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Review: Star Wars Battlefront

Nov 17 // Chris Carter
Star Wars Battlefront (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE)Publisher: Electronic ArtsMSRP: $59.99Release Date: November 17, 2015 My main problem with Star Wars Battlefront is how arcadey the game feels, when it's very clear DICE is trying to push a fully-fledged shooter on you. The end result is a Frankenstein's monster of sorts, with a lot of fun bits, and some elements of overproduction and bloat fixed in to boot. Let's start with how the game handles class creation. "Cards" are basically uninspired loadout options, with the tired gating process to boot. Why does the game feature a "credits" system on top of ranked level gating? Call of Duty solved this conundrum ages ago with tokens, which simplify everything with a singular in-game currency that you can use to unlock things. With Battlefront, it feels like DICE is actively gating you at every turn, and willingly deterring you from experimentation. Once you actually open up your options they aren't exactly mind-blowing either, with generic powers like "focus fire" (more temporary accuracy), or Thermal Detonators, which are just grenades. The only standout is the jump pack. All of the aesthetic options lack personality as well, and beyond the token gender and race choices, everything looks the same. Whereas previous titles would allow players to choose between multiple races with drastically different abilities (read: droids), every Battlefront player is humanoid in nature, whether they're a Twi'lek rebel or a Stormtrooper, they all operate the same. [embed]320463:61122:0[/embed] That isn't to say that the game isn't fun. Locations are sprawling and full of life, even if the character models aren't nearly as vibrant. Every single environment is detailed to the point where it looks like it was taken directly from the films, and most of the time, there's a gigantic battle playing out in the skies above, adding a dire feel to every match. I really like most of the modes, particularly Supremacy, Fighter Squadron, and Hero Hunt. There are nine in all, and all of them are fine in their own way. Supremacy is basically the new core mode of the game, featuring a "capture the point" tug of war system. It fits with Star Wars' high-octane action, as tons of different vehicles are scattered about at a frantic pace, to the point where every spawn is interesting. This game type is pretty much always fun when it's featured in a Battlefront game, and I haven't had a bad experience yet. Fighter Squadron, while rudimentary, is also a go-to of mine. Across several landscapes two teams will battle it out in the sky, solely in vehicles. It's not even close to the thrill of a proper X-Wing or Tie Fighter game, but again, as an arcade-like experience, it does the trick. Barrel rolls, quick turns, shields, and missile locks are all in, and it feels unique enough to set itself apart from other similar titles. My other standout favorite is Hero Hunt. This one basically teeters from a team-based mode to a free-for-all in an instant, placing a collective of soldiers against one named character -- the person to score the killing blow gets to play as that hero. It's a rush due to the fact that heroes cycle after every death, and fighting the jet-pack wielding Boba Fett is a completely different experience than taking on a Force user. You're constantly forced to change up how you approach any given situation (and learn all of their abilities, and how they impact the flow of a match), and the recognizable characters elevate the mode. Playing online is the gift that keeps on giving with Battlefront. There's a wide variety of game types to choose from without having so many that the community feels segmented. Even in EA Access there are plenty of people online, and games fill rather quickly. Then you have the mission mode, which is separate from everything else. I'm not convinced that it's much more than a fleeting fancy, even with an online or offline co-op partner. The first half consists of basic "versus" battles with or without placing players in the shoes of heroes and villains, and survival essentially amounts to another horde mode. What's weird about the former is that it's so incredibly limited, almost for no reason. The game forces you to play with "tokens," similar to Call of Duty's "Kill Confirmed," and with just four maps, it gets old in an afternoon. Why did it have to be like this? Why aren't there more maps, and better bots available? It feels rushed, almost like EA had to add in a token offline game type just to have it in there. The same goes for survival, because while I do like that the wave-based mode has an "end," unlike many other boring infinite horde modes, there isn't much to it. Occasionally waves will throw an AT-ST or Tie Fighter at you, and all players have to do is blast it into oblivion with environmental weapons or their normal gear. They have a lot of health even on normal, so it can get incredibly tedious. In short, do not count on a reliable single player component. Star Wars Battlefront feels authentic in many ways, but that authenticity is aggressively pursued at the cost of gameplay, and is often tacked-on. If you're in the mood for a relatively shallow shooter with caveats you likely won't be disappointed, but I wish that DICE had a little more time to polish it and add more substance. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher, as well as time spent online with the EA Access program on Xbox One, purchased by the reviewer.]
Star Wars review photo
Ready are you? What know you of ready?
Star Wars has been a part of my reality ever since my parents showed me the first film on VHS. From there I attended the release of every movie in the series, including the re-releases of the original trilogy -- if you'r...

Review: Clandestine

Nov 14 // Patrick Hancock
Clandestine (PC)Developer: Logic ArtistsPublisher: Logic ArtistsMSRP: $24.99Released: November 5, 2015 Clandestine takes place in 1996, with the Soviet Union still fresh on everyone's mind. Players play as either Katya or Martin, field operatives who investigate bad guys who have done bad stuff. Honestly, a lot of the plot went over my head, generally because my friend and I were laughing so hard over voice chat that we missed just about everything. Clandestine falls perfectly into the "so bad, it's great" category with its cutscenes. Movements are rigid and imprecise, voice acting is god awful, and things clip through each other. In fact, the characters' boss has a goatee that clips through his face when he talks. Sure, this could be seen as a terrible oversight from the developers, but it's so in-line with the quality of the rest of the aesthetic that somehow it works. The game's structure has players walking around a headquarters between missions in order to get new information on what just happened, as well as what is coming next. It's nice to have legitimate downtime before each mission, and roaming around the building with a friend can yield wonderful things. HQ is essentially a playground that becomes a game of "what goofy position can I get myself into next?" In a way, it reminded me of walking around the base in Perfect Dark. [embed]320445:61104:0[/embed] Mission objectives often have Katya sneaking into specific areas to either interrogate someone for information, or set up a rootkit on a computer for Martin to hack into and download specific data. While boiling the objectives down to their core makes Clandestine sound same-y, the variation of maps and context keep things fresh from mission to mission. There are even some choices the players can make that affect specific plot elements and mission objectives. Gameplay entirely depends on which character players control. Katya's gameplay is third-person stealth, while Martin's is computer-terminal hacking. Katya's controls will be familiar to anyone who has played a third-person game before. She can stick to walls, which is a bit janky at times (but never janky enough to ruin a mission). Her job is to avoid detection from guards and cameras by not being seen or making too much noise. Katya players can approach a mission as they please; it's possible to go in and out without trying to make a peep, or bring a slew of firepower and kill anyone they deem necessary. The game rewards players for a variety of playstyles, and doesn't really encourage one over another.  Players controlling Martin have a completely different game in front of them. Martin's screen is split into four sections: hacking network, camera feed, tactical map, and console. The console is there simply to display mission objectives. The hacking network is a grid of terminals that Martin can hack into. Some are PCs in the map, others are locked doors, and some are miscellaneous objects around the level. Martin controls a little avatar in the network and moves along the grid with the WASD movement keys. Hacking a computer will reveal its login credentials, hacking a door will tell Martin the code, etc. The network admin also has an avatar that chases the player down, disabling them for about five seconds if caught. The tactical map is a blueprint of the level that Katya is currently in. If Katya comes up to a locked door, she can ask Martin to get the code. Martin can click on the door on the tactical map, it will highlight its node in the network, then Martin can make his way over to it and get the code, tell it to Katya, and Katya inputs it on her end. This is a simple, yet elegant asymmetric design that truly requires teamwork to pull off. Katya has a camera on her at all times, which Martin can use to see what she sees. He can also hack into cameras around the map, taking over their vision on his camera feed. If Martin controls a camera, it will not "spot" Katya, so she's safe to roam the area. This also allows Martin to scan a room before Katya enters, which is incredibly useful given the fact that Martin can also tag guards on the map, making them visible to Katya through walls. Players flying solo as Katya can switch between characters at will. While it works, it's missing the best element of Clandestine: working together with a buddy. When alone, the hilariously bad cutscenes are suddenly just...disappointing. The coordinated tactics aren't there. It feels like a much more shallow game in its single-player mode. Players can join random games online, but doing so will always make the joining player control Martin. This is especially frustrating if two friends want to switch roles. The best way we could figure was to send each other our save files when we wanted to switch roles, and then change who hosts the game. Despite the serious tone set by the plot, it's best to go into Clandestine with a light-hearted approach. The movement is a bit clunky, the animations and voice acting are stiff as a board, and there's plenty of visual issues. However, the core gameplay and asymmetric ideas work well together. Grab a friend (this step is very important), jump on to a third-party voice chat program, and go play Clandestine. I have no doubt you'll come away with a memorable gaming experience. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Clandestine review photo
An asymmetrically wonky good time
Asymmetric multiplayer is not an easy feat to pull off efficiently. Sure, it's relatively simple to create two gameplay styles within the same game, but to make them blend together to create a unique ebb and flow is something...

Review: Stella Glow

Nov 13 // Chris Carter
Stella Glow (3DS)Developer: ImageepochPublisher: AtlusMSRP: $49.99Release Date: November 17, 2015 Our journey begins with Alto, a young man who (surprise) has amnesia, and is found by a girl named Risette, who takes him into her mother's house. Three years later Alto encounters Hilda, a "sort of good sort of bad" witch, who is commonly referred to as "The Witch of Disaster" -- with a name like that, who wouldn't be inclined to be bad sometimes? Risette then unlocks an ancient power from one of Alto's artifacts, and becomes a witch herself -- then it's off to the royal palace, where they are tasked with hunting Hilda by recruiting more witches. You can probably guess where it goes from here. Alto is a country boy of sorts, but accepts to call to become a reluctant "aw shucks" shonen sword master. The rest of the party runs the gamut of anime tropes, and while they can occasionally get annoying, the cast is memorable enough and all sport a great set of designs. There are a few nuanced storylines peppered in, like the tale of a misunderstood witch who was doomed to live as an outcast. Another character hides her face in a cardboard box because she's shy, but wears revealing clothing. The cast is massive, and since there's no "job" switching in Stella Glow, all of them act unique both in and out of combat. Speaking of combat, much like the Arc series, it's still a lot like Final Fantasy Tactics. Utilizing chibi characters on a grid-like format, players can move about the battlefield, use items or skills, and choose to "wait" in a specific direction to guard against directional attacks. A lot of games still use the grid style because it works, even to this day. There's a certain order to it that warrants a respect beyond relegating it to "old school nostalgia," and planning out party movements and attacks is never a chore. When you're actually engaged with an enemy an Advanced Wars style miniature cutscene will play, and as expected, some characters have counter-attacks available. As previously stated, the cast really makes a different here, as some party members have access to special abilities like guarding characters they're adjacent to, which makes placement paramount. Don't expect a whole lot of depth and customization though (stats are applied instantly, and equipment management isn't all that difficult, even accounting for the materia-like socket system). [embed]320467:61085:0[/embed] Really, the game isn't all that tough in general. I feel like it will be challenging enough for those of you who don't keep up with the genre, but for veterans, you'll rarely find a taxing quest until later in the storyline. This is partially due to the fact that the AI isn't overly aggressive, and tends to hang back more, waiting for a better opportunity to strike. On the flipside, that means that there's no frustrating fake difficulty spikes for the sake of it. Like most SRPGs, Stella is hella long. There's at least 40 hours of gameplay here if you only opt for the story, and leveling up characters, locating the additional endings (over 10), completing sidequests and sidestories will likely elevate it to double that. Like most games with a billion endings, your mileage may vary depending on your affinity towards a specific character, but the ones I saw ranged from unsatisfying to sufficient. For those you are wondering, the voicework is in English, and the songs, which are heavily woven into the game's narrative, are performed in Japanese. In many ways, Stella Glow is a by-the-numbers strategy RPG, but it does have a partially interesting cast, some unique storylines, and a working combat system. Imageepoch has had some ups and downs in their lengthy career, but thankfully they can at least end on somewhat of a high note. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
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Imageepoch's swan song
That's all she wrote for Imageepoch. The developer responsible for the Luminos Arc series and Arc Rise Fantasia filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and it seems like they're out of the industry entirely with the laun...

Review: Sword Art Online: Lost Song

Nov 13 // Josh Tolentino
Sword Art Online: Lost Song (PS4, PS3, PS Vita [reviewed])Developer: ArtdinkPublisher: Bandai Namco GamesMSRP: $39.99 (Vita), $59.99 (PS4)Released: November 17, 2015 (NA), November 13, 2015 (EU), April 28, 2015 (SEA), March 26, 2015 (JP) [Note: This review is based on the English-language version of Lost Song released in Southeast Asia on April 28, 2015. While there may be some differences between this version and the North American/EU ones, we expect the core experience will be highly similar, if not identical.] Let's not mince words: Like its predecessor Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, Lost Song is meant for existing fans of Sword Art Online (or at least of Hollow Fragment), and few else outside that sphere. In fact, Lost Song's main plot virtually ensures that only those invested Kirito and the gang's adventures and interactions will find fulfillment from the game's narrative.  But first, an aside: When it came to the anime and novels, the reason the ALO-set story arcs felt so weak was the overriding sense that the show was treading water. In contrast to original's grand hook of "dying in the game means death for real", the goal of Kirito playing ALO to search for Asuna carried not nearly as much weight. This was exacerbated in the second season, which followed up an excellent murder mystery set in Gun Gale Online with Kirito and his pals literally just doing a raid and some quests in ALO for a nice sword. It came to pass that when ALO was onscreen, Sword Art Online became less about exciting adventures and speculative future game design than essentially watching a bunch of nonexistent Let's Players play a nonexistent game. Lost Song falls afoul of ALO's curse as well, with even its central story afflicted with the same sense of meandering and lack of stakes. Still placed in Hollow Fragment's alternative timeline (which saw the cast stuck in SAO for much longer than in the "canon", and adding characters like Sinon under different circumstances), Lost Song sees Kirito and his posse moving to ALfheim Online right on time for the game to debut "Svart ALfheim", its first expansion, consisting of five massive floating islands. Being the top-class gamers they are, the crew resolves to be the first to burn through it. [embed]318569:61096:0[/embed] The quest for "world-first" (a motivation familiar to anyone who's played an MMO) eventually brings them into conflict with Shamrock, a massive guild run by Seven, an idol/scientist (!) who's taking the opportunity run a big social experiment within ALO. If the whole premise of Lost Song's plot sounds like the kind of inter-guild "drama" that plays out on forums and social media feeds for actual games today, one wouldn't be too far off. This puts the bulk of the game's narrative appeal in the interactions between cast members new and old, told via entertaining Tales of-style vignettes, in-game events, and lengthy personal quests, some of which adapt storylines from the canon like the well-received "Mother's Rosario" arc. In a nice touch, these events are mostly encountered semi-randomly and often without explicit prompting. A minor thing, to be sure, but one that channels the "live" qualities of MMO play, where impromptu encounters and stories grow even against otherwise static environs and content. Ultimately, though, those invested in seeing the characters of Sword Art Online again, sporting their ALO-styled redesigns and touting long-running in-jokes, will get their fill, but players seeking epic adventure or the kind of JRPG saga that ends with the heroes saving the world will come away disappointed. It doesn't help, either, that Lost Song doesn't work very hard to introduce players to the characters themselves. In some ways that's to be expected, seeing as this is a sequel to Hollow Fragment and mostly features the same faces (with a few more added), but curious folks who just want to know what the fuss over Sword Art Online is all about would be better served by picking up Re: Hollow Fragment (the "Director's Cut" PS4 port of Hollow Fragment), or just watching the anime. Narrative pitfalls aside, Lost Song is at least less of a slog to play, mechanically, bringing some new, entertaining gimmicks to the table. The combat system ditches the auto-attacks, casting times, and menus of Hollow Fragment for a straightforward, directly-controlled action-RPG setup. Players can string together combos of light and heavy attacks, controlling any three of up to seventeen playable characters (they can even replace Kirito as the leader!), each wielding a number of weapons with signature skills and magic. Special moves and magic can be triggered by combining shoulder and face buttons. New attacks, spells, and passive effects can be unlocked by leveling up their weapon skills through use, and assigning them to preferred button combinations. A Union gauge fills up in battle, and when triggered enables devastating "Switch" attacks involving the whole party. While simpler and arguably less deep than Hollow Fragment, the new system is more engaging and wastes less time. Most low-level foes can be dispatched in seconds, and fighting large bosses rewards mobility and effective use of buffs and debuffs to chop away at their massive, stacked health bars. AI companions fight and support effectively, and need little in the way of handholding unless severely under-leveled. New gear can be found in the field, or bought, identified, and upgraded at Agil and Lisbeth's shops while Side Quests and Extra Quests can be accepted at the hub town's tavern. Side Quests usually fall into the "Kill X number of Y enemy" category, but Extra Quests usually pose an additional challenge, involving big takedowns of one or more boss-class foes for better rewards. And then there's the flying. Being a fairy-themed game, ALO plants wings on all its characters to enable long-distance travel and a level of verticality rarely embraced in the RPG space. Lost Song gladly obliges, featuring huge, open-world maps populated by roaming enemies and dotted with dungeons at varying altitudes. Players can switch from running on the ground to hovering to racing through the air with a flick of the D-pad. While a bit fiddly at first, this mobility quickly becomes second nature and makes a genuine difference when fighting outdoors, as aerial dashes can be used to set up powerful charging attacks, and hovering up high can put safe distances between players and ground-bound foes. Fighting indoors, however, is more of a chore, as most dungeons prohibit flying and often take place against large numbers of enemies spawning in ways that cause the combat camera and lock-on function to freak out unpleasantly. Worse still, the dungeons themselves are so bland and unimaginative that I initially mistook them for being procedurally generated. Having players visit these dungeons in order to progress just hammers home the apathetic level design. And there's even multiplayer, making Lost Song the only Sword Art Online game that's actually, well, online. Local and online play sessions are available, including a PVP versus mode, and team battles against roided-out versions of the single-player bosses. It's an alright option to have, but there's little compelling reason to engage with it. Players can use custom characters, but the customization options are so limited that anything created just resembles the generic NPC characters littering the hub world. For better or worse, Sword Art Online: Lost Song replicates both the highs and lows of its predecessors. Existing fans of the series will find plenty to like in the further adventures of Kirito and his MMO pals, despite a dull main story. The revamped mechanics also support a steady drip-feed of Sword Art Online fan service mainly by not getting in the way too much. Unfortunately, Lost Song stumbles hardest when trying to engage players outside that sphere of pre-existing investment, and in some ways ends up an even less suitable jumping-off point for newbies who want to get in on enjoying the franchise. My advice to those folks would be to watch the anime or try out Hollow Fragment first. If they're still jonesing for some more of this motley crew of irredeemable MMO nerds when they're done, then Lost Song will be music to their ears. [This review is based on a retail copy of the game acquired by the reviewer.] Fallout 4 (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Bethesda Game StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksMSRP: $59.99Released: November 10, 2015
SAO: Lost Song Review photo
Familiar Tune
Ask most folks who watched the Sword Art Online anime series, and they'll likely tell you that the show's weaker moments usually coincided with events set in ALfheim Online (ALO), a fairy-themed virtual reality MMO that ...

