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Review: Minecraft: Wii U Edition

Dec 29 // Patrick Hancock
Minecraft: Wii U EditionDeveloper: 4J Studios, Microsoft StudiosPublisher: Mojang ABReleased: December 17, 2015MSRP: $29.99 Given its status as a cultural phenomenon, I probably don't need to explain the basics of Minecraft in 2015. In case you've been experiencing the same thing as Brendan Fraser in Blast from the Past, I'll give a quick rundown. Players spawn into a randomly generated world created entirely out of individual blocks. It is up to them to harvest materials like wood, coal, and stone to create tools and survive the many dangers present throughout the game world. Personally, I guess I'm more of a Minecraft purist. I've been playing on and off since the alpha stages, and began to grow a bit disinterested with many of the later additions like brewing and enchanting. That being said, I absolutely love the purity of vanilla Minecraft. I've never added in dozens of PC mods to completely change the game or even alter the original tileset. To me, it's at its most elegant when it is untouched. The Wii U Edition does have some extra tilesets thrown in for players to switch between, and some extras to purchase on the eShop. New player skins are also offered for purchase, like The Simpsons, in case players don't want to be "Tennis Steve" or "Black Steve" -- oh wait, I mean "Athlete Steve." Naturally, the thought of playing Minecraft with the Wii U's GamePad is rather exciting. It could be used for inventory management, a second screen for cooperative play, easy crafting -- the possibilities are endless! Well, unless you're 4J Studios. Then the possibilities are one. The only benefit of having the GamePad is the ability for single-player Off-TV play. And even when players are using it for Off-TV play, it does not function as a touch screen for inventory management or anything else. When playing locally with a friend, players are forced into split-screen mode. Playing split-screen with the GamePad in hand feels like a complete waste of an opportunity.  The game runs fine, though snow tends to tank the framerate in cooperative play. Also, when playing locally, if one player opens up their inventory, there's a pause for a fraction of a second that is absolutely infuriating. It sounds like it should be barely noticeable, but just the opposite is true. I ended up calling out whenever I was making an important jump or otherwise being careful, so my partner wouldn't pause the game and screw me up. Speaking of pausing, trying to move items around with a joystick is awful. I'm sure this is what Xbox players have been dealing with for years, but man is it bad. The joystick emulates a mouse cursor, but everything snaps to the inventory grid, making it a painfully slow and annoying process to move things about. This is made worse by the fact that I'm literally holding a now-useless touchscreen in my hands. Playing online only works among friends. At first I thought the game was buggy, since the "Join" tab was completely unpopulated. However, a quick jaunt over to the Miiverse showed people posting screenshots of the main menu asking if anyone would like to friend up and play, making the situation very clear: you can only play online with people on your friends list. Well, okay then. Minecraft is still a beautiful game. The first time I heard C418's ambient soundtrack kick in, I was beaming. The first time night fell, I nervously holed up in the ground. Despite my adoration of the game, I ended up being frustrated at just about every aspect of the Wii U Edition. This is the epitome of a wasted-opportunity, bare-bones port. It's great that the game is coming to yet another audience, but this is hardly worth the investment for someone who already has the opportunity to play Minecraft elsewhere.  [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Minecraft: Wii U review photo
What's a GamePad?
Minecraft is quite the success story, isn't it? It went from one man's fun project to a household name in a seemingly small amount of time. Everywhere I go, I see Minecraft-related items: t-shirts, plushies, costumes. It...

Review: Sakura Santa

Dec 24 // Josh Tolentino
Sakura Santa (PC)Developer: Winged CloudPublisher: MangaGamerMSRP: $9.95Released: December 21, 2015 The aforementioned solitary souls seem to be situated smack in the target-audience sweet spot for Sakura Santa's story, as it revolves around Koji, an otherwise unremarkable college student whose main claim to fame is that he'll be lonely on Christmas eve. Yeah, that's really about it. Sakura Santa takes advantage of the fact that Christmas in Japan is more of a romantic holiday than a familial one, and kicks off with Koji visiting a nearby shrine to wish for someone to spend Christmas with. His wish is granted in short order, by fateful run-ins with Itsumi, an old childhood friend, Akina, a local fox spirit, and none other than one of Santa Claus' daughters. Then the only question is: Who shall he spend the time with? Now, before anyone gets any ideas, it's worth pointing out that Sakura Santa is not an adult game. The game's Steam store page takes care to stress that it contains "no sexual content." And they're technically right. There is no nudity, nor are there sex scenes in the whole of the game's two- to four-hour runtime. There is, however, plenty to ogle in the form of the three girls' character designs and the event scenes from the four available storylines. The art does stand out as the main draw, given that Sakura Santa has little else going for it. It's shorter and possessed of a much more bland premise than Sakura Spirits, and features a smaller cast to boot. Akina and Santa's stories quickly fall into too-similar "magical/alien girlfriend" templates familiar to anime, and though Itsumi's plotline also veers on the generic side, the story of trying to connect with an old flame after years growing apart is, at least, more inherently engaging. Then again, the other girl has fox ears and a short kimono. A dilemma, to be sure. Ultimately, Sakura Santa fails to stand out from the growing crowd of visual novels on Steam and elsewhere, except in the single respect of being a Christmas-themed story, coming out just in time for the holiday. Unfortunately, one would probably have to be as lonely as the game's protagonist to find a compelling reason to play. [This review is based on a digital copy of the game provided by the publisher.] Batman: Arkham Knight: Season of Infamy (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: WB Games MontrealPublisher: Warner Bros.MSRP: $9.99Released: December 22, 2015
Sakura Santa Review photo
A Christmas Miracle for the Solo Set
When it comes to holiday traditions, Christmas-themed video games aren't as common as Christmas movies or television specials. For whatever reason, be it development times, commercial titles' higher average price tag, or the ...

Review: Batman: Arkham Knight: Season of Infamy

Dec 23 // Chris Carter
Batman: Arkham Knight: Season of Infamy (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: WB Games MontrealPublisher: Warner Bros.MSRP: $9.99Released: December 22, 2015 Infamy is a bit confusing. It's not an "Arkham Episode," that's detached from the story by way of a menu option. It's an actual extension of the narrative, taking place before Batman initiates the Knightfall Protocol (the ending), and it's integrated into the open-world campaign. In other words, if you've reached 100 percent completion in the game, just load up your file to start the DLC. Four new missions pop up as a result of booting up Infamy, which you can complete in any order, featuring Mr. Freeze, Mad Hatter, Ra's al Ghul, and Killer Croc. Each one is roughly 30-45 minutes long. Let's start with the Mad Hatter, the weakest link in the chain. His effectiveness as a Batman villain has always been questionable, and that goes double for his appearance in Arkham Knight. He was fine as a throwaway sidequest included in City, but the return of his presence does little to justify a premium price here. You'll be done with his bit in less than 30 minutes, running around Arkham with a minor series of fetch quests before confronting him at the Gotham City Police Department headquarters, and enduring another hallucination that amounts to nothing more than three easy combat challenges. It's a neat concept but it's so fleeting that I barely had time to digest it. Killer Croc is another of those one-dimensional foes that often functions as the muscle of an outfit -- a trope that leads you down a predictable storyline in the Infamy add-on. A prison ship has crash-landed compliments of an escape attempt by Croc, and you'll gallivant across the environment, chasing him down for a bit (with more fetch quests in tow of course). Consisting of a few platforming sequences and some combat, there's basically no thinking involved here in just about every facet of the short quest. It works better than Mad Hatter's portion though because most of it isn't comprised of re-used environments, and there is a nice brief reunion with Nightwing. [embed]328895:61630:0[/embed] Mr. Freeze on the other hand, is a villain that has always had a more interesting, nuanced characterization. He's not truly evil in the traditional sense -- rather, he sees his schemes as a means to an end, to save his wife Nora. The actual objectives for his quest aren't all that enthralling, but it's the only one that features Predator sequences, and the concept (and the exploration of his relationship with Nora) is compelling enough to see the tale through until the end. Plus, it has a Batmobile sequence that has more of a reason to exist than most of the ones in the campaign. Ra's al Ghul's quest is the other highlight of the pack, taking place mostly in Eliott General Hospital. Hush's part in Knight was extremely disappointing, especially after the buildup from City, so it's nice to see his family's legacy featured front and center to some degree. Along with some brand new zones you'll also work through a rather intriguing subplot featuring the League of Assassins (who are some of the only new enemies in the Infamy pack), and the Lazarus Pit -- one of the wackier bits of Batman lore. There's also a choice at the end that's actually pretty interesting that I won't spoil here. As a premium add-on, Season of Infamy really fails to produce much that feels like it's essential to the Arkham Knight experience outside of two tales. But on the other hand, it has a number of nice little touches, most notably a small expansion of the GCPD HQ, adding another wing (along with some easy WayneTech upgrade points), and the mission structure in the weaker two stories is competent at the very worst. If you really loved Knight and have been avoiding all the DLC thus far, Infamy is probably worth checking out at some point -- even if it's the only thing you buy piecemeal. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Batman DLC review photo
Ice to see the end of the Season Pass
I've refrained from reviewing most of the DLC for Batman: Arkham Knight outside of the Batgirl add-on, because of the short nature of the mission-based tales. But Season of Infamy has four missions, so that means it's four times as good, right?!

Review: Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star

Dec 22 // Caitlin Cooke
Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita) Developer: MediatonicPublisher: Devolver DigitalMSRP: $9.99Released: December 15, 2015 (PC), December 22, 2015 (PS4, Vita) Like the first game, players roleplay as a female human in a world full of talking birds. However, unlike the original Hatoful Boyfriend, Holiday Star mostly takes place outside of the school walls -- at mansions, convention centers, and even all the way to far-away dream planets with mountains made of pudding. Rather than focusing on romance, the plots revolve around mysteries and other oddities. Holiday Star contains four connected episodes, all of course extremely inane and silly as you’d expect from the series. In the first of the four, Christmas trees are mysteriously disappearing and it’s up to you and the rest of the town to figure out what’s happening. The second episode follows a mysterious bird who has a penchant for talking cryptically, and the last two end on a trippy dream to the Holiday Star itself, lead by an unhinged king and his dream citizens. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for the dating sim that was part of the original Hatoful Boyfriend, you may be disappointed. Holiday Star treads far away from the romantic bird roots to focus more on themes of danger, mystery, and the absurd -- probably focusing on the later even more so than the first game. Most of the storylines have delightfully twisted, nonsensical plots which fans of the series will appreciate. The game also borrows themes from Phoenix Wright with an occasional “OBJECTION” or “HOLD IT” here and there. Sadly, the delightfully absurd nature of the game is overshadowed by the fact that Holiday Star isn’t really a game at all. There are very few choices ever presented, making it a true visual novel more than anything else. For most of the chapters, it takes a good 15-20 minutes going through the dialogue until a decision point appears -- and even then the choices are a simple “do this or that” or “go here or go there” with usually two options presented. What’s more frustrating is that when story choices do appear, often there is only one right answer. This means that if an option is chosen incorrectly, it’s an instant game over -- and because there’s an insane amount of dialogue, it’s unlikely that you would have a backup save in the right place. Decisions don’t pop up until a good ¾ of the way into some of the chapters, so it becomes extremely birdensome to progress unless you save often. The run-on dialogue is made even more painful by the lack of music or background noise. There are only a few holiday songs that pop up from time to time, but for the most part the dialogue runs on for so long that the music loops, making the game seem even more hollow. It’s sad to say, but I can only recommend Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star if you’re either a) extremely bird to death over the holidays, B) extremely drunk over the holidays, or ideally, c) extremely both. Fans of the original game may enjoy seeing the same birds in new situations, but the lack of any choice or gameplay (even compared to the first) is just downright owlful. Those looking for an actual game may want to sparrow themselves the pain. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Hatoful Boyfriend review photo
One was fine but toucan be a problem
Everybirdie who’s anybirdie has found some kind of joy in Hatoful Boyfriend -- the strange yet alluring romantic bird simulator that stole the hearts of gamers and avians around the world. We’re graced this holida...

Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

Dec 22 // Chris Carter
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PS3, Vita [reviewed])Developer: Nihon FalcomPublisher: Nihon Falcom (JP), XSEED (US), NIS (EU)MSRP: $39.99 (digital) / $49.99 (limited retail edition)Released: September 26, 2013 (JP), December 22, 2015 (US), January 29, 2016 (EU) While it isn't necessary to enjoy Cold Steel, it's probably important to know where the game lies within the confines of the existing series. It takes place during the same time frame as Trails to Azure and Trails to Zero, but in a different location -- the Erebonian Empire. While I haven't played the aforementioned Japan-only titles, it's worth noting that you don't need to have played those games, as the backstory is pretty clearly explained. With that out of the way, you'll find a lot of familiar mechanics within your first few minutes of play. Cold Steel is a traditional JRPG through and through, with 3D field exploration, a turn-based strategic combat system, and lengthy dialogue exposition. The narrative this time around centers on "Class VII," a band of characters that literally deals with some classist themes, as the group is comprised of both rich and poor individuals. As the only Class that isn't separated by wealth, you'll find a host of different personalities as they tackle with their own demons and the overarching plot -- civil war, and mecha-based enemies called Archaics. As for the story itself, I was a bit mixed playing through it, due in large part to the presentation and pacing. While Falcom is great at worldbuilding and character development (across multiple games, no less), the narrative would frequently slow to a snail's pace, offering up almost nothing new or interesting during a number of long slogs. It's really cool to eventually learn the story behind Class VII and its place in the world, but often times Cold Steel is more content with spinning additional webs of intrigue than answering question.  [embed]328087:61583:0[/embed] The gameplay loop follows this same format. Chapters feel more formulaic in nature, as they provide opportunities to scour dungeons, give you a little piece of the story, and then send you on your way to enhance social links with your class. You essentially repeat this same concept until the game ends. Also keep in mind that this is a PS3 game from 2013, so it's not exactly cutting edge in terms of visual fidelity, especially on Vita. Having said that, I didn't have any major framerate or performance problems. Thankfully, the journey is worth the squeeze. Field exploration is fun, mostly due to the fact that the minimap is actually useful, the level designs are somewhat open-ended (despite mostly consisting of hallways), and the best addition of all -- you can see enemies on-screen before combat starts. While there's still a traditional transition screen into a turn-based fight every time, it's nice that you can dash past undesirable foes, or engage with them from a specific point of view (the side or back) for an advantage. Cold Steel has the neat feature that isn't used all that often of automatically defeating lesser enemies without wasting time fighting them. XP scaling also ensures that grinding is kept to a minimum. A save-anywhere function (including Cross-Save across PS3 and Vita) is a nice cherry on top. Combat is thankfully just as fleshed out, with Arts (magic), and Crafts (unique abilities). Queuing a spell brings up a helpful area-of-effect indicator (usually a circle or a line), which assists in tagging as many relevant enemies as possible. With 23 status effects, charge abilities, and S-breaks (supers) that can be comboed into other moves, Cold Steel is ridiculously old-school. I feel like the standard party of four is spot-on, as it's large enough to facilitate more complex strategies, but not so large that players will be overwhelmed. Like several elements of Cold Steel, the combat system is functional, but it doesn't do anything particularly exciting, and most fights don't make use of the mechanics to their full potential. As for statline customization, that's mostly governed by Quartz, which is a pretty open-ended system. It grants arts, stat bonuses, or even out-of-field effects like latent HP recovery, similar to Final Fantasy VII's materia system. Bonding elements and social links are also in, and the game encourages participation. There's a finite amount of Link EXP that follows a "use it or lose it" principle. I don't normally go for social elements in games like this (I prefer to focus on loadouts and strategy), but this is an okay way to incentivize it. Certain characters will have enhanced powers in combat if they're linked, and it helps that party members can be swapped at any time -- even without taking a turn. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel follows a lot of classic JRPG conventions, and as a result, it doesn't do a whole lot of things that haven't been done before, and better elsewhere. But the combat system still holds up, and the characters are charming enough to see the story through until the end. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Cold Steel review photo
Blissfully by the numbers
If I said the phrase "Nihon Falcom," most people wouldn't bat an eye unless they were a devout JRPG fan. Bringing up its most storied franchise, Ys, however, is a different story. Falcom has been working under the radar outsi...

