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Review: Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls

Aug 28 // Laura Kate Dale
Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls (PS Vita)Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: NIS AmericaReleased: September 1 (North America), September 4 (Europe)MSRP: $39.99 So, let's start with where Ultra Despair Girls departs from the previous Danganronpa games on Vita. Instead of investigating crimes scenes for clues, the bulk of your gameplay time in Ultra Despair Girls will be spent as Komaru Naegi shooting robot Monokuma bears with a techno-megaphone. The megaphone, which apparently acts as a "hacking gun," shoots lines of "code bullets" to effect the robots you come into contact with. Break Bullets act as standard damage dealers, but your gun also has less typical ammo types, such as Dance Bullets that cause enemies to stop on the spot and dance, allowing you to put distance between them and yourself. Much of the core gameplay loop feels like you're playing a zombie-themed third-person shooter. Enemies tend to be slow and rambling, take time to kill, and deal large amounts of damage if they reach you. While this is fine in theory, claustrophobic environments, an overly close camera, and numerous invisible walls make this core gameplay at times more frustrating than it needs to be. The idea of a code gun shooting robotic enemies is cool, but the gameplay hiccups -- as well as the infrequency of acquiring interesting new code bullet types -- meant I rarely got excited. Oh, there's also a melee sword combat-focused playable character, but their use is limited by a meter. That's a real shame, because a second gameplay style available to switch to at any time might have helped keep the mechanics from becoming stale this fast. So, does the narrative save Ultra Despair Girls from death at the hands of one of Monokuma's elaborate devices? Well, yes and no. It rescues the game from death, but still gives it a mild case of public torture. [embed]307925:60156:0[/embed] In Ultra Despair Girls, we find ourselves in a city overtaken by murderous young children bent on seeing adults torn to shreds. This gang of prepubescent killers, the Warriors of Hope, have amassed an army of youngsters to control robots that are utilised to kill from safety. Playing as the younger sister of the first game's protagonist, who has conveniently been locked away in her apartment for a year and not noticed that the world has gone to shit around her, you escape with the series running split-personality serial killer and attempt to take back control of the city. Thanks to the shift in narrative focus from confined drama to city-sprawling mission, there's a lower frequency of plot twists than in previous entries. The twists and turns in the narrative are among the strongest in the series, but they feel padded further apart. The cast of characters introduced in Ultra Despair Girls are just as over the top, memorable, and well-written as any characters introduced to date in the series, which is one of the areas the game continues to shine. General moment-to-moment dialogue and character interactions are superb and were the driving force that kept me invested through to the end. The biggest problem: narrative pacing. The game felt like it was probably five or six hours too long. It's worth noting that both the enemy designs and narrative in Ultra Despair Girls are some of the darkest, creepiest, most unsettling to date, and that says a lot for this particular series. From horrible mutated creatures to themes I would hesitate to subject adult characters to let alone children, the game gets pretty unnerving in places. That's not a complaint by any means -- Ultra Despair Girls pulls it off perfectly. Ultimately, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls just didn't click for me the same way previous games did. Sure the narrative still has some strong moments, but it's punctuated with third-person shooter gameplay that doesn't enhance my engagement with the narrative the same way the first two visual novels did. If you're a series fan, there's a good, text-heavy, hands-off narrative to be explored here, but the gameplay sections really dragged it down for me. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Danganronpa review photo
Great story, odd gameplay loop
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Goodbye Despair have been some of my favourite Vita games in recent years. A pair of murder mystery visual novels, the games melded puzzle solving, courtroom drama, and murdered school kid...

Review: Corpse of Discovery

Aug 27 // Jed Whitaker
Corpse of Discovery (PC)Developer: Phosphor GamesPublisher: Phosphor Games Released: August 25, 2015MSRP: $14.99Rig: Intel Core i7-3930K @ 3.2 GHz, 32GB DDR3 RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 980, Windows 10 64-bit, Intel 750 SSD "Our feature presentation" is displayed on the screen the moment Corpse of Discovery is launched, followed by a live action video of a press conference with a representative from the "Corps of Discovery" -- a space exploration company -- explaining that communication with one of their astronauts had been lost. Cut to an astronaut groggily waking up in a space station to a recorded voice stating this is your final mission and to make your way to the main computer to be briefed. On the way to get briefed you'll come across various items to interact with including laptops playing silly videos, pictures, and a hologram with an audio message from your wife and kids. Upon reaching the main computer a hologram of the planet is displayed and your mission is read aloud by a recorded voice, letting you know you'll be placing markers on this unexplored planet. Just outside the main computer room is a space suit you'll have to slip on before stepping outside into a barren red planet. The atmosphere of this planet is exactly what one would expect as a lone astronaut on an unexplored planet; extreme emptiness, a lifeless wasteland, and your thoughts.  After you get over the initial awe of walking out of the spaceship onto the planet you'll notice the framerate often dips quite low when moving quickly, and there is a great deal of objects popping in thus breaking the immersion. I played the game on two different computers to see if it was just me or if the game was just optimized really poorly, to unsurprisingly find out my suspicions were confirmed. No matter what settings were adjusted, the results were the same: pop in and frame rate dips; It sure as hell didn't look silky smooth like the slow movement and quick cuts of the trailer lead me to believe it would be, nor was there a helmet around the edges of the screen like shown in both the trailer and screenshots.  [embed]307987:60150:0[/embed] Once you've accepted the dismal optimization, you'll find a nearby helper AI-- a floating orb-shaped robot with glowing blue eyes -- that gives you directions, tips, updates from the Corps HR department and seems to have an intelligent personality of all her own. She warns that standing in direct sunlight will cause radiation levels to increase and points to the first place that needs to be marked, so you set off in that direction. Along the way, between heavy breaths inside your suit, you'll hear the bot remind you that after this mission you will be retired, how appreciative your family will be for all your hard work, and that she hasn't been able to get out a distress call as your ship crash landed leaving you currently stranded. As you find the last marker the bot says her battery is about to die, her distress signal was never heard and that your family will be well compensated. After your bot passes into the battery-less afterlife, you'll be given one last point to go to while avoiding gigantic tornadoes surrounding the area. Taking floaty jumps across the map until arriving at the final point is horrifying, as you're given no hope of surviving and you're light years from home. Upon arriving at the last way point an alien flies onto screen and fills you with radiation causing you to black out, only to wake up back in the base for your final mission, again, only this time on a different planet.  This passing out, waking up back in the base cycle happens a handful of times before the credits roll. Each cycle has hints of passage of time and new messages from a family that misses you, all while being told this is your last mission yet being on a brand new planet. Each planet looks vastly different, with the second being full of lush vegetation and some living organisms, a stark contrast to the starting planet's emptiness, while others have floating rocks, lava, and deserts filled with caves and rocky peaks. There isn't a lot to do on any of them though, as every mission is "walk over there, press action, rinse, repeat" though eventually a jetpack is added to the mix. The catch is that it can only boost for so long before you'll have to wait a bit for its power to recharge, though you can reach the altitude you want and keep tapping it every couple seconds to nearly infinitely stay midair, allowing you to quickly glide between points of interest.  Other than the main objectives there are some other interesting objects to find -- though I use the term interesting loosely in this case as finding mirages of food you miss from Earth is anything but interesting -- that add a bit of information to the astronaut's backstory, giving glimpses at his family life and personal tastes. There are also a couple of kind of funny celebrity impersonators that can be found, one of which is Matthew McConaughey talking nonsense about wormholes like his character in Interstellar. The best extras to find though have to be satellites that play commercials, TED talks and a music video, all that are tailor made to reference what is going on in the game and taunting you with "You're going to die alone on this planet."  Later in the game the tone switches from mystery, to deep hypothetical questions about choice and religion before going off rails and becoming a satire of itself. Suddenly your AI robot friend is more self aware, swears and doesn't even provide you your assigned mission, before mocking you for doing the same thing over and over. Perhaps your character is going mad or is in Hell, the game doesn't really ever make it very clear.  I have a feeling the developers don't even know what to do with the story and kind of just gave up and decided to try to make it comical, which makes the last level feel less like an awesome sci-fi adventure game and more like a shitty mod a teenager would make of a game to impress their friends. Corpse of Discovery's intro sets a very serious and cinematic tone that is carried on through most of the first half of the game before derailing and turning into a parody of itself, ruining what could have been an otherwise beautiful experience apart from the horrible optimization. At around three hours, it's hard to recommend Corpse of Discovery to starved sci-fi fans, let alone the general public, and especially at full price. With some optimization patches it would be at least worth a play through for sci-fi fans, but as it stands I'd let this one get lost in space. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Corpse of Discovery Rev photo
One Man's Sky
I'm a huge fan of the recent resurgence of sci-fi blockbusters such as Gravity, Interstellar and the upcoming The Martian, and when I watched the trailer for Corpse of Discovery I couldn't help but see the influence...

Review: Lara Croft GO

Aug 27 // Zack Furniss
Lara Croft GO (iOS [reviewed on iPad Air], Android, Windows Phones)Developer: Square Enix MontréalPublisher: Square EnixRelease Date: August 27, 2015MSRP: $4.99 Lara Croft GO immediately establishes itself as a contemplative foray into a forgotten world. Meditative music gently ebbs and flows as Lara slowly walks up to a well-preserved ruin in one of the game's few brief cutscenes. The environments are vibrantly rendered in a simplistic yet gorgeous manner while gentle camerawork plays with the foreground, asserting a sense of depth. Lara's expedition takes you deeper into this ancient land, and before long a gargantuan serpent begins pursuing this new trespasser.  Similar to Hitman GO, you can only move along pre-carved lines on the ground and scalable walls, darting from spot to spot. Here, however, Ms. Croft is fluidly animated, doing somersaults and even her famous hand-stand ledge climb on occasion. It's initially jarring to see her do stilted little jumps between spots (there's no way to hold down a run button, as that would quickly end in death), but I stopped noticing it just a few levels in. Enemies and obstacles can only move whenever you do, so movement needs to be precise and measured. Unlike early Tomb Raider games, you'll never die due to stepping a tad too far or misjudging a jump.  Puzzles start as simplistic fare involving levers and floor panels that can only be safely crossed one time, but add elements every few levels (of which there are 40) to stave off repetition. Snakes, lizards, and giant spiders will do their best to prevent you from reaching your desired MacGuffin and each provide their own set of challenges. You'll eventually find single-use tools to combat them, such as a javelin and a torch. Then there are boulders, sawblades, and other traps that will make you doubt every step you take. Since the checkpoints are very forgiving and most levels will only take you a few minutes to complete, dying isn't discouraging. Death, more than anything, is your most reliable tool when it comes to deciphering the machinations of the deathtraps hindering your progress. You'll step on plenty of floor panels only to launch arrows into your soon-to-be lifeless body, but it's never a frustrating affair. While this is appreciated, the one and only quibble I have with Lara Croft GO is that it never quite feels like it fully ramps up to a satisfying difficulty. Despite a couple of "A-ha!" moments, the slow addition of complications and intensifying music build to a climax that doesn't deliver. It's always appreciated when a mobile game can be played in short sessions, but I wouldn't have balked at being stumped a few times. Perhaps it's my love towards past installments and the enjoyment of being utterly stonewalled by a puzzle, having to think about it even when I'm not playing. On the off-chance that you every get completely stuck, you can use microtransactions for hints (this feature was not online when I was playing for review). If you miss the older games in the series, you'll find cute references that aren't cloyingly nostalgic. The main menu is radial like it was in the olden days of yore, and that satisfyingly reverbed BRRINNGG sound effect denoting the discovery of a hidden treasure has returned. Find enough of those treasures and you'll even find costumes from the old games, like the wetsuit from Tomb Raider II. This affords Lara Croft GO some replayability (since you'll be able to finish it in around three hours depending on your skill level), but they aren't exactly well-hidden until the back half of the adventure. Though other games featuring Lara Croft have elicited a gamut of reactions such as horror and anxiety, I never expected to find spelunking so calming. The dreamlike soundscapes bring to mind a massage parlor and slowly slipping into sleep as someone caresses your tired feet. This is an easy game to fall asleep to, and I'm almost positive you'll have good dreams. I don't think Square Enix is claiming that one solely because of the lawsuits that will occur when players start rolling over and crushing their iPads. Lara Croft GO is clearly the product of a love for what the Tomb Raider series used to mean. Your pistols are more of a tool than a weapon, and you certainly won't be killing an island's worth of men. A lovely visual style and a zen-inspiring score provide backdrops to my favorite Croft adventure in some time. I'm now grateful for the delineation between the action-filled Tomb Raider and puzzle-focused Lara Croft games. Even though I enjoyed 2013's hectic reboot, sometimes you just want to stop and breathe it all in, tomb dust and all.
Lara Croft GO photo
Spa Raider
Last year, Square Enix Montréal surprised us by distilling the Hitman series into a minimalistic mobile game with a tabletop aesthetic. It was a risky move, but Hitman GO ended up a critical success that show...

Review: Flywrench

Aug 26 // Ben Davis
Flywrench (PC)Developer: MesshofPublisher: MesshofReleased: August 24, 2015MSRP: $9.99 Flywrench is a little difficult to describe without actually seeing it in motion. It's essentially an aerial obstacle course, where the goal is to guide the ship to the end of the level while passing through barriers and avoiding walls. It has the same sense of intense difficulty with rapid respawning as many notably punishing platformers such as Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV, without actually being a platformer per se. The flywrench moves by flapping its wings, and it will plummet to the ground rather quickly if it doesn't keep flapping. If the flap button is held down, the wings will come together to form a vertical line and the ship will change colors from white to red. Another button makes the ship barrel roll out of control and turn green, and also allows it to bounce off of boundary walls. The color of the ship is very important, because it can only pass through barriers if it matches the color. A big part of the gameplay involves quickly switching between forms so that the ship can safely travel through barriers, all while continuously flapping to stay afloat. [embed]307954:60146:0[/embed] The levels start off rather simple, slowly introducing new mechanics in short areas so that the player doesn't get overwhelmed too quickly. Moving from planet to planet, the levels steadily become more difficult. Each planet introduces a new obstacle to overcome, such as rotating barriers, turrets, switches, gravity pools, and more. All of this culminates in the final planet, Mercury, which steeply ramps up the difficulty by throwing every mechanic at the player in a gauntlet of truly challenging stages before the grand finale of the Sun. Like Super Meat Boy, Flywrench is one of those games that requires a lot of patience and determination to master, and you'll be filled with joy and rage simultaneously as you try to overcome the challenges. Once I got to Mercury, I found myself involuntarily clenching up as I tried repeatedly to overcome a tough level, tossing out all kinds of expletives every time I died, before rejoicing and fully relaxing every part of my body once I finally succeeded. And then I continued on to the next level and repeated the process all over again! But it's all worth it for those beautiful moments where I seem to soar quickly and flawlessly through a tough level, pulling off impressive aerial stunts like it was second nature. The Steam release of Flywrench makes a lot of much-needed improvements upon the prototype version. Perhaps most importantly, the physics have been tweaked to make it much easier to maneuver precisely through the air. The ship keeps its momentum going with every movement and flap, and barriers now hold that momentum until the ship has passed through them. It also feels much easier to maneuver left and right while changing colors now. Also, the ship will slightly gravitate towards the exit portals when it's close enough, so even if your aim is a little off, it still might be good enough to get sucked into the exit. All of these changes make the gameplay a bit less frustrating and allows the player to feel more in control. Granted, it is sometimes a little too difficult to break momentum, which led to a huge number of deaths as my flywrench flapped one too many times and was unable to slow down before crashing into a wall. But that's just something to get used to. The graphics and soundtrack were also greatly improved. It now has that signature Messhof art style seen in many of his other games such as Nidhogg, with added effects such as a trail of exhaust leading out of the ship and an explosion upon death. The soundtrack was completely redone with electronic tracks by Daedelus and a host of other artists, and they sound much nicer than the previous scratchy, industrial-sounding music. Overall, the game is simply more pleasant to look at and listen to. A few new modes were added to the Steam version as well, including time trials and a level editor. Each planet has its own time trial which unlocks once you have beaten every level for a given planet, so you can test your skills by beating each stage quickly with as few deaths as possible and try to climb the leaderboards. The level editor is also pretty neat. It allows you to create your own planet and add as many levels to it as you want, which can then be downloaded and enjoyed by other players. It'll be interesting to see what kinds of challenges other people can come up with. Flywrench comes highly recommended from me, especially to those gamers who are always seeking a new challenge. If you enjoyed Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, and the like, you will certainly enjoy this one as well. It does a really great job of easing new players into the mechanics too, so it's worth trying out even if the difficulty sounds daunting. I can definitely see myself coming back to replay Flywrench many times down the line. The feeling of determination as I try to conquer a punishing game and the satisfaction of finally emerging victorious is like an addiction, and I'm forever thankful that games like Flywrench exist to scratch that itch. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Flywrench review photo
Flying high
You may have heard of Flywrench before. A freeware prototype version of the game has been floating around since 2007, and many people were introduced to it due to the eponymous flywrench appearing as an unlockable character i...

