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Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III: Awakening

Feb 02 // Chris Carter
Call of Duty: Black Ops III (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: TreyarchPublisher: ActivisionReleased: February 2, 2016 (PS4) / TBA (PC, Xbox One)MSRP: $14.99 ($50 Season Pass for four packs) When it comes to map design, Treyarch is one of the best in the business. One of its go-to staples is the three-lane approach, which allows for all sorts of interesting firefights and strategies throughout every game type. It takes it to an extreme here with Gauntlet, as it hosts three unique themes in each lane -- tropical, arctic, and industrial. Each area evokes feelings of the past Black Ops maps, Jungle, Discovery, and Kowloon respectively, which is good company to be in. Gauntlet is instantly recognizable, and really feels like three maps in one. If anything it's a bit too tunnel-oriented as folks will no doubt have issues with a lack of elevation (especially in the arctic and jungle themes), but it gets the job done and I'm glad it's in the rotation. [embed]338194:62083:0[/embed] Splash (pictured up top) is typical Treyarch at its finest. It's an absurd water park map that wouldn't feel out of place at Disney World's Caribbean Beach Resort. It's bright, it's littered with shops and rides, and even has a Main Street area. Water slides dot the landscape, as do cute mascot signs that top the previous meta Burger Town franchise -- it would feel right at home in the wackier Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare games. It's crazy that you can consistently read the detail on individual signs now as well (a few of which made me laugh, like the "no selfie stick" one), instead of haphazardly trying to read blurry scrawls. It's one of my favorite maps in years, with a wide array of open areas and indoor close-quarters combat sections. Skyjacked, quite simply, is a remake of Hijacked from Black Ops II. This map was a bit divisive in the community due to its close-quarters focus and propensity to promote camping, so most of you have already made up your mind on it. Personally it was one of my favorites, so I'm glad to see Treyarch bringing it back here, and was happy to play it again. The new theme isn't a half-measure like some past remakes, as the entire affair now takes place in a floating fortress, set to the backdrop of an ongoing city battle. It's a remake of a good map that's made even better due to jumpjet and wallrunning capabilities. There's usually one map that I outright dislike in a pack, and this time it's Rise. It's far too gated and familiar for my tastes, and is nearly indistinguishable from a few industrial levels included in the base package (namely Exodus). There are times where you'd think a cool new area is just waiting around a corner, but then the game doesn't allow you to actually go there due to invisible walls. It's almost like they spent too much time building the other three to really put the proper amount of care in here. If it comes up in the rotation I usually cringe. Der Eisendrache (The Iron Dragon) caps off the DLC, which immediately adds more of an incentive to pick up Awakening. Peppering in one zombie (or alien) map is a strategy the other Call of Duty developers (Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer) have adopted for good reason -- the sheer amount of depth in these things keep people coming back for more. I really dig the whole castle theme, which basically goes full Wolfenstein from the start. I'm sad to see the Jeff Goldblum crew seemingly isn't returning for more, but the original cast is iconic enough to last, spearheaded by Steve Blum's Dempsey. The animated intro certainly helps give the level a different feel as well, and it's crazy that Treyarch is still building upon the lore it created so many years ago in World at War. Der Eisendrache surprised me as well with its open layout, with plenty of room to move, lots of teleporters, and tons of secrets that players will be tracking down weeks after launch. As Nikolai even remarks during Der Eisendrache, "will there ever be an end to this nightmare?" Not as long as Activision keeps selling DLC, there isn't! But one man's nightmare is another man's video game, and the good news is that each Call of Duty developer has been pushing itself harder in recent years to justify the price. If you still play Black Ops III, you can't really go wrong with Awakening -- especially since the new maps are now built into normal playlists from the get-go.
Call of Duty DLC review photo
Four maps and some zombies
It's still crazy to me that I'm loading up a Call of Duty DLC pack first on PlayStation 4. After years of Microsoft-dominated timed exclusivity Sony finally has its shot at heading it up, and it has perfect timing with Black Ops III. As one of the best Call of Duty games in years, it allows Awakening plenty of room to breathe, and lets Treyarch be its unconventional self.

Review: Shadow Puppeteer

Feb 01 // Laura Kate Dale
Shadow Puppeteer (PC, Wii U [Reviewed])Developer: Sarepta StudioPublisher: Snow Cannon GamesReleased: January 28, 2016MSRP: $14.99 Shadow Puppeteer is a puzzle-platformer about a young boy whose body and shadow become severed by an evil figure, and their quest to become one again. You use one analogue stick to move the child in 3D space, while using the other stick to control his shadow on a 2D plane. The boy can move items around, altering the locations of shadows, and can pass through obstacles like smoke that cast a solid shadow, blocking movement for the shadow child. The first thing to note about Shadow Puppeteer is its lack of technical polish. Cutscenes have visible compression artifacting, the menus are poorly produced, every move to another small environment involves a lengthy loading screen and the beautiful art style is let down by the quality of the in-game models when compared to the visual design of the cutscenes. In short, it looks and feels very rough around the edges. [embed]338045:62072:0[/embed] While playing Shadow Puppeteer, I couldn't help but compare it to Contrast and Brothers, the two games whose mechanics it poorly mimics. Where Brothers' use of dual character control felt seamless and responsive, SP frequently felt loose, unresponsive, and fiddly. Where the shadow manipulation puzzles in Contrast were thematically tied and provided impressive visual spectacle upon completion, those in Shadow Puppeteer often felt basic, simplified, and unconnected to the world of the narrative. Oh, and the game is terrible at proper checkpointing. There were times where I died, had to replay multiple rooms, each with a load time between them, and re-watch a cutscene to return to making progress. This did not feel challenging; it just felt tedious. Shadow Puppeteer tries to do interesting things, but ultimately comes off as unpolished, bland, repetitive, and mediocre. I really tried to enjoy it, but I just couldn't bring myself to care about it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Indie photo
The worst of both worlds
Shadow Puppeteer; a game that takes the shadow-manipulation mechanics of Contrast and the dual character control of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and wraps them in a Tim Burton aesthetic… and doesn't do any on...

Review: LEGO Marvel's Avengers

Jan 29 // Chris Carter
LEGO Marvel's Avengers (3DS, PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: TT Fusion, TT GamesPublisher: WB Interactive EntertainmentReleased: January 16, 2016MSRP: $29.99 (3DS, Vita), $39.99 (PC) $49.99 ( PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360), $59.99 (PS4, Xbox One) Marvel's Avengers is the latest beat-'em-up in a long line of Traveller's Tales LEGO joints, a subseries that has hosted roughly 30 games since 2005. It follows the same rough format as past titles, with a few added bits of panache (like more cinematic attacks and sequences) for good measure. You probably know the drill by now -- multiple characters are on-screen at a time, all of which sport several attacks, but they have slightly different ways of going about it. For instance, Captain America and Hulk are both melee fighters, but Cap will be able to reflect beams, and Hulk can smash through giant machinery. Iron Man and Thor excel at range and can fly, but the former can melt metal with his beams. You get the idea. Playing with a partner will enhance your experience tenfold as you can operate in tandem with one another, as going at it solo puts a damper on things by forcing you to switch characters often. That's even more true for Avengers, where the two-person synergy attacks (like Thor slamming into Cap's shield for a shockwave) are that much more satisfying. The best part, the LEGO franchise's signature silly humor, is intact. Interactions and events play out in a similar manner, so there aren't a lot of surprises, but additional jokes and a general sense of lightheartedness actually elevate a few dud portions of the films. As such, every cutscene brings a smile to my face, and helps break up the repetition a bit. I never really minded the shift from the gibberish "LEGO speak" of the past into full voice acting, as Traveller's Tales has always maintained the same tone successfully. [embed]337320:62048:0[/embed] That cavalier, cartoony attitude can go a bit overboard, though. While including over 200 characters is a cool notion, especially for kids who are fans of some of the more obscure heroes, you end up with an overwhelming number of clones and a general sense of vanilla loadouts. They're also inherently limited by the plotlines put forth in the MCU so they can't deviate too much, compared to a wholly original game like Dimensions. So where does LEGO Marvel start to really falter? Its inability to stick to one script at at time. It jumps around so many films that it fails to tell a cohesive story, and assumes you've seen every movie. If you haven't, you'll probably be a mite bewildered as to what's going on. In fact, the game kind of just jumps into Age of Ultron's intro with no rhyme, reason, or setup, before moving onto scenes from both Captain America movies, Thor 2, Iron Man 3, and more. And don't think there's some overarching "Galactus is narrating the story" device -- it just happens as it comes. The open world hubs are a welcome respite from the constant bang bang action, in that sense. As for me, I've experienced every bit of the MCU outside of the comics, so it did mostly make sense. Some is good, some is bad (Agent Carter, which just returned to TV, is pretty good!), but the vast majority of it is easy to follow. It's not like you're going to be scratching you head trying to decipher poignant plotlines -- the game just mostly lacks context, and suffers from fanservice-itis. The latter especially comes into play when the game splices in direct quotes from the film, some of which feel forced, with an odd audio mix to boot. Does your kid constantly go on about Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr. while they run around the room in their Hawkeye outfit? Pick up LEGO Marvel's Avengers and add it to the massive pile of LEGO games you likely already have. It's a fun mindless romp through a couple of interesting setpieces, but not a whole lot more than that when it comes down to it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
LEGO Marvel's Avengers photo
WB always finds out, bro
The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) is intimidating, to say the least. In addition to all of the feature films there's also official tie-in comics, one-shot short films, multiple sequels that set up sequels, and now, eight separate television shows with multiple seasons across two networks. If you haven't been at least following the movies, LEGO Marvel's Avengers probably isn't for you.

Review: American Truck Simulator

Jan 29 // Patrick Hancock
American Truck Simulator (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: SCS SoftwarePublisher: SCS SoftwareRelease Date: February 3, 2016MSRP: $19.99  Euro Truck Simulator has quietly worked its way into the lives of many gamers over the years, myself included. I'm not sure why or when I thought I'd enjoy it, but I'm certainly glad the decision was made. These types of games are many things for many people; some enjoy the serenity, others enjoy the realism, and I'm sure there are those who turn their trucks into a replica of Darkside from Twisted Metal and ram into anything that crosses their path. For those veterans, American Truck Simulator is more of the same but in a new region. Calling it "American" seems a bit disingenuous at the moment, since players can only drive through California and Nevada. That's a lot of area to be sure, but hardly represents America. Many will envision a coast-to-coast trek from New York to Los Angeles, or traveling on Route 66 from state to state, but neither of these are possible at the moment. I say "at the moment" because, like Euro Truck Simulator before it, players should understand that they are buying into a platform. Nevada is technically free DLC at launch (and is included in this review), and the development team is working on Arizona as future free DLC as well. As of now there's no definitive DLC roadmap, but SCS Software has stated that "it will take us years to cover the continent," if it is financially viable. For newcomers to the series, or those simply curious as to how this is a real thing, here's the deal. Players assume the role of an American truck driver, making cargo deliveries in California and Nevada. Early on, taking jobs from various companies, using their trucks, is a steady income. As profit increases, players can afford their own trucks and even hire other drivers to carry out jobs. There are only two trucks available at the moment, which is a bit of a bummer. There are, of course, plans to add more, but as of now there are a Kentworth T 680 and a Peterbilt 579. There are variations of the two and plenty of  customization options, which help make them stand out more, but it's still only two models of truck at launch. Drivers will also gain experience and level up as deliveries are completed. Upon leveling, stat points can be distributed to categories like fuel economy, long-distance deliveries, and unlocking new types of cargo. As if making an expensive delivery wasn't nerve-wracking enough, think about delivering explosive or chemical cargo! Increasing these statistics will net the player higher rewards for completing assignments under those categories. The benefits are very detailed to the player, allowing them to make informed decisions when leveling up. While driving, it's important to remember the rules of the road. Running a red light will result in a fine (damn red light cameras), as will speeding. While Euro Truck Simulator utilized speed cameras, here in America things work a little differently. Cops are constantly on patrol, and if caught speeding near one, a fine will instantly be deducted. There's no car chase or even getting pulled over, just cop lights and sirens and $1,000 removed from your bank account. Along the way, players may need to stop for gas, rest, get weighed at weigh stations, or get repairs. These must be done at certain locations and have corresponding meters on the HUD. The biggest concern with these is the time invested, since each assignment has a window in which the recipient expects their items to be delivered in. Just a heads up: if you're driver starts yawning, stop at a rest station! The traffic AI seems to be vastly improved in American Truck Simulator. Cars will stop early at intersections, making those wide turns that much easier. They also rarely pull out in front of your giant truck barreling down on them, though I have had that happen once or twice. Hell, they'll even slow down if your blinker is on to let you move over! Well, sometimes. There are a few different control methods, ranging from very simple to complex. Steering can be done with the keyboard or mouse, and of course the game supports both console and steering wheel controllers. I found myself most  comfortable with the Steam Controller and gyro controls. The biggest gap between the simple and the complex is changing gears manually, though even at its most complex it's not exactly a "hardcore" simulator. There's definitely a lot to manage, especially for me, but people who were looking for more depth in this entry won't find it here. Is it difficult? Well, it's as difficult as you want it to be. Making the controls complex is an easy way to make the game more engaging. Personally, I think the most difficult aspect is parking. When delivering cargo there will be three options. The hardest option yields the most experience, and will ask players to pull some fancy backing up and maneuvering in order to place the trailer where it needs to go.  The second option is much more achievable, while the third option is to skip it entirely and earn no bonus experience. It's a great to be able to say "you know what? I really don't feel like parking this explosive gas tank right now." To help pass time, a good amount of radio stations are available to listen to while on the road, and it is also possible to input a personal music library by relocating some files on your computer. I enjoyed listening to some classic rock stations while "working." I must say, listening to Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" while driving a big rig at night into Las Vegas is something that will stick with me probably forever. That's in part due to the beautiful engine. The scenery is quite a change of pace compared to the European scenery, which helps make this feel like something fresh, despite the mechanical similarities. Cities are also fleshed out more and feel more "alive" than ever before. Google Maps has been used to help create a realistic recreation of the Golden State, so many areas will be immediately recognizable to those familiar with them. Yes, players will begin to see repeat storefronts over and over again, but it hardly detracts from the overall immersion. American Truck Simulator caters to a wide array of people. There's something to be said for the serenity of cruising down a highway at night and obeying all the traffic laws. It's also a great opportunity to enjoy some audiobooks or podcasts while somewhat-mindlessly growing a trucking enterprise.  Those looking for vast mechanical or design improvements in the series won't find them here. The map is relatively small, considering the size of America, but the tradeoff is worth it: the scenery is fresh, accurate, and varied, while cities feel much more realistic. With two trucks and two included states, and another one on its way, American Truck Simulator is an investment into the series' future, but it's not a steep one and easily earns its value with what is already presented. So, while it may not be possible to go from Phoenix, Arizona all the way to Tacoma, it is possible to go from Oakland to Sactown, the Bay Area and back down. And that's just fine. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
American Truck Sim Review photo
California love
I live in New Jersey, so I think I know a thing or two about California. After all, I've listened to plenty of N.W.A. and Tupac, plus I've seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  Oh, and I've been to California a whole lot to visit my brother and for that one E3 I attended. Does this make me an expert? Yes. Yes it does.

