hot  /  reviews  /  video  /  blogs  /  forum

Reviews

Review: Her Story

Jun 29 // Laura Kate Dale
Her Story (PC [reviewed], iOS) Developer: Sam BarlowPublisher: Sam BarlowMSRP: $5.99Released: June 24, 2015 From the first set of clips tagged murder, I had several options of which narrative thread to pull at first. Did I want to look for clips related to the victim's name first? Maybe I should try to track down the name of the person accused of the crime? Perhaps I wanted to go in a completely different direction and try to find references to the murder weapon on the database. Right from the start, several different avenues opened up and the number of narrative options to explore only expanded as I went deeper into the case. You can't organize clips you find chronologically or watch them in order without re-searching for them, meaning that a lot of the work of piecing the narrative together is down to you as the player. There's an in game application that will show you which pieces of the case you've watched and which you have not, but it's up to you to keep track of where each statement falls in the timeline of police interviews and how their placement fits together. Much of the mechanical challenge in the game comes from piecing the story together in a way that draws conclusions you're personally satisfied with. At around two hours in, I had seen enough that the game offered to let me see the credits roll, but I personally wanted to know much more of what was happening and ended up playing for around six hours on and off before I was truly satisfied with my understanding of the events. Others I know felt they knew everything they needed within half an hour. In terms of pacing, Her Story lasts however long you want it to in regards to narrative. Any time you feel the game is ready to end, you can draw your conclusions and walk away. Ultimately, Her Story is a really inventive way of exploring a narrative with an impressive number of twists and turns. Every time I thought I understood what was happening, a clip would become unearthed that turned my understanding of the case on its head. The story was personal, uplifting, dark, twisted, insightful, and unnerving all at once. I know we get a lot of talk of narrative-focused adventures as "not games," but this is a narrative that undoubtedly benefits from its open-ended interactive nature. If this isn't a perfect example of how video game interactivity can enhance a narrative, I don't know what is. Being able to unearth these twists out of order, rushing to understand what you've found, and bouncing tonally back and forth across a series of interviews truly is the perfect way to experience this skillfully crafted narrative. It's not a typical structure for a game, but the mechanics really do work in the context of the narrative. If you like the idea of an open-ended '90s murder mystery with no guarantee you'll find a solid answer to its mysteries, then I can't recommend this highly enough. Her Story is a spectacular video game, and one of the most gripping personal narratives I've experienced in some time. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Her Story review photo
Let's solve a mid-'90s murder
Her Story is certainly not what you would call a traditional video game. Set entirely on a police computer database in the English town of Portsmouth, it breaks a lot of new ground in terms of blending its narrative and gamep...

Review: J-Stars Victory VS+

Jun 28 // Laura Kate Dale
J-Stars Victory Vs+ (PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Vita) Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: Bandai Namco EntertainmentRelease: June 26, 2015 (EU), June 30, 2015 (US) I may not be the most knowledgeable anime fan out there, but I'm always willing to try out a new series if it looks interesting. As such, I was pretty excited coming into J-Stars Victory VS+. I was hoping to experience well known characters I already knew, as well as finding new characters to get invested in and try watching going forward. Unfortunately, J-Stars Victory VS+ was a bit of a disappointment in that regard. The representations of characters I already knew didn't feel accurate and the hooks to get invested in new series just weren't there for me. So, as this is a fighting game first and foremost, let's talk about the fighting mechanics at play. Every character has one light attack button, a heavy attack button, a special attack button, a block and a dash. While these are tailored to each character, the movesets all feel very similar to play using. While it's cool to see Ichigo pull off a Getsuga Tensho and Goku a Kamehameha, both on a mechanical level act near identically. Every move is an approximation designed to fit a specific combat system's mold, which ultimately takes away some of what makes these characters unique. Defensive techniques like cancels are minimal, so if you wait for an attack animation to start then start mashing buttons you'll usually win. J-Stars Victory VS+ is not a game of skill, it's a game of waiting for any enemy to attempt anything slower than a light attack, interrupting with a light attack then button mashing while they remain locked in your combo. [embed]294934:59255:0[/embed] So, ignoring the fact the combat system itself lacks depth, lets look at how this functions as a pure fanservice game. Just looking at the numbers there is a lot here for fans of Shonen anime to love. There's representation from newer series like D.Gray-man as well as older series like Rurouni Kenshin and a whole host of series in between. There's even inclusions from my super niche sports anime, but only as support characters rather than full playable roster members. Damn, I was just about ready to praise this game for supporting my niche interests. So, let's talk about the modes on offer in J-Stars Victory VS+. There's J-Adventure, where you sail around the world on a tiny boat given to you by god to earn your way into a tournament of champions, where everyone involved seems perfectly fine with the fact god gave them a boat that couldn't get most of the places it needed to go and needlessly pads out the experience with narrative fluff between fights. This mode has four arcs, each of them near narratively identical. I couldn't see any reason players would want to go through all four of these, they're all equally padded and dull. Your other options are Victory Road which sets up special fights loosely themed around anime dream team fights, a standard Arcade mode which offers minimal challenge, local free battles and online free battles. None of these modes felt terribly coherent or fleshed out. On paper, the roster of nearly 40 playable characters is certainly impressive, but what makes these characters unique is rarely utilized fully. Each character's ultimate attack feels decidedly less visually impressive than comparable titles like Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4. The story mode offered on disk features static 2D images of characters that may say the odd single word to each other, but otherwise remain silent. Their dialogue feels terribly homogeneous, stripped down so that every character speaks with the same uniform voice. This doesn't feel like a series of characters clashing for the first time, rather it feels like one person in many different outfits badly acting out their alternative universe fanfiction. Where the games opening cinematic gave me hope for a visually impressive, fanservice heavy experience, the single player largely boiled down to watching static images talk to each other in a weirdly unemotional tone then fight for no adequately explained reason. It just wasn't compelling. Ultimately, J-Stars Victory VS+ only succeeds as numbers on paper, the game itself being largely disappointing. The roster have had much of what made them unique stripped down, stopping me getting truly excited about the characters I knew and preventing me getting a sense of which characters were worth me investing future time watching. The mechanics are shallow, the fanservice is surface level and it only succeeds in terms of its pure number of supported characters. Overall, I walked away rather disappointed. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
J-Stars Victory VS+ photo
Mash, mash, mash, mash, mash, mash......
J-Stars Victory VS+ is a game that's mechanically light, heavy on fanservice volume but that only ever skims the surface of the characters it includes. If you want an anime brawler that focuses on the sheer volume of anime ch...

Review: The Controller Shop custom DualShock 4

Jun 26 // Kyle MacGregor
Okay, so maybe it wasn't a complete enigma. Still, cracking the case open and laying eyes on the controller for the first time, I was taken aback. It wasn't at all how I pictured it in my mind's eye. The thing literally glittered, metallic paint beaming in the sunlight, its splashy buttons distracting from the intricate detailed artwork in the periphery. It was shocking, really. Maybe a little gaudy. Certainly more than I bargained for, more vibrant and impressive than anything I might have conjured up. My attention was soon drawn to the portrait of Mr. Destructoid along the left handle. At a glance, our robot mascot looked flawless, so impeccable that I figured it was a decal. Upon closer inspection, though, you can see its tiny imperfections. This didn't roll off a conveyor belt in a factory somewhere. It was painstakingly rendered by hand, a labor of love. Subtle stripes and understated circuitry art accent the front panel, while the rear is underscored by a dozen or so little Space Invaders and an elaborate pattern of triangles clustered around the edge. While The Controller Shop offers rear paddles (similar to the ones featured in Microsoft's upcoming Xbox One Elite Controller) and foot pedal accessories, ours didn't come included with any significant hardware upgrades. But that isn't to say it feels identical to a standard DualShock 4. The surface is more glossy than matte, and the anterior lacks the grippy feel of other DualShock 4s. Having spent an extended period of time gaming with it, I can't say I prefer it over the basic edition, nor can I say it's any worse. Just different. Though there are a few specific instances where I might favor one over the other. In a side by side comparison, The Controller Shop's face buttons feel more satisfying. They're a tad clickier -- if that makes any sense. The shoulder buttons feel slightly heavier. The biggest difference was the D-pad, though. It takes more effort to move around, making it feel ill-suited for fighting games or other genres where a more rigid range of motion might be an impediment. On the other hand, the analogs feel firm and potentially more durable, which could be a plus, given how the set on the standard model are prone to falling apart. Whether or not a custom look and vaguely different feel is worth $100+ (or, in the case of this one, closer to $250 due to its hand-painted graphics and whatnot) is debatable and highly subjective. I can say that if you're in the market for such a luxury item, you could certainly do a lot worse. This may not have been the particular design I would have chosen for myself, but that was kind of the point. I wanted to see what The Controller Shop could do, and they produced a finely-made work of art that exceeded my expectations in many respects. If you can afford to channel that craftsmanship into your own style, it might very well be worth it. [This review is based on a retail unit of the controller provided by the manufacturer.]
REVIEW: Custom Controller photo
Handcrafted hardware
When a custom controller outfit offered to let us design our own tailor-made gamepad, it was a proposal we couldn't refuse. Except designing things is hard. So we rolled the dice and left that task in their hands, hoping thei...

Review: LEGO Jurassic World

Jun 26 // Ben Davis
LEGO Jurassic World (PS4 [reviewed], PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, 3DS, PC)Developer: Traveller's TalesPublisher: Warner Bros.MSRP: $59.99Released: June 12, 2015 As a huge Jurassic Park fan, LEGO Jurassic World is pretty much exactly what I expected from a dinosaur game themed around children's toys. There is no shortage of humor, plenty of satisfying references to the movies and books, playable dinosaurs, and I get to run around as Ian Malcolm with his shirt torn open. What more could I ask for? LEGO Jurassic World's story is built around the plots of the movies, but while the movies can be tense and thrilling, the game remains silly and lighthearted. Death scenes from the films are played out in a comedic fashion. The LEGO characters are never actually killed; instead, they usually end up sharing a goofy moment with the dinosaur that attacks them. For example, Gennaro can be seen cleaning the T. Rex's teeth with a toilet brush after being pulled from his restroom hiding place, and the raptor tamer who dies in the very first scene of Jurassic Park only loses the precious sausage he was holding onto rather than his legs (there's a weird recurring sausage joke for some reason, which I can't say I really understood). Meanwhile, other parts feature raptors riding motorcycles, wearing fruit hats, and chasing lawn mowers through the long grass, so the dinos are generally more charming than they are terrifying. Of course, for a LEGO game, this was kind of a necessity. [embed]294839:59241:0[/embed] Gameplay is heavily puzzle-based, requiring obstacles to be solved by choosing the specific character required for the task. Most of these obstacles are accompanied by button prompts, and there are numerous quick time events scattered throughout as well. There is also some light combat, whenever the party is attacked by dinosaurs or InGen employees, but it involves little more than punching things until they get dizzy or fall apart. Characters do have health bars, but the only penalty for dying is losing a few studs, so it's not really a big deal. The health bars honestly feel wholly unnecessary, as there aren't any lives and characters already essentially feel invincible. They could have probably scrapped that mechanic entirely. It's possible to play as nearly every character from the Jurassic Park films, even minor characters such as Mr. DNA and that weird boy at the dig site who says raptors look like giant turkeys. Each character has their own unique skills which typically play off of their personalities and roles in the films, all of which will need to be utilized in order to traverse each level. Some characters, like Dr. Grant and Gray Mitchell, are good at building things out of dinosaur bones; characters like Lex Murphy and Kelly Malcolm can scream loud enough to shatter glass; characters like Tim Murphy and Ian Malcolm have items that can illuminate dark areas (night vision goggles and flares, for example); and others like Ellie Sattler and Owen Grady aren't afraid to get dirty and rummage through dino droppings (by diving in head first, no less!). It's necessary to play as many different characters in order to clear all of the puzzles and obstacles in the game. Of course, there's not only human characters, but dinosaurs to control as well. Most dinosaurs are unlocked by collecting amber bricks hidden in every level. They can be summoned via dinosaur creation pads, and sick dinosaurs can be healed in order to join the party as well. The dinosaurs come with their own sets of skills; Triceratops can charge and bash open large objects, Dilophosaurus can melt certain things with its venom, T. Rex can roar loud enough to shatter stuff, and Velociraptors can pull switches and sniff out hidden objects. The craziest option is the enormous Brachiosaurus, which can be used to crush certain platforms with a huge stomp, but it's so gigantic and slow that it's almost hilarious. It's even possible to play as Pteranodons and Mosasaurus, although they're restricted to the aviary and aquarium, respectively. Story mode will take the player through twenty levels centered around many of the most memorable and action-packed scenes from the movies. It's really fun to reenact classic scenes like the very first T. Rex attack, the raptors in the kitchen, the San Diego crisis, and more through the playful lens of the LEGO world. Every level is filled with puzzles to solve, obstacles to overcome, and a set amount of collectibles to find. Many levels implement chase sequences, such as running from the Gallimimus herd, or puzzle-based boss fights, like taking down Indominus Rex. There's nothing too complicated, though, so it should be an easy ride for most players. Upon completing each level in story mode, free play mode will be unlocked, allowing players to choose any character they want and switch to someone else at any time. Many of the collectibles can only be obtained in free play, since the characters in story mode might not have the required abilities, so it's necessary to play each level at least two times in order to find everything. Outside of story mode, players can also freely explore each of the four parks. The parks contain more collectibles to find, sick dinosaurs and workers in peril to help, characters to unlock, photograph locations, races, and more. The parks on Isla Sorna are unfortunately rather small and unexciting, but Isla Nublar's Jurassic Park and Jurassic World are both huge and full of all sorts of attractions and cool areas to discover. Strangely, though, once story mode is completed, free play in the parks takes place entirely during nighttime, which kind of bothered me as some areas just seem much less exciting in the dark. I'd prefer to view these beautiful parks in the bright sunshine. [Edit: Apparently, this can be changed, but only by fast travelling to specially marked areas on the map. Still an odd choice, but at least there are options!] Split-screen co-op is also an option, and players can jump in and out of the game at any time. Co-op can make solving puzzles and overcoming obstacles much easier, as players will not need to switch between characters as often and multiple tasks can be completed at once. For such a light-hearted adventure as LEGO Jurassic World, I can definitely see co-op being a popular option. The best aspect of LEGO Jurassic World for me was all the little nuances and nods to the films which were sprinkled throughout. Idle animations for characters usually highlighted certain aspects of their personalities or referenced specific moments from the movies. For example, Zach Mitchell will put on his headphones and start dancing, Amanda Kirby will test her megaphone (put that thing away!), and Ian Malcolm will run a Chaos Theory experiment by dripping water onto his hand. Many of the trophies also make great references to the movies; I think my favorite is the "Hello John!" trophy which is awarded for having both characters set to John Hammond. I also loved that Mr. DNA was in charge of all the tutorials and loading screen trivia. Aside from borrowing plot, characters, and locations from the movies, LEGO Jurassic World also borrows sound clips. While some new dialogue was recorded specifically for the game (mostly for the Jurassic World section), a lot of the dialogue is taken directly from the films. This can be entertaining at times (hearing Jeff Goldblum's ridiculous laugh on the helicopter never gets old, even when it's coming out of a LEGO character's mouth), but it can also be quite jarring. Since the tone of the movies does not match the tone of the game, the dialogue is often way too tense and emotional for what should be silly, light-hearted scenes. There are also many instances where background noise from the films can be heard in the game's dialogue, which sounds really strange when compared to the newly recorded dialogue. Unfortunately, LEGO Jurassic World is not without its fair share of bugs. During my time with the game, there were several instances where I had to restart a level after a character got stuck between a wall and an object and couldn't move or jump to escape, or after they fell through the ground when I switched away from them. There were also a few instances where, after spawning a dinosaur and taking control of it, I could no longer switch to any other character and was permanently stuck in my dinosaur body. Usually, this meant I lost all progress on that level up to the point where I got stuck, so that was always a bummer. While it may have its flaws, I was still perfectly satisfied with my time in LEGO Jurassic World. Fans of the LEGO games should basically know what to expect, and Jurassic Park fans should be more than happy with the story, cutscenes, characters, and references. It captured all of my favorite Jurassic Park moments and added its own unique sense of humor into the mix, and that's essentially all I really wanted. And if you still need a reason to play this, just remember that is has LEGO Jeff Goldblum. Let's be honest: that's all anyone really needs. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
LEGO Jurassic World photo
Hold on to your butts
Another year, another beloved franchise gets the LEGO treatment. This year, blocks and dinosaurs come together in LEGO Jurassic World, a compilation of games spanning the entire Jurassic Park film franchise. Released simultan...

