perform any ground-based attack, including smash moves, immediately out of a running state; and short-hop aerial attacks (previously a moderately demanding technique) can be easily performed by pressing two buttons simultaneously. Refinements like these might go unnoticed by most, but they help define Ultimate's core gameplay as a tangible evolution of the series' core mechanics.

A number of Ultimate's more superficial changes also help Smash's general quality-of-life experience, too. Some make it a more readable game--additions to the UI communicate previously hidden elements like meter charges and Villager's captured items, a simple radar helps keep track of characters off-screen, and a slow motion, zoom-in visual effect when critical hits connect make these moments more exciting to watch. Other changes help streamline the core multiplayer experience and add compelling options. Match rules can now be pre-defined with a swath of modifiers and saved for quick selection later. Stage selection occurs before character selection, so you can make more informed decisions on which fighter to use.

On top of a built-in tournament bracket mode, Ultimate also features a number of additional Smash styles. Super Sudden Death returns, as does Custom Smash, which allows you to create matches with wacky modifiers. Squad Strike is a personal favorite, which allows you to play 3v3 or 5v5 tag-team battles (think King of Fighters), and Smashdown is a great, engaging mode that makes the most of the game's large roster by disqualifying characters that have already been used as a series of matches continues, challenging your ability to do well with characters who you might not be familiar with.

The most significant addition to Ultimate, however, lies in its single-player content. Ultimate once again features a Classic Mode where each individual fighter has their own unique ladder of opponents to defeat, but the bigger deal is World of Light, Ultimate's surprisingly substantial RPG-style campaign. It's a convoluted setup--beginning as Kirby, you go on a long journey throughout a huge world map to rescue Smash's other fighters (who have incidentally been cloned in large numbers) from the big bad's control. Along the way, you'll do battles with Spirits, characters hailing from other video games that, while not directly engaging in combat, have taken control of clones, altered them in their images, and unleashed them on you.

Though there is some light puzzling, the world is naturally filled with hundreds upon hundreds of fights--there are over 1200 Spirit characters, and the vast majority have their own unique battle stages that use the game's match variables to represent their essence. The Goomba Spirit, for example, will put you up against an army of tiny Donkey Kongs. Meanwhile, the Excitebike Spirit might throw three Warios at you who only use their Side+B motorbike attacks.

It may seem like a tenuous idea at first, but these fights are incredibly entertaining. It's hard not to appreciate the creativity of using Smash's assets to represent a thousand different characters. Zero Suit Samus might stand in for a battle with The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater by donning a silver-palette costume and fighting you in a flower-filled Final Destination, but she also stands in for the spirit of Alexandra Roivas from Eternal Darkness by using a black-palette costume and fighting you in the haunted Luigi's Mansion stage, with a modifier that makes the screen occasionally flip upside down (Eternal Darkness was a GameCube horror game whose signature feature were "Sanity Effects", which skewed the game in spooky ways to represent the character's loosening grip on reality). If I knew the character, I often found myself thinking about how clever their Spirit battle was.

Defeating a Spirit will add it to your collection, and Spirits also act as World of Light's RPG system. There are two types of Spirit: Primary and Support. Primary Spirits have their own power number and can be leveled up through various means to help make your actual fighter stronger. Primary Spirits also have one of four associated classes, which determine combat effectiveness in a rock-scissors-paper-style system. These are both major considerations to take into account before a battle, and making sure you're not going into a fight at a massive disadvantage adds a nice dimension to the amusing unpredictability of this mode. What you also need to take into account are the modifiers that might be enabled on each stage, which is where Support Spirits come in. They can be attached to Primary Spirits in a limited quantity and can mitigate the effect of things like poisonous floors, pitch-black stages, or reversed controls, or they can simply buff certain attacks.

There are a few Spirit fights that can be frustrating, however. Stages that are a 1v4 pile-on are downright annoying, despite how well-equipped you might be, as are stages where you compete against powerful assist trophies. On the flip side, once you find yourself towards the end of the campaign, there are certain loadouts that can trivialize most stages, earning you victory in less than a second. Regardless, there's a compulsive quality to collecting Spirits, and not just because they might make you stronger. It's exciting to see which obscure character you run into next, feel validated for recognizing them, and see how the game interprets them in a Spirit battle. There's also just a superficial joy to collecting, say, the complete Elite Beat Agents cast (Osu! Takatae! Ouendan characters are here too), even though these trophies lack the frills of previous Smash games.

Some hubs in the World of Light map are also themed around certain games and bundle related Spirits together to great effect--Dracula's Castle from Castlevania, which changes the map into a 2D side-scroller, and the globe from Street Fighter II, complete with the iconic airplane noises, are personal standouts. Despite the dramatic overtones of World of Spirit's setup, the homages you find within it feel like a nice commemoration of the games and characters without feeling like a pandering nostalgia play. One of the most rewarding homages of all, however, lies in Ultimate's huge library of video game music. Over 800 tracks, which include originals as well as fantastic new arrangements, can all be set as stage soundtracks as well enjoyed through the game's music player.

There is one significant struggle that Ultimate comes up against, however, which lies in the nature of the console itself. Playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in the Switch's handheld mode is simply not a great experience. In situations where there are more than two characters on screen, the view of the action often becomes too wide, making the fighters too small to see properly, and it can be difficult to tell what you or your opponent is doing. The game's penchant for flashy special effects and busy, colorful stages doesn't help things at all, and unless you're playing a one-on-one match, you'll likely suffer some blameless losses. This is a situational disadvantage and may not affect all players, but it puts a damper on the idea of Smash on the go.

The need to unlock characters also has the potential to be an initial annoyance, especially if your goal is to jump straight into multiplayer and start learning one of the six brand-new characters. In my time with the game, I split my attention between playing World of Light (where rescuing characters unlocks them everywhere) and multiplayer matches, where the constant drip-feed of "New Challenger" unlock opportunities (which you can easily retry if you fail) came regularly. I naturally earned the entire roster in roughly 10 hours of playtime, but your mileage may vary.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also features online modes, but they were not active during Ultimate's pre-launch period. The game features skill-based matchmaking, private lobbies, and voice chat via Nintendo's smartphone app. It also features a system where defeating another player will earn you their personalized player tag, which can be used as a currency to unlock spirits, music, and costume items for Mii fighters. I'll begin testing these features once the service launches with the game's public release and will finalize the review score once I've had substantial time with the matchmaking experience.

Situational downers don't stop Super Smash Bros. Ultimate from shining as a flexible multiplayer game that can be as freewheeling or as firm as you want it to be. Its entertaining single-player content helps keep the game rich with interesting things to do, as well as bolstering its spirit of loving homage to the games that have graced Nintendo consoles. Ultimate's diverse content is compelling, its strong mechanics are refined, and the encompassing collection is simply superb.

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden Review - Duck For Cover

Thu, 12/06/2018 - 14:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Cause 4 Review - Mildly Wild Ride

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 13:51

What's another oppressive dictatorship to series protagonist Rico Rodriguez? Not much. He does encounter a new kind of enemy in Just Cause 4, however: extreme weather. It's the common thread that runs through both the story and new mechanics and tops off the explosive spectacle the series is known for. And alongside new gadgets to send objects (and people) flying across the world, Just Cause has become a physics playground. Unfortunately, there just aren't enough opportunities to put these features to good use; underwhelming mission structure and a world slim on enticing activities makes Just Cause 4 a short-lived blast with untapped potential.

The best and most prevalent piece of Just Cause games is at the forefront once again. An exceptional traversal system lets you propel Rico across the beautiful landscapes of Solis and effortlessly soar through the skies. With the combo of a grappling hook, parachute, and wingsuit, Rico can basically go wherever, whenever (and often more efficiently) without a vehicle. Like past games, you build momentum and essentially catapult yourself using the combination of these tools and hardly ever have to touch the ground. It's tough to overstate how satisfying it is to escape enemy hordes and hook onto the underside of a helicopter to hijack it and tear them all down, or slingshot yourself out of harm's way toward the next target you'll blow to bits.

Rico isn't only built to move fast, however: if you aren't causing explosions on a regular basis, you might be doing something wrong. Fuel tanks, red barrels, and vehicles are unusually explosive, and set the stage for over-the-top action. Since the grappling hook can also be used to tether objects together, you have lots of opportunities to get creative outside of exhausting your arsenal of firearms--some of which have their own wacky practical applications, like the wind cannon or lightning gun. Some weapons just wreak havoc such as the railgun or burst-fire rocket launcher, and even modest small arms like the SMG have impactful alternate fire modes. This may be the expectation for Just Cause, but it still pulls you in for a wild ride.

It's tough to overstate how satisfying it is to escape enemy hordes and hook onto the underside of a helicopter to hijack it and tear them all down, or slingshot yourself out of harm's way toward the next target you'll blow to bits.

Its identity as a destructive playground is further emphasized by grappling hook mods, three of which you customize: air lifter, retractor, and boosters. All three devices coincide with the new physics engine. Air lifters (essentially mini hot air balloons) let you launch things into the sky, and they can be further customized in terms of velocity, behavior, and altitude. Retractors pull targets together violently, and boosters work like jet engines that'll send objects into a speeding frenzy, whether it be an attack helicopter or a poor enemy soldier. Multiple permutations of these contraptions are made possible, since their effects can be stacked into a single tether and three loadout settings let you switch between loadouts on the fly. These gadgets are unlocked through side activities, and you're given plenty of avenues to make them work as you desire, which leads to the most disappointing part. Just Cause 4 gives you so many shiny new toys to play with but seldom a reason to use them.

Mission structure is uninspired, as you are continually asked to escort NPCs, defend a specific object for a set duration, activate (or destroy) inconspicuous generators, or hit a number of console panels to activate some sort of process. The worst offender has to be the timed missions that ask you to sink bomb-rigged vehicles into the ocean; they're tedious and prone to mishaps at no fault of your own. These are tied to Region Strikes, which are required to unlock territories on the map and progress to main story missions. While blasting through waves of enemies and their military-grade vehicles offers some great moments, you're often asking yourself: okay, what else? Shielded heavies, snipers perched from a mile away, and flocks of attack helicopters can become enjoyably overwhelming, since you have to rapidly make use of your diverse toolset. But several missions are designed in such a way that's oddly restricting, limiting the game's strongest assets. Enemies simply swarm and act as basic obstacles rather than clever challenges, and that leaves you with objectives that rarely bring out the best in the mechanics and systems of Just Cause 4.

At a time when open-world games sometimes overstay their welcome, Just Cause 4 is at the other end of the spectrum, where you wish there was more to experience because it has so much going for it.

There are a few stellar moments in the main story missions that make proper use of the extreme weather system that is the core of Just Cause 4's premise. Specifically, the conclusion to a stormchaser-themed questline funnels you through a number of battles while a tornado rips through your surroundings. Your ability to parachute and glide are drastically affected by the wind velocity and turbulence, which throws some welcome unpredictability into the mix. One particular sequence is also indicative of what the grappling hook mods are capable of; destroying massive wind cannons that impede progress with boosters wasn't only the most efficient method, but watching these heaps of steel frantically spin out of control was a sight to behold. The last stand in this mission, a sequence of rooftop firefights amid the harsh weather, brings the many great pieces of the game together.

The same can't be said about the other extreme weather conditions, however. Sandstorms challenge you with violent winds and obscured vision, and thunderstorms bring torrential rain and lightning strikes that make for a visual treat. But they're not game-changing in the way tornadoes are since they have a minimal effect on gameplay. Even then, the questlines tied to these weather conditions and their respective biomes are over before you get to fully experience their unique qualities.

All the while, a vaguely coherent story about family and a rebellion against an evil regime serves as the platform for Rico's wild ride. Stories in Just Cause haven't been more than excuses for environmental destruction and a way to make you feel comically powerful, and the same holds true here, though you may find the ties to previous entries somewhat endearing. The harsh forecasts are justified by villain Oscar Espinoza's high-tech devices that control the weather and oppress the people of the fictional South American country Solis. Rico remains the plausible one-man army who has the capabilities of a superhero with the air of a grounded, unassuming protagonist. If there's anything that Just Cause does well story-wise, it's convincing you to accept the absurdity of it all.

Throughout the game, you'll be building a revolution across Solis, bolstering what's called the Army of Chaos. It's a fundamental piece to progression and the key to taking down Espinoza and toppling The Black Hand private military again. The Army of Chaos serves as a tool to controlling territories across the map since you need to accumulate squad reinforcements to overtake regions, which also gates your ability to take on story missions. Cause destruction and raise your chaos level, and get squads to progress. It boils down to a numbers game, and once you understand the structure of this system, you can easily snowball squad numbers and control all of Solis without having to grind your chaos level. Side activities from three minor characters litter the map as well; Sargento has you teaming with NPCs to destroy enemy infrastructure, Garland makes you do stunts, and Javi provides a bit more context to Solis by asking to do a few easy puzzles. It's more things to do, and they unlock the aforementioned grappling hook mods, but they're simple in nature and aren't enough to compensate for the shortcomings of other missions.

