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Children Of The Sun Review - One Shot

Wed, 04/10/2024 - 01:00

It only takes a single bullet to burn down an empire. That's the ethos behind Children of the Sun, an excellent supernatural puzzle-shooter from solo developer René Rother and publisher Devolver Digital. Like many of the games in Devolver's vast library, Children of the Sun is wonderfully stylish, violent, and built on a unique gameplay hook; think Sniper Elite mixed with Superhot and you're on the right track without quite telling the whole story.

You play as a protagonist known simply as The Girl, a one-woman wrecking crew waging a vengeful war against the eponymous cult that ruined her life. As one cultist after another is turned to mincemeat behind the vindictive crosshairs of your sniper rifle, you gradually make your way up the food chain until coming face-to-scope with your true target: The Leader. While embarking on this blood-soaked killing spree, hand-drawn flashbacks reveal tidbits about the atrocities committed by this mysterious cult and The Girl's reasons for seeking revenge.

There's no dialogue during these cutscenes; instead, the narrative is intentionally minimalist, bombarding you with unnerving memories that are both terse and chaotic. This scattershot approach makes it difficult to glean all of the available information--perhaps deliberately so--which means you might feel lost and slightly detached from the story at times. It's all complemented by a discordant soundscape of ambient white noise that matches the game's striking art style--composed of deep purples and vivid yellows--and gritty, surreal tone. The game's arresting aesthetic paints a picture of a brutal world of saturated filth, where cultists defile seedy motels, gloomy forests, and derelict apartment buildings, spreading their deceitful disease like plague-infested rats.

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Star Wars: Battlefront Classic Collection Review - Fire Away

Wed, 04/03/2024 - 06:35

I spent many a weekend afternoon playing the first two Battlefront games back in 2004 and 2005, my friends and I sinking hundreds of hours into our repeated efforts to conquer the galaxy, recreate battles from the Star Wars movies, and theorize why the video game version of General Grievous was so much stronger than his movie counterpart. Heck, my hope that we'd one day see a Clone Wars animated series that focused on exploring the clones' individuality was born from Battlefront 2's wonderfully narrated 501st Journal. Now that I think about it, much of my love for Star Wars can be traced back to the first two Battlefront games. But that doesn't change that their dated mechanics and the unbalanced nature of their unrewarding tug-of-war matches don't hold up two decades later. And Aspyr Media does not address these issues in Star Wars: Battlefront Classic Collection, a collected pack of the two games, leaving them feeling like relics of a bygone era that aren't worth playing in this shape today.

Pandemic Studios' Battlefront and Battlefront 2 (not to be confused with EA DICE's 2015 Battlefront and 2017 Battlefront 2) are both shooters that focus on Star Wars' Clone Wars and Galactic Civil War periods, seeing you step into the boots of ordinary soldiers who participate in the conflicts. Mechanically, both games play very similarly to one another, though Battlefront 2 adds to the first with space battles, playable heroes (who are notable characters from the Star Wars movies like Yoda and Darth Vader), and a more story-driven campaign that ties into Revenge of the Sith.

The 501st Journal is still great.

Each army features four standard soldier archetypes. You've got your assault rifle-wielding standard trooper, long-range sniper user, heavy-hitting rocket launcher demolitionist, and a support soldier who excels at short-range combat and fixing up vehicles. Beyond those four, each army has additional special units--the Republic Clone Army has the jetpack-equipped Jet Trooper, for example, while the CIS has the roly-poly Droideka. Because the main units all handle the same for the most part, you don't have to learn entirely new mechanics for each class, while the more specialized troopers add a bit of distinct flair to each army. I like it--it makes it easy to pick up both games while also ensuring the gameplay doesn't grow stale quickly.

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Open Roads Review - Quick Trip

Fri, 03/29/2024 - 05:59

I once read in a very profound article published in a very prestigious magazine (okay, it was a TikTok) that "daddy issues" make artists while "mommy issues" make writers. I can't attest to the science--or lack thereof--behind this statement, but as a writer born into a long line of guarded women who wielded pens as weapons, I can absolutely relate.