Review: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

Jun 26 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)Released: June 19, 2015 (Early Access), June 23, 2015 The "40 hours" of questing claim by Square Enix for the main story (levels 50-60) is accurate, but there's a caveat. You'll have to do a combination of sidequests, daily hunt marks (which can be done solo), and dungeons to push through some gaps, particularly in the middle levels. A few portions can be off-putting sometimes in terms of pacing, especially since the sidequests aren't nearly as good as the main story questline. Having said that, there wasn't any point, even the aforementioned lows, where I stopped having fun. There's just so much to do at this juncture of Final Fantasy XIV. I would frequently stop to do world hunts, which respawn every few hours or so in each area. They're even more fun now once you've unlocked flight for that particular zone, and all of the old hunts still exist too, albeit with smaller rewards for kills. You could hunt all day if you wanted to. I'd visit my new apartment in my friend's beachfront property villa in the Mist, and see what was going on with their new workshop -- a feature that lets you build Free Company (guild) airships in Heavensward, which go on expeditions for more items, similar to Retainer quests. Although I don't tend to craft in any MMO I play, I hung out with a group of crafters and chatted for hours about the new crafter meta and theories for some testing, which are insanely deep. For those who aren't aware, each crafting and gathering class has its own miniature storyline, and crafters in particular now have a even more complicated method of creating new high quality items. Crafting was always like a puzzle, allowing players to learn the best rotations for creating the best items, but now, there's an "endgame" of sorts for the profession, featuring a separate system of crafting in guilds to help build airships, and more complicated patterns that will fetch big gains on the auction house. Flying makes gathering nodes more fun, which is a big improvement on the 2.0 system -- and more nuanced with new gathering abilities. I also took a break and started a Dark Knight, Astrologian, and Machinist, which are all new jobs in Heavensward. Although there's a debate going on regarding the latter's low damage output, I've grouped and played all of them, and each brings something unique to the table. The Dark Knight is really fun to tank with, as he can drop his "Grit" stance (having it on lets you take less damage) on occasion, which unlocks a whole host of damage-dealing abilities. [embed]294750:59242:0[/embed] As a general rule you always want to be doing your core job and tanking with Grit, but when you need that extra push, the Dark Knight is ready and willing, and feels far more engaging than the existing Warrior. The Astrologian sacrifices a bit of firepower (compared to the White Mage and Scholar) but makes up for it with a variety of different healing tricks, and the Machinist is one of the most complicated DPS classes in the game. They are all worthwhile additions, and each role (tank, healer, ranged DPS) fits perfectly in the current meta. By the time I was done with the story and hit level 60, I had played far more than 40 hours. While there are some predictable plot points and far too much Final Fantasy grandstanding, I have to say I enjoyed it as a whole. I really dig the dragon theme that permeates throughout the expansion (they commit to it), and I was satisfied with the conclusion, especially the final boss, which Final Fantasy fans will love. The epilogue also does its job of sufficiently teasing all of the upcoming free content updates, so I'm pumped to see where this goes. The dungeons are all par for the course, which again, is a theme with this expansion. Every dungeon, including the three level 60 ones at the end, have the same linear design that is crafted to prevent you from speedrunning them. Gone are the labyrinthine paths of some low-level dungeons, as well as the tricks of the trade of the vanilla endgame areas; the structure is basically the same every time. Thankfully, the boss fights are spectacular, and nearly every zone features an encounter that has something I've never seen before. Without spoiling it, my favorite dungeon has a fight where a bird flies up into the air, and causes the entire battlefield to fill with fog, forcing you to find his shadow before he comes back down. Another hilariously tasks players with picking up totems and placing them in certain areas to prevent a boss from casting a ritual that ties his health to them. Every fight is intuitive so you won't be scratching your head going "how does this work?" but you will have to actually try. It's a good balance, even if I wish some of the dungeons were a bit more open. The two Primals (Ravana and Bismarck) are worthy additions to the game, and both have EX (extreme) versions that will test your might at level 60. Ravana is an awesome fight that I refer to as "the ninja bug," and it basically feels like how Titan should have been, with a circular arena that you can fall off of. Bismarck on the other hand is like nothing else in Final Fantasy XIV, featuring the titular whale flying right next to a floating rock that the party is standing on. Players will have to hook him with harpoons (you can shout "call me Ishmael" while doing it) and whale on the whale's weak point temporarily. I feel like Ravana is faster-paced and more fun, but again, Bismarck is unique. Currently the endgame consists of gathering law tomes (obtained by high-level dungeons and hunts), buying item level i170 gear, and upgrading them to i180 by way of items from seals. Bismarck EX will net you i175 weapons, and Ravana earns you i190. You have two weeks to fully upgrade your left and right-side gear to face the first part of the Alexander raid, who will debut at that time (with the tougher "Savage" difficulty unlocking two weeks after that). Said raids will be even better thanks to the new loot systems, which can give a raid leader more control over who gets what (finally). With everything there is to do in the game though, it doesn't feel like a grind to get to that point. Did I mention Heavensward was beautiful? I'm pretty sure I have often, but I'll do it again just to drive the point home. It looks fantastic, from the snowy landscape of Ishgard to the Souls-esque Dravanian Hinterlands, complete with lush plains and hellish mountains filled with fiery depths. I would often stop just to admire the scenery, which is even easier thanks to flying mounts. Every time I visit an old content area I long for the chance to use a flying mount, but alas, it's only available in new zones. Specifically regarding the PS4 version, it's starting to feel the sting of the more open areas a bit, particularly when it comes to longer load times (which can be a pain while zoning in for hunts) and some slowdown. I should mention that said slowdown never becomes unplayable, even with 50 other players slashing away at the same world hunt target. It can just get a bit sluggish is all. My view is partially colored by the fact that the new Direct X 11 version on PC looks gorgeous and runs smoothly. Down the line you have new storylines to look forward to, as well as the aforementioned Alexander raid, more 24-player casual raids (which aren't currently in yet), a new PVP map, and a new multi-part relic weapon quest that will debut next month for all jobs. None of this was factored into this review, but it's something to be aware of -- based on its past track record, Square Enix will continue to evolve the game and make it better. Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward is more A Realm Reborn, which is a fine thing to strive for in my book. Whether you're the type of player who enjoys crafting, endgame content, or role-playing, there's so much to do here for people of all skill levels it's insane. While I fizzled out a bit after completing the main story in 2.5, Heavensward has rekindled my flame. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Heavensward review photo
Par for the heavens
When our story began last week, I was a level 53 Paladin, soldiering through the new content for Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward. I stand before you now as a level 60, having played everything that's currently available. My opinion on the expansion hasn't changed much, which is a good thing.

Review: Sonic Runners

Jun 25 // Chris Carter
Sonic Runners (Android, iOS [reviewed on an iPhone 6])Developer: SegaPublisher: SegaReleased: May 25, 2015MSRP: Free-to-play Sonic Runners is very clearly, well, a runner, but it's far more than meets the eye. It's level-based, features a variety of locales from Sonic's past, has a cute little story involved, and plays wonderfully well, just like how you'd imagine a good mobile Sonic game would. Our hero will run from left to right automatically through stages that mirror the classics from his storied history, and players can tap anywhere on the screen to jump. Tapping again will trigger another leap, and the process of jumping will inherently attack enemies. A lot of depth lies beneath the surface, with multi-tiered stages that are a lot like Robot Unicorn Attack's maps, giving you a good sense of adventure on a constant basis like a true platformer. Gathering more coins and pickups in a short period of time will grant you a combo bonus, which in turn earns you more points, which assists in your progress with the story and your skill unlocks. It looks great on paper and in action as well, sporting a cool bright look that differentiates itself from the classic titles while giving it a distinct style. It's great how Sonic Runners actually feels like a Sonic game through and through, from the "dying while having no rings" mechanic to plungers, to loops, and Tails' flight power and Knuckles' power dash are great additions. Sonic and the rest of the cast have individual experience levels, and can equip "buddies" (like Chao) for minor statistical bonuses. You can also level-up characters to beef up their response to power-ups and point bonuses for specific objectives. Like I said, it's surprisingly deep, and will keep you interested for the long haul rather than supply you with a selection of different cosmetic options. [embed]294806:59239:0[/embed] Unfortunately, Sega decided to be unreasonable with the free-to-play nature of the game. First, you'll have to go through a grueling signup process that involves updates (which crashed when I first tried to install it this morning), online checks, and age verification (so you don't spend all your parent's money). From there, you'll head on down to the microtransaction layer, of which you will likely never return. Let me just list off everything that's present in the game: two roulettes, one for each type of currency that you earn or buy spins for, an energy system that takes 30 minutes to recharge per life, a revive system that involves watching an ad to restart from your death point, three types of currency you can buy (yellow rings, red rings, and lives), friend invite bonuses (10 will get you Amy), and a ticker that shows "current deals" on the currencies involved. This is exacerbated by ads that run every so often after a level, seemingly for no reason, that happen to play the ad's audio alongside of the game's music. Sometimes, this happens while you're getting a post-match bonus tallied. It's exhausting. While playing each round and having a bit of confined fun will often have you forgetting about all of these elements, it's not long before they're thrown back into your face. The energy system is probably the worst part, limiting your playtime regardless of whether or not you wade through everything else. In practice, Sonic Runners is a fun mobile tribute to the Blue Blur, and the team that designed it should be proud -- this is how you bring a storied console franchise to the Android and iOS marketplaces. Unfortunately, the team in charge of that team decided that said fun should be gated by needless locks with cash keys, which is a problem. Give it a go and see if you can stomach the microtransactions. As for myself, I'm taking frequent breaks, mostly because I'm forced to.
Sonic Runners photo
Did Eggman design the microtransactions?
Hey, Sega actually made a really cool mobile Sonic game...then promptly proceeded to beat it down with layers and layers of microtransactions. Oh Sega, you scamp!

Review: Batman: Arkham Knight

Jun 25 // Steven Hansen
Batman: Arkham Knight (PC, Xbox One, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: RocksteadyPublisher: Warner Bros.MSRP: $59.99Released: June 23, 2015 Arkham Knight is stitched together with exceptional technical proficiency at the cost of tonal instability. City shared this problem. It insists on the direness of the narrative while letting you busy yourself with 69 (hah) AR challenges. It's worse in Knight, with even more dire stakes (there is nothing to do but escalate, of course) as Scarecrow intends to ruin all of Gotham with the help of the titular Arkham Knight.  There is so much "content" beside the main story path, but most of it is busy work. I've still not rescued all 20 captive firefighters spread throughout the city. Militia members set up dozens of roadblocks across Gotham's three islands that impede the Batmobile, but you can always go around them, or avoid driving except when mandated, given that Batman's grapple and glide are some of the coolest traversal methods in games. Clearing them isn't even that useful. It's just about getting to the super villain (most of whom have no story aside from "they're doing crime") at the end and notching the completion percentage. And of course this brings us to the Batmobile. It is cool and god awful. Calling it to pick Batman up; ejecting from it at high speeds and doing takedowns; the fact that all of Gotham's pillars and corners are destructible, so you typically don't do much crashing; remote control driving it towards Batman, who automatically jumps into it while you maintain control and momentum; the tank mode convincing me I need a Transformers game or Armored Core reboot. [embed]294804:59235:0[/embed] This all works well. It was also a lot of work for Rocksteady. Thus, there are heavy, mandated Batmobile segments, like the aforementioned waves of tank fights, and even a hilarious tank stealth section against bigger, stronger tanks. The Batmobile is cool as something I might occasionally use, but all the work that went into it means it needs a lot of screen time. It's actually pretty fun to chase Firefly through the streets in it, even if you have to do that several times before he's been punched enough to quit. When I'm forced to ferry passengers to the police station in it just so more drones can be thrown my way, it becomes a nuisance. When one side mission involves chasing missile-spongy armored cars while smaller armored cars attack me, over and over, it's not so fun. Everything is strung together nobly, but it's a case if "they were so concerned with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Disjointed content put together as well as possible mirrors a main story that works too hard to put Batman in his car. The shorter side missions that pop up woven into the narrative are much more fulfilling than saving 20 different firemen, stopping Two Face's goons from robbing several banks or destroying five or so of Penguin's weapons stashes (though the latter teams Bats with Nightwing and the dual fighter segments are fun). Thankfully I hardly looked at the map screen this time around because there's a d-pad button just to bring up a mission select wheel so it's easy to ping pong between waypoints like an errand boy. I also hardly looked at the upgrades, usually going several hours at a time before dumping like 50 points into skills I mostly didn't use (but do reinforce that car for the mandated tank segments). I can't tell if there is less punching this time around. Maybe it's been replaced by Batmobile segments. There are also more stealth options, including fear takedowns that can be used to instantly incapacitate up to eight enemies at a time (ok, upgrades are sometimes helpful, as it starts at three). I can string together perfect, room-clearing 60x combo fisticuffs with the best of them, but combat never drags in Arkham Knight, which I appreciate because my favorite thing to do is to explore the city. That does bring up a series-long issue of detective mode and waypoints guiding you to the point of feeling like a middle manager. It's nice to just notice side missions -- hearing strange shrieks, hearing opera blaring over a PA system, seeing a building on fire -- rather than being directed towards them, but that's the problem with dealing with this size of open world necessitated by the series trending upward as far as stakes raising goes. But when you stumble on mutilated bodies and every time -- five times! -- the answer is to scan one obvious thing on each of three layers (skin, muscle, bone) with detective mode, you're not really doing anything, much less detecting. Batman is boring, right? The character. Sad about parents, righteous, rich, mostly ideal. When comic fans point to his spot at the top of the echelon it's always about the supporting cast (villains, namely). And so, post Joker, what is there to do? Two things, neither of them original, but one of them done well. Without getting too spoilery, the Joker has inevitably left his mark in the Arkham universe and these ramifications are handled nicely in one half of Arkham Knight, even if they open the door for perhaps the most unoriginal and obvious Batman story to take seed beneath Scarecrow's reign of terror in the other. Scarecrow, to Rocksteady's credit, plays a great villain here, though he does so from the shadows. Because Batman is Batman, it's hard to feel the stakes sometimes, but Scarecrow is good for manipulating Bats and leaving him one step behind, more and more panicked and fragmented. The Arkham Knight, meanwhile, mostly tries to kill you with very large vehicles. The whole tenor of the character feels at odds with his Scarecrow partnership. There's the weird red tactical camo print and his general, impotent rage. His voice, which seems to waver beneath the autotune, is a mix of haughtiness and incredulity. He hates Batman, knows Batman is strong, is sure that he's better, and gets real petulant every time something goes wrong. His hugely amassed, literal army -- ex-United States soldiers now mercenaries -- occasionally remark about how better outfitted they are now than when they were government employees and ask if all this gear is overkill for just one man.   And it's not, because Batman is Batman and he feels immune to even the direst of straits. It makes the villains -- Knight, namely -- look goofy as plan after plan are foiled, though Scarecrow holds it together fairly well as the story takes shots at characters adjacent to Batman. The most interesting story stuff is happening within Batman's head, though, and that's where the series returns to effective use of jump scares (not a bad thing!), Dutch angles, and unreliable world distortion. Shifting the world around the player, moving things that the player isn't looking at. There's some cool, occasionally chilling toying going on, but it's mostly wrapped up in the end of the game. Getting there, Arkham Knight struggles to surprise and delight as Asylum and City. One musical boss "fight" stands out as a show stealer, but it would have been nice to have more inventive moments like the Mr. Freeze fight from City.   If the Batmobile was Rocksteady's gambit in that regard, it failed. It makes for a better occasional use gadget than core gameplay system. The Riddler side mission sums up Arkham Knight's issues fairly well. Apropos of nothing, he becomes a racing aficionado and constructs massive death tracks beneath the city to go with his death traps. This is to cram more Batmobile segments in. He does his same, tired shtick for a third game, this time holding Catwoman captive, but also he's made both race tracks and robots to fight, just to add more. He even explains in-game why if he wins because Batman can't beat the robots, it still counts as a victory of cunning. He's doing mental loops to defend padding. At one point, he taunts that even a chimp can follow basic instructions. Sometimes that feels like Arkham Knight. More of the same isn't all bad; too much more of the same is, especially at the cost of upsetting the balance between familiar and new. Riddler's story can't be resolved (nor can you get the full ending) until you do the 300 or so Riddler trophies/riddles/whatever, but you can at least take it far enough to free Catwoman. Arkham Knight is a solid, if uneven send-off for Rocksteady's trilogy. Combat and predation are still satisfying. The narrative mixes unsurprising, but well done segments with unsurprising and uninteresting elements. It's full of nods, winks, nudges for batfans, even if certain super villain side missions feel needlessly tossed in. It makes me worried about what will happen with Batman in a new developer's less comfortable hands, and excited for what Rocksteady might do, itself free of the Batman myth. [This review is based on a retail build purchased by the reviewer.]
Batman review photo
Long Halloween
[Note: This review is based on a retail PlayStation 4 copy of Batman: Arkham Knight, not the PC version that is so broken publisher Warner Bros. temporarily delisted it from sale] If the difference between the real Batman and...