Review: Runbow

Aug 26 // Chris Carter
Runbow (Wii U)Developer: 13AM GamesPublisher: 13AM GamesRelease Date: August 27, 2015MSRP: $14.99 The concept is so simple, anyone could pick it up. Runbow is predictably all about running. It's not an auto-runner thankfully, as you'll have full control over your character by way of directional movement, jumping, punching, and if you wish, taunting. Since the latter ability isn't needed, it's essentially a two-button game. But there is depth here, as the punch button fractures off into multiple powers, granting players a horizontal dash if done in the air, an upward Street Fighter-esque punch, and a downward butt slam. All of these are functional when it comes to knocking around your foes (more on that later), but they're also great platforming tools as well. The uppercut in particular is excellently designed, and have saved me from pit deaths on more than one occasion. Every character in the game (of which there are a ton) has the exact same moveset, but it works that way -- there are a lot of nuances as it stands, and no one has to learn the ins and outs of different runners. Said nuance is found mostly in the way that platformers themselves are presented, in a number of different color schemes. A "wave" of color will periodically sweep over the screen, eliminating objects with that same hue. So for instance, there might be a combination of red, yellow, and blue blocks, and in three second intervals, said waves will eliminate each color in succession. So it's up to players to not only master the moveset, but pay attention and memorize patterns. [embed]307647:60143:0[/embed] The best part of Runbow is its variety. There's a staggering amount of modes available for players of all skill levels, and a few of the meatier ones are satisfying even if you're going at it solo. One such game type is "Adventure," which tasks you with defeating an evil monochrome boss who feels left out, amidst all the other colorful world inhabitants. You'll progress through over 100 levels to complete the story, taking on a number of different objectives within the campaign itself. The bright, vivid color scheme makes things more interesting, as well as appropriate sound effects, I don't normally talk about game soundtracks as they generally don't stick with me for very long, but Runbow's is one of the best I've heard all year. Just give it a listen. Levels can range from boss fights, to enemy skirmishes, to races, to even hunts. Even with no AI option, I had a great time playing through the story with friends and by myself -- it's never boring, and you have the option to go for the best clear times (which in turn can unlock new characters). It's delightfully old school and frankly, one of the best single player party games I've played in quite a while. Of course the party modes are core to the experience, which includes races, arena battles, and King of the Hill modes. The former is more of a traditional platforming experience, with levels that scroll like in Mario games, and plenty of enemies, pitfalls, and hazards to deal with. It's set at a rapid-fire pace, so if someone dies, they're out for that level, and they don't even have to wait long since most stages take 30-45 seconds to complete. It's fast, it's fun, and optional power-ups make things even more enjoyable if you have an array of skill levels playing. Arena and King of the Hill are more like a Smash Bros. experience, as all combatants will need to kill enemies by way of punching them into oblivion (or make them fall to their doom). This is where the butt stomp and uppercut shine, as you'll have a tool for every occasion in combat. All of the aforementioned modes are playable by up to eight people, with almost any combination of controllers (GamePad, Wii U Pro Controller, Wii Remotes, Wii Classic Controller, and Nunchuk). The "Colour Master" mode allows for a ninth player who uses the GamePad to add in hazards themselves, competing against the other team of runners. It's not as strong as the other modes, but it's a nice distraction. Finally, the Bowhemoth mode is the most challenging game type on offer, and will be an exciting prospect for even the most hardened platforming veterans. My first win took me 33 minutes and 73 deaths to complete, and it's also playable both solo and with friends. You can't save mid-session, so you'll have to make do with one full run with as few deaths as you can spare. Online play couldn't be tested at the time of this writing, but the fact that it's included in an indie game like this is a godsend. For the price, I'd still recommend Runbow for solo players, as long as you really love platforming. Even if you only enjoy the genre just a little though, it's still a fantastic party game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Runbow review photo
Run like the colors of the wind
There's been a renewed interest in party games this generation, and I'm loving it. While I'm all for any number of engrossing solo experiences that take a hundred or more hours to complete, on an equal level, I want to chill out and play with friends. Luckily, Runbow is a rare example of a title in the genre that stands on its own, no matter how many people you bring to the party.

Review: Party Hard

Aug 25 // Stephen Turner
Party Hard (PC [Reviewed], iOS) Developer: Pinokl Games Publisher: tinyBuild Games Released: August 25, 2015MSRP: $12.99  Party Hard tells the tongue-in-cheek story of the Party Hard Killer, a man who just wanted to get some sleep at 3AM and eventually went on a murder spree around the US in the early '00s. It’s all played for macabre laughs, though there are flashes of genuine subversion throughout. In the narration, one random victim's identity turns out to be a slap to the face when you're in mid-chuckle, but other twists and turns rarely pay off. Though, in its favour, Party Hard is completely self-aware of its own weaknesses. It’s not trying to be the next Hotline Miami in that regard. Despite the pulsing and rather solid electro soundtrack, Party Hard is actually a slow and methodical game. As the Party Hard Killer (and other unlockable characters), the main aim is to divide and conquer a crowd of people by any means necessary. Of course, stabbing someone in plain sight means someone’s going to call the cops, so it's up to you to manipulate and set off environmental accidents. Dotted around the map are things you can use to flatten, poison, or blow up unsuspecting victims in order to achieve your goal. It's a sandbox game to a point, with a bit of improvisation thrown in for good measure, and watching several timed accidents go off at once is a dark joy to behold. But once all the environmental tricks run out, the game suddenly turns into a fiendish stalk-and-slash. Hiding bodies and killing in secrecy become a must, since the police are relentless in their pursuit of you. You can bump off the cops, but that means the next witness will bring in the more efficient Feds, and the escape routes are eventually boarded up. Finishing off the last 10-15 victims does become a drag, especially after the initial outburst of comical violence. Party Hard lacks the kind of distractions needed to splinter off the remaining survivors, so the last half of every level degrades into a waiting game. Along with the knife, you can bust-a-move that will either get people to dance in place, spurn them away, or give you a good kicking. It’s a little random and mostly useless, considering how everyone wanders around when left to their own devices. To speed things along, there are randomised power-ups to collect; smoke/stun grenades, bottles of poison, and new disguises. Bombs can cause a massive amount of damage, but on the negative side, a fascist SWAT team show up and start attacking everyone, including you. In one particular level, calling in a fumigation crew ends with them gassing out a good third of the party. Party Hard is a genuinely humorous game, crammed as it is with an assortment of “Where’s Wally [Waldo]?” pop culture references. A lot of it is anachronistic for the period, along with the excellent soundtrack, as it self consciously distances itself from the current '80s/'90s aesthetic trend, but it’s still amusing to watch the party unfold, as potential victims get drunk, pass out, or dance with bears that wear gold chains and shades. What Party Hard lacks in complexity, it makes up for with personality. And while it does run out of steam about two thirds of the way in, Party Hard doesn’t outstay its welcome. At only 12 levels long - one being a bonus round and another being a remix - it can be finished in a single evening. Despite owing a lot to Hotline Miami in terms of sight and sound, Party Hard is almost the antithesis of its most obvious influence. On a personal note, it's actually more reminiscent of How to be a Complete Bastard, a similar (and ancient) game involving house parties and a destructive protagonist. It’s not quite a lost weekend, and it’s barely an all-nighter, but Party Hard manages to do its thing before the parents get home. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review photo
Scene is dead, but I'm still restless...
“I get wet when I know that you're dying,” sang Andrew W.K. on his debut album closer, I Get Wet. It’s actually a fine anthem for the terrible things you get away with in Party Hard, far more than the p...

Review: Mega Man Legacy Collection

Aug 25 // Chris Carter
Mega Man Legacy Collection (3DS, PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Digital Eclipse, CapcomPublisher: CapcomRelease Date: August 25, 2015 (Digital - PC, PS4, Xbox One) / TBA 2016 (3DS, physical sets)MSRP: $14.99 (Digital) / $29.99 (Physical) So what exactly is the Legacy Collection? Well, it's a package that includes the six original NES games, as well as a few other extras, and a challenge mode -- it's that simple. Every game has the option of three aspect ratios (original, wide, and full), as well as two additional visual filters meant to replicate old TVs and monitors. That's basically all you get in terms of mixing up the games from the way they were originally presented. The key mantra from Digital Eclipse is "if it ain't broke don't fix it," which is going to be a polarizing choice for many gamers out there. Personally, having grown up with the NES, I'm completely okay with things like slowdown effects and choppy, warped visuals. Yep, that's right -- the developers have opted to retain the original look and feel of the games, for better or for worse. You also won't find any quality of life improvements, such as the ability to switch between subweapons with the triggers -- a feature from the PSOne Classic re-releases a few generations ago. In case you're wondering, yes, the Elec-Man subweapon pause glitch still works. There are some nice extras though, like a music player that features every original track from all six games, and a hefty database mode, which showcases artwork and concept art for every enemy in the game. It's all old archive material that exists in some artbook somewhere, but it's still nice to be able to flip through it all in one centralized location. One really cool feature of the archive is the ability to instantly fight any Robot Master at will from the menu screen, with every weapon from that game at your disposal. [embed]304980:60114:0[/embed] Ok, so onto Mega Man 1-6 -- how do they hold up? Quite well, actually, from this gamer's point of view. You can peruse through some quick thoughts here on all six games, but I really think that each title deserves a spot in the collection. The original Mega Man is a bit rough at times with some haphazard level designs, the Blue Bomber seal of quality is immediately apparently upon progressing to the second game -- and of course, the third, which is my personal favorite of the original lineup. While I did feel the burn with Mega Man 5 due to a lack of innovation (as I always do), I enjoyed it all the same, and Mega Man 6 wowed me, again, with just how clean and interesting it is. My view on the stalwart commitment to the "originals" is mixed, but ultimately positive. While it would have been nice to possibly play a remixed edition separately with more modern options, every game is a classic in its on way, even when you're looking at it years later, free of the tint of nostalgia goggles. If you're feeling finicky and want to switch between games however, it takes seconds to do so with the highly responsive menus, and save states are available for each game (as well as old school password support, of course). So onto the big daddy feature -- 50 challenges, accessible by way of a standalone mode. This is likely the deciding factor for many of you out there, since they are technically the only thing new in Legacy Collection. While I was initially worried that they wouldn't do enough, I was pleasantly surprised after working my way through them, especially with the approach that they took. In recent years, we've seen a "remix" mentality for challenge modes, spearheaded by NES Remix. It's a trend that sees developers taking locations from multiple games and mashing them up, and it's a trend that I can get on board with. While Legacy Collection features standard challenges like timed boss rush modes, they also have remixes, which function like obstacle courses of sorts. The game will task you with getting through 15-30 second bite-sized pieces of existing levels, complete with a portal at the end, which brings you to another mini-section. It's addicting, as the game forces you to constantly rethink your strategy, and sometimes hilariously drops you into a sticky situation, like the beam section in Quick Man's stage. Even better, multi-game remixes are unlocked later on, which require you to deal with taking on successive areas from multiple games. It's crazy jumping from title to title, as I would often forget that certain experiences didn't have sliding or charged shot capabilities. Getting a respectable clear time will definitely test the mettle of even the most seasoned Mega Man vets out there. Thankfully, all of this comes complete with leaderboard support, so you can see how you rank up against your friends and the world. I've already started a friendly little competition with a few members of the press, and I think I'm going to get addicted to this feature all over again, just like I did with Mega Man 9. I'm interested to see the top times from players all around the world, and this is a truly great way to unite Mega Man fans old and new. After booting the game up I was inspired to beat all six games again and work on the challenges, so the Mega Man Legacy Collection did its job. I'd really like to see more Legacy packs down the line from Capcom -- perhaps with a bit more bravado in terms of extras and alternate modes of play. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Mega Man Legacy review photo
Legacy secure
If you've kept a close watch on the site for the last three years or so, you'd see that it's no secret that I love Mega Man. Despite the fact that Capcom hasn't given him any love in the past few years, it's still my favorite series, and one day, I'd like to see it return to glory. While the Mega Man Legacy Collection wasn't everything I was looking for, it'll do just fine for now.