Review: StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

Nov 12 // Chris Carter
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void (PC)Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentMSRP: $39.99 (Standard), $59.99 (Digital Deluxe)Released: November 10, 2015 The rest of the story missions are on par with the initial set, as players delve deeper into the story of the Protoss and their attempt to reclaim their homeworld and save the galaxy. I was surprised, though, to see that the narrative not only seeks to wrap up the fate of Auir and the Protoss race, but the rest of the core cast as well. Call it cheesy, but Blizzard actually wraps up things nicely here, and doesn't leave fans wanting. Yes, there will be Ghost missions as DLC down the line, but the story of StarCraft truly feels complete, partially due to the assistance of a tri-mission epilogue. That's not to say that things are executed flawlessly, of course. There are still some odd storylines, weird choices from characters, and absolutely ridiculous phrases uttered throughout. But all told, things are far more focused. The camera is off the struggle of Raynor and Kerrigan's relationship, and more on the survival of the entire galaxy. I fully expect a lot of fans to dislike the finale for various reasons we'll be discussing for years on end once people have had a chance to finish it. Elements of customization also appear like never before in the series, with the power to change up your home ship (The Spear of Adun), and the heroes themselves. These are augmented by sidequests, which actively encourages players to reach out and do everything there is to do in each mission. While a few levels did tend to blend together (craft a base and army, and smash into another one), the story and carried progress keep things going, and I didn't find myself getting bored like I did with Wings of Liberty. [embed]319826:61049:0[/embed] Co-op allows you to select between six heroes (Raynor, Kerrigan, Artanis, Swann, Zagara, and Vorazun), all of whom carry over their experience to subsequent playthroughs. It's a lot like Heroes of the Storm in a way, where you can work your way toward new bonuses, level-ups, and upgrades over time with each character. Objectives include tasks like destroying vehicles or other units, and are rather menial in nature. It's important to note though that you don't play as these heroes -- they just provided bonuses and alter the style of your army. Also, leveling up allows you to access some of the more advanced units, like the Terran Battlecruiser. There's matchmaking support, and given the simplicity of the mode, it works well even with random players. Although I would have preferred a full-on mode with playable heroes, co-op really does the trick, and I wish it had been implemented sooner. I had a blast getting to know other players I was matched up with, trading strategies, and just talking about the game. It's a relaxed mode that will scratch that itch if you find yourself plummeting on the ladder, or failing in the new tournament system. So how is multiplayer? Relatively the same, with the addition of two new units per army. Actually, I should say the gameplay is the same, but the added bonus of all of these units seeks to change up the meta considerably. The return of the Lurkers for the Zerg is a standout unit, and memories of Brood War came rushing back within seconds. The Disruptor is probably the most unique unit in Void, as it shoots a ball of pure energy that can hit both friends and foes. While casting, it's immobile and vulnerable, so players will have to treat it as a priority target. The thing oozes Protoss inside and out. As for the other units, the Liberator is basically like an aerial Siege Tank, the Cyclone is an early-game harassment vehicle, the Adept not only looks badass but it also teleports around like a more mobile late-game Zealot option, and Ravagers are like mobile artillery, eating through force fields. As you can clearly see, all of them bring something new to the table and are welcome in their own right. The meta will no doubt drastically shift in the months to come, but as of now, I'm having the same amount of fun online as I always have. Archon Mode is another welcome addition, and while I can see people skipping out on it entirely, it will likely draw in a niche crowd. The gist is that two people will control one base, which can lead to some interesting playstyles, like one player micromanaging air units while the other hits foes from the ground. Where its potential really lies is a tool for teaching, so friends can walk newcomers through the basics of base building and combat. If you're invested in StarCraft II's story already, you likely won't be disappointed by Legacy of the Void's tale. If you haven't played any form of StarCraft II yet and are intrigued by the prospect of another RTS, this is probably the strongest the game has ever been. It's a perfect time to jump in. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
StarCraft II review photo
My life for Aiur
When I last left StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, I had completed most of the story. Having now played it all, I've walked away satisfied, not only from this expansion, but from the series as a whole. Decades after its inception, Blizzard is still at the top of its class in terms of cinematic storytelling, and the new game modes don't hurt the appeal of the overall package in the slightest.

Review: Moco Moco Friends

Nov 11 // Chris Carter
Moco Moco Friends (3DS)Developer: RacjinPublisher: Aksys GamesMSRP: $39.99 (a portion of proceeds go to Make a Wish)Release Date: November 17, 2015 Moco Moco's main conceit lies with "Plushkins," which are described as "cute but violent" creatures who can only be controlled by witches. Moco, the titular witch, has just graduated. She wants to be the very best -- naturally -- and is on a quest to obtain the Stella Medal. That's all you're really getting in the way of a story, so be warned. Despite the shallow setup, the presentation is undeniable charming. Creatures are literally sentient stuffed animals, and the cast consists of characters like a dog who is afraid of going bald to a talking cat-head staff. Every character is so amazingly upbeat, including some of the adversaries, that you can't help but smile while playing. It helps that the in-game character models are well animated, but the artwork is generally faded, and the dialogue font just It's obviously translated for the English release, but all of the vocal work is raw Japanese -- which is fine by me, but may be jarring for others. Additionally, don't get your hopes up over the prospect of exploration. This is mostly a dungeon crawler. Most of the game's chapters consist of an errand or object that's found at the bottom of a dungeon, which can be accessed in list format in the hub world. It's fun, but repetitive, as most of the areas look the same and the mazes aren't all that complex. Rooms are linked in a box-like fashion with very little deviation, and enemies are visible on-screen, initiating a combat sequence if touched. You've seen this all before, I'm sure. [embed]320280:61075:0[/embed] Combat is thankfully a tad more nuanced. Each party member boasts a separate set of skills, which can range from offensive magic, to healing powers, to party buffs. Creatures also belong to a pool of elements, which counter each other in a rock, paper, scissors type fashion. Selecting abilities instantly using the d-pad or touch screen is a cinch, and the fast-forward button makes trash fights much more manageable. As time goes on, bosses start to get tougher, and while it never really reaches the point of becoming overly challenging, this is a pretty competent RPG all told. Once you return to the hub though, Moco's world starts to shrink back to size. There's a crafting station, item shop, and a garden that grows in real time, but that's about it. Players can use yarn to create new monsters, which is kind of cool (there's 120 to capture in all), but tedium will likely start to sink in after 10 hours or so when you delve into dungeon after dungeon. While I did enjoy acquiring new party members and items on a consistent basis, this isn't something I'd recommend playing for hours on end. Beyond the cute veneer, Moco Moco Friends is a slightly above average dungeon crawler with a decent crafting system and serviceable combat mechanic. At this point, there are so many better games to choose from, but if you can't get enough RPGs, Moco is ready and willing to accept your call. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Moco Moco Friends photo
Gotta sew them all
While the concept of catching cute monsters and battling them is innately linked to the iconic Pokémon series, I'm hesitant to plaster the word "clone" over similar games, as RPGs have had party-based systems for ...

Review: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (Patch 3.1)

Nov 11 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)Released: June 23, 2015 Whereas past patches tended to lead towards an epic conclusion with a pesky Primal, 3.1, As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness in many ways is a table-setting diversion. The brand new trial encounter (Knights of the Round EX) is not gated by the main story questline -- players can just pick that up from the Mor Dhona bar -- and the tale essentially consists of a series of errands and cutscenes, with only one instanced mission at the end. All said, it will take you roughly an hour to complete. It basically deals with locating missing comrades after the events of the story and has no real payoff other than furthering the Warrior of Darkness arc, which will likely slowly play out throughout the entire course of Heavensward, until another expansion comes around. That said, it still has a lot of personality. I enjoyed seeing the new cast interact with one another. The real star of this patch though is the new exploratory mission mode. Billed as an open-world sandbox, you're thrown into a randomly generated high-level zone with various objectives, including combat challenges and gathering activities. In a Guild Wars 2-like twist, players will share rewards and XP if they fight named creatures in this mode while encountering other parties, and everyone can contribute to objectives as a party.  The rewards are excellent, and the entire affair plays out like a giant randomized hunt. It's a rush to fly around with a bunch of strangers and locate targets, and killing a bunch of high-priority enemies will spawn newer, tougher bosses. While it's meant to be played as a group you can still solo queue for it, as long as you're okay with rolling greed for everything against everyone else. I played this more than anything else this patch and don't see myself getting tired of it. [embed]320086:61066:0[/embed] Players can also head into two new dungeons and the 24-person Void Ark raid, meant to mirror the Crystal Tower casual activities in vanilla Realm Reborn. I'm happy with how the two dungeons (Saint Mocianne's Arboretum and Pharos Sirius Hard) turned out. The developers have it down to a science now (the same goes for the new EX encounter, King Thordan, which is just as fun as every EX in the past, and perfectly tuned in terms of difficulty). Bosses are fun without being too tough for people just passing through in matchmaking, and the locations, although heavily gated to prevent speedrunning, are full of detail. While patches typically provide three new dungeons, I'm actually fine with a pair of them, and the trend of one new location and one remake is something I can get behind. The Void Ark is very similar in that regard, but it also provides a brand new arc, which I personally feel is stronger than Crystal Tower's. The encounters are a tad easier than the previous casual raids, which I'm starting to have mixed feelings about. I get that the philosophy is accessibility, but at the same time, I feel like the developers aren't preparing the player base for tougher activities, some of which support matchmaking tools. On the flipside, I'm a bit more invested in the story this time around, as they've weaved Diabolos into it, as well as another fan-favorite character from the series that I won't spoil here. So what else does 3.1 entail? A bunch of ancillary stuff. For one, you have the Vanu Vanu beast tribe quests, which will provide hardcore players with another faction to grind for. I was never big on the tribes as they felt far too repetitive for menial rewards, and only adding one tribe feels like a half-measure -- people will just grind it out in a few minutes and move on daily. The Gold Saucer also got a small update in the form of a new wing, two new mini-games, and the Lord of Verminion strategy game, as well as some new Triple Triad cards. I'm really glad the team is still pushing this zone, as it's the perfect place to go while you're waiting for queue times, or if you want to spend a few minutes in the game without doing anything important. No, Verminion isn't quite Pokémon, but it adds in another use for minions, and it's definitely fun enough to play a few times on a weekly basis. Other quality-of-life fixes are in, like the fact that the DualShock 4 is now plug and play on PC. There are new camera options, enhanced companion functionality like full support for other mounts, a small Ninja buff to bring them in line with other DPS, more flying mounts, and the ability to ride in Idyllshire. Another controversial change is the "solution" to the housing market -- demolition -- or as other MMOs call it, "decay." After 45 days, your house will be demolished, unless you log in and prevent it. It's...a very typical strategy for more hardcore games, but for a casual MMO like Final Fantasy, it feels out of place. I wish Square Enix would just fix the housing issue with bigger wards and more of them, but the developers haven't actually addressed it in months. All in all, I'm a bit conflicted on 3.1 I adore the exploratory missions, and find them to be one of my favorite gametypes in an MMO to date. The new dungeons (as well as the Void Ark) are strong, and the story, while brief, is engaging. But at the same time, this is clearly a catch-up patch, with the typical loop consisting of players grinding for Poetic Tomes to better face the existing Alexander Savage raid. Sadly, there's no new wing for Alexander, and most disappointing of all, the anticipated continuation of the Zodiac weapon questline is nowhere to be found, as it has been pushed to a later patch I'm not sure if As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness is enough to really pull anyone back in if they quit recently, but I'm having fun with it regardless. I can see myself doing the Void Ark weekly for the foreseeable future, and logging in regularly to do more exploratory missions. I just hope the team has more up its sleeve sooner than later. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Final Fantasy XIV photo
As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward was a tremendous expansion, all things considered. It brought in a whole new storyline that was worth getting invested in, new classes, and tons of additional activities including a raid. B...

Review: Rodea the Sky Soldier

Nov 09 // Chris Carter
Rodea the Sky Soldier (3DS, Wii, Wii U [reviewed])Developer: Kadokawa Games, PropePublisher: Kadokawa Shoten, NISMSRP: $39.99 (3DS) / $59.99 (Wii U with Wii edition for first-print copies)Released: April 2, 2015 (Japan), November 10, 2015 (US) Rodea is a strange, strange game. While the Wii version uses IR movement and is more in line with the creator's original vision, and the 3DS edition has even more differences, this assessment deals directly with the Wii U. This is a traditional single-player action game with RPG elements, most of which remind me of the golden age of JRPGs. You have your shonen hero (Rodea), a robot who has been stricken with amnesia at the start of the game, and must stop the evil Naga empire from taking over. Oh, there's one catch: his princess gave him an actual heart, so he's not a soulless machine. If you end up choosing the Japanese audio option, the narrative, while cheesy, is watchable. Where Rodea really spreads its wings is the open-ended flight gameplay, similar to Nights into Dreams. Within the confines of each semi-open level, Rodea can move around on foot, jump, hover, boost attack enemies, and blast off into the sky. The gist is that he has a limited flight time (it's actually rather generous), and once his meter is expended, he must either pivot off of a solid object, or land on the ground and start a new flight pattern. It's jarring at first, but it's easy to get the hang of after about 30 minutes, and you have a huge degree of freedom. Some of it is even automated (grabbing pickups, grinding wires), but never to the extreme degree of the 3D Sonic titles. Although the GamePad does support off-screen play, there's no need to even look at it, as the controls are entirely traditional on Wii U. The open design works both for and against Rodea. While it's amazing to look into the horizon at times and see areas you can readily explore, the draw distance is often so poor that it's tough to plot out a full course. Additionally, a lot of zones tend to blend together, with entire areas that have nothing more than empty plains seemingly unfinished. Rodea also starts to falter when it adds more elements to the mix beyond its core conceit. While the boost attack is fairly foolproof (it's a lot like the 3D Sonic games' homing attack), gunplay is shoehorned in. It isn't fun at all. The fact that the controls feel dated isn't entirely the player's fault, as the entire game feels like something out of last generation, and possibly even a generation before that. That's not to say Rodea doesn't sport a beautiful art style -- because it does -- just that occurrences like slowdown, pop-in, and occasional glitches are present more than they should be. Individual missions can get boring, but flying is always a joy, and bosses are often the highlight. They'll range from humanoid fights to giant hulking monstrosities, and both varieties are a blast while they last. This is a decently long affair, with over 25 levels, upgrades to purchase, and even a secret shop with extras like an additional mode. You can expect anywhere from 15-30 hours once everything is said and done. You rarely see things like this outside of DLC, so it's refreshing that the game feels so feature complete, even if it technically has three different versions in the end. Rodea the Sky Soldier really hits that sweet spot when it comes to evoking the wonder of flight, but the troubled developmental process is tangible in the final build. For those of you who can stomach older experiences however, you'll likely overlook some of its issues and find a lot to love. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Rodea review photo
A rusted robot with a heart
The history of Rodea the Sky Soldier is one muddled with platform changes and developmental issues galore. Originally slated as a Wii game in 2010, producer Yuji Naka ran into publishing troubles, and the project was ess...

