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Heaven's Vault Review - Come Sail Away

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 09:00

On the face of it, Heaven's Vault sounds like chaos: It's a planet-surfing science-fiction adventure game in which you play as an archaeologist who gets caught up in a doomsday prophecy. But it's a much calmer experience than you might expect--you play as Aliyah, an archaeologist employed by a university on Iox, the wealthiest, most opulent planet within her nebula, to track down Renba, a professor who has disappeared. Throughout the journey, you'll peel away at the complex and ambitious lore of the world and meet the interesting characters who inhabit it, but not without some slow sailing.

You spend much of the game hunting for clues to determine not only Renba's fate, but also the nature of his research and the discoveries he was making in his travels. For most of the game, the exact details of Renba's mission are pleasantly unclear, and major theories the player concocts early on can be proven incorrect by later discoveries. To get to the bottom of things, you'll need to investigate various moons throughout the nebula, some settled, some abandoned. You'll also build and maintain friendships or trade alliances with folks who can provide you with assistance, collect artifacts and clues, and mess around with the game's neat translation mechanic.

Throughout the game, Aliyah will encounter many passages written in "Ancient" script, which require translation to decipher. This will begin as guesswork, but as you progress you'll develop a better understanding of what different glyphs within longer words might represent. There's a two-tiered system in place for translating words: If you encounter an inscription of a full phrase, you can guess any of the words you're not certain of until you have a full, hopefully coherent sentence. If you find what Aliyah will describe as a part of a longer phrase, a list of potential words you've already translated or guessed will appear on the screen, and you must see if the part of text matches up with any of the words you already understand or have guessed at. These partial texts can confirm your definitions--if you've decided that a word means 'water' in a previous translation, for example, and it pops up again as part of a longer phrase, Aliyah might declare that she is either now confident in the translation of that word or believes it's wrong. After a while, you'll build up a much bigger vocabulary of translated words, making it easier to fill in the gaps.

Across the game's somewhat excessive running time, I lost track of what the actual advantage of all this translation was to my progression, as correct translations tend to prompt conversation options rather than key clues for where to go next. But it's still an interesting and exciting mechanic, as so much of the pleasure of Heaven's Vault is about uncovering the lore of the world you're in and the characters who occupy it. You're dropped in largely unaware, and while the game builds an exhaustive timeline of events, stretching right back to ancient times, it's mostly on you to figure out the nuances of the occasionally abstract game world.

Heaven's Vault opens near its own ending--the very first scene tells you where your adventure will end, which is a curious structural choice for a game that is so contingent on player choice. It's meant to indicate, perhaps, that your story is always going to end up the same way, although how you reach that ending will differ dramatically between players.

This seems to be a fair claim, too. During my playthrough, I compared notes with another player to make sure that our choices mattered, and we discovered that our paths diverged completely at several points. Heaven's Vault unfurls in substantially different ways depending on how you play it and which choices you make. You can miss entire characters and plotlines, or experience hugely different relationships with the game's small but well-developed cast of recurring figures. The writing is mostly strong throughout, with dialogue flowing naturally and feeling in line with decisions you've made, and the moment by moment plot of Heaven's Vault genuinely feels like the culmination of your choices. There are some strange issues with character development--at one point a character demanded I come to visit them so that they could tell me about a major discovery and let me in on "certain confidences," only for them to reveal nothing when I visited with them, and a major character stopped trading goods with me for reasons I don't fully understand, substantially slowing down my progress through the game.

When you're bouncing easily between locations, making discoveries and having interesting chats with Aliyah's friends and co-workers--not to mention your robot companion, Six--Heaven's Vault is a pleasure. It's perhaps too easy to lose track of the spine of the plot, but in the first half especially, there's a constant influx of discoveries and revelations that give the game a propulsive hook. But the scope and ambition of Heaven's Vault get the better of it in the back half. It took me 22 hours to finish the game, and it felt like a lot of those last 12 hours was spent on busywork--particularly when it comes to the game's sailing mechanic.

In one of the lore's weirdest elements, traveling across the nebula necessitates that you "sail" the rivers between moons, steering your ship across literal bodies of water that act as pathways between locations. They only flow in one direction, so the only meaningful control you have comes when paths diverge in two directions and you must choose which way to turn. There's little to do out on the waters--you can steer left and right, fold your sails in to go slightly faster, stop to observe any interesting landmarks you pass, and check your map. Sailing isn't particularly exciting, yet it makes up a huge portion of Heaven's Vault.

For the first half of the game, sailing feels like a mildly irritating distraction with moments of beauty, taking up a few minutes at a time. But in the back half, the sailing mechanics come perilously close to ruining the whole experience. The sites you need to visit in order to progress are marked on the map as large areas to explore, and while you can make the search areas smaller by finding more artifacts throughout the game, at some point you're almost definitely going to have to find it by scouring those areas yourself. The layout of the river can become infuriating at this point. When you're traveling to a moon you've been to before and miss a turn, you're given the option to rewind to a point just before the turn; however, when you're searching for an unknown site, no such option exists, and a wrong turn can mean a long, slow course correction as you follow the one-way rivers back to where you just were, potentially eating up to half an hour.

The game has additional pacing issues throughout--Aliyah moves very slowly, and there was a section of the game where I found myself bouncing repeatedly between the game's two main locations, Elboreth and Iox, in the hopes of triggering new dialogue options between characters that would make the search for the next site easier. (Thankfully, you can skip the rigmarole of sailing to these two particular locations by asking Six to do it for you.)

Heaven's Vault can be a fiddly experience--although patches hit during the pre-launch period that cleaned up most major issues, I continued to encounter a lot of camera problems throughout, and at one point, a site that took half an hour of sailing to find failed to load when I reached it. When I eventually sailed back there, it ended up being the least interesting site in the game. While some of these places you're searching for are teeming with plot development, others can feel like a chore.

There's plenty to be charmed by in Heaven's Vault. The art style is pleasant, and the orchestral soundtrack is often beautiful. The writing and lore can occasionally make the game feel like an adaptation of a book that doesn't exist, and it's hard not to get invested in learning more about the game's world. It's just a shame that there's so much tedium to get through as well, and that the experience doesn't always reach the greatness it occasionally shows itself to be capable of. Heaven's Vault excels in creating a well-constructed, branching narrative, but expect long sections of it to feel like a slog.

My Time At Portia Review - Crop Circles

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 18:00

My Time at Portia starts off predictably when you disembark into its expanse of rolling hills and curious ruins. Like the Marvelous Interactive titles it clearly draws inspiration from (namely Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons), it sets you up with the holy trinity of prologues: a father, a child, and a ripe plot of land. No time passes at all until you're welcomed by a well-meaning public servant who tells you that your absent parent left a legacy of building and being a Home Depot whiz before disappearing like the evening tide. Now, fresh off the boat, you're tasked with taking over for your old man and making yourself invaluable to the people whose lives he enriched, which suggests My Time at Portia will be a more fulfilling adventure than it actually ends up being.

Portia has a distinctly post-apocalyptic feel, which lends a sense of intrigue to what would otherwise have been a familiar traversal of yet another sleepy town to be spiced up by the voiceless city-slicker of a player-character. The game paints a tidy, watercolor-inspired picture that wouldn't be out of place on a postcard; a "wish you were here" would fit nicely against the giant, scraped-out husks of metal that loom over lush fields and quaint cottages like relics from a bygone age. In fact, they are: Humanity in My Time at Portia is said to have gotten too ambitious in the past by exploiting technology and science to reach lofty heights that it was struck down for. Now, it's back to the Agrarian Age for the foreseeable future, and you're the closest they've got to Noah and the Ark.

These monolithic reminders dot the various landscapes of My Time at Portia, and they're an effective and unintrusive way to ensure you're clued into the broader message around hubris leading to the apocalypse. It makes for an interesting plot device, which would be well-utilized if it went beyond making the world more visually interesting, or even beyond the inclusion of one faction of NPCs dedicated to keeping the town of Portia back in the comparative Dark Ages. But that's about as far as it goes: aesthetic as opposed to substance. No storylines really pursue it, nor do the townsfolk seem to care. You're not provided with the opportunity to engage meaningfully with the setpiece of the world's past, which is a shame given how interesting it seems.

Instead, the majority of the experience remains relatively familiar and unbroken by a loop of crafting, fighting, and gathering missions. The crafting system is the game's real treat, though. As the child of a master-builder, you're given access very early on to plans created by your father. These plans function like crafting blueprints; they stay on your person as you romp around the world in search of materials, and you can easily refer to them and check exactly how much tin ore you need to convert into whatever arbitrary amount of bronze bars you need to prop a bridge up.

You're also given the ability to use a crafting station back at your house which tells you exactly what you're missing to build a particular item. There's no need for guesswork, and you also get to visually appreciate the nitty-gritty of what you're building as completing various parts of items sees them come to life before your eyes on the workbench. This wonderfully intuitive approach ties neatly into what you're told is the protagonist's innate skill as a crafter, which means that you spend less time wondering how many rocks you have to crack open and more time thinking about the next great creation taking shape in your backyard.

Crafting is also the only aspect of the game that feels integral to actually getting anywhere with the story--everything is expensive, and the most effective way to make money is to grind out crafting items to sell. But while the reliance on grinding isn't a surprise if you're a genre fan, the combination of quick day-night cycles in the game, timed quests, and the time commitment needed to actually get anything crafted is a recipe for dissatisfaction. Time feels like it crawls by unless you're occupying yourself with busywork, which unfortunately ends up detracting from the charm of the lively hustle and bustle of the town of Portia.

However, while the crafting is robust and an essential part of your experience with My Time at Portia, the other integrated systems--relationship management, dungeoneering, animal husbandry, and farming--aren't as engaging, fleshed out, or vital by comparison. Being able to gift your way to a perfect marriage does a disservice to some of the unique personalities that you can court, and you feel discouraged from spending time on farming because of how time-consuming and expensive it is to acquire enough land to turn those parsnips into a profit. The main story forces you to invest heavily in crafting and once you’ve tried your hand at the carpentry trade, it can be hard to look elsewhere when the demands of time and money limit your ability to engage in the other systems.

Among the cacophony of mechanics, there's a wistfulness for depth. An upgrade system has you picking various skills, ranging from increased experience gain to a higher chance of getting more items, each time you level up. But it's hard to actually feel the effect of these perks, and there isn't one clear build which gives you a significantly better performance over the rest. Min-maxing attributes is rarely the point of lifestyle sims, so it makes sense that rewards seem more like a little bit of gas in the tank rather than a whole new engine. But failing to actually use your skill points on anything is unlikely to disadvantage you at all, which cheapens the purpose behind giving you a mountain of options in the first place. Being a little bit more efficient at carrying out objectives in a game that's all about repetitive grinding isn't a bad thing, but you find yourself wishing that the improvements afforded to you were more significant for the time invested.

Your time at Portia is likely going to be an idyllic one, interspersed with chores and chatter and putting household items together for your neighbors. You'll spend your time idly dangling your legs off the edge of the pier, participating in fishing tourneys, ushering in holidays with your partner, and fending off local wildlife. However, the ruins of a time long forgotten will always darken the horizon, and there'll be a part of you that wonders what more there could have been before you find yourself shunted to the next life goal in a long series of life goals. That feeling is unfortunately hard to shake, and it's a shame that there's not as much to the world of Portia as first appears.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice Review - The Power Of Empathy

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 10:50

In Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, the struggle of coming to terms with past trauma and guilt comes out in a number of surprising ways. Developer Ninja Theory channels its talents for narrative and presentation to tell a personal story that has more to say than it initially lets on, and will likely leave you wondering what's real, and what is a part of an elaborate hallucination.

In a far-off land covered in mist and fog, a traumatized celtic warrior named Senua embarks on a spiritual vision quest to suppress her inner demons, and come to grips with the death of her family. Plagued with severe psychosis, Senua's past trauma manifests itself through duelling inner voices and visual hallucinations that compromise her emotional and mental state. On this journey, she'll face abstract and reality-defying puzzles, and battle a seemingly endless horde of adversaries that aim to put a stop to her quest.

Pulling from Nordic and Celtic lore, the fiction of Hellblade evokes a dire and somewhat bleak atmosphere, making it seem like the world had already ended, leaving Senua with only the company of her memories. Hellblade is an introspective experience, albeit with several combat and interactive story beats scattered throughout. While the story and world are presented through cutscenes and stone glyphs depicting the history of the land, Hellblade also makes clever use of live-action cutscenes. These cinematic moments are blended into in-game graphics, giving each occurrence a somewhat surreal feeling, as if you're watching a live playback of an altered memory.

On her journey through the cursed lands, Senua will come into conflict with the Northmen, an army of berserkers that appear out of thin air. These moments are when the combat comes into play, and it offers some of the most intense and thrilling moments of the game. Despite her illness weighing on her, Senua is still quite adept at fighting and is able to take on a number of foes at once. With fast, heavy sword swings, as well as up-close hand-to-hand strikes, you can use some light combos to hack away at the Northmen, while using dodges and parrying their strikes to get the upper hand.

Though combat is one of the core pillars in Hellblade, the game doesn't concern itself with offering numerous weapons or complex skill-trees to work through. Aside from some new combat abilities unlocked at key story milestones, Senua's arsenal of skills and weapons is kept light till the end. The true challenge and satisfaction comes from mastering the base combat mechanics, which is responsive, and fluid--allowing you to bounce between multiple foes easily, with her inner voices warning you of incoming strikes based on the position they're coming from.

When it comes to portraying mental illness, Hellblade takes a sympathetic approach and isn't at all interested in showing the differences between reality and imagination. It's all about Senua's perspective; with her visions and what's truly real being presented as one in the same. One of the more oppressive aspects of her psychosis are the inner-voices, who quarrel with one another while commenting on the wandering warrior's present state. Using binaural audio--which makes wearing headphones a must for the full effect--you'll get to experience a taste of what it's like to have several voices in your head.

In many ways, it feels like a subversive take on the common video game trope of the bodiless companion offering help via radio, making them a somewhat distressing presence you desperately wanted to keep at arm's length. The effectiveness of the inner voices in making you uncomfortable is a testament to the stellar presentation of the game, which uses some rather inventive tricks to play with perspective and audio-sensory manipulation. It does well to make you feel on edge and in a state of confusion, while simultaneously getting you to focus on the more tangible and true elements of her surroundings--even if they are still hallucinations.

There are times where the voices become a boon to your survival--such as the rather tricky boss battles that force you change up your usual strategies--but the most useful instances come deeper in the game, when you're able to clear through more than 20 foes consecutively, a far cry from the struggles of fighting only two to three foes. Many of these battles serve as the capper for narrative arcs in the story, making it feel like a cathartic emotional purge where you vanquish a construct of Senua's past.

"It's all about Senua's perspective; with her visions and what's truly real being presented as one in the same."

While some characters from Senua's past treated her mental state as a danger, she's able to use it to her advantage to see the order in the chaos of her surroundings--finding patterns and solutions in ways that others wouldn't have the presence of mind to see. Despite how terrifying and draining her psychosis can be, Senua is able navigate the various trials thanks to her unusually heightened perception, which comes out in a number of unique puzzle solving moments.

For the most part, puzzles revolve around unlocking doors by finding glyphs hidden in plain sight or in alternate perspectives that require manipulating Senua's focus, illustrating her abstract attention to detail. While these puzzles can be clever, the same style occurs far too often, making some of the more drawn out sequences a chore. On the inverse, the moments where Senua is stripped of her senses and gear, forcing her to take a more subdued approach to avoid her enemies, felt far more engaging and interesting.

In one of the game's best moments, the shadows themselves serve to be a real danger as Senua rushes from one light source to another in a dark cavern, all the while memories of her torment and anguish come flooding in--obscuring your vision while she's making a dash to safety. These moments are a real highlight, channeling the same pulse-pounding sense of urgency found from set-piece moments in Resident Evil 4, making a seemingly simple objective into an unnerving experience--which in a way truly sums up what Hellblade is about. While these moments serve to be some of Hellblade's most profound and affecting moments, it uses them sparingly to help break-up general puzzle solving and obstacles, which feel somewhat bland by comparison.