Review: Capsule Force

Aug 25 // Jed Whitaker
Capsule Force (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: KlobitPublisher: Iron Galaxy StudiosRelease Date: August 25, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Two-on-two multiplayer matches make up the meat of Capsule Force across eight stages that each have an unlockable alternate variation. The matches consist of pink and blue teams working against each other to ride a tram to the other team's galaxy, which is trapped inside a -- you guessed it -- capsule. The first team to touch the other team's capsule wins. Capsule Force is easy to pick up and play. Grasping the controls fully takes maybe a match or two at most; you've got double jumps, an air dodge, normal shots, charged laser shots, a shield, and what I'd call blast jumping. Blast jumping can be performed by shooting the ground and then instantly jumping in the opposite direction for a faster and higher jump, which is vital for perfecting the game's single-player missions. Using the shield requires precise timing, but puts a bubble around your character preventing them from being harmed. Eventually you'll find out that air dodging allows you to double jump right away again, essentially allowing entire battles to take place mid-air. When attempting to kill other players, you've got two choices: normal shots or charging your shot to shoot a laser all the way across the screen, killing anyone it its path if they don't put up their shield. When using the laser, your character freezes in the air, allowing you to focus on aiming your shot. It is really satisfying to get a perfectly aimed mid-air laser shot killing both of your opponents and taking over the tram they were just riding.  [embed]306824:60087:0[/embed] Matches in Capsule Force are intense and hectic the whole time. Even if teams are pretty evenly matched, eventually the tram speed increases a great deal, allowing a quick turnaround for one side or the other. There were times when myself or my friends got a bit lost as to where we were on the screen due to this hectic nature, but it is all part of the fun. I will note, however, that some stages are similarly colored to the characters which can make it easier to get confused in than others. When not laughing your ass off in multiplayer, you'll tackle over thirty single-player missions. These consist of either rushing through stages as quickly as possible, or rushing through stages as quickly as possible while shooting targets. The target-shooting missions are reminiscent of the "Break the Targets" mode from the Super Smash Bros. series, and are just as fun. While it is a multiplayer-focused game, the single-player missions do add a nice distraction and practice, and those who complete them all will unlock stage variations, alternate costumes, and concept art. Giving single-player a purpose other than practice was a good choice, but locking multiplayer content behind it wasn't considering the limited amount of stages to begin with. The eight variations you unlock are essentially all new stages that just use the same backgrounds as the starter arenas, so they are certainly worth unlocking. Unlocking all the multiplayer content won't take more than an hour maximum for most players, so it isn't such a drawback.  If you're the kind of person who has friends over for couch competitive games, Capsule Force is easily recommendable as the multiplayer is a colorful, frantic, hell of a good time, but if you're a loner, give this one a pass. The limited single-player content won't hold your attention for long. I know I'll be playing Capsule Force at many of my shindigs in the future. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Capsule Force photo
Blasting off again!
It is the far future, the year is 1999, and everything looks like a 1980s space anime; no, you're not tripping on mushrooms and having a flashback to your childhood, you're playing Capsule Force.   Capsule Force&nbs...

Review: Madden 16

Aug 25 // Steven Hansen
Madden NFL 16 (PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)Developer: EA TiburonPublisher: EA SportsReleased: August 25, 2015MSRP: $59.99 Madden 16 makes an interesting opening gambit, once again going right into a game, this time a fabricated Super Bowl 50 starring the Cardinals and Steelers. No one wanted to watch that match up seven years ago (except me because of the Kurt Warner), but EA insists on framing this nostalgia-less, fake match up with Any Given Sunday editing, close ups on players, and even tepid, badly-acted football dialogue, the kind of jawing written by someone who has not played sport.  Fuck, is it boring. It introduces new (very simple) catching mechanics in painful slow motion setting up situations (oh, one of the teams is trailing!) we're supposed to have emotions in, like I have any stake in Fake Super Bowl 50, like I'm supposed to feel something when alleged rapist Ben Roethlisberger (who narrates later tutorials) tells his mates, "It's time to be the team we're supposed to be right now. Believe in the man to your left and to your right. It's our time right now" like he's reading commercial cue cards. At least the San Jose 49ers' digital Levi's Stadium field hasn't turned to pudding like the real one. This is what Madden is, though. In past years I have creatively ripped on the series for aggressive advertisements of real-world products, which this one seems to have toned down significantly (unless they're coming dynamically as updates post launch). But! Madden is a yearly advertisement for the NFL. From the start menu it encouraged me to share my information with the NFL, promising digital playing cards as a reward. This is what it means to have exclusivity rights to the only meaningful football league (because no one internationally gives a shit), the commodification of players. It is cool to see the increased likeness of Arizona's head coach whose fascinating neck folds and face-scanned pores have him looking like a corrugated version of Dana Carvey's turtliest member of the turtle club. [embed]307755:60128:0[/embed] In 2006 (that would make it Madden 07) I distinctly remember when I fell into the habit of abusing slot receivers instead of number one and number two wide receivers. This meant a lot of balls to the perfectly serviceable Kevin Curtis instead of two of the greats, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. The worst thing about those slot receiver posts, or crossing routes over the middle, has always been linebackers undercutting the passes for picks. Here is the scenario: a player looks reasonably open for a pass. It is a pass any NFL quarterback could make. It is a pass I, an idiot with bad knees, could make. You throw it with a nice arc over the front defensive layer and before the safeties. Madden has never wanted to give you that pass and it has taken near 10 years for the series to introduce "touch passing," a double tap that lets you drop balls into open zones. Ten years. Low and high throws are executed by holding L1 (high) or L2 (low) while passing. The passing game has seen the most new features added this year. Aside from the aforementioned quarterback stuff, there are three types of catches, done by holding one of three buttons while the ball is in the air en route to the receiver. The Aggressive catch (triangle) is for leaping catches and bodying cornerbacks. RAC (square) encourages the player to make a catch in motion and continue running up field, provided they're not about to be clocked. Possession catches (x) are for keeping feet in-bounds or making sure the receiver hangs on to a first down. These useful buttons encourage more user interaction during catches and also speak to a refined interplay between defensive backs and receivers. On the other side of the ball, you can have defenders play the ball (hold triangle) to go for an interception or deflection, or more conservatively play the receiver (hold x) to ensure you make a tackle and possibly knock the ball from them. There is much more realistic jockeying for body position and faithful physics so long as you don't stare too closely at the instant replays. Eventually you'll notice some similar, more dramatic catch animations (a particular one-handed one stuck out), but it is a plus on the whole for verisimilitude, for giving weight and feeling to awesome athletes interacting in a confined space. That's about it, though. There are some neat presentation additions (statistic graphics overlaid on players) and the menus are well laid out, though they are also pretty slow. Load times, too, are still a bit of a problem (and intrusive presentation elements are bothersome when running a hurry up offense). The insistence towards microtransaction-laden Ultimate Team and the new fantasy football-cribbed Draft Champions modes is useless. Throwing, catching, and defending throws have seen some welcomed, long-ignored additions that get a couple yards closer to faithful simulation. You can decide if that's enough. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Madden reviewed photo
Mildly deflated
I do feel, some, for Electronic Arts and the people responsible for making Madden every year. This is only my 4th year (out of  27 releases) covering it and I fear I may have peaked with last year's review. But like a fr...

Review: Nova-111

Aug 25 // Darren Nakamura
Nova-111 (Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One)Developer: Funktronic LabsPublisher: Funktronic LabsReleased: August 25, 2015 (Mac, PC, PS4)MSRP: $14.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Conceptually, it's a little hard to wrap one's head around at first. Thankfully, Nova-111 eases players into the ideas a little at a time, introducing new mechanics throughout the six-hour campaign. Some science experiment has gone wrong and messed up time. Now it's all wonky (that's the technical term). Set on a square grid, each player movement counts as a single turn. For every turn taken, any enemies also get a turn. So far, it sounds pretty standard, but here's the wrinkle: some objects act in real time rather than being set to a schedule of turns. The first example are the stalactites. If the player bumps one from the side or travels underneath it, then it will begin to fall at a steady rate, whether the player (and enemies) are moving or not. It sets up a particularly satisfying scenario: get chased by an enemy, run under a stalactite, then stop dead and just watch as it crushes the pursuer. [embed]307759:60125:0[/embed] As it progresses, Nova-111 adds more and more combinations of real-time and turn-based gameplay. Some enemies' movement is turn-based, but when attacked set off a countdown timer before exploding. Some will grab the player and must be defeated quickly. Eventually, some enemies move in real time, independent of turns taken. It's a real brain bender at times. Just when I thought I had a good handle on the situation, taking things slowly and flawlessly taking out the dangerous aliens, I'd get thrown into a situation where I needed to react quickly and I'd fall apart. The combination of real-time and turn-based gameplay forces me to think differently than I ever have before. It takes two ideas I've known for years and turns them into something that feels totally new. Nova-111 doesn't stop with that basic idea. Through the course of the game's three main areas, new enemies, terrain, and mechanics are presented. There are doors, switches, sliding blocks, oil, teleporters, fire, stealthy bits, and more, each interacting with the weird time scheme in its own way. While tactical combat and puzzles are the main points, exploration also plays a role. The overarching goal is to collect the 111 scientists scattered across the game, most of whom are in fairly well-hidden locations. At first most of the secret areas are accessed by passing behind false walls, but the best are in plain sight but require solving a more taxing puzzle. The art design supports the exploration aspect well. At the beginning of a level, most of it is covered in a sort of fog of war. Any square in line of sight and within a certain range is uncovered, and the uncovering effect (and environments in general) look fantastic. I spent a lot of time in the early levels moving very slowly, just taking in the artwork as more of the world was revealed. The exploration aspect isn't all rosy. Individual levels are broken up into several smaller areas, but each area cannot be played independently. It isn't obvious which area a missing scientist may be in, so going back through old levels for 100% means replaying a lot unnecessarily and wasting a lot of time bumping into walls. The levels take between 20 and 30 minutes apiece, which is just too long for me to want to replay. I would have preferred if each bite-sized area were shown on the level select screen, with its completion statistics displayed. Those who aren't daunted by having to replay entire levels will enjoy the New Game+, which is essentially the same experience but with several cheats available to be toggled on or off. Where previously some care needed to be taken to conserve abilities, New Game+ allows players to go wild with them. Even though I don't see myself replaying Nova-111 for full completion any time soon, I liked what was here. It has a sharp look, some chuckle-silently-in-my-head comedy, and gameplay unlike anything else I have experienced. It forced me to think in a totally new way, which is increasingly uncommon with most established genres. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Nova-111 review photo
Champagne supernova
Genres and mechanics have names for a reason. When something comes up often enough, it's worth developing a shorthand and grouping things together that feel alike. In the past few years, mashing up genres has become the new i...

Review: The Consuming Shadow

Aug 24 // Stephen Turner
The Consuming Shadow (PC) Developer: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw Publisher: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw Released: July 30, 2015MSRP: $9.99 As a lone investigator, you must travel across the UK in a hatchback full of infinite fuel, searching for clues about an invading Elder God and the ritual that will banish them from our world. Starting from the edge of Scotland, you move from town to town (some deadly, some friendly) before arriving in Stonehenge to finish the job. You only have 60 hours before the world ends, so do make those miles count. The Consuming Shadow can best be described as part dungeon crawler, part roguelike travelogue; FTL by way of Call of Cthulhu. It’s a lazy comparison to make, but one quite deserving of a game so transparently stitched together. If you’re expecting anything more than a reskin and a compartmentalization of cannibalized ideas, then The Consuming Shadow will disappoint. To quote Croshaw in the press release: “The graphics aren't the game's strong point: my goal with the game was to create a kind of horror game more akin to literature.” It’s an honest, if somewhat cowardly cop, considering the lack of sympathy that butters his bread. Graphically, it’s supposed to evoke the Commodore and DOS titles of yore, only it looks like Newgrounds Flash game from 2009. [embed]307557:60109:0[/embed] And with that in mind, The Consuming Shadow has to live and die by its own prose. It actually does an excellent job of selling the severity and doubt of each encounter, but it’s also undermined by a lack of procedurally-generated content. The line-by-line variations of the same paragraph quickly turn stale, despite being a solid read. But then, on the flip-side to that, The Consuming Shadow is a purposefully short game. It starts out with a first-person view of your car, which is suitably atmospheric; nothing but motorway signs and a passenger seat full of hastily gathered items. Using a GPS, you have to choose a nearby destination, always being wary of time and distance. Random encounters on the road are a case of risk and reward, but if you don’t have the right equipment, they usually end up being detrimental to your cause. Compared to other roguelikes that offer a fair gamble without the specialist items, The Consuming Shadow’s encounters are almost always stacked against you. Every destination is either a safe haven or a dungeon crawl. The former provides supplies and medical treatment and the latter forms the main crux of the game. Dungeon crawls are where you’ll find clues about each possible invading God and the runic chants needed to banish them; which would be an easy task if not for the scuttling creatures and end-level objectives in your way. Oh, and the fact this where most of The Consuming Shadow’s problems lie. From a third-person landscape perspective, you move through a maze of rooms – be it a house, hospital, warehouse, derelict estate, or park – collecting notes and battling silhouetted enemies. The exploration of an urban environment is a fine horror staple, and it’s a wonderful change from the current crop of first-person jump fests, but all the goodwill is undone by the almost unavoidable attacks and cumbersome controls on a keyboard/mouse setup. Combat is appalling. No witty metaphor or breathless soliloquy, here. It’s appalling. A handgun is always by your side, with three types of limited ammunition, and randomized spells. But between the flaky auto-aim, the minimal field of view and the enemies’ erratic speeds and ranged attacks, combat is a draining experience. Pistol whipping and an exploitation of blind spots turn out to be the key to success, as spells rarely help the cause. While the monsters are varied and left to the imagination, the tactics against them aren’t. I’m pretty sure you're not meant to stand side-by-side with a writhing mass, following it around like a conjoined twin, before pimp-slapping it to death. Since this is a love letter to H.P. Lovecraft, there’s a sanity meter involved. Running away from a problem or encountering a bad decision drains your sanity points, which results in some unnerving hallucinations on the motorway and in the urban mazes. Unfortunately, low sanity also induces an awful QTE event within the decision making. One mistimed click and you’ll blow your head off in a silhouetted suicide. It’s a novelty at first, then a time waster. Every session of The Consuming Shadow is clearly designed for repetition and tailored towards streaming (Croshaw is banking on it for exposure’s sake). Failure is never the end – every game over awards EXP for stat boosts and there are unlockable characters, too – though by the time the needed advantages arrive, it’s far too late in terms of interest. The major problem with The Consuming Shadow is that it’s a bubble-gum experience, especially compared to its peers. When it works, it’s only because of a new discovery. There’s something genuinely thrilling about finding a connection and jotting it down in your table of suspects, before setting off to the next hotspot. But when you enter another procedurally-generated dungeon, it’s a wearisome slog again. The Consuming Shadow is more Frankenstein’s Monster than Eldritch Abomination, shambling along as it does with once fresh parts, dug up from here and there. I can only hope Yahtzee sees the irony the next time he attacks a new game for being old hat or a cut-and-paste job. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review photo
Had more fun in an 8-hour traffic jam
I wasn’t going to mention Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, not initially. But between the infamous handle splashed across the title screen and his pre-emptive comments against certain criticisms in the accompanying pr...