Just Cause 4 has incredible moments where beauty and destruction cross with Rico's ability to zip around the world at a moment's notice. It's gratifying and easy to grasp, especially when you're able to string a series of wingsuit fly-bys, vehicles hijackings, and fiery explosions all in the name of revolution, but those moments are either short-lived or tied to rudimentary missions. You're given an awesome toolset that paves the way for creativity in a world with too few problems to solve. At a time when open-world games sometimes overstay their welcome, Just Cause 4 is at the other end of the spectrum, where you wish there was more to experience because it has so much going for it.

Big Bash Boom Review

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 15:00

The Big Bash League, or BBL, is cricket's answer to the ever-increasing pace of modern life; a 20-over-a-side slogfest where smashing the ball out of the park to the sound of fireworks and loud rock music takes the place of five-day-long tests of endurance and patience. Big Bash Boom takes this concept and smashes it into the arcade game-o-sphere by introducing nice-looking power-ups, unlockable customizations, and a streamlined approach to gameplay that speeds up the action, while leaning into a goofiness that cricket games rarely embrace. But with a litany of technical problems and no meaningful tutorial to help you work out the basics, Big Bash Boom feels like it needs more time in the practice nets.

Big Bash cricket is all about smashing the heck out of every ball and scoring as many runs as possible, and Big Bash Boom does a superb job of recreating the buzzing atmosphere you'll find at the ground during a BBL match, complete with wild crowds, fireworks displays, and unintentionally terrifying-looking mascots. You can pick any of the eight licensed teams from either the BBL or Women's BBL, taking them to glory in a casual match, full tournament, or online head-to-head.

When jumping straight into a casual match, you can customize match options, team lineups, and ball type, which includes a few fun varieties--pie, anyone? You're led out onto the pitch and greeted by real-world commentator Pete Lazer, though his occasionally charming reads come off as a series of one-liners instead of actual commentary, and they begin to grate after some repeats.

Out on the field is where Big Bash Boom shows off its main differences to past cricket games, including Ashes Cricket, which was by the same developer as Big Bash Boom. The action has been streamlined to cut out a lot of the dead air time that you tend to get at a cricket match, which gives the game its arcade feel. You're never asked to pick bowlers or select lineups. You can if you wish, but the game will otherwise make these calls to ensure a faster flow. The players all have NBA Jam-style big heads, which shows off the player likenesses in a way that's easy to appreciate. Faces are detailed, if a little robotic and expressionless, but the overall look works in context, especially combined with the great use of special effects to mark big shots.

Batting and bowling feel more pick-up-and-play than in any other cricket game; however, the lack of a meaningful tutorial means things that should be obvious knowledge, like what the changing cursor colour on the pitch means, remain a mystery until you just happen to work it out through the natural course of playing. But that aside, it's simple enough to get into a match and start slogging balls left and right, with timing and shot selection all coming into play. Time it perfectly, and you'll probably make it sail over the ropes, but get it wrong and you might pop the ball up for an easy catch or swing and miss entirely. Bowling is a touch more complicated, involving selecting a bowl type to start the run in and then keeping the cursor on the pitch in place while timing your release. It often feels like you're up against it as a bowler; there's little you can do to avoid being belted around the park apart from bowling the occasional short ball, and you're limited to performing only one of those per over. Getting belted around every ball takes some getting used to, but thankfully if you'd rather spare yourself the embarrassment, you can always simulate the innings.

The inclusion of power-ups for batters and bowlers help pump up the excitement of a match, and you can activate these after filling a special meter by hitting runs and boundaries as a batter, or dot balls and wickets as a bowler. Each exhibits some excellent-looking animations and special effects, and you'll get some extra power for the next few balls. Bowlers can bowl twice as fast, fielders are able to run at double their speed, and batters can force slower throws from the outfield or hit twice as hard, sending loose balls into the stratosphere. It's immensely satisfying.

Everything you do in a match will earn you coins that you can put towards buying new in-match celebrations, which you're prompted to perform after hitting a big six or taking a wicket. While it's somewhat satisfying to rub it in your opponent's face, the lack of gameplay benefits makes showboating feel a little arbitrary. You can also purchase cosmetic customizations like new hats and helmets, but that's as far as personalization goes; disappointingly, there's no player or team editor.

Beyond the excellent special moves and vibrant aesthetic, the rest of the game struggles to hide its seams, most notably when it comes to animations. Fielders will move about awkwardly when chasing the ball before settling and sending in the return throw, while batters often warp into place before setting off for a run. There are also some more obtrusive bugs that, when they hit, can change the outcome of a match. A few times I was called out for a catch on one side of the field when the camera made it look like the ball had gone in the opposite direction. I've also had catches made in the outfield seem as though they don't count, with my player harmlessly throwing the ball back to the keeper as though nothing happened--something that can be immensely frustrating.

Big Bash Boom's potential is clear. Despite its singular focus making it feel a little barebones when compared to other cricket titles, the shift towards arcade gameplay feels perfectly suited to the relatively flamboyant presentation of the BBL. But it's washed with bugs that affect the core of the experience, and those technical issues make it difficult to warm up to.

Cosmic Top Secret Review - Declassified

Sat, 12/01/2018 - 09:01

There's a particular milestone of growing up that goes relatively unexamined as far as shared experiences go, and that is the moment you realize your parents had deep inner lives of their own before you were born. That's true for Cosmic Top Secret's writer/director/protagonist Trine Laier, whose parents are hiding one of the coolest secrets imaginable, and yet that palpable sense of a once-impenetrable boundary having been crossed between them is still huge. Cosmic Top Secret trying to translate those feelings into a video game makes it remarkable. Ironically, what stops it from being brilliant is that it's not very good at being an engaging video game.

The game's title refers to an actual security designation within the Danish equivalent of the Department of Defense, which, unbeknownst to Trine until her late 30s, was the security level both her parents held while working there on a classified spy project during the most tense years of the Cold War. Determined to get the full details, Trine ropes both her parents into doing interviews for a documentary on their lives. The project runs into major snags since neither of her parents know if their work is declassified, even after Trine actually gives the Department of Defense a call and has a high-ranking official essentially debrief them on what's safe.

Cosmic Top Secret is a series of five relatively self-contained open worlds, all relating to a specific point in Trine's time trying to squeeze what she can from her parents. It all takes place in a papercraft, pop-up-book representation of her journey; imagine the living papier-mache world of Media Molecule's Tearaway, except crafted by 50 years of shredded classified documents, and you have an idea of what Cosmic Top Secret feels like.

From marching alongside her mother at a military base to going orienteering--a sort of free-form competitive hike--with her father in a local forest, everything takes on a sort of twisted, mesmerizing magic. That abstract interpretation includes the paper doll avatars of Trine, her parents, and all their former colleagues, rendered as googly-eyed exaggerations that shift, change, break, and rip along with whatever their current mental and physical status is. While in real life Trine's father injured his shoulder while orienteering, his paper doll self in-game gets its arm torn off, and you have to find it. Trine being reminded of a specific family tragedy might cause her doll version to fall apart entirely, meaning you have to put her back together again to finish the conversation. It's a sort of emotional sleight-of-hand that could only have been executed in games, trying to inhabit a documentarian's feelings and internal dialogue. It's a magic trick not every game--even the ones specifically aiming to evoke emotions from the player--pull off as successfully as Cosmic Top Secret does.

All the while, Trine herself must explore each environment, sifting through the chaos of years of espionage history for the clues to lead her closer to the truth. The process had to take months of looking through filing cabinets in real life, but the game portrays it as a huge collect-a-thon of Trine running around the open world. Everything is clearly marked on the map, which is conveniently laid out like an alphanumeric grid, and there's no puzzle so difficult that it'd require consulting a wiki. There's just so much of it, and it's not until you pick something up that you know whether the item will actually unlock the next snippet of story or not. Thankfully, every single item in the game unlocks a piece of obscure history (like the secret operation to steal a sample of former Russian president Nikita Khrushchev's feces), a fascinating anecdote (a man imprisoned for years for taking the wrong pictures in Poland), or a video clip of the real-life interviews Trine conducted with her parents.

Had Cosmic Top Secret been a documentary, this is the kind of meticulous detail she'd have to leave on the cutting room floor. As sheer experience in the realm of gaming, it's all contextual gold, giving you an extensive picture of not just Trine's parents as people but the world they operated in--even as they try to keep Trine at arm's length from it.

The caginess has a universal feel to it. Many parents talk to their kids as kids for so long, transitioning to talking to them like adults can be difficult. Trine's parents are so used to talking around their work in the name of national security,they actually don't even remember how to talk about it. Much of the actual story structure of the game is about Trine finding her parents at just the right moment or coming at a question at just the right angle to get them to open up. What they reveal isn't necessarily the stuff they make award-winning cable shows about--no, they didn't assassinate anybody or anything like that--but it does tell quite a bit about the kinds of people her parents were, how that knowledge relates to her and how that changes how she sees her parents.

In trying to relate to her parents lives as agents of the state, Trine has to come to grips with the fact that her parents were not just her parents and not just spies, but grown adults with their own regrets and secrets and feelings. Many of them come from when they were younger than Trine was when she made the game. She speaks to former colleagues who had never met her but knew her parents as friends or by reputation, maybe the first times Trine hears her parents spoken of in such a way.

One of the big revelations that stops the investigation in its tracks a moment is Trine's mother remembers her first husband, who died young, and whose best friend became her second husband and, eventually, Trine's father. By her admission, Trine doesn't think about it much because it breaks her heart, but her mother tosses the matter out as mere trivia, a fact of life she's long come to terms with. The game is full of these tiny moments of reckoning for Trine, and these are the times when the game transcends being a simple mystery into a story of poignance. In a documentary, those thoughts and feelings would be essentially carried by narration, dialogue and candid moments surreptitiously caught by an intrepid cameraperson. Cosmic Top Secret, however, is less about saying how Trine feels--or even about showing it--and more about thoroughly immersing the player in a vast, interpretive world of her feelings about it.

Cosmic Top Secret's very existence and ethos makes it special in the realm of gaming.

The trouble comes while navigating through Trine's feelings on everything, and unfortunately, that's not a metaphor. You move in Cosmic Top Secret by moving your mouse over Trine, which crumples her up into a tiny ball of trash you can roll around a stage. It's extremely easy to lose control and send the ball flying off into corners, and you're unable to reel the ball back and stop, turn on a dime, or even just roll straight--which you need to do far too often and far too precisely to be enjoyable. Later, one of the middle stages has Trine turning into a paper airplane that has the reverse problem, where the controls barely respond to the degree you need to land on the very small platforms you're guided to. Combine those problems with a finicky camera that actively limits your rotation until Trine turns around, and for large chunks of the game, you're stalled not because you're reading about fascinating history but because you're trying to wrestle the game's controls into submission. There's this concept that a game that's primarily about exploration needs some sort of challenging gameplay element to be considered a "real game," and seeing Cosmic Top Secret trip over its own feet for the sake of adding that extra challenge should put that argument to bed once and for all.

Cosmic Top Secret's very existence and ethos makes it special in the realm of gaming. It's conceptually brilliant and heartwarming. Arguably, it's still worth fighting the game's mechanics just because Trine--and you, by proxy--deserves to know the truth and hear every angle of these peoples' captivating story firsthand. Trine started her journey with curiosity and finds herself closer to the people who raised her than ever, while also giving them the ultimate familial gift: a literal living history of their youth, and their work for the greater good, through the fantastical, imaginative eye of their clearly talented, inquisitive daughter. But there's a barrier to entry here, and it has nothing to do with the embarrassment of asking a parent what they were like when they were younger or their hesitation with the truth, and everything to do with the aggravation of even exploring the world in which their story is told.

Persona 3: Dancing In Moonlight Review - A Spotlight In The Dark Hour

Wed, 11/28/2018 - 01:30

"Wherever you are, we'll meet again," artist Yumi Kawamura sings at the closing of the theme song "Our Moment." It's a track that beautifully captures both the joy of seeing old friends again and bittersweet memories left by Persona 3. It's a sentiment that rings throughout Persona 3: Dancing In Moonlight, a wonderful rhythm game that celebrates the great RPG by reuniting its charming cast of characters and putting its incredible, unique soundtrack in the spotlight.

The rhythm gameplay system first established in Persona 4: Dancing All Night returns; six button inputs border the screen and notes flow from the center out to the corresponding input. Double notes, holds, and DJ scratches (with the flick of the analog stick or with L1/R1) keep note patterns varied, and makes things delightfully hectic on the highest difficulty. There are plenty of beginner-friendly options as well with four difficulty settings and several modifiers for assistance. It's a fun rhythm system that's supported by note patterns that flow seamlessly with the fantastic tracklist--there's an undeniable satisfaction to nailing perfect combos as the audible claps, tambourines, and scratches sync with the beat of the song.