Review: Just Dance 2016

Nov 09 // Caitlin Cooke
Just Dance 2016 (Xbox One [reviewed], Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Wii)Developer: UbisoftPublisher: UbisoftMSRP: $49.99 (Just Dance Unlimited streaming service is an additional $6.99/month, 39.99/year)Release Date: October 20, 2015  In addition to the usual modes in the Just Dance series there are a few new ones present to provide different offerings to newcomers and spice things up a bit for seasoned players. Along with the normal competitive Dance Party mode, you can now play cooperatively with other players and work together to reach a high score. Dance Quest is also new, showcasing an interesting concept where you compete against a robot leaderboard and move through the ranks in a set playlist. World Video Challenge allows players to compete with people from around the world in a pre-recorded environment, and Showtime is the most different of the bunch, essentially allowing players to participate in glorified karaoke. Perhaps one of the most useful features to be carried over from Just Dance 2015 is the ability to play the game without a Kinect by holding your smartphone, and allowing up to six players to join in. The Kinect seems to be a forgotten accessory these days as the game no longer supports menu navigation through Kinect, rather players need to use the controller to scroll through. I find this to be a win in my book as I never felt as if it did a good enough job of tracking navigation anyway. The phone navigation is fairly smooth overall but with a limited interface compared to using the controller. I also found the phone tracking buggy at times and even less reliable than using the Kinect to play. For example, if my phone had some kind of notification (like a low battery indicator) go off, it paused the game mid-dance. This caused a lot of frustration since I didn’t really feel like disabling notifications every time I turned the game on. However, I do feel the added flexibility of allowing smartphone play is worth it overall and I’m glad they included it again. Unfortunately the meat of the game, the song list, is lackluster. Recent hits seem sparse, and the variety of genres and time periods also seem to be missing. A majority of the music combs sub-par top hits from the past five years, with only a few one-off gems out of the bunch. I would have liked to see more hits from the '80s and '90s, or at the least better songs from recent years. The choreography for the most part seems lacking across the board with a few exceptions. Perhaps it’s impossible to raise the bar here with six other versions behind its back, or maybe it's betting on the unlimited streaming service to fill the gaps. Some of the dances stand out -- for example, in “Under the Sea” you mimic Ariel and have to sit down, using arm movements and moving your “fins” to the beat. There are also a few interesting choices that mix the game up including a kung-fu style choreographed segment, an Irish dance, and a song featuring Hatsune Miku. These are the high points of the game, especially if you love making your friends dance to silly songs. Outside of this, it’s standard pop fare. The new Showtime mode isn’t much to talk about unless you enjoy humiliating your friends, in which case it’s a complete masterpiece. There is no set choreography, just pure singing and forming your own dance moves to an effects-driven video filled with overlays. It’s not something I enjoyed doing on my own, but watching friends go through it was delightful. I do however wish it offered more songs as you can only pick from a handful -- I suppose designing those overlays and graphics takes a lot of time. The game overall feels a bit limited -- despite all of the new modes, it doesn’t seem very open in terms of what you can do. For example, the Showtime and other video uploads only show a few brief clips from other players around the world, and there isn’t really any way to sort or find new videos -- it only shows you what’s popular and what’s most recent. I was also disappointed that Dance Quest mode, although a bright concept, was extremely limited in that you’re dancing against robot scores (not real people) and you’re not able to create playlists or jump around to different quests. Despite my qualms, I had fun playing Just Dance 2016 -- but then again, it’s hard not to. It’s still a favored party game and one that has almost perfected the fun-for-all game model. Heck, it’s reached a point where it’s thrown in some mediocre new modes and a subscription model just to keep itself fresh, so in some cases you can call this a success. However you can also say that Just Dance is a dying breed, one that is taking its last breath to capitalize on the streaming craze that’s enveloped our little gaming world. I say we don’t think about it too deeply, and just dance. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Just Dance 2016 photo
I've had a little bit too much (much)
Yes, another Just Dance -- the seventh in the series -- has arrived. This latest edition is no exception to the usual hallmarks that defines the series with its ease of accessibility and colorful party atmosphere. It hol...

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Nov 09 // Steven Hansen
Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One [reviewed], Xbox 360, PC, PS4)Developer: Crystal Dynamics (Xbox One), Nixxes Software (Xbox 360)Publisher: Microsoft (Xbox One, 360); Square Enix (PC, PS4)MSRP: $59.99Released: November 10, 2015 (Xbox One, Xbox 360); Q1 2016 (PC); Q4 2016 (PS4) Having previously glimpsed the supernatural, Rise of the Tomb Raider's Lara is open to the wild theories of ancient immortality that consumed her father. A brief trip into Syria introduces the new enemy, a highly-funded, obviously evil group called Trinity led by Konstantin, a religious zealot and less comic book version of Uncharted 2's Lazarević. Lara then tries to beat the stonejaw-led shadowy entity to the Siberian wilderness, where most of the game takes place. The first thing I noticed in Syria was its rich orange sands, a strong contrast to the last Tomb Raider's much more muted palette. Then it was Lara's powerful blue glow stick as she began navigating tombs, providing the same orange/cyan look you find in most Hollywood movie color grading. Naturally, when Lara goes to off to Russia and the blue-white snow and ice, she's suddenly packing orange glow sticks. It's not a bad thing, though. Rise of the Tomb Raider is not shy about using unrealistic lighting to set a mood and it works, like when the blizzarding night sky is illuminated with an eerie deep red light thanks to Trinity flares. It's one of the best-looking games this year, but it also goes beyond stylish at times and helps set the mood. Coupled with a camera that occasionally, but never annoyingly, takes control from you to frame the next impressive mountain establishment or some such thing you have to climb. [embed]319740:61038:0[/embed] The combination of framing, use of color, and lighting are welcomed Hollywood cribbing. Most of the additions since the last entry are welcomed, too. The stealth options make more sense in a supposedly serious game hellbent on showing the brutality Lara deals with (gruesome death close-ups are still plentiful), rather than the more discordant Lara-as-Terminator that doesn't jive with the story being told. That said, you can still mostly do that. Even when the game hinted I could stealth through an environment, unless I saw an obvious path, it was easy to loose bows from afar into enemies' heads. Rise also touted the tombs pre-release, which are peppered throughout the world. They're probably the highlight. I think Tomb Raider is a better platformer than shooter and working out these beautiful, often complex environmental puzzles had me yearning for a more ICO-like distribution of puzzle/platforming versus murder. The stealth, too, kind of hints at a game that could've made death and killing meaningful in line with the narrative, but instead we're left with a refinement of the Uncharted series sans one-liners.  Except for the bloat, which kind of flies in the face of the snappy movie cues and Uncharted's beats. Rise borrows slightly from the Legend of Zelda formula in that there are distinct areas ("hubs") organically woven together, but requiring back-tracking with new gear and items. It's a very game-y conceit. In the cinematics I asked why Lara hadn't a camera (or even a cell phone) to prove (evidence!) the things her father died over, but she didn't even slip an iPhone out of her pocket. At the same, coming across a rope and being told I can't cut it until I find a knife, well, why the hell does Lara not have a knife? People who like busywork will probably appreciate the hub areas replete with open-world style challenges (burn all 10 communist propaganda posters, cut down all the snared rabbits, etc.), but it kind of grated on me. I didn't open the map until a few hours in and I immediately wanted to slam it shut after seeing the Assassin's Creed-style unreadable mess of icons. And while these tasks often yield rewards, including XP, it just feels to unnecessary. Which is kind of true, given that I got through the game fine without doing anything but the most convenient extras, and didn't find a +2 damage Polished Barrel to affect my capacity to kill folks all that much. So why's any of it there at all? Rise has a very pressing, dire narrative, and is a joy when you're moving around and exploring the gorgeous environments. Constant IU flashes (10XP!!!) only serve as an intrusion and gum up the works. Having to pause the game and look at a static menu screen to hear picked-up audio logs (already a bit of a lazy, all too convenient way to shove more story into your game) kills momentum, tension, excitement. You just have to stare at a render of a tape recorder if you want to know why the big bad bleeds from his hands. The story handles the necessary, telegraphed third act turn to the supernatural well, but generally suffers from a glossing over. The Burberry-clade arm of Trinity trying to beat Lara to the punch are well-acted, but pretty one-dimensional (even with everything wrapped up in explanatory audio logs). An entire society isolated in the Siberian wilderness speaks perfect English. It's perfunctory Hollywood boilerplate, down to the set up for the sequel, but competently done. Worth noting: I ran into an odd problem late in the game where enemies would disappear. First right before me when I was swinging an ice axe at them as if Lara did so with enough force to banish them from this plane of existence, but then sometimes they'd vanish completely on their own. Once this locked me in a room because whatever needed to trigger to open the door couldn't and I had to restart (not losing much progress), while it also happened during the game's final boss fight, which was anticlimactic. The loss of XP from these tactical Houdinis might impact games on harder difficulty settings where the leveling and crafting system could prove more necessary, though on normal I got to a point where I didn't even care to spend my skill points. That excess is a problem shared with the last Tomb Raider, which bills itself (and thematically tries to be) a survivalist game, but simply isn't. It's a bit goofy ruining the beautiful colors of the world by constantly jamming down the "survival instincts" button to light up objects of interest and clambering around to strip trees of their boughs. Eventually I stopped going out of my way to pick up trash, yet I still always had ammo and arrows. Crafting, skill trees, open-world-style quests: it just feels like bloat. Busy work. And it isn't consistent with the story. Moving around, on the other hand, is sublime. It is odd, though. There's an animation for when Lara is pushed up against a short, maybe knee-high lip; pressing the jump button has her labor up it a bit. Yet if you push the jump button otherwise, she will leap clean four feet into the air like a cat. That amusing inconsistency aside, Lara's movement animations are all so fluid and impressive. If she barely makes a jump, she can slip and fall if you don't press a button. But rather than her needing to get a grip be a recurring quick-time event, it organically happens every time you barely snag a ledge. This means you can tell if that prompt is about to come up and can preemptively push it, and Lara will secure her grip and you can continue about fluidly climbing around. It's a good bit of adding interaction to the platforming without having to pre-plan bits of structure that will start to crumble when you grab them. Rise of the Tomb Raider is better than its predecessor, but only because of its additions; it doesn't fix any of the things that were wrong with Tomb Raider (2013). The story is smoothed down, much of it hidden away in dull audio logs. It's not about "survival" as billed, given the ease of mowing down dozens of folks and plenty of resources. But finding tombs wherein to clamber about ancient Rube Goldberg machines, coupled with the gorgeous visual flair and diverse environments, make Rise's wilderness one worth exploring and elevate Tomb Raider's otherwise perfunctory take on the third-person action platformer. I still get a strong sinking feeling in my stomach when I've misjudged a jump and watch Lara careening towards a splat. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tomb Raider review photo
Get to know 'er
I sometimes forget that Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981. Its breezy pulp adventure quality carries only obvious signifiers of its era (like, Nazis), and the repetition of these tropes act as enough hand waving to the...

Review: Fallout 4

Nov 09 // Chris Carter
Fallout 4 (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Bethesda Game StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksMSRP: $59.99Released: November 10, 2015 [Light spoilers below in the first two paragraphs for the first 30 minutes of the game] With Fallout 4, Bethesda returns to the "where is my family member" storyline that began with the great search for Liam Neeson back in 2008. You'll have a brief opportunity to take in pre-apocalypse life with your family (the day the bombs dropped, on October 23, 2077), then it's off to the Vault, where you will stay, frozen in hyper-sleep, for 200 years. Upon waking up, you're off on a Mel Gibson Ransom-esque quest to find your son. The slight twist of unloading your character 200 years into the future makes for an interesting premise, but it never really fully commits. Often times you'll encounter residents who are confused and "can't believe" that you're from the old world, but those conversations quickly devolve into the matter at hand or another questline. On the other side of the coin, since the world your avatar (male or female) experiences is new, there is no need to play past games in the series outside of knowing the ins and outs of a few bits of lore fluff here and there. Even then, concepts are reexplained with reckless abandon. [End intro spoilers] Without spoiling anything further, the main narrative is generally weaker than most of the side storylines, which isn't anything particularly new with Fallout. Players will start off doing odd jobs for various wastelanders, recruiting new companions and making enemies along the way, with a few twists and turns at the tale's midpoint. Eventually, you'll come across forms of synthetic life, which serves as the crux of a core piece of the story. Again, Bethesda's writing team never fully commits to this concept, and it's kind of just there, with a few "gotcha" moments meant to elicit a response with mixed results. For those who are curious, yes, faction-divergent storylines and endings are possible. Just like in the past, most of your excitement will come from roaming around the wasteland on your own, discovering new abodes and secrets, which is far easier to do in Fallout 4. Small additions like playable retro games make discovery that much more meaningful, along with all of the coveted bobbleheads and comic books strewn about the overworld. The map is so huge and so diverse that there's a new secret boss or location waiting at every turn, and the addition of 12 total companions helps mix things up a bit. [embed]318096:60994:0[/embed] The companion system has been enhanced slightly, as it is now possible to issue basic fetch or interaction commands by clicking on their person, and clicking on an object -- you can also send them to a desired location after parting instead of leaving them to their own devices. It's very rudimentary, but it's a marked improvement. The main narrative clocks in at roughly 15 hours, but players could likely spend well over 100 in a single playthrough and still not find everything. Despite the puffing up of id Software's involvement with the combat systems though, it's relatively the same song and dance. While it is still possible to engage in active combat with an ADS mechanic, the V.A.T.S. aiming system, which pauses your game and allows players to target specific body parts, is still king. Often times I'd waste ammo shooting directly at a foe's head doing little damage, only to switch back to V.A.T.S. and score a one-hit kill headshot. Bethesda has tried to make it a tad more action-oriented with "critical shots" that can be used every so often, but it feels like a half-measure. The good news is if you loved Fallout's combat before, you'll feel right at home. Speaking of homes, housing situations are enhanced thanks to the new home building mechanic. Now instead of finding makeshift diners to camp out at, and storing knick-knacks in random drawers, players can hold a button to bring up a Sims-style crafting system, complete with furniture, power grids, and practical elements like workstations. Even if you're not all that into creating things, it's still quite useful for small quality-of-life additions, like an extra bed to recover life in, and so on. Having said that, there is a caveat -- inventory management is still a pain using the Pip-Boy. To build objects, you'll need to acquire individual elements such as "ceramics," which can be a coffee cup for instance, or "glass," such as a Nuka Cola bottle. The Pip-Boy UI still displays things like an unmanageable list, so it's really tough to see what you have on hand without spending tons of time in menu screens. The same principle goes for weapons and armor. It's doable, but it's annoying. Power armor is also completely revamped, and I'm torn as to its implementation. For one, you can't just "equip" power armor pieces and call it a day. It's now an item or a power-up of sorts that you actually get into, and need to constantly fuel with a specific power source. If you're out of fuel, the suit walks slowly and it's nigh impossible to actually get anywhere. In theory, the idea of building and using your own armor sounds cool, but it's very limited, and there were very few occasions where I'd actively want to go back to a location, grab my suit, and venture out. In fact I'd burn through fuel so quickly that I just said "screw it" most of the time, as it actively stifles exploration. The perk system is probably one of the biggest changes, all said. Perks are now acquired by way of a huge grid with lovable Vault Boy animations, and the possibilities allow for an essentially unlimited amount of leveling. Players can also put points directly into SPECIAL stats (which impact things like conversational ability and carrying capacity) if they wish. It's such a small thing, to make everything so visual, but it actively fueled my quest to acquire more experience and attain more perks, some of which drastically alter gameplay -- like the power to swim openly without gaining radiation sickness. At this point, you're probably aware of Bethesda's history with shipping buggy open-world games by now. If you were hoping that somehow a generational leap would magically buck that trend, prepare to be disappointed. Nearly every classic glitch is accounted for, including occasional save data issues, repeated dialogue, frameskipping, severe frame-rate drops, pop-in, falling through the floor, and so on. For those of you who are used to this with the past work, it's par for the course -- for everyone else who doesn't put up with it, nothing has changed. I should also note that while visual issues were persistently present in the Xbox One edition (reviewed here), I only ran into full-on game crashing twice during my travels. Given how glitchy it is, I can only speculate as to whether or not there will be any game-breaking bugs that completely halt progress, but it seems very likely. After spending over 40 hours with the game, I can safely place it somewhere in the middle of Fallout 3 and New Vegas in terms of quality. A lot of the franchise's signature problems have carried over directly into Fallout 4, but all of its charms have come along for the ride as well. It manages to do a whole lot right, but the story drags at times, and glitches...glitches never change. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fallout 4 review photo
Like war, Fallout games never change
My first introduction to the Fallout series was in 1997, with Interplay's wonderfully open and unique strategy RPG titles. So when Fallout 3 first dropped from Bethesda years later, I was taken aback by a lot of the concessio...

