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Full Metal Furies Review - Puzzle-Brawler

Sat, 11/10/2018 - 12:26

It's difficult to define which exact genre Cellar Door Games' Full Metal Furies belongs to. On a cursory glance, the co-op game appears to be no more than a well-structured brawler, and you'd be forgiven if you completed its 15-hour campaign thinking that's all it is. However, if you dig a little deeper into the optional hidden content, there's another five to seven hours of complex, multi-layered riddles to find. There's a fascinating meta narrative interwoven into Full Metal Furies' puzzles, and journeying to its end makes for a satisfying cooperative experience.

In Full Metal Furies, each player takes control of one of four adventurers. If played solo, the game puts you in control of two and you can switch between them at will. There's Triss, the leader whose penchant for sassily drinking tea often leads to hilarious spit-takes; Meg, the lazy, nearsighted sniper with a poor sense of direction; Erin, the brainy tinkerer who desperately wants to be cool; and Alex, the air-headed soldier who wholeheartedly believes bashing in the skulls of the arrogant men she and her friends run into should be both a first and last resort to solving all their problems.

Collectively known as the Furies, the four girls are on a quest to cross the monster-infested wasteland that humanity once called its home in order to find and destroy god-like entities known as the Titans. The sons and daughters of the mad tyrant Cronus, each of the four Titans desires a better world, and their conflicting ideologies as to how to bring about that dream have led to a war that threatens to destroy all life.

This seemingly straightforward battle between good and evil hides a surprising number of twists and turns. With every step forward, the Furies notice more signs that their efforts might be actually causing more problems than they're solving. But the team keeps pushing onwards, hoping that in the long run, their efforts will have a positive effect on the world. The narrative plays out in a series of sprite-based conversations, both during and in between combat missions. For the most part, these are tongue-in-cheek skits--some even throw in the occasional pun or reference to the fact that this is all a video game--but a few also focus on Triss' growth. Despite putting on airs, she struggles with the responsibilities of leadership and the morality of the Furies' quest. Unfortunately, her teammates don't receive the same treatment, and are fairly two-dimensional throughout the main campaign.

In combat, each of the four ladies handle and attack in their own way. For example, Meg can use a grappling hook to maneuver out of danger and snipe opponents from afar, while Triss can defend her teammates and herself with a near indestructible shield and also clear out enemies by screaming at the top of her lungs. Each of the girls fulfills a unique role seen in many other team-based brawlers--with Triss as the tank, Alex as the fighter, Meg as the archer/sniper, and Erin as the summoner.

Full Metal Furies supports couch co-op and online multiplayer. As of publishing this review, the Switch servers are fairly empty, but we did manage to test online play using two copies of the game and can confirm it works relatively smoothly. There were some brief stutters at the start of a few levels, but none of them negatively impacted gameplay. However, my game did completely crash at one point.

It's unfortunate the servers are so empty as playing with an incomplete team puts you at an immediate disadvantage. So unless you recruit some friends for couch co-op, you're in for a fairly tough time. Even Erin and Meg are crucial, as Triss and Alex rely on their teammates' supportive attacks to give them both time to recharge their special abilities. Button-mashing with the two melee fighters can be an effective strategy early on, but it will only get your team so far. Mid- and late-game enemies and bosses require a certain degree of tactical assessment, and chaining together each character's abilities is the ideal path to success. For example, when confronted with a mob of jumping werewolves that are too quick for the slower fighters, your team might rely on Triss' area-of-effect shout to stun a few, use Alex's dive bomb jump to launch the weakened wolves into the air, and then have Meg shoot their leader out of the sky. All the while, Erin's portable turret and her mid-range pistol can finish off the members of the pack not caught up in the combo.

Combat in Full Metal Furies is constantly evolving, with new enemy types appearing almost every third level. It keeps the game from descending into a grindfest of similar foes, while leaving room for you to experiment with new strategies on enemies you've encountered before. Sections of certain levels can get brutal, resulting in dozens of game over screens. But checkpoints are numerous, cutscenes you've seen are skippable, and it's typically very clear which careless mistake resulted in the failed mission. If anything, the game's combat seems content to really only punish those who play with less than four people, which presents an interesting way of making the game easier or more difficult for yourself at any point in the game. If things are still too hard with a full team of four, or you can't scrounge up a full team but don't want to make the game more difficult, there's an easier Story Mode too.

Despite being labeled as a brawler, only about half of Full Metal Furies is regulated to combat. The other half is a series of interlacing puzzles and riddles, and it's here where the co-op nature of Full Metal Furies truly shines.

None of the puzzles or riddles in Full Metal Furies are obvious to find, and the game doesn't teach you how to solve them either. It's completely dependent on the player to be curious enough to wonder if the symbol-covered stones hidden throughout about two dozen of the game's levels are more than meets the eye. Finding the stones themselves is a challenge, and once discovered, each stone's riddle is typically even tricker to figure out.

Eventually, the main campaign reveals that solving these riddles is necessary for gaining access to the game's final area and true ending. The riddles grow more meta as you discover additional stones, some even requiring you to do things outside of the main game, such as watching a YouTube video for a clue or adjusting the game's accessibility settings to perceive colors and sound in a new way. Teaming up with friends to overcome a challenging boss fight is fun, but the most satisfying moments in Full Metal Furies are when you have a eureka moment and are able to figure out the next piece of the overarching mystery. Several of the solutions to certain puzzles and riddles rely on a particular Furies' unique skill as well--some answers even require multiple Furies or the full roster of four--so every player gets to enjoy being a part of the process of figuring something out at some point. Completing this game is very much a team effort, and it successfully makes sure no single player feels left out or useless.

So yes, Full Metal Furies is primarily a brawler, and a good one that promotes teamwork instead of button-mashing. But it's also a very hard puzzle game, one that challenges you to perceive each level, as well as the game's mechanics and characters, in new ways. It's a shame most of the Furies are so two-dimensional throughout the main campaign--especially Meg, who's arguably the most lovable of the bunch--but the story is consistently witty with its humor and an absolute joy to watch unfold. And while coming up with strategies to handle new enemies and piecing together the clues for each puzzle is fairly difficult at times, it's a rewarding and deeply satisfying challenge.

Tetris Effect Review - Feel The Groove

Sat, 11/10/2018 - 03:00

Without context, the premise of Tetris Effect won't stop you in your tracks. It's Tetris at heart, and its familiar playfield is presented against fantasy backdrops with songs and sound effects that react to your actions. What that basic description doesn't tell you is how powerful the combination of conducting tetrominos and music at the same time can be. Give Tetris Effect your complete, undivided attention, and you'll form a sympathetic bond to the notes and puzzle pieces alike and lose yourself in the flurry of color and energy that permeates every stage. It's a lofty promise, to be sure, but there's no other way to describe the impact Tetris Effect has once it finally clicks.

Though there are a handful of modes--no sign of multiplayer, sadly--with basic twists on the standard formula that are worth exploring at your leisure, the bulk of the Tetris Effect experience takes place in Journey Mode. It's an aptly named trip that will take you to recognizable locations like the moon, but more often to abstract settings that are best defined by a list of adjectives. These dreamscapes can be breezy, electric, stressful, haunting, heavenly, or crunchy, to name a few of the standout qualities. The music in each stage may not always be a predictable pairing, but just because you didn't see a particular harmony coming doesn't mean it can't work.

Over time, you will notice that the game not only hooks you with music, but that it gets you hooked on songs that may not traditionally fit within your musical preferences. Odds are you don't listen to chanting in foreign languages nor the complicated beats of the tabla on a daily basis, but Tetris Effect makes these uncommon sounds enticing. It's hard to say what these songs would feel like without first experiencing them during gameplay, but when you're enraptured in their rhythms whilst simultaneously flipping and reconfiguring puzzle pieces in a race against time, they become relentlessly catchy, sticking with you long after you stop playing.

Because Tetris Effect is so infectious, it's very difficult to put down once you fall into its rhythm. Tetris has proven itself to be a highly effective game, and one that has an ever-rising skill ceiling that allows it to draw in players who have decades of experience under their belts. Journey mode will ramp up, but in keeping with the sense of going on an adventure, it will also slump down, though rarely for long. The non-linear flow is an important part of the experience that charges you with anticipation and rewards you with relief, and is an unexpected benefit to the standard flow of a session of Tetris.

The shift in tone and pace is often determined by your progress within a stage. Most require you to clear 36 lines total (on normal difficulty), with milestones along the way that dictate the present rhythm. You do, however, have a tool at your disposal that is designed explicitly to pump the brakes and give you a chance to salvage a potentially disastrous situation or to build up a high scoring combo. The Zone ability can be triggered with a single button press at any time that you've got some charge in the relevant meter, which is fueled a quarter of the way every time you clear eight lines.

With Zone activated, pieces hover rather than fall, and you get to take your time--as allotted by the meter--placing them in your stack. Clear a line, and it will shift to the bottom of the stack, ready to be cleared automatically when Zone disengages. Because lines persist even when "cleared" while in Zone, you can make combos that go beyond the standard four-line Tetris clear if you're skilled enough. They won't count towards your line count for the level, but they will give you extra scoring opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

The new Zone mechanic adds an interesting layer of strategy for new and veteran players alike, but more than this new mechanic, it's the quasi-spiritual bond that forms between you and the game that defines Tetris Effect. Even though you don't need a PlayStation VR headset to get a taste, there's no question that Tetris Effect is best played in VR with headphones turned up loud.

With your vision and hearing cut off from the outside world, you fade into the game. You feel things that you'd never imagine a game of Tetris could make you feel. Don't be surprised if you catch yourself bursting with joy, or on the verge of tears, all because the confluence of gameplay and sensory stimulation works so well. There is no extra physical movement asked of you--the opposite of almost every other VR game in recent memory. Tetris Effect wants your mind, rather than your body, and even though we all dream of one day being completely immersed in a high-end VR game. In truth, Tetris Effect achieves the base goal--belief in your connection to the game.

Tetris Effect is a transformative game that will more than likely be overlooked by people who think it's "just Tetris." Well, it is and it isn't. Anyone who knows Tetris can pick up Tetris Effect and begin playing right away. The fundamentals remain the same; it is a time-tested formula that continues to work, after all. But Tetris is just the beginning of Tetris Effect. It provides the foundation for a complex emotional journey that defies expectations. Its a vector for meditation. It's a driving force that pushes you beyond your presumed limits. It is the definition of awesome, and if you have an open heart and an open mind, you owe it to yourself to take the plunge and see why it's anything but "just Tetris."

Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption Review - Trials and Tribulations

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 13:00

Many stories like to use religion as a narrative device, and the name would suggest, Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption takes a crack at it too, offering a refreshingly pared-down experience of Gothic religious horror. But while the game's boss rush structure possesses some clever mechanical twists, its more superficial elements don’t quite have the same shine.

Enter Adam, the titular protagonist, not-so-subtly named after the world's first sinner. Instead of an apple from a tree, you've clearly been far naughtier than your namesake. Here, the afterlife has dealt you a rather unfortunate hand; defeat the manifestations of all seven mortal sins, and you just might get a happy ending. However, that's definitely a lot harder than it actually sounds, because the bosses are all about 20 feet tall, incredibly strong, and they hate your guts, and you have to give something up before you fight each one. This is the pivotal "sacrifice" part of the equation.

Sinner is about going from boss to boss and beating them into the ground before they can do the same to you. It clearly takes inspiration from the Dark Souls lineage of games, both conceptually and mechanically. Each adversary you face has succumbed to a cardinal sin, whether it's by lack of action or by a conscious choice to take a particularly unsavory behavior too far. As a result, the bosses are fascinatingly warped beyond human recognition--we're talking about headless noblewomen, hunchbacked sorcerers, and walking fortresses that are more metal than man.

Mechanically, Sinner features animation locking, that has you commit to your attacks, and tough-as-nails enemies. You're given a handful of javelins, health potions, and melee weapon options that you can swap between on the fly before the game throws you at the first boss. All your enemies have unique attack patterns that you'll have to memorize if you want to win, and some are more telegraphed than others, which leads to a good variety of challenges across the board. It's a strong, if familiar, set of systems, but Sinner's biggest feature lies in its sacrifice mechanic.

Inventively, the game puts you in the unique predicament of getting weaker as you progress. Your 'sacrifice' could be a portion of your HP, some of your weapon attack damage, or even resources. You lose that thing, and you get a little bit weaker each time you go toe-to-toe with a malevolent foe. It's an innovative spin and its focus on the core basics means Sinner feels like an evolution of the genre rather than a derivative work. Sinner also includes a new game plus mode, which adds some exciting spice in the form of more challenging boss gauntlets where you fight them in groups along with broader weapon customization options.

Each enemy is introduced by way of an epitaph and a scene which tells you how they ended up in that sorry state. The scenes are compelling on their own, and despite the sparse monologues which don’t give you a whole lot to go on other than your own imagination, the villainous Victorian-inspired visuals and the individually distinct boss arenas also provide just enough environmental storytelling to pique your curiosity. While you may still be slightly in the dark about what you've truly accomplished for your character in the atonement department when the credits roll, the road to redemption is still a scenic one.

However, Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption suffers from some problems with repetition. After about the sixth hour, things start to blend together a little. Each boss has its own unique orchestral accompaniment, which are enjoyable in their own right, but they're all based on the same recipe of overdramatic string sections and choral vocals. Each boss also harnesses a theme or an element of its own, but the arenas don't necessarily hold up to scrutiny over long periods of time; the surrounding textures in the background suffer slightly from a lack of fine detail, and there's only so much crumbly ruined stonework that you can stomach.

