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Review: Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide

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

Review: Halo 5: Guardians

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

Review: Penarium

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

Review: Bedlam

Oct 21 // Patrick Hancock
Bedlam (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: RedBedlamPublisher: KISS ltdReleased: October 13, 2015MSRP: $19.99 The player assumes the role of Athena, a normal everyday woman who has somehow woken up inside a virtual world of a video game. She makes plenty of self-aware quips throughout Bedlam, ranging from obvious and cringy to downright hysterical. She quickly realizes she's in a shooter from the '90s, and it's not long until she manages to escape through a glitch in the game to be transporting to various other worlds. Bedlam will take players through different time periods and genres of video games, but does eventually become too formulaic. Players will enter a world, complete its objectives, enter an "in between" glitch world, and then move on to the next section. While not predictable in the sense that the new world will be a surprise, the concept becomes rigid and boring. There is an underlying story besides "look at the funny parody worlds," and unfolds through in-game radio chatter and hidden sections within each world. It's all based on the book by the same name, which I haven't read, but seems to deal with essentially the same thing. In a way, Bedlam felt like a long winded way of saying "hey, you should read the book." The story is somewhat engaging and certainly well written, but the lack of closure at the end of the game was a huge letdown. Bedlam handles like a first-person shooter, with one or two exceptions, and does a great job of nailing down the shooting mechanics. Each world has a unique set of weapons to acquire, but ammo for each gun is limited to its respective world. This sounds like an interesting mechanic on paper, but in reality the player gets so many guns that ammo is never an issue due to the wide breadth of options. In fact, and I didn't think I'd ever say this, but there are likely too many weapons. They all have their small quirks and differences, but all of the shotguns, machine guns, and pistols might as well be identical. The large number of options also makes it a pain to switch between weapons, especially when using the mousewheel. Every number on the keyboard is assigned to a weapon, and it never really felt worth it to memorize what was where.  There are also platforming sections that take place during the in between glitch worlds. I'm hesitant to even call them platforming sections since the player is literally jumping over small distances from one long rectangle to the next. They are in no way challenging, but I did die a few times, usually because I had no idea that there was no ground in between certain sections. Most of these sections are only there to keep the player busy while radio chatter occurs to thicken the plot. [embed]316393:60801:0[/embed] Perhaps the best part of Bedlam is the "tour" through various styles of first-person shooter tropes. I won't spoil them all here, but all of the classic FPS environments are present, and some that will definitely take players by surprise and have them laughing. Of course, going back in time does have its design downfalls, as some worlds are more barren than anything else, and there's a few instances of poor mission design that will leave players frustrated and anxious to jump into the next section. The last level in particular is especially drab. It falls into the classic pitfall of "throw everything possible at the player and see how they do." Honestly, I used the explosive weapons to rocket-jump through just about all of it. Perhaps that was intended, but considering how wonky rocket-jumping physics are in Bedlam, I highly doubt it. Each world ends with a boss, and they're all impressively mediocre. The big thing shows up, player shoots it a lot -- fin. The last boss in particular is tedious, and offers up just about zero challenge to the player. Despite the poor boss fights, the game has enough brilliant small moments to really stand out. After I had completed the game, the things that stuck with me were the tiny segments that used its plot device to its strength and didn't adhere to the obvious formula that it was playing with. I'm confident in saying that there are enough of these to keep the player interested throughout most of the game. To accompany the decade-hopping mechanics, the game's aesthetic varies from place to place as well. Most noticeably, the models get progressively better as the meta-titles get more modern. However, things like the health and body armor pickups remain the same throughout every world. It would have been interesting to see the developer also explore how health system evolved as the genre itself did, but instead we get floating health packs that are way out of place in most of the worlds. The voice acting, at least, is top notch. The radio chatter is entertaining and very well done, it's just a shame that a handful of times I was forced to read the subtitles because the surrounding noises, like being in a firefight, drowned out the actual voice acting.  Bedlam will take players on a jaunt through various first-person shooter worlds, but the problem is that none of them are particularly great. There are some absolutely wonderful and memorable moments strewn throughout the five or six hour experience, but they are brought down by some poor design in both the missions and boss fights, and essentially the entire last chapter. I genuinely did have some great laughs, and there are worse ways to kill an afternoon, but ironically Bedlam falls prey to many of the same issues of the games it apes. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Bedlam Review photo
Actually, it's relatively tame
Similar to Evoland and its sequel, Bedlam is a game that hops between time periods and genres of gaming history. The latter, however, is a first-person shooter. I've grown up playing as many FPS games and mods ...

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes

Oct 21 // Chris Carter
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (3DS)Developer: Nintendo EPD, GrezzoPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: October 23, 2015 This time around, Tri Force takes place in the kingdom of Hytopia, bordering the desolate Drablands, home of an evil witch. Said witch is jealous of the princess' beauty, so she casts a spell on her to hide it forever, with a skin-tight suit that won't come off. Only chosen heroes can enter the Drablands and break the curse, which is obviously where you come in. It's not the most original setup, but I like it. The new setting and cast of characters (including the depressed king) help make Tri Force more interesting. Although the general setup of the game involves level-based dungeon crawling for loot, there is a hub world, and bits of story woven in along the way. The town hosts a costume shop (more on that later), a daily chest-picking minigame, a Miiverse gallery, and a few extra NPCs to talk to as well as several secrets. It will only take you a few minutes to trod through, but it has enough character to get by. Link (or more appropriately, the "hero") has a few abilities at his disposal right away -- dashing, swordplay, and picking up items. The rest will have to be acquired by way of dungeon items (such as traditional arrows and bombs) or costumes. The latter will grant you special abilities, mostly in the form of boosting items or powers, and can be crafted at the aforementioned shop. It's important to note that this is the basis for the entire game, which is provided in a Skinner box fashion similar to MMOs or other dungeon crawlers. The multiplayer element adds new mechanics entirely, most notably the "totem" system. Here, you'll be able to pick up one or two Links (or in turn, get picked up), which will allow players to access greater heights, or slash their sword and use items at the top. Often times you'll have to create a stack of just two Links while the other player hits a switch, and so on, leading to some interesting puzzles that have the mark of a classic Zelda game, with the obvious Tri Force teamwork twist. [embed]315403:60732:0[/embed] Your loop will consist of entering dungeons, besting them, and then choosing from a selection of chests at the end. You'll be granted materials, which can be pieced together to create new costumes, and thus, a new strategy with which to approach each level. You can of course "beat the game" straight through and not experiment, but the spirit of Tri Force is decidedly Diablo-like in nature, leading players to return to levels constantly -- if you dislike that type of gameplay, I'm warning you now. Strangely, the online component is very advanced for a Nintendo game. Online play is available with full matchmaking capabilities, as well as friend-specific lobbies, and a robust offline component that allows for download play. Hell, there's even a blacklist function so you can block people online who ruin games. There's no voice chat of course, but the emote system and intuitive nature of the dungeons don't require it in the slightest. In fact I actually prefer some of the cuter emotes, like the cheerleader dance that gets progressively larger on-screen the faster you tap it. I had the chance to play online numerous times with strangers, and it was a pleasurable experience to say the least. The game often allows players to shine individually, but divvies out unique items to everyone, forcing all members to work in tandem. For instance, one game I was the only person with a bow, so I had to hit far away switches and enemies while my teammates carried me to the appropriate height. Meanwhile, they had to clear blocks with bombs so I could reach those switches and back them up with my sword. It was a rush, and that feeling didn't really let up through the entire campaign as I played through it with teammates. Bosses are even more fun, as they provide for an array of different strategies that involve anything from splitting up to working as a totemic unit. Each zone mixes up the theme and new mechanics just enough to keep you interested, especially if you're learning all of these concepts for the very first time with two other people. Plus, it feels good to save the day with a new costume you just picked up earlier that afternoon. Solo play however isn't nearly as fun. Whereas Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures had plenty of concessions for those who decided to play by themselves, Tri Force Heroes is the exact opposite. Here, you'll have to deal with "Doppels," which are copies of your character -- they emulate the other two players. To transfer your essence into another Doppel, you'll have to tap their portrait on the touch screen. It's not only a pain to have to do this manually without a button shortcut, but it essentially amounts to doing each level three times over as you'll have to get to a location, select another Doppel, and repeat. Very early on you'll learn that picking up Doppels in a totem formation and moving as a group is a way to go, but puzzles are often so complex that you need to break up frequently, and thus, control the Doppels individually again. It's puzzling why Nintendo didn't create a new campaign just for single-player folk. I mean, to play by yourself you have to enter a completely different room in the castle, so it already had the groundwork to be its own game type. I would outright suggest that you avoid Tri Force Heroes if you plan on going at it alone. The good news is that the online portion works wonderfully, and with download play, you can get a local three-person game running up in no time. If you don't fit that criteria though, you can probably pass on Link's newest adventure. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Zelda review photo
It's dangerous to go alone
People often say Zelda never innovates, but I'd argue that they haven't been paying attention to the many unique games in the series. Titles like Minish Cap feel completely different while maintaining the class...

Review: Tales from the Borderlands: The Vault of the Traveler

Oct 20 // Darren Nakamura
Tales from the Borderlands: The Vault of the Traveler (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: October 20, 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.] At the end of the previous episode, so many questions were left unresolved. What happened to Felix? Where is Vaughn? How is Rhys going to deal with Handsome Jack? Who is the Stranger who kidnapped Fiona and Rhys to get the whole thing started? All of those questions get answered. The story of the Stranger is particularly well done. Over the course of the series it has become clear he was a known character. I had a couple of guesses, some of which were shot down along the way as people died. When it was finally revealed, it caught me by surprise, but doesn't feel like a cheap copout twist. Some hints were there on the way. The other big question looming over the series over its duration centers on Gortys. Most of the story takes place via flashback narration in which the perky robot is happy and healthy, but the present-day bits have had Rhys, Fiona, and the Stranger collecting her pieces all over again. What happened to her? [embed]315774:60751:0[/embed] It's a question I personally fretted over because Gortys has become my favorite character in the entire Borderlands universe. Her unrelenting optimism and childlike demeanor are so refreshing on the cutthroat planet of Pandora, giving her best lines that much more comedic weight. Gortys delivers several laugh-out-loud funny lines this time around, but a sad effect of Telltale design is that some players might never even hear them. My favorite came as a response to one of the dialogue choices. It almost makes me want to play through again just to see if there were any great lines I missed out on. This episode gives another substantial reason to warrant a second play through. Getting ready for the final confrontation, the usual gang of suspects has to put together a team, pulling from the supporting cast reaching back as far as episode one. In a move Telltale ought to adopt for all its series, it spells out exactly who is available and why or why not based on past choices. I covered for Athena when Janey was suspicious after the chase in Hollow Point, so she would be willing to fight with me again. I was hesitant to call myself a Vault Hunter, so Zer0 never took much notice and was unavailable. Not only would I have to replay this last episode if I wanted to see Zer0 in action again, I'd have to basically start from the beginning. Given how good this series is, I'm not upset about that. I doubt the final outcome of the fight with the Traveler is any different depending on which characters join in, but the battle itself is customized depending on who is there. It's intrinsically cool to see each character in action given the circumstances of the encounter, but I am reluctant to spoil the specifics. One of the aspects of this series that amazes me is just how impactful it can be on the Borderlands universe. What started out as a story about a middle manager and a lowly grifter has irrevocably altered Pandora as a whole. While The Pre-Sequel worked within the confines of the existing lore, providing back story for Hyperion and Handsome Jack, Tales builds new stuff on top, setting up for the inevitable Borderlands 3. Thinking of the future, there are a few open-ended plot points in this last episode. Though a lot of past choices were highlighted and their effects were explicitly shown, the choice that puzzled me the most is given to Rhys as he is describing his struggle with Handsome Jack. As far as I could tell, nothing in this series was affected by it despite its potentially huge consequences. Additionally, there's the very end. After the climactic battle with the Traveler, as the group is celebrating and grabbing loot, there's one final scene that might be setting up for a whole new adventure starring Rhys and/or Fiona. Whether that becomes Tales from the Borderlands Season Two or part of the mainline series, I don't know. But it will definitely get Borderlands nerds excited considering the possibilities. I cannot recommend Tales enough. Borderlands fans will love the fresh take on the dark comedy universe. Telltale fans will love the smart writing and callbacks to choices made throughout. People who don't fall into those categories might still love it because it is just that great. This last episode maintains the action, drama, and comedy present throughout the series. It ties up all the major loose ends while leaving just a hint of room for more to come. Most of all, it solidifies Tales from the Borderlands as Telltale's best series to date, a pinnacle of modern adventure gaming. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Borderlands finale review photo
Your journey ends here
[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.] What a...

Review: Life is Strange: Polarized

Oct 20 // Brett Makedonski
Life is Strange: Polarized (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One[reviewed])Developer: Dontnod EntertainmentPublisher: Square EnixRelease date: October 20, 2015MSRP: $4.99 (Each Episode) To this point, Life is Strange's greatest strength has been in the Arcadia Bay that developer Dontnod created, which is a place that we experienced mostly on our own. We'd walk around, observe, converse -- whatever we could do to learn a little more about the town. Great depth was added simply by letting us look at everything. It's no coincidence that Max told us early on in episode one that she's "always looking." In Polarized, she isn't always looking. Instead, she's quickly pulled from scene to scene with little time to take in her surroundings. Life is Strange's most poignant bits are often the ones where Max is allowed to reflect, to slow down. The last episode put less of an emphasis on this, but it still worked. Pulling the same trick twice in a row doesn't fare as well, as this doesn't quite feel like the same game that we meticulously pored over for four episodes. More damaging than the quick pace is the manner with which Polarized treats Life is Strange's characters. So many of them were flawed yet sympathetic in some way. There were very few that existed outside of a moral grey area -- even the ones who seemed like they should be pure evil. Unfortunately, this chapter mostly does away with that nuance. Too many characters are revealed to be straight-up heroes, villains, or pawns. We were conflicted about these people in the past. Now we're essentially told how to feel about them. It takes away a lot of the heart-string pulling and leaves you numb to their arcs. [embed]316331:60781:0[/embed] As often as Polarized deviates from the Life is Strange formula, it's not always a detriment. Some parts are the strongest sections of the episode. These are the moments when Life is Strange is at its most Twilight Zone, which is a side that Dontnod has largely abstained from. There's an entire backward scene where everyone walks and talks in reverse; it's a real joy. Earlier, there's a conversation with an antagonist where Max has no dialogue options but to offer sincere admiration. It's weird and uncomfortable enough to make your skin crawl. While that forced interaction worked, others aren't as successful -- especially when they come at critical junctures. Apart from one very notable occurrence, much of Polarized gives the player very little agency over Max's choices. That's a problem when the four previous episodes thrived on it. Actually, Polarized goes so far as to retroactively render some previous decisions moot, sacrificing a major game feature for narrative good. Despite finding issues with this chapter at every turn, I found myself more or less fulfilled with the conclusion -- although, I firmly believe that's an enthusiasm for Life is Strange as a whole as opposed to this installment alone. I think Dontnod discovered that it created a world that sprawled a little too far, and it wasn't sure how to bring it all to an end. So, it went with the easiest option. Or, as an art critic in this chapter phrased it, it took the path of least regret. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] (Previous Life is Strange reviews: Chrysalis, Out of Time, Chaos Theory, Dark Room)
Life is Strange review photo
The path of least regret
It's perfectly fitting that Life is Strange's final episode is subtitled Polarized. I can't think of a more apt word to describe my mindset right now. Life is Strange's conclusion left me satisfied, but not for the same reaso...