Review: The Age of Decadence

Nov 06 // Patrick Hancock
The Age of Decadence (PC)Developer: Iron Tower StudioPublisher: Iron Tower StudioMSRP: $29.99Release Date: October 14, 2015  The plot of Age of Decadence largely depends on decisions the player makes. While this is par for the course for many RPGs, I want to stress how committed the developers are to this concept. There are decisions within the first half hour of the game that can completely remove characters and their quest lines from the game. In fact, I took one of the first situations pretty lightheartedly, only to have my character's mentor completely removed from the city. I quickly understood the tone set thereafter. There is no shortage of heavy decisions, either. Many times RPGs will pester the player with small-time decisions before laying on an obvious game-changing decision. Age of Decadence throws game-changer after game-changer at the player, and forced me to pull back and contemplate my options many times. There is a lot of gray area in these decisions as well, which even makes going "cruel and evil" or "pure and good" somewhat difficult. Instead of aligning between good and evil, players are more often forced to choose between the many "houses" and alliances already established within the world. Personally, I backstabbed just about anyone dumb enough to trust me, and switched alliances quite frequently. Other players may do the exact opposite and stay with one of the first leaders they come across. The game is truly what the players make of it. Likewise, the gameplay can alter drastically based on decisions the player makes. For example, as I tend to do in RPGs, I made my character a wise-talking son-of-a-bitch. I talked my way out of every fight I came across. Well, okay, sometimes I said the wrong thing and ended up fighting, but after dying almost immediately every time, I simply loaded up the most recent autosave and tried again. Regardless, thanks to my persuasion, streetwise, charisma, impersonate, and lore skills all being high, I was able to smooth-talk and flirty-wink my way past any aggressors I came across.  [embed]318681:61024:0[/embed] Those who choose to go down a more combat-oriented route are in for an almost completely different game. Just as I melodiously coerced my foes to listen to my brilliance, players can brute force their way to the end. Combat works on a turn-based grid, similar to many strategy RPGs. A character's stats and equipment are the deciding factors that go into miss percentage, movement turns, damage, criticals, and so on. In addition to weapon attacks, there are many status effects like bleeding or immobilized to spice things up mid-fight. Combat can feel a bit clunky at times, which is largely a result of the whole game being a bit rough around the edges. The bottom line is that the combat works as it should, once the player understands how the numbers affect the outcome. Death is permanent, but the game does a great job of creating a ton of auto-saves to make sure the player never loses too much progress. When fighting, death may come quickly for those unprepared, and some of the death animations are pretty slick. Each situation even has a small death blurb for the player to read, and they are genuinely interesting, even knowing that it means the player's character has been ruthlessly murdered in some way. Combat scenarios are often extremely difficult. There are a lot of stats to spread out points between, and players who are going a more hybrid route may find themselves dead in a lot of scenarios. Players are first given an opportunity to escape an encounter through words, but if the various speaking skills don't have enough stats in them, that will fail. Then, occasionally there's another way out, like brewing a potion or crafting something. Again, if the player doesn't excel at this, it will fail. Then, there's combat. Occasionally players will have help in battles, but there still needs to be a solid base of skills and stats to succeed. For those planning on spreading out their statistical focus, I'd recommend looking at online guides to prevent future headaches.  While part of me loves that there are so many ways to customize a character, it can get very confusing and frustrating. I knew I wanted to specialize in speech, but there are a handful of areas that affect it. Persuasion, impression, streetwise, lore, and etiquette can all factor in to talking your way out of a situation, but not every skill is always useful. In some situations, persuasion and streetwise are necessary while in others, just etiquette will be enough. It's impossible to know what is more important, so the only solution, to the player, is to spread them out evenly between them.  For anyone worried about the breadth of content: don't be. Due to the choices the player must make, it's impossible to see everything the game has to offer in a single playthrough. Just judging from the achievements available, I've only seen a portion of the content available within the game. Considering how different one playthrough can be from another, it doesn't feel like a slog to go through the game a second time; yes, many of the big events share commonalities, but there are still huge branching paths available to the player all throughout.  The quest design is a lot stronger than typical RPGs. Every quest has some weight to it, even if its not immediately apparent. Exploring some cave could lead to the discovery of a device long since forgotten, or talking with an outpost leader could lead to your next big betrayal. It's crucial to always read the well-written dialogue carefully! There are no quest markers, so if a quest says to talk to somebody, you better remember where they are! Players can fast travel from the very beginning, which took me a while to realize, so there's little downtime in between objectives. The graphic fidelity of Age of Decadence is, well, not great. Just as the gameplay hearkens back to the classic games of decades past, so do the visuals. The animations are hit-and-miss, as it's not uncommon to see every single stationary townsfolk scratch their leg at the same exact time, but as I've mentioned, some of the death animations are extremely well done. The music, on the other hand, is wonderful. Appropriately supporting the fantasy setting and giving powerful moments that much more "oomph," the soundtrack hits all the right notes.  Age of Decadence is an RPG to its core. It offers the player a wealth of choices, many of them carrying lofty consequences along with them. The core design element of player choice transcends simple dialogue choices, as players can progress through the game in a variety of styles. Many games offer up the illusion of choice while failing to actually deliver, but Age of Decadence serves up difficult and tangible crossroads with no looking back. It may have some rough spots, but it is one of the most well-designed RPGs I have had the pleasure of enjoying. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Age of Decadence review photo
Deliciously decadent
The Age of Decadence has been in development for quite some time. Hell, I listed it in my indies game list from 2013! Since then, I've been remembering that it exists every once and a while, only to find out it was still...

Review: Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth

Nov 06 // Nic Rowen
Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth (PC)Developer: Nicalis, Edmund McMillenPublisher: NicalisMSRP: $9.99 (DLC),  $24.99 (Bundle with Rebirth)Released: November 4, 2015 Afterbirth's “back of the box” bullet points are impressive – 120 new items, new level variations for every floor, a pack of new bosses and enemies, a new character, and an entirely new game mode to round it off - but those numbers only tell half of the story (maybe only a quarter). Any game can just add a bunch of new stuff, a crate of duplicate items, a pack of palette-swap enemies, a few coats of paint on some old levels, whatever. What makes Afterbirth so special isn't just how many new little doodads have been dropped into the game, but how perfectly the new additions entwine themselves into the experience. How they fit right in, but at the same time dramatically warp and twist the classic Isaac experience into an entirely new entity. Afterbirth takes a lot of risks to introduce new wrinkles and mechanics. Almost every new item does something wild, or weird, or aggravating. The Glass Cannon lets you fire a powerful mega shot every few seconds, at the cost of depleting your health down to a perilous single half-heart. The Fruitcake randomly changes the type of tears you fire with every shot, constantly shuffling between spread shots, homing tears, holy bolts, and the occasional randomly exploding fire shot (always a treat when you’re not expecting it). Items like the Scalpel, an infinite use ability that lets you make portal style tunnels between two points (either in the same room or different ones) complete changes the way you approach room exploration and some boss fights. Things like the occasional “Item Recycler” in an item room that will let you pay coins to change the offered item to another random selection, lets you make smarter, more interesting choices about how you play. This isn’t just “more stuff;” it’s all different, surprising, and exciting stuff. As someone who spent an ungodly amount of time with the original game, one of the things I've enjoyed the most about Afterbirth is finding new combinations and synergies with old items. There is more of an emphasis on layering and blending items rather than just replacing them in this expansion. An old standby like Mom's Knife can now be combined with the laser beam spewing classic Brimstone to create a spray of butcher knives that will travel across the screen. Or a mix of old and new, like the freshly introduced Incubus pet, a little demon that will mirror Isaac's tear effects, combined with a traditionally poor item like Soy Milk to scrub a room clean with hundreds of tiny, but rapid, tears. Further encouraging fresh experimentation with old items are a slew of new transformation effects. Collecting certain items that belong in the same set will result in a character-changing new look and a bonus ability or two. Rebirth only had two transformations (including the much beloved Guppy transformation that would change Isaac into brokenly powerful manifestation of his dead cat). Afterbirth comes correct with nine entirely new transformations to mutate poor Isaac. The effects of these transformations are weaker on average than the Guppy buff, but are sourced from item pools that are far more common, including several junky items. It's a smart change, instead of being monomaniacally focused on becoming Guppy, there are now potential advantages to picking up so-called dud items, encouraging smart play with a long-term vision. Or they can just serve as a consolation prize for a few limp item rolls. The new boss enemies follow the same philosophy, not just “new,” but “new and different.” Some of them are entirely fresh Afterbirth originals, while others are revamps of classic monsters. All of them are humongous jerks (often to the point of feeling overly difficult and imbalanced compared to the original cast of bosses) and they're all pitching curve balls. Even lightweights like Little Horn, a mere first floor boss, introduce crazy new tricks. He's a diminutive imp who spontaneously creates cartoon black holes for you to fall in which he'll try to herd you towards with slow moving tracking shots like a devilish sheep dog. Bigger bosses (telling would be spoiling) get even crazier, assaulting Isaac with entirely new mechanics as well as blatantly unfair levels of firepower. One particularly crazy fight involves a boss that will buff himself and summon allies if you don't destroy the icons he is constantly spiting out, making it a frantic race to stay on top of them before things gets out of hand. The new fights are wacky, crazy, and occasionally frustrating, but most of all, they're all fresh. Greed Mode, introduced in Afterbirth, turns the traditional Isaac dungeon exploration experience into a much more tightly focused, wave-based horde mode. I like to think of it as Isaac for the person who only has 15 minutes. Get in, kill a few waves, get some money, try to cobble together a build, and get out (by death or by victory) before your lunch break is over. I don't know if it will have a ton of staying power, but it is a fun alternative to getting deep and dirty in the basement. New floor variants and room layouts keep things fresh. Themed floors like the Burning Basement or Dank Depths have their own flavor, unique obstacles, enemies, and (universally killer) soundtracks. There are plenty of new room types, varying in all manner of size, shape, and hazard, making the dungeon crawl feel more natural and less like moving through a grid. Many of these layouts introduce new trap and puzzle elements, confronting players with spike floors that rise and lower in alternating patterns and need to be shut down by pressing different buttons, or explosive TNT chambers that need to be set off in the right order to avoid damage. Again, smart and exciting. There are also innumerable smaller changes to go into, some of which are obvious niceties (like expanded HUD options to display collected items without pausing) while others you can't discuss without sounding like a crazy person to non-Isaac nuts. Little things like “Devil Deal rooms will convert to soul heart prices automatically if you sell your last red heart!” or “the co-op baby can place bombs again, hallelujah!” I know, it sounds like gibberish, but to the diehard Isaac fanbase, these are big deals and welcome changes. Like many roguelikes, Isaac has always had a slightly masochistic bent. I've always said that the unforgiving and random nature of the game is something you have to lean into, have to embrace to really enjoy Isaac. Sadly, Afterbirth takes that bent and presses on it until it breaks, reaching a peak of difficulty that has even an roguelike-apologist like me throwing up my hands in frustration on a regular basis. For every clever, interesting, and fresh idea Afterbirth has, it also has some dickish, spiteful, little aggravation to throw at you as well. Those handy item room recyclers I mentioned earlier? Sure, you could get one of those in an item room, or you could get an item surrounded by spikes, or a “bonus” room infested with monsters, what a cute joke! Those new rooms and traps? Neat, until you wind up in a boss room the size of a closet with TNT barrels or spike blocks in all four corners, have fun with that! The new bosses? Sure, they all have new and clever mechanics, but many of them also flood the screen with nearly unavoidable shots and a legion of minions in addition to whatever fresh hell they're also bringing. I imagine the idea was to challenge seasoned players with this expansion, to push the skills of hardcore Isaac players to their upper limits. But the difficulty in Afterbirth goes so far it loops back around on itself, ending up with a game that feels more luck based than ever. In Rebirth, I used to feel that any run, no matter how unlucky, could be saved by smart play and excellent dodging. In Afterbirth, I’ve had several rounds that felt so hopelessly stacked against me that instead of galvanizing me to play better, they just demoralized me into throwing in the towel, hoping for better items in the next run. That's not a great way to feel after 200 hours of experience in a game. The nastiness of the difficulty spike leaves me in an uncomfortable position with this review. I think that the vast majority of changes made in Afterbirth are superb. The astounding creativity of the new items, modes, and rooms is flat out inspiring, as is the sheer amount of new additions. Afterbirth has found ways to significantly add to and improved on a game that I already considered to be a nearly flawless. I don't want to diminish that accomplishment at all - in a perfect world, this is what all DLC would be like. I'm still having tons of fun with the game and I'll probably be playing it for another hundred hours or so, but I'd be lying if I said I was having as much fun with Afterbirth as I did with Rebirth. It found my limit. You should absolutely play Afterbirth. If you're already an Isaac diehard, or someone fresh to the genre, Afterbirth has hours upon hours of genuine joy in store for you. But you should know it will also have moments of soul-annihilating frustration. Maybe that's the price for flying so close to perfection. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Afterbirth review photo
Deal with the Devil
The Binding of Isaac has always been a game of contradictions to me. It's both a game that embraces the fickleness of chance and the purity of skill. That encourages you to play around, explore, and experiment, but also rewar...

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Nov 06 // Chris Carter
Call of Duty: Black Ops III (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Treyarch (PC, PS4, Xbox One), Beenox/Mercenary Technology (PS3, Xbox 360)Publisher: ActivisionMSRP: $59.99Released: November 6, 2015 I'm just going to get right into it -- this is the weakest campaign yet from Treyarch. Right from the start you can see what it's going for, and things get way too heavy-handed and exposition-laden without actually saying anything. There's lots of talk about a "new Cold War" in the future, and after rescuing an Egyptian minister after an uprising in Cairo, it's off to the races. There's plenty of Terminator-esque "Man vs. Machine" going on with the 2065 backdrop and a touch of surrealism, but all of it has been seen before and done better. To boot, none of the characters are memorable or compelling in any way, and the dialogue is the most generic it's ever been. Part of it is because you're now "The Player" (male or female) instead of someone like Modern Warfare's Soap MacTavish, a character you can somewhat connect with while you're playing. You're kind of just there, and the relationships with each cast member never really have a chance to flourish across all 11 missions. Treyarch seems to have a knack for historical narratives, but I'm not really buying its grimdark sales pitch here. Now, that doesn't mean that the campaign is all bad. The powers that be have now implemented a system where you can choose any mission you want, right from the start, without having played any prior stages. That way if you get bored and want to see the ending, you can skip right to the end. Additionally, the hub center where you can switch your abilities, weapons, and loadout around is convenient, as is the progression system with full XP rewards to encourage multiplayer playthroughs. There's also an arena-based "combat immersion" center to test weapons out in, which looks a lot like Metal Gear's VR missions. [embed]318891:61008:0[/embed] Split-screen play (for two players) is also in, as is online play for the story, on top of a "Nightmare mode" that remixes every level with undead foes. With the recent removal of split-screen from Halo 5, support for multiple players on the same console is a breath of fresh air. Yes, the framerate does suffer as a result of playing couch co-op, but I'm very glad it's there, and that Treyarch is still actively pushing for it. Hell, LAN play is even supported on consoles -- in 2015, that's pretty damn rare. Now, we get to the good stuff -- all the other modes besides the campaign. Although light, the Freerun gametype is a cool way to show off all of the new mechanics (wallrunning and the toned-down jetpack). It's only playable solo and has a scant four maps, but it's really reminiscent of Mirror's Edge's abstract DLC packs, which were my favorite part of the game. Plus, it has leaderboards, which are a major plus for a mode like this. I don't want to spoil much, but the Smash TV-like Dead Ops Arcade is back, and it's better than it was before. Of course, it wouldn't be a Treyarch game without zombies, and I think it's assembled the best cast, alongside of the most interesting setting to date. I'm talking Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Ron Perlman, and Neal McDonough in a Lovecraftian noir city unique. Seeing Goldblum play a washed-up scumbag magician is a treat, and the actors really give it their all for this new chapter of the zombie saga, "Shadows of Evil." While I did appreciate the campaign tie-in for Advanced Warfare's zombie mode, I like where this particular setting is going, and I hope it can keep this same cast going forward. It's also the most fully-featured from a gameplay perspective, with customizable weapon loadouts, individual upgrades, and a leveling system. You can also change up your "Gobblegum Gumballs," which are like miniature $500 soda machines that grant temporary perks. It's a tiny little thing, but it really helps you play the way you want, which is only a recent concept for zombies. In terms of secrets I think this is going to be the most challenging one yet for the community, as a lot of it hinges on changing into the "beast" (read: a Cthulian creature) to unlock specific areas and bonuses. I've spent nearly 15 hours in Shadows of Evil alone and I feel like I've only scratched the surface. What the campaign lacks in personality, zombies makes up for in spades, and that principle also goes for multiplayer. Now players will choose a "specialist," when playing traditional multiplayer, which operates a lot like a unique character skin, with an added ability in tow. For instance, the robot "Reaper" has access to a minigun power-up that comes out of his arm, or a skill that creates non-lethal clones of himself to run around the battlefield. One dude even looks like The Fury from Snake Eater, complete with a flamethrower special. They clearly had a lot of fun designing these creations, and it plays that way. Most of the powers feel balanced, especially when you consider the fact that they can only be used once you earn enough meter for them, which is typically only one or two times per match. This is on top of the classic scorestreak rewards -- but since those reset your meter upon death and the specialist powers don't, it's a way for casual players to engage without feeling like they're never earning anything. Wallrunning also adds a new depth to arenas (of which there are 12 at launch), where specific chokepoints can be circumvented by traversing raised platforms on the sides of some bases. Likewise, swimming, as simple of a mechanic as it is, bids a welcome return from Advanced Warfare, with a lot more freedom in terms of movement and combat. Those of you who found Advanced's crazy twitch movement system to be too frenetic will be pleased to hear that it's been toned down for Black Ops III, as the jetpack is now essentially a double jump, or a slide boost, and that's it. While I did like airdashing and all of the craziness that the last iteration entailed, I'm happy that each game has a distinctly different feel to it. Multiplayer has been overhauled from a features standpoint too, as there's now full support for streaming (including a cavalcade of spectator options), arena ranked playlists with seasons, and an even more convenient instant menu option for perma-muting anyone outside of your party. There have been hundreds of people populating Black Ops III's servers during this testing period without issues, but if anything changes we'll provide updates as needed on the front page. At this point, at least two of the Call of Duty developers (Treyarch and Sledgehammer), have it figured out. They now have a three-year development cycle, which means that technically, each individual game is not a rushed "annual" iteration. While the campaign could certainly be a lot stronger, Black Ops III is living proof of that concept. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Call of Duty review photo
Zombies...uh...zombies, find a way
Call of Duty campaigns are some of the most inconsistent storylines in all of gaming. While some entries are content with wowing you on a constant basis with new setpieces and unique sequences, a number of them (Ghosts&n...