While Senua experiences many dangers, such as the horrific hallucinations of the dead, immolation by a mad fire god, and ravenous beasts that hide in the shadows--there is one threat that constantly looms over her that can result in dire consequences. Early on, Senua is infected with a corruption known as The Dark Rot, which continues to spread after she 'dies' or fails a set-piece event. She passes failure and death off as another hallucination, but with every failure the infection spreads, and after multiple deaths it reaches her head. The result of this is Senua succumbing to her illness, forcing you to restart from the beginning of her journey.

Despite the inclusion of a permadeath mechanic, Hellblade is still a largely fair game. Taking around eight hours to clear on the hardest difficulty, and experiencing only a handful of deaths--mostly on account of some overly vague and awkward objectives coming off as obtuse, breaking the flow of traversal--the game is largely balanced with its pacing and difficulty. It even goes as far as to offer an auto-scaling difficulty system that adjusts based on how you're playing. Interestingly, there's no tutorial whatsoever in Hellblade, prompting you to learn the system by doing and listening to prompts from your inner voices.

Over the course of its journey, Hellblade keeps its gameplay lean in order to not overstay its welcome. Despite the complexity of the narrative and its presentation, combat only happens when it needs to, and puzzle solving and set-piece moments often drive the story forward to reveal more about Senua's motivations. Which in turn reveals the struggles that torment her, preventing her from moving on.

Hellblade's most notable achievement is the handling of an incredibly sensitive subject matter within an engaging and well-crafted action/adventure game. At its heart, the story is about Senua's struggle to come to terms with her illness. In the process, she learns to find the strength within herself to endure, and to make peace with her past. And in a profound and physical way, we go through those same struggles with her, and come away with a better understanding of a piece of something that many people in the world struggle with.

Editor's note (April 15, 2019): Hellblade has now made its way to Nintendo Switch. While this port manages to reach the same emotional and spiritually resonant highs as other releases, it unfortunately features some inconsistent frame rate and subdued texture detail throughout, lessening the impact of some key moments. With that said, Hellblade is still largely intact on the more modest platform. In the Switch's tablet form, it gives the impression you're diving into an engrossing novel, making for a more intimate experience that can't found in other versions of the game.

Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain Review - Infantry Does The Dying

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 08:06

Once again, there is an Earth Defense Force game out there. Once again, it is not good. And once again, I couldn’t stop playing it. Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain isn't good in the same way eating an entire bag of Cheetos in one sitting isn’t good. There is very little your gaming life needs in this game. But some days, it might be the only thing you want.

Despite a new air of seriousness at the outset, it doesn’t take long to realize that Iron Rain is still Earth Defense Force, and not necessarily some reinvention for the series. Yes, the giant bugs are still invading Earth. Yes, you're a hapless grunt who must kill the ugly bastards dead for hours upon hours with an ever-increasing arsenal of weaponry. Yes, the story is still told by the most questionable definition of voice acting this side of the very first Resident Evil.

Yet, for more than 20 hours, I kept coming back to it. Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain is in the business of immediate gratification; it gives you a weapon, lets you kill a whole slew of evil critters, generously showers you with rewards in the aftermath, and lets you progress. No questions asked, no sales pitch, few if any barriers between you and the main thing the game does extremely well, which is letting you kill a hell of a lot of bugs.

The game tells you, “Your name is Closer, an EDF soldier. You've been in a coma for seven years, Now you're awake, and we need you to kill every bug you see.” It shoves a gun in your hand, an assault rifle to start with, then drops you in the middle of a grudging facsimile of San Francisco and tells you to go to work. And you do. Giant ants come out of the woodwork within a few seconds. And for what it's worth, these suckers are smarter in Iron Rain than in previous EDF titles; they know how to flank, how to surround, and when to run to a place of safety. But you've got an assault rifle, infinite ammo (for most weapons, anyway), and a grudge. You blast away, sending giant insect thoraxes and the disgusting green guts inside flying everywhere until the city is more dead bugs than street.

That's mostly a good thing, since Iron Rain's cities and deserts and forests are depressingly threadbare and devoid of any signs of non-alien life, but they are much less hard on the eyes thanks to some decent texturing and new lighting effects. The improvements are noticeable, but Iron Rain, like every EDF game before it, still falls short of current standards in the looks department.

That’s par for the course in Iron Rain. Most of the new additions--character customization, a Horde mode called Mercenaries--are nice, but they don't fundamentally change what the series has been since 2006. Mercenaries in particular feels like a watered down version of Destiny 2's Gambit mode. It's a fun way to pass time, but without concrete goals beyond collecting as many gems from fallen bugs as possible, it's not something to pump serious effort into. One of the only two major game-changers is the fact that weapons are no longer exclusive for the series' traditional classes--for example, Rangers can now wield swords and missile launchers if you so desire. If anything, the character customization is a nice cherry on top, allowing you the freedom to create the insect-slaughtering war machine of your choice.

The big new addition, however, is a brand new class of soldier tied to the Prowl Rider armor. With it, you not only get the ability to attach yourself to a surface and reel yourself in with a device similar to the omni gear from Attack on Titan, but the ability to summon your own giant bug to wreak havoc against its own kind. Once you get the gear about 15 missions in, it's a literal game changer that splits the difference between the versatile-but-frail Jet Lifter (formerly Wing Diver) and the more hardy Trooper class. Verticality and speed are encouraged and not punished this time around. That's to say nothing of the idea of strolling into battle riding on top of your giant scorpion friend.

That all sounds wonderful on paper--and it often is in practice--but there are moments where it can be clunky. The reel works, but it's finicky about what surfaces you can swing to, there's very little flexibility in how you can move while in the air, and you can't fire or even use items while it's in progress. Even with the new customization, Iron Rain plays pretty stiffly in many crucial ways, and getting soldiers to run while firing a weapon or swinging a sword is awkward. There's a new Overdrive ability that helps in that it speeds your soldier up, makes reloading much faster, and regenerates health, but you only get one per stage, and you can only regenerate it during a fight using a rather expensive consumable item. It may work, but making the mechanics play the way they always should is rather disappointing when it’s implemented as your character’s ultimate ability. That's all on top of the same problems the series has always had. Slowdown is excruciating when too many enemies or explosions are on-screen. There’s a ton of repetition after all the various enemy types have been introduced. Crucial plot points are presented during gameplay while under heavy fire. The lack of a checkpoint system means dying at the tail end of a 15-minute mission sends you all the way back to the start. Earth Defense Force is still a fundamentally janky game.

The game may slow down. You might take more than a couple of cheap hits. But that little jolt of endorphins when those six-legged freaks go legs up after pumping a few rounds into them is an awfully powerful motivator. A noise says you're in the clear, you collect the energy gems scattered across the field, and congratulations, you've earned guns, healing items, clothing, and ample opportunity to try them out before taking them out on a mission. Come across a difficult enemy? You probably picked up a weapon in a previous stage better suited to the situation. Flying ships? There are homing lasers for that. Giant mechs? There are missile launchers for that. Giant hopping spiders? Run where they land and slice em in half. There are no penalties for experimenting, and Iron Rain is generous with the currencies needed to purchase just about anything in-game. Enemies just drop gems on the field, and you get an extra 30 seconds at the end of every stage to go collect as many as you can. Everything you need to buy new gear is right there for the taking instead of the buying, the grinding, or the waiting. Every weapon feels distinct and worth its while in actual combat.

Where Iron Rain fails as an overarching plot, it succeeds in creating a stronger and more engaging vibe than its predecessors.

Iron Rain's plot is sorely lacking, a flaw highlighted by how much less tongue-in-cheek the game is compared to its predecessors. That said, your squadmates are affable, prone to gallows humor, and fill the ride home--and the game's somewhat lengthy load times--with grim banter. A pop music radio show that plays during mid-mission menus is hosted by a peppy host named Olivia, whose endless cheer belies her obvious shell shock. There's a human rebel faction you'll occasionally have to fight with and/or against, and they add interesting twists on virtually every stage where they pop up. For the first time in the series, you feel less like a red-shirt in a 1950s alien invasion movie and more like a tired soldier fighting a tough war, trying to find the little moments of levity wherever you can. Where Iron Rain fails as an overarching plot, it succeeds in creating a stronger and more engaging vibe than its predecessors.

Even without narrative motivation, though--and in the latter portions of the game, there is much less of it--having an enormous loadout of weaponry and kinetic movement options means constant innovation is needed and possible. It's engaging not because of the time sunk into it, but because it's just so incredibly fun to do for its own sake. Iron Rain iterates instead of innovates; its version of advancement really just means removing a couple of shackles keeping you from making the bug-killing experience your own. There are expected current-gen niceties that would make EDF better, and yet it's not hard to imagine the series losing something in the process.

Nintendo Labo: Toy-Con 04 VR Kit Review - Cardboard Magic

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 11:32

With all the high-end hardware requirements typical of VR gaming, you'd think of the Nintendo Switch as the least likely candidate to adopt it. But one of the many things Nintendo is unequivocally good at is making the most of its tech and working within its limitations. The new Labo VR Kit is yet another example. While it doesn't always overcome its inherent shortcomings, Nintendo's latest cardboard-based do-it-yourself package cleverly transforms the Switch into a light, inventive virtual reality gaming experience with the tools to go beyond the initial library.

First things first: You have to build. Thankfully, assembly is part of the fun. Like the previous Labo packages, the software contains detailed and digestible step-by-step instructions, which are animated to show you how to put everything together without a hitch--the encouraging communication also helps take the edge off the laborious, time-consuming aspect of it all. Construction is almost fool-proof since each cardboard sheet has precisely cut lines and slots for everything to be folded and snapped into place. There's no denying the satisfaction of seeing little bits of cardboard gradually come together as an intricate device solidly held together by rubber bands, exact creases, and plastic grommets.

So, how does the Switch become a VR headset? You first build the mount that contains the slot you slip the Switch into, which also holds the packaged goggles. The mount keeps everything in place nicely and the adhesive pads keep the Switch safe. Once you set the Labo software to VR mode, the screen transforms to a stereoscopic view for the lenses. Since there is no headstrap, you'll need to hold the Switch up to your face throughout your time in VR mode. It's worth noting that the Switch's 720p screen resolution is well below that of any other VR platform, resulting in a distinct lack of visual clarity--luckily, this limitation doesn't detract from the types of experiences Labo VR delivers.

With the headset ready to go, you can physically look up, down, left, and right by moving your head. But because the Switch isn't able to do positional tracking, forward or backward movements aren't recognized and could be nausea-inducing. Tracking relies entirely on the Switch's built-in gyroscope and accelerometer, which results in a relatively smooth viewing experience. Looking in and around in VR works pretty well, and in combination with the Joy-Cons' own gyroscope and accelerometer (and the right Joy-Con's IR sensor), the cardboard devices become functional pieces of hardware.

By and large, the creative process is what drives the Labo VR Kit to become more than its packaged contents--but to see that, you should experience its roster of games, minigames, and proof-of-concept sandboxes. Once you've assembled a new cardboard toy (called Toy-Cons), Labo then walks you through a specific game made for it. The Toy-Con Camera transports you to the middle of an ocean where you can snap photos of marine life, or look upward to float to the surface and see a bigger world. Twisting the Toy-Con Camera lens works just like zooming in with an actual camera lens because of the Joy-Con placed inside recognizes those small movements. Despite the Toy-Con Elephant being the toughest one to work with, the Marble Run game it's tied to is a series of smart physics-based puzzles for you manipulate platforms, gravity, and trampolines to get a marble through a goal.

The novel applications don't end there, either. The Toy-Con Bird delivers flight movements for its open-area collectathon and racing game because the Joy-Con, which is placed on the "bird"'s beak rocks back and forth when you flap the cardboard wings. A personal favorite is the Toy-Con Blaster; it's a pump gun for with tactile feedback that matches the launching of explosive balls for its on-rails shooter game. There's impressive cleverness in how Nintendo makes use of the motion-tracking capabilities and cardboard components, and how they translate to sensible control schemes. These aren't intended to be long-form experiences; rather, they're bite-sized showcases of VR functionality for each of the cardboard devices you assemble.

The Labo VR Kit is much more than just VR gaming for the Switch; it's educational, accessible, and imaginative, with a robust suite of programming tools. And that's what makes it wholly unique from anything else on the VR market.

On paper, it may seem like a hassle to constantly hold the Switch headset to your face without a strap to hold it in place, but it's not as bad as it sounds--each Labo VR device is designed with this in mind. Take the Toy-Con Blaster, for example; your view in its rail shooter game is essentially a persistent aim-down-sights, and the ergonomics of the Blaster itself make it a comfortable experience. With the Elephant, you get a handle beneath the cardboard face to hold it up as you extend the trunk to move your in-game hands. And of course, the physical act of holding up the Toy-Con Camera to your face coincides with the real-world action.

The content in VR Plaza distills it down even further by isolating certain aspects of each toy's potential in 60+ minigames/sandboxes. They essentially act as the building blocks for the inventive Toy-Con Garage and this is where the Labo VR Kit lets your imagination run wild--it's literally the toolset used to program the minigames contained in the VR Plaza section. It's a part of previous kits as well, but this version adds tools to create VR experiences. Toy-Con Garage is extremely complex and much more than a level creator you may find in other games. It's possible to teach yourself and eventually get to a point where you can wrap your head around the logic and programming for something and see it come to fruition, but it'll take significant time and effort if you don't have prior experience with programming. What's neat is that you can edit every sandbox/minigame in VR Plaza using the Garage tools and basically use them as the foundation to create your own thing. By virtue of seeing the programming guts of each game, you can then start to unravel how they're built. Things like Make An FPS Game and Make An Action Game in VR Plaza are specifically designed to let you use them as templates. And editing doesn't have to be solely done in VR thanks to the ability to select a 2D editing mode.

Like the other kits, the Labo VR Kit does so many great things outside of its more standard game experiences, and it's really about what you do with the technology.

In addition to the games and programming tools, Discovery Mode works as a laudable educational tool. Discovery offers a series of cheeky dialogue scenarios between a few Labo-based characters that effectively walk you through the Switch's technology, asking you questions along the way to make sure you're keeping up. Think of it as a crash course in physical science and electronics that explains everything from how the right Joy-Con's IR sensor works to showing you why gyroscope drift happens. Not only does Discover further contextualize what the hardware is doing, but makes knowledge of complex tech accessible to a wider audience.

However, there are a few cases in which the Joy-Con tracking can be frustrating due to gyroscope drift. It's fairly easy to constantly recalibrate the Joy-Con position in a free-hand experience like shooting hoops, hitting a ball with a paddle, or moving blocks in a 3D space. But it becomes an issue in something like the Doodle application or the Marble Run stage creator, where you have to use the Elephant to craft a 3D sculpture or build a course, respectively. Your plane will always drift off-center. You can recenter yourself by accessing the pause menu, but it's frustrating to frequently wrestle with the motion-tracking in these cases. As a result, it's difficult to keep your work consistent and gets in the way of certain parts of the creative process with VR mode.

The Labo VR Kit is much more than just VR gaming for the Switch; it's educational, accessible, and imaginative, with a robust suite of programming tools. And that's what makes it wholly unique from anything else on the VR market. Despite all its limitations and seemingly makeshift appearance, each contraption is an example of a creative vision in action, most of which works exceptionally well in bite-sized portions. In a broad sense, Labo VR is a smart, clever use of existing tech and expertly designed cardboard devices. The biggest factor in the lasting appeal of Labo VR (and the Labo lineup in general) lies in the Toy-Con Garage, because there's no denying the barebones aspect of the packaged gaming content, which is more of a collection of proofs-of-concept for VR's potential. Like the other kits, the Labo VR Kit does so many great things outside of its more standard game experiences, and it's really about what you do with the technology.

Weedcraft Inc Review - I Got 5 On It

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 01:20

Marijuana. The Devil’s Lettuce. Sweet Mary-Jane. All words for the same thing rolled up and smoked as a jazz cigarette. In Weedcraft Inc, you're not a smoker, but an entrepreneur tasked with making sure your floral-smelling empire expands beyond its rinky-dink beginnings.

Weedcraft is a management sim, and a fairly complex one at that. While it seems a bit sparse in scope at first, you'll be experimenting with temperature, humidity, and mineralized soil before you know it. At the same time, you have to make sure your electricity output isn't suspicious to the keen-nosed authorities hellbent on sending your delinquent bottom to a cold jail cell. Unless you're willing to bribe them, of course.