As such, I have a particular fondness for mother-daughter stories and the catharsis they can offer. When I heard the team behind Gone Home would be tackling the subject in their upcoming game Open Roads, I braced for a beautiful cross-country journey that would inevitably hit too close to home. However, while Open Roads has moments of relatability that are powered by solid dialogue, charming characters, and nostalgia, I was ultimately left underwhelmed by the walk-and-click exploration game. With a runtime too short to truly pull players in and an abrupt ending that leaves things feeling hastily resolved, Open Roads feels more like a pit stop than an adventure.

That's not to say the game's premise isn't interesting. Open Roads begins shortly after the death of the Devine family matriarch, Helen, and follows her daughter Opal and her granddaughter Tess as they cope with loss and what to do next. Throughout the entirety of the game, we play as Tess, a 16-year-old high school student who is every bit as strong-willed, cheeky, and hopeful as most 16-year-old girls are. On top of her grandmother's death, Tess is also processing her parents' recent separation and the loss of her home, as she and her mother lived with Helen but were not given the house upon her death.

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Pepper Grinder Review - Short And Spicy

Fri, 03/29/2024 - 03:00

It only takes a glance to understand Pepper Grinder's inventive gimmick. A small girl named Pepper--a pirate by trade--wields a drill named Grinder that's roughly the size of her entire body. The gear allows her to grind through soft surfaces with ease, complete with the ability to launch out of the surface with a leap. That might have been enough to carry the game by itself, but what's most surprising about Pepper Grinder is its sheer variety. Though it's short, that brevity helps to make the campaign a no-filler thrill ride that continuously pushes the boundaries of its central mechanic.

It turns out Grinder is a pretty versatile tool, even regarding its most basic function. You can burrow through the ground, which immediately feels natural and smooth. At the same time, you can't simply turn on a dime with an instant about-face like a typical platformer--you have to handle turns by curving an arc out of your drilling path. Additionally, when you pop out of the surface of the dirt, you won't gain much distance unless you jump just before breaking through. Those little touches give the core mechanic a sense of finesse, imitating the feeling of a playful dolphin--or at least, a dolphin video game like the classic Ecco.

Once you get the hang of it, drilling through soil and leaping out of the surface in a perfect arc, only to catch another piece of soft ground in the distance and continue your digging, feels thrilling and acrobatic. The drillable surfaces are nicely differentiated from hard environmental pieces, so you quickly learn to read a level and see the path through it, evoking a feeling similar to performing a great run in Tony Hawk. Collectibles like gems are scattered strategically throughout the stages to both subtly guide your eye along the path, while also sometimes setting traps for your greed.

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MLB The Show 24 Review - Base Hit

Thu, 03/28/2024 - 03:55

A lot of people will tell you that Hank Aaron is the greatest to ever play the game of baseball. Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, is one of those people, and it's easy to see why. You only have to look at Hammerin' Hank's stats--755 home runs and 3,771 hits in Major League Baseball--his outstanding consistency across 23 big league seasons, or the fact that he achieved all of this after such humble beginnings. Growing up, Aaron had few opportunities to play organized baseball. In fact, he had few opportunities to even use the right equipment. Instead, a young Henry Aaron would take his mom's broomstick and use it as a makeshift bat to hit bottlecaps--it's no wonder he ended up being so good.

I knew of Hank Aaron's incredible career, but supplemental details like this are part of what makes Storylines such a captivating and enlightening experience. If last year's game was all about introducing this brilliant and groundbreaking new mode, then MLB The Show 24 is more about fine-tuning the existing framework. This isn't an uncommon approach for annual sports games, and while Sony San Diego's latest baseball sim might not seem as fresh or exciting as last year's offering, it still plays an excellent game of baseball while possessing a tangible reverence for the sport's rich history and inherent romanticism. Players are more than just stats and numbers, after all.

This is where Storylines comes in, and it's once again the highlight of the whole package. Like any good TV series, MLB The Show 24 returns with a second season of The Negro Leagues, exploring an era of baseball that has often been overlooked and forgotten. At launch, there are four stories to play through, shining a spotlight on the aforementioned Henry "Hank" Aaron, as well as Josh Gibson, Walter "Buck" Leonard, and Toni Stone, with more set to arrive in forthcoming updates.