Review: Cosmochoria

Jun 25 // Patrick Hancock
Cosmochoria (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Nate SchmoldPublisher: 30/30Released: April 27, 2015MSRP: $9.99  When Cosmochoria begins, the player is plopped into an unknown point in space with a few seeds and a gun. From there, they are tasked with restoring planets using seeds to bring some color and harmony back to the universe. Along the way, the player uncovers secrets about the history of the universe and destroys some evil beasts that come to ruin the party. The backstory isn't exactly rich with details or particularly interesting, but it does help build the universe. The game is a bit of a mix between a tower defense and a twin-stick shooter. It's a very unique combination, and honestly I'm not sure that description does it much justice. As the player flies around to different planets, they must plant seeds to restore the planet back to life. The bigger the planet, the more seeds needed. A player must first tend to the seed to plant it, which makes them immobile for a short time. Then, it takes some time for the seed to fully bloom. Once a seed blooms, it drops more seeds for exponential seed gains (players will never run out of seeds). After enough seeds have bloomed on a planet, it becomes restored! This does two things: the planet now has a "health pool" that it can transfer to the player to heal them up, and it brings the game one step closer to the next boss fight. The latter is not explicitly stated, but from my experience is true. Naturally, enemies come to chop off the player's green thumb. Luckily, the player can use a resource called Bricks to create towers and defend the planets. In addition, there's always the trusty gun to ward off foes. Ammo is unlimited, but Bricks are not. Bricks are occasionally dropped by enemies and are far scarcer resource than seeds. Towers are the standard fare of rapid-fire, fireballs, shields, and close-ranged.  [embed]293752:59233:0[/embed] While playing, I heavily favored gunplay over towers, especially once I unlocked the shotgun. When I was building towers, it was generally because I felt guilty for having so many Bricks saved up or because I expected a boss fight to break out. The bosses are quite the mixed bag. A handful of them act in very similar ways, but the game does change them up often enough to keep the players on their toes. Towards the mid-point of the game, I had no idea what to expect from any upcoming boss fight. In some cases towers were quite useful, whereas in others they were borderline useless. The final boss fight, while fittingly grand in scale, can be confusing because it forces the player to use a weapon they may have never tried before. For anyone stuck like I was: your weapon during the final boss fight can be charged, so charge it. The common enemies have interesting behaviors, but there are not enough different types. Towards the latter half, everything starts to feel like it's on auto-pilot. Plant seeds, kill the same enemies, move on. It got to the point where I could predict what was going to happen and when. Enemy spawning felt way too formulaic instead of being organic.  Cosmochoria is not meant to be completed in a single life, but it isn't what would be considered a "rogulike," "roguelite," or even a "rogue-lighter-that-lite." Killing foes rewards red crystals, which can be used in between playthroughs to purchase upgrades. Things like life, speed, starting seeds, and new weapons can all be purchased and have various prices. While it is probably technically possible to complete the game with the starting stats and equipment, it's very unlikely. Plus, it would be a slow and painful process. The increase in efficiency after getting a new weapon is huge and dramatically improves the experience. The early-goings can get a bit dull, since even a skilled player has to take their time killing enemies and bosses at the slow pace the starting weapon achieves. My second run lasted for a couple of hours, but I didn't make tremendous progress. New characters can also be unlocked, but not through spending crystals. They need to be found, usually through completing mini-objectives, during the game. They do have slight differences. For example, the ninja character becomes intangible while planting seeds. This is an incredibly neat mechanic, though enemies still know where the player is and will often just hover above and hurt them as soon as they become tangible again. Regardless, it still has its uses and is better than the starting character (but not as naked). In addition to upgrades, players can find artifacts to modify the way the game is played. The modifiers vary wildly in what they do and are completely optional. Some make the game harder, like only refilling jetpack fuel with kills, while others do the opposite, like removing certain types of enemies completely. It's a great way to spice up the core gameplay with mini-objectives of finding artifacts and to customize Cosmochoria to the player's liking.  The game saves the player's progress after each boss fight, though towers and location of planets do not stay between lives. The amount of planets restored is saved, but they are in different locations and different sizes. In addition, all planted towers are removed between lives, which further discouraged me from planting them in the first place.  The art and music are both wonderful, making the time spent in Cosmochoria memorable. The art is downright adorable in every way. Colors pop, which has a huge impact when restoring planets. Players can really see their progress in that regard. What once was a drab and lifeless husk of a planet becomes a bountiful and beautiful one,giving the player a real sense of accomplishment. Cosmochoria is a great way to explore space, but falls short in some aspects of its design. The core mechanics are great, but the latter half feels too repetitive, and there's not much real incentive to replay the game, despite there being many new things to uncover. It is certainly worth the time invested into it, though it may not have players screaming for more. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Cosmochoria review photo
In space, no one can hear you plant
When I first played Cosmochoria at PAX, I had to be pulled away from the demo station because of an appointment. The game's blend of calming gardening mixed with tower defense and space spelunking really jived with me. A...

Review: Tales from the Borderlands: Catch a Ride

Jun 23 // Darren Nakamura
Tales from the Borderlands: Catch a Ride (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: June 23, 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 [Editor's note: there will be no major spoilers present for the episode reviewed here, but events in previous episodes may be discussed.] When we last saw Fiona and Rhys, the duo had just constructed the Gortys Project while Vaughn and Sasha were being held hostage. Atlas Mugged ended with a significant Telltale choice for Rhys to make: trust Fiona in her ability to improvise the situation or trust the shadow of Handsome Jack residing in his own cybernetic head. Though the decision was given a lot of weight, the episode concluded before we got to see much of an effect. As it turns out, the opening sequence to Catch a Ride plays out quite differently depending on which option was selected earlier. It's enough of a difference that along with the review code, Telltale sent a message imploring me to play through the episode twice in order to see just how far-reaching the consequences are. The differences are there, and they persist until about the third act, but at that point the two branches sort of homogenize together. Without giving away too much, trusting Handsome Jack unlocks the help of three characters who aren't necessarily available to those who instead trusted Fiona. However, by the end, all three are out of the picture one way or another, despite that they could have been particularly useful. [embed]294552:59205:0[/embed] It shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody who has played a Telltale game in the past few years that the overall narrative threads all begin and end in the same place, but Catch a Ride does feel like an improvement in that regard, if only slightly. Though the player cannot really affect how the story ends, certain scenes play out differently enough to warrant another look. One silly change I appreciated was that Rhys's Echo Eye ability is corrupted if he lets Jack into his systems. Instead of the dry humor found in the default descriptions, Jack inserts his own brand of over-the-top musings. I do wish this idea were taken further; there is a section in which Rhys has to hack a computer and having a digitized version of Handsome Jack ought to have helped in that situation. Fiona also goes through some questionable design territory with her abilities. Where her sleeve gun was previously limited, providing the possibility for interesting choices, its power is unlocked in the episode. It nullifies the opportunity cost that piqued my interest in Atlas Mugged; when I spent that incendiary bullet singing Finch's hair off in the second episode, I thought that would be the last time. Now it almost feels like Telltale is trying to set Fiona up to be a proper Vault Hunter in Borderlands 3. While on the one hand it will definitely be cool to see Telltale's original characters in Gearbox's next effort in the main series, it would detract from her uniqueness as a smooth-talking con artist were she to become another gunslinging badass. Speaking of characters, we do get a few new cameos from the main series here, although their inclusion feels a bit like fan service. After playing through twice, I'm still not quite sure why they were there, but it could very well be something that is planned to be explained in the future. As it stands, they show up, say some funny lines, do some outrageously violent things, and advance the story in a way, but their motivation isn't clear. That is a relatively minor complaint, especially considering the best thing Catch a Ride has going for it is one of the new characters. Gortys turns out to be a friendly robot and she easily has some of the best lines in the episode. With the personality of an earnest young child, she feels so out of place in the dark wastelands of Pandora that I couldn't help but be charmed. Everybody on the planet is gruff, insane, murderous, jaded, or at least sarcastic that having one character who is none of those is just perfect. Some of Gortys's lines tap lightly on the fourth wall; those are worth a lasting grin. There is one scene of hers in particular that had me laughing heartily, both times I played through. Even knowing it was coming, the setup and delivery were so on point that it killed. Ashley Johnson's voice work was perfect for the role. I don't know how this story ends, but I hope Gortys survives the ordeal in one way or another, because Borderlands needs to keep that character around. It may seem like a lot of my thoughts on Catch a Ride are negative, but they are minor quibbles in the grand scheme. Though I'm a little disappointed the two protagonists aren't using their unique skills as much as they did in the first episode, the story they team up to tell is still completely engrossing. The writing is as sharp as ever, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. The end of the episode has just the right amount of cliffhanger to it. Tales from the Borderlands: Catch a Ride feels like a complete chapter in the story, but now I have a rough idea for what to expect in the next two episodes. With that narrative skeleton in mind, I am looking forward to watching the rest of the series play out now more than ever. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Tales from the Borderlands: Atlas Mugged (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: March 17, 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
Telltale Borderlands photo
Worth the fare
[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.] Ever s...

Review: Devil May Cry 4 Special Edition

Jun 23 // Chris Carter
Devil May Cry 4 Special Edition (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: CapcomPublisher: CapcomMSRP: $24.99Release Date: June 23, 2015 After booting it up, you'll have the option to play the original campaign with Nero and Dante, solely as Vergil, or a joint story of Lady and Trish, mirroring the former pair's split-story. Each character has their own customizable set of controls, and the Legendary Dark Knight mode (previously exclusive to the PC version) is open from the very start. I immediately sprung for Vergil and was not disappointed. If you're a newcomer, you'll likely want to replay the base story for some background, as the new characters merely have a new intro and ending to cap things off. It's essentially the exact same levels and bosses, but thanks to the fundamentally reworked movesets, the experiences feel nothing alike. Also for newcomers, the "automatic" control option returns for easier combos, as well as an automatic level-up function where the game chooses your upgrades for you. Veterans will be pleased to find a turbo option (increasing the speed by 20%) as well as your typical lock-on tweaks. Those of you out there who never played the PC version are in for a treat, as Legendary Dark Knight is about as balls-to-the-wall as it gets. The entire screen in nearly every area is littered with enemies, and it even goes so far as to add in endgame foes in the second mission. [embed]293573:58903:0[/embed] Despite the fact that there aren't any other major new modes, this is not a lazy remake by any means, as the three aforementioned character additions spice things up considerably. Vergil is probably my personal favorite new playstyle; possibly my favorite of the entire series. His style is fast and flashy, as he can still "trick" teleport up, down (which can also be used to cancel attacks), and forward, but he has a major new mechanic to manage that makes him more unique. Vergil now has a "concentration" gauge, which increases when he is walking, taunting, or connecting with abilities, and lowers when he runs, whiffs attacks, or gets hit. Raising this gauge increases your statline and opens up some new powers that are reliant on a full meter. It completely changes the way you play, as walking like a badass is now a priority, and missing attacks is more punishing. That's not to say that the game is "impossible" if you don't feel like mastering concentration on a normal or easy difficulty level, it just makes it more fun -- though it will increase your chances of survival later on. Take one advanced tactic from Vergil: teleporting. By using a sword projectile, Vergil can "stick" an enemy for later. By using the forward trick, you can instantly teleport to that marked baddie. He's extremely mobile, much like Dante's trickster style in Devil May Cry 3 or his appearance herein. To me, Vergil is the main event. Trish and Lady crash as well, starting with a small pizza party intro with Dante. Lady's playstyle, like Vergil before her, completely changes the way one would approach Devil May Cry, mostly because of her reliance on guns. In previous games, guns could always be used with effectiveness, but weren't really ideal. With Lady though, they're front and center. She has her Kalina Ann rocket launcher (which doubles as a grappling hook to mirror Nero's platforming abilities in the story), handguns, and a shotgun. While the latter two guns mesh with Dante's gunslinger style, the Kalina Ann acts almost nothing like it did in Devil May Cry 3. Her rocket sports a few melee abilities, a rocket-jump boost, and a throw, but the focus for her is ranged combat. Additionally, since Lady is human, she uses a super grenade blast instead of a Devil Trigger. It's really hard to get a good style rating at first, but once you learn to start chaining throws and juggling with different guns and abilities, it gets real fun real fast. Classic bosses like Berial are seen in a whole new light when you're trying to turtle and keep them at bay with rockets. I didn't expect much from Trish, but she's come a long way since her appearance in the first game. Her entire style hinges on the fact that she can't switch weapons, and instead just has a shit-ton of moves at her disposal. This sounds lame on paper. It's anything but in practice, as said moves are a ton of fun. In addition to a smorgasbord of powers from the entire series, she also sports some movesets from Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, as well as Round Trip, a boomerang of sorts that will continue to attack enemies while she's doing her thing. Dante himself though is still the king. He has access to his five styles (Trickster, Swordmaster, Gunslinger, Royalguard, and Dark Slayer), which can be switched out at any time using the d-pad. If you haven't seen the absolutely insane combos and possibilities that this system creates, take a look at this. Yes, with 1080p visuals and 60fps, you can still craft and employ advanced frame-specific mechanics, and beyond. With how deep the combat system is even to this day, I expect plenty of similar discoveries for the rest of the cast. That cast, by the way, is added in a way that feels like a natural continuation of Devil May Cry 3, which is a nice touch. I love little details like the fact that everyone has their own lock-on reticle. Sadly, the bad news is that all of this extra content doesn't necessarily fix the level design. The core problem hinges with the halfway point of the campaign, in which Dante (or Vergil/Trish) backtracks through the story, fighting the same exact bosses all over again. Not every level is exactly the same per se, but it's enough to grate on most players, especially since the pacing slows down a bit near the end. To unlock Dante, you'll have to play as Nero, and to unlock Trish, you'll have to play as Lady for a while. It's not that this system is bad per se because of how strong the combat systems are, it's just odd, as it feels like Capcom rushed its development a bit. The boss fights themselves are challenging and enjoyable, but having to do them all over again (or more, once you hit a gauntlet-like area at the end) is a bummer. The same goes for trekking through locales you've already seen at length. Having said all that, the juice is worth the squeeze, even more-so than before because of the new playstyles. While Nero operated like a handicapped Dante in the original edition, Vergil, Trish, and Lady have all cemented their places into the pantheon of Devil May Cry, to the point where I would love to see at least one of them (if not all) return in a future iteration. Devil May Cry 4 Special Edition reaffirms the series' status as the current king of the action genre. It may not fix some of the blemishes inherent to the game's campaign, but the new characters and styles are fantastic, and will have players creating combo videos for years to come. With respect to DmC and everything it accomplished, this is the Devil May Cry I want to see in the future, Capcom. [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Devil May Cry review photo
Real Dante returns
It wasn't until I played the very first Devil May Cry game that I knew I was an action fan. I must have beaten it five times at launch, pouring through every facet over weeks, perfecting my frame-by-frame combat abilities -- ...