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When you boot up Weedcraft, you're treated to a soundtrack composed of percussive hip-hop beats and instrumental vocals. Next thing you know, you're Johnny, failed MBA student who has turned to drug dealing. In order to make ends meet, you need to sell astronomical amounts of weed. At the start you're only selling a couple of grams at a time, but you'll be shifting top-quality greenery for tens of thousands of dollars a pop before you know it.

Weedcraft's management sim systems are designed quite well. As your business expands, you start to spend less time growing weed and more time managing employees, all of whom have three stats: growing, selling, and interpersonal skills. These workers can grow weed for you, sell it on the streets, or run a front business designed to make your operation inconspicuous. As you progress through the game and go national, they can run weed from cities where it's legal to cities where it isn't--for a small fee, of course. At the same time, they can slip up and get arrested, at which point you’ll need to decide what to tell the cops. Maybe you’ll play dumb and let them take the hit for you; maybe you’ll lie on their behalf, saving their skin and earning their gratitude (until they ask for a raise two days later). Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll go down with them, your empire of dirt collapsing inwards on top of you. Although this sounds interesting in theory, there’s not much to it in execution. You assign your employees jobs by dragging their portraits into a little box and then just leave them be. Every couple of minutes they'll ask for a raise, even if you're going under, and every other day they’ll mention that they were threatened by a rival gang member, which decreases their motivation to work for you. Because they only come to you to discuss money or threats, there’s no real sense of building a relationship with them. The management sim mechanics in Weedcraft are clean and intuitive, but not in any special or new way.

You've got your own list of perks, too, which are separated into two strands: decent and shady. These can provide you with bonuses when you're bargaining with employees over wages or assist you in convincing a cop that there's no smell coming out your chimney. You unlock these very gradually throughout the game, but their effects are usually significant enough to make even slow progression worthwhile, as the benefits they provide can have an astronomical impact on day-to-day dealing. You can headhunt the best growers in town, or get better at convincing rivals that you're genuinely trying to help them before you bring them down.

A lot of Weedcraft's core play comes down to property management. You need to pay leases, rent, utilities, wages, and materials on a monthly basis. As you progress through the game, employees notice the rate at which your empire is expanding and ask for raises. Properties in new cities are fancier than the ones in the small town you started out in, and people are used to more experimental strains of weed that cost a lot more money to cultivate. The prospective employees you'll come across are usually a little more skilled too, and they know it. While you may have gotten away with paying an ex-con $250 a month for holding the fort in your front business in Michigan, hiring someone to sell weed outside a church in Colorado can amount to as much as $750 a month, and that's before they start making demands.

After a while in Weedcraft, you'll stop selling outside diners and flea markets and start to take larger orders, reflecting the way empires are built on weed on the silver screen. These will come from people who are coordinating events, celebrities, and politicians who don't want to be seen at a dispensary or in a shady alley. Naturally, these gigs pay a lot more than the minor deals you were doing when you started out. They're also harder to work up to though, and clients are a lot pickier. If you want to avoid bankruptcy and prison, you'll have to be crafty in your attempts to balance the legal and the illegal, and the minor and the major. In theory, larger orders should work swimmingly. In execution though, they're a bit deceptive, offering more bang for your buck in the short term, but also drastically undercutting the prices of your day-to-day sales. I got several consecutive game overs from neglecting my clients at the burger joint to grow 800g of top-quality Grandaddy's Purple. Because you're micromanaging employees instead of growing your own weed at this point in the game, getting high-quality pot mostly boils down to good RNG. And if you consider buying a basement to set up your own personal operation, you'll miss out on employee prompts, rival threats, and police warnings. It's just not really worth it, and that's an issue. If these people want to buy your best strains in bulk, they should offer something more enticing than market value to make it worth your while.

Weedcraft also has another game mode in which you start off as a 50-year-old man who has just been released from prison. Formerly a junior brand manager, you'll end up meeting with your old friend Matty after deciding that legal weed is a business you're well-equipped to take on. In this mode you'll start off with a decent amount of capital, including a hefty amount of weed to sell straight away. However, this is much more advanced and will involve you sycophantically dismembering the competition. This mode is a lot more difficult, and the assets you're gifted at the start are deceptive. Here you'll probably need to take out a loan just to get by, which you'll need to repay within 30 months at 8% interest. This might seem like a long time, but weed takes a long time to grow, so naturally there's a fast-forward setting that powers through months in minutes. Bankruptcy is never too far away so long as there are competitors desperately seeking to undercut you for an inch of your territory. This mode is a lot more engaging than the other one because it makes use of the game's full systematic ensemble. Here you spend more time combining strains in a laboratory to create the next big thing than you do on the streets, which gives you an insight into where the easier mode will end up about 10 hours in.

Visually, Weedcraft finds style in simplicity. As with most management sims, the overall area you're operating within is viewed from a top-down perspective. Cars drive along the roads wrapped around shady neighborhoods, rundown burger joints, and sky-kissing hotels, all of which serve as hubs for operations you wouldn't want your parents to know about. In your growing rooms you actually get to watch your budding trees bloom, which is very satisfying with fast-forward enabled. These rooms are the most dynamic places in Weedcraft because the progress is meaningful. Most of the time, zooming cars just boil down to background noise designed to convey the passage of time. They become furniture almost immediately, before being interrupted by fleeting conversations with police officers and rival dealers. When these dialogue encounters occur, characters appear on either side of the screen, still portraits with clear, if not caricatured, personalities.

None of the personalities in Weedcraft are remotely nuanced. You've got maniacal metalheads, somnolent stoners, and highfalutin hipsters, all of whom are paired with their own preferential strains of weed

Caricature is an important word here. The thing is, none of the personalities in Weedcraft are remotely nuanced. You've got maniacal metalheads, somnolent stoners, and highfalutin hipsters, all of whom are paired with their own preferential strains of weed. People known as "vagrants" prefer whatever's cheapest, whereas a hipster is more than happy to pay above market price if the quality is there. Sometimes, these people will utter a short line after you sell them a bag. Most of these are generic, something along the lines of, "I'll take the usual, Super Lemon Haze." And in the case of talking to other dealers, every time you're met with a prompt to ask them about a certain point of interest, the exchange will literally consist of, "Let me ask you about…" and "Well, what can I say about that!" Here, the ellipses are used to make this generic conversation applicable to every dialogue encounter with potentially major characters in the game. Because of this, none of them ever become particularly intriguing, which is not to say that they even were in the first place. From Los Muertos in Michigan to the health-loving businessman living in an "eco-house" in weed-permitting Colorado, every character you meet is a character you've probably seen in a movie 100 times before.

While it's relatively harmless to write tropey characters like the ones above, some of Weedcraft's clientele is horribly designed. Alongside the kinds of people you'd expect to find in a game like this, you'll find people who suffer from cancer, PTSD, and epilepsy, all of whom are accompanied by very unflattering portraits. The cancer patient is doubled over, ghostly pale with bags beneath their eyes, and attached to a drip. The PTSD patient is wide-eyed and open-mouthed with both hands on their head, wearing an expression torn between fear and confusion. People who smoke medicinally in Weedcraft will only buy from registered dispensaries, so you’ll need to get a license to sell before they’ll do business with you, but their representation in the game is extremely distasteful. It may be true that people suffering from illnesses are sometimes prescribed marijuana to help them deal with pain, but to present them in such an appalling way in a game is nothing short of shameful.

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This really did sour the game's initial tongue-in-cheek charm. The beginning of Weedcraft starts to get towards something interesting, presenting itself as an experience capable of playing with the cultural and socioeconomic impacts the devil's lettuce has had on society since it assimilated into the mainstream. Blending such a polarizing substance with the management sim genre seems ingenious, especially because of how significant property is. In one of the first lines of the game, your younger brother explicitly mentions issues with gentrification, but the problem is that the idea is almost immediately dismissed thereafter. With weed being legal in some US states, but not in others, Weedcraft could be a remarkable way of studying the impacts of the drug in legal and illegal settings alongside each other. You learn about creating artificial climates to support optimal growth, checking soil quality to determine strain strength, and combining seemingly immiscible substances in order to invent something new. At the same time, you're faced with the case of buying the proper licenses to adhere to legislation and establish a legitimate business. It's obviously not as in-depth as I imagine the real-life process is, but the fact that it attempts to replicate it even in a minor way gives us a little insight into how these intangible things work. It places you, an ordinary person, in a highly unusual string of circumstances, and allows you to waltz your way through the sale of the most controversial plant on the planet. But it does it in a way that lacks nuance, commentary, and maturity. From terminally-ill patients to hackneyed depictions of dealers, it relies more on stoner symbolism than genuine critique.

Weedcraft is a well-designed management sim with stylish art and catchy music. Generally, it does its job well. Managing things is hectic and engaging, and you can't afford to take your eye off the ball for too long, lest someone take advantage of your ignorance and kick you out of the market and into prison. However, its characters are stale, its dialogue is boring, and its depiction of ill people is really disgusting. These aren't minor flaws by any means and they drastically affect play. I felt particularly uncomfortable when I saw the picture of the cancer patient because of how grossly caricatured it was. For these reasons, Weedcraft really shot itself in the foot. For a game that could have engaged in a globally-significant discourse, all Weedcraft really amounted to in terms of cultural and socioeconomic discussion was a jaded look at stoners and the people who sell them drugs in the back alleys of dodgy neighborhoods. In doing so, it fails to say anything meaningful about the human cost of weed and relinquishes the opportunity to grapple with weed's impact on the zeitgeist. It's the kind of game Ashton Kutcher would laugh at in Dude Where's My Car, which means it's not the kind of game that has anything of merit to say in 2019.

Zanki Zero: Last Beginning Review - Attack Of The Clones

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 04:34

You certainly can't say that Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is not unique. How many other games out there are first-person, real-time, tile-based roguelike horror dungeon crawls featuring in-depth survival mechanics, ensemble character drama, and a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story about clones and the last remnants of humanity? I definitely can't think of any. But unique doesn't always equal good, and in the case of Zanki Zero, its interesting, genre-melding concepts wind up a bit hobbled by some not-so-great execution.

Zanki Zero begins as a rogue's gallery of eight characters find themselves on a strange tropical island with only a few rundown facilities. They all have no idea why they're here, how they got there, or what connection they all have. But things soon take a turn for the even weirder: TVs across the island start playing a bizarre educational cartoon at set intervals, explaining that the eight are the last remnants of humanity and must work together to survive and build a new future for the human race. Oh, and they're all actually clones, experience rapid aging, and die after 13 days of life--assuming nothing else kills them first. But it's okay, because one of the few functioning things on the island is an Extend machine that can clone them after they die, effectively meaning they can live and die forever.

And die they will, because survival in this dilapidated paradise is no picnic. When you begin the game, you barely have any functional facilities to do things like cook and sleep, and you need to collect material in order to build them. Not only that, but you need to effectively micromanage the health of every character. On top of a typical health meter, they also have a stamina meter (which drains from merely existing and goes down faster when doing strenuous activities or carrying lots of items), a stress meter, and even a bladder meter. Letting one element get out of control can have cascading effects; if a character can't hold it anymore and wets themselves, they become embarrassed and stressed, which makes fighting enemies tougher, which leads to more rapid stamina loss for them and their teammates, which leads to health loss, which leads to death. Scavenging and using food and relief items and facilities like toilets helps, but carrying too much leaves a character overburdened and unable to move, and as time passes, characters age, and the amount they can carry changes.

If that all sounds like a lot to take in, that's because it really is. The heavy survival elements of Zanki Zero get dumped on you quite early in the game, and with little in the way of resources and experience, managing everything can get extremely rough. And that's all before you factor in exploration and combat. The game offers multiple difficulty levels (that can be changed mid-game to your liking) to help offset this, but it's still pretty rough waters in the early game as you try to come to grips with how much you need to micromanage. While there are some tutorials, they are inadequate, amounting to info-dumps that are tough to take in when you're already struggling with juggling everything else. Once you finally have all of the island's facilities built and can stock a small safety net of resources, the constant micromanagement becomes far less daunting and even quite enjoyable as you watch your ragtag bunch grow from helpless castaways to capable survivors.

All those important survival elements aren't even the core focus of the game, either--it's also a first-person, real-time dungeon crawler. At the behest of the mysterious TV characters, the cast explores urban ruins that drift to the shores of the island to find new parts for their Extend machine and finally remove the fatal rapid-aging flaw from their cloned selves. Each of the ruins is tied to one or more of the cast members' lives, and you'll see glimpses of traumatic events from their pasts in each one that reveals more about who they are and, perhaps, why they are here. The unfolding story and revelations throughout the varied environments push you to move forward and discover the secrets of the characters' hellish situation. You won't get more story without a struggle, however; the ruins are laden with hazards like mutated animals and trap switches. If the challenge of basic survival and rapid old age doesn't kill you, the threats in the ruins certainly will.

But character death can have its advantages. Sure, you have to drag them back to the Extend machine and spend your limited stash of “points” earned from dungeon exploration to revive them in a child body. But when you revive them, you can also give them a bonus called "Shigabane:": based on their life experiences and how they died, they get advantages in their new clone form. For example, dying at middle age from being gored by a giant boar while poisoned will result in the revived clone taking reduced damage from boars, getting poison resistance, and adding an extra day to their lifespan at middle age. It's a great system that doesn't remove all of the sting from death but still leaves you feeling like you're making progress through your efforts.

Unfortunately, Zanki Zero's combat is easily the worst element of the game. It attempts to marry turn-based, tile-hopping roguelike combat with real-time elements like charge attacks, group combos, and attack cooldowns, but it winds up constantly feeling sluggish and unresponsive. Worse, there's not much in the way of strategy in most of the fights; you usually want to maneuver behind or to the side of an enemy while charging attacks, whacking them when opportunity strikes, then scurry away to avoid retaliation, charge again, and repeat. (Or, if you have a ranged weapon, you plink away with that.) An additional element where you use an aiming reticle to target specific body parts of an enemy just makes things messier, as you have to spend valuable time fidgeting with awkward aiming controls. It's the same reticle you use to examine things in the environment, so if your reticle isn't in the right place (say, you just examined something else not long ago), your attacks can simply miss entirely. It's a shame that combat's such a weird-feeling mess, because it drags down the fun of exploring these urban ruins, finding interesting items and bits left behind, and learning about the characters and the world.

Uniqueness is one of Zanki Zero's biggest selling points, but its myriad ambitions and ideas aren't enough to obscure the elements that don't work as well. While the novelty of the game, its interesting story, and engaging exploration do a lot to carry it, it falters in some crucial spots that drag down the whole.

Dangerous Driving Review - Burnt Out

Mon, 04/08/2019 - 23:00

It's impossible to play or talk about Dangerous Driving without comparing it to Criterion's seminal Burnout 3: Takedown. This is by design, of course, as developer Three Fields Entertainment--a small indie studio comprised of former Criterion alum--set out to create a spiritual successor to the dormant racer; latching onto the groundbreaking Burnout 3 as a clear and popular focal point. Everything about Dangerous Driving's design, right down to small details like font selection and the phrasing used in its loading screens, is distinctly Burnout 3. It foregoes the advances made in its sequels--like traffic checking and the introduction of an open-world--to hone in on what made Takedown so special.

My first hour or so with Dangerous Driving was fraught with bewilderment, however. There's a single song that plays on the main menu, but other than this there's a complete absence of music throughout the entire game. Licensed tracks are a crucial component to the Burnout formula, and after playing a few events in near-complete silence, their monumental importance can't be overstated. Obviously, this is true of most games, but particularly one where high-speed exhilaration is on the menu. After initially thinking this was either a bug or that music would eventually find its way into the game via a day one patch, I hopped into the audio settings and discovered the reason for its omission: Spotify integration.

This is a smart idea for an indie studio that might not have the budget to splash out on licensed music, and after finding something suitably upbeat and aggressive myself, the experience of tearing around the track and wrecking other cars was improved tenfold. Yet asking people to own a premium service just to get music in their game is a fairly excessive compromise. It's an understandable trade-off for gaining access to popular music in a budget-priced game, but beyond the monetary requirement, it also has an effect on gameplay. Three Fields can't manipulate Spotify music in any way, so songs will just play through from start to finish without the incorporation of any interactive elements. This means that the music doesn't change its tone when you boost, or slow down and warp during takedowns, and that robs these moments of some of their potential impact.