Review: Snakebird

Aug 24 // Ben Davis
Snakebird (PC)Developer: Noumenon GamesPublisher: Noumenon GamesReleased: May 4, 2015MSRP: $6.99 At first glance, Snakebird isn't all that intimidating. It's made to look cute and appealing, with bright colors, simple cartoon graphics, and adorable bird/snake hybrid characters which easily bring to mind more casual games like Angry Birds. But be warned: this is far from a casual experience. On one hand, the cute art style helps by drawing people in and keeping them calm and relaxed while they fail again and again at the puzzles, impaling their adorable snakebirds on spikes and throwing them off of cliffs. But I do worry that the simple graphics might turn some players off to the game too soon. It's definitely not the type of game that it appears to be, but I kind of like that it subverts expectations like that. [embed]307530:60107:0[/embed] The goal of every level is simple: eat all the fruit and get each snakebird into the portal. No snakebird can be left behind, so if one makes it into the portal but the other one can't reach, you might have to start over from the beginning (or at least backtrack a few moves). Eating a piece of fruit increases the snakebird's size by one segment, usually making it easier to navigate certain puzzles. But be careful! Just because a piece of fruit can be reached doesn't mean the puzzle has been solved yet. Most puzzles involve finding the correct path to the fruit, which is not always the most direct path. In fact, the most direct path more often than not will lead to a snakebird getting stuck or dying, but keep in mind that you can easily backtrack in case mistakes are made. If a snakebird dies, the game immediately resets to the last move before death, and you can keep backtracking from there if need be. Once all fruit has been eaten, the portal will open, creating an exit from the level. One of the largest sources of difficulty comes from simply figuring out the physics and abilities of the snakebirds. While there is a tutorial level, it really only covers basic movement and how to open the portal. Everything else is up to the player to figure out, and it's not always obvious. Here are a few mild hints for new players who find themselves getting stuck really early on (possibly even on the second or third levels). Normal physics don't really apply to snakebirds. They always hold their current shape while falling. They can sit on top of floating fruit without eating it. They can push other snakebirds and certain obstacles (or multiple things at once), sometimes even in ways that might not make a whole lot of sense when you think about it. Snakebirds that are pushed will always maintain their current shape. Also, it's usually a good idea to try and figure out what position they will need to end up in to reach the portal, in order to plan out your moves accordingly. Eventually, through trial and error, you'll develop skills and moves that you wouldn't have even dreamed of at the beginning of the game, and you'll start flying through the puzzles, only to get stuck again a little while later on a puzzle which requires a new skill to be discovered. This might leave some players overly frustrated, but options for each level are not endless, so players are bound to figure out a solution as long as they keep trying new things. Snakebird does a good job of keeping things interesting by introducing new mechanics every so often, including the addition of multiple snakebirds in a single level, spikes, movable platforms, and teleportation portals. Each themed area introduces something new, and then there are the special star levels which will test your abilities to the fullest. There are a total of 53 levels, and the difficulty of each level will probably vary from player to player. The map is also non-linear, so beating one level might open up several more to choose from. It took me about 13 hours to beat every level, although I had a particularly tough time figuring out a few of them (a couple that come to mind include level 20 and level 44, both of which took me WAY too long to figure out). Usually, I would have to sit and stare at a difficult level for a while, or even stop playing entirely and just take some time to ponder the level and all of the possibilities, and then come back later with fresh ideas. But the feeling of finally completing a seemingly impossible puzzle after so much failure is just so wonderfully satisfying! Personally, I think Snakebird could have benefited from a few extra features. Including statistics such as the amount of time it took to finish a level or the number of moves used would have added a bit to the replayability. As it is now, once a puzzle is solved, there's really no incentive to go back and try it again. Leaderboards would also be a welcome addition, since I'm sure many players out there figured out way more efficient methods of solving certain puzzles than I did. Snakebird is not for everyone. But for those puzzle-lovers out there seeking the ultimate challenge, definitely give Snakebird a shot. You might be surprised by how often this game will leave you stumped, but that just makes the feeling of overcoming challenges so much sweeter! [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Snakebird review photo
Delightfully challenging
Well-designed, challenging puzzle games can be hard to come by these days, but they are out there. Games like Antichamber, English Country Tune, and Splice are a few Steam titles that come to mind for providing particularly h...

Review: Gears of War Ultimate Edition

Aug 24 // Brett Makedonski
Gears of War Ultimate Edition (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: The CoalitionPublisher: Microsoft StudiosRelease: August 25, 2015 (Xbox One), TBA (PC)MSRP: $39.99  The developers of Gears of War Ultimate Edition have called this "the first at its best." Turns out they aren't wrong, but they also aren't quite precise enough. This is Gears of War -- entire franchise included -- at its best. Gameplay at a steady 60 frames-per-second does wonders for the naturally clunky movement. These soldiers now feel less like the tanks they resemble. That's not exactly the case in the campaign, however. Multiplayer over Xbox Live runs at 60FPS, but solo and cooperative play is locked in at 30. Regardless, it's a vast improvement over previous installments. It's immediately noticeable as soon as you pick the controller up. The Ultimate Edition is running on a mature version of Unreal Engine 3 -- the same engine the original Gears of War was built upon -- so this improvement can likely be chalked up to optimization and more powerful hardware in the Xbox One. This newfound fluidity makes everything less frustrating. Cover-based shooting works as it always has, but moving from spot to spot isn't as likely to end up with your character stuck to a wall you didn't intend. Navigating the game's many battlefields is quicker and more enjoyable. [embed]306974:60086:0[/embed] While a slicker movement system is easy to appreciate, it's the combat -- the actual shooting of guns -- that's the real meat of Gears of War. Almost everything about it is perfectly intact. As many bullets as the enemies can soak up, there's resounding satisfaction anytime an enemy gets tagged with a torque bow or a pistol takes a head clean off. Hip-shooting with the Gnasher is still a frustratingly inaccurate prospect, as it seems like things work out in your favor about half the time. But, the greatest compliment you can give Gears of War (and it holds true in Ultimate Edition) is that it makes fighting fun. That shouldn't necessarily be the case for a game that features pop-up shooting gallery one after another, but it is. Active reload is one of the better game mechanics of the past decade in that it constantly keeps the player's attention during a process that they'd otherwise be uninvolved in. The Lancer (a/k/a "chainsaw gun") is iconic and unironically cool. It's on the back of the combat that the rest of Gears of War gets by. A lot of the level design feels dated now. Settings are distinct through the game's five acts, but they're all used the exact same way. Rarely is there clever subversion to keep the player on their toes. More often than not, it's predictable what lies just ahead. To be fair, there are attempts to break this mold; the second act holds two examples. A large swath of this part of the game asks the player to pathfind by blowing up propane tanks in order to illuminate the road. When mixed with fighting, these are some of the best moments in Gears of War, as it adds a puzzle-like element. Conversely, the end of this act dedicates a chapter to vehicle driving. It's poorly executed, and it comes off as a forced and transparent bid at shaking up monotony. Gears of War can be linear to a fault, but that's a trade-off for its cinematic nature. Chapter length is generally short, and a new cutscene is always just around the corner. Setpieces come about fairly frequently, but they're somewhat subdued when compared to other installments in the series. Rather, this Gears of War is the game that set the tone for the over-the-top action to follow. Despite all the cinematics, Gears of War is notably light on narrative. The story details the human struggle against the invading Locust on the planet of Sera. Things are bleak. Humanity has its back against the wall. Everything feels so down and out. This coalition of well-trained troops is the good guys' last chance. For those who actually care, Gears of War's plot can be effective yet simple. It lacks a lot of nuance, as does the dialogue. Most exchanges between characters are gruff one-liners, either overtly aggressive or sarcastic. To be blunt, the dialogue hasn't aged well but this was never the game's strong suit. The greatest disconnect comes from the superb gameplay and the subpar narrative. It's not only the disparity between the two that rings obvious, but also how they fail to work hand-in-hand. Gameplay often feels less like a means of accomplishing a story-specific goal, but more like a means to trigger a cutscene to advance the plot. Pacing is also an issue, as stakes are high and chaotic at all times. There are plenty of faults, but Gears of War's greatest trick is that you don't notice them while you're playing. It's just a good time from start to finish. On a personal note: my roommate and I played through the entirety of the campaign cooperatively on Insane difficulty in two sittings in one day. I couldn't tell you the last time I dedicated that much of a day to a game. That speaks volumes. For anyone looking to boil the Gears of War experience down to its purest and (arguably) most enjoyable form, competitive multiplayer again serves a big role. There are 19 maps and nine modes (including newcomers team deathmatch, king of the hill, and two-on-two with shotguns). It's undeniably quite the large offering. Again, Gears of War is fantastic when it's just unadulterated combat. By today's standards, eight-person multiplayer should seem tiny, but it really doesn't. There's always plenty of fray to be found. Maps are designed in a nice, symmetric way so that everything's balanced. Although, the majority of weapons are immediately disregarded by most people in favor of constant use of the Gnasher, which feels like the way to go at almost all times. Whether the campaign or multiplayer, Gears of War undoubtedly succeeds in constantly entertaining. The Ultimate Edition takes that to a new level through optimized gameplay, smoother controls, and updated visuals. Most importantly, it makes this classic relevant again. Microsoft has a lot riding on the continued prosperity of Gears; after all, it is one of the publisher's largest properties. Gears of War Ultimate Edition effectively reminds why that's the case, just as it reminds why this is the game that partially influenced an entire generation of gaming. It just took a makeover to help us appreciate it again. [Editor's note: At time of writing, the multiplayer component wasn't live for the general public. A handful of multiplayer games were played in a private room hosted by the developer. We'll report on the state of online play at launch and thereafter. If this aspect of the game sees significant problems in the weeks following release, we'll cover those issues.] [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Gears of War review photo
At its best
For better and for worse, Gears of War helped shape the past generation of gaming. Bursting onto the scene in 2006, it helped solidify now-common tropes like chest-high walls, brown and gray shooters, and muscle-bound sp...

Review: Until Dawn

Aug 24 // Chris Carter
Until Dawn (PS4)Developer: Supermassive GamesPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentRelease Date: August 25, 2015MSRP: $59.99 [There will be no major spoilers in this review, but the video may contain minor event spoilers.] Our tale starts off a year before the main storyline with a prelude of sorts, in a cabin high up on an isolated Canadian mountaintop. A bunch of "teens" (I use that term lightly as they all look 30) have gathered for some weekend shenanigans, and of course, something goes awry, leading to the mysterious death of two sisters. A year later, the surviving members of the group decide to go back to the same location (I know, right?), bringing all sorts of emotional baggage with them. Most of you have probably seen this type of campy setup before, but this is exactly what Until Dawn is going for. Soon enough you'll start to see the action ratchet up a bit, as more of the mystery of the mountain is revealed, and a psycho killer shows up, creating some Saw-like situations -- real sick shit. You'll also start to learn a lot more about the characters' motivations, and their relationships with one another, which you can (minimally) influence by way of light choices. By "light," I mean typical Telltale options that don't really influence the game in any meaningful way. The main gimmick here is the "Butterfly Effect," which will branch out your personal story, complete with a butterfly icon explosion on-screen and a handy menu option that lets you view your past choices. It can range from something significant like whether or not you want to risk your life saving a friend, or what door you took in an abandoned building. When the butterflies pop up, it's basically Supermassive's way of saying "this character will remember that." Without spoiling anything, most choices don't matter until the end of the game, where character deaths start to happen more often. [embed]305560:59991:0[/embed] Outside of the choice mechanic that basically surmounts to moving an analog stick in the desired direction, there's lots of walking involved, coupled with QTEs for the action bits. It's unimaginative at times, especially in the shaky intro sections, as those long roads seems to be there mostly to pad the game. After all, there's only so many plain paths you can take in the woods before it gets boring. But after the two hours, more interesting locations start to pop up, which house interesting documents and more bits of lore for you to locate. This is where the game excels. Despite the above issues, I was inspired to play Until Dawn from start to finish in one setting. It was interesting enough where it kept me captivated throughout, and the game is exceptionally good at world-building. While I initially didn't care about the whole meta-narrative surrounding the mountain, I quickly changed my tune as I acquired more totem collectibles -- artifacts that each unlock a few seconds of a secret video that gives you a bit more background on the events of the game. Also, all the Resident Evil style letters and notes are all done very well. Where recent David Cage efforts fail for me is the over-emphasis on performances that end up wooden, and a terrible plot that begs to be taken seriously. Thankfully, while other elements of the game may not be all that riveting or new, Until Dawn dives in with both feet on the horror theme. Sure it's not an excuse for some campy performances, but you really know what you're getting here, and there's no bait and switch involved. The script is also occasionally funny, as are the performances from the (mostly) talented cast. I have to say, it's really weird seeing Brett Dalton as anything other than Grant Ward, but he's mostly enjoyable to watch. My general enjoyment of the core cast goes double for "The Analyst" sections of the game featuring the always delightful Peter Stormare. These portions are easily the best part of the experience, as a mysterious psychologist asks you series of questions (usually about your fears) in various interludes of sorts after each chapter concludes. It slowly gets darker and more twisted over time, and they really nail the tension here. So how long is the game? My playthrough took roughly seven hours, and you'll have the option to replay chapters individually to rectify past wrongs or try out new choices. There's also a few extras involved in the form of little video featurettes that you can probably watch on YouTube in a week. If you aren't keen on hunting for collectibles, you can try to change the ending into one you desire. Until Dawn knows exactly what it is, and doesn't pretend to be anything more. In that process it allows for some predictable plotlines, hammy acting, and lack of meaningful choices, but I'm glad that it exists, and every horror fan owes it to themselves to play it at some point -- especially at a price cut. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Until Dawn review photo
Spooky teen hell dream
I had a chance to play the first few chapters of Until Dawn recently, and it ended at the worst possible moment. Whereas the first hour or so is slowly setting the table for all of the craziness that is about to ensue, when e...