It's also a little disappointing, though not completely surprising, to see the game run worse on Switch than on other platforms. There were instances of framerate lag turned deadly because of the pace of gameplay and also an instance of blinding light effects for a particular boss in a dimly-lit environment that were a hindrance. On the PlayStation 4 and PC versions, the framerate lag is almost undetectable.

Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption is an ambitious game that brings something new to an increasingly popular style of action game. While it seems like it's missing a lick of paint to make sure that its aesthetics are as strong as its mechanics, it's still a smart step forward and a good example of how we can pay homage to the beloved works of others with originality.

Hitman 2 Review: Hit Parade

Thu, 11/08/2018 - 22:00

Hitman is a game about killing people. Well, killing specific people and trying not to kill other people unless you really have to. But it's also a game about exploring large, real-world-inspired spaces, learning about how they operate, finding multiple solutions to problems, and using that knowledge to improvise and manipulate the environment to hit the people you're hunting. The episodic nature of the Hitman refresh in 2016 saw IO Interactive release one level every month--a contentious move at the time, but one that helped accentuate the potential in each mission. Hitman 2 ditches the episodic model and adds a few new minor mechanics, but the loop of continuously replaying a single location, slowly uncovering the wealth of possibilities, and being able to effectively draw upon that knowledge in new challenges is where Hitman is strongest.

Hitman 2 takes you to six new locales, and each poses unique situations to overcome as you attempt to assassinate your targets. Mumbai is a standout with its densely populated streets and labyrinths of tenement buildings--a great environment that makes the most of a new Assassin's Creed-style crowd blending mechanic, allowing you to disappear into big groups of people. A mission in Miami, Florida takes place at an active raceway, a loud and vibrant stage that feels like a theme park with its swaths of attendees, distinct zones, and a concealed backstage underbelly.

These levels are overwhelming in the best way possible, and it's exciting to begin peeling away the layers of these large, intricate areas--exploring the spaces, discovering routes, finding tools and disguises, and figuring out the best places to utilize them. If you're familiar with Hitman, you know that each stage and its AI inhabitants run on routines like clockwork, making Hitman a game that rewards social stealth and patience. Eavesdropping, tailing, and passive observation are good first steps to success. Even the Whittleton Creek stage, a small, sparsely populated suburban block in Vermont, feels like a mindmap of interconnected causality when you begin to dig deeper. Having the curiosity to uncover how things operate within levels, stumbling upon minor plotlines and amusing flavor dialog along the way, is interesting in its own right.

Hitman does make an upfront effort to help focus your scope and give you some momentum toward your objectives, though thankfully your initiative is still necessary to solve some predicaments. Stumbling across a Mission Story (previously known as Opportunities) might lead you to a machine you can sabotage, for example, but you need to find the tool to do so and work out the best method of either distracting or dispatching the people around it.

Mission Stories are a great first step, but Hitman becomes its best when you start to internalize the stages and uncover the more obscure ways things can unfold in subsequent playthroughs, be it through pursuing alternative Mission Stories, Challenges that ask you to perform specific tasks, or your own improvisation. There are few fail states other than your own death, and there are so many approaches and tools at your disposal that the path to victory can be as creative and elegant or as bumbling and messy as it needs to be. Completing a stage typically takes a long time, and there will be plenty of moments when a guard catches you doing something you shouldn't be doing and calls for backup. Unhinged gunfights still feel as futile as ever, but when things get out of control there's almost always the opportunity to escape to a less hostile part of the level, swap your disguises, and come up with an alternative "make do" approach. In fact, Hitman is sometimes more exciting when your initial plans fail.

The only problem with being presented with such a staggering array of interactions is that the limitations of the sandbox will eventually reveal themselves if you push the wrong way. For example, while you can stash bodies in dumpsters and closets, I was disappointed to discover I couldn't stash them in one of many vacant portable toilets. While Agent 47 can leap tall fences and shimmy across daringly high ledges, he seemingly can't muster the courage to drop down from certain first-floor balconies. Guard AI behavior is stern but generous--if you're found trespassing in a restricted area they'll give you a chance to find the exit before reacting, but sometimes it's too generous. I was amused to see a target's personal bodyguard decide to go home for the day after his employer "accidentally" fell off a building, even though I was the only other person in the room.

Hitman 2 continues to embrace a trial-and-error playstyle in its campaign. The levels are long, but autosaves are generous and manual saving is encouraged, which gives you the freedom to experiment with different ways of approaching a problem. And the closer you get to bending the systems in just the right way--trying to narrowly squeeze past a guard's sightline from different directions, or using coins and cheeseburgers to divert someone's attention--the more thrilling it feels, no matter how goofy it actually looks. Hitman 2's interstitial cinematics are as grim and dramatic as a British espionage drama, and it's hard not to let yourself buy into the clinical overarching conspiracy. But in the field, the series' tongue-in-cheek absurdity happily remains with ridiculous costumes, unlikely weapons, and Agent 47's self-aware deadpan acting, which perfectly accompanies any bumbling improvisation. Both exist distinctly, don't really compliment or detract one another, but are still enjoyable in their own right.

Hitman 2 also boasts a few significant modes outside of its campaign, including Sniper Assassin, which adapts the design seen in the Hitman: Sniper smartphone game and tasks you with taking out a series of targets from a single vantage point using only a scoped rifle. It's a straightforward but enjoyable, low-stakes mode that allows for a surprising amount of creative freedom, and it can be played in two-player online co-op. But Hitman 2's most enticing bonus, at least if you own the previous Hitman, is the ability to download the original stages into Hitman 2, which gives you feature-complete versions of them with the addition of new mechanics like functional mirrors (which enemies can spot you in) and the briefcase (which lets you conceal and transport tools discreetly), among other things. These legacy stages are wonderful to revisit under a new light.

It should also be mentioned that one of the most compelling elements of the 2016 Hitman was the continuous, free live content updates that occurred after the game's launch. Escalation Missions, where you're given specific conditional challenges of increasing difficulty, and Elusive Targets, limited-time events where you have only one chance to take out unique assassination targets, added tense trials that tested both your knowledge of levels and improvisational skills. IO Interactive has announced that these familiar features will be making a return, along with free content updates to Sniper Assassin and Ghost Mode. We obviously can't judge the quality of this content at launch, but it's surely something to look forward to.

The addition of other minor mechanical changes--like concussive weapons, a picture-in-picture enemy activity alert, and visible security camera sightlines--help to improve Hitman 2 overall as a dense and accessible stealth assassination game. But the new locations are the real stars, impressive and inventive sandboxes ripe for picking apart with exciting experiments. Hitman is about experiencing the anticipation of seeing whether a plan will work when you try it for the first time. It's about feeling the tension of briskly walking away from a bad situation, hoping you can lose the suspicious guards. It's the satisfaction of knowing the machinations of a level so well that when a target moves into a particular place at a particular time, you have the perfect way to intervene. Hitman 2 is a familiar experience, but in the Hitman world, familiarity is an incredible strength.

The Quiet Man Review - Silent, But Not Golden

Wed, 11/07/2018 - 11:12

The interactive movie--that nebulous, hard-to-define genre briefly fashionable in the mid-1990s, when CD-ROM technology made it possible for developers to integrate live-action footage into games--is not exactly remembered for its high quality. But even in the tradition responsible for such notorious follies as Night Trap, Sewer Shark, and Who Shot Johnny Rock, The Quiet Man is astonishingly dire--a graceless, outdated game that belongs squarely in the era of laserdiscs and the Philips CD-i. When it isn't an interactive movie, it's a simple 3D beat-em-up of the kind once ubiquitous at arcades. But an interest in the past does not make The Quiet Man a love letter to video game history, and its ideas are poorly realized.

The Quiet Man boasts a formal conceit that is at least moderately interesting. You play as a svelte blonde 20-something named Dane, who is deaf, and as a consequence the game is almost totally silent. You hear only the muffled patter of footfalls while walking, some indistinct notes of synthesizer to represent voices, and a faint patina of generic ambience elsewhere. The marketing materials describe this as an effort to allow the player to "experience the world in the way Dane does." But we clearly do not experience the world as Dane does. Dane reads lips; he communicates extensively and effortlessly with every character he encounters. So why are these conversations not subtitled? In one lengthy scene of dialogue after another, people talk with Dane, presumably advancing the story. Meanwhile, we have no earthly clue what's being said or what's going on.

This sort of inexplicable design is entirely typical of The Quiet Man. It’s difficult to understand so much of what transpires. Consider an early narrative sequence in which Dane meets either a colleague or a friend--the relationship was not apparent to me and only gets more confusing over the course of the story--and converses with him in his office. In a series of mundane closeups the other man speaks as Dane nods along, rapt; the nature of their discussion is opaque, and their performances, amateurish and hammy, are abysmal. You can imagine this scene being staged in such a way that the content would be clear even without sound or subtitles. The Quiet Man doesn't even try.

When these mystifying, interminable full-motion-video scenes at last end, the actors are switched out for crudely animated substitutions, many of whom bear such a poor resemblance to their real-life counterparts that it is frequently unclear who's who. It's never hard to pick out Dane in the heat of battle, though, because he's the only one who's white. The endless procession of villainous henchmen you're asked to brutally dispatch are uniformly latino, broad caricatures of "cholos" in street-gang garb who sneer at you between pummellings. You fight them pretty much exclusively throughout. The political implications of the game's demographic makeup are appalling, in this fraught time of wall-building especially, and the end result is plainly, unforgivably racist.

In any case, it's quite fitting for the enemies to be the same cliched type repeated ad nauseam, because repetitiveness is the very nature of The Quiet Man's beat-em-up combat system. Brawling has what might generously be described as an arcade-like simplicity: one button to punch, one to kick, and one to dodge, plus a finishing move that can be triggered on occasion. It would be more accurate to call this rudimentary. Almost every battle boils down to a dull frenzy of button-mashing, as enemies rarely block, scarcely fight back, and practically never come at you more than one at a time. Though waves of 10 or even 20 must be defeated to clear a given room, they don't change their approach or vary their style, and mostly seem to stand around awaiting their turn to be vanquished. There's no way to vary your own attacks, either, which gives every encounter the air of a chore.

Boss battles aren't much different in terms of character or technique. They distinguish themselves instead in terms of overwhelming difficulty. I almost never lost a fight in the course of regular gameplay; each of the handful of boss battles, though, kept me stuck for a long time, as I labored through dust-ups with enemies that seemed absurdly overpowered and virtually invulnerable to damage. Worse than simply losing these battles was how consistently vague they proved to be. Seldom is it apparent why you might be losing a fight. The game doesn't track damage or show the enemy's health, and it's never certain whether your hits are landing or registering much effect--hitboxes are indistinct and attacks almost always clip through bodies, which makes the whole process feel at once feeble, confusing, and outrageously imprecise.

Simplistic, ungainly combat is all the more surprising given that it is The Quiet Man's only gameplay mechanic. From beginning to end there is nothing else to do — no places to navigate, no items to collect, no weapons to wield, no puzzles to solve. It's just those same mind-numbing punches and kicks broken up by extended narrative scenes that by virtue of the enforced silence you can't hope to follow or understand. The broad contours of the plot are vaguely discernible: the drama involves childhood trauma, a seedy metropolitan underbelly, various acts of conspiracy and revenge. As for the details, it's impossible to say. The game's final moments tease an upcoming addition that will allow you to play it through a second time with the sound restored. This feels like both a preposterous cop-out--it's walking back the main conceit!--and a cruel punishment. With sound the story will surely make more sense. But having suffered through The Quiet Man once, I can't bear to try it again.

Cities: Skylines - Industries Review - The Up And Up

Wed, 11/07/2018 - 07:21

If my nearly 10 years as a small-town mayor in Canada have taught me anything, it is that bringing in industrial growth is an extremely demanding task. So much production has moved offshore in recent decades that it has become tough to keep the industries that we still have, let alone add new ones. But this isn't quite the case in Industries, the new expansion for Cities: Skylines that adds character to your carefully crafted municipalities without much in the way of difficulty. While being able to concentrate on specific industries adds an involving and entertaining new dimension to city creation, the lack of challenge and reward when building these new districts makes the add-on less than essential.

With that said, this enhanced industrial focus has been seamlessly incorporated into the base Cities: Skylines game as if it had always been there. In addition to still being able to zone properties for random industrial use, there is a new option to paint part of your municipality as an industrial district specifically for forest, farming, ore, or oil. It is very easy to establish these zones. Mark them out, drop a main building to get started, and then lay down facilities to gather resources. You instantly start rolling in the logs, crops, rocks, and black gold. Levels are then gained based on the number of materials produced and employees hired, which unlocks new buildings. These industrial districts soon turn into into beehives of activity.

Getting these industrial districts up and running is satisfying, as it is the one employment area in Cities: Skylines where you directly construct industries and create jobs. As such, building industrial districts is more hands-on, as opposed to the usual "zone it and let it go" approach in the game's standard industrial, commercial, and residential development. The process is still straightforward, though. While industrial districts require a certain amount of micro-management, creating and running them is relatively easy to handle, especially for Cities: Skylines veterans. Start with something like a main forestry building and a few tree plantations and you can soon expand into sawmills, storage yards, biomass wood pellet plants, planed wood production, pulp mills, and factories making finished goods like furniture and paper products at a printing press.

Industrial districts add character to cities, making them more products of their environment than the mostly generic burgs of the original Cities: Skylines. Everything looks and feels more natural. Have a city surrounded by trees? Industries based on wood products are the only sensible option. There is also a lot to be said for finally taking full advantage of the natural resources on city maps, as previously there was little way to commodify what was all around you. Now, for example, a forest map plays like a forest map should play, with industries based on what is right in the neighborhood.

