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Objects In Space Review - Adrift

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 12:39

Space, as I'm sure we're all aware, is incomprehensibly vast. It can be difficult to fathom the scope of large nations in earnest, to say nothing of the endless expanse of the universe. While the vastness of space and its inherent loneliness has been explored time and again in fiction, Objects in Space contributes to that conversation by capturing the beauty of the mundane as you helm a solitary freighter drifting to and fro in a desolate void. Moreover, it positions itself as a rework of '90s adventure games, but with the added draw of real-time combat and problem solving as you and your hauler make your way.

Objects in Space immediately taps your imagination of a grand adventure to the stars. You are one of the first truly interstellar explorers, launched aboard the mighty Cassandra--a colony-spawning vessel with nearly a million inhabitants. Alongside dozens of support craft, the mission of this mega-ship was to create a jumpgate, allowing instant transit back to Earth. Unfortunately, your destination, the Apollo Cluster, was all but barren, putting a major kink in the plan. Even worse, due to some unexpected anomalies, a few of the accompanying ships in Cassandra's support fleet arrived decades later than intended--including yours.

When you finally arrive, your ship is spinning out of control thanks to damage sustained on the trip. A friendly passerby quickly offers their assistance, guiding you through the repairs and introducing you to the basics of your ship. Life in Apollo Cluster is surprisingly low-tech, despite its interstellar nature. As a result, you'll be listening the telltale squeal of metal scraping rock or the klaxon warning of an inbound projectile.

Flight is a decidedly sensory experience in Objects in Space. You're planted at the center of an array of controls, dials, knobs, and monitors. Important data is often split across multiple screens (which is to say both in-game view screens and your own real-world vantage point), with engineering info being kept to a seperate station than the helm or comms. with the constant feed of environmental information, you're always juggling a few different streams of information and responsibilities at any given point.

It's common to set off in a direction and accidentally end up in a pirate-packed nebula or anomaly. These threats require hands-on scanning, and rapid course adjustments. If you don't have enough speed, you can flip off nonessential systems and give the engines a full burn. The sum of these small decisions about piloting, maneuvering and maintenance are often quite impressive, and leave you with the distinct sensation that your experience and your knowledge of your ship get you out of trouble. It's quite a bit to manage, but your trek through the stars gets its texture from the emergent narrative of your choices.

The set-up and execution both work together to set the stage for a great bit of speculative fiction and an excuse to dump you into sociological crucible with only your ship as a trusty companion. In many respects, how you play and what happens along your journey is a vital component of the experience. And by simulating all the mundane bits of space travel, it asks you to fully inhabit the role of space captain at the edge of the cosmos. What you encounter and how you grapple with it becomes an intrinsic part of not just the story, but the story you compose hand-in-hand with the game.

The granularity of the simulation helps build a relationship between you and your ship. Drifting in the black, your ship is your companion. It's the only thing protecting your flesh and bone from the utter lethality of radiation, micro-meteorites, and, of course, that lung-rending vacuum. You'd expect it, then, to be a tough machine--and many ships are, to a point--but they're also vulnerable. When you jump, every system needs to reboot, selling the idea that this is a tremendous feat--one that not even this rugged, mechanical beast can handle.

Your ship can hide secrets and quirks, too. You may or may not discover window shutters, posters, or the like on your particular model. The layout of each ship and system is markedly different. Parts can be swapped out, but only at dock. Changes to your companion are thus a big deal, requiring you to plot a course and go through all the standard docking procedures, and then recruit the help of the station's robotic arms to rearrange things. When it breaks down or gets hit by just about anything, you feel it. Objects in Space uses its aesthetics--both visual and ludic--to craft an enchanting atmosphere.

Objects in Space is committed to its own brand of realism, fashioned from the experience of inhabiting a place. As such, your ship's status is linked to your capabilities; as your ship takes damage, systems will work sporadically before finally giving out. This creates a bit of a moving target--your goal is always to survive, but the challenge grows when you're carrying battle damage from a prior encounter or your sensors are spotty. As a point of contrast, though, you'll also have plenty time to simply “live” in your ship, as it were.

Because this is space, when you are ready to dart off, your course will usually take several minutes or longer. Most of that is downtime, though, unless some obstacle or scenario arises. And it's here that you get quiet moments with little but the hum of your drives and the synth music from your ship's radio to keep you company. These segments of peace do a lot to punctuate the frantic crisis management that permeates many missions.

The obstacles of your journey are somewhat predictable. Pirates, asteroids, and so on are all pretty standard fare, though how you grapple with and overcome them is always unique. With such a broad array of options and tactics to use--dumping cargo, creative flying, etc.--you're mostly limited by your imagination and cleverness. Some strategies, like flipping your ship into a weird position, drawing others into a fight, or nixing non-essential systems to save up power for a massive engine burn, when executed well, give you the feeling of being not just a brilliant captain, but the entire crew of a much larger spacecraft. There's a raw, almost space cowboy feeling that emerges after a few encounters that permeates the game. And, provided that you keep flying, you'll feel like a hotshot scoundrel in no time.

Those with affinity for the kind of nuanced technical challenges of running a space freight business will be enraptured, but such players will be far from the only ones. In its best moments, Objects in Space can work a unique kind of magic. Few other games pull away the barriers between ship and captain so completely, and yet lean so hard on the mundane. Pulling yourself away from the real world and allowing the mysteries and adventure soak in can take a bit, but once you're settled into your chair and piloting, you'll find there you'll find there's no place quite like it anywhere--be it our world or its own.

ToeJam & Earl: Back In The Groove Review - Rapper's Delight

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 07:35

ToeJam & Earl was in many respects typical of the kind of game that defined the Genesis--charmingly eccentric, ostentatiously hip, staunchly uncommercial. A broad comic pastiche of tropes from early hip-hop and mid-'80s New York street style, this low-key co-op dungeon-crawler about alien rappers had what you'd call a vibe, and as one might have put it then, it was a trip just to groove with it. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is faithful to this spirit. A ground-up remake from series creator Greg Johnson, it adheres so closely to the source material that it's hard to critique without it reading like a referendum on the original. Everything about the experience has been designed to make you nostalgic for the early 1990s, and sinking into its reverie of the past can be appealing. But too often it reminds you how far we've come since then, and makes you remember why certain things are better left behind.

The setup is identical. As the game begins, our extraterrestrial heroes have crash-landed on Earth, their ship totally obliterated. At the same time, a black hole has warped the world out of recognition, the upshot of which is the planet has been laid out across small tracts of land stacked one on top of the other, the lot of them connected by elevators--sort of like a Salvador Dali landscape crossed with Super Mario Galaxy. The object of the game is to collect the 10 pieces of scattered debris that together comprise your ship so you can return home to planet Funkotron. The pieces are hidden, their locations randomized, and the distorted quasi-earth that houses them teeming with nefarious earthlings out to thwart you for reasons unexplained. It's glib and vaguely surreal. It's absurd, but you get the sense you're not meant to question it.

Your pursuit of the 10 missing ship pieces unfolds not unlike the exploration of a dungeon in old fantasy role-playing games; Back in the Groove is a more or less standard example of the roguelite genre. Earth's ascending series of floating-island stages are generated procedurally--with the option to play a "fixed" mode that trains you to a static set of levels--while enemies and loot, both abundant, are randomized on each playthrough. Enemy placement and distance between objectives have the luck-of-the-draw quality that makes roguelites so engrossing (if frustrating), and death is permanent, demanding from-the-start replays.

What distinguishes ToeJam & Earl from other roguelites are its style and its attitude. One of the first things you notice is how mellow it feels. It's an extremely gentle, easy-going game. That's not to say it can't be difficult--on random mode, I died frequently and agonizingly, and won by the skin of my teeth. But there's a kind of unflappable composure and lackadaisical pace throughout that makes the experience feel relaxed. This is a game that not only permits but rewards lounging in a hot tub for as long as you'd like, and in which the heroes don't run but saunter. Where most games tend toward the urgent and dramatic, ToeJam & Earl prefers things unhurried. The word for it is chill. It's very likeable.

The overall look of ToeJam & Earl is unmistakable. Its vibrant aesthetic drew from a variety of urban artists of the era, including the pop art of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and the subway graffiti of Futura and Zephyr, and in its own cartoonish way the game is as authentic a snapshot of the period's hip-hop and street culture as films like Breakin or Wild Style. Of course, what was contemporary in 1991 is decidedly retro in 2019, and its bright acrylic colors and bold animations are all the more striking for their vintage air. This is particularly true of the patterned backgrounds used as interstitial lulls between levels. In the original these were loading screens; here they're technically unnecessary, but they add something unquantifiable, like grace notes, and have been wisely left in. It's in such touches that Back in the Groove best captures the mood of its predecessors.

Old-school hip-hop looms over ToeJam & Earl, but it's actually funk, not rap, that provides the music. As the title promises, grooves abound. The newly recorded soundtrack, a raft of jams by virtuoso bassist Cody Wright, features such aptly named tracks as "Slow Groovin," "The Bass Master," and "Funk Funk Funk E," which sound as advertised. It's hardly the most diverse score, but I never found it repetitive. Those endless basslines feel inseparable from the tempo of the action and atmosphere of the setting, and as such contribute to what is on the whole a really coherent style. Tone, rhythm, visual design--it's all of a piece. And the few elements introduced expressly for the remake, like new enemies, items, and playable characters, don't depart from the template of the original in the slightest.

There are things one expects even the most faithful throwback to modernize. But as if to protect the essence of ToeJam & Earl, next to nothing about the classic gameplay has been modified, supplemented, or otherwise upgraded. The game still controls like it's mapped to three buttons, and rather than streamlined it's merely simplistic. There's not much more to do than walk around and alternately locate ship parts and elevators as you evade earthlings, most of whom are so predictable and easily avoided that death is usually caused not by any one tricky enemy but by a bunch of them crowding you in a flourish of unlucky randomization. A pair of basic minigames (a crude rhythm game and an endless runner) feel like afterthoughts, and from beginning to end the campaign can be completed by a skilled player in under two hours.

Items, like much else in ToeJam & Earl, are distributed at random, gift-wrapped and unidentified until opened or divined by magic. These presents are in ample supply, and there's a staggering number of types to discover, most of them outlandish. Some, like earthling-pelting tomatoes or enemy-attracting decoys, have obvious (if limited) benefits. Others, like an alarm that sits above your head and alerts enemies to your position or a kind of bomb that causes you to immediately self-destruct, are gag gifts, better left unopened. Most seem pretty arbitrary, as though included because they're amusing. None struck me as particularly useful--even the slingshot, which should be straightforward, is ineffective. They have no real effect on strategy, except as blunt instruments, and more often than not their randomness is a burden.

A simple progression system--another holdover from the Genesis version--allows you to level up and earn titles ranging from "Weiner" to "Funklord." Now this system has been expanded upon with a basic stats tree governing your speed, luck, and so on, and in Back in the Groove graduation from one title to the next bears with it additional points in each category. The entire system is underdeveloped, and while boosts to these attributes no doubt do have some bearing on your speed or the frequency with which you happen upon valuable presents, the effect of levelling up on anything other than your health meter seems negligible. It mattered so little to my success moment-to-moment that I often forgot to redeem my level-ups when I'd earned them.

Online multiplayer is one of the rare other modern amenities, and it is an awkward fit. ToeJam & Earl was a quintessential couch co-op game circa 1991; two players felt fundamental to a full experience. But while local multiplayer still delights as expected, playing with up to three friends or strangers online is not remotely the same. There just isn't enough ground to cover in a given level to warrant four different people searching for the same elevator, and not enough content other than that to keep everyone busy; walking around together is redundant, and splitting up a waste of time, as whoever happens on the goal first has to stand around waiting for the rest of the gang to catch up. One tardy straggler can make a level feel interminable.

As if to protect the essence of ToeJam & Earl, next to nothing about the classic gameplay has been modified, supplemented, or otherwise upgraded.

In its first incarnation, ToeJam & Earl could seriously strain the Sega hardware. An environment bustling with enemies could slow the frame rate nearly to a halt, and the game's madcap sense of creative abandon sometimes seemed too much for the console to handle. Back in the Groove suffers from similar technical defects, even on PlayStation 4, to the point where I honestly wondered whether the persistent freezing and stuttering might not be an ingenious reference to its underperforming forebear. There are intermittent problems with the randomization process, too, including, on multiple occasions, the failure of game-essential objects to appear, preventing advancement to the next level. Several times I arrived on a new level to find that the elevator to the following level was nowhere to be found, requiring me to exit and load a previous save file.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove belongs completely and unapologetically to the early 1990s. This remake's most attractive features--its dazzling animation, its infectious bass--are ambrosia for the nostalgic and derive much of their charm from their fidelity to the Genesis original. But a lot has changed over the last 30 years, and the game too often fails to gracefully integrate new features to a modern standard. For every wistful reminder of bygone days and the pleasures of the era, there's a lingering fault or drawback that could have been smoothed over or mended. The issue with Back in the Groove's unwavering faithfulness to its predecessor is inextricable from what makes it occasionally so much fun: It's both captured the good and brought the bad back with it.

The Occupation Review - On The Clock

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 17:00

I'm glad I played through The Occupation a second time. My first playthrough did not end well. Yes, I made it to the end, I saw a final cutscene and watched the credits roll, but I wouldn't say I reached the conclusion of the story. In fact, I felt like I'd barely scratched the surface.

After finishing it a second time I had a good handle on the major events of this bureaucratic thriller, but it wasn't until I'd played all the way through for a third time--and replayed individual sections several times over--that I felt confident I understood the motivations of the main characters. Even now, I'm contemplating a fourth go in an effort to figure out the smaller details and fathom just how deep the conspiracy goes.

The Occupation is a story-driven stealth-adventure game that rewards repeat plays even if it can also, at times, feel hostile to the idea of enabling you to delve into its narrative nooks and crannies. It tells a mature, challenging story that is both overtly political and ambiguous enough to leave plenty to interpretation, while its core stealth mechanics deliver a suitably tense experience.

For most of the game you play as an investigative journalist who is reporting on a terrorist attack at the stately campus of a prominent IT company. An immigrant employee of the company has been arrested in connection with the alleged bombing, but you've received a tip-off that not all is quite so simple. There's also the matter of the company's work on a personal data harvesting project that seems worryingly linked to the British government's proposed Union Act, an anti-immigrant and anti-civil liberty bill about to face a crucial vote in parliament. It may well be set in the 1980s, but the issues tackled feel all too relevant today. It's a smart story that's told with a deft, delicate touch.

It's essentially a detective story in which you investigate scenes, gather clues, compile evidence, and interrogate eye-witnesses. You have arranged interviews with three key players at the company, and in between your appointments, you are able to explore the offices. The catch: you're on a time limit during each of the three main investigative periods. When that time is up--and it varies between 30 and 60 minutes of real-ish time--your interview starts regardless of how much incriminating information you've managed to obtain, and your line of questioning is limited to what you can actually prove.

Navigating the office space is in itself a challenge. These buildings are a maze of corridors, security checks, staff-only areas, ventilation shafts, crawlspaces, and temporary construction sites. Remembering how to get from one room to another when you have to travel to another floor, in and out of restricted areas, stealing an ID card here, shutting off the mains power there, is a stern memory test even once you're familiar with the basic layout. But the environments have a real tactile feel that makes you want to keep exploring them.