Review: Bombshell

Jan 29 // Steven Hansen
Bombshell (PC)Developer: Interceptor EntertainmentPublisher: 3D RealmsReleased: January 29, 2016MSRP: $34.99 The most surprising thing about this 2016 heir to the Duke Nukem throne is how toothless it is. The Duke's puerile shtick is beyond dated as 2011's tragedy Duke Nukem Forever might remind us, but save for a rocket launcher called the "PMS" -- haha, menstruation! -- Bombshell is tonally distinct, and instead goes for a nerfed "ooh rah" à la Independence Day. It even opens with a Fourth of July alien invasion of the White House and kidnapped president (whose American flag eye patch is, admittedly, hilarious). The result is a milquetoast lead whose repeated, constant combat barks like, "I never thought aliens would land on the White House lawn" or "You're not worth the metal you're made of" or "Die, alien scum" do disservice to a solid acting performance. Making an old-school, character-led action game with a boring character is a huge misstep. In the opening cutscene, Shelly's jeep is blown up. It's on screen and blown up in a few seconds. There are two combat barks devoted to complaining about her lost car and they're totally unearned. I forgot there even was a car until roughly the 25th mention. At one point an enemy must've fallen off the map without dying because I had to hear his robotic droning about his shield every five seconds for the next 45 minutes.  [embed]337527:62042:0[/embed] In addition to being boring, Bombshell is a bit broken. I fell through the level and died three times. Shelly got stuck in place on a couple occasions, necessitating a restart to accompany the countless times she hitched on the environment. Enemies get stuck, too, or at least some choose to lay down arms and not attack until I kill them, anyway. Sometimes the map, which is uncovered as you explore, completely erases itself and leaves you with no sense of direction. The latter was far more annoying than I thought it could be, especially given that it was coupled with archaic level design. There are three distinct areas in Bombshell, including an ice stage, because this is a video game, and they're all designed like someone cracked a sheet of glass and traced the sprawling result. There are constant dead ends, fetch quests, and side quests that actually require backtracking to turn in. The mini-map, on the other hand, is incredibly useful because the camera is kept so tight that you will regularly run face-first into bullets if you navigate by watching Shelly move rather than watching the blips on the mini-map. Apparently fixed isometric perspective shooters were also missing a huge thing all these years: platforming. Most of my deaths came after falling into a pool of water or after walking over a nonsensical hole in the ground like some Wile E. Coyote shit, like the architect of the alien home world had a debilitating Swiss cheese fetish. But it isn't just that there is platforming, it's that it is floaty and unsatisfying. One of the reasons Shelly's lines bomb (besides that they're vacuous and repeated a hundred times) is that they're so disconnected from the character in the isometric view, and similarly there isn't anything to ground or give weight to her jumps. Even her walking animation is like a hockey puck on ice. That missing weight is a big part of why Bombshell's most redeeming factors, the twin-stick-style shooting, also falls flat. The weapons (rapid-fire machine gun, shotgun, flamethrower, and so on) have little stopping power. Enemies don't seem to react when shot, but instead absorb bullets like sponges until their HP empties and they limply rag doll to the floor. The first two worlds accost you with loads of pain-in-the-ass tiny enemies that poison (damage over time) or freeze you (slow movement speed) while the last just goes full bore and sends out six Gundam-sized robots at a time. I appreciated being able to see them more clearly than the ankle-biters, but seeing giant robot after giant robot go weak in the knees after getting hit with a laser beam was almost pathetic. Also, the last level theme (it goes alien, ice, metal) looks exactly like the end of Mass Effect 2 down to the Terminator-cribbed robots. Which reminds: Bombshell has some of the worst boss fights I have ever played. Sticking to conventions, they tend to be of the three-phase fare and toss regular enemies into the mix to make things more difficult. By the last form of the first boss I was out of ammo save for Shelly's default, infinite-ammo weapon. I beat it by standing pissing distance in front of the boss and holding the trigger for a few minutes while scrolling through Twitter. The same thing happened with the boss of the ice world, which decided it just wasn't interested in attacking me during its final phase. Every once in a while, during a taut firefight that actually necessitates mixing and matching weapons (the shotgun alt fire, a stun gun, is possibly too useful), there are glimpses of a solid shooter let down by everything else around it. As it stands, playing Bombshell for more than an hour at a time is like ingesting a sedative, save for flashes of rage as you fall through the map one more time or are asked to find six more crystals. [This review is based on a build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Bombshell reviewed photo
Dud Nukem
"It's so hard to believe this is real. It's like a video game or something." A random soldier told me this in Bombshell and it's not the worst meta dialogue in the game. Shelly "Bombshell" Harrison is quick to complain about ...

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider - Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch

Jan 29 // Laura Kate Dale
Rise of the Tomb Raider - Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Crystal DynamicsPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $9.99Released: January 26, 2016 Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch is a short, story focused piece of Tomb Raider DLC that focuses on creepy supernatural elements, tough environmental puzzles, and exploring the complex relationship between Lara Croft and her father. Set in the Wicked Vale, a new region exclusive to the DLC, Baba Yaga tasks Lara with hunting down Baba Yaga, a witch who has allegedly terrorised locals for generations. Gone are the enemies that make sense, replaced by ethereal tormentors. While these foes and obstacles may be mechanically very similar to enemies in the base game, they feel very tonally different in practice and work well to emphasise the game's narrative themes. Oh, and the fact the DLC culminates in an over the top awesome supernatural boss battle, which provides satisfying amounts of conclusion to the plot, is fairly impressive. While most of the DLC is set in the Wicked Vale, an environment that was fascinating to explore, one section does throw you back into a combat arena from the main game. With the DLC only clocking in at two hours long, it's disappointing that any of it was retreading old ground. [embed]337554:62045:0[/embed] While the gameplay in Baba Yaga is unchanged from the main game, the difficulty of environmental puzzles is nicely ramped up, paced for progression from the end of the base game. Completing it unlocks a new weapon that fits nicely with the themes of the DLC as a bonus, but the lack of any new post game challenge tombs meant I had very little incentive to try my new weapon out. So, here's the deal with Rise of the Tomb Raider's newest DLC. If you're looking for several hours of story content that's supernatural in nature, yet offers very little additional content post story? Well, Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch is probably your thing. Just be aware it reuses some assets in that two hour length and offers very little in the way of options for using your weapon once the story is over. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.] 
Rise of the Tomb Raider photo
That's one freaky temple
Rise of The Tomb Raider's main campaign, while lengthy, tries to keep its gameplay grounded for the most part in realistic threats. The game's first story DLC, Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch, turns that on its head, repla...

Review: Darkest Dungeon

Jan 27 // Nic Rowen
Darkest Dungeon (PC)Developer: Red Hook StudiosPublisher: Red Hook StudiosReleased: January 19, 2016MSRP: $19.99 Darkest Dungeon is an absolutely merciless exercise in roguelike themes. It is all about micromanagement, skillful use of scarce resources, determination in the face of insurmountable odds, and the ability to press on after a particularly bad roll of the RNG wipes out your All-Star squad of heroes. Make no mistake, it can be frustrating. Unlike other roguelikes you may have played where the whims of fortune sabotage a 30-minute run or one mission, Darkest Dungeon has no problem with wiping out hours of investment in a character or trinket. If that sounds like the kind of thing that would make you break your keyboard over your knee, consider a trip to the dungeon carefully. If you have a dark streak of sadism in you though, you may have just found your game.  While the game is certainly fiendish in its difficulty and brutal with its punishments, you're not totally helpless to luck and chance. Darkest Dungeon is a game played in two distinct portions. The first is a sort of management and strategic level where you direct resources to different parts of your ancestral hamlet and roster of warriors. The other is the actual dungeon dive, the tactical application of all that planning and building, the individual choices of which hallway to go down, which darkened corner to peer into, and which enemy should be brought low in what order. Through skillful manipulation of both levels, victory can be snatched from seemingly impossible challenges. In the hamlet, you are the omniscient master of the land, deciding who to hire, who to send on adventures, and which institutions to upgrade. Each aspect of the hamlet plays a crucial role in fighting the dark. The Stagecoach ferries fresh meat and raw recruits to bolster your ranks and replace the fallen. Services provided at the Guild and Blacksmith can improve your warriors' skills and equipment. The Sanitarium will remove diseases of the mind and body (for a steep fee) that may otherwise render a hero useless. Of course, the Abbey and Bar are necessary to provide comfort, meaning, and solace to your men. Whether they relax through quiet meditation, or through the fleshy pleasures of the neighborhood brothel, paying for a few nights worth of recuperation can save them from breaking in the next dungeon. Properly investing in the right aspects of your hamlet at the right time is just as important as making wise decisions in battle. All of the different services are desperately necessary and, especially at the beginning of the game, you'll never have enough coin or heirlooms (different upgrade resources needed for different buildings) to maintain them all. You need to be crafty and shrewd, making your meager wealth stretch as far as it can go while knowing you are compromising in one area to prop up another. The same merciless economics apply to your roster. Heroes cost a fortune to upgrade with better weapons and higher-level skills – an investment that can be lost in an instant to a bad battle. Otherwise potent warriors can also slowly become crippled by afflictions and phobias after too many trips to the dungeon, and while all maladies can be cured, the cost sometimes outweighs the benefit. Knowing when it's best to spend money to rehabilitate a Crusader who picked up a drinking habit and fear of the occult after his last disastrous mission, or when to spend that money equipping and upgrading his replacement, is the pitiless key to progression. In the dungeon, the emphasis switches from the overarching, to the granular. In the 2D side-to-side lineup of the characters, it is of the utmost importance to carefully consider where each of your heroes stands. Every hero and monster possesses skills that can only be used from one position or another that will only effect a foe standing in specific spots. Some of these can be quite general, for example being anywhere in the first few rows will generally let a Bounty Hunter attack anyone in the opposite first three rows. Contrarily, the Hellion with her swooping spear has a move that she can only use in the very first rank to attack the very last opponent. While it sounds needlessly obscure, that single move became one of my favorites in the entire game.  With 14 different classes to choose from, each of whom have seven possible combat skills that are all limited in terms of where they can be used and what they can hit, experimentation is key. There is no ideal team or strategy to be found. Different adventurers do better or worse in specific areas based on their damage type and common skills and you need to adjust. You can crutch on the Crusader and Vestal to wade through the skeletons of the Ruins with their extra damage against the unholy and the lack of nuance in the skeleton's attack plan. When you get to the twisted mermen and giant crabs of the Cove however, you'll want a strong Man-at-Arms to defend the front-line while a Plague Doctor hurls poison blight that will do more damage than any sword trying to pierce their scales. While in most RPGs the heroes are never in danger from rank-and-file monsters, in Darkest Dungeon, every battle holds the potential for defeat – either from a splashy total party wipe, or the slow erosion of a party's ability to press on. Healing is an uphill climb. There are only a few classes capable of restoring other party members and their heals are meager or rely on swings of luck. Some characters are capable of healing themselves, but these are often front-line warriors who are better off attacking a monster than trying to frantically repair damage. You don't recover anything after a battle, so a victory in the moment can set your party up for total defeat in the next if the enemy undermines you enough. Knowing when to abandon a quest and when to stick it out is an important judgment call, but while retreating may save your life, it also burdens the party with the stressful shame of coming back to town empty handed. Stress is a significant factor in every battle. Some of the most dangerous and insidious monsters in the game have very weak attacks, but can do things that cause your party stress. When a hero reaches a critical point of stress, their resolve will be tested in a moment of truth. Sometimes a hero will have a moment of valiant triumph and when the abyss stares into them they will not blink, becoming stronger for the experience. All the more common though, the frailty of man is revealed and a warrior will suffer a psychological break. An affliction of the mind is a terrible thing. Party members afflicted with paranoia, masochism, selfishness, or those who turn their abuse outward will drag the party down. They'll disobey orders, refuse heals or buffs out of distrust and fear, hurl insults or sing mad ramblings that unnerve the other fighters. If you let them, a broken fighter will hamstring healthy ones. You either need to cure them or cut them loose. Exploring each dungeon is done in a slightly odd manner. You always move across the screen in a straight line from left-to-right when traveling from hallways to rooms. A map grid lets you choose your route and with a little luck and a few stat-boosting skills, the occasional scouting report will let you see your opposition and potential treasure in advance. A torch light system dynamically changes the difficulty – the more well lit you keep the dungeon, the easier it is. Keep the light low and your party will quiver with fear and you'll encounter stronger monsters, but the treasures to be found will be that much greater to reward your bravery. Simply moving through these dungeons takes a toll on your adventurers. Stress accumulates as you dive deeper into the beast's lair, and retreating only causes more. Traps litter each area. The observant explorer can disarm them with a little luck, but even the most wary party is likely to stumble into a few. Curiosities like ancient scrolls, pagan shrines, and freshly dug graves tempt the party to test fate as each oddity they encounter has the potential for reward or affliction. Reading an old scroll is as likely to provide insight as it is to shatter the mind with a grim revelation. Properly provisioning your party with supplies helps tilt these odds in your favor. If you pack holy water, you can cleanse occult talismans. A shovel will let you pass an obstacle of rubble without stressing your party out by making them dig by hand. Bandages and medicinal herbs can staunch bleeding, remove debuffs, and allow the safe handling of unsanitary crevasses or torture equipment one may find in a dungeon. At this point, I'm fine with everything Darkest Dungeon has to offer, even where I can see elements that will bother other players. I think the management aspect is interesting and I like that is pushes you to cultivate diverse teams and experiment even if some players will likely be annoyed that they can't focus on a favored team composition. The battle system is fantastic, despite the occasional bad turns of luck that can feel unfair and some of the cheaper enemies that become more frustrating than thrilling. Unfortunately, even while I enjoy those mechanics, Darkest Dungeon manages to wear out its welcome due to the sheer grind demanded of the player. At certain points, when ascending to a new level plateau or encountering a new sort of boss, the difficulty spikes to a degree that is way out of hand. You'll be thrilled when you get your first squad of adventurers to level three and they will no longer bother themselves with lower-level missions. A new challenge! Sadly, you'll likely find that team totally unprepared for the newfound challenge and probably beat a hasty retreat or lose a few of them. With them now too weak to do the missions they are leveled for, and too haughty to deign running an easier mission, you'll have to park them for hours as you grind other teams trying to find trinkets to give them the edge and upgrade the guild and blacksmith to a point where they can reach full potential. The amount of busywork needed to prop up more valuable heroes and expand the hamlet becomes too much. Running squads of lowly heroes you have no intention of keeping just so you can get enough heirloom scrolls to level up the Blacksmith quickly devolves into tedium. This is especially pronounced at the very end of the game where you need several fully leveled teams of four to take on the last series of missions. Not only are the missions tremendously difficult, but retreating from one guarantees one member will die. Adding to this, once a warrior successfully completes one of the final missions, they won't go on another. You end up in a situation where you can easily burn a team or two to a party wipe, easily lose one or two members to a retreat, and then end up with nobody suitable on the roster left to take on the next mission. Instead, you're expected to grind yet more characters up to full level for another run. God help you if you lose your last Vestal and need to take a fresh healer from level zero to six. Eventually, the economy tends towards abundance and you'll have plenty of gold to streamline the process as much as possible, but you'll still need to run more than a dozen missions to get them fit for duty. This is where Darkest Dungeon stumbles and my own mind turns to darkness. When I start the mental arithmetic of how much work it will take to just to make another attempt at the final dungeons, I reel and sputter. Hours and hours of stress and suffering just for a chance at the end? This is no way for rational people to spend their time. You'd have to be mad. And yet you'll do it. You'll do it because at this point the game will have its hooks in you and you won't be able to let go. If you've stuck with it to that point, you might grumble and moan like me, but you'll press on. Maybe the developers meant for it to be so. A commentary on unhinged ambition, a way of making you feel as weary and beaten down as that Crusader nursing his second week in a row at the bar, dragging his feet towards another inevitable damned expedition. Despite the grind, despite the perhaps undue commitment to brutality, and despite what I feel is a joke at the player's expense at the end, Darkest Dungeon still manages to be one of the most engaging and intriguing roguelikes I've ever played and I'll probably still be diving dungeons and trying new party compositions weeks from now. After all, it would be madness to stop at this point. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Darkest Dungeon review photo
What we are in the dark
Most games gloss right over the psychological effects of combat and stress. RPGs see parties of cheery young adventurers slaughter their way through entire countrysides worth of kobolds and giant rats for the sake of justice ...