When you're out on the road, the handling of each car will feel instantly familiar to anyone who's ever played Burnout before. While most contemporary racing games are wary of fully embracing an arcadey style without featuring some kind of simulation element, Dangerous Driving is a full-blooded, balls-to-the-wall arcade racer. You'll hold down the accelerator ad infinitum until your finger aches, careen around corners by either scraping across the steel guard rails or tapping the brake button to effortlessly drift around, and weave between oncoming traffic at over 200-miles-per-hour as the nitrous oxide flames spewing out of each exhaust pipe propel your car forward.

Unfortunately, the physics can be fairly wonky at times, often bringing your vehicle to a complete stop because you brushed against a wall; while other times it will shoot you straight up into the air, or force your car into a complete 90-degree turn. This can be incredibly frustrating during the latter stages of an event when one mishap is enough to send you tumbling to the back of the pack. Collision detection is also inconsistent; numerous times a head-on crash resulted in my car clipping through the floor and appearing unscathed on the other side. The face-distorting sense of speed, though, is genuinely electric, and the PS4 Pro version maintains a stable 60 frames-per-second with one notable exception: It has a tendency to hitch rather egregiously when you're driving through tunnels.

The crux of Dangerous Driving's racing is centered around the need to drive recklessly and constantly put yourself in harm's way. By hurtling towards incoming traffic, performing near misses, nailing drifts, tailgating, and taking down your opponents, you earn variable degrees of boost that will help fire your chosen vehicle towards the finish line. There isn't a discernible difference in how each car handles, other than the fact that some go faster than others, but their pinpoint responsiveness coupled with the high framerate ensures that you're fully capable of serpentining in and out of danger if your reactions are quick enough. Again, this is quintessential Burnout, with the destruction of your fellow drivers doubling your boost meter and incentivizing the most perilous behavior possible. These takedowns are reminiscent of those that debuted in Burnout 3, although the slow-motion crashes in Dangerous Driving are surprisingly underwhelming. They're not bad, but they're also not impactful enough--which the aforementioned issues with music contribute to--lacking in any real dynamism or metal-crunching detail.

There are exceptions to this rule, but vehicle collisions actually look a lot more violent when they occur near you in real time, with broken cars hurtling across the road in a furious cascade of fire and sparks. A wrecked car doesn't signal the end of its lifespan either. While Dangerous Driving unabashedly riffs on Burnout, it has its own ideas, too, like persistent wrecks. Now, if you're driving on a track with multiple laps, any takedowns that happen will leave the battered husk of that car out on the road as a smoke-billowing obstacle. This is rather ingenious, as subsequent laps gradually evolve the track until it's veritable minefields of dead vehicles.

The slow-motion crashes are not impactful enough--which the aforementioned issues with music contribute to--lacking in any real dynamism or metal-crunching detail

The problem with this--and it's not a problem with the mechanic itself, but rather one with the game's overall structure--is that these multi-lap events, and the most stimulating moments within them, are too few and far between. Dangerous Driving excels when you're in the middle of the pack, trading paint with other cars, and fighting tooth and nail to move up the field. It's here where it's at its most exciting, and really latches onto what made Burnout 3 so brilliant in the first place. But reaching first place is relatively easy--I was taken down by the AI twice in all my time playing--and once you're there the rubber banding isn't aggressive enough to ever compete with your driving unless you crash. Rivals drivers will hover just behind you, waiting to capitalize on any mistakes, but there are far too many instances where you can take a leisurely drive in first place, resulting in a feeling that you're missing out on all the action.

It doesn't help that the track design is bland. Visually there's a lot of variety with a cohesive theme of North American National Parks that encompasses sunswept canyons, beachside cliffs, snowy mountain ranges, and so on, but the tracks themselves are made up of the same kinds of long, winding corners that it almost feels like they were copied and pasted from one track and into another. They rarely deviate from this standard blueprint, and there's nothing that sets the tracks apart from one another either. This compounds the issues with difficulty and AI during race events, and also results in a dearth of engaging racing in other game modes. There are face-offs against a single opponent, the takedown-centric Road Rage, time trials, a survival event that tasks you with reaching checkpoints to stave off an ever-depleting timer, and even a nod to Criterion's work on Need for Speed in the shape of police pursuits. Again, there's a decent amount of variety here, with familiar modes returning from Burnout (including one that was previously its namesake, re-titled to Heatwave here), but the lack of interesting courses and a scarcity of racing events depletes much of the excitement.

Online multiplayer is being added in a future update, and playing against other people might allay some of these problems. But the more I played the more I began to realize Dangerous Driving lacks that magic spark the Burnout games had in abundance. That kinetic energy, palpable sense of danger, and the heart-racing thrill that something could and would go wrong at any moment. The AI was aggressive--competitive--and the satisfaction of taking them down was born of more than just getting to watch their car crumple against the nearest brick wall. The tracks were inventive, too, more interesting in their environments, and full of diverging paths and risky shortcuts.

Dangerous Driving nails the basic feeling of driving a car in Burnout, but the lack of small details quickly begin to add up and peel away at everything that doesn't feel quite right. The most damning criticism I can level at it is that it's often dull and lifeless. There are too many events that fail to capitalize on its strengths, and those that do can only reach those heights in fleeting moments. I was concerned that maybe I'd feel the same way about Burnout; that one of the greatest racing series ever made just doesn't fit in 2019. So I went back and played Burnout 3 again and it quickly alleviated all of those fears with a rapid combustion of thrilling vehicular mayhem. The potential was there for Dangerous Driving to latch onto that magic, and there are brief moments when it feels like you're playing a brand new Burnout. But the truth is, I'd rather play a 16-year-old game than pick up its spiritual successor again, and that's a disheartening outcome.

Tropico 6 Review - Narcissistic Indulgence

Wed, 04/03/2019 - 07:01

Tropico 6 is not a fair game. It positions you as not only the head of a small island nation, but also on a political stage with far greater powers than yours. Be those forces colonial, imperialist, or capitalist, your job is to keep your nation stable against both the tides of external forces and the demands of the citizens in your charge. That's a heavy premise that gets diluted a bit with tongue-in-cheek humor, but the parallels between your fictional country and many real-world iterations throughout history are extensive. Those frictions, in many ways, are what makes Tropico an interesting and vivacious playground for those who want some nation-building with their city simulators.

Your path through Tropico is a relatively simple one, given context and complexity by new systems that progressively stack on top of one another. In much the same way that our real-world economies are heavily influenced by trade, treaties, and demand, so too will your fledgling nation-state.

At the outset, you'll have little more than a few shacks, shops, farms, and a lump sum to kickstart your nascent economy with infrastructure and business investment. Economic growth and innovation don't simply happen, though. There are a few necessary components you'll have to stitch together before you have even a rudimentary economy. Agriculture, roads, and teamsters are the absolute basics--grow the food and move it to the people. Creating and moving goods largely works the same regardless of what it is, but the complexity comes from layering the skeleton of metal or oil transport on top of the systems that keep people fed and healthy. Ports and supply depots, roads and laborers can only handle so much.

On their own, these mechanisms would work well enough. The basics of the genre have been honed for almost three decades now, and little has changed in the sense that most city builders use stocks and flows--moving some resource to its consumer in progressive stages. Tropico is distinct, though, in many respects beyond even its central premise because of its detail-oriented approach. It contrasts with its contemporaries by following not only each individual, but for simulating even small changes in living conditions.

Because this nation is dictatorial from the outset, you're also given control over just about everything. How well are the teamsters paid? The houses furnished? Are you letting your people live in shacks? This moves down another level, too, because as time goes on, the populace evolves quite organically. Different factions come together on their own. Most of the time, they'll support political moves that match their own self-interest, but not always. Propaganda, trade, international political movements, and even disasters will have marked effects on the social fabric, too.

Such detail isn't for its own sake; how you play is critically dependent on the political forces at work. Corruption is useful, as it can be a cheap, quick way to consolidate power. But that risks exacerbating the underlying social issues. Still, because there's an element of roleplaying--you create your own avatar, decorate your palace, and even have a private bank account to squirrel away cash--the mechanics are built out to support a variety of choices.

You can, hypothetically, push people to their limit and bail on the country, but it's a lot more satisfying to tackle the challenge of managing dynamic international political relations--avoid invasion, keep your people healthy and happy and lead the world in research. That's not the only viable path, but the rewards are largely self-evident and act as a scalable difficulty curve that you are encouraged to approach. Many paths are intrinsically rewarding for those that like to see the productivity of their people or their nation climb, but transitioning into a vibrant, prismatic tourist hotspot can bear aesthetic marvels all its own. The island can feel a bit like caretaking dozens of Tamagotchi, and the satisfaction just as palpable.

While still couched in stylized humor endemic to the series, Tropico 6 is a bit less flippant with its political parallels. The vestiges of colonialism have always been present, but they weren't treated too seriously in past entries. An emissary for some far-flung king would occasionally demand something ridiculous to suit his whims, and the joke was always that he was detached from reality and had no idea how people--especially his colonial subjects--earnestly lived. Those threads are still here, but the colonialism hasn't been defanged quite as much. Instead, the Crown's messengers are direct, stating that their exploitation is unfair and pretty cruel. But what are you going to do, fight off a superpower? At the same time, the revolutionaries, once treated as simply different brand of silly, are more grounded--offering a sympathetic lens to the fictionalized rendition of groups that often have little voice of their own.

Beyond the increased fidelity of simulation, Tropico 6's biggest change is the increased map complexity. You now essentially have access to whole archipelagos to settle. These are not only fascinating to explore in their own right often holding archaeological ruins or rare minerals, but offer brilliant mechanical challenges. Building out a whole new parallel infrastructure is no easy feat, and requires foresight, planning, and investment--but again, is rewarding to execute. Integration of the new systems, or even crafting self-sufficient settlements are challenges, made rewarding by the nuanced logistical challenges. While the underlying simulation is indeed, predictable, the island does evolve a bit on its own: economies and politics shift with time, providing a constant, low-level nudge to your work.

Even without that new addition--citizens are born, live, and eventually die and your islands' culture changes accordingly. How you have and continue to balance policy and labor, exports and research will leave indelible marks on the psyche of the populace. The complexity of those petri dish layers can max out the user interface at times, particularly if you have a rather large or dense city and doubly so if you're new to the series. As the city expands, and as public opinion and needs shift, tracking down influential individuals or logistical breaking points requires flipping through a dozen or so different pages of stats and maps.

Even so, you have more than enough tools to control just about everything that happens in Tropico. Failure and success, then, can feel quite a bit like a referendum not just on your policies, but on your rendition of El Presidente. The notion of dictatorship as a role that you play for yucks is still there, if that's a hat you want to wear--though it's harder to indulge your own selfish impulses when you can see how your actions are condemning Lydia the lumberjack to a lifetime of poverty.

MLB The Show 19 Review - Play Ball!

Wed, 04/03/2019 - 04:03

MLB The Show 19 begins with an ode to spring: the opening cutscene waxes lyrical about the world blooming into color with bright blue skies and beaming sun rays amid the chirping of birds, before moving onto the hope, optimism, and excitement that accompanies a new season of Major League Baseball. America's favorite pastime is synonymous with the transition from winter's gloomy doldrums to the warmer weather of spring, and Sony San Diego's long-running baseball series has become a complementary part of that equation. This is due in no small part to the high level of quality The Show has maintained throughout its lifespan, and MLB 19 is no different, implementing smart new tweaks and significant refinements to its on-field action, while introducing entertaining new modes to its authentic flavor of baseball excellence.

Fielding has received the most substantial improvements out on the diamond, with the Defensive Runs Saved metric coming to the forefront. Now any player wearing a leather-clad glove is more responsive than before, hustling to field weakly hit balls, recovering quickly from botched catches, and utilizing a plethora of new animations to give you added control over the defensive side of the game. There's also a clear distinction between each fielder's individual stats, so if you've got a Gold Glove player like Matt Chapman manning the hot corner, you'll notice how adept he is at reaching balls lesser fielders will have trouble getting to. An outfielder's reaction to the ball jumping off the bat varies depending on their attributes, too, while a new interface makes it easier or harder to read balls that careen off the outfield wall depending on the defending player's skill set. There's an intuitive fielding ability indicator under the feet of each player to give you a quick reference point for how likely they are to pull off a spectacular play versus an embarrassing one, and that means substituting that beefy power hitter you've lodged into left field is now a tactical switch worth considering in the later innings. Each of these changes contributes to a greater sense of control over how your team prevents runs, removing a lot of the frustration that plagued previous games when fielders were often too lackadaisical.

At the plate, batting feels slightly more forgiving this year. There's now a greater distinction between the types of contact you can make with the ball, and a larger variety of hits makes batting more enjoyable. Not to mention pitchers are now actually concerned with self-preservation, so you won't encounter quite as many stolen hits because the pitcher's face was in the way. These changes coalesce to make a strong aspect of the game even stronger, and few feelings can match the elation that arises when you square up a ball and hear the crack of the bat as it flies into a gap in center field.

In terms of modes, the most notable new addition is March to October, which essentially acts as a truncated and more streamlined version of the time-consuming Franchise Mode. In the past, Sony San Diego has made strides in contriving various ways to make Franchise less of a time sink. Being able to expedite a 162-game baseball season by alternating between playing full games or using quick manage and player lock was a welcome change, but it's still a lengthy endeavor that most will still want to simulate through at times. However, there's always an inherent degree of detachment that comes from simming your way through blocks of the season. March to October alleviates this issue by making your performances impact your team's form, even if you're only playing for two or three innings at a time.

At the outset, March to October asks you to pick a team, categorizing all 30 MLB teams based on their expectations as either favorites, contenders, underdogs, or longshots. It doesn't matter whether you pick a team like the Yankees or the Orioles, your ultimate goal is to reach the postseason and win the World Series. The majority of the season is automatically simulated, but during critical moments you'll be dropped into games in a variety of situations to try and earn a positive outcome. These can range from taking over a game in the eighth inning of a blowout with the simple aim of maintaining a shutout, joining in the sixth to break open a tied game, or stepping into the batter's box with two outs in the ninth and a man on second when your team is down by a single run. Your performance in these situations earns you either positive or negative momentum, and this affects your team's results during those simulated games. Obviously, there's a little more leeway here if you're using one of the powerhouse teams as opposed to a relative minnow, but momentum ensures your performance has a palpable effect on how well your team does even when you're not directly involved. Maintain positive momentum and you'll see your team go on a winning run, while the opposite is true if you fail to meet your objectives. You'll also occasionally have the opportunity to use player lock in certain games, with that player earning a season-long bonus if you, say, drive in three runs or crush a game-winning homer.

Completing a full season takes roughly 10 to 15 hours, and winning the World Series at the conclusion of March to October nets you rewards for MLB 19's card-collecting mode, Diamond Dynasty. This won't be a mouth-watering incentive for everyone, and March to October still consumes enough time that there's little replay value involved. Nevertheless, it's an engaging new mode that consistently puts you in situations tailor-made for some thrilling topsy-turvy baseball. It may lack depth due to an absence of roster moves, with a single deadline day trade the only chance to augment your team, but for those who don't have time to commit to Franchise Mode, it's a fantastic alternative.

Moments is another new addition that also drops you into crucial situations, with the key difference here being their historical significance. Playing as the likes of Babe Ruth, Nolan Ryan, Willie Mays, and other icons of the sport, Moments lets you relive the classic plays, at-bats, pitching performances, and playoff series of these legendary players' Hall of Fame careers--complete with authentic stadiums and a black and white filter. It's not a perfect recreation of baseball's past, with plenty of default players on top of contemporary commentary and graphic overlays. There's also little fanfare when you pull off a historic feat, with not even so much as a single line of dialogue. Yet despite these missteps, it's still exciting to call your homerun with The Bambino, mash your way to a .400 average with Tony Gywnn, or win the Chicago Cubs' first World Series in 108 years. Moments also provides another avenue to earn rewards for Diamond Dynasty, beyond giving you the opportunity to play as historic players before unlocking their playing cards.

This is a common through line in MLB 19: Almost everything you do contributes to Diamond Dynasty in some way. This makes it relatively easy to assemble a competitive team without having to spend a dime of real-world money, and there are still multiple ways to engage with Diamond Dynasty in both single and multiplayer capacities, depending on your preference, from playing against others online to conquering maps in Conquest Mode, drafting a team in Battle Royale to ascend a ladder, and completing various challenges. The variety of options mixed with the frequent stream of rewards makes Diamond Dynasty one of the most enjoyable card-collecting modes in the genre.