Complicating matters further, if any staff find you in a restricted area--rifling through their filing cabinets, for example--they'll ask you to leave, and if you persist, call security. Fortunately there are gaps you can exploit, both physical ones like the vent under that desk that leads into the locked room next door and temporal ones like those few minutes you have to log in to someone's computer and read their emails before they return from the bathroom. Little touches, like pausing to close the blinds in an office window before continuing your snooping, go a long way to making you feel like a genuine detective.

Sneaking around is your best bet to avoid attracting unwanted attention, particularly from Steve, the company's amiable security guy, who wanders the complex and will usher you out of anywhere you shouldn't be. Sometimes he'll spot you from a distance and come to investigate, giving you time to leave the area or find somewhere to hide while he searches. The stealth is just light enough that you get to feel like you slipped by effortlessly without having to worry too much about memorizing patrol patterns or keeping to the shadows. Sometimes it's a bit silly, though, and requires suspension of disbelief like when you clearly dash into a closet from which the only exit is through a vent, but Steve just goes, "Huh, I wonder where he went?"

On one hilarious occasion, Steve caught me trying to access someone's computer, so I tried ducking under the desk. He sighed, "I know you're in there," as he entered the room, walked over to the desk and crouched down next to me, shining his torch directly in my ever-so-guilty face. I could only laugh as he escorted me outside and gave me my final warning.

Piecing together the clues obtained from all your clandestine activities while you match them to your mental map of the facility is extremely satisfying. A crumpled note found in a trashcan might suggest that someone is hiding something, but now that you’ve found a way into their office you realize you don’t have the password to their computer and will have to rethink your approach. Your dossier, which updates whenever you reveal something of significance, suggests your next steps but rarely spells out the solution. When you have multiple lines of investigation on the go it can be taxing to keep them all straight, but it’s also hugely enjoyable to scan your dossier again and try to spot that vital connection you’ve been missing.

However, it's highly unlikely that anyone could collect every important clue on their first attempt, meaning your mandatory interviews with the key players will feel frustrating and almost painfully ineffective. There are no do-overs without actually starting a new game--the game autosaves only at the beginning of the investigation period, and you cannot create a manual save. It's frustrating when you run out of time and realize you didn't collect all the clues; on my initial playthrough I had nothing at all to pin on my first interviewee while I failed the second investigation period so badly my interview was canceled entirely. One option is to accept failure and resign yourself to playing through the whole thing a second time.

But I'm so glad I did. On my second playthrough I was able to find more clues that proved the company was lying about certain things, and I discovered whole new areas of the offices I hadn't even seen the first time around. Still, I knew there were things I'd missed, things I didn't yet understand.

I went back for a third playthrough. I had my handwritten notes from my second playthrough, and made sure I added to them whenever I turned up something new. But, as the minutes ticked away, I knew I wasn't going to find out everything. Time was running out and I still didn't know how to get into that office or how I was going to get that document printed. If I went to the interview without being fully prepared, the game would autosave and I'd have to move on whether I wanted to or not. So I quit out. I restarted a fourth time. Then a fifth.

I still haven't cracked that first interview. I've finished the game three times now, played that opening section six times, and seen two different endings based on my choices and performance throughout. Each time through, I am discovering something new, some document that adds to my pool of knowledge or some previously unrevealed connection between two people that casts a new light on their relationship. It makes me feel like a proper detective. But it's an arduous process, replaying the whole section over and over, for what feels like ever-diminishing returns. I can't help but wish there was some sort of time rewind mechanic to alleviate the repetition.

Of course, it seems churlish to complain too much about a game I'm enjoying enough to willingly replaying it again and again to explore every facet of its story. The Occupation is the sort of game you'll find yourself thinking about when you're not playing it, that gets under your skin in ways you didn't even realize. I'm going to play it again. Maybe this time I'll completely crack the case.

Assault Android Cactus+ Review - Robots Rock

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 11:00

Assault Android Cactus, first released on PC back in 2015, is a game that feels perfectly suited to the Switch. It's the sort of experience that works equally at home on your TV and in your hands during a morning commute. Thanks to a handful of new additions and some excellent port work, this new 'plus' edition is the definitive way to experience Witch Beam's excellent twin-stick shooter.

Assault Android Cactus+ isn't a major overhaul of the original, but it's a significant iteration. As before, there are 25 levels to play through, nine playable characters--five of them unlockable--and the game's focus is on chasing high scores and earning higher ranks for performance by repeating levels. The further you go, the more enemies the game hurls at you in each level, and the more hits it takes to kill them. It's a frantic experience, one where you're almost constantly beset by loads of enemies, swarming and firing shots at you. By the end of the campaign the onslaughts can feel unending, even though, in truth, levels only last a few minutes each.

From the outside it looks hardcore, but one of Assault Android Cactus' strengths is how discernable and navigable the chaos is. Enemy bullets are generally slow-moving, and some enemies are far less dangerous than others. Each android comes equipped with a primary weapon and a more powerful sub-weapon, each of which is given a generously short recharge time, so it's often possible to slip right into a huge group of enemies, do enormous damage, and slip out again. Enemies can drop power-ups, which let you speed up, give you additional firepower, or--best of all--temporarily cause all enemies to power down, letting you rack up kills. Getting kills in quick succession lets you build chain combos--the key to getting a high score is making sure that one of your enemies dies every 2.5 seconds, which means switching between damaging more hardy enemies and wiping out the smaller, more vulnerable baddies often.

To beat a level, and to maintain a high score and thus earn a good rank, you'll want to take as few hits as possible. Getting knocked down rips 10% off your total score thus far, which can be frustrating, particularly in the near-endless 'Infinity Drive' mode, where your total score can remain static or drop over a long period as knockdowns rack up. Every now and then a downed enemy will drop a battery, which you need to collect to charge your power, so going too slowly will drain your battery right down. You'll only hit a Game Over screen if you run out of charge, which can lead to great, tense moments as you fling yourself right through dangerous territory to grab a battery at the last moment.

The game supports up to four players, too, with enemy numbers scaling, and unique leaderboards depending on how many androids you send out into the fray. This means that it's a great fit for parties or multiplayer nights, but as a primarily solo player, AAC never feels lesser for being played alone. If you're planning on playing it with newcomers, though, it's worth being aware that some characters are much easier to get to grips with--and thus more enjoyable to play as--than others. Any character with a slow rate of fire can feel ill-suited to the game's fast pace, and while there are potential strategic advantages to using a railgun or a shotgun, I found myself opting for the faster characters every time.

Levels will typically feature some sort of topographical gimmick. There could be walls that appear and disappear, conveyor belts that make movement tricky, or floors that fall away and rise back up depending on where you're standing. Each presents unique challenges for how you can move through them, and while only a few of them require that you fundamentally change how you play, each one provides a neat twist. The five bosses, meanwhile, are all challenging and fun in their own ways, changing forms and attack patterns throughout their fights. These bosses are Assault Android Cactus+ at its most bullet-hellish, and learning how to weave between their attacks while doing damage is extremely satisfying.

The campaign is a challenge, but not an extreme one--the end boss gave me more grief than any other level, but I still managed to beat in within six attempts. The new Campaign+, which is unlocked once you beat the final boss and is currently exclusive to the Switch version, will push you harder. It takes each level and boss fight from the original and ramps it up--right from the beginning, there's a considerable spike in the number of enemies you'll face in each level, and they tend to be hardier than the ones in the regular campaign, requiring far more shots to kill. Campaign+ might not add any entirely new levels, but doubling the number of leaderboards you have to compete on gives you more incentive to keep coming back and improving.

Curiously, while most levels are noticeably more difficult than they were before in Campaign+, I found that there were some exceptions. Later levels, which were already designed with heavy enemy loads in mind, feel about the same when a few more are thrown in, except the scores you can earn are now much higher. The most profound changes are found in the boss fights, which transform from relative challenges into utter bastards across the board. They're still an enjoyable challenge, though, and thankfully every level is immediately unlocked in Campaign+, so you can jump around and skip any levels that are causing you frustration.

Less showy, but no less significant, is the new addition of single-stick controls. This is an accessibility option, allowing you to play with a single Joy-Con with auto-aiming enabled, and it works extremely well. These controls even helped me to see the value in some of the more complex androids--Shitake's railgun, and its ability to hit multiple enemies at once, is much easier to use with auto-aim. You lose just enough control that the absolute highest scores on the leaderboard are still going to come from players who are using both sticks, but in terms of enjoyment, the game loses surprisingly little when played this way.

The other tweaks made for the '+' edition are minor--new costumes, the option to rewatch the game's few cutscenes, and some balance changes--but there's also no trade-off in opting for the Switch version. The machine shows no signs of struggle running Assault Android Cactus+, holding a steady framerate in both handheld and TV modes regardless of how many enemies are on screen. The game's clean, uncomplicated visual style suits the small screen well, and although you'll need an Internet connection for leaderboards, trying for high scores on the bus, or--if your commute is long enough--plugging into the Infinity Drive feels irresistible.

Assault Android Cactus+ is the ultimate version of an excellent game, and a perfect marriage between console and content. It's exciting and intense without ever being impenetrable, and the new Campaign+ feature is a great reason to dive back into the game even if you've already completed it elsewhere.

Devil May Cry 5 Review - Comeback Album

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 03:00

As you send demons flying across the screen in Devil May Cry 5, a strong sense of familiarity will hit you. This is "old school" Devil May Cry, a simplistic network of hallways and arenas where you humiliate demons with absurd weaponry as a thumping battle theme fuels the bliss of every well-executed combo. DMC5 marks a return to the previous series continuity, and everything you remember about how those games played has been resurrected and improved. It is a brilliant iteration of the series’ best qualities--but it innovates as much as it reiterates, balancing new and old with infectious confidence.

The majority of your time in DMC5 is spent killing demons. With an array of melee and projectile attacks, you inflict complex combo strings while performing split-second dodges to evade incoming attacks. An in-game ranking system continually judges your style, encouraging you to better your performance. Protagonists Nero, Dante, and newcomer V each offer their own unique playstyles that makes the simple objective of clearing rooms of enemies continually exhilarating. Combat is where the game most expresses itself, showcasing the nuances of its mechanical depth in a variety of creative ways.

Nero is where new and old ideas come together. Replacing his lone Devil Bringer from DMC4 are new prosthetic arms called Devil Breakers. With them, you can pull enemies towards you, as well as tap into an assortment of special abilities depending on which Devil Breaker model you have equipped. For example, Overture can deliver a wide shock attack, while Punch Line shoots a rocket-powered fist that continuously damages enemies. Devil Breakers significantly evolve Nero’s playstyle by expanding his attacks, but what’s most curious is how switching between them requires you to discard your current one in order to equip the next down the line. At first, this seems like an arbitrary way to access each arm’s unique abilities--not to mention there’s little done to justify this rule in-game other than asserting that they’re simply "fragile."

However, this limitation introduces a thrilling spontaneity to combat that encourages you to be industrious and adaptable. You’re initially compelled to be frugal with Devil Breakers, but as you expand the number you can carry, you start hitting a rhythm expending them with strategic grace, flowing from one stylish combo to the next. But even with the best reflexes, an enemy can shatter a Devil Breaker mid-combo, which forces you to adjust your strategy on the fly. A persistent tension underlies using Nero’s Devil Breakers, melding high-consequence tactics with impulsive creativity. The gratifying free-flowing strategies that Devil Breakers inspire makes it easy to overlook any initial frustrations. They present a brilliant dichotomy that strengthens and amplifies the idiosyncrasies of Nero's more accessible playstyle.

Where Nero brings new flair to classic mechanics, V is fresh and unexpected. Unlike his sword-touting brethren, V damages enemies from afar with his two familiars: a shape-shifting panther named Shadow and a demonic bird named Griffon (DMC1 fans should instantly recognize these creatures). The former inflicts melee attacks, while the latter shoots projectiles. Each have their own regenerating health bar and can be taken out of combat temporarily if you're not careful. V also has a third familiar named Nightmare. This giant golem acts as more as a Devil Trigger-like last resort who can inflict ridiculous damage all on his own for a short duration. In addition, it can be commandeered to inflict more direct assaults on enemies. An enemy cannot be killed by a familiar’s attacks alone, though; V himself must inflict the final blow. V requires a patience that goes against your general instinct to be confrontational. As a result, his more deliberate pace can be occasionally irritating, especially when your familiars have trouble focusing on the proper target during a hectic fight. It’s a bit disorienting due to the lack of feedback from hitting enemies with your familiars.

Despite this, V’s emphasis on space management and calculated movement is a fantastic change of pace. Cunningly avoiding attacks as you command your familiars to deliver complex juggles is a satisfying thrill. And it's made all the more rewarding by the impact of a final blow alongside V's brief poetic soliloquies. V demands restraint, a quality that defies the offensive strategies of previous characters. His abilities may not seem like much, but he reframes the way DMC is played, demonstrating that there's still room for original and refreshing ideas in combat. V's inventive playstyle is a superb addition that feels right at home alongside Nero and Dante.

Old-timer Dante most maintains traditional mechanics, but he’s also where combat is most creative. Like his DMC4 counterpart, he’s able to seamlessly switch between four different fighting styles, each with their own unique maneuvers and setups. This time, though, he can equip up to four weapons and four guns. It’s a joy to perform combos with Dante‘s extensive arsenal; you're capable of rush-stabbing a demon, break-dance-fighting them while they’re down, and then propelling them into the air with a demonic motorcycle chainsaw.

While part of the fun is taking in the spectacle of a fight, playing as Dante is really about expressing yourself. There are so many attack combinations available that you can’t help but get sucked into learning the nuances of his every ability to achieve your desired style and flair. DMC historically excels when it’s continually motivating you to not only master its systems, but to execute upon them as elegantly and creatively as possible. Eventually, you get into a kind of flow with Dante, where combat is less about thinking than it is about feeling your way through it. Each character in DMC5 exemplifies this depth and intensity, but it’s with Dante’s open-ended combos where it feels most liberating and rewarding.

With an abundance of fighting systems to learn, it helps that you’re gradually weaned into them. The campaign’s pacing is deliberate, starting you with the more accessible Nero, then switching you to strategic spacing of V before opening up combat entirely with Dante. But even as you grow accustomed to how everyone plays, new mechanics are constantly introduced, keeping you thoroughly engaged in the highs of DMC5's stylish combat.

There are plenty of foes that test your abilities, too. Bosses in particular offer the most rewarding trials, with different challenges to suit each character's playstyle. For instance, one pushes Dante's ability to maintain quick and effective damage, where another is tailored specifically to V's vulnerability at close-range, forcing you to frequently manage your spacing while keeping your familiars in play. There are a couple bosses tied to relatively anticlimactic set pieces, but these are few and far between. The challenges are kept consistent, supplying riveting duels and new layers of complexity that inspire you to improve. And even with repeated deaths, a lenient continue system keeps the action and drama moving.

Speaking of drama, DMC5’s story is an engrossing, albeit predictable, saga with plenty of extravagant action to keep you thoroughly entertained. It has a non-linear structure that has you switching perspectives to get the full picture, which lends variety to the events unfolding before you. Set in the duration of a single day, you're notified of the passing of time at the start of every mission. The narrative benefits from this approach to storytelling, keeping you invested in what each mission has to contribute to your understanding of the timeline.