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Princess Peach Showtime Review - Drama Teacher

Thu, 03/21/2024 - 22:00

Princess Peach, the prototypical video game damsel in distress, has had limited success with her own solo adventures. On the rare occasion that she's playable, she has typically been a sidekick in a larger adventure, like Super Mario RPG. Though she did land a starring role in Super Princess Peach, the game and its core mechanic—in which her powers were defined by wild mood swings—were a miss. Princess Peach Showtime is the latest attempt to make her own story, with nary a Mario or Luigi in sight, and this time she has come more into her own as an adventurer. More importantly, this solo outing seems primed at introducing new players to a wide variety of game genres. While veteran gamers will likely find the pacing too lethargic, it's nice that Nintendo is making such a clear overture to welcome new players.

And when I say that there's no Mario or Luigi, I mean at all. Nintendo's most iconic characters aren't even present in the intro, when Peach receives an invitation to come see the Sparkle Theater in a land occupied by Theets, little yellow creatures with bulbous noses. Upon arrival, the theater is taken over by a sorceress named Grape and her Sour Bunch goons, who kick out Peach's loyal Toad companions, misplacing her crown in the process, and proceed to corrupt all the plays. Peach finds a guardian of the playhouse, a fairy named Stella, who accompanies peach by taking the form of a ribbon in her hair. (When Peach puts her hair up into a ponytail, you know it's getting serious.) Stella is Peach's default weapon, letting you use a whip-like motion to magically change objects and enemies in the environment, and it's also the enabler for Peach's various transformations.

When Peach steps into a corrupted play, she finds a spark that lets her take on the role of its hero. These are broad archetypes like Swordfighter, Cowgirl, and Detective, and the 10 costume types allow for a broad range of different gameplay types. Once you've found your costumes in the first version of a stage, future stages of that type will start you with it already equipped. Each floor has four plays to conquer, after which you'll fight a boss and gain access to the next floor. It's all very easily understandable and flows nicely.

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Rise Of The Ronin Review - Long-Term Investment

Thu, 03/21/2024 - 22:00

If someone tells me a game takes several hours to "get good," my immediate feeling is that I will never play that game. Who has hours to waste waiting for the good part of anything when there are so many other games to play? But my opinion of Rise of the Ronin changed drastically over the course of my 50 hours of playtime--in the first five or 10 hours, I didn't really like it. By the end, I was planning to dive back in to clear out side quests and replay key moments to see how the story might change. It's a game that takes its time getting good, but once it finds its footing in samurai-sword duels and character-focused missions, your investment pays off.

The thing that turned the tide for me is the way Rise of the Ronin focuses on telling small, character-driven stories that weave together into a large, history-shaping narrative. The entire game is built on its "Bond" system, where doing side quests big and small builds your relationships with everyone, from the different provinces of Ronin's massive open-world Japan, to the many characters you meet throughout the course of the game.

Though the Bond system isn't particularly different from building up faction reputation, liberating map segments, or growing relationship stats with characters like you might see in other games, the focus on investing in all those things and people is illustrative of Team Ninja's approach to the entire game. Your personal connection to everything in Rise of the Ronin is what makes it work, and the reason it's worth it to power through its learning curve and less remarkable opening hours.

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Dragon's Dogma 2 Review - Pawn Stars

Thu, 03/21/2024 - 02:00

Dragon's Dogma 2 doesn't have a traditional fast-travel system. For most open-world games, this would be a death sentence--an affront to the player's valuable time. Yet somehow, Capcom has turned the absence of this quality-of-life feature into a resounding strength. It's the game's tremendous sense of adventure and discovery that accomplishes this. Every time you leave the relative safety of a village or city, there's no telling what will happen; you just know it has the potential to be spellbinding and will be well worth your time.

As a sequel, Dragon's Dogma 2 is an extension of everything the first game achieved 12 years ago. It's an enchanting open-world RPG with varied, exciting combat and a player-created companion system that's still unlike anything else. It doesn't do much beyond what the original did, but advancements in technology have enhanced its anomalous strengths, breathing new life into its massive open world and the ways in which you and everything around you can interact with it. New ideas and innovation might not be at the forefront, but the things it does are still relatively distinct.

After a brief but intriguing prologue, your adventure begins in the country of Vermund, a land of lush green forests, alpine peaks, and the flowing currents of its many winding rivers. The royalty and noblemen of Vermund reside behind the fortified walls of its capital city, and it's from this bustling location that you can board an oxcart to a small village in the north or a checkpoint city in the west. The latter sits on the border with Battahl, an arid land, home to the humanoid cat-like beastren, where gondolas provide an occasional route over the craggy canyons below. Beyond traveling via oxcart or climbing aboard one of these sky lifts, you're left to explore this sprawling world on foot, traversing dense forests blanketed by canopies that blot out the sun, elven ruins carved into the sides of mountains, and shifting sands bathed in harsh sunlight and circled by deadly harpies.

