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Review: Adventures of Pip

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

Review: Hatred

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

Review: Starless: Nymphomaniacs' Paradise

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

Review: Magicka 2

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

Review: Splatoon

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

Review: Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series: Sons of Winter

May 26 // Darren Nakamura
Game of Thrones - A Telltale Game Series: Sons of Winter (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: May 26, 2015MSRP: $4.99 (episode), $29.99 (season)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit [Editor's note: there will be no major spoilers present for the episode reviewed here, but events in previous episodes may be discussed.] Those following along with the series shouldn't expect any major changes in how events play out. There is lots of dialogue, lots of split-second decisions, a handful of quick-time events, a little bit of exploration, and not much else. The split between the four living playable characters stays about the same as well: Mira's sections are almost entirely dialogue-based and Asher's are generally more action-focused. Despite being the Forrester known better for stabbing first and asking questions later, Asher's story in Meereen comes with some of the more interesting this-or-that decisions this episode. Where Rodrik has to choose between murder and mercy, Asher has the more nuanced quandary of loyalty to the family that exiled him and loyalty to his sellsword partner Beskha. Parts of Beskha's past come to light in Sons of Winter that give the situation more gravity. Of all the decisions in this episode, Asher's handling of the mission in Meereen is "the big one" for me, and I'm most anxious about the potential fallout from my choice, which won't show up until next episode at least. [embed]292557:58611:0[/embed] Mira's tribulations in King's Landing continue to be a high point for the series. Though this episode lacks the big names -- neither Cersei, Tyrion, nor Margaery makes a significant appearance -- the way Telltale handles Mira shows genuine understanding of what makes the source material so great. Any game could have quick-time swordfights, but a Game of Thrones game ought to be more than that. Her best scene is at Tommen's coronation feast. It comes closest to being like a classic adventure game. She must navigate the celebration cautiously, eavesdrop on conversations to gain information, and use that information at the right time. Even if it turns out not to be the case in the end (as Telltale games often do), the feast scene felt like it could have ended with a much different outcome. As it stood for me, I came out of it laughing, pleased with how clever I felt to have achieved what I wanted and particularly smug about the last line I had Mira say to close out the scene. It reinforced the idea that in King's Landing, shrewd manipulation of information is just as powerful as a sword, if not more so. Rodrik has his own share of politicking to deal with on the home front. A new opportunity lands in his lap that could help return control of Ironrath to House Forrester, and he has his own decisions to make, though they seemed a bit more obvious. Satisfy a desire for petty revenge near the beginning and he loses some leverage for later on in the episode. I'm curious to know how things shake out with other choices; in contrast to the first few episodes I feel like I made the best decisions for Rodrik this time around. There is a tense scene as Rodrik at Highpoint, the Whitehill stronghold. Not only are the stakes high, but it also rewards an attention to detail. Prior to the meeting with Lord Whitehill, some light exploration can help to reveal information that can be used in the encounter. It's another instance where proper intel beats physical force that feels right in place in the A Song of Ice and Fire universe. Gared's scenes were the least interesting this time around. Where prior episodes set him up to be part of the party that goes to Craster's Keep, he ends up with a blander story. It still has room to get better once the importance of the North Grove is revealed, but in this episode it felt a bit like he was stagnating. The oil paint aesthetic that turns people off remains, though it does feel like Telltale has tuned down the baffling polygon edge blur effect that plagued the first two episodes. It's still present, but not nearly as distracting as it used to be. There aren't any heart-stopping moments or dramatic twists like there were in the early episodes, but Sons of Winter sets a good pace and keeps it up throughout the episode. It's great to see the continued focus on shrewdness over brute strength for most of the characters, especially considering House Forrester's situation in Westeros. What the family lacks in soldiers, it must make up for in cleverness. Being party to the events makes me feel clever, whether I truly have much of an effect or not. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Game of Thrones review photo
Son of a...
At the end of Episode 3: The Sword in the Darkness, Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series was in an interesting place. Nearly all of the playable characters were in tough spots, but all of them ended the episode with some h...