The return to familiar characters is perhaps the story’s most endearing quality. In fact, there are several loving nods to many of the series’ most iconic moments scattered throughout-- a particular instance involving Dante and a hat is a hilarious acknowledgement to the character's history. While some characters, like fan-favorites Trish and Lady, don’t have much to contribute, their presence at least brings a sense of camaraderie. However, a couple of nude scenes involving them come across as tasteless; with so many pleasing callbacks and references, moments like this awkwardly stand out. They feel cheap and unnecessary, hurting Trish and Lady's already minimal characterizations. It stands in stark contrast to the always delightful gunsmith Nico, who's established as headstrong, intelligent, and the reason why Nero is able to make short work of demons in the first place.

The story ties a nice bow on the classic continuity’s unanswered questions, allowing for satisfying conclusions for its major protagonists.

In spite of its more ambitious scale, DMC5's story leaves room for meaningful character development. It's by no means a nuanced study of its protagonists that digs deep into what makes them tick. But their motivations are always made abundantly clear, making for compelling melodrama whenever they clash against one another. You grow attached to their impassioned, if a bit simplistic, plights--if only to see how they'll overcome the harrowing challenges set before them. Ultimately, the story ties a nice bow on the classic continuity’s unanswered questions, allowing for satisfying conclusions for its major protagonists.

There is an effort to pull DMC5's more grandiose moments together on a mechanical level with the Cameo System, which adds a subtle online cooperative element to the formula. Some missions often include the presence of another character exploring a nearby area or even acting alongside you. By default these characters are AI controlled, but through the Cameo System they're controlled either by other players online or their respective ghost data. A cool concept on paper, the feature is largely underutilized with only one particularly exciting instance where you actually get to fight alongside another player. That said, seeing another player from afar does add a novel yet fleeting solidarity to your journey.

DMC5 thrives on the stylistic and mechanical prowess of its predecessors. It sticks to tradition above all else, pursuing a few ambitious new ideas along the way, but mostly maintaining the series’ focus on intricate fighting systems and campy bravado. Rarely does the game stumble, consistently leveraging its spectacle and mechanical depth to push aside any small frustrations. All the while, the story exudes a charismatic charm that keeps you constantly intrigued as you’re refining your skills. DMC5 proves the series can still be brilliant and imaginative without compromising its longest-held traditions.

Kirby's Extra Epic Yarn Review - Yarn Good Game

Wed, 03/06/2019 - 01:00

In 2010, Kirby's Epic Yarn spun the traditional formula of Dream Land's favorite hero on its head, reimaging Kirby stuck in a world made entirely of yarn, buttons, and zippers. Extra Epic Yarn ports Kirby's sidescrolling platforming adventure from Wii to 3DS and stitches on a few new features and modes for good measure. Most of Extra Epic Yarn plays as you might remember the original game--and it still looks just as good--but the port's additions craft new, enjoyable ways for you to approach its content.

Kirby does not have his trademark abilities in Patch Land, so you need to rely on his new knitted form to find unorthodox ways of overcoming obstacles and vanquishing foes. To attack, for example, Kirby throws out a whip of yarn to unravel enemies before wrapping the material up into a ball that can be thrown. There are also moments within levels where Kirby will take on a new shape, which briefly alters gameplay--when Kirby is a fighter jet, for example, Extra Epic Yarn becomes a fixed shooter.

Epic Yarn recaptures the charming simplicity of Kirby's earliest adventures, while also reimagining Dream Land's hero in a fun new way with its yarn-based aesthetics. The game retains the franchise's focus on simple platforming challenges populated throughout cleverly designed levels as well. Extra Epic Yarn adds on to this formula by including craft-focused variations of some of Kirby's traditional transformations in the platforming sections. Certain items on each stage transform Kirby if you manage to whip them up, allowing him to attack and occasionally navigate a stage in a new way. For instance, Nylon (Tornado) Kirby can spin at high enough speeds to pull apart any enemy or damage bosses, but the attack can also be used to briefly hover through the air. These new abilities are not necessary to completing any level, but several of them allow Kirby to more easily attack and jump at the same time, which adds a nice flow to the platforming. And like previous Kirby titles, you can stick with one you enjoy and bring it from one stage to the next.

It would have been nice to see Kirby's transformations inspire new puzzles in Extra Epic Yarn. Every stage--as far as I can tell--has been faithfully replicated, so there's not one puzzle you can't figure out without a transformation. It feels like a lost opportunity to implement a more creative application of Kirby's new powers.

On top of new transformations, Extra Epic Yarn also adds Devilish mode, which is the game's version of a hard difficulty. In Devilish mode, a small devil will follow Kirby and try to attack him. Striking back will cause the devil to scurry off, but it will return eventually and you'll have to hit it again if you want to get rid of it. And you do want to get rid of it. Unlike Normal mode, Kirby can be unwound in Devilish mode from taking too many hits, which forces you to start a stage from the very beginning. Devilish mode can present quite the challenge on later stages, where longer levels present more opportunities for a misplaced jump or slow attack. The new mode never becomes frustrating, though, thanks in large part to the implementation of the aforementioned transformation abilities. Devilish mode might not have worked in the more methodical Epic Yarn, but the ability to do quick, sweeping attacks while on the move with Kirby's transformations allows for Extra Epic Yarn to be more action-oriented. It's still tough at times, but as someone who thought Epic Yarn was too easy, Devilish mode introduces the challenge I want in a second playthrough.

Extra Epic Yarn also adds two new minigames which put you in control of either Meta Knight or King Dedede. Meta Knight Slash & Bead has you cut your way through stages as you collect beads, doing your best to slice through as many enemies as quickly as possible to earn more time. Dedede Gogogo is a much faster-paced variation of the same formula, pushing you to sprint through a stage instead of fight your way through it. Each minigame only has four stages, all of which only last a few minutes. Both work as enjoyable distractions when you want to take a break from the campaign--similar to Samurai Kirby and Megaton Punch in previous titles.

Epic Yarn recaptures the charming simplicity of Kirby's earliest adventures, while also reimagining Dream Land's hero in a fun new way with its craft-focused aesthetics.

One last change that comes in Extra Epic Yarn is the loss of motion controls, which were used in certain story levels in the original game on Wii and Wii U. You only notice the motion controls are gone in a few infrequent instances: the sections where Kirby turns himself into a train. Before, you laid out the train's path by pointing at the screen and dragging where you wanted the track to go. In the 3DS port, you use the control stick or d-pad, which is just harder to do. It's possible, sure, but I can't help but think incorporating stylus support in those sections would have made them easier.

Extra Epic Yarn brings new life to a Kirby game that's nearly a decade old. Everything there is to love about Epic Yarn is still here, but the addition of traditional transformation abilities and challenging Devilish mode provide options for anyone looking for a different or more difficult platforming experience. The two new minigames aren't game-changing additions, but they're both fun to complete and provide a change of pace if you ever need a break from the campaign. Whether you're looking to relive Kirby's adventure into Patch Land or want to pick up the game for the first time, Extra Epic Yarn provides hours of good fun, all wrapped up in charming, craft-influenced visuals. This 3DS port is the best version of the game, hands down.

Dead Or Alive 6 Review In Progress - Battle Ready

Sat, 03/02/2019 - 01:00

In the cutthroat world of fighting games, Dead or Alive has consistently proven that it's a solid contender. From its arcade debut in 1996, the series has made a name for itself with striking visuals, fun and memorable characters, and engaging fighting action, carrying the series along through some of the genre's darkest days. Now, Dead or Alive finds itself in one of the most crowded markets the genre has ever seen. Dead or Alive 6 still has the chops to stand out after all this time--though it does slightly stumble along the way.

When you first boot up Dead or Alive 6, you're greeted by a close-up of one of the game's many characters, staring you straight in the face as you navigate through the initial set of menus. It's an early glimpse at DoA6's graphical prowess, as you get to see one of the cast members before they step into the ring and turn into a bruised and battered brawler. The way the fighters themselves sustain visual damage during a fight is quite impressive. There's dirt, torn clothing, and flying sweat--even some of the heavier hits leave a little bit of blood, transforming every match into a fierce brawl. Thankfully, if you find these effects distasteful or distracting, there's also the option to turn them off. Combined with the flashy character costumes and colorful, elaborate arenas, DoA6 is a game with a distinct visual flair.

But the game's appeal is more than surface-level. DoA6 delivers solid, satisfying combat with its own twists. New to the franchise is a Break Gauge that fills as you deal or receive damage with your blows--a mechanic that's been seen in many other fighting games. There are a few things you can do with this shiny new gauge, thanks to a newly added "special" button that puts it to use: An offensive sidestep into an attack by pressing up or down in tandem with the special button, do a "Break Hold" universal hold counterattack by pressing back and the special button. Finally, you can execute a powerful "Break Blow" by either pressing towards the opponent and the special, or automatically at the end of a four-hit special button auto-combo, assuming the Break Gauge is full. These Break Blows are incredibly flashy, packing a serious punch both in lifebar and visual damage to the opponent. It's hard not to feel a bit demoralized when you're watching your fighter get physically wrecked by a secret ninja skill or a fist to an extremely vulnerable face--but it's super rewarding to push that same humiliation onto your foe.

The Break Gauge is a great addition to the game, as it's easy to understand and doesn't require a lot of execution beyond knowing when to use each special technique. All of these techniques are useful; the sidestep attacks can screw up somebody fishing for you to mess up a hold counter, the Break Hold can take some of the guesswork out of hold counters (and counter an opponent's Break Blow), and Break Blows just look cool and satisfying as hell… well, provided you can land them.

But the Break Blows aren't the only flashy thing about DoA6's combat. The series is known for having some pretty wild combat arenas, and DoA6's lush battlefields might be some of the craziest yet. They include a dilapidated theme park overrun by dinosaurs, a moss-encrusted battleship being assaulted by an angry kraken, and a multi-car pile-up with some very volatile vehicles that might go kaboom when someone touches them. These stages are littered with specific danger zones that both play an amusing cinematic and deal extra combat damage to an enemy when you send them flying into one with a well-placed blow. In some cases, you can even pull off unique combos with the aid of danger zones; the aforementioned dinosaur stage features an angry pterodactyl mama who will hoist a fighter into the air before dropping them again, setting them up for a big juggle combo. Alas, while the really nutty stages are quite memorable, most are a lot more sedate, and the stage selection as a whole feels somewhat lacking.

DoA6 also offers plenty of minor tweaks to the moment-to-moment gameplay, and options to make the game more beginner-friendly (such as simplifying the game's hold counterattack system inputs), but the most important thing is that the fighting just feels good. The rock-paper-scissors element of the holds-throws-attacks balance works nicely into gameplay with smooth animation that feeds into a seamless flow of combat. Every character offers something unique in terms of their fighting style, but once you have the basics down, it's not too hard to learn another character if you're not feeling who you're currently playing with. And while I'm not terribly fond of the designs of the two new characters (street brawler Diego is terribly generic, and blue-haired anime teen scientist NiCO looks like she belongs in a different game entirely), they both bring something new to the table in terms of their combat abilities.

Where DoA6 falters, however, is in its single-player content. Story Mode isn't too bad; the cinematics mostly use the in-game graphics engine, further showcasing DoA6's strong visuals, and the game wisely has an optional tutorial feature that teaches you basic strings for each character you'll assume control of so you're not thrust into blind combat. However, the weird multi-timeline presentation is a mess both in terms of interface and storytelling, leading to a confusing series of events that oscillates wildly between serious drama and goofy comedy.

Then there's the other big single-player mode, DOA Quest: a series of themed battles that offer in-game rewards, like parts for new character costumes and in-game money used to purchase and view extra story content. By completing sub-objectives in these battles-- like landing a specific attack a certain number of times or beating a quest within a time limit--you earn additional rewards and unlock more quests to attempt.

DoA6 also offers plenty of minor tweaks to the moment-to-moment gameplay, and options to make the game more beginner-friendly, but the most important thing is that the fighting just feels good.

DOA Quest isn't a bad idea on its own, but the game's grindy, frustrating unlock system turns a fine little challenge mode into an absolute chore. The main thing you'll want to use DOA Quest (and other single-player modes like Arcade Mode) for is unlocking character costumes and customization options, of which there are many. However, you'll soon discover that when you earn points that go towards unlocking new outfits, you have absolutely no say in where they will go. You could earn 300 costume points in a quest featuring Zack, for example, and those points you earn would go towards unlocking a random costume for Hayabusa instead--meaning you invested time and effort to earn partial rewards for a character you potentially don't care about. This happens a lot. To add insult to injury, even when you do get enough points to open up a costume for a character, you still have to pay earned in-game money to actually buy and wear it. It's an extremely ill-thought-out grind that sucks all of the reward out of playing single-player.

As of the time of this writing, the game's online servers haven't gone live, so we are waiting to see how the game's netcode and online interface stacks up before finalizing the review. For the time being, though, we can say that DoA6 is a fun, engaging fighter with great-feeling, easy-to-pick-up combat, a strong sense of visual style, and a lot of personality. If you're looking for a new fighting game to learn the ins and outs of--or perhaps a nice entry into the 3D side of fighting games--DoA6 is a fighter of choice.

Devotion Review

Fri, 03/01/2019 - 09:17

The most effective horror can seep its way into the mundanity of our everyday lives, ruminating beneath the surface before wrapping its malevolent tendrils around our sense of comfort and familiarity. Years after it was removed from sale, the bite-sized slice of P.T. we were privy to still manages to evoke those trembling feelings of unease more potently than almost any other horror game since--making each trip around that unremarkable L-shaped corridor an intimidating test of nerves. Devotion, a new psychological horror game from Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games, evokes P.T.'s terrifying spirit to paint an inventive, thought-provoking, and insidious portrait of family life within the claustrophobic confines of a small Taiwanese apartment.

Set throughout the 1980s, Devotion focuses on a strained family of three: struggling screenwriter Du Feng Yu, retired singer and movie star Li Fang, and their sickly young daughter Mei Shin, who aspires to be like her mother. The game predominantly takes place within the five rooms of their modest apartment, with a narrative that takes you on a distressing tour through the years and various configurations of this intimate space. The attention to detail in each facet of the apartment is striking, as every nook and cranny is thoughtfully assembled to replicate an authentic, lived-in home. There are old newspapers being used as makeshift tablecloths, pencils and discarded scripts messily strewn across desks, a corridor that's extravagantly decorated with the haphazard art of Meh Shin and her litany of crayons, and a calendar hung above the CRT TV that notates significant dates in the family's lives. Each detail, no matter how meaningful or insignificant, establishes and effectively reinforces Devotion's disconcerting sense of familiarity. This nuanced sense of place ensures that whenever your eyes are averted elsewhere and the apartment begins to shift and transcend its limitations--sometimes dramatically, other times subtly--it's all the more unnerving when you turn around and come face-to-face with a surreal distortion.