Review: Downwell

Oct 20 // Steven Hansen
Downwell (PC [reviewed], Android, iOS)Developer: MoppinPublisher: Devolver DigitalReleased: October 15, 2015MSRP: $2.99 Downwell asks you to learn with it, explaining nothing outside of the control scheme (move with directional pad or analog, jump and shoot with one button) and the upgrades between levels. Initial expeditions down the well are clumsy. Your Gunboots start with limited charge (think: ammo) and you have to refill them by touching solid ground. Or -- wait, they refill when you stomp on an enemies' head, too? -- and, oh no, don't try and stomp on an enemy that is an angry bright red. These are the kind of things you learn as you delve deeper and deeper into Downwell's four worlds (three levels each) and they are presented intelligently. For example, the first spat of blood red enemies that you shouldn't be jumping on all have spikes, video game shorthand for danger. Later ones won't warn you so nicely. And of course there's trial and error, too, like touching a hot stove, for those who don't get it. Level randomization requires you stay engaged. Different power up offerings between levels will change how you play. Dimension-shattering time voids are occasionally cut into the well walls and host a treasure trove of gems or different ammunition. The latter is where the Super Crate Box comparison is obvious. [embed]316411:60790:0[/embed] Changing ammo isn't a strict necessity, but it practically is, given that picking up a new ammo types will often come with a heart or some battery charge for the Gunboots (more ammunition between reloads), but different ammo types function in drastically different ways. Shooting is actually more useful in fighting gravity and keeping yourself from falling too quickly into unseen trouble than it is for killing enemies; they should typically be bopped. Especially since bopping enemies fills your Gunboots and stringing together kills without touching down gives you rewards. It's best to stomp out enemies, using your ammo stores to occasionally slow your descent or send you across the screen to stomp something else. Aside from the constantly changing levels, ammo types, and upgrades, new "styles" are unlocked over time, like the "Boulder style," which features a much fatter boy who starts with six HP instead of four, but only gets to choose from two between-level upgrades instead of three. Then of course there are dozens of Palette options that change the colors of the game, though I have only found a handful I like as much as the default black, white and red. The variety makes the frequent deaths more palatable and I would probably buy a custom dedicated handheld that just played this game. Because death comes so quickly, health is at a premium. If you slowly inch your way down the well, stopping at every platform and dutifully eliminating enemies, you'll take forever and likely not rack up enough gems to clear out shops, which are operated by the the most adorable timeline version of a snowman (who gives a good disapproving face when you jump behind the counter). But as you get better and can chain combos, netting gem, battery (ammo) and health bonuses, you can stay in the black, even increase your max HP. It's all about building a better, more equipped you while you play. It's always fraught, mind. You are working against gravity and your stabilizing shots will sometimes rip the ground from under you as you destroy blocks on the way down that might have offered reprieve. Or you accidentally shoot an enemy you're coming up on, losing a chance to replenish your ammo, and end up in a dangerous free fall. My 15-hour transition from inelegant tank (Boulder style) laboring down the well to eyes-closed, 25-kill-combo (Levitate) falling with style has been a flurry of close calls, of "one more run," of consistently dying to the boss despite doubling my starting health. The knees-braced bullet pounding side winding across the screen to slow my descent, the meaty pop of brain stomping and the brief upward moment it grants before gravity yanks me down again. And for such a noble reason. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Downwell review photo
Falling with style
Once upon a time I was falling in love, now I'm only falling down wells. Downwell is a game about getting down a well, but the only way to get down the well is to learn how to get down the well well. Because this Game Boy thr...

Review: Pulse

Oct 20 // Jed Whitaker
Pulse (PC)Developer: Pixel Pi GamesPublisher: Pixel Pi GamesReleased: October 20, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Eva's story isn't exactly original as it is essentially a mashup of a Disney cartoon and M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. Pulse centers around Eva, a girl blinded at a young age, who defies her parents and attempts a dangerous pilgrimage using only echolocation and her imagination to visualize the world around her. What motivated Eva to embark on this journey is never explained, though the results of her actions are evident by the time credits roll in around an hour and a half later. That's right, an hour and a half for a penny shy of 15 dollars, which means you're paying over 16 cents per minute of gameplay. On top of that, there is a Steam achievement for beating the game under 30 minutes, so it clearly can be done faster. Whether or not the cost of entry is worth it depends on how much you value the artistic style of Pulse, because the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. That isn't to say that it's bad, just that it doesn't really go anywhere. From the moment the game starts and you take your first few steps, you'll have grasped everything it has to offer. [embed]316434:60795:0[/embed] Walking causes colorful rippling sound waves to trace the world hidden within the black void that is Eva's vision. Following the paths as they are revealed in the darkness, you'll come across Mokos, which are round, Furby-like critters with giant puppy dog eyes. Mokos can be picked up and thrown to cause sound in the distance -- giving Eva a brief glimpse at the level ahead -- and can be placed in giant hamster wheels to open closed doors.  The only area where Pulse really deviates the gameplay is one requiring Eva to walk slowly across a frozen lake, taking care to pay attention to where the ice is cracking beneath her feet thus allowing a safe passage. Aside from that, you'll come across a couple of areas of simple platforming, and not much more, which is honestly a shame for how great the game looks. Unity isn't exactly known for having the best-looking games, but Pulse proves that the engine isn't the problem by having one of the most gorgeous presentations this year; from a vibrant forest, to a tundra, to a living cave, Pulse is stunning. Due to the way Eva is imagining how the world around her looks, the world is brightly colored in a minimalist way, meaning each level only has a few colors total. One level is mostly blue, while another is mostly shades of orange, which sounds like it would hard to navigate, but the creators made it work and I never found myself lost a single time.  Pixel Pi Games managed to take the concept of a blind heroine and create something beautiful around it, but considering the game took less time to complete than this review and costs 15 dollars, it is hard to recommend to anyone but those thirsty for an artistic game or a unique character. If Pulse had a longer, more in-depth story with evolving gameplay, it would be easily recommendable. As it stands now, it feels more like a proof-of-concept than a full-fledged game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Pulse photo
Expensive art without vision
While having a blind protagonist isn't exactly a brand new idea, Pulse tackles the subject in a unique way that proves that video games are indeed art by being one of the most colorful experiences I've played to date.  Unfortunately art sometimes comes with a high price and ends up not only lacking vision, but being a bit short-sighted.

Review: Tales of Zestiria

Oct 20 // Chris Carter
Tales of Zestiria (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Bandai Namco Studios, tri-CrescendoPublisher: Bandai Namco EntertainmentMSRP: $49.99 (PC, PS3), $59.99 (PS4)Released: January 22, 2015 (JP), October 16, 2015 (EU) October 20, 2015 (US) If you've played a Tales game before, you pretty much know what to expect. This is still very much a hero's journey affair, with the main character Sorey embarking upon an epic quest to become a Shepard and save the world. This is complicated by two warring nations, the evil Heldaf, and the Hellion -- monsters created out of pure evil energy. Along the way Sorey will conscript new companions into his crew, including his childhood friend Mikleo. For the most part, the story stays on point and doesn't stray from its primary goal of a fantasy epic. Just when you think it's starting to get crazy with the juxtaposition of humans and the heavenly Seraphim race, Zestiria quickly grounds things with Sorey as a tether, who was raised by the latter but is still a human. It's all very straight-forward, partially to a fault, and is easy to follow. Zestiria houses a stable of interesting, memorable characters, but they don't necessarily grow over time. Sorey also sports a bit of a drab persona, but again, it helps that he's at least likable. As you may have heard, Zestiria has generated a fair bit of controversy over in Japan when it was released earlier this year. The crux of the issue stems from a character named Alisha, who was heavily promoted before the game's release, and then relegated to a side character that wasn't in most of the game -- and later sold as DLC. The games producer even apologized for it. This in no way effects the review, but it's something to be aware of in case you might have heard something negative about Zestiria in the past. Ultimately, I'm ok with this being Sorey's tale. When it comes to exploration, Zestiria walks a fine line between open environments and too many linear dungeon-like settings. It's actually more open than both Xillia games, but don't get the impression that they're as sprawling as say, Xenoblade Chronicles. I'm ok with this compromise though, as the developers have stuffed a ton of secrets into the game's universe, including monoliths that grant you information, and cute hidden creatures called Normin that grant you rewards the the effort of finding them. The concise focus also helps make the dungeons less of a slog, and allows them focus more on a centralized theme or puzzle element. [embed]316377:60788:0[/embed] Combat is easily the most meaningful advancement Zestiria has made, however. It's now a lot more action-oriented, and relies on SC (spirit chain) energy, which adds a new strategic element to the mix. At first players will start off with just 4-hit combos, which are essentially a mash session, but the game quickly ramps up into something much more interesting. For starters, your attacks get stronger as you expend SC, but unloading all of it will leave you vulnerable. To recharge SC you'll have to guard or stay idle, leaving you open to attack. It's interesting, as sometimes you'll want to go all out on a foe if they're stunned or if you're attempting to finish them off, but it can completely backfire. It's a nice risk-reward system that's present in every fight, not just boss encounters. Other advanced arts like quickstepping (dodging) come into play on a constant basis. Oh, and certain characters can actually fuse, Dragon Ball style, with Seraphim companions to supercharge their abilities, which is just as fun as it sounds. Everything having to do with character customization is supercharged this time around, actually. Players can stack skills for each party member to make them stronger, or diversify their elemental loadouts to create new skills. There's also a host of meta-abilities like snack preparation and discovery, which recharge party member's health bars and present icons on the minimap respectively. You can even further augment characters with abilities like auto-guard, and alter your AI's strategic tendencies when you're not in control. They really went all-out when it comes to the game's core mechanics. Like most Tales games, Zestiria has a beautiful art style in tow, with plenty of bright colors and endearing character designs. It has its limitations however, as it is a PS3 game at heart, and longshots typically don't have the same impact. Also, the camera angle is insufferable at times, especially indoors, and can't be easily manipulated. Thankfully dual audio comes standard with the western release, and both the dub and sub are well done. You can also alter the battle difficulty at any time, lengthy combo input windows, utilize fast-travel, skip cutscenes, and even skip individual lines of dialogue. Oh, and players can save anywhere with a quick save system, which is convenient. Tales of Zestiria plays by the book in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to its cast and narrative. But it's still a great entry into the series, and a welcome return for old fans, especially as far as the battle system is concerned. In fact, it's even inspired me to go back and finish both Xillia titles -- that's the magic of the Tales series at work. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tales of Zestiria review photo
A tale of two Shepherds
My history with the Tales series is sort of akin to an on again, off again relationship. I was introduced to Phantasia by way of a friend's import copy, and immediately fell in love. After that I only dabbled in a f...