Review: Life is Strange: Chaos Theory

May 26 // Brett Makedonski
Life is Strange: Chaos Theory (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One[reviewed])Developer: Dontnod EntertainmentPublisher: Square EnixRelease date: May 19, 2015MSRP: $4.99 (Each Episode) As Life is Strange plays out chapter by chapter, it's increasingly difficult to talk about with any degree with specificity. Doing so not only runs the risk of spoiling the many significant plot points that continually punctuate this game, but it also feels like a disservice to discuss Life is Strange's events in black and white when much of its brilliance lies somewhere else. It's not a linear story progression that makes this title worthwhile, rather it's the character building and continually changing relationships that constantly shine. While episode two felt like it meandered too much, it laid the framework for an effective third part. Just spending that extra time inside the head of Max, getting to know Chloe, and seeing the incessant vitriol at Blackwell made for characters who are easier to empathize with. It all pays off in a big way in Chaos Theory as the cast is finally at a place where the audience feels like it knows them and cares for them. At the forefront of this trend is Max's relationship with Chloe, as the duo is ditching the re-introduction stage and have hit a groove of sorts with their interactions. There are plenty of moments when Chloe's rebellious carpe diem spirit rubs off on Max in a charming way; likewise, Max's level-headed and rational demeanor affects Chloe, probably for the better. [embed]292750:58673:0[/embed] These conflicting personalities may have been most at equilibrium during a serene midnight dip in the academy's swimming pool. It's here that the two are at their most introspective and humble. It's here that they express that they lean on one another. There's an understated emotionality about it all that makes it one of Life is Strange's best scenes yet. Really, the swimming pool scene best exemplifies the quality that Dontnod's employed masterfully throughout the three-fifths of Life is Strange that we've seen: restraint. It would've been easy to highlight the moment with some sort of memorable event. But, the developer didn't. Instead, it let the two simply talk, which wonderfully lends humanity to them both individually and as a team. However, it's not just Chloe and Max that are further humanized. Almost all characters have some sort of sympathetic progression, as Life is Strange continues to prove that it excels at dealing in shades of grey. We get a glimpse at how scumbag drug dealer Frank has loved and lost. We see how "step-prick" David password protects his computer not with a nod to his army service or himself, but with a receipt that holds the date he met his wife. The latter of those revelations is discovered through a fetch quest-style puzzle. As painful as it is to admit, this element of gameplay is still where Life is Strange is at its very worst. The reason that's sort of tough to swallow is because it always encourages exploration and will often reward the curious. However, when it forces that wandering upon the player, the pacing drops from a self-imposed standstill to a mandatory one. It's enough to deaden the mood rather quickly. It's a rare instance of Dontnod eschewing that aforesaid restraint to somewhat negative results. Thus far, the developer has done a great job keeping everything in check so as to not go off the rails. The time-rewinding mechanic still doesn't feel as if it's taken over the game nor does it serve as a permanent crutch. Instead, it's mostly sparingly used, usually to glean more information from a tight-lipped witness. Similarly, Life is Strange hasn't yet gone full-out on the paranormal aspect that clearly hangs over the entire story. This reserved approach is appreciated, as it lends weight to the characters and their personal circumstances rather than spotlighting the supernatural. There may be an imminent deviation from that pattern in the very near future, though. In the waning minutes of Chaos Theory, Max discovers a new ability that could easily shift the narrative focus. Chaos Theory is effective in that it's the first time Life is Strange asks the player to evaluate the net benefit of Max's ability to alter time. Until now, it's mostly dealt in small affairs where the results are immediately noticeable. Episode three finds a way to work on a longer timeline and with more at stake. In all honesty, it's the first time I've felt that exact heart-wrenching emotion that I experienced eleven years ago when watching The Butterfly Effect. The cliffhanger that Chaos Theory ends on is so perfect for this portrayal of the fictional Arcadia Bay, Oregon where nothing's ever perfect. However, it's also scarily dangerous in that it very well might render most of the world-building a moot point. It'd be such an absolute shame if that were to happen. We have to wait to see if that's the case. But, Life is Strange now has me in its grips, and if I'm worried, it's only because I care. I finally really, truly care. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Life is Strange review photo
Tornadoes in Texas
I'm worried about Life is Strange. But, it's not the same concern usually expressed when a game's teetering dangerously close to mediocrity or worse. It's the type of uneasiness reserved for a title that's taken three install...