Review: Guns Up!

Dec 20 // CJ Andriessen
Guns Up! (PlayStation 4) Developer: Valkyrie EntertainmentPublisher: SCEAMSRP: Free-to-play (with microtransactions)Release Date: December 5, 2015 Guns Up! is Boom Beach for your PlayStation 4. This tower offense/defense game tasks you with creating an impenetrable base and building an unstoppable army. To do both you'll need munitions, the in-game currency. You earn munitions by successfully attacking bases other Guns Up! players have designed over and over and over again. And then again about 500 more times. And then six more times after that. Attacking player bases revolves around you selecting your troops, sending them into battle and supporting them. "Support" takes the form of randomly unlocked specials on the field and from support cards you use before each attack begins. The experience is passive at best. You have no direct control of your troops outside of a few of the aforementioned specials that will force them to attack specific structures or move them to a spot on the battlefield. But once they destroy that object or reach that spot, soldiers revert back to their pre-programmed A.I. which can only be described as Gomer Pyle-esque. Other Guns Up! players cannot directly defend their bases from attacks. It's their base design versus your army. After about 45 minutes or so, I realized it's the same base design virtually all the time. That's because most players have realized the ideal set-up involves bottlenecking your opponents into a tight space with a turret at the end to mow 'em down. Couple this with the fact there is just the one Eastern Bloc countryside-inspired setting for the game and all the bases began to blur into one another. Attacks can be completed in as little as 90 seconds. With the right combination of specials (like missiles, tear gas and fire bombs) and sending wave after wave of your own men to die Zapp Brannigan style, it’s easy to overcome most challenges. Yes, the game does get more difficult as you level up and unlock more difficult bases, but there was never a feeling of accomplishment when I claimed victory at a higher level. There also wasn't a feeling of determination to try again when I lost. Instead the only feeling I got playing through this was a feeling of indifference. [embed]328159:61587:0[/embed] Success in battle rewards players with munitions and cards that range from battle support to perks for your soldiers. The munitions you win are used to build and expand your base. I nicknamed my first base layout "Tila Tequila" because it was small and easy to penetrate. My base grew as I leveled up, but a limited number of build points kept me from creating something that could stand up to player attacks. The number of successful defeats of invading armies didn’t start to grow until I adopted the same bottleneck design that everyone else was using. To be successful, my base had to look just like everyone else's. Guns Up! is free-to-play and one of the first questions I had about this game is if it's actually free-to-play. While I was provided $10 in credit by the publisher for this review, I didn’t find the need to use it until several hours into the game. By that point, I had already grown bored of playing the same goddamn map over and over again and just spent the money because it was something different to do. Players can't spend their way to the perfect base as you can't buy munitions directly, but spending money can help you progress more quickly. Money is converted to gold which can be spent renting soldiers you haven’t unlocked, customizing the colors and logo of your army, and purchasing card packs. You can also spend that money purchasing soldiers you have unlocked as simply unlocking them doesn’t instantly add them to your repertoire. Instead, the game gives you the option to spend a couple bucks worth of gold or an ungodly amount of munitions to get them. It was at level 16 or so that I finally did spend that money because progress had slowed to a crawl. Leveling up was taking forever and expanding my base became too damn expensive. If this game were fun I would have toughed it out. But it’s not fun, so I spent money on XP and munitions boost cards that would make the un-fun game easier to play. These cards, which are also included in a PlayStation Plus bundle (it's free for PS Plus users), killed any incentive for me to take on more challenging bases as defeating a lower level base netted me enough XP and munitions to progress at a steady pace. Okay, that's a lie. The only real incentive I had to continue on after I had seen everything the game had to offer in the first 30 minutes or so was the fact that I foolishly volunteered to review it. Guns Up! is a dull game. It's repetitive, it's tedious, it's digital Ambien. If the thought of a console version of Clash of Clans excites you, you’ll probably have a blast with Guns Up! Me, I can’t wait to delete this off my PS4. [This review is based on a retail build of the free-to-play game. A currency code valued at $10 was provided by the publisher.]
Guns Up! photo
Pew, pew, pfft
I don't know what I've been told. I don't know what I've been told. Free-to-play games leave me mighty cold. Free-to-play games leave me mighty cold. The microtransactions start to sting. The&nbs...

Review: Dark Cloud (PS4)

Dec 18 // Chris Carter
Dark Cloud (PS2, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Level-5Publisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentMSRP: $14.99 Released: December 14, 2000 (PS2) / December 5, 2015 (PS4) Dark Cloud is the classic tale of good vs. evil, very much in the same vein as the Legend of Zelda series. The comparisons start with the story of a young boy with a green cap on an epic quest to save the world from a giant evil being, and permeate throughout with comparisons to Ocarina of Time's lock-on based battle system. In essence, a nazi awakens a genie, and it's up to Toan, our hero, to save the world. It's not exactly inventive, but the personal angle of all of the subplots really sell it. It may have all of the makings of a standard fantasy narrative, but true to Level-5's name, nearly everyone you meet along the way is charming enough to bring a smile to your face. This goes for the great supporting cast of playable heroes and any old random NPC you'll meet along the way. The fact that you can skip cutscenes is an excellent feature in hindsight, especially for veterans who play it regularly. The gameplay loop mainly involves dungeon crawling and world building. If you don't have the mental fortitude for hack and slash games like Diablo, the former may be a bit too repetitive for your liking. Dungeons have a randomly generated feel to them, with basic tunnel-based layouts and enemies peppered about. Every level is the same -- you'll need to locate a key to descend to the next stage, which is guarded by a random enemy on the floor. Your job is to basically explore everything, and just happen upon a key. [embed]327832:61573:0[/embed] Thankfully, dungeons are littered with engaging hazards and unique gimmicks to help nudge you along. I especially like that when coming upon a chest, players can "guess" the trap instead of using a key, potentially triggering an explosion or something to that effect. It's a neat mechanic, as you can basically guess the least desirable option in an effort to possibly force something else if your choice is wrong. Subsequent concepts like this really make you think, because sometimes, crawling can get particularly hectic. For instance, on one run, I had just been poisoned, and my water supply (which reduces HP steadily at zero) was nearly gone, so I had to hastily find my way back to a pond that restores your H2O stock and health. To do this, I had to expend an item that allows players to run faster, as well as some emergency food. Dark Cloud isn't the toughest action-RPG around, but it can get taxing depending on the circumstances. Combat does feel a bit rough by modern standards. While the lock-on feature does work well enough, the complete lack of a dodge button makes fights feel less engaging. Sure you can block and manually dodge if you want, but it's inherently slower and less flashy. Also, I never liked the finite weapon durability system, which can completely break your weapon if you aren't careful with your repair powder. The fact that weapons can evolve and accept socketed elemental gems is a nice touch however. The weapons themselves also have a ton of personality, especially Steve, the talking slingshot. The other big part of Dark Cloud is the creation element, using special items from dungeons to craft towns of your own. Since the big bad has destroyed most of the villages across the world, it's up to Toan to use his newfound magical powers to put them back together. It's sort of like a Sim-light, in that you can zoom out to view individual plots of land, and "place" objects like houses, trees, rivers, roads, and even people at will. After plotting out towns, you can go back into third or first-person mode to view your creations, which provides an immense sense of satisfaction even to this day. It's very limited in the sense that plots aren't too large, there's usually a small item limit, and since you need to meet "requests" (certain villagers like to live near specific landmarks for instance), you don't have a full sense of freedom when placing. But even then, the switch from creation to free roaming is insanely fast (quicker than I remembered), and the fact that not many games even have this element to date is important to note. Dark Cloud is a massive RPG overall, and the 100-floor endgame dungeon (Demon Shaft) is among my favorite locations in any video game to date, with an insanely satisfying optional superboss fight. As far as the PS4 port goes, I haven't run into any major issues. There are some hiccups (specifically this scan line appearing on-screen every 15 minutes or so), but nothing major. While the art style is inherently dated due to the PS2's engine, the character designs hold up, and the framerate is perfectly fine. In fact, the entire affair runs much smoother than I'd expect for a game from 2000. Keep in mind that this is merely an upscaled port though, and not a full HD remake. Having played the PS2 version side-by-side this week, I'm not convinced that there's a significant draw to getting it on PS4 outside of convenience. If you haven't played Dark Cloud yet, now is a perfect time to jump in. Sure, you'll encounter some relics of old school design, but if you're willing to overlook a few antiquated concepts and really dive in, you'll find a rich RPG that will last you as long as you're willing to put into it.
Dark Cloud PS4 review photo
Level-5's first game is reborn
Before Level-5 was creating its Yo-Kai Watch Empire and dazzling Nintendo fans with Professor Layton, it was creating amazing RPGs in the early 2000s. Among classics like Dragon Quest VIII, Jeanne d'Arc, and Rogue G...

Review: Yakuza 5

Dec 17 // Kyle MacGregor
Yakuza 5 (PS3)Developer: SegaPublisher: SegaMSRP: $39.99 Released: December 8, 2015 (NA/EU)  December 6, 2012 (JP) The tale unfurls from five seemingly unrelated vantage points, picking up two years after the events of Yakuza 4 with former yakuza and series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu attempting to live a quiet life as a cab driver in Fukuoka. Of course, our hero can't seem to escape his past, and with trouble brewing, it isn't long before he's pulled out of his taxi and back into the fray. Far to the north, Tojo strongman Taiga Saejima is nearing the end of a prison sentence in Hokkaido, where he, despite being 2,000 miles away from the events in Fukuoka, feels the ripple effects of what's going on. Meanwhile, Kiryu's adoptive niece Haruka has left her home in Okinawa to chase dreams of becoming a pop star in Osaka, where old friend Shun Akiyama, the affable moneylender from Yakuza 4, also happens to be setting up a new office for his company Sky Finance. Tossed into the mix is newcomer Tatsuo Shinada, a disgraced former baseball player living hand-to-mouth in a seedy corner of Nagoya after being thrown out of the league on suspicion of game-fixing. He, more so than the rest of the cast, appears to have little to do with the goings on of the criminal underworld, much less the tensions between the Omi Alliance and Tojo Clan. And yet he too becomes involved in this nationwide clash between gangs as everything intertwines and comes to a head. Speaking of heads, chances are, unless you're intimately familiar with Japanese geography or the series in general, that synopsis might have left your's spinning. With such a rich backstory and so many characters, locations, and groups, it can be difficult for even the best of us to fully grasp what's going on. But I suppose that's part of the charm; the complicated interweaving of everything makes for one hell of a soap opera delving into the fascinating world of Japan's organized crime families. Another strength of Yakuza 5, and the series in general, is the painstaking lengths at which Sega goes to make that world feel real. Everything from bustling city streets to the convenience stores and ramen shops is rendered with such attention to detail, it might just be the closest you can come to visiting Japan without hopping on a plane. In relief of that realism is the gameplay, which has a certain air about it akin to a smell that can send you back to a specific place and time. Whether you're brawling with gangsters, drag racing, fishing, participating in a FPS snowball fight, hunting, or playing Virtua Fighter or Taiko Drum Master in the arcade, the whole experience feels very much like a Dreamcast-era arcade game. Cut between the ultra-serious story of conspiracy and deadly consequences is a pastiche of ridiculous, over-the-top (and cloyingly dated) mini-games that serve to lighten the mood, smack you in the face, and remind you that it's a video game -- not just a television drama. Nowhere is this more evident than Haruka's portion of the story, which transforms the experience (for a while, at least) into an idol simulation with Hatsune Miku: Project Diva-esque rhythm game sequences and handshake meet-and-greet sessions with fans. Sadly, none of these elements are handled with the same care and dedication given to the story or world-building, which is a real shame, and leaves the experience feeling somewhat archaic. The fighting, in particular, hasn't seen much of a leap forward since the series debuted a decade ago on PlayStation 2. Even considering how long it took Sega to localize this particular entry, its stiff combat just feels woefully antiquated in contrast with most action games on the market these days. However, despite some rough edges like that or a bizarre fixation with hammering home an overarching theme about "dreams" near the point of self-parody, Yakuza 5 provides dozens upon dozens of hours of legitimate entertainment, the sort that kept me engaged and constantly left me torn between rushing ahead to see what twists and turns the story would take next and poking my nose into every single nook and cranny to explore the hostess clubs, remote mountain shrines, and everything in between. Yakuza 5 is exactly the sort of game the expression "greater than the sum of its parts" was made to describe. Each facet of the experience, taken individually, leaves room for improvement, but, reflecting on my time with Yakuza 5, I can't conjure much in the way of disappointment. Some bumps notwithstanding, it's a hell of a ride, one that I heartily recommend. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Yakuza 5 review photo
Who says crime doesn't pay?
With the chairman of the Omi crime syndicate on his deathbed, an uneasy truce with the Tojo Clan hangs in the balance. Anticipating a conflict, Tojo boss Daigo Dojima travels to Fukuoka in search of allies. But before an agre...

