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Review: Aaru's Awakening

Feb 24 // Conrad Zimmerman
Aaru's Awakening (PC [Reviewed], PS3, PS4)Developer: Lumenox GamesPublisher: Lumenox GamesReleased: February 24, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Players control Aaru, tasked by his master to destroy the temples devoted to the world's other deities. His tale, told through a storybook narration, is one about the trappings of faith, subservience, and the necessity of questioning authority. The plot is unremarkable and straightforward, serving up enough to establish the world of Lumenox and the character of Aaru, but little else. The game presents a 2D platforming style of play with an emphasis on challenging level design. Aaru can run left or right, jump, and employ an air-dash in any direction, but what makes him truly special is his teleportation ability. This is performed by firing a ball of light into the environment, acting as a targeting beacon Aaru can instantly move to. Like the air-dash, this teleportation ball can be fired at any angle and can also be charged up to increase its velocity. The ball is also a physical object that will bounce off surfaces and be destroyed by nearly anything which would also injure or kill Aaru. These properties of the teleport ball open up vast possibilities that the game's environments take full advantage of. To be successful, players will have to learn to use the ball in a variety of ways, such as firing it through tiny corridors Aaru is too large to pass, using it to keep aloft over lengthy stretches of deadly spikes, even applying it as a weapon by teleporting into enemies. By the mid-point of the game, maneuvers which require precise application of all three of Aaru's abilities become commonplace with little room for error. [embed]287961:57479:0[/embed] Controlling Aaru works well enough with a gamepad, but the better choice for most players will probably be to use keyboard and mouse. From an accuracy standpoint, aiming air-dashes and the teleport ball seems a touch easier with a mouse than an analog stick. The default controller scheme also binds the jump command to up on the left stick which makes it easy to accidentally jump at the wrong time, but the necessity of the right stick to aim effectively prohibits use of face buttons, so there aren't a lot of options to work with. Players will want that level of precision in the controls, too, as Aaru is not a hardy warrior. Most of the world's surfaces are covered in spikes, thorns, or water, all of which will kill instantly. Hell, just about everything kills instantly, with the exception of some enemy projectiles and pockets of gas or flowing water that can be survived if further contact can be avoided during a brief healing period. Odds are, if it looks like it might kill you, it probably will, sending Aaru back to the last checkpoint reached in the stage. It's likely players will die in excess of fifty times on their first attempt to navigate later levels. Thankfully, the game is generally liberal with checkpoints, though there are a few sequences which seem almost unreasonable in length, chaining together one difficult maneuver after another without any break. If this proves to be too simple for players, an additional challenge can be found in attempting to clear stages within target times, rewarded with medals. This is totally optional and excruciatingly difficult to accomplish in most stages. There is satisfaction to be had from earning these medals, but some elements in many levels appear in a random fashion, which undermines the goal of achieving that flawless, fast run through repetition. Aaru's Awakening features nineteen standard stages and five boss encounters, which take the form of more environmental puzzles but with a non-linear twist. Each features glowing targets in a variety of colors which need to be teleported to. Clearing all the targets of a set will grant access to an adjoining room with a challenging sequence to complete, but each destroyed target also impacts the main room where the boss resides by provoking a special attack or adding more obstacles. The targets can be approached in any order, which gives some control over how difficult the main room becomes, but all will eventually have to be hit to clear the stage and defeat the boss. This approach to boss design is excellent in the context of the game's minimal combat mechanics. Much like standard stages, checkpoints are established often (with the clearing of every secondary room), cutting down on the frustration of having to retread old ground. Unfortunately, the targets have no distinguishing characteristics beyond their color. This can make it difficult to differentiate between them, which in turn makes it harder to establish an effective approach. It's especially a bummer when considering how much attention has been paid to other facets of the visuals in Aaru's Awakening. The world of Lumenox is conveyed through a pencil drawing style which gives it a detailed, somewhat grungy look. Animations are smooth, particularly in the case of Aaru, as plenty of frames have been dedicated to animating him to reflect the changing angle of the targeting arrow. Sound design hits and misses in equal measure. Ambient music tracks which play during stages set an appropriate mood and do a lot to enhance the experience, but sound effects are often a bit grating and there are instances where respawning after a death produces a sharp noise which borders on painful, especially when you're likely to hear it fifty times or more over a few minutes. A fine game which presents a grueling challenge, Aaru's Awakening is perfect for the player who thinks 2D platform games today just aren't difficult enough. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Aaru's Awakening photo
Darkness before the Dawn
Aaru's Awakening is an unrelenting challenge of a game, which places players in the world of Lumenox, a mystical land in a precarious state of balance between four deities who rule it, Dawn, Day, Dusk, and Night. Now that balance is being disrupted, as Dawn sends a faithful warrior, Aaru, to travel the domains of the other gods on a quest to remake the world. Dark and twisted lands await.