Review: The Masterplan

Jun 18 // Stephen Turner
The Masterplan (PC) Developer: Shark Punch Publisher: Shark Punch Released: June 4, 2015 MSRP: $19.99  It’s the start of the '70s and Richard Nixon is cracking down on crime with the War on Drugs, which means bad news for your dealing protagonist. After being busted out of jail, it’s time to stick it to The Man by pulling off a series of heists; each one leading you closer to the ultimate payday at Fort Knox. Actually, there’s not much else to say about The Masterplan’s plot, even if it does serve the funky aesthetics well. No special gadgets, here; just good old fashioned lockpicks, drills, and shooters. The Masterplan has a charming tongue-in-cheek vibe throughout, with anachronistic references, stumpy characters, and goofy violence. Presented from a top-down perspective, the hand drawn artwork is reminiscent of a board game. Each map stands out with its own detailed identity -- from stores to offices to casinos -- to the point where you’re interested in seeing the next location or need to remember for a bonus replay. As for the gameplay itself, it’s a real-time, semi-improvisational puzzler. Oddly though, for a game about heists, there’s no pre-planning at all. At a hideout, you hire crew members, buy some weapons, pick a destination, and work it out when you get there. It makes for some frustrating instances of trial-and-error runs. Plus there’s the odd design choice of having to kill a crew member to replace them and not one but two crew caps (six hires, but only four go on the heist). The Masterplan is really about fluidity and making decisions on the fly. Brute force is fine, but it comes with monetary penalties and alarms, so it’s obviously meant to be played as stealthily as possible; turn off the lights and cameras, and avoid the cones of vision. Though you’re given different objectives, every level boils down to one plan: get the grey key to get the orange key, which in turn will net you the red key and finally the loot. The maps might increase in size and complexity, but it’s always the exact same method for success. That’s not to say there’s a lack of flexibility. This is a game where you play it room-by-room, adapting to every mistake and accidental paths. As long as those major goals are completed, the next heists are unlocked. It also helps to have a choice, as being stuck on one doesn’t mean a grinding halt in progression. Each heist usually contains a useful tool for another location, like a disguise or a drill, and none of it ever feels overpowered. There’s a real feeling of relief when a plan goes awry at the last second and a previously opened shortcut becomes essential for your escape. It’s the little pressures that make it fun. The Masterplan rides a fine line between fiendish and finicky. The minimal UI, which encircles your character with a simple right-click, usually overlaps objects and characters in close proximity. When you’re on your own, it works great. When you’re moving two people together or need to multi-task, it becomes a real hassle; especially in a timed situation. Everyone walks around like they’re on ice, which makes for some troublesome encounters when you need make quick turns, fast draws, or lock swinging doors. There’s a slo-mo function meant for synchronised tactics, but it’s obviously the developers’ way of combating the negatives above. You see, there’s never much reason to have a crew working in tandem. Most heists have you donning a disguise and pulling off silent one-man robberies, as the rest of your crew idle about, acting as pack mules or lookouts. For the most part, The Masterplan feels incredibly slight. In the last third, where tactics shift from bull rushes to planning longer routes, the need for tactical complexity becomes too apparent. Though not exactly fast-paced, it works best when decisions are made on-the-fly and risks are taken for monetary distractions. Overall, The Masterplan is not a bad game, just one that misses some tricks because of scaled back designs. [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Review photo
I propagate British cultural depravity
Once upon a time, I played a PC game called Heist. It was truly dreadful, but it did spark my interest in seeing more methodical crime games on the market. Sadly, the wait has been more of a slow drip, with more cancellations...

Review: Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure

Jun 18 // Chris Carter
Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure (3DS)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoMRSP: $8.99Release Date: June 11, 2015 Yep, this is pretty much the same Dr. Mario you know and love. Miracle Cure sports 10 training levels and 50 core stages for its "campaign," and mixes the classic gameplay of Mario with the newly-minted sub-franchise of Dr. Luigi, allowing both playstyles as a separate option. If you've never played a game in the series before, you're directing little pills on a screen, similar to Tetris, to eliminate viruses and clear the board. Each virus and pill has a respective color (blue, red, or yellow), and matching up four of a kind will clear that link. Dr. Mario features a standard pill shape with up to two colors, and Dr. Luigi makes things a bit more difficult with an "L" shape pill. That's the gist. Here in the newest 3D game there's a new mechanic though called the "Miracle Cure," which basically translates to "powerups." Leave it to Nintendo to barely iterate on a formula and still make a fun game, right? Said powerups include bombs, which blow up anything in their blast radius, and line-based explosions, which are more tactical in nature. For the most part, everything is the same as before, but the Miracle Cures do add a bit more nuance should you opt to turn them on. For instance, the pacing for individual levels is a bit faster since you can score a ton of bombs to blast out some mishaps you may have stacked up in a particular round. It's not mind-blowing, but it doesn't detract from the experience. In addition to the aforementioned preset puzzles, you can also play a custom mode that allows endless play, as well as the option to play directly with a CPU, head-to-head, racing to clear your board first. This versus mode also extends to both online play and local play, the latter of which thankfully supports a download play option, so only one person needs a copy. Honestly, the online experience was one of the smoothest of any recent Nintendo game, as I didn't have any lag of any kind playing a number of different people in Japan. It's all matchmaking based, mind. [embed]294288:59147:0[/embed] It also has this cool display method that shows your game on top and your opponent's on the bottom, both of which have been lag-free based on my testing. For all of these modes you can also opt for Dr. Mario- or Dr. Luigi-based modes, as well as the option to turn off Miracle Cures if you wish. My suggestion? Play with Miracle Cures online. It can be a radically different experience, looking up, then quickly looking down and realizing that your opponent has blasted away half their viruses with powerups. When all is said and done though, there really isn't a whole lot to Miracle Cure if you aren't going to play multiplayer with a friend who shares your passion. I really wish Nintendo showed a bit more effort when it comes to solo play, as the standard "missions" aren't cutting it. I would kill to see a new storyline (like Dr. Mario 64) incorporated into the franchise, one that unites both Mario and Luigi against a common foe. For now, there's only so much pill-dropping that I can take. If you're a Dr. Mario junkie, you can probably pull the trigger on Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure just to see what the fuss is about in regards to the power-ups. For everyone else, just stick with Dr. Luigi until Nintendo decides to overhaul the formula a bit more. [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Dr. Mario review photo
The next game should be Nurse Toad
There's something to be said about preserving old games. As we move into the digital era and publishers start putting less and less emphasis on physical media, many classic games and pieces of hardware will cease to exist. Fo...

Review: Fallout Shelter

Jun 15 // Chris Carter
Fallout Shelter (Android, iOS [reviewed])Developer: Bethesda Game StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksMSRP: Free-to-playRelease Date: June 14, 2015 (iOS) / TBA (Android) The gist is that you'll basically need to build your first vault from scratch, with a power source, a water treatment plant, and a cafeteria to serve food as a baseline. As you play the game, more citizens will line up outside of your vault, ready to suit up and get placed into a new room. As time passes, said NPCs will work and earn you resources, which can be gained by tapping on the location -- simple stuff that I'm sure you've seen before. Other than a few nuances like the ability to place male and female NPCs in a living space and potentially create children or ship off inhabitants to scour the wasteland off-screen, that's it. It's a lot like SimTower, or its mobile successor, Tiny Tower. Tapping is the name of the game. Unlike many games though, Fallout Shelter actually forces you to keep up with your resources. If you don't power your vault enough, rooms will shut down. If you don't keep your NPCs fed, they will lose health and productivity. A low water resource will cause your citizens to become irradiated, and so on. Your personal hamster-wheel involves completing objectives and upgrading rooms to earn caps, which in turn allow you to build more rooms to take in more inhabitants, which unlocks more advanced buildings. It's all pretty straightforward, but sometimes objectives are a bit broken, as you'll need to re-do things you may have already completed (specifically in the case of equipping an NPC with a certain item in my game). The entire process is enhanced by the fact that visually, Fallout Shelter is far more impressive than most resource-management games on the market. I love how when you double-tap on a particular room it does this 3D-like zoom, which looks great when juxtaposed to the cartoony art style of the vault inhabitants.  It's very easy to click on everything, and although the scrolling sensitivity could use some tweaking, the game as a whole is responsive. During its E3 conference last night, Bethesda noted that it didn't have any underhanded sales tactics with Fallout Shelter, as it was playable offline "without energy meters." Now, that's technically true (it works in airplane mode), but you will have to wait to earn more caps from rooms to actually do anything substantial with your vault other than look at it. What's actually cool about Shelter is that you can "hurry up" activities by taking a chance rather than spending premium currency (like every other game on the market) -- the catch is that room might explode or cause an "incident," which may kill off citizens or spread to other rooms. These can involve things like fires, or even radroach infestations. In the latter case, I had just equipped my mess hall officer with a handgun, which she used to fight off said roaches. It's a nice risk-reward feature that you don't see often. For a game like this the pacing is decent, as most early-game resources take one to three minutes to earn. It's slow though for sure in terms of earning caps and building new rooms in the long-term, as Fallout Shelter is an experience that's meant to be played over time -- so much so that many of you may give up on it after all the waiting involved. There are optional microtransactions however in the form of "lunchboxes," which range from $0.99 per box to $19.99 for 40 of them. You'll earn "Shelter Cards" for your trouble, one of which is guaranteed to grant you a rare item "or better." For the purposes of science (and this review) I purchased one, which granted me a stimpack, a 10mm pistol, 100 caps, and a sturdy piece of battle armor. All of these items aren't particularly game-breaking, and you can earn a few lunchboxes yourself by completing objectives. Faster world progress hinges on earning lots of 500 cap boxes on a whim, so I see the obvious slot machine draw here that Bethesda is going for. Fallout Shelter is a pretty inoffensive mobile resource management game. While it could have exploited fans at every turn like EA tried to do with Dungeon Keeper, it's actually a nice little way to spend an afternoon while you wait for Fallout 4 to come out in November. Just don't expect anything particularly exciting, as it is slightly skewed towards enticing you to spend money on it -- lest you wait to enjoy it in short spurts. [This review is based on a retail build of the free-to-play game. $0.99 of in-app-purchases were made by the reviewer.]
Fallout Shelter review photo
Free-to-tunnel-snake
Last night at Bethesda's press conference, we got our first surprise of E3 2015: a brand new mobile game set in the Fallout universe called Fallout Shelter. It looked innocent enough, hearkening back to classics like XCOM as ...

Review: The Detail (Episodes 1 & 2)

Jun 10 // Stephen Turner
The Detail (PC) Developers: Rival Games Publisher: Rival Games Released: May 28, 2015 MSRP: $5.99 (Seperate Episodes), $9.99 (Episode Bundle) Though it’s mostly presented as a graphic novel, The Detail is a cop show at heart, owing a lot to the likes of NYPD Blue, The Wire, and Homicide: Life on the Streets. Players take control of several characters on both sides of the law – Det. Reggie Moore, a burned out cop, Katelyn Hayes, a rookie officer thrown into the deep end, and Joe Miller, an ex-informant-turned-family man – as they track down the suspect in a gangland murder. By the end of the second episode, things go from bad to worse, as Reggie struggles with the responsibility of a new Major Crimes Unit, and Joe resorts to desperate measures for his family’s safety. It might be a familiar premise, but it’s also one that makes for an intriguing set-up; where characters are presented with morally grey decisions on a regular basis and the stakes increase scene-by-scene. But, honestly, the writing never quite hits its televisual marks. Characters spout clichés like the last 15 years of contemporary crime novels never happened, maverick cops are constantly told to cool their jets, and the gang stereotypes are really on the nose. The Detail does have moments of subtlety though, enough to elevate solid characters over the eye-rolling narration. The main protagonists come across as sympathetic and realistically flawed – Reggie’s girlfriend being an escort and Joe’s bedtime stories to his daughter spring to mind – and for all the bluntness of Ep1: Where the Dead Lie, you perfectly understand the motivations and reflections that colour in their more questionable actions. Both episodes lean heavily on choice and consequence, but by the end of Ep2: From the Ashes, you never get a sense of the bigger ramifications. Most of the decisions are short-term affairs and callbacks usually end in a throwaway line of text. In several scenes, three choices really amount to two outcomes. This is particularly striking in Ep1: Where the Dead Lie, where a child molester walks free, no matter what you pick (completely ignoring his assault of two officers in the process). In Ep2: From the Ashes, aggressive tactics can cause a suspect to have an epileptic fit, but it’s never brought up again. Of course, the illusion of choice will always be there in narrative-led video games. Some hide it better than others, but here, only a handful of decisions clearly carry any weight. From conversations to investigations, player input feels fairly minimal, and that’s really down to the low-budget hallmarks of an iPad port. A crime scene is just a case of clicking on hotspots, which can also be permanently highlighted for ease, and they’re always capped off with a simple comparison puzzle, e.g. check the names on a map with a criminal record or match the calendar dates with a call log. When the story becomes more urgent, like getting into a fight, it’s more about picking the next panel in a comic book. Speaking of which, The Detail’s artwork is an acquired taste. Nothing on screen is ever consistent; jumping from stark black and white panels to comically expressive talking heads, with characters looking different in every other shot. Grammar is also spotty at times; not exactly egregious, but sometimes distracting. It’s not until Ep2: From the Ashes that the quality takes a massive leap for the biggest beats. But if there’s a real consistent high point throughout, it’s definitely the soundtrack. The low-key themes perfectly capture the downbeat mood, turning the right kind of screws when the situation gets out of hand, and getting into the head of certain characters when the dialogues fails to deliver. The Detail is a rough production. Past the clichés, inconsistent presentation, and slight investigative work, there’s the odd glimpse of potential in its characters and their dilemmas. Whereas Ep1: Where the Dead Lie leaves a bad first impression, Ep2: From the Ashes does its best to refine past mistakes, if not rectify them completely. Two episodes down in a five-episode season, and the nagging suspicion that The Detail won’t be anything more than average when it’s complete lingers in the mind. For now, it’s best to stick with the gimmicks. [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Review photo
'Game's the same, just got more fierce'
As someone who loves the detective genre in both novels and film, I’m always disappointed by the way they translate to video games. A lot of it boils down to gimmick first, mystery second; where you’re usually a g...

Review: The Next Penelope

Jun 10 // Chris Carter
The Next Penelope (PC [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: Aurelien RegardPublisher: Plug In DigitalMSRP: $12.99Release Date: May 29, 2015 (PC) / TBA (Wii U) It's the year 3044, in Ithaca. Odysseus has been away at sea for 10 years, and his kingdom is now under attack by Poseidon, father of the Cyclopes race. As a result, it's up to Odysseus' wife Penelope to find him. If you couldn't tell by the year marker, all of this is set to the tone of a futuristic epic -- spaceships are prevalent throughout Penelope's universe, and Poseidon is basically a member of an alien race. A lot of people probably won't even pay attention to the ties to Homer's Odyssey, but it works for the most part. All of this setup brings us to the main event -- racing. Yep, somehow, someway, this is a classic top-down racer reminiscent of the Micro Machines games or Blizzard's Rock'n'Roll Racing. As such, the visuals are retro-centric, and I have to say, they look excellent. Everything from the animated anime-like portraits during cutscenes and the colorful, flashy in-game graphics are painstakingly detailed. The controls take no time at all to learn, as they mostly consist of just altering your direction by way of the arrow keys or the gamepad's triggers, but they'll take quite a while to master. Acceleration is automatic, but weapons and power-ups can be enacted by pressing a specific button (in the case of a keyboard, the up arrow). These range from things like boosts to bullets, which you'll often need to blow away enemies or blast through hazards like boulders. They're fun to use, but since the general gameplay is so fast, they don't have as big of an impact as they should. [embed]293674:58914:0[/embed] Power-ups also bring another classic racing mechanic into play -- energy zones from F-Zero. While micromanaging your abilities, staying on track, and fighting off foes, you'll also have to occasionally steer yourself into the way of energy areas to sap up more power-up meter. It's fast, frantic, and fun, especially since individual stages are roughly a minute or two long. What's amazing to me is that The Next Penelope hosts a four-hour campaign. Heck, with its old-school flair it didn't even really need to go this extra mile, but it did. The campaign is even further augmented by a full galaxy map, the power to choose what stats to level-up (including upgrades to steering, defensive capabilities, and more outwards camera zoom). Boss battles on top of all this madness make things even more interesting, turning the game into a full-on shooter. It's crazy how much variety there is. The four-person multiplayer mode also has a mini-story involving Penelope's suitors, who are battling each other for glory. It's not a fully-fledged campaign or anything, but it's a neat little way to justify its inclusion. The gist is that all four racers, CPU or player-controlled, are attempting to blow each other up while they struggle to stay on one screen. If you're left behind, you're dead, and the last ship standing takes it all. It's a good old-fashioned slugfest across nine maps, and given the way it works, all four players can feasibly share the same keyboard. It's important to note that no online play of any kind is supported. The Next Penelope is a blast to play on PC, and will probably be a massive hit at parties when it arrives on Wii U later this year. It's a shame more old-school racers aren't around, but with games like this and 90s Arcade Racer, the scene is seeing a revival that brings a huge smile to my face. [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Next Penelope review photo
My, how mortals take the gods to task
If I told you that I wanted to mix Greek mythology with the racing and shoot-'em-up genres, you'd probably call me crazy. But that's just what developer Aurelien Regard did with his one-man show The Next Penelope, and for the...