Yukari's on her way to a perfect combo and dance routine in front of the Paulownia Mall fountain.

I'll be the first to admit that there's a thematic dissonance between dancing in flashy outfits and Persona 3's darker tone, which might be off-putting for some die-hard fans of that game. Still, it's an absolute delight to be with the SEES crew again, reincarnated in 3D models in the same vein as Persona 5's art style. It's a reimagining of Yukari's cheerful demeanor, Mitsuru's stern attitude, and Junpei's goofiness. Everyone goes all out and dances with impressive fluidity, especially with how partner/group dances are choreographed with natural imperfections. I do wish we had the fearless squad member Shinji from the start, but he's available in a DLC track. And sadly, the ferocious, adorable Shiba Inu Koromaru and the Persona 3 Portable female protagonist are missing. Regardless, there's an overwhelming sense of joy in seeing these characters together again. And the fact that old locations are renovated with modern visuals makes them feel new--the Iwatodai Dorms, Port Island Station, Paulownia Mall, Gekkoukan High School, Tartarus, it's all here.

The remixes and remasters evoke not just a sense of nostalgia, but have a striking quality that breathes new life into the series.

Most of all, Dancing In Moonlight stands out with a tracklist that spans the course of Persona 3's history, which includes songs from Persona 3 FES, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, and Persona 3 Portable. It gives a musical variety that's attached to so many great memories but that's also exciting to play. The remixes and remasters evoke not just a sense of nostalgia, but have a striking quality that breathes new life into the series. "Heartful Cry" has an unrelenting melodic-punk twist, and "Memories Of You" gets an electro-pop remix that remains heartfelt. "When The Moon Reaches For The Stars" and "Light the Fire Up In the Night" are have their full-length versions that slap harder than ever. The ending montage for "Brand New Days" and video for "Burn My Dread: Last Battle"--two songs on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum--capture their vibes perfectly. Even the Persona Super Live 2017 performance of the Persona Q boss theme "Laser Beam" made it into the tracklist. It may not be playable, but the song that fills the background during conversations, which samples the melody of "Our Moment" and the backing vocals of "Want To Be Close", is a soothing track that beautifully blends the old and new. Dancing In Moonlight carries the lasting impact of Persona 3's soundtrack.

Unlike Persona 4: Dancing All Night, there is no traditional story mode; outside of dancing, there are Social Events. The overarching premise is that SEES gets stuck in a dream state where Elizabeth from the Velvet Room asks the crew to dance their hearts out. It's silly, but it's enough to provide the context necessary for Social Events; a series of jovial scenes where characters simply banter. There isn't much in terms of new character development, though they do have a newfound determination to dance. Social Events play off of what you already know about the cast; Akihiko is still obsessed with getting stronger and counting calories, Aigis is still working her way around typical human mannerisms, and Fuuka continues to embrace her supportive role. It's wonderful to hang out with them again and watch conversations play out, especially since most of the original voice cast has returned--you also have the option for the original Japanese voice acting.

Still, it's an absolute delight to be with the SEES crew again, reincarnated in 3D models in the same vein as Persona 5's art style. It's a reimagining of Yukari's cheerful demeanor, Mitsuru's stern attitude, and Junpei's goofiness.

Unlocking outfits and accessories for your squad is also tied to viewing Social Events, so if you're into customizing their getups, it's further incentive to hang out. Outfits range from modest to utterly ridiculous; the Gekkoukan tracksuit and casual winter clothes look great, but putting Junpei into a snowman costume and Ken in a reindeer suit is hilarious. Social Events also provide motivation for playing in different ways since each character has specific conditions for unlocking their scenes, like passing songs using certain modifiers or wearing several outfits or accessories. It's well worth it, especially for the room visits. Even if it's just the team's dorm rooms, visiting these places in first-person brings to life characters you've known for years.

Compliments from Mitsuru are hard to come by, great work Fuuka.

Persona 3: Dancing In Moonlight puts the spotlight on one of the strongest parts of the entire series: the music. Its fusion of pop, rock, hip-hop, electronica showcases some of the incredible work of series composer Shoji Meguro and company. Dancing In Moonlight is particularly special because of the strong remixes and remasters of familiar songs, recreations of places we've been, and reimagination of characters we've long known. You may find the overall premise a little strange, but if you let loose--just as the SEES crew has done--you'll find a brilliant rhythm game weaved into an amazing, evocative soundtrack.

Persona 5: Dancing In Starlight Review - The Shujin Shuffle

Wed, 11/28/2018 - 01:30

One of the most important pieces of the Persona series, and a major reason why we remember each game so fondly, is the music. Each mainline game and spin-off has its own memorable songs that encapsulate its defining moments. And with Persona 5: Dancing In Starlight, the evocative soundtrack that wonderfully captured the journey of Persona 5 is brought to the forefront for a fun, exhilarating rhythm game with its charming personalities taking center stage.

Here, the rhythm gameplay system used in Persona 4: Dancing All Night makes a comeback. As songs play, you're tasked with hitting the corresponding notes that align with the six button inputs that border the screen. Notes come from the center and move outward to the corresponding input, with unison notes, double notes, holds, and DJ scratches (using the analog stick or L1/R1) keeping you on your toes. It's a system that's beginner friendly with lower difficulties and assist modifiers, but wildly challenging on the highest difficulty. There's an incredible satisfaction to nailing perfect combos as note patterns flow seamlessly with the tracklist. The audible claps, tambourine shakes, and scratches that come from these notes mesh impeccably with beat of the song. It's not far off to say that you feel the rhythm when note patterns start to come naturally as you grow familiar with each track.

A perfect combo and dance routine in the song "Price" for Makoto Niijima.

The style and swagger of the Phantom Thieves bursts at the seams in Dancing In Starlight; it's seen in a wink, nod, or smile as they move in ways that fit their personalities. They'll be getting down in familiar locations like Mementos, Shibuya Crossing, and Shujin Academy. Even deep within hostile palaces, they express themselves by going all out on the dance floor with an impressive fluidity. Tandem dances in Fever Time and group dances are choreographed with a natural imperfection, supported by the eclectic soundtrack.

The style and swagger of the Phantom Thieves bursts at the seams in Dancing In Starlight; it's seen in a wink, nod, or smile as they move in ways that fit their personalities.

The theme song "Groovy" is so beautifully drawn and animated that the unapologetic confidence of the Phantom Thieves comes through vividly--it's an inspiring microcosm of the original game's attitude. A number of hard-hitting songs like "Rivers In The Desert", "Blooming Villain", and "Yaldabaoth" are featured here alongside the more calming tones of "Life Goes On" and "Tokyo Daylight". And, of course, the best palace theme "Price" features Makoto throwing it down in front of Kaneshiro's bank in the Metaverse sky. The masterful fusion of jazz, pop, metal, and rock make for a great playlist that feels like a trip through the struggles and triumphs of Persona 5 all over again. There some decent remixes, like the house-style version of "Whims Of Fate", but many are a little underwhelming, such as the "Beneath The Mask" remix that doesn't quite make the same impact for a rhythm game. That's not to say they're bad songs, but with the bar set so high, you wish they had a bit more punch for the gameplay to thrive on.

There are also a few shortcomings in Dancing In Starlight when it comes to presentation. "Life Will Change", an empowering song with infectious conviction is paired to a fairly cheesy music video. But what's much worse is that the female cast members (who are also high school students) get oversexualized in the Last Surprise music video, which is some sort of bizarre burlesque show that's out of touch and wholly unnecessary.

Dancing In Starlight doesn't feature a traditional story mode, unlike its predecessor Persona 4: Dancing All Night. However, there are Social Events, which are scenes of dialogue where characters banter--these play out similar to a visual novel-style of Confidants in the original game. The overarching premise is that you and your crew are stuck in a dream state dictated by Caroline and Justine of the Velvet Room, and they're enforcing the one rule of Club Velvet: dance. Admittedly, it sounds silly, but it works to pave the way for some joyous moments in Social Events. You shouldn't expect much when it comes to further character development, although they embrace their newfound passion for dance. Conversations and references play off of what you already know about the cast; Ann's striving to be the next top model, Yusuke's enraptured by his artistic side, and Ryuji's as brash as ever. While these don't play into the high stakes and striking themes of the RPG, it's great to be with these characters again and watch the silly banter unfold, especially since the original English and Japanese voice casts return.

You're also incentivized to play in different ways since each character has specific conditions for unlocking their Social Events, like passing several songs using modifiers or customizing characters during your time playing. Viewing scenes grants you these cosmetics, too, so the game naturally guides you to seeing most of its features. And the conclusion to Social Events rewards you with room visits; even if its just the attic of the Leblanc coffee shop or a crew member's room, working towards them is worthwhile as you get to see familiar places in first-person and take a closer look at a world you thought you already knew.

The masterful fusion of jazz, pop, metal, and rock make for a great playlist that feels like a trip through the struggles and triumphs of Persona 5 all over again.

It might take some adjusting to the overall premise, but it's fitting to see this cast getting footloose across Tokyo and the Metaverse. Dancing In Starlight shines the spotlight on the original RPG's rich, wide-ranging soundtrack and highlights some of the best work from series composer Shoji Meguro. Although many of Persona 5's tracks struck a chord because of their evocative attachments to the events of that game, these songs come back around to remind you just how special that journey was. And the fact that these amazing tracks are tied to a great rhythm gameplay system make this game a fantastic new way to enjoy Persona 5's tremendous music and revisit the Phantom Thieves.

Beat Saber Review - Bass-Boosted

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 10:35

A good rhythm game knows how to get you moving to the beat, but very rarely does it require your full physical exertion in the way that Beat Saber does. On one hand, Beat Saber is a delicately designed rhythm game that uses simple mechanics in increasingly complex combinations. On the other, it's a full-body workout--one that demands you get up and move to the many beats of its drum- and bass-heavy songs. It's a wonderful use of both virtual reality and motion control, with only a few campaign issues and a slightly disappointing lack of content holding it back.

Beat Saber is easy to pick up and understand immediately. You're equipped with two sabers (lightsabers in all but name), color-coded in red and blue. Each song plays out as a track of similarly color-coded blocks, each of which have arrow indicators signifying in which direction they need to be cut. You slice and dice your way through multiple songs, many of which mix up both speedy repetitive patterns with long avenues of tricky swiping angles that test your reflexes; there are also small hazards like explosive bombs and glowing red walls that you'll need to physically avoid. With difficulties ranging from the slow and simple Easy to the frankly ridiculous Expert, there's a gentle curve that lets you engage with Beat Saber on your own terms--from a light, manageable workout to a true test of your mobility and reaction times.

PSVR support and the mandatory use of the Move controllers are what give Beat Saber its sense of motion. Beat Saber's blocks fly at you from the same starting point but can have wildly different trajectories that force you to stretch out to cut them. These can come whizzing past exclusively on your left-hand side before quickly transferring over to the right and flipping the pattern or alternate between low diagonal positions to a flurry of blocks flying overhead. The way Beat Saber continually uses rotations and last-minute position swaps gives its simple two-color system a lot of depth, which often requires deft motion tracking. The limitations of the PS4 camera have made this facet of PSVR tricky in the past, but Beat Saber features precise tracking, allowing for a high level of breadth to movement without impacting the feel of playing.

Beat Saber's songs do a good job of differentiating themselves from each other. "$100 Bills"” for example, is a satisfying exercise in pattern recognition that rides along a punchy bass track, while "Be There for You" shifts between slow and melodic verses into an adrenaline pumping chorus that uses devious pattern swaps to keep you on your toes. There's a lot of standard electro and alluring drum and bass, but Beat Saber does dabble in genres that you wouldn't immediately expect from its neon-brushed presentation and effects-heavy levels that elicit the feeling of attending an intense music festival. Coming across a new type of melody is refreshing after hours of dealing with similarly intense beats per minute, even if there aren't that many songs in total.

The PS4 version has five exclusive songs, each of which have tracks that fit their corresponding songs well and highlight their unique rhythms with clever block positioning. But on console, you lose the ability to download custom songs. Users on PC have been able to create songs using unofficial tools, greatly expanding Beat Saber's limited song library. There's more officially supported songs coming as paid DLC, but the selection is a little slim currently.

Modifiers alleviate the repetitive nature of the limited library to an extent. You can play songs with altered tracks that only allow you to use one saber or have directional arrows disappear as they get close to you. Only a handful of modifiers are available for each song, with an entirely new subset used in the game's campaign mode (which is exclusive to PS4 for the time being). These include challenges that ask you to not only complete a song but also move your arms to hit a collective distance travelled or achieve a high combo. Each of these pushes you to get better at songs you've likely already played, helping you inch closer to a perfect run in a natural way.

Some challenges are frustratingly counterintuitive, though. Certain modifiers will inexplicably limit the amount of movement you're allowed to make, which detracts from the energy that makes Beat Saber so exhilarating. Other modifiers that force you to keep below a certain combo or make a certain number of mistakes before the end of a stage feel obtrusive to your progress. They require you to actively play worse, manually breaking out of great streaks or purposefully making wrong moves in order to progress.