Review: Turok: Dinosaur Hunter

Dec 17 // Jed Whitaker
Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (PC)Developer: Iguana Entertainment, Night Dive StudiosPublisher: Night Dive StudiosMSRP: $19.99Released: December 17, 2015 Most people remember Turok: Dinosaur Hunter from the Nintendo 64, but there was also a PC port released back in 1997 as well. This latest release takes the best parts of both versions and combines them with an all-new engine to make a definitive PC version. That said, don't expect much new as the overall experience is largely unchanged from the N64 version: same music, same bland graphics, and same cheat codes. By just playing the game you'd probably not notice the differences unless you've recently done a playthrough of the N64 version, which I certainly haven't. Shooters in 1997 played a hell of a lot differently than they do now: no infinite lives or regenerating health, and you better be ready to collect keys; Turok is a classic shooter through and through. Stages feel massive and open due to most of the levels being designed as if you're outside in a very cliffy but smooth terrain. Levels offer branching paths though many just lead to a secret or weapon at a dead end, but you can explore freely in most areas as you wish, as well as travel between levels using portals at the end of the first level. While not completely open world, Turok is certainly a far cry from the hallways of Doom, at least until the final level of the game when things get a bit more linear and enclosed.  There isn't much of an in-game narrative to Turok. A Native American armed with weapons ranging from a bow and arrow to modern guns to alien technology fights through waves of humans, dinosaurs, and cyborgs to stop an evil person from taking over the world. Honestly, the story doesn't matter at all; the shooty bits are the real draw here. Blasting dinosaurs feels pretty satisfying all around, even if it is less Destiny and more like the classic Unreal series. The death animations of the humans are some of the best in any FPS; I especially enjoy when they grab their neck while blood squirts out. Sadistic, I know. [embed]327507:61554:0[/embed] The only time gunplay feels tedious is with the bullet-sponge bosses and late-game enemies. As the game advances it constantly rewards you with new weapons that help, including some with over-the-top, screen-filling explosions. Even with top tier weapons, bosses can still be a pain in the ass.  If you feel nostalgia for the worst parts of retro gaming then you'll get a kick out of this; saving the game still requires finding checkpoints. You have to manually select a save slot, and -- just like on the N64 -- to reload a save you must start a new game then pause and select your save to load. Aside from playing the game in widescreen, there are some other enhancements, though nothing major, you'll still be seeing the same ugly textures reused over and over. Options are included for field of view, and a new longer draw distance that still maintains the fog in the distance on most levels. Not having to deal with only being able to see a short distance ahead of you due to fog makes the game far easier, especially when enemies don't detect you till you get closer to them, and all the weapons seem to have unlimited range. While there is an option to reduce the draw distance -- thus moving the fog closer to you -- it doesn't feel like it is enough to replicate the feel of the N64 experience of being surprised by enemies coming out of the fog just mere feet ahead of you. The increased draw distance does fix one major issue the original version had; there is rarely any need to pull up your on-screen map overlay. I remember playing on the N64 with the map on the screen most of the time due to getting lost in the fog and not knowing where to go next, an experience I'd rather not relive. While the ten-year-old inside of me would like to pretend that Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is perfect and the best shooter of all time, I have to admit it isn't and this version isn't anything special. If you're looking to relive a retro experience with slightly better draw distance, a solid 60fps framerate, and a far superior control system then by all means pick this up. If you're more accustomed to the modern day FPS, it's best to leave this one buried in the past. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Assassin's Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ubisoft MontpellierPublisher: UbisoftMSRP: $14.99Released: December 15, 2015 (PS4, Xbox One), December 22, 2015 (PC)
Review: Turok photo
A time machine to a better 1997
The year was 1997 and ten-year-old me was obsessed with two things, dinosaurs and video games. Imagine my excitement when the latest issue of GamePro magazine arrived in my mailbox informing me of an upcoming game where I got...

Review: King's Quest: Rubble Without a Cause

Dec 17 // Chris Carter
King’s Quest: Rubble Without a Cause (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: The Odd GentlemenPublisher: Sierra EntertainmentReleased: December 16, 2015MSRP: $9.99 per episode / $40 for the "Complete Collection" [No major spoilers are mentioned for the current episode, although events of previous episodes will inevitably be discussed.] Rubble picks up some time after the first tale, after Graham has become king. He's still the same lovable old rascal, but right from the get-go you can see the toll that his new responsibility has taken on him. Graham is chipper and the tone is still light starting out, but you can tell that the developers are slowly easing us into a more serious method of storytelling. Without spoiling too much, Graham and a few members of his kingdom have been taken hostage by goblins, who reside in an underground kingdom. Given his height, he's been tasked with a few daily chores, which allows him access to the tunnels, while the others are forced to rot in prison cells. As you can imagine, a few familiar faces return, but you'll get to meet a few new characters as well. What I love about this setup is that it feels connected to the first episode, but also maintains its own identity. You get to see Graham's relationship with other characters grow in a meaningful way -- even with many of his adversaries. While the goblins can't talk, the animations are incredibly expressive (just like Graham) and full of life. For example, upon entering the dungeon, Graham is exhausted, walking around in a hilariously lethargic manner. After gaining his strength back his state will alter, as will the captives over time. The animation team really deserves a shoutout here, as they deserve to have a long career ahead of them. [embed]326509:61517:0[/embed] In a stark contrast to the first episode, Rubble takes a decidedly more old school approach. You're basically given a giant playground to roam around in, which is gated off by Graham's own "strength meter." It's here that the aforementioned kingly choices will come in, as you'll need to juggle the needs of three prisoners in addition to your own. If you eat -- you can explore more of the cave -- but you'll risk having a member of your kingdom starve. It's such a small, almost gamey thing (it even has heart meters), but since I already had an emotional attachment with these characters, it worked. I was legitimately stressed out (in a good way) trying to keep everyone happy, while constantly divining solutions to secrets in my head. You'll need to keep your wits about you too, as a few puzzles even had me writing down a few in-game events on paper. Again, it's far more detailed than any Telltale game, without getting resorting to "pixel-hunting" and overly frustrating cryptic solutions. Also, if you didn't enjoy the action sequences in the last episode, they're basically non-existent here. The art style is still stunning, and that Don Bluth feel is intact. The goblin's caves also feel unique compared to the mostly above-ground setting of the first episode, and the scale is grand without being too overwhelming. Layout-wise, there's basically a few giant wheels with several spokes -- it's enough where it will be helpful to remember rooms off-hand. In terms of quality of life updates, the entire package gained a skip button in this latest update, which is incredibly useful for repeating dialogue or events. I haven't really noticed much carry-over from the previous tale, but choices made in Rubble that will impact future episodes are somewhat evident -- plus, there's a meta-narrative teased at the end. Second parts tend to be troublesome for episodic series, as they often feel like transitional stories that merely set the table for what's to come. But with King's Quest: Rubble Without a Cause, characters are growing right before our eyes with a subtle and effective tonal shift. The Odd Gentlemen also nailed the script, as it feels like a standalone episode that's also connected to the episodic format as a whole. We still have three tales to go, but for now, I'm feeling pretty good about King's Quest. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
King's Quest review photo
I really can wait to be king
The first episode of the newly minted King's Quest series really took me by surprise. While I had been loosely following it for years, I never expected it to be one of my favorite games of the year. The cast, the animati...

Review: Assassin's Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper

Dec 16 // Brett Makedonski
Assassin's Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ubisoft MontpellierPublisher: UbisoftMSRP: $14.99Released: December 15, 2015 (PS4, Xbox One), December 22, 2015 (PC) Assassin's Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper takes place 20 years after the main game ends. In that time, Evie has traveled to India and learned and perfected a non-lethal fear technique. With it, she's able to send her enemies into a panic, often causing them to flee in terror. Predictably, that's the main gameplay allure in this DLC. Both Jack the Ripper (he's playable) and Evie share this fear mechanic. The add-on nicely juxtaposes the two characters in alternating sequences. In one, Jack will callously and barbarically kill anyone in his way, sending those who see him running scared for their lives. In the next, Evie will use these same fear methods to mostly skirt combat in a completely different, yet equally effective, manner. Jack's sections are easily the most interesting this expansion has to offer. In them, haunting visual prompts pop up like "kill them all" and "leave no witnesses," as if they're coming straight from Jack's twisted mind. As he continues on his homicidal bent, the screen will briefly distort, adding another troubling layer of visual tension to the already disturbing scene. [embed]326720:61550:0[/embed] Evie, on the other hand, spends most of her time trying to unravel the mystery of Jack the Ripper, but always one step behind. Much of her focus is on crime scene investigation and pursuit. Like in Syndicate proper, Evie's tendencies are rooted in stealth and cunning. It's here that we learn most about The Ripper through examining his actions. This is where Jack the Ripper falls flat. Even though Ubisoft doesn't go too crazy in divulging his story, what is told feels contrived. Again, Jack the Ripper is best as a faceless boogeyman. It would've worked if Ubisoft simply sent Evie to protect London from Jack. Instead, he's unnecessarily shoehorned into Assassin's Creed lore, and the expansion is worse off for the artificiality of it all. Unlike main Assassin's Creed installments, Jack the Ripper benefits tremendously from a streamlined approach. The add-on quickly ushers the player from mission to mission, with little dillydallying in between. Ubisoft couldn't resist the urge to pad the expansion with some trademark side events, but they're not pressing, not in-your-face, and ultimately not really important. It's just three hours of mostly quality main story content. Jack the Ripper can't aspire to reach the heights that Syndicate did. But, it also doesn't suffer the same setbacks. In a game where open-world strain can become a serious problem, this add-on is a mostly-focused reprieve. Sure, there are some fumbling moments, but there are also some elegantly-handled ones. Given the difficult source material and the obvious danger of stumbling, Jack the Ripper mostly doesn't, and that feels like a best-case outcome. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Jack the Ripper review photo
Whodunnit?
The tale of Jack the Ripper is one of mankind's great enigmas. More than 100 years ago, someone savagely murdered at least five women in the Whitechapel district of London. He maimed his victims so unthinkably that his legend...

Review: Nuclear Throne

Dec 15 // Jordan Devore
Nuclear Throne (Linux, Mac, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PlayStation Vita, Windows)Developer: VlambeerPublisher: VlambeerReleased: December 5, 2015 (Linux, Mac, PS3, PS4, Vita, Windows) / TBA (PS3)MSRP: $11.99 This is a roguelike, and a brutally difficult, bullet hellish one at that. These games have an uncanny ability to push us to the brink of madness only to win us over, in the end, and form an unbreakable bond. I'm no stranger to that process. But with Nuclear Throne, it's far more of a love-hate relationship than I'm used to. A large part of what kept me going despite repeated, soul-crushing failure was the look and sound of the setting and the strange creatures who inhabit it. The overall vision here is superb, with mutants, monsters, robots, and even an inter-dimensional police force collectively forming a believable, lived-in world. You never develop a full picture of this post-apocalyptic wasteland, or what its future might hold, and that's a good thing. Vlambeer provides just enough hints to stoke imaginations without oversharing. As a mutant, your basic goal is to kill everything. And I do mean everything -- that's how you progress to the next level and, with persistence, reach the titular Nuclear Throne. Initially, you will fend off bandits, maggots, and scorpions in a desert area. They're all good fodder for learning the basics before the real scary stuff comes out. Depending on your character, your adventure starts with a basic revolver, but you will soon find more interesting guns with varying rates of fire, bullet spreads, and other quirks. [embed]326751:61527:0[/embed] It's a shame you can only hold two weapons at a time, because I never wanted to part with anything. They're all delightful to use, and once you've grown accustomed to the way combat flows, it's so gratifying. But ammo is finite and the maximum amount you can store of each type (bullets, shells, bolts, explosives, and energy) isn't very high. That's by design. You're meant to continually cycle weapons in and out to match the situation at hand as well as what's left in your ammo stockpile. It's a clever way to encourage adaptability and it also helps the game maintain a sense of excitement over hundreds if not thousands of runs. There are also melee weapons, which are just as enjoyable as guns if not more so. They can be supremely useful in the right situation. Most of them can reflect projectiles back at enemies and, with sufficient reach, even attack through certain walls. There is a major downside to getting up close and personal, though: more than a few enemies explode when they die, and some bosses will even try to bring you down with them. They'll probably succeed, too. Rads (experience points) are the other major piece of Nuclear Throne. They're a type of collectible dropped by slain enemies, and you need to be quick to nab them because they fade after several seconds. Once you've earned enough rads to level up your character, you'll be able to choose a mutation (perk). These grant powerful passive abilities like health or ammo regeneration, slower-moving enemy bullets, and better melee range. But you don't get to pick a mutation until you have successfully obliterated everything and exited the level, and they're presented in a random group of four. Depending on your character's specific strengths and weaknesses, or your personal playstyle, you may not like the choices available. Ammo and health pick-ups also expire shortly after dropping onto the field, which means even if you have carved out a secluded spot that enemies won't wander into, you can't afford to stay put. Nuclear Throne is adept at making you feel unsafe. You're utterly fragile in this game, with or without full health. Everyone and everything packs a tremendous punch, so one wrong move can be the end. Only a select few elements like unlockable characters are persistent across runs. Levels are procedurally generated with variable layouts and enemy placements, but there are consistent themes (desert, sewer, caves, lab, etc.) on the path to the Nuclear Throne. Unless you skip around by entering secret areas -- the underwater oasis is a personal favorite of mine -- the overall structure will be the same on every run. Bosses show up on specific levels, so when you get to level 5-3, you know Lil' Hunter is going to drop in and ruin your day. He's the fucking worst. With practice, you can heighten your skills and know how best to leverage a character's special abilities. You'll be able to rapidly scan and prioritize threats. You'll generally know what lies ahead and which weapons to hold onto. But that's not always enough. Sometimes, Nuclear Throne will just screw you over. And that's where it falls short. There will be times when you spawn into a level surrounded by enemies and explosive objects and immediately die. Sometimes, it's that exact scenario plus a boss in the mix. It can be unfair. Or, at the very least, uneven. I expect that in roguelikes to a certain extent, but it especially stands out as a problem here. Bad spawns aside, there is a weird jump in difficulty in the Frozen City. Every time I managed to clear that particular zone, I went on to beat the next few levels without much trouble and made it to the Nuclear Throne (the point at which you can fight a boss and end your run, or "loop" it). The first time I fought the boss, ten hours in, I brushed up against the thing, causing a game-ending error. It was another two hours before I got another chance and succeeded. I haven't been able to make it back yet to try looping (think new game plus), so I know I'm missing out on some weapons and bosses, and an even greater challenge. If I could do it all over again, I would probably opt for the PC version instead. Mouse and keyboard controls would have been a godsend while I was learning the ropes. On PlayStation 4, there is an aim assist option, thankfully, and you can remap the controls. I suggest playing around with those settings and switching the "change weapon" button to something other than triangle. For folks interested in playing local co-op with a friend, know that the brutal difficulty persists. It's set up in such a way that if one player dies, they need to quickly be revived, and both players lose part of their health. So it's not really any easier. In the end, I have come to love and loathe Nuclear Throne. It's one of the hardest, most rewarding games I've ever played. But as satisfying as it can eventually become, I think it is far too demanding for its own good. With additional polish and balancing, this could be a masterpiece in the genre. It's not quite there yet, but it's close. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Nuclear Throne review photo
You did not reach the Nuclear Throne
Nuclear Throne is not a game for people who get frustrated easily. My first few hours spent with this top-down shooter from Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing developer Vlambeer didn't go well. I struggled with aiming and...