Review: Kholat

Jun 09 // Jed Whitaker
Kholat (PC)Developer: IMGN.PRO Publisher: IMGN.PRO MSRP: $19.99Release Date: June 9, 2015 Picture this: You're famous Hollywood actor Sean Bean and you're investigating the deaths of nine hikers while stumbling around Russian mountains and collecting letters and pages from their journals. Now picture that as a game and you have Kholat. It would be easy to write this off as another Slender clone, as part of the formula is the same: you walk around finding pages, while occasionally having a run in with a shadowy figure. What sets Kholat apart is that the ghostly figure isn't constantly chasing you, and every page discovered delivers another piece of the story, be it via text or top-notch voice acting. Kholat plays out in three acts, of which the second is the main meat of the game. Act Two takes place in the snowy mountains where the hikers met their demise. You've got a map with key locations listed in longitude and latitude, a compass, and a flashlight. The goal is to visit each of the nine marked locations to discover key pages to give insight on what exactly happened to the hikers. While finding the nine main locations is the overall goal, many other pages can be found throughout the mountains that provide tidbits of information into what happened there. The game saves each time a new page is found, which gives some incentives to find them other than just experiencing the story, as you may find yourself dying often. Gaseous orange shadows will show up in certain areas of the mountains mostly requiring stealthy movement to avoid, though at times running is the only option. Scripted events occur where orange clouds start to close in around you, and a nearby page must be found before the monsters within can take your life, though these are few and far between. If you're like me, you're going to get lost a lot. Turns out when everything is covered in snow, it looks very similar, but at least Kholat is easy on the eyes. There are some varying locations, from caves, to a charred forest, to a giant spooky tree, to a throne of bones. Each one is a unique and memorable set piece where something important is to be discovered. The scariest part of Kholat isn't the monsters that lurk in the dark, but the feeling of anxiety and urgency brought on by it capturing the feeling of being lost in the wilderness. Each location is coupled with realistic ambiance and weather that when combined with the equally realistic graphics really nails the feeling of being lost on a mountain in solitude. At one point I considered muting the game to give myself a break from the dread coming over me, but I pushed on. The voice-acted pieces of the story are very believable and chilling. While some pages you'll find just read like generic journal entries, others are downright horrifying thanks to a well written and acted script. There are various people writing the pages, providing different perspectives on what happened on the mountain over time. Unlike many games with collectible journals, I find these actually worth seeking out. Little to no directions are given to the player -- you're just dropped into the world and expected to figure things out on your own. It wasn't until my second play session that I realized the locations marked on the map were of importance. After figuring out proper use of the map and compass, it was easy to complete the game in just around four hours, which felt a bit light for the asking price of $20, considering most of your time will be spent looking at snowy rocks. Overall an enjoyable experience that has a fantastic presentation but just lacks much depth in gameplay. [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Kholat Review photo
Sean Bean's Mystery Incorporated
Kholat is based on the Dyatlov Pass incident, which is arguably one of history's greatest mysteries; nine hikers go missing and are subsequently found dead in the snowy Russian mountains. The hikers had cut their wa...

Review: Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy

Jun 09 // Chris Carter
Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy (PlayStation TV, Vita [reviewed])Developer: Experience Inc.Publisher: MAGES, 5pb. Games (JP) / NIS America (EU, NA)MSRP: $39.99Release Date: July 24, 2014 (Japan) / June 5, 2015 (EU) / June 9, 2015 (NA) Operation Abyss opens up with a bang -- your character has just woken up in the "gloomy darkness," next to multiple severed, bloodied bodies. Holy shit, right? It gets a little bit goofier from there, as a hooded man suddenly appears and tells you "basically, you've been kidnapped," as an army of half-human zombie monsters attack. You're immediately offered a choice: trust the man or not, which doesn't really end up mattering. Then a Magical Girl shows up and fights a giant crocodile. It pretty much never lets up from here. New Tokyo Legacy is set in a near-future version of Japan. Those creatures? They're called Variants, and it's up to the government-funded Code Physics Agency, which you've just been forcefully inducted into, to save the day. It must be said, if the silly intro wasn't any indication, the art for the game is incredible, and full of life. A lot of scenes may feature static portraits, and the dungeon designs might be on the bland side, but the art style (and by proxy, the main cast) is always colorful and interesting. Likewise, the darker elements of the game are just that -- dark. Creatures look suitably horrific, the narrative can go darker when it needs to, and on occasion, I was straight-up creeped out. There's also a ton of weird story elements like the blood of Florence Nightingale, Leonardo da Vinci, and Hanzo Hattori used for "Blood Codes," to gain abilities and special powers. No one can say that Tokyo Legacy isn't unique. [embed]293318:58901:0[/embed] Like most lengthy dungeon crawler experiences (this one is roughly 40 hours), it takes about six hours of walking until it takes off sprinting, and by then I was sucked into the world. Dungeons aren't obtuse, but as previously mentioned, they are on the bland side. After about 10 hours of play some of them started to blend together, and there isn't enough indication on-screen to denote hidden areas or locations of interest. I definitely don't want a streamlined "go here" indicator, it would just be nice if there was an inkling of uniqueness to the dungeons, since everything else is painstakingly crafted. There's lots of customization involved, including equipment and ability choices and statline tweaking. In terms of choices in relation to the narrative, there's not a whole lot here. This is an old school dungeon crawler through and through, and although there are some light forks in the road, none of them are emotional or engaging. Your key plan here is to go and defeat monsters to further the overarching story -- not your personal one. That's partially because each playthrough uses randomly generated characters, which can be customized, but don't necessarily play any real role. That extends to a lack of any real romantic element, since your party is essentially a collective. Unlike Demon Gaze, Operation Abyss' recent predecessor, Legacy is a bit more forgiving. For instance, you can now go freely back to your base if you wish, which is where you'll level up and sort through your massive inventory. The good news is that there's no "rent" or statistical hit to worry about, and if you're having trouble, heading back to rest up isn't a terrible idea. There's still a lot of menus to wade through and stats to painstakingly tweak back and forth, but it's more accessible than a lot of other crawlers since it doesn't penalize you at every turn. Because of that design decision though, it loses a bit of its edge. Despite the fact that Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy can be a bit by-the-numbers inside dungeons, it's anything but in nearly every other facet of the game. While I probably won't be rushing to complete it again anytime soon, it was a lengthy enough adventure that will stay fresh in my mind for some time. [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Operation Abyss photo
The Walking Variants
One of the very first PC games I ever played was a dungeon crawler. It was called MadMaze, a title released on 1989, playable on the Prodigy internet service -- yep, it was during the dialup era. While crawlers may not be one...

Review: Massive Chalice

Jun 08 // Steven Hansen
Massive Chalice (Xbox One, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Double Fine ProductionsPublisher: Double Fine ProductionsMSRP: $19.99Release Date: June 1, 2015 A talking cup with the alternating voices of an old man and younger woman gives you a "Hello Commander," informing you that you, an immortal being tied to the chalice, are the only one who can navigate humanity to victory against the encroaching, monster-filled Cadence. With that brief set up, you pick five pre-generated families to serve as your starting vanguard of fighters. It's an aesthetic choice. Try and pick families with distinct flag colors (and fun surnames) because otherwise keeping track of them is a mess. The Fab Five have different stat-affecting traits (bred) and personalities (learned) and three different base classes that can be combined to make sub-classes with slightly different abilities. You're also seemingly bound to get stuck with an asthmatic early on whom you can rightly cast off into the scary orange mist because they will be useless and the life of an individual isn't worth much in a 300 year war effort. Massive Chalice operates on two levels. Combat is turn-based with grid movement and two actions per turn. Walk a bit and then attack, or walk further and leave yourself unable to attack are the big ones. The latter has a chance of leaving a character screwed if they wander into the obscured battlefield Fog of War and reveal a pack of waiting enemies. Outside of combat, there is scant decision-making and a lot of hitting the Advance Timeline button as you try to make it to year 300 to destroy the Cadence by building kingdoms for your characters to bone in to produce better soldiers and advance the bloodline. [embed]293482:58868:0[/embed] Combat, however, feels one-dimensional, perhaps appropriate for the rote meat grinder that is 300 years of war. There's no cover or overwatch, never objectives beyond kill everything within line of sight. Inch forward, kill, inch forward, kill. I often had to double back through the sometimes obnoxiously routed, procedurally generated levels to off one last monster that was content to, I guess, walk around in circles in the far off map corner for all its turns. Enemies are impressively distinct. Ruptures create a wide berth of corrosive tiles upon death, Lapses sap soldiers' XP, Wrinklers age soldiers on contact. But Massive Chalice only metes out these highly specialized enemies and facing them over and over, in larger and beefed up quantities, gets tiring. Its turn-based strategy feels brute forced and basic. Even with the addition of sub-classes and the tips screen advising carrying members of every class, I still felt like fielding a team of five Hunters to SOCOM its way through fights was ideal and borderline easy (on Normal mode). The Alchemist's volatile, limited projectiles killed more of my own troops than enemies in my last run and sending the melee-focused Caberjack into the fray always feels too dangerous. This, though, raises a huge problem with the lengthy final fight that I've found unwinnable without the area of effect moves of the other classes. Nation management, too, feels simple and sterile. You are asked to choose between research projects which take years to finish. The most obviously necessary are the Keeps, which is where you retire soldiers to and appoint a mate on the grounds of eugenics. I find that once I get Keeps built and Übermenschs screwing, research becomes haphazard. A couple pieces of gear (mainly for Hunters), the experience raising item, and then I'm mostly choosing something at random and slamming on the "Advance Timeline" button until someone else dies of old age and needs to be replaced at their post. It is clinical and the soldier stat effects feel slim (so long as you avoid breeding a handful of proper blights, like asthma). The idea of bloodlines is a good one, but the sparse overworld (the same Simon panel of territory and occasional, stoic look at a throne) does not support any narrative or connection in the vein of a Crusader Kings-like strategy game. All there is are brief, occasional text adventure events that have you make a decision (how will you settle a squabble between two troops?) that might affect some mild stat. Meanwhile, the short shelf-life of fighters doesn't support any connection to individual troops in combat, save for the one or two fights you'll have a high-level troop with a funny nickname. The most attachment I felt was to a flag color. This becomes a weird problem with the ending, which tries to suddenly loop back around and deliver an unnecessary story element that, at best, would "explain," in-universe, subsequent playthroughs. It is odd, unnecessary, and even robs you of basic world-saving catharsis. It also reminded me that, on Normal, I've yet to come close to my kingdom falling, which belies roguelike claims, while on the other hand I sort of dread playing 300 more years (plus failure restarts) on higher difficulties because of the simple combat. Massive Chalice is both beautiful and approachable, somewhat rare qualities in the genre. But its 300 year arc bends toward apathy and inhumanity. By mid-game, what was novel and enticing becomes a slog. The nation and bloodlines are mostly built out, ending the high level tactics, and battles become more brute force as the same enemies double in HP, power, and quantity. I felt like middle management making the same position appointments that a computer could make more quickly and all I got for my click click clicking was combat with bigger numbers on the same handful of stages. There is some payoff with the bloodline idea at the end, but it is not worth the rote meat grinder to get there. [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Massive Chalice review photo
Great fighter with a glass jaw
Double Fine's less scrutinized Kickstarter success, Massive Chalice, has been formally released half a year since entering Early Access. Along with Invisible, Inc., it formed a one-two punch of time-eating, XCOM-tinged turn-b...

Review: Heroes of the Storm

Jun 02 // Chris Carter
Heroes of the Storm (Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentMSRP: Free-to-playRelease Date: June 2, 2015 Fundamentally, Heroes is still very much a MOBA experience. It's a five-on-five, top-down, click-heavy affair with various roles such as support, tanks, and DPS, and there's a variety of different characters to choose from. To help break down the barrier to entry, Blizzard has made a number of concessions that set it apart from its competition. Perhaps the biggest difference with Heroes of the Storm is that there are no longer items of any kind, and that's something I'm really, really happy about. While I definitely appreciate the "me-too" nature of adding items to every new MOBA, as it did initially stem from the original DOTA (and by proxy, Warcraft III's shops), learning new item-meta in addition to every map and every nuance for each character can be taxing. I'll often spend hours upon hours theorycrafting builds when returning to specific MOBAs just to figure out the best course of action, which can get tiring if you have to do it for every game. Potions have been replaced by healing wells, found at every fort checkpoint -- making it even easier to get back into the action without any boring moments. Now, there's still plenty of theorycrafting to be had with Heroes of the Storm as characters do get the ability to choose between different abilities after hitting certain level milestones, but you don't need to worry about that one extra crucial layer that can make or break a match. But without items, newer players will be able to pick up any hero and play. Builds are initially limited as you start to level-up within the game's ranking system, offering only a few paths for heroes you've never played as before. It only takes a few games until everything is available though, and at player level 25 (a few days of heavy sessions), every skill will be unlocked automatically. In short, it'll be very easy to come back to Heroes months down the line and learn new playstyles. [embed]292749:58760:0[/embed] The open-ended build system is also great for another reason. Even if you don't build the perfect group composition for any given team, all hope isn't lost at hero selection. For instance, you can spec your support or tank characters into a more damage-centric role over the course of the game. Healers can spec entirely for damage if there's multiple support members on the team, and warriors can go a more tanky route if there's no one to soak up damage. It's far more forgiving than most MOBAs, where you can get yelled at for picking a hero that doesn't fit the current meta, much less your group. Shared experience is the other huge mechanic that Heroes of the Storm is pushing. Basically, it allows everyone on the team to be on the same exact level as one another at all times. For example, you won't have one master player who knows exactly how to lane amassing all of the XP on your team. Instead, the worst player is just as strong as the best one. I dig this system for multiple reasons. For one, it doesn't discourage players from attempting to mount a comeback. While another team can still theoretically outlevel their opponents as a collective, everyone can now feel like they're contributing without having fingers pointed at them. The cast itself is also a huge draw, mostly because it calls upon the rich lore already established in the Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft universes. There's not much backstory in terms of the world itself (unlike Riot Games, which does a fantastic job of keeping its lore interesting and fresh), but each hero has a ton of personality to make up for it. Old familiar characters like Thrall or Raynor have a lot of the same icons and skills from their respective games, as well as updated designs and sound effects. It's a joy to play as Nova and hear the classic StarCraft Ghost phrases, running up against the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo. It sounds hyperbolic, but I really do like playing as everyone (the only hero I straight-up don't like is Tychus), and there's more than enough variation to keep everyone entertained. Abathur, for instance, is a character that doesn't directly fight on the battlefield, but instead hitches a ride on other heroes (as well as towers and creeps) to do battle in the form of a sentient spirit of sorts. The Lost Vikings are a lot like Meepo from DOTA, in the sense that they're actually three different units that can be controlled independently, all in different lanes if you can handle it. There are plenty of more traditional platstyles available, as well as more unique choices like Zagara, who summons minions from StarCraft and can create creep (that barren-esque Zerg terrain) to buff herself. Other characters like Ghost and Zeratul can go stealth to pick off enemies. Sylvanas can disable towers or creeps by attacking them. Uther can heal for a short time after his death. You've seen some of these mechanics before in the genre, but the way each style plays out is unique to Heroes. If you're bored of playing the same exact five-on-five, three-lane map over and over in every game, Heroes can offer some respite. There's tons of maps to learn (seven in all at launch, with another Diablo-themed map in development), all of which have objectives built into them. These mini-quests range from collecting coins to pay a ghost pirate to blow away an enemy base, or defending a circle that shoots lasers at opposing forts. While a lot of folks likely won't enjoy the fact that a team can come back and win because of these events, they're actually just a more streamlined and flashy way of handling the Dragon and Baron Nashor objectives in, say, League of Legends. They're also designed to expedite matches -- an average Heroes game is usually 20 minutes, which is a stark contrast to 45-60 minute matches elsewhere. It's a great philosophy, as one of the common genre complaints is the fact that games take forever. The less Blizzard copies the status quo, the better. Heroes of the Storm also provides a more relaxed environment in general. There's far less pressure in unranked matches (as there should be), and there's even an option to turn off allied chat, thus avoiding taunts from angry players -- instead, you can rely on the fairly extensive pinging system on the mini-map to communicate. "All" chat is also entirely disabled, so you won't hear enemy trash-talking either. There's a few bad apples here and there, but in my experience, this is by and large the most welcoming MOBA community. This should help alleviate a lot of the concerns people have in regards to starting up the genre. For those of you who are more competitive, there is a ranked option called Hero League. There's no bans currently, but you can solo or group queue for it, and hero selection is done by a "draft" style format, where players switch off selecting characters. From what I've played of ranked, the community is just as understanding and helpful, and in every lobby I've been in, players have suggested picks for inexperienced folk and adjusted their picks to help the team. At the highest player rank there's also a team Hero League option for all five players to enter. Currently, the ranked system needs a bit more work in terms of the infrastructure behind it. Blizzard has noted that it is building a system in line with Hearthstone's ladder rankings, but top-tier players will require a lot more to keep playing. In terms of monetizaton, Heroes is roughly on par with League (which is fine by me), but with a slightly lower earn-rate for in-game currency. Yes, it's awesome that Dota 2 has all of its heroes unlocked from the start, and I wish we could have that strategy implemented in every MOBA. But the reality is, Blizzard has created enough avenues to earn gold, and the free-to-play rotation every week will still allow you to play every role and get the full Heroes experience. To earn gold, you can complete daily quests, which will net you around one character per month (depending on the price). By playing frequently, you'll earn gold inherently through completed matches, and by leveling up heroes, you'll earn a nice gold bonus at specific ranks. It's not really hard to do any of these tasks -- they merely require you to play heroes from specific franchises, roles, or play the hero itself a certain amount. There's also a few bundles, including a $20 physical boxed set at launch, that provide a large number of characters. A handful of heroes are also very cheap, to the point where you can buy a few after only a day or so of play. Ever since the beta, I've always had a reserved take on Heroes' economy. In short, it's a bit too conservative in terms of rewards, and Blizzard doesn't put out nearly enough sales (the weekly is usually just a middling one character). That could change over time, but for now, I would like to see a higher earn-rate overall. The good news is that all real-money purchases are just that -- real-money, with dollars and cents. You don't need to wade through and calculate "Riot Points" to figure out how much something costs. Skins are only available for purchase with real cash, which doesn't really bother me as they are a completely optional affair. Plus, when you see how much work goes into making a skin, the prices feel justified, especially when they're on sale. Heroes of the Storm has unfairly been branded as a "just a casual game" due to the removal of many tried and true MOBA mechanics. With over 100 hours of play under my belt, I can say with authority that those claims are untrue. Heroes has a ton of depth, it's very well balanced (though not perfect), and nearly every cast member is a blast to play. It achieves almost everything it sets out to accomplish, so I really hope it catches on with the non-believers and continues to grow. [This review is based on a retail build of the free-to-play game, but Blizzard provided us with 60,000 gold to spend in the shop. A $20 retail starter pack was purchased by the reviewer. I am currently player level 40, the maximum.]
Heroes of the Storm photo
My new go-to MOBA
When people hear the term "MOBA" they usually groan. I tend to respond with, "Tell me more." I grew up with RTS games since I could grasp a mouse and keyboard, and my first MOBA was the original DOTA back in 2005. Over t...