Review: Final Fantasy Explorers

Jan 26 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy Explorers (3DS)Developer: Square Enix, RacjinPublisher: Square EnixReleased: January 26, 2016MSRP: $39.99 Right at the character creation screen, it's immediately evident that Final Fantasy Explorers is a dated game. It was released in 2014 in Japan, after all, and the limitations of the tool itself will not inspire any confidence. I actually got a laugh out of the initial male avatar -- it had typical chibi-like features but a rock-hard manchild set of abs. It won't matter much when you're all suited up in gear, and the game has a Goku hairstyle in its small pool of options, so it gets a pass. Like many other entries in the series, Explorers revolves around crystals (of course), and the overall plot is kind of secondary to leveling up, acquiring cash, and completing missions, which lead to those sweet, sweet boss battles we all crave. You'll roam about in a Monster Hunter-esque hub world complete with shops, upgrade centers, and a few other fixins (like a one-mission-bonus-granting fortune teller who takes Play Coins as payment) as you take on new quests that lead you out into the overworld. Combat is based around AP, which fuels your abilities and is used when sprinting. The game has a rudimentary lock-on feature, the option to use the Circle Pad Pro (or the New 3DS nub) to control the camera, L or R toggles menus for your powers (with four mapped to each trigger, for a total of eight active abilities), an auto-attack button, and that's really it. To dodge or do anything fancy, you'll need to equip a skill for it, and even then, it's a bit rigid in nature. Make no mistake, this is not a high-intensity twitch action game. [embed]335296:61957:0[/embed] You'll get the keys to the kingdom so to speak after roughly 30 minutes of tutorials, where Explorers will provide you with five jobs (classes) right away: Knight, Monk, Ranger, White Mage, and Black Mage. Thankfully, it isn't as rigid as a lot of other RPGs in that jobs and abilities can often overlap. With the exception of, say, a Knight using bow-based skills while equipped with a sword, players can thankfully experiment a bit. Almost anyone can use magic, including the always helpful Cure spell. It's a great concession for newcomers and veterans alike. You can really mess around with nearly everything available to tool up your dream build -- which includes silly "Trance" modes featuring fan-favorite characters like Cloud. As time goes on it only gets deeper, as an impressive 21 jobs are at your disposal. The freedom to do what you want is even better when playing with a party (both locally or online). Team synergy and class makeups aren't necessarily bound by the RPG Trinity (tank, healer, damage), but are composed a bit more loosely, to the point where everyone can have fun with what they want to play -- like a Dragoon that can use his jumps along with evasion techniques from other jobs for maximum mobility. Speaking of multiplayer, there is support for lobbies online (rather than shoddy matchmaking), which allowed me to get into a number of games even before launch. If you're going at it solo, you can bring up to three other monsters with you on your travels, with the caveat that the AI isn't very intelligent or nearly as effective as players. By the time you fight Shiva several hours in, it picks up, but as a general rule Explorers is a slow burn. Now, I did have fun working my way up the ladder, earning more jobs, and crafting my own equipment, but it's a bit too slow going at times. As such, the "it gets better after you put time into it" argument comes to mind, but plenty of games do allow for an enjoyable early game to accompany the payoff. That's not the case here, to an extent. If you do end up sticking with it though, you'll find a 100-hour RPG full of stuff to do, including an endgame that involves fighting all of the core bosses again with new strategies in tow. Like many games filled to the brim with different classes, a lot of my time was spent trying out new jobs. While some of them don't feel wildly different from one another, the dichotomy between the three core playstyles (melee, ranged, and magic) is strong enough to feel like you're playing a different game. Final Fantasy Explorers has a litany of pacing issues, particularly when it comes to its quests and, visually, it feels like a DS-era game at times. But players who are willing to jump in with both feet will find a lot to love, and that goes double if you're planning to play through the adventure with a friend. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Final Fantasy review photo
Eidolon Hunter
If one wanted to delve into the world of Final Fantasy for the first time, the barrier to entry is generally rather high. You have a host of 50-hour JRPGs, several daunting MMOs, and a number of complicated and deep tactical spinoffs. Final Fantasy Explorers tries to ease people into the world of Black and White mages with a different, gentler approach, albeit with its own set of flaws.

Review: The Witness

Jan 25 // Brett Makedonski
The Witness (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Thekla, Inc.Publisher: Thekla, Inc.MSRP: $39.99Released: January 26, 2016  I have vivid memories of sitting in geometry class in ninth grade and listening to the teacher explain why geometry is a different beast than the other maths we had already learned. "Don't feel bad if you can't do this yet," he said. "The reason is because it's chemically impossible for you. We're doing theorems and proofs -- your brain hasn't ever been asked to think like that before. The synapses in your brain need to fire off in order to be able to understand this; when that happens, you'll get it and this will all be easy for you." That "A-HA!" moment my geometry teacher spoke of -- all those synapses firing to form a revelation -- is the greatest reward The Witness has to offer and it happens countless times. It never grows old. After a bit, it's no longer new, but it's always fresh. The fundamentals of The Witness are line puzzles. Grids, often in the shape of a rectangle, require navigating in a specific fashion to satisfy certain constraints and to reach the end-point. This is repeated hundreds of time over as the basic building block of the game. Through clever subversion, ever-evolving rule sets, and alternative methods, repetition never becomes cause for concern. Again, just like the many many moments of epiphany, the puzzles cease being new before long, but they are always fresh. [embed]335133:61964:0[/embed] Well, that comes with a caveat. They are fresh as long as you want them to be. The Witness is largely fueled by your desire to discover. Once that wanes, so will your interest. The game's island is drenched in mystery and detail, not all of which is able to be immediately appreciated. When that happens, it's just another revelation that hasn't formed yet. For what it's worth, I'm 40-some hours in, and my interest hasn't waned in the slightest; it has only grown considerably. The reason for this is because The Witness smartly preys on the curiosity of human nature. Every direction has an inviting setting just begging to be explored. It's a given that those settings will contain challenges -- challenges that are imperative to continue exploring. It's cyclical and gives way to a competitive mindset to not be bested even if we're not necessarily mentally equipped yet. It's all in the pursuit of just seeing more. We want to see more because seeing is learning, and that's in the fiber of our being. What truly makes The Witness everything that it is lies somewhere between the fundamentals of the puzzles and the deeply philosophical of everything else. These two work in tandem, complementing each other even when they seem worlds apart. There are so many layers of separation between the two that it's almost impossible to perceive or even conceive. But, they're there, working hand-in-hand and, on some level, one in the same. You'd be hard-pressed to declare that one of these components is closer to defining The Witness than the other. Truthfully, I wish I didn't have to score The Witness. I don't want to set people up for that expectation; I don't want a voice in the back of their head that says "Okay, when does this become a ten?" In a way, that's unfair and detrimental to how the game should be experienced, which is as open-minded and unassuming as possible. Don't go to The Witness. Let The Witness come to you. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Witness review photo
Come see
I am worthless. I am garbage. I am a dolt. I am brilliant. I am special. I am a genius. Those are the two extremes of self-value that The Witness constantly inflicts. It's a continuous loop of not getting it until you totally get it. Then, you don't get it again.

Review: Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

Jan 20 // Patrick Hancock
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (PC)Developer: Blackbird InteractivePublisher: Gearbox SoftwareReleased: January 20, 2016MSRP: $49.99 Deserts of Kharak is a prequel to previous titles, and takes place on the desert planet of Kharak (duh). The "primary anomaly" has been detected in the Kharak desert, and Rachel S'jet and company need to head deep into Gaalsian territory to retrieve it. Players who know their lore already know what that anomaly is, but that doesn't detract in any way from the 13-mission campaign. Unlike many other real-time strategy games, the campaign is the main draw in Homeworld. The lore is rich, yet approachable for newcomers. Some of the jargon will be confusing at first, but it doesn't take long to grasp what or who a Kiith is or that Rachel S'jet is not a case of a misplaced apostrophe. The missions themselves are varied. They do a great job of teaching the player the mechanics and introducing new units at a comfortable pace. The best thing about the campaign, which was also true for the originals, is that the player's army stays with them between missions. The units who survive are the same ones that start the next mission. The same goes for resources, too, which makes them very finite. Finishing a mission in good standing goes a long way here, and forces the player to play intelligently. This design also dictates playstyle. When I had heavy losses at the end of a successful mission, I went into the next one with extreme caution. I looked at my current resources and the resources available and actually thought about the most efficient way to spend them. This can be turned off with an option, but in the spirit of the series, you should keep it in tact. [embed]335091:61939:0[/embed] A big problem is the AI. It's not so great. There have been times when I could see my enemies clear as day, and they were just sitting there. Forever. I never bothered with them unless the mission forced me to clear all remaining forces. Other times, the AI simply follows its path until the player puts ground units within range. It is possible to pelt a group of units over and over again with air strikes until they are completely dead, and they will never respond. Scenarios like this are worsened by the fact that the campaign is, overall, fantastic. Cutscenes are gorgeous and often set a threatening atmosphere, only to be followed up by awful AI behavior. Tense moments dissipate pretty quick when a cluster of enemy units is just dancing around a bit in a circle while being attacked from a distance. Despite this, there are some amazing scripted moments throughout the campaign. A cutscene may show a large enemy force heading the player's way, then show the same force in-game. That's when the music kicks in. The music in Deserts of Kharak is nothing short of perfect. It raises the intensity of battles and sets the mood so well that I very much looked forward to the next large-scale battle. In fact, the entire aesthetic is spot-on. Zooming in shows the intricacies of movement for the units -- particularly the wheels of vehicles maneuvering around rough terrain. Once you feel comfortable with how a battle is going, try zooming in nice and close and watching the action. It looks great! I know what you're thinking. "How can it be Homeworld if it's not in space?" Rest assured, this is Homeworld through and through. Remember watching your ships swirl around while attacking other units? The same goes for the smaller units in Deserts of Kharak. That feeling of continuity throughout the campaign as your units stayed persistent? Still there, and in spades. Since the "main base" is also a mobile unit, the feeling of having your own personal convoy is firmly implanted into the design of the game. Having the main base, called a Carrier, as a unit is certainly an interesting mechanic to utilize. It can be quite the powerful unit, too, making the idea to use it offensively enticing. The Carrier has energy that can be routed to different aspects of the ship: defense, self-repair, missiles, and range. All self-explanatory. The player can change these on the fly, though energy is limited by artifacts, which can be collected and returned to increase available energy. The most interesting gameplay mechanic is line of sight. If a unit can't logically see another, it can't fire at it. This makes the terrain of each map incredibly important. Having and holding the high ground can make or break a battle in many cases. The game does a great job of conveying this information to the player. If a unit can't see another, a broken red line appears. While issuing many of the commands, a "blueprint" of the terrain will appear, clearly showing what is high ground and what is not. Terrain also affects unit pathing. Well, it affects one unit's pathing. The Carrier is a large (read: very large) unit, and can't simply drive over hills like the others. It's important to remember that it needs to take the roundabout way, since it'll be the only unit to do so unless otherwise ordered. Just...keep that in mind when playing. Homeworld has always primarily been a single-player experience. That being said, there are AI Skirmish and multiplayer options. The issue is that there are only two races, both of which play similarly. There are also only five maps. Stir these facts together into a pot, and it doesn't yield the greatest competitive experience.  The main competitive mode is artifact retrieval, which tasks both players to fight over artifacts scattered over the map. The objective is to pick one up with a specific unit and bring it to a designated area. It's neat, but the whole multiplayer experience just feels rather shallow. For free-for-all matches of more than two players, deathmatch is the only available option. I've run into a handful of bugs in Deserts of Kharak, and judging from the forums, I'm not the only one. The most annoying, which may not even be a "bug," is that the camera goes to an awful position after every in-game cutscene and needs to be reset. Other than that, there were a couple of cutscene glitches where animations wouldn't play or in-game talk continued while a cinematic was playing. It's also impossible to re-bind the keys, which is hopefully an oversight, not intentional. While the multiplayer is mediocre at best, the campaign more than compensates for fans of the series. All the worries of "it can't be Homeworld if it's not in space!" should be put to rest, because Deserts of Kharak says otherwise. The asking price is a bit steep for those who are just interested in the campaign, since most won't bother to touch multiplayer. That being said, the campaign is well executed for veterans and newbies alike, proving that over a decade without Homeworld is far too long. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Homeworld Review photo
Muad'Kiith
Homeworld is back! What a great sentence to type. After Gearbox Software acquired the rights to the series and released Homeworld Remastered, I figured that would be it. But now Blackbird Interactive, a team made up of franch...

Review: Rebel Galaxy

Jan 20 // Nic Rowen
Rebel Galaxy (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Double Damage GamesPublisher: Double Damage GamesReleased: October 20, 2015 (PC), January 5, 2016 (PS4)MSRP: $19.99 Rebel Galaxy puts you in the boots of a space-faring renegade just looking to make a buck at the edge of the known universe. I mean, yes, you're estranged aunt mysteriously gifted you her old ship which was weird, and she also left you in possession of an alien artifact which, wouldn't you know it, happens to house an ancient A.I (don't they all) and you should probably look into that at some point -- but you also have to stack that paper! The main plot can be safely tackled at your leisure while you put time into building your personal net worth and outfitting the ship of your dreams. How you do that is up to you. As a kind of spiritual successor to Freelancer, Rebel Galaxy allows you to make your way through life on the rim anyway you like. As long as it involves shooting people. At every space station there is a mission board brimming with contracts from the various factions in the game. You can run drugs for a criminal cartel, bust up a pirate siege for the militia, provide some armed backup for the merchant guild, or pick up shady dead-drops for a cloak-and-dagger agency. Of course, let's not forget the most classic of all fictional space-faring economies: the glamorous world of asteroid mining. While there is plenty of outward variety in contract types, almost all of them will result in an inevitable shootout. Even the mining. Especially the mining. This is my ore and you can't have any of it. *pew pew* Thankfully, the space combat on tap is pretty damn cool. As I mentioned earlier, your ship in Rebel Galaxy performs more like a boat than a spaceship, locked on a single two-dimensional plane that you can steer around on left and right, but not up and down. Other capital ships are locked to the same plane, making standoffs with them feel like large naval battles (your most powerful weapons are actually broadside cannons, hammering home the effect). Meanwhile, smaller ships -- such as enemy fighters and your hired wingman -- zip around in a fully 3D space. They'll be coiling and wrapping around your larger vessel as you try to train your various mounted turrets on them, worry about the exposed shielding on your portside, and prepare to deflect an incoming volley of torpedoes. The battles become frantic, glorious displays. When you aren't manually aiming weapons yourself, the shipboard A.I will take over the unoccupied ones, making your ship a floating little ball of hell that is constantly spewing fire in all directions during a brawl. When you finally get a decent vessel that can mount a variety of laser turrets, homing missiles, and a full rack of broadsides, the spectacle of lights, colors, and exploding ships can be downright jaw-dropping. Active abilities like deflector shields and manually locking weapons (to make sure you don't just let auto-pilot do all the work) and different equipment set-ups can encourage some downright risky strategies if you like to roll the bones.  [embed]335426:61927:0[/embed] A reputation system governs how much each faction loves/loathes you. Taking a job from one faction pretty much always means screwing someone else over, so it is impossible to make friends with everyone. That said, it also never really came to much in my game. Space pirates hated me, the militia were kinda dickish but not overtly aggressive, and pretty much nobody else cared that I existed. It's a lot of numbers and systems that don't seem to really amount to much -- a theme that is repeated in many of the game's mechanics. Rebel Galaxy is built on a mountain of minutiae that seems important and interesting, and I suppose on an intellectual level it is, but amounts to little. For example, a living economy governs commodity trading at different stations. Not only do stations buy and sell different space tchotchkes and doodads, but the type of government that rules the station, current political situation, and other special events have an effect the market. Conditions like an arms race will bump up the price of salvaged munitions and weapons tech, for example. Where it gets really crazy, however, is that condition also spawns a treaty ship that will eventually make its way to the station to put an end to the arms race. If you'd rather keep hocking guns on a seller's market, you can go out and destroy that ship to prolong the conflict. That's all super cool but also, sadly, pointless. Those situations don't affect the plot or change anything else about the world. They just rearrange the stats on one of several dozen identical stations. While playing the market seems like a neat idea, it is also time consuming and inefficient compared to just going out and blowing stuff up. If I had to describe Rebel Galaxy in one word, it would be "broad," not "deep." There is a ton to do and all kinds of interesting interacting systems, but they only exist as curiosities. For a game that borrows so much from the likes of Firefly and the Millennium Falcons of the world, I was somewhat disappointed that there didn't seem to be any great options to play as a scoundrel, a lawbreaker with a heart of gold. You can take on illegal work and choose hardball dialog options of course, but I wanted to smuggle contraband and slick talk my way out of double-dealings. In Rebel Galaxy, walking the outlaw path has you trafficking space slaves and murdering random traders for their shitty cargo of worthless ceramic plating. It's good guy or Reaver, without a lot of gray in between. Speaking of the Firefly tone, Rebel Galaxy has a very distinct soundtrack of Kid Rock-esque tunes in an effort to capture that same space-western mystique. For the first little while I was really digging the vibe. A "dirty south meets final frontier" kind of thing. But as my time with the game stretched on and I was treated to the same three or four songs about being a "bad man" and sharing a train seat with Satan over and over again, I felt a little part of my soul chip away and drift into the void. The game constantly blares butt-rock at full volume, and every single song sounds almost exactly the same. Imagine being stuck at a NASCAR after-party that never ends and you'll get the picture. The soundtrack isn't the only thing that wears out its welcome. For as much as Rebel Galaxy wants to be a sort of deep-space simulation where you can be and do whomever and whatever you want, it all too quickly blurs together into a mushy pile of "bleh." Every mission is essentially the same, the only difference is the number and strength of the ships you'll be fighting. Every distress call is a fight with pirates (imperiled trader or "unexpected" trap, flip a coin). Every dialog interaction with bartenders, traders, and pirates run the same options and same canned responses. Enemies have such a limited arsenal of combat barks and threats I was actually hearing them in my sleep after spending a week with the game. The worse sin is that it somehow expects you to dig all of this repeated content for hours and hours on end. The game is every bit a treadmill as a typical MMO, only there is no one else to talk to and you can't make your ship dance. Every ship and piece of equipment costs exponentially more than the last. Small upgrades take half a dozen missions or more to earn, and you can forget about the high-end gear. You travel around the galaxy in real time, manually going to warp speed toward every destination, and coming to a dead stop every time a random piece of space junk floats in your way.  For a single player game that already has plenty to see and do, it feels needlessly padded. In space, no one can hear you grind. Yet, despite my many complaints, Rebel Galaxy did put a smile on my face. It's an ambitious little game that regrettably tries too hard to grab something out of its reach, but what it does get its hands on is excellent. The combat is spectacular, the atmosphere is charming (prolonged exposure to the soundtrack aside) and while there isn't as much depth to the game's systems as it would like you to believe, they are fun to poke and prod at when you get tired of blasting people with your lasers. Rebel Galaxy is the kind of game I'd want save for a rainy day when all I want to do is set my brain on auto-pilot and lose a few hours watching pretty colors and dreaming about being Han Solo. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Rebel Galaxy review photo
Aim to misbehave
I've heard people say space is an ocean. I've also heard it called the wild west of the future. With a background track of dirty butt-rock, a cast of colorful miscreants, and a movement system that feels more like steering a ...