Playing on a map with multiple resource types makes things even better, as you can set up numerous industrial districts that feed into specific unique factories. The toy factory, for instance, needs both the plastic that comes from oil and the paper that comes from wood, so you need both to make sure junior is happy on Christmas morning. Districts tie into each other, making the entire industrial process operate as something of a mini-game; resource gathering, production, and warehousing all form a chain with these factories at the end of the line.

Just two minor drawbacks cause issues. First up is the need to reserve a ton of room on the map for industrial districts, as you have to build a lot of resource-gathering facilities and storage yards/warehouses to keep production humming and raw materials on hand. Second is the way that managing industries can become so involved that you forget about the rest of your city. I had a number of occasions where I spent so much attention on an industrial district that I didn't notice garbage piling up elsewhere or corpses going unclaimed in homes because I neglected to keep pace with population growth. Still, spending time dealing solely with industries is a welcome break from the other aspects of the game. As great as Cities: Skylines is, it has also become pretty familiar for those of us who have been with it since the beginning. A little micro-management isn't a bad thing in this case.

Industrial districts also never seem entirely necessary. While they are always enjoyable to plan out, and it is pretty easy to turn them into serious money-making machines, just about anyone who has played Cities: Skylines for a dozen hours or so likely has little trouble staying in the black with the original industrial zoning options. I really enjoyed turning forests into furniture and playing J.R. Ewing with oil, but I never needed the extra cash that these businesses generated. So as much as I appreciated the novelty, running these industries also seemed like extra work with questionable end benefit.

Other features added to Cities: Skylines are fairly minor. Snail mail has finally come to residents. Postal services operate much like other regional city facilities such as police stations, bus stops, and so on. Set up a post office or postal sorting station and watch happy faces sprout up all over a neighborhood. Toll booths can now be installed on city roads, letting you earn extra revenue from vehicular traffic at the small price of slowing everybody down a bit.

Industries somehow feels like both a worthwhile and an unnecessary addition to the Cities: Skylines family. Requiring direct management of industrial development definitely adds dimension to budding metropolises. Paying attention to nothing but smokestacks and jobs for a while also represents a needed change of pace from what has become a familiar city-building experience. Still, there are no significant new gameplay challenges to overcome here or enough unique rewards that make it an absolute must to create industries like an oil patch or ore mines. While this expansion provides a better, more involved experience when it comes to industry, virtual mayors can give this one a pass if they're satisfied with the factories of the original game.

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection Review - It Belongs In A Museum

Tue, 11/06/2018 - 19:00

As an anthology of games from SNK's simpler days, the 40th Anniversary Collection offers a variety of classics that are more fun than you might expect given their age. The simple-looking Vanguard (1981) may not give off a rousing first impression, for example, but play it a bit and you begin to discover that its dynamic scrolling system and proclivity for handing out invincibility power-ups make it more than a predictable space shooter. This and many other entries show a glimpse of a company developing its prowess for making arcade games, and it's fascinating to take it all in. This is in large part thanks to the great attention to detail and comprehensive research that went into cataloging and smartly presenting an unsung but important part of gaming history. What's more impressive, and less obvious, is the work that was required to make every game in the collection playable at all.

The full extent of developer Digital Eclipse's efforts is difficult to know from the sidelines, but it's recognized among gaming historians that the team holds itself to a very high standard and often succeeds at meeting it. Beyond programming emulators, it also helps track down relics--original arcade motherboards--when the source code has been confirmed lost by SNK, in addition to scanning and restoring marketing materials that tell the story around the games at the time. Regular maintenance can keep old arcade boards alive, but with dwindling numbers of working units in the hands of private collectors, there's a feeling of "now or never" when it comes to preservation. The SNK 40th Collection is a treasure trove of classics that heeds the call.

At launch, there are 14 games to play: Alpha Mission, Athena, Crystalis, Guerilla War, Ikari Warriors, Ikari Warriors 2: Victory Road, Ikari III: The Rescue, Iron Tank: Invasion of Normandy, P.O.W., Prehistoric Isle, Psycho Soldier, Street Smart, TNK III, and Vanguard. For some of these games where there was an NES home port of the arcade original, you get both versions to compare and contrast. It's a great lens with which to examine the mindset of the day, where everyone wanted to bring the arcade experience home and people were willing to accept compromised graphics and gameplay to get there.

A perfect example of this is Ikari Warriors, one of a few proto-twin-stick shooters in the collection. As evident by the included console port, when the game made the transition to the NES, you could only shoot in the direction you were moving, rather than independently, as you would in the arcade game. Now that the collection is on Switch with two analog sticks to handle the controls, we are that much closer to having the true Ikari Warriors arcade experience at home. The game actually used a single arcade stick that had an added rotation function, but short of releasing a new peripheral to exactly replicate the stick, Digital Eclipse has gone as far as possible to achieve what consumers wanted when Ikari Warriors was on everyone's radar.

While there are a lot of solid games on hand, there are no doubt going to be games that are more interesting in theory than in practice. Given this, it's nice to see that each game--minus some NES ports--has an autoplay option. This will not only make it easy for you to examine a game with ease but also gives you the chance to tag in when a game gets good. Disengaging autopilot and taking the wheel isn't the smartest way to learn how to play any game, but if you find yourself up against a difficult section, you can also trigger the rewind button to fix mistakes and undo accidental deaths.

The 40th Anniversary Collection gives you a lot to play and many ways to tailor the experience to your whims, including settings that come in handy while playing vertically oriented games. From a technical and experiential standpoint, it's an all-around great collection. And if everything goes according to plan, Digital Eclipse has 11 more games scheduled to arrive before the end of the year via free patches and DLC.

In the meantime, if you exhaust interest in playing what's around, there are a lot of special features to explore. Scans include assorted marketing sheets and advertisements but even go so far as to include independent fan zines from the '80s and arcade game guides. For a more in-depth peek into the past, every game released by SNK between 1978 and 1990 gets a neatly animated history lesson, complete with screenshots and interesting anecdotes that help tell the overall story of SNK's formative years. And if you want to just zone out to some nostalgic music, there are soundtracks for 12 of the games in the collection ready from the start.

Digital Eclipse proves once again that it's the right team for the job of both preserving and resurrecting classic video games. For SNK and its fans, the team has elevated some of the company's most important milestones. It's responsible for more than just Neo Geo games, and though not every game that came before is worth replaying on its own today, the addition of supplemental materials and revitalizing modern gaming conveniences make them feel more interesting than they have in years, and in some cases, decades.

Deracine Review - Grains Of Sand

Mon, 11/05/2018 - 22:01

Dark Souls creator FromSoftware is renowned for its vague, interpretative stories and captivating gameplay--two strengths of the studio that have been successfully applied to similarly styled games for nearly over a decade. Deracine is a departure from what the studio is primarily known for. It's a narrative adventure that makes good use of PlayStation VR and the immersive nature of the hardware but fails to consolidate a poorly structured story and mundane gameplay to create something truly special.

Deracine puts you in control of an invisible Faerie who manifests in a mysteriously secluded boarding school that serves as a home to five children. You're summoned by one of the children, Yuliya, who believes in a Faeries' duty to guide and protect those in need with their ability to alter and traverse time, tasking you with looking over the other children at the school. Deracine's tale begins with innocent chores around the school, where you play simple pranks on the children in a bid to prove your existence. But its overarching narrative quickly starts exploring greater themes concerning life and its sacrifices, obsessions with the past and the morality surrounding the ability to change past events.

It's a story that presents its ideas without much hand-holding, which combined with the frequent time jumps can create a difficult thread to follow. It can often feel like you have a grasp of where the narrative is heading before it completely flips itself again, introducing more characters and supernatural elements that undermine the overall story. The final two chapters are most guilty of this, tossing aside previously established themes and instead focusing on numerous jumps between two days in an attempt to explain these sudden additions. The repetitive nature of these chapters wear thin quickly and only confuse the narrative further, sadly undercutting the harrowing conclusion that desperately tries to tie everything together.

As a Faerie, Deracine gives you two abilities to command with disappointing limitations. The first lets you glance at current objectives though a magical pocket watch, while also giving you the power to travel through time when the narrative allows it. The second is a glowing red ring that can absorb time from objects and beings around you. The earliest example of this has you transferring the limited time left on a ripe pair of grapes over to a wilted and dead flower, instantly rejuvenating and reviving it. This initially seems like a clever mechanic, but you rarely get to use it. You're only able to use it freely in two puzzles, and even then, the choices presented to you are too straightforward. It's a shame that more of Deracine's puzzle-solving couldn't be designed around this single intriguing mechanic, especially when you ponder how captivating it might have been to be given the chance to experiment with its power in smart settings.

Each chapter takes place within a frozen moment in time, letting you explore the school at will and interact with both past and present versions of the children residing there. Translucent echoes of characters give you insight into past events and create a breadcrumb trail for you to follow back to their current locations for more context into their current actions. Past conversations play out after you manipulate certain objects around the house and on the children's persons, while larger changes to their surroundings culminate in short showings of how they react to your meddling. Deracine makes your impact on its world and characters felt with each action, even if it gives you little to no room for experimentation.

Exploration is the gateway to Deracine's point-and-click-like puzzles, which have you hunting for items you'll need to advance stories during each chapter. This can be as simple as hunting down a key for a locked chest or as involved as figuring out a way to move a stubborn black cat from your path (since Faeries seem to fear the cute pets). Puzzles are all similar to one another and expect you to pay close attention to each of the conversations you stumble upon for vague clues to their solutions. Sometimes, these clues don't offer meaningful information, leading to infrequent but frustrating instances where you're stuck trying to use every item in your possession to elicit a response. But most of the time they delicately point you in the correct direction--not outright explaining what to do, but giving you enough to make your eventual solutions feel satisfying to orchestrate.

Moving around Deracine's surprisingly large boarding school and accompanying grounds makes good use of existing VR systems of control. You're forced to use a pair of PlayStation Move controllers (since you'll be handling items frequently with your hands) but an intelligent combination of segmental rotation and teleportation makes getting around a breeze. You use two face buttons to rotate the camera through fixed angles and then use a third button on the right Move controller to teleport to any highlighted area within view. In instances where you need to take a closer look, you can get right up and close with the item in question, orbiting the camera around to give you whatever desired angle you might need. It doesn't take long to become comfortable with the control scheme, making its frequent exploration easy to engage with and comfortable during long sessions of play.

Deracine does contain an impressive level of detail to its world, enrapturing you in a space that is primed for you to pick apart. Finely detailed objects give you insight into its lore, with the benefit of VR and motion controls letting you manipulate each item carefully to inspect its every detail. The ability to move around freely and engage without numerous objects within Deracine's world with your own hands is effective in making you feel exactly like the Faerie the children describe, which just wouldn't be the same with a traditional controller.

Deracine has the buildings blocks of a good VR debut from Dark Souls creator FromSoftware, but it lacks the engrossing gameplay and mystique that has made the studio's previous titles so successful.

Expressive animation also plays a big role in enriching the many character moments with a strong sense of emotion and personality. The boarding school and its surrounding forests are also beautiful, bathed in warm lighting and rich seasonal colors. It's contrasted by a delicate and somber score, which loops and changes with each scene to provide a serene backdrop to your adventuring. Silence is also used to great effect, creating an ominous atmosphere at key, powerful moments. With the immersive properties offered by virtual reality, Deracine is a technical treat on both eyes and ears.

Deracine has the buildings blocks of a good VR debut from Dark Souls creator FromSoftware, but it lacks the engrossing gameplay and mystique that has made the studio's previous titles so successful. It is a good example of a PSVR-exclusive title that uses the medium effectively, giving you ample control over your movement and an enticing space to explore fully with the flexibility of using your own two hands to pick it apart. Its narrative ambitions fail to meet the same bar, though, with intriguing themes that get lost within a poorly constructed narrative that's difficult to follow. Its puzzles fall prey to the same inadequacies, failing to leverage the more exciting mechanics presented from the start and instead relying on trivial scavenger hunts though frozen time. Deracine is a disappointingly flawed adventure that won't likely stick with you long after its conclusion.

Football Manager 2019 Review - A Winning Strategy

Sat, 11/03/2018 - 10:40

There are a lot of variables that go into having a successful season in Football Manager. You have to contend with the delicate balancing act of keeping your team's morale high, deftly navigating the transfer market to make astute signings, developing players on the training ground, and rotating your squad to micromanage the risk of injuries, among other things. It's a unique challenge geared towards racking up points on the pitch, yet all of these disparate aspects must first be built atop a solid foundation that begins with pieces on a whiteboard. Tactics are the bedrock of any great team, and Football Manager 2019 gives you more control and flexibility over how your team plays than ever before.

While not a complete overhaul, the granular redesign of the tactics interface opens up your strategic options and tactical pliability. The composition of each team's playstyle is now broken up into three distinct phases: in possession, in transition, and out of possession. Your options in possession will be familiar to anyone who's ever played Football Manager in the last few years, dealing with facets of your team's approach play and plan of attack once you enter the final third. The transitional phase is perhaps the most exciting for the budding Pep Guardiolas and Maurizio Sarris of the virtual dugout, allowing you to decide how your team reacts when both losing the ball and winning it back; while your options out of possession let you set where on the pitch you want your team to engage the opposition and how high or low you want your defensive line to be stationed. All of these additional choices feed into a transparent approach to the tactics module that removes a lot of the previous guesswork that went into creating your team's identity. If you want your team to press high up the pitch and counter once you've won possession, that option is now just a couple of mouse clicks away.