Review: Alphabear

Aug 22 // Darren Nakamura
Alphabear (Android [reviewed], iPad, iPhone)Developer: Spry Fox, LLCPublisher: Spry Fox, LLCReleased: July 8, 2015MSRP: Free (with microtransactions) The core mechanic in Alphabear is easy to pick up, but it bears an elegance upon close inspection. Letter tiles are placed on a variable-sized grid, and players are tasked with forming words with those letters. Using a letter clears it from the board, replaces it with a bear, and reveals new letters in any adjacent spaces. Bears can grow in size as long they have a full rectangle of cleared tiles to fill. Each tile has a countdown on it, decrementing by one for each turn taken. If any countdown reaches zero, that letter turns to stone, removing it from the pool of usable letters and taking up valuable real estate where bears could live. The end goal is to score the most points, which come from two main sources: words formed during a game and bear size at the end. Each letter's value decreases with its counter, so word values are calculated from both length and how close each individual letter is to expiring. For bear size, the aim is to create the biggest bear possible; one full-board bear is worth more than two half-board bears. [embed]307196:60082:0[/embed] All of these mechanics come together to make a game that isn't just about showing off vocabulary and anagram skills. For one, there is focus and direction. Tiles with low counters are shown in increasingly alarming colors, where those one turn away from fossilization pulsate with a deep red but those with four or more are a placid green. Instead of dumping upward of two dozen letters on the player and saying, "make some words," it makes using certain tiles more urgent, bringing them to the forefront. Maybe I could make a ten-letter word with these tiles over here, but I really need to use this J that's about to expire. It also causes the player to think ahead: not only does one want to use all of the tiles showing a one this turn, but he should also make sure he can deal with the tiles showing a two for next turn. Another important result of the base mechanics is the idea of spatial importance. The tiles all have a location, and clearing a tile in a certain area might be more beneficial than doing so in another. Some spaces are marked with a star or a skull, signifying the letter set to appear there will either have an unusually high countdown or an especially low countdown. Setting off a skull when there are several twos left in play is a bad move. The mechanics make the center of the board more important too, because a stone in the way there will prevent having a screen-filling bear at the end, but a stone along the edge or in a corner will only decrease its size by a small amount. The boards aren't all the same; the layout of a particular board affects how players will attack it. The last bit of significance that emerges from Alphabear's mechanics is a strong risk/reward scenario. Forming long words is worth more points right away, but it opens up more tiles at once. It brings more opportunities for even larger words but also more opportunities to miss using a tile in time. Play it safe, unlocking only a few new tiles per turn and banking on a large bear at the end, or go big on word scores at the risk of losing out on bears? There isn't a definite answer. In a word, Alphabear brings strategy to a genre that has severely lacked in it in the past. Considering the countdowns, board layout, and the available letters brings much more nuanced decision-making than the typical directive of "make the biggest word you can think of." Sometimes it's better to make a weaker word in the moment in order to pull ahead in the end. Every single turn presents this mental exercise. Outside of the main meat of the gameplay, there is also an almost Pokémon-esque collection mechanic. Completing a level above a par score nets the player a bear; completing it above a gold score gives a chance for a powerful rare bear. Each of these bears has its own costume and consistent with Spry Fox's modus operandi, they are all adorable. Look at Milky Bear (below)! It's a bear dressed up as a carton of milk. So cute. Each bear has its own powers to bring to the levels. Some only affect score, some have a noticeable impact on gameplay. By collecting the same bear multiple times, it levels up, increasing its multiplier. This makes high scores for future runs of the same board easier to attain. Not only does Alphabear inject strategy into a word puzzle, it also uses these light role-playing game elements to keep me playing. A particular level might be too hard now, but I can come back to it later with some beefed up bears and try it again. At the end of a level, the newly hatched bear will form a series of phrases using the words played during the game. You might have seen these on social media already. It's a silly little touch, but it adds another bit of meta to the experience. Not only do people go for high scores, they also go for words that would make for funny sentences to share with friends. The one big sticking point for many is Alphabear's free-to-play scheme. It uses an energy mechanic (honey), allowing for only a couple of games before honey is depleted. It builds up over time or can be accumulated by watching ads. Personally, I loved the gameplay so much I paid the five bucks for unlimited honey and haven't regretted it. Even then, the bears each have cooldown periods and the other currency (used to wake up sleeping bears and to play special levels) suffers from diminishing returns over the course of a day, so players who buy unlimited honey may still feel stifled. Spry Fox wants players to come back day after day; I'm fine with that, but I know there are many out there who aren't. Indeed, I'm still playing Alphabear on a nearly daily basis. I couldn't say how many hours I've put into it already (I'd estimate maybe 20?), but I'm not even halfway through all of the chapters. The injection of strategic concerns to a word puzzle is such great design. I would like that enough on its own, but the collection aspects, cute bears, and social media meta elevate it further. [This review is based on a free game with microtransactions purchased by the reviewer.]
Alphabear review photo
Word
If you had told me three months ago there was still untapped potential in the genre of using letter tiles to form words, I probably wouldn't have believed you. If you would have told me a word puzzle game would end up being o...

Review: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Aug 22 // Steven Hansen
Everybody's Gone to Rapture (PS4)Developer: The Chinese RoomPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: August 11, 2015MSRP: $19.99 That technical snafu highlights Raptures biggest problem: it is slow and empty. It is too big. I've lived in San Francisco all my life. It isn't small town England, but I've literally walked it from end to end; it's not huge. And still there are blocks, stores, buildings, entire neighborhoods that I have hardly any connection to, that walking through wouldn't evoke any intimate feeling. The exploratory nature of Gone Home, confined to a single family house and connected with tactile engagement, develops its personal story through telling detail. Rapture, on the other hand, is scaled towards a mysterious apocalypse that has seemingly wiped out all things, including this entire village. It is world-concerning. The "pattern," the frightened townspeople fed lies about "influenza," the bloodied tissues strewn about, the quarantine. And it is stuffed with characters, but you only hear them in snippets, like a radio play, after stumbling on orbs of light (and awkwardly tilting the PS4 controller) or abandoned radios. I, apparently, struggle telling a dozen English voices apart and remembering their names, devoid of context or faces. After triggering enough events to start figuring out who's who, I did appreciate the quality character performances. I clung to these characters' story, too, because it was obvious the mystery of the apocalypse was being withheld. The interpersonal drama of village living, of life lost in war, of forbidden relationships, of difficulties in small, religious community. [embed]305705:60101:0[/embed] But why the long walking between points of interest? Rapture is beautiful, no doubt, but that fidelity and scale means that differing local pubs carry the same hand-written signage and no one seems to have personal affects in their vehicles. The beautiful village is unremarkable to the outsider, and the flitting luminescence of peoples' lives hardly feels grounded in the environment that was meant to have connected them. Snooping through the detritus of peoples' homes should say more. There is a difference between the thematic, profound emptiness of the absence of others and the dull emptiness of a beautiful world that doesn't feel lived-in, though aesthetically consistent. Then we are back to the issues of scale, as the story, which guides you through the waning lives of several characters, loops back to its key ones and back to the science-fiction mystery we've given up on for hours in favor of English infidelity. It almost feels garish to go back to, admitting that the in media res character sketches, the handful of dialogue lines about and around interpersonal drama, are not, in fact, enough. Or at least not obvious enough. The end is the theme extrapolated, turned up. Rapture deals with mature, human subject matter -- failing relationships, aging, death -- with notable verisimilitude before acquiescing to its lurid, fantastical bent. The latter feels disconnected from the initially analog apocalypse and your thoughts on Dear Esther will likely echo off this ornate end. What Rapture does well feels slight. Interwoven character sketches stretched out like clippings of a short story dropped every mile. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Rapture review photo
A moment frozen in time
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture wouldn't end. I was lost in the middle of the 1984 English countryside having made my circuit trudging through several connected areas, yet suddenly I was back somewhere in the middle. Without ...

Review: Fingered

Aug 21 // Nic Rowen
Fingered (PC)Developer: Edmund McMillen and James IdPublisher: Edmund McMillen and James IdRelease Date: August 18, 2015MSRP: $1.87 Fingered, is a deduction game made by Edmund McMillen (Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac) and his frequent collaborator James Id. Which means its a messed up deduction game. Fingered casts you as a detective/executioner determined to clean up this city by taking the shaky, confused, half-contradictory descriptions of criminals from a bunch of weirdo busybodies and fingering somebody with them (in the accusatory sense of the word). Find the person who fits the description best, put them in the chair, and throw the switch on them yourself. Give due process the finger. You start with a line-up of scumbags and shady characters. They all look guilty of something. Look at them, shuffling nervously under a flickering light, holding tiny number cards in front of them like flimsy shields. Who could it be? You can practically smell the flop sweat, the fear.   You go over the witness's clues again confirming the most important facts, what they know they know. The suspect is definitely a heavyset man, so you can let the skinny-boys go. He was probably wearing something hippy-ish (what counts as a hippy these days? Does the witness mean “hipster?”) He's maaaybe kind of a jock? (a fat hippy jock? The hell does that look like?) You do your best to ignore the “um's” and “er's” of indecision, the inherent haziness of memory. It's only a man's life on the line. NBD, right? Try to knock this out before lunch, it's nachos and wings in the cafeteria today -- finger food. One by one you winnow it down, until there’s just two suspects left. They both fit the profile, they're both so similar. But there is at least one big difference between them, one is going to go home while the other will never breath free air again. Which one is up to you. Pick one. Damn one. FINGER one. Whoops, wrong guy.   You get one freebie in Fingered. Sending a single innocent man to the chair will be swept under the rug, but fry up a second one and it's time to turn over your badge and finger gun. This is the likely outcome for most games of Fingered, there are 21 randomized cases to close (the suspects and clues are different each time out) and its so easy to finger the wrong guy. Especially since each witness throws their own curve ball into the mix. Negative Nancy describes everything in loopy double-negatives to trip you up. Bigot Barney has some obvious prejudices you should probably factor in before taking his testimony at face value. And forget about the non-human witnesses, those guys just don't get it at all. After about the tenth criminal, your job gets significantly harder. The witnesses clues get more confusing while external pressures like time-limits and vision obscuring accidents hinder your investigative efforts. The line-up of bizarre, procedurally generated suspects grows longer and stranger. It will take a sharp, quick eye to spot out the telltale details to make your case. It wouldn't be a game by Edmund McMillen if he didn't slide in a few cheeky references to some of his other games. Eagle eyed detectives will spot the occasional guest star or celebrity cameo in the line-up ranging from Meat Boy himself, to other more vilified characters like Charles Manson and Phil Fish. Always a pleasure to finger a familiar face. It would be easy to write Fingered off as weird for the sake of weird. It has a bizarre premise and is presented with the kind of perpetually adolescent gross-out art style of a lot of McMillen's games. It's scored with positively hypnotic jazz and narrated by a guy who sounds like the protagonist of Dragnet strung out on painkillers. It IS weird. But, it's also darkly subversive. A gallows humor take on a kind of justice that really did imprison and execute a lot of innocent people based on dubious descriptions and contrived conjecture. It's not belabored, but there is a bit of a message behind the poop jokes and easy double entendres. It's smarter than you might think at first glance. The randomized criminals and clues combined with the idiosyncrasies of the various witnesses can result in some tricky logic puzzles, line-ups that will leave you stumped. But it never seems unfair. Despite the randomized nature of the game, the perp always seems obvious in retrospect and it never feels like the game is cheating (except possibly the last witness, but it's a joke I won't spoil). Fingered is a pinky-sized bit of fun. It's not hard to get everything you need from the game in a single night of sleuthing, but at the bargain price of $1.87, it feels worth it. A wonderfully weird, smart little game for less than the price of a cup of coffee: you could call it steal or five-fingered discount if that kind of wordplay tickled you. Really though, in all sincerity, I think you should get Fingered.  [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.] 
Fingered review photo
Up to my knuckles in justice
Up until very recently, eyewitness testimony was the single most persuasive form of testimony a jury could hear. If someone could stand up in court, jab their accusing little finger at a suspect and say they definitely (well,...

Review: Risen 3: Titan Lords Enhanced Edition

Aug 21 // Mike Cosimano
Risen 3: Titan Lords (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360)Developer: Piranha BytesPublisher: Deep SilverRelease Date: August 12, 2014 (PC/PS3/Xbox 360) / August 21, 2015 (PS4)MSRP: $39.99 (PS4) $29.99 (PC) $19.99 (Xbox 360, PS3) From the second Risen 3 begins, you can tell something is wrong. There's a very perceptible lag in character movement. Often, a full second would pass before my input was registered. Jumping off a ledge higher than an inch causes the camera to whip upwards -- totally independent of any input! -- giving the player a very good look at your character's upper back and approximately 0.5 inches of the sky. This sucks when there are enemies that need killing and you have to wait for the game to give you back control of the camera. The simple act of getting from place to place feels like a slog, actively discouraging players from exploring a moderately amusing setting. I will certainly say that much for Risen 3: there are pirates and there was nothing particularly wrong in that department. But, alas, we live in a post-Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag world. The aesthetic elements of Black Flag (sea shanties, every noun capitalized, charming dialogue delivered well) helped build a sense of place and time. Risen 3 is a unique example of non-modern anachronisms, with pirates and mages living together in an era that feels unstuck from time. It's a neat concept in theory, and there was a short period where I was kind of digging it. But the more time I spent chatting up the Pirate Admiral (seriously) about teaming up with the Demon Hunters, the more everything began to fall apart. In most cases, two great tastes taste great together, but there's an incongruity here that proves insurmountable. This may be due to the blindingly dull story, which is a rare mix of embarrassing and baffling. Are you sick of dark fantasy stories where the world is on the brink of annihilation because of demonic/supernatural forces to which the hero is mysteriously tied? I know I am! The archetypical hero's journey is not inherently a bad story to tell, but Risen 3 feels almost painfully familiar -- apart from the fact that you play an undead hero. That's okay, I guess. To be fair, there aren't piles of dark fantasy games clogging GameStops like modern shooters in the Call of Duty heyday, but when each game is around 60 hours long, the setting feels tattered after playing just one title. [embed]306876:60066:0[/embed] Even if this particular well had not been exhausted by this point, Risen 3 has a terrible story by any standard. The voice acting ranges from amusingly bad to excruciatingly bad, which only makes the lousy dialogue even worse. There is no reason for the player to care about the proceedings -- your character doesn't even get a name, player-assigned or otherwise. I never cared about the state of the world, partially because the quest system is an absolute mess. Quest upon quest piles up on itself, each more tedious than the last. I will admit to something right now -- I frequently consulted a guide when playing Risen 3. Thankfully, it's been a year since the game originally released, so there are extensive walkthroughs out there. I had a webpage in front of me that literally told me exactly what to do and the quest system still confused me. There's no indication as to which quests are necessary to mainline the story, which I aimed to do in order to wash my hands of this game as soon as possible. God, I hate Risen 3. We haven't even gotten into the combat yet. Fighting an enemy usually goes something like this: you spot a bad guy, the bad guy's attack animation basically teleports to your location and knocks off a chunk of your health, you get knocked to the ground and stun-locked, and then you dodge-roll around the bad guy while your companion (who somehow does way more damage than you ever will) does all the work. The enemies are always faster and stronger. They can break your parry, and you can't do anything to them. It's not like Dark Souls where the relatively underpowered player and carefully planned attacks are part of the game's balance. When the physical distance between the player and the enemy is so variable with so little time to react, combat becomes a crapshoot. Plus, when you die, you have to wait for the game to prompt a save reload and then you've got a 2-3 minute loading screen to look forward to. Let me tell you about the mission that forced me to give up on Risen 3. The open world is split up into islands. Once you get your real pirate ship, fast traveling between islands (there's no island-to-island sailing like in Black Flag) will trigger an event. There was a sea monster fight that was boring and took entirely too long, for example. Based on that, I assumed the majority of the sea-based missions would take that formula. However, I was "treated" to a pirate vs. pirate battle where I had to prevent boarders from destroying my ship. The boarders would bring over gunpowder bombs, which I had around 40 seconds to defuse. Except you can't defuse the bomb until you kill the enemies guarding it. You have to do this three consecutive times, with the amount of enemies increasing every time. I got profoundly lucky in that I had a handful of useful magic spells. Without them, I would not have made it through. It took me hours to make it past the bomb segment, and another handful of hours to chip away at the enemies on the other ship. The first time I beat the boss at the end, it felt like a revelation. And that's when the game broke. My character was standing on nothing as dark waves crashed beneath him. I couldn't move him or the camera. None of the buttons worked. I sat there dumbfounded before closing the application, reasoning that I could jiggle something loose by trying the sequence again. I was wrong. The game had essentially trapped me. The mission I could not complete was apparently mandatory for completing the story. So, in addition to being just bad on a whole host of levels, Risen 3 is broken and poorly optimized. I honestly lost count of the amount of times my save files refused to load. The frame rate often drops to levels unbefitting an otherwise ugly current-generation console game. It's honestly unbelievable that consumers are expected to pay forty dollars for this. Risen 3 is stunning, but not for the reasons the developers intended. Frustrating, ugly, broken, irritating, dull -- I cannot recommend this game to a single person. Even if you enjoyed it on PC, there is no way the busted PS4 version is worth a double-dip. If you want pirates, play Assassins' Creed IV. If you want epic fantasy, play Dragon Age: Inquisition or The Witcher: Wild Hunt. If you want a combination of the two, know that desire could lead you down a very dark road. Please do not buy Risen 3. It is a very bad game.
Risen 3: Titan Lords photo
Dead is better
The best noir films end on a downer. Whatever great conspiracy the hero came so close to unraveling has come out on top -- the bigwigs in charge have evaded justice and a lot of good people died along the way. But the protago...