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Alone In The Dark Review - Dimly Lit

Wed, 03/20/2024 - 01:00

When I think of the survival-horror genre’s best games, I often wonder if they were made better by their frequently unwieldy combat mechanics. The inability to reliably defend yourself heightened the terror in anti-power fantasies like Silent Hill, and the awkwardness of taking on the undead in Resident Evil became core to its tension. With that in mind, could a modern horror game benefit from having similarly janky self-defense systems? Alone in the Dark, the 2024 reboot project from THQ Nordic and Pieces Interactive, emphatically resolves this question for me; as it turns out, the answer is no--it's certainly worse off.

Alone in the Dark centers on characters and a haunted house all named the same as they were in the original 1992 game, but it mostly ditches that game's original story and old-school adventure game leanings in favor of a third-person, over-the-shoulder horror experience in line with modern counterparts. The game's writing pedigree flaunts Soma and Amnesia: The Dark Descent's Mikael Hedberg, and the story even plays out like an Amnesia game at times, to its credit. Much of what it does well is also derivative, but a larger issue is that it can’t do these aspects of the game well consistently. And all the while its worst parts are ceaselessly unenjoyable.

Chief among the blemishes is the aforementioned shoddy combat. There are three guns in total, and though wielding them feels cumbersome in the way a horror game wants to, so much else about dispatching monsters in the Derceto mansion’s hallways and bedrooms is a chore. Many enemies feel uniform in their behaviors and are often comically unaware or incapable of reaching you due to getting stuck on geometry or even each other when they show up in groups.

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Unicorn Overlord Review - A Rare Beast

Thu, 03/14/2024 - 04:34

There are few gaming experiences more engrossing, engaging, and satisfying than a quality strategy-RPG. They offer the joy of building up a little ragtag army, bit by bit, into a gang of storied warriors with precision-specialized skills; the tension of seeing what sort of wrenches the next combat stage will throw into the mix; the utter thrill of eking out a victory with a wild strategy--or having an army that works so well together that they lay waste to all before them. Unicorn Overlord, the latest collaboration between developer Vanillaware and publisher Atlus, seeks its place among strategy-RPG royals--and, despite a few small missteps, lays claim to an honorable spot among its peers.

In its narrative, Prince Alain was spirited off to a faraway island a decade ago as his mother, the queen, was deposed from her throne by the wicked tyrant General Valmore and the Zenoiran Empire. Now, the Empire has all but conquered the continent of Fevrith, and an older Alain sets out to reclaim his throne and liberate the populace from their oppressors, all while bolstering the ranks of his Resistance army. But a mystery lies at the heart of everything: How did the Zenoiran Empire conquer all of the kingdoms so easily? Is there a much darker power at play?

The visuals in Unicorn Overlord dazzle right from the opening cutscene, with Vanillaware's well-loved 2D art bringing a detailed fantasy realm to life. There are a great many characters and environments throughout so there's plenty of variety to the eye candy--but even if that hadn't been the case, it would be hard to draw your eyes away from the attractive character designs, exquisite backgrounds, and weighty battle animations that are there. Occasionally, things can get a bit cluttered and confusing--some parts of the UI are messy to navigate--but after a while, it becomes no big deal.

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Contra: Operation Galuga Review - Corps Run

Wed, 03/13/2024 - 02:41

More than almost any other game from its era, Contra made its name on being brutally difficult: a legacy with an impact that can still be felt today. Even cultural touchstones like the Konami Code owe at least some of their fame to the Contra series--after all, half the reason we memorized that particular sequence of button presses was to get extra lives for our battle against the alien hordes. With Contra: Operation Galuga, WayForward had a peculiar challenge: Sand off the rough edges of the original Contra to make it tolerable to modern audiences without losing the mystique that owes so much to its absurd difficulty. Thanks to some smart improvements, it's found an enjoyable balance, although it's not enough to elevate Galuga to greatness.