Review: The Deadly Tower of Monsters

Jan 19 // Chris Carter
The Deadly Tower of Monsters (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: ACE TeamPublisher: AtlusReleased: January 19, 2016MSRP: $14.99 The silly audio "DVD" commentary right from the start helps cement that B-movie feel Deadly is going for. Permeating through the menus, the "director" of the "movie" you're playing will continue to comment on your actions throughout, much like the narrator from Bastion. This narration however is a bit wackier, and will make fun of everything from gamey elements like finding useful items instantly in unexpected places, why items disappear after you pick them up (the hero "beams" them back to his ship), and how the actors got into a particular costume. He even boasts in one early scene that having his female lead rescue his male lead is progressive, and how he was "ahead of his time" for it. It's amusing enough to keep one interested throughout. So how does it play? Well, it's basically an isometric action game, with twin-stick shooting and melee attacks. The latter can be charged for effect, and players can also roll, or hover with a jetpack in a double jump of sorts. It's a small thing, but intuitive health bars circle each enemy, so you know exactly how much of a beating they'll need. There's also three playable characters available -- Dick Starspeed, Scarlet Nova, and Robot. All of them have unique powers at their disposal, but for the most part, the choice is aesthetic. What I really like about Deadly Tower is how fresh the game constantly keeps things. At first I thought it was going to be a simple sci-fi spoof with aliens, but it's so much more than that. There's Planet of the Ape-esque monkey men, "Energy Imps," a Ghost Pirate ship, and so much more that I won't spoil here. The gimmick is really cool as well, in that the entire game takes place on a gigantic tower that extends from the ground level of an alien planet all the way to space. Players will slowly climb said tower with checkpoints, which you can instantly teleport to after obtaining them. [embed]334028:61857:0[/embed] Great camera work also helps show off these environments in a big way, and I love how you can alter the visuals and music from "DVD" quality to the worse "VHS" setting. Cutscenes can also be fast-forwarded even upon the initial viewing, and there's several funny effects such as a forced black and white section for "budgetary reasons. ACE Team also goes full hog when it comes to the theme -- I'm talking Ray Harryhausen-like stop-motion animation in some cases. If it sounds jarring it really isn't, as the player character is always on point, so the framerate doesn't necessarily drop when enemies like that appear. "For those who are curious, here are the PC visual options and the control scheme. The best part though is the freefalling system. From any point of the tower you can jump off, starting a falling animation that allows you to aim and shoot downwards, collecting helpful objects in the air as you descend. It's a rush to jump off really high points and just take in the scenery, and boss fights that incorporate this mechanic are even more fun. The fact that you can use an "air teleport" system at the touch of a button to return to the point where you fell and teleport to any checkpoint at any time is the icing on the cake, allowing a large degree of freedom when it comes to exploration. This is especially helpful on PC, where I encountered two crashes in my first playthrough. When I loaded the game again I picked up right back where I left off. Despite all my praise though, you should know what you're getting into. My first playthrough only took me roughly three hours to complete, and I managed to spend an extra hour looking for artifacts and completing additional objectives. There doesn't seem to be any option for a New Game+ or the ability to alter the difficulty, which definitely stings a bit despite its strong initial run. I can definitely see replaying it every so often however, and jumping off of the top of the tower is something I did many, many times. The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a fleeting experience, but one that no B-movie fan should go without. I have a few issues with the loot and upgrade systems (namely in that they feel superfluous), but as a straight action game, it mostly succeeds in what it sets out to do. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Deadly Tower review photo
Harryhausen would be proud
I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who had a penchant for classic films, and B-humor. Hell, their first date was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and as a child, I was raised with an endearment to the craft,...

Review: Resident Evil 0 HD Remaster

Jan 18 // Chris Carter
Resident Evil Zero HD Remaster (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: CapcomPublisher: CapcomReleased: January 19, 2016MSRP: $19.99 Zero begins with a rather interesting setpiece: a moving train. Rebecca Chambers, a member of S.T.A.R.S., is sent to investigate crimes in the Arklay Mountains -- conveniently located (and thus, linked) near Raccoon City and the original game's mansion. Here she meets Billy Coen, an alleged murderer and ex-Marine, and starts an "unlikely" partnership. You can probably tell from the setup that the tale is a pastiche of cheesy horror not unlike past games, but it's done just as effectively as before. Sure, the story never really makes much sense, even after the final credits roll, but you'll have a good time while you're along for the ride. Rebecca and Billy have a fun dynamic that is extended throughout Zero. The former can combine herbs and story-related chemicals, and the latter can take more of a beating and move heavy objects. It's not an original concept even for the era it was released in, but it works. This is mostly because of the "zap" partner system that allows both characters to be on-screen at the same time. You can opt to have your AI partner attack or stay idle, which is great if you don't want them wasting ammo. Swapping is as easy as pressing a button to start a second-long heartbeat transition to the other character. You can also control the AI with the right analog stick, which comes in handy for moving them out of harm's way. This idea is used in many different ways that chop up the game's pacing for the better. In some zones, Rebecca and Billy are split, working separately to exchange key items with one another through special devices like service elevators. In other areas, they're working in tandem to solve those wonderful box puzzles, where Billy is moving cubes and Rebecca is operating a device of some sort. Given that so many of Resident Evil's puzzles feature solutions born out of just one avatar, I like that Capcom went with something different here. There's another huge difference when it comes to Zero and all of the games before it: item management. In the past, players would mostly store their items in a magical gamey storage box of sorts, where you could access your armory and inventory wherever a box was located. Now, you can place items on the ground and store them anywhere on the map, no questions asked (well, outside of the single room item limit, which is inexplicably still in this remake). For instance, if you want to split a few typewriter ribbons off a stack of 10 and place them in a save room, you can. The same goes for weapons and herbs, or any key items you may pick up. [embed]332496:61804:0[/embed] Items now show up on the map, so there's no guessing as to where you put them. It's a more challenging system, for sure -- you don't have the infinite box to rely on, and sometimes you'll have to run through gauntlets of enemies if you happen to stash a key item and are required to run back for it. Its use does start to grate mid-way through the game, as it can get rather tedious to juggle everything. The mechanic isn't really re-used, but it helps cement Zero's unique identity (for better and worse) along with zapping, and the level designs mostly accommodate it. This is an old-school Resident Evil game at heart, back when "survival" was still a key factor of the series. Zero features limited ammo, save ribbons, and a lot of decision making, mostly in regards to inventory management. This is especially true given the zapping, because at any moment one character may be forced to fight a boss without the help of another, so ensuring that both cast members are fully equipped is key to your success. In terms of the actual "Remaster" moniker, a lot of the technical details are the same as before. The visuals and framerate have been updated, there's a new non-tank modern control method available, and you can swap between 16:9 and 4:3 resolution (even on consoles) -- but the cheesy FMVs remain untouched. Capcom really could bring back every entry pre-Resident Evil 4 just like this and I'd be happy. Thankfully though, it's slightly more than just a straight touch-up due to the addition of Wesker mode. In this special gametype only found in the remake (that's acquired by beating the game once), Billy is shoved to the side in favor of Wesker, who operates as Rebecca's partner throughout the game. This mode is meant to be silly. Wesker can use his superhuman powers he's flaunted since Code Veronica, including the ability to quickly dash across the room, and use a special energy attack to pop zombie's heads off. He can also mix herbs and doesn't have many limitations. They didn't go the full mile -- Billy is still present in cutscenes, as is his voice -- but it's a meaty enough change.  All of the old unlocks are also present, including additional costumes, weapons, and the Mercenaries-like "Leech Hunter." The latter is a mini-game of sorts that tasks players with escaping a modified version of the Research Center, and gets tougher as you play it. It's not as memorable as some of the true Mercenary modes in other games, but it's worth clearing at least once and should adequately test the mettle of series veterans. As a whole, Resident Evil Zero isn't one of my favorite entries, but with the amount of care that went into this remake, like Resident Evil HD Remaster before it, I'm really coming around. In fact, just get both if you don't have them already. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Resident Evil 0 HD review photo
Welcome, Wesker
For whatever reason, I didn't end up completing Resident Evil Zero back when it was released in 2002 -- in fact, it took me 10 years to truly dive into it. I think it just flew under the radar, but thankfully Capcom has opted...

Review: The Bug Butcher

Jan 18 // Jordan Devore
The Bug Butcher (Mac, Linux, Windows [reviewed])Developer: Awfully Nice StudiosPublisher: Awfully Nice StudiosRelease: January 19, 2016MSRP: $7.99 When I close my eyes, I now see aliens splitting apart into smaller aliens, again and again, until there is nothing left. I can picture exactly how they will move; when they'll strike. Clearly, this game has seeped into my mind. It only took a few short hours. As the titular exterminator, you're called into a research facility to clean up an infestation of creepy crawlers. Each of the 30 levels has the same basic premise -- "the only good bug is a dead bug!" -- but varying stage hazards, gimmicks, and enemy types keep the action engaging. Even after going back through most of the levels several times now, I'm yearning for more. It's all so very satisfying, and the scoring system and character upgrades further incentivize repeated playthroughs. I'll happily oblige. Every alien has a distinct look and movement pattern, but there are constants. They always enter the screen from above, telegraphing their descent so you aren't caught off guard. This is a game that rarely, if ever, feels "cheap." The majority of the bugs bounce around, touching down for a split second before going airborne again. Others hover from side to side, or stick to the ceiling. One pest crawls on the ground, waiting to pounce like a Facehugger. After taking enough damage, most will split into smaller beings that can quickly fill the room if left unchecked. This is important because, crucially, you can only shoot straight up. Positioning is everything. [embed]334931:61897:0[/embed] You'll have to keep an eye out for items that temporarily boost your damage or speed, and weapons like a laser beam, lightning gun, or rocket launcher. None of these last long, but they all pack a hefty punch and are enjoyable to wield. By keeping your combo up, you can also earn one-time-use abilities to, say, become invincible or freeze every alien in place if you're in a bind. Vanquished bugs litter the floor with coins, and there's a score-based, end-of-level payout. In the main Arcade mode, you can buy passive perks and permanent upgrades to make any weapons or abilities you might encounter mid-battle more useful. (To be clear: you always begin levels with your standard machine gun. Which is fine! It's quite good.) You're only able to equip a single perk at a time and, between the three choices, I prefer the one that lets you take a hit without dropping your combo. There's also Panic mode, playable alone or with a friend in split-screen, in which you try to survive for as long as possible. You can keep fighting until you're either out of health or out of time. For me, it's invariably the former. I have no problem scrambling to grab time extensions, but in doing so, I become too reckless. At any point, it's possible to pause the action to buy upgrades for your current run. Unlike in Arcade mode, these purchases aren't persistent across levels. The Bug Butcher gets chaotic, but rarely is it frustrating. Even when the screen is packed with enemies, you still have this overall awareness of where you should be standing, and when. The difficulty curve is spot on. It does a stellar job of making you feel mostly in control -- and, at times, over-powered -- without letting you sleepwalk to victory. You'll have to work for those high scores. I loved the responsive controls, and that's a big factor when examining an action-heavy game like this, but the presentation is also commendable. The art and sound design play pivotal roles. Bugs are squishy, just as you'd expect, while power-ups serve as a visual and auditory jolt of energy. The thumping electronic soundtrack is unrelenting, further helping to keep you in The Zone. If there's a major complaint to be made about The Bug Butcher, it's that there simply isn't more of it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
The Bug Butcher review photo
Do your part!
When I first heard about The Bug Butcher last year, I thought it looked like a nice modern take on the bubble-popping shooter Super Pang. But I held off. I have a regrettable history of playing games in Steam Early Access onl...

Review: Jotun

Jan 17 // Jed Whitaker
Jotun (PC)Developer: Thunder Lotus GamesPublisher: Thunder Lotus GamesMSRP: $14.99Release Date: September 29, 2015 Thora just died an inglorious death and she must now prove herself by battling jotun, giant elementals based on Norse mythology, to enter Valhalla. Along her adventure, players will learn the story of Thora's life, all spoken beautifully in her native tongue with subtitles. Easily one of the strongest and well done female characters I've encountered in a long time, Thora isn't rail-thin, sexualized, or disrespectful of her foes as she cuts them down.  Each level consists of three sections, two of which can be entered and exited at will. These sections each contain a rune that when collected opens up a third area where you'll be battling the jotun. If you're hoping to slay tons of enemies in each level, you may be disappointed, as Jotun focuses on the journey and atmosphere, rather than combat. Most of the time you'll be checking your map and exploring to discover statutes that confer the powers of the gods, health upgrades, and, of course, runes. [embed]333479:61894:0[/embed] A lack of combat isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the levels are drawn beautifully and are well designed. Also, Jotun has some of the best sound design I've heard in an indie game in some time; you'll hear birds chirping, branches crackling, and snow blowing, all while a beautifully-orchestrated soundtrack plays in the background. More so than any other game I've palyed, this attention to detail makes for an atmosphere that sells the "journeying through purgatory all by your lonesome" aesthetic.  If you're hungry for a fight, don't fret, as each level ends with a battle of a gigantic jotun. Jotuns are so large the camera has to pan to the point Thora looks like an ant by comparison. While each battle consists of chopping away at the feet of each jotun with your trusty axe, they all feel different enough to stay fresh. That said, the strategy for taking on each jotun is similar: avoid attacks, look for an opening, attack, rinse, lather, repeat. As there are only six jotun in total to conquer, the formula never gets stale.  Battling these gigantic foes are easily the best part of the game, as each one is hand drawn with an animation style reminiscent of Don Bluth's work from Dragon's Lair. The jotun are as beautiful as they are terrifying.  The difficulty scales well throughout the adventure, as the levels leading up to boss battles ensure each of the game's mechanics is understood and well utilized. The first level requires players to use heavy attacks to bushwhack through a forest level, a skill that is later required to defeat that stage's jotun battle. Another area involves climbing a gigantic tree while a huge bird periodically swoops down at Thora, requiring players to time dodge rolls, which of course is used in the ensuing battle with another jotun.  If you're looking for something laid back, beautifully drawn, and well orchestrated with some intense, but not overly difficult, boss battles, then Jotun is easy to recommend. It's a magical ride that I'm sure I'll revisit from time to time in the future. Even though the whole experience only lasts just over five hours, it is five solid hours. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Tharsis (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: Choice ProvisionsPublisher: Choice ProvisionsMSRP: 14.99Release Date: January 12, 2016
Review: Jotun photo
The opposite of a foot fetish
The response to my review of Freedom Planet was pretty positive, as was the suggestion that I'd be reviewing some older Steam games we may have looked over, so here we are. Jotun slipped us by here at Destructoid when it released late last year, but I'm here to remedy that. This is little game with big heart, big style, even bigger enemies, and strong female lead to boot.