Elsewhere, Road to the Show introduces a few more RPG elements this year to give dialogue options some much-needed impact. During the creation of your player, you have to choose between reworked archetypes, with each one acting as a physical blueprint for the type of player you want to be. There isn't a level cap anymore, so you can feasibly increase each of your player's stats to 99 overall, but your chosen archetype governs how easy or difficult it is to improve specific attributes. For instance, pick a Small Ball hitter and you'll find it easier to train your speed, fielding, and stealing, while it will be much harder to improve power and plate discipline, with contact and arm strength falling somewhere in the middle. Enhancing these stats still relates to your on-field performance, with a base hit correlating to an increase in contact, and so on. There are new minigames based around weightlifting and other exercise drills, too, allowing you to progress certain attributes if you want to put in the extra work off the field.

During the character creation process you're also asked to choose between four personality types: lightning rod, captain, heart and soul, and maverick. Each dialogue option in Road to the Show relates to one of these personalities, so picking the captain option to give a teammate some encouragement when he's in the midst of a slump will upgrade your captain attributes, which in turn allows you to unlock various perks within a modest skill tree. Reach tier two in heart and soul, for example, and you can activate a perk that improves your hitting ability when in 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, and 3-1 counts, ensuring your dialogue choices manifest in meaningful bonuses when at the plate. Forming a relationship with teammates or an antagonistic rivalry with another team's players will make these perks more powerful as well. Occasionally you'll also be asked to pick between three challenges during particular moments in games, whether it's simply getting on base or striking out the next batter. Each challenge has a boost to stats related to it, with harder challenges providing a more substantial boost if you're successful. This is only a small touch, but it gives you an extra opportunity to improve your player by balancing the risk and reward of picking a harder challenge over a simpler one. There's no doubt smashing a home run over the left field wall is more exhilarating than usual when a 175% boost is active.

As for Franchise Mode, there's not really a lot to say. Contracts now more closely mirror their real-life counterparts, both in terms of years and money, and you can finally re-sign players before they reach the end of their current deal. This adds authenticity to the business side of Franchise Mode, but otherwise it's the same as it has been for a few years now. There's still no team relocation, stadium building, or online Franchise Mode, which is disappointing considering these are staples in other sports games. On the plus side, at least you can now use two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani as a designated hitter on days he's not pitching without having to waste a substitution.

Despite the lack of innovation in Franchise Mode, MLB 19: The Show excels when it comes to the sheer variety of single-player content on offer, while significant improvements to fielding round out the on-field package, making this one of the best baseball games ever. That's not a particularly bold statement considering the series' consistent quality throughout the years, but MLB 19 continues that upward trajectory with its most robust offering yet, guaranteeing another year's worth of excellent baseball.

The World Next Door Review - Adorable Anime Angst

Tue, 04/02/2019 - 09:50

The World Next Door feels like it's a video game adaption of some manga or anime, which isn't too surprising. Rose City Games' visual-novel-meets-puzzle-battle game is published by anime and manga distributor Viz Media and features anime-inspired characters designed by artist Lord Gris. The game wears its inspirations on its sleeve, incorporating popular manga and anime tropes into its story. While the cast is fun to interact with and the game's combat a blast to play, there are certain aspects of The World Next Door's narrative that feels a little too stereotypical--especially in regards to most characters' portrayal.

In The World Next Door, you play as Jun, a human teenager who's lucky enough to win a ticket that allows her to visit the land of Emrys--a parallel world connected to Earth via both the internet and a magical portal that opens up for a few days every 20 years. Her trip in Emrys suddenly takes a dark turn when she fails to return to the portal before it closes, as humans can only last a few days in Emrys before they die. Jun teams up with her friend Liza, an Emrys native who's been communicating with Jun for months as a pen pal, to figure out a means of reopening the portal and getting home. The two enlist the help of a few of Liza's acquaintances as well, culminating in a party of seven when all is said and done.

The World Next Door is divided into two portions, with visual novel gameplay framing Jun's journey into four puzzle-battle game dungeons. The bulk of the game takes place in the visual novel portion, seeing you choose dialogue options and actions during conversations, complete fetch quests for Liza's friends, and figure out which three people you want to text in your precious allotment of limited free time each day. You do get some control in how Jun behaves, allowing you to make her nice, vengeful, flirty, sheepish, or bored. However, your choices don't influence the outcome of the overall story, instead shaping the direction of the conversations along the way.

Most of the game's anime inspirations come through in the visual novel gameplay, with many of the characters' personalities and designs fitting the implied archetypes of their appearance. The demonic-looking Horace, for example, acts like a sarcastic badass who's always ready for a fight. The blond-haired, pretty, always-has-a-cellphone-in-her-hand Lux, meanwhile, is a gossip with a vain need to always be the center of attention.

It works at first, especially as a means of quickly establishing the personalities of Jun's new friends. Even if you've never read a manga or watched an anime in your life, you'll probably be able to pick up each character's habits and temperament at a glance. However, none of the characters truly grow outside of their respective archetypes over the course of The World Next Door's campaign. Some grow as people, for sure, but they're minor, stereotypical transformations--like an increase in confidence or a newfound willingness to share their feelings. None of it really feels earned, either. Jun's friends just suddenly open up to her and accept each other without much prodding, despite which conversation options you choose. The one exception is Liza, who reveals a surprisingly intriguing detail in the final arc of The World Next Door's story. Trading quips with Horace or admonishing Vesper for the crime of putting pineapple on pizza may spark a chuckle or two, but Liza is the only one with any worthwhile growth.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't get to know the other characters. There are plenty of hilarious conversations to be had in The World Next Door, and it's absolutely worth your time talking to someone whenever you have a chance. If you do, you'll also learn more about the culture and history of the world of Emrys. Side conversations between story missions flesh out the fantastical land Jun finds herself trapped in. Even if it isn't necessary to get to know every character in order to complete the game, the promise of learning another fascinating fact about Emrys pushes you to chase down your companions between missions. It's an excellent reward for taking the time to explore.

The World Next Door plays like the first arc of something more, ending right when it seems like it's about to deliver the experience you want.

In the process of getting to know every character, however, I did encounter an unfortunate bug. In order to complete a favor for angelic straight-A student Cerisse, you are tasked with completing a riddle that involves using the runes on the floor of a room. However, when I entered the room, the runes never showed up. Even after resetting the puzzle, restarting the entire mission, and exiting the game and loading an old save, the runes still refused to appear. Thankfully, completing Cerisse's quest isn't mandatory for moving on in the main story, but missing out on the possible conversations that mission could have sparked is disappointing.

It's also disappointing that your conversation choices seemingly always lead to the same final large decision at The World Next Door's end. Also, unless I'm missing something, there's a pretty huge plot thread that remains unresolved regardless of which path you go with. Perhaps The World Next Door is being set up as the opening chapter of a larger story, but, as is, its narrative feels incomplete.

The World Next Door spends too little time in the other portion of its gameplay, the puzzle battles, as well, which is a shame as they're all pretty fun despite their simplicity. Throughout The World Next Door, you explore four different dungeons, each of which is inhabited by its own unique enemies. Upon entering a new room, you are thrown into battle and the floor is painted with an assortment of differently colored runes. Stepping on any spot of the map where at least three runes of the same color are touching allows you to perform a magical action. Three red runes, for example, let you send a fireball towards the nearest enemy, while purple runes summon a black hole to slow others down. You can drag runes from one spot of the room to another in order to get three of one color together, and dragging together more than three runes of the same color allows you to cast a more powerful version of the spell. All the while, the enemies in the room scurry after you, attempting to deliver a fatal blow.

Combat in The World Next Door is very simple to pick up, so by halfway through the main campaign--when the game starts throwing new types of enemies at you that do more than swipe at Jun's ankles--you're ready. These new enemies inject some welcome strategy into each battle, creating frantic matches of cat and mouse where you're trying to navigate around the room, dodge enemy attacks, and scan for the next rune you need to launch your counteroffensive. One of the best enemies in The World Next Door are these terrifying wraith-like creatures that attack by using the same runes that Jun does, so you have to constantly be aware of their position and try to lead them away from the runes that you're grouping together because your own attack might be used against you if you're not careful.

Battles can get challenging at times, but they're always finished in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, so they're rarely stressful. But The World Next Door never sets up clever encounters that test your reflexes and strategic ability until the latter half of its campaign, resulting in a first half that--though fun--is both a smidge too easy and feels uninspired.

The World Next Door plays like the first arc of something more, ending right when it seems like it's about to deliver the experience you want. The cast of characters are genuinely funny at times, and getting to know them has its benefits, but the story ends before most have a chance to really grow and mature. Worse, an interesting plot point that Liza introduces into the story near the game's end is never satisfyingly resolved. The combat portion has similar shortcomings. Though the puzzle battles are frantic bouts of fast-paced fun, the most interesting enemies and bosses are introduced in the latter half of the game, leaving combat in the first two dungeons too simple. Ultimately, there's enjoyment to be had with The World Next Door, but the game takes too long to start leaning into its strengths.

Operencia: The Stolen Sun Review - A Journey Far, Far Away

Sat, 03/30/2019 - 01:00

In English, most fairy tales lead with the phrase "once upon a time." In Hungarian, they begin with the word "Operencia," which roughly translates to "far, far away." And that's exactly where Operencia: The Stolen Sun transports you--to a realm steeped in magic and mystery, wonderfully detached from all things real.

Operencia is a dungeon-crawler RPG set in a fantasy world. It begins by plunging you into the salivating jaws of a three-headed dragon. However, as soon as you slay the colossal serpent, the prologue ends. Before you know it you're no longer a dragonslayer, but a runaway farmhand determined to follow their dreams. Those mad powers you had ten seconds ago? Gone. You'll have to make your own destiny if you're to retrieve the mythical land's stolen sun.

Composed of 13 different levels, the world of Operencia boasts some breathtaking vistas. You explore a variety of locations, from the murky depths of a castle cursed by tears to the metal wilds of The Copper Forest--which is infested with copper soldiers sporting chainsaw-like utensils for hands. The diversity of the game's art makes for a journey that is at all times fresh, awe-inspiring, and wonder-inducing. Its bright colors and intricate art style create an aesthetic that complements the mystique imbued in its magic, and it boasts a score that screams tales of monsters and creepy crawlies told around the warm hearth of a dirty tavern. This envelops you in a world of imagination and fantasy, more concerned with evoking a sense of wonder than any sort of fantasy realism.

After you embark on your journey across this fantastical realm, you slowly begin to come across a whole host of intriguing companions. These characters all speak in pre-written conversations, leaving you no option to intervene with your own dialogue. However, conversations between characters are so well-written that it doesn't really matter. The banter between companions while resting at bonfires--which replenishes your health and energy--is no less arresting. Every companion you come across is their own person and has their own sense of humor--the witty Joska hurls jests at everyone in the party, whereas the strong-willed Kela ensures that you don't falter on your quest. I enjoyed sitting back and drinking in the conversation more so than I experienced a longing to interject with my own thoughts. This world is so wonderfully weird that it's better for telling you its stories, rather than affording you the chance to write your own one within it.

Combat in Operencia is fast-paced, fluid, and engaging. It revolves around turn-based mechanics, involving a mix of physical, ranged, and magic attacks. The magic attacks utilize a strength/weakness system based on elemental typing such as frost, lightning, and fire. Your build can either lean heavily into one fighting style, or encompass all of them in order to gain versatility at the expense of specialization. While maxing out a single stat allows you to deal devastating damage in some cases, immunities can render you completely ineffective if you've overcommitted to one particular attribute. I played as a mage, as I usually do in fantasy RPGs, but without my Strength-based companions I would have been Ancient Elemental bait before I could say abracadabra. After battles, you'll gain experience and loot. For every level you gain, you'll get three ability points to pump into attributes. Leveling up feels well-rewarded, and the game allows you to carve out a combat niche for yourself with its myriad permutations of attribute/ability point combos.

Managing the ability cooldowns and energy point costs of each individual character in your four-person team can be tough, especially in the late-game when a mistake can mean death, or game over if you're playing with permadeath enabled. As a result, it's important to play smart. Even the strongest of enemies can be quickly incapacitated if you're willing to exploit their weaknesses and be savvy with your potions.

Operencia's combat takes customary turn-based RPG mechanics and makes them feel fresh with its own pacing and style. The only thing it could use is a little bit more versatility, as at times it feels as if your own character is a bit vanilla compared to the more advanced predetermined builds boasted by late-game companions. At the same time, you have seven characters to build a team of four from, so you can always change things up if frost spam is starting to get a little watery. As for enemies, there is a whole range of different beasties of all shapes and sizes who would love to eat you for dinner. Some of their niches can be very annoying, but not in a way that seems unfair.

Traversal in Operencia is tile-based, creating opportunities for intriguing environmental puzzles. However, at times this system complicates attempts to look at the finer details of the world's beauty. There were moments where I wanted to look at objects caught between tiles or move an inch closer to the horizon in order to take the perfect screenshot, but I couldn't because the traversal system got in the way.

Operencia: The Stolen Sun transports you to a realm steeped in magic and mystery, wonderfully detached from all things real

Most of Operencia's puzzles are excellently designed. In one case, you have to defeat four powerful enemies, all of whom drop a token. These tokens are then placed in slots around a magic circle; you need to place each one in the right position, and then spin the circle's three tiers to match animals with the tokens' likeness. This might seem like the kind of puzzle you'd come across in similar RPGs, but Operencia's aesthetic really makes the solution feel special. Before you know it, a surge of color and light encapsulates the circle and magical powers begin to work in wonderful and mysterious ways.

The puzzles that aren't solved by environmental manipulation or visual prompts usually require you to use creative key items, which range from magic shovels to griffin feathers. These feathers can be attached to any object with a feather marked on it, and cause that object to become drastically lighter. This allows you to uproot trees and move heavy weights with the flick of a wrist. You even get magic beans to grow beanstalks with! The puzzles get progressively harder as you make your way through the game, but are almost always intuitive and fair.

Some don't fit this formula, though. While optional puzzles used to unlock secrets and legendary items are understandably best fitted with esoteric solutions, ones that are tied to story progression shouldn't be as niche as they are. On one occasion, I spent almost an hour and a half looking for one of four keys, all of which were used to unlock a series of doors that led to the mould for yet another key. While the first of these was an easy find, the second one was randomly hidden far away from the cave and could only be found by using the magic shovel in a certain area. This made me decide to scour the whole map looking for hidden doors and buried treasure, of which I found neither.

As it turns out, the third key is actually obtained by returning to a melting pot I used to acquire a different key. There are so many keys. When I solved the puzzle I felt annoyed, not relieved. And I still had one more to get. Lo and behold, the fourth key was right in front of the last door, requiring no puzzles or exploration. After such arbitrary solutions to the previous puzzles, this was subversive. It was also incredibly irritating. I couldn't stay annoyed for long though, as the joyous booming of your relieved companions is infectious, and the game picks up so quickly that you're bounding onward into the next dungeon before you can get sufficiently annoyed to stop playing.

Operencia tells a wonderful story derived from Central European folklore, mythology, and history, and it does so with unwavering confidence in its makeup. Companion characters are funny, and the banter between them makes for a fun experience that's not without its heartfelt moments. In terms of combat, the strategizing is so engaging that you'll likely end up charging rat warriors headfirst instead of hopelessly attempting to avoid bumping into them. Best of all, though, this world is so stunning that you'll just look at the trees, the water, the rocks--everything. It’s a shame that some of the puzzle solutions are needlessly frustrating and present significant obstacles in getting through the story, but aside from that Operencia provides a truly special experience.

Operencia transports you somewhere far, far away, and once you get there, you'll probably want to stay a while.

The Walking Dead: The Final Season Episode 4 Review

Fri, 03/29/2019 - 11:20

(Editor's note: This review contains spoilers for Episode 3.) About 20 minutes into Take Us Back, the finality of it all truly starts to sink in. This is the last chance we get to ensure Clementine is going to be okay. These are the last lessons we teach A.J. This is the last ever episode of The Walking Dead. So, it's rather appropriate that Take Us Back is very much about legacy, about taking everything Clementine's learned--and you along with her--and wrapping it all up in a bow.