Review: Guitar Hero Live

Oct 20 // Chris Carter
Guitar Hero Live (PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: FreeStyleGamesPublisher: ActivisionMSRP: $99.99 (Game + guitar), $149.99 (Game + two guitars)Released: October 23, 2015 The first thing you'll notice about Guitar Hero Live is that the controller itself has been reworked. Now, instead of the typical color-coded five button setup, you'll find two rows of three buttons -- one row is white, and the other, black. I didn't realize this until later on, but it's actually easier for newcomers to pick up since you don't have to use your pinky finger at all, but tougher for veterans who are used to a 10-year institution of the same old setup. Honestly, I loved having to relearn everything I knew. While I was rocking it out to expert-level songs in Rock Band 4 immediately after years of retirement, it took me multiple days to get a basic grasp on Guitar Hero Live. It recreated that unique feeling of picking up a plastic guitar for the first time. It also helps that Live has five difficulty levels (basic, casual, regular, advanced, and expert), that all ramp up perfectly depending on your skillset. It's especially important to note that the former settings only require you to use one row of buttons, which will help you slowly acclimate to the new setup. As time went on and I started jacking up the difficulty, the game gets crazy tough. There's a major focus on one-finger vertical cords, as well as split cords with multiple combinations, and open strumming cues with no buttons. It's far from a realistic guitar simulator, but I really dug the increased emphasis on chords and fancy finger-work. It may feel like a step down at first glance, but there's a lot of depth found in these six buttons. The chief reason why FreeStyleGames was able to seemingly perfect this aspect of the game is because Live is guitar-centric again. Yep, there's no drums, no keyboard, no "bass" ensemble -- both players play lead guitar. There is the option to hook up a USB microphone to sing vocals, but they are absolutely ancillary to the experience, and I wouldn't recommend picking up the game for singing in the slightest. Technically, vocals add in support for the third player, but Live is definitely focused on the same one or two-person jam session that the original brought to the table in 2005. Again, I'm totally okay with this, as the series started to get stale when it tried to be too much like Rock Band. [embed]315533:60780:0[/embed] There's also a fundamental shift with the story mode, which no longer displays lifeless uncanny valley avatars strumming along to the song. Instead, the developers have recorded live footage with real bands playing each song with a live crowd, and strapped a camera to the lead guitarist to simulate a first-person view. Yes, it's FMV, but the end result is done so well that it blows past the Mad Dog McCrees of old. For each set (three songs), your character will start backstage. Here you'll get a bit of setup, perhaps some light drama, a quick chat with a stagehand, and on occasion, a visit from a makeup artist. It helps set the scene and gives you the basic gist of what it feels like to walk out onto a stage in front of thousands of people. As the song progresses, the camera will dip and dive across the stage with your character. Now here's the neat part -- depending on how well you play, the FMV will shift in a surrealist fashion to suit the situation. For instance, playing well will net you a cheering crowd and lots of smiles from your fellow bandmates. Playing poorly will shift the FMV into a negative state, with shaking heads and plenty of boos from the audience. It's such a little thing, but the band itself will start giving you a hard time vocally as well, which is jarring and motivating at the same time. I'm not going to act like this system elicits any kind of actual emotional response, but it's very cool to watch and it's seamlessly done. I'm genuinely surprised they went through the effort of essentially recording two entire concerts for each set of songs. The included setlist itself is rather diverse, consisting of classic rock songs from Queen, The Who, and The Rolling Stones, alongside of more modern groups like Green Day and Fall Out Boy, all the way up to Skrillex ("Bangarang" works better than you'd think) and a recent Eminem song ("Berzerk"). It has something for everyone, with a good spread of indie hits, folk music, and top 100 joints. While the actual story mode is only playable solo, there is a freeplay mode with all 42 on-disc tracks that you can enjoy with a partner, which also features the FMV setup. So that's the first half of Guitar Hero. Next up is the other half: Guitar Hero TV (GHTV). As you may have heard, this concept is going to be rather controversial in nature, as it features microtransactions, and a "stream-centric" DLC model where you can't actually buy songs, but play them on-demand. I fully expected to hate it based on concept alone, but to my surprise, it's probably one of my favorite modes in any rhythm game to date. Let me explain a bit -- GHTV is a multi-faceted affair. At its core is the "channel" system, which currently hosts two playlists. These shift every half hour with new tracks and genres, and quite literally follow the traditional television model, where everyone is playing the exact same thing at the same time, complete with leaderboards. In other words, if you boot it up, you may be jumping in mid-song into a competition. This aspect of Live is devoid of microtransactions. You can play both channels for free without paying Tokens (more on that later) as long as you want. And that's just what I did for days on end. During one of my testing sessions, I played the channel system for three hours straight, earning Tokens for on-demand plays along the way. Since this system is curated, I stepped out of my comfort zone, and discovered new bands, or played songs that I wouldn't normally play from bands I already knew about. It broke the typical rhythm rut where I'd only play my favorite tracks, and it's a really cool feeling. GHTV also has the added benefit of hosting music videos for every single available song. As someone who grew up with MTV, it was a joy to watch them all over again, especially classics like Tenacious D's "Tribute." It's also a lot more fun to watch music videos as a spectator compared to the aforementioned uncanny avatars. Since the channels are going to be constantly updated over time, I'm excited to see what the future holds.  The other side of GHTV is on-demand and features microtransactions. Here's how it works: for each track played, you'll earn Tokens. If you do poorly, you'll earn roughly 100-130 Tokens on average. If you do well, you'll net close to 200. You can also earn daily rewards for logging into the game and bonuses for ranking up. One on-demand play is about 600 Tokens, and there's also the option to buy cosmetic bits like new note highways and player cards. Finally, there's a "Party Pass" for $5.99 that grants you access to the entire TV catalog (hundreds of songs) for 24 hours. Here's the good news -- you can basically ignore all of this nonsense if you play the channels. Personally, I put in over 20 hours into GHTV and haven't felt compelled to spend a cent, with 70 spare freeplay sessions banked. You might not feel the same if you hate the principle of not owning content, but as a regular subscriber to streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, it's not a difficult concept to grasp. While GHTV has the potential to turn a lot of people off, I would be satisfied just playing channels for the immediate future. Both the channels and on-demand support two players. Guitar Hero Live completely took me be surprise. I love the new controller design, the FMV portions work far better than they should, and Guitar Hero TV hooked me with its channel concept. Going forward, I'm hoping that the model further reinvents itself by introducing the world to new music. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher, specifically, the dual guitar package.]
Guitar Hero Live photo
An axe to grind
As I've said many times in the past, I was a Guitar Hero man all the way up until I first laid eyes on that beautiful keyboard for Rock Band 3. The Hero series was stale, iterating annually (sometimes multiple times...

Review: Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water

Oct 19 // Zack Furniss
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water (Wii U [eShop only])Developer: Koei Tecmo, Nintendo Software Planning & DevelopmentPublisher: NintendoReleased: October 22, 2015MSRP: $49.99 This time around, the ghost-infested location is Mount Hikami, which is a stand-in for Aokigahara (worth a read if you want to hate trees), the real-life Suicide Forest. Initially, this feels like the perfect environment for Fatal Frame. A series that deals with ancient, forbidden rituals in Japan should feel at home in the suicide capital of the world. Unfortunately, the setting feels wasted as soon as you start playing. For the first hour and a half, you're locked on a ridiculously linear path. A supporting character gives you a tutorial on how to use the camera and explore your environment, and you can't do anything except what she tells you. "Let's go upstairs," she monotonically asserts. If you try to go off the path, the camera forces you back around. If this segment was a few minutes long, it would be forgivable, yet this feeling of restriction creeps back in sporadically throughout. Want to go down that road in the forest? "You must find Fuyuhi," the dialog box insists, as you're pointed back towards your current objective. Objectives are another unwelcome addition. Instead of having to explore Mount Hikami, you can almost always hold a button to watch a ghostly image of whoever you're trying to find appear, heading in the direction of your objective. Although past games in the series have erred on the side of obfuscation, the areas you wander about are mostly small and confined. Having a constant push in the correct direction feels obtrusive, as if Maiden of Black Water doesn't trust its own visual cues to convey your intended destination. Using the GamePad as the Camera Obscura should make up for the lackluster exploration, but the control scheme fails to feel intuitive in any way. Be prepared to keep the pad at eye-level at all times, since pressing the camera button in your lap will make your perspective start at your crotch. You can either choose to use the gyroscope and analog stick or just the analog stick, and I would recommend the latter after the novelty of the GamePad wears off. The main problem with the gyroscope is that you're required to rotate the controller to take certain pictures, but when combating spirits you still need to use twin stick movement to avoid attacks. Even when the pad is completely vertical the sticks don't compensate, so you still have to hold forward to move forward, which sounds rational but feels awkward as all hell in practice. If you're like me and invert your Y-axis, good fucking luck making this work. You'll still have to turn it like this with the gyroscope turned off, because Fatal Frame really wants to justify its use of the GamePad. Koei Tecmo didn't think we could handle puzzles this time around, so the next best idea it had was that some keys could only be found by taking pictures with a correctly oriented camera. It's not difficult, but it never goes beyond feeling like an afterthought. Even simple movement can be frustrating; occasionally, turning around becomes more arduous than fighting ghosts. Battling ghosts with the Camera Obscura is relatively similar to past iterations, which the exception of tilting the camera to get portrait shots. Ghosts now have small fragments that float around them, and if you can take a picture with five targets, you'll do more damage to them. There are also three different characters who have their own abilities with the camera, like charged shots or chains of 8 rapid-fire photographs. You can also upgrade the camera's stats, improving its damage or the lenses that you find throughout Mount Hikami. Snapping photos of the ghosts with these lenses is cathartic, and it's heart-warming/chilling to hear that old Camera Obscura sound. That catharsis doesn't remain for too long, since you'll be encountering enemies about every two minutes. Tension never has a chance to build since there's always a specter ready to pounce at you. Instead of dreading ghosts because they're horrifying, you'll dread them because of the repetition they bring. Pacing was not a priority here. In keeping with the aquatic theme, there's a new "wetness" gauge that fills up when you're running through rain or attacked by certain ghosts. If you're thoroughly soaked, you'll take more damage, but your pictures become more potent. This risk-reward system could have added some much-needed adrenaline to the combat, but the change in damage values is negligible. The wetness gauge never goes beyond an excuse to ogle a bit of rain-soaked bra strap. There's also an abundance of healing items that render both this status effect and any damage you receive toothless. Tell-tale shiny glints betray herbal medicines and better film hidden all throughout Mount Hikami. This becomes increasingly far-fetched as you explore each area in the game entirely too many times, yet the items are always replenished. I'm usually not one to point out clichés, but Maiden of Black Water found a way to make items infuriatingly annoying. Y'see, you don't just press a button to pick something up. You have to hold a trigger to slooooooooooooowly reach out towards the object while a bweeeeeeeeyooooooooo sound rings in your ears. Each time you do this, there's a ~20% chance that a disembodied ghostly hand will grab your wrist, weakly shaking you and doing a minuscule amount of harm. It happens often, is never scary, and will make you angry. I can't fathom why this mechanic was even considered, as it murders any semblance of pacing left in the game. So many horror games are given passes for poor controls and mechanics if they manage to raise your heartbeat. Maiden of Black Water fails even in this regard. The aforementioned pacing is the crux of the issue, but unimaginative enemy and location designs are also to blame. While I can remember most of the enemies from the previous games, I'm having trouble remembering all of the ghosts from the one I just played. You'll fight a bunch of shrine maidens and one memorable guy with a big knife, and one woman who convincingly moves as if she's still hanging from the rope that she used to kill herself. The rest? They're...people, I guess. Nothing as good as the Broken Neck Woman, or the Woman in the Box, or the Kusabi. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water seems so, so tired. Maidens, rituals, sacrifices, suicides, water, black hair growing and covering every surface...we've seen all of this done before and with more skill. Two small moments offer an enticing glimpse at what could have been: a short trip to a cable car station and a short episode where you're monitoring surveillance cameras. The second I got to the modern-looking cable car station, I realized how much this series needs to go to new places. I was wrong about Aokigahara, it was more of the same. That surveillance episode subverts the camera theme, making you helplessly watch as phantoms slowly encroach upon your friends' rooms. If new concepts like these were used throughout, this could have been something special. At least there's a hefty amount of game here. My first playthrough took about 13 hours, and there's a bonus episode where you can play as Ayane from Dead or Alive. It's not great, but playing Fatal Frame stealthily is at least a novel idea. There's also the Nightmare difficulty and the bonus costumes you can unlock for further replayability. It's too bad that most of that is backtracking through the same areas time and again. I experienced four freezes in my time with the game. I'd recommend not looking at your photo list to see your recent pictures, as that's what led to each freeze. The only way I could get out of the menu was by doing a hard system reset. That I wasn't able to look at pictures in a game about taking pictures is a fantastic summation of my experience. Off-TV Play made too much sense for Koei Tecmo to get it right; it's playable, but whether you're using headphones or not, you can't hear any of the in-game voices (dual audio, by the way!) or music. You need the TV for that. Nintendo seemed hesitant to bring Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water overseas, and I'm sure it'll be monitoring how it sells to gauge interest. Twelve-year-old me would be upset with this review, and he'd blame that asshole Zack Furniss for condemning the series to death with a damning review. He'd be in the comments below telling me that I wasn't playing it right, or that it wasn't my type of game. All I would have to say to him is this: If this what Fatal Frame is now, I don't want it anymore. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fatal Frame review photo
Treading trashwater
I was on the cusp of adolescence when I first played the original Fatal Frame. My friend Richard and I spent many a summer night with eyes wide from the horrors we had witnessed in the Himuro Mansion. The sequel Crimson Butte...

Review: Mushroom 11

Oct 17 // Darren Nakamura
Mushroom 11 (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: UntamePublisher: UntameReleased: October 15, 2015MSRP: $14.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Creation through destruction is a central theme in Mushroom 11, represented both in its story and its gameplay. Here, players control a green slime mold with a peculiar trait: it will always try to maintain the same number of cells at all times. If one dies, another one grows anew. The kicker is that the new cell can appear next to any other currently living cell, so long as there's space for it in the environment. It can show up near where the original cell died, appear on the other side of the organism, or manifest in a totally different location if the mold has been split into two or more chunks. Instead of direct control over the blob, players are given what's basically an image editor erase tool. Click in a spot to designate a circular area that will destroy any cells within. Right click for a smaller circle and finer control. That's all there is to it. What results is a reversal in thinking in terms of movement across the desolate landscape. You don't have control of where it goes; you have control of where it doesn't go. Destroy in one place so you may create in another. [embed]316036:60766:0[/embed] The control scheme sets up for some great physics-based puzzling. Early on, the challenges are in reaching high objects, climbing steep walls, and clearing small gaps. Most are small feats of engineering, requiring the creation of towers and bridges with the ooze. Sometimes, this brings about a sort of "leap of faith" situation, where it can take ten or more minutes carefully constructing a shape that fits a puzzle's needs and very nearly clears an obstacle, but for the last push it requires a quick erasure of everything but the tip. It's a huge relief when it works, but an incredible bummer when it fails. Those who err on the side of caution may spend a lot of time tediously trimming cells one by one, hoping with each destroyed square, the new one will pop up in a desirable location. That example is a subset of one of my biggest problems with Mushroom 11. The cardinal sin of a physics-based puzzler is when the player knows the solution but cannot manage the execution. The tedium of the slow approach is one thing, but a small handful of puzzles get downright infuriating due to the semi-random nature of the cell growth. There was one in particular in the seventh stage that had me second-guessing my solution after almost an hour spent on it. I had the right idea, I was just not quite fast enough. When I finally did complete it, I didn't feel like I had done anything fundamentally different that time than I had during the hundred previous attempts. In broader terms, the difficulty of Mushroom 11 was a surprise. The first couple levels can be easily completed in less than a half hour. The next few clock in at under an hour. The seventh stage took me as long to complete as the other six combined. It is not messing around. Early on, a lot of the greater challenges are optional, rewarding players for exploration or going the extra mile. At the end, some of the mandatory challenges almost made me quit and the optional ones seem damn near impossible. I eventually had to take a break because my finger was sore from how hard I was holding down the mouse button. It's almost as if Mushroom 11 transitions from being a puzzler to an action game during the final act. Not only do some of the sections require precision, they also demand speed. The control scheme can provide for either on its own, but having both at the same time can take a bit of luck. The world this all takes place in is strangely beautiful. It paints a picture of an earth after humanity, full of desolation and decay. Each level has its own look to it, but the trend is toward less machinery and more nature as the game progresses. Humans may be gone, eradicated or forced to flee, but life still goes on in their wake. Again, creation from destruction. Overall, Mushroom 11 is a worthwhile experience. It has its missteps, most notably when its puzzles favor brute force over elegance or when it doesn't play to its unique control scheme's strengths. But its uniqueness is its greatest asset; there isn't anything else quite like it out there, and it takes a different kind of thinking to get through. I wouldn't be surprised to hear some may abandon it before finishing due to its difficulty, but I also wouldn't be surprised to see diehards pop up, going for the no-death and the 100 percent runs. For me, I'm totally happy with my single playthrough. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Mushroom 11 review photo
Doesn't quite go to 11
From the beginning, Mushroom 11 establishes itself as something different. Though it has been done before, the whole concept of traveling from right to left in a 2D game can still be jarring simply because of its rarity. It s...