To give you a better feel for how potential tactics are constructed, there are now a number of preset tactics too. These ostensibly recreate generic real-life strategies like possession control and parking the bus, while also featuring distinct philosophies such as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp's Gegenpressing, Tiki-taka, and the Italian Catenaccio. Choosing a preset isn't a simple plug-and-play solution, however, since you still need to consider your squad's strengths, weaknesses, and composition of player roles for any of these tactics to be successful. It's no use asking a team with a low collective work rate to press for 90 minutes unless you want them dead on their feet, just like asking a non-league side to play expansive passing football isn't going to result in a beautiful Barcelona-esque style. Instead, these presets provide a practical baseline to teach you how forging tactics in Football Manager 2019 works, allowing you to borrow, learn from, and expand upon these ideas yourself.

This is beneficial for both veterans and newcomers alike because it provides a clearer understanding of how each instruction can affect your team's makeup, as well as being a necessary complement to Football Manager 2019's tactical redesign. It's not a perfect renovation--implementing something as simple as a midfield pivot, for instance, still isn't an option--but it ditches a lot of the restrictive elements of past games, and impacts the game in a positive way that also lays down building blocks for further improvements in the future.

Elsewhere, your work between the orange cones at the training ground has been completely overhauled. Training sessions were previously presented in fairly broad strokes, compartmentalizing each area into straightforward groups of attacking, defending, fitness, tactical, team cohesion, and ball control. Football Manager 2019 expands upon training in a way that's initially overwhelming, introducing you to a customizable plan of up to three sessions per day that allow you to select from an exhaustive list of training drills and exercises. You can opt to work on areas such as your team's defensive shape, numerous types of set pieces, chance creation, chance conversion, ball retention, endurance, and even extra-curricular activities such as community outreach and team bonding, which both improve your squad's teamwork.

It all seems a bit too much at first, but the comprehensive--albeit wordy--tutorial does a decent job of explaining how everything works, and after a few games training is likely to become an integral part of your pre-match preparation when it was previously viewed as an afterthought. Have a big game coming up against a free-scoring team? Spend the week working on various defensive drills that can potentially counteract their attacking style. Playing some minnows in the cup? Dedicate your training to chance creation and finishing to keep your offensive players sharp. Or you can always have your backroom staff handle all of this themselves. You can engage with as much or as little of Football Manager 2019 as you please.

Additional choices feed into a transparent approach to the tactics module that removes a lot of the previous guesswork that went into creating your team's identity

Of course, all of this groundwork eventually culminates in front of a packed stadium on a Saturday afternoon, and the 3D match engine has undergone some tangible improvements as well. The most noticeable of these is the way the ball now dips and curls through the air in a much more authentic manner. You'll see diminutive playmakers lift the ball over a high defensive line with some cute backspin, and free kicks that bend and nestle in the top corner of the net as though they were off the foot of David Beckham in his prime. It makes for more dynamic passing moves and generally improves the flow of play.

Mistakes, on the other hand, have always been part and parcel of Football Manager's DNA--whether it's a centreback misjudging the flight of the ball, a goalkeeper dropping a cross, or a striker blazing a shot over from six yards out--and now referees are fallible, too. VAR and goal-line technology have been included for league and cup competitions that utilize them (such as Serie A and the newly licenced Bundesliga), and they add an extra layer atop each high-intensity match. There's a specific heart-dropping moment that occurs when you're celebrating a goal only to see the referee on his way over to the video assistant to make sure there wasn't a missed foul or offside call in the buildup. It's another feature that maintains Football Manager's attention to detail.

Touchline shouts, however, are still needlessly vague, but the immediate feedback you receive after issuing one makes them a viable tactical option. Players are generally more intelligent as well, holding their runs when they know they're offside, and picking out the right pass when inside the opposition's penalty area. There are still some legacy issues that persist, such as the high percentage of goals that are scored from crosses, which usually stems from fullbacks not being particularly adept at stopping opposing wingers. You'll also see players dribble into advantageous positions only to stop dead in their tracks to give a defender time to recover, and defensive mistakes are sometimes a little too frequent. These can be frustrating, but they don't dominate the match day experience like they often have in the past.

All of this contributes to Football Manager hitting its prime, like a 28-year old striker. The tactical redesign--while not as thorough as some may have wanted--improves clarity and gives you more control over how you want your team to play, while the match engine and newfound emphasis on training enhance your work in the tactics room by bringing all of your ideas to fruition. These are meaningful changes that push the simulation further, making it feel like you can really impose your footballing philosophies on a team. Watching your players score a goal by completing a sweeping move in the exact way you envisioned is an absolute joy that no other sports game can match, and it's a more viable feat now because of these additions.

It's still not the most welcoming game for newcomers, stacking systems upon systems upon systems, but for veterans and those willing to put in the effort to learn, there's never been a better time to hop in and entrench yourself in the virtual dugout. Football Manager 2019's tweaks will have you happily settling in for another mammoth play session of juggling egos, pipping your rivals to the signing of a wonderkid, and smashing in a 90th-minute winner to capture a league title in triumphant fashion.

Call Of Cthulhu Review - Squid Logic

Fri, 11/02/2018 - 11:00

Even if you haven't read any of H.P. Lovecraft's literary works, you likely possess a passing understanding of why he is broadly recognized as one of the most significant horror writers of the 20th century. His ideas of unspeakable, unknowable terrors driving men (and it is almost always men) to madness, and his creation of the Cthulhu mythos with its pantheon of ancient gods utterly indifferent to the lives of men, have influenced countless novels, films, pen-and-paper and video games in the years since. This latest effort, from French studio Cyanide, spins a familiar tale of artistic obsession, unnatural experimentation and the frailties of the human mind into a mostly successful--if not exactly revelatory--exploration of Lovecraft's core thematic concerns. But its achievements in narrative and mood-setting are regularly undermined by some lackluster sleuthing, run-of-the-mill adventure game puzzles and a handful of truly terrible pseudo-action sequences.

Edward Pierce is a private investigator in Boston who seems to specialize in underwhelming his employer, the Wentworth Detective Agency, and self-medicating the trauma he suffered during World War I with alcohol and sleeping pills. Still shaken after waking from yet another nightmare, he agrees to look into the death of Sarah Hawkins, her husband, and their son three months prior in a house fire on the tiny island and former whaling port of Darkwater. Sarah's father seeks out Pierce after taking posthumous receipt of one of his daughter's paintings, a rather heavy-handed depiction of a woman cowering before some kind of demon. Pierce, summoning all his investigative acumen, suggests Sarah was trying to send a message via her art.

The rhythm of Pierce's detective work, and thus the bulk of the game, is established as soon as he disembarks at the fog-drenched and permanently midnight Darkwater docks. You can explore, in first-person, a small location, talk to the various locals and examine certain items of interest. Conversations are presented with a dialogue wheel offering multiple topics, some of which are only unlocked if Pierce has learned relevant information while occasionally others are delivered as binary choices--pick one and you can't go back to pursue other spokes on the wheel. The voice performances here as entirely serviceable, and not nearly as hammy as one might fear given the setting, though the writing itself suffers from some jarring tonal shifts as you navigate the branches of dialogue and countless unfortunate typos in the subtitles.

Taking cues from the Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG, you can earn and assign points to a collection of stats that, in theory, let you tailor Pierce's detective expertise towards Investigation, Psychology, Eloquence and so on. These stats affect both the dialogue options--a high level in Eloquence might enable Pierce to choose a more persuasive line of questioning--and the ways you can interact with the environment, i.e. Pierce can draw upon his knowledge of Medicine to reveal something about a corpse. Yet these moments rarely, if at all, feel significant; they mostly seem like minor excursions en route to the same outcome.

In general, the RPG nature of the game feels undernourished. The idea of these stats is, I assume, to let you know you're applying specific techniques of investigation; in some instances, it succeeds, most notably in the few occasions when Pierce is able to solve puzzles in multiple ways. But much of the time the differences between having leveled up your Strength stat instead of your Investigation stat feel ambiguous at best and trivial at worst.

It's ambiguous at best because you get the feeling that's what the game is aiming for in order to drive central narrative themes. When you make certain choices or perform certain actions the message, "This will affect your destiny," pops up in the top left corner in a manner similar to a Telltale adventure game. What's never clear, however, is how your destiny has been affected. There's no end of chapter screen that recaps the crucial choices you made and little sense, by the game's conclusion, of how those decisions lead to the choice Pierce has to confront in the very final scene. On my first playthrough I was faced with two possible endings, while on my second, after making a bunch of different choices throughout, I had unlocked a further two without any real understanding of how I'd been given the chance to alter Pierce's destiny.

Call of Cthulhu, and Lovecraft himself, revels in the inexplicable, the ineffable, the fallibility of human perception and its limited capacity to understand the world. Over the course of the game, Pierce finds himself grappling to make sense of what he's seen--or what he thinks he's seen. As his grip on reality, already tenuous to begin with, further loosens, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to reason out cause and effect. On a narrative level, this serves the story well, maintaining suspense and hitting you with well-timed twists. But on a more mechanical level, as you select each choice with a shrug of ignorance, it feels weirdly distancing and ultimately unsatisfying.

Much of Pierce's detective work is routine. You scour each location for hotspots with which to interact, pocketing clues and the odd useful object. Progress is typically a case of diligence--find enough hotspots and Pierce will work out what to do next. Sometimes, however, he's able to "reconstruct" past events that occurred at the present location, but while these tend to be interesting in terms of plot revelations they, again, only require you to find the relevant hotspots and click on them. There's a kind of grim pleasure to be had here, I suppose, a measure of compulsive enjoyment gleaned from tracking down every last hotspot that some players will find gratifying. It's rote work, though.

When Call of Cthulhu breaks out of its procedural setup, it reveals itself at its best and at its very worst. The high point sees Pierce trapped in a hospital you've previously visited--and thus, crucially, should be familiar with. He has to traverse a shadow version of the hospital, navigating its pitch black corridors using only the fading light of a lantern to unlock a route through the normal version. By drawing upon the knowledge you've accumulated previously, it works fantastically as a tense and unsettling puzzle.

In contrast, the low points arrive when you're forced into the game's handful of action sequences. In one, you're hiding from a monster that will kill you instantly if it gets too close. You eventually realize you have to find a particular item--one, it should be said, out of a dozen near-identical items scattered throughout the adjacent rooms--and use it in a particular spot. The only clue you're given is a comment Pierce makes when he picks up the correct item, noting that this one "seems different somehow." I'm not ashamed to admit that, in the heat of the moment, I failed to pick up on this dialogue change as I was a little bit distracted by the howling monster pursuing me across the room. During this trial-and-error cycle of death and reload I must have attempted this sequence 30-odd times before I eventually worked out what to do and was able to systematically try each item until I found the correct one.

In another, Pierce is equipped with a handgun for the only time in the game and has to make his way across an area populated with slow, shuffling enemies. On my first playthrough, I died while experimenting with what happens when you get caught and, when the game reloaded, found myself without a gun. The only way I could proceed was by running around the area, luring enemies into chasing me around until eventually, a gap opened between them that was wide enough for me to dart through. It turned what was probably meant to be a dramatic, seat-of-the-pants dash for safety into a comical farce. (On my second playthrough I simply shot everyone, thanks to my gun not disappearing, and it proved rather more mundane than dramatic, but at least it wasn't frustrating.)

Dwelling on these few low points may seem overly harsh--they account for no more than a small portion of the whole game, after all. But they are not merely poor moments in an otherwise solid game; they're awful pieces of game design utterly inconsistent with the rest of the game. Much of Call of Cthulhu is a perfectly competent adventure game built on firm, if uninspired, point-and-click traditions. And while it won't dazzle you with ambitious, creative puzzle-solving, its central story is as haunting and consuming as you want a good Lovecraft tale to be. But then, like some nightmare creature, an action sequence comes out of nowhere and ruins the experience.

Gwent Review - Heart Of The Cards

Thu, 11/01/2018 - 05:01

Editor's note: After two years in beta, Gwent is now a standalone game. It released alongside Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, a single-player game with Gwent mechanics. While the Gwent and Thronebreaker are connected, they are separate applications, and we have reviewed them separately. You can read or watch our full Thronebreaker review or read on for our full Gwent review.

In The Witcher 3, Gwent was an enjoyable but arduous side activity, only rewarding for those patient enough to scour the open world in search of more powerful playing cards. If you weren't inclined to do that, you'd miss out on much of what made Gwent a unique take on collectible card games. Gwent, now a free, standalone multiplayer game, gives you the room and resources to really enjoy it. Its rules are shaken up to provide an even playing field for veterans and newcomers alike, and it establishes a deeply rewarding loop that encourages you to stick with whichever of its various factions interest you most.

Gwent's fundamentals haven't changed much since The Witcher 3. You're still restricted to playing one card per turn, with the goal of attaining a higher power value than your opponent in each of three total rounds. Each card has an individual power value attached, and your total score will increase the more cards you commit to each round. If you feel as though you're outmatched or similarly far enough ahead in any one round, you can choose to pass and save your current hand for the next. Given that your ability to draw new cards is limited, having more cards in your hand gives you a tangible advantage. Gwent rewards calculated restraint, which makes knowing when to fold and when to go all in an important part of its strategy.

The big differences lie in the structure of the board. Previously Gwent featured three rows, one for each type of unit. That's been reduced to just two now--melee and ranged--and you're free to choose either for your units. Certain units will have abilities that you can only activate when spawned on a certain row, while other units that deal damage to enemies will have their range limited to one or two rows ahead of them. With fewer limitations on card placement, you're able to play Gwent with more fluidity. Experimentation with row-specific abilities and how they link up with cards already in play affects the board in significant ways during a single turn. These new rules keep rounds unpredictable at times and let the tide of the skirmish shift frequently. Having to decide between a big play or holding back for subsequent rounds makes for an engaging test of strategy, with no single approach being best in all scenarios.