The campaign gives you branching paths to follow on your way to its conclusion, so some of these frustrating challenges can be avoided. But you'll have to engage with each of them at least once, and they are disorientating speed bumps in an otherwise exciting journey. But Beat Saber's campaign is an otherwise well-paced training ground for your growing abilities. Its difficulty ramps up fairly--you can't change it like you can in other modes--consistently challenging you while also gently nudging you out of your comfort zone so that you can improve.

Beat Saber is an exhilarating rush and an exhausting game to play in the best way. It has great music that is more varied than you might expect, complemented by smartly designed levels that marry their complex patterns perfectly to the beat. It's difficult to get bored of Beat Saber, especially thanks to its extensive campaign that pushes you to get better with each step up in difficulty. But that same campaign is also uneven at times with confusingly counterintuitive challenges, which might frustrate you to the point of taking a break. And when you do, you'll realize that Beat Saber is also currently thin on content, with only a handful of songs and no means to upload customs ones. Yet despite those flaws it remains consistently satisfying to play, and is certainly one of the best PSVR games you can buy right now.

Nidhogg 2 Review - En Garde

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 06:17

Editor's note: We've now tested Nidhogg 2's Nintendo Switch port, and we're pleased to report it runs as smoothly as it does on other platforms. Plus, local multiplayer with a single Joy-Con each is, well, a joy. Unfortunately, a lack of online players mean you're often left waiting to join an online match, and the matches you do get into are often subject to poor connectivity. Regardless, Nidhogg 2 remains an accomplished local multiplayer game that is thankfully now available on the best console for local multiplayer. -- Oscar Dayus, November 26 2018

The beauty of Nidhogg was in its simplicity. Its minimalist style and two-button gameplay fed into what was a wonderfully streamlined and focused experience. With Nidhogg 2, developer Messhof has attempted to expand the multiplayer fencing game with more maps, different weapon types, and a busier art style, with mixed results. Some of the changes--particularly the weapon selection and grotesque aesthetic--prove to be distractions from what is otherwise an excellent party game.

Nidhogg 2's concept, as with the first game, is to stab your opponent and race past their decaying corpse onto the next screen. Your enemy will respawn on the new screen within a couple of seconds to once again impede you from reaching your goal--a giant hungry worm. You can jab your sword at any of three heights--head, torso, or... below the torso--or throw it for a long-ranged attack. Of course, flinging your sword leaves you vulnerable, as does attacking at the wrong height, which creates openings for your opponent to counter.

This was the meta-game driving the original Nidhogg's competitive gameplay--except now there's more pieces to the puzzle. The sequel introduces three new weapons: a thicker broadsword, which can be swung from either top or bottom to bat your opponent's weapon away but leaves you vulnerable in the middle; a dagger, which has a much shorter reach but allows you to stab more quickly; and the long-range bow. Arrows can only be fired in the middle or bottom and can be hit back in your direction, but they're by far the longest ranged weapons in the game that don't leave you defenceless afterward.

The expanded arsenal is of course designed to add depth, and it does: wielding a dagger for a few seconds can be a refreshing change after three years spent playing Nidhogg with just the same old rapier. But the game's fast-paced nature and its lack of warning as to which weapon you'll spawn with next means that you're often left frustrated that your attempted swipe of a sword failed because you happened to reappear holding a bow instead. You can change the order of weapons you'll spawn with in Tournament Mode, but even there the speed at which matches unfold makes adapting in the split-second respawn window a struggle. In addition, those customization options are not included in Quick Play, Arcade, and online multiplayer--a minor but strange decision given some may wish to turn the new weapons off entirely.

The introduction of weapon variety also impacts balancing. The uniformity of map design and character types creates a level playing field, but this serves to further emphasize each weapon's weaknesses. The dagger in particular feels very underpowered--it's tricky to use its speedier stab when your opponent has a much longer sword keeping you at bay. Similarly, arrows take too long to fire, meaning a quick opponent can easily gain the upper hand. Even if they don't, arrows are pretty easy to dodge, and you'll be too busy hammering the Square / X button out of frustration to take advantage.

The pulsating electronic soundtrack helps each stage feel as enjoyable, as varied, and as weird as the last.

Messhof has taken a similar "bigger means better" approach when it comes to Nidhogg 2's art style. The minimalism seen in the original is gone in favour of a style that, while still retro, is noticeably noisier. At times, the lighting is lovely, and the greater color range allows for much more varied locales than the original's monochrome level design. But the style also makes it harder to immediately see what's happening on-screen, and this lack of clarity is representative of the sequel overall. Possibly the only area in which the increased amount of content has benefitted Nidhogg is in those added maps. The original arenas have been rebuilt, and they're accompanied by a number of all-new locations. They contain a number of environmental hazards such as pits, moving ice, and long grass--as well as a pulsating electronic soundtrack--helping each stage feel as enjoyable, as varied, and as weird as the last.

Despite all the distractions, however, Nidhogg 2 can be brilliant. The original's tense, frantic, hilarious nature has not been diminished, and local matches offer some of the best same-room multiplayer around. I think my ear is still ringing from a friend shouting so loudly (repeatedly) after he beat me (also repeatedly). Nidhogg 2 becomes a sport: even onlookers get swept up in the tug of war the game evolves into, and you'll cheer or cry more in each swing of momentum than most video games manage to muster in a whole campaign. It effortlessly creates moments of nail-biting tension and in the very next room uproarious hilarity: in the moment, simply batting an arrow back at an opponent can seem like the most daring maneuver ever attempted, while falling into a pit immediately after a momentus kill can paralyze a room with laughter.

You'll cheer or cry more in each swing of momentum than most video games manage to muster in a whole campaign.

Each strike is lethal, and every inch of ground gained over your opponent feels like a huge step toward victory. The controls have remained as natural as they were in the first game, allowing you to plan and execute strategies with ease, making it perfect for group sessions even if some haven't played before. And when you figure out your opponent's strategy, exploit it, and just before they respawn you reach the finish line to win a tournament, it's exhilarating. I just hope my ear stops ringing soon.

Nidhogg 2, then, adds a lot without really adding much at all. The new weapons and busy aesthetic can frustrate, making the overall package feel less refined, but the core gameplay still shines through. Despite its problems, Nidhogg 2 is spectacular, engrossing, funny, tragic, and dramatic in equal measure, and it will no doubt become another party game staple. Nidhogg 2 sacrifices simplicity for more options, and it doesn't prove to be a good trade. But when the underlying action is this good, I'll put up with the odd unwelcome dagger.

Darksiders 3 Review: Soils-Like

Mon, 11/26/2018 - 22:00

Darksiders 3 has an identity crisis. On the one hand, the stylish, effect-laden combos at your disposal point to a game with combat encounters reminiscent of Devil May Cry's kinetic action. Yet your fragility and the tough challenge enemies present actively discourage you from approaching combat on the front foot, instead favouring a more methodical approach with an emphasis on tact and evasion. The Darksiders series has always worn its inspirations on its sleeve, but at least there was a sense of focus and consistent design omnipresent in all of its moving parts. Those first two games may have been derivative, but they took concepts and built on them in fun and engaging ways that elevated their strong points. Darksiders 3 is the antithesis of this approach, feeling muddled and unfocused, with an uneven design that trickles down and negatively affects each of its disparate systems.

After both War and Death had their fun in Darksiders 3's predecessors, it's now the turn of the perpetually angry Fury, as you take the reins of the third horseman of the apocalypse. Fury wields a bladed whip known as the Barbs of Scorn, which offers both decent range and a satisfying feedback of meaty hits once you're up close and personal in some demonic entity's face. Throughout the game you'll acquire Hollows that grant unique secondary weapons--like a lumbering mallet and rapid-fire chains--and open up your traversal options with different elemental effects. Combos are relatively easy to execute, with one button dedicated to primary attacks and another for those aforementioned secondary strikes. Button mashing is enough to get you through most encounters, but mixing in slight delays between button presses will allow you to pull off air combos and other similarly stylish moves. It certainly looks the part of a flamboyant action game, but these flashy combos are only really feasible against weaker enemies.

Darksiders 3 has taken some clear inspiration from Dark Souls, so Fury's low survivability forces you to approach combat in a way that belies its exuberant combos. Enemies are fast and hit hard, and are regularly found in groups. With no stamina meter to speak of, there's an emphasis on dodging and keeping out of danger that does deviate from Dark Souls' stringent use of energy management. Each perfectly timed dodge is rewarded with a slow-motion flourish and the chance to counter with a powerful arcane attack, and most clashes are built around Fury's ability to weave out of the way of incoming sword slashes and ravenous claws. There's a good variety of enemy types, too; reading their attack patterns and knowing when to evade is paramount to defeating almost every enemy you can't simply banish with a single combo.

This all sounds well and good on paper, and taken at face value there's nothing inherently wrong with a more considered approach to combat. But Darksiders 3 never leans into this method heavily enough, and out-of-place vestiges of its flashy counterpoint regularly cause frustration as it seems to split between wanting to be two very different types of game.

You may have air juggles and various strings of deadly moves at your disposal, but you're often forced to settle for safe combos because anything else will leave you wide open to a devastating attack. Then there's the way you lock on to enemies. This has remained relatively unchanged from Darksiders 2, opting for a 3D targeting system similar to the one used in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This was clearly designed with one-on-one battles in mind and certainly doesn't fit in a game as challenging as this. While there are undoubtedly some tough enemies in Darksiders 3, the real difficulty comes from facing more than one enemy at a time rather than a singular threat. This works twofold: groups of enemies are intrinsically tougher due to their numbers, and the unwieldy lock-on and a terrible camera make these fights a lot more challenging than they would otherwise be. The camera has a tendency to block your view with walls and any objects in the vicinity, which is only exacerbated by the claustrophobic environments that dominate the majority of the game. Dying because you can't see, or because switching targets is too fiddly, are constant annoyances. Not to mention the number of times you're hit by attacks from off-screen. There's an indicator for incoming attacks, but it's incredibly difficult to discern in the thick of the action, and no such warning exists for projectiles.

Dying because you can't see, or because switching targets is too fiddly, are constant annoyances. Not to mention the number of times you're hit by attacks from off-screen.

Darksiders 3 also strips out a lot of the RPG elements from its immediate predecessor. Killing enemies rewards you with souls which can also be found throughout the game world in consumable clusters. Each time you reach a checkpoint you can trade them to a demonic merchant in order to level up three attributes: health, strength, and arcane. It's a very simplistic progression system, and while you can lose souls by dying and must then retrieve them again, there's never any tension borne from the threat of perishing and losing them all because you can bank souls even if you don't have enough to level up.

Weapons can be upgraded to increase their damage output, and enhancements will augment your arsenal with buffs that might give you 4% health back for each successful hit, or add more invincibility frames to your dodge. But there's no sense of individuality here, and combat never evolves because all you're doing is boosting your damage output. It doesn't take too long before repetition settles in.

This is a problem when combat is all-encompassing. There are some rudimentary puzzles sprinkled throughout, but they're few and far between and generally revolve around hitting a large jellyfish creature into position so you can use its head to reach higher platforms, moving blocks, and using explosive insects to access different areas. None of this is particularly engaging, and that goes for the rare instances of platforming as well. Grabbing onto ledges is too temperamental, and Darksiders 3 lacks a cohesive visual language that makes some platforming sections more convoluted than they should be.

The apocalyptic wasteland of Earth just isn't that interesting to traverse either. The interconnected world is made up of dilapidated office buildings, grimy subways, and flooded industrial areas. Each of these locales is enveloped in muted colours dominated by beige and grey, with only a couple of areas deviating from this bland design. Your quest might revolve around tracking down and killing The Seven Deadly Sins, but the environments you're in rarely reflect their diverse personalities, which feels like a squandered opportunity. Sloth is a large grotesque bug, so it makes sense that you'll find eggs cascading around the walls of his subway lair, and face off against arachnids and four-legged creatures. Yet, bafflingly enough, Gluttony--a vulgar plant-like creature with multiple mouths--also resides in a subway littered with eggs and insectoids to fight.

Verticality plays a substantial role in these environments, but there's no sense of scale when you're regularly confined to dank corridors in subways and caves. It's a shame, too, because while the bulky, comic book art style of Joe Madueria is still reflected in the excellent character designs--even if he's not directly involved in Darksiders 3--the backdrop for these larger-than-life beings is this generic, insipid world. And while it underwhelms in the visual department, Darksiders 3 is still rife with constant framerate issues--even on a PS4 Pro--on top of crashes, sound glitches, and other technical misgivings.