Review: Yoshi's Woolly World

Oct 16 // Laura Kate Dale
Yoshi's Woolly World (Wii U)Developer: Good-FeelPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $49.99Release Date: June 26 (EU) / October 16 (NA) Sitting at around 10 hours to complete, Yoshi's Woolly World is a delightful journey through a world full of pleasantly enjoyable surprises. Colours are bright, wool textures are detailed, and animations are always fluid. The game's world is polished where it needs to be, but isn't afraid to have the kind of natural rough edges present in a game about thread and sewing materials. From loose threads that unravel when pulled to fabrics that fold in asymmetrical ways, the game world just feels like an incredibly tangible physical space. Woolly World really shines when it takes advantage of the design aesthetic. From Shy Guys brandishing crochet hooks threateningly to fish spitting out water that, thanks to being made of wool, can be run along, the game excels when it fully commits to its core design concept. Mechanically, Woolly World is at its best and most challenging when it pushes Yoshi out of his comfort zone. Yoshi's abilities are all designed to keep him out of harm, from eggs that can dispatch enemies at a distance to a very forgiving and lengthy jump arc. The times when Yoshi's Woolly World forces you to take a leap of faith that pushes that jump to its limits, requires you to fight enemies in close quarters and experiments with the characters weaknesses are some of the best moments of Yoshi gameplay out there. It's just a shame those moments are few and far between. [embed]295585:59414:0[/embed] The vast majority of Yoshi's Woolly World doesn't push the titular hero's moveset in ways that really challenge the player. While levels frequently throw minor new gimmicks in that freshen up the feel of progression, they rarely have any real effect on the challenge of playing the game. It's not necessarily a problem; if you're looking for a calm and relaxed exploration of new mechanics in a colourful world then this certainly delivers that in spades. But yeah, be aware that the challenges are often spread out for the player. There are a bunch of collectibles to go after in the game, most of which are monotonous to collect and offer very little reward. The main exception to this is collectibles that allow you to re-skin your Yoshi, which are pretty enjoyable to seek out. The game's co-op mode does give you the benefit of being able to use your partner as a source of wool if you run low, but the levels in the game were very clearly designed to be played single player and more often than not, your secondary player will feel like they're hindering progression rather than helping with it. Yoshi's Woolly World is best described as easy, beautiful, and inventive. While the times it offers challenge are a little too spread out for my liking, the game looks and sounds stunning, and offers players a variety of new sights to experience along their journey. If you're looking for something to play to unwind, something pleasant and positive, this would be a pretty darn solid choice to go with. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer].
Yoshi's Woolly World photo
Pleasantly fluffy
Yoshi's Woolly World is the epitome of adorable. From Yoshi's cute, easily read facial expressions to the bright colourful world he inhabits, the intricate minor details to the tactile physicality of the world, this game took...

Review: Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden

Oct 15 // Laura Kate Dale
Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden (3DS)Developer: Arc System WorksPublisher: Bandai Namco GamesReleased: October 16, 2015 (Europe), October 20, 2015 (North America)MSRP: £22.99 / $29.99 So, let’s get the core info out the way. Extreme Butoden is a 2D sprite brawler for 3DS set in the world of Dragon Ball Z. All playable characters have the same core controls, similar to games like Smash Bros. where the inputs don’t vary, but the moves produced do. Dashes double as teleports into counter positions if timed correctly, while characters string together basic combo strings, ranged projectiles, and launchers. You fight each match with a team of characters, built up of mains and non-playable assists, with the player able to switch between team fighters at any time. Characters mainly vary in terms of plot-specific special attacks, power, and speed. If all this sounds a bit dry and by the numbers, it’s because that’s how it feels in game. It’s by no means an incompetent fighting game, far from it, but it just plays everything too close to the chest. There’s nothing about the combat that feels particularly new for fighting game fans, or particularly exciting for Dragon Ball Z fans. Visually, Extreme Butoden has turned out pretty nicely. While not the peak of 2D sprite work, they certainly hold their own with some of the better examples of 2D sprites on the system. Sprites are crisp, expressive, and fluid in their animations, which leaves little room for complaint. It is worth noting that with 3D on the system switched on, some of the special attacks do look rather spectacular, with a lot of work clearly put into effective 3D layering. In terms of a story mode, Extreme Butoden’s initially available story mode sees you playing through a truncated version of the events of Dragon Ball Z. Events are skipped over and dialogue is shortened in such a way that a lot of the drama, emotion, and investment is stripped away. Much of the engagement with Dragon Ball comes from the long, drawn-out exposition screams, and that isn’t really replicated here. Imagine the plot, heavily abridged, and told through mostly still character portraits, lifeless dialogue text, and the occasional brief plot-related battle that doesn’t go on nearly long enough to justify its build up. It’s a bit of a disappointment. After completing the main story, you do unlock some alternative storylines to play through that offer interesting spins on the narrative, as well as an additional adventure mode that sees Goku face off against many of the enemies from the main story in a slightly contrived narrative. It’s fun to do fight bosses in new combinations, but the overarching story attempting to string that together feels like an afterthought developed to excuse the gameplay content. One of the more disappointing aspects for me was the limited playable roster. While many of your bigger-name characters are playable, most of the supporting cast of fighters is relegated to support assist roles. Past Dragon Ball Z games have allowed a very wide selection of characters, down to some of the most useless, to be playable, so this feels like an unfortunate step back. Unlocking these additional assist characters is also a bit of a lengthy chore, as they have to be unlocked by attaining high ranks throughout other modes. Many of these character unlock requirements do not feel like the reward unlocked is really worth the effort put in. Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden does feature a local multiplayer mode, but unfortunately no online multiplayer. If you couldn’t tell from my less-than-enthused review, I really couldn’t muster up feelings either way on this game. It’s a competent fighter with nice sprite work, but it also does very little interesting with narrative presentation, combat mechanics, or gameplay modes. It all feels very safe, and I didn’t really feel much by the time I was done. Time to scratch my Dragon Ball Z itch with some Budokai Tenkaichi 3. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Dragon Ball Z photo
Competent, but not excitingly so
When it comes to Dragon Ball Z fighting games, I am one of those people who loves them for the over-the-top spectacle more than the technical fighting specifics involved. I know when a fighting game feels responsive and plays...

Review: Jackbox Party Pack 2

Oct 13 // Nic Rowen
Jackbox Party Pack 2 (PC [reviewed], PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Amazon Fire TV)Developer: Jackbox Games Inc.Publisher: Jackbox Games Inc.MSRP: $24.99Released: October 13, 2015 The Jackbox Party Pack 2 includes five games in the collection, two of which are returning Jackbox favorites. Fibbage 2 keeps the same great format of creating believable (or hilarious) lying answers to trivia questions to bamboozle your friends while adding in a few new tricks (the new one-time use “deFIBrilllator” gives you a 50/50 chance between the right answer and a single lie instead of seven) and more than doubling the number of questions of the original. While Fibbage still supports 2-8 players, it has borrowed the audience feature of Quiplash to allow audience members watching on a stream or through the web based game client to vote on their favorite answers, sliding even more points to the most entertaining or diabolical players. This feature is particularly great for streamers and folks with large social media circles, just send out the room code and anyone who is interested and join in and see how clever you and your friends are free of charge. Quiplash, which was separately released last summer as a stand-alone title, returns as Quiplash XL. It's identical to the original, but includes the DLC question pack and an extra 100 prompts to spice things up (nice to have after starting to run into rerun jokes after playing a lot of the original). Quiplash is by far the most free-form of the games, simply setting up jokes and asking the players to fill in a punchline. Your friends then judge “WHO IS MOST FUNNY” and vote on which answer tickled them the most. It's quick, easy, and endlessly entertaining.   The only flat note I can think of is that it doesn't seem as lovingly reworked as Fibbage 2. While Fibbage 2 features new art, new tricks, and the freshly adopted audience system, Quiplash XL is just “more Quiplash” with no added bells or whistles. Not a bad thing, but not thrilling either. While the new questions are definitely welcome, if you just bought Quiplash and the DLC question pack a few months ago, it may damage the value proposition of the pack. Fibbage 2 and Quiplash XL are the anchor games of the pack and likely the two titles most groups will spend the majority of their time with, especially as the night wears on and a combination of exhaustion and inebriation make the other games a little too much to handle. Fortunately, they're so good that they basically justify the cost of the pack on their own. But don't count out the rest of the collection. The other games in the pack are a little more daring in design and show that Jackbox Games isn't afraid to venture out of it's comfort zone, for better or worse. Next is Earwax, which unfortunately seems like the lame duck of the pack to me. Earwax prompts players with a question or leading statement and asks them to answer not with words, but with two random sound effects from a selection that is different for each player every round. “What is this party missing?” Maybe it's an “awooga horn” and a “metallic crash.” Or maybe it's a “(female voice) Oh yeah” and a “very long, wet fart.” Are these jokes working? No? Yeah, I thought so too. And that's the sad part about Earwax. While some rounds shook buckets of laughs out of my group, most were met with nervous tittering and awkward silences. You don't know what the choices will exactly sound like, so often the inflections on a line will be different from what you intended, or what seems like a cute joke will just fall flat. The pace of the game is off too, with everything between introducing new prompts to playing sound effects taking just slightly too long, bogging down the experience (especially after a dud round). The concept is interesting, but the execution just didn't pan out. Thankfully, the other new additions to the Jackbox family fit in much more smoothly.   Bidiots, the spiritual successor to Drawful, is a drawing game with a bidding and bluffing element that is surprisingly engaging. At the start of each game, each player is given two prompts to (poorly) draw with their finger tip, a budget of $3000 to bid with, and a few tidbits of secret information other players may or may not have, like how much a certain piece is worth. Where things get interesting is that multiple players will likely have prompts that are vaguely similar to each other. Three separate players may have “day at the beach,” “getting a tan,” and “sunburn.” Your goal is to finish the game with the most cash possible, cash you earn by driving up the price of pieces you made, and successfully winning bids for high value pieces -- a trick easier said than done with the number of thematically similar pieces going around. “Sunburn” might be worth a cool $3800, but what if you confuse it with the near worthless “getting a tan?” To help guide you, rich art patrons will occasionally text you throughout the game with tips like “Player 2 knows the exact value of the next piece” and if you get really stuck, you can always take on a predatory loan, easy cash now that you'll pay back with interest at the end of the game. Bidiots is a ridiculously great time. While it may take a little more explaining than the other games in the previous collections, the result is a mix of the same goofy fun of Drawful with a sly layer of strategy underneath. Really great if your friends are used to playing competitive boardgames or otherwise enjoy a little bit of mental warfare with their games. Definitely the standout of the new games. Last is the off-kilter Bomb Corp, a game that plays like a faster, less complex version of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. Bomb Corp ditches the faux game-show trappings of the other games with the odd premise of being a new worker in the poorly run office of a bomb factory; your job is to disarm all of the accidentally activated bombs by referring to the instruction manual. Of course this is a party game, so the instruction book will be divided between up to four players with each player getting one or two (often intentionally contradicting) rules. Each bomb presents increasingly complex logic puzzles to solve as the rules get more byzantine. Rule #1 might say to disarm by cutting all the wires from right to left, Rule #2 says that no green wires can be cut even if another rule says to do it, Rule #3 stipulates that only Player 2 can cut odd numbered wires, while Rule #4 is a correction to Rule #2 that says green should have been written as “blue” all of which you try to frantically communicate as the timer clicks down. *Boom* Bomb Corp is a surprising addition to the pack with a distinctly different feel from the rest of the games. I see if as a great option to get folks who may be a little nervous about the more creative games into the swing of things with a more structured experience. That said, the later levels of the game have to potential to stall out a group if you keep getting blown up on the same section. It should also be noted that Bomb Corp can be played by a single player, which gives the pack a smidgen more value for those times when you don't have a group around, but doesn't seem a huge addition either way. Brass tacks, the Jackbox Party Pack 2 made me and my friends laugh our asses off, and that's what it's all about. I can't think of an easier or quicker way to reduce a room to a giggling mass of hysteria, just toss it at a group of people and go. Party Pack 2 is a ridiculous value that is sure to provide you and your friends with a lot of laughs and great memories, exactly what every party game should aspire to. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Jackbox Party Pack 2 photo
A jacked up good time
Last year, The Jackbox Party Pack showed everyone how to do party games right. It served up quick, punchy laughs, and did it all with zero hassle. This was thanks in no small part to the game's innovative interface that allow...

Review: Minecraft: Story Mode: The Order of the Stone

Oct 13 // Darren Nakamura
Minecraft: Story Mode: The Order of the Stone (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: October 13, 2015 (Mac, PC)MSRP: $4.99, $24.99 (Season Pass)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit To its credit, Minecraft: Story Mode does a lot well. The use of Minecraft's engine and iconic visual style is a nice workaround to keep the Telltale Tool from showing its age. It's hard to complain about low-polygon models for a world comprised mostly of cubes. Despite having fewer moving parts to work with on the character models, the characters are as expressive as they need to be. By narrowing or widening eyes and tweaking eyebrows, the block people (and pig) can show a range of emotions in a cartoony sort of way. The voice work aids in bringing the low-fidelity characters to life as well. The cast is impressive, including the likes of Patton Oswalt, Billy West, and Paul Reubens, to name a few. Though the characters look similar in the beginning, each has a defined personality that comes through thanks to the actors. Much like a session with Minecraft proper, by the end of the episode my brain stopped seeing everything and everyone as a collection of hard-edged polyhedra and just accepted them as regular places and people. [embed]315133:60717:0[/embed] However, the all-star voice cast does highlight The Order of the Stone's biggest shortcoming. With such big names in comedy doing the dialogue, it's disappointing how little comedy there is in the script. There are a few gags that find their mark, but most are worth only a smile or a chuckle; none really stood out. On the other end of the spectrum, the drama doesn't really deliver either. The elements are there: life-or-death situations, uncertainty, mistrust. Still, none of the prototypical "big choices" felt like they carried much weight. Of the five choices shown at the end, the first is just a judgment call with an unknown and arbitrary outcome, two involve whether you want to be an asshole to a guy who doesn't deserve it, one won't have clear implications until a later episode, and the last is a decision on which of protagonist Jesse's two friends has a better plan for what's to come. The choices highlight an emphasis on the future. Put plainly, The Order of the Stone is heavy on exposition, setting up the backstory, characters, and events for the rest of the season. While necessary, it misses some opportunities to be memorable in its attempt to lay the foundation. Story Mode will probably be more of a hit among Minecraft fans than general Telltale fans. The Order of the Stone features a few Minecraft-specific gameplay bits and references. A couple times during the episode, players are presented with a problem, given some materials, and tasked with crafting a solution. Recipes are given for those who don't know what to make or how to make it, but other craftable objects are present as well. While trying to make a stone sword, I accidentally crafted a lever. After a playful rib about me not knowing what I was doing, the materials were returned so I could forge the weapon. Later on, the group has to hit a pressure plate beyond a hallway filled with arrow traps. Recipes and materials are given for a couple possible tools to use. It would be great if there were other hidden solutions to discover for those who know the source material inside and out. In addition to the crafting puzzles, there is one classic adventure game puzzle found toward the end of the episode. It isn't especially original or taxing, but along with the crafting it does represent a step in a more gameplay-oriented direction from the recent story-only Telltale series. So far, Minecraft: Story Mode is like a Saturday morning cartoon. Sure, there is conflict, but it doesn't feel dire. Sure, there are funny bits, but the comedy isn't sharp or intelligent. Sure, there is a story, but it doesn't feel like it matters yet. There is some hope for this series to be great in the future, but The Order of the Stone is just okay. The Minecraft-specific gameplay is a nice way to shake up the usual formula. The blank slate of the universe allows the tale to go wherever it wants. The voice cast is full of actors who can do great work. But the writing needs to be more engaging if Story Mode wants to be taken seriously among Telltale canon. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Minecraft review photo
Exposition mode
Telltale has seen ups and downs with its licensed titles. With Jurassic Park the studio was still figuring out what works and what doesn't. More recently, The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands have shown the strengt...