Review: Corsair STRAFE RGB MX Silent gaming keyboard

Jan 16 // Joe Parlock
[embed]334733:61890:0[/embed] Product: Corsair STRAFE RGB MX Cherry Silent Gaming KeyboardManufacturer: CorsairInput: 2x USB 2.0, or 1x USB 3.0MSRP: $159.99/£159.99 On first impressions, the STRAFE certainly looks the part of a £160 keyboard. With metal side plates, each key being brightly lit by a changeable colour LED, and a stylish wrist rest, it’s difficult to deny it’s a pretty keyboard that would fit well in any dedicated gaming rig. The major appeal of the STRAFE is its aesthetics. Downloading the Corsair Utility Engine will give users access to tinker with the lighting on every single individual key, or set profiles which can have some damn cool visual effects. Right now, every time I press a key, a ripple effect will spill multi-coloured lights all the way across my keyboard, which looks just lovely. And if the stock effects aren’t to your liking, you can also download user-made presets via Corsair's website. There are also practical uses for the lighting control, too. For example, there are presets highlighting the keys most often used with games, such as a WASD-lit preset for first-person shooters, or a QWER preset for MOBAs. It’s not going to give you a major advantage, but for anyone that dislikes the included physical keycaps (which I feel interfere with the aesthetics of the keyboard), these can provide much-appreciated alternatives. [embed]334733:61891:0[/embed] The keys themselves are awesome. Underneath them are Cherry MX Silent switches, which only launched a few months ago. The good thing about them is their low actuation point, which means you don’t have to press the key as far before the input is registered. For gaming, it feels quicker and more responsive than other switches. Seriously, gaming on this thing feels nice.  For typing, it can admittedly feel a bit sloppy and can result in more typing errors, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off for the extra control in-game . I don’t hear a notable difference between the Silent switches in the STRAFE RGB and the standard Cherry MX Reds in my old Corsair K90. I do hammer quite hard at my keys, though, so for more delicate users there might be a bit more of a difference. While gaming on the STRAFE feels great, which is the major concern with a gaming keyboard, there are two major problems that make me question whether it’s worth the asking price. Firstly, the build quality is inconsistent. The bit of the keyboard you most regularly use is of fantastic quality.The area where the keys sit feels great: it’s heavy, and the back plate is solid and non-flexing. Even if I try to bend it with my hands, there’s absolutely no give. The raised keys make cleaning easy, and the lights are incredibly bright and vibrant, with key labels will likely never fade.  Unfortunately, the bits you may consider ‘extras’ betray the quality of the main board. The wrist rest feels flimsy, and it doesn’t sit flat on my desk, meaning there was quite a bit of flexing involved whenever I put weight on it. Eventually, I had to unclip it and use an old third-party wrist rest, which is chunkier, but provides more support. The cable is also a problem: it’s not visibly braided (which is fine by me, but some people swear by braided cables for aesthetic reasons), and the way the USB inputs are arranged is potentially problematic. You either need plug both the USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 heads into USB 2.0 ports, or you can just plug into a single 3.0 port, leaving the spare 2.0 head flapping around the back of your computer. For cable management nuts, this can be pretty annoying, as it takes up precious space, at least if your PC is in a tight space like mine. This had me resorting to plugging the STRAFE into an external USB hub that was out of the way just to make sure I could fit other cables around the back of my PC. While this may sound like a minor issue, and it is, the STRAFE sits at a top-end price point, where I expect a bit more thought to have gone into the less immediately obvious aspects of the design. The problem that is a bigger deal for me personally is the lack of extra features. My older Corsair K90 retails almost £40 cheaper than the STRAFE RGB, but comes with both dedicated macro and media keys, which the STRAFE lacks. Having to hold down function keys to change the volume (like you see with standard laptop keyboards) was irritating, and in my experience didn’t register with some games like my old physical scrolling wheel did. It’s not a world-ending deal breaker, but it did screw with my workflow quite a bit having to use both hands to change the volume in-game. Overall, the Corsair STRAFE RGB MX Cherry Silent is a mixed bag. For everyday use, it's difficult to justify the price. It lacks some of the features I would’ve expected, and the build quality in some areas could be a lot better. But purely as a game controller, or if money isn’t a concern, the STRAFE is simply fantastic. Durable, responsive and stylish, if you use your gaming PC solely for gaming, then I highly recommend it. The Cherry MX Silent switches feel smooth, easy to use, and have the lifespan to survive many years of intensive gaming. This is the second Corsair keyboard I’ve used, and my response to both has been the same: impressed, but with caveats. [This review is based on retail hardware provided by the manufacturer.] Manufacturer: CorsairInput: 2x USB 2.0, or 1x USB 3.0MSRP: $159.99/£159.99 On first impressions, the STRAFE certainly looks the part of a £160 keyboard. With metal side plates, each key being brightly lit by a changeable colour LED, and a stylish wrist wrest, it’s difficult to deny that it’s a very pretty keyboard that’d fit well in any dedicated gaming rig. The big appeal of the STRAFE is an aesthetic one. Downloading the Corsair Utility Engine will give you access to tinker with the lighting on every single individual key, or set profiles which can have some really damn cool visual effects. Right now, every time I press a key, a ripple effect will spill multi-coloured lights all the way across my keyboard, and it looks just lovely. If the stock effects aren’t to your liking, you can also download quite a few user-made presets on the Corsair website too. There are also practical uses for the lighting control, too. For example, there are presets that highlight the keys most often used for various games, such as a WASD-lit preset for FPS, and a QWER preset for MOBAs. It’s not going to give you any major advantage, but for those who aren’t a fan of the included physical keycaps (which I felt interfered with the aesthetics of the keyboard), it’s a much-appreciated alternative. The keys themselves are awesome. Underneath them are Cherry MX Silent switches, which were only launched a few months ago. The good thing about them is their low actuation point, which means you don’t have to press the key as far before the input is registered. For gaming, it feels quick and responsive compared to both other switches and your standard membrane input on cheaper keyboards. Seriously, gaming on this thing feels nice.  For typing, it can admittedly feel a bit sloppy and can result in more typing errors, but for the extra control in-game, I reckon it’s a worthwhile trade-off. I don’t hear a notable difference between the Silent switches in the STRAFE RGB and the standard Cherry MX Reds in my old Corsair K90. I do hammer quite hard at my keys, though, so for more delicate users there might be a bit more of a difference. While gaming on the STRAFE feels great, which for a gaming keyboard is probably the main thing, there are two fairly major problems that make me question whether it’s worth the asking price. Firstly, the build quality is pretty inconsistent. The bit the actual keys sit on feels great: it’s heavy, and the back plate is solid and non-flexing. Even if I try to bend it with my hands, there’s absolutely no give. The raised keys make cleaning it easy, and the lights are incredibly bright and vibrant, with key labels that will never fade. The bit of the keyboard you most regularly use is of fantastic quality. Unfortunately, the bits which may be considered ‘extras’ betray the quality of the main board. The wrist-rest feels fairly flimsy, and it doesn’t sit flatly on my desk, meaning there is quite a bit of flexing when I put weight on it. I eventually had to unclip it and use my old third-party wrist-rest, which is chunkier and provides more support anyway. The cable can also be a problem too: it’s not visibly braided (which is fine by me, but some people swear on having braided cables for aesthetic reasons), and the way the USB inputs are arranged can be a problem. You either need plug both the USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 heads into USB 2.0 ports, or you plug just the 3.0 into a single 3.0 port, leaving the spare 2.0 head flapping around the back of your computer. For cable management nuts that can be annoying, and it can take up precious space if your PC is in a tight space like mine. I had to resort to plugging it into an external USB hub that was out of the way just to make sure I could fit other cables around the back of my PC. These may sound like minor things, and they are, but as the STRAFE sits at a top-end price point, I would’ve expected a bit more design to have gone into the less immediately obvious parts of it. My second problem is a bigger one for me personally, and that is the lack of extra features. My older Corsair K90 RRPs at almost £40 less than the STRAFE RGB, yet it comes with both dedicated macro and media keys, both things the STRAFE lacks. Having to hold down function keys to change the volume like a standard laptop keyboard was irritating, and I found it didn’t register in some games like my old physical scrolling wheel did. It’s not a world-ending deal breaker, but it did screw with my workflow quite a bit having to use both hands to change the volume in-game. Overall, the Corsair STRAFE RGB MX Cherry Silent is a mixed bag. For everyday use, I’m struggling to justify the price. It lacks some of the features I would’ve expected, and the build quality in some areas could be better. But purely as a game controller, or for those where money isn’t much of a concern for them? It’s simply fantastic. Durable, responsive and stylish, if you use your gaming PC solely for gaming, then I highly recommend it.  The Cherry MX Silent switches feel smooth, easy to use and have the lifespan to put up with many years of intensive gaming. This is the second Corsair keyboard I’ve used, and my response to both has been the same: impressed, but with caveats.
Gaming Keyboard photo
Solid, flashy, but not perfect
I spend most of my time doing one of two things: writing about games for you lovely lot, or playing games so I can then write about games for you lovely lot. Because of that, keyboards are important to me, and finding one tha...

Review: Gravity Rush Remastered

Jan 15 // Josh Tolentino
Gravity Rush Remastered (PS4)Developer: SCE Japan Studio and Bluepoint GamesPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Japan and AsiaReleased: December 10, 2015 (Japan/Asia), February 2, 2016 (NA/EU)MSRP: $29.99 [Note: This review is based on the English-language version of the game released in Asian regions on December 10, 2015. We expect that there will be few if any significant differences between this release and the upcoming North America/EU releases.] The most striking part of Bluepoint's work on Gravity Rush Remastered is on the technical side. The game runs at a smooth, uninterrupted 60 frames per second, at a native 1080p resolution. Higher-resolution textures sport additional detail and sharpening while improved lighting and antialiasing brings out the color in the game's unique cel-shaded aesthetic. No one's going to mistake Gravity Rush Remastered for a "native" PS4 game, but it does look much like the way I (fondly) remember the Vita original, which is high praise considering that I can compare the two side-by-side and see just how much work went into the porting job.  While Bluepoint has made some considerable improvements to Gravity Rush Remastered's graphical quality and performance, it was more conservative in terms of content, opting just to add the original's three downloadable content packs as standard, and a gallery mode to check out concept art, character designs, and unlocked cutscenes. This may dilute the game's value proposition somewhat for existing Gravity Rush owners on the fence about double-dipping since the game is identical in content and design to the Vita version. [embed]334467:61883:0[/embed] If there's anything about the game that qualifies as "bad news," it's rooted in the fact that the content itself is unchanged. As such, the criticisms raised by Jim Sterling in his review of the original do stand, to an extent. The game's mission design never really lives up to the sheer joy of its central gravity-shifting mechanic, and no amount of frame rate improvement or antialiasing can change that. Combat and control in stressful situations can still be a little squirrely, though the better "feel" of a DualShock 4 controller, combined with the extra awareness afforded by a larger screen, makes it easier to compensate. Even players who enjoyed the tilt- and touchscreen-based features of Gravity Rush are accommodated, thanks to the DualShock 4's own motion sensing and touch panel (though these can be turned off if desired). The narrative is also much more proficient at establishing atmosphere and personality than at answering the questions it raises, and by the end of the campaign it can feel like one has just read an incomplete set of obscure foreign comic books, not knowing when or where the next issue will turn up. That said, I'm of the opinion that these rough edges are not nearly as serious in their impact as some may think, and to players in the right mindset, even add to Gravity Rush's considerable charm. The writing, dialog and story all emphasize Kat's character as a somewhat hapless amateur superhero (think "anime Ms. Marvel with a different power set") just getting started in her crime-fighting career, and she's exactly the kind of person who might whiff on landing a gravity kick and go flying into a pile of boxes. Just in the way that deliberately "slow" controls can improve the atmosphere of a horror game like Amnesia, occasional finickiness and flubs reinforce Gravity Rush Remastered's sense of character (albeit unintentionally). In the end, Bluepoint deserves credit for managing to bring out the best in an already-pretty-good game, allowing PS4 owners the chance to experience the charm of Gravity Rush unhampered by the limitations of its original platform.  [This review is based on a retail copy of the game acquired by the reviewer.] UnderRail (PC)Developer: Stygian SoftwarePublisher: Stygian SoftwareReleased: December 18, 2015MSRP: $14.99
Gravity Rush Remastered photo
Falling with style
Gravity Rush is and remains one of the coolest games on the PS Vita, even three years after its original 2012 release. Unfortunately for fans of cool games, the PS Vita didn't get into nearly as many hands as Sony was ho...