Review: Harold

Feb 20 // Conrad Zimmerman
Harold (PC)Developer: Moon Spider StudioPublisher: Moon Spider StudioReleased: February 12, 2015MSRP: $19.99 The premise of Harold is centered in a school where angels are trained to become guardians of humanity. For their final exam, students are tasked with safely guiding a human as they race through deadly obstacle courses, working to ensure their human not only survives but is at the head of the pack. Players assume the role of Gabe, a top student who has coasted by on natural talent and needs only to place third in the final exam races to earn a coveted scholarship to Archangel Academy. In a cruel twist, Gabe has been matched up with Harold, a determined but physically inept racer. Where other angels are paired with athletes able to nimbly hop around obstacles, Harold will run straight into them and die without intervention, taking Gabe's hopes of higher education with him. Harold himself isn't so much controlled as he is prompted to act. In the vein of an auto-running platformer, he trundles straight along the path until he's compelled to jump by a button press or sent into a brief sprint with the expenditure of the "Puff Power" collected during the race (also used as extra lives for Harold). A sprint extends the length of a jump, but that's the extent of Harold's physical prowess, far from enough to safely navigate a course alone. To succeed, the player must manage Harold and his environment simultaneously to finish each of the game's twelve races. [embed]287901:57417:0[/embed] Each race is presented as a series of screens which Harold crosses from left to right, typically containing one or more objects that can be moved or manipulated for his benefit. There is considerable variety in environmental objects and how they're interacted with, using different applications of the left analog stick. Platforms can be pushed and pulled, quick flicks bash barriers with a wispy battering ram, and gears turn with rotations. Some objects, like wooden bridges and snare traps, won't stop Harold but offer opportunities to propel him forward more quickly. When multiple objects exist, pulling the triggers allows the player to switch between interactive elements. These objects are not only helpful to Harold, they can be a hindrance to the other racers. Every manipulable object has the potential to disrupt other racers and slow them down while additionally rewarding the player with more Puff Power for sprinting and mishaps of their own.  It's an exercise similar to plate spinning. Under the constant pressure of advancement through the course, the player has to remain mindful of Harold's position to time sprints and jumps, while ensuring that the coming challenges are prepared for his arrival. There is barely enough time to recognize what actions need to be taken before those actions must be performed, which makes it exhilarating to play when some confidence has been gained. As the courses become more difficult and introduce more complex configuration of objects, the game even grants the ability to pan ahead one race segment and get greater lead time on establishing the course. This is yet another plate. Moving ahead means leaving Harold to his own devices until the player returns to the prior screen or Harold catches up, further dividing focus. It also means additional opportunities to create interference for opponents ahead of Harold, which quickly becomes as important as keeping him alive if he's going to finish third or better. It would be horrible to leap into one of these races cold. Certainly, learning the intricacies of a course is one of the great pleasures of a racing game, but Harold is so demanding of the player's focus that running a stage without some knowledge of its contents would probably frustrate most players into quickly quitting. Moon Spider has wisely implemented a progression system which prevents this by putting the player through a practice mode on new stages before the race can be attempted. The practice mode presents the segments of the course individually as exercises, making sure the player can get Harold through each segment while also providing indications of optimal paths achievable by collecting the three stars on each screen. After completing a race, an even more difficult "challenge" mode becomes available for the stage in which Harold must navigate the course and collect stars while running at top speed. If Harold dies in this mode, that's the end of the attempt, making the stages extremely hard. Mastering a stage's challenge mode all but guarantees one has the skill to take first place in a replay of the main race, if desired. Harold is a satisfying challenge, but it may be a little too demanding of accuracy at times. I found rotating actions to be particularly difficult to perform evenly and had frequent issues getting back and forth flicks to register correctly. While I, as the player, am perfectly willing to accept the most responsibility for this, it's worth keeping in mind for the easily frustrated, especially as the game offers no means of reassigning controls nor allows for any input method other than a controller. Harold is also a looker of a game. Employing a hand-drawn animation style, it's bright and colorful, with exquisite detail. The visuals are almost wasted on a game where the player barely has a chance to observe their surroundings. Cutscenes before stages are not nearly as impressive from an animation standpoint, but do enjoy well performed narration and Harold's escalating pre-race mishaps are generally funny. Between its charming premise, beautiful graphics, and demanding gameplay, Harold is a winner in the end. Players who appreciate auto-running platform games should find it to be a fresh approach to the concepts found in such titles and a worthy challenge. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Harold review photo
Divine interference
Moon Spider Studio has released its debut title, Harold, an endearing and challenging race game about the most incompetent runner ever to need protection from a guardian angel. With some quick thinking, quicker thumbs, and an opportunistic eye, players guide the titular Harold to victory against all odds. Who doesn't love an underdog?