Review: Gryphon Knight Epic

Aug 20 // Jed Whitaker
Gryphon Knight Epic (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Cyber Rhino Studios Publisher: Cyber Rhino Studios Released: August 20, 2015MSRP: $12.99  A diverse group of warriors set out on a journey to kill a great dragon, and upon doing so find a stash of treasure; Gryphon Knight Epic's intro is seemingly ripped straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien's writing. The same goes for Tree Stache, a mustached tree character met later in the game. The warriors all find weapons and take them with glee, while the gryphon knight himself, Sir Oliver, takes a shiny amulet. Turns out the weapons are cursed, causing all the characters to let their bad sides take control of them and, wouldn't ya know, the only thing that can cure them is the amulet. Sir Oliver is told this information in pretty plain English by his bad side that presents itself as a shadowy physical incarnation of him, but he doesn't seem to grasp it right away. I think Oliver not grasping what was just told to him was supposed to be funny, but it just wasn't, much like all of the writing in Gryphon Knight Epic. You could guess the story, as it has been told a thousand times: Knight frees all his friends, then faces the ultimate evil. The ending is especially cringeworthy. It abruptly sets up a sequel that surely no one will be clamoring for. On the surface level, Gryphon Knight Epic looks like it could be something new for the genre, but the only things it does original are terrible. If you've played more than one side-scrolling shooter, you've probably realized that most of them have one tiny hitbox where the player can take damage and they are otherwise invulnerable. This is not so in this case. If any part of Sir Oliver touches a projectile or enemy, including the feathers on top of his armor, he takes damage. This wouldn't be such a problem if he weren't such a large sprite to begin with.  [embed]307100:60084:0[/embed] Stages can be played in any order and at any of the three difficulty levels, which should be labeled: way too easy, way too hard, and why would I even bother? As a self-proclaimed seasoned veteran of bullet hell shooters, I found myself having to resort to easy mode. The difficulty mostly comes the aforementioned hitbox size, and the fact that bosses are brutally difficult and even a challenge at times on the easiest difficulty. Most games have boss fights with a pretty recognizable pattern that gives the player a visual cue of an impending attack with time to react. That isn't the case here. One particular boss, a giant frog, will quickly snatch Sir Oliver out of the air and chew him up, taking a large portion of his health with little to no time to try to avoid being attacked.  Upon running out of lives -- a concept that should have died with arcades -- you'll be forced back to the level selection map and will have to either play the whole level over again or half of it depending on how far you made it. While it is nice to have checkpoints in most games, this is the only side-scrolling shooter I can think of with them, as most games just let you continue at the exact screen you're at, costing you power-ups or score. Because of these checkpoints, you'll have the displeasure of repeating the same parts of level multiple times, and who doesn't like repeating entire sections of levels multiple times? Oh, that's right, everyone.  Sir Oliver can be made to look left or right with the press of a button, which is useful as enemies can come from both directions, but the way it is implemented mostly kills the usefulness. Say you're heading to the right and then enemies start to approach from your rear. Pressing the button to turn around to attack those enemies gives them time to approach and causes Sir Oliver to start moving towards them at the same time, thus allowing them to be right on top of him before he can even attack. Often times when battling enemies from both sides and maneuvering around the screen, I found myself unintentionally going the wrong direction, which isn't something you ever want a player to experience. Being able to turn back and go the way you just came from would be useful if the game weren't an overall linear affair. I believe there was only one level that required a bit of backtracking to unlock one of the hidden runes found in each level that grant abilities, better states, and some lore. The runes aren't really worth the time it takes to find them as the benefits are minor and the lore isn't all that interesting.  Each time a boss is defeated, you'll gain another magical weapon that uses a bit of an automatically refilling magic bar. These weapons can be used alongside Sir Oliver's trusty crossbow -- which is automatically spammed by holding the designated button -- and are vital to defeating larger enemies and bosses. They deal a considerable amount of damage after being upgraded. Upgrades can be purchased between levels from the gold earned by killing enemies, opening chests, and freeing prisoners in levels.  After playing for around five and a half hours, I found myself unable to afford most of the upgrades, even though I'd completed all of the levels because every time you die, you lose ten percent of your overall gold. Each time Sir Oliver gets hit by an enemy, his squires -- miniature helpers purchased from the store -- lose some of their power as well, making them mostly useless unless you somehow manage to never get attacked. Really, the punishments for getting attacked or dying in Gryphon Knight are far too extreme to allow the game to be enjoyable.  Gryphon Knight Epic isn't a great looking or sounding game. It mostly feels like something you would expect to see in the early days of the original PlayStation; the sprites are all right, the backgrounds are bland and repetitive, and the music is forgettable. At one point, I found myself laughing out loud when I noticed a stage set in the snowy mountains with vikings had elephants and rhinos in the background. From then on I started to realize that each level had an enemy or two that just kind of didn't feel like it fit there: a green blob that looked like a Metroid and a tentacled brain monster come to mind. It felt almost like the devs had created these sprites prior to coming up with the game and just decided to put them to use because they had them laying around.  With hitbox resizing, the ability to move in one direction while shooting in another, and some difficulty adjustments, Gryphon Knight Epic could be an okay game. As it stands, it's a messy medieval hodgepodge that you'd be better off avoiding at all costs. Save yourself some money by instead buying some feathers and a fake beak and putting them on your dog. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Gryphon Knight photo
Part bird, part lion, part shit
I've played side-scrolling shooters starring space ships, fairies, gothic lolitas, but never had I played one starring a knight atop a gryphon. "How original," I thought, with fantasies of knightly glory on my mind. "Surely this theme won't be squandered on a poorly-designed game." Boy, was I wrong.

Review: RymdResa

Aug 20 // Conrad Zimmerman
RymdResa (Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: MorgondagPublisher: MorgondagRelease Date: August 20, 2015MSRP: $11.99 RymdResa tells a story of humanity seeking new life for itself in the cosmos, told in three parts. As the game begins, Earth has been destroyed by an asteroid and the player is an explorer roaming a seemingly limitless, procedurally generated universe in search of a planet to colonize and ensure mankind's survival. Successive chapters have the player collecting resources and undertaking a larger journey to a separate universe, each expanding the gameplay with different mechanics and challenges. Early on, the game is about survival and that survival feels very much at risk. This is when RymdResa is at its most entertaining. Launched into space with the only most basic of ships, the player must conserve and protect their resources while traveling to nine sectors or they will die, lost and forgotten. Resources, in this case, means fuel, which doesn't deplete over time of its own accord, only used when the ship's thrusters are employed. Other things you encounter in space do affect your resource count, however. Collisions, mines and attacks from passing ships to can cause a considerable loss, and that's likely to happen quite a bit due to some design aspects working together to make it very difficult to understand how fast your ship is moving and predict collisions. The empty space environment provides little visual context to give that information to the player and a narrow, never changing view distance from the ship makes it such that when objects appear on the screen, they are as likely to fly right into you before a reaction is even possible as creep into the frame. [embed]307050:60067:0[/embed] Frustrating as this is (and it truly is), it also does reinforce the fragility of the player's situation and forces them to take it slow, further dragging out the empty gaps and feeding into the game's overlying thematic tone of helpless melancholy. RymdResa is not subtle about what the game wants the player to feel. Cutscene narration preceding chapters and diary pods produced within them ooze nostalgic regret and longing, delivered by a distant, electronically distorted voice that sounds more like a morose robot than a human. This first chapter in which the player is at their weakest captures that spirit most effectively, but it fades with time and progress. Even the most disastrous attempt to complete a voyage is rewarded in some ways. Players earn skill points with experience levels that can improve the efficiency of resource collection, provide the ability to interact with more environmental objects and help ships to perform better, and these levels carry over across all missions once earned. Spacepoints are constantly being added and subtracted, acting as a form of currency that can be spent to launch voyages with the game's seven other ships, and items to outfit those ships are carried in a general inventory accessible at all times. With these systems, by the time the player makes it through the first chapter and on to the second, they're probably pretty far along in their experience development (which caps out at 40 levels). And, suddenly, the stakes are pretty much gone. A seemingly constant accumulation of items to customize ships begins to provide all manner of attribute bonuses (introducing a whole different problem of inventory maintenance within a system desperate for sorting tools and a constant need to sell off useless junk to make room), so that while you're never invincible, it sure can feel that way. It soon becomes the default to quit a voyage out of a sense of not having anything to do rather than because of a failure to accomplish something. Chapters after the first have objectives which can be approached in a non-linear fashion and incremental progress an ultimately unsuccessful mission accomplishes is retained, removing all sense of urgency. What happens in them isn't all that interesting either, as the player collects "materials" (like resources, but green and serving no function outside of the second chapter's main objective) and faces down inscrutable guardians in a series of two-choice dialogue events where it's rarely clear that there is a right or wrong answer, but you're punished for choosing the wrong one anyway. Vast as the explorable region of the game is, which uses a grid-based system of sectors to indicate player location (the number of which may well be limitless and impossible to chart due to procedural generation), there isn't much one can reliably do within all of that space. In some ways, exploration off the beaten path is thoroughly discouraged despite the many opportunities presented. Teleporters dotted seemingly at random will send you off to a far flung sector, but what's to do once you're there? Drift back through possibly many hundreds of sectors, the vast majority of which will have nothing in them or wander off in some other random direction and hope maybe you come across anything of interest that way. I never have, and it's clear that there's more to this game that I have not experienced. A collection of "Research Notes" is referenced with a menu and there's a whole mechanic designed around using them to craft... something. I've never found one and wouldn't know where to start looking for them. Some people are going to dig into this game, absorb its extremely passive gameplay and have a curiosity which leads them to discover these things that I have not. I'm sure of that. If ambiguity and self-directed discovery are aspects of games you appreciate when they exist, and can handle one where you'll spend most of your time not doing anything, you're the audience RymdResa is looking for. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
RymdResa Review photo
The big empty
"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space." - The Hitchhiker's Guide ...

Review: Curses 'N Chaos

Aug 19 // Patrick Hancock
Curses 'N Chaos (Mac, PC [reviewed]. PS4, PS Vita)Developer: Tribute GamesPublisher: Tribute GamesRelease Date: August 18, 2015MSRP: $9.99  Curses 'N Chaos opens with a beautifully animated cutscene that sets up the threadbare story: Lea and Leo are cursed to live under Thanatos' Shadow by the evil Wizard King and need to kill monsters to break the curse. Then, it's time to fight monsters! Players can choose either character to brawl as, both of whom play the same. Multiplayer can be utilized either locally or online, and the PC version does use Steam for player invites. Gameplay is simple, challenging, beat-em-up action on a single screen. Players can run, attack, jump and double jump, and attacking at different times yields new moves. For example, attacking while jumping performs a jump kick that is stronger than a standard grounded attack. Players can also perform a running punch and an uppercut, both of which are as strong as a jump kick. Oh, and by pressing down, players can dance. This slowly builds up extra points, and it is recommended that players take every opportunity to do this as much as possible. [embed]306739:60064:0[/embed] Single-use items are a huge part of combat. Each player can hold one item at a time, but can also "bank" one by giving it to a friendly owl who will hold it until the player summons it again. Learning how each item acts is just as crucial as learning the enemy patterns. If an item is left on the ground for a few seconds, it will disappear for good, but players can "juggle" items to refresh its timer. New items can be forged in between rounds by using the alchemist. Here's a tip: don't go blindly combining items hoping for the best. There's a Grimiore that spells out what items can be combined, so use it! Once a new item is forged, it can be found and used during battle. The player can also buy items with the money collected from killing monsters, and start off battles by having certain items already. Each stage consists of ten waves of enemies followed by a boss. As the player progresses through the game's thirteen stages, enemies get more complicated behaviors and become harder to take down. The player gets five hearts and three lives to make it to the end.  Completing all the waves and beating the boss is no easy feat. About five levels in is when things start to get nuts, with enemy behaviors becoming much more erratic and difficult to deal with. Enemies that seemed so docile when introduced suddenly become incredibly potent when combined when paired with other enemy types. Enemies between stages do vary, but their behavior is limited. Many of the new enemies introduced are just re-skins of older enemies that take more hits to kill. They all look great and tend to fit a general theme, but I found myself saying "oh, this is just Enemy X, but with twice the health." In addition, each wave has a 60 second timer. When the timer reaches zero, Death shows up. This isn't an automatic loss, in fact it's more like the ghost in Spelunky that chases the player after they spend too much time in a level. Death will chase the player around and slash at them it catches up. A hit from Death means death (duh), but he's easily enough avoided. The biggest difficulty regarding Death comes with the boss fights. They too have a 60 second timer, which is definitely not enough time. Luckily, they will often drop an hourglass item that adds 15 more seconds to the clock, postponing Death's arrival.  The boss fights are traditional "memorize their tells and patterns" battles. They are beautifully animated and sometimes downright cruel in their behavior. Nothing is insurmountable, even for players going at it solo. The difficulty of these boss fights does tend to vary dramatically, though. Some boss fights took me several tries, while later fights left me with no hearts lost, only to have the next one be super difficult again.  While I've already mentioned how great the game looks, thanks in part to Paul Robertson, the audio is equally wonderful. Each track evokes a wave of nostalgia to older generations while simultaneously setting an intense tone for the battles. Likewise, the little jingles are perfect and I don't think I'll ever grow tired of hearing them. The entire art and sound teams over at Tribute has consistently shown that they know how to nail a theme. Curses 'N Chaos is an example of game purity. One screen, simple controls, and intense difficulty. There isn't much replayability outside of playing with new friends or going for a new high score, but just getting through all of the stages the first time will not be quick. For players who fancy a challenge, either solo or with a friend, Curses 'N Chaos is not one to miss. 
Curses N Chaos Review photo
Punches 'N Jump kicks
I've played Curses 'N Chaos at two consecutive PAX conventions, and have come away impressed each time. Part of it was due to their show floor setup of giant arcade cabinets. However, the biggest draw of the game was its...