There are other elements worth mentioning, like the way the game length is padded out by the exclusion of an vague in-game map that makes fast travel worthless since you never know where exactly you're going, or the counter-intuitive way letting an enemy kill you is the best option when it comes to replenishing your healing items. But saying any more at this point is just too disheartening. Darksiders 3 retrogrades on its predecessors with an unfocused approach that constantly clashes with itself. There are remnants of a good game here, buried within the vivacious combos of a combat style this game doesn't want to embrace. Unfortunately, it's buried far too deep to ever salvage.

Underworld Ascendant Review - Going Under

Thu, 11/22/2018 - 17:40

Ultima Underworld was a game ahead of its time. A first-person action-RPG released in 1992, it foreshadowed the kind of creative problem-solving sandbox that would later be popularized through Deus Ex, Bioshock, and Dishonored. The legacy of Ultima Underworld is a design approach that prioritizes player-authored experiences. It was, essentially, the immersive sim that first asked the questions: Do you want to fight your way in? Sneak your way in? Or set off a chain reaction of chaotic, physically simulated interactions and emergent gameplay your way in?

Crowdfunded via Kickstarter and then signed by publisher 505 Games, Underworld Ascendant was first pitched as a spiritual successor to Ultima Underworld developed by a veteran team featuring several people who worked on the original, most notably its lead designer Paul Neurath.

Unfortunately, far from a tribute to an influential classic, the result is both a crushing disappointment for Underworld fans and a genuinely bad game in its own right. Ascendant is riven with technical glitches. Every player-empowering feature is undone by a series of bafflingly ill-conceived design choices. And wherever you go your progress is constantly chafed by an all-pervading lack of refinement.

The story, for what it's worth, tells an oblique tale of warring gods and carries only tenuous links to the original Underworld games. You play as a familiar chosen one burdened with the sole responsibility of saving the world from imminent catastrophe. The game's primary antagonist bellows his ghostly threats at the beginning of each new area as another hour ticks by on the doomsday clock, but it's all bluster. Nothing about the world feels imperiled until the game over screen descends and you're left feeling bemused rather than defeated.

One of Ultima Underworld's great strengths was its sense of place. The Stygian Abyss of its subtitle was a multi-level, interconnected dungeon populated by diverse, warring tribes who observed what felt like distinct cultural practices. Ascendant's version of this is composed of seven discrete levels whose haphazard design (here's a swamp, inside a fort, inside a volcano) obliterates any suggestion of internal consistency and a huge but empty hub area that is so tiresome to traverse it becomes genuinely frustrating to return to between missions.

Again unlike the original game, which let you wander freely throughout the dungeon and pick up quests from its inhabitants, Ascendant takes a more modern and compartmentalized approach. There's a job board in the hub from which you select one of four missions before you step through a portal to the relevant location. Critical path missions require you to find the abyssal key lost in each of the seven worlds, but other missions--each set by one of three factions with whom you can gain favor--may have you kill a particular enemy or collect a number of a specific item. You can only accept one mission at a time, however, so there's a lot of trekking back and forth between hub and dungeon level. And, oddly, any mission that asks you to collect items will ignore any of said items already in your possession and force you to collect fresh ones instead.

None of the missions are complex and all ultimately boil down to entering the dungeon, fighting or sneaking your way to a certain spot, picking up or killing what you need, and legging it back to the nearest portal to warp to the hub. There are no NPCs to talk to, no conversations to have, no story choices to make, nothing but a bunch of what feel like procedurally-generated fetch quests delivered over and over again. If you recall the random quests given to you by the various Jarls throughout Skyrim, that's pretty much the entire game here--except repeated over seven static dungeon levels instead of spread across a whole seamless continent.

The closest Ascendant comes to honoring Underworld's legacy is in how it affords players the ability to customize their playing style. During character creation, there is no choice of class as such, but once you begin earning "memora" you can purchase skills on a tree with three clusters of branches representing the typical Fighter, Mage, and Thief archetypes. Of course, you're free to mix and match these skills to tailor your character's strengths. Maybe you're an axe-wielding fighter who has also mastered healing magic? Or perhaps you'd rather dash from shadow to shadow and avoid enemies altogether?

In a nice touch, spells aren't simply a replacement for weapons, but are better suited to the more cerebral player who wants to use the environment to their advantage. One spell lets you create a ball of fire, for example, but it's not a typical fireball that you hurl at an enemy; it's instead used to set other things on fire to, say, collapse the walkway that enemy was standing on, or more mundanely, burn down a fence that was blocking your way. The skill tree is flexible and allows you to craft a character that reflects the way you want to play, and leaves plenty of room to experiment with alternative play styles should you ever want to roll a new character.

The chances of doing that are slim, sadly. Underworld Ascendant isn't just a bare-bones action-RPG, it's also full of bugs and glitches and carries a really weird save system. I've encountered glitches that I'd classify as trivial: frequent gaping, untextured holes in the world geometry; lines of dialogue repeating on loop until you leave the area; getting stuck momentarily on a staircase; struggling to get out of a knee-deep pool of water because the current is absurdly strong; standing too close to a chest when opening it and having the physics fling you across the room. These issues, and many more, I can cope with. They're irritating, sure, but they're not game-breaking.

But the bugs become game-breaking when, for example, your character gets trapped between two bits of geometry and the only way out is to reload. Or when you can no longer use your bow even though you still have loads of arrows equipped. Or when you can actually use your bow and see the arrow shoot across the world but it seemingly passes right through the enemy without doing any damage. Or when an enemy spots you and simply runs into a corner and keeps trying to run through a wall while you attack it from behind until it dies. Or when you pull a lever and a rolling spike trap vanishes from the world but is still actually there and kills you. Or when an enemy gets caught in a cycle of jumping in the air and throwing a smoke bomb at its feet. These issues, and many more, are ones I can't cope with.

But perhaps most crucially of all, I can't cope with the save system. To begin with, you cannot save wherever you like. You can save whenever you like, but loading this save will see you restart from the beginning of the level with your inventory intact but any changes to the level reset. You can, however, plant a tree sapling at certain points throughout a level to act as a respawn point if you die, similar to the Vita-Chambers in Bioshock. This would be okay if Underworld Ascendant was a run-based game where you're primarily interested in how far you can get and what loot drops. But it's not. It's a mission-based game where you're exploring a level for upwards of an hour each time, trying to complete a specific objective. You're already revisiting the same level over and over again by virtue of having to return to the hub to cash in a mission and pick up the next. Having to restart a level from the beginning each time you load a save is just adding insult to injury.

For many players, especially the time-poor, the save system alone will be enough to render Underworld Ascendant unplayable. But even if it were addressed, and a more conventional system patched in, it would be impossible to recommend this game to anyone. Framed as a spiritual successor to Ultima Underworld, Underworld Ascendant misses the mark with almost every shot, much like my aforementioned hapless archer. At the same time, even freed from the expectations its historical baggage brings, it is a clear failure. The spirit of Ultima Underworld lives on elsewhere.

Fallout 76 Review - Scorched Earth

Thu, 11/22/2018 - 17:00

Well, war has certainly changed. Fallout, the RPG series with a 20-year legacy, finds its latest entry taking another chance at braving a new direction. It puts a major focus on cooperating with other people in a world with perpetual activities that seek to sustain your engagement indefinitely. But Fallout 76 is a game without a strong focus. It introduces significant changes to the set structure of Fallout 4 to make it function as both a single-player and multiplayer experience. In doing so, both styles of play suffer from major compromises that exist only to serve the other, and as a result, both are weak. Fallout 76 can look and feel like its illustrious predecessors at times, but it's a soulless husk of an experience.

Fallout 76 has no artificial human characters to interact with. The justification is that, because the dwellers of Vault 76 are tasked to be the first to re-enter and reclaim this post-apocalyptic America, there are very few coherent beings. Many of the folks who did survive nuclear annihilation conveniently died shortly before your arrival. Without established characters to populate the world, the vibe of 76 is an eerie one, and it often amplifies one of the series strengths: creating the feeling of desolation and otherness. There's a curiosity about the familiar but unknown environment that drives you to veer off the beaten path, visit places that once were, attempt to imagine what life might have been like before everything went to hell, and wonder what the hell has happened there since. Exploring a new wasteland and stumbling upon new settings, scenery, and oddities is one of Fallout's most enjoyable aspects, and it's 76's best trait.

However, the lack of inhabitants is also Fallout 76's biggest problem. The game goes to great efforts to paint a picture that includes towns and cities with different populations and cultures, survivors who have banded together to form factions, and stories of people who managed to survive against all odds. But without having any of those people present to tell their stories personally, 76's world is limited to being little more than just an environmental exhibit with things to kill. It means the art of conversation is disappointingly absent, but more critically, it means there are no strong emotional anchors to help you become truly invested in the world, a complication that diminishes the game's other core activities.

The biggest victim is the quest system. Without actually having people with needs and desires, initiating and undertaking quests frequently involves the use of explicit found-object storytelling tools--listening to audio logs, reading notes, and browsing through computer terminals for key information. A quest will often explore the stories of certain characters, but they're characters that have long since passed, and all you get are long monologues and one-way directives from a person who no longer exists and you can't interact with. Your actions ultimately won't affect anyone, or the rest of the world for that matter--every location you visit will be reset with items and enemies regularly--so it's difficult to stay motivated.

...there are no strong emotional anchors to help you become truly invested in the world...

Some of these stories are intriguing to be sure, and when you come across a tale about a character who piques your interest, you get excited to discover more about their last living moments. But there's such an over-reliance on listening to disembodied voices and digging through pages of text in every aspect of the game that these standouts are easily lost. The lack of a more relatable and personal connection between your actions, the world, and its inhabitants--combined with your lack of influence--means quests begin to dissolve into wild goose chases around the world to check things off a list, and feel meaningless. It makes the idea of continuing to progress the story--listening to more audio logs, running across the country to search for more doohickeys, reading through more diary entries--feel exhausting.

The reliance on things like audio logs and written notes also proves to be the biggest deterrent to playing Fallout 76 in multiplayer. By teaming up, you can explore the world together, get help in taking down difficult enemies, and complete any quest, but certain things are kept distinct to each individual player's experience. Containers that hold items, for example, will have unique loot for each person who opens them. But quest objective completion also isn't shared, and every member in your squad needs to activate things personally to have them count toward their progression.

This is a great idea on paper, as it makes sure everyone sees each piece of a story themselves. But in playing with both good friends and strangers, I found that each person's individual need to advance quests severely hinders the flow of progress. Because of the need to wait for your squad to catch up, have each member take their own time to listen to important audio logs (which is impossible when you've got voice chat going), and search terminals for pertinent information, questing in multiplayer requires a lot of patience and courtesy. Add to that the fact that Fallout is already a game that encourages constant, time-consuming gear management (which penalizes your movement speed for being over-encumbered), as well as a rudimentary, occasionally tedious survival system (which asks you to maintain meters representing hunger and thirst), and the idea of having another squad member just feels like an additional burden.

If you have a squad that is happy to skip the narrative content things will go much more smoothly, but then you're denying yourself the one vector that gives these quests flavor. Multiplayer is more enjoyable when you and your squad are just content to leisurely explore the world and get into scrapes, at least once the logistics of preparation are behind you. But the capacity for arbitrary fun is an unremarkable trait. The advantage of questing solo and not needing to wait around is definitely a big advantage, but it has its own obstacles too--packs of enemies will often have a handful of foes that are 10 or 20 levels above you, and having someone to watch your back is definitely a factor that needs consideration, warts and all.

Fighting enemies also doesn't feel that meaningful in 76, a more morbid consequence of the lack of in-universe characters. The new region of Appalachia is filled with an assortment of delightfully mutated creatures both new and old, including humanoid enemies like the Scorched and Mole Miners who can wield firearms. But it isn't as entertaining to take on enemies that haven't wronged you or anyone you know. Without sadistic raiders and their despicable actions to be appalled by, interesting gang factions to get on the wrong side of, or lucid ghouls and super mutants to make you think twice about raising your weapon, every living being you encounter in 76 just feels like cannon fodder.

The combat mechanics don't deal well with a lot of cannon fodder, either. Appalachia is filled with a large variety of multiplayer-focused public events that invite everyone on the server to gather and participate in a unique task tied to a particular location. But these mostly boil down to escort and defense missions that ask you to hold back multiple waves of enemies and perform basic objectives. The real-time shooting of Fallout 76 is mostly unchanged from Fallout 4 and is serviceable enough to make small skirmishes with either firearms or melee weapons feel fine, despite occasional technical hiccups. But the system is not good enough to make shooting hordes of enemies for 20 minutes in an event feel like anything other than a chore--the gunplay and movement are not satisfyingly responsive or kinetic enough to make them enjoyable for long periods.

That's also partially due to the changes to V.A.T.S. What was once a strategic pause-style ability that allowed you to take time to assess your surroundings, target specific body parts, and make the most of your combat strengths, is now a primarily an opt-in real-time auto-aim system, a change presumably made for the purposes of multiplayer. If you decide to upgrade the skill, it serves its purpose in being able to make precision hits on limbs when the action is manageable, but in more intense situations this version of V.A.T.S. does little to bridge the limitations of the real-time combat system as it once did.