This is a retelling of the first game, which means that once again you're Contra operatives Bill and Lance dispatched to the island of Galuga to get to the bottom of strange goings-on there. After a slightly too-wordy introduction in Story mode, you're dropped right into the run-and-gun action, and despite looking and feeling very similar to the first game, the differences will quickly become apparent to series veterans. To start, you have a double jump by default, as well as a dash maneuver that can be used on the ground or in mid-air. Together, these make you much more nimble at dodging enemy fire, allow more room for error when crossing chasms, and turn combat into a quicker, more acrobatic experience.

Despite borrowing the most iconic weapons from the first three games--the Machine Gun, Spread, Laser, Flame Thrower, Homing, and Crush weapons--your arsenal has gotten an upgrade, too. Each signifies a considerable power boost from your default gun by itself, but each can also be upgraded by stacking another weapon pick-up on top of it. Picking up another Homing power-up when you already have Homing equipped makes it a Homing Lv 2, for example. Sometimes this extends the range or breadth of the weapon, like in the case of the Spread and Flame Thrower, while other times it can change a weapon's behavior more significantly. An upgraded Laser will ricochet off targets, while the upgraded Crush changes the weapon from an explosive missile to a firearm that opens small black holes that do continuous damage. And in a welcome quality-of-life tweak, picking up a new weapon will automatically replace a blank weapon slot if you have one. I spent half the game manually switching out of habit before I realized that little nice-to-have.

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Disney Dreamlight Valley Review - Great Game, Grueling Grind

Fri, 03/08/2024 - 08:16

I was a bit apprehensive before playing Disney Dreamlight Valley. Although I've been a huge fan of Disney's animated films since I was a kid, developer Gameloft is primarily known for developing mobile titles, some of which have egregious microtransaction systems, such as Disney Magic Kingdoms. After playing Disney Dreamlight Valley for roughly 30 hours, I realized that it wasn't microtransactions that I had to be concerned about, as there were no paywalls or progress-blocking instances that required me to pay cash. The more prevalent issues with the game were the extremely grindy progression system and restrictions coming from the real-time systems.

Disney Dreamlight Valley begins just as my character was whisked away into a magical fantasy kingdom. Approached by Merlin, it was revealed that a curse known as the Forgetting turned the once-whimsical land into a realm of despair and darkness. Merlin provides a tutorial through the basic mechanics such as removing obstacles called Night Roots and using tools like the pickaxe, shovel, and fishing pole.

At first, I was worried since regular tasks like mining ores with the pickaxe or removing clumps of roots quickly drained my character's stamina. My initial concerns were quickly assuaged, as stamina is regularly refilled whenever I leveled up, ate food, or spent just a few seconds in my character's home.

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Balatro Review - One More Blind

Fri, 03/08/2024 - 07:29

Poker has endured as a popular and immensely enjoyable card game because of how malleable it is. The purest form of poker is predominantly played in your hand, with you deciding on cards to discard and redraw in the hopes of creating a better hand than your opponents. Texas Hold'Em, by far the most popular variation on poker, eschews these rules by giving all players five shared cards on the table, and two cards in their hand to try and outwit other players with. A small change like this has a dramatic impact on how the game ultimately plays out, inviting the assumption that other small tweaks might have similar effects. Balatro operates directly in this space. It creates distinct scenarios through both deck building and randomization that force you to think about poker hands differently during short, captivating runs in its roguelite structure. It injects new life into the fundamental rules of poker without requiring any previous knowledge of the game, feeling deftly balanced for both newcomers and experts of the card game alike.

Balatro is deceptively straightforward. Each round you play features a blind, which here is a total score you need to beat in order to progress. Each card has its own chip value, while different poker hands add on multipliers to the total score you hand tallies to. Play better hands with better cards, and you'll progress from the small blind to the big blind and ultimately a boss blind before the ante is raised and you're challenged to repeat the process with more challenging totals to topple. You're limited to a certain number of hands you can play during each round, as well as a limited amount of discard opportunities that let you toss away cards you don't want to use. A handy glossary makes the action approachable even if you're unfamiliar with the basics of poker, and the means to progress through each round aren't fundamentally rooted in a deep understanding of the odd differences between each hand.