Review: Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones

May 25 // Conrad Zimmerman
Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones (PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One)Developers: Curve DigitalPublisher: Curve DigitalReleased: October 13, 2014 (Wii U), April 3, 2015 (Xbox One), April 7, 2015 (PS3, PS4, PS Vita),  April 30, 2015 (PC)Price: $14.99 In Stealth Inc. 2 the player controls a quality assurance clone, created for the purpose of testing products in dangerous situations and intended to be disposable. After surviving a test meant to kill them, the clone becomes aware of their nature and breaks loose into the facility, where they discover other trapped clones and an employee determined to kill them in service of a high productivity rating. To free the other clones and escape the PTI Complex, the player must traverse six zones where products are being tested. Each contains test chambers, progressively complex environmental puzzle stages focused on a different product. Test chambers are completed by accessing one or more terminals which open a path to the exit, while avoiding death by way of traps including mines, lasers, whirring blades, and the constantly shifting walls of the facility. That last one is a favorite of the game. Stealth Inc. 2 frequently employs traps which are unforseeable, mostly by crushing the player with walls and usually mocking them after doing so with pithy text. It's a game where level memorization is fundamental to play, an element reinforced by the rank-based scoring system which grades on completion time, number of deaths and the number of times spotted by enemies. While it does occasionally feel a bit mean-spirited, regular checkpoints within a test chamber usually mean that little ground is actually lost when it happens, softening the blow. [embed]292743:58667:0[/embed] The first zone, a testing area for night-vision goggles from which the player initially escapes into the larger facility, introduces basic elements common throughout the remainder of the game. The player's clone can run, jump, and cling to certain ledges, while encountering environmental objects (like pressure switches, force fields, and infrared beams), enemy turrets and robots, and the simple lighting system which determines how visible the clone is. Zones after this introduction each provide an additional piece of equipment around which all test chambers in the zone will revolve. The products vary in their range of function and the simplest objects generally provide the broadest possibilities. The Inflate-A-Mate, a small device which may be thrown and then enlarged remotely to become a rectangular block, is the most utilitarian by far. It can function as a weight for buttons, a platform for climbing or standing on, a wedge to stop moving walls, and a barrier to block lasers or create shadows. It can even be thrown over enemies and expanded mid-flight to crush them or provide a boost for high jumps. The other gadgets may not have as much range, but they have enough to justify ten stages in which to explore them, at least. The "Me Too" lets the player create a second clone, with both clones responding simultaneously to commands and allowing for one to be killed without consequence. A pair of teleporter beacons enables instant relocation for both the player and enemy robots, while a portable light illuminates paths and activates special switches. The least interesting of the gadgets, the "Jack Boy," allows the player to assume control of robots, provided they can sneak up on them and successfully time the use of the device. And while it's fun to control the enemies, the very fact that the robots are the only element the gadget interacts with gives it limited application. It doesn't take long to realize that for an entire zone you will tag the back of at least one robot per test chamber because that's all your gadget does. It's forgivable, especially as there is clever level design at work. Determining the proper approach to clearing a test chamber, where to throw gadgets and what objects to interact with first, is an enjoyable process if you don't mind the occasional bit of trial-and-error learning. A few stages verge on maddening in their difficulty, but these are rare and Stealth Inc. 2 is a moderate challenge, though total completion will require thorough and riskier exploration of stages to free hidden clones. Completing the eight required test chambers in a zone rewards the player with that zone's gadget for use in the facility overworld, necessary to enter the next zone and providing ways to reach collectible items and bonus test chambers. Completing zones also opens up the facility to provide easier access between previously explored areas and aid in the hunt for these extras. The previous Stealth Inc. had no such overworld; levels were instead selected from a menu. The addition does give the game a greater sense of cohesion by minimizing interruption of play and serves the sparse plot with more opportunities for taunting from the scientist (the necessity of which is questionable), but not much more than that. Moving from one door to the next is rarely compelling. There are few enemies and those that exist present little to no challenge, making these passages mostly consist of stuff to clamber over on the way to something worthwhile. It seems like the overworld should be fun, too. As the player accumulates more of the gadgets, the potential is there for complex puzzles requiring the use of multiple items. The way equipment works winds up limiting a lot of that potential, as only one tool can be in the field at a time anc changing tools returns any thrown objects. Stealth Inc. 2 is by no means a bad 2D puzzle platformer, but it doesn't stand out in a genre which has had some impressive entries in the past year. Attempts to improve the experience of its predecessor by adding an overworld feel more like padding than an increase in scope and many of its levels necessitate foreknowledge to complete them successfully. Still, there are pleasures to be found in discovering the many facets of the tools and the puzzles do an admirable job of squeezing out their individual potential in clever ways. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Stealth Inc. 2 Review photo
No trace in the crowd
When Stealth Bastard released four years ago as a freeware title, it was easier to get excited about 2D puzzle platformer games. In the time since, Curve released an expanded version to Steam and ported that game to consoles,...