Review: The Bit.Trip

Dec 15 // Ben Davis
The Bit.Trip (PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita, PS3)Developer: Choice ProvisionsPublisher: Choice ProvisionsMSRP: $9.99 (Cross-Buy)Released: December 5, 2015 (PS4, PS Vita), TBA (PS3) The Bit.Trip is a collection of all six games in the Bit.Trip series which were originally released on WiiWare, similar to Bit.Trip Complete for Wii and Bit.Trip Saga for 3DS from a few years ago. It may have a different name than the other compilations, but it's largely the same aside from the controls, menus, and a few extras. The Bit.Trip differs in that it offers Trophies and leaderboards, which already existed for the PC versions of the games, but not for the Wii and 3DS versions. However, it's lacking all of the bonus content and extra challenge levels introduced in Bit.Trip Complete. Those extras would have been a nice addition here as a way to entice people who have already played some of the games before, but as it stands, it's basically just a straightforward compilation. [embed]326911:61531:0[/embed] Even so, the Bit.Trip games still hold up incredibly well, and the price is perfect for anyone looking to experience them again (or for the first time). All six games can be accessed from the slick main menu, featuring some neat concept art whenever a title is selected. Each game also allows the player to choose between Easy, Normal, or Hard difficulty settings, which is nice because the Bit.Trip games can be quite difficult, even on Easy! For those who haven't played Bit.Trip before, the series spans several different genres with an emphasis on rhythm-based gameplay, all held together with similar themes to tell the story of the life and death of Commander Video. Bit.Trip Beat and Bit.Trip Flux are very Pong-like in nature, requiring the player to move a paddle up and down to bounce incoming beats back to the rhythm. Bit.Trip Runner switches things up as a rhythmic auto-running platformer, while Bit.Trip Fate takes the series in another drastically different direction as a musical on-rails shooter. Bit.Trip Core and Bit.Trip Void are a bit harder to describe, but they both offer gameplay that is completely unique to the series. Core gives players control of an X and Y axis which can zap any beats that pass over them, while Void has players controlling an ever-expanding black hole which must consume other black shapes while avoiding white ones. Void is actually my personal favorite of the series, simply because I've never played anything else quite like it. The biggest difference for the PlayStation versions of these games is of course going to be the controls. I found playing with the Dualshock 4 to be quite comfortable and intuitive, easily on par with the Wii controls. Both Core and Void let the player choose between the left analog stick or the d-pad for movement. I found the analog stick to be preferable in most situations, although the d-pad was useful for a certain boss in Void which requires precision movements, and some players will probably prefer to use the d-pad to play Core (I found it to be a little uncomfortable after a while). Fate uses both analog sticks -- one for movement and one for aiming and shooting -- and it felt perfect. The controls for Runner are about what you'd expect, since it only requires simple button inputs. It would be kind of hard to mess those up. As for Beat and Flux, the controls work similarly to the Wii Remote in that you simply have to tilt the Dualshock 4 forward and back to move the paddle. It seemed to really pick up on my hands shaking though, which caused the paddle to sort of vibrate slightly up and down all the time. This made it feel as though I didn't have as much control over the paddle as I would have like, but it wasn't too much of a deal-breaker for me since I wasn't going for high scores or anything. However, it did make the final boss of Beat especially difficult since it's easier to win by hitting the beats back with the very tip of the paddle. I kept missing even the slow-moving beats by the slightest degree, most likely because of the vibrations. Finally, for players interested in leaderboards, they'll be happy to know that each game has separate leaderboards for every individual level, divided between the three difficulty settings. These can be accessed directly from the main menu or individually from the menus of the specific games. While The Bit.Trip could have been made marginally better with the addition of any kind of bonus content (such as the extra challenges found in Bit.Trip Complete), it's still a solid compilation of an excellent series of games. Thankfully, they hold up just as well on PlayStation consoles as they did on the Wii. If you still haven't taken the dive into the rhythmic, arcade-y goodness of Bit.Trip, or if you've been looking for a reason to play through it all again, now would be the perfect time to do so. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
The Bit.Trip review photo
SERIES.COMPLETE
The Bit.Trip series holds a special place in my heart. With a wonderful blend of rhythm-based mechanics and arcade-style gameplay spanning various genres, the games are easy to pick up, quick to fall in love with, and yet inc...

Review: Devil's Third

Dec 11 // Chris Carter
Devil's Third (PC, Wii U [reviewed])Developer: Valhalla Game StudiosPublisher: Valhalla Game Studios (PC), Nintendo (Wii U)MSRP: $59.99 (Wii ), free-to-play multiplayer (PC)Released: August 28, 2015 (EU), December 11, 2015 (US) / TBA (PC) Let's start with the campaign. It's puzzling why Nintendo got involved, and thought "yeah we should sign our name to this." Writers and fans alike have debated the merits of Bayonetta's titular character for years, noting that despite the low brow humor, Bayonetta's sexuality can be seen as an element of power, where she is constantly in control. That's on top of the fact that Platinum's pair of Bayonetta games are two of the most storied titles in the entire genre. But with Devil's Third, I'm struggling to really find anything worthwhile here. Now, I don't have a problem with pulpy, crass works in theory, but not all of them are created equal. Instead of an interesting character like Bayonetta or the campy (pre-Ninja Theory) Dante, we get Ivan -- one of the deadliest prisoners currently being held in Guantanamo Bay, but generic at heart. From there, Itagaki installs some of his famous military-based storytelling, involving a man stuck in the middle of his ideals and a government organization (in this case, the United States government). Satellites all across the world have been destroyed, creating chaos, and it's up to Ivan to put down his former comrades and put a stop to it. From the moment I started the adventure, my expectations were immediately curbed. Dialogue never really amounts to much more than boring, unmemorable lines like "that dude don't look like bullshit to me," and so on. Whereas I can usually recall a cheesy rant from a classic character like Krauser in a game like Resident Evil 4, nothing sticks out to me in Devil's Third throughout the entire five-hour campaign experience. As for the controls, they are much more manageable than you've probably heard. Yes the game is a technical mess, but I didn't have trouble acclimating with either the GamePad or the more desirable Wii U Pro Controller, especially when I came to terms that it was basically a PS2-era experience. If you have issues controlling a camera with a right analog stick you may have some problems, but for the most part, it works. [embed]324540:61465:0[/embed] Melee is swift and effective, with "fast" and "strong" variable attacks, followed by Arkham-like finishers (but in this case they usually lead to decapitations). Most levels start you off with a weapon in-hand like a katana, but you can also pick up items Final Fight style and use them throughout the mission. Close combat is probably my favorite part, but the level design seldom actually makes use of it, most of the time relegating players to shooting sequences. There's a section in the third level that pits the player against a series of melee enemies in a tight arena, and at that point, I saw flashes of a great game, only to be let down again moments later. Gunplay is enacted by way of first-person aiming, which did take some getting used to. The fact that it operates like an FPS is jarring, especially when the poor inconsistent framerate kicks in, and the hit detection goes awry. Sometimes you'll hit someone square in the chest and score a headshot, and vice-versa. The same goes for the cover system, which includes instant snapping to terrain, and doesn't work occasionally (both in the sense that cover doesn't provide cover, or you can't snap to it). Itagaki has gone on record as saying that members of the press didn't have the "skill" to play the game, partially stating that the GamePad (the default controller) isn't ideal. Well my friend, as someone who has been playing hardcore action games for years on the highest Dante Must Die-esque difficulty settings, and used a Wii U Pro Controller for this review, I can safely say that the game has a few mechanical problems that are not related in any way to skill. What really let me down was the linear design of the missions themselves. There is a level of verticality to their design in some cases due to the ability to jump and wall climb in certain areas, but for the most part, they are a series of straightforward paths. There's absolutely not enough discovery present, which is a shame as the Itagaki-led Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden 2 had some incredible secrets buried underneath the surface of their nuanced stages. Then you have the uninspired boss fights, several of which follow the standard "throw lots of guys at you to make it harder" (adds) school of thought. There are a few glimmers of hope though in these mostly humanoid encounters, particularly the Saha battle, which brought me back to the Krauser fights in Resident Evil 4. Those parts, like the aforementioned melee arena are fleeting, however, and the short nature of the campaign facilitates that they are few and far between. Okay, so that's the disappointing campaign knocked out, but there's another major element to Devil's Third -- the multiplayer. Simply put, this is far more robust than the story, with tons of rewards, silly cosmetic options, and gear to choose from. Players will have the chance to start off in a training ground to try out every weapon in the game (though you need to acquire in-game currency to buy them over time), and then pledge support to clans for large turf war-like battles, or participate casually in 16-player combat. The action system works far better here with human opponents, and the penchant for wackiness is extremely high. There's a high skill ceiling involved, and action fans will no doubt be able to stretch their legs a bit in this unconventional shooter. You're basically forced to use every tool at your disposal, like the slide and shoot ability, which you don't necessarily need to utilize in the campaign, to succeed. There is a caveat though. There is no option for offline play, split-screen, or bots. There are 10 modes available that span a number of fun game types, but in the end, who will play them? Sadly, it has been confirmed by the developers themselves that US and European players cannot play with one another, so there isn't even a large pool readily available. I'm struggling to find games, alongside of severe connection issues at launch. This is on top of the fact that Nintendo buried it in the US eShop so that it's difficult to find, and that there's a severely limited run of retail copies out in the wild. The best part of the game may not even be consistently playable in America, which is a damn shame. After sensing a sinking ship, Valhalla Game Studios was smart to start development of the free-to-play PC version of Devil's Third. Multiplayer is easily the shining star of the experience, and I can see a lot of people picking it up with the right marketing. That day is not today though, and not with the Wii U version of the game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer. Nintendo of America did not send out review copies for Devil's Third.]
Devil's Third photo
Well, it has multiplayer...
Devil's Third has been in the pipeline for so long, that any given year I completely forgot about it. Announced in 2010, after the infamous Tomonobu Itagaki left Tecmo in 2008, the game has been in development limbo, pas...

Review: Hearthstone: League of Explorers

Dec 10 // Chris Carter
Hearthstone: League of Explorers (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentReleased: November 12, 2015 to December 10, 2015 MSRP: $19.99 for all four wings The basic setup has been pared down a bit, and I'm mostly fine with it. Instead of focusing on five wings, League has four, strewn about over the course of four weeks (skipping an additional week for the Thanksgiving holiday). It's maddening sometimes to have to wait to access another wing that you paid for, but that's mostly because Hearthstone constantly leaves me wanting more. This expansion really delivers with its single-player scenarios, topping any other fight before it. That's primarily due to the "choose your own adventure" sections, where players will have to deal with an event rather than face a specific enemy. You'll be able to play the odds by taking a high-risk, high-reward option or play it safe, and in the end, strategy usually wills out. Other fights involve mechanics like a staff that makes you invulnerable, and a boss that persistently fills your side with useless minions that explode over time. From a lore perspective, there's a decent amount of references here for fans, from a duel with Lady Naz'jar in the ruined city, to a showdown with Archaedas in Uldaman. I never thought Blizzard would one day make a card game and base it on the rich Warcraft world that it's spent decades developing, but I'm glad it did. As for the other bits, Heroic (hard) versions are still in, and although Hero challenges are a little too easy and straightforward this time around, each one rewards you with one card, so they're still worth playing. [embed]324539:61475:0[/embed] The new cards are also rather disruptive, in a good way. The main characters (pictured above) drastically alter some decks, and a few even allow for completely new deck themes. My personal favorite is Sir Finley Mrrgglton (love that name), a 1-mana 1/3 card that allows players to swap their hero power. It's such a tiny thing, but the ability to use hero powers interchangeably can alter the course of a match. I've also been using the Summing Stone in a few of my decks, which summons a random minion based on the cost of any spell used while it's active. Other cards like Tomb Spiders and Jeweled Scarabs "discover" new minions. Like the themes before it, the types of cards in League are cohesive, and fun to use. Murloc decks in general also got a huge buff, with "Anyfin can Happen" (a 10-mana card that summons seven dead Murlocs), and the Tinyfin (a 0-cost 1/1 card that essentially buffs other Murlocs). Hearthstone: League of Explorers is probably my favorite expansion yet for the game. I feel like Blizzard iterates for every release, and I hope this isn't the end of the adventures to come, as I vastly prefer them to card-only expansions. Maybe next time we'll see even crazier mechanics, like the co-op fight that was only used once in a Tavern Brawl. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Hearthstone review photo
Cheerio
Blizzard is doing a great job of keeping Hearthstone players invested. In addition to the typical daily quest, weekly Tavern Brawl, and Arena schemes invented to reward people with new decks on a constant basis, it has a...

Review: Girls Like Robots

Dec 09 // Darren Nakamura
Girls Like Robots (iPhone, Linux, Mac, PC, Wii U [reviewed])Developer: PopcannibalPublisher: PopcannibalReleased: November 12, 2015 (Wii U)MSRP: $6.99 Girls Like Robots starts off strong. The hand-drawn art is cute and inviting. Characters are expressive and the narrative that strings everything together alternates between comfortably familiar and bizarrely irreverent. Even the central puzzle idea seems to have promise. By taking into account all of the little rules about who likes sitting next to whom, satisfying logic puzzles can be constructed. Indeed, some of the better levels had me reasoning through a succession of a-ha moments, working through the necessary if-then statements in my head in order to come to a suitable solution. Girls Like Robots even does the classic Smart Game Design Thing (™) of introducing a new mechanic over the course of it in order to keep everything fresh. Some levels ask for negative happiness, some are timed, one has an almost Tetris-esque line-clearing mechanic. Sometimes it gets really weird, with fireflies bouncing off blocks to destroy underground insect lords. [embed]325021:61447:0[/embed] And yet despite all that, I found myself bored more often than not with the seating chart gameplay. The early levels in a section are appropriately small, trivially easy in order to introduce a new idea. The problem is that it doesn't scale well: increasing the size of a puzzle increases the difficulty and complexity, but it transforms from a solvable logic exercise to a muddle of trial and error. So few of the puzzles hit the sweet spot, where the solution is neither immediately obvious nor unreasonably obtuse. Even finding the correct solution in some of the bigger challenges isn't satisfying, because the outcome doesn't appear to be substantially different than any number of failing configurations. It's all just a mess of cute characters arranged into rows. Thankfully, there is a skip button to blow past any puzzles that are taking too long. I never used it, but I found myself tempted a few times, simply because I wanted to see where the story would go next but I wasn't enjoying myself while I was actually playing. There's no doubt that Girls Like Robots is charming, and that quality alone is enough to make it worth seeing through to the end. But while the wacky story and self-aware narration is enough to carry interest, the actual puzzles work against that. In the end, the game mirrors its own volcano picnic scene. It's cute, it's weird, it sounds like a fun idea at first, and there are some delicious pies to find here and there, but somebody is going to get burned. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Girls Like Robots review photo
I think they're just okay
Girls like robots. It's the name of the game, and it's the first piece of information given. Most of the time spent is in laying out seating arrangements of emotional square people in an attempt to maximize happiness. Girls l...