Review: System Shock: Enhanced Edition

Oct 10 // Patrick Hancock
System Shock: Enhanced Edition (PC)Developer: Looking Glass Studios / Night Dive StudiosPublisher: Looking Glass Studios / Night Dive StudiosReleased: September 22, 2015MSRP: $9.99 The first thing to address is what has actually been updated in this "enhanced" version. Since buying the Enhanced Edition comes with the original, it was easy to compare the two, despite me never playing it previously. The updated version's aesthetic is just overall better. The game sounds and looks much better, with smooth textures and crisp audio.  Controls are also much more user-friendly. Pressing the E key will switch between locked and free mouselook, which is a huge upgrade compared. Players will be going back and forth rather frequently, so having this process streamlined is a godsend.  The atmosphere of System Shock is always touted as one of its strongest points. The physical atmosphere can be creepy at times, with blood sprawled on the wall spelling messages of help and warning, but some of the music tracks just kill any sense of dread or fear in the player. It's certainly not bad music, but it doesn't quite fit in with the overall aesthetic and feels....funky. Like, ToeJam and Earl funky. There are also a TON of sound effects that are often played on top of each other. The resulting cacophony of noise is anything but pleasant. Hell, just fighting a couple of cyborgs results in the "BEEBAPOBEEBAPO" of the enemies layered on top of the sounds of the player's weapon of choice, which is rough to listen to. Don't get me wrong, there are moments where the sound is the strongest factor, but the lousy parts are just as memorable, and for all the wrong reasons. [embed]313454:60689:0[/embed] Despite being over 20 years old, System Shock plays rather well, though it has its quirks. The movement is a bit janky, like the fact that moving diagonally is way faster than simply going in a straight line. The user interface is easily maneuvered, and I recommend that players use the fullscreen mode -- it minimizes most of the interface and increases the visibility of the environment. Plus, with the updated textures, things don't look horrible when they take up the entire screen. Combat is simple and easy to understand. Since switching between free and locked mouselook is a button press away, it's quick to adjust to various combat situations. Using the user interface to switch weapons may take some getting used to, but it's not complicated to figure out and eventually becomes second nature.  Generally, the question of "Why don't I just buy and mod the original version?" comes up. To this, I say good luck finding it! System Shock: Enhanced Edition is, for all intents and purposes, the only way to play the original game if you don't happen to already own it. Even if the old version were available, the enhanced version is at a great price and packs in all of the common mods to make the game much more enjoyable. Perhaps the best part about System Shock, which is naturally still part of the game, is the ability to customize the difficulty in every aspect. Combat, puzzles, missions, and Cyberspace can all be altered to a difficulty of zero to four. Combat and puzzles are rather self-explanatory, while lowering the mission difficulty removes plot elements and changing the Cyberspace difficulty alters the time limit and challenge of those segments. While certain aspects of System Shock don't hold up in today's world, a surprising amount of them do. New players, like myself, can jump right in and have a very enjoyable experience, full of atmosphere and action. The enhanced version is exactly what it claims to be, and makes the game way more playable than the original version. If you've ever been curious about the first title in the System Shock series, now is the best time to jump in! [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
System Shock review photo
I've never played the original System Shock. I understand how important it was to the RPG and FPS genres as a whole, but I was five years old when it came out, which is slightly too young to appreciate it. I've played the sec...

Review: Metal Gear Online

Oct 09 // Chris Carter
Metal Gear Online (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Kojima ProductionsPublisher: KonamiRelease: October 6, 2015 (Consoles), TBA 2016 (PC)MSRP: $59.99 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) $49.99 (PS3, Xbox 360) / Included with MGSV As previously mentioned, Metal Gear Online only has three modes currently. There's a decent amount of variety within those gametypes, but the issue is how everything is playing out right now in the game's meta. In essence, players often aren't using any form of stealth (outside of Cloak and Dagger, which forces one team to do it), or aren't going for the objectives in general. Instead, most games end up being slugfests and devolve into team deathmatch situations. That's not to say that these basic strategies aren't handily countered by players who have the know-how, it's just what's happening. While it's not wholly the fault of the designers, Metal Gear Online doesn't do a great job of facilitating objective play, as the whole thing is kind of a laissez faire situation. That both excites and concerns me. On one hand, I love that MGO is just as vague as Phantom Pain. Instead of spelling out every facet for players, you'll have to just figure out everything on your own, from advanced tactics to the best way to counter enemies. On the other, I'm not confident in Konami's ability to effectively police and update the game in the slightest. It's very possible that there could be a ton of content from Kojima's team waiting to be pushed out in waves over the course of the next year. But since this is all speculation, we only have what's currently in MGO to assess, and it's lacking in areas, chiefly how servers are handled -- or, I should actually note, a lack of servers. It seems as if the game is P2P based, which creates all sorts of issues for players. First off, hosts can remove people from the game, and if they disconnect, everyone gets booted with no XP or rewards. It's egregious to say the least, and not something you really see in a major shooter in 2015. [embed]314621:60673:0[/embed] Then you have issues like the party system not actually placing you on the same team as your party constantly, or the basic inability to join a friend's game in progress through a quick menu option. Thankfully the microtransaction element hasn't bled through for MGO (yet?), but cosmetic equipment is too expensive currently, as it would take hundreds of games to earn some of the higher-up rewards. I would be more okay with the expensive price of gear if the aforementioned booting issues were rectified with dedicated servers. Now, the gameplay is still superb. That's due in part to the fact that it's literally Phantom Pain, online, which is completely fine by me. Every movement is fluid, gunplay handles like a dream, and the sheer flexibility of the engine makes for some breathtaking moments. Aiming, running, and dolphin diving feels better than pretty much every shooter on the market right now. It's crazy how it feels like a natural extension of my adventures with Venom Snake, and how all of my training instantly pays off online. When you distill it down to individual matches, Metal Gear Online is just fun to play. You can boot up a session, and provided that you don't have any connection issues, generally enjoy yourself, even if a lot of people are ignoring objectives. It's a rush to use stealth effectively and have an enemy run by your prone body completely, then dash up to them, choke them out, and Fulton them. Getting to use the Snake and Ocelot special loadouts from time to time is a joy as well, as are all of the little Easter eggs and details locked within MGO. I've seen a lot of complaints that the Walkers are overpowered, but I've found them easy to deal with. Not only are they incredibly easy to spot (and show up on the radar), but they can be swiftly taken out with a quick sniper shot or a few well-placed bullets. Plus, both sides get them, so it's not like one team is at a disadvantage -- people just need to learn how to counter them. For the most part I don't think balance is an issue for MGO -- it's the technical side that drags things down. Even though we don't review what might be (could you imagine how cool it would be to see co-op Metal Gear missions? Now we may never see the day), I'm still torn with the current state of Metal Gear Online. I wouldn't necessarily recommend picking up the entire Metal Gear Solid V package just for online play, as it still has a lot to prove. I'm pulling for it to get better, but I don't trust Konami. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Metal Gear Online photo
It's not over yet, Snake
I've spent a considerable amount of time this week with Metal Gear Online, and despite my initial positive impressions, I'm having some big-picture issues. In short, I'm not sure how long this train is going to be chugging along, especially when you take Konami's recent history into account.

Review: Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash

Oct 08 // Ben Davis
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash (3DS)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoReleased: October 9, 2015MSRP: $29.99 In Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash, pint-sized aliens have invaded Earth, stealing resources along with everyone's favorite snacks, and it's up to Chibi-Robo and his partner Telly (who is now shaped like a computer) to save the day. Chibi-Robo will travel the globe, putting a stop to the aliens' plans and rescuing any snacks he might come across (all based on real name-brand snacks and candies from around the world). To navigate the areas around him, Chibi-Robo uses his plug as a whip to destroy enemies, collect items, grapple onto certain surfaces, or helicopter across pits. The plug can ricochet off of walls as well, opening up a lot of possibilities for interesting platforming as the player tries to angle the perfect shot in order to reach distant objects. The cord starts off rather short at a measly 6 inches at the beginning of each level, but it can be lengthened up to 120 inches by collecting blue orbs. [embed]314129:60631:0[/embed] Aside from the plug mechanics, there are plenty of jumping sections, puzzles to solve, enemy hordes to destroy, items to collect, and even a few levels which have Chibi-Robo skateboarding, wakeboarding, and traveling by balloon to reach the end. There are also some pretty cool boss fights to round out each world. Just looking at the platforming mechanics alone, Zip Lash is a perfectly competent entry to the genre. Each world changes things up with new ideas and interesting layouts, so that the gameplay doesn't become stale too quickly. Once again, Chibi-Robo's health is indicated by his power supply, which slowly depletes as he's moving around and decreases significantly if he falls into a pit or gets hit by an enemy. He can recharge at any outlet by inserting his plug, which will cost a few watts (watts are earned by recycling trash). He can also buy spare batteries as a backup. For the completionist gamers out there, each level is filled with several hidden collectibles to find, including the aforementioned name-brand snacks, special medallions, Chibi-Tots playing hide-and-seek, toys to talk to, and trash to clean up and convert into energy. If something is missed the first time through, levels can be replayed in order to search more thoroughly, but only after certain conditions are met. Which brings me to my least favorite aspect of Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash. Most platforming games like this feature a map with each level laid out on a path, which are then played sequentially. Zip Lash tries to subvert this common feature by implementing the "Destination Wheel." After each level, Chibi-Robo will spin the wheel to select a number. This number determines the amount of spaces he'll move on the map, which in turn determines the next level to play even if it's not the next level in the sequence. Once every level on a map has been discovered and beaten, the player can then proceed to the next map. Basically, this means that most people will be playing the levels out of order, which could have been a neat idea. The problem, however, is that maps are laid out in a circle, and if the player loops around and lands on a level they have already played, they will be forced to play it over again in order to proceed and pick another level. Because of this, this one simple idea of the Destination Wheel single-handedly demolished my excitement for Zip Lash. Being forced to replay levels due to bad luck is not a fun mechanic. The only reason I can think of for this to exist in its current state would be to artificially extend the game's length, and that's not something I can get behind. They even included a separate wheel to spin for boss levels, which is completely pointless and a waste of time as there's only one space on the entire wheel. The Boss Wheel might have been a funny joke if the Destination Wheel wasn't already such an annoyance. Granted, there are ways to sort of bypass the wheel. Wheel numbers can be purchased with moolah (the in-game currency) so that the player will be more likely to land on a number they want. It's also possible to get more than one spin, assuming the player was skilled enough to hit the gold or silver flying saucers at the end of the last level. Finally, once every level has been beaten and the world has been cleared, players will no longer have to spin the wheel for that world and can freely select whichever level they wish. If only it were possible to do that from the start... Unfortunately, the Destination Wheel wasn't the only problem I had with Zip Lash. As if being forced to replay levels due to poor spinning wasn't enough, certain areas of each level will only become accessible after the levels have been completed. These areas are totally optional and are only used for the chance to obtain costumes for Chibi-Robo (which can also be obtained by finding codes posted on Miiverse), but it still sucks to have to replay every level again, possibly for a third time or more if the player is really unlucky, just to find everything. I also had some problems with the lack of checkpoints during the skateboard/wakeboard segments, but that seems like a comparatively small issue next to everything else. All that wheel nonsense sadly soured Zip Lash for me, which is a huge shame because almost everything else about the game is fun and charming. The new platforming mechanics work well, the boss fights are exciting, and Chibi-Robo himself is as cute as always. I would have been content with this game had it not been for the awful Destination Wheel. If you're a die-hard Chibi-Robo! fan, or if the possibility of having to replay the same levels over and over again doesn't bother you too much, then Zip Lash might be for you. Unfortunately, it's tough for me to give this game a good recommendation after the frustrating time I had with it. I still love you, Chibi-Robo, but this was not your best effort! [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Chibi-Robo review photo
Poor little robot...
I've been a fan of Chibi-Robo! ever since the original was released for the GameCube back in 2006. It was a weird, adorable adventure game with a tiny robot who was tasked with cleaning up an enormous house, with happy musica...