Click image to view in full screen

All of these details, from the apartment's transforming arrangement of rooms, its varying lighting, the tempestuous weather rattling away at the windows outside, and the way the building mutates around you, are all in service of Red Candle's profound storytelling. The central tale is intimately focused on the family of three, but Devotion manages to weave a tangled web that deftly examines the impact that mental illness, societal pressure and expectations, and religious fanaticism can have on a beleaguered family. For as much as Devotion is about its characters and the fantastic way their development coalesces with that of the ever-changing apartment--with the increasingly dishevelled rooms acting as a poignant metaphor for the family--it's also about a specific time and place; delving into the role of women in 1980's Taiwan, feminine beauty standards, the infancy of mental health research and the stigmas attached to it, and the sometimes dangerous faith desperate people will place in religion. Explorations of Taoism and Buddhism might not completely resonate with a Western audience, but the story is told in such a way that it's relatively easy to read through the lines and understand the awful, heartbreaking extremes people are willing to go to for those they love.

Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games, evokes P.T.'s terrifying spirit to paint an inventive, thought-provoking, and insidious portrait of family life

Impassioned voice acting brings Devotion's limited number of cutscenes to life, but most of the story is told through the myriad items you gather, read, and manipulate as you traverse through different variations of the family home during 1980, 1985, and 1986. Puzzle solving is relatively straightforward, with any items you find inevitably being used to solve a particular conundrum. All of your interactions are geared towards unravelling the mystery of exactly what happened within the unassuming walls of this family home. A note you found earlier might inform a scene later on, while coming to understand the family's relationship with one another will gradually evolve the context and meaning of certain trinkets aside from the revelations discovered in its most gut-punching moments. Devotion might be mechanically simple--knowing to put a camera on a tripod isn't going to wrack your brain, for example--but its strengths come from simply immersing you in a place with an engaging story you'll want to see through to its conclusion. There are a couple of jump scares, but they feel earned within the oppressive atmosphere achieved through ominous music, sounds, and unsettling imagery, with striking motifs tracing everything back to the family's shattered lives.

Unlike a lot of contemporary horror games, Devotion also resists the temptation to dabble in frustrating trial-and-error stealth sections or monotonous conflicts with monsters in an attempt to heighten any perceived sense of excitement. There is one regrettable chase scene late in the game, which is undeniably Devotion's lowest point, but it's also brief and easy enough that it doesn't overstay its welcome. At three hours in length it's feasible to reach the end credits in one sitting, and that might be the ideal way to experience it. The pacing is almost immaculate aside from a plodding stroll towards the game's final act, but even this is easy to push to the back of your mind once you've reached its stunning conclusion.

Devotion doesn't quite match the anxiety-inducing frights that permeate each cautious step forward in games like P.T. and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but its domestic terror burrows deep inside your psyche long after the final credits have rolled. The sorrowful story it tells meshes malice with tenderness, metaphor with stark truths, and achieves it all with the nuanced kind of environmental storytelling other games can only strive for. There are moments when it jumps out of the genre completely, surprising you with a sudden tonal shift, and others where the oftentimes clichéd presence of a children's doll is used to signal a character's poignant detachment. Everything Devotion does is in service of this story and its character development; you learn about these people's lives, empathize with their plight, and come to understand their actions, even if you don't agree with them. Home is where the heart is, and Devotion is a shining example of what the horror genre is capable of.

[Editor's note: At the time of publishing Devotion is not available to purchase on Steam. The game was pulled by Red Candle Games, which stated this was due to "technical issues that cause unexpected crashes and among other reasons." The game was also caught up in a controversy surrounding art in the game which looked to be based on a meme of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Addressing this, Red Candle Games said "our team would also review our game material once again making sure no other unintended materials was inserted." The game is expected to be made available again in the future.]

Ape Out Review - Monkey Business

Fri, 03/01/2019 - 01:00

Ape Out is, at heart, a game about jazz. The soundtrack is crafted by your improvised actions as you careen a runaway ape through the game’s levels, leaving a path of destruction and bloodshed in your wake. It’s high energy and exciting, even if, by the end, it feels like you’re playing the same basic tunes over and over.

It's a very simple game, at least in terms of how it's played--You're an ape, and you must run through each level without getting blown up or shot three times by human enemies. The camera is positioned above you, giving you a Hotline Miami-esque omnipotence when it comes to where your enemies are positioned. You can push enemies, who will splat and die if they hit a solid object, or you can grab them, at which point they'll fire at least one shot from their gun straight forward, hopefully into another person. A grabbed enemy can be thrown with more precision, which is especially handy if they're wearing an explosive pack, which will blow up and take out anything within its blast radius. You'll spend most of your time running forward, smacking enemies as you go, occasionally snaking away to avoid a mob or stopping to rip a steel door off its hinges.

But the way Ape Out elevates its relatively straightforward gameplay loop is by evoking the feeling of creating music, thanks to Matt Boch's captivating procedural soundtrack, which generates a drum-heavy percussion beat under the action. During lulls, the music fades to a calm, but when the action gets frenetic the drums and cymbal crashes kick in hard, and there are occasional horns and contextual changes depending on what's happening in any given stage. Additionally, the levels are presented as though they were albums, with each new subsection representing a track, complete with transitions from Side A to Side B at the midway point. It's a fascinating system which gives those moments where you're in the middle of a killing spree a significant extra kick. It's a repetitive game--you're ultimately doing the same thing continually over the whole course of the game--but it can also be quite propulsive and thrilling, especially when you're on a good run.

The stages themselves are starkly designed, with limited color palettes and simple geometric shapes. The ape itself is a single orange shape, and enemies are demarcated by a handful of different designs. There's a slight film grain effect over the action that gives everything a subtle jittery quality, and the album motif is even baked into the loading screens, which make the faint scratching noises of a vinyl record that is left on the turntable after the music has finished. The game’s greatest strength is how defined and consistent this aesthetic is. The unique art blends perfectly with the soundtrack, making the game's violence a bit more palatable than it might have otherwise been, and its boldness pulls you into the action very well.

It's great that Ape Out has so much style and flair, because it's essential to your investment due to the game's lack of variety. There are slight variations in how each level operates--the third album, for instance, features combustible liquids that can create walls of fire if you throw an explosives expert into them, and in the second (and best) album there are windows that riot police can rappel through--but they never dramatically alter how you need to play the game. A few new enemy types pop up, but the methods you use to deal with them never really change. There are a handful of good sections where the lights go out and you need to track enemy movements based on the beams of their flashlights, and they highlight how much the game could have benefited from more interesting gimmicks and variety. It’s a shame that Ape Out isn’t more playful, because whenever new ideas are introduced, they’re always welcome--there just aren’t that many of them. The game is short, yet some levels still feel superfluous and samey. I kept hoping a level would come along that would fundamentally change how I had to play, but this never happened.

Levels are semi-procedurally generated, so while some landmarks and choke-points will always pop up in roughly the same spot, the exact layout and enemy placements will change. This means that you'll sometimes find yourself in situations where a huge number of enemies swarm you at once, and properly defending yourself is all but impossible. Several times I encountered enemies wearing explosive vests and found that avoiding both their blast radius and gunfire from another enemy was frustrating and futile. The game isn't too difficult on the default difficulty, although there are occasional spikes when a level is a bit longer, which gives enemies more time to put bullets into you.

Ape Out is a game that draws you in with its strong aesthetic style and flair, but it feels short on ideas. When you're barrelling through a room, knocking multiple enemies into walls and watching them explode into puddles of blood, it can be quite exciting. But the game never really rises above being a mild thrill, and a lack the variety means that it’s too repetitive to truly make a strong impact. Ape Out isn't as creative with its level designs and challenges as it is with its soundtrack and art, but as it stands it’s a pleasant, jazzy way to spend a few hours.

Trials Rising Review - Bunny-Hopping Along

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 08:38

Trials Rising is a sequel to a franchise that has a lot of things figured out. After multiple entries that have helped refine gameplay that was already good to start off with, Rising doesn't veer too far off the track. It still has a wonderfully diverse set of destinations to visit, each with their own over-the-top track design and goofy finish line antics. Each course still encourages you to repeat it nearly obsessively in the pursuit of that next perfect run to show off online. Trials Rising has the same engrossing gameplay the series is known for, but it offers no new surprises.

Trials Rising is no more complicated to pick up and play than any of its predecessors. You only need to worry about your throttle, brakes, and the pitch of your motorcycle as you race across Rising's many 2D tracks, set in anything from a Russian missile silo to a tomato festival in the Italian countryside. This simplicity in control is complemented by a deep learning curve, challenging you to understand how Trials' physics work. They're not realistic by any stretch, but they do adhere to a set of rules that you'll need to become comfortable with to beat its most challenging courses.

The balance of your motorcycle is the first hurdle. Although you're only given access to three during the lengthy campaign (more can be unlocked using either in-game currency or real money), each of them handles in very different ways. One gives you more thrust from a stationary start but limits your rotational speed in the air, while another has a frame so light that you need to be cautious of applying too much throttle on a straight and having your front wheel fly into the air above you. Trials Rising gives you suggestions on which motorcycles are best for certain courses, and it is fun moving from one extreme to the other in between events and learning to adjust accordingly.

Controlling your motorcycle consists of shifting weight either backwards or forwards, determining whether you're going to gently roll over a hill at the end of a steep climb or see your wheels bounce away from the platform before you hurtle towards failure. It doesn't take long for basic maneuvers to start feeling like second nature. Small actions--such as leaning back to embrace a landing or shifting forward to go down a steep ascent--start blending together to create a tangible flow to Rising's earlier courses.

These levels are less challenging and more instructive, giving you ample room to experiment with Rising's mechanics while also rewarding you well for less-than-perfect finishes. Later courses start increasing the difficulty significantly. Tracks require careful consideration over throttle control and feature more gruelling skills tests, which punish even the slightest miscalculation. You have a large number of events between these two extremes, though, which makes each new challenge feel like an appropriate test of your skills rather than a jarring spike in difficulty.

However, even the most carefully executed runs through a course can become undone by obstacles that rely on seemingly random outcomes instead of skill to overcome. Catapults, exploding platforms, and more add an unpredictable nature to later courses that often feels more frustrating than exciting. A small variation on where you stop on a catapult before it fires you into the air can lead to wildly different outcomes, for example. It's one thing to fail a course and identify where you can get better, but it's another to be having the best run yet only to fail right at the end and not understand how you could've avoided it.

Rising has an incredibly useful training school that has new courses unlock as you progress through the campaign. These events teach you new techniques that give you a deeper understanding of how to control your motorcycle while also providing challenging proving grounds to test how much you've learned. These provide some of the toughest challenges Rising has to offer, but without the stress of needing to finish first in a race or worry about how many times you fail.

New to Rising are contract objectives from in-game "sponsors," which offer an additional level of challenge and extra rewards. With sponsors, courses you've already participated in can be replayed with some additional objectives. Anything from pulling off flips to limiting the number of faults you can have is on the table, tasking you with reprogramming your muscle memory and coming up with new routines on familiar tracks. Some of the most difficult sponsors will require you to finish first across several events; make a mistake along the way and you might as well start over. These are the least interesting of the bunch by virtue of feeling too unforgiving (even by Trials standards), but they're thankfully not required to unlock new events.

Rising's more stunt-focused events are less rewarding. If the rest of Trials Rising only has one toe dipped into a pool of absurdity, these events have the whole leg. You can use the ragdoll physics of your rider to steer balls into a basketball hoop or aim for exploding barrels to try and bounce yourself along a never-ending track. None of these events really test your understanding of Trials' main mechanics and are instead just positioned as quick palate cleansers for in-between events. None of them are precise in the way that other events are, making them less engaging to learn and a slog to play.

All events in Rising contribute to an overall player level, which you increase in order to access to events and unlock gear to customize both your rider and their motorcycles. Customization items are obfuscated in crates that randomly spit out three items at a time, with duplicates becoming a frequent occurrence just a few hours in. Frustratingly, these duplicates aren't immediately turned into in-game currency to save you the effort, instead forcing you to dive into multiple menus for each category of gear and sell them individually. The gear itself isn't varied or visually appealing enough to justify this headache, and it was easy to forget about it entirely after just a few minutes of wrestling with it.

Trials Rising also features a suite of multiplayer options, ranging from public and private multiplayer matches to more intimate--and hilarious--local multiplayer modes. Online multiplayer is straightforward; you join lobbies with up to seven other racers and compete across three courses, with points awarded based on your finishes. Trials plays better in a local multiplayer setting, and Rising's Party mode lets you organize up to eight courses into a single playlist with custom rules that up to four players can compete in. A new tandem motorcycle makes things even sillier. Two players control a single motorcycle through a course, making smooth course runs nigh impossible as you struggle to maintain control. It's a fun distraction that can be played for brief laughs.

Trials Rising isn't a reinvention of the franchise--it's an invitation to lose more hours to new exhilarating, technical, and ridiculous Trials courses.

Rising still lets you create brand-new courses from scratch, and race on any that other players have uploaded, but its tools for construction are still ridiculously complicated to grasp. The course editor has no tutorials on how to get up and running and no templates which you can build upon to make editing slightly quicker. The confusing menus, overwhelming taskbar at the bottom of the screen, and unintuitive movement within the editor make trying to create even just a simple track a needlessly difficult chore.

Trials Rising maintains the engrossing, challenging, and occasionally slapstick gameplay from past entries in the series, building upon it in small ways with a smartly implemented school to teach fundamental skills and modifiers to make events worth revisiting. But it also doesn't fix issues from the past, either. Its track editor remains uninviting to learn, and the more outrageous stunt events and course obstacles frustratingly lean more into random luck than calculated skill. Trials Rising isn't a reinvention of the franchise--it's an invitation to lose more hours to new exhilarating, technical, and ridiculous Trials courses.

Anthem Review - Stronger Alone

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 10:51

Launching upward off a jungle floor and bursting through a thick canopy of trees, bobbing and weaving your way under a waterfall as you take in the lush landscape below you, is one of the highlights of Anthem. Flight, in these moments, is freeing, serene and exhilarating all at once. But you will eventually have to come back down to earth. When you don't have a means to cool down in the air, you have to interrupt your flight to cool off on the ground--or else your suit will overheat and send you careening downward much more violently. This is what Anthem is like as a whole: a game where promising moments are bookended by frustration, where good ideas are undone before they can be fully realized.

It can take a while to warm up to Anthem in the first place. In its intro mission, you are a rookie Freelancer--a hero type who battles threats to humanity in mechanized combat suits called javelins. But that brief mission ends in failure, and after a two-year time skip, you're now an experienced Freelancer. As a result, everyone talks to you as if you know everything about the world, even though much of the game's space-fantasy jargon is explained only in codex entries. "Shapers," "Arcanists," to "silence" this or that "relic"--all the dialogue is structured as if you already know what all these things are, so there's not even an element of mystery to it. It's just hard to follow.

The story and overall worldbuilding do a great disservice to the characters, which have elements of what you might think of as BioWare's pedigree. The main cast is well-acted and genuine, with complicated emotions and motivations that might have been interesting had they been given time to grow. Two characters are mad at you for the events of the tutorial, even though it's never quite clear why; that bad blood spills over into your relationship with your current partner-in-Freelancing, Owen, and there's enough believable awkwardness there to make you almost feel bad for him. But because the narrative is so poorly set up, the drama feels unearned, the "emotional" reveals robbed of their impact, and any connection you might have had to the characters just out of reach.

Exacerbating all of this is Anthem's loot game core, which is simple on paper. After every mission, you return to your base of operations, Fort Tarsis, to talk to people, get new missions, and tinker with your javelins using the loot you picked up from the previous mission. Missions themselves almost universally involve some quick narrative setup followed by flying, completing routine tasks, and plenty of combat (with more brief plot-related stuff thrown in via radio chatter).