The flexibility doesn't help the stagnant pace of matches, though, where each player turn feels far more drawn out than it should. Given the limited number of actions you can take a turn, it's frustrating to watch an opponent stall on playing a single card. Gwent could also benefit from more helpful visual feedback on card abilities and triggers, as I often found myself fumbling a play by placing a card into the wrong row simply because I missed a single word of text on the card itself. Boards should ideally give you more contextual information to work with when you select a card, so that you're not stuck reading each card repeatedly to make sure you're making the right play.

Cards are segmented into five different Factions, each of which requires a distinct strategy to play effectively. The noble Northern Realms specialize in cards with abilities like Deploy (which are triggered when you play a card) and Order (which you manually activate after meeting certain conditions). Monsters, conversely, enjoy strategies laden with Deathwishes that unleash often devastating chains of events when certain creatures die and head to the graveyard. You'll have a starting deck for each Faction when you initially begin Gwent which helps in familiarizing you with each of their differences. But it's also important to experiment with and figure out which Faction speaks to your style of play, and you'll have to decide where to invest your rewards from wins as you go.

Reward trees sprawl out on parchment maps, with one for each Faction and sub-trees for each of their respective Captain characters. Nodes on these maps can be unlocked with Reward Points, which you'll earn frequently by completing challenges in-game. These can be as easy as playing a certain number of cards during a match, or as complicated as eliminating a large number of enemy cards in a single turn. Unlocking nodes rewards you in multiple ways, including small gifts of in-game currencies and big bundles of card packs called Kegs. Each map rewards you with respect to the Faction it belongs to, incentivizing you to spend points on the Factions you play most. It emphasizes the need to experiment with different factions and settle on your favorites beforehand, as the influx of Reward Points slows down after clearing many of the easier challenges.

In-game currencies are plentiful in Gwent, and each serves familiar purposes. There's one that acts as the standard fare for purchasing new card packs, another that helps in the crafting of new cards, and a third that can be used to spruce up existing cards into shinier, animated versions of themselves. Gwent rewards you well for match wins (and additionally for matches where your opponent congratulates you, which is a nice touch) which makes progression towards your next card pack feel balanced. Combined with currency rewards you'll get from reward trees, I found it easy to amass a large amount of each resource in a handful of hours. Gwent is generous with how it rewards the time you invest in it, giving you the means to build up a formidable collection of cards before tempting you to spend real money on it.

Gwent clearly learns from other digital collectible card games that have carved their niche out of the market, but its play style offers up an entirely different type of challenge.

That's not to say that time will eventually come, unless you're planning to keep up with the shifting metagame that CCGs generally employ to keep things fresh. Gwent's in-game store gives you many options for purchasing bundles of resources and some alluring starter packs that reward you with a generous number of Kegs to open.

Gwent clearly learns from other digital collectible card games that have carved their niche out of the market, but its play style offers up an entirely different type of challenge. It's one that requires some investment, and hard decisions on which Faction you'd like to invest in, but Gwent also respects your time by rewarding you for nearly every action in a match, tempting you to play just one more. Its matches could use some fine-tuning in their pacing and presentation, but Gwent is otherwise a refreshingly new take on card games that establishes itself firmly outside of the simple side activity it was in The Witcher 3.

Black Bird Review - Featherweight

Wed, 10/31/2018 - 10:47

Black Bird pits you--a young girl turned into a demonic bird--against overwhelmed cities in a frenetic side-scrolling shoot-em-up. Humorous sensibilities and gleeful chaos capture the frantic fun typical for the genre, but the charms are short-lived. With a mere four levels (and an unlockable remix mode), your bombing fantasies wrap up after just 20 minutes, leaving you plenty of time to ponder what ruffled that mean bird's feathers.

The cities you conquer are teeming with the lives of the ordinary people who live there. A mustachioed man on the sidewalk turns the crank of a pipe organ while his neighbors chatter happily away on a nearby balcony. It's only when you spew forth a stream of deadly bullets that the danger bells toll. The militia attempts to thwart your attacks with slow-moving arrows from precarious sniper spots or whatever vehicle they can leap into. The hot air balloons of early stages give way to jetpacks and missiles as you get deeper into your killing spree, flooding the screen with bright red projectiles that mean your death if you stray too close. The tried-and-true action is enlivened by the personality of the characters and the dramatic music, but once the sheen wears off, it's clear there isn't much depth to the action.

Aside from upsetting ordinary life in spectacular ways, the goal of each stage is to blow up the guard towers dotted across the city. These bases take more shots to destroy than the average enemy, and while you're unloading your arsenal into these hotspots, the local army is gathering its force to ensure your victory is not easy. Dodging their attacks isn't that difficult because Black Bird goes easy on the projectiles compared to a teeth-grinding, bullet-hell shooter, but there's enough danger to keep your hands sweaty and your attention engaged as you swerve recklessly through the air.

There isn't much in the way of strategy, though. Your gun automatically becomes more deadly as you progress--adding bigger bullets and shots that move diagonally--but there's no way to decide the upgrades yourself. And the vortex bomb power-up that deals massive damage in a pinch is too limited to fill that tactical void. The best shoot-'em-ups allow for deeper tactics, often by giving you control over weapon upgrades, which lets you inject your own personality into the killer proceedings. Without more options here, the only real strategy is to shoot the attackers while avoiding getting hit yourself, and that's not much to sustain your fun long term. With every run feeling very much like the last, a crushing sense of deja vu soon becomes your biggest enemy.

Stages circle in on themselves so you can fly over one well-protected tower, keep moving in the same direction, and then reach your mark again with fewer defenders in sight. This retreat-then-attack strategy works well because enemies materialize whenever you stay in one spot for too long, but you never feel as if you're wasting time by flying away from your target. The cities are jam-packed with bonuses and secrets to boost your score and extend your life. Blowing up neon signs or spinning windmills are neat diversions that build on the goofy presentation that is so prevalent throughout the adventure.

Even the enemies themselves are funny rather than threatening. The second boss is a chicken head perched upon a tank that spews projectiles, for instance. Filling its beak with bullets while avoiding the bouncing balls it spits out is much more charming than gunning down an ordinary fighter jet or attack helicopter. All the enemies have this off-kilter personality that keeps the game feeling light and carefree even amidst the most hectic moments.

After shooting down the boss on the fourth stage, you open up a true mode that bumps up the difficulty and adds new enemies. Bosses aren't too difficult the first time around, but once they're equipped with more attacks and a bit more speed, they go from being pushovers to genuine roadblocks. Although Black Bird never reaches the agonizing difficulty of other shoot-'em-ups, true mode offers a good challenge for those who want to be smacked down a few pegs.

Ultimately, though, the game isn't interesting for long. At first, I was frustrated that dying meant restarting from the beginning. But after seeing just how quickly I could reach the end once I knew the enemies' patterns, I could understand why death is so punitive. There just isn't a great reason to keep playing once you've seen everything. Sure, there are high scores to chase and alternate endings to unlock, but the stages don't allow for the diverse tactics that would make striving for a better ranking so exciting. After you've blown up those neon billboards once, the thrill wears off, and you're just going through stages by rote without having to put much thought into what you're doing.

It's a shame Black Bird is so shallow, because the core action is so appealing. The lighthearted atmosphere and sharp controls make it a joy to wreak havoc on the unprepared people and the difficulty hits a nice sweet spot where it provides a good challenge without ever being frustrating. I would have gladly spent more time in this sepia-toned world if there were more stages and more strategy, but with such meager offerings, I'd fly right by Black Bird.

Diablo 3: Eternal Collection Review - Better With Age

Wed, 10/31/2018 - 03:00

More than anything, Diablo 3: Eternal Collection proves just how well Blizzard's action-RPG has aged. Six years after its original release, the dungeon crawler remains as rewarding as ever, and despite a few technical concessions, it has found yet another welcoming home on Nintendo's portable console.

For those unfamiliar with Blizzard's 2012 loot fest, Diablo 3 places you in the shoes of a superpowered demon-slayer in a hellish, gothic world. You explore five disparate regions from a top-down view, upgrading your character and earning new loot as you battle the lords of the underworld and their monstrous swarms.

With the Eternal Collection, Diablo 3 includes every expansion, every character, every quality-of-life improvement the RPG has ever added. One of the more notable options is the ability to play Adventure Mode right from the start, eliminating the need to slog through the slower-paced story out of necessity.

Of course, in coming to Nintendo Switch, Diablo 3 has also become a portable game. And it works. It works incredibly well.

In fact, I can think of few games better suited for a handheld port. So much of Diablo 3 plays best in short bursts, from the 10-minute chase for that next legendary item, to the satisfying flow of a challenge rift. I completed bounties on my way to work and organized my inventory on the way back. Of the 50 hours I spent with Diablo 3 on Switch, about half of them played out in handheld mode. It's another testament to the novelty of Nintendo's console, yes, but also the elegance of Diablo 3's design.

Movement still feels natural on the analog sticks--whether you're playing with the Joy-Cons or Pro controller--and custom controls make it easy to maximize your character build at any time. As was the case with Diablo 3's previous jump to PS4 and Xbox One, the mechanical leap to Switch is painless and fluid. It's just as easy to rely on muscle memory while you focus on the kaleidoscopic display of magic and fire. To paraphrase the designer Don Norman: good design is invisible.

When it comes to visual fidelity, Blizzard ensured that Diablo 3 on Switch runs at 60 frames across the board--aside from rare occasions when elemental effects didn't animate, the Eternal Collection is remarkably clean. Even during high-level challenge rifts, with hundreds of demons covering the screen, the dungeon crawler maintained a smooth and steady pace. The framerate is equally stable in handheld mode, and crunching those mobs is just as satisfying as it's ever been.

The Eternal Collection's resolution, on the other hand, is a bit more muddled. In the Switch's docked mode, Diablo 3 looks aggressively fine, or at least, as good as any other isometric game released in 2012. In handheld mode's 720p resolution, however, things get cloudier. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. In Diablo 3's darker areas--of which there are many--I have to crank my console's brightness all the way in order to really see what is going on. Even then, there's a slight haze over everything, making character models look more like mirages than actual figures. Handheld mode's jagged edges and foggy panoramas aren't massive flaws by any means, but after playing for long periods in docked mode, they tend to stand out.

What they don't do, however, is detract from Diablo's thrilling combat. And of course, in true series tradition, that combat is often more thrilling with a friend or two.

Few cooperative experiences compare to a Monk, Demon Hunter, Barbarian, and Wizard working in concert to whittle down mobs down little by little, one demon at a time. It's a special thrill to see my character build factor into a larger group, and an even better one to see how that group dynamic changes how I play. I'm still mainly focused on killing every enemy possible, but I'm also thinking about tanking with my Crusader, or healing with my Monk, or littering the screen with corpses to give my Necromancer ally more ammunition.

As with previous console iterations of Diablo 3, The Eternal Collection allows for up to four players on one console at a time. Item management is less satisfying in this scenario, as you're either quick-equipping new loot without appreciating its subtleties, or pausing the game for the entire party just so you can boost your damage by 100 points. The radial menus are also still as imprecise as ever, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a better solution without a mouse and keyboard.

I came into the Eternal Edition expecting a eulogy for one of my favorite games. Instead, I stumbled upon a celebration.

And although Diablo 3 on Switch gives you the option to use Joy-Cons as individual controllers, be warned: It's counterintuitive and cumbersome, with poor button-mapping and an overreliance on motion controls. Blizzard did the best it could with what the Joy-Con offers, but when in doubt, stick to the Pro controller or the dual Joy-Con rig.

The Eternal Collection brings the additional ease of playing via LAN connection on each player's respective Switch. It's helpful to have the camera focused solely on your character, especially in Diablo 3's more hectic moments. But I still couldn't help preferring local co-op. There's something novel--even nostalgic--about playing on the same screen, watching the same chaos unfold as the person next to you. Diablo 3 on Switch allows for several methods of playing with friends, and whatever your preference, the experience still holds up.

Like the best games, Diablo 3 has gotten better with time. And despite a few setbacks, the Switch is now my preferred home for the extraordinary RPG. It includes every major improvement Blizzard made to the formula, with the added handheld versatility every Switch port offers.

Diablo 3 is a game about long term goals accomplished in short, thrilling bursts. It's rewarding and subtle. It's flashy and boisterous. I have spent six years enjoying it, and will likely spend six years more. As far as video games go, that's a long time--I came into the Eternal Collection expecting a eulogy for one of my favorite games. Instead, I stumbled upon a celebration.

Transistor Review

Wed, 10/31/2018 - 03:00

Editor's note: Transistor remains an absolute joy to play on Nintendo Switch. The system's screen has no issues with readability, though the game is best enjoyed in docked mode, where its visuals--which remain striking nearly five years after its original release--have room to flourish on a big screen. Its turn-based combat and relatively brief encounters are well-suited to short bursts of gameplay in handheld mode, though the strong writing and pacing are likely to pull you through extended sessions. The loss of the PS4 version's DualShock gimmicks, such as your sword's voice coming through the controller's speaker, are missed, but this port nonetheless represents a fine way to play what is still a gorgeous, terrific game. -- Chris Pereira, October 30, 2018

A dead man. A weapon. A dress, torn and discarded on the ground. A voice says, "What a night. You're still in one piece; that's all that matters."

Transistor begins with remarkable confidence, throwing you right into the life of nightclub singer Red at what might be her lowest point. There's no immediate explanation for who she is, or what this world is, or what happened the night before, and all this mystery only makes your journey more captivating. Transistor asks you to trust in it, to come along on the journey even though you have no idea where you're going. And it rewards your trust, weaving a beautiful and unconventional sci-fi tale with a human heart, and empowering you with a wonderfully flexible combat system that fuses real-time and turn-based action to create something that feels unique.