Review: Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax

Oct 07 // Kyle MacGregor
Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax (PS Vita, PS3 [reviewed])Developer: French Bread, Ecole Software, SegaPublisher: SegaReleased: November 13, 2014 (JP), October 6, 2015 (NA, EU)MSRP: $29.99 (PS Vita), $39.99 (PS3) Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax has the appearance of a hardcore fighting game, and it certainly has the pedigree, coming from Melty Blood and Under Night In-Birth team French Bread and Ecole Software, but both looks and lineage can be deceiving. Here, the studios (along with their Sega-employed producers and associates at Kadokawa) aimed to deliver a more accessible experience than their previous work, something less impenetrable to the average person than the Guilty Gears or Street Fighters of the world. It's a noble idea. For as enjoyable and well-made as Arc System Works and Capcom's projects are, they are incredibly complex affairs. The barrier to entry with these games is much higher than, say, Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. series, which is more easily enjoyed by newcomers, despite its potential for high-level play. Fighting Climax tries to occupy a similar space, striving to create a middle ground, an intermediate that can appeal to fighting game enthusiasts of all stripes. In attempting to do so, Fighting Climax strips away many of the genre's more byzantine subtleties, while adding tools to facilitate absorption. There are no elaborate inputs here, not by traditional fighting game standards, anyway. The most difficult commands involve quarter-circle and half-circle movements, which makes executing special moves or "climax arts" relatively straightforward without reducing the gameplay experience to something oversimplified or wading into button-mashing territory. Well, that is aside from the auto-combo feature, which allows players to string together a reasonably powerful series of moves merely by hammering on the light attack button repeatedly. It's a concession to beginners, providing a mechanism to chain together a barrage of attacks, but its use is limited, preventing it from being a substitute for actual skill. Also more simplistic than a typical fighting game are the inputs, which are identical across the entire roster. The 14 main fighters, from Toradora's Taiga and Asuna of Sword Art Online fame to the unlockable Selvaria of Valkyria Chronicles and Virtua Fighter's Akira, all have the same commands for their basics attacks, special moves, impact skills, and supers. This makes picking up a new character easy, but weakens the roster considerably. Since every fighter is essentially cut from the same cloth, Fighting Climax doesn't foster as wide a variety of play styles or combat strategies as do its genre peers. And aesthetically, while every character has unique animations based on the source material, most of them fall into the "waifu" female lead archetype, exacerbating the sense of redundancy and lack of diversity present in the mechanics. There's some depth to be found in the assist system, with 23 support characters to choose between and a wide array of support and offensive moves to augment your fighter's innate abilities. These can be used mid-combo at the cost of meter to lay on some added hurt or topple your opponent, or just in normal situations with a cooldown to disrupt or punish other competitors. While assist characters accent the roster, they highlight a myriad of unique figures in the Dengeki Bunko catalogue that would have made for more compelling choices than several of the leading ladies. While everyone will have their own favorites, I was particularly disappointed to see Spice and Wolf's lupine goddess Holo relegated to a supporting role. The stages are also an odd choice, drawing inspiration from a number of Sega franchises (Sonic the Hedgehog, Shinobi, Virtua Fighter, NiGHTS, and Phantasy Star Online among others), rather than the non-Sega worlds the vast majority of the cast is drawn from. While this makes sense in terms of the scant narrative the title's story modes offer, it's curious move on Sega's part to impose itself to such a degree in a game made primarily for fans of Dengeki Bunko's light novels and their anime adaptations.  There is some fan service to be found in the story modes, though, where players get to see characters from various universes interact with one another in cute little vignettes. Beyond that, Fighting Climax offers a bog-standard suite of features fighting game enthusiasts should be familiar with -- a spartan training mode, versus mode, a trio of challenge modes, plus ranked and unranked online versus. Most of it is handled fairly well, but, while I have no major complaints, nothing is terribly exceptional either. French Bread is a talented maker of fighting games, giving the experience a high floor, but this is not the studio's best work. It's perfectly competent, but feels like a major step down from the outstanding Under Night In-Birth, even if the titles were made for different audiences.  While decent enough, Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax may be too simplistic for most hardcore fighting game fans to enjoy as anything more than an ephemeral lark, but is also perhaps still too complex for those that find the genre intimidating. It feels like another instance of game designers shaving off any sharp corners in an attempt to please as many people as possible. Fighting Climax shows a clear reticence to take risks, and its failure to do so betrays its potential to become truly remarkable or distinctive. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Dengeki Fighting Climax photo
Identity Crisis
Teenagers are in a strange point in their lives. No longer children, but not quite yet adults, adolescents exist in an uncomfortable grey area, a metamorphic state that compels them to forge identities independent of their gu...

Review: Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below

Oct 07 // Chris Carter
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below (PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developers: Omega ForcePublisher: Square EnixReleased: October 13, 2015 (US), February 26, 2015 (JP)MSRP: $59.99 Following a very cool opening cinematic, you're greeted with the same iconic designs from Akira Toriyama that we've all come to love over the years -- yes, this might be an Omega Force game, but it's still a Dragon Quest joint. The visual style has translated excellently to this new endeavor, and although I'm sure some will find the realistic regalia meshed with bright goofy enemies jarring at times, it looks even better in action. It's great to see the timeless designs for enemies like the skeletons and slimes still hold up. There's also a lot of detail present, such as the aforementioned skeletons taking off their heads, or golems losing their bricks at times. The writing and story however, are very basic and not indicative of the typical Dragon Quest experience. There's plenty of fun puns (a slime says things like "Goo and help him" a lot) so it is charming, but the dialogue itself never really has any chance to evolve from start to finish. What you see in the first 30 minutes or so is what you get, and it follows the same sort of heroes' "ragtag band" journey schematic throughout. It is a hack and slash game after all, but I expected a bit more. Getting right into the action, players are presented with two control schemes -- one is a standard Warriors setup, and the other literally allows players to mash one-button combos with ease. Given that you can choose between these and a male or female main character to start, new players will relish how easy it is to acclimate. Said combo system takes its cue from Warriors in that specific rotations of light and heavy will lead into new moves (such as a wave-clearing area-of-effect or a vertical launcher), but there's more variance here than meets the eye when it comes to weapon nuance. For instance, swords can parry, staffs impact a wide area, and then there's all sorts of outliers like boomerangs, fisticuffs, whips, axes, bows, deadly fans, and magic. If you're curious, yes some fan favorite characters pop up, ranging from heroes who appeared in Dragon Quest IV through VIII. Players can also block, make use of a fully-featured jump (not just a useless hop), and utilize a rather generous dodge in addition to the classic Musuo power mode after charging up. [embed]312829:60648:0[/embed] Due to the exaggerated nature of the dodge, it makes the proceedings a bit more action-oriented than a lot of games in the past, and leads to a less rigid style of gameplay. Plus, using Musuo mode when combined with Toriyama's designs basically turns you into a Super Saiyan. You can also get more advanced with air dashing, double-jumping, summoning minions (which can go into offensive or defensive mode), party member toggling, and queuing up spells both in combat and in non-action sequences. As for the AI who follows you into battle (there's a real-time party switching element with L2), not enough work was done considering that it's a rather essential element. The AI is mostly involved with the battles at hand, sure, but they tend to loiter far too often, and it can take you out of the game. Maybe it's to actually entice you to switch more often to fire them up, but I wish there were a Gambit system of some sort that allowed you to control their general actions. It's not just the party system that makes Heroes feel like a real RPG though, as the game sports a world map, a pretty deep stat and customization mechanic, skill trees, and shops. You're free to upgrade your armor, magic, and items, and visit the alchemist to create and synthesize new gear. Players can also chat with their party at the bar, use the church to pray and save the game, and eventually get an airship. The sidequests feel right at home and like an authentic Dragon Quest game, and trophies reward players directly -- a system more developers should implement. But while sidequests are generally fun, missions are shorter battles that are often a bit too linear. In other Warriors games you're usually completing multiple objectives on large, sprawling maps with plenty of side areas, but here in Heroes they feel more like arenas that sometimes only span a few screens. Thankfully the bosses are more involved as a result, sometimes featuring flying enemies or multi-foe fights. I won't spoil them here but suffice to say they all have strategies and weak points to discover, and are sufficiently formidable. You'll need to actually switch between party members and think tactically. Alongside of the more bite-sized quest structure though is a complete lack of multiplayer. Yep, that's right -- there's no split-screen or online play of any kind. Whereas it was easy to introduce people into the world of Zelda with some co-op Hyrule Warriors sessions, Heroes is definitely a tougher sell, as the vast majority of Warriors games are shipped with heavy multiplayer elements for a reason. It does have all of the current DLC from Japan bundled in though, which is a plus. Dragon Quest Heroes almost feels like a fully-fledged action RPG, but there are a few things holding it back from greatness. In the end though it still has its charms, alongside of a beautiful art style and a buttery smooth framerate. If you really dig Warriors games and can go at it solo, you'll likely enjoy it.
Dragon Quest review photo
That name though
Close your eyes. Imagine you're stuck on a deserted island for a year -- yes, in this situation, a year is a certainty. If you could only have one game with you for that entire period (and have a working power source, bear wi...

Review: Transformers Devastation

Oct 06 // Chris Carter
Transformers Devastation (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developers: Platinum GamesPublisher: ActivisionReleased: October 6, 2015 MSRP: $49.99 So let's get right into the thick of it -- the action. As you'd expect from Platinum Games, Devastation has a sound bedrock, with a combination of ranged and close-combat maneuvers. Basic abilities include trigger-based aiming, a combo system with light and heavy attacks, a super button, and of course, the power to transformer at will into various vehicles. Combos can even involve transformations on the fly (signified by a blue light with a short window), a slam move can be initiated by transforming mid-air, ranged attacks are capable of headshots, and attacking at top speed breaks enemy shields. As you can see, there's a lot of advanced mechanics at work here. The most technical of all abilities includes the addition of Witch Time (frame-perfect dodging that slows time), a concept taken wholesale from Platinum's own Bayonetta, which I'm totally okay with. Everything feels incredibly smooth. The combos available are just enough to keep action veterans interested without overwhelming newer players. With three difficulty levels to choose from (appropriately balanced, mind -- with three at the start, and two more later), there's something for everyone. Other small touches like NPCs frequently fighting alongside of the player character, 2D sections, and vehicular-based chases or race segments help break up the combat a bit. There's a light amount of exploration involved within Devastation's mission-based structure, similar to most of Platinum's previous work. It's mostly linear, but at various points spokes of that linear wheel will break off, allowing for some form of deviation. That includes conspicuous gates that lead to new chests, or short twitch-based puzzles that provide a reward at the end. I actually really dig this flow, as you can skip a lot of combat sequences if you wish -- just note that many zones will wall off areas until you defeat all the foes within, so you can't just rush through the whole game. [embed]314115:60629:0[/embed] Much to my surprise, all of the playable characters have different styles. Grimlock is more of a grappler, Bumblebee is quicker and doesn't pack a punch, Sideswipe has access to a quicker dash, and so on. They're not wildly different to the point where you'll have to relearn every single facet of the game, but they're nuanced enough that there's actually a reason to pick different Autobots. Devastation also sports an appropriate Saturday morning cartoon narrative that would fit nicely into an afternoon special block. The voices are either spot-on replications (including the campy Teletraan-1), or actual members of the original cast. The gist is that Megatron is yet again after another massive power source, and it's up to the Autobots to save the day -- so don't expect anything new here -- but again, the nonstop action helps propel players from start to finish. There are a few shortcomings, though. For starters, the game is priced at $50, and feels somewhere in-between a full retail release and a downloadable game. There's a lot to sift through here, but I could have gone for more characters, secrets, and unlockable modes (a challenge mode is basically it). Additionally, the RPG systems in place feel like a half-measure, particularly the loot system. While the equippable upgrade chips are a nice touch (and are coupled with a fun little crafting mini-game), managing loot is a nightmare. Throughout each mission, you'll likely acquire something in the neighborhood of 10 weapons, most of which are garbage or only marginally better than what you're using. To really take advantage of these duds, you'll have to synthesize them into better parts, but it's far too much of a chore to do that constantly when you can just forge ahead to more action. The loot system should have been scrapped entirely or pared down far more than its current incarnation. While not a deal-breaker, it could have been handled a lot better. I'm not even sure if there are G1 fans out there anymore. It shouldn't be a deciding factor when picking up Transformers: Devastation though, as it's a great action romp by any right. Just be ready to deal with a few nitpicky issues.
Transformers review photo
None shall fall
I've been a fan of Transformers since I was old enough to understand what television was. The bright colors and toy lines drew me in, but I've been a fan ever since. It's not merely nostalgia that fuels that fire -- it's...

Review: Skyhill

Oct 06 // Stephen Turner
Skyhill (PC) Developers: Mandragora Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment Released: October 6, 2015 MSRP: $14.99 One man’s late-night extravagance ends up being his good fortune as Perry Jason’s penthouse suite shields him from a biological attack. Every guest and staff worker is transformed into a bloodthirsty mutant, leaving him the only human seemingly left alive. But without supplies and a wife lost to the city, he has no choice but to venture down 100 floors to escape this hotel-turned-house of horrors. Sounds easy, right? If only he wasn't already starving to death and in need of some makeshift weapons. Skyhill has the look of a horror game, but it’s a light RPG/roguelike/survival game at heart. You scavenge for food and items, combine ingredients for better supplies, all the while keeping an eye on your increasing hunger pains. It's not a scary game, especially with the comic book horror presentation, but it does an excellent job of handing the tension over to the player and their decisions. Every new floor is a gamble, every consumable carries short-term and long-term effects, and every push downward has to be thought out in advance. Essentially, Skyhill is about knowing when to hold and when to fold. [embed]313976:60617:0[/embed] Starting off in the VIP Room, which also serves as an upgradable home base, you work your way through each floor to reach the lobby (the end goal). Movement is done through a simple click on a room, but every location depletes a point from the hunger bar. Finding food is always the top priority; without it, movement depletes the health bar instead. Much of Skyhill is spent yo-yoing up and down the eponymous building, collecting random items, taking them back to the VIP room to craft better upgrades, then venturing back down to your last location. It might sound like a chore, but it's actually quite effective at creating an air of desperation; pushing forward due to a lack of supplies or a regained purpose. If you’ve played any survival games before, you’ll know what to expect from Skyhill’s crafting system. The tier system is easy to use, and it always tells you the items you need or already own. But keeping a hold of higher-tier items is a challenge, as you’ll always come across an elevator shaft that needs fixing with a certain item that you just created for something else. The same difficult choices happen with food supplies, too; eat the basics now for a short-term boost, or hold out to make bigger meal later on. It’s always a tough call. Of course, Skyhill wouldn't be a horror game without combat. Due to cramped environments onscreen, the game opts for turned-based attacks and statistics. Each mutant type has 2-3 body parts to attack, but the more damage you can inflict, the less likely you are to hit. Players can level up their stats – damage, speed, dexterity, and accuracy – by gaining XP after every fight. Though, honestly, the RPG elements don't really change up the combat, say, beyond landing more hits, and both end up becoming Skyhill’s weaker elements in the second half. Without an option to dodge (though you can retreat), combat is always tit-for-tat, and whoever gets the best string of hits wins. If there was ever a perfect representation of Skyhill’s negative traits, it would be found in the building itself; a rinse-and-repeat of exploration between two rooms and a stairwell. Skyhill never evolves, even close to the ground floor, preferring instead to throw more mutant attacks in the way. The only reason the final 50 floors are tougher is because they're more of a drain on resources; just more of the same without the breather. Still, Skyhill manages to be a decent stab at survivalist horror; rightfully using certain mechanics to avoid an even lesser game. It’s hard to imagine the combat working in real time due to the tiny spaces, or that if every room were visually more complex, it would lead to some tiresome pixel hunting. In a way, Skyhill is economical in what it does, even if it means being the old double-edged sword. That said, when you get right down to the core of it, see how the elements work in your favour or conspire against you, Skyhill admirably creates this tense game of hubris and courage, one that never lets up until you escape or, far more likely, die. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review photo
'We're on an express elevator to hell!'
100 floors up, countless mutants on the way down, and only one way out of town. No, this isn’t your average council estate in Swansea. This is Skyhill.