Review: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Supremacy

Jun 02 // Chris Carter
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Supremacy DLC (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Sledgehammer Games (Current-gen) / High Moon Studios (Last-gen) / Raven Software (Zombies)Publisher: ActivisionReleased: June 2, 2015 (Xbox) / TBA (PC, PS3, PS4)MSRP: $14.99 ($50 Season Pass for four packs) First up is Skyrise, a map that takes place in futuristic Greece. Well, you wouldn't notice the setting unless you really looked, as the only clue is the Acropolis landmark on one side of the map. As it stands, it's basically a straight remake of Modern Warfare 2's Highrise. It's a classic arena in its own right -- but as I've said in the past, I'm not a fan of injecting remakes in a $15 DLC pack. Having said that, Highrise really holds up. It's a classic tiered map with plenty of high, middle, and underground paths, with a giant playground in the middle, and hidden side paths. It's a nice addition to the rotation, and enough time has passed between the release of Modern Warfare 2 to not piss me off. Parliament is set on the River Thames in London, and is yet another tanker map. It's almost like Activision needs to fulfill an imaginary quota of tankers in every Call of Duty, so this is where you can get your fix if you're a fan of steel traps. It's a lot like Skyrise in that most of the cool stuff is happening in the background, but there's some decent opportunities to jump around the map and over hazards like the river itself. It's not quite on par with Skyrise's layout, but I have no real qualms when it comes up, since it takes advantage of the increased Exo mobility quite well. Kremlin, obviously set in Russia, is extremely colorful, and sets itself apart from the rest of the pack immediately. I love that it feels like a legitimate map from an older game like World at War, as there's tons of detail inside and out, and nearly none of the layout is wasted. It's one of the best objective-based maps currently, as there are multiple chokepoints built into it, including one really rad area that involves a long road and a mounted machine-gun perch. Whenever it comes up in a playlist, my eyes light up and I mash the vote button. It seems like there always needs to be one bad apple in these DLCs, and Compound fulfills that niche. Taking place in a staging ground in Colorado, Compound is a boring, small map that serves no real purpose in Advanced Warfare, which is a much more mobile game than past iterations. From what I've played, opposing teams tend to spawn on top of one another, leading to a bunch of messy firefights. They tried to go for a more tiered design here, but it mostly fails because everything is so low to the ground. Thankfully, the Exo Grapple playlist returns for Supremacy, and I recommend playing it to get more mileage out of Compound. In case you were wondering, there's no DLC weapon this time around -- which I'm more than fine with. [embed]293187:58782:0[/embed] Like clockwork, a number of issues I have with Supremacy have been alleviated with the third part of the Exo Zombies tale, Carrier. I really love how Sledgehammer and Raven Software are moving the story along with the same cast of characters, and its narrative style is pretty much exactly where it needs to be. It's not as cryptic as Treyarch's method, it's not too on-the-nose, and it's far more interesting than Infinity Ward's alien-oriented Extinction lore. It helps that Bruce Campbell is now along for the ride, and he fits the tone of the game perfectly. Maybe he'd be better suited as a full-on Ash cameo down the line with a wackier take on the zombies mode in general, but he does a great job of acclimating to the already talented cast here. Carrier itself looks aesthetically similar to the first Exo Zombies mission, but the intricacies will soon start to pop out the more you play. One of my favorite bits involves a makeshift Pachinko machine on a random wall that takes spare grenades, rewarding you with cash. There's also a lot of cool skirmishes with humanoid opponents this time, which elevates the mode and gives it a certain degree of depth that exceeds your normal "horde" expectations. Objectives like defusing bombs while fighting off ravenous zombies do a great job of keeping you on your toes. Call of Duty: Advance Warfare's DLC drops have become incrementally more impressive as Sledgehammer is willing to take more risks. While I didn't think it'd be able to bring anything new to the table for its first Call of Duty outing, the studio has proven me wrong, surpassing Infinity Ward in my mind. While the jury is out on the fourth DLC for Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer has already done enough to make me look forward to its next project. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Call of Duty DLC review photo
Third time is a charm
Another year, another round of Call of Duty DLC -- four rounds, yet again, in the case of Advanced Warfare. We've already had the Havoc and Ascendance packs drop so far as part of the Season Pass, and while they weren't bad offerings, nothing about them really vied for a purchase. With Supremacy, there may be a case for the pass, at the very least at a discount down the line.

Review: Supercharged Robot Vulkaiser

Jun 02 // Kyle MacGregor
Supercharged Robot Vulkaiser (PC)Developer: Astro PortPublisher: Nyu MediaReleased: June 4, 2015MSRP: $4.99 The story centers on Takuya Akatsuki, captain of the eponymous Vulkaiser, and his trusty team of VulFighter comrades, who together must defend the planet from an armada of alien invaders. Akatsuki's buds can join him in battle one at a time, fusing their ships with his own. Each augment the Vulkaiser with a wide swathe of munitions ranging from a cannonade of heavy missile fire and a gun that harnesses the power of lightning to a needle blaster and a massive drill. Diffused between the levels are a series of vignettes where the VulFighters that just accompanied the protagonist will have something to say. While it's never explicitly stated, the game encourages players to stick with one squadmate throughout the experience, as the longer they accompany our hero in battle, the more of their personal storylines we see. It's a small lure, but those willing to humor it will discover an added wrinkle to the challenge. Even if you manage to clear the game on its hardest difficulty setting, sticking with a single VulFighter throughout the campaign's duration certainly ups the ante. In addition to particular allies being more useful in certain situations more so than others, they're also limited by their shields. Much like the Vulkaiser itself, the VulFighters only recharge a small amount of health between one battle and the next. Once a ship is gone, it's gone! And there aren't any continues either, so you need to be mindful about weaving through every barrage avoid an untimely and disappointing end. That's how Supercharged Robot Vulkaiser hooked me. Having initially played through the game and thought it enjoyable, if a tad prosaic outside of its charming '70s anime veneer, I began playing the game within the game. I decided to see if I would see new dialogue if kept using the same VulFighter. I soon discovered, yes, that's the case -- though this came with the realization that it might be difficult to keep them alive long enough to see all of it. And challenging it was. Going back to the lede, the moment Supercharged Robot Vulkaiser got under my skin was at its climax. I had nearly completed the entire game with my pal Kimiko in tow, only to see her VulFighter crash and burn mere moments before felling the final boss. I felt crestfallen, despondent, but more than anything imbued with a sense of purpose, an intense desire to forge ahead on this self-imposed quest. I found it remarkable how such a seemingly unexceptional experience could rise to be so much more than the sum of its parts. I can't guarantee Supercharged Robot Vulkaiser will blow you away, but I'm having a blast with it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Doujin shmup review photo
On target
Amidst a wash of old school mecha anime and Tokusatsu-tinted nostalgia, there was a moment in this otherwise homespun shooter that left me surprised and curiously enamored. Supercharged Robot Vulkaiser doesn't come from a gen...

Review: Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven

Jun 02 // Chris Carter
Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven (3DS)Developer: MarvelousPublisher: Marvelous (JP), XSEED (EU, US)Released: October 2, 2014 (JP) / June 2, 2015 (US) / June 4, 2015 (EU)MSRP: $39.99 Magna puts you in the shoes of a humble innkeeper (whose name can be customized at the start), who made a promise to his father to always keep his doors open and be the best proprietor he can be. One day on a standard trip to a cave to gather crystals (a precious resource in this world), he encounters a group of monsters. Fearing death, he retreats to a corner hosting a giant crystal, and summons a magical Spirit Girl named Charlotte (an "Artemis") who saves the day, and pledges her loyalty to him. It gets really goofy from here, in a good way. Maiden Heaven quite literally lays the last bit of its moniker on thick, as Charlotte has six other sisters who end up joining the fray over the course of the game. The narrative is framed as a shonen journey at its core, and the tone and even the presentation remind me of Lunar: The Silver Star, all the way up to and including the short, voiced anime cutscenes that intro new characters -- which is definitely a compliment. It's technically a harem anime setup, but the sexual tension is very light outside of a few scenes (most of which are optional and involve a bathhouse that buffs your party). Plus, you can readily fast-forward any story scene in the game if you wish. As you progress through the game, you'll start to realize that the story is tertiary to your interaction with the Artemis sisters. Think "Social Links" from Persona but much less detailed, and you'll have an idea of what to expect. By talking to characters at hub zones you'll be able to embark upon sidequests, which allow you to increase your affinity towards certain characters, and thus, power up your combat synergy with them. It's an interesting system, mostly because you cannot schmooze everyone in the game. You have to choose between them somewhat, as a handful of these quests will automatically cause the core story to continue. [embed]293142:58774:0[/embed] Magna has a really cool animation style that hosts chibi character models but is also insanely detailed, and for the most part, it works. Backgrounds are fairly stunning on the 3DS even without the 3D effect, and individual moving parts like a random Newton's cradle on a desk look great. The big problem with Magna though is that there is little to no exploration involved. It almost feels like at one point there were going to be massive hubs (you can see a few during quests), but they were cut for time. Instead, cutscenes are the only real way you're going to see Magna's sprawling kingdoms, and even the world map is a boring series of cutscenes. Speaking of cut for time, the English voice acting cast is great, but actual voicework is sparse, and mostly for combat actions and the first few bits of dialogue within a scene. It's unfortunate. Combat, on the other hand, is always a joy to play, and doesn't feel rushed in the slightest. It's a turn-based top-down strategic affair, but it's also grid-less, similar to Valkyria Chronicles. Instead, individual characters have a certain speed rating to determine their turn, and a movement radius. You can traverse anywhere within said radius, and then either defend, attack, or use an item. It's standard stuff, but the way combat actually plays out is just as over-the-top as its cast. The main goal with Magna's battles is to topple as many enemies as possible. Most baddies are grouped up in a formation, with a leader surrounded by tons of minions -- the former of which can summon more as long as he remains alive. For the most part, you'll want to run into these groups and hit an outside member to smash them into others, who fall over like bowling pins.  10-hit combos will grant you extra turns, so it's in your best interest to smash up piles of enemies in rapid succession. It's not the deepest system but it never gets old. Thankfully, individual scenarios have a decent amount of variety to them thanks to random items scattered about the battlefield, like explosive bombs and health potions. It might be turn-based but it doesn't really feel that way if you act quickly, and once you start acquiring more party members you'll have quite a bit of firepower to work with. The standard difficulty setting is spot-on, offering a decent enough challenge right out of the gate. You can also adjust the difficulty on the fly if you want. If you fail a level you can reform your party instantly and buy items before the battle, which is a really cool feature. Lord of Magna has seven endings in all, one for each sister. It's not an extremely lengthy JRPG though, as most of the replay value and extra content is hidden behind this gimmick. Since you can't see all of them in one playthrough it encourages you to do it all over again, but I'm not so sure a lot of folks out there will do that. Personally, I was happy enough with one completion, but years down the line I can see coming back for more. I enjoyed my time with Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven, despite the fact that it felt a tad unfinished at times. The combat system is fast-paced, the cast is likable, and the animation style looks excellent on Nintendo's newest portable. If you curb your expectations a bit, strategy-oriented JRPG fans will find a charming little flawed adventure in Magna. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Lord of Magna photo
Go go Harem Rangers
It's a miracle that Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven even exists. The project was unceremoniously halted after Rune Factory developer Neverland declared bankruptcy, and publisher Marvelous actually re-assembled part of the team t...

Review: Shooter

Jun 02 // Nic Rowen
Shooter (Book)Released: June 2, 2015MSRP: $5.00 Shooter is a collection of essays from recognizable names in game criticism speaking on a wide range of topics related to games that involve some kind of gunplay. Some chapters take a deep dive into the mechanical and technical details that make shooters what they are. Steven Wright's “The Joys of Projectiles: What We've Forgotten About Doom” for example, laments the rise of “realistic” modern shooters and how their largely interchangeable hitscan assault rifles have abandoned many of the mechanics that made early FPS games so pleasurable and skill testing. Others are more personal, such as Gita Jackson's touching reflection on how Counter-Strike could be seen as a microcosm of the (seemingly one-sided from her self-deprecating perspective) sibling rivalry she shared with her brother. Shooter strikes a great balance, it never gets so bogged down in technical minutia that it feels like a lecture in game design, but has enough mechanical grounding that it doesn't just become a series of anecdotes either. The games Shooter examines are varied and numerous. Of course genre forebears and trendsetters like Doom, Half-Life and Call of Duty are discussed as you would expect, but there is plenty of attention paid to less bombastically popular titles as well. Genre-defying shooters like Red Orchestra 2 with its brutally unforgiving depiction of realistic combat, and the insidious darkness of Far Cry 2, which sets aside the typical rationales for heroic violence to make the player complicit in something unsettling, get entire chapters dedicated to them. It's a great technique. By examining the few games that step outside of the bounds of typical FPS conventions and power fantasy dynamics and figuring out why they feel so different, it is easier to pinpoint the standard tropes and expectations of the genre that have become so ubiquitous that they are nearly invisible. Perhaps the greatest praise I can give to Shooter is that it made me reexamine and reflect on my feelings about a few games. When a piece of criticism grabs you by the collar and demands you take a second look at something, you know its doing it's job right. Filipe Salgado's chapter on the intentional ugliness and barely contained chaos of Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days almost made me want to play through the game again with a fresh set of eyes -- eyes more willing to see past the clunky mechanics and thoroughly unlikable protagonists to scan for deeper meaning. Almost anyway (this is still Dog Days we're talking about). At its best, Shooter feels like a lively conversation with some very smart people who enjoy, but expect more from, their trigger happy games. Its snappy, intelligent, and occasionally funny. At it's worst, the book veers into the pretentious. At times, it feels less like a conversation and more like an awkward dinner party dominated by a lecturing windbag everyone is too polite to interrupt. Thankfully these rough patches are few and far between. The rest of the book is well worth putting up with the occasional eye-rolling turn of phrase. Mostly though, Shooter feels important. The industry needs more “capital C” Criticism to unravel the subtext and ideas behind the games we love. Games mean something. They impart messages, communicate ideas, either by conscious choice on the part of their developers or by the assumptions they make -- the casual omissions and things taken for granted. We have to start examining these ideas in a mature, intelligent, and yes, academic way. Shooter isn't the first example of this kind of criticism in games writing of course; there have certainly been other books written, and articles penned (on sites like Destructoid, I might add) that dive into these waters. But, it is still very much a nascent field. Video games are a young medium, and we haven't had time to establish a critical tradition like film and literature has. We need to cultivate these voices; the generation of writers that will talk about games in a serious manner in the coming decades. What better way to stake a claim in this new field than to gather a variety of exceptionally talented voices to talk about and critically examine what is generally considered gaming's dumbest, most developmentally arrested genre? The thrill of shooting a Cyber-Demon with a rocket launcher may be obvious and simple, but there is a lot to unpack when you take a closer look.
Shooter Review photo
Looking at life down the barrel of a gun
Shooters seem simple. You step into the shoes of your typical tough guy space-marine or mercenary and empty clip after clip into the faces of Nazis, or aliens, or alien-Nazis from the vaguely disembodied gun bobbing up and do...