Review: SteamWorld Heist

Dec 09 // Chris Carter
SteamWorld Heist (3DS [reviewed], PC, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One)Developer: Image & FormPublisher: Image & FormMSRP: $19.99 ($16.99 until December 31, with a 3DS theme)Released: December 10, 2015 (3DS), TBA (PC, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One) Although Heist is confirmed to take place in the same universe as Dig, the only thing that's remotely similar is the art style. Set in the future after the presumed fictional wild west period, the cast of the game is now spacebound, complete with more advanced weaponry at their disposal. The star of the narrative is Piper, captain of a smuggling ship who gets wrapped up in the ongoing conflict with pirates. Along the way you'll pick up more cast members to add to your home ship, Mass Effect style, all of whom boast unique abilities and statlines. The presentation is just as charming as Dig to boot, with gibberish dialogue (outside of the announcer), memorable characters, and some awesome vocal music tracks. One thing I wasn't too keen on though was the lack of character development, despite the fast-moving plot that gives you plenty of excuses to blow stuff up. While I felt very connected to Dig due to the smaller scale of its world that left me wanting more, the galactic conflict of Heist wasn't quite as compelling. Gameplay-wise, gone is the action platformer conceit, as things are now at a more deliberate pace. Think of how Valkyria Chronicles works -- players get a limited amount of movement, and can perform one action, including a skill or an attack, before their turn ends. You'll get to aim manually, and target any body part or object you wish. You can also opt to sprint further than your allotted movement, though it will immediately end your turn. Many strategy RPGs have used this same system, but I was surprised at how well it works in Heist's 2D space. [embed]324048:61439:0[/embed] Action is relatively fast-going, and there are a ton of nuances built into the combat system to constantly keep things interesting. For instance, weapon loadouts drastically change the way one approaches a situation, as some guns have laser sights, different rates of fire, or new ammo types altogether. When you add in the fact that headshots increase the chance for a critical hit, and that you can knock off enemy hats to add to your collection (of which there are nearly 100), it gets even more interesting. The whole equipment system alone is well crafted, from the way it starts off manageable and eventually ramps up, to the utility of the items in general. Players will have to choose two items per character, shifting their builds significantly and essentially turning them into new playstyles. Selling items is as easy as pressing a button, which makes inventory management effortless and fun without being too streamlined for its own good. Items like extra movement shoes, armor that restricts movement, and healing packs all come into play, and can be used in a static manner or more dynamically as a reaction to each scenario. It's deep without being too overwhelming, so newcomers shouldn't have any issues acclimating to it -- especially since you can alter the difficulty setting on every mission. It helps that maps are always interesting as well, providing multiple paths of entry even earlier into the experience. Because of how open each arena is, placement of your party is important, and finding cover can be relatively difficult when nearly all of it can be destroyed or blown up depending on the situation. There are so many variables involved in every level that missions never truly felt the same, even if I was repeating them to pick up some loot I missed, or clear an objective I previously failed. SteamWorld Heist is both a great entry point for people who normally shy away from strategy games and a good recommendation for veterans. With a deep combat system and a sliding difficulty scale, pretty much everyone can find something they'll like. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
SteamWorld Heist review photo
Smugglers with hearts of gold
SteamWorld Dig is a criminally underrated game. Although some were quick to judge its short length, it's the perfect thing to pick up and play at the drop of a hat, and the pacing is basically perfect. Heist is a co...

Review: Rayman Adventures

Dec 08 // Brett Makedonski
Rayman Adventures (Android, iOS)Developer: Ubisoft MontpellierPublisher: UbisoftReleased: December 3, 2015MSRP: Free, with microtransactions Rayman Adventures is an auto-runner that often moves at a restrained pace. Swiping on the screen gets the titular character moving, tapping implores him to jump, and swiping again changes direction. And while many runners press ever-onward left to right, Rayman Adventures tries to avoid that trap, usually allowing the player to dictate the flow. Keeping things from speeding out of control is a smart design decision, but not one that's quite consolation enough for inaccurate inputs. Chaining together swipes and taps works sometimes, but it's a bummer each and every time they don't. More damning, the rest of Rayman Adventures feels built around those moments when the controls falter. The big picture going-on in Rayman Adventures involves saving Incrediballs. These quirky creatures help Rayman grow a tree higher and higher into the sky for whatever reason. Incrediballs occasionally appear fully grown, but they'll often take the form of eggs that need to be incubated (either by waiting or by using resources to speed up the process). [embed]325074:61452:0[/embed] Incrediballs feel very much like a direct response to Adventures' lacking controls. The player can call on a number of them to assist them through a level. The game's broken down into three main level types: exploration-based, combat-based, and collection-based. For combat levels, each Incrediball acts as a shield for Rayman, a second (and third and fourth) chance for when the player inevitably runs into the tightly-placed enemies. That's an example of Incrediballs acting as a crutch, but sometimes they're flat-out necessary. In collection scenarios, dedicated Incrediballs act as a magnet for the Lums; there's no performing well without their assistance. Predictably, this all loops back to the fact that Rayman Adventures is a free-to-play title. Incrediballs grow tired and need to be fed in order to be used again. The game dishes out a fair amount of food, but you can always buy some with real money if the need arises. To its credit, Rayman Adventures never gets heavy-handed with the microtransactions. There isn't any sort of mechanic that forces you to either pay or keep waiting, and resources seem to come at a constant enough clip that there exists the possibility it won't ever become an impediment (unlikely as that may be). However, there's a flood of different consumables that make them difficult to keep track of: gems, golden tickets, food, and elixirs can all be earned/purchased, and they all feed right back into one another. For example, tickets (and more) can be bought with gems. That ticket you scratch off might award some food. Food's used to revive Incrediballs which are used to perform well in levels, where the likes of gems might be the prize. Round and round we go. To what end, it's difficult to say. Scaling back and looking at Rayman Adventures as a whole paints it as a game where progress feels meaningless and sometimes confusing. But spending time inside the Rayman-patented lively world is a joy in small bursts, even if the execution is left wanting. Like those other Rayman titles, Adventures effectively captures the spirit of the franchise; it just has a hard time living up to the sterling precedent those games set -- a tall task that maybe the mobile format never had a chance of accomplishing in the first place. [This review is based on a retail build of the game at launch. No microtransactions were purchased.]
Rayman Adventures photo
So close, yet so far
Rayman has had a good run of it as of late. The last two console games -- Origins and Legends -- were fantastic platformers worthy of the highest praise. Now Ubisoft is testing the franchise's viability in the ...

Review: Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair

Dec 08 // Jordan Devore
Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair (PlayStation 4)Developer: SandlotPublisher: XSEED GamesReleased: December 8, 2015 (NA) / February 12, 2016 (EU)MSRP: $49.99 Some of those enhancements are immediately apparent; others are hard to pin to down. Visually, this is the best-looking, best-running Earth Defense Force I've played -- which is not to say it looks good or runs all that well by normal standards, mind you. Despite claims of a "steady" 60 frames per second, the game struggles to keep up with itself. Noticeable dips are a common sight when too many Ravagers pile up near your character or when skyscrapers crumble. The drop off usually isn't dramatic enough to be bothersome, but there were a handful of moments during my initial 15-hour-or-so run through the campaign where the frame rate briefly became a choppy, unmanageable mess. This is by no means new for the series, but it is a shame these problems persist on a current console like the PlayStation 4. Thankfully, load times fare significantly better. They're quick. I often made it into levels before I even had a chance to finish reading the tips and tricks shown on the loading screen. Considering how many missions there are (89 in single-player and split-screen; 98 in online co-op), that's a huge deal. These games are heavily built around players returning to levels countless times to earn more armor and cool weapons. No one wants to rack up literal hours of waiting to get into the action. [embed]325050:61450:0[/embed] Generally speaking, EDF 4.1 feels like a remix. Developer Sandlot reused set pieces and story beats in its earlier games, and that doesn't change here. (Again, this is an enhanced version of 2025, which in turn borrowed from 2017, so it's to be expected.) Remember fighting waves of red ants on a beach? Oh, you will. You'll also take on spiders, bees, bipedal robots, and spaceships, all of varying color and form. The mission is always to kill everything (or simply survive until someone tells you the thing you're after can't be killed yet), but there's enough variety strung throughout the campaign that I rarely got bored. The pacing is good, and few levels outstayed their welcome. That said, your results may vary depending on which class you choose (Ranger, Wing Diver, Air Raider, or Fencer), which weapons the random-number generator has blessed you with, and whether or not you're playing alone. The latter three classes are more specialized, but they have better options for getting across EDF's huge environments -- whether it's flying, driving, or dashing -- and they possess some of the more entertaining toys. The Ranger is well-rounded, but he can get stale. To that last point, these games are inherently more enjoyable with a friend (or up to three, if you're playing online). The classes are designed to complement each other, so it's most enjoyable with a mix of characters. The Air Raider, for instance, can buff others, lay down shields, and manually target enemy weak points for teammates' weaponry to lock onto. As far as new foes go, there is one particular encounter worth highlighting. Sandlot has added a new kaiju enemy, Erginus, that spans multiple levels. Your superiors eventually figure out that normal bullets and missiles have no effect on the monster. Naturally, the only way to bring it down is to initiate an absurd Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots-style brawl. You get to take control of a slow-moving "walking fortress" mech and punch the gargantuan approximately three thousand times until it finally keels over. I should have known that was its one and only weakness. A later mission raises the stakes with multiple mechs fending off against multiple Erginus. My first time through, everyone got tangled up in one corner of the map and I had to wait on the AI to die before I could even get within range to throw punches. The whole thing was a stupid, beautiful mess, which is exactly what I hope to find when I play Earth Defense Force. And in case you were wondering, yes -- the mechs are carried in by choppers. Tunnel levels and vehicles are some of my least favorite elements of this series, but both are better than ever here. New lighting effects make underground areas appear as if they are, in fact, set underground, and soldiers have lights on their weapons to compensate. The atmosphere now feels far more appropriate. I still find these levels to be uninteresting and quickly get annoyed when insect bodies pile up and block my shots, but the majority of the game is set above ground. As for vehicles, crucially, you can now see where you're aiming thanks to a laser sight. It's a total godsend. And I can't tell if the handling has been improved or it's merely my imagination, but for once, I genuinely wanted to drive tanks whenever and wherever I could. It helps that one of them is shaped like a spider and can crawl on walls. Bring that one below the surface. I also got the impression that there are more NPCs on the field compared to 2025. By pressing the DualShock 4 touchpad, you can place a marker on specific buildings, enemies, or locations. I was never sure if the AI was reacting to these commands or not (those weren't suggestions, people!), but being able to highlight targets is a great feature for co-op play. Insubordinate or not, more soldiers means more goofy dialog. The strange on-the-ground banter is spontaneous, hilarious, and rarely appropriate for the situation at hand. You can spur specific sayings using the touchpad. My personal favorite is a song that sounds an awful lot like the "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." One variation of the tune goes a little something like this: "To save our mother Earth from any alien attack, from vicious giant insects who have once again come back. We'll unleash all our forces, we won't cut them any slack. The EDF deploys!" My troops have uttered those words no fewer than 50 times and they'll continue to sing on command if they know what's good for them. This is precisely the sort of silliness that makes these games endearing in spite of their technical flaws and lo-fi aesthetic. In organizing my thoughts for this review, I realized I'm not ready to stop playing EDF 4.1. That's exciting, but also scary. I don't typically stick with these games long enough to get deep into the higher difficulty settings. Reaching that point requires a lot of grinding and patience. Too much. But that's where you need to tread to earn the best, most interesting weapons. While part of me hates that the progression system isn't more respectful of our time, I understand the appeal of having something you can keep coming back to for hundreds of hours. There's comfort in that. If I were to stick with a single installment going forward, this would be the one. Some of the upgrades fall short of expectations, and a good deal of the content is overly familiar at this point, but The Shadow of New Despair still represents the series at its best. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
EDF 4.1 review photo
The bugs are back in town
I'm happy Earth Defense Force continues to exist. There's no shortage of modern video games in which your primary interaction with the world is shooting things, but so few of them are lighthearted, charming, or funny. I don't...

Review: Fast Racing Neo

Dec 08 // Laura Kate Dale
Fast Racing Neo (Wii U)Developer: Shin'en MultimediaPublisher: Shin'en MultimediaReleased: December 10, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Fast Racing Neo is an arcade-style racing game that really captures a feeling of extreme speed from the get go. Environments stretch and blur as you fly around hairpin turns, jumps land with an immense thud if you're not lined up correctly, and every collision feels like a fist strapped to a lightning bolt smacked into solid concrete. The racing is immensely fast, as the name makes clear, and the sense of weight and substance behind vehicles helps every movement feel important, responsive, and in control. Considering the speed at which tracks fly past, the design of the game is stunning. Environments from tropical roadways to interstellar future tubes all feel distinct and memorable, with turns, hazards, and beneficial points well signposted. Turns are clear from a distance, and every design element is colored in such a way that it's recognizable as a neon point in the distance. [embed]324776:61432:0[/embed] The main feature that mechanically sets Neo apart from comparable super speed racing games is an engine color switching mechanic. By tapping the left bumper on your controller, you can switch the color of your glowing neon engines between blue and orange mid-race. These colors correspond to glowing sections on the track which will boost your vehicle speed considerably, as well as match up with boost jumps. The key to maximizing your speed is keeping up with the colors as they switch to maintain boosts and cut corners on tracks. The risk involved in the system is that there is a substantial drop in speed if your color clashes with a boost pad or jump you tried to use. If you touch a blue pad with orange engines, you'll find every other vehicle on the track zooming past you within seconds. The potential rewards are high, but if you're unsure, you may be better off avoiding these rewards in the heat of the moment. Also on the track are orbs that fill up a manual boost meter, which almost doubles your speed and allows you to push through vehicles that you collide with, knocking them aside with priority. The game boasts local and online multiplayer, which both work surprisingly well. Online races seemed to be lag free. The hectic pace is maintained throughout with minimal drops from races. Local multiplayer was done via split-screen, and while there was a visible drop in resolution, the sense of speed remains and it was still clear enough what was going on. It also features "Hero Mode," which ups the speed considerably, requires players to finish in first place, mirrors every track, and causes your manual boost meter to double as a shield meter. This gametype is quite frankly ludicrous, and gave me a real challenge to tackle once the main cups were cleared. Oh, before I forget, the whole game is playable on the Wii U GamePad in single-player, and it holds up really nicely on that smaller screen. Fast Racing Neo made a strong impression right off the bat, and is easily one of my favorite games this year. It's fast, it's responsive, it has a compelling color-switching mechanic, and Hero Mode provides a stupidly fast-paced challenge that's going to last me quite some time. I have very little bad to say about this game beside the fact that the resolution dips in split-screen. When that's the worst you can say about a game, it's pretty darn impressive. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fast Racing Neo photo
So fast the paint's peeling off my car
In the three years since the launch of the Wii U, one of the most notably absent Nintendo properties on the console has been F-Zero. The series, which focused on futuristic fast-paced track racing, has been dormant for over a...