Review: Oxenfree

Jan 15 // Nic Rowen
Oxenfree (PC [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Night School StudioPublisher: Night School StudioMSRP: $19.99Released: January 15, 2016 I say “horror” in quotes because the actual spook-factor of Oxenfree isn't that high. This isn't an Amnesia-style gorefest or a Freddy's jumpscare marathon. Oxenfree trades in unease and tension more than outright scares. Think of it more like It Follows than Sleep Away Camp. It's an effective technique. Since you're not wading through blood and viscera at all times, the few moments of hard-hitting violence and terror are that much more jarring. Oxenfree starts with a group of teenagers having a party on an island tourist trap (and one-time military base) near their hometown. Testing out an urban myth involving radio signals and a spooky cave, they accidentally unleash a mysterious entity that seems to have a strange relationship to normal space and time and nothing but malicious intentions on them. The island destination is rendered in a gorgeous dreamlike art style of watercolors and soft light. The normally smooth picture-book aesthetic of Oxenfree's world makes it all the more unnerving when the entity breaks its way into reality with Tron-like neon colors and sharp geometric shapes hanging unnaturally in the sky. It soaks it all in a phenomenal synth-heavy soundtrack from SCNTFC (Galax-Z, Sword & Sworcery) that perfectly alternates between wistful and unnerving. Let me say it plainly, Oxenfree is very light on gameplay. There are no real puzzles to solve, no panicky QTEs to click on, no last-minute boss fight to clumsily fumble through. This is a game about talking. The single most mechanically meaningful thing you do in the game is respond to dialogue options in Aaron Sorkin-style “walk-and-talk” conversations that alternate seamlessly between sarcastic teen bonding, stick-a-knife-in-it awkward stand-offs, and genuinely touching moments. Each conversation option is represented by word balloons you pick with a touch of a button. The tone of the response is hinted at by the phrase in the word balloon similar to the system used in Mass Effect (and done noticeably better than in Fallout 4, I might add). Unlike the galaxy-saving Shepard however, Alex's (the playable protagonist) dialogue isn't laced with heroic speeches or badass threats. She's a teenaged girl who had a lot on her shoulders before the whole spooky-possibly-haunted-island thing started happening and she carries herself like one. She jokes with her friends, gets freaked out, and argues over pointless trivia, like a real person who suddenly found themselves in an unreal situation would. There is no outwardly visible karma meter or “so-and-so will remember that” comments in the game, but your words have meaning. You dialogue choices will effect how the other kids see you and your relationship with them. Occasionally you come to linchpin decision moments that can take you down alternate paths in the game, but mostly the choices are subtlety baked into the experience. A nice change from the “pick blue for good, red for bad” dichotomy of many game's dialogue systems. These conversations are not done in cutscenes or discrete “talking moments,” they're the life blood flowing through the entire game. You chat while walking to the beach, cutting through the woods, while exploring an abandoned military base, and the conversation follows naturally. Jump across a chasm between two cliffs while idly chatting and your friends won't just keep talking about the weather, they'll stop to recognize how badass/insane what you did just was. Same goes for conversations interrupted by spooky transmissions, or sudden, jarring hallucinations. Its easy to picture this backfiring. If the characters were tiresome, boring, or two-dimensional, a game all about talking to them would be a painful experience. Thankfully, the teens of Oxenfree are refreshingly likable. With an excellent script behind some amazing voice-over performances, the teens never wear out their welcome. They're smart, funny, and surprisingly sensible (they mostly just want to get the hell away from the island rather than work out its mysterious history). While the setup is as off the shelf as it gets, the characters don't fit into the Breakfast Club-defined roles you might expect. Alex is a bright girl trying to redefine herself after a life-shattering loss. Her brand new half-brother Jonas (yeah, she's meeting him for the first time at a kegger, it's as awkward as it sounds) is from a bad neighborhood and is implied to have spent a little time in jail. But, he's deeper and more vulnerable than the smoldering bad boy you might be picturing. Best friend Ren is a weird little guy who deals with stress with (actually funny) humor, harbors at least one secret crush, and may or may not be seeing a therapist depending on how seriously you want to take a few throwaway lines. Clarissa is the group's mean girl, always ready with a sharp barb or cutting remark in what is a fairly blatant display of a maladjusted defense mechanism. And Nona, a shy and seemingly unassuming girl who nonetheless has spent most of the semester in suspension, is probably the least developed of the characters but reveals some hidden depth if you make an effort to engage her. In what may be the game's greatest accomplishment, these kids are actually fun to hang around (other than the possible exception of Clarissa). In most horror movies, I usually end up rooting for the machete-wielding maniac after being introduced to the typical gaggle of jerks and dummies of a horror movie cast. In Oxenfree, I couldn't help but be charmed by the gang. When the supernatural creeps of the island finally started getting rough with them, it put a crinkle in my brow and an uncomfortable bend in my spine. I was tense, unsettled. Oxenfree never had to spring a jump scare on me or splatter the screen with blood to wrap me around its finger. It just had to make me care about the kids. Once I did that, it owned me. Aside from talking, the other main thing you do in Oxenfree is tune through a radio. At any time, you can pop out your handy pocket radio and scroll through the channels, finding static, 1940s big band tunes, and the occasional Satanic murmuring from some hell dimension. How very Silent Hill. Scattered throughout the game are various opportunities to tune into tourist information stations that reveal background about the island (and hopefully clues as to what you're up against), as well as secret audio anomalies that function as the game's de facto collectable. These are broadcasts that seem to be coming from another time or an alternate reality. Call me a sap, but I thought the anomalies were genuinely disquieting. It brought to mind the same spooky quality as listening to a numbers station broadcast, or the Jonestown tapes. This is a laid-back game. The vast majority of the experience is just wandering around with your friends, dialing through the radio for the occasional audio anomaly while chatting about school, gossip, and how utterly screwed up the situation you're in is. It's short. You can probably play through it in a single evening if you didn't care about seeing alternate story paths or collecting anomalies. If you wanted to be dismissive and sneer at Oxenfree as another “walking simulator” there isn't much that could be said in its defense. But personally, I think it is an excellent walking simulator. Oxenfree is a walking simulator that is confident enough in its characters and dialogue to bet that you won't mind just hanging around with them. It believes in the sinister low-ebb horror of the island to worm its way into your mind without having to crutch on a jumpscare every few minutes. It knows that its atmosphere and style will be enough to make you want to wander through its forests and dilapidated military bases. It's a walking simulator you should play. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Oxenfree Review photo
Dark signals
Stop me if you've heard this one before: A group of teenagers head to a remote, nearly abandoned tourist trap for a night of wild partying. Not long after they get there though, odd things start to happen. Unsettling things. ...

Review: The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human

Jan 15 // Ben Davis
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (PC)Developer: YCJYPublisher: YCJYReleased: January 19, 2016MSRP: $9.99 The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human tells the story of the last surviving human being, thrown into an unknown year in the distant future via a wormhole. All that is left of our civilization on Earth has been entirely submerged under the ocean. Crumbling cities, broken machines, and other remnants of human civilization are still present, slowly decaying in the sea. The world is now thriving with sea life, as huge fish swim about the dilapidated structures and aquatic plants grow out of control. The only clue about what happened in the past are holo-tapes containing the last recorded information of humanity from the year 3016. This is not a story of hope. As the last one left, you have no way of repopulating the world. Humans had their time, and it's over now. The only thing left to do is try and figure out what happened and live out the rest of your days attempting to make the most out of your present situation. [embed]334534:61880:0[/embed] The player character passes the time aboard a submarine, exploring the serene ocean depths, floating among the thriving sea life, and looking out at remnants of the past. There seems to be very little danger in the surrounding waters; groups of angry giant clams here and there, some pipes spilling out corrosive gases, a few floating sea mines, but for the most part it's smooth sailing. That is, until the last human encounters The Worm. Much like Shadow of the Colossus, there are very few threats in the world of The Aquatic Adventure aside from the bosses. The game compensates by making every boss fight unique, challenging, and memorable. Conquering these massive sea beasts will require puzzle-solving skills, strategy, quick reflexes, and most of all perseverance. The submarine will most likely be destroyed many times before a boss will finally be defeated, but with enough observation and planning, any obstacle can be overcome. Thankfully, the submarine's abilities will take some of the edge off of the difficulty of boss fights. A damaged hull will slowly repair itself automatically over time, so as long as the sub stays out of danger long enough, it can come back full force in the heat of battle. Upgrades can also be found scattered throughout the sea, offering new weapons, tools, improvements to the hull, and more. So if a player is having a particularly rough time with a certain boss, a little exploration might result in better equipment to make the fight a bit easier. There are eleven boss fights in total, but most of them can be fought in any order the player chooses. In the vein of Metroid, new areas can be opened up with upgraded equipment. Every time a new item is acquired, it's usually a good idea to fully explore the map to figure out all possible options for progress and decide which boss to take on next. Although there are a few instances where the player does not have a choice, and the only option for escaping is to fight their way out. The real heart of The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human comes from the graphics. While the thought of exploring a large map with very few threats may seem uneventful, I almost didn't even notice most of the time due to the entrancing sprite art covering every inch of the map. The environments and sea life are so detailed and well animated that they seem to come to life in movement. Everything looks painstakingly hand drawn, with personality oozing out of every object. I had to spend a few moments in each new area just admiring everything around me, from the tangles of seaweed and peaceful (yet sometimes startling) sea creatures to the ruined edifices and malfunctioning electronics. While it looks beautiful even in screenshots, I honestly don't think still images do this game the justice it deserves. To add to the whole charming ambiance, the wonderful electronic soundtrack helped to capture the beauty and strangeness of an underwater world, while also ramping up the tension during boss encounters. Other visual effects added to the charm as well, like how the screen slightly tilts depending on the direction the submarine is moving, the subtle flickering of text to indicate it's being viewed on a monitor of some kind, and what looks like handwritten text which appears upon arrival to a new area. All of these little details add up to give The Aquatic Adventure its own unique flair. If I could offer suggestions for improvement, I do think there needs to be more map functionality. Especially for a game where backtracking is important, it would have been nice for certain obstacles to be highlighted on the map, like green lines to indicate vines which need to be chopped or grey bars to specify doors that can be opened. Of course, obstacles leading to secret areas can be kept hidden from the map, so that only the keenest explorers will find them. I might have also liked a manual save option, for those instances where I was killed by a part of the environment, requiring me to navigate large parts of the map all over again to get back to where I left off, although the fast-travel system did help with that somewhat. Lastly, I did encounter a few annoying bugs while playing, but thankfully they were fixed very quickly. I really enjoyed my time with The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human. It may be a bit on the short side, especially for players who are able to take down the bosses with relative ease, although most players are probably looking at about six to seven hours of playtime. But in that short amount of time, it manages to pack a satisfying amount of action, tranquility, and exploration into a concise, captivating adventure. Just don't be afraid to dive too deep into the ocean depths, no matter what horrors might lurk in the dark abysses below. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Aquatic Adventure review photo
Steve Zissou will outlive us all
Unlike many others out there, underwater environments tend to be some of my favorite areas in video games. So when something like The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human comes along which takes place entirely underwater, I ca...

Review: Rick and Morty: Pocket Mortys

Jan 13 // Chris Carter
Pocket Mortys (Android, iOS [reviewed on an iPhone 6])Developer: Big Pixel StudiosPublisher: Adult Swim GamesMSRP: Free (with microtransactions)Released: January 14, 2016 There's no beating around the bush here, this is a complete and utter Pokémon clone. No, I don't mean that it's a cute parody with subtle references and mechanical influences -- I mean it's literally a Pokémon game with Rick & Morty's world injected in. Presentation-wise it gets the job done, as each type of Morty (read: Pokémon) is fairly unique, and although there aren't full voiceovers and cutscenes, there are some original quips by way of Justin Roiland, who voices both Rick and Morty. As a clone, it features an old school turn-based RPG style battle system (with options for attack, item, switch, and run). Attacks even have AP, and you can capture wild Mortys with a Pokéball Manipulation Chip -- I mean, they aren't even necessarily trying to be funny about it. Pocket does feature "types," but instead of elemental themes it follows the bite-sized rock, paper, scissors style, which predictably counter each other. Hell there's even a bank and Pokémon Morty [healing] Center (though in the case of Pocket, the former also has an SMT-like character combination feature). You know what though? It all actually works, even on the mobile platform. I wish the d-pad were a bit more adaptive (it's basically tethered to one part of the screen), but it's really easy to select each battle and menu option with just a quick tap that I don't really pine for a proper tactile control method. The hub is well designed and easy to get around, with a square-like layout and plenty of helpful shops. Peppered in alongside of the core campaign is a series of sidequests as well (basically item fetch quests), coupled with a rather deep crafting system. In terms of the flow, the gist is that our duo is stuck in a hub world in an alternate dimension, with their portal gun confiscated. To earn it back Rick has to prove himself to a council of Ricks -- all of whom have their own Mortys to do battle with. Of course there's a time-gating catch, as the player will need to earn badges (ha) to unlock each subsequent Rick fight. Think of it like the Elite Four, except in this case, there are six Ricks. Early on, jumping into each zone was a rush, and I couldn't wait to see what types of Mortys and Ricks awaited me. Mini Mortys, Stray-Cat Mortys, Evil Rabbit Mortys -- all of them come complete with their own set of abilities and such, and capturing them to find a well-rounded team was a ton of fun. Except, said loop eventually grows stale after you beat the third Rick council member or so, as Pocket basically says "get more badges, bitch," and forces you to grind it out to see the ending. Because with Pocket Mortys, every zone (which features one possible badge with a Rick fight at the end) is a randomized dungeon of sorts. At first it's exhilarating, diving into the unknown and finding more Mortys along the way, but the tedium sets in after you've seen all the biomes and settings available. While I initially played three hours straight (which is an accomplishment for a free mobile game), once the fatigue set in I resorted in taking frequent breaks. One could argue that this is totally cool for a mobile experience, but it could have at least broken up some of the monotony. Having said all that, the game manages to be fun throughout in spite of this roadblock that will inevitably turn some people off. Okay, so it's free, is there a catch? Sort of. The microtransaction scheme is twofold. First, you can watch videos (ads) for extra currency, which is used to buy items from the in-game store. It's a strategy that a lot of games are using these days, and for the most part, it's fairly inoffensive. Where Pocket kind of gets me irked is the second scheme, which are good old fashioned microtransactions that grant you tickets to exchange for better items and even new Mortys. Sure you can still earn tickets occasionally (mostly by beating an "Elite" member), but the fact that both of these strategies co-exist does get in the way somewhat. Now, I'm not the type of person who automatically burns things at the stake for microtransactions merely on principle, especially if they ultimately are optional, and that's how I felt with Pocket Mortys. Not once did I feel the need to spend money, and although I was tempted to watch an ad or two to earn enough to buy an extra potion for a boss fight in one zone, the realization that I could just die, go back to the hub without penalty, and move on to another random zone didn't sting in the slightest. Pocket Mortys, like many episodes of the show, is a true roller coaster. It has a lot of highs, a ton of lows, and that may not appeal to everyone. For me though, I feel like I got my money's worth, and it made the wait for the next season of the show (which still has no set premiere window) that much easier. [This review is based on a retail build of the free game provided by the publisher ahead of launch.]
Rick and Morty review photo
Gotta ::burp:: 'em all, Morty
I only started watching Rick & Morty halfway into the second season several months back, but after catching the first few episodes, I immediately burned through all of it. There's something about the show's sick sense of ...

Review: Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India

Jan 12 // Chris Carter
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed]) Developer: Climax StudiosPublisher: UbisoftReleased: January 12, 2016MSRP: $9.99 In this tale players will assume the role of Arbaaz Mir -- a cocksure assassin who has just stolen the Koh-i-Noor diamond, a Piece of Eden. The year is 1841, and Arbaaz is caught up in your typical Assassin vs. Templar antics in the brand new setting of India. The narrative mostly takes a backseat, with various puzzles and combat (or rather, the option to avoid combat) challenges to face along the way, and little in the form of exposition or world building. It's...serviceable, much like China, in that the story doesn't really leap out of the screen, but it also doesn't get in the way. India keeps inline with China's unique visual style that looks like it could be housed in an art gallery, but with more vibrant hues and beautiful pastels than the last iteration. Often times I'd stop and ogle at the landscape, which is something I rarely do in recent 2D titles -- but then again, Ubisoft usually nails it in that department (Rayman, Child of Light). In case you're wondering, it's still following the same stealth platformer format from China, so don't expect a whole lot. Levels are very linear in nature, even if specific sections do have a number of different solutions (like whistling to distract guards, going around them entirely with the grappling hook, and so on). Once again the actual platforming mechanics are sound, and the "stealth button/run button" format translates unusually well to the 2D plane. That smoothness starts to grate though once you've made your way through similar looking labyrinthine halls, fighting the same types of enemies over and over. [embed]333470:61826:0[/embed] India still discourages combat and proclaims stealth king, which will probably polarize a few of you out there looking for constant fights. The game punishes you with a low health pool and a limited amount of combat tools, so if you are adverse to stealth you may want to sit out for this series. Personally I revel in the ability to not go in guns (or blades) blazing, so the style suit me quite well, especially with the increased emphasis on the grappling hook. Once the story is all said and done there's a New Game Plus, and a "New Game Plus Hard" option to storm through. Thankfully though Ubisoft added in another element to India in the form of challenge rooms, which are basically in the same surrealistic "VR" style as past entries, with time-based objectives to complete. Sure it's the same old song and dance for Assassin's Creed, but it's nice to have something extra to do, even if there's only six of them. Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India isn't a whole lot different compared to China, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on your prior experience. It sports a slightly less interesting character and setting, but the core experience is replicated, and the addition of a few gameplay tweaks as well as the aforementioned challenge mode ensures that it's on the level. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Assassin's Creed review photo
Hide and Sikh
When the Chronicles series was announced, my response was mixed. I mean, it's cool that we're getting to see new settings outside of the usual suspect after all, but by that same token, I'd rather see those new areas in a fully-fledged 3D game. These Prince of Persia inspired 2.5D gaidens (including last year's China) are the next best thing though, albeit with some provisos.