But this general structure doesn't work well in practice. You're told up front that playing Anthem with others is the best way to play and that you'll get better rewards in a group, but this means asking your friends to be quiet every few minutes so you can hear a bit of dialogue or to wait patiently while you tweak your loadout. Playing solo is better if you want to take your time and talk to different characters, but doing so can make missions more difficult or tedious. Matchmaking with random people is the best option, since you'll have people with you for grindy parts but will leave you alone for the story--but even then, it's easy to lose track of what's going on, especially if someone in your team is ahead of you and triggering dialogue early.

And no matter what, you'll have to return to Fort Tarsis after each expedition, which makes for choppy pacing in both the story and the gameplay. There's no way to change your loadout on the go and no way to just continue on to another mission right away, and there are currently a number of loading screens in between leaving and returning to Fort Tarsis. It's hard to really get into any kind of flow.

When I finally took the time to talk to NPCs in between missions, I found endearing characters and brief but interesting bits of story spread between them. There's one girl who just loves animals no matter how dangerous, and she'll happily tell you all about them; there's the oldest man in Fort Tarsis, who admits to doing some shady things to earn that title; there's an old woman whose daughter has been missing for years and might just need some kindness. Though it took some patience to do it, I was glad I stopped to listen to them.

Throughout all of this, combat is the main thing keeping Anthem afloat. There are four types of javelins--Ranger, Storm, Interceptor, and Colossus--that are essentially a soldier, mage, assassin, and tank, respectively. Each plays differently, with a different pool of abilities, and you aren't locked into the one you start with; you unlock them as you level up. That, combined with a handful of new weapons and abilities after each mission, means that you're almost always experimenting with new loadouts and playstyles.

I initially picked the Ranger, thinking it would be a good all-around class while I was learning the basics. But the guns alone aren't enough to make Anthem combat's exciting; I found a lot of the weapons, especially shotguns, to feel ineffectual. The Ranger's abilities are pretty straightforward, too--you get grenades and missiles and the like--which left me largely unimpressed with combat in the beginning. But then I unlocked the speedy Interceptor, whose gymnastic jumps and swift melee strikes are incredibly satisfying, and I started to get excited about trying new things in each successive mission.

The Storm javelin became my favorite, though, because it both has interesting elemental abilities and can hover for minutes, not seconds, at a time before overheating. Its assortment of powers lends itself well to getting combos, which result in a satisfying explosion of sorts and a more chaotic battlefield. But more importantly, it's the only javelin that doesn't require frequent stops on the ground, and as a result it provides the most dynamic combat--you can go from shooting basic enemies in a hallway to floating above the battlefield, raining down lightning to wipe out five at once while scoping out the area for your team.

Generally, all of the javelins can easily jet out of sticky situations in a pinch or briefly hover in the air to gain the upper hand, and combining movement with your abilities is consistently a good time. But when fighting titans and certain other bosses, there's a catch; a lot of them use fire attacks that overheat your suit and ground you instantly, robbing the fight of much of what makes combat interesting. You can still use your abilities, but they don't do much in these fights, and they fall flat compared to the often bombastic impact they have on regular enemies. This extends to the final fight, which is especially underwhelming.

The endgame thus far is to complete high numbers of the various mission types, which amounts to repeating many individual missions. The draw is better gear, but without compelling high-level fights, you don't have anything to build toward with all that grinding. A post-credits cutscene has the most intriguing plot point in the game and serves as a preview of what might come later on--but right now it's just a promise, rather than a true incentive to keep going.

It's worth noting that the early access period saw a number of technical hiccups. Dropped audio, server issues, long loading times, missions not registering as complete--I didn't have a single session without some sort of problem. A day-one patch aims to iron much of this out, but overall, the poor structure and pacing are a more frustrating problem.

Anthem has good ideas, but it struggles significantly with the execution. It's a co-op game that works best with no one talking; it buries genuinely interesting character moments and puts its most incomprehensible story bits at the forefront; its combat is exciting until you get to the boss fights and find your wings have been clipped. Even the simple, exhilarating act of flying is frequently interrupted by the limitations of your javelin, and you never quite shake that feeling of disappointment--of knowing, throughout the good parts of Anthem, that you'll inevitably come crashing back down.

Tetris 99 Review - Embrace The Chaos

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 05:47

What can be said about Tetris that hasn't been said already? Well, that depends on the type of Tetris game in question. Tetris Effect changed the conversation around the classic puzzle concept last year by directly tying your actions and the flow of stages to the fluctuating rhythm of an eclectic (and all-around amazing) soundtrack. In the case of the Switch-exclusive Tetris 99, the moment-to-moment gameplay is more immediately recognizable, but a new twist helps it stand out from Tetris games of old: a 99-player last-player-standing competition. It's chaotic, which can work in your favor or lead to moments that feel practically unfair. Thankfully, with the solid gameplay at its foundation and a quick means of getting into a new match, no game of Tetris 99 feels like time wasted.

The competitive aspect of Tetris 99 is something most people are familiar with, albeit based on less ambitious setups. Clear some lines, and a batch of junk lines will appear in a queue next to your opponent's puzzle space. If they can clear lines of their own, the junk-in-waiting can be negated; if no new lines are completed, the weight of your success will bear down on their board and reduce the free space for mid-drop tetrimino trickery.

This straightforward setup has, in the past, been utilized in two-player scenarios. With 99 players competing at once here, all visible next to your puzzle space with lines appearing and disappearing between players every few seconds, your early matches will feel a little confusing.

Somewhat frustratingly, Tetris 99 offers no explanation of its inner workings nor the function of various attack modes you can pick from during a match. You can get really far by simply playing Tetris the way you always have, but an uninformed player will always be at a severe disadvantage. Even though all the info is a quick internet search away, it's disappointing that Tetris 99 is bereft of these details or explanations.

So here it goes: You can influence automated attack patterns using the right analog stick, determining whether your offensive lines get sent to randoms, players attacking you, people near death, or players who have done the most killing in the match. Playing handheld, you can also use the Switch touchscreen to target players manually. Less intuitively, when playing docked, the left analog stick can be used to cycle through the phalanx of players on either side of your screen.

The control given to you by most of these options can be used in strategic ways, but none more so than by attacking killers, AKA the "badges" option. It's named thusly because killing a player nets you a portion of a badge and, better yet, any belonging to the defeated player. These badges enhance the output of your attacks, throwing more lines per combo and making the final moments of a match a living hell for your opponents. With the increasing speed of a Tetris 99 match, manually picking your targets based on small icons is an expert's game, so these automated attack profiles are ultimately to your benefit, even if they aren't explained well and could potentially be a source of confusion for new players.

The beauty of Tetris 99 is the tried-and-true game at the center of it all. Tetris is a god among games, and competitive Tetris only enhances the rising tension of a match. Tetris 99, being a game with so many competitors and a default "random" attack pattern, means that you will inevitably enter matches where the odds feel stacked against you from the beginning with no rhyme or reason. And when that happens, you may find that you have no recourse with a screen full of junk lines.

Even though each loss isn't always a lesson learned, it's also just a small roadblock, as a new match is generally seconds, rather than minutes, away. Simply hold down a button to start a search for new players, and watch the screen fill up with opponents in the blink of an eye. There may come a time when the countdown clock expires and matches have less than 99 players, but at launch, that is a very rare occurrence.

Tetris 99 may not be a proper battle royale game, but it taps into the same emotional well, where a large number of players vying for supremacy creates an ever-present intensity that's difficult to shake. Add that layer to a game that's plenty capable of instilling tension on its own, and you've got a riveting experience that even at its worst is still a game very much worth playing. There's obvious room for improvement, but that's the last thing on your mind when the pieces start falling and the players start dropping.

Yo-kai Watch 3 Review - Tokyo To Texas

Sat, 02/16/2019 - 06:02

If you had to explain Yo-kai Watch in a nutshell to someone who's never heard of or played it, you might boil it down to "Pokemon but with Japanese ghosts" or "Baby's first Shin Megami Tensei." Anything grim or distressing about a kid who can talk to ghosts goes by the wayside when the ghosts are comical entities like a missing left sock or a possessed police car. In this third expansive and quirky outing for the Yo-kai Watch series, our hero Nate has to take on a quest far more daunting than anything he’s faced so far: moving to America.

Specifically, Nate's family ends up moving to BBQ, an over-the-top caricature of Texas, for his dad's job, and finds that the U.S. has supernatural problems all its own that he and his best yokai buddies, a cat named Jibanyan and an uber-effete ghost butler named Whisper, have to handle. Meanwhile, back in Nate's hometown of Springdale (which is located in Japan), a bubbly ball of nerdy energy named Hailey-Anne is enticed into buying a Yo-kai Watch of her own, which ties her to Usapyon, a ghost astronaut rabbit. Stuck with each other, they form a detective agency.

That's really over-the-top as far as a game aimed squarely at a younger audience goes, and that's largely a result of how it's been localized. Yo-kai Watch 3 was originally two games in Japan, with Nate and Hailey-Anne's stories comprising a game each. The version released in the West has combined the two, allowing players to switch to the other campaign at will, before the two stories converge in the later hours. It's a daring choice that allows you a ton of control over how you experience the sprawling narrative, but it also highlights just how much the narrative didn't need to sprawl to begin with. The first major plot points of both stories--Nate meeting a boy in BBQ who can see yokai as well, and Hailey-Anne starting the detective agency--are a good five or six hours in. Having both stories in the same package is a positive, but having to manually thread together two stories that could already stand to be a little more concise is less so.

On the plus side, that does give you ample reason to slow down and really take in your surroundings, which is really one of the greater joys in this game. Despite the aesthetic, the interpretations of Japan and Texas are surprisingly intricate places full of people worth speaking to and places to wander off to. As the game went on, one of my favorite things to do in it was to ride the trains in Springdale, missing stops just to look around. In addition, Nate's story has the compelling element of him trying to get accustomed to American culture, and on occasion, work you do in one of the towns--unlocking an app, or asking someone for a favor--affects the story in the other. But by and large, much of the first half of the game has both Nate and Hailey-Anne doing random fetch quests or being distracted with the game's numerous side missions, which are fun but wholly tangential from the main game. That creates a major problem with pacing early on.

Yo-kai Watch has always been an accessible series, and this third entry is no different. The cycle of gameplay usually boils down to Nate finding a possessed human doing something unusual, using the watch to reveal the yokai controlling them, and getting into a simple showdown with it. After these battles, there's a strong chance it joins your menagerie of friendly yokai who can be used to fight other yokai--of which there are a whopping 600-plus. There are very few of what seasoned RPG veterans might consider a dungeon, and when there are, as long as you've found at least six yokai you like, you can blow through nearly all of them in mere minutes, with no real pressing need to collect more except for the sheer joy of collecting them.

Combat does ostensibly have some measure of depth compared to the series' predecessors, with the addition of a 3x3 grid system that allows you to move yokai around to dodge attacks and pick up special items. There's also plenty of information about each yokai which you can put to good use, such as elemental weaknesses and their preferred food. That's all alongside familiar mechanics like quirky mini-games used to heal yokai that have been afflicted with status effects or to charge up ultimate (or more accurately, Soultimate) attacks. But with the exception of the occasional boss fight and the rather welcome difficulty spike of the final third of the game, it's rare that you actually have to utilize any of these mechanics. So much of the game's combat is a passive experience, but neglecting to have a full grasp of it when the game finally expects you to be proactive in battle will eventually get you in serious trouble.

These are the things that make Yo-kai Watch excellent as an introductory RPG for beginners. For everyone else, however, the game has to endear itself in between major plot points on sheer charm which, thankfully, it's more than capable of delivering. On the Hailey-Anne side, what comes off as grating over-enthusiasm at the start settles down over time to become unflappable optimism and curiosity. The girl fears absolutely nothing, even when giant demons start showing up that send her running through the streets. Her alliance with Usapyon evolves from one of convenience to a genuinely sweet elementary school partnership over time, especially as the details of Usapyon's origins become clearer.

Having both stories in the same package is a positive, but having to manually thread together two stories that could already stand to be a little more concise is less so.

As mentioned, Nate's side has an even more intriguing angle. For some reason, the localization obscures the fact that Nate's hometown of Springdale is in Japan, but the touchstones of a kid dealing with severe culture shock are still here. Even when American culture is as hilariously exaggerated as it is, there's something subtly poignant about an ostensibly Japanese kid exploring an all-American city for the first time. And as his circle of friends expands to include Buck, a wild-haired kid with a deep southern drawl, so too does his experience with American yokai and all the loud and proud aspects of such.

It's still a game aimed at a young crowd, though, and the game's poignancy is undercut a bit by wild reactions, non-sequitur humor, and impromptu j-pop musicals. Most of the scarier aspects of the game dealing with the existence and management of the afterlife have been softened to the absolute extreme. The game was only ever going to get so serious, and the winking nods to more adult fare like The Godfather, Fist of the North Star, The X-Files, and Twin Peaks are indeed just that: playful winks. It's less the competitive Growlithe-eat-Growlithe world of Pokemon than a cheerful, wacky playground where Pokemon-like creatures happen to live.

There's not much to Yo-kai Watch 3, but there’s still a lot of charm to be found. The towns of Springdale and BBQ are both bright, pleasant places to be; the people in it are even more so. Visiting the world of Yo-kai Watch for the third time is a fun time, even though you’ll end up staying a lot longer than perhaps necessary.

Eastshade Review - Easel Does It

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 15:00

There's a blacksmith, toiling away in the markets of the capital of Nava, who thinks making swords is boring. Why create something, she argues, when death is its only use? She'd rather make a kettle any day of the week. So I bought her kettle, and now I can brew all kinds of delicious, and at times mysterious, tea whenever I hole up and camp in the wilderness. And I still haven't found a sword.

Eastshade is a non-violent, first-person adventure game set in a rolling open world full of quests. Imagine an Elder Scrolls game was an old boot, and you picked it up, turned it upside down and shook it until all the combat and magic and loot, every orc and dragon and bandit fell out. Then you took a shoehorn and eased a walking simulator inside the wrinkled leather before setting off on a delightful stroll across the countryside. Eastshade is just about the loveliest, prettiest, and just bloody nicest game I've played in years.

You play an artist, recently shipwrecked in Eastshade near the small coastal village of Lyndor. After a kind chap finds you on the beach and lets you rest in his cozy cave until you recover, you resume your journey to visit and then paint your just-passed mother's favorite places in Eastshade. It's a simple setup, paying tribute to a lost loved one, and it's indicative of the kind of sincere, touching gestures you'll carry out over the course of the game.

The flow of Eastshade will be familiar to anyone who has played an open-world RPG in recent years. You speak to NPCs, at first enquiring about the local history and points of interest before delving into something more personal and finally unlocking a unique quest. A child and aspiring painter asks you to help her acquire some art supplies. A smitten merchant wants some advice on how she should pursue her romantic interest. A park ranger needs your assistance in catching and caring for an injured waterfox. Not everyone has a story to tell--there are plenty of mute, generic NPCs filling the streets--but the ones you do meet almost always open up to you in the sweetest of ways.

Most quests involve tracking down the next person in the quest chain or venturing afar to find a particular item. Some, however, require your talents as an artist. Indeed, it seems that once an Eastshadian discovers you can paint, they're quick to realize how much they'd really like some oil on canvas hanging over the fireplace. One keen art-lover asked me to paint him a picture of a chicken, so I made my way over the markets where I'd earlier spied some chickens nestling among the hay, set down my easel and painted the perfect poultry portrait.