Review: Destiny: House of Wolves

May 22 // Chris Carter
Destiny: House of Wolves (PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: BungiePublisher: Activision Released: May 19, 2015MSRP: $19.99 (Season Pass $34.99) As I previously discussed, House of Wolves has been a mixed bag so far. Let's start with the good. Bungie has listened to fans when it comes to smaller quality of life changes. There have been incremental improvements overall like the ability to toggle the volume of the sound and music (thank goodness), fixes like the patch for the heavy ammo bug, and communication has been better since the debacle that came up before the launch of the last DLC. The loot system in House of Wolves is arguably the best part. It allows players, by way of items called Etheric Light, to upgrade their guns and armor all the way up to the new maximum statline. This includes all of your favorite vanilla Destiny guns like the Fatebringer, and any kind of Legendary armor, including that raid set you kept from Vault of Glass. It's no glamour system (Etheric Light is hard to get, thus implementing a grind of a sort), but it's far better than the previous loot mechanics, which forced you to re-level Exotics after having a chance to upgrade them once a week.Right now, I'm sitting on three max level 34s three days after launch, which, depending on your point of view, is either a good or bad thing -- and would be nigh impossible to do with vanilla Destiny or The Dark Below in week one. The problem with this new expansion isn't mechanics, it's content, and this "House" is practically vacant. [embed]292545:58616:0[/embed] The story might technically have a few more missions tacked onto it compared to the last add-on, but they're just as short and painfully recreated from previous assets. There's lots of bravado with the narrative, and the tie-in with the Queen is pretty cool, but half the missions are direct retreads disguised as DLC. One mission is literally just a Patrol quest. Like, the same exact Patrols on Venus you've done a million times, you just need to kill some Vandals for a few minutes. Another is almost a direct slap in the face -- as it's the exact same level as the first mission, just in reverse. As for the Strike, you can't just put a new hat on the Archon Priest and charge money for it. Another problem is that all of the old content is more than stale at this point. Most Destiny players have been playing the same old Nightfalls, using the same "cheese spots" for months on end. Where is the variation? Maybe as part of the newest House of Wolves patch we could get remixed bosses for existing Nightfalls to spice things up a bit? I'm not even asking for completely redone levels, just new boss tactics that offer something different instead of bullet sponges. Is it so much to ask that maybe Sepiks Prime glows blue or red instead of purple, and has a new power? The rewards have been remixed, but the actual encounters remain the same. I'm not going to run the same Nightfall for a chance at an Etheric Light. The worst part is that I'm already drained when it comes to the Prison of Elders, the "endgame" activity that Bungie dressed up and provided in lieu of a raid. I'm sorry guys, this just doesn't fly. Crota's End had it's fair share of hate, and some of it for good reason, but I remember very clearly how awesome it felt to drop into the unknown of that abyss on day one. Running through that totem relay with five other friends, racing into the light with Thralls at my heels, figuring out how to beat the bridge encounter -- all of it gave me a sense of wonder, just like the Vault of Glass raid did before it. Prison of Elders has none of that magic. It's soulless. As of today, I've completed the Prison eleven times in total across all three of my characters. It felt the exact same every time. The setup is as follows: you'll start off in an airlock, walk into a room (it's the same four rooms, literally the exact same ones over and over), and either kill enemies, or dismantle mines for three waves -- then move onto the next room. The red room will always feature the Kabal, the green room will always feature the Hive, and the two same-looking outdoor purple environments will host the Fallen and Vex. Sure, you may have to blow up a mine or stand in a circle to destroy it every two to three rounds or so, but ultimately, it's the same room with the same enemies over and over. All of the bosses so far are even reskins, adding insult to injury. At this point, it's clear that the name of the game is to clone assets and charge money for it. There's content, but it feels like a series of checkboxes rather than something meaty. Take the final boss of the static level 35 Prison of Elders challenge, the highest-level encounter available in the game right now. He's a reskin of the boss from the story (he is the exact same boss from the story), but now he kills you in approximately one hit because of Solar burn. The arena is a reskin of the same Fallen room that you've probably seen 10 times over at this point in the first week. There's around 50 adds in the room all shooting at you at once. Does this sound familiar? That's because it's pretty much every other boss fight in the game. There are a few nuances like mines (reskinned from the Prison challenges), and a poison debuff that needs to be passed around the party (or cheesed with a Warlock res), but it ultimately ends up being nothing more than "shoot the bullet sponge with the Gjallarhorn because that's the gun that works in every circumstance." I've completed the level 35 Prison twice (one with the above method and another normally),  and simply put, the two previous raids had far more depth to them. I've seen hundreds of variations when it comes to strategies for the Gorgon room, the Crota encounter, and the Templar. For 99% of the Prison of Elders, your best tactic is "stand in a corner and shoot." It's like the Nightfalls you've played 50 times over, but in most cases, even easier, and with less interesting locales and enemies. Trials of Osiris isn't much better. Because it's PVP-oriented though and thus inherently less predictable, it's not nearly as tiring as playing the same four rooms ad nauseam. It requires a premade group of three, at which point you'll battle through a gauntlet with no resurrection capabilities (outside of the Warlock) once the entire team is dead. Each "match" is won by the team who wins five rounds first. If you win a specific amount of matches (five is the minimum for anything good, so far I've earned up to six wins) without losing three matches, you can earn gear. If you do lose thrice, you'll have to re-enter the tourney and start all over. It's cool in theory, but the rewards are fairly shallow and the event only runs from Friday until the reset Tuesday morning each week. The loot table is basically a direct counterpart to Prison -- one gun per week, one armor piece per week, some cosmetic items, and a random mystery box. There's no real charm to it, you just grind out wins, and you get the gear that the NPC shows you in the Reef. Again, it's only available to play at certain times, which just feels like an incredibly odd choice. After all, why limit one of your only real pieces of new content to just a few days at a time? Surely Prison of Elders isn't supposed to last us until the weekend. It's also important to note that Trials is only running on one map per week. After the fifth round in the same arena, it started to get boring. It's a very cool idea that heralds in the first real competitive PVP mode to Destiny, but it needs work. I used to play Destiny every week with my large group of friends, who would often hang out in PS4 party chat as we ran through the two six-person raids, cycling people in and out. Not only has Bungie made the once massive scope of the game smaller with the two new three-person maximum events, but they've also lost the interest of many of my once-fervent comrades. Heck, to add insult to injury, Xur came today and only had old items for sale outside of helmet engrams -- I bought 20 of those and didn't get anything new. Destiny feels just as smooth as ever as a shooter, but at this point you should wait until after "Year One," as they are calling it now, to see if Bungie is going to come up with something new. I really hope the rumored "2.0" version of the game has completely new areas and enemies. But at this rate, we may even get a Destiny 2 announcement at E3, which will all but confirm the "beta test" status of the original game. Bungie took a rooster, slicked its hair back, and dressed it up as a human. House of Wolves is the Chicken Boo of video game DLC. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Destiny DLC review photo
Den of puppies
I am convinced that somewhere, all of the new assets for the Destiny: House of Wolves expansion were lost, forcing Bungie to restart the entire process all over again. Why else would almost the entire $20 premium DLC be a reskin?