As you move through Cloudbank, the world of Transistor, you encounter manifestations of the process, a force that's seemingly running rampant, annihilating Cloudbank as it goes. With the help of the transistor--the strange weapon you pull from a dead man's body when the game begins, a weapon Red drags along behind her as if it's a sword that's too heavy for her to wield properly--you fight the process. You can run around fighting your enemies in real time, but you're outnumbered, and you're just not quick enough or strong enough to overcome them this way. Thankfully, you have a trick up your sleeve called turn, which enables you to freeze time, plot out your upcoming movements and attacks, and then carry them out in rapid succession.

As you progress, you collect more and more techniques, called functions, each one the essence of a fallen resident of Cloudbank. There are 16 functions in all, including straightforward attacks, movement abilities, a function that spawns a doglike helper, a function that temporarily turns enemies into allies, and others. Each one can be slotted as an active ability, or to upgrade another function, or to give you a passive benefit. There are a remarkable variety of ways in which these techniques can be combined, and hitting on particularly effective combinations and putting them to use in battle is immensely satisfying.

You can upgrade any function with any other function, making your skill set extremely customizable.

Transistor's combat makes you feel powerful by giving you an edge on the process, but it also encourages you to think carefully about what you're doing, because the process is no pushover. It has tricks of its own, sometimes obscuring your vision, sometimes pulling you out of your turning phase without warning. It's a clever foe, which makes matching wits with it all the more enjoyable. And, much like the idols of Supergiant Games' earlier game Bastion, Transistor has limiters, optional modifiers that make your life more difficult but reward you with more experience, so if you want a more challenging experience, you can have it.

But what is the process, really? And what has happened to all the residents of Cloudbank? Red is driven to get to the bottom of it, and she's not alone. From inside the transistor speaks a man's voice, bringing life to your quest as it responds to your actions and slowly helps you piece together the story of Cloudbank. The always-present voice also puts a relationship at the heart of Transistor. Red can't speak--the events of the night before have stripped her of her voice--but her wordless actions reveal her fierce determination, and as the voice speaks from the transistor, and Red finds ways of responding to it, a connection between the two becomes clear.

There's a touch of magic, even of spirituality, to Transistor's story, a sense that there are things within the world of Cloudbank that transcend our understanding of what's possible.

Also shedding light on the world and its people are the files accompanying each function. To reveal more about these people whose essence has been trapped in the transistor, you have to use their functions in different ways, putting them in active slots, upgrade slots, and passive slots, which gives you an incentive to tweak your build and try different techniques. The files are so well written and paint such vivid pictures of Cloudbank's fallen residents that you naturally want to uncover all the details they contain.

Red has a good set of pipes. Or she did, before last night.

What slowly emerges in Transistor is the story of a clandestine organization called the Camerata, working behind the scenes in Cloudbank for its own purposes. And while the answers to the plot's questions about who the Camerata are and what the transistor does are interesting, they're not what makes Transistor's story special. Cloudbank is a technological world, but not a cold one. It's not a place of pure ones and zeroes. There's a touch of magic, even of spirituality, to Transistor's story, a sense that there are things within the world of Cloudbank that transcend our understanding of what's possible.

And Transistor's artful presentation has some magic of its own. There are a few astounding moments in Transistor, like the moment when you step up to a microphone and press a button to sing, and Red's haunting voice comes in and carries you back to what had happened the night before, the visuals communicating in shorthand what words would take too much time to say. Or the moment when Red, silhouetted against the city, speeds across Cloudbank on a motorcycle, hunting the people who are responsible for everything that has happened.

Transistor is always a good-looking game, but in these instances, it demonstrates a rare knack for combining its visuals and music to powerfully convey both narrative information and tone, driving the story forward with Red's own unwavering resolve. So in the end, yes, Transistor is a fun action role-playing game with a neat combat system, but beautiful moments like these make it more than that. They make it a game with a soul.

My Hero One's Justice Review - In Their Own Quirky Ways

Sun, 10/28/2018 - 02:00

My Hero One's Justice is a 3D arena-style fighter based on the popular manga and anime My Hero Academia. Unfortunately, One's Justice offers a bare-bones recreation of My Hero Academia's story, and it doesn't succeed at differentiating its offline modes. The game does have its moments, though, capturing the thrill of grandiose superhuman battles and the distinct fighting styles of the series' main characters.

My Hero Academia takes place in a world where most individuals are born with superpowers called Quirks. Izuku Midoriya, the main series' protagonist, is unlucky enough to be born without one. However, when Midoriya's role model, All Might, sees the young boy bravely try and rescue his childhood friend/bully Katsuki Bakugo from a supervillain, the world's number-one hero takes the Quirkless teen under his wing. All Might helps his protege get into U.A. High School, Japan's top school for those who want to be superheroes, where Midoriya ends up in Class 1-A with Bakugo and 18 other first-years who all have powerful Quirks.

One's Justice's Story mode briefly touches on this before jumping ahead to My Hero Academia's sixth arc, "Vs. Hero Killer." That's fine if you've been keeping up with the manga or anime, but confusing if you're using this game as your entry point into the franchise or just hoping to understand what's going on at all. Even when you do understand what's happening, there's a lack of any kind of emotional impact, as the story plays off characters' prior relationships with one another without actually telling you what those connections might be. However, the choice of later story arcs does justify the inclusion of certain characters, including the League of Villains.

You may also find it tough to follow the story since the whole game is presented in Japanese with English subtitles. The entire Japanese voice cast from the My Hero Academia anime return to voice their respective characters, and each delivers noteworthy performances. However, with no option to play through One's Justice's Story mode with the English dub's voice cast, you'll be fighting your opponents in Story mode while trying to read subtitles at the same time. It's not impossible, but it's not easy.

The game's Story mode isn't bad, though. One's Justice's campaign has optional "What If" missions that offer a look at what certain characters might have been doing between the story's major events. Even though these missions aren't canon, they're written well enough to fit the larger plot and it's believable that they really took place. Plus, they further flesh out minor heroes and villains that haven't gotten as much screen time in the anime.

One's Justice's other four major modes--Local Match, Online Match, Arcade, and Missions--are where you'll probably be spending most of your time with the game. Local and online matches pit two opponents against each other in a best-of-three fight, with the former allowing you to go up against a computer or a friend in couch co-op and the latter sending you online to try and climb up in the rankings. You can also dress up your characters with new costumes and cosmetic items that you unlock by playing the game and show off your custom outfits in local and online fights. A fighter's wardrobe doesn't provide any in-game benefits, but it is rather fun to dress someone up as one of My Hero Academia's characters that aren't included in the game, like Mei Hatsume or Gunhead.

In Arcade, you face off against computer-controlled fighters in a six-tier ladder where opponents get stronger on every rung. There is a slight bump in difficulty compared to Local Match, but it's not enough to make Arcade feel different from playing six consecutive local matches against AI. Missions mode is like Arcade, but with added optional requirements that you can fulfill to earn bonus cosmetic items. Those optional requirements are typically what you're trying to do anyway--such as winning every match or getting a good rank from a well-placed combo--so they don't force you into playing differently from the other modes. All four modes play essentially the same, with the biggest difference being whether you're going up against a computer or another human being.

Each of the fighters in One's Justice's roster are unique. Some handle similarly--Tenya Iida, Gran Torino, and Deku: Shoot Style are all speed-based fighters, for example--but no two characters attack the same way, even the ones who have the same Quirk. 19 fighters are available at the outset, with another unlocked by playing the story and two more offered as DLC. Attacking is fairly simplistic, with one button for melee moves and another two for using different aspects of a character's Quirk. That said, each fighter's moveset is varied enough that you can form multiple strategies with a single character. Bakugo's powerful Explosion Quirk, for example, doesn't usually have much range, but he can charge it up to do larger, albeit slower, attacks. His Quirk also has a bit of kickback, so while in the air he can attack to quickly change his trajectory, and even keep himself airborne almost indefinitely for a faster, hit-and-run approach to combat.

Each fighter's moveset is varied enough that you can form multiple strategies with a single character

Learning the different fighting styles for a particular character--and then implementing their unique unblockable, grab, counter, and Plus Ultra attacks into your strategy--is key to mastering each one. Once you understand the basics, going up against computer-controlled opponents won't hold much challenge, but it does pave the way for more enjoyable moments in PvP play. When two players who know their respective fighter's strengths and weaknesses go head-to-head, it leads to some tense, yet exciting battles. And with One's Justice's relatively easy learning curve, it's not all too difficult to feel competent with at least a few characters and jump into a ranked Online Match.

The small moments of fan service during each fight are a nice touch too. Most Easter eggs come through in the characters' Plus Ultra special attacks, such as Ochaco Uraraka's Meteor Shower, but they show up cosmetically as well. The sleeves on Midoriya's suit will tear and his fingers will break if he uses an all-out Delaware Smash, for example.

It's a shame My Hero One's Justice's Story mode doesn't do a good job introducing the world of My Hero Academia, with several important narrative beats either missing or revealed through subtitles while you're busy trying to fight. The offline modes against AI don't do much for the game either. However, One's Justice's combat is both accessible and enjoyable. When two players face off--either online or off--the game captures the adrenaline-pumping feeling of My Hero Academia's most notable fights. Pulling off moves from the manga/anime and outsmarting an opponent with devastating combos feels rewarding, and that's enough to keep the player coming back to the game for more.

WWE 2K19 Review: A Step In The Right Direction

Fri, 10/26/2018 - 04:43

If your relationship with 2K's pro wrestling series has been as fractured as a bickering tag team over the past few years, WWE 2K19 is unlikely to patch up old wounds. All of this to say: if you didn't like how it played then, you're probably not going to like how it plays now. Some minor quality of life refinements improve upon the in-ring action in a couple of specific match types, but beyond this the core system of strikes, grapples, and reversals has remained relatively unchanged. Instead, WWE 2K19's most notable additions appear outside of the squared circle; developers Yukes and Visual Concepts introduce a deluge of new content and game modes to satiate an aspect of the series that has been sorely lacking in recent years.

The first of which is a redesigned MyCareer mode. It ditches the grindy, glitch-ridden, personality vacuum of the series' previous career modes in favour of a linear storyline akin to those found in 2K's own NBA games. Your created wrestler begins his rollercoaster journey with a fictional indie promotion known as BCW, competing in front of roughly 30 people in high school gyms and parking lots. It doesn't take long before the WWE comes knocking, but this isn't the typical rags-to-riches tale we've come to expect from a sports game's career mode. You immediately blow your shot at the big time due to outside interference and a little sabotage. This forces you back to the indie scene for a short while before you eventually return to the WWE via some unconventional methods that earn you more than a few enemies.

It's far fetched and more than a little corny at times, but the writing by former WWE writer Sean Conaway is self-aware enough to poke fun at the frequent ridiculousness of pro wrestling, and every story-driven aspect of MyCareer is elevated by full voice acting. Each WWE superstar (with the exception of John Cena) lends their vocal talents to the game, while indie wrestler AJ Kirsch brings your created character to life with an enjoyable level of authenticity. There are more than a few wooden performances that reveal these guys are much better at playing off a crowd than they are sitting alone in a recording booth, but just having the likes of AJ Styles, Braun Strowman, and Triple H cutting promos and interacting with your character backstage injects WWE 2K19 with more personality and individuality than the series has ever had before.

The structured nature of this linear narrative also allows Yukes and Visual Concepts to delve into the tropes and familiar storylines that comprise a week's worth of WWE programming. You'll find yourself engaged in believable feuds and back-and-forth promos; you'll clash with authority figures, get screwed out of titles, form unlikely alliances, and win when the odds are stacked in your opponent's favour. The illusion of choice in certain scenes is an unnecessary facet, but this curated experience is much more enjoyable and reflective of the product we watch on TV every week. It's a substantial improvement over the dull, haphazard career modes of the past.

That's not to say MyCareer is without its faults, however. The lack of a women's career mode is still disappointing--a crudely ironic stance when you consider the three-man commentary team mistakenly spends the entire mode referring to every character as she and her. The women's division is large enough now to encompass all of the feuds and storylines you would ever need, so it feels like WWE 2K19 is still stuck in the past when it should be latching onto the recent resurgence in women's wrestling, particularly when the WWE itself is finally putting on its first ever women's only pay-per-view, Evolution, at the end of this month.

Character progression is also a tad too lethargic in MyCareer. By the time you're facing off against 80+ rated superstars in the WWE, your character will be hovering somewhere around the 50-rated mark. This doesn't make as much of an impact as you might imagine--there's never really a tangible sense that your character is substantially improving--but you do spend an awfully long time restricted to only two reversal slots that need time to recharge. For a game that's stringently built around its reversal mechanics, this is a needlessly frustrating decision, especially when you're forced to win three-on-one handicap matches and eight-man battle royals, leading to repetitive moments of trial-and-error.

The way you level up has at least been streamlined, with three different skill trees that pertain to your chosen fighting style, plus one extra sub-style. You can improve everything from strength, agility, momentum, grapple speed, and so on, but aside from choosing whether you want to be a high-flying cruiserweight or strong-style striker, among others, your customisation options are incredibly limited early on due to the much-maligned inclusion of loot boxes.

There are no microtransactions for purchasing loot boxes with real-world money--even with three different in-game currencies involved.