The act of painting itself isn't simulated in any way. You simply use the mouse to drag a frame across the screen. Anything within that frame is then captured, rendered in a painterly style, and reproduced on the canvas. In essence, you're taking screenshots. As such there's much pleasure to be had in framing your subject, as anyone who has unearthed the joys of a game's photo mode can attest. I was asked by a particularly pompous villager to paint his portrait, and fully capture all his self-described nobility and heroism. He was sitting in a tavern at the time, next to a huge fireplace whose chimney stretched to the double-story ceiling, so I framed him as this tiny figure dwarfed by the imposing stone furnace. He was grateful, of course--I'm sure the game logic merely checks if the required subject is in the frame--but I found it extremely satisfying.

At a certain point you will also gain the ability to register with another local artist and begin taking commissions to earn glowstones, the local currency. It functions much like a job board: you check in, accept the gig, then return later with the finished painting and collect your cash. Each commission gives you a description of the type of painting desired and it's up to you to figure out where you need to go and what you need to include in the frame. Some are easy to identify, like a specific request for a windmill, but you may have no idea where to find it. Others are more vague, like a “starry cavern” or a “natural arch.” Either way, it's enjoyable to have your memory of the landscape tested as you struggle to recall elements of the terrain.

Sometimes you won't have a spare canvas to paint on, meaning you'll have to obtain the materials necessary to craft a new canvas. Fortunately, there are wooden boards and piles of cloth lying around the various towns and villages, and NPCs don't seem to mind at all if you walk into their homes and grab some. It's a good idea to thoroughly explore every area and collect any such craftable materials as there doesn't seem to be any limit on how much you can carry. I found I typically had enough canvases to complete quest-critical paintings, but if I'd wanted to paint for fun, as it were, I would have had to tediously wait for previously collected materials to respawn or spend my hard-earned glowstones to buy them.

Money's tight, you see, and there are other things worth purchasing. This isn't an RPG, so you won't be selling loot to finance your endeavors--though there is a sort of joke merchant who will buy anything off you for the princely sum of one glowstone. However, there are items you will need in order to access new areas of the world. A coat, for example, lets you continue to explore the countryside during the cold nights, while a tent lets you camp outdoors overnight or simply rest for a while if you need to meet someone at a certain time of day.

You'll find yourself walking a fine line between securing what you need to complete your current tasks and saving up to afford what you need to unlock new quest possibilities. I remember standing in the markets and agonizing over whether to spend what little money I had on a fishing rod (because one quest wanted me to catch a particular type of fish) or a kettle (because my pockets were already bursting with all different kinds of plants and herbs). It was a genuinely stressful moment in a game otherwise conducted entirely in serene contemplation.

Eastshade is a slow game. There's an awful lot of walking, or running once you realize there's the option, and you'll spend almost all your time trekking back and forth between villages or strolling across town from one shop to the next, ferrying this item to that person and hoping to speak to so-and-so about this-and-that. It would quickly grow tiresome were it not for the dinky penny-farthing bicycle you can buy and the presence of craftable fast travel items, and more importantly, the immense natural beauty found in every corner, along every path, and over every crest of the world.

Indeed, Eastshade is a slow game that moves at just the right pace. From the warm, golden sunlight filtering through the dense canopy of the Great Tree to the pools of water on the terrace farms that skirt the city glittering in the morning light, you'll constantly find yourself stopping to catch your breath. Even after treading the same cobbled road a dozen or more times, hours later I would still find myself admiring the scenery, expansive vistas and minute details alike.

The pace perfectly complements your actions, too. This is a game about taking your time and paying attention to the environment through which you're moving. You have a quest log and a map of the land, but there are no quest markers or waypoints telling you where to go. You have to read the lay of the land and remember details of where you've been. As you travel, the geographical contours of the world gradually become imprinted in your mind until you could paint them almost from memory alone. Almost.

By giving you a paintbrush (and a kettle) instead of a sword, Eastshade is a rare first-person open world game that's not about killing but rather about doing good deeds, helping people see the error of their ways, and bringing communities together all through the power of art. It's a breath of fresh Eastshadian air and a genuine, unironic feel-good game. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to put the kettle on.

Crackdown 3 Review - Man Of Steel

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 00:01

It's been a long wait for Crackdown 3. Delays can be a positive thing, offering developers time to refine and polish a game. In other cases, it can result in what feels like a dated experience. Crackdown 3 firmly falls in the latter category, offering some amusement but little in the way of interesting new ideas or fun things to do. It's large and bombastic, with plenty of chaos and collateral damage, but few redeeming values--like a video game version of Man of Steel.

You play as a superpowered member of The Agency who is sent into a city to dispense justice as you systematically eliminate the comically evil members of a nefarious evil corporation. You start out relatively weak but progressively grow in power, jumping higher and gaining the ability to perform ground pounds, pick up and throw increasingly heavy objects, and so on. Enemy factions are responsible for certain aspects of the criminal operation, such as manufacturing a sort of poison, and taking them out weakens that area and makes your ultimate goal of taking down the big bad leader more feasible. There will be collateral damage along the way that is frowned upon--kill too many innocents, and a local militia puts up a halfhearted effort to put you down--but is soon forgotten. Yes, I'm describing Crackdown 3, not its 2007 progenitor.

It would be fine for this to feel so familiar if the action itself were more engaging. The core of collecting orbs (to level up your agility and jump height) and wreaking havoc remains enjoyable, but it isn't strong enough to make up for Crackdown 3's numerous shortcomings. From the moment you gain control of your character, it's hard to shake the sense that this doesn't feel like a game from 2019. Draw distance aside, the visuals are underwhelming, leaning too heavily on recreating the simple cel-shaded look of past Crackdown games. The one technological advancement the game has to boast about--large-scale destruction, powered by Microsoft's Azure cloud servers--is reserved entirely for the online Wrecking Zone mode, which uses mode-specific maps rather than letting you blow up parts of the city itself. There's no meaningful destruction in the campaign, and the end result is a world that feels lifeless, as if some key element of it is missing.

The game's opening takes place in a small area of the city and lays out the basic structure of your goals: Take over a particular boss's various bases to locate him or her and then complete a boss fight, which, in most cases, is a pretty standard encounter where the enemy has more health than usual. This tutorial is somewhat of an off-putting start; for a game about freedom and doing badass superhero things, you're stuck in a tightly confined area, underpowered, and tasked with a goal that entails killing some enemies and then removing a pair of batteries powering a propaganda station. Before long, the game opens up and you're given access to the full city and a wider selection of objectives to tackle, at which point there's some hope that the newfound freedom and variety will provide the excitement that's lacking in this early area.

The problem is, what you do in that opening section is representative of the entire game; there's very little variety to speak of. Ostensibly, each of the different factions presents its own unique challenges and objectives for you to complete. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that what distinguishes them are only surface-level details. No matter the faction, you're always mindlessly shooting an endless wave of foes as you work your way toward objective markers. Once you're there, you'll usually hold a button. Sometimes you'll have glowing targets to shoot. For a certain objective, you have to shoot a piece of machinery or throw a rock underneath it (always two times) to destroy it. After multiple hours of this, the action begins to bleed together. All of these bases you complete are just another box you can check off the to-do list, rather than a satisfying challenge you look forward to dealing with. I suffered a crash midway through the game that might have resulted in me losing some small amount of progress, but with how same-y many of the objectives are, I honestly wasn't sure if I was repeating one I had already completed. One of the major criticisms of the original Crackdown was a lack of things to do, and while there might be more here on paper, far too much of it feels like filler, rather than worthwhile missions.

Interesting enemies could have made these rote objectives more exciting, but they too suffer from a lack of diversity. There are different archetypes with their own attack patterns, but they do little to shake up the action, even if some do fly, have shields, rush at you, or pilot mechs. Snipers, due to the heavy damage they inflict, were the only enemies that prompted me to break from my otherwise uniform approach of attacking whatever was closest to me. Weapons have certain types of targets they're more or less effective against, but certain guns are so powerful that I found little need carefully evaluate what I was using. You move from one objective on the map to the next, hold down the trigger to lock on to enemies, hope it picks the target you want (not always a given), and then blast away.

And that's okay. Crackdown 3 isn't a game where you should need to carefully consider your loadout and the precise manner in which you need to approach a fight; you're supposed to be a superhero who can dominate whatever is in front of you. But the combination of stale objectives and cannon-fodder enemies makes combat mindless and, at times, even boring, which is strange for a game filled with explosions and enemies flying off of rooftops. If you were to chart the excitement of playing through the campaign, there would be few peaks or valleys; it's just sort of a constant white noise, like you're taking a weed wacker at whatever is in front of you. It's not until much further into the game that you gain the weapons (like a gun that creates black holes) and high-level abilities (like being able to pick up and throw tanks) that make combat more entertaining. By that point, the repetitive goals and encounters have long since become stale. Making your way up the skyscrapers that serve as headquarters for the final few bosses provides some of the only memorable combat sequences, but these only serve to emphasize how rote so much of the game is otherwise.

it's just sort of a constant white noise, like you're taking a weed wacker at whatever is in front of you

Outside of the core objectives, there is some fun to be had. Stunt rings that require you to drive a vehicle through them are an amusing challenge, even if the solution is often to rely on your transforming vehicle's ability to jump into the air. (Your Agency car can be summoned at almost any time and transforms into various forms, which is a cool concept that's spoiled by the poor driving controls that make it feel like you're riding across a sheet of ice.) Rooftop races that have you going from checkpoint to checkpoint on foot, often by leaping from one building to the next, are a thrill. Likewise, climbing puzzles that have you ascend tall structures make for a chest-pounding activity. Just be sure to do those as soon as you meet the recommended agility level designated on the map; wait too long, and the satisfying rush of landing a difficult jump is gone due to your ability to skip obstacles with massive leaps.

Co-op multiplayer improves things across the board, letting you race against a friend and engage in general shenanigans. The old Crackdown standby of picking up someone driving a car and throwing it--whether to help them reach a distant goal or simply to doom them--is a hilarious way to interact with another player, and it's nice that rooftop races can be a competitive activity. But all of this only masks the underlying problems of the game; the action is just as repetitive, and I found myself wishing my partner and I had something worth doing together. Still, co-op is easily the best way to play the campaign.

Wrecking Zone, Crackdown 3's competitive multiplayer component, brings in the much-hyped cloud-powered destruction elements--but little else. There are two different 5v5 modes available: Agent Hunter, where you kill enemies and collect badges they drop to score points, and Territories, where you capture and hold zones to score points. Much like the campaign, neither mode brings anything new to the table, relying on the gunplay and destruction to do all the heavy lifting. What you see in your first few matches is repeated ad nauseam, with little variety.

Rather than requiring players to freely aim, Wrecking Zone allows you to target enemies by holding a lock-on button that works even at long range. Doing so alerts the enemy to your position, but because this lock-on can be maintained so easily, securing a kill rarely feels enjoyable or as if you've truly earned it. It also means that deaths are often frustrating because they tend to be the result of someone spotting you first from an angle where it's difficult to break their line of sight. One-on-one duels amount to two players holding down their respective triggers and jumping around each other to little effect, due to the sheer strength of the lock-on; at that point, it's just a matter of who began firing first or if someone has to reload mid-fight. The end result is combat that's never truly satisfying.

Destruction is Wrecking Zone's lone standout feature, but it's underutilized. Technically speaking, it's impressive, and the spectacle of watching buildings crumble is delightful. However, there tends to be the slightest of delays between when you'd expect that crumbling to begin and when it actually does, presumably due to the fact that this destruction is being processed by the cloud, rather than on your console. It's a nearly imperceptible wait, but it's enough to cause a feeling of disconnect with what's going on. Despite that, blowing things up is the most enjoyable part of Wrecking Zone, which makes it frustrating that it's not tied directly to what you're tasked with doing. There are times where you might be able to destroy a floor or wall to expose an enemy's position, but far more often you're better off repositioning yourself. Destruction tends to feel like an incidental event, rather than something that is a core aspect of gameplay. Because of that, Wrecking Zone is at odds with the one notable thing about it; your best opportunity to appreciate the destruction is to remove yourself from the action and hope no one comes to bother you as you blow things up.

Leaping high through the air across rooftops and collecting orbs--which still feature one of the all-time great sound effects--is fun and rewarding, because that pursuit has a direct correlation to further improving your jump height. Lifting large objects and chucking them at foes is likewise an entertaining alternative to typical gunfights. Just like in its predecessors, these two superpowers are the primary source of what entertainment there is to be had in Crackdown 3. But it soon becomes apparent that the game has little new to offer beyond cool destruction tech that never gets put to good use. It certainly delivers on letting you blow things up and jump around the city. However, a dozen years after the first Crackdown offered that same experience but failed to provide you with enough interesting content surrounding that, it's truly disappointing to see this latest iteration suffer from the very same problems.

Far Cry: New Dawn Review - Scavenge And Recycle

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 22:00

Spoiler alert: At the end of Far Cry 5, the United States gets nuked. Seventeen years later, the region and residents of Hope County have endured and mostly recovered from the devastation anew. The vegetation is more abundant, society has been reshaped, and there is a hell of a lot more duct tape everywhere. Everything feels new and different--well, except for that fact that there's ruthless, tyrannical oppression taking over everything and it's up to you, and basically only you, to stop it. Some things never change. That's Far Cry: New Dawn--despite a few new novelties and a great mechanical twist, New Dawn feels exactly like what it is: a direct continuation of Far Cry 5.

That's not inherently a bad thing. New Dawn features the same kind of forward-thinking approach to open-world exploration and progression as Far Cry 5. While main missions are mapped out for you, the discovery of side activities like enemy outposts, treasure hunts (formerly prepper stashes), and companion recruitment missions mostly comes from your own organic exploration. Earning perk points to improve your abilities is tied to your discovery of hidden caches and diversifying the activities you undertake. New Dawn is a more concise game--the map is smaller than Far Cry 5 and there's less curated content to discover this time around--but the emphasis is still on staying out in the world and soaking up the environment.

That sense of freedom has been diminished, however. It's not the fact that you're revisiting Hope County, but rather how New Dawn sets up the pins. In Far Cry 5, you began in the middle of the map and were allowed to explore in any direction you wished; New Dawn starts you off in the bottom corner of the map and basically pushes you in a steady, linear sweep north as you slowly reclaim territory, and asks you to regularly bring resources back to your base in that starting area to bolster it.

What's to stop you from just darting ahead? Well, damage numbers. New Dawn introduces RPG elements, like damage numbers, into its design for the first time in the series. The game's guns and enemies fall into four different tiered ranks, and getting ahead requires that you go out into the world to scavenge crafting materials to upgrade your base so you can upgrade your weapons workshop and eventually craft better guns to take down the higher rank enemies impeding your progress. Outfits, armor, and defense numbers don't factor in your growth, just weapons. Guns at rank 1 and 2 will do a minimal amount of damage to well-armored rank 3 and elite rank enemies.

Early on, this can be annoying if you try to push the limits of the game in a way you're not meant to. Heading too far into the map and needing to use up hundreds of bullets to take down a rank 3 bear you encounter isn't terrifying as much as it is silly, and eventually, the demands of story missions will stop you from going too far.