Review: Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders from Planet Space

Dec 08 // Jed Whitaker
Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders from Planet Space (PlayStation Vita, PS TV)Developer: SandlotPublisher: XSEED GamesReleased: December 8, 2015MSRP: $29.99 If you're like me, you've played every EDF game and know what to expect when it comes to them, and this iteration doesn't break from the formula. In this enhanced remake of the second game in the EDF series -- originally only released for PS2 in Japan and Europe -- you'll be playing as one of three classes: Infantry, Pale Wing, or Air Raider. Infantry is your basic soldier that uses weapons you'd find in most modern day armed forces: assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers and so on. Pale Wing, on the other hand, is a female soldier with a jetpack and futuristic weapons; she moves slowly and is mostly useless on the ground while being nimble in the sky. Air Raider is a new addition that wasn't in the original release, and it mostly uses deployable weapons and plays more of a support role. In my playthrough, I sampled each class before decided to stick with the familiar infantry, as they just seem like an all around fit when playing solo while Pale Wing and Air Raider might fair a bit better in multiplayer. While up to four player online co-op is available, I was not able to test the functionality before release, so I can only assume the other classes fair a bit better online. [embed]325189:61454:0[/embed] Each of the three classes have their sets of weapons that are unlockable via pickups randomly dropped by enemies. This mixed with the six available difficulty levels adds a lot of replayability, on top of completing the game with each class; if you're a completionist, you'll get your $29.99 worth here.  Initially, I was concerned this being a port of the second game in the series would mean more repetition and less variety, but I was pleased to find out that wasn't the case. EDF2 has the best collection of enemies of any of the other games in the series. Aside from giant ants and spiders there are rolly pollies, flying saucers, centipedes, and daddy long legs-like walkers that are taller than skyscrapers. While this doesn't completely quash the repetitiveness of killing giant bugs and UFOs every stage, it certainly helps. Even the notorious slowdown that the EDF series is infamous for is mostly missing. In my playthrough, I experienced maybe two or three instances of choppiness due to the amount of enemies on screen, which surprising considering the Vita isn't exactly a powerhouse.  It isn't all explosions and sunshine, though. Most levels offer a tank, a speeder bike, and a helicopter, all of which control terribly. The tank is slow and clunky, the speeder bike is too fast to be controllable and useful, and the helicopter's guns aren't strong enough to be of use if you're lucky enough to hit something with them, and flying too high causes lots of pop in. On top of the terrible driving controls, the aiming just plain sucks for vehicles, mostly due to lack of crosshairs, which are provided when outside the vehicle.  Some stages take place in the city at night, where basically everything is pitch black (to a fault) other than windows in skyscrapers that shine brightly with a fuzzy glow around them, which just looks plain awful. Otherwise, graphically EDF2 looks like basically every other game in the series, which isn't surprising considering some of the levels feel almost identical if they aren't actually identical.  Aside from those issues, the main problem I had with the game was some enemies not being aggressive, instead opting to hang around in the far reaches of maps. Nearly every level's objective is 'murder all the bugs' and there was at least four or five times I had to either hunt and search to find the last enemies hiding spot, or slowly walk across the whole map. While tedious, these walks weren't the end of the world for me, just minor inconveniences of my fun-filled destructive romp. Earth Defense Force 2 may not be a brand new game per se, but has enough original content to keep it feeling fresh alongside the other recent releases in the series. With a lot of replayability, online four-player co-op, and a budget price tag it is easy to recommend to Vita owners looking for some campy over-the-top action in spite of its flaws.  EDF! EDF! EDF! EDF! EDF! [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] EarDefense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair (PlayStation 4)Developer: SandlotPublisher: XSEED GamesReleased: December 8, 2015MSRP: $49.99
Review: EDF2 photo
Honey I Shrunk the Kids 2: Buggernauts
Two words. Giant. Bugs. Also giant spaceships, giant kaiju, and giant explosions. If you're looking for campy sci-fi action on your Vita look no further than Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders from Planet Space.

Review: Fat Princess Adventures

Dec 07 // Chris Carter
Fat Princess Adventures (PS4)Developer: Fun BitsPublisher: SonyMSRP: $19.99Released: December 5, 2015 The entire gimmick this time around of Adventures is a Gauntlet-style hack-and-slash. Gone are the days of setting up elaborate base defenses and competing with other players in a giant game of Capture the Flag -- instead, you're mostly going to be pushing one of two attack buttons as you slaughter hundreds of foes on a relatively linear quest. Now, that's not inherently a bad thing, as Adventures is a competent action game with a few tricks up its sleeve. This time, the classes have been streamlined to four jobs: Warrior, Engineer, Mage, and Archer. The former two are melee based and the latter two are ranged, so it's pretty straightforward from there. As stated though the actual combat bits are quite good, despite their mindless foundation. Power attacks like a shield stun can often augment the effectiveness of other abilities, and the lock-on feature is simple to use, but flawless in execution. What I like in particular is that players can swap out classes at any time after hitting a checkpoint, which keeps things fresh through every stage, especially when more people are involved. Yep, Adventures commits to its hack-and-slash nature, and supports four players both offline and online. It's a drop-in and drop-out enabled game, so even playing solo can be enjoyable, as others will join in randomly, equip new roles, and switch up the flow of a match in an instant. Loot is also distributed rather swiftly, ensuring that you have a constant need to try out new playstyles. [embed]325020:61446:0[/embed] Having said that, the actual loot system isn't all that exciting. Sure, there are cool modifiers like a burn debuff for fire swords and the like, but none of it really transcends the realm of "slash slash slash," which is particularly grating when the enemy troops are mostly cannon fodder. But just as things are starting to get dull, an elite enemy (a la Diablo) will swoop in and grant you some new piece of loot, and all will be well again.  Once each level is completed, you can also go to the "Grindhouse" -- a mode that allows you to replay stages with extra rewards in tow, and challenge modifiers, like the restriction of using only one class. With local friends on board, this mechanic will last you quite a while. Bosses on the other hand could have used a bit more effort on Fun Bits' part. To be frank, they rely on the tired old mechanic of throwing "adds" (additional enemies) at players with reckless abandon. Some of the ideas are cool (using the overdrive mechanic as the only means of damaging a boss, or throwing cake at NPCs to power them up), but the strategy is almost always the same in the end: dodge power attacks, which are usually in a line, slash the adds, then focus the boss. In line with the uninspired boss encounters, don't expect a whole lot of substance outside of the quirky veneer. The story is rather trite, mostly consisting of a narrative that involves both princesses being captured by the evil Bitter Queen. It's something you've seen a million times before, and it's not done any better than all of the cartoons and games before it. The massive voice cast (with veterans like Nolan North, Steve Blum, and Tara Strong) does help its case though, as do the gallons of blood that flow from enemies, contrasting nicely with the cutesy fairy tale setup. Fat Princess Adventures is an enjoyable distraction for hardcore fans of the hack-and-slash genre, but now I just want a proper new Princess game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fat Princess review photo
I hope this leads to another core entry
I'm going to come out and say it -- Fat Princess was criminally underrated. With a charming art style and an incredibly deep combat system, it shot its way into my heart at launch, despite the fact that the community die...

Review: Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

Dec 07 // Laura Kate Dale
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam (3DS)Developer: AlphaDreamPublisher: NintendoReleased: December 4, 2015 (EU) / January 22, 2016 (NA)MSRP: £29.99 / $39.99 USD Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam tells the story of a crossover between the Mario franchise's two RPG iterations, the Mario & Luigi series and the Paper Mario games. In the world of Mario & Luigi, the cowardly green brother and an inquisitive toad go exploring in the depths of Princess Peach's castle, and happen upon a dusty old book. Upon opening the book, which just so happens to be the book in which Paper Mario's universe is contained, our heroes' wafer thin counterparts are unleashed into the 3D world, alongside a number of side characters and villains who also escape with them.  From here it's pretty predictable. Two Bowsers meet, they steal two princesses, two sets of brothers attempt to rescue them. Pretty predictable Mario plot. The narrative presentation on the whole is one of the strongest points on the whole of this latest RPG adventure. The dialogue, character interactions, and general writing were constantly cute, intelligently written, and surprisingly creative for what could easily have been a paint-by-numbers affair.  The localisation of the script is superb, a real step above what you see from most text-heavy adventures. The writing is consistently charming, intelligently self aware, tuned for cultural tastes, and snappy. When not trying to explain mechanics the writing is incredibly well paced and a joy to experience. [embed]324775:61431:0[/embed] The biggest issue for the narrative presentation and writing from moment to moment is the fact that Mario and Luigi remain mute throughout the adventure. This often leads to characters around them explaining their intent in less than elegant ways. Far too often a Toad might interject with a line like "What's that Mario, you think Bowser might have gone this way?" just so Mario could nod yes and the scene could progress. It's a minor issue with an otherwise good set of writing. While the overall plot may play things a little too safe, the journey to get there is very well written. Right, let's get on to the meat of what you're actually doing when you play Paper Jam. You explore the main world from an isometric view, with both Mario and Luigi following your control stick movements. You use the A button to make Mario jump, the B button for Luigi and both if you want them both to jump. This concept of having one button tied to each brother carries over into the combat system and actually works really nicely. At all times both brothers are under your control, it's just up to you to manage both in real time. Combat feels very familiar if you're a long time fan of the Mario RPGs. Enter a turn-based battle, select your attack, and time button presses to deal more damage to enemies or take less damage when being attacked. What helps the combat in Paper Jam stay fresh is the way this individual buttons for each brother mechanic fits in. If you decide to do two-person team attacks, you'll have to keep an eye on which brother is about to be active in the attack and make sure to press his button in time with the attack. If you're being attacked, you'll not only need to time your defense, but keep an eye on who the target is and defend him rather than the other brother. This mental back and forth in combat may seem a small addition, but it really helps freshen up an already strong combat system. The increased difficulty this brought to combat was a really nice thing to see. Boss battles will start as standard fight, but as they progress take some really interesting turns mechanically. From minigame integration to rhythm-based giant papercraft battles, boss fights throw a handful of new battle experiences at the player, ensuring each becomes a really memorable and unique encounter. Occasionally these experiments are more minor misses than hits, but overall I was thankful for the attempts at creative boss battle types. They were usually not too tactical, but it did feel rewarding to watch these bizarre spectacles unfold. The biggest problem with the core gameplay is that outside of battles, much of the it felt very much like things I have already seen and done in other Mario games. Hit blocks with your head, jump on platforms, go down pipes, and collect mushrooms. It's rarely a challenge to move between fights, and very little in the environments felt like it was new, or pushing the creative limits of a Mario environment. Another minor issue Paper Jam struggles with is excessive hand holding when new mechanics are introduced throughout the adventure. Every time something new is expected of you, the game makes sure to spend considerably longer than is necessary overly cautiously explaining what is expected of you. It's painstakingly thorough, which is certainly going to irritate more experienced players. Overall, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is a really rock solid game, with a few visible creases that need to be noted before purchase. It captures the bright colorful fun of the Mario universe perfectly, pairing it with incredibly well-localized dialogue and a very strong combat system. While it sometimes holds your hand for a little too long and at times fails to take proper risks, it was consistently polished, enjoyable and memorable. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Paper Jam photo
Sharp seams, minor creases
Ever since Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo, I've been a big fan of the concept of the Mario-centric RPG. Take characters we know well, bring them into a world with a more structured narrative...

Review: Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours

Dec 06 // Jed Whitaker
Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours (PC [reviewed], PS4, PS Vita)Developer: TaitoPublisher: DegicaMSRP: $59.99 (PS4) / $49.99 (PC) / $39.99 (Vita)Released: November 30, 2015 (PS4, Vita), December 3, 2015 (PC) Dariusburst was originally released as a Japan-exclusive PSP game before being revamped for arcades as Dariusburst: Another Chronicle. An expanded version was later released in arcades called Dariusburst: Another Chronicle EX, which is included in Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours as AC mode.  AC mode offers a few different flavors of play: Original, which closely emulates the original arcade game; EX, which ups the difficulty; and Chronicle, which offers around 3,000 areas. Everything in AC mode displays in an ultra wide screen aspect ratio true to the arcade game; this means the top and bottom of the screen are black while the middle is a long narrow playing field, unless you own an ultrawide monitor. On paper, this sounds silly, but it somehow makes the game feel a lot more arcade-like, especially if playing on PC where the game can be played across multiple monitors.  Original and EX modes are pretty standard Darius affairs: select one of three starting stages, move from left to right shooting enemies with your standard weapon and burst attack, collect upgrades by killing colored enemies, fight a giant boss ship, decide where to go next, complete three stages, and that's it. Rinse, repeat. Each path correlates to difficulty and has its own stages and bosses. The only standout features are being able to select from various ships that each play a bit different, and the ability to play with up to four players locally.  Chronicle mode is laid out across planets with each containing numerous areas to liberate. Each area offers different challenges such as using only specific ships which have varying weapons, or playing with multiple players. Because there is no online play, you'll have to gather together other space shooter fans or wait till someone else playing on the same cabinet completes that challenge. [embed]323296:61428:0[/embed] AC mode functions as if you are playing one of 64 physical arcade cabinets, which you are randomly assigned to when first launching of the game. Because the game doesn't explain this (or anything really), I switched to cabinet one in the menu, as I thought 13 would be an odd place to start. Players on each cabinet work together in Chronicle mode to liberate the various areas on the planets, meaning if you don't happen to have three other friends, someone will eventually liberate that area allowing you to select others. That said, you don't have to complete areas in any order and can jump around between planets at will. Chronicle mode having around 3,000 areas sounds like fantastic value, until you realize most of the areas are the same few levels just with tweaked challenges, orders, and ships. If you and three local friends are not opposed to grinding and repetition, you might dig Chronicle mode, but to me it just seems like fluff.  The same criticisms can be said about Chronicle Saviours' CS mode, as it is over 200 areas of repeating levels and bosses. CS mode at least offers a different aspect ratio that fills more of the screen and feels more like a home experience, and a level selection web with dated quips that resemble a very shallow story. There is also something to work toward in CS mode, as ships are unlocked to be used as you wish via points earned based on your score, though I found myself mostly using the default ship for each area. Aside from the filler content, Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours has satisfying combat all around. Tons of enemies fill the screen, bosses are massive three-dimensional fish or crustaceans, and the soundtrack is killer. I could see myself popping in every now to check on progress in Chronicle mode, and perhaps play a level or two, but this certainly isn't the kind of game you'll want to attempt to marathon. The price discrepancy between platforms makes little sense and is borderline offensive. The PC offers multiple monitor support, while the PS4 and Vita offer Trophies and cross-save support, but not cross-buy. The Vita version lacks multiplayer. While this isn't the first time I've seen a game released on consoles at a premium price, it is still a poor practice. For what equates to a fancy enhanced port of a nearly six-year-old game, $39.99 is far too much, let alone $59.99 on PC. Unless you're a die-hard space shooter fan who doesn't mind repetitive filler content, it is hard to recommend Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours at the current price point, even if it does have solid gameplay. I'd suggest waiting till it goes on sale for somewhere around $20 or less, as that is a far more reasonable cost.  [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Superbeat: Xonic (Vita, PS TV)Developer: NurijoyPublisher: PM Studios, Atlus & ActtilMSRP: $39.99Released: November 10, 2015
Review: Dariusburst photo
Fish drowning in filler
The Darius series may not be as recognized as competing space shooters such as R-Type and Gradius, but it deserves its spot alongside those series as the best shooters of all time. This latest iteration packs in an ...