Knowing the odds of different poker hands and why you might want to pursue simple straights and flushes over the combination of the two will probably help initially in earlier rounds, but as you go on, Balatro exposes its random roguelite elements to great effect. Joker cards are Balatro's big modifiers, offering a suite of effects that can quickly define a build that will ultimately influence the theme of your run. The combination of a joker that adds multipliers for playing Club cards with another that rewards the use of only face cards (Kings, Queens, and Jacks) can turn otherwise simple flushes or straights into incredibly high-scoring hands--a strategy you may need to progress through more challenging blinds. Other jokers can be delightfully chaotic, like one that randomizes its multiplier each time you play a hand or another that consumes other joker cards and adds their value to its overall multiplier. The game quickly starts encouraging you to strategize around the jokers that you're given access to (each new one you purchase gets added to the pool of potential reappearances) and adjusting the hands you play around them in order to progress, making each run feel distinct in spite of the simple mechanics underpinning them.

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WWE 2K24 Review - Long-Term Booking

Thu, 03/07/2024 - 11:14

The WWE 2K series has had a multi-year arc not unlike something you'd see watching WWE's shows on TV. Its 2020 installment was so broken, poorly received, and ultimately meme-ified that the team actually took a year off to fix its jobber-esque series--a rare sight in the world of annualized video games. But since then, it's been on the rise, getting pushed like a WWE superstar to the top of the card, and though WWE 2K24 doesn't yet finish the story, it seems like it's well on the path of cementing a new legacy for itself.

WWE 2K24 adds appreciable, albeit not revolutionary, improvements to last year's solid foundation across the board. The in-ring action is paramount, and WWE 2K24 thankfully builds on the already-excellent mechanics in that regard. There's more fluidity to chaining moves together, and it feels like, at any point in which your character has the upper hand, you can reliably emulate the escalation of a real-life match, with a deep assortment of move sets depending on where you are in the ring. An intuitive control scheme lets you set up a rival sitting atop the turnbuckle, staggered on the ropes, or lying on their back in the middle of the ring for an ankle lock with similar ease. The game simply always feels great to control.

Pairing those contextual attacks with a deep move set for every wrestler in which the left stick and face buttons combine to create excellent variety, 2K24 feels like it rolls out much of what made 2K23 already fun in my hands, but with a few new touches that I enjoy. This includes top-rope maneuvers onto a group of opponents rather than just one; Super Finishers, like Rhea Ripley's belt-winning Riptide from the second rope at last year's WrestleMania; and the ability to throw weapons. These are subtler changes than the complete overhaul the series received when it emerged from its darkest days a few years ago, but they're each welcome to the game and help further emulate the real-life product.

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The Outlast Trials Review - Immersion Therapy

Tue, 03/05/2024 - 07:16

One of the hardest reviews I've ever had to write was for Outlast 2. The game was so unnerving that it was hard to psych myself up enough to play it sometimes. The Outlast Trials, Red Barrels' first game since then, doesn't consistently reach those same heights, but it is memorably scary at times, and when it's not frightening, it's plenty rewarding in other ways. Taking a single-player horror series like Outlast and repurposing it as a four-player PvE game sounds like the kind of publisher-mandated live-service experiment too many teams have been tasked with lately. But as an indie team, Red Barrels seems to have steered its own course, and that may be why The Outlast Trials still feels like Outlast rather than a cynical project bearing the name.

The Outlast Trials is set in the Cold War, where you'll customize your figurative guinea pig for a lengthy series of vicious experiments within the Murkoff Facility. The game's opening moments, along with the lore, paint a scene so gruesome and wicked that'll be familiar to series veterans, but disquieting to those new to the Outlast universe.. After training to become sleeper agents who are psychologically deconstructed, tormented, and then brainwashed, you're eventually let back out into the free world awaiting your activation as a secret weapon. The context of your overarching mission is at least as dark as anything this team has done before--and it's set its bar quite high previously.

In practice, these experiments play out on various large maps like a police station, a courthouse, a carnival, and more. Each one is propped up as a facsimile of the real thing as you run through the Murkoff-made mazes like a lab rat. This involves many signature Outlast elements, none more emblematic than carefully crawling through the dark in first-person while desperately seeking salvation--or at least batteries--before your night vision runs out of juice.