Review: Yo-Kai Watch

Nov 04 // Chris Carter
Yo-Kai Watch (3DS)Developer: Level-5Publisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: July 11, 2013 (Japan), November 6, 2015 (US), TBA 2016 (EU) For those of you who have never heard of Yo-Kai Watch, its premise is actually quite easy to explain. The gist is that a boy named Nate (or a girl named Katie, if you opt for the female lead), unleashes a mysterious Yo-Kai butler out into the world (Whisper) after an innocent stroll in the woods. As a result, Nate gains access to a special watch that allows him to interact with other Yo-Kai, which are part of actual Japanese folklore, and are a mix of sorts between a spirit and a gremlin. From there, you'll embark upon a "catch 'em all" style journey with a loose storyline woven in for good measure. Everything, from the tone down to the gameplay, is a lot more lighthearted than your average RPG. Instead of catching characters and forcing them into tiny living spaces, you'll obtain "friendship tokens," which allow you to summon them at a moment's notice. They still lead their own lives, and you'll often find them roaming around town at their leisure. The fact that the voice cast consists of the same talent from the TV show really adds to the game's charm, and I adore the dynamic between the protagonist and Whisper -- it makes for some surprisingly funny dialogue. Yo-Kai Watch doesn't technically take place in Japan (it's even called Springdale in the international version), but said country's personality is most definitely a core element of the adventure. Even little things like shoes being left at the door of every house you enter, temples and shrines with stray cats, and vending machines on every street corner constantly remind you of Japanese culture. Having visited Tokyo recently for the first time, I really resonated with it, and I was surprised at how alive Level-5's rendition felt. It's done in such a way where anyone can pick up the game and not get confused, and the localization did a great job of not neutering the content for a western audience. It's one of the best balancing acts I've seen as of late, actually -- when a team keeps in dancing toweled men in a bathhouse boss fight, you know they did the right thing. [embed]317946:60945:0[/embed] Do note that this is a game from 2013 however, so while the art still holds up, the engine is very dated, and despite the spot-on 3D, it looks like a DS game. You'll quickly get over that fact as the presentation as a whole is delightful, with bright, vivid colors galore and a catchy soundtrack. I also started to get attached to a lot of the characters in a way that I haven't before in similar games, mostly due to their infectious personalities and engaging personal storylines -- like Jibanyan, a cat that was ran over by a car and is constantly trying to prove his worth to his former master in death. As for combat itself, it's a very odd mix of classic JRPG tendencies and touchscreen-based minigames. The operative word here is "odd," because while combat is real-time, your party members will attack automatically. Players can control item management, choose targets, and queue up occasional special abilities (by tapping balls on the screen or tracing specific patterns), but your party members will still attack at their own leisure. It sounds overly simplistic, but there's a lot of nuance to it particularly when it comes to party management. For starters, you can have six Yo-Kai in your active team, but only three can fight at a time. As a result, you'll have access to a wheel of sorts where players can cycle new combatants in, and spin old ones out. Since each character has a type (similar to Pokémon's fire and grass elements, for example), and similar types power each other up when they're in combat together, this mechanic can get really tricky both in and out of fights. Also, a lot of character's specials (which again, you can engage manually) have unique status effects, like poison, so choosing when to act is key. Where I got most of my enjoyment out of Yo-Kai Watch however is exploration. It really reminds me of the best parts of Mega Man Battle Network when it comes to roaming around town, and it's so easy to just walk around and hunt Yo-Kai at any time. To find them, you don't need to walk around in grass patches, as they're openly located around the world. There's a perpetual "hot and cold" radar up on the screen at all times, leading you to locations like trees and underneath cars where you can search for companions or battles. Additionally, dungeons display enemies front and center on the screen -- yep, there's no random battles to sift through. There's no barriers to entry for recruiting party members either, as you don't need a specific capture item, though there is still a random chance of befriending them after the battle is concluded, so success isn't always guaranteed. There's also tons of fun, rewarding sidequests to participate in (that often bestow good rewards like new characters or shops), secret areas, fishing and bug catching minigames, special Yo-Kai to catch, post-game quests, and hidden items. There is a multiplayer battle component but it's very limited, and doesn't feature online play (that ability is reserved for the sequel and beyond). Yo-Kai Watch isn't the second coming of Pokémon, and that's perfectly okay. If you love to sit by the fire and train your Pokémon for hours, perfecting their EV and IV levels so you can be the very best, you likely won't find the same depth in Yo-Kai. Its world and philosophy is much simpler than that. But as a result, none of it feels frustrating or like work, and I'm constantly tempted to jump back into my adventures with Nate and Whisper. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Yo-Kai Watch review photo
Gera Gera Po
Over the course of the last month, I've gone from knowing next to nothing about Yo-Kai Watch to falling in love with it. My wife and I watch the localized version of the show, I have the theme song stuck in my head perpe...

Review: Need for Speed

Nov 03 // Chris Carter
Need for Speed (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ghost GamesPublisher: Electronic ArtsMSRP: $59.99Released: November 3, 2015 As you may have heard, Need for Speed is an online-centric game, and jumping in from the title screen will place you into a multiplayer lobby, similar to GTA Online. Thankfully, you can play fully solo if you want. For the most part, online play has been rather sound (with a large pool of EA Access players available), minus a few small hiccups like another person spawning on top of my car and some minor frame-skipping when players are connecting. Most of them are amusing, and not really game-breaking in any way. The story this time is...a bit like a Fast & Furious movie, before they turned into the entertaining heists they are today. Speed utilizes an age-old technique of live-action FMVs to progress its narrative, with real actors playing both the digitized and cinematic renditions of themselves. Now, I like silly popcorn storylines as much as the next guy, but this one is a lot of white noise. Said FMVs also aren't integrated directly into gameplay in a unique way -- they're just cutscenes, and don't segue seamlessly into the in-game engine. You play the part of a young kid who has just been invited to a local street racing event. Much like Paul Walker in the first Fast film, you'll join a crew, and slowly work your way up the ranks to earn REP (experience) and progress through the storyline. Said crew involves a female mechanic with an attitude, a fast and loose crew leader, and your personal best friend, Spike, a trust-fund kid who lives for danger. Uh, yeah. Need for Speed tries to introduce "memorable" characters by having them all do quirky things after meeting them, but the performances never really sell it. It's cool that they periodically call you up, and you can place a name to their face (plus, a lot of effort went into the FMVs themselves in terms of locations and extras), but I've already forgotten who most of them are as I type out this review. The heavy emphasis on tweets, hashtags, and social media doesn't help elevate the tone, either.  [embed]318070:60920:0[/embed] When it comes to the in-game visuals on the other hand, I'm torn. The actual street and cars look great, but structures don't have a lot of detail. Ghost Games boasts that the map is twice as big as Rivals, but I didn't really notice since a lot of locales looked the exact same. The game is locked in at 30 frames per second on consoles, which is disappointing (as is the lack of split-screen support), but like past titles I didn't have any issues acclimating. For those who are interested in what type of music plays on the radio, here's an example of the musical stylings you can expect from Speed -- again, like the engine, it's hit or miss. Gameplay-wise, Speed does a great job of accommodating both veterans and casual fans alike. It's mostly an arcade-style racer, with tight handling and simplistic driving conditions, but players can tweak cars individually to their liking, as well as customize loadouts. You can go as far as swapping out your hood, lights, mirrors, fenders, trunk, exhaust, license plate, wheels, side skirts, and more. What's great about Speed out of the gate is that there are apparently no plans for paid DLC or microtransactions, and every car is unlocked from the start -- provided you have the cash to buy them. Starting off, players can choose between a Honda Civic, a Ford Mustang, and a Subaru BRZ. From there, you'll work from $8,000 Volvos all the way up to $200,000 Ferraris. Cash is earned at a rather generous rate, so you can keep filling up your garage and customizing at will. It's sad that it's weird to see a AAA game these days without double XP Red Bull bonuses and microtransactions, but here you go. As you tear through the core story, you'll have plenty of activities to choose from, which is great news for when you start nodding off after the FMVs. There's daily challenges, a fully featured one-button snapshot and share mechanic, and hundreds of events to find all over the world. It's also really fun to just drive around aimlessly, as the game uses a Tony Hawk-like combo system that constantly earns you REP (along with multipliers) for doing dangerous things like reaching top speed, driving into incoming traffic, and triggering near misses. The longer your combo, the more REP you earn, so it gives you an incentive to play the way you want. Autolog, which shares your scores and allows you to compete with your friends constantly, is still a thing. When you factor in Need for Speed's forgettable story, you're left with a slightly above average racing game that's not as enjoyable as past series entries. From a pure gameplay perspective, it works, but it never manages to elevate itself. If you're in the mood for a new cinematic racer though, you could do a whole lot worse. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Need for Speed photo
Neither first, nor last
I can't believe Need for Speed has been around for over 20 years. I remember playing the initial entry on my PC for the first time, and I spent many an hour escaping cops in the first Hot Pursuit. But as the years went on, the Speed series had a bunch of ups and downs, with odd side stories alongside of core titles. The latest game falls somewhere in-between.

Review: Kingdom

Nov 02 // Steven Hansen
Kingdom (PC [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Noio, LicoricePublisher: Raw FuryMSRP: $9.99Released: October 21, 2015 (PC); 2016 (Xbox One) Kingdom takes the sprawling, granular nation-building of games like Civilization, stripping labyrinthine menus down to a button press. As a randomly generated King or Queen atop your horse, you can walk left or right, and sprint for as long as the horse's stamina allows. Otherwise, the only thing you can do is drop a coin from your purse.  You're versed in this simplified building with a brief tutorial section that encourages you to start a camp fire, hire two peasants (one coin recruits wandering souls into citizenship), buy a bow, buy a hammer, and build a wall on either side. Whichever citizen picked up the hammer will start building the wall while the archer starts shooting game, which will net you coins. Kingdom is completely hands-off from there.  It's possible to wander too far left or right by the time the first night hits, at which point you might get attacked by a crowd of malevolent, No-Face-looking creeps that'll bop your crown off your head and snatch it. So your kingdom goes. You didn't even last a night. Each run becomes as much about experiential learning, figuring out the systems, and this is where Kingdom shines. Deciding on the proper allocation of funds, or learning little tricks like rushing far into the wilderness to scare deer back towards your archers (they're worth three coins to the rabbits' one) for early gold gain. But then you've survived long enough to realize farms are the income-generator of the future and stock up on scythes. You've expanded so far there are hardly any deer left, anyways. [embed]318616:60960:0[/embed] While these moments of clarity are appreciated, Kingdom's hands-off approach can frustrate. I went weeks into a run (the day and night cycle is very quick) and expanded considerably, but the goblins' nighttime raids -- particularly the huge waves that occur every five nights -- kept utterly destroying my facilities, stealing my citizen's tools (removing them from their job) and coins (reverting them back to peasants, who need to be re-recruited for a coin). Later I would realize that it's because I didn't invest in the shrine I walked past deep in the woods (I couldn't afford it), which would grant my kingdom the knowledge of masonry and provide a host of stronger wall upgrades and the like. But while the inscrutability can grate, the biggest problem is the simulation not holding up to its scope once you've puzzled everything out. Kingdom's simplification eventually impeded me more than the massive night raids that early on feel somewhat unearned, like an asshole shaking your Etch-a-Sketch. Archers not stationed in towers, for example, all pool behind the nearest wall at night to shoot at incoming enemies. This means that once that one wall goes, you could lose clusters of dozens of archers, while all the other walls the enemy waves will slowly tear through are only protected by lone tower-mounted archers. And while it becomes apparent immediately there is a need to put yourself behind the kingdom's walls at night, the archer AI (and, later, knights) will frequently get themselves picked off by not being home before dark. Archers will often bunch of inappropriately, too; I've had had double the amount of archers on one monster-free end of the kingdom while the other was under attack. Once you know exactly what to do, the beginning bit of building out your kingdom feels pretty rote. Start with the next-furthest walls to get the inner set for free. Travel far left or right to make sure the masonry shrine is close, and probably the one that strengthens archers, too, or you're screwed. Hope that you don't get a weird load out where there's just no wildlife early on and no way to make money (happened once). Eventually I would consistently get to a point where I constantly had way more gold -- the sack literally over-flowing, coins falling into the river -- than I could use, yet still couldn't make any quicker headway on successfully "beating" the game because of the bottleneck caused by a lack of citizens and the quick day/night cycle compounded by my expanding kingdom length and limitations on the horse's stamina. You recruit peasants from outlying campsites, but expansion in either direction can destroy those sites, decreasing your stock of recruits. Plus, each site will only net you two folks per day. It can require a ton of time to replenish your forces after a big wave, thanks to flying enemies that can permanently kill citizens, just to have it happen again five days later. It takes some precision and failure to avoid a Sisyphean set up, but by that time the building becomes rote, the exploration is gone, and it becomes simply a gorgeous set of systems you're minding like a bean counter, except they're jumping beans. The lack of precision, then, caused by the stream-lining that is so laudable, becomes frustrating. While learning certain things feels like honest revelation, I too often felt like I was playing against the game, like when I'd force mounted archers out of their towers by starting new construction on them, because mounted archers won't hunt to generate profit, even though it becomes obvious there are no daytime threats. Or when I would try to start a new project nearer the city center to distract my engineers who were blithely heading out into the unprotected night into a swarm of pickpocket goblins to work on a further out project because I mistimed how long it would take them to get the cue and start walking all the way across the kingdom. Kingdom very cleverly reduces a complex genre down to something digestible, but that same simplification struggles against its later scope. When your land grows too wide, traveling end to end becomes a chore (it can waste entire day/night cycles), while getting to that point requires gaming somewhat imprecise AI. Losing it all after an hour basically means re-doing the early game the exact same way and finding a point of divergence, say, at the 50 minute mark that previously undid you. It's too much retreading as the simulation naturally caps how quickly you can return to prior strength regardless of accumulated knowledge. When all the arcane is teased out and the seams obvious, not even the beautiful score and gorgeous pixel reflection in the river can encourage me to execute the precise, efficient moves that would lead me to victory.  But while I wasn't so interested in mechanically performing the "correct" blueprint of success after I figured it out, the journey towards acquiring that knowledge was still worthwhile. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Nothing lasts photo
My horse, my horse...
I can remember building sandcastles in San Francisco's wonderfully-named Ocean Beach when I was young, armed with just one bucket with an embattled parapet mold to give the formations that distinct "castle" look, and another ...