Review: Tharsis

Jan 11 // Patrick Hancock
Tharsis (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: Choice ProvisionsPublisher: Choice ProvisionsMSRP: 14.99Release Date: January 12, 2016 Tharsis puts players in command of a crew en route to Mars where everything possible is going wrong. It sets the tone early in the tutorial by having a crew member straight up die. In fact, every new adventure begins with that crew member dying, which I find morbidly hysterical, especially considering how often I've started new games. In between each "turn" is a small, still-image cutscene that explains a little bit of how the plot is progressing. They play every playthrough, and while they are easy to skip, it's a minor annoyance to constantly be skipping them after every single turn. The plot unfolds as quick as the player is good; the further a player gets, the more story they reveal. Generally, this will be a very slow drip of new information, since it's very fucking difficult. Tharsis is essentially a virtual board game. The objective is to make it to Mars, which is ten weeks away, where each turn is a single week. The thing is, shit goes wrong on the ship every single turn. With the four surviving crew members, players must roll dice to fix the many issues plaguing the ship. I'm talking literal dice rolls here, as in you see the dice roll and bounce off the edges of the screen until they stop. [embed]331702:61810:0[/embed] There are seven sections of the ship, and each of them have a specific purpose. The Med Bay can heal crew members, the greenhouse grows food, and so on. In order to perform these actions, a crew member must be in that area and roll their dice. If that dice roll fits a predetermined requirement, the player can use those dice to complete the action. To grow food, for example, a player needs two or three identical dice. To heal in the Med Bay, a single die of a five or six will do. Eating food will restore dice, which is crucial to survival. Growing food, however, is hard to fit in. The alternative is cannibalism. Dead crew members will soon be available as food, if the player wishes to indulge. Human meat isn't as beneficial as grown food, since it reduces the max health of the crew member by one, but it's more available. Players can even elect to kill crew members in order to get more human meat. A decision like this should carry a lot of emotional baggage with it, but the fact is that it really doesn't. It's terrible to think about, but never quite hits home in an impactful way. Dice can also be put towards research, which will grant players extra actions and saving graces. The research bar can accept six dice - one for each possible result. Each die placed on the bar grants a research point. If at any point the player chooses to use their research for an extra action, like instantly restoring ship health, those points are removed. If the bar is completely filled, the points are kept but the dice are removed. Mechanically, this is a great way to not waste many extra dice that would otherwise be lost. Each crew member also has a specific action they can perform. Performing these actions is similar to the module actions: rolling a die that fits a predetermined requirement allows players to use it for a crew action. All these actions fall in line with the crew member's title: the Doctor heals other members, the Engineer repairs the ship, and so on. Extra crew members can be unlocked by hitting certain goals through every playthrough. These are lofty goals, like eating 300 pieces of human remains, but it is nice to have something to always be working towards, even if it is often unintentionally. These characters aren't necessarily better, as the "better" crew actions really just come down to personal preference. The ship itself is constantly under distress. New events of varying severity show up at the start of each turn, ranging from near-catastrophic to "eh, I'll get to it eventually." Events have "health," and when an event's health is completely repaired, the event is prevented. If an event is present at the end of the turn, its effect will occur until it is taken care of. A player repairs an event by rolling enough dice to reduce its health to zero. If an event has 12 health and a crew member rolls two sixes, great! The event can be taken care of. It doesn't matter how many dice rolls it takes to get rid of the event, just so long as it is gone before the end of the turn.  While rolling to clear an event, certain numbers of the die will have negative status effects associated with them: Stasis, Void, and Injury. If a rolled die matches the Stasis number, that die is frozen and cannot be re-rolled. If the Void number is rolled, that die disappears completely. Rolling the Injury number reduces the crew member's health. To prevent this, a resource called Assist can be gained. If the player has any Assists available, they will be used and nullify any of these status effects.  The problem is that Assists are used automatically, even when it isn't necessary. Let's say that an event only has two health remaining. A crew member might roll two dice: a two and a six. If the two has Stasis attached to it and the player has an Assist, then that Assist will be wasted on that die, since it was going to be used as a two anyway.  This issue comes up quite often, and is nothing but frustrating. Sometimes, two status effects will happen at once, one of which is clearly non-consequential, and the Assist will be wasted on the status effect the player doesn't care about. Knowing that Assists are automatic forces players to think about which astronaut they send to which module, but having the game completely take over an important resource eliminates too much player agency. While changing this would remove one element of strategy, it would add another that would alleviate a lot of frustration. It often feels that Tharsis relies too much on dice rolls. Overcoming intense obstacles often doesn't result in a feeling of accomplishment and pride, but one of happenstance and luck. It's likely intentional, to give the player the feeling that the situation is never really under control, but it's frustrating enough to destroy one's interest in trying again. That's not to say that the player has no impact on the results. There are very important decisions the player must make in order to help the crew survive. The order in which crew members go to tackle an event can change the impact of the turn. Sending in a Specialist first, who gets an extra re-roll, has a better chance of bringing down an events health than anyone else. Doing so can allow other members to have free dice available, which can in turn let them use their special ability to heal other members, repair the ship, or grow food. Dice are Tharsis' biggest resource, and mismanaging them will end the game very quickly. As I continued to play, I noticed just how important dice placement can be. Ideally, the player never wastes a die. Between crew abilities, module actions, event repair, and research, the player should be able to find a place for every single die, luck providing.  There's also the matter of using research abilities wisely. These can be used at almost any time, and they have saved my butt more than once. Evaluating the situation as a whole is crucial; it can be better to use research and crew abilities to repair a ship's health instead of getting rid of events. It's a short-term solution, but sometimes that's all you need. In between turns the player is forced to choose between different crew members' ideas. These often have positive and negative effects to them. One might add a piece of food but take away one health from every crew member, for example. There are little blurbs to go along with these decisions, but the written words make little to no sense in conjunction with the effects. This widens the disconnect between any attachment to the crew members and serves to remind the players that this is just a game. Not taking a crew member's idea can result in a loss of sanity for that crew member. As the sanity bar increases (which means they are losing sanity), their ideas will become worse and worse. Other events, like cannibalism and receiving injuries, also serve to increase the sanity bar. A playthrough ends when either no crew members are left or the ship's health is depleted. Early on, runs will likely last under ten minutes. As the player understands more and begins to utilize their resources a little better, runs will get slightly longer. A completed run will take approximately 30 minutes, depending on how much time was spent thinking. There's also a hard mode. But fuck that. Visually, it all looks pretty wonderful. Information is displayed clearly to the player and everything on the user interface is easy to understand while not being cluttered. Stasis and Void are displayed as two very similar colors, however, which makes it hard for colorblind players to notice the difference. The cutscenes are drawn while the game itself uses 3D models. The faces of crew members are a bit bleh, but while looking at the ship itself, all else is forgiven. There's a lot of small touches that both hurt and help. The cutscenes are always the same, and it becomes annoying to have to skip the cutscenes in between every turn. On the other hand, the narrator will be male or female, depending on which commander the player has. The popup that explains what crew idea choices are also pops up every single playthrough, which is another slight annoyance. Looking around the interiors, however, shows a strong attention to detail that really helps the ship come alive. Tharsis is a good way to spend 10-30 minutes to see what happens on the next journey. It's a very harsh battle against the unknown, and can be utterly soul-crushing. Perhaps too soul-crushing, actually. Players will, at times, feel so defeated and useless that playing again seems pointless. And maybe that's the point, considering the circumstances. I wouldn't recommend to marathon Tharsis in an attempt to complete its journey, but instead to boot it up every once in a while and hope for the best. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tharsis Review photo
God damn, Mark Watney had it easy
Space is dangerous, everyone. If you weren't aware of this, just play Tharsis. If you wanna feel sad and hopeless, just play Tharsis. If you're known for always getting great dice rolls at tabletop night, definitely play Thar...

Review: That Dragon, Cancer

Jan 11 // Laura Kate Dale
That Dragon, Cancer (Ouya, PC [Reviewed])Developer: Numinous GamesPublisher: Numinous GamesMSRP: $14.99Released: January 12, 2015Rig: Intel Core i5-4690K @ 3.5 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, Windows 7 64-bit  That Dragon, Cancer is a two hour long, autobiographical exploration of creator Ryan Green's experience of having a young child diagnosed with cancer. At around twelve months old Joel Green, Ryan's son, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given only a few months to live. In spite of his short prognosis Joel lived for several more years, with That Dragon, Cancer exploring the time between diagnosis and Joel's eventual passing away. [embed]332930:61798:0[/embed] That Dragon, Cancer is an odd game to really break apart. When I initially saw it in demo form a few years ago interactions were largely restricted to pacing around a single room, hearing sincere voice acting from a father with a distressed son he could not help. The frustration of being unable to do anything, the pain of pacing this single space and the strength of the writing made this single room experience incredibly moving to experience.  When Cancer focuses on these deeply personal moments, it truly shines as an experience. Be it spinning a simple children's toy in order to hear the thoughts of adults in a room to feeding ducks while Joel's siblings ask questions about his stagnant development, the times where Dragon focuses on very direct interactive representations of what their family went through are definitely not only moving, but meaningful. Where Dragon seems to stumble is when it tries to either abstract its representations of emotional themes, or introduce interactive elements that may not mesh with the tone of the surrounding narrative. With the exception of an incredibly well handled video game within the video game, most sections added to introduce additional video game elements ultimately detract from the experience, rather than adding to it. There's nothing to be gained by breaking up a somber scene with a poorly made, three lap cart race in a hospital with no other racers and no consequences for performance. That scene for example breaks the tone and impact of a much larger scene, feeling like it does so purely so the game is less likely to be labelled a walking simulator. While a few of these moments successfully convey themes, many of the successful scenes also drag on far longer than is sensible, damaging the pacing of the narrative considerably. I feel like this would be a much stronger experience if many of these moments of forced interaction were removed. That small video game inside the video game however? Really damn impressive. There's also a scene involving floating on balloons that, while overly long, did have some value. When Cancer is focusing on telling a direct narrative about a family's life with a son they knew was dying, it truly is an incredible experience. From the ways it conveys the highs and lows of life to the exploration of how Christianity fits into a family expecting bereavement, from the discussions of the future to the enjoyment of the present, it really is an awe inspiringly beautiful experience when it's focused. As a monument to a son, it's incredibly touching to see. The final scenes of the game were a beautiful bookend to a life cut short and without a doubt left me in tears for quite some time. That Dragon, Cancer is a beautiful experience, if one that would have benefited considerably from having content cut to improve the flow, pacing, and tone.
That Dragon, Cancer photo
Beautifully inconsistent
It's a very odd experience as a critic, reviewing something like That Dragon, Cancer. A product that is so clearly an incredibly personal work of art created from a place of sincerity, but also a consumer product being sold t...

Review: Pony Island

Jan 10 // Laura Kate Dale
Pony Island (PC)Developer: Daniel Mullins Games Publisher: Daniel Mullins GamesMSRP: $4.99Released: Out NowRig: Intel Core i5-4690K @ 3.5 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, Windows 7 64-bit  Pony Island is a game about escaping from a badly coded non stop runner arcade title created by the devil to steal human souls. While in any other experience that premise would be some late game spoiler, here it's a given. You're playing a very basic game, and you're routinely prompted to give it your soul. You have to play through the game, find weak points, then attempt to hack your way out to safety. Where Island succeeds is from this narrative starting point, as it constantly finds ways to surprise, create and evolve through play. Mechanics are added to your tool set to keep the challenge fresh, without any puzzle ever getting too tough or overwhelming. Characters are introduced just far enough apart to ensure the pacing stays solid and narrative twists strike a solid balance where the plot is constantly moving forward, but never feels rushed. [embed]333085:61803:0[/embed] While the narrative on the surface is about a very literal attempt to escape from the clutches of Lucifer, its real charm comes from tackling themes that are much more grounded in reality. From the struggles of appeasing and engaging audiences as a creator to the frustrations involved in trying to first learn a creative skill, there are a bunch of really interesting and relatable themes explored through what on the surface is a story about a demonic pony game. While you spend a lot of your time in game trying to manipulate code to break apart a working machine, the plot uses this set of mechanics to explore some connected themes in ways I found incredibly interesting. You may have by now noticed that I am somewhat talking around the specifics of Island in this review, and a lot of that is intentional. While the overall plot isn't a spoiler, the value in Pony is experiencing the specifics for yourself. As you work your way through an unsettlingly self aware machine, the methods used to prevent your departure had me glued to my seat and my screen. Pony Island messes with players in unexpected ways that stuck with me for days. It took a number of unexpected turns that caught me off guard and was constantly filling me with a sense of inescapable unease. It wasn't on my radar at all before it released, but at under $5 it's a wonderful use of two hours of your life. So long as you like the idea of Satan trying to steal your soul post purchase.
Pony Island photo
Consistently surprising and intelligent
Over the last couple of years, some of my favourite games to come out of the indie scene have been the games that play around with expected genre conventions in new and interesting ways. From The Stanley Parable messing with ...

Review: Chiptune Champion

Jan 08 // Jed Whitaker
Chiptune Champion (PC [reviewed])Developer: Blake GarnerPublisher: Blake GarnerMSRP: $9.99Released: January 8, 2016 If you're like me then you grew up playing the NES where chiptunes were the norm, then you became a teenage pirate and you'd get distracted by keygen music, and now you're an adult and you just have a general love of chiptune and enjoy purchasing games and music to support artists. If so, you may want to give Chiptune Champion a play then, as it is filled with some of the best chiptunes out there from artists such as Rymdkraft, Carf Darko, and Savestates, with 40 songs in total. The whole presentation is bare-bones, but it gets the job done. Notes come from the top of the screen and the appropriate number key needs to be held while pressing the enter key on time, very similar to how Guitar Hero and Rock Band are played. The graphics are about what you'd expect from a 16-bit style game, and there isn't an option to have the game fill the whole screen, instead full screen puts a black box on the outside of the screen. Music continues to play regardless of if you hit the notes or not, but an obnoxious sound effect plays loudly if you miss a note or play one at the wrong time. I checked the options to see if the sound effect could be turned down or off, but no such options exist.  [embed]332764:61786:0[/embed] The developer suggests holding your keyboard vertically and facing away from yourself while playing, but I found it was easier to remap the keys to home row and play with my keyboard in its natural position. That said, my keyboard has a bit of extra plastic at the top that makes it a bit more extended, so your experience may vary based on your hardware. Once my keys were remapped I had a far better experience but was still only able to play on the easiest difficulty only requiring four keys. The medium and expert difficulties have you playing five keys, and ramp up the difficulty significantly, so if you're looking for a challenge you'll certainly find it there. There are also weekly and overall leaderboards per song, if you're into that kind of thing. On top of the included 40 songs is the ability to create your own and share them via Steam Workshop. Custom songs can be created, imported and exported right from the game, so even if your favorite chiptune artist isn't included you could technically create their tracks in the game or beg them to (looking at you Alphadeus.)  While the presentation leaves a bit to be desired, the music is on point and often had me humming along before the songs were even over, which is probably the most important factor to any music and rhythm game. If you're a fan of chiptunes and want a Guitar Hero-like experience on PC then Chiptune Champion is easily recommendable, it sure beats jumping through the hoops required to get Frets on Fire to work on modern technology.  [embed]332764:61786:0[/embed]
Review: Chiptune Champion photo
Keygen Music Hero
I love chiptune music and I love music and rhythm games, so of course I had to play Chiptune Champion, which combines them both.  It might not be perfect, and it might not be much to look at it, but it has its charm. 