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Penny's Big Breakaway Review - If It Ain't Broke

Sat, 02/24/2024 - 01:39

Penny's Big Breakaway is a loving homage to a somewhat awkward period in gaming history. The early days of 3D mascot platformers were defined by garish saturated colors, exaggerated character designs, and a variety of gimmicks as the genre found its footing in this new environment. Penny's Big Breakaway fits right into that legacy, like a lost gem that just got a shiny new remaster. But while its stylized look will probably be an acquired taste, it makes good use of its gimmick to avoid some pitfalls of the era it emulates.

The story revolves around Penny, an aspiring yo-yo performer who goes to a talent show audition put on by a stodgy Emperor. Along the way, her toy prop fuses with a creature, becoming a sort of sentient and voracious pet. The creature grants her all sorts of special abilities but also causes trouble at the talent show, angering the Emperor and putting her on the run from his army of penguin goons. Her "big break" turned into a breakaway, get it?

That sets the stage, so to speak, for a few different elements. For one, it sets the expectation that stages will be propulsive with constant movement. You're a wanted fugitive! As a result, stages aren't wide open worlds to explore so much as they are courses to navigate, often with great speed, as you stunt and trick your way past traps and obstacles. You can occasionally pause to catch your breath or find a collectible, but for the most part, each stage has you running from Point A to Point B as fast as you can.

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Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth Review - Destiny's Child

Fri, 02/23/2024 - 01:00

In the final moments of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Cloud finds himself at Destiny's Crossroads. Sephiroth has torn a hole in the fabric of reality, and a thrashing gateway into an unknown future beckons. It's a daunting prospect that is made even more so when Aerith says the next step in their journey will involve "changing more than fate itself." This was a statement of intent from developer Square Enix that suggested its retelling of one of the most beloved stories in video game history may not play out how fans expect, or perhaps want. It's a moment in which characters and players alike share in the unsettling nature of uncertainty. Before they step through the gateway, Tifa asks Aerith, "What will we find on the other side?" to which she replies, "Freedom. Boundless, terrifying freedom." And she was right.

Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth is a game about a struggle between fate and freedom, but also the delicate balance between authorship and agency. Through gameplay systems that encourage exploration, Rebirth empowers players to discover the world around them and chart their path through it. And through its story, it presents a compelling narrative about the destructive impact of exploiting natural resources, as well as the human causes and consequences of radical environmentalism. But it's a story that, ultimately, is defined and destined to end in very specific ways, for better or for worse. The equilibrium between contrasting ideologies is rarely perfect, and that's evident in Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth, a game that is rewarding for the dozens of hours it enables agency, but is frustrating in the few hours that author the series' future.

While the events of Remake were confined to Midgar and largely linear, Rebirth pushes back the borders to let players explore new horizons on their terms. Across 60-plus hours, Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Barrett, and a few other party members follow in the footsteps of the mysterious pale-skinned and dark-robed individuals briefly encountered in Remake. Although they are largely incapable of communicating beyond pained groans, they are nonetheless key to tracking down Sephiroth and stopping him from destroying the world. Their slow onward march is what plots the group's course through the game's various locales.

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Skull And Bones Review - Dead In The Water

Thu, 02/22/2024 - 04:25

Skull and Bones doesn't make a good first impression. Given its troubled development, this isn't the least bit surprising; it's tough to approach Ubisoft's latest without a heavy dose of trepidation. Nonetheless, after six separate delays, several scrapped concepts, and 11 years in development hell, the game's opening hours fail to put Skull and Bones' best foot forward, instead indulging in its very worst aspects. The gradual prevalence of combat does marginally improve things, particularly once your options open up and you're able to tinker with your ship and its various weaponry, but this isn't enough to save it from the dregs of mediocrity. Forget about scurvy; this swashbuckling adventure is beset with a severe case of live-service insipidity.

Skull and Bones' tutorial preamble kicks things off by making sure you know how to talk to NPCs and cut down trees. If your idea of pirating on the high seas revolves around the kind of resource-gathering found in most survival games, then you're in luck. In truth, this aspect isn't quite as egregious as it sounds, even if mining rocks and chopping down trees makes little sense when you're confined to the deck of a pirate ship. The main issue is that this is the first example of the game's insistence on making you perform menial busywork. There is some on-foot stuff, but landlubbers be damned, this simply amounts to chatting to vendors and quest-givers, with the occasional buried treasure thrown in for good measure. Skull and Bones might exist because of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, but the only similarities between the two pirating games occur in their naval combat.