Review: Poncho

Nov 02 // Laura Kate Dale
Poncho (Mac, PC [reviewed], Vita, Wii U)Developer: Delve InteractivePublisher: Rising Star GamesReleased: November 3 (PC, Mac), TBA (Vita, Wii U)MSRP:  $14.99, £10.99Rig: Intel Core i5-4690K @ 3.5 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, Windows 7 64-bit Having witnessed the end of the world, robotic protagonist Poncho sets out in search of a gigantic tower, in the hopes that tracking it down will allow the world to be saved. Poncho is a side scrolling, pixel art, 2D platformer with a twist. While parallax layers are generally only aesthetic, in Poncho you play an adorable robot who can leap at will between foreground and background environment layers. Jumps between layers take into account your vertical height. Momentum is conserved during the layer jump, so the challenge is getting yourself into the perfect gap at the perfect time. The biggest problem with Poncho, as well as the biggest strength it had going for it, is the way puzzles are designed to incorporate switching layers. When the puzzles work they are fantastic. Jumping off a foreground platform, timing your layer switch perfectly so you land on a background platform, continuing your movement to leap and mid-jump switch again to catch yourself in box, before switching forward one layer further to drop a small distance to safety. When layer switching puzzles are well thought out, they are a joy to play through.  [embed]318651:60965:0[/embed] When those puzzles fall apart in execution, the game tends to become a frustrating mess, where progress is arbitrarily slow, and lengthy twitch challenges are presented with minimal safety nets. Vertical jump puzzles that go on far too long, with failure resulting in starting from scratch. Horizontal jumping challenges where numerous platforms switch layers at differing speeds, without the ability to study all of them in advance of attempting the challenge. Solid platforms that incorrectly register as having been landed on, causing infinite falling loops. A good chunk of Poncho's level design stopped being inventive and ended up simply frustrating. Also of note, often Poncho feels like its reaction-based platforming and slow, methodical exploration gameplay are at odds. Keys hidden through the world need to be collected to progress, but often I missed hiding places in the world because I was too concerned with managing to complete a lengthy, safety net-free challenge. When the only chance to collect information on a puzzle is while half way through it, searching for progression-unlocking keys was the last thing on my mind. Ultimately I'm left at a little bit of a loss with Poncho. It's a great concept, and when it's working it's a great inventive challenge, but when it goes downhill, it put a huge damper on my experience as a whole. I wanted to like it, but it was tough given some of the rough puzzle and level designs on show. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Poncho review photo
Adorable concept, poor execution
The first time I played Poncho was at EGX around two years ago. Its unique visual identity, compelling set of gameplay mechanics, and endearing protagonist drew my attention among the crowd of other indie games playable at th...

Review: Mushihimesama

Nov 02 // Chris Carter
Mushihimesama (Arcade, PC [reviewed], PS3, iOS, Xbox 360)Developer: CavePublisher: Degica (PC)MSRP: $19.99Released: October 12, 2004 (Arcade), December 15, 2011 (iOS), November 5, 2015 (PC) Mushihimesama is translated to "Bug Princess" in English, which is an apt name as an insectoid theme permeates the shooter. You may play the role of a human girl, but you'll ride on a bug, blast other bugs, and take on gigantic, intimidating bug bosses. This unconventional theme (shmups usually feature traditional spaceships) helps set Mushihimesama apart from the pack immediately. Don't expect anything in the way of a narrative, though -- the story is once again rather throwaway in favor of focusing on the action (a princess races to find a cure for her village). Bug Princess was crafted after cave had nearly 10 years of development experience under its belt, and the enemy and bullet designs really reflect that. You may have seen this infamous video from the game's Xbox 360 sequel (Mushihimesama Futari). While players won't be taking on that exact same encounter, the game's harder difficulties can get similarly insane. For those of you who opt for lower settings however, the game plays out more like a bullet purgatory, with deliberate patterns that are manageable and direct across all five stages. Because ultimately, great shmups aren't just action games, they have elements of puzzle titles peppered in as well. While blowing things up and earning a high score is paramount, the way that Cave and its competitors design enemy patterns indicates a huge attention to detail, as they're not just strewn about for good measure, and always have a counter to them with specific degrees of movement. This is especially true for Mushihimesama, and I enjoyed relearning some patterns as well as giving my twitch skills a test with the PC release. Thankfully, this edition also features full two-player co-op (with drop-in support) if you want to bring another friend into the mix. [embed]318273:60921:0[/embed] As a port, Mushihimesama far exceeds the amount of effort that went into Playism's localization of Touhou 14. It's fully translated, there's options for 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios, full screen mode, screen rotation (for vertical monitors), fully customizable controls (for keyboards and controllers), and allowances for UI additions like arcade joysticks and buttons. Players can also tweak the difficulty before each session (original, maniac, and ultra), including the total ship count and the points required to earn an extra life. It's a limitation of the first game, but I wish there were more characters, and not just three variations of the same princess. The difficulty curve is perfect, as original is manageable even by casual fans, maniac significantly steps things up a bit in a way veterans will appreciate, and maniac, for once, earns the moniker. Almost immediately with the latter difficulty, you'll see regular enemies fill up the entire screen with giant bullet-curtain mazes, forcing players to use everything they've picked up from the genre to survive. Although it wasn't factored into this assessment, there's a V1.5 "Matsuri" DLC available for $4.99 at launch that essentially adds in a new arranged mode with a remixed soundtrack. It's a bit redundant to say as nearly every Cave shooter is a "must play" title, but Mushihimesama is required reading for shmup fans. Whether you're going at it solo or with a friend, on the highest difficulty setting or the lowest, Mushihimesama is incredibly easy to spend an afternoon with for years to come. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Mushihimesama photo
Bug Princess finally hits PC
I was lucky to have been introduced to Cave shooters at a young age. I had a friend who lived in Japan and had family there, so he'd just bring games back over and we'd play them. Most were ported from the arcades to the PS2,...

Review: Minecraft: Story Mode: Assembly Required

Nov 02 // Darren Nakamura
Minecraft: Story Mode: Assembly Required (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: October 27, 2015 (Mac, PC)MSRP: $4.99, $24.99 (Season Pass)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit The one big risk Telltale took with this episode was hinted at the end of The Order of the Stone. Depending on whether players choose to side with Olivia and seek out Ellegaard or to side with Axel and look for Magnus, the entire first act of the episode will play out totally differently. On the one hand, it's a bold step forward for Telltale, which is often criticized for touting its choice-based gameplay while delivering roughly the same story to everybody regardless of the decisions made. With the choice of Ellegaard vs. Magnus, the consequences were immediate and impactful, affecting a huge chunk of this episode. The final outcome might not be any different, but the journey certainly is. On the other hand, it provides for an experience uneven among players. The first half of the episode takes about 40 minutes to get through, and most people will only see one of the two segments. It stings a little because I chose to find Ellegaard, but was later led to believe that the Magnus section is the more entertaining of the two. If nothing else, it might convince me to start up a second save file just to see what I missed. [embed]318431:60938:0[/embed] Speaking of Ellegaard and Magnus, both characters are fairly unlikable. Ellegaard is haughty and aloof and Magnus is snide and combative. It creates a conflict between the two that might serve a narrative purpose in the future, but mostly just makes me wish I could have chosen neither of them right now. That turns out not to matter much, since both make an exit not long into the collective journey and bring the group back down to the core members again. Just when Story Mode threatens to feature a real, interesting human moment, the action leading to the episode's climax starts up, postponing the good stuff until a future episode. The cast continues to perform adequately. Each of the characters has his or her own distinct personality, and the actors deliver well enough. The writing is still falling flat for me. Things are happening, the narrative is progressing, but it's just not especially good yet. None of the jokes made me laugh. None of the drama made me think. After two episodes of Minecraft: Story Mode, I find myself struggling to care. It's a story and I am experiencing it, but that's the best I can muster. It's not bad enough that I'm dreading having to play three more episodes, but it's not good enough that I'm looking forward to it either. It could cease to exist and I would be utterly unfazed. There is some hope for the future of the series, as Assembly Required has planted some interesting seeds of what's to come, but it's not quite there yet. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Minecraft review photo
The story is building...
Telltale fans have grown accustomed to a two-to-four month wait between episodes. So when the studio surprise launched Assembly Required just two weeks after The Order of the Stone, it caught everybody off guard. Even though ...

Review: Sword Coast Legends

Oct 31 // Zack Furniss
Sword Coast Legend (PC[reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)Developer: n-Space, Digital ExtremesPublisher: Digital ExtremesMSRP: $39.99Released: October 20, 2015 (PC), 2016 (PS4, Xbox One) Let's skip past the initiative roll and go straight to the most baffling decision n-Space made. Dungeons & Dragons' 5th edition came out last year and has remained hugely popular since then. This leaves an opportunity for n-Space to both attract new fans and provide old fans with the oft-dreamed of digital stomping ground. It would be difficult to achieve, but if traditional D&D and Sword Coast Legends offered even a semblance of parity, people would be willing to forgo the magic of an evening's revelry with real friends in exchange for the convenience of playing online. Instead, there's an uncomfortable content divide. Even as you start creating a character, it feels like half of the game is missing. There are only 5 available races at launch, as opposed to the 9 that are in the Player's Handbook  (12 if we count the races added in the Elemental Evil Player's Guide). This feels even seedier when one of the first NPCs you meet in the single-player campaign is a Tiefling, one of the races that you can't choose. Likewise, only 6 out of 12 character classes are available. Tieflings are confirmed to be coming soon, but this piecemeal distribution feels seedy. For now, upcoming DLC will be free, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see future races and classes for sale. Once you get past your race and class, you'll choose your abilities from skill trees that don't match up with what you can choose in the pen-and-paper game. These abilities are used in an isometric, real-time combat system that feels like a somersault through tar. It falls somewhere in between the turn-based combat of Divinity: Original Sin and the instant gratification of Diablo. I generally don't mind slower combat but this could have been fairly titled Cooldown: The Game since you never have much more to do than wait for powerful attacks to be ready again. You can set it up to be a more tactical game by setting up different pause rules (such as pausing after every attack, or when a character dies), but since every enemy seems to have too many hit points, that doesn't feel much better. Most dungeons go on like this: your rogue searches ahead for traps and secret doors, you eventually encounter enemies, and you kill them with monotonous MMO-style combat. If you're lucky, you might have to solve a puzzle. If you're really lucky, said puzzle will make you think for fifteen seconds. Usually you're just matching runes to open doors, though there are a couple of tricky segments. These are never fun, just time-consuming. Did we really have to do the "turn off a 3x3 grid of lights" puzzle again? No! No! The single-player campaign isn't especially exciting, but the story is serviceable. Your character is a member of guild that's been plagued with bad dreams, and you'll battle monsters and demons across Faerûn and the Underdark. Curiously few dragons, though. Plot beats are predictable, but the cast of characters are entertaining enough to keep you going. Hommet, the cordial, sarcastic Necromancer, is a highlight. You'll have plenty to do if you want to finish all of the side-quests and find all sorts of fancy loot, but the core combat isn't compelling enough to warrant a replay. I finished in about 25 hours, which felt too long by half. There's also drop-in, drop-out multiplayer that works consistently, which helps break the monotony. After trudging through the campaign, I played with the creation tools. I could forgive a forgettable campaign if I was going to be able to forge my own. These too are a letdown. Though you can create your own quests with your own flavor text, the system feels limited. Everything is prefabricated and it's difficult to create a module that is significantly different from someone else's. In the end, all you can really do is have your players kill x amount of things, find x amount of things, or kill a boss. There are no skill checks, so the imagination possible in pen-and-paper is restricted here. Most player-created modules can be played without a Dungeon Master, but it's more fun when one is present. Dungeon Masters play as small wisps visible to the other players, mischievously whipping from room to room. You can place traps, enemies, and all sorts of weird little objects just to be strange. I quite enjoyed surrounding my players with treasure chests as they tried fighting a demon spider, tantalizing them with untold riches if they could survive the battle. Of course, I made half of them mimics, and all but one of the rest disappear. Moments like these show the promise of more open tools, and give me hope for the game's future. It really doesn't help that Sword Coast Legends looks so completely dull. The vibrant colors do help to offset this, but it looks as though it could have come out in the mid-2000s. Environments fare much better than the character models, which look and move like rigid action figures. In a game where you're going to be spending so much time in dungeons, it'd be nice if they were somewhat different from one another. Particle effects also suffer, and make the combat feel even less crunchy. Spells feel neither tactile nor tactical. Inon Zur's music is often sweeping and memorable, and is a definite highlight. Every so often, the right song comes on and the game clicks, becoming a Diablo-lite where you can mindlessly clear dungeon after dungeon, and it's not so bad. But then you remember that it's a game about telling instead of showing, where flavor text reminds you that the nice little town you keep going to is supposed to be rowdy and full of pirates. Where you'll once again kill entirely too many rats. I experienced a great deal of bugs in my time with Sword Coast Legends. Items would fail to be clickable, enemies would be invisible (and no, it wasn't a failed perception roll), it crashed to desktop a few times, and there's a widespread need for polish. A few more months on the anvil were clearly needed to hammer out the unfinished edges. In fact, in a few more months (or even years), Sword Coast Legends' creation tools might be a powerhouse. If n-Space remains steadfast and keeps working on them, this might eventually be the digital Dungeons & Dragons many were hoping for. People won't mind buying new adventures, classes, and races if they come out alongside new pen-and-paper releases! But don't blow all of your goodwill with sectioned-off content. As a Dungeon Master, I'm selfishly rooting for you. Just no more gods-damned 3x3 light grid puzzles.
Sword Coast Legends photo
Underbaked in the Underdark
The elevator pitch for Sword Coast Legends was concocted in a cauldron specifically to make the Zack Furnisses of the world greedily salivate. "That 5th edition D&D that you love Dungon Mastering for your players?" n...

Review: Human Resource Machine

Oct 30 // Laura Kate Dale
Human Resource Machine (PC [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: Tomorrow CorporationPublisher: Tomorrow CorporationReleased: October 15, 2015MSRP: $9.99, £6.99 Human Resource Machine is a game that functionally aims to teach its players basic visual programming logic. You are a human, programming analogue tasks need completing on a day to day process. Players will need to create a visual programming loop that will allow you to mindlessly complete your task over and over. The reason you need to do your job in an efficient, automated, programming manner? Robots are coming to take your job. Initially, these programming tasks are accessible enough for non coders to wrap their head around quickly. Need to transport all inbox items to the outbox in an unchanged order? Take an item from the inbox, take it to the outbox, loop back to the start until everything has been moved. Need to take a pair of inbox items and take them to the outbox, but in the opposite order? Take the first item, place it on the floor, take the second item to the outbox. Pick the first item off the floor, take that to the outbox. Jump to the start and repeat. The problem is, around half way through the game starts requiring you to understand programming logic concepts it hasn't taught you before. Reading up on these concepts online can be complex, and working out how to build a programming function after only short while being hand held through basics can be rather frustrating. [embed]318222:60916:0[/embed] Here's one: build a machine that recognizes zero sum strings, then add up everything in the string, then create a Fibonacci sequence up to but not exceeding the value of your zero sum string, and place all values from the resulting Fibonacci sequence into the outbox using a limited set of tools. You can copy from or to limited memory spaces on the floor, add held and stored values together or increase a memory value by one. That kind of logic takes several considerable leaps, on top of trying to master a technique you only just learned for the first time. I think ultimately this is my biggest problem with Human Resource Machine. It's presented in advertising as a step by step tutorial on learning programming logic, but for newcomers to code some of the logical leaps are to complex to get through any method besides trial and error. For those who already program, much of the early game will likely be too easy. I feel like Machine doesn't really commit fully to being a game for new coders or for experienced programmers. It tries and fails to straddle a difficulty line. The game's plot is also essentially non-existent. The trailer tells you robots are coming for your job, which would clearly be better performed by a robot. Eventually, robots arrive and are better at your job than you. Some of the hints of an interesting story are there, but there is no pay off at all. Considering the subtly delivered narratives in World of Goo and Little Inferno, this was a real shame. Still, let's talk a little about what Human Resource Machine gets right. For those who keep up with the programming challenges as they are introduced, there are also a pair of optional optimization challenges for each puzzle -- such as, "have fewer than X instructions in your program," or "completely process the data in less than Y moves." Often it's impossible to complete both challenges with a single program, so it pushes you to re-optimize processes rather than just finding a solution that works. Learning where you could cut dead weight from a programming string felt hugely rewarding. The game also encourages players to not just successfully process a given set of data, but behind the scenes multiple sets of data are run through your program to ensure it works for every set, not just the current set. If a data set exists for which your program would break, that data set is provided to you, so you can debug the program step by step and see where it falls apart. The inclusion of step by step debugging tools to watch where your program's holes are was really beneficial, and encouraged understanding how your solution works, rather than just being content with the success itself. I came out of Human Resource Machine unsure who it was really designed for. It's at times too simple for experienced programmers, and often made leaps too large for beginners to overcome without obtuse outside research. While I had a sense of accomplishment every time I made progress, said progress at times felt like I was an infant thrown into water and expected to swim straight away. I might manage it, but it's not the ideal teaching method to leave me feeling comfortable going forward. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Human Resource Machine photo
My brain is not a machine
Tomorrow Corporation, the studio behind World of Goo and Little Inferno, is one of my favorite indie developers of the last couple of years. Known for creating polished indie games with accessible mechanics and interesti...