But if you dial down your Far Cry 5-style expectations of freedom and go with the flow, you run into these awkward predicaments far less often. Your guns feel like they do the damage they're supposed to, and enemies feel like they have an acceptable level of resistance. In fact, once you get access to the top-tier arsenal, things will start to swing wildly in your favor--your guns will feel overpowered to the point where even shooting rank 1 enemies in the foot might be enough to take them out--which feels great when you're getting overwhelmed. Played the right way, the game's RPG-style systems basically feel invisible, and you can enjoy Far Cry's style of weighty gunplay and feel like an incredibly competent one-person army. The feeling of eventually being able to overcome New Dawn's elite enemies is good, but you're left wondering why you needed to be held back by artificial gating at all.

It doesn't help that there's no tangible sense of growth with weapons and vehicle crafting; New Dawn's selection of guns and cars isn't dramatically different enough between ranks to make the large distinction in damage output believable. Rank 1 weapons are a varied suite of handguns, rifles, and shotguns, and higher-rank arsenals are basically defined by the increasing amount of duct tape and junk on that same suite, as if that stuff has magical properties that makes the guns perform better. There are lots of guns to choose from, but if you've played Far Cry 5 you'll immediately recognize them, duct tape or no.

The one nice exception is the new Saw Launcher, which shoots circular saw blades. Higher tier versions of the weapon actually have noticeably different properties, like the ability to shoot saw blades with ricocheting, homing, and boomerang traits. It's the only weapon which truly feels like it was borne out of the post-apocalypse, improvised from scavenged parts. Aerosol cans, pipes, and spray paint might give the other guns and cars a cool look, but it doesn't change how familiar they feel.

The same can be said of the world itself. Far Cry 5's Hope County already felt a bit post-apocalyptic--the rural setting was isolated from the world thanks to antagonist Joseph Seed--so even though there are plenty of visible differences to the region, the impact of those changes isn't massive. There are a few key locations that provoke some amusement in their discovery, but the strength of Far Cry 5's Hope County was its natural environments--the forests, lakes, rivers, and mountains. The conceit that the region was re-vegetated by a super bloom after nuclear devastation means that the vibe in New Dawn is basically identical, despite dramatic increases in upended cars and graffiti. It's a pretty post-apocalypse, but it doesn't have the feeling of desperation you might associate with the theme. Scavenging for materials doesn't feel like a drastic necessity, just a way to get ahead. New Dawn doesn't feel like it takes the theme to enough of an extreme to feel meaningful or different.

The solid bones of Far Cry's combat are still here, though, and they're still very good. Taking on outposts (within your rank), whether that be via stealth or aggression, is still enjoyable, and the game encourages you to repeat them at increased difficulties to earn more resources. New Dawn also introduces seven self-contained missions called Expeditions. These are large, diverse maps set outside Hope County, and they feature setpieces like a New Orleans amusement park, an aircraft carrier, and even a Splinter Cell-themed plane crash. Expedition environments are a highlight, but the snatch-and-grab objectives mean that you're never really encouraged to stop and appreciate them--you're more concerned with getting the hell out of there as a non-stop stream of enemies comes after you.

The concise nature of the game means there's a remarkable lack of time given to the characters and plot, too. A few of the major characters feel like they could be interesting, the twin sister antagonists especially, but the few interactions you have with them are definitely not enough to develop them and make you care. While the performances have gusto, key moments of pathos just feel completely unearned. Something major happened to a key character and I was surprised how little empathy I felt. A detestable deal is made and I was mad at how little time they spent justifying it. Underdeveloped connections to characters also exacerbate the relative mundanity of the story missions compared to the game's side and open-world activities--turret sequences, bland chases, forced melee fights, and even a slow boat ride, all of which go on for way too long.

You do get a double jump, though. That is, the ability to jump in mid-air. You also get the ability to basically turn invisible and give yourself super speed and strength. The Far Cry series has always dabbled in the mystic, but yes: In a strange turn of events, New Dawn eventually says "screw it" and gives you access to superhuman powers. And the way it changes how you approach the world is undoubtedly the best thing about the game.

These sudden powers let you lean hard into superhero fantasy, allowing you to bound over fences and onto buildings, using your newfound mobility and invisibility to completely terrorize enemies like you're the Predator, or perhaps jumping high into the fray and firing off explosive arrows, pretending you're Hawkeye from The Avengers. Maybe you're more of a Wolverine, activating the berserker ability to rush an outpost at super speed and send heavily armed assailants and bears alike flying with your bare fists. A minor new mechanic lets you temporarily pick up shields from enemies and toss them like you're Captain America (supporting characters even refer to you as "Cap"), and I'm shocked they didn't do more with this--the inability to permanently keep a shield is a big disappointment.

The powers are so good that it's almost a shame they come at a point late in the game where you'll likely already be well-equipped to deal with elite rank enemies, since a few scenarios that challenge your ability to use these effectively definitely would have been a welcome addition. But as it stands, they're a fantastic expansion of Far Cry's combat vocabulary. They completely elevate your confidence to rip through everything and everyone, suddenly turning New Dawn's familiar, pedestrian experience into a raucous blast.

There's a lot of potential in the ideas seeded in New Dawn, but there isn't enough room for many of them to breathe and feel fully realized. Not the post-apocalyptic theme, not the RPG mechanics, not the weapons, vehicles, plot, or characters. Advancing through the adventure is an enjoyable experience, especially once you get your superhuman powers, but this is largely because Far Cry 5's combat and progression models remain compelling enough to propel you forward. For its part, New Dawn is a palatable but unremarkable spin-off that feels like it could have achieved so much more.

Jump Force Review - Shonen Through And Through

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 16:00

Jump Force is a celebration of 50 years of Weekly Shonen Jump manga, featuring nearly four dozen fighters from 16 of the magazine's most iconic stories. Bandai Namco's arena tag-team fighting game borrows plenty of elements from its source materials, for better and worse. Although Jump Force's campaign story drags on for way too long and ignores what could have been interesting character interactions in favor of repeated excuses for everyone to punch the crap out of each other, its combat is an enjoyable dance between two teams of fighters--thanks to the game's excellent mechanics and flashy visuals.

In Jump Force, you're an ordinary human who's caught up in a warzone when the Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Naruto universes collide into our world and bring their assortment of heroes and villains with them. After being mortally wounded by Frieza, you're resurrected as a hero capable of learning the powers, skills, and abilities of Shonen Jump's characters, and you decide to join Goku, Luffy, and Naruto's Jump Force of allies in order to fix everyone's broken world. What follows is a fairly stereotypical shonen affair, with your character growing stronger over time, enemies and friends switching sides, and a mysterious evil working behind the scenes. Like most fighting games, there's not a single problem you don't ultimately just fix with your fists, from deciding team leader to knocking sense into those who have been corrupted by the same evil forces responsible for everyone's worlds colliding with one another.

There's a decent story in Jump Force, but it's buried beneath a second act that goes on for far too long. After getting acquainted with your new allies, the game tasks you with responding to threats around the globe, as well as the recruitment of any additional heroes who've managed to stumble into our world from their respective universes. Character models during cutscenes are all rather cookie-cutter, as everyone stands in the same position throughout the story, only stiffly moving their mouths and occasionally blinking. The actual story moves with the same awkwardly slow pace, and it doesn't explain what's going on with everyone's worlds or what the villains' motivations are until the third act, so you play through most of the game without any idea as to what you're really fighting against. Not being able to skip cutscenes is also rather annoying, as exiting out of a mission for any reason--such as buying more items to use in combat--has you watch the same 40- to 90-second scene again.

There are brief snippets where you can see how a side story might have helped flesh out the characters, which in turn could have been a good incentive to keep pushing forward through the campaign. For example, Boruto recognizes a sadness behind the eyes of My Hero Academia's Midoriya and confides with the young hero that he knows how hard it is to live up to the ideal of father figures. But the game breezes past moments like this in order to get to the next fight.

Thankfully, those fights are a blast to play. Every combatant comes equipped with an assortment of attacks, blocks, grabs, counters, and dodges that operate in a rock-paper-scissors system. Combat is fairly accessible, and it doesn't take long to understand how the basic mechanics work. However, with over 40 playable fighters, it takes time to get a handle on the entire roster's assortment of strengths and weaknesses, giving you plenty of reason to keep playing. Each fighter has four distinct and unique special attacks as well. Even though these special moves can be broken down into one of seven different types--short-range, dashing, counter, area-of-effect, long-range, shield, or buff--each fighter handles quite differently. If you've read the manga that these characters come from, you already have a fairly good idea as to what most of these iconic moves are and how they behave, but you'll still have to practice with each fighter to get a grasp of what every move can do.

Every attack, basic or advanced, can be avoided in some way--whether via blocking, dodging, or countering--so most fights are tense, with each side looking for a way to bait their foe into opening themselves up for attack without putting themselves at a disadvantage. I've had fights where, after 30 seconds of back-and-forth, both sides are one strike away from defeat, and the battle continues for another full minute of counters, perfect dodges, and last-second blocks. It's empowering to finish off your foe with a perfectly executed combo or snag a victory when all hope seems lost. Each win feels like it needs to be earned, and this encourages you to explore the varied movesets of each fighter, experiment in how attacks might be chained together, and deduce your go-to characters' weaknesses in order to avoid defeat.

This is especially true in regards to the campaign, as you're allowed to customize your character with any four special abilities you want. You can also choose your character's gender, body type, voice, and skin tone, as well as dress them with an assortment of hairstyles, make-up, jewelry, and clothes, allowing you to build your perfect protagonist. Completing campaign missions earns you in-game currency, which you can use to buy new outfits and items. Cosmetics won't affect your character, but it's still fun to put together outfits and it's a welcome distraction when you need a moment to step away from the steep challenge of the late-game battles.

Once you're done with Jump Force's campaign, there's still plenty to do--even if not all of it is worthwhile. Free Missions are the game's version of a challenge mode, but it's not all that different from the handicaps placed on you in late-game story missions. The same can be said for Extra Missions mode, which you can play if you need a little extra in-game cash for that smokin' pair of black pants you've been eyeing for your character or if you want to expand your level cap.

However, a lot of fun can be had in Jump Force's competitive modes. You can play online or off, with both friendly and ranked matches in the former. Online is where your skills will be put to the test, meaning it's also where you'll find the game's best fights. Jump Force also allows you to practice against a computer while you wait for the game to find you an opponent, so you're not just waiting on a loading screen, which is a welcome touch. Ranked Play provides the most challenging combat in Jump Force by far, but earning higher titles--and thus bragging rights--by defeating more skilled opponents is a compelling goal to work towards.

Each win feels like it needs to be earned, and this encourages you to explore the varied movesets of each fighter.

It's awesome to see Jump Force's roster of playable fighters include so many characters from Shonen Jump's history, even the ones from manga that aren't as mainstream but no less important, like JoJo's Bizarre Adventure and Saint Seiya. That said, there's a disappointing disparity in the number of male and female characters, especially when Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Naruto contribute to nearly half the roster and only have two women between all three of them. Shonen Jump has always been geared towards young boys, but that doesn't mean its manga hasn't had great female fighters. Including Dragon Ball's Piccolo over Android 18 and Naruto's Gaara over both Sakura and Hinata is odd, as is leaving out Black Clover's Noelle, Yu-Gi-Oh's Anzu, My Hero Academia's Uraraka, and Boruto's Sarada.

Jump Force is a worthy celebration of the legacy of Shonen Jump manga, but it honors its source material a little too well with how filler-heavy the middle of its story arc is. However, even if the game rarely provides a clear motivation for stopping evil other than good must always oppose it, the act of stomping out villains in Jump Force's frantic bouts of tag-team arena combat is an enjoyable test of strategy. And with over 40 characters to master, there's ample opportunity to develop new strategies and reach greater feats of combat prowess in online multiplayer.

Metro Exodus Review - Brand New Days

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 02:00

Beyond the dark, oppressive tunnels and radioactive surface of Moscow are the societies that emerge from a nuclear apocalypse and prospective lands habitable for new life. It's a sensible change in setting that broadens Metro's horizons, though it sometimes loses the focus the series is known for. Still, the firefights and stealth deliver a familiar and incredible tension, complemented by streamlined survival mechanics necessary to face terrifying threats. But with Artyom and friends punching a one-way train ticket in hopes of greener pastures, Metro Exodus becomes a journey more about the enduring relationships and ties that bind an earnest crew of survivors.

In the opening hours, returning protagonist Artyom is shown with a tenacious insistence that human life exists outside the metro. It gets him into serious trouble, and it's further revealed that a larger conspiracy is at play. Your departure seems all too sudden and a bit of a disservice to the hardships endured in the previous games, but the heat of the moment and gut instincts of your companions help ease you into the premise of a year-long expedition to wherever the railroads lead.

The way the map works in Metro Exodus is a nice touch.

Thus, Metro Exodus takes the franchise in a bold direction by having a few significant chapters dedicated to open sandbox-style environments where you're free to roam, explore non-critical points of interest, and follow the main story path. Exploration tends to not be a reward in itself as these open areas are sparse and struggle to incentivize you to venture far off. Doing so pits you against mutants that force you to expend valuable resources for very little in return. Navigating isn't entirely enjoyable whether it be because of the sluggish rowboats in the Volga or empty lands of the Caspian. It sometimes feels as if Metro's methodical movement was thrown into much larger spaces it wasn't meant for. Thankfully, the game reins it in for its other chapters, especially when you make it to the lush forest of the Taiga that masterfully guides you to and from open areas and confined spaces at a tempered pace.

During your time in the open areas, optional side quests will organically populate your map by way of environmental hints or characters mentioning a point of interest in dialogue. These aren’t traditional side quests that get logged into a checklist; instead, they're opportunities to experience more of Metro’s tense combat scenarios and lead to potentially finding new equipment, scavenging additional resources, or extracting smaller stories that feed into the bigger picture.

Despite the addition of open environments, Exodus primarily plays similarly to previous games, and for the majority of the time it channels the series existing strengths. Carefully laid out levels strike a balance between freedom of approach and linear, focused paths to objectives when you face human enemies, creating a fine flow within missions. Sure, some guards will have their backs conveniently turned or make silly moves in combat, but the overarching thrill that you can swiftly kill or be killed lingers. Another Metro staple of fighting mutated beasts delivers a different style of tension. Irradiated spiders, nimble mutants, and lurking amphibians strike fear as you brace for their attack in ravaged pitch-dark corridors and flooded buildings. Even the harmless spiders that crawl on your arm and across your face further build a terrifying atmosphere. It's a state of vulnerability covered in a layer of dread that Metro gets right yet again.

Hardly do you ever feel either unfairly disadvantaged or overpowered, as weapons fire with impact and can be a challenge to handle. Each firearm has a roster of modifications that you'll scavenge from enemy weapons--sights, scopes, barrels, loading mechanisms--which give you control of how you want to fight. This wide variety of customization options can turn a dinky revolver into a formidable long-range weapon or a janky Kalashnikov into a devastating assault rifle--it's a satisfying system that gives gunplay an additional layer of depth. Modding can also be done using your backpack at any time, giving you the chance to adapt to situations as they arise.