It's difficult to discuss this aspect of the game without delving into comparisons with Black Flag, despite the 11-year gap between the two titles. Unleashing a volley of cannonballs into the starboard of an enemy ship is the strongest part of Skull and Bones' seafaring ventures, but it still strips away much of what made Black Flag such a fantastic experience. That game was a power fantasy with a kinetic rhythm to its combat. There was never a moment of downtime as you utilized your ship's broadside cannons, mortar, flaming barrels, and swivel cannons to pepper the enemy with a constant barrage of naval fireworks, outmaneuvering towering Man O' Wars by dropping and raising the sails on a dime to produce some exhilarating moments. Skull and Bones contains more depth than Black Flag, with multiple ships to sail and a bevy of customization options letting you outfit your vessel with rockets, ballistas, fire-spewing contraptions, and more, but it's nowhere near as fun.

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Pacific Drive Review - Road Trippy

Wed, 02/21/2024 - 02:00

In my personal life, I loathe driving, but video games have a way of making it more fun. Rarely does a video game make driving as engaging and enjoyable as Pacific Drive does, even though it can be much more challenging than any real-life drive I've ever taken. With a ton of gameplay depth, an intoxicating atmosphere, and a New Weird story I obsessed over, the debut game from Ironwood Studios dazzled me even though it occasionally left me stranded in the breakdown lane.

In both story and gameplay terms, I've not played a game much like Pacific Drive before. Stuck in a mysterious section of the Pacific Northwest called the Olympic Exclusion Zone (OEZ) that's been closed off for years due to science-defying activity, you're meant to find a way out of a region known to swallow almost anyone who enters it. You'll do this in roguelite runs in which you drive a station wagon through a semi-randomly generated level or series of levels, collect crafting gear and other vital resources, and then race against a storm to get to a spacetime-disrupting "gateway" that propels you back to the safety of an abandoned auto shop, where you'll deposit your resources and use them to improve your vehicle and character for subsequent runs.

For more than 20 hours, this formula never wore out its welcome with me, despite some truly grueling situations that sometimes felt insurmountable. By way of great attention to detail and depth, Pacific Drive becomes a challenge early on and consistently raises the bar even as you markedly improve your car. It feels like it unfolds--as do many roguelites--to the cadence of two steps forward, one step back.

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Helldivers 2 Review - Starship Bloopers

Fri, 02/16/2024 - 09:00

It's a bold swing to dramatically change a formula that you know is working, but the gamble has paid off for Arrowhead Game Studios. Helldivers 2 opts for an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective as opposed to the original game's top-down view, making for a shooter that pulls you closer into the thick of its frenetic combat. This shift brings Helldivers 2's gameplay better in line with its ludicrous narrative tone, managing to create memorably explosive firefights despite the repetitive enemy types and map designs. Helldivers 2 is an incredible game--it sets out to be a rambunctious and entertaining shooter and hits that target with military precision.

Helldivers 2 sees you step into the patriotic boots of the titular fighting force, lowly grunts on the frontlines of an intergalactic war in defense of Super Earth. Missions take place on randomly generated planets, ranging from ice-covered tundras to lush jungles. You and your squad have a set amount of time to complete your main objective and any optional assignments, needing to successfully extract to bring any collected goodies back with you. Though you're armed with the usual weapons of war found in shooters (primary and secondary weapons, grenades, and healing syringes), your main means of dealing big damage and supporting your squad are the stratagems you can call in, such as powerful machine guns or explosive air strikes.

Stratagems make you a juggernaut of destruction, allowing you to call in absurdly powerful weapons to devastate anything in your path. Having the right one on hand can save a mission, but Helldivers 2 never punishes you for what you choose to bring into a fight--if you have a favorite, chances are it will always be useful in some capacity. They never make the game too easy, either--limited uses and timers restrict just how often you can call in the big guns, encouraging you to rely on your allies while you wait for your stratagems to recharge. Plus, there are a lot of enemies to fight in each mission, swarming you at a moment's notice. Calling in an airstrike and getting a 15-enemy kill streak feels amazing, but it doesn't change that once it's over there could still be another 20 enemies to clean up. The stratagems only get you so far--at some point, you have to get good at shooting with the normal weapons too, incentivizing you to improve and not just rely on a series of explosive hardware.

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