Review: Kung Fu Panda: Showdown of Legendary Legends

Dec 04 // Chris Carter
Kung Fu Panda: Showdown of Legendary Legends (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: Vicious Cycle SoftwarePublisher: Little OrbitMSRP: $39.99 ($29.99 on 3DS)Released: December 1, 2015  When I say Showdown is a Smash Bros. clone, I mean it. The game prominently features tilts, double jumps (triple jumps with an up+special), edge guarding, orb-based blocking and rolling, and so on. There's even an option to jump with the up direction. Grabs operate in the same manner, with the ability to queue up standard attacks or a directional throw -- the similarities are more than uncanny. While many will be quick to judge it, developers have been cloning Smash for over a decade, so it's absolutely nothing new. There isn't the amount of polish here that you'd expect from a first-party Nintendo title, but Vicious Cycle does a good enough job of grasping the basics. In short, it plays well. Movement is precise, the controls actually work when you try to initiate charged attacks and the like, and each character feels different in terms of their animations, and unique abilities (bird characters can flap, a la Kirby's float jump). The visuals are also very clean, and bright to boot. There's a vibrant feel to everything, and tons of detail in character models like Po, where you can see his individual strands of fur. I was fairly surprised, all told, with how well this whole shebang was put together. Characters can get pretty obscure beyond Po and the Furious Five, including Po's "father" Mr. Ping, and the Soothsayer from the second film. There's 20 in all, and though Mantis and Viper are strangely absent, they are available as assist summons. That's a decently padded roster, and the 12 arenas all offer up something of their own, whether it's small hazards here and there, or a full-on scrolling platforming gimmick. Items aren't nearly as varied as other arena brawlers, but they're completely optional, and yes, there's even a Final Destination-like stage for all you purists out there. [embed]323785:61350:0[/embed] Having said all that, it is a bit sloppy on occasion, despite the keen visual style. The hit detection and framerate are off at times, especially when there's four players on-screen causing all kinds of havoc. This is particularly an issue with special abilities from certain characters. While the actual animations are great, the moveset pool sort of shrinks over time once you've played the entire roster. Things start to blend together. If you aren't expecting an advanced fighter, it's not so bad, but knowing that it could have been so much more makes it disappointing. There's also no real story or campaign, as the single-player element is billed as a "Tournament" setup, which basically translates to "random matches against CPUs." Beyond that there's a free-play mode with bots (with five difficultly settings), and offline or online four-player multiplayer. I unfortunately wasn't able to test out the online functionality outside of a few matches even after launch (there isn't much of a community, all told), and it wasn't really a smooth experience. Kung Fu Panda: Showdown of Legendary Legends is a lot better than I expected it to be, but it still suffers from a lack of polish in the gameplay department. If you're a casual fighting game fan, really dig the franchise, and have some friends to play with though, you'll probably have an awesome time. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Kung Fu Panda photo
Don't tell Monkey
I'm not ashamed to admit that I love the Kung Fu Panda films. My wife and I went into the first expecting absolutely nothing, and came away very impressed by the antics of Jack Black, Ian McShane, and crew. Also, tapping...

Review: Animal Crossing amiibo Festival

Dec 03 // CJ Andriessen
Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival (Wii U)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $59.99Released: November 13, 2015 (US), November 20, 2015 (EU), November 21, 2015 (JP, AU) Right off the bat you should know that you do not need to buy any additional amiibo figures to enjoy this Festival, but you will need at least one pack of Animal Crossing amiibo cards to experience everything the game has to offer. Players can use one of the two amiibo figures included with the game or one of several generic Villager characters. Sorry, your Villager amiibo doesn't work here, because that would make too much sense now wouldn't it. If you've read about this game already then you probably know about Desert Island Escape and how fun it is. It is fun, but it's also unplayable until you unlock it. To do that, you'll need to play through the board game portion of Festival several times, collecting Happy Points. The board game itself is easy for anyone to understand: players take turns moving around a game board collecting Bells and/or Happy Points. Landing on a pink square will reward you with these while purple squares will take them away. At the end of the game, Bells are converted to Happy Points and the player with the most points wins. The board game itself isn't that exciting and many will find it flat-out boring. This isn't Mario Party or Wii Party U where you compete against other players in mini-games. Instead, it's just you and up to three other people rolling dice, moving a few spaces and then watching a scene play out that either helps or hurts you. You can also play the game by yourself with three AI controlled characters, though the thought of someone doing that makes my soul cry. To its credit, I will say the amiibo Festival thoroughly adapts the Animal Crossing experience into a board game. Trademarks of the franchise, such as visitors coming to town and new residents moving in, add variety to the simple game play. When Redd visits, for instance, he'll sell you cards that you can use in place of rolling the dice. Phineas breaks out a roulette wheel to reward a player, Joan sells her turnips and Dr. Shrunk gives players a card while telling some truly horrendous "jokes." Holidays, bug catching contests, fishing contests and other Animal Crossing staples are present as well. [embed]323535:61348:0[/embed] There isn't really any strategy to be found in this game, outside of getting some choice cards from Redd, Shrunk, and others. The roll of the dice controls all, from deciding who wins fishing/bug catching contests to how much you can sell your turnips for. If you're worried amiibo Festival might contain some of the "unfair" star granting moments from the Mario Party series, fret not; this game forgoes those type of friendship-ruining shenanigans for something that is more about players enjoying themselves rather than competing against one another. At the end of each game, Happy Points are converted into Happy Tickets (where 100 points equals one ticket). Those tickets can be spent augmenting the game board or unlocking the mini-games. You are forced to choose between making the board game more interesting or accessing what could be fun mini-games, but allow me to make that choice for you: unlock Desert Island Escape and spend the rest of your points upgrading that game board. In my experience, it took five playthroughs of the board game to unlock all of the mini-games, and that was with the decision to forgo updating the game board and getting lady luck on my side to end one playthrough with 10 Happy Tickets. If you're wondering how long five playthroughs is, it's about six hours. You are given the option to set a time limit for the game, but less time equals fewer Happy Points. While one playthrough of the board game was of light enjoyment, several days of playing the game again and again proved to be tedious. amiibo Festival's existence as video game isn't as fully realized as it could be. As a digital product, the game can easily implement rules and conditions that could be too burdensome for a physical board game. Animal Crossing amiibo figures level up to unlock new costumes and expressions; also you can scan amiibo cards to move new characters into the game board town. Unfortunately, it doesn't take full advantage of being a video game. The scenes you watch when you land on a pink or purple square tend to repeat as early as your second playthrough and a lack of variety in the game board will become apparent all too quickly. The game also fails to include a suspend game feature outside of hitting the Home button. As I said above, you will need to purchase a pack of Animal Crossing amiibo Cards to experience the entirety of the game. The mini-games Mystery Campers and amiibo Card Battle require six amiibo cards to play while the other six games can be played with the three exclusive cards that come with it. The less said about most of these mini-games the better as I doubt many people will return to them after a single playthrough. In all honesty I can't tell you which one is worse: Quiz Show for its baffling execution, Acorn Chase for its reliance on a not-always-reliable NFC reader or Fruit Path for being... scratch that, Fruit Path is easily the worst. Instead of focusing entirely on the bad, let's talk about Desert Island Escape, as its obviously the one mini-game that had more than an hour of thought put into it. This single-player game has you controlling three characters that have been scanned in from their amiibo cards. The object of the game is to find the pieces you need to build a raft to escape the island before you run out of days. You also need to gather food and collect supplies to build tools that will help you on your journey. What I love about Desert Island Escape is how varied your experience will be depending on which amiibo cards you're using. Different characters have different skills. Cats are better at fishing, bears are great at gathering honey, bunnies like to sleep for a day and then move more than double the amount of spaces the next day. There is so much strategy found in such a simple premise that it almost feels like more development time went into this than the rest of the game. If you already own a lot of amiibo cards you will have a blast with this game because you can attack each of the 30 stages in new and interesting ways depending on who you're playing with. This game is so enjoyable, I'm hoping Desert Island Escape could somehow pulls a Captain Toad and end up as its own, separate franchise. As fun as that mini-game is, Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival is probably not a game you should buy. Had the board game been an extra feature or weekly activity in the next mainline Animal Crossing game (hint, hint Nintendo), it would easily serve as yet another feature that enhances an already rewarding experience. As its own thing, it fall short. Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival isn't a bad game, save for most of the mini-games, it's just not interesting enough to warrant the long term investment needed to see everything it has to offer. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
amiibo Festival photo
More like 'bored' game, amirite?
Earlier this year, Animal Crossing series director Aya Kyogoku was asked why she decided to make Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival. She said it was because the team thought amiibo were cute and really wanted an Animal Crossing...

Review: Pokemon Picross

Dec 03 // Darren Nakamura
Pokémon Picross (3DS)Developer: Jupiter CorporationPublisher: NintendoReleased: December 3, 2015MSRP: "Free to start" (but actually $30) "Picross" is the term Nintendo uses for the logic puzzles more commonly called "nonograms." The puzzles have an elegance to them; they are built upon just a few simple rules, but those rules result in a network of tips and tricks for finding the solutions. The solutions themselves are typically more interesting than a sudoku, kakuro, or ken ken. Rather than ending up with a grid filled with numbers, a well-built picross puzzle creates an image, adding an extra reward at the end. Not only is there the intrinsic satisfaction of having found the solution, there's the bonus of having created a monochromatic, pixelated piece of art. Pokémon Picross capitalizes on that reward at the end even further. Not only does it offer the usual puzzle goodness, but completing a puzzle also nets the player a Pokémon. It doesn't matter how many times and in how many forms I've caught 'em all, the drive to catch 'em all here is just as strong. [embed]323769:61340:0[/embed] The Pokémon confer special abilities to use in puzzles. Some automatically reveal a section of the puzzle. Some provide real-time hints or fix mistakes. Some manipulate the timer, slowing it through a run or stopping it entirely for a short period of time. For the picross purist, it feels strange using these abilities at first. Indeed, it's entirely possible to go into a puzzle without setting any Pokémon in the team. For a while I did just that, playing classic picross; it was just my wits versus the puzzle challenge. However, another addition threw that off for me soon enough. Most levels include bonus missions past completing the picture. Some of the missions are simple: use a certain type of Pokémon or activate a certain ability. Those vary from puzzle to puzzle, but every level has a timed challenge. While many are easy enough to surmount unassisted, some would be downright impossible without abilities. One time, I went up against a 15x15 grid asking me to finish it in less than a minute. I set up my team carefully, bombed a huge chunk out immediately, activated a time freeze, and highlighted important clues. I finished with the timer reading only four seconds, and it felt awesome. A potential downside to the mission structure is that it requires backtracking in order to fully complete everything. Some missions will pop up that ask for a certain Pokémon that hasn't been encountered yet. On the one hand, it adds replay value for completionists, but on the other, solving the same puzzle multiple times isn't as fun as taking on new puzzles. One of the reasons to go back and complete missions is another cool addition to Pokémon Picross. Some challenges will award a mural piece. These are small 10x10 puzzle grids, but they come together in an 8x8 mural, creating a much higher resolution image over a much longer period. I haven't finished a mural yet, but I'm looking forward to seeing it come together. The last big tweak is the inclusion of mega rows and columns. These only appear in a separate path, which mirrors the main path exactly. These add a new mechanic to the nonograms, with numbers that span two rows or columns describing an amorphous chunk of pixels rather than a neat line. For picross enthusiasts, this is a huge change. After doing hundreds (thousands?) of these puzzles, the process can become rote. Even with ever-changing target images, certain number patterns can emerge and a general algorithm can be followed. The mega rows throw a wrench into that, forcing the player to actively reason through it and use more advanced logic than usual. I welcome the new mechanic, but I can imagine purists shunning it. By far, the biggest psychological hurdle players will have to surmount with Pokémon Picross is its pricing presentation. It is advertised as "free to start," which some might interpret as free-to-play. Indeed, there is an energy mechanic and a separate currency (Picrites) that can be purchased with real money. It looks and acts like a free-to-play game at first glance. It is (probably) technically possible to play it in its entirety without spending a dime. Picrites are required to unlock new sets of stages, and after exhausting the available missions, Picrites can be earned indefinitely through the daily challenges. However, Picrite income is dwarfed by spending. Early on, a single daily challenge awards about five Picrites and level sets can easily cost in the hundreds. One single Mega Pokémon level costs 500 Picrites, which would take ages to grind out. Thankfully, Pokémon Picross does what I wish most free-to-play games did. After spending enough money -- about $30 -- on Picrites, the currency supply becomes infinite. With those infinite Picrites, players can make the energy bar infinite as well. Essentially, putting enough money in turns it from a free-to-play into a standard-style retail game. There's no more waiting for a timer or being gouged by microtransactions, just playing. To look at the pricing scheme another way, you can download the Pokémon Picross demo for free, but the full game costs $30. With that in mind, I have no qualms about recommending Pokémon Picross for those willing to pay full price. I got a code to download it a few days early, dipped my toes into the microtransactions, then soon decided it was worth purchasing the infinite Picrites with my own money. The only difference between this and Picross DS is the $30 I paid for this came after I already knew I liked it instead of before. Picross with Pokémon. That's all this needed to be, and that's what this appears to be at a glance, but further inspection reveals much more. The murals provide long-term motivation. The missions provide short-term reward. The mega rows encourage nonstandard nonogram logic over rote processes. Aside from the strangely disguised pricing scheme, the new additions to Pokémon Picross exceed expectations. [This review is based on a retail build of the game essentially purchased by the reviewer.]
Pokemon Picross review photo
Gotta swatch 'em all!
I thought I knew exactly what to expect with Pokémon Picross. Picross, but with pictures of Pokémon. Sold. That's all I need. Give it to me now. I even joked with our reviews director Chris that I could probably...