Fallout 76 also has fewer opportunities to complete quests in your own unique ways, which exacerbates the sense that you don't really have a huge part to play in this wasteland. Traditional charisma skills are gone, but lockpicking, hacking, and stealth abilities remain and provide a little bit of variety. But the overwhelming majority of quests have clear linear throughlines to their respective goals, all of which involve shooting a lot of things.

Some of the decisions in Fallout 76 are positive, though. The flexibility of the new perk system (which is now card-based) allows you to change your abilities at will, which has encouraged me to use Fallout's weirder skills, depending on my situation. In my experience, the game's unique take on player-versus-player competition is effective at deterring unprovoked attacks when exploring the world--killing another person is a lot of work for little reward if your target doesn't retaliate. Base-building carries over from Fallout 4 and comes with a few quality-of-life changes. You have the ability to move your base camp for a trivial fee, and you can save blueprints of entire arrangements for easy placement elsewhere. It's straightforward and pleasant, but like the rest of 76, it lacks the feeling of permanence and importance of building settlements in Fallout 4.

Most disappointingly, when you do begin to find some small joy in exploring Fallout 76's world, you're often not far from falling victim to the series' now characteristic penchant for technical oddities. Whether caused by the game engine or the online server-based nature of the game, I've run into countless issues in the PC version, even after the game received a major patch within its first week of release. Problems like clipping through the world, frozen animations, entire buildings failing to load, enemies getting stuck in walls or just not moving, audio logs not playing, enemies spawning out of mid-air, delayed damage detection and world effects, server disconnections, and being unable to complete a quest because someone else in the world killed your target, requiring you to log on and off again until it respawns. These are just some examples, and experiences will vary, of course. But in my time with the game, Fallout 76 did not feel like it ran smoothly for extended periods, technical issues were severe and often frustrating, and they overshadowed any fondness that was, at that point, starting to grow.

Fallout 76 attempts to execute on some significantly new ideas for the series, but with few exceptions, they notably limit the major facets of the game. The novelty of multiplayer can be mildly entertaining, but it's not an ideal way to enjoy mainline progression, and the shooting mechanics aren't strong enough to make the focus on combat-heavy activities genuinely enjoyable. Things feel better as a solo player, and the Appalachian landscape certainly has interesting things to see. But the absence of in-universe characters and your inability to make a meaningful impact on the world means becoming invested in the whole journey is incredibly difficult.

Bethesda has stated it intends to continue supporting the game for a long time, but at launch, Fallout 76 is a poor experience. There are echoes of the series' admirable qualities, but look past that facade, past the cute Vault Boy animations, past the familiar radio tracks, and you'll find no heart--just an inconsequential wasteland doomed to be nuked over and over again.

Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum 'n' Fun / Drum Session Review - Rhythm Party

Wed, 11/21/2018 - 10:38

The Taiko no Tatsujin games are staples of Japanese arcades, and once you see them, they're hard to forget: gigantic cabinets shining with bright lights, faux-paper lanterns surrounding a screen, and two huge taiko drums you use to play. It's an experience you can't easily recreate at home, but that hasn't stopped Bandai Namco from trying with Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session on PS4 and Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum 'n' Fun on the Switch--the first home console versions of Taiko games to reach the West in over a decade.

This isn't the first time Bandai Namco has brought over Taiko no Tatsujin--it released Taiko Drum Master on PS2 back in 2004--but it is the first time it's made the trek overseas with its Japanese tracklists intact. It's also available as two distinct versions for separate consoles, both with different tracklists, features, and play modes. The basic gameplay, however, is the same in each.

That gameplay is deceptively simple. Beats will roll along the top of the screen, and you need to hit the drum in certain ways in order to produce different sounds; hit the center for a deep boom, the rim for a lighter clack, and use both drumsticks at once on either the center or the rim for a stronger overall noise. Having just a single instrument with simple inputs might make the game seem easy at first, but once you move on to some of the harder difficulties, you'll be challenged with rapid-fire sound switches, incredibly fast beats, and gimmicks that challenge you to whack that drum as fast and as hard as you can. It's a ton of fun once you get the knack of it, and seeing a party of cute little yokai and personified taiko spirits emerge in a cheering frenzy when you've got a massive combo going is always satisfying.

Of course, the home versions are missing something from that above description--the drum. There's a custom drum controller that can be used with the game that recreates the arcade controls somewhat, but since it's not available outside of Asia as of this writing (even though the North American game supports it), you'll need to make do with either pressing controller buttons for drum hits, tapping an on-screen drum using the Switch's touch functionality, or using the motion control function of the Switch Joy-Cons to simulate using drumsticks on a virtual drum. (For Drum Session on PS4, your options are considerably more limited; you either press the controller buttons or spend an arm and a leg importing a drum controller. There's no Move support, either.)

All of these control schemes have their ups and downs. Controller button input is very accurate but doesn't really deliver the experience of drumming, and touch-screen input results in a chunk of the screen being taken up by a virtual drum. Joy-Con input is probably the most fun in that it comes closest to the feel of drumming, but at more difficult song levels it tends to be plagued with inaccurate input readings, so it's not recommended for tracks with rapid notes.

No matter what input you choose, though, you'll be playing one of many songs from the variety-filled tracklist. You won't find much in the way of familiar American pop hits here, save for a Japanese version of Let it Go or Moana's theme song; the tracklist has been brought over straight from Japan with little in the way of alterations. That means you can enjoy covers of Japanese pop hits like Zenzenzense, Linda Linda, and One Night Carnival, along with a handful of possibly-familiar anime themes (Pop Team Epic, Evangelion, Dragon Ball Z), game music, classical remixes, Vocaloid songs, and a whole mess of original Namco music. The lack of Western songs can be a bit daunting at first, but there's plenty of variety overall, and the original Namco compositions tend to be quite good.

Overall, the PS4 tracklist is significantly more robust, offering more tunes in each category, along with a lot of optional DLC songs. However, it's disappointing that some of the best tunes, like classic Namco game music medleys and beloved Vocaloid songs like Senbonzakura, are DLC-only. The Switch tracklist is smaller and differs a fair bit, but offers exclusive Nintendo songs like the Super Mario Odyssey theme, a Splatoon medley, and a Kirby medley. Overall, though, Drum 'n' Fun's tracklist isn't quite as strong as that of its PS4 counterpart, Drum Session, even with taking into consideration a tiny smattering of DLC songs. If musical variety is your key selling point and you don’t find forking over a bit extra for DLC, you’ll probably want to look at the PS4 version first.

What Drum 'n' Fun does have that its PS4 brother doesn't, however, are plenty of mini-games and unlockables. While the core game only supports local two-player play (four if everyone brings their own Switch with a copy of the game), up to four players can join in to enjoy a huge variety of competitive and cooperative rhythm-based mini-games. These range from simple party games such as jumping rope to the theme of classic Namco arcade game Hopping Mappy or running through a side-scrolling stage picking up food to more complex challenges like preparing sushi orders or cooking on a grill to a beat.

These party games are very fun overall, taking a noticeable influence in both theming and gameplay from Nintendo's own fan-favorite Rhythm Heaven series. Plus, playing them unlocks additional content, such as songs and player-aiding avatar characters, in the main game, so there's plenty of incentive to get a bunch of buddies together and play some Taiko rhythm volleyball.

Taiko no Tatsujin in any form is a solid rhythm game package that's easy to get into and rewarding the more you play it.

The PS4 version doesn’t have these minigames; instead, it focuses on a deeper music game experience. Besides the bigger song selection, it offers an online mode where you can download other players' "ghost" input data for songs to compete against. (If you want a direct head-to-head battle, however, you’ll need to do local play.) You also have a little personified Taiko avatar you can customize with goofy costumes and collectible items, which you get from lootboxes you can buy with currency earned in-game.

Overall, Taiko no Tatsujin in any form is a solid rhythm game package that's easy to get into and rewarding the more you play it--provided you're down with a mostly-unfamiliar tracklist. The inclusion of numerous mini-games and local multiplayer support gives Drum 'n' Fun an edge over Drum Session for people who want an offbeat (pun not intended) party game to play with their buddies before busting out some Head Cha-La or Heat Haze Shadow. While the various non-drum-controller control schemes aren't always optimal, the Switch version offers many nice options to pick from--and if you just want to play a couple of standard-difficulty songs with pals before competing in four-player noodle-slurping, motion controls prove to be plenty enjoyable. But if you've been longing for a quirky, enjoyable multiplayer music game, either version should scratch the itch quite nicely.

Battlefield 5 Review In Progress - On The Front Lines

Fri, 11/16/2018 - 10:48

Editor’s note: We are waiting to finalize this review until we are able to test Battlefield V’s server stability with more players and see if certain bugs persist after initial patches upon release. While the free Tides of War updates for Battlefield V are scheduled through March 2019, we are evaluating the game based on what is currently available as of its November 2018 launch. Look out for our final review in the coming soon.

Chaos and scale have always been the foundation of the Battlefield franchise, and Battlefield V is no different. Squads of soldiers relentlessly push towards objectives with either sheer force or improvised tactics while gunfire and explosions ring throughout the beautiful, but war-torn landscapes. It's an overwhelming sensory experience and a fine execution of a familiar formula--if you play the right modes.

Battlefield V goes back to where the franchise began by using World War II's European theater as the backdrop for first-person shooting and vehicular combat in large multiplayer matches. It's not too dissimilar to Battlefield 1, where every weapon has a distinct weight and impact hat comes through vividly in both sight and sound. The core conceits of Battlefield remain mostly untouched, but small tweaks have been made to the formula, most of which are welcome.

Ground troops are even more deadly this time around, with a revamped ballistics model (random bullet deviation is gone) that results in reduced time-to-kill for skilled players; floundering in open areas is now more dangerous than ever. Navigating the maps' messy terrain has a smooth, intuitive feel whether you're mantling obstacles or scrambling for cover. All players regardless of class can revive squadmates and highly encourages sticking together and alleviates the disappointment of dying without a medic around. Since it takes a few precious seconds to perform a revive and is limited to squadmates, it doesn't negate the importance of the Medic class' instant revive. The ability to spot enemies is now exclusive to the sniper-focused Recon class by using the manual spotting scope or having the subclass perk to reveal enemies you fire upon.

Another new mechanic introduced in Battlefield V is Fortifications, which consists of building predetermined structures--like sandbag walls, barbed wire coils, and Czech hedgehogs--within the environment. There are no resources tied to your ability to construct them, though the Support class builds much faster than other classes and can prop up a stationary gun in certain spots. Overall, building fortifications feels a bit tacked on and inconsequential given the pace of some modes, but there's no denying their effectiveness in the right situations. Something as simple as improvised sandbags for a little cover can go a long way by turning a sitting duck into a well-positioned defender who can better hold down an objective when every other building's been reduced to rubble.

As impactful as Attrition sounds, it's not so overbearing as to drastically shake up Battlefield's core, though it does make going rogue less viable.

Above all else, Battlefield V truly shines in Grand Operations, a series of three consecutive matches (or rounds) intertwined by brief narrative bits inspired by WWII events. Each round, presented as one in-game day in the same theater of war, is a specific game mode, and teams can earn reinforcement bonuses for certain rounds depending on the outcome of the previous one. The narrative dress-up is a nice touch, but the real reason Grand Operations works is because it keeps up the momentum from round to round and packages a variety of the game modes into one long match, encouraging you to see it through.

The success of Grand Operations should be primarily accredited to the more focused, well-executed modes like Airborne, Frontlines, and Breakthrough. Frontlines in particular plays out like a tug-of-war; teams fight over varied objectives in sequential order within defined sections of a map, depending on the phase of the match. Teams will struggle to hold capture points in sequence to push the other back, and other phases may be demolition-style attack/defend skirmishes. The opportunity to push back a phase also makes it so you can regain ground if your back is against the wall; by the same token, you can't get too comfortable with a lead.

These game types aren't entirely new; Frontlines was seen in Battlefield 1 DLC and borrows elements from Rush and Conquest, and Grand Operations is a variation--albeit improved--on the original Operations in Battlefield 1. However, the tools and mechanics built around Battlefield V along with how map dynamics shift at each phase make them an absolute thrill to play. It accentuates the best features of the map roster, and also makes the moment to moment firefights distinct since they're concentrated across different sections. The structure of modes like Frontlines naturally ushers a team's attention to a handful of clear objectives at a time and provides a method to the madness, creating a satisfying push-and-pull where success feels earned.

As great as Grand Operations is, the series staple of Conquest has become the weakest link. This traditional mode has devolved into a match-long carousel of flag captures, easy kills, and cheap deaths. Maps like Twisted Steel and Arras function well enough for Conquest, but that leaves a majority of the eight available maps lacking. Narvik, Fjell 652, and Devastation feel too condensed for the high player count and mechanics of Conquest; the action hardly ever stops, but cramming everyone together in compact, circular maps means you're often caught from behind or flanked by enemies that simply stumbled upon that fruitful opportunity. It goes both ways, as you'll frequently find yourself catching enemy squads with their backs turned because you lucked into a certain spawn and ran off in the right direction.