There are no microtransactions for purchasing these loot boxes with real-world money--even with three different in-game currencies involved. But everything from hairstyles, beards, wrestling tights, single moves, entrance music, taunts--right down to incremental cosmetic items like eyelashes and eyebrows--are stuffed into various kinds of loot boxes. This is disheartening because the creation suite is as comprehensive as ever, allowing you to create almost anything you put your mind to, but it's been needlessly limited in MyCareer due to this focus on randomised loot. You can spend one of the in-game currencies on any of these items directly--casting further bemusement over the inclusion of loot boxes--but the prices are so extortionate that you're better off bowing to the gods of the RNG. Maybe this strategy makes sense in other sports titles, but pro wrestling games have always been highly customisable, and limiting your options with a game of luck just feels wrong. No one wants to spend hours with a character they're not happy with.

Outside of MyCareer, the beloved Showcase mode makes its return after a two-year hiatus. WWE 2K19's charts the endearing, heartbreaking, and triumphant story of fan favourite, Daniel Bryan. You couldn't pick a better superstar for Showcase's return: he's not only a phenomenal wrestler, but an incredibly likeable guy with one of the most fascinating stories in the sport. Before each match, Bryan himself will set the stage and provide context for why each match is so noteworthy, taking you on a journey from one of his earliest contests against an up-and-coming John Cena, to his recent return to the ring after miraculously coming back from an early retirement. The matches themselves revolve around completing objectives to set up the moves and big spots that comprised each match. This can be fiddly at times when the AI doesn't want to co-operate, but the joy of Showcase mode has always come from recreating memorable moments in WWE history, and it achieves that here.

2K Towers riffs on Mortal Kombat X's Living Towers, challenging you to complete a series of themed matches that chart a rambunctious course through various opponents, with myriad match types and modifiers keeping things fresh. You might find yourself in a gauntlet involving British wrestlers that culminates in a match with the British Bulldog, before moving onto another that pits you against supernatural characters like Bray Wyatt and The Undertaker. It's a fun way to run the gamut of match types, and the modifiers keep things interesting by occasionally altering the way you would usually play. There are also some outlandish twists like big head mode and an 8-bit filter to contend with.

Of those match types, both steel cage and Hell in a Cell matches have seen some welcome tweaks. The latter introduces more options for escaping the cage, including yelling at the referee to simply open the door, and new animations let you scale the structure and navigate across it in ways that make for more exciting matches. Meanwhile, Hell in a Cell has been reworked so that it's much easier to break through the steel edifice to the outside, with context-sensitive actions removing a lot of the awkwardness.

Beyond this, Payback is a new mechanic that gives each superstar two powerful abilities. These might grant an immediate finisher, offer the ability to utilise dirty tactics like low blows and poison mist, or let you play possum to catch an opponent off guard. On paper, each ability sounds like a potential game-changing move that can alter the flow of a match, but WWE 2K19 is still far too dependent on reversals for them to have a significant impact. The timing on reversals is a little easier this year, but it would still be nice if there were more dynamic defensive options on-hand. The only other mechanical change comes from an incremental increase in speed. This isn't immediately palpable, but the faster animations do give each hard-hitting move some extra heft and impact.

The net code, while not always perfect, is good enough that your timing for reversals and pins is never compromised, while commentary is as egregious as it usually is. The interactions between the three-man booth are stilted and regularly out of context. During Showcase, for example, they regularly reference events years in the future when you're playing matches from the past. There are also some notable absences from the roster, which can be rectified to some degree by downloading the community's fantastic creations. Yet you're currently out of luck if you didn't pre-order and want to play as Rey Mysterio or the current Raw Women's Champion, Ronda Rousey. Glitches are a semi-regular occurrence, too, though they're not as bad as in previous years, often resulting in moments of physics-based hilarity rather than anything game-breaking.

Despite its flaws, WWE 2K19 is a step in the right direction for the long-running series. After two years toiling away with a dearth of interesting single-player content, the introduction of an engaging career mode is a welcome sight that finally captures some of the personality pro wrestling is partly built upon. The in-ring action is still inconsistent and will be as divisive as ever, but it's easier to stomach when the game surrounding the wrestling action gives you more reasons to play. WWE 2K19 might not reach the lofty heights of wrestling video gaming's heyday--or maybe that's just the nostalgia talking--but it's 2K's best effort so far. Maybe next year we'll be on to a true title contender.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review - Outlaw Country

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 22:01

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game about consequences where you have only the illusion of choice. Yes, there are some decisions to be made, and those decisions will shape your character and the world around you. But some of the most disastrous choices were made for you before the game even begins, leaving you to deal with the fallout. And because it's a prequel to Red Dead Redemption, you also (probably) know how the story ends. All that's left is discovering what happens in between and making the most of it. To that end, you fight against the repetitive nature of missions, frequent moral dilemmas, and the inconvenience of doing what's right. For the most part, the frustration that tension can cause is also what makes the story impactful, and when it all comes together, your effort is not wasted.

At the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2, the Van der Linde gang is already on the decline we know from the previous game is coming. After a heist gone wrong in Blackwater, they're on the run, down a few members, and on the verge of capture, starvation, and succumbing to a snowstorm. There are familiar faces--Red Dead Redemption protagonist John Marston chief among them--as well as new ones. As senior member Arthur Morgan, you're in the privileged position of being Dutch Van der Linde's right hand, privy to his machinations and included in the most important outings. Once the gang escapes the storm and settles into a temporary campsite, you're also put in charge of the camp's finances, meaning you pick out all the upgrades and supplies. If Dutch is the center of the gang, Arthur is adjacent to all its vital parts at once, and that gives you a lot of power.

With that power, you're encouraged to do as you see fit and at your own pace. A lengthy series of story missions early on introduces you to some of the ways you can spend your time, including hunting, fishing, horse-rearing, and robbery. There are a lot of systems, and covering the basics takes several hours. While they're not so cleverly disguised as to not feel like tutorials, the actual learning is paced well in its integration with the story, and the missions also acquaint you with the characters and the surrounding area. For example, the fishing "tutorial" has you taking young Jack Marston out for the day, since John is not exactly great at fatherhood. Jack is pure and sweet--and incredibly vulnerable to all the gang's wrongdoings--and the mission is memorable for it.

In addition to the mechanics of various activities, you're also presented with a few elements of semi-realism you need to contend with. Mainly, you need to eat to refill your health, stamina, and Dead Eye ability "cores," which deplete over time. Eating too much or too little results in weight changes and stat debuffs. Eating itself isn't a problem, and neither is maintaining cores in general, but eating enough to maintain an average weight is intrusive; despite experimenting with what and how often I ate, I couldn't get Arthur out of the underweight range, and eating any more frequently would be too time-consuming to justify. You don't have to sleep (though you can to pass time and refill your cores), and surviving hot or cold temperatures comes down to choosing the right outfit from your item wheel, so managing your weight sticks out as superfluous rather than conducive to immersion.

Limited fast travel options are the better-implemented side of Red Dead 2's realism, perhaps counterintuitively. There's next to no fast travel at the beginning and few methods in general, so you have to rely on your horse to get around. It can be slow, but there's no shortage of things to do and see along the way. Chance encounters are plentiful and frequently interesting; you might find a stranger in need of a ride to town or a snake bite victim who needs someone to suck the venom out of their wound. You can stumble upon a grotesque murder scene that sets you entirely off-track, or you can ignore someone in danger and just keep riding. And just as you can decide to rob or kill most anyone, you'll also run into people who will do the same to you. Even the longest rides aren't wasted time, and it's hard not to feel like you're missing something if you do opt for fast travel.

Red Dead Redemption 2's version of America is vast and wide open, stretching from snowy mountains and the Great Plains down to the original game's New Austin in the southwest. Further to the east is the Louisiana-inspired Deep South, which is still feeling the effects of the Civil War after nearly 40 years. There's a distinct shift when traveling from region to region; as grassy hillsides become alligator-filled swamps, Union veterans give way to angry Confederate holdouts, and good intentions and casual racism turn into desperation and outright bigotry. The variety makes the world feel rich, and it both reacts to you and changes independently of your involvement; new buildings will go up as time goes on, and some of the people you talk to will remember you long after you first interacted with them (for better or worse).

Incidental moments as you explore make up a large part of the morality system, in which you gain and lose honor based on your actions. "Good" morals are relative--you're a gang member, after all--but generally, it's more honorable to punch up rather than down. Helping an underdog, even if they're an escaped convict and even if you need to kill some cops or robbers to do it, can net you good guy points. In these situations, it's easier to be noble than a true outlaw. Committing a dishonorable crime is hard to do undetected, even in remote locations, and usually requires you to track down and threaten a witness, run and hide from the law, or pay a bounty down the line. While you'll earn money more quickly doing "bad" things, high honor gets you a pretty discount at shops, and you'll make good money either way through story missions.

In many ways, you're nudged toward playing a "good" Arthur. The gang members he's closest to from the beginning are the more righteous, principled ones who are motivated by loyalty and a desire to help others, while he insults, argues with, and generally reacts negatively to those who are hot-headed and vicious. The most rotten of them is Micah, who's so easy to hate that it's hard not to follow Arthur's lead and take the higher road. Unlocking camp upgrades like one-way fast travel and better supplies also essentially forces you into being honorable; although everyone donates, you have to invest hundreds of dollars yourself if you want to afford anything, and that automatically gets you a ton of honor points whether you like it or not.

One of the best, most understated details in the game is Arthur's journal, in which he recaps big events as well as random people you've met and more mundane, everyday things. He sketches places you go, doodles the plants and animals you find, and writes out thoughts he barely speaks out loud. The journal changes with your level of honor, but at least for a relatively honorable Arthur, the pages are filled with concerns and existential crises--inner turmoil over being either good or evil, for instance--that make you want to see him become a better person.

It's a lot harder to feel like a good guy when doing the main story missions, though. Arthur, along with nearly everyone else, is loyal to the gang first and foremost. This means following Dutch into trouble, busting friends out of jail, and committing a number of robberies in the interest of getting money for the gang. Even if you're trying your hardest to be good, you'll inevitably slaughter entire towns in mandatory story missions--stealth and non-lethal takedowns aren't always an option, and the snappy auto-lock aim makes shootouts a far easier option anyway. The dissonance is frustrating to play through in the moment, but it's incredibly important to Arthur's arc as well as your understanding of the gang as a whole. To say any more would venture into spoiler territory.

Like any good prequel, there's an incredible amount of tension in knowing what happens without knowing exactly how.

That extends to the structure of story missions, which start to get predictable around halfway through the game. It's not that they're boring--the opposite is true, actually, and you see a lot of action from beat to beat. But after a while, a pattern emerges, and it's easy to figure out how any given heist or raid is going to unfold. This too becomes frustrating, partially because you often have no way of significantly affecting the outcome despite any decision-making power you thought you might have had. But your weariness is also Arthur's, and that's crucial. The mid-game drags in service of the narrative, which only becomes apparent much later. There's also enough variety between missions and free-roam exploration to prevent it from dragging to the point of being a chore to play.

Like any good prequel, there's an incredible amount of tension in knowing what happens without knowing exactly how. If you played Red Dead Redemption, you know who survives and as a result who probably won't make it to the end of the game. Even during the slower parts, you're waiting for betrayals and injuries and other events you've only vaguely heard mention of before. You're waiting for characters to reveal their true selves, and watching as everything unravels is riveting and heartbreaking if you know what's to come.

You can still enjoy the story in its own right without that background knowledge, though. Some of Red Dead Redemption 2's best moments have almost no relation to its predecessor. One mission takes you to a women's suffrage rally, and a painful side mission has you facing a woman whose husband you killed and life you ruined. The new characters are among the best, too; Sadie Adler is a personal favorite for reasons I won't spoil. Another, a young black man in the gang named Lenny, mentions how the Southerners treat him a little differently; Arthur says that he hasn't noticed anything weird, to which Lenny replies, "All respect, Mr. Morgan, you wouldn't notice."

Generally, Red Dead 2 tackles pertinent issues of the era with care. Rather than defining any of its characters by the bigotry they may experience, it allows them the room to be well-rounded individuals while still not ignoring that things like racism and sexism exist. One arc focuses squarely on a very serious issue, and here, the lack of real choice in the story's direction--and your resulting involvement in what transpires--will likely make you uncomfortable in a powerful way.

While Red Dead Redemption was mostly focused on John Marston's story, Red Dead 2 is about the entire Van der Linde gang--as a community, as an idea, and as the death rattle of the Wild West. It is about Arthur, too, but as the lens through which you view the gang, his very personal, very messy story supports a larger tale. Some frustrating systems and a predictable mission structure end up serving that story well, though it does take patience to get through them and understand why. Red Dead Redemption 2 is an excellent prequel, but it's also an emotional, thought-provoking story in its own right, and it's a world that is hard to leave when it's done.

NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 Review - Ball Another Day

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 04:33

We may long for the days of NBA Jam or NBA Street and their brands of over-the-top basketball, but the closest modern equivalent is NBA 2K Playgrounds 2. Coming off of last year's game, Playgrounds 2 continues the two-on-two ridiculousness in an arcade style that's incredibly easy to pick up and play. Anything goes on the court where there aren't fouls or rules against goaltending, and double-front-flip dunks with a 12-foot vertical leap are standard. It's certainly fun to go back-and-forth with opponents to light up the scoreboard, but even all that flash has its limitations; the game hits one note that gets old rather quickly.

NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 keeps things simple by only giving you the essentials for balling up. Aside from shooting, passing, and crossover dribbles on offense, holding sprint turns normal shots into high-flying dunks. Alley-oops come in handy for throwing down on unsuspecting defenders thanks to easy execution. And if defenders are pressing hard, throwing your elbows provides an option for creating space. Although this style of basketball thrives off of offensive showmanship, defense still plays a big role in winning. Shoving and stealing can effectively create turnovers, and you need to be smart about when to use these as they take up your endurance meter and leave you vulnerable. You also have opportunities to disrupt dunks that seem like they'd be easy buckets just by getting in the paint and trying to block. It's a basic toolset that takes little time to get familiar with.