It's not nearly as clean cut as that; it is The Walking Dead, of course, and the night gets plenty dark before the dawn. After Clem gets her bearings, and you get to decide what to do with Lilly, it's a rather breathless race to keep ahead of the horde of walkers the Ericson kids have brought down on the immediate area. They're everywhere, and in a particularly hostile mood after Lilly's trigger-happy goons draw their attention. On top of that, weaponry is in short supply, which means there's much more avoidance than shooting this time around. For what it's worth, the shooting is simplified in this episode, with bow-and-arrow moments made much more forgiving and impactful than before.

That said, the episode starts out as another rowdy QTE festival. But the real meat of it begins about a third of the way in, when Clementine makes the fateful decision of whether or not to trust A.J. as his own person, able to make tough decisions on his own. Here, more than Walking Dead has ever done, the decisions of the entire season bear fruit. A.J. will automatically make two of the biggest choices of the season--arguably, the series--based on your teachings. It's a fascinating narrative decision. Much of the climax here is out of your hands in all but the most basic mechanical sense, but in its own way, you've been deciding how this will play out for the entire series. No matter what, you're going to have to live with the fact that these are the logical consequences of your actions. This is your legacy, and even if A.J. makes what you might consider the right choices, in true Walking Dead fashion, none of them are pretty.

The one notable issue with letting the episode play out this way is that the weight of A.J.'s decisions overshadow quite a few of the smaller threads set up by previous episodes. Arguably, Episode 3's party was meant to cement Ericson and the kids therein as a legitimate home and family. But while getting back to Ericson is ultimately the end goal of the episode, Episode 4 is too breathless and urgent to slow down and explore the particulars of what home will look like until it's all said and done.

It's possible that's the point, though. As mentioned before, there is a finality to this episode, and without delving too far into spoilers, the ending is far less about the home of the present than about painting a detailed portrait of its future and what kind of people will be shaping it going forward. That portrait is one of contrasts, of things we've never seen before in this series up to this point--really, in any moving version of The Walking Dead--and yet are so simple we've taken them for granted. It's an understated ending, for sure, until you consider just how much chaos and distrust and dysfunction have defined this series. There is nothing more impactful than understatement as far as this universe is concerned.

We know what kind of legacy Clementine and you, the player, leave on A.J., but if there's any comment on what Telltale's legacy looks like, it's in the finale as well, in a stretch where you have control of A.J. instead of Clementine. Here, the trademark Telltale UI has changed, no longer that distinctive up-down-left-right grid of responses, but a floating collection of potential thoughts or emotions to have. It looks a little like the crucial time-stopping decision clouds of Life Is Strange. It acts a little like the emotion-based response system of Mass Effect Andromeda. It feels like a statement by a group of developers whose legacy is now safe and sound. It's rare that a shuttered studio gets to dictate the final grace notes of their body of work, but that's the opportunity Telltale had with these final episodes, and it's one that was not wasted in any way. The Walking Dead ends not with a bang, but an accomplished sigh.

Yoshi's Crafted World Review - Simple Pleasures

Thu, 03/28/2019 - 01:57

The diorama-like design of Yoshi's Crafted World falls somewhere between capturing how a child might imagine a world and being a joyful expression of imagination in its own right, with washi tape snails, cardboard cows, and fish made from paper planes set among carefully laid-out stages. Each set of two or three levels introduces a new theme and its own quirks to discover, from the various ways everyday objects are recycled into art to how those crafts might be concealing the collectible you're after. While the best ideas mostly stay in their own levels and don't really build upon themselves or each other, each area is a delight to explore on its own.

Crafted World plays largely like other Yoshi games. You gobble up enemies to get eggs, throw the eggs at stuff, and maybe find some friends and secrets along the way, all with unlimited lives and very little to pressure you. The big change in Crafted World is the addition of a dimension--while you still mostly move left or right in 2D, some paths allow you to move forward or backward onto a separate left-right pathway, and you can throw eggs forward and backward, too. Aiming into the foreground or background shifts the depth of field so you can better see what's around you, with the added effect of making the levels seem even more like 3D, handmade dioramas.

Because coins, collectibles, and other points of interest are scattered throughout the foreground and background as well as your immediate path, you're encouraged to engage with the environment in every direction throughout a level. Finding a secret can mean spotting a suspiciously empty space and hoping an invisible winged cloud is there like in previous games, but it also means keeping an eye on the horizon for collectibles poking out from behind background decorations or moving Yoshi forward a bit to get a better look through a cardboard building's window. It's hard not to wonder what might be behind a bush or off in the distance, and Yoshi's Crafted World fosters that inherent curiosity with small, endearing details.

Each set of levels has its own theme, from the jungle to ninjas to a haunted house. The 16 different themes comprise a wide variety of cute and creative takes on the craft aesthetic; the jungle's frog platforms jump using folded-paper springs, the ninja Shy Guys throw origami shuriken, and the haunted house features a large cardboard puppet Shy Guy that wields a cardboard scythe and chases you through a graveyard. Inanimate crafts are frequently juxtaposed with a moving or puppeted version--childlike bird cutouts in the background with 3D bird enemies in your immediate vicinity, for example--which only enhances the feeling that the levels are imagination brought to life.

Some levels have not-crafty additions to round out their themes, many of which provide interesting wrinkles to the standard Yoshi mechanics. One jungle level is an on-rails shooter that tasks you with throwing eggs at animal-shaped targets to score points; one of the ninja levels is set behind a moving shoji screen so that much of your platforming and collecting is done in silhouette, forcing you act quickly when the path to a collectible is revealed. Nearly every area has at least one non-standard level, and the variety helps break up the slower, more deliberate pace of the typical Yoshi levels.

Some ideas, like the shoji screen, make sense as one-offs, but most of the areas exist disparately from one another, and the most interesting ideas are never developed beyond their original incarnations. The ninja area (a clear highlight) has rotating doors that turn 180 degrees when you shoot them, revealing platforms you might need to progress or moving Yoshi to the other side of a wall where treasure awaits. They aren't tricky puzzles, but the front-to-back movement of the doors plays off 2.5D and visual depth effects especially well, and it's disappointing that they aren't used more and to greater effect as the levels progress.

The levels are designed to be replayed, though. After completing certain levels, you'll unlock the "flip side" version, which gives you the simple task of finding three Poochy Pups (as opposed to dozens of collectible items). The flip side gives you a closer look at the construction, from the tape holding things together to a pair of scissors left among the crafts in the background. While totally optional, the flip side has a different layer of detail that is charming in its own way--especially when you realize that the hard-to-reach tower that housed a collectible you're proud of getting is actually a milk carton.

The Yoshi games' usual relaxed approach suits this well. Breezy platforming allows you to put all your focus on taking in the scenery and keeping an eye out for hidden collectibles, and by extension, you can replay levels with a purpose--like seeking out an item you missed, which you know is somewhere in the middle--without having to slog through a frustrating or tedious beginning. By the same token, finding collectibles is a matter of being curious rather than completing difficult maneuvers. It's certainly not a cakewalk to find everything, but if you know what you're looking for and you're patient, it's satisfying and never so challenging as to disrupt the atmosphere of the game.

Breezy platforming allows you to put all your focus on taking in the scenery and keeping an eye out for hidden collectibles, and by extension, you can replay levels without having to slog through a frustrating or tedious beginning.

There are a number of ways to make the game a bit easier or more laid-back. The returning Mellow Mode, which gives Yoshi longer air time and more damage resistance, and two-player co-op are basic options, but I found myself gravitating toward Yoshi's costumes, which you can unlock using the coins you collect normally. The crafted costumes--favorites include a trash bin and a dinosaur skeleton--function as armor, giving you a few extra hits before you start taking damage. In addition to being adorable and fitting the overall vibe nicely, they're a good middle ground for those who still want normal jump distances but the freedom to walk into a few Shy Guys on accident.

Yoshi's Crafted World is at its best when it's relaxing and pleasant. The 2D-to-3D level design keeps you curious while the go-at-your-own-pace approach keeps the pressure off and leaves you to appreciate the small, imaginative details. Its most interesting ideas never evolve past their first introductions and are frequently confined to one or two levels, but individually, those levels both reward your curiosity and your willingness to slow down and look at what's around you--and it's those simple pleasures that provide the most joy.

Baba is You Review - Game-Changer

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 06:00

Much as we ride roller coasters because we like to be frightened, we solve puzzles because we like to be challenged--and the more complex the puzzle, the more satisfied we can expect to be when it's finally solved. Baba is You has a prodigious capacity for frustration. This deceptively simple-looking indie puzzle game, by Finnish developer Arvi Teikari, swiftly approaches the heights of difficulty scaled by such vexing modern classics as Stephen’s Sausage Roll and The Witness, and shares with those games an uncompromising attitude that isn’t afraid to alienate newcomers intimidated by a challenge. It’s a puzzle game fan’s puzzle game in other words, as grueling as they come. It’s a sharper mind than mine that can make it through its later puzzles without misery. Whatever Baba is You’s shortcomings are, ease isn’t one of them.

Baba is You has an appealing conceit. The basic gameplay resembles an '80s top-down puzzle title like Sokoban or Adventures of Lolo: you control a kind of sheep or rabbit character called Baba, who moves around a fixed environment, pushes objects, and pursues a goal. But many of the rules that govern the game--including what can be traversed, what can be moved, what’s hazardous, what’s the objective, and even what’s under your command--are represented on screen as blocks of text arranged into phrases that work as commands. These blocks can be manipulated and the phrases rearranged, empowering you to eliminate restrictions, neutralize threats, and redefine the conditions of victory. In this way, the solutions for the puzzles in Baba is You are found through rewriting the terms of each problem.

Most words refer either to things (such as “wall”, “lava”, or “flag”) or to properties of things (such as “stop”, “push”, or “win”). When a thing is connected to a property with the verb “is,” that thing adopts that property, and can be modified with various conjunctions, prepositions, verbs, and adjectives, all of which follow the logic of a programming language. For example, suppose on a stage “Baba is you,” “flag is win,” and Baba and the flag are on opposite sides of a lake of lava. If “lava is hot” and “Baba is melt,” then Baba can’t pass the lava to reach the flag. But if “lava is push,” you can push the lava out of the way to reach the goal. Better yet, if “lava is you,” you can reach the flag as the lava, leaving Baba behind entirely.

Baba is You is never better than in these moments of sudden realization--when it dawns on you that you can rewrite the rules and change, get rid of, or become the obstacle in your path, allowing you to figure out what can be done to solve a challenging puzzle. Most of these moments occur early on, as you familiarize yourself with the game's mechanics and start to understand the way that it wants you to approach its puzzles. Baba is You encourages lateral thinking by the nature of its design, and after 15 or 20 stages, you begin to get a feel for its peculiar problems and the oblique strategies they require. The game’s surprises are genuinely delightful, but they are primarily front loaded.

The aesthetic is lo-fi in the extreme, though not without its charms. Its crude lines and simple blocks of color look like a child’s rendition of a NES game in crayon, every letter of the words that make up the commands scrawled in a shaky hand. In later, more complex puzzles, when instructions are crowding the screen and different objects are teeming all around you, scrutinizing this primitive style for clues can feel a bit like looking for codes in an abstract expressionist painting.

Less successful is the music, which is bland, simplistic, and incredibly repetitive. Modeled after retro game soundtracks, it sounds like a poor approximation. It had such an adverse effect on my concentration that it wasn’t long before I muted it and listened to my own music.

As the game progresses, and especially as the language involved gets more complex, words are ushered in whose meaning seems vague and whose purpose remains hazy, and that can make certain puzzles infuriatingly obscure.

Baba is You is lean, stark, and conspicuously light on instruction. New words and conditions are introduced without commentary; what things mean is never explained, and how things function is yours to learn in practice. Such hard-lined rigor makes you feel your intelligence is being respected. It also has the tendency to leave you completely bewildered and confused. The genre’s best games aspire to teach you how to solve their puzzles as they are presented to you, parceling out crucial information elegantly, and subtly, as you proceed from one challenge to the next. The ideal is a kind of unspoken guidance, acquainting you with rules and parameters in a way that feels totally intuitive and clear.

Baba is You doesn’t always do this so well. The earliest levels of its overworld map--including a preliminary stage that offers control prompts for how to navigate, undo actions, and reset--show a few simple approaches to the game’s unique brand of problem-solving. But as the game progresses, and especially as the language involved gets more complex, words are ushered in whose meaning seems vague and whose purpose remains hazy, and that can make certain puzzles infuriatingly obscure. It’s one thing to be confounded by a puzzle, and quite another to be uncertain how the puzzle works or what the puzzle wants. Often, I thought I knew what an ambiguous word did only to find that it didn’t actually do what I thought. More than once I solved a puzzle without understanding why.

For instance, every level has a “you.” Usually it’s Baba, but it can also be a wall, flag, or a little red avatar called Keke. It’s clear almost immediately that you can assume control of any number of different objects by replacing the noun in the sentence that ends “is you,” and that, what’s more, something has to be defined as you in order to continue playing at all. Less clear to me was that “you” is always a property rather than a thing. This means that, while “Baba is win” can be a condition of victory, “win is you” and “you is win” are not. So much of the vernacular of the game I picked up only in fits and starts. For example, I only know from happening upon it that “crab and Baba is you” will allow you to control both a crab and Baba despite being grammatically incorrect, while something like “Baba is you is win” doesn't work as expected.

This matters because you need some sense of why something does or doesn't work in a puzzle game in order to truly own your accomplishments. In one later puzzle, I managed to walk over a body of water unharmed by pushing a pillar into the water and stringing together the phrase “pillar on water is sink.” The property “sink” usually seems to make anything that touches the sinkable object disappear. I have no clue what happened here. Of course, I am sure this does “work out” in the technical sense, and that there is an explanation I’m simply not getting. But I shouldn't have to stumble through a fog of incomprehension in order to find the solution to a logic-based problem. Why does “box has box” clear a path through a lake of water? I couldn’t say, but I gathered it was what I had to do eventually. This feels fundamentally different than merely being stumped, and it doesn’t satisfy in remotely the same way.

A-ha moments are precious things. Their relief can feel miraculous--but only so long as you understand what you’ve done and feel you’ve earned the victory. For the most part, Baba is You’s most brutal stages do offer this balance of challenge and reward. By puzzle 50--there are 200 in all--levels are flipping upside down, rules are compounded elaborately, and sentences are sprawling out to command things like “wall and hedge and key and flag is word,” to take one real late example. It can be torture, but of course in a puzzle game such torture is fun. Baba is You is among the most seriously arduous games of its kind I’ve played, and when its rules are clear and its instructions legible, it’s gratifying in a way only hardcore suffering can be.

Ethereal Review - Stay In Your Lane

Sat, 03/23/2019 - 03:00

By restricting traditional movement and thrusting you into carefully constructed 2D mazes, simply getting around Ethereal's levels presents challenging conundrums that are deeply satisfying to overcome. Despite some uneven pacing and technical issues marring the overall experience, Ethereal is a delightful game that contrasts a soothing ambiance with intricate and challenging puzzle designs.

Ethereal's opening is mysterious, but not in the best way. Starting in a monochrome world with harsh black and white streaks across the screen, it's difficult to make sense of your surroundings and options. It's an unnecessarily confusing introduction to Ethereal, which otherwise takes care to slowly introduce new mechanics before nudging you towards increasingly complex puzzles.

Outside of its central hub, Ethereal is wonderfully colorful. Your avatar leaves inky streaks of color behind them as they move, corresponding to a limited but carefully chosen palette that paints the walls around you with bright hues. A fish-eye style lens warps each world near the edges, making it feel like you're traversing a wrapped around globe rather than an endless 2D plane set on top of a harsh white background. Ethereal's stylings are subtle but work well together, producing a distinctive look that never wears thin.

Movement in Ethereal is central to its puzzles. You're restricted to sliding across 2D planes, with carefully placed walls blocking your progress. You overcome them by hopping through the closest wall either above or below you, shifting you into an entirely new row to move across. It's slightly confusing to wrap your head around at first, but getting the hang of seamlessly moving around each stage is satisfying to learn. Identifying patterns in level layouts lets you quickly zip around each of them, allowing you to reach your objectives with ease and comfortably map a route to your exit once you're done.

Each stage tasks you with obtaining a series of color-coded shapes in sequential order. It's easy to see where most are placed as soon as you enter a level, but reaching them in the order required is rarely straightforward. Although levels are small, they are labyrinthine. They are sometimes made overly complicated, with unnecessary routes and obstacles littering the peripheral of the main stage and baiting you into considering red-herring routes. Misdirection is a core principle of well-designed puzzles, but Ethereal doesn't make it easy enough to rectify a foolish misstep. You'll typically have to redo all your previous moves in reverse to get back on track, which is more confusing than it should be. It quickly becomes frustrating, making each error feel more like a waste of time than a constructive learning experience.