The success of Grand Operations should be primarily accredited to the more focused, well-executed modes like Airborne, Frontlines, and Breakthrough.

Battlefield V is also rough in spots. A few bugs are forgivable, like wild ragdoll physics, but some are more problematic. On rare occasions, the map goes blank when enlarging it, or health packs just don't work. Very rarely would you have to revive a squadmate by a door, but when this happens, you're likely to only get the prompt to interact with the door, leaving your friend to die. Thankfully, these issues are not enough to overshadow the game's best parts.

Regardless of your preferred mode of play, you'll be earning XP for a number of separate progression paths. There's overall rank, class rank, individual weapon rank, and for good measure, each tank and plane has its own rank as well. There isn't a whole lot to unlock for weapons given the WWII setting, but leveling up weapon proficiencies lets you customize them to your play style, like choosing greater hip-fire accuracy, faster reload, quicker aim-down-sights, or less recoil in ADS. Various weapons and pieces of equipment (such as the spawning beacon for Recon or the anti-tank grenade for Assault) unlock as you rank up classes. It's a fairly sensible system, though the same can't be said about vehicle progression. Vehicles are tough to come by in Battlefield V as it is and since each one ranks separately, it takes an extra-concerted effort to level them up. There are some useful perks to obtain for vehicles that can provide a slight disadvantage, but it can be a struggle to acquire them.

The structure of modes like Frontlines naturally ushers a team's attention to a handful of clear objectives at a time and provides a method to the madness, creating a satisfying push-and-pull where success feels earned.

Aside from weapon skins, you'll customize each class's appearance for both Allies and Axis. It's the cosmetic aspect where you can fit yourself with different parts of uniforms, though it doesn't bear much fruit since this is a first-person game that moves so fast, even your enemies won't really notice the 'rare' uniform you're wearing. Cosmetic customization is also how Company Coins, the in-game currency that you earn through completing challenges (daily orders or assignments) or completing matches, comes into play. Most cosmetics can be bought with Company Coins, which can be a grind to earn. You should note that unlocking weapon and vehicle perks are also tied to Company Coins, but at least they are relatively low-cost. There are no microtransactions at the moment, but they are said to coming in the future, and for cosmetics only.

Battlefield V isn't solely a multiplayer endeavor. War Stories returns as the single-player component that attempts to present a brutal conflict with a more earnest tone. The campaign highlights lesser-known parts of WWII, like the Norwegian resistance, and the Senegalese Tirailleurs who fought for the French Army amid racial discrimination. The effort is admirable, especially when it comes to the Tirailleur campaign as it sheds light on piece of history that has nearly been forgotten; the scale of Battlefield comes through in and the story speaks to the horrors of war. However, the campaign doesn't quite stick the landing in the end. Nordlys boils down to a mix of stealth and combat that casts you as a one-person army that's enjoyable at times, but doesn't go beyond lone-wolf skirmishes--at least it showcases some of the game's best setpieces. And the Under No Flag campaign for the English side is an eye-rolling series of tedious missions that goes for a lighthearted note that doesn't work. War Stories has its moments but is all over the place in tone and style.

The effort is admirable, especially when it comes to the Tirailleur campaign as it sheds light on piece of history that has nearly been forgotten.

Currently, Battlefield V still has features to implement as part of its game-as-a-service approach (designated Tides of War), but there's enough to chew on for now given the quality of the better modes. It's an exciting prospect that there's more to come at no additional cost, but you can't help but feel that the launch package could've been a bit more dense considering there's only eight maps. Additional modes (including co-op), new maps, another Grand Operations mission, and the Firestorm battle royale mode will be rolling out intermittently between now and March 2019. All that could make for the most feature-rich game in the series; unfortunately, we won't be able to evaluate those parts of the game until they arrive.

The Battlefield series has a winning formula that Battlefield V doesn't deviate far from, at least for now. Conquest and the map roster don't mesh well together, however, Grand Operations-- and the other modes within it--steal the show and foster some of the greatest moments the franchise has offered. You might be surprised by the impact of the slight changes made for Battlefield V, especially when you're deep into pushing objectives in Frontlines alongside teammates fulfilling their roles. That's when Battlefield is at its best.

Overkill's The Walking Dead Review - DOA

Wed, 11/14/2018 - 12:00

Despite appearances and obvious inspirations, Overkill's The Walking Dead often doesn't feel like a shooter at all. It takes the rules established by Robert Kirkman's comic series and its subsequent TV adaptation to heart in the wrong ways, imposing unbalanced rules on its missions that heavily restrict how you're able to play. Combined with a dizzying assortment of survival mechanics buried in unintuitive menus, meaningless customization options, and non-existent incentives to improve your gear, The Walking Dead feels unrefined and unfocused.

This iteration of The Walking Dead features a new cast of characters and little to no ties to the rest of the series' mythos. It's set in the heart of Washington D.C. as you establish a camp and attempt to survive as one of four playable characters. These characters are borderline lifeless, with no real stories of their own aside from previously released promotional material. Nothing about their personalities materializes through the game's story, and neither do stories between survivors within your own camp. The Walking Dead forces you to engage with your camp and its inhabitants between missions but gives you absolutely nothing to do or say to them, which makes it a struggle to care about their fates at all.

The overarching story is equally thin on details, with only slideshow animations and voiceovers providing context for each of your missions. The voice acting is monotone and dreary, the writing vague and uninteresting, merely existing only to give veiled purpose to the missions they precede without weaving a captivating story through them. Overkill plans to add more story content in the form of seasons, but its heartless premiere doesn't instill much confidence for where this story might go in the future.

In action, The Walking Dead presents itself as a first-person shooter, with the familiar trappings of cooperative play that games like Left 4 Dead and Payday successfully capture. But even though you might be equipped with two firearms and a melee weapon, The Walking Dead only encourages the use of the latter. Each main mission bears a meter that fills up whenever you make noise. Firing a weapon, triggering one of the many near-impossible-to-see traps, and even unavoidable enemy actions all contribute to this, and eventually summons waves of undead enemies towards you without reprieve.

The strength and scale of these waves is determined by one of three tiers that the meter bears, with each tier pushing you further towards insurmountable odds of failure. In fact, simply hitting the first tier makes most missions too difficult to continue, as the constantly spawning enemies can clutter the narrow linear walkways of most mission areas to the point of comedy. It's not uncommon to see doorways entirely blocked by hundreds of enemies, forcing you and your team to mindlessly chip away at the crowd only to have the same issue arise at the next chokepoint. It's wildly unbalanced and overly punishing, making most missions tediously long and frustrating.

Missions are diluted into more stealthy affairs as a result, which can be mildly entertaining when you're working closely with teammates. As part of a well-organized team you can keep noise to a minimum and circumvent enemies entirely, but it usually only takes one player not sticking to the script to ruin a run. Making matters worse, there's no support for voice chat in-game nor any other ways to communicate aside from text chat.

If The Walking Dead didn't make it feel mandatory to play with other people, this might not be as big of a problem as it seems. Missions are unnecessarily difficult to begin with but borderline impossible to play alone. The number of enemies doesn't scale and mission objectives don't change based on party size, making even early easy missions a chore to slog through without friends in tow. This is exacerbated by unreliable matchmaking; it's tough to find matches with other players currently, which can bring your progress through the game's story to a complete halt until you manage to find others to play with.

Even when you've overcome the technical hurdles of matchmaking and unnecessary difficulty spikes, The Walking Dead is just not engaging to play. Its missions all follow identical designs, populated by scores of undead enemies and sparse camps of armed human foes. You'll have to fight or avoid a group based on your strategy, then hunt for objects around the area to solve simple puzzles to progress. These puzzles never change beyond hunting down specific items and bringing them back to a location and are used as a poor method of pacing that just adds tedium to every mission. There are also no objective markers or other indications that would make these items easier to find, adding to the unnecessary frustration as you attempt to hunt down a single electrical fuse while enemies continually spawn around you.

In between standard story missions are simplistic wave-based survival modes where you'll have to fend off humans or the undead back at your home camp. This is the only mission type where you're free to work with the weapons you've unlocked, as noise isn't a factor. Gunplay emphasizes headshots, especially against zombie foes, and it can be exhilarating to pull off a string of them to down a small horde in no time. Outside of that, gunplay is mostly unremarkable, as are the weapons you'll find along the way. You're able to customize them with modifications, increasing range, damage, stability, and an abstract power value. These stats feel superfluous, and The Walking Dead never feeds them into its gameplay in a tangible way. It makes your starting weapons feel as effective as ones you've collected 10 hours in, which just makes the hunt for better loot meaningless.

The same can be said for the four playable characters. Each one has a unique gameplay mechanic, be it the ability to deploy medical kits for healing or flashbangs to blind enemies. Beyond physical items, each character also has their own unique skill tree that feeds into their type of playstyle. Aidan, who I spent most of my time playing, has skills that increase the amount of damage you can output when low on health, for example. But like the modifications to weapons, these skills never surface in a tangible way. No matter how many improvements to my personal stats I had unlocked, or which melee baseball bat I had equipped, zombies always required the same two light attacks or single heavy attack to kill.

From its restrictive mission structures, unbalanced difficulty and frustrating means of progression, The Walking Dead struggles to justify the time it requires from you.

The Walking Dead could easily be described as a management simulation as much as it can a first-person action game. Despite your camp feeling desolate and lifeless, you'll need to provide resources for upkeep costs, which impact your ability to progress. Your map is restricted by certain upgrades you've made to your camp, which can halt your progression and force tedious grinding to just continue with story missions. There's a frankly ridiculous number of upgrade trees to manage, pertaining to weapons training, medical facilities, radio outposts, and more. It's overwhelming trying to micromanage every aspect of your camp and frustrating that progression demands you engage with it regularly just to continue with missions. Coupled with unintuitive menus and a lack of teaching tools to guide you through all these subsystems, The Walking Dead doesn't make its secondary focus on survival management easy to parse or entertaining to engage with.

From its restrictive mission structures, unbalanced difficulty and frustrating means of progression, The Walking Dead struggles to justify the time it requires from you. It's a collection gameplay blueprints stacked upon one another without thoughtful consideration on how they might cohesively work together, wrapped up in a dull presentation and mundane combat that very rarely excites. The Walking Dead is a mess of scattered ideas and a lack of direction, and there's no reason to make sense of it all.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy Review - Fan The Flames

Wed, 11/14/2018 - 07:36

Many would-be mascots have come down the pike over the years, trying to capture just the slightest hint of Mario-level stardom. Spyro the Dragon never quite got there, but he did manage to star in some of the most charming and accessible platformers of the PlayStation era, and the Reignited Trilogy is a grand testament to the little guy's staying power.

The trilogy includes the first three--and best--titles in the series: Spyro the Dragon, Ripto's Rage (also known as Gateway to Glimmer in Europe and Australia), and Year of the Dragon. His adventures are simple but delightfully cartoonish fare. The first game has him traveling through the five dragon realms freeing his bigger, badder brethren from Gnasty Gnorc. The second has Spyro attempting to take a vacation after his previous adventure, but winding up getting dragged into a realm being invaded by effete warlock Ripto. The third has him facing off against the evil Sorceress, who has stolen over 100 dragon eggs with the help of her rabbit apprentice, Bianca.

Ignore the graphical overhaul, and these are very much the games that released the first time around on PS1. The fact that they stand up so well mechanically against more recent games is the most pleasant surprise of the package. Movement and attacks are one-button affairs, and the simplicity works in the collection's favor. If there's a learning curve to be found, it's in the fact that it's all too easy to use Spyro's charge attack too recklessly, sending him flying off cliffs or missing the enemy he's aiming for by inches.

Thankfully, Spyro’s moveset need not do much heavy lifting, especially in the first game. Every area has a number of crystallized dragons to find, and once enough of them have been freed, you take a balloon off to the next dragon realm, and repeat until you reach Gnorc's trashy fortress. There's some minor puzzle solving, and an enormous amount of treasure to be found, and that’s about it. If anything, the first game's biggest weakness is that there's so much other stuff to collect, between the hundreds of gems, hidden treasure chests, and dragon eggs stolen by hidden--and super annoying--Egg Thieves, but only freeing the dragons really matters in terms of progress.

The sequels are much better in that regard. Each stage has its own little tale of animated hijinks that plays out, from a tribe of Himalayan telepaths being terrorized by a Yeti, to my personal favorite, helping superspy moppets Hansel and Gretel stealth their way into a heavily guarded fortress of nomadic lizards so they can use their psychic powers and take over. There's a slew of unique challenges within each stage for you to do, usually involving super-powered versions of Spyro's current abilities or sequences where you have to take to the skies and firebomb specific objects for gems. The third game brings new playable characters into the fray, all with their own specific movesets and bonus stages, giving you a very good reason to run around collecting shiny stuff to unlock it all. The linear repetition of the first game never rears its head again for the rest of the collection.