Review: Hardware: Rivals

Jan 06 // Chris Carter
Hardware: Rivals (PS4)Developer: SCE Connected Content GroupPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment EuropeMSRP: $19.99Released: January 5, 2016 Rivals boils down to jeeps vs. tanks, with only a scant four vehicles (two in each category) to choose from at the start. The former sports a Twisted Metal-like machine gun and the latter carries a turret into battle, and your typical host of subweapons can be picked up across the battlefield. I'm talking long range plasma scatter shots, a short-range laser beam, and surface-to-air missiles with lock-on capabilities. All of them are coupled with bright animations and satisfying sound effects, which give them quite a bit of impact when playing. The controls are very easy to pick up, basically consisting of acceleration (R2 or X, which is convenient) and braking procedures, along with dedicated buttons for primary and subweapons. Jeeps in particular are much easier to acclimate to, since they have relatively loose controls, great acceleration, and a spread-based gun. Tanks on the other hand take some getting to used to, as they're predictably clunky, and the turret itself can be rather slow-moving as you seek out enemies. Since most of the damage is done by subweapons anyway, tanks feel a bit clipped in that regard, but I've seen success from both play styles. Speaking of the subweapon system, despite the fact that they all have their own distinct look and feel, acquisition is a bit off and poorly paced. For starters, you can only stack subweapons, and by picking up a new type, you'll replace your previous one. It's jarring to say the least, since the vast majority of car combat games allow you to cache an entire arsenal to use at your disposal. Team games with lots of players on-screen can be sluggish as a result, because if everyone is picking up all the subs you're stuck with your primary. This is exacerbated by the fact that drivers don't have unique weapons to set them apart from the crowd. [embed]331641:61717:0[/embed] There's also the problem of supers, which drastically alter the battle in favor of whoever attains the coveted power-up. While one stage has a cool gimmick that forces players underground to avoid a missile strike, another features a cheap "frozen" mechanic that places ice on the ground and punishes them unless they find some way to get some air. The latter feels very unbalanced in every game I've experienced, because the slow effect happens almost instantaneously, and it's tough to get to safety. Levels are layered and built around these concepts, which is nice, and despite the fact that there are only four arenas at present, all of them are suitably fun to roll around in. I suspected this would be a free-to-play heavy game with microtransactions but that isn't the case (it's a $19.99 release that's merely free on PlayStation Plus this month). The perk and upgrade system (featuring "Salvage" as currency) is rather fair and inoffensive at the very worst. Players will earn a decent amount of Salvage after every match, win or loss, which is enough to alter the state of their car or driver. It's a carrot on a stick to encourage leveling up and grinding, but again, it's par for the course for modern shooters and doesn't detract from Rivals as a whole as much as the aforementioned issues do. Most of the fun (if not all of it) will be derived from online play, because there aren't really any single player modes outside of the tutorial. In fact the whole shebang is basically online, as there's no split-screen or local play, and no support for bots. The four included modes basically all boil down to "deathmatch" with team variants (outside of one domination mode). There is support for private matches and events are on the way, with the first one debuting later this week. During my time with Rivals games were relatively lag free, though I did notice some connection issues at launch that prevented me from playing for roughly half an hour. There are 30 challenges available, which include looking at levels from a different perspective (like racing), but it's not a separate mode -- they're more like achievements for existing matches. It's baffling, as these simplistic alterations of existing arenas would have been a great way to break up the fatigue of online play. Hardware: Rivals has a good core concept and engine, but it needs some work around the edges. A lot of little things added up for me the more I played it in an increasingly annoying fashion, most of which can be fixed with proper updates. [This review is based on a retail build of the game acquired for free by way of PlayStation Plus.]
Hardware: Rivals review photo
Back to the toolbox
Car combat is one of those genres that just doesn't get no respect these days. Even 2012's Twisted Metal couldn't revitalize the franchise, and for some time, the genre has been on life support mostly by way of indie developers. So when I heard about Hardware: Rivals, I had to jump in and see what the fuss was about. Unfortunately, I doubt this one will usher in a new era of glory.

Review: Minecraft: Story Mode: A Block and a Hard Place

Jan 05 // Darren Nakamura
Minecraft: Story Mode: A Block and a Hard Place (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: December 22, 2015 (Mac, PC)MSRP: $4.99, $24.99 (Season Pass)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Where the first two episodes in the season induced apathy, this one causes ambivalence. It's a fine distinction: I was struggling to care about Jesse and his friends at first; now I care enough but find myself disappointed with the final result. For every beat Minecraft: Story Mode hits well, it stumbles once or twice. On the one hand, the more deliberate progression of this episode can be a good thing. It opens up the gameplay to include actual (albeit easy) puzzles along with the standard dialogue trees and quick-time events. Also, without lulls in the action, it could be bombastic to the point of grating. If it's always high energy, then it's all the same. On the other hand, the plodding of the first half of this episode is as dull as can be. There's a horse travel montage near the beginning illustrating just how far it is to get to the Farlands, and protagonist Jesse has the option of the classic whine "Are we there yet?" Even with the cuts of the montage, I felt the same. I get it; it's far. Let's move on. [embed]327542:61558:0[/embed] Once the action finally does pick up at the end, it still treads a questionable path. The full story about The Order of the Stone is revealed, and it plays out as foreshadowed. It's always a little awkward when a story treats something like an earth-shattering reveal when most would see it coming from the hints in previous episodes. Perhaps if I had led the life Jesse did, it would have been more impactful. Then, almost as if checking off all the Telltale boxes, we get another character death. This loss feels more important than the one in the third episode, since it's a likable character. Death in children's entertainment is nothing new (see: Bambi, The Land Before Time, Transformers [1986]), but it generally comes with a purpose. While we'll have to wait for the fifth episode, my sneaking suspicion is the only reason this death was written in was a cynical attempt at eliciting emotion. The really strange part of the whole scene is that in the middle of the mourning (when I have a full pout on my face), Story Mode lets loose a visual gag referencing the source material. Admittedly, it's probably the funniest thing in the whole episode -- so few of the jokes are worth even a chuckle -- but it feels wrong to have it punctuate the rest of the sad scene so bluntly. With the Wither Storm properly defeated, Jesse and the gang are proclaimed to be the new Order of the Stone, and A Block and a Hard Place ends with the vague promise of new adventures coming in the next episode. Unless it's tightly written and self-contained, I'm not interested. More likely, the last episode will open up a can of worms that won't get resolved until Season Two. This episode could very well be considered the finale for the first season. It wraps up the Wither Storm saga, it answers the questions about the Order of the Stone, and it delivers a semi-happy, hopeful ending for the crew. If only it did that without an utterly boring first half and the clumsy insertion of mandatory Telltale story elements, it might have also been a good ending. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Minecraft review photo
Denouement-craft
What a weird episode. After the high energy of The Last Place You Look, this one slows down the action shortly into it, and it doesn't really pick back up until the very end, which feels like the end of a season. But then, th...

Review: Amplitude

Jan 05 // Chris Carter
Amplitude (PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: HarmonixPublisher: HarmonixMSRP: $19.99Released: January 5, 2016 (PS4) / TBA (PS3) Amplitude might be hard to master, but it's extremely easy to pick up. If you've played the series before you'll be able to jump right back in at the highest difficulty level, but for the rest of you, a quick five minute tutorial is all you'll need. Simply put, notes are laid down on tracks that symbolize instruments (or vocals), with L1, R1, and R2 (or Square, Triangle, and Circle) triggering the left, middle, or right notes respectively. Players are required to hit specific notes on beat on each track, then move to the next one. That's essentially it. There are a few more nuances like "Streaking" (combos, initiated by quickly moving and playing notes on a new track), and power-ups (simple concepts like clearing a track instantly), but you'll pick up the basics in no time. And in many ways, that's what's so great about Amplitude. The concept of a ship driving down a literal road that signifies your progress in a song is brilliant, and although it's been done a few times since the franchise's retirement, Harmonix does it best. All four difficulties (plus one bonus unlock) feel balanced, and the highest (Expert) is sufficiently challenging. Amplitude doesn't have a whole lot on offer though, content-wise. The campaign is a mere 15 songs long, consisting of a "concept album" created by Harmonix. It's a neat idea in theory, but it's over before you know it, and will definitely leave players wanting more. The fact that it cannot be played with friends and is required to unlock a handful of songs for multiplayer also isn't ideal. After finishing up the campaign, I had no desire to ever play it again. [embed]328939:61634:0[/embed] In that sense, the vast majority of your time will be spent in the free play mode, which supports up to four players in both versus or team play (1v3 or 2v2) situations. It's just as fun as it was in the past, as there's even more strategy involved with more ships on the track, since you can block out opponents from entering a track by claiming it first. With all of the power-ups being used in tandem, things can get hectic. It's Amplitude at its best, and truly successful players will need to watch their own track as well as peruse the entire board for the next move on top of counter-maneuvers, taking other ships into account. Where Amplitude really falls short is its lackluster 30-song soundtrack. You can take a look at the full setlist here to get an idea of what to expect -- spoiler: it's a lot of in-house work. Most of it is competent electronica crafted by the talented folks at Harmonix, but I just don't dig most of the vocal work -- either the performances or the lyrics -- and the majority of songs are not nearly as memorable as classics from the old games like Garbage's "Cherry Lips" or David Bowie's "Everyone Says Hi." I would play those songs for hours on end years back, but like the campaign, I'm willing to skip out on most of the new tracks. The original games weren't afraid to get out of their comfort zone with songs like "Dope Nose" from Weezer and "King of Rock" by Run-DMC, and the lack of risk-taking really shows with this new iteration. Another general issue I have is the way songs are doled out while playing. Tracks are locked behind the campaign as previously mentioned, but others require players to complete a ton of songs to access them. One even takes 60 plays to unlock! Why did Harmonix feel the need to do this? To gate the experience and ensure it lasts longer? It goes against the party-like nature of the game, and feels like a relic of the past. I wouldn't mind doing this if the reward were greater (like the original), but it isn't. Amplitude is a competent rhythm game that should provide lots of fun at parties, but the hamstrung tracklist is a severe detriment to its longevity. Harmonix was able to preserve the classic experience, but may have gone overboard in its effort to do so. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. I did not contribute to the Kickstarter campaign.]
Amplitude review photo
This Amp doesn't go to 11
Before there was an abundance of rhythm games out there with plastic peripherals, there were developers like Harmonix leading the way with controller-based experiences. Along with some long sessions of Gitaroo Man and Pa...

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider: Endurance Mode

Jan 05 // Chris Carter
Rise of the Tomb Raider: Endurance Mode (Xbox One [reviewed], Xbox 360, PC, PS4)Developer: Crystal Dynamics (Xbox One), Nixxes Software (Xbox 360)Publisher: Microsoft (Xbox One, 360); Square Enix (PC, PS4)MSRP: $9.99Released: December 29, 2015 Endurance Mode is very light on story, offering up a shaky excuse for its existence which isn't even all that necessary. Lara, seemingly breaking from her travels, is in search of artifacts as is the evil mustache-twirling Trinity organization. Her job is to locate caves and recover said artifacts, then signal a helicopter and high-tail it out of there with as many goodies as she can grab. The catch is, players now have a food and warmth meter. Grabbing supplies such as bark and berries (or killing animals for food) actually has a point now, rather than a gamified version of an upgrade system like the core story. Hilariously, it even goes as deep as needing resources to light the signal fire to even escape, something I failed at in my first run. Ammo is often much more scarce a la Resident Evil as well, which is a nice touch -- I'd almost always find myself out of arrows during nearly all of my runs. Relic caves are actually mini-crypts, and are roughly 5-10 minute, bite-sized dungeons of sorts with random trap types. They're fun to play through, and don't overstay their welcome given their short length. Additionally, the rewards for actually exploring these caves are decent, including credit payouts for more Expedition rewards, and new weapons. I would prefer a lot of these elements to just be baked into the core game, but since I assume a lot of folks would complain that it's "too hard," we have this mode instead -- a risk-reward, arcadey score attack concept. It even features challenges (locate five crypts), which are an achievement-ception of sorts. At times, it feels like a rushed bit of DLC. There's only one Endurance sandbox for starters, and as a whole, the map feels rigid and forced -- with plenty of ways to corral players into specific zones. All of that cheapness generally washes away when you're in caves, but I would have preferred the overworld to be just as enjoyable. The best part is that it involves cards. If you're into that aspect of Rise, this is probably the best game type for it, in fact. For the uninitiated, cards modify the experience -- making it tougher or easier -- depending on what cards you play before match. For example, you can up your rewards by making enemies do more damage, or lower them by taking a specific outfit that automatically grants you the entire Brawler skill tree. Some cards are limited to a one-time use, but tons more, including a large pack that comes with the Survival DLC, are permanent. Deciding whether or not to buy Endurance Mode for Rise of the Tomb Raider is a pretty easy decision. Did you play and enjoy the Expeditions? If so, go ahead and grab it, if not, skip it.
Tomb Raider DLC review photo
Don't starve
I'm surprised how much mileage I've gotten out of Rise of the Tomb Raider. While most developers are keen on stuffing multiplayer into every single project, Crystal Dynamics did the right thing but nixing it in Rise, instead adding in a much more enticing Expeditions gametype. Endurance Mode isn't exactly as thrilling as it sounds, but it expands upon Expeditions quite well.

Review: Among the Sleep

Jan 04 // Caitlin Cooke
Among the Sleep (PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PC)Developer: Krillbite StudioPublisher: Krillbite StudioMSRP: $14.99Released: December 8, 2015 (PS4), May 29, 2014 (PC) There is no combat in Among the Sleep; instead the game focuses on atmospheric exploration and simple puzzle solving. Just like being a real toddler, your options are limited to crawling, walking, grabbing, and running -- all of which mimic the slowness and clunkiness that would come with being a small child. Teddy, your beloved stuffed pal, accompanies you through the twisted and strange worlds you encounter in your quest to find mom, occasionally offering advice and kind words. You also have the option to hug Teddy, however, all this really does is provide dim light (and perhaps some comfort). There’s not much to do in terms of gameplay, but it’s less of a problem as there’s always some atmospheric happenstance occurring that keeps you occupied throughout -- whether it’s a creepy wail, a haunted toy moving in the wind, or some other oddity that leaves you with strange feelings (or perhaps an instinct to investigate further). The puzzle aspects aren’t complicated but are tied in well, keeping objectives moving along in a nice way and adding something a little extra that compliments the story. Dynamics switch it up a bit about halfway through the game, with a chapter consisting of a “run and hide” scenario where a mysterious woman chases you for unknown reasons. If she is successful in capturing you, it’s a game over, which seems to be the only way to truly die. In a later level, there is a similarly dark figure in a cloak who stalks about the area, summoned whenever a bottle breaks. At first it's unclear what to do in these situations as running away rarely works, but Teddy often shares hints to help you understand what’s to come. This isn’t your average jump-scare game -- the horror is much more ingrained into the levels and feels more genuine than a lot of games in the genre these days. The atmosphere builds upon slow tension and mystery rather than the thrill of a quick scare, which leaves a sense of dread -- especially considering the fact that you play a defenseless toddler. Ever-so-slight changes to the environment occurred from time to time which made me look and think twice if I thought I saw something different or if the looming suspense was playing tricks on me. Among the Sleep has some interesting level design with elements mixed together to give the areas a dream-like quality, teetering on the edge of fantasy and reality. One level consists of a winding forest full of children’s relics including looming owl sculptures, floating blocks, and an upside-down playhouse. Another takes place within a house that seems normal at first but slowly devolves into a twisted, confusing maze reminiscent of a scene from Labyrinth. Each area is creepy and disturbing in its own right, recalling elements from childhood in a twisted way which sets a disturbing background to the tense gameplay. Where the game really shines is in its inherent symbolism. Among the Sleep is constantly telling a story through its environment, depictions, and props despite there being little understanding of the direction it is taking, and there being little to no dialogue (with the exception of Teddy comforting you from time to time). It’s a work of art in that respect as the decor and slight changes to the environment can go unnoticed, but they all speak to certain aspects of the plot. It’s hard to understand what’s going on and where Among the Sleep is leading, but the lack of clarity in the direction actually enhances the storyline and feeds into the innocent nature of the character. The main elements of the story are tied together extremely quickly, almost abruptly, in the end to form a more complete picture. Multiple conclusions can be drawn as the ending is a bit open-ended, but without spoiling too much, I wasn’t a fan of the overall message it sent. This being said, Among the Sleep does a great job telling a story without being overt in its intentions. Despite the great storytelling mechanics, I can’t help but wish there was a little more to the game. When all was said and done it wrapped up in a handful of hours at most and I was left craving more. It’s especially a let down because the game invents such new ways of thinking about the horror genre, and it left so much to be expanded on. However, I honestly have to applaud the team for delivering a concise and complete story in that amount of time, and one that is so unique to the horror realm at that. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Among the Sleep photo
Don't let the bed bugs bite...
Childhood is a rare state of vulnerability that we only get to experience once in life -- full of bewilderment, innocence, and most of all an uncertainty of the unknown. Among the Sleep takes us back to this state, providin...


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