Review: Smite (Xbox One)

Aug 19 // Chris Carter
Smite (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Hi-Rez StudiosPublisher: Hi-Rez StudiosRelease Date: March 25, 2014 (PC) / August 19, 2015 (Xbox One)MSRP: Free-to-play with microtransactions ($30 for all Gods until August 31) Unlike your typical MOBA experience, SMITE is framed by way of a behind-the-back camera, more akin to an action game than an RTS title. It was predicated on coming to a console day one, mostly because of how simple the control scheme was, and I'm pleased to say that the transition has been incredibly smooth, gameplay-wise. For new players looking to jump in, all you really have to do to play at a base level is understand that the right trigger initiates your auto-attack, and the face buttons correspond to specific abilities, all of which are relatively self-explanatory. Of course, there's a deeper level of understanding required when it comes to leveling up your abilities and buying items and equipment, but the former can even be implemented automatically if you wish. Where Smite really shines is with its assortment of game modes that will appeal to pretty much everyone. While MOBAs typically cycle in the same few gametypes with "guest" modes appearing sparingly, Smite goes all out with five variations available at all times. These include Arena (5v5 all-out fights without lanes), Joust (3v3 one lane), Conquest (standard MOBA 5v5 three lane), Assault (5v5 ARAM), and Siege (4v4 two lanes). You can also spring for four modes that pit you against the AI, should you need the practice. In short, the game has it all, and any one mode will keep you satisfied for quite some time. It's also great that Smite works in a lot of personality into said maps, like the fact that the final "core" is actually a boss character that players have to take down, and the last line of defense is a giant phoenix. There are 67 gods (characters) currently, all from various faiths throughout history. Characters range from well-known deities like Hades, all the way to Sun Wokong, to Guan Yu. While every god does look different enough visually, I couldn't help but realize that playing with a controller really exposes some of the monotony of Smite's gameplay. For the most part, you're going to be holding down RT, firing off a boring series of auto-attacks. Although it is easy to pickup, it's important to realize that although it may look like it, Smite isn't a full-on action game, and that abilities move rather slowly in the grand scheme of things. In a PC MOBA clicking can often keep you constantly engaged as you're always figuring out the best position possible, but Smite can feel sluggish by comparison. For those of you who don't enjoy the genre on PC, this may be the game for you. [embed]305026:59981:0[/embed] It also doesn't help that a lot of abilities tend to blend together, and in one particular session, I played three gods that basically had the exact same attacks, just with slightly different animations. Since you're leveling up the same abilities each time without an option to take new ones, you're going to want to switch gods often to keep things fresh. If you really want to go all in, you can buy the Founder's Pack for $30, which grants you access to every current and future god. It's a pretty great deal as you're essentially "buying out" the game, but unfortunately it's only available until the end of the month. Outside of that, you're left with a rather generous free rotation of 11 characters per week, and an assortment of boosters, items, skins, emotes, and icons. The game is heavily monetized and many things must be purchased with premium currency, but the Founder's Pack and most of what's on offer is fair. There's also a few issues inherent to the Xbox One version of the game. For starters, no Cross-Play capabilities with the PC edition really sucks. Also, Hi-Rez is only offering up account progress transfers for a limited time, one way to the Xbox One, and it's just that -- a progress transfer. Note that experience levels and most of your content will be ported over, but not everything (Gems, mastery levels, and any stats or activities aren't eligible). It's also unfortunate that there's no inherent keyboard support (like many PS4 games). Based on my experience, nearly every player is content on playing without any form of communication, which, as many know, can be a kiss of death in a MOBA. SMITE is a fine game and a great choice for folks who may not spend a lot of time on their PC, but there are a number of shortcomings present in both editions that prevent me from playing it as much as some of its competitors. Still, it's a perfect starting point if you're looking to get into the genre, especially with the intuitive controller scheme.
Smite Xbox One review photo
I'll be done in a minotaur two
Hi-Rez Studios has earned a rather interesting reputation in recent years. After creating Tribes: Ascend, a game heavily reliant on the free-to-play model, fans accused the studio of abandoning the game in record time (roughl...

Review: Tales from the Borderlands: Escape Plan Bravo

Aug 18 // Darren Nakamura
Tales from the Borderlands: Escape Plan Bravo (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: August 18, 2015 (Mac, PC, PS3, PS4)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 [Editor's note: there will be no major spoilers present for the episode reviewed here, but events in previous episodes may be discussed.] Things were looking bad for Fiona and Rhys at the end of the third episode. Sure, Gortys found her first upgrade and the path to the Vault of the Traveler became clearer, but newcomer Vallory had the group pretty well pinned under her thumb by the end. Complicating matters was the revelation that the final Gortys upgrade isn't even on Pandora; it's up on Hyperion's moon base Helios. For a series known for fast travel between exotic locations and featuring interstellar travel as part of its lore, it's easy to forget just how infrequently anybody takes a trip off Pandora. Usually, denizens of the wasteland are stuck there. And so the first act of this episode involves the non-negligible task of actually getting from Pandora to Helios. The group grows as August and Vallory's henchmen ride along to ensure Rhys and Fiona don't try anything funny and Scooter hops in as the on-board mechanic. It's a pretty motley crew, well deserving of the '80s rock credits sequence rocket launch montage. [embed]306135:60017:0[/embed] Telltale continues to demonstrate its comedic mastery with Tales from the Borderlands. One of the funniest parts comes from a totally visual gag within the launch montage. It elicited more laughs with no words than some comedy games do with thousands. The written jokes here are on point too. Each of the characters brings something different. Gortys remains a highlight through the whole ordeal, even if she has fewer lines than she did in the previous episode. Fiona's sarcasm hits just the right notes. Handsome Jack is about as likable as a murderous psychopath can be. The plan that comes together even allows players to act like total assholes without having to feel too bad about it. The trip to Helios also allows for one of the most bizarre scenes in recent memory. Without spoiling too much: it's a classic Telltale quick-time event action sequence, but it involves a horde of Hyperion accountants and a lot of mouth-made sound effects. It isn't all laughs. The series has had its serious moments in the past, but Escape Plan Bravo will cement Tales into the overall Borderlands lore. It is no longer a side story on Pandora. It feels like its own proper entry in the timeline, with real effects on the world Gearbox built. It's a stark contrast with Telltale's other current series Game of Thrones. While the events in that series are important to the Telltale-designed protagonists, they aren't important to anybody else in that world. Telltale's characters and story in Tales from the Borderlands are important to Borderlands as a whole. I have to imagine there is at least a modicum of trepidation when handing over a franchise to another developer, but if Gearbox had any fears that Telltale wouldn't do right by Borderlands, those fears would be unfounded. If anything, it feels like Gearbox needs to hire the Telltale writers to consult on Borderlands 3. Escape Plan Bravo solidifies Tales as a must-play series for those interested in the Borderlands universe. I cannot wait for the last episode, The Vault of the Traveler. There is so much to resolve: Vallory, Handsome Jack, Vaughn, Gortys, the masked man, Felix, the vault. I'm stressing out just thinking about it all. There isn't much more to say without spoiling the best episode of Tales from the Borderlands yet. I laughed. I cried. I haven't been able to say that about a Borderlands game since Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep, or about a Telltale game since the first season of The Walking Dead. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Borderlands review photo
Encore! Encore!
[Disclosure: Anthony Burch, who consulted on the story for Tales from the Borderlands, was previously employed at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.] Tales ...

Review: Volume

Aug 18 // Darren Nakamura
Volume (Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita)Developer: Bithell GamesPublisher: Bithell GamesReleased: August 18, 2015MSRP: $19.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Bithell has cited Metal Gear Solid as an inspiration for Volume, and the similarities are easy to see. Specifically, it evokes Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions with its simplified visuals and a structure that follows a string of small, self-contained rooms to clear. Volume is more stealth puzzle than stealth action, with some levels leaning further than others in the pensive direction. The starkly colored, clearly delineated environments work exceptionally well to communicate important gameplay information. Coupled with the enemy vision cones laid directly onto the floor and the visible sound radius, there is never any question what might have set a particular guard off. Protagonist Robert Locksley (get it?) starts off with nothing but his wits and whistle. He defaults to a slow, sneaky walk and can crouch lower behind single-block walls to stay out of sight. He is also able to set off sinks and toilets to lure the guards from their posts, or he can just purse his lips and let out a sound that will cause them to hone in on the position. [embed]306112:60012:0[/embed] Eventually, a host of gadgets unlock to help Rob on his way. The Bugle can be thrown to cause a faraway noise. The Oddity will hold an enemy's attention regardless of any sounds. The Mute allows Rob to run silently. There are more, and each one feels useful and fun to play with in its own right. Smartly, gadgets are tied to levels and Rob can only hold one at a time, so the right tools for the job are always there without overwhelming the player with unnecessary options. Of course, this gives rise to some occasions where a particular gadget would fit the situation perfectly, but the challenge is in solving that problem with something else. Over the course of the 100 story levels, Rob uses an old "Volume" -- a VR simulator in the future -- to broadcast to the world how to break into properties of the wealthiest citizens and steal their belongings without harming any person. He isn't exactly robbing from the rich and giving to the poor; he's teaching the poor how to rob from the rich themselves. Therein lies a bit of a discontinuity between gameplay and narrative. The more gamey aspects of Volume work well in the context of having clear objectives and solve puzzles, but when Rob broadcasts himself alerting every guard and touching the exit square just as he's about to be shot, it doesn't really make sense for somebody to want to replicate that performance in the real (in-game) world. A worse offender in this regard is with the checkpointing, which, like most of Volume's gameplay elements, is very lenient. By touching a checkpoint, current progress in a level is saved, but enemy locations are reset upon restarting. It's clear why this is the case: it keeps the player from being caught in a death loop if he were to hit a checkpoint just before being killed, but it brings up some edge cases where the fastest solution involves being caught and resetting the enemies. The fact that it doesn't gel with the idea of Rob showing the public how to pull off these heists just adds to the weirdness. The leniency makes Volume a one-and-done type of experience. The par times are easy to hit on the first try for most levels even with a few flubs in play. (I only had to go back and retry two.) I would have appreciated some extra incentive to really master a level, like bonuses for exceptional times or for completing a level without being spotted. Still, even without any added replay value, the campaign runs about six hours; it's not meager by any means. I ran into a handful of bugs during my playthrough, though most were reportedly squashed before launch. I did still encounter one particularly annoying glitch in the level editor, where menu items were constantly scrolling, making it difficult -- though not impossible -- to engage in my usual level editor ritual of making a playable Mr. Destructoid likeness. When I think about Volume, I'm of two minds about it. From a pure gameplay perspective, it handles stealth in a way that always feels fair and, if anything, is almost too forgiving. It conveys information clearly and it's never too frustrating. My biggest complaint of what's here is the ability for a player to cheese through a level, abusing the checkpoint system or the exit square to call something a win despite feeling like a clumsy mess. However, a lot of where Volume suffers is in what's not here. I wish I could pan around a level to formulate a plan before diving in. I wish I were given incentive to play well instead of just adequately. Volume is not a bad game. But it still leaves me wanting for something more out of it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Volume review photo
Does not go to eleven
[Disclosure: Jim Sterling and Leigh Alexander, who are both credited in Volume, were previously employed at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.] I went into Volum...

Review: Beyond Eyes

Aug 17 // Jed Whitaker
Beyond Eyes (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Tiger & SquidPublisher: Team17Release Date: August 4, 2015 (Xbox One), August 11, 2015 (PC)MSRP: $14.99 Rae is a young girl playing with some friends and fireworks when something goes wrong, causing sparks to fly into her eyes and permanently blind her. Her friends move on with their lives, leaving her alone with nothing but her thoughts to keep her company that summer, until a friendly neighborhood cat shows up. Rae quickly befriends this cat and names it Nani. It comes and goes as it pleases and eventually just stops showing up, prompting Rae to journey outside of her home to try to find her feline friend. It really is never explained how little or much Rae can see, though I was lead to believe she could see a very short distance around her due to the way the graphics paint themselves in as Rae moves. You can be considered legally blind -- in the United States at least -- and still be able to partially see, so perhaps she is in that murky area?  As Rae slowly walks the world will paint itself in around her in an extremely beautiful water color-esque way, which I'd imagine is a visual representation of how Rae sees the world or at the very least perceives it. As birds chirp, dogs bark and other sounds are heard, Rae visualizes them, providing clues as to where to walk. [embed]305547:60010:0[/embed] Walking is really all there is to Beyond Eyes, with maybe three or so presses of an action button: better known as a walking simulator. At one point a young girl tosses her ball out of reach and asks Rae to find it, which really is kind of an asshole thing to do to someone who is clearly at the very least visually impaired. Rae walks around with her hands out at times so she can feel for objects that she may collide with, so it isn't exactly hard to figure out that she is blind. It isn't like there is a whole lot of story in Beyond Eyes either, it could be summed up as "Girl gets blinded, girl befriends cat, girl searches for cat after it stops visiting." The whole thing was over for me in an hour and a half, though I missed most of the achievements that are seemingly just there to encourage more exploration thus extending play time.  There really just needed to be more of everything: more story, more to do, and more reasons to do it. With such a beautiful art style and such a unique character Beyond Eyes had a chance to be something really special but instead it just feels like walking past a beautiful painting, as it is over in the blink of an eye. You'd be better off visiting your local art gallery than spending full price on this, so give it a pass until it eventually drops in price. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Beyond Eyes photo
Blindly searching for pussy
If you know me, you know I yearn for diversity in games and new experiences in general, which is why I jumped at the chance to review Beyond Eyes. It has people of color, the main character is blind, and the art style is beautiful. I just wish the devs would have done more, all this wasted potential.

Review: Goat Simulator (PS4)

Aug 15 // Mike Cosimano
Goat Simulator (Android, iOS, PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Coffee Stain StudiosPublisher: Coffee Stain StudiosRelease Date: April 1, 2014 (PC) / September 16, 2015 (Android/iOS) / April 17, 2015 (Xbox One/360) / August 11, 2015 (PS3/PS4)MSRP: $9.99 (PC/PS3/PS4/Xbox 360/Xbox One / $4.99 (Android/iOS) When you start Goat Simulator, the game's four-legged protagonist is dropped into an ordinary town and tasked with jumping over a fence. It's a clever subversion of standard game tutorials, and it will be the last time I use the word 'clever' in this review. From there, the game provides the player with little challenges, like pressing the 'Baa' button or running on a wall for a certain period of time. These challenges help boost your score, much like almost everything else in the game. Licking people is worth a handful of points, for example. There are unique things to do in the world -- like finding EDM musician deadmau5 and licking him -- that earn both points and an achievement on your platform of choice. The achievement list can be a help if you're looking for things to do, but some are so obtuse that you're better off trying to explore the world. Herein lies Goat Simulator's Achilles' Heel -- it plays like trash. This is ostensibly part of the game's larger gag, there's even a button dedicated to entering a ragdoll state. But the game tries to have it both ways. Collectibles litter the map (including a handful you need for achievements) and some of them would be challenging to acquire in a superior title. Feats of skill in a game with frustrating controls are certainly impressive, but that doesn't make the struggle any fun. There are a bunch of modifiers, some of which are fun to play with for approximately ten minutes. The jetpack is chuckle-worthy and the VR modifier is an unyielding nightmare straight out of a PG-rated Hellraiser. It is also worth seeing. I used the modifiers as ripcords throughout my playthrough -- when things got too dull, I would hit the jetpack button and watch as the goat flew around in slow-motion. It wasn't hilarious, but it was something to break up my numerous attempts at nailing the manual challenge. (You can perform 'manuals' by flicking the stick back and forth and then trying to balance the goat on its front legs. It's awful) [embed]305553:59993:0[/embed] The game's core joke is difficult to criticize because humor is subjective; one man's guffaw is another man's blank stare. I have a vivid memory of watching Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom in a packed theater and being the only person laughing along. The jokes I found so tickling absolutely failed to play with the rest of the audience. And that's fine! I can sit here telling you that Goat Simulator is just not that amusing for the rest of my life, and that won't register with half of my audience. However, I cannot imagine the people who "get" Goat Simulator will be okay with paying for the experience. Not to keep coming back to movies (comedy games are something of a rarity, so I have to look outwards) but I wouldn't spend full price on a film that gives away its best jokes in the trailer, no matter how funny those jokes were. I played the game on PS4, where it costs $10. That is unconscionable. If one were so inclined, Goat Simulator could go on forever. It's a playground, not a series of objectives, and no high score can hide that. But it's not worth an hour of your time, let alone days. The game has two areas and lacks both the MMO and Zombie DLC. There's just so little to do and even less that's worth doing. Even if the price was right (and that price is free, regardless of platform) Goat Simulator is not worth playing. It's a game designed for YouTube, not the average consumer. Reward this shrewd business decision by not buying this game and just watching some clips online instead.
Goat Simulator review photo
Baa-ring
There's something to be said for games that revolve around a single joke. If you've wrung every possible guffaw out of a game within the first half-hour, you can just close it and move on with your life. In theory, Goat ...