Thankfully, Ethereal's 24 unique puzzles don't struggle with variety. Early ones simply rely on the freshness of the game's movement to generate complexity, but it's not long before new interactions change how you think about moving through each level. One will rotate the level by 90-degrees, for example, turning previously insurmountable walls into new points for you to hop between. Another creates a black, negative space that offers a larger range of movement, which gives you the ability to move walls and alter a level's layout.

These mechanisms are introduced intelligently too, by first appearing in the hub world that precede levels designed around them. Their simple introduction whets your appetite while the larger puzzles they're used in build upon their numerous possibilities in inventive ways. At first, each stage is centered around only one of these mechanics at a time, but puzzles get increasingly challenging as Ethereal starts combining them. The difficulty curve can feel a little steep around the half-way point, and remains a little uneven up until the end, but Ethereal rarely feels unfair, only dipping into frustration when technical issues get in the way.

There were numerous instances where, after interacting with one of the aforementioned mechanisms, a bug inexplicably transported me to another end of the level--often in a position that made movement impossible. In these instances, the only solution is to restart the level entirely, which is frustrating given how long some stages can be. Having to tediously repeat numerous movements in order to return to the same spot you were before is frustrating enough, but occasionally encountering the same bug numerous times in the same level is infuriating.

Ethereal's soothing ambient soundtrack and delightfully catchy sound effects do alleviate the frustrations to a degree, while its ever-changing aesthetic is suitably elegant and effective at keeping you engaged with its puzzles and not distracted by unnecessary visual information. The soft water colors of each stage shift with each objective you reach, eventually being diluted into a simple monochromatic theme once you've finished. It's an effective way to measure your progress through a stage and help inform you of what color shape you've just cleared from the stage without the need for a HUD. Ethereal's visual simplicity echoes its ease of control but doesn't compromise its beauty in the process.

Ethereal's 24 puzzles shouldn't take that long to complete, only overstaying their welcome when technical issues force you to repeatedly restart them. Although there are also a few uneven spikes in difficulty, the game's inviting visuals and soothing sound effects dress puzzles that are intelligently designed around your limited mobility. Ethereal is a satisfyingly challenging and unique puzzle game that serves as a delightful way to spend an afternoon.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review In Progress

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 00:00

While Bloodborne tweaked the combat dynamics of Dark Souls to encourage aggression, Sekiro rewrites the rules of engagement. The building blocks of its combat are recognisable, but this only serves to lure Soulsborne veterans into a false sense of security. Sekiro's combat is incredibly demanding, asking you to study your opponent, find the perfect moment to engage, and execute a split-second follow-up that, if done right, will end the battle in a matter of moments--or if done wrong will end you just as fast.

This might sound akin to what every other From Software game asks of you, but Sekiro pushes these demands further than Dark Souls and Bloodborne ever did. Over the years, From Software fans have become accustomed to the language of Soulsborne games; we recognise scenarios and are wise to the tricks, we can identify viable strategies more quickly, and since the skills are transferable, we can execute these strategies with a measure of confidence. But Sekiro challenges this expertise. It invites you to try and then shows you how little you're actually capable of. Sekiro is affirmation that From Software hasn't lost its bite; that its games can make you feel vulnerable and strike fear in a way few others can. It's a heart-pounding, palm-sweating, and nerve-wracking gameplay experience that instills tension the likes of which I haven't felt since first playing Demon's Souls.

Souls players predominantly hide behind shields and adopt a hit and run approach to combat, and Bloodborne's attack-focused dynamic was a response to this. Similarly, the crux of Sekiro's combat has its origins in Dark Souls. The Poise stat was used to govern how resistant a player was to being staggered or stun-locked by an attack. Sekiro reworks this into a defensive attribute called Posture and uses it to underpin its engagements. Attacks chip away at Posture and will eventually break through the defense, leaving an enemy open to a Deathblow or to having their health attacked directly, which in turn makes their Posture slower to recover. However, this is a very laborious way to wear enemies down, and they will often defiantly counterattack to deal big damage to you. Instead the goal is to deflect an attack the moment before it hits you, which wears down Posture considerably faster.

For low-level enemies it takes just a few encounters to get into the rhythm of it, but as more foes are introduced, it becomes much trickier. Each one has a variety of attacks that have specific tells and counter timings, so spending the time to learn how they all behave and how you should react is vital. Thematically, this style of combat is also coherent with the subject matter of the game in a way that I really appreciate. Battles are measured--a ballet of back and forth movements, the outcome decided by a deadly flourish--swift and precise, as any contest between swordsmen should be.

However, the true test is when you're faced with Sekiro's boss enemies. Calling these encounters "challenging" would be a severe understatement. The attacks these enemies unleash are deadly, to the point where just a single blow can often be enough to kill you. Their moves can be as erratic as they are diverse, and for some of them parrying is simply not an option. Occasionally a red kanji symbol will briefly appear to signal that an unblockable attack is on its way, and in this situation the options are to either jump, dodge to the side, or hope you can sprint away fast enough. In a single second you'll need to identify the attack and execute the appropriate action to save yourself. Bosses have the most Posture and usually require you to land multiple Deathblows on them before they fall, so attempting to simply chip away only draws the battle out. The longer you spend in the battle, the more mentally taxing it becomes. The stress of repeatedly nailing split-second counters begins to mount and just a single slip-up is all it takes to lose everything. As a consequence, these boss battles feel designed to force you to engage with the enemy, to take the fight to them and hope that you've got what it takes. In the moment it can feel unbearably frustrating to keep banging your head up against the challenge, but that frustration pales in comparison to the sheer exhilaration of finally breaking through. After almost every boss battle I completed, I was so overwhelmed by the adrenaline that I had to put the controller down and give myself the time to settle.

Death isn't necessarily the end, however, as Sekiro gives you the option to either submit and die to respawn at a checkpoint, or revive on the spot and continue fighting. This mechanic makes the game just a touch more forgiving by allowing you to recompose yourself and get back in the fight, but it comes at a cost. Each death and each revival has an impact on the world around you. More specifically, it has an impact on the characters you've met on your journey. To explain exactly what that is would be to spoil one of the most interesting parts of Sekiro, so I won't do that--and also, at this point I'm not completely sure what the ramifications and consequences are, such is the mysterious nature of it all. However, the fact that death has a consequence beyond making you lose experience and money is fascinating.

In battle, your character, Wolf, has his fair share of tricks. He's equipped with a prosthetic arm that is capable of having different sub-weapons grafted to it, and they're essential in giving yourself an edge in combat. There's an axe that, while slow to swing, can break through shields; a spear that allows you attack from further away, and can be used to pull weaker enemies towards you or strip armor; firecrackers which can stun enemies; or a flamethrower that can inflict burn damage.

Using these prosthetics comes at a cost, however, as they consume Spirit Tokens. These are scattered around the world and can be purchased using Sen, the in-game currency awarded for killing enemies, but you can only hold a limited quantity of them while in the field. This limitation reinforces the idea that they are to be used as part of a strategy instead of relied on as the primary way to defeat enemies. Using them unnecessarily could mean that they're not available when you need them most. Resources such as scrap, gunpowder, and wax can be found to upgrade your prosthetic arsenal and open up new ways to use them.

Wolf's own shinobi abilities can also be developed by spending experience points gained from killing enemies. Unlike previous From Software titles, there isn't a steady stream of new weaponry; the katana is your mainstay throughout, but new Combat Arts flesh out how the sword can be used, and they have a more active role in skirmishes. Whirlwind Slash, for example, lets you control space, while Ichimonji is a heavy overhead strike that has a long windup but dishes out big posture damage. Again, they're designed as an additional strategic consideration. Only one of these can be equipped at a time, so this forces you to think about what you're taking into battle and be methodical in utilizing it. Shinobi Arts, meanwhile, allow you to access skills such as mid-air deflections, vaulting over enemies to deliver backstabs, and specific counters for deadly special moves that enemies will occasionally execute. These various upgrades aren't diverse enough to support dramatically different playstyles, but they do offer just enough room to find a favourable loadout and then develop its effectiveness.

Wolf also has a suite of Innate Abilities, some of which come into play outside of combat. It's here that Sekiro really distinguishes itself from previous From Software titles by revealing itself to be a stealth action game--one that proudly wears its origins as a spiritual successor to the Tenchu series. Most areas have a heavy enemy presence so the odds are stacked against you. Engaging in open combat will draw attention to your presence, so the smarter strategy is to thin out the opposition by systematically picking them off. In previous From Software games, this would involve an awkward kiting process where you edge closer to a single enemy and use items or ranged attacks to lure it into a safer zone to do battle. However, Sekiro has mechanics to support stealth play more directly. You can use your grappling hook to take to the rooftops and scout out a location, taking a note of enemy placements and watching their patrol patterns. You can skulk around buildings, pressing yourself against surfaces to peek around corners. You can shimmy up walls and hang of ledges to reposition, leap off elevated points to plunge your katana into enemies below, or slither under raised buildings and into grass, creeping towards unsuspecting victims. Innate Abilities such as Suppress Presence will make your footsteps quieter, while the ceramic shard item can be thrown to make noise and manipulate movements to your advantage. Being effective with stealth can allow you to circumvent standard combat encounters entirely, so it's in your best interest to take it slow and steady. Enemy behaviour can be inconsistent, however. Sometimes they'll stare through you as if you're not there, and other times they become hyper aware and capable of perfectly tracking your movements during an alert phase, even when you're behind walls or hiding on roofs. They're not particularly sophisticated, but their lethality means they're not to be taken lightly.

The absence of modern stealth conveniences means you place greater scrutiny on your surroundings, and you'll notice just how thoughtfully they've been constructed

There's a simplicity to Sekiro's stealth mechanics that is refreshing. There's no Detective Mode or on-screen indicators to signify how much noise you're making, and instead you're entirely reliant on your basic senses. The absence of these modern stealth genre conveniences means you place greater scrutiny on your surroundings, and you'll notice just how thoughtfully they've been constructed.

The geography of From Software's game worlds are much lauded, with praise heaped upon the way seemingly disparate locations slowly reveal themselves to be interconnected and part of a cohesive whole. That strength of world design is present in Sekrio, and the fact that it's more immediately visible within these contained locations makes taking the stealth approach even more satisfying. Buildings are placed together to encourage exploration and reconnaissance, with roofs almost touching so that you can leap between them and scope out all angles. They overhang just enough that you can take a running jump and use your grappling hook to swing up and across for better vantage points. Pathways diverge and reconnect, creating that satisfying feeling of venturing into the unknown and then emerging into the familiar. Thick tree branches protruding out from the side of mountains can be grappled to and used to sneak into the heart of an area undetected, or around it entirely. There were more than a few occasions where I spotted a temple in the distance, traced the pathway there back to where I was standing, and followed it to discover a hidden area.

Sekiro takes place in Japan, in a land known as Ashina. As a consequence, it is by and large more grounded in reality than the likes of Lordran or Yarhnam. The location remains both striking and memorable, however. Encircled by an ever-visible snowy mountain range, Ashina is built up of dilapidated temples scattered around, housing mercenary warriors and corrupted monks, among other dangerous foes. Man-made pathways dissolve into perilous valleys, where mountainsides must be scaled to reach remote forests patrolled by club-wielding ogres. Fortified castles tower above abandoned towns seized by an army. Ornate statues fill the homes of royalty, while questionable characters linger in the dungeons below. Without spoiling it, Sekiro also takes the opportunity to delve into the supernatural and pull from Japanese mythology.

That juxtaposition of the real and the fantastical is echoed in the story Sekiro tells. It begins simply, with a shinobi that is called into action to save his kidnapped master and uphold his iron oath. But beneath the surface there's more at play--Ashina is a nation on the brink of collapse, its people beset by a mysterious stagnation, and you have the power to decide its fate--familiar themes for From Software. However, the story quickly moves from the realm of warlords driven by ambition to one of mythical bloodlines, demonic monsters, and otherworldly spirits. While the story is undoubtedly told in a more direct fashion than Dark Souls and Bloodborne, there are still numerous nuances to explore, and mysteries to solve, perfect fodder for a rampant community that has built up around From Software's games to mine. Softly muttered lines from Ashina's denizens hint at turmoil from days gone, while item descriptions speak to arcane practices. Talk of far off lands colours in the world around Ashina, while vague mentions of enigmatic figures leaves you questioning what unseen forces are involved in the events that are transpiring.

The unflinching way Sekiro punishes you for missteps and the repetition of trial and error are clearly suited for people of a certain temperament and with a very specific, slightly masochistic taste in games. These are the people that are willing to endure devastating defeats for hours on end and watch as their progress is undone time and time again, just so they can have the intoxicating thrill of overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge that awaits at the end. In that respect, Sekiro is unmistakably a From Software game--but one unlike any we've had so far. When all is said and done, though, it's the combat that has left the deepest marks on me, for better and for worse.

Atop Ashina Castle I stood before a swordsman. It wasn't my first attempt at the duel; we'd been trading steel for close to six hours, and each time the swordsman ruthlessly cut me down. I became desperate. I started making bad decisions. The losses were really getting to me. But I persevered.

My plan was a familiar one, honed through years of repeated Dark Souls and Bloodborne play: observe, dodge, wait for a slow attack, and use the opening to strike--it never fails. He swung his sword and I was out of range. The recovery on the attack was slow so it was the perfect opportunity to land a blow--I'd done it hundreds of times by that point. Except, this time it was different. As I charged in, he quickly corrected himself and fired an arrow, then chased behind it to close the distance and delivered a crushing blow. I lost my composure and finally snapped.

I picked myself up off the ground and rushed at him. He began an onslaught of attacks and, after six hours of learning his style and developing the muscle memory, I just started parrying on instinct. Each one of his swings and each arrow he fired was met with a perfectly timed raise of my sword. Every unblockable attack he lunged at me with was sidestepped or hopped immaculately. I watched as his Posture deplete, edging closer to the breaking point, and at the same time I could feel my breathing become more rapid, my thumbs beginning to tremble. I wore him down and delivered a Deathblow, backed away, and did it all over again, and a third time. In that final moment when I pierced through him with my katana, I was completely overcome with emotion. After six gruelling hours of failure, the winning battle lasted just six minutes. I'm not too proud to admit that I cried, and I'd do it all over again.

Sekiro marries From Software's unique brand of gameplay with stealth action to deliver an experience that is as challenging as it is gratifying. At the time of publish I haven't completed Sekiro. While I have invested upwards of 30 hours into it, there are still a few more locations I need to explore and bosses I need to beat before the credits roll, and I'm excited to do it. This review will be finalized in the coming days.

Hypnospace Outlaw Review - Dot Com Detective

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 12:00

For those of us who already spend our entire waking life tethered to the internet, the concept of Hypnospace will seem like both the logical conclusion to our always-online existence and its literal nightmare scenario. Hypnospace, the titular technology of Hypnospace Outlaw, is a social network you can access while you sleep, thus solving the problem of its users failing to update their status due to having to close their eyes for eight hours a day. It's both ingenious and terrible, and serves as the all-too-horrifyingly-plausible premise of this quite clever, quite funny, simulated '90s web browsing puzzle game.

Log on to Hypnospace and you find yourself jolted back to the late '90s internet age where every page belonged to a webring, had a visitor counter, and blared tinny MIDI music on loop every 15 seconds. The Hypnospace web portal is a walled garden, to use the modern term, split into themed zones that play host to whatever it is people make websites about. Or rather, what people used to make websites about.

It's 1999, the frontier era of the internet, before it was dominated by corporations, where random people stole some HTML and threw up a page dedicated to whatever random things interested them at the time. There's a kind of ramshackle energy at play--whether it's in Bill Aldrin's House of Sound and his raw music reviews or Gus' Temple of Serenity and his earnest new age-isms--that will make those of a certain generation (i.e. me) nostalgic for the looser, weirder, more experimental, yet more innocent internet that we seem to have lost in the years since.

You navigate these sites as a kind of moderator in the employ of Merchantsoft, the startup behind Hypnospace. You're dispatched jobs to track down incidents of content infringement, harassment, illegal activity, and so on, removing the offending text, images, or links from the pages you find them, and issuing warnings to the users who posted them.