Review: Sym

May 30 // Caitlin Cooke
Sym (PC)Developer: ATRAX GamesPublisher: MastertronicReleased: May 7, 2015MSRP: $7.99 You are Josh, a teenage boy battling social anxiety disorder which manifests itself through an oppressive and dangerous maze where dark creatures and objects lurk. Josh exists through two alter egos -- on the upside he’s a black, lanky humanoid and on the underside, an oblong alien-like figure. Both creatures represent a different side to Josh, yet at the same time act as opposing gameplay agents. Your goal is to switch between both sides to make Josh reach the door, signaling the end of the level. In doing so you must avoid various ghastly obstacles, which differ depending on which side you’re standing on. For example, when Josh is standing upright, he is susceptible to walking creatures and giant human-eating plants, but when he flips he is confronted by spinning saws of death. This interesting use of the environment allows for an additional layer of puzzle solving, and in some cases there are many ways to reach the end of the level. However, as the game progresses the levels are much more strict and to complete them, you must master speed and timing. There’s also a symbol mechanic within the levels that can change spaces from black to white and back again depending on the type of symbol, which side you’re standing on, and when you decide to activate certain switches. This adds another tricky element to the gameplay. Josh’s thoughts are riddled everywhere, sometimes giving hints to the player on what to do next such as “Run!” “Fall!” “Wait!” -- but most of the time, displaying projections of inner conflict like “Lies," “Miserable person," “Please don’t stare." Inner demons come out of the woodwork to work against the player, full of stress and dread: “The bogeyman is coming for you, pray and cry tonight.” These  thoughts combined with the jagged, monochromatic visuals instill a constant sense of being on-edge. While the art style is intriguing, the gameplay can be downright frustrating at times. The logic of the symbols and switches aren’t very intuitive, and I often found myself just jumping around the level versus intentionally trying to solve what was supposed to be done in a particular situation. Luckily, this tactic seemed to work against itself since fast reflexes and timing tend to win over anything else that Sym presents. The controls also could have stood to be a bit tighter. Getting caught between spaces or sticking to walls when trying to maneuver through smaller gaps were common occurrences. I also found the pacing of the character’s movements to be loose and difficult to adjust to. This would result in an extra layer of difficulty, which was frustrating especially in intricate, long levels in which death was not welcome. Sym can be plain confusing at times -- but I think that’s part of the intended nature of the game (if it wasn’t, the creators may be secret geniuses). Levels twist and turn, obstacles block and re-open paths, and just like life it’s never clear where you’re supposed to head. Trial and error are ever present, along with the notion of failure hanging over your head. Sym ties these concepts together well. There is also a subtle beauty to this game, and one that I can relate to. The constant battle of light versus dark, of fear and loneliness, building yourself back to where you need to be -- these are struggles that most humans face at some point, and Sym allows you to play through that emotional roller coaster in a visual way. I enjoyed its thoughtful nature and its ability to evoke feelings that I only thought were available in darker moments. However, Sym’s atmosphere transcends its loose gameplay and controls, which unfortunately creates a frustrating experience and stifles the impact of its message. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Sym review photo
Sadness distilled
Forget games as art -- games as emotion is the new wave of the indie industry. Exploration of inner feelings and thoughts manifesting through a screen and a keyboard is probably one of the most difficult things to build, ye...

Review: The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing III

May 30 // Patrick Hancock
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing III (Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: NeocoreGamesPublisher: NeocoreGamesMSRP: $14.99Release Date: May 22, 2015  For anyone who has played and enjoyed the first two games in the series, the third installment is likely worth the investment, despite its issues. It offers a solid form of closure to the trilogy in terms of story -- but be warned, the rest of the game doesn't feel nearly as fleshed out. Van Helsing III starts off with a great summary of the events that have transpired so far, but there’s a lot assumed of the player in terms of game mechanics at play. The tutorial does a decent job of covering the basics, but it is very possible for new players to completely overlook entire portions of the game if they’re not observant. The story picks up exactly where Van Helsing II left off. The New Bad Guy is in charge now, and Van Helsing and his ghastly partner Katarina are out to destroy him.  During their new adventure, Katarina’s backstory gets more fleshed out, and this is easily the most interesting part of the plot. Unfortunately, it’s easy to miss because most of it is told through in-game dialogue between Van Helsing and Katarina. Her dialogue, while it is displayed on screen, is constantly moving and is hard to hear under the noise of killing monsters. It's often triggered right as the player is about to take on a large group of enemies, making it impossible to simply “stop and listen.” Gameplay remains largely the same as it was in the past. Players can beef up their skills by spending Rage to increase certain aspects of the skill, like damage or duration. Each skill has three different elements that can be increased with Rage, and players can spend up to three points of Rage in any way they like; they can distribute one point to each element, or all three into one element to really increase its effect. It’s a very unique system that really elevates Van Helsing’s gameplay above many generic ARPGs. [embed]292802:58734:0[/embed] There are six new character classes to choose from, however players cannot import their character from the previous game. They can import a file for "Glory Points," which act as extra buffs, but this element of the game seems completely broken and doesn't function at all. The classes play rather differently, and players can vary how they approach each class’s strengths. I played through the campaign as the stealthy Umbralist, and made sure that I spent as much time as possible being invisible, so I focused on the spells that granted invisibility, which forced me to forfeit some burst damage by doing so. The skill tree has changed this time around, no longer requiring certain skills to be owned before taking another one. Instead, all of the skills are available to be taken from level one. Modifiers like extra damage or a bigger area of effect do require a certain amount of skill points in the skill itself before leveling up, however. This makes it more of a skill “bush” rather than a “tree,” since everything is easily picked without needing something else to get to the “higher” abilities. It’s nice to have free range, but there’s also no feeling of finally unlocking some badass skill in the late-game and about half of them feel useless. Chances are, player will choose 3-4 skills and stick with them forever. Katarina can also be customized, though her skills do follow the format of pre-requisites. Her mechanics remained unchanged and can still be toggled between melee, ranged, and a passive form that buffs her partner. She can also hold inventory and go back to the Lair and sell items without Van Helsing needing to do so himself.  Both Van Helsing and Kat have had their max level reduced -- hers is down to 25 and his is down to 30, half of what was offered in Van Helsing II. The game is rather short, and there's not much for players to do after reaching the max level. The "Neverending Story" mode from the past two games, which was essentially a New Game+ mode, is missing. I managed to complete the story in six hours, which wouldn't be an issue if there were any way to continue to progress. Since the max level is so low and there's no Neverending Story, there is little to no replayability in Van Helsing III. The tower defense mini-game returns in the "Lair" area, though players can completely opt out of it and instead send NPCs out to take care of the problem. The game mode itself also remains unchanged at its core. Build towers and traps to help defend against waves of enemies. The NPC missions also make a return, where the player can choose one of four leaders with various skills and traits to go out on missions and come back with sweet loot (well, mediocre loot usually). The Chimera can also be sent on its own missions, but can no longer be summoned into battle. All of these elements are fine, if a bit uninteresting, but they never come together as a cohesive whole. While out on missions, players will receive radio transmissions from the Lair saying things like “Hey man you gotta get back to the Lair! Bad guys are marching in and it’s bad news!” But if the player never returns or never click on that NPC, nothing happens. There’s no urgency to these missions and makes them feel incredibly disjointed. If the player never goes over to the Chimera section of the Lair, then they miss out on some more mediocre loot and an achievement or two, but that’s about it. For people familiar with the series or ARPGs in general, I recommend playing a difficulty above Normal. Playing through on Normal was much too easy, as the Umbralist could kill some bosses in a single hit. There are plenty of difficulties to choose from and a Hardcore option for those who think they can avoid death permanently. There are some bugs that I encountered during my time with the game. Some were minor, like the fact that if the Umbralist swings at nothing, no sound effects play or that some achievements are still broken. Others are more impactful. At one point the map's ground simply didn't exist, even though it looked like it did. According to patch notes this is fixed, but others are not, like the aforementioned Glory Points. Multiplayer with up to three other players is included once again, and if you can find someone near your region to play with, it isn't too laggy, but again bugs rear their ugly heads. Player VS. Player  (PvP) is also available, but it's hard to find people playing it and most players will probably have taken skills that focus on killing large groups at once, since that's what the Campaign is made up of. Scenarios also return, allowing players to play through zones with different modifiers, like constantly taking damage, to make things more difficult. It’s a decent way to farm for loot, but it is unlocked at level 27, just three levels away from the maximum level, so there's no real gameplay incentive to ever play a Scenario. In many ways it does feel like a copy-paste job, but neutered to remove certain elements. A lot of the models and mechanics are exactly the same as the second game, but then things like Neverending Story or a higher level cap are simply gone. The banter between Van Helsing and Katarina is still as solid as ever, as is the voice acting backing them up, but it's possible to miss the banter because of combat noise. Its parts feel a bit disjointed, like a student who has copy-pasted the information from their research paper from various different authors with no detail given to the paper as a whole. Van Helsing III feels much more like an expansion of the second iteration than a game all on its own. It's nice to have a solid end to the story, but it's baffling that so many features were removed from the previous games for this finale. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Van Helsing III Review photo
Electric Boogaloo
When I heard that The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing III was on the horizon, I was taken aback a bit. Has it already been a year since the second game? I didn't expect such a quick turnaround, but after seeing that most of the assets are re-used, it makes complete sense.

Review: Adventures of Pip

May 29 // Chris Carter
Adventures of Pip (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One, Wii U)Developer: Tic Toc GamesPublisher: Tic Toc GamesReleased: June 4, 2015 (PC, Wii U) / TBA (PS4, Xbox One)MSRP: $14.99 When Pip kicks off you're introduced to a tiny kingdom fated to be saved by a princess who can create and control pixels -- a sort of Star Wars-esque "Force" that guides the universe. Of course, an evil villain (the Skeleton Queen) wants it all to herself, and captures said princess, crafting the world in her image. It's up to Pip, a lone pixel, to save the day. The premise is fairly cool because it's not overly-meta, at least, not obnoxiously so as some recent games tend to be. It embraces the theme just enough to be adorable, and the queen in particular sports some very neat looking animations. The actual game is a platforming romp, and it's very quick to start. Pip will have to make do in his pixel form at first, which can jump and float, with the ability to kill enemies by jumping on their heads like Mario. Levels are designed with an SNES feel to them, mixing retro graphics, 8-bit, and 32-bit styles, which remind me of classics like Disney's Magical Quest. The main gimmick of course is the aforementioned evolutionary procedure. Using "Bitstream enemies" (read: glowing blue things), Pip can evolve into a boy. His new found abilities include punching and wall-jumping, and can be best compared to getting a mushroom in a Mario game. You can also devolve at will, sparking an explosion that does damage to enemies, and opens up certain walls. To get back to your boy-state, you'll have to find another Bitstream foe -- levels are designed around this concept so you won't get stuck. [embed]292813:58703:0[/embed] What I really like about this system is that it freezes the game when you change forms, adding a bit of tactical value to the act. Sometimes you'll need to kill an enemy to evolve mid-air, jump over a bed of spikes, then blow up a wall to land safely. There's also other nuances like the fact that pixel-Pip can bounce higher off springs, and so on. After several levels you'll also earn the 32-bit version of Pip, which can now use a sword to deal more damage and break blocks. Interestingly, 32-bit Pip cannot walljump -- so you'll need to devolve to the boy to solve some puzzles, and in turn, evolve again, and then revert all the way back to a pixel. It doesn't really get old or tedious. It takes just the right amount of time to switch back and forth, and again, the levels are designed directly around this concept. It's great. As you progress, a bit of wear and tear will set in. You'll save citizens from danger as collectibles of sorts, an endeavor that I tired of after the first few stages. There's also a problem with the level layouts themselves -- they're generally not memorable. While there is a great deal of interesting puzzle-platforming situations, I really can't recall any of them after completing the game, which takes roughly five hours to do. There also came a point where I stopped even trying to locate and open jewel chests to earn the only currency available in the game. The main reason is that the item economy is completely off-kilter, as vendors charge an arm and a leg for everything -- some items will take you an entire playthrough to earn, and they aren't even gamebreaking or special, which is nuts. Don't expect a whole lot of extras or options either. The PC version just has a pair of sliders to tinker with the sound and music volume, the launcher has a few resolution choices and a windowed option, and it sports three save file slots. That's it in terms of functionality. Adventures of Pip is an inoffensive platformer that doesn't do a whole lot wrong, but it won't stand out in your mind a few days after beating it. While it does last though, it'll bring a smile to your face. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Adventures of Pip review photo
From pixel to hero
I've always been fascinated by games that tackle evolution. Not necessarily the scientific principle, but the mechanic -- though a few titles like the brilliant E.V.O.: Search for Eden have managed to address both. Adventures of Pip which features a tiny pixel that turns into a real boy, and then a hero, isn't quite as groundbreaking, but it's still fun to play.

Review: Hatred

May 28 // Chris Carter
Hatred (PC)Developer: Destructive CreationsPublisher: Destructive CreationsReleased: June 1, 2015MSRP: $19.99 To be clear, I don't have an inherent problem with Hatred. We've seen far, far worse in terms of the video game medium -- in this very generation with Grand Theft Auto V's playable in-game torture scene. Or even Ninja Gaiden III's new "cutting" system, where enemies scream in agony as they're sliced into multiple pieces of flesh. The obvious difference here is that a lot of the targets in Hatred are civilians, which put people on edge. But really, plenty of mainstream action titles have more nuanced takes, killing servicemen and women, officers of the law, and yes, plenty of civilians. Where Hatred partly fails is that it doesn't really make any meaningful statements in regards to its violence. That that it needs to, mind, it kind of just "is." The main character (who is not named) hates the world, so he's going to take down as many people as he can before he dies. That's basically it. He starts in his neighborhood, then branches out across the surrounding area, using various forms of transportation to do it. I suspect there are going to be thinkpieces spouting up across the 'net after release, but don't expect anything as interesting as the ones that were spurred by Hotline Miami playthroughs -- another ultraviolent romp. All the while, he's ranting pseudo-philosophical nonsense. The developers have noted that he isn't trying to quote or channel anyone in particular, and boy can you tell when he says repeats tired phrases like "dust to dust" and "the death is waiting." Half the time you can't even hear what he's saying over the sound of gunfire and explosions. Nothing about the presentation is memorable outside of the distinct visual style. [embed]292912:58710:0[/embed] As a shooter, Hatred is fairly impressive (outside of the sparing terrible vehicular controls). Destructive Creations clearly has a knack for the genre, which makes the fact that it decided to create this lifeless world more disappointing. Shooting feels responsive, and the control scheme is easy to pick up and play, especially on a controller. I don't like that there isn't a toggle option for sprinting (you have to hold it down, which hurts your thumb after a while), but aiming, including the precision-aim system that provides an imaginary laser sight while holding the trigger, is spot-on. Visually, Hatred is somewhere in-between unique and messy. The grey sheen generally looks great, but it does get old after a few levels. Plus, you'll want to jack up the gamma considerably, as the playable character tends to get lost in the fray. Individual objects are all rendered with care though, and the destruction system allows you to do things like craft new exits by blowing through walls. There isn't a whole lot to do in those worlds though. It's level-based, and most missions boil down to "kill [x] number of civilians, then kill [x] number of police, then escape." There's a few unique levels like a sewer chase with the SWAT team or a linear stage taking place on a moving train, but most of them follow this same principle. The train scenario in particular presents some interesting possibilities, in that random civilians on-board are armed. It's often hard to pick them out of a crowd, and if a gun drops, they'll run to pick it up. That mission only lasts a few minutes though, then it's onto the next generic hub. Seriously, that's about all the game has to offer.  I also encountered a few bugs while playing, including disappearing bodies, wonky physics that caused some deaths, and a few fatal game crashes. Several levels were also mislabeled in the level select screen and sometimes, mission objectives wouldn't calculate correctly. The crashes in particular really hindered my playthrough, as they were all at the very end of a level, which forced me to replay them from the start. If it weren't for these issues, it would be a decent twin-stick shooter. Developer tools are evidently going to happen which may allow more interesting levels, but haven't been provided at launch. If you're curious, here's a full video rundown of the options menu. There's nothing really special about Hatred. It's a twin-stick shooter. It has guns in it. It has objectives. Most of the time those objectives involve acting like a menace to society or blowing stuff up. It doesn't have anything new to bring to the table, or anything interesting to say about the genre. You can go back to yelling at it now if you want. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Hatred review photo
Do you hate it?
When Hatred debuted, I pretty much kept quiet. No one can really win in that situation, when the explosion of opposing viewpoints was at its loudest. I decided to wait until the finished product was out and play it for m...