Review: Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege

Dec 02 // Chris Carter
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ubisoft MontrealPublisher: UbisoftMSRP: $59.99Release Date: December 1, 2015  First and foremost, let me make it clear that Siege is still very much a strategic game, despite an increased emphasis on action. The crux is engrossed in the "siege" concept, where two teams of players are placed on opposing sides of offense and defense. The former is tasked with infiltrating a specific area, usually a building of some sort, and the latter will put up barricades and properly booby-trap the zone to protect an objective. Defensive capabilities are quite versatile beyond placing traps, with the ability to patch up windows à la Call of Duty's zombies mode, or deploy items for the rest of your team. The sheer entropy that comes out of this simple premise is lovely. There are so many options for breaching and a litany of defensive options that no one game is the same. Players can rappel up almost any window and break in, sneak around and breach doors with charges or a good old fashioned sledgehammer, or blow up walls and create new entrances. The concept of a destructible environment is not new (games like the original Red Faction have been doing it for ages), but the development team really follows through here, with a good balance of destruction to keep things tense. Part of the variety comes from the 20 Operators, which are essentially the classes of Siege. Archetypes range from a bruiser, to a "brainy" tech girl, to a medic, but all of them have a unique twist gameplay-wise that sets them apart from one another. It's also imperative that your team works together, choosing combinations that complement each ability -- this is partially forced by the fact that the game doesn't allow two people on a team to pick the same Operator. In the end though, any combo works relatively well as long as the team is on top of things, and players don't run blindly into rooms without thinking of all of the options available. [embed]323032:61291:0[/embed] While the 5v5 asymmetrical game type is the core mode, there are also two more facets at play -- Terrorist Hunt (PVE) and Situations (single player). The former is a lot like horde mode with a twist, as players will be dropped into levels with randomized objectives and enemy placement, with three varying levels of difficulty to choose from. While I prefer the insanity of playing human opponents given the open-ended nature of the game, I really enjoyed taking breaks with the PVE mode, as it really does provide a ton of different scenarios across its 11 maps. It's tough, too, as one bad move can result in a near-death experience, requiring others to rally around your low health pool, and bust out tactics like going in a vanguard formation with a shield-wielding Operator. From what I've seen people really attempt to use a mic, and if you strive for a shooter that transcends the "point and shoot" mentality, you'll find solace with Siege. If desired, players can also go at it solo, which is a nice option for those of you who don't love being online all the time. Having said that, there is no campaign whatsoever. Instead, you'll have your pick of 11 Situations, which are very similar to Terrorist Hunt, but with their own set of challenges. For instance, finishing a level with a certain amount of health or completing specific tasks will net you instant renown. I actually really like this mode, as objectives can be completed individually, even if you fail a mission -- so there's incentive to come back over time and eventually "three-star" each Situation. It's absolutely not a substitute for a full-on story mode, but it's one of my favorite non-campaign additions in a while, in a sea of multiplayer-only shooters. As previously stated, the way these characters are unlocked will likely turn off some, but it's very much par for the course for the genre, and even ahead of the curve in many ways, actually. In fact, I'm sitting here, having only played the game for a few days, with 10 of the 20 Operators, which isn't bad at all. If you hate the idea of microtransactions on principle you'll likely be angry here, but on my end, I was easily able to ignore them and still enjoy Siege. As for server issues, I've heard reports of other platforms' lack of stability, but Siege has been very reliable for me on Xbox One in the past 48 hours. While there are occasional bouts of connection problems after booting up the game, the issue is resolved in seconds, and I've played hours-long sessions with no problems. Rainbow Six Siege has a lot going for it when it comes to the long haul. While three modes doesn't sound like a lot, the sheer volume of variables involved will result in an experience that constantly stays fresh, even with the current pool of 11 maps. While a few other major shooters have let me down this year, I think Siege is one of the games I'll be playing the most going forward.
Rainbow Six Siege photo
A new taste of Rainbow
The original Rainbow Six was one of the first squad shooters I ever played, outside of the Delta Force series (both debuted in the same year). I still remember hanging out at my friend's house with his dad, who also...

Review: Dementium Remastered

Dec 02 // Jed Whitaker
Dementium Remastered (3DS)Developer: Renegade KidPublisher: Renegade KidMSRP: $14.99Released: December 03, 2015 First things first, if you were hoping this would fill the hole in your heart that is Silent Hills, it won't. If anything Dementium Remastered is like a combination of all the bad parts of the Silent Hill games with repetitive enemies, copy pasted environments, and dull combat, only way worse. They could have called this Dementium: Spooky Hallways or Dementia: Have I Been Here Before? and they wouldn't have been wrong. While wandering through these repetitive hallways, you'll be tasked with using either the ABXY buttons or the stylus to aim your guns and melee weapons. I opted to use mostly the stylus even though holding the 3DS with one hand caused a bit of cramping during my playtime, as buttons just didn't provide the precision needed. Enemies just come right for you and can easily be warded off without much thought, making me question which was more brainless: the AI or the combat? Considering you can run past most all enemies, I'd probably lean towards them. Enemies consist of your standard fair of zombies, worms, flies and screaming tongue-waggling decapitated heads (Hey Kids, WANT TO DIE!?) which are the creepiest of the bunch, but after seeing them all numerous times they lose their fear factor. A few boss battles take place throughout the game, two of which get repeated. Bosses flash red when attacked and are invincible during this time, making boss fights tedious running backwards and attacking for the most part.  [embed]323292:61337:0[/embed] There are a few different guns to find through the short stumble through the dark, but they never really come in handy apart from worms and bosses. About a third of the way through the game you can backtrack a bit to unlock a melee weapon that does the job for everything else.  As far as the remastering for the 3DS without having played the original all I can say is I shut off the 3D almost instantly. Due to the game being so dark when not carrying the flashlight it messed with my eyes more than it helped add any depth. Renegade Kid have also stated there are some other tweaks like save points, and enemies don't respawn anymore, something that surely would have made me rage quit the original had I played it.  If you're hoping for a story at all, you'll be disappointed. The opening just drops you right into a mental ward without much of any information, and barely anything gets revealed throughout the story. The ending was the rotten cherry on top that just screams directly into your face "find out what happens next in the sequel." No thanks. Fuck that. That is two and a half hours of my life I'll never get back. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon (3DS)Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: November 20, 2015 Superbeat: Xonic (Vita, PS TV)Developer: NurijoyPublisher: PM Studios, Atlus & ActtilMSRP: $39.99Released: November 10, 2015 Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon (3DS)Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: November 20, 2015 [embed]323292:61337:0[/embed]
Review Dementium Remaster photo
Better off dead
Dementium was originally pitched by Renegade Kid to Konami as a proof of concept for a Silent Hill game on the Nintendo DS. Konami turned them down and thus we ended up with Dementium: The Ward on the DS instea...

Review: Just Cause 3

Nov 30 // Patrick Hancock
Just Cause 3 (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One)Developer: Avalanche StudiosPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $59.99Release Date: December 1, 2015 Reviewed on: Intel i7-4770k 3.50 GHz, 8GB of RAM, Geforce GTX 970, Windows 10.  Just Cause 3 once again follows the exploits of Rico Rodriguez on a quest to liberate a region from a corrupt dictator, settlement by settlement. This time Rico has access to Medici, a nation under the control of Sebastiano Di Ravello. Medici is about the same size of Just Cause 2's Panau, which is to say it is huge. One big reason why Medici is a sought-after nation is due to its resource of Bavarium, a super-resource that allows for all sorts of militaristic applications. While I'm sure most players are not coming for the plot, the writers do a great job to keep the player entertained with the cast of characters involved. Rico has a handful of allies that aid him and the rebels throughout the campaign, and each character is great. Sure, they're essentially B-movie caricatures, but they're lovable caricatures. Despite the urgency and political turmoil constantly woven into each action Rico undertakes, his allies always seemed to put a big grin on my face. A lot of this comes down to two three things: the writing, voice acting, and animations. Again, the overarching narrative isn't going to blow any minds, but the moment-to-moment dialogue between the few important characters is consistently wonderful. Best of all, each voice actor delivers lines in a casual and believable way, something that is helped by realistic accompanying animations. No, there's no Bolo Santosi, but not every game is perfect. [embed]322878:61303:0[/embed] The bulk of the experience involves blowing the shit out of anything and everything. In order to take down Di Ravello, Rico must go from location to location, destroying everything owned by the evil dictator. It just so happens that about 95 percent of those items are highly explosive! When entering an area, whether it be a military base or a settlement, a list of destructible objects appear on the left side of the screen and it is the player's job to take them out. As less and less objects remain, they become more and more visible on the game's map, preventing the player from searching forever for that one last thing. The most useful tools at Rico's disposal are his grappling hooks. Not only is it possible to grapple onto a surface and travel straight to it, but Rico can use it to attach two separate items and pull them together. In Just Cause 3, it is possible to have up to six grappling hooks at a time. Six! This means twelve items can be linked to each other in a number of ways, and they can all converge on each other at once. Anyone who has played the previous game knows just how ridiculous that sounds. Okay, so there's explosives and grappling, but those aren't even the best mechanics, all things told. Movement in Just Cause 3 is easily the most fluid and beautiful system I've ever used. Seriously, I have never enjoyed moving around an open world as much as I have in Just Cause 3. There are three systems that mesh together: the grappling hook, the parachute, and, most importantly, the newly-acquired wing suit.  There's a lot of verticality to Medici, which makes flying around with the wing suit an absolute thrill. Plus, with the grappling hook available, it's possible to glide almost indefinitely at high speeds. I rarely used a vehicle to get around at all, since it was often slower and way less entertaining. The exception is when traveling over a large amount of water, since there is nothing to grapple onto and pull Rico along. Other than the campaign missions and settlements to liberate, Medici has random events, challenges, and collectibles. The random events might be to help tow someone's car to a gas station, or to prevent a group of friendly rebels from suffering the fate of a firing squad. There aren't too many varieties, but the distractions are quick and the rewards can easily be worth it. Some of the challenges are the standard "maneuvering a vehicle through rings," but others perfectly show off the game's mechanics and carefree attitude. Perhaps my favorite is a very Burnout-esque challenge that has players drive a car with a bomb strapped to it to a desired location only to jump out at the last moment to create chaos. The twist here is that, like Keanu Reeves in Speed, if the car goes below a certain speed, the bomb will explode. It's not as strict as the movie, but if a player goes too slow for too long, the challenge is failed. Others, like the wing suit courses, are also great and help hone specific skills. Players are awarded up to five "gears," depending on performance. Think of them like star ratings. Acquiring gears in certain challenge categories go towards unlocking new upgrades in those areas. For example, performing well in the Speed challenges gives Rico more upgrades for his explosives. Many of the upgrades make things simply better or more useful, like adding explosive charges, but some are more play-style driven. Players can turn these upgrades on and off at will once they are unlocked. For those looking to get more gears in challenges, keep this in mind; it is way easier to get a high score at the end of the game than it is at the beginning due to upgrades. Since this is an open world game in 2015, there's a smattering of collectibles strewn throughout Medici. I'm not one to care about them, but for those who do, Just Cause 3 has your back. If anything collectible is nearby, a small radar blip appears on the bottom of the screen that increases in signal strength as the item draws near. In addition, liberating a province (usually made of three to seven settlements) pinpoints the locations of these hidden items on the map. The biggest thing to realize while playing Just Cause 3 is it is mostly up to the player to keep things interesting. Liberating settlement after settlement does get stale, especially because they're essentially identical to one other, just with different layouts. Always using the same weapons to destroy the same objects gets old quickly. If players aren't inspired to get creative with their destruction, it's easy to get bored. The game gives the players all the tools needed to keep things fresh, but provides no tangible incentive to do so, therefore any such incentive must be intrinsically motivated. My recommendation is to keep doing challenges. By completing challenges and unlocking new upgrades, players will naturally want to play around with those upgrades. Well, what better way to test them out then when liberating a settlement? It would have been appreciated if various weapons had their own challenges, which would push players into switching it up more often. The story missions spice things up with some different objectives, but even those tend to repeat and feel "samey" after a while. Occasionally story missions will be locked, forcing the player to liberate more provinces or specific settlements before progressing. There's usually a canonical reason given for this, but it can easily lead to the player feeling burnt out. Liberating two or three provinces means going through about 15 settlements in a row. That's....a lot, especially considering how similar each one is to any other. Again, I'll offer some advice. Liberate settlements as you travel around. See a settlement? Blow the shit out of it and free those people! This will leave random settlements already completed, which means when you are forced to do so, it's much less tedious. Another way to help break the monotony is to call in Rebel Drops. These allow Rico to ask for some presents like vehicles, weapons, and explosives, to be dropped right in front of him. They are limited, but the system is much easier to understand and operate than the previous game's black market. If the feeling of staleness is creeping up, call in a rebel drop containing any assortment of items, and find the best way to use them in tandem! Visually, Just Cause 3 looks great, especially in motion on PC. The visuals are highly customizable with the standard graphical options expected on the platform. I ran everything at "Very High" and got a constant 60 frames-per-second... once I turned the motion blur off. I experimented with many different settings, and the lack of motion blur easily yielded the best performance. I did have some rare instances of artifacting, but was never able to actually reproduce them intentionally. I also ran in to a terrible glitch where Rico was performing the "dammit I got hit" animation every three-seconds, preventing me from doing, well, anything. A quick restart fixed the issue and I never saw it again, fortunately enough. Then, there's the issue with signing in to the Square Enix servers. The first thing the game does upon booting it up is to log in to the servers. The game is not always-online, but wants to connect to show players leaderboards for a variety of categories. These are things like longest time in a wing suit or most consecutive headshots. If a player loses connection, it pauses the game immediately and tries to reconnect. If it can't, the player can elect to go into offline mode. Great! Offline mode sounds wonderful. Except it tries to reconnect all the damn time. After a short while of being in offline mode, whenever the player checks the map, pauses the game, or initiates a challenge, the game will try to reconnect to the servers. The result is a constant view of the connection screen - either disconnecting or attempting to reconnect. This makes the game nigh unplayable with a spotty Internet connection. If that worries you, a solution on PC is to play the game through Steam's "offline mode." I can only hope there's an easier solution down the road. The enjoyment players get from Just Cause 3 will come from exactly how they approach the game. Those looking to fly around and blow up just about everything in sight will be elated with one of the most fluid movement systems in any game and the gorgeous explosion visuals that really pack a punch. As bizarre as it sounds though, blowing everything sky high can start to feel tedious after a while without proper motivation.  I'm sure you'll be seeing a ton of animated GIFs of Just Cause 3 for a while to come, due to all of the wacky things that can happen within the game. It truly is an insane, explosion-filled romp through a beautiful nation chock-full of cheeky humor. It provides some of the best open-world tools ever. This is definitely a case of "it is what you make of it," and for those with intrinsic motivation to make it the best will be greeted with just that. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Just Cause 3 Review! photo
The best Spider-Man game yet
While driving down the New Jersey parkway for Thanksgiving, I began to notice a lot of water and radio towers perched high above the trees. "Wow, I could easily blow them up or tether them to the ground and bring them down," ...


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