Initially, you're assigned specific zones to monitor, and early cases are a simple matter of browsing the pages in each zone until you encounter the relevant material. The pages themselves are mostly spot on in terms of their portrayal of late '90s amateur internet culture and reading through each new page becomes a source of constant amusement. What you're being asked to do as a mod in these early cases isn't especially interesting, but that's fine, because the writing across the board is so sharp.

Things soon get more complicated, and fulfilling each new task requested by your manager becomes more of a puzzle that you really need to work to solve. These puzzles are mostly satisfying to work through. You'll be plugging in search terms to track down potential leads, cross-referencing data and Hypnospace user IDs, reading blog entries to identify clues that might suggest how you could try to crack someone's password, exploring unlisted zones and installing new kinds of software. It quickly becomes a game of internet detective where you're saving documents to your virtual desktop and bookmarking pages of interest to return to later.

Where it suffers is when this sleuthing distracts from the writing. Getting stuck and browsing through the same pages again and again rarely makes any of the jokes funnier. As you progress through the cases, weeks and months pass and you'll see the passage of time reflected as users update their pages--occasionally even in response to your moderating actions--while new pages appear and old ones close. Such updates are welcome, and remarkable given the sheer quantity of pages you're able to browse by the game's end, but you're still going to be looking at the same stuff many times over before you're done.

Hypnospace Outlaw loves the internet, warts and all. It loves how the internet is really still all about weird online communities and their rivalries, feuds, and splinter groups, and how one person's ideas--both good and bad--can gather momentum and spin out of control. It also loves how trivial much of the internet really is, and how we should both celebrate all this made-up nonsense and acknowledge how much of our time with the internet is just frittered away on garbage. It also very accurately simulates that "down the rabbit hole" journey where one click leads to another, and before you realize it, you've spent the night chasing links and can't remember whatever it was that prompted the expedition in the first place.

There are glimpses of darkness through the nostalgic haze, and it's in these moments that you realize that this isn't really just about the internet of the '90s. The cowboy arrogance and shady dealings of Merchantsoft is analogous to many tech startups of today that promise to liberate but only oppress. And in a frightening near-future vision of the gig economy, you're paid in Hypnocoin, a virtual currency accepted at Hypnospace's commercial partners, and only receive payments for reporting violations of Hypnospace's code of conduct. These elements may feel ahead of their time for a game set in 1999, but they make a fair point about where we've taken the internet in the intervening years.

As an exploration of early-ish internet culture, Hypnospace Outlaw demonstrates how far we've travelled online over the past 20 years while at the same time asking whether we've gone anywhere at all. The bandwidth may have improved since 1999 but the content can look all too familiar today.

Tom Clancy's The Division 2 Review In Progress

Sat, 03/16/2019 - 11:01

I don't know why I'm in Washington DC; some lady just told me to be here. But there are civilians in distress, armed gangs roaming the streets, and me, my pals, and the second amendment are apparently the only ones who can actually do anything about it. I have no idea what, if anything, is going on with the bigwigs I met in the White House. But so long as I'm helping folks, sending relatively bad people to bed, walking the pretty streets, and picking up a new pair of gloves every so often, I'm very happy to hang around.

In the world of Tom Clancy's The Division 2, the USA has been ravaged by a virus and society has crumbled. While those who remain try to survive by banding together in groups of various dispositions, the Strategic Homeland Division activates highly specialized sleeper agents to try and restore order. It's a setting ripe in potential, perhaps to tell a ripping techno-thriller story that scrutinizes the structures of our modern society and government, or perhaps to make a video game that leverages the chaos that occurs when multiple idealistic groups clash in a vie for power in a lawless city. The Division 2 only does one of these things.

It's not the story. Throughout the entirety of The Division 2's main campaign, never did the game spend a satisfactory amount of time on any semblance of an overarching plot, or the predicaments of its supposedly important figures. There are no character arcs, only abrupt setups and consequences. Narrative devices, like audio logs found in the world, add nothing of consequence. Even the game's biggest macguffins--the President of the United States and his briefcase containing a cure for the virus--have a minimal amount of absolutely forgettable screen time. The opportunity to use The Division 2 to create meaningful fiction is wasted.

Instead, The Division 2 focuses its narrative chops into worldbuilding. The city, a ravaged Washington DC, initially feels a little homogenous in the way most Western cities do. But after some time, the personality of the different districts--the buildings, the landmarks, the natural spaces, and the ways they've been repurposed or affected by the cataclysm--begins to shine through. It's this strength of environment which lays a very strong foundation for The Division 2 as a video game, creating an engrossing, believable, and contiguous open world.

Moving from your safehouse to the open world and your next mission area is almost entirely seamless. It's something that was also true of the original Division, but that doesn't take away from the fact that the simple act of going from place to place in The Division 2 is one of the game's more rewarding aspects. One road may lead to a skirmish with a rival patrol or an optional activity, another might simply give you another stirring scene of urban decay in the morning sun. An obscured shortcut through an apartment block might turn up some useful items in an abandoned home, which you might decide to donate to the makeshift settlements where civilians have attempted to rebuild their lives.

Visiting those settlements--initially as hovels, before they gradually grow and become more charming, vibrant places thanks to your efforts in the world--becomes a strong motivator in the absence of a plot to chase. Outside main missions, which are dedicated to the weakening of rival factions and achieving indiscriminate objectives, the game's "Projects" are one of the most lucrative means of earning experience to better your character. Projects ask you to donate resources you find out in the world and participate in side activities, encouraging you to spend more time in the world, see new areas, fight new battles, search for new equipment to use, and find enjoyment in that. The Division 2 is, after all, a game devoted to providing you with a continuous stream of gripping conflicts, valuable rewards, and a perpetual sense of progress and satisfaction from doing these things. It does those things very well.

You spend a lot of time hunkered behind cover, popping out to fire at any enemy dumb enough to expose themselves. With the large amount of weapon variety available, this familiar facet of combat is solid in itself. Add to that the ability to equip two special abilities from a possible eight--which include tools such as riot shields, drones, and from what I can gather, robot bees of some sort--and combat gets pretty interesting. But the vector that really keeps The Division 2's combat lively for upwards of 30 hours is the behavior and diversity of its enemy types.

That time you spend in cover? The Division 2 doesn't want you to just stay there. You can go down very quickly if you're out in the open, but the game has a dozen ways to alway keep you taking those risks and finding better firing positions--aggressive melee units, remote control cars equipped with sawblades, even the regular assault units regularly attempt to outflank you. Those special abilities? You absolutely need to use them to their full potential to survive some encounters, whether by throwing out the seeker mines or the automated turret to keep enemies at bay while you focus on a priority target, or perhaps utilizing the chemical launcher to start a fire and create a zone of denial.

The effort needed to take out an adversary is relatively reasonable for a shooter that prioritizes the RPG nature of its combat model, but some of the tougher enemies have additional, visible layers of protection which you need to focus on breaking if you want to land critical hits. On the flip side, some enemies have additional, obtuse weak points which can work to your advantage, but only if you can hit them. The fuel tank on the back of a flamethrower unit might be feasible, but when you start running into the terrifying robotic quadruped in post-campaign activities, whose tiny weak point only reveals itself seconds before it fires its devastating railgun, you have to assess whether you can afford to take on that challenge among all the other things pressuring you. The Division 2 throws a lot of hurdles at you, but also gives you the means to quickly counter and resolve them. Whether you can juggle that many balls at once is what keeps combat tense and exciting.

What's also exciting is the treasure at the end of these gauntlets. These Washington locations, refashioned into memorable combat arenas, are often rewarding in their own right (a fight in a planetarium is an early standout). But improving your equipment is the vital, tangible part that keeps you feeling like you're making progress. You receive new gear in generous amounts, some dropped by an enemy or looted from a container found in the world, others rewarded for completing a mission, and the next dose always feels in reach. The weapon variety forces you to consider something completely different to take advantage of a power boost, and the armor variety provides an impressive number of different cosmetic looks. The Division 2 incorporates a microtransaction and loot box system for its inconsequential clothing options, though these can be found in the world and earned of your own accord, too.

Like combat, gear remains intriguing throughout Division 2 not just because of the abstract desire to have bigger numbers attached to your person and progress further through the game's challenges, but also through a raft of "talents." These add unique perks that complement particular skills or styles of play, like doing extra damage within a certain range, when enemies are burning, or your armor is depleted. The brands of armor also have a part to play, whereby equipping a number of pieces from a single manufacturer provide additional advantages. These bonuses become particularly attractive to obsess over in the endgame, when the world is retaken by a tougher, more merciless enemy faction called Black Tusk, and you need to ensure your ability to fight them is the best it can be.

For the hundreds of pieces you will inevitably want to discard, the ability to sell or dismantle them for parts to either purchase or craft pieces you want gives value to everything you pick up. Or you might retain them in order to move their talents to better gear of the same type, And, as a wonderful convenience, The Division 2 implements numerous features to inspect, mark, dismantle, or equip things you find so quickly and elegantly--sometimes without ever having to enter a menu--that it improves the whole experience of being in its world.

The same can be said of the game's multiplayer integration, which allows you to easily group up and progress with friends (the game will scale any underpowered players to match the most powerful). Alternatively, you can join a clan, which opens up a variety of weekly challenges, granting valuable rewards, and which features integrated game-wide group communication options. Even if you're only interested in playing alone (which is more challenging, but entirely feasible), the ability to matchmake with other players at any time, whether that be in the open world, before you start a mission, or when you're at a final boss, is a very welcome feature.

And when you beat that final boss of the game's final mission (though, such is the Division 2's lack of plot framing, I honestly couldn't tell you his name to save my life) and you think you've finally run out of treasure to keep luring you through more fights, the metaphorical table gets flipped. Flipped hard. The Washington DC you spent so long liberating from rival factions becomes completely retaken by the aforementioned Black Tusk. You unlock three unique class specializations, each with their own skill trees to work at unlocking. Your focus on growing two-digit numbers on your character (your level) moves to three-digit numbers (the quality of your gear). Even after finishing the campaign, the game still feels enormous.

More challenging, remixed versions of campaign missions and open-world challenges featuring Black Tusk become available. The idea might sound trite, but in practice, these "Invaded" missions often leverage the new enemy types to create terrifying new combat scenarios that maintain the steady ramp-up of challenges, and they give you a fantastic reason to revisit the more memorable combat arenas with a purpose. However, there's still a lot I haven't seen. I've yet to dabble in the three Dark Zones, reward-rich areas where players can potentially find themselves up against other, malicious agents as well as the usual enemies. I'm also yet to participate in Conflict, The Division 2's take on traditional team-based competitive multiplayer modes.

But after spending 30 hours completing the campaign and beginning to dabble in the endgame, I'm still enamored with The Division 2. The range of enemy types continues to keep combat encounters challenging, the equipment I earn and pick up continues to feel different and valuable. The ravaged environments continue to intrigue, and sometimes they're so stunning I find myself needing to take a screenshot before I move on. There is still so much to see in The Division 2, but I want to take the time to see it. I have absolutely no clue why I'm here or what anyone's motivations are, and I wish I had a narrative purpose to my endless hunger for progression. But I'm glad to be here right now.

Note: This review-in-progress will be finalized once substantial time has been spent in The Division 2's endgame content, including Dark Zones and Conflicts.

Left Alive Review - No Will To Survive

Sat, 03/16/2019 - 04:00

You awaken in a city under enemy occupation after neighbouring forces swept in and brutally laid waste to soldiers and civilians alike. You’re separated from your squad, your Wanzer mech heavily damaged and unable to operate, with nothing but the local army’s omnipotent AI, Koshka, to help guide you to safety. Left Alive’s opening salvo shows its certain potential, but while the premise pulls you in, the take away once it’s all over is one of resounding disappointment. Left Alive is an astoundingly infuriating grind that lacks in almost every area, making a wholly unrewarding experience.

Set in the same universe as the long-neglected Front Mission series, you alternate between three main characters--a rookie Wanzer pilot, a former military veteran turned beat cop, and a ghosted merc who’s been presumed dead for two years. Each character is on a different path to try and escape the city that’s overrun with enemy mechs and soldiers. Their paths will intertwine over the course of the game’s 14 missions allowing for some occasionally fun interplay between the protagonists, but that’s about as interesting as their story gets. Moments of both political and personal intrigue go for knockout blows with almost no set up, leaving them feeling flat and impactless, and the story never really gets back on its feet.

Surviving the numerous open-world sections of the city is the main point of Left Alive, avoiding combat where possible and traversing slowly and silently through the torn up streets littered with abandoned cars and flaming piles of rubbish. As you move from point to point, you’ll scavenge items and components--from empty cans and bottles to stripping parts from destroyed drones--in order to craft traps and projectiles. But even with these tools, progress comes slowly, and arduously, for a variety of different reasons, the chief of which is the game’s stunningly poor combat.

Weapons in general feel woefully inadequate and underpowered. Guns are weak and make a lot of noise (inviting any enemy within a block to bear fire down upon your position) and headshots don’t ever result in a one hit kill. Bullet impacts feel scattered and inconsistent, with perfect reticle aim not ensuring a hit--even on the first shot. Melee weapons aren’t much better, you’re more likely to get knocked down yourself before you can them so it’s always a high risk move, and there’s no stealth bonus for sneaky attacks. Projectile weapons are more stealth-oriented as the AI aren’t able to track where a thrown item came from, but they are equally as ineffective at putting the enemy down for good.

The stilted and jittery combat sucks the air out of every enemy engagement, but you’re consistently forced into it. Koshka’s incessant reminder of “Caution, the enemy is approaching” on a loop when in close proximity to a guard just adds to the annoyance. Checkpoints and save points are scarce, and more often than not the direct route to each is blocked by a number of patrolling guards or worse, a comparably overpowered Wanzer, meaning a lot of backtracking to save points in safer zones in order to avoid replaying tedious sections. Although the game’s map tries to usefully point out high alert zones, it doesn’t feel like there’s any tangible difference between the two; safe zones are just as likely to be teeming with patrolling guards as alert zones are.

Side missions come in the form of other survivors, many of whom only need to be accompanied to the nearest shelter, of which there are a handful strewn about each map. Some will go easily, while others are in distress and need convincing to move via a handful of dialogue choices, though these feel trite--it never felt like it mattered if they were rescued or not. They’re helpless and will quickly go down if fired at, unless you clear their path beforehand they have frustratingly little chance of making it to the shelter safely. But the risk of taking more guards head on just to get survivors out quickly turns into a tiring and unfulfilling routine.

Wanzers are the only part of Left Alive that bucks its mediocrity. When moving through the city, these imposing behemoths will patrol along the wider open sections of the map, sweeping the area from on high. Most of the time they can be avoided by finding a clearer route, but sometimes you’ll need to get unnervingly close, creating a palpable sense of fear as you try to sneak by them undetected. Getting noticed by a Wanzer spells almost certain death, unless you can get your hands on a rocket launcher and a good sniping spot, which will take them down with a few well placed shots to the torso.

Even better is when you get behind the controls of a Wanzer and give the enemy a healthy dose of their own medicine. Weapons, from rocket launchers and huge assault rifles to shoulder mounted railguns, each has a distinct feel to them. For example, the railgun requires your mech to kneel to make a more stable platform and then a second to warm up before firing, but will cause tremendous damage with a direct hit. All weapons overheat at different times if not allowed to breathe out in between shots, but if you time it right you can easily alternate between your main four to unload continuous fire.

Save for Wanzer-related activities, almost no part of Left Alive feels good to play; it’s painfully slow, inconsistent, and looks incredibly dated. Environment textures are muddied and lack detail, animations don’t blend together that well which gives everything a slightly jolting look. Blowing up an enemy vehicle sees it simply disappear into thin air behind a flat, low-res fire texture. When you mix moments like that with the already tiring combat, which is compounded further during some utterly infuriating late-game boss fights, it really hits home how far wide of the mark Left Alive is.

Perhaps the worst part is that you can see there’s something here, ideas that have some real potential but never even come close to being realised. The Wanzer combat is genuinely rad, but that’s it. Everything else comes with a heavy caveat; be it how underpowered you feel, the awkward movement, the inconsistent bullet impacts, the ugly environments… the list goes on. There’s almost no joy to be found in playing Left Alive, only bitter disappointment.