Review: NHL 16

Oct 06 // Brett Makedonski
NHL 16 (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: EA CanadaPublisher: EA SportsRelease: September 15, 2015MSRP: $59.99 In a genre plagued by incremental increases, this is NHL 16's greatest offering: An on-ice trainer that goes above and beyond. Hockey is a sport that's notorious for its inaccessibility to newcomers. Putting the biscuit in the basket is easy enough to understand, but where should my forwards be positioned when in the defensive zone? What kind of check should I execute when skating backward toward my goal? This training aid helps refine gameplay on-the-fly. It kind of teaches hockey, but more importantly, it teaches how to play NHL 16. For instance, when skating into the offensive zone, a cone will appear that indicates what part of the shooting lane is open and what part is blocked. A target may show up in the corner of the goal to tell you the smartest place to aim. Or, when playing defense, a box will cordon off part of the ice at your zone. Sticking to this area and covering the man in the box is what you're supposed to do. That's how hockey is played; NHL 16, simulation of hockey as it is, wants you to play it just like hockey. Those are two examples, but this on-ice trainer permeates every second of gameplay until you don't want it to anymore. It's a good thing too. I imagine EA had grown tired of players wildly out of position trying to line up huge hits. That's not how hockey looks, and it's not how a digital representation of the game should look. [embed]314010:60626:0[/embed] To its credit, the trainer doesn't stick to a low-level understanding of hockey. If it detects a seasoned player is at the helm, it'll start to adapt so as to offer more nuanced and advanced suggestions. Basically, everyone has something they can learn from this feature and it's incredibly unintrusive despite constantly being on the screen. It's the best part of NHL 16 because it actually enforces an understanding of doing what you're doing. The rest? Well, it's what NHL 15 should've been. Maybe it's unfair to hearken back to a previous game as a reference point, but fuck it. We make the rules around here. The on-ice product in NHL 16 is again solid and it includes the modes that last year's game should have shipped with. The actual hockey-playing in NHL 16 feels extremely similar to NHL 15. There are surely some physics and AI tweaks making ever-desired strides toward realism, but they feel mostly nominal. The game still plays well outside of the occasional rare physics bug. And this. Whatever the hell that was. With regard to the modes, they were mostly done right this time 'round. Be a Pro allows the simulation of shifts until it's your time to hit the ice again. (Curiously, the coach-assigned goals and ratings often seem off. Like, how do I have two goals and an assist, but a "C" ranking on offense for the game?) Likewise, the EA Sports Hockey League has been largely straightened out. Gone are the days of maxing out player skill through real-world currency. Now, everyone has to define their aptitude via a class of player that they pick. It's a smart design decision for the game's leading cooperative mode -- not to mention a surprisingly ungreedy one. Be a GM rounds out the most interesting modes that NHL 16 has to show. In it, you eschew the skates for a suit and tie. You're in control of an NHL franchise, and it's up to you to trade, manage, and motivate players. Games are simulated via a coach's drawing board where major events become markers like a "G" for a goal scored. The fascinating facet of Be a GM lies within the morale system. It's a bit paper-thin, but NHL 16 asks you to make unique speech decisions for different players. Over time, you learn what motivates your guys. Your star's ego might be too fragile for you to just outright yell at him; you may have to baby him instead. NHL 16 isn't perfect, but it's a substantial improvement over what released last year. Mind you, that's not some sheer brilliance; it's just because of general competence. The NHL franchise seems back on track, and it has even introduced the wonderful on-ice trainer. But, that trainer aside, it's tough to shake the feeling that NHL has just caught up instead of innovating. EA Sports spent this iteration making up ground. It was a necessary move, but not one that instills confidence that the developer has grown comfortable with the generational shift in consoles. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
NHL 16 review photo
Training wheels
In the mandatory initial matchup in NHL 16, I was forced to choose between last year's Stanley Cup Final contenders. I had to back either the Chicago Blackhawks who I very much dislike, or the Tampa Bay Lightning who I am ver...

Review: Armikrog

Oct 06 // Caitlin Cooke
Armikrog (PC)Developer: Pencil Test StudiosPublisher: Versus EvilReleased: September 30, 2015MSRP: $29.99 The game opens with a spectacular bang, showcasing an animated sequence of our hero Tommynaut and his sidekick Beak Beak crash landing into Armikrog, a strange complex on planet Spiro 5. Within its walls there are puzzles to explore, secrets to unlock, and history to discover as Tommy and Beak Beak make their way through the desolate alien buildings full of various oddities to find a way home. From the onset Armikrog contains the charming, silly humor you’d expect from a TenNapel game, and of course throwback themes that reference The Neverhood. Gameplay rests on your ability to explore and figure things out on your own, moving from room to room collecting items that will come into play later. The age-old point-and-click rule of thumb “click on literally everything” especially rings true as each area contains various puzzles which you (hopefully) put together to make it through to the next building in the complex. There’s not much life to Armikrog save for a few adorable fuzzy blocks, raptor-like creatures on wheels, and alien octopi who speak in a strange tongue – but it’s up to you to figure out why. A statue of a wise-looking man appears in different rooms from time to time and talks to you in a whimsical manner imparting general advice, but that’s about the most interaction you’ll have besides chatting with Beak Beak. Just like being in The Neverhood, for the most part, you’re on your own. At any given time you can switch between controlling Tommy and Beak Beak with a simple click. Beak Beak’s abilities allow him to fit into small doors and occasionally fly around which prove useful when finding various items, however that’s generally the extent of the dual-character system. Tommy doesn’t really have any special abilities going for him (besides being the protagonist, if that counts). It’s fairly obvious when you need to use Tommy vs. Beak Beak, like when a button needs to be pressed or stood on, but the tricky part is understanding the order of when these things need to happen as contextual clues are virtually non-existent. The gameplay mechanics are quite simple since there’s not much to the action besides clicking on things and moving from room to room, however it’s the complication of the controls which may throw players off. Old-school game logic is very much prevalent – I often took an extremely long time to figure something out only to realize I wasn’t in the exact spot for it to trigger. There were also moments when the opposite was true, and actions were far too fluid – like a traveling cart that can send you flying in various directions if you’re not careful. Puzzles range from straightforward to insanely obtuse, and there were a few interesting ones in between that hit the sweet spot. I particularly enjoyed a music-based puzzle that popped up from time to time which had me placing little adorable nursery toys in a certain order. For the most part, puzzles rely on your ability to keep track of certain themes and recall various symbols and patterns throughout your journey. Unless you want to rely on GameFAQs, keeping a notebook and pen handy are pretty much key. Armikrog didn’t hold my hand and indicate what I’d done right or wrong, so blindly guessing and forging through by clicking around was a common strategy. I found myself backtracking through rooms multiple times to see if I had missed anything, but more often than not I just had a general misunderstanding or difficulty navigating puzzles. Some puzzles have a distinct or unclear order to them that won't register if done incorrectly. I also had trouble with certain color-specific puzzles – some feature yellow and orange, or blue and purple pieces that I found to be nearly indistinguishable from each other. Those who have a hard time with colors may have difficulty getting through these puzzles as well. The lack of an inventory, although a callback to The Neverhood, was still something sorely needed. After picking up an item, Tommy puts it into his stomach, and it’s never to be seen again save for when you click on the correct place on the screen. I would often forget which items were on hand, making it hard to connect the dots when the time came. There were also a few outdated choices in terms of the interface – the manual save/load function is ancient, the cursor is plain without indicating what can be interacted with and how, to name a few. I believe Armikrog aimed to be specifically old school in this sense, but it was a tad frustrating. Whether these choices were intentionally nostalgic or not, it got in the way of actual gameplay. Armikrog could use a bit more tightening in general. Subtitles were inaccurate to the point that it was fun for me just to turn them on and see what dialogue was meant to be in the game originally. However, the biggest offender was the bugginess around puzzles. At some points, they wouldn’t trigger correctly – for example after feeding a bug to Beak Beak (which is meant to trigger his flying abilities), he just sat there staring at me instead. There was also one point when he became stuck in his flying state, unable to move or trigger anything. Saving often is necessary to prevent situations like this. On the brighter side, the environments are stunning and truly make the game come to life in a way that was hard to achieve back in The Neverhood days. Graphics are crisp and vibrant, animations are smooth, and the environment is full of quirky textures like fuzz and moss that make it pop. The clay is of course the hallmark style of the game, and sometimes I found myself getting lost looking thinking how long it took someone to mold that particular scene. Music by Terry Scott Taylor was wonderfully quirky, but I wish there were more of it throughout. It was especially noticeable when working on a puzzle for a long time, as a single song would play and stop for a long period of time, then pick back up again later at a random interval. Similarly, despite the voice acting being top notch, I also noticed that sound clips would fade in and out when Tommy or Beak Beak were meant to speak – subtitles would appear but nothing would come out of their mouths. Armikrog’s story is simple and charming, even though the pacing is a tad rushed for my tastes. Besides the opening sequence, there’s not much to the plot until the very end. I was hoping for more substance, or even more silly vignettes to keep me company – but perhaps I’m being selfish considering how long it takes to animate one of those sequences. Overall, I appreciated the atmosphere and especially one of the very last puzzles, which I felt was one of the more creative things I’d ever experienced in a game. Armikrog does not surpass The Neverhood, but just like a successor to any celebrated piece of media, that would have been an impossible task. However, it does contain a unique charm in its own right which fans of The Neverhood or other old-school point-and-click adventures will especially appreciate. Those followers will likely forgive its faults for a taste of nostalgia, but others new to this realm may find it too outdated and unpolished.
Armikrog review photo
Claymation heaven
I still have my original copy of The Neverhood, bestowed upon me when my family bought our first Gateway computer in the mid-'90s. I was in complete awe over the challengingly silly puzzles, phenomenal claymation, and the ecl...

Review: Rock Band 4

Oct 05 // Chris Carter
Rock Band 4 (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: HarmonixPublisher: Harmonix (with distribution by Mad Catz)Released: October 6, 2015MSRP: $59.99 (game), $129.99 (guitar bundle), $249.99 (Band-in-a-Box) So let's get right into it. The setlist (seen here) is going to be a point of contention for many. Point blank, I'm not really a fan of most of it, for multiple reasons. Firstly, U2 (the Guy Fieri of music) was added last-minute, and features not one but two songs featured in career mode. This completely obliterated the "random" feature for one of the groups I played with, as they hilariously refused to play U2 on the principle that they "might" come up. Then you have the issue of era disparity due to a disjointed design. Often times you'll find similar types of music grouped together, but generally speaking, Rock Band 4 is all over the place. For instance, there's one Elvis song ("Suspicious Minds," which I really dig), but then, there's nothing else even close to that age or style of music. You also have the issue of showcasing a heavy helping of B-hits from major artists, like "Kick it Out" from Heart or "Prayer" from Disturbed. Of course, music is subjective, but my major issue is the lack of any real epic rock tracks (and I don't mean "epic" in the bad meme sense) on offer here, which every rhythm game tends to provide. I mean, "That Smell" from Lynyrd Skynyrd? You can't help but feel like the rights to a lot of big-ticket songs weren't on the table, some of which instead went to Activision's Guitar Hero Live. But I think this weaker setlist is kind of what Harmonix is going for. They're banking on the fact that you already own a ton of DLC, or are willing to shell out for it. That's going to be a point of contention for many people, who may have started out in the Rock Band ecosystem on Xbox, but like most of this generation, have since switched to PS4 exclusively. I'm kind of torn on where I stand personally, because while I do see Rock Band as a "platform," I wish the included setlist were as strong as it has been in the past. Just to clarify with Harmonix as of this week, I double-checked on the DLC roadmap beyond the singles in the store now (of which there are hundreds of piecemeal tracks). Track packs (read: those discs of songs you bought) are being worked on currently, and aren't up for launch. Additionally, title exports (Rock Band 1 and 2 songs mostly) are not available yet, and have no time frame at the moment. Finally, Harmonix is "looking into" exporting Rock Band 3 but nothing is finalized. None of this affects this review as it's all theoretical, but it's good to know. As disappointed as I am with the base setlist, the game, as always, is sound. The common theme here with Rock Band 4 is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," which is great for those of you who just want a current-gen Rock Band, and bad if you wanted something revolutionary. While the voting system (which allows players to select tracks, or vague categories such as eras and genres in a democratic fashion) is very cool, the career mode, despite promises of a major shakeup with the choice system, is largely the same. [embed]312826:60607:0[/embed] While there are choices such as picking between selling out and making more money in the short term or going on the road and garnering more long-term fans, they all feel very gamey in the end ("do you want fans or money?"). I really like the little story blurbs that pop up along the way that provide updates for the narrative such as "your van that you bought for next to nothing lost a door," but they really are more fluff than substance. Plus, the concept of playing tons of gigs with set songs (and some open-ended lists) for cash to buy new accessories never appealed to me -- when combined with the so-so story and the fact that every song is unlocked from the get-go, it doesn't feel like a gametype worth the effort. As a result, most of my time was spent with the quick tour and freeplay modes, which are still a lot of fun with a group. It's as simple as syncing the instruments (which is incredibly easy to do now) and pressing start, then you're ready to rock. The aforementioned voting system is a ton of fun, as it accepts every band member's choices, then triggers a slot machine-like animation that randomly picks one. It's fair, and it's a nice break from manually choosing songs. In terms of the adjustments to the instruments themselves, I also have mixed feelings. Everything has been marginally upgraded (both physically and in-game), but I'm still reeling from the complete lack of keyboard and Pro Guitar support. Harmonix certainly has a strong argument in that most players simply did not use these features last time around, but I can't help but feel like Rock Band 4 has been downgraded as a result. While I never really preferred the Rock Band style guitars (X-plorer for life), the build is noticeably more sturdy, which also applies for the new drum kit and microphone. The new gameplay feature with the guitar is the addition of freestyle sections, which no longer bound players to the rigors of tough solo portions. For casual players, this change is pretty great, and allows anyone to rock out in a fashion that more accurately portrays the spirit of the franchise. In essence, during your solo spots, you'll see new markers for blue and orange freestyle notations in the track. You'll simply strum to the beat, with the blue portion notating the top frets and the orange noting the bottom, and that's basically it. Sometimes you'll have to strum once and hold, for others, you'll have to shift rapidly to different frets. You won't lose any momentum here if you screw up, and every fret will cue a different sound, so you can come up with your own concoctions. The best part is this is wholly optional, so if you want to shred "Through the Fire and Flames" on expert, you can. Also, every song supports a full-time freestyle solo through a separate menu option. The drums have remained mostly the same, outside of Dynamic Drum Fills, and, as an exception to the lack of Pro instruments, Pro Drums (if you buy the Mad Catz Rock Band 4 Cymbal Expansion Kit of course). The former feature allows you to deploy Overdrive (Star Power) during pre-determined sections -- it's a minor change, and fortunately, like most of the new stuff, you can also turn this off. If you rock the mic, you'll have a few other marginal improvements as well. Now there's Freestyle Vocals, which allows people to improvise a bit. As long as you still sing on key, you'll be able to score points. It makes things a little more fun for singers as they don't have to follow as rigid of a pattern. Again, every instrument has been improved on paper, but not in a way that completely eclipses a lot of the advancements made with the last iteration. The physical element of bringing over instruments is also a bit strained, partially outside of Harmonix's purview. Firstly, you'll have to follow their compatibility chart here to see if your device will even work with the new game. Additionally, due to the shift in technology from the 360 to the Xbox One, you'll need a $20 adapter to even use your old instruments that do work. When you add in that nothing works cross-console family, things get even more tricky, as it'll cost you $250 to grab a new guitar, drum kit, and a mic -- and if you want to get a second guitar, it gets even pricier.  Rock Band 4 is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, it's not only a hassle to switch generations due to the fact that so many elements don't work with the new one, but additionally -- Rock Band 3 is still a thing, supports all of your DLC, and has more features. On the other, there's nothing inherently wrong with this iteration, and for those of you who missed out in the past or have broken 360s or PS3s, you'll still be able to rock out into the night with friends and have a whole lot of fun. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. The Band-in-a-Box bundle with a guitar, drum kit, and mic was assessed for this review. DLC or pre-order content of any kind was not provided, and was purchased by the reviewer.]
Rock Band 4 photo
Back in plastic
[Disclosure: Nick Chester, who is currently employed at Harmonix, previously worked at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the preview. I personally didn't work with Chester ...