Bud Light turns man into Pac-Man in Super Bowl ad

This will probably never happen to you
Jan 23
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Sims 4 Free Trial photo
Sims 4 Free Trial

Play The Sims 4 free for 48 hours on Origin

Breathing virtual life into Origin Game Time
Jan 23
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Leaves behind twenty year legacy
Jan 08
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Crowdfunding platform extending relationship with customers
Jan 07
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Oh, how I miss them
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// Conrad Zimmerman
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League of Legends

Riot Games building dedicated network for League of Legends traffic

On track for the end of March
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// Conrad Zimmerman
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Limited edition New 3DS

Nintendo offering limited edition New 3DS to Club Nintendo members

Seeking the willing to spread the word
Jan 06
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Third episode of second season to launch soon
May 02
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Wii U

Capcom confirms GBA games coming to Wii U

Mega Man Battle Network 3 first announced
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// Conrad Zimmerman
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Enjoy some video of the E.T. landfill excavation

One man's trash is another man's history
Apr 28
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Oddworld photo

PlayStation cross-buy announced for Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty

Pricing revealed while teasing announcement of release date
Apr 25
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Ground Zeroes

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes patch coming May 1

Update makes platform-exclusive missions available to all
Apr 25
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Gardening Mama

Gardening Mama 2: Forest Friends ships to US retailers

You can buy this thing!
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// Conrad Zimmerman
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New trailer to tease the Freeze
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// Conrad Zimmerman
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Holmes talks with creator Jason Cirillo
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World of Darkness

Development ceased on World of Darkness MMO

CCP CEO states, 'efforts were falling regretfully short.'
Apr 14
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Vlambeer shoot-em-up to get even shootier
Apr 12
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Borderlands 2 PS Vita bundle available May 6

Game available separately a week later
Apr 08
// Conrad Zimmerman
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LEGO The Hobbit now available

Watch this charming launch trailer
Apr 08
// Conrad Zimmerman
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New trailer may cause fits of
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AirMech Arena photo
AirMech Arena

Ubisoft to publish AirMech Arena on Xbox 360

Free-to-play robot warfare
Apr 07
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Celebrate three decades of stiff combat
Apr 03
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Third game features alien perspective
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Dead End photo
Dead End

Crush zombies in endurance racer Dead End

Now released for mobile devices
Apr 02
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The Walking Dead photo
The Walking Dead

Online stores list The Walking Dead for Xbox One

May be shambling its way to the new generation
Apr 02
// Conrad Zimmerman
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Nuclear Throne photo
Nuclear Throne

Vlambeer changing direction of Nuclear Throne

Shift to first-person perspective playable now
Apr 01
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Trailblazing race game Krautscape now in Steam Early Access

Take the lead, build the road
Apr 01
// Conrad Zimmerman
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New teaser video released
Mar 31
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