Review: Starless: Nymphomaniacs' Paradise

May 27 // Alissa McAloon
Starless: Nymphomanics' Paradise (PC)]Developer: EmpressPublisher: JAST USAReleased: May 11, 2015MSRP: $39.99 After a slow introduction typical of visual novels, Sawatari arrives at the Mamiya Mansion for his job interview. Almost right away, he encounters the ridiculously busty residents of the mansion. Seriously, the chest sizes of the women range from massive to gargantuan and their outfits leave very little to the imagination. What variety the women lack in cup size, they make up for in personality. Each has distinctly different motivations and fetishes, all of which are showcased regularly through their interactions with Sawatari and the other servants around the house. Even during the initial job interview, each of the three Mamiya women find creative ways to expose their own individual kinks. Starless doesn't drip feed players the smut. It takes place across 14 days, but the first day alone crams a lifetime of anime pornography into a few short hours. During the job interview alone, Sawatari gets handjobs, footjobs, blowjobs, roofied, drugged with horse aphrodisiac, handcuffed, peed on, sat on and then peed on. The list goes on. Seriously, by the end of this first sex sequence I had complied a list of well over 15 different sexual acts the women forced on Sawatari. Each and every one of these acts are accompanied by various sloshing and slurping sound effects that are likely to haunt your dreams, in the not-sexy way.  Oh, and by the end of all that he was still a virgin.  If that three hour introduction scene wasn't enough of an indicator, Starless suffers from horrible pacing issues. Beneath all of the perversion and overly graphic sex scenes lies an actually interesting plot line filled with deeply fleshed out characters. Unfortunately, it's hard to enjoy the story itself during the constant onslaught of sex. Typos and grammatical errors frequently plague what little worthwhile dialogue there is, which can straight up ruin the experience if you're anal about that sort of thing. Yes, tons of erotic content should be expected in an adult visual novel, but the sex scenes just drag on and on. After round one, characters waste no time and quickly go back for seconds and sometimes thirds. Frequently they won't even mix things up. A 20 minute long blowjob will be followed by another, identical 20 minute long blowjob. Even when the encounters get creative and downright weird, the game still feels the need to repeat the exact same scene multiple times in a row.  Starless is focused on showing off some very extreme fetishes, which results in some understandably over-the-top scenes. But so much content, so early in the game just drags on. Rather than build any anticipation for future scenes or plot advancement, Starless just throws the entire experience directly in your face. Progressing through each day becomes more a chore than it should be. On a massively positive note, the dialogue is every bit as outrageous as the sex scenes. Some of the puns and wordplay are equal parts masterful and deeply disturbing. The line "semen would go great with a side of wasabi and soy sauce" takes the gold medal. It might just be the best line in this thing. Starless also takes some hilariously appetite-ruining liberties with food metaphors. I won't go into details here, but let's just say that I won't be eating yogurt for a very long time.  I'd like to say that I spent a week playing Starless: Nymphomaniacs' Paradise because I play anime porn games for the plot, but at the end of it I felt overworked and underpaid. Many of the sex scenes just went too far, too long, or both and more often than not the sex itself was less than consensual. The game tries to dodge the label of rape by drugging characters until they beg for sex, but the sleazy misdirect only makes the scenes feel even worse. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Starless review photo
Nothing can save you now
[NSFW: This review and its subject are both horribly NSFW. Probably don't read further if you're at work, around your grandmother, or under the age of 18.] Broke and bored, Yukito Sawatari picks up a summer job to make a...

Review: Magicka 2

May 27 // Steven Hansen
Magicka 2 (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: Pieces InteractivePublisher: Paradox InteractiveReleased: May 26, 2015MSRP: $14.99 If you haven't played the first Magicka, the set-up is still familiar enough: up-to-four-player overhead adventuring and monster killing. The trade tools are the big difference. You're granted immediate access -- there's no progression system, really -- to eight different magics, just about all of which can be combined, in different strings and quantities. There's a balance between stronger spells, which are more complex to cast, and dealing with basic elemental affinities. On a controller, spells are mapped to four face buttons, while L1 swaps to a second set of four spells, a system I much prefer over the first's fighter-like quarter circles. Once queued, they can be cast forth offensively, as area of attack, or unto oneself. And Magicka 2 is more than willing to let you drop a rock on your own noggin as easily as you might heal yourself. Or let you set an unfortunate friend on fire. Magicka 2 gets most of its good will for its co-op, which is why controllers for couch play are sort of preferred, though you can play online, and in parties of any make up (two local, one online, and so on). While playing co-op can make the worst game fun, Magicka 2 is definitely improved with and seems designed around having friends to revive you and to separate enemies whose AI encourages them to clump in writhing, obscuring masses. It is no fun to play solo, constantly drowned in a sea of goblins. [embed]292791:58693:0[/embed] The clean interface and easy drop in, drop out are about the only significant improvements over the original. That and the lack of bugs. Enemy AI mildly trips out sometimes and, especially in co-op, being anywhere near the edge of the screen feels like you're constantly stuck on screen restrictions mixed with level geometry, but mostly it's a clean running -- and lean running -- game. Collision detection also comes into play with the physics heavy final boss fight, which was equally the most creative and frustrating encounter.  The story is told over 10 or so brief chapters with replays encouraged by challenge instances and modifiers (collectable artifacts) that allow for Mortal Kombat Test Your Luck-style additions. Madly increased movement speed (please), extra unsafe damage boosts. There's a fair amount to tinker with. That's if you want to tinker, though. Again, Magicka 2 just feels like more Magicka levels and I felt fairly sated not even having finished the first. There's a giant enemy crab as a sort of sub-boss, and then you fight another giant enemy crab, and then you fight two giant enemy crabs. It gets redundant. Enemies are fodder, relentlessly marching toward you en masse, hardly flinching in the face of your supposedly powerful magics. The crowds get messy and you die, or you do a lot of running backwards while spraying spells at your angry entourage like metal filings chasing a Wooly Willy pen. It often feels like the equivalent to a shooter with lengthy mounted turret sections, the discovery of powerful spell combinations evoking sighs of, "Thank god, I can kill the next wave of 20 goblins more easily." And while I appreciate Magicka 2's lighthearted take on fantasy tropes, I don't like the bulk of its humor, which confuses making references with making jokes. It's like a non-hipster version of Life is Strange, allowing you to be self-satisfied for having seen Game of Thrones rather than Battle Royale. Thwacking a wooden cow -- or your friend -- and it exploding into chunks of meat is always funnier, but Magicka 2's actual jokes at least fare better than the winks and nudges. Repeated insistence that Dracula-accented, narrative-driving Vlad is not a vampire? Even a deadpan loading slide regularly reserved for game tips that just says "Vlad is not a vampire." Funny. Oregon Trail jokes? Belongs on Epic Threadz next to the "I [picture of cartoon bacon] BACON" shirts. If you want to pat yourself on the back for getting in-jokes and you can drum up enough play pals for co-op, you might find Magicka 2 [Borat voice] very nice! Like its references, though, Magicka 2 is just a retread.
Magicka 2 review photo
Spelling inside the lines
Magicka 2's tagline is "learn to spell...again," and that sums up the sequel to the Paradox-published, surprise-millions-selling first Magicka. The second fantasy trope stuffed outing comes from Pieces Interactive, makers of ...

Review: Splatoon

May 27 // Chris Carter
Splatoon (Wii U)Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No .2Publisher: NintendoReleased: May 29, 2015MSRP: $59.99 Players will start the journey as a measly level one squid in Inkopolis. You should learn the layout in roughly 20 minutes. It's not huge, but it has a lot of character, mostly due to the fact that other players are littered about the townside. No, this isn't quite like a Phantasy Star Online lobby with live players running around, they're more like static NPCs that draw upon the character's avatar, style choices, and Miiverse postings. If you're not keen on walking everywhere to play a specific mode, an easy-to-access map is located on the GamePad -- perfect. There is one annoying thing about the hub world -- the news station. Every so often at certain intervals, a fake "news" show will play, interrupting whatever you're doing. It displays the next set of levels that are up for multiplayer, and any other relevant events that are happening. A lot of you will probably think it's cute, and it is a neat idea, but sometimes they're literally repeating the same phrases on the same stages I've seen multiple times over -- it's not a dealbreaker, I just wish I could just skip through it. Shops, however, are anything but annoying, as I'm a full-on fashion addict. Whether it's the shoe, shirt, or hat boutique, I'm usually inside of a [digital] brick and mortar location ready to spend all of my cash on clothes I will never wear. These items are mostly cosmetic however, and even though they do have some stats attached to them, they're negligible at best. So if you aren't down with the idea of amassing clothes, you probably aren't going to be spending a lot of time in Inkopolis. [embed]291959:58680:0[/embed] It also must be said that the story mode isn't really linked to the hub world, which is mostly for multiplayer. Any acquisitions from the hub are strictly used in online play, though you can unlock some weapon blueprints in the campaign and you'll get a few bonuses to bring back after you complete the story. In other words, think of the single-player narrative as a staging grounds for playing online. The levels themselves are very well designed, and in line with a 3D Mario game -- which is definitely a compliment. There's a lot of variety found in every single stage, with mechanics like geysers, invisible paths, moving blocks, and a whole lot more. Gimmicks never outstay their welcome, and just as you've started to master a concept, Splatoon moves on to the next one. The pacing is superb. Boss fights aren't exactly innovative, as they all boil down to "kill the giant weak point three times," but they are fun to play. They remind me of less inspired Mario Galaxy or 3D World fights, even down to the enemy models. All in all you'll go solo for roughly 30 levels, which should last you 10 hours -- a little less if you rush, a little more if you go for all of the collectibles (which do a great job of worldbuilding, by the way). So how is the game actually played? By inking everything in sight, of course! Well, sort of. In the campaign you'll have access to just the Splattershot, which is like a rapid-fire rifle. You'll use your colored ink to defeat enemies and create paths, which can be crafted on most surfaces on the ground and most walls. By holding the L trigger you'll instantly morph into a squid-form, which isn't capable of attacking (outside of a special super ability), but can traverse quickly in ink. You'll have to master the art of offense as a kid and defense as a squid to really grasp what Splatoon has to offer. Other weapons essentially mirror other shooters (Splat Charger is a sniper rifle of sorts, there's also a grenade launcher and a light machine gun) outside of the Splat Roller, which is utterly unique. In my mind it's easily the most fun weapon to play with in the game, as you'll roll your way to victory, painting the town as you run and destroy enemies along the way. It seems broken at first glance, but it's actually pretty balanced, as skilled snipers and nearly anyone with a gun can counter it from high-ground, all the while earning points online (which I'll get to in a minute). Outside of the story mode there's also "Dojo," which is strictly a one-on-one offline affair, with one player using the GamePad, and another the Wii U Pro Controller. Your goal is to pop 30 balloons, and you'll have the ability to choose from every basic weaponset as well as five arenas. It's fun, but extremely limited, and felt like a momentary distraction from anything else. It was really disappointing once we realized that we can't play together online on the same console. As for the amiibo-centric mode, the only figure I had access to was the Splatoon Boy for the purposes of this review. It keeps the high going from the campaign, mostly because it is the campaign. Each figure features the same levels, but with a new weapon -- in the Boy's case, a Splat Roller. The rewards are mostly gold, with some cosmetic items and the rare weapon variant. So is it worth $35 to pick up the lot? Based on the Boy, I'd say "no," but it's a nice extra. Try the story first, and if you are really itching to play it multiple times, grab them.The main attraction of course is online play. The entire draw of Splatoon is simplicity in this regard. Matches are short, and they don't feature voice chat. In other words, even if you get spawn camped or dominated, matches are only a few minutes, and you don't have another team taunting you along the way. The core mode you'll be playing right off the bat is Turf War, which is a lot like Tony Hawk's Graffiti gametype -- kills don't matter, and the more you paint the battlefield your color, the higher your score at the end. Your personal score is how you level-up online, earn gold for clothes, and unlock the right to use new weapons. I enjoy lots of shooters, and in my mind, Splatoon has easily carved its own little niche around them. It's a more relaxing affair, both in terms of the zen-like qualities of the paint, and the online experience in general. It's refreshing to be able to try out new loadouts without fearing that they might not be viable, and the maps are fairly easy to learn as they are symmetrical. Don't worry though, there's plenty of room for advanced tactics, which the playerbase is already experimenting with just based on the Global Testfire events. My favorite trick that I discovered while playing online is to paint a wall while running from someone, quickly hide as a squid, and leap out from above as they turn the corner. Ranked play by way of the Splat Zones mode, unlocked at level 10, can be a respite from constant Turf War matches. Based on the current XP gain, it should take roughly a day's worth of playing to unlock, and although Nintendo automatically enabled it for my build of the game, a "certain amount of players" will need to reach 10 to play it. It's basically King of the Hill, with more of an emphasis on zone control and kills than Turf War. Your objective is to score as many points as possible while owning a point on the map, keeping everyone else out of the area. It's pretty great, but sadly, these are the only two current online modes. Nintendo has revealed that more are in the pipeline (Rainmaker and Tower are already confirmed), but for now, you'll have to deal with just two. Online play was smooth for me during the past two weeks of testing on pre-launch servers. I've played well over 100 games, and there were only a few sessions that were dropped during matchmaking. Once the game arrives we'll provide a launch-day report of the server situation, but for now, it's been wonderful. There are a few hangups with the way this component was designed though. When you're in the queue for a round, you can't quit -- not even with the home button. It's a bit odd, especially if you realize that you need to handle something in real life, as your only option is to turn the Wii U off. Additionally, you can't switch up your weapons while you're waiting for a game to start, as you can only do that in the previous menu. Also, after a match is completed, if you hit "yes" to quickly start a new match, you cannot change your loadout there either. It's odd, as nearly every other shooter allows you to do so, and it breaks up the pacing to constantly drop games (that you can't quit) to go try a new style. No voice chat actually isn't a big deal to me in unranked Turf War as it's going for a more casual type of gameplay, but it really should be an option in Ranked play. After all, Nintendo set up a grading system that sees your rank drop if you lose. I'd appreciate the ability to at least communicate with my team. Lastly, there's nothing implemented currently for AFKers (I guess Nintendo is relying on short matches to eventually weed them out), and there are limitations in the current build in regards to playing with friends. After matching up and playing a few games, the game will switch you around on opposite sides every so often. An update is coming later this year will allow friends to play together consistently -- odd. None of this really bothers me all that much, but I can see some of these problems being major issues for a lot of you out there. The thing that mostly bothers me about online play is that there's only a handful of maps and two modes at the moment. In some ways, Splatoon's online component is disappointing, and the lack of so many features will likely push other shooter fans away. But most of those shortcomings can be forgiven in my mind because of how damn fun it is. As a shooter it's refreshing, and as a 3D platformer it's up there with some of Nintendo's greatest creations. You'll quickly forget about the fact that you're playing Turf War over and over as you squid down an alley, leap across a gap, and shoot enemies in the air as you fall. All Nintendo needs to do is keep supporting Splatoon, because the foundation is fantastic. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. Nintendo also provided the Squid Boy amiibo.]
Splatoon review photo
A splash hit for Nintendo
If you think Nintendo hasn't been taking risks, you haven't been paying attention. Yes, most fans await the next Mario and Zelda announcement with bated breath during every E3 presentation, but the publish...


  Around the web (login to improve these)




Back to Top


We follow moms on   Facebook  and   Twitter
  Light Theme      Dark Theme
Pssst. Konami Code + Enter!
You may remix stuff our site under creative commons w/@
- Destructoid means family. Living the dream, since 2006 -