As mentioned, it speaks well of the originals that the Reignited Trilogy doesn't change a thing mechanically and all three games are still a joy to play. The audio has gotten a bit of remixing and reworking but remains fairly true to the original soundtrack, which can be switched to on the fly. But the Reignited Trilogy goes above and beyond here, giving all three games an impressive visual overhaul, essentially making all three games close to a Dreamworks animation. More than just new lush-looking foliage, skin and scale textures, and warm, blissful lighting, hundreds of tiny new details are here, giving each character and enemy more personality. There are a bunch of visual gags and quirks every character will run through if you leave them alone for a moment. The generic gruff dragons from the original are all unique creatures with their own personalities when imparting knowledge to Spyro, same for the dragon babies in Year of the Dragon, who each react like delightful, rambunctious toddlers when they hatch. The Spyro trilogy already felt timeless to play. Now, it’s much more dazzling to look at.

The Reignited Trilogy is the best kind of collection that not only brings a beloved series up to current visual standards but also proves just how well-built the original titles were. Granted, the originals were done by a little studio called Insomniac, and it's not exactly surprising something that team did is a fine example of the genre. But the Reignited Trilogy's developer, Toys for Bob, deserves major kudos for bringing Insomniac's vision to life in the way we could've only dreamed in 1998.

Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu / Let's Go Eevee Review In Progress

Wed, 11/14/2018 - 01:00

Editor's note: As of November 13 at 6 am PT, the Pokemon Go-compatible features in the Let's Go games are not yet available. We will update this review in progress when those features, which include transferring Pokemon from Go to Let's Go, are live and we've had a chance to test them.

Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee are gorgeous--albeit lean--reimaginings of one of the series' most beloved adventures. While some features fans have come to expect are missing--like abilities, breeding, and held items--Let's Go has an admirable amount of depth for a game aimed at a younger audience that has never played a Pokemon RPG. Both games may not have the same lasting appeal as previous entries, but revisiting Kanto and catching some of the series' most iconic creatures makes the journey worthwhile.

Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee take you back to Kanto, the home of Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow. Not much has changed structurally, but the previously 8-bit region has been realized in vibrant detail. Revisiting some of the series' most memorable locations like Viridian Forest and Saffron City on a big screen is an absolute joy. Areas that were once composed of lines and simple shapes are now colorful forests and detailed cities. Pokemon both big and small roam the wilds, giving personality to the region--you can watch a tiny Horsea speed through the waves or a massive Onix slink through a dark cave. The catchy original soundtrack has also been remastered, and it sounds better than ever.

Those familiar with the originals or their remakes, FireRed and LeafGreen, should have no trouble navigating the world. After you're introduced to your partner Pokemon (Pikachu or Eevee depending on the version you choose) you set out on an adventure to collect Gym badges, defeat the Elite Four, and put an end to Team Rocket. While there are a few surprises, the layout of the region and your progression through it is nearly identical to the originals. Fortunately, Let’s Go sheds some of Red, Blue, and Yellow's more archaic designs. For example, HMs--"hidden moves" that allowed you to get past certain obstacles--are replaced with "Secret Techniques" that fulfill the same purpose without taking up one of a Pokemon's move slots. As a result, you can focus on team composition and complementary move sets instead of figuring out how to divvy up HMs between your party Pokemon.

Let's Go also does a much better job at guiding you through the world and story. After you made your way through Rock Tunnel in the originals, you had little direction through Lavender, Celadon, Fuschia, and Saffron and could do certain Gym battles and events out of order. It was easy to miss key items and wind up fighting Pokemon much stronger than your own, which led to frustrating backtracking with little idea of what to do next. While you still can complete certain beats out of order, Let's Go ensures you don't miss anything crucial. For example, after you beat Erika in Celadon City, a character gives you a key item that will let you enter Saffron City. Previously, you had to buy a drink from an inconspicuous vending machine on the roof of the department store and give it to a city guard, and if you failed to do so, you wouldn't be able to fight the sixth Gym Leader.

One of Let's Go's most fundamental changes is how you catch Pokemon. Instead of the random encounters and wild Pokemon battles of previous mainline games, Let's Go adopts Pokemon Go's catching mechanics. Pokemon roam the wilds in real time, and you have to walk into one to initiate catching it. Then, rather than battling it to whittle down its health, you just have to throw a Poke Ball at it, and the timing and accuracy of your throw increases your chances of a successful catch.

The new catching mechanics are a welcome change to the formula that breaks up the pace of traditional trainer and Gym battles. Although catching wild Pokemon doesn’t require as much strategy as it did before, the act of catching is far more engaging. You don't need to worry about accidentally defeating and therefore failing to catch a rare or one-time Pokemon, and if there's a Pokemon you don't want to catch, you simply avoid it. The absence of random encounters also makes traversing caves a lot less tedious. Yes, that means you can even avoid Zubats.

Let's Go encourages you to catch Pokemon more so than any other mainline Pokemon game, and it's better for it. Sure, catching every single species has always been the overarching goal, but I've never felt more inclined to complete my Pokedex. Catching Pokemon is the most efficient way to level up; with each successful catch your entire team is awarded a generous dose of experience. This alleviates the need to spend significant amounts of time grinding and makes it easier to experiment with different party compositions.

Let's Go also introduces Catch Combos, which occur when you catch the same species of Pokemon multiple times in a row. As you build your combo, your chances of running into rare and powerful Pokemon increase. You can even find Pokemon you typically wouldn't find in the wild. Catching repeat Pokemon is both useful and satisfying--it's great knowing that luck is not the only factor involved when trying to catch a rare Pokemon, and it's very hard to stop when you're deep into a combo, knowing something good could spawn.

However, the new catching mechanics don't come without issues. The Joy-Con motion controls are inaccurate at best and unpredictable at worst. Over the course of my journey, I never found a reliable way to throw a Poke Ball to the right or left. In most cases, I would just wait for the wild Pokemon to return to the center of the screen before throwing a Poke Ball, and even then, the ball wouldn't always go where I wanted it to.

The Poke Ball Plus controller, an optional Poke Ball-shaped accessory, is a bit more precise, but because there are only two physical buttons on the controller, navigating menus and interacting with the world can be a pain. As novel as it is to see Kanto on a big screen, handheld mode is the best way to catch wild Pokemon. You can either use the Switch's gyroscope sensor or the left control stick to line up a throw. It's far more precise than the other methods, but you do have to consider the Pokemon’s size and distance.

Despite changes that make the Pokemon experience more accessible than ever, Let's Go is surprisingly deep. It does an excellent job at easing new players into some of the more complex mechanics without being bogged down by tutorials. Each Pokemon still has six base stats and one of 25 natures, and the game seamlessly presents all that information to you. For example, whenever you switch Pokemon during a battle, you are shown its stats. You can get through the entire game without paying attention to a Pokemon's stats, but it's helpful to see that information presented clearly and often. Early on, you even get the ability to "judge" a Pokemon, which lets you see its base stats (also called IVs). While this may not be super useful for beginners, it's presented in a way that's easy to understand and it gives veterans the opportunity to check for Pokemon with good stats early on.

Unfortunately, those invested in the competitive side won't have as much to sink their teeth into. The absence of abilities, held items, and breeding limits the potential for highly competitive play. You can farm for Pokemon with higher stats through the aforementioned catch combos, but even if you do manage to catch a Pokemon with the stats you want, you won't have much to do with it.

If you do decide to build a competitive team, the online features are limited. You can trade and battle, and that's about it. There are no ranked battles, the Global Trade System is nonexistent, and there is no Wonder Trading. The barebones trading features may be disappointing at first, but given the smaller roster of Pokemon, I never felt that I needed the GTS or Wonder Trade to complete the Pokedex. However, the inability to matchmake and battle with other trainers online is a bit of a letdown.

Despite changes that make the Pokemon experience more accessible than ever, Let's Go is surprisingly deep.

Without the competitive mechanics fans are accustomed to and the limited Pokedex, it can be difficult to come back to Let's Go after the credits roll. While there certainly are reasons to revisit Kanto once you have finished the game, like completing the Pokedex and grinding for Pokemon with perfect stats, the pull isn't quite as strong. There aren't many surprises and what's there isn't all that enticing. The last thing I need to try is the Pokemon Go connectivity, which isn't available as of this writing.

Despite these concessions, Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee are delightful reimaginings of the series' origins and a deep RPG in their own right. It makes a lot of smart improvements on the original Red, Blue and Yellow while holding on to what made them so special in the first place. Fans of the series might be let down by the lack of features they've come to expect, but Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee take the Pokemon formula in some exciting new directions.

11-11: Memories Retold Review - Modernist Warfare

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 16:00

Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the armistice treaty signed on November 11, 1918 that ended World War I, 11-11: Memories Retold follows the stories of two men swept up in terrible events (mostly) beyond their control over the course of two years on the Western Front. A collaboration between Aardman, the animation studio best known for the Wallace & Gromit TV series and films, and DigixArt, a fledgling French game development team, it's a visually striking adventure game that foregrounds its occasionally moving, occasionally ludicrous narrative atop a layer of light puzzling and collectible gathering.

The intertwining story sees you play as both Harry (voiced by Elijah Wood), a young photographer from Canada who finds himself in France shooting film--not foe--for propaganda purposes at the invitation of a British major, and Kurt (Sebastian Koch), an older German electrical engineer who enlists when he receives word that his son's unit has gone missing. Their tales are connected, of course, and at key moments in each chapter your control will switch from Harry to Kurt and back again, often multiple times. Later, there are even scenes in which you are free to switch between them, and a third character, whenever you wish.

Each man's journey plays out across a France (and bits of Germany and Canada) that is rendered like an oil-on-canvas painting, the thick individual brush strokes and contrasting colours an obvious nod to the Impressionist style that was still en vogue in the early 20th century. It feels like each scene is being painted in real-time as you walk around, as the brush strokes flicker in a manner suggesting an artist constantly reapplying paint on canvas. From the crackling ember reds of a battlefield to the dappled whites and yellows of an idyllic farmstead, the unique art direction succeeds in setting the emotional tone of each scene. The overall effect is quite startling and very often beautiful.

What you're actually doing inside each scene is rather more conventional. Harry and Kurt walk--and occasionally crouch or run--around a series of mostly small locations, talking to people and picking up dozens of collectibles. Helpfully, you always have a specific objective to accomplish; in Harry's case it's typically whatever task Major Barrett has ordered him to perform while Kurt's pursuit of his son's whereabouts is often derailed by the whims of his own superiors. Regardless, most objectives are easily completed by simply walking to the desired destination, interacting with a certain object or talking to the right person. Sometimes there's even a box to push out of the way or a couple of levers and dials to fiddle with, but absolutely none of it is in any way taxing.

This is for the best, perhaps. At least, it means the story takes center stage and you're not in any danger of getting stuck on a puzzle and finding yourself unable to see that story to its conclusion. More than that, though, it also works because the story 11-11 tells is genuinely good. Sure, it's a romanticised version of World War I that doesn't really confront the senseless brutality of trench warfare or the sheer scale of human loss and suffering that resulted--there's but one scene where you don a gas mask, for example, and when Harry is finally called upon to go "over the top" he's more focused on getting a few good pictures than whether he'll survive the mad dash into no man's land. But the story works because Harry and Kurt are convincing characters whose flaws and motivations remain all too real no matter what the war throws at them. The plot may contrive to see the lives of the two men intersect in unlikely fashion, but they themselves are utterly believable and empathetic until the very end.

Further, the story works because you are given choices to make at critical junctures. Each choice feels weighty and full of consequence. I didn't replay scenes to see how things could have played out differently--and perhaps the rippling effects are minimal--but I didn't want to. What matters is that the import of the decisions I made was felt in the moment I made them, and ultimately I was more than satisfied with how my version of the story ended.

Where the story undermines itself, however, is in its pacing. Or, to be more accurate, in how certain pieces of the story are locked behind collectibles, the search for which sees you get bogged down in scouring every area for hidden documents and items rather than keeping the plot ticking over. Not to mention that it's quite silly when Kurt's ordered to quickly fix a radio during an attack while you're thinking, “Hang on, let me just check if there's anything I've missed down the other end of this trench….” You can ignore the collectibles, but you'll also be missing out on story content.

When it comes together, whether in moments of high drama and urgent choices or in the quiet interludes that follow, 11-11 draws you deep into the lives of these men. When it misses the mark, whether through an implausible coincidence, a throwaway puzzle or tedious collectible, it can push you away and cause the surrounding narrative beats to fall flat. It's uneven, yes, but there's undoubtedly more good than bad, and there are poignant scenes, tense moments and breathtaking images that will resonate long after the end credits have rolled.