Review: Read Only Memories

Oct 02 // Ben Davis
Read Only Memories (PC [reviewed], Mac, Linux)Developer: MidBossPublisher: MidBossReleased: October 6, 2015MSRP: $9.99 The story of Read Only Memories begins with the appearance of a peculiar robot named Turing, who breaks into the player character's apartment after their creator, Hayden, was mysteriously kidnapped. Turing decides that the player character, who is a journalist and a friend of Hayden's, is the most statistically likely to be able to help them. Thus begins the search for Hayden in the technologically advanced, cyberpunk-inspired city of Neo-San Francisco in 2064. In this futuristic setting, scientists have discovered many new ways of enhancing the human body through cybernetics as well as genetic modification, meaning it's common to see people with robotic limbs, blue skin, rabbit ears, and other such bizarre enhancements walking around as if it's completely normal. Not to mention the ROMs, robots like Turing, which are just as commonplace and are on the verge of becoming sapient, able to think and feel as humans do. As expected, anti-hybrid and -cybernetic groups such as the Human Revolution have begun to pop up warning people of the dangers of such technologies. [embed]313479:60589:0[/embed] During the player's search for Hayden, they will meet a colorful cast of strange and interesting characters and be asked to participate in some rather shady activities, sneaking around the law in an attempt to learn secrets and uncover truths. Some characters can be trusted while other cannot, but they're all able to provide leads, information, and other helpful things if the player can successfully persuade them. The gameplay largely consists of your typical point-and-click adventure mechanics, nothing really new here but it works just fine. People and objects can be interacted with by looking, touching, talking, or using an item. Interacting with the same thing multiple times might yield different results, so sometimes it's a good idea to look at, touch, or talk to someone or something more than once. There's also a wide variety of items at the player's disposal, which can be picked up and used in certain situations. There is no item combining to be done, however, and pixel hunting is not a problem since anything that can be interacted with will be highlighted by mousing over it, so many of the more annoying adventure game elements were left alone. Much of the gameplay centers around conversations and choosing dialogue options, but there are plenty of puzzle-solving sections as well. These include direct puzzles, such as looking at a map and closing off intersections in order to divert a cab back to the player, as well as more indirect puzzles like trying to find the right item to gain access to a house or figuring out how to coerce someone into giving up information. None of the puzzles are too obtuse, and some of them are rather forgiving if the player messes up at first. The story features several branching paths and alternate endings, depending on how the player chooses to interact with characters and how successful they are at figuring out puzzles. It's possible to befriend or make enemies with several of the characters, so try and decide who will be the most helpful and choose the appropriate responses. Breaking the law and causing mischief seem to be unavoidable, but how it's done is up to the player. As most of Read Only Memories involves reading text, I found the writing to be entertaining and engaging, if overly-technical at times. They did a great job of giving every character a thorough backstory, making each of them interesting and relatable with their own quirks and behaviors. I particularly enjoyed Turing's fondness for painting and the player character's strange obsession with plants. There were, however, a few groan-worthy references and an occasionally disappointing lack of variety in dialogue options. Read Only Memories originally set out to do one thing: foster the inclusion of diverse characters, especially those of the LGBT persuasion. Thankfully, the end product is much more than just that. The characters' sexualities and gender identities, which include plenty of gay and straight, trans- and cis-gendered individuals, are revealed in a natural way or left up to the player's imagination. Meanwhile, we have a story built around mystery and intrigue, with topics of crime, technology, and politics taking the forefront of the discussion in the lives of these characters who just happen to be a certain way. Personally, I felt the LGBT themes were handled appropriately and naturally without being too heavy-handed, but I'm sure some will disagree with me. I would recommend Read Only Memories to anyone who enjoys point-and-click adventure games, as it's an excellent addition to the genre, borrowing many of its key elements while ditching some of the more obnoxious ones. It's also a great choice for anyone who is looking for more diversity in their video games, as it does a wonderful job of promoting inclusion without making it the sole focus. Plus, there's an awesome, adorable little robot friend to hang out with, and who doesn't want that? [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Read Only Memories review photo
Cyberpunk chic
MidBoss, the team behind the LGBT-centric gaming convention, GaymerX, has been having quite a successful time lately. After reaching its Kickstarter funding goals at the end of 2013, the team has been hard at work creating it...

Review: LEGO Dimensions

Oct 01 // Chris Carter
LEGO Dimensions (PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Traveller's TalesPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentReleased: September 27, 2015MSRP: $99.99 (Starter Pack), $29.99 (Level Pack), $14.99 (Fun Pack) Yet again, I'll explain how the toys are factored in, especially since LEGO Dimensions in particular can get confusing. For $99.99 you'll get the Starter Pack (reviewed here), which consists of the core game, three physical characters (Gandalf, Batman, and Wyldstyle), a physical Batmobile, and real life LEGOs to build the portal (called a Toy Pad). There are two major things to factor in here -- it's pricier than most toys-to-life games by at least $20, augmented by the fact that you're actually getting an actual miniature LEGO set. Straight-up, a lot of your enjoyment for LEGO Dimensions hinges on how much you enjoy playing with LEGOs as a whole. For example, to build the base, my wife and I spent roughly an hour. If you have a kid who plays with toys on a regular basis, this is a no-brainer -- for everyone else, that prospect may seem like too much of a task, and you're basically paying the premium for that. On the other end you have two additional purchasing options, Level Packs and Fun Packs, which are essentially DLC. The former unlocks a hub for $29.99 and comes with a character and two objects, and the latter unlocks a mission and one object. Oh, and then there's the Team Packs for $24.99, with two characters and two objects. Confused yet? Yeah it's all a bit much, and if you weren't averse to toys-to-life before, you probably will be now. But for everyone else, here's the rub -- you can play the entire story with just the Starter Kit, and for each franchise you buy a toy for, you'll unlock additional worlds. So for Portal, the only way to gain access to that DLC set is through a sole Level Pack, but some franchises (like Ghostbusters and The Simpsons) may have multiple Level or Fun Packs. No one ever said LEGOs or figure-based games was a cheap hobby, and now they've been Frankensteined together. [embed]313069:60565:0[/embed] But despite all that, LEGO Dimensions is one of the more interesting Traveller's Tales titles in years. As it turns out mixing up all of these properties involves some hilarious results, mostly thanks to the wit of the writing staff. Of particular note is Homer Simpson's breaking of the fourth wall to comment on cross-branding, and Batman's interactions with various characters like the Wicked Witch of the West. It surpasses the "that's so random!" realm of comedy and succeeds in melding all 14 (!) IPs together. The campaign's story is dead simple -- an evil entity wants to rule all worlds -- but the journey is where it excels. Due to the nature of the three starter characters you'll mostly play through the three hub worlds (Lord of the Rings, DC Universe, and the LEGO Movie), but you'll also cross paths with other worlds briefly, like the aforementioned Oz, Springfield, and Scooby Doo's realm. It's refreshing, and you never linger in one zone for too long. With this setup, it's far more fun than most of the other LEGO games, which tend to overstay their welcome over time with just one theme. LEGO Dimensions' use of the physical toys and portal is also a step ahead of its competition. For one, you can place up to six characters (most only allow two), one vehicle, and other objects all at once. Another cool mechanic involves the placement of the toys themselves during boss fights. Some encounters will actually force you to move your figures on the physical base to avoid attacks -- that's some serious Metal Gear Psycho Mantis-like stuff right there. Traveller's Tales succeeds in mixing up that type of gameplay all throughout the experience, and I never felt like I was missing out with just the Starter Kit. However, I couldn't help but feel like it was still an above average $60 LEGO game with $40 of additional baggage. Again, you're getting real LEGO blocks here, but I would have preferred a smaller premium to get them. Also, WB has planned out DLC and content packs all the way through May 2016, which leaves them plenty of room to develop another potential sequel next year. I'm sort of torn in LEGO Dimensions. It's one of the most expensive propositions in all of gaming right now, but the gameplay is there and the Starter Pack stands on its own. While the campaign can be a bit uneven at times, the always reliable LEGO charm and the innovation of the physical aspect of Dimensions allows it to excel. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. Only the Starter Pack was provided.]
LEGO Dimensions photo
An expensive, but fun hobby
As I've talked about in the past, I'm usually the go-to person for the toys-to-life genre. I'm a kid at heart, and occasionally, I can enjoy a silly kids movie for the fun of it. No series has encapsulated that silliness more...

Review: The Beginner's Guide

Oct 01 // Darren Nakamura
The Beginner's Guide (Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Everything Unlimited LtdPublisher: Everything Unlimited LtdReleased: October 1, 2015MSRP: $9.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit The Beginner's Guide opens on a de_dust-like Counter-Strike map with Wreden narrating. It isn't Wreden narrating to save money on a voice actor or Wreden narrating the in-game story. Davey Wreden is narrating as Davey Wreden, telling a story about his personal life. He was once friends with another game designer named Coda. Ever since meeting at a game jam, he had been fascinated with Coda's work. Most of the games are short, five to ten-minute affairs involving walking and philosophical musing. All were built in Source, but the art styles vary. Coda never released his games publicly, but Wreden hounded him to play each one upon completion. What we play through is Coda's entire body of work, presented chronologically. All the while, Wreden offers insight about game design, from the nuts and bolts of the tools used to the deeper symbolism of a particular segment, whether it was intentional or unintentional. [embed]313130:60582:0[/embed] Unlike a lot of these narrative-focused games, which allow the player to passively experience the story, absorbing or ignoring as much as desired, it's the kind of experience that demands intellectual engagement. I mean that literally; Wreden explicitly asks the player to send him critical analysis, providing an email address toward that end. There is exactly one puzzle in The Beginner's Guide, and it is repeated a few times. It involves two doors and solving it requires an irreversible step. When solved, the entrance is sealed and the exit is open, providing only one possible path: forward. Wreden's interpretation of this puzzle involves a symbolic closure of the past, marking something as "complete" and putting it out of mind. While I was playing through, my mind went to thoughts about having to take risks in order to progress and the idea of finding comfort in familiar things.  The structure provides a strange sense of immersion only a few games can manage. I am not the avatar of the character in these environments navigating through them; I am the guy sitting at his computer, playing a game while another guy talks to me about it. The story being told is a history that took place in the real world, and together we are piecing together the deeper meaning behind these weird art games. The roundabout immersion is ironic in a way. Normally making it clear the player is just someone playing a game adds a layer of disconnect. Since the reality matches with the premise in The Beginner's Guide, it actually drew me into the meta-narrative even more closely. I realized about halfway through just how emotionally invested I had become. I found myself marveling at Coda's creations just as Wreden had done before me. I spent time reading every note posted in one section even after being told I didn't have to. I wanted to understand the person who made these just as much as Wreden. I was grateful for his aid when it came to surpassing the intentionally frustrating or impossible barriers. I had to see it through to the end. And then, just as my emotional investment hit its peak, the revelatory climax rolls in. Maybe Coda isn't the enigma Wreden paints him as. Maybe he just wants to be left alone. Wait, maybe he wouldn't want me playing his games. Maybe I'm violating his personal space by participating. Maybe I'm an asshole for doing things against someone else's wishes. Maybe I'm a bigger asshole for writing a whole review about it. My involvement as just the guy sitting at his computer playing a game is non-negligible at this point. I've been thinking about this game a lot for the past 36 hours. It demanded I think about it, at first only superficially, but later more substantively. I mulled over a lot of questions when I should have been sleeping. I continued thinking right when I woke up. I think I dreamed about it in between. I won't spoil with the explicit questions here, but I'm sure we will be talking more frankly soon. On the surface, The Beginner's Guide is a game about game design and critical analysis. Digging deeper, it provides a window into the mind of a man I might not have fully understood otherwise. It does all of this in a way only a video game could. More than anything else, it has caused me a lot of introspection, a feat few games ever achieve. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
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