Review: Overlord: Fellowship of Evil

Oct 29 // Jed Whitaker
Overlord: Fellowship of Evil (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)Developer: CodemastersPublisher: CodemastersReleased: October 19, 2015MSRP: $18.99 When Codemasters announced it was making another Overlord game, it was met with excitement. That is, until people saw the gameplay; a top-down hack and slash Diablo-like. After having played the full seven-hour campaign, I can tell you if you were expecting a bad Diablo clone, you weren't far off. The combat feels like a combination of Diablo and the Gauntlet series: mindless button mashing and killing lots of enemies. Let me stress that when I say mindless, I mean mindless; there were times I could literally feel myself looking away from the screen and staring at the beige walls in my lackluster apartment while I instinctively mashed the attack button, not a thought going through my mind. I've played lots of dull games in my day, but this one takes the cake and takes a giant dump on it, then throws it into a dumpster half filled with water, trash, and drowned rats. While that description may make it sound interesting, I assure you this is one train wreck you won't want to go near, or even look at. Fellowship of Evil's visual style reminds me a lot of early Unreal Engine 3 games, as the game is mostly shades of brown, red, blue, and gray. There are only a few different locales you'll visit, and only one single level was easy on the eyes, which is the very last level that somehow bursts with color. [embed]317942:60902:0[/embed] Aside from trudging through long, ugly levels with snooze-fest combat, there are puzzles to complete, if you can call them that. Is it really a puzzle if the answer is mere feet away, or if the camera obnoxiously pans to the next step in the puzzle as if  you couldn't have just figured it out yourself? These sorry excuse for brain teasers have you stepping on switches in a certain order or sending the correct colored minion through colorful fire to step on a switch to open the gate to the next area, just so you can continue mindlessly beating swarms of the same few enemies, over and over and over. Since this is supposed to be a co-op RPG, up to four people can suffer through this monotony together, gathering loot after each wave of enemies is destroyed throughout levels. Instead of having loot drop from enemies, Codemasters decided to spawn tons of breakable chests that explode, throwing various forms of currency in all directions. The first time this happens I couldn't help but feel excited, but after seeing it over 50 times I couldn't be bothered to care. Each form of loot can be used to upgrade your character and minions, as well as purchasing new weapons; none of which are needed. Every character feels very overpowered and upgrades only make them more so, so there ends up being very little challenge by the end. Minions can be used for combat, but seem to serve little purpose other than distracting enemies, which isn't really necessary since they can easily be stun locked just by chipping away at them until they are dead. Some boss fights require minions, but use the same colored fire gimmick as the puzzles, and are just as mindlessly dull. Not only is this sorry excuse for a game boring and ugly, it is also quite buggy. Various times throughout my play through I encountered enemies freezing in place on death, or comically flying up and off the screen. While playing on couch co-op only the first player actually gets any loot, while the other players can collect loot but not spend or save it, thus just denying loot from player one. This may be by design as I was playing on the PC through Steam which has no way of signing in multiple players to their accounts, but Codemasters should have thought of that when it decided to sell the game on Steam in the first place. I played a majority of this game online, or at least in the online mode as only one time did a random player join my game. In the middle of a level another player popped in, helped for a bit, then disappeared before the level was over with, and that was it. It seemed like a smooth experience, but clearly there aren't a lot of people playing this online, nor should there be, because it is utter tripe. The only enjoyable part of the entire experience was the writing and voice acting. Gnarl, the narrator from the original games is back and leading the charge again, making clever little quips and jokes along the way. Hilarious but I don't think many people are willing to eat a shit sandwich to get to a diamond, or in this case a few chuckles. Overlord: Fellowship of Evil is an experience I'll be glad to forget: a mindless, tedious, boring excuse for a game that tortures the player throughout, much like the characters in the game torturing the poor souls of the innocent. Maybe that is the point and Codemasters has done an amazing piece of art. As if.
Review: Overlord: FoE photo
Shit. That would be my review of Overlord: Fellowship of Evil if one word reviews were passable, but since that isn't the case I guess I'll give you all a few paragraphs describing shit. Are you one of the few people who remember the Overlord series with fondness? Then stop reading now and forget this game ever existed, you'll be better off having never played it. 

Review: Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Oct 28 // Brett Makedonski
Assassin's Creed Syndicate (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ubisoft QuebecPublisher: UbisoftMSRP: $59.99Released: October 23, 2015 (PS4, Xbox One), November 19, 2015 (PC) An early sequence concerns itself with getting illegal opiates in medicine off the streets. The player must trace this back all the way up the supply chain from seller to distributor to manufacturer and, eventually, to the doctor who's behind it all. One high-profile assassination, and the city's a little better off than before. That's an evident narrative example of how Syndicate conveys this ever-present march toward improving London, but gameplay elements also support it. The biggest side-task asks that you liberate sections of town. Once enough of those are cleared, there's a gang war to take over the borough. And, once that's done, that particular one-seventh of the city is rid of Templar influence. It's a formula that Assassin's Creed has drawn from before, but it's hard not to feel as if it works best in Syndicate. That persistent slow-burn sense of accomplishment is present, as it usually is when you see the tides turn in an open-world game. But, the way Syndicate connects gameplay to narrative makes everything really come together. Progress is being made and it's apparent in the way the town goes about its business. [embed]315655:60898:0[/embed] A pivotal reason that this effort succeeds is because Syndicate has a cast of characters that are interesting and memorable. Crawford Starrick is easily one of the best villains in the series, as he puppeteers all of the going-ons. A late-introduced person is simply divine in his madness. By the time his arc resolves, he reminds more of Batman's Joker than anyone from Assassin's Creed's lore. Anchoring this effort are the dual protagonists: Jacob and Evie Frye. As siblings are wont to do, they have a bit of a rivalry that escalates throughout the course of the narrative. Their relationship is strung along by things their father used to say, as interpreted by them individually. As such, they have differing opinions on their goals and how to accomplish them, and they're constantly reminding the other of it. It grows tiresome before long. Really, I suspect that the two protagonist formula was a means for Ubisoft to explore divergent intentions within the course of one game. Evie is hellbent on recovering a Piece of Eden that's hidden somewhere in London; Jacob's set on reclaiming the city and fighting for the people's rights (he's surprisingly altruistic considering his brash demeanor). Told within the the arc of a single hero, these interests wouldn't make for a cohesive game. It'd feel schizophrenic in its approach. But, by breaking it up for two people to pursue, it makes sense. Syndicate's better off for having explored both of these angles, thus, it's better off for having tried the tandem protagonists. For all the big-picture stuff that Syndicate does right, almost all of its missteps are in the gameplay. The franchise mainstays like non-notable assassinations work just as fine as they always have (although combat still lacks sufficient impact to prove satisfying). It's the innovative parts that mostly fall flat. Horse-drawn carriages control awfully and are a pain to drive. Kidnapping is mapped to the same button as other post-kidnapping actions, often leading to mishaps with your hostage. The worst sin comes in the form of the game's most marketable feature. The grappling hook, even with its finicky nature, makes traversing London quick and simple. But it comes at the cost of almost completely cutting climbing out of Assassin's Creed. Simply walking up to a building and pushing the left bumper will transport you to the top. The grappling hook actually feels like cheating after spending eight games getting there the hard way. It's easy to appreciate Ubisoft saving you a bit of time, but pulling back and reflecting after several hours of play will lead you to realize that you've scaled just a tiny fraction of what you have in past titles. Climbing is a major mechanic that drew a lot of people to Assassin's Creed in the first place, so it's sad seeing Syndicate relegate it to an afterthought. Assassinations are the other large appeal to Assassin's Creed titles. Syndicate does them better than ever before. Extrapolating upon the "black box" missions in Unity, we're treated to unique, intriguing, and exciting kills of the game's most notable targets. For instance, that doctor mentioned oh-so many paragraphs up? It'd be easy enough to rush in and off him. Instead, I pickpocketed the keys off of a guard to open all the doors in the asylum. Then, I made my way to the basement where I hid the body of a medical corpse, and laid down in its place. I was wheeled up to the doctor, where I assassinated him as he was about to conduct an inhumane experiment on me. This is where Assassin's Creed as a whole is at its very best and most shows its promise. Anyone who's blowing them off is doing themselves a huge disservice and probably playing the game the wrong way. These black box missions are where you get to feel like an actual assassin and get clever with your kills -- even if it's still scripted in a way. It's a nice compromise after we figured out that open-world scenarios lead to more botched attempts than anything else. A game of this magnitude is bound to have its successes and failures, and Assassin's Creed Syndicate definitely has both. But, in most instances, gameplay and narrative are interwoven nicely enough to keep us vested in our pursuit of a better London. As such, it often seems as if the bad isn't all that noticeable. That's a threshold Assassin's Creed has struggled to hit over the years, and this is the first time it has accomplished that maybe since Brotherhood. One of the more poignant moments in Syndicate is a scene where Crawford Starrick is solemnly playing piano. At the conclusion of the slow, heartfelt song, he earnestly sings "In such a moment, I but ask that you'll remember me. That you'll remember me." We remember you, Assassin's Creed. And now, we have hope for what else you can do.
AC Syndicate review photo
Come together
Perched atop some large edifice in Assassin's Creed Syndicate's London, I hesitated. Many slickly-presented columns of light reached toward the sky in all directions -- each one indicating yet another thing to do in an effort...

Review: Assault Android Cactus

Oct 28 // Chris Carter
Assault Android Cactus (PC [reviewed], PS4, PS Vita, Wii U)Developer: Witch BeamPublisher: Witch BeamReleased: September 23, 2015 (PC) / TBA 2016 (PS4, PS Vita, Wii U)MSRP: $14.99 Although Cactus starts with a cute little intro video that sets up the whole shooty affair, it's a fleeting moment, as the game quickly centers in on gameplay over exposition. It essentially features a galactic police officer named Cactus, who crash lands into a gigantic spaceship and saves three other bystanders from certain death. United, they band together to defeat the mysterious evil force on board, headed by four guardians (boss characters). Cactus has one hell of a presentation for an indie project. While the narrative might be light (voice acting is few and far between), the visual style makes up for it in spades. Every character looks and feels different, and the enemies are varied to the point where each individual baddie requires a slightly different strategy. The sound effects are spot-on and have a weight them, and the musical score is more than enough to get you in the mood to shoot things. What I really like about Cactus is that each stage feels unique. Most of them are confined arenas, but the vast majority of them morph as the level progresses in interesting ways. For instance, one starts off with mysterious boxes littered about the landscape, which sequentially explode, opening up more of the map, at the cost of another giant enemy to fight. Other arenas feature small scrolling sections similar to a dungeon crawler, or fixed areas that add hectic hazards to the mix periodically. [embed]317399:60845:0[/embed] Each character has a different main weapon (from a typical shoot 'em up single-shot cannon to a shotgun), and a temporary alternate fire triggered by dodging. My personal favorite pick is Aubergine, who has a droid as her main ability (which can be controlled remotely, and independently from her own movements), and a singularity gun as her alt fire. Cactus is a twin-stick shooter for sure, but its core concept is what sets it apart -- the battery mechanic. With Cactus, your battery is perpetually running out, and only killing massive amounts of enemies will yield you a recharge power-up. If you take too much damage you'll simply fall down, with the power to mash buttons and pick yourself back up. For reference, four players are supported locally, and all of them share the same battery. Things can get pretty crazy, especially with the sheer amount of enemies the game throws out. You have to be constantly moving to stay alive, taking advantage of the various pickups like speed or firepower boosts, along with lockdown icons that temporarily disable all the enemies on-screen. If you aren't always moving around and seeking out batteries and power-ups, you won't make it far. The story mode will only take you a few hours to complete (or less), but Cactus shines when playing with friends -- plus, there's additional "Infinity Drive" (survival) and "Daily Drive" modes to conquer. Assault Android Cactus kind of snuck up on me, and is easily one of my favorite shooters of the year. I'm really interested in seeing what developer Witch Beam comes up with next. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Assault Android Cactus photo
A fantastic twin-stick fix
Every once in a while a game slips past my grasp due to any number of assignments that I have to tackle at a time. One such title is Assault Android Cactus, which I really enjoyed during its Early Access incarnation, and happened to launch just recently on Steam. I regret not jumping into the final version immediately, as it's one of the best twin-stick shooters in a long while.

Review: The Park

Oct 27 // Chris Carter
The Park (PC)Developer: FuncomPublisher: FuncomRelease:  October 27, 2015MSRP: $12.99 At a base level, The Park seems to be about a mother and her lost child, but it crescendos into much more than that. Yes, this is a walking simulator alright, with limited amounts of items to inspect, and no inventory management. You'll traipse around, hear some monologues, learn more about the characters and the park itself, and essentially watch a film play out with some degree of interactivity. It's more involved than your average title, as you can ride the rides in the park (a Ferris wheel, rollercoaster, and the like), and look around at your surroundings while doing so. There's also a decent amount of lore-building involved, and not just because of the Lovecraftian themes that are intertwined with the Funcom-verse. I actually enjoyed reading tidbits about various incidents at the park, and how they involve the cast. While the park itself is cool, the exposition starts off a little stilted. The script is incredibly flowery with its opening monologues, and doesn't give you any real reason to care about the cast. It's almost like watching an amateur poetry hour at times, and there was a point where I rolled my mind's eye at some of the lines. Slowly but surely though, The Park spirals into a tale of depression, with some light adult themes. It gets better, darker, and examines mental illness in a rather unique way. [embed]317523:60854:0[/embed] As far as the presentation goes, in some ways, it would have been better as a short film. The Park might feature a sprawling setting, but a lot of it consists of filler. There are long paths that essentially function as loading screens. The Park isn't going to wow anyone from a visual standpoint, but the effects involved are cool-looking, invoking a perspective that is slowly losing grip on reality. Without spoiling anything, it kind of reminded me of the film The Babadook. If you're looking for pure horror, maybe go elsewhere. The Park isn't a "survival" game nor is it going for scares -- there's only one portion that provides that feeling, in fact. Instead, the narrative attempts a more disturbing tone, with realistic and relatable problems told through the veil of a creepy theme park. I don't want to give away too much as The Park is only an hour long, but I admire Funcom's effort with this experimental take on the genre. It really does try something different, even if you can feel the core themes sneaking up on you a mile away.
The Park review photo
Dunwich horror
The "walking simulator" genre has thrived in recent years. With titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home hitting it off with audiences, it's no wonder the "adventure lite" (as I call it) market is influencing new exper...

Review: The Legend of Legacy

Oct 26 // Kyle MacGregor
The Legend of Legacy (3DS)Developer: FuRyuPublisher: Atlus USARelease:  January 22, 2015 (JP) October 13, 2015 (NA) February 5, 2016 (EU)MSRP: $39.99 The expedition rings hollow from the outset, presenting players with a diversity of characters, all of whom have a unique opening sequence. It's a seductive come-on, one that hints at a multi-sided story that never manifests. The narrative threads converge almost immediately and then vanish, leaving players to explore Avalon with little impetus for hours at a time. The script is sapped by an absurd lack of dialogue, which prevents the cast from distinguishing themselves and essentially renders them stock characters. The Legend of Legacy, hamstrung by its sparse narrative and superficial characters, is forced to lean squarely on a repetitive formula. From the time it begins to the moment the credits roll, players will travel to a location, explore every nook and cranny there to create a maps, then sell that to a merchant. You can then pay the merchant for new destinations to explore, map, profit on, and repeat. Much like the story, The Legend of Legacy's exploration and combat components manage to leave a strong first impression, but they lose their effectiveness over time. It's almost as though FuRyu stumbled across an ingredient list for an excellent dish, but got the proportions all wrong. Individually, elements have the potential to be wonderful; they just don't come across that way in the melting pot. The turn-based battle system has some promise, allowing players to switch between various combat formations. Depending on the formations, individual characters will receive bonuses pursuant to their roles in battle. A defender will use a buckler to shield allies from damage, while a support character heals, and someone else attacks. While there are only two formations at the outset, players are given the ability to create their own -- an option that would be enticing if the battle system were deeper and it felt necessary. What might have been a strategic highlight soon curdles and becomes rote. The experience suffers from diminishing returns, with systems encouraging players to settle on a finite number of battle strategies and seldom deviate from them. Rather than have characters level-up, individual skills do. So, repeated use of, say, a sword will make a character more proficient with that type of weapon. But should one give that character an axe, bow, spear, or even a larger sword, they'll be back at square one, meaning it's beneficial to to decide which characters and weapons to use early on and stick with those choices, rather than experiment at all. In addition to impelling players to perform the same actions again and again, The Legend of Legacy doubles down on the repetition with a shortfall of enemy variety. The species of monster from a forest environment might reappear in the desert or alongside one another as palette swaps, a small irritation that just serves to compound a feeling of monotony that's pervasive throughout the game. Even endearing qualities, like the pop-up book-style visuals, which sees terrain and scenery sprout out from the ground, can cut both ways. Aesthetically, environments look very nice, but have a way of concealing enemies. And in a game with far too many fights for its own good, stumbling into a battle on accident due to a bit of poor camera positioning can be so exasperating. It also feels too focused and even reserved to a fault. At a time when many of its peers seem so enamored with heavy-handed tutorials and overabundance of side content, FuRyu is running in the opposite direction. This is an experience that could desperately use something to do other than plod along the critical path, or do a better job explaining some its more mystifying gameplay systems. If this appraisal sounds overly critical, it's because it comes from a place of love. The Legend of Legacy comes so close to being a compelling role-playing game, but it just doesn't do enough to earn the amount of patience it requires of players, let alone reward it. This may be a story about a treasure hunt, but it certainly is no treasure. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Legend of Legacy photo
Lost in the woods
Juan Ponce de León's hunt for the Fountain of Youth is a legend far more emblematic of many adventures than most depicted in media. The conquistador committed the lion's share of his days to exploring the New Worl...