To keep games interesting, teams build up a meter that unleashes court-altering power-ups called Lottery Picks. The Lottery Pick meter recharges when you do anything that fills the stat sheet, and once it's full, you get a random power-up. There are nine in total, which range from double points for dunks or three-pointers for a limited time to freezing the opposing basket that'll take a few shots to break. This system can seem unfair at times, but there's no denying it's fun to run wild with the infinite stamina power for a short period, for example. If anything, it adds a bit of variety to a very basic game.

There's a decent foundation that Playgrounds 2 works with, but it doesn't quite come together as seamlessly as you'd hope. Uncontested dunks bounce out of the rim more often than they should because it's subject to the shot-percentage meter--you can be on a fastbreak and still miss. Shooting open threes with the likes of Steph Curry or Ray Allen still a large window of failure. As a result, the shot meter calculation often feels at odds with this style of basketball game. Playgrounds 2 suffers from a simple, yet damaging flaw--the shot-timing meter is displayed at the bottom of the screen. For a game that's built around fast and flashy action, relegating the most important element for scoring to a position away from what's happening on court is a big misstep. Instead of watching those sweet dunks unfold, you end up shifting attention to the meter to make sure the shot goes down. This also prevents you from seeing what develops on the court during key moments, like anticipating blocks and reacting to them.

Playgrounds 2 is at its best when playing competitive games with either an AI-controlled teammate or a real player against others. Online matches can take a while to find, but games get going quickly once matchmaking is set. And thanks to the fast pace of games, action is always just a few moments away. The game keeps track of your overall record, and you'll earn in-game currency whether you win or lose. There's also an online version of the three-point contest and a two-player cooperative mode that pits your team against the AI, but neither inspires much competition.

A few options exist for playing offline, like local multiplayer in exhibition mode and the new NBA season mode. The latter will have you play a condensed 14-game season with an NBA team, and you pick two players from the roster for each game. If you get seeded in conference standings, you'll move on to the playoffs. And if you win the championship, you'll unlock a historical player for the team you played as. Since there is a tangible reward for winning it all, playoff matches provide some challenge and tension. It's all a bit unceremonious; you play one season and it ends, and you just start another separate season. And with the starting roster you're given at the outset, it can be frustrating to grind away as players with lower stat ratings.

You can bypass most of the grind by using Golden Bucks, an in-game currency that can be earned at a fairly slow rate or bought with real money (which undermines the point of the NBA season mode, too). If you don’t want to unlock the full roster through microtransactions, you’ll have to get card packs using Golden Bucks or another in-game currency called Baller Bucks. Packs get you random players on the roster or cosmetics to dress up players. While the system gives you something to work for, it still feels somewhat exploitative. At the very least, player progression incentivizes using different players since they individually earn XP--leveling them up to silver and gold rank boosts their overall stats.

NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 tries to capture the more lighthearted side of basketball culture but doesn't bring with it a discernible sense of personality. NBA players are designed with big heads and exaggerated features to coincide with the ridiculous arcade approach. But it comes off as just absurd, and not in a charming sense--instead, most player models look like badly drawn caricatures by an amateur street artist. Courts don't inspire much of a basketball atmosphere either, with nonsensical locations and crowds that look like old Xbox 360 avatars. Seeing Playgrounds 2 in action is like watching expressionless bobbleheads floundering about in silly animations.

It's fun to jump in for a few games and rack up points through extravagant slam dunks with your favorite players from the past and present. However, the novelty of arcade-style basketball wears thin quickly in NBA 2K Playgrounds 2. There isn't much to keep you coming back once you've had your fill, and the nagging gameplay flaws hold back the experience. The game lacks a distinct personality, and that's a missed opportunity for any basketball game, let alone one that tries so hard to have one.

Return Of The Obra Dinn Review - The Good Ship

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 11:00

Like Lucas Pope's previous game, Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn is primarily concerned with processing information. In the latter, you play as an insurance clerk assessing claims on a mysteriously abandoned ship rather than a customs agent assessing documents at the border of a totalitarian country, but in both games, you are presented with fragments of data and asked to check their veracity through cross-reference and deductive logic. Both games are also grim in their own ways, but while Papers, Please forces you to consider your personal moral compass and where you're willing to see it compromised, Return of the Obra Dinn leaves you in a more detached role as the time-traveling observer of a naval journey gone horribly wrong.

In 1802 the "good ship" Obra Dinn set sail from London to "the Orient" but never reached its destination. Five years later it is found drifting into the port of Falmouth in southwest England with no one left alive on board. As a clerk at the East India Company it's your job to explore the ship and find out what happened. You're given a nifty book--which includes a full crew and passenger manifest, annotated deck maps, a glossary of basic sailing terms, and a group sketch of the people on board drawn by one of the passengers--into which you are expected to record all the relevant details.

Like most insurance clerks, one suspects, you are also equipped with a magical pocket watch that, when opened and activated in the presence of a corpse, allows you to travel back in time to the moment of the person's death. It's almost literally a single moment, too, as the screen fades to black and you hear but a few seconds of speech or other sounds leading up to the fatal incident before you find yourself inside a scene that's been frozen in time, and the investigation begins.

In this space (which, like the entire game is explored in first-person) you can walk around a confined section of the ship but you cannot interact with anything. You can only zoom in for a closer look at any object, and beyond the immediate surroundings, the background just fades out into nothingness. The entire game is presented in a starkly beautiful monochromatic color scheme, a graphical style described by the developer as "1-bit". When still, it resembles something from an early '80s PC, albeit displaying at a much higher resolution. But in motion, when you're walking around the decks, it looks quite unlike anything seen before--a startling retro throwback that is as alien as it is familiar, and that inherent strangeness works only to enhance the sense of mystery.

Once inside an investigation space--or memory, as the game refers to them--the first thing you're compelled to do is examine the now-deceased body in front of you, matching their face to the artist's sketch in your book to commence the process of identification. You still don't know their name, but perhaps there was something you heard just before they died that could be a clue? Maybe there's something about what they were doing or wearing or where they were on the ship or who they were with? You also need to determine their fate--were they shot or stabbed or poisoned or crushed or worse? And, if they were murdered, then by whom? Which likely means having to identify someone else through another series of clues. Or maybe you'll need to find the answers in another memory instead?

At first, you won't have enough information to draw any firm conclusions about the fate of the ship. However, as you explore the ship and find more bodies, which in turn open up new areas of the ship and reveal yet more bodies, the gaps in your knowledge will start to close. Soon you'll have access to a series of memories that, by the time you're done identifying everyone and discovering their fates, come together to tell the story of the Obra Dinn and the sixty people on board. It's at this point, as you stand over an unknown corpse with your trusty notebook in hand, that Return of the Obra Dinn solidifies into an exceptionally compelling representation of detective work.

Unlocking a person's identity requires you to pay attention to every last detail across multiple memories. To narrow your search you can bookmark a specific person and revisit only the memories in which they appear, letting you focus on their individual story in an attempt to clarify their actions and link them to a particular role on the ship. Further, the Obra Dinn had a fairly multicultural crew so you'll do well to note the different languages spoken and the varying accents of the English-speaking majority, as well as the details of each person's physical appearance.

At any point, you can pull out your book to pencil in a detail. Perhaps you think this chap is the First Mate or this fellow with the beard got shot by the ship's surgeon. Correctly identify three people and their fates and the game will let you know by properly typesetting your penciled notes. Some will be obvious, most will not, and many will require keeping track of multiple scenes and threading together numerous what-at-first-seemed-inconsequential pieces of information. When a clutch of clues fall into place and you crack the case, as it were, it feels immensely satisfying.

Plenty of games promise to make you feel like a detective only to have you checking boxes, but here it's different. Return of the Obra Dinn gives you all the tools you'll need to solve its puzzles--the book interface is a masterpiece of connected design--and then trusts that you'll be capable of arriving at the correct answers by yourself.

But it's more than that. Your magical pocket watch and its time-traveling, corpse-identifying mechanic offers far more than just an exceptionally clever puzzle game--as if that wasn't already enough. It also delivers a wonderfully evocative method of storytelling as you gain glimpses into the lives of each person on board at vital moments along the Obra Dinn's journey and piece together who they were, what they had to deal, what motivated them, and how they responded when tragedy struck. You may only see them in scratchy monochrome stills and hear them in brief snatches of urgent conversation, if at all, but if you're paying attention then you should feel like you know (almost) every one of these sixty people intimately by the end of the game.

Lego DC Super-Villains Review: Mediocre Mischief-Makers

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 03:30

It's been obvious for a very long time that Lego games iterate more than innovate. If you pick up a Lego title, you are guaranteed a wholesome romp in whichever licensed universe is at hand. Everything is breakable and spits out glittery, golden collectibles when destroyed. Beloved characters are Lego-fied and reenact their famous antics with an extra dollop of cartoon absurdity. Those qualities remain appealing, but every so often, developer Traveller's Tales stumbles onto an idea that requires an extra bit of creativity to really make it sing. Sometimes TT steps up to the plate, like it did for Lego City Undercover and Lego Dimensions. Other times, well, it doesn't. It's a little sad to see Lego DC Super-Villains fall into the latter category.

The issue here really comes down to the premise. The idea of subverting the Lego Batman playbook and making a game that's all about DC Comics villains is a great one in theory. However, opening up the game to the entire roster of DC villains has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting just how weak DC's broad slate of evil is. Sure, you're doing fine when you've got The Joker using Lex Luthor as a straight man, or when big, unique baddies like Sinestro and Gorilla Grodd start showing up, but much of the game's story mode has you saddled with third-string riff-raff like Heat Wave and Malcolm Merlyn for extended stretches. Somehow, both Captain Cold and Killer Frost figure heavily into the main story, but the far more compelling Mr. Freeze doesn't.

There's a fertile concept in the idea of the loser villains hatching a plan to head up to the big leagues, but the actual plot takes a far less interesting course: The Justice League gets captured and replaced by the Justice Syndicate, who comic fans probably know as the Crime Syndicate of America, a super-powered group from alternate dimension Earth-3. On the surface, it looks like the Syndicate is doing a great job cleaning up crime, but the Syndicate's going a lot harder on the bad guys than the League ever would, leading the Legion of Doom to gather up a slew of recruits and take the fight to the Syndicate.

The wild card would appear, at first glance, to be you. At the outset, you get to create your own custom villain who ends up joining the Legion. It's an impressive slew of options you get at the start of the game, and an even more extensive selection is available as you play, earn more powers, and unlock more parts. Everything from your villain’s haircut, to their weapon of choice, which arm they use to shoot energy at their enemies, to even what that energy looks like can be customized. It’s an extensive collection of options from the moment you start the game, and almost intimidatingly vast by the end. My first villain took maybe an hour to create and be happy with, after which I watched as my lovingly crafted superhero was sidelined for most of the story.

Unfortunately, your custom villain is not the star of the game--they don't even have a voice--and no matter how badass you make yourself, all the other villains simply refer to you as Rookie (except for Harley Quinn, who calls you Dr. Doesn't-Talk-Much). You're occasionally called upon to use your technical skills to open a specific door, and you are able to absorb new powers along the way, but for the most part your budding baddie has almost no impact or meaningful presence in the story. Instead, most of the game's levels boil down to a formula: A group of one or two big-ticket villains and one or two small-timers go to a familiar locale--Gotham, Metropolis, Smallville, Belle Reve prison--to free some more of their criminal friends, and run into some of the remaining small-time heroes in the process, e.g. the Teen Titans or Nightwing.

The moment-to-moment gameplay remains as simple and accessible as ever; combat boils down to spamming a single attack button, with the safety net of infinite lives, and there's some very rudimentary platforming. Finding secrets usually just means running around breaking everything until a shiny new toy pops out. There's nothing really wrong with that by itself, given the Lego games’ appeal to a younger audience, and watching Lego structures explode into a million pieces really hasn’t lost much of its innate joy, even after all this time. The problem is, only a few esoteric sliding tile puzzles differentiate the game mechanically from things the Lego Batman games were doing 10 years ago.

The level design in particular is a major strike against the game. It attempts to evoke a sense of chaos and disorder for the villains to feel at home in, but everything is so cluttered and elaborate, it's hard to know what's breakable and what's not, which character you're controlling, and what you can actually interact with. The wanton destruction that’s kind of Lego’s bread-and-butter loses something when the area being destroyed looks like a mess to begin with.

The villains themselves are well-animated, and great care has gone into differentiating the hundreds of playable baddies from each other, be it all of the Joker's attacks ending with theatrical flourishes, Killer Frost's ballerina moves, or Gorilla Grodd being able to literally leap over tall buildings in a single bound. There's a ton of overlap from the small-timers, though, and the alternative choices don't provide you with a reason to want to use them. Even the relatively easy attention grab that comes from having much of the voice cast from both the Superman and Batman Animated Series from the '90s show up--including Mark Hamill's iconic Joker, and a delightfully up-for-anything Michael Ironside reprising his role as Darkseid--doesn't quite land due to the more interesting villains taking a backseat.

Playing as all villains, you'd think there'd be more opportunity to wreak havoc on Metropolis or Gotham City, even if it's in an E-for-Everyone kind of way, but there isn't. The best part of the game is once the main story is over and you can just roam around the rather expansive open areas at will. Any and all villains unlocked during the game are accessible, and there's tons of little sidequests and races to take on. This is always the best part about the Lego games, though.

Ultimately, Lego DC Super-Villains goes down as another cookie-cutter Lego game, and while there's still plenty of merry mayhem to unleash, it's the same kind of mayhem we've seen before. What should be as wild and riotous as the Clown Prince of Crime comes off as just another mild-mannered reporter.