Review: Commander Cherry's Puzzled Journey

Aug 14 // Jed Whitaker
Commander Cherry's Puzzled Journey (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Grandé GamesPublisher: Grandé GamesRelease Date: August 11, 2015 (PS4), August 14, 2015 (Xbox One)MSRP: $13.99 Think of the most basic indie platformer you've ever played with minimal graphics and okay at best platforming mechanics, because that is what Commander Cherry's Puzzled Journey is, only worse.  Commander Cherry has to get from one side of the ten available levels to the other, using snapshots of your body taken with the Xbox One Kinect or the Playstation Eye as platforms. When posing for pictures you'll have to position yourself so the edges of your body touch red circles causing them to light up, thus making them collectible for Commander Cherry. These yellow dots must be collected to allow advancement to the next part of the level and granting you a rating of yo, yoga, or yogawesome depending on how well you performed, then rinse and repeat for what felt like a billion times. Here's the thing about capturing your body in crazy poses: in theory it sounds great, but in practice the functionality blows. The Kinect was picking up like half my arms, half my face, and half my legs. On top of that, the detection wasn't that great, often times leaving wide areas of the room behind me in the picture, instead of cropping me out. So don't be fooled by Commander Cherry's original trailer, it certainly doesn't work as well as I was led to believe it was; foolish me. [embed]304686:59976:0[/embed] As far as the actual platforming goes it could be better. Early on you're asked to press a button that shows you all what all the controls are, only you can't do two of the functions yet: double jump and laser. You can only double jump if you have a power-up that turns your weak mustache into a long wizard-like beard, but the game doesn't tell you that as the control screen just says "Hold A to double jump" which isn't even how you double jump once you have the ability! The laser is granted to you in later levels allowing you to cut through your snapshots of yourself, which helps a great deal and should have been available from the start. Speaking of available from the start, double jump should have been as well. The platforming isn't exactly smooth, and most of the time I only found myself able to make it through sections when I had the power-up. The double jump power-up is lost upon falling to your death or hitting the weird eyeball grass and oranges that shoot flames, much like the super mushroom power-up in Super Mario Bros. The big difference between this and Super Mario Bros. is the added double jump ability; getting hit as Mario makes you smaller and harder to hit versus in Commander Cherry it just causes you to lose functionality and makes the game harder. Because of this I started to purposefully kill myself three times in a row when I lost the double jump ability, as it causes a power-up to spawn for you. Nothing says "this might not be a great idea" like someone playing your game and killing themselves deliberately to make your game even remotely possible let alone enjoyable. I'm clearly not in shape, at all -- though Seaman once told me round is indeed a shape -- but I didn't have much trouble posing to complete the platforming puzzles. Poses start with just making basic platforms to guide your character across, but eventually add other mechanics, like avoiding touching grass-like eyeballs, blocking firebreath from oranges, and bodies that move when you have Commander Cherry jump on them. The problem is it gets tedious when sometimes you're asked to make up to six poses for one section while holding the controller in your hand and contorting your body in all different positions. It just wasn't fun, and eventually I had to take a break as my knees, and back started to ache a bit. Later on I figured out I could just play while sitting in my chair closer to the camera, and totally cheesed my way through the final levels with no shame.  All the levels look pretty similar, just bland textureless polygons, and what music there was was pretty forgettable, just like the rest of the game. With only ten levels you'd think Commander Cherry's Puzzled Journey was over far too soon, but it was quite the opposite; I couldn't wait for this yoga-like Hell to be over. Knowing the game was made by only two people makes me feel a bit like a yogasshole by saying this game is yogawful, but this is one cherry pit I couldn't wait to spit out. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Commander Cherry photo
Yogawful
"A game that captures pictures of you when you pose to build levels for your character to platform on? This is gonna be a blast," I thought naively as I excitedly volunteered to review Commander Cherry's Puzzled Journey, "Finally something I can use my Kinect for!" Note to self: Never, ever, ever volunteer to review a Kinect game again, no matter how cool it might look.

Review: Toy Soldiers: War Chest

Aug 11 // Chris Carter
Toy Soldiers: War Chest (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Signal StudiosPublisher: UbisoftRelease Date: August 11, 2015MSRP: $14.99 (base game), $4.99 (premium armies), $14.99 (all four armies) The gist of Toy Soldiers is that it melds together elements of RTS and action gameplay, with both a top-down camera and the ability to jump into turrets and control infantry units. You'll start off with an empty battlefield and a base (much like tower defense), with specific plots in which to build turrets. These range from anti-infantry guns to satellite-based artillery, depending on which army you choose. All of them have upgradable capabilities like more range or more damage, but at a cost of cash, which you'll slowly accrue during each round. In short, there's a decent amount of strategy involved despite the fact that the flow is rather fast-paced. You can jump into any turret at any time, and easily switch between them by way of the d-pad. Once you've earned a super by killing enough enemies, you'll be able to take control of your hero unit, or do something flashy like call a bomb strike. The campaign is really fun, and that's mostly due to the amount of variety packed into it. You'll have the option of controlling four base armies -- the World War-themed Kaiser, the sci-fi Phantom, the My Little Pony-like StarBright, and the fantasy-based Dark Lord. Everyone has their own themed units, levels, and turrets, and again, they all have different functionality. It's especially fun to take control of a hero unit while your turrets do their thing automatically, sprinting about the battlefield, throwing grenades, dodging, and sniping enemies at will. While this is a timed ability, you can gather battery pickups to increase said timer, before you're taken back to the RTS and turret viewpoint. [embed]302923:59932:0[/embed] The campaign is meaty enough to justify the purchase of the base game (more on that later), but there's also two-player local co-op, and a four-player online mode, which can be both public and private. Local play was pretty flawless in my testing sessions, but online games took a little while to populate, likely due to the fact that the game only launched today. While the core experience is great, I have an issue with the way it's packaged, namely by Ubisoft. For one, the frame rate, even on a current-gen system like the Xbox One, can drop a bit during heavy waves. It's not a game-breaking drop, but it's annoying all the same, especially since Toy Soldiers isn't all that demanding visually. Another issue is the inclusion of microtransactions. Now, like most Ubisoft games, they aren't required and the game doesn't feel weighted towards them specifically, but the fact that they're there for in-game currency feels odd. To top things off, Uplay is crammed in there as well. This is further exacerbated by the premium army pricing scheme. While the base game with the four aforementioned themes is $15, you'll need to pay $15 more (or $5 per) to net all of the new armies -- you know, the exciting ones -- G.I. Joe, Cobra Commander, Ezio, and He-Man. This brings the price up to $30, which doesn't feel quite right. The good news is that these guest stars are worth it; they look and feel differently enough compared to the vanilla forces, complete with their own signature looks and sound effects. They also play in a unique way, as He-Man and Ezio focus on melee damage, and the G.I. Joe duo are ranged. While I won't begrudge the inclusion of an Assassin's Creed character (it makes perfect sense), two G.I. Joe additions feel like a wasted slot -- imagine instead if there was a Transformers army (foiled again by Activision!), or even something wild like Swat Kats. I have problems with the way Toy Soldiers: War Chest is packaged, but thankfully it does uphold the same classic focus on strategy and action. You'll have to foot the bill for those costly licenses, but it's mostly worth it, warts and all. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Toy Soldiers review photo
I...have..the power! (of DLC)
Over the years, I haven't really paid that much attention to the Toy Soldiers series. I mean, I played them a bit, but never truly gave the games their due. With War Chest however, the crazy injection of nostalgic I...

Review: Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon

Aug 08 // Ben Davis
Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon (PC [reviewed], PS4, Vita, iOS, Android)Developer: Tiger StylePublisher: Tiger StyleRelease Date: August 6, 2015 (PC, iOS) / TBA (PS4, Vita, Android)MSRP: $12.99 Spider is primarily about eating insects and getting high scores. You play as the titular character in a large, seemingly abandoned estate, and come equipped with all of the skills a real spider would have. It can cling to almost any surface, move around very quickly, jump incredible distances, and spin webs to trap prey. Playing as a speedy, acrobatic hunter feels really great, and the controls are very responsive and precise. But on top of the slick web-slinging gameplay, there's also an underlying puzzle game hidden in the recesses of the estate for players who want to delve a bit deeper. The core gameplay is simple enough to learn the basics very quickly. Basically, jump from one surface to another while spinning a web to start building, and try to create geometric shapes which will be filled in automatically once completed. These webs will trap passing insects, which can then be eaten for points and more silk to spin more webs. Eating multiple insects without leaving the web will increase a combo meter, but the combo will reset to zero once the spider touches any other surface. [embed]297461:59879:0[/embed] Gameplay leaves plenty of room to develop new skills and strategies to maximize your score. Combos remain as long as the spider is touching a web, so you can try building multiple webs to jump between to keep the combo going. More points are earned by eating smaller insects first and saving the larger and rarer ones until the combo meter has built up a bit, so figuring out which insects to catch and eat in which order can drastically alter your score. Different insects require different strategies to eat them. Most have to be caught in a web, but some will need to be led into the web somehow and some can only be caught in strong webs. These strong insects might destroy webs that are too weak, releasing any other captured insects in the process. Other insects can only be killed by being tackled, such as hornets and ants. These have a separate combo meter which runs out in ten seconds unless the spider tackles another insect to keep it going. Just jump into them to eat them. No webs necessary! But be careful, because some of them can fight back. Spider also has an interesting time and weather mechanic. The game detects your location and mimics the current time and weather in-game, between four different scenarios (clear day, rainy day, clear night, and rainy night). You can choose to opt out of the location services as well, in which case it just uses the developer's location. It also tracks the current phase of the moon if it's a clear night. The time, weather, and moon phases all affect gameplay in different ways. Certain insects only come out when it's daytime or while it's raining, and some areas can only be accessed during certain weather conditions. Sometimes, the level will feel completely different between night and day. For example, one level in the barn is filled with a normal variety of flying insects during the day, but at night it becomes infested with hornet nests, totally changing the way you play it. My only complaint is that I felt some of the levels could have used more obvious differences between the various time and weather scenarios, but for the most part there was a good variety. Then there are the moon phases, and this is where the underlying puzzle game comes in. While roaming the estate as a spider, you'll come across secret areas and clues pertaining to certain mysteries. Many of these clues can only be found and solved if special requirements are met, such as playing during a new moon or at night while it's raining, although some of them can also be completed whenever. Solving mysteries will unlock more areas to play, and the game cannot be truly beaten until all clues are found and the final mystery is solved. While time traveling and altering weather mechanics is an option for those less patient players, Spider is really meant to be played slowly over a period of time. Try playing at different times of the day to find new stuff. Or if it starts to rain one day, then try to find some time to jump into the game and see what all has changed with the gloomy weather. Once you start finding clues, you can begin to synchronize your gaming schedule with the phases of the moon and plan out certain nights to return to the game to check on something. Eventually, as the month goes on, you'll start to unravel the mysteries of the estate. Or, if you don't care about all that, there's still the incredibly fun web-slinging, insect-catching action to focus on, which should be more than enough to keep you engaged. I'm sure some players will be more involved with achieving high scores and climbing up the leaderboards than trying to solve riddles and look for clues. Either way you choose to play, it's still a great game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Spider review photo
Strong web
I will take any opportunity to play as an animal in a video game. Let me control a dolphin, a wolf, a shark, or even a tiny little mosquito and I'm happy. As you surely already guessed, Rite of the Shrouded Moon puts the...

Review: Astral Breakers

Aug 06 // Chris Carter
Astral Breakers (PC, Wii U [reviewed])Developer: Intropy GamesPublisher: Intropy GamesRelease Date: August 6, 2015MSRP: $4.99 The gist of the story is that a Big Bang-style event creates "Astral Spheres," which the 12 Zodiac constellations then fight over as they vie for power over the universe. Kira, a helpful star, has tasked you with restoring order. It's cute but shallow, with very little in the way of world-building or exposition. It also doesn't help that the sidebar dialogue consists of uninspired meme-filled jokes. By the time you actually start up the game though, things get much more exciting. In essence, you're dropping orbs down in a straight line, trying to connect as many like-colored ones as possible. After dropping several orbs your cursor at the top of the screen will start glowing, which allows you to press a button to drop a "breaker," which will blow up any connecting orbs of that color. Think Puzzle Fighter, but you get to choose when to drop breakers. What's really cool about this system is that you control your destiny. Players can set up chains by preloading breakers at all sides of structures, all of which are easy to see due to their bold color schemes. It's fun to take risks and build massive combos (here's an example), which will in turn drop more trash (the puzzle term for orbs dumped on the opposing side's screen) on your enemy, screwing up their board. It's fast, and the controls are responsive. There's also another layer of complexity involved with said trash drops, as each character has a different style denoted by an "intensity" rating. High intensity characters will drop easy to solve trash but at a faster rate, changing up the way you approach the game, and forcing players to act quickly and make lots of smaller moves. On the flipside, low intensity players will rely on meticulous big combos. After playing for a bit, you'll also have the opportunity to design your own sign and style, which is neat. [embed]297134:59784:0[/embed] Solo mode is very limited, because after you've defeated all the opposing zodiac signs in combat, it ends. Naturally the difficulty ramps up towards the end where the AI will start putting up more of a fight, but since it only takes roughly 30 minutes to complete, the good stuff is over before it starts. Thankfully there is a versus AI mode on top of the campaign, but it also has the same crescendoing difficulty scheme which can get boring during that initial climb. To really enjoy Astral Breakers to the fullest, you'll need a friend, especially since there's no online play. To augment your standard versus mode there's also a co-op setting, which can get really fun as you attempt to score as many points as possible. Like most versus puzzlers, if you can find someone to share it with, you'll get a ton of leeway, especially given the strong foundation. I wish Astral Breakers had a more involved single player component and a smoother visual style, but for the most part, there's a serviceable core experience here. Just don't dive in alone. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Astral Breakers review photo
Gemini Man
I'm lucky that I've had a number of friends to play games with growing up. Before the dawn of online play (I didn't leave the house for a week when I discovered dial-up Diablo and Xbox Live), the only option was to pull ...


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