Review: Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide

Oct 26 // Joe Parlock
Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)Developer: FatsharkPublisher: FatsharkReleased: October 23, 2015 (PC) / TBA 2016 (PS4, Xbox One)MSRP: $29.99 Vermintide is set in the underused gothic End Times setting of the Warhammer universe, where the city of Ubersreik has come under siege from a rising army of Skaven (rat-men). Taking control of one of five different character classes, four teammates can fight their way through 13 different missions. Vermintide’s writing certainly isn’t going to win any awards: each mission is very loosely connected by a pretty unimportant story that serves purely as exposition for the level about to be played and not much else. To take out the Skaven, each class has a huge array of different weapons and equipment to choose from. Some, such as the elf and the mage, rely more on ranged tactics, whereas the likes of the dwarf and the old mercenary are more able to get up close and personal and do some real damage with melee weapons. Each class serves their own role, and no matter what combination of the five a team has, they all mesh well together to ensure no one character is carrying the others. Melee combat feels meaty and bloody, and despite it ultimately comes down to mashing one button until everything is dead, it feels a lot more involving than that. Once I had mastered the timing required for blocking, I was going toe to toe with even the strongest enemies and coming out on top, and god damn did it feel good. It’s nowhere near as complex Chivalry or Bloodborne, but Skaven were turning into puffs of red mist and piles of giblets left, right and centre, and for a brief time I was a rodent-killing god to be revered and feared. There’s great variety to the different stages, and it's obvious Fatshark know how to make use of environments to make the co-op play interesting. From trudging through the city streets, to wading through the swamps toward a Skaven camp, each level feels unique and manages a decent balance of linear chokepoint corridors with some fantastically complex larger areas to make sure no environment grows stale. For example, one mission takes place entirely in one big area where the team are scrounging for barrels of what I assume is gunpowder. The different platforms turn the space into a vertical maze of ramps and ladders that mean they can be fatally separated in a very short distance. Good stuff. Once they’ve succeeded, the entire team are rewarded with random pieces of loot, decided by a dice roll. The character progression of Vermintide is one of the biggest differences between it and similar titles. In a way, it works a lot like Team Fortress 2’s massive array of items: much of the loot available works as more of a ‘sidegrade’ than an upgrade. Most items aren’t categorically better than an item you already have, but may mesh better with your preferred playstyle. For example, my fire mage has two staves I like to swap between: one functions as a shotgun, with a focused beam as a secondary attack to take out further enemies; the other feels more like a rifle with faster more precise shots, and as a secondary it has a large short-range area of effect attack. Neither is better than the other, but I really have to change how I play depending on which I choose to use in a mission. There will, of course, come a point where I am vastly over-leveled for them, but by then I’ll have a whole new group of staves to pick from. The chances of getting the loot you want in the dice roll can be improved through collecting grimoires, tomes, and extra die scattered around the mission. The catch here is that these two item types take up space that could be used for precious healing items. They add a degree of risk vs. reward to the game, as those who replay levels with a more gutsy approach will net better rewards than those who play super conservatively. It’s a cool system that can really pull teams together, knowing there will be tangible rewards for covering each other in the long run. Unfortunately, these are just extras. When you strip away the superfluous bells and whistles and get down to just killing the shit out of a horde of Skaven, what you’re left with is a game that is ultimately treading into the same territory we saw years ago. Vermintide doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve; it wears them as a full lycra bodysuit that leaves nothing to the imagination. For starters, the Skaven’s AI is pretty much the same as any zombie game’s ever: they spawn, they’ll rush towards you and will keep hitting you until they die. I get rat-men wouldn’t be the most intelligent thing in the world, but if they’re smart enough to make armour and formulate tactics (stopping which is the basis for many of the missions), then surely they’d know how to freaking flank every once in a while? Most of the stronger boss type Skaven have an L4D analogue: the sneaky, pouncing Gutter Runners are practically Hunters, Pack Masters can pull players away from their team just like the Smoker, and the Ogre Rat is the literally just the Tank with a rodent face stapled on Silence of the Lambs style. That lack of originality extends to the missions too. While the environments are brilliant, the way levels progress feels exactly like Left 4 Dead. You’re tasked with moving through an ultimately linear space while fighting back against procedurally spawned hordes of enemies, with supplies and more intense ambushes happening at the drop of a hat. Eventually, you and your comrades will come to a conclusion that generally involves holding out against an extended onslaught of enemies before escaping to an extraction point. If it’s not that, your team will be tasked with going through a slightly more open area to collect a predetermined amount of a certain material, all while surviving against the hordes of enemies. Even the teamwork mechanics are the same as Left 4 Dead. If a teammate takes too much damage, they will become incapacitated on the floor until someone can get them up. If they happen to die while incapacitated, they will spawn a little later in the level to be rescued by the remaining members. Players can even become incapacitated by dangling over deadly drops, waiting for someone to pull them up. Identical to Left 4 goddamn Dead. As I have said, I adore that series. It’s got hectic shooting, combined with a necessity for tight teamwork that can really pull even total strangers together. Dispatching hordes of zombies in a gory fashion with a variety of weapons and in a variety of locales always made going back into the game just as fun as the first time, and Vermintide very much feels the same way. Except Left 4 Dead 2 came out six years ago, and it shows the few improvements its made over its most obvious inspiration just aren’t enough to let it stand on its own merits. Unoriginality aside, I also noticed a fair few technical problems with Vermintide, especially when it came to the backend server that manages the character progression and matchmaking. There were relatively frequent periods of downtime, or times where matchmaking would take far, far longer than normal. Fatshark have managed to keep on top of most problems, and seem to be fixing them quickly in the days following the game’s release, but they’ve still been prevalent enough to get in the way of me playing the game. Ultimately, Vermintide is more than the sum of its parts. It has wonderful visual direction and level design, with a character progression system that made me want to carry on grinding for new loot just to see what options it’d open up for me. The combat is satisfying, and the way teamwork is encouraged meant I managed to connect with total strangers in ways I haven’t had the chance to for a very long time. I wasn’t getting annoyed at random people on the internet, for the duration of that mission they were my teammates, and even things like Payday haven’t managed to give me that feeling. I’ve had a lot of fun, and certainly don’t regret any of my time with it. I absolutely recommend anyone who enjoys co-op FPS to give it a try, because it might well be the best to have come out in a long time.  I just wished that Fatshark had tried to be as original in the gameplay as they have in the visual direction. At times, it just felt like I was playing a mod, and depending on how you look at it that’s either the biggest compliment or the absolute worst thing I could say about Vermintide. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Vermintide photo
I feel like I've done this before...
Left 4 Dead is one of my favourite games. The summer of 2009 was spent staying up until five o’clock in the morning, playing the same campaigns with the same group of friends, and it was by far the most fun I’ve e...

Review: Halo 5: Guardians

Oct 26 // Chris Carter
Halo 5: Guardians (Xbox One)Developer: 343 IndustriesPublisher: Microsoft StudiosReleased: October 27, 2015MSRP: $59.99 While Guardians may have a no-nonsense intro that places you immediately into the fray, it already assumes that you know a ton of the franchise's backstory. There's so much lore at this point, spanning comics, web series, and other shows, that it's hard to keep up. The basic gist this time around is Master Chief is missing, Jameson Locke is sent to find him, and the Forerunners are still the big bad of the franchise. Everything else in-between is kind of a blur. The campaign features 15 missions in all, and is heavily built around the concept of fireteams -- which means you'll have three other characters following you around at all times, ready to take orders by way of AI constructs, or as player characters. If you're going the solo route, you can order your team to move to certain locations, or attack specific targets. It's rudimentary at best, as the only command you have is a single d-pad stroke that does either of those two options, but it's very cool to see your team banter and blow enemies away by your side. Your teammates can also revive you if you're down (though there are still insta-kill mechanics and pitfall deaths), getting you back into the action faster. [embed]315608:60816:0[/embed] Halo 5 features linear, more Call of Duty-style levels, with the occasional miniature sandbox or mid-sized arenas distractions. What I like about the campaign mechanically is it's always forcing you to switch weapons (between the human, Covenant, and Forerunner variety), which constantly puts you out of your comfort zone. There are a ton of weapons in the franchise at this point, and it feels like 343 didn't skimp out or remove any -- so you expect somewhat of a learning curve. When it comes to the campaign though, nothing blew me away outside of a few select missions. The first five are table-setting affairs, as it stands, but even after you progress through those, the narrative  never really goes anywhere. The story is rather annoying in a way, as it relies heavily on past games to a fault. I really enjoyed the original tale of Halo: Combat Evolved, with the simplistic story of the conflict between Covenant and humans, with the Flood in the middle, but this "new" trilogy isn't really doing it for me. Sure, the action is spot-on, but the Forerunners aren't a compelling enemy, as far too much of their history is billed with mystique, and I couldn't be bothered to care about any of the cast members outside of a light amount of nostalgia for Chief.  I also had a few technical issues during my playthrough. There were some weird instances where progression didn't trigger and a door didn't open because there was an enemy stuck in a far corner somewhere. Also, on a few occasions my team didn't revive me even though they were right there, or outright refused to move or take orders. Guardians features drop-in drop-out multiplayer, which is great because the four-person campaign component never feels forced, but the lack of split-screen is an utter shame. For reference, it took me roughly six hours to finish the story on the standard difficulty setting. How does it play? So well that you'll often forget about how mediocre the campaign is. The gameplay has changed significantly, mostly due to new mobility options and the power to aim down the sights of your gun (also known as ADS or Iron Sights). Players can also press a button to boost, which works both on land and in the air, and hold the melee button to slam down to the ground, or press it while running to trigger a dash attack. It feels like a quicker, hybrid arena shooter now with all these changes. Warzone, however, is leaps and bounds more fun than the story. It's billed as a 12v12 mode that features a massive base tug-of-war, with enemy AI meddling on the side. In short, it feels like a bite-sized story mixed with multiplayer, and accomplishes most of the goals it sets out to achieve. For example, at the start of a match, you'll have to clear out your own base -- there's no downtime involved. From there, Warzone constantly throws things at you, from sub-objectives to boss fights, with plenty of PVP action injected for good measure. 12v12 is by no means a massive amount of players, but it gets the job done, especially when coupled with the aforementioned PVE mechanics. There's always something to do, and always players to kill. The large map size also brings something to Halo that really hasn't been done before, as they're roughly three times bigger than past locations in the series. Because of my time with Warzone, I've felt inspired to find a group of people to play with down the line. I think this mode has potential for some really memorable matches. There's a straight non-AI variation available as well, if you prefer that. So that's Warzone. On the other end of Halo 5's PVP component, you have Arena -- traditional deathmatch game-types across a handful of different modes. There's Team Arena (with CTF, deathmatch, and Stronghold variants), Slayer (FFA), Breakout (one life), free-for-all, and the classic SWAT mode (no shields, no radar), with promises of more playlists post launch. You can also create custom games online if you wish, with specific rule sets. Once you acclimate to ADS, it's basically the same Halo you've played many times before, for better or worse. The levels in Guardians are decently balanced, though. There's 15 at launch, and the pool is admirable, consisting of several different locations and layouts. "Plaza" is one of my standout favorites, as it's an entropic map that's vertically inclined, and both stylish and practical. There isn't one map that I've groaned at (outside of the Midship remake, which is a good arena, but one I've played constantly for over a decade), and if I was ever bored of the small to mid-sized layouts, I just went back to Warzone. As for the multiplayer experience as a whole, there's a strong emphasis on dedicated servers, which the game prominently informs you it's using during every matchmaking sequence. It's been smooth sailing so far, but if there's any changes we'll provide an update after launch. This doesn't factor into the review, but all Halo 5: Guardians maps (15 planned so far) will also be provided for free, presumably due to the sustainable funds generated from the microtransactions. Additionally, Forge mode will be released sometime in December. So how about those "REQ" microtransactions? They're pretty painless, actually. While they provide power-ups, such as single-use vehicles or weapons for Warzone play, they're entirely optional in Arena, and provide cosmetic upgrades (skins, and animations) or experience boosts -- think Mass Effect 3. You can basically choose to ignore the system entirely and still excel, or slowly accrue in-game currency to buy them. Either way, it doesn't really impact the experience as a whole. If it weren't for Warzone, Halo 5: Guardians would probably be somewhere on the lower end of the franchise spectrum for me. It's still a fantastic and well-oiled machine, but the story falls flat, and the shift in gameplay mechanics result in the loss of some elements that made the series so unique in the first place. Still, if you're looking to shoot some dudes online, Guardians is your huckleberry. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Halo 5 review photo
Master Chef vs. Locke from Lost
Halo really grabbed me back in 2001. I had just won an Xbox from a Taco Bell contest (no joke), and I was getting ready to sell it when a friend told me about a little old sci-fi shooter from Bungie. After playing H...

Review: Penarium

Oct 23 // Alissa McAloon
Penarium (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One) Developer: Self Made Miracle Publisher: Team17 Released: September 22, 2015 MSRP: $9.99 The controls, like much of Penarium, are outwardly straightforward but still offer a lot of room for unique play-styles. Willy is only able to run left and right and can also double jump in the air. PC players have the most freedom here and can use WASD, the arrow keys, or some combination of the two to get around. But know that Penarium is brutal, no matter what platform it's played on. Unlike similar titles that favor a gamepad, the game has the somewhat unique distinction of being equally playable on both controllers and keyboard. Though Penarium offers three game modes, its campaign is easily its meatiest experience. The story is told through thirty levels spread across three different arenas. Things start slow and simple, but quickly evolve into chaos. Different objectives, such as breaking barrels placed throughout a level or popping balloons in a specific order, become increasingly difficult as a myriad of different traps enter the equation. Homing missiles, deathly icicles, sticky platforms, barrel-stealing birds, terrain destroying electricity, or a roaming swarm of bees could all complicate whatever task Willy has to complete. Overall there aren't a ton of traps in the game, but it is fond of throwing multiple traps at Willy at once to keep things interesting. Conquering one pair of traps isn't enough after a few levels. Eventually objectives will have you collect thirty barrels, but rotate in a new set of traps every five. This is where the unforgiving element of Penarium comes in. Dying on the final set of traps, maybe even seconds before completing the task, kicks you right back to the beginning of that level. There are no checkpoints between trap-sets, and no rewards for making it so close to victory. The difficulty is punishing, but at the same time never feels impossible. Persistence, skill, and a tiny bit of luck are all necessities if you want to clear all thirty levels. Campaign offers players a variety of fun tasks to conquer, which makes it all the more of a shame that multiplayer shares none of that uniqueness. Two players either compete or work together to capture a series of randomly placed buttons, each with their own trap combinations to overcome. The whole package isn't terrible for the first few rounds, but after a while it becomes apparent that repetitive multiplayer mode lacks that stressful charm that Penarium built its campaign on. Arcade mode is a somewhat fuller experience, but still falls short when compared to the campaign. Playable on any of the three arenas, arcade mode endlessly tasks you with collecting as many barrels as possible before an eventual death. Traps rotate out every five barrels to keep things interesting, but it still had a hard time holding my attention. Even with the arcade-exclusive ability system that exchanges coins for random use skills, the scoreboard focused mode fails to offer anything to really keep players engaged. Penarium is incredibly fun, but could have been even better if the multiplayer and arcade modes had taken some inspiration from the campaign. But even then, what's left is overall a fantastic experience. The game is difficult, but I haven't found myself so lovingly furious with a game since Spelunky. It works well within the scope of its own mechanics to create a game that stays consistently challenging, without ever feeling truly impossible. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Penarium photo
Unforgivingly cruel in the very best way
Fans of soul-crushing platformers like Super Meat Boy and Spelunky will feel right at home within the sadistic circus rings of Penarium. The 2D arena survival-fest puts players in the shoes of a young farmer named Willy, who ...

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