Workbenches and your backpack are saving graces in Metro Exodus, since there are no longer any shops to buy equipment and items. Gone is the clever system of trading in military-grade bullets for critical items; in its place is a crafting system that's both manageable and fitting for the survivalist mentality Exodus instills. You'll accumulate scrap metal and chemicals to craft medkits, filters, and ammo, and maintain weapon condition. Even when you're juggling systems such as keeping your flashlight charged and changing out gasmask filters, it never becomes overbearing and adds an enjoyable challenge of gear management even as you're fending off foes throughout.

For the most part, Metro Exodus does away with the supernatural by leaving the clairvoyant Dark Ones in the past. In venturing into the unknown, the game tends to rely on familiar post-apocalyptic tropes. You have the cultists who've brainwashed locals to shun technology, a society of cannibals who put up an orderly front, and slavers who exploit and abuse others. But Exodus uses them to lay the groundwork for its better moments between characters and the struggles they endure. And despite the story being less centered around Artyom--who oddly remains a silent protagonist outside of loading screen monologues--Exodus unfolds in a much more personal fashion. The broader examinations of humanity and psychological twists have been dialed back to make room for a more grounded story about the necessary sacrifices you make for the ones you love.

These characters are brought to life with an impressive amount of dialogue that seems to go on forever, but because the moments of levity have a degree of charm and earnestness, you’ll want to stay and listen.

The best parts of the story are found in chapters between the action where you simply hang out aboard the Aurora, the train that functions as headquarters. Here you have the chance to tune the radio to eavesdrop on transmissions that play off of in-game events or listen to some sweet tunes, but more importantly, it's your opportunity to unravel the endearing personalities that make up your crew. These characters are brought to life with an impressive amount of dialogue that seems to go on forever, but because the moments of levity have a degree of charm and earnestness, you’ll want to stay and listen. It's not without a few lines that feel contextually out of place, though the natural flow of dialogue and interactions between the team communicates just as much about them as the stories they tell.

Anna shares her thoughts about the life she hopes to build with you as she rests her head on your lap. Damir's commitment to his ethnic roots and what remains of his homeland of Kazakhstan leads to a bittersweet exchange. Stepan, the big softy, is an uplifting presence who also fills the air with his acoustic guitar. And Miller is the hardened leader exemplifying the tough love of a father figure who wants the best for you and his daughter Anna. These are just a few of the characters that represent the best in Metro Exodus' narrative.

Anna is one of the several great characters in Metro Exodus' story.

The exact narrative threads can change, however; Metro's morality system makes a return, subtly judging your actions without explicitly revealing itself. What's important is that it doesn't always force you into a non-lethal approach; if you want to cut the throats of the heartless slavers or take a shotgun to a cannibal's head, by all means do so, and as long as you don't hurt the innocent, you're in the clear. And with a keen eye or sharp ear, you may also come across unexpected events that'll pay off depending on your course of action. Consequences don't make themselves immediately apparent, but can lead to fascinating results as the story progresses.

It's worth noting that technical issues are strewn throughout Metro Exodus. In one playthrough (pre-day one patch), I've fallen through the game world just after an auto-save, inexplicably lost upgraded equipment I couldn't get back at a workbench, and had some rare, but noticeable framerate drops at modest settings with a fairly high-end PC. They didn't break the game, but can frustrate and negate hard-earned progress. In the few hours spent with the PS4 version, the game was stable, and as expected it ran on a lower framerate than a capable PC. It's not always a smooth ride, though it doesn't take away from the gripping journey that the game takes you on.

You may miss the mystery and intrigue of the previous games, but Exodus puts together a charismatic crew of friends and family that you'll want to follow to the ends of the earth.

At first glance, Metro Exodus gives you that wide-open, free, and dangerous world unbound by tunnels, though the scope of its tale focuses on what drives you personally and the lengths you're willing to go to protect what matters most. The open sandboxes may not be strongest addition, but the game still embraces the sense of vulnerability and post-apocalyptic terror alongside impactful weapons used in refined combat and stealth scenarios. You may miss the mystery and intrigue of the previous games, but Exodus puts together a charismatic crew of friends and family that you'll want to follow to the ends of the earth.

Civilization 6: Gathering Storm Review - The Wind Rises

Tue, 02/12/2019 - 11:00

Civilization VI told a straightforward story of the consequences of your actions. Fail to keep your people happy and they would put down their hammers and raise pitchforks. Be rude to the other leaders and they would soon refuse to deal with you. Beyond that, however, you could go about building your empire mostly unconcerned with any repercussions to your decisions. Last year's Rise and Fall expansion added some complexity to the tale with the introduction of its Loyalty mechanic. Operating in isolation was no longer possible. Settlements on the fringes of an empire could, if they liked what they saw across the border, decide to rebel. Players who took their citizens' loyalty for granted would find themselves leading no one.

This kind of accountability is extended in multiple directions with Gathering Storm, the second major expansion for Civ VI. Through the institution of a World Congress, Gathering Storm lets leaders reward and punish each other for certain actions, allow them to pass sweeping resolutions that affect every civilization, and ultimately secure their diplomatic favor. And with its new World Climate system, Gathering Storm makes you accountable to the world itself by hitting you--sometimes painfully hard--with the calamitous consequences of exploiting the map's rich resources.

Your path to victory in Civ VI was predictable once you'd established the foundation of your empire by the Modern Era, but the new World Congress and World Climate systems add enough dynamism to keep you working right up to the new Future Era. Gathering Storm encourages you to “play the map," taking advantage of the surrounding resources, and then adapt the repercussions of your decisions reflected on that map. As an expansion focused on consequences, however, it can take some time for the new stuff to make its presence felt.

The World Climate system is the most meaningful change, but it doesn't really kick in until you've started extracting strategic resources like coal and oil. Early on you'll encounter floods, hurricanes, blizzards, and endure the odd drought or volcanic eruption. These weather events pass in a couple of turns, potentially reducing your population, injuring units and pillaging improvements, but they can also fertilize tiles to reward you with greater yields in future.

But weather is not climate. Once you start burning coal and oil to fuel both the power plants in your industrial districts and the battleships and tanks that comprise your military force, you start pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As those emissions rise, tallied by the new World Climate report that tracks the cumulative contributions of each civ and resource, the world will progress through up to seven phases of climate change. Sea levels will rise, at first flooding coastal tiles and eventually leaving many of them completely underwater. Weather events will increase in both frequency and severity, simultaneously desiccating your farmlands through drought and ravaging your cities with tornadoes.

The choices you're forced to make here are difficult and meaningful. Resources like coal and oil are powerful and refusing to exploit them will cede an immediate advantage to any rival. Through the Industrial and Modern Eras they fuel the most effective units in your navy and army. Do you really want to rely on defending your homeland with frigates while the enemy has ironclads? Further, consumable fuel resources are the first ways you're able to power your cities. A concept debuting in Gathering Storm, powering a city--say, via a coal power plant--boosts the yields of various districts and buildings. Can you really afford to let your research labs and stock exchanges sit idle while your coal-guzzling neighbor is sprinting ahead in the science race?

Later you're able to develop methods of harvesting renewable energy resources such as wind and solar farms, but by the time you're able to deploy them, you may find yourself lagging too far behind a less eco-friendly rival or, worse, suffering the consequences of irreversible damage to the planet. Helping to mitigate such destruction and preserving the natural environment will slow down the effects of climate change. This forces new, perplexing early game decisions. Chopping down that nearby rainforest will give a quick boost to producing a settler, but leaving it untouched may mean future settlers will live to see a world that still has air to breathe. Before Gathering Storm, this wasn't a choice--you chopped for the short-term gain because there were no long-term consequences. Now, every decision is purposeful. Now, every tile in your empire is asking: "Are you sure you want to do that?"

The World Congress is slightly less successful at providing new and meaningful choices than the World Climate system. What it does, though, is make you far more aware of what other leaders are up to. Once the congress convenes, from the Medieval Era onwards, you'll find yourself voting on various resolutions every 30 turns. You might be asked to vote on boosting or banning certain types of great people, or whether trade routes to particular civs or city-states should receive bonuses. You don't just get one vote; instead, you can spend a new form of currency called Diplomatic Favor to vote as many times as you can afford. Favors can also be traded with other leaders, just like any resource, meaning diplomatic players will need to give away valuable luxuries or strategic resources in order to fully exert their influence on the World Congress.

In theory, these resolutions should enable the diplomatic player to tip the scales in their favor. In practice, though, their effects aren't transformative. You might get an extra trade route here, a slightly slower Great Engineer there, but nothing that feels game-changing. The randomness doesn't help--if you could propose a resolution rather than merely voting on the ones that pop up that would provide a better return on the investment.

More compelling are the choices to be made around actually pursuing the new Diplomatic Victory, awarded to the leader who first reaches 10 Diplomatic Victory points. You're still essentially voting your way to the top, but you're also competing with other leaders to send the most aid to another civ recently devastated by floods, for instance, or to generate the most great people points to win the Nobel Prize. Diplomatic Favor is also earned via alliances with other civs and becoming the suzerain of a city-state, so the Diplomatic Victory is genuinely a case of demonstrating you can lead the world.

These are the two biggest new features in this add-on, but Gathering Storm also includes countless smaller tweaks that in combination with the above make it an essential purchase for Civ VI fans. There are new World Wonders to build, such as the Great Bath or the University Sankore. There are new Natural Wonders, new military units to fill in the gaps between eras, and nine new leaders, including the series' first-ever dual-nationality leader (Eleanor of Aquitaine can represent either England or France).

Thoughtfully, the new leaders are balanced between those that are clearly geared towards Gathering Storm's prominent additions--Kristina of Sweden is all about winning diplomatic favor while the unique abilities of Kupe, the Maori leader, incentivize leaving untouched as much of the natural world as possible--and those who embrace some previously overlooked facet of the game. In the latter camp, Matthias Corvinus heads a Hungarian empire whose military force is best composed of units levied from allied city-states, while in the Inca, lead by Pachacuti, we finally have a civ that wants lots of mountain tiles throughout its lands.

Gathering Storm is overall a great expansion, ushering in two significant new systems that work hand in hand to deepen the experience. The embellished diplomatic options extend the range of interactions with other leaders, allowing you to work cooperatively towards common goals or pull the strings to your advantage behind the scenes. While the introduction of climate change delivers new strategic choices whose consequences resonate ever-more-loudly as you advance throughout the eras. It isn't simply more Civ, it's a whole new way to play Civ.

God Eater 3 Review - Attack On Aragami

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 12:00

Gigantic inhuman entities threatening mankind are something that we're all familiar with in the year 2019. Monster Hunter, Attack on Titan, Godzilla--there's something inherently compelling about the trope where desperate survivors pit themselves against incredible odds and incredibly large monsters at the end of the world. God Eater 3's narrative, much like its predecessors, leans heavily into this conceit and tells an enjoyable (if light) tale as icing on its frenzied action-RPG cake.

Part of a series that has historically been for PlayStation portable devices, God Eater 3 is the first entry created with home consoles and PC as its primary platforms. Also significant is a new developer, Marvelous, a studio perhaps more well-known for its contribution to games with prodigious amounts of swimsuit DLC than the stuff of the monster-hunting variety. This tonal shift isn't as evident as you might think, though, especially since the series was already awash with anime tropes and aesthetic choices. God Eater 3 doesn't deliver any real twists and honestly, that's fine. The real friends that you make along the way in God Eater games aren't the ones with compelling backstories; they're the ones that help you kill Aragami with the sort of precision reserved for surgical procedures.

Aragami are representative of the evil threatening the world--they're gigantic predators that devour everything in their wake as the world drowns under deadly ash storms. A nightmarish fusion of beast and mech, there's something brutal about their designs, which hammers home the divide between the alien and the organic world that you have to protect. You're the mostly-silent star in this particular story, doomed to take up the thankless job of Aragami eradication for people who have treated you like an expendable weapon since infancy. There's a predictable follow-up series of events: You're liberated, you recover from your trauma through the power of friendship, and then you meet a life-changing person who isn't quite who they appear to be. There are plenty of similarities between the core story of God Eater 3, the previous entries in the franchise, and whichever monster-fighting anime is currently trending on Crunchyroll, so while it's an entertaining tale, temper your expectations for crushing moral dilemmas.

What will likely exceed your expectations, whether you're familiar with God Eater's particular brand of slaughter or not, is the combat. While it's easy to draw parallels with Monster Hunter, God Eater 3 is a fair bit closer to Devil May Cry's style of action. It's fast-paced and frenetic, reliant on chaining high-octane and high-mobility combos without getting hit in order to efficiently dissect Aragami. You have no shortage of movement options, including a specific command for Dash abilities, and you can effortlessly switch between melee and ranged combat. The feeling of stabbing an Aragami's plated shins with your greatsword in close combat before flying away and firing a shotgun shell right into the exposed wound never really gets old.

Another mechanic, which is now a staple of the God Eater series, is the ability for your weapon to consume the essence of the beasts you kill. In doing so, you get to enter Burst Mode, giving you better damage output, flashier combo moves, and increased range on your basic attacks. The effects vary depending on your weapon loadout, which offers an interesting level of strategy for you to consider from mission to mission. The most difficult bosses in the game have a similar mechanic of their own, where attack patterns can grow a host of other deadly variables, making your defensive strategy just as important as your damage output.

Unfortunately, the game's difficulty curve is fairly stagnant until about the halfway mark, when it suddenly ramps up by increasing the number of baddies you need to take down at the same time. This can lead to an initial feeling of being underpowered for these tense stand-offs, where you'll have to rely on every ounce of your skills to not get nailed to the wall by twice as many deadly laser beams and teleporting death machines than what you're used to.

It's not all smooth sailing when it comes to the nuts and bolts of God Eater 3, either, with a number of small annoyances. One particular gripe here is that the game binds multiple options to the same input, and most frustratingly, the button to loot will also be bound to another action (whether it be dashing or blocking, depending on the control scheme) which makes looting a pain. Flitting around the maps as quick as you please is fine and dandy until you want to pick up something useful, like crafting materials; you have a higher chance of careening face-first into a nearby enemy.

Another issue is the presence of the various customization systems that the series has accumulated over the years. There are crafting systems, ability systems, what seems like well over 100 possible skills to use, and upgrades on top of those too. Fiddling with a million and one variables to make your character perform better is neat at first, but a mastery of those systems isn't at all necessary to do well in the game, meaning it's easy to ignore them.

The rest of the time spent as a God-eating machine is an affair punctuated by expository cutscenes and managing your various AI companions on the fields of war. The AI perform well enough at their respective jobs of doing damage, chaining skills, and trying to keep you alive if necessary. If you're craving a little more of a human feel to those connections, then there's the option of taking on the fast and furious multiplayer Assault Missions where pile-driving Aragami into the ground with mates before the timer runs out is the name of the game. It's a welcome reprieve from the grind of the single-player mode and its buffet of relatively run-of-the-mill missions, so having it as an option is a refreshing change of pace for the series.

God Eater 3 is a solid entry in the franchise that doesn't necessarily reinvent itself, but it doesn't have to. All the core things that make God Eater so enjoyable, from the lightning-fast combat to the anime stylings, have been given a new lick of paint and propped up enticingly next to additions like the well-tuned Assault Missions and creative enemies to make one delicious package. Some aspects of the game--like its difficulty curve and multitude of superfluous customization systems--miss the mark, but it's an enjoyable romp with plenty of raucous battles if you're hungry for an action RPG.