Review: Nom Nom Galaxy

May 22 // Chris Carter
Nom Nom Galaxy (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Q-GamesPublisher: Q-GamesReleased: May 12, 2015MSRP: $9.99 Nom Nom takes on the concept of capitalism head-on, with one major resource sought after across the galaxy: soup. You fill the shoes of an Astroworker on behalf of Soupco, a company hellbent on dominating the universe with market share. So hellbent, in fact, that you'll sabotage enemy competitors, and defend your base from deadly onslaughts. So a lot like real life. Jolly capitalism! It's a silly plot, but it sufficiently motivates you for the events that unfold over the course of the story. As for the gameplay, think Terraria. It's a platformer at its core, but it also features a hefty amount of exploration on uncharted planets, seeking out resources, building new structures, and battling the hostile inhabitants within. To survive you'll have to covet pockets of air and utilize weapons like a buzzsaw to chop up foes. The Astroworker also has a number of tricks up its sleeve, like the power to build ladders, and so on. It's pretty open-ended, even in story missions that have succinct objectives. Your ultimate goal in most cases is to build soup machines, gather ingredients, craft the soup, and then ship it out on soup rockets to the rest of the galaxy. A part of the HUD in the top-right corner is dedicated to tracking to your competitors, who are also working "behind the scenes" to ship out more soup than you. It all meshes with the story, and although it gives the proceedings a sense of urgency, it never evokes feelings of dread. [embed]292558:58618:0[/embed] Building out a base is often times an enjoyable experience, as you can design elevators to get around easier, and turrets to defend your base at specific chokepoints. Think of the latter strategy like defending the WWE Championship Belt -- sure, you're at the top, but now you need to keep it that way. It's definitely fresh and rewarding the first few times you do it, but by the 10th or so invasion, it starts to lose its luster. Exploration is often filled with new experiences, including boss fights, but base defense is usually a static affair. This is especially true in sandbox mode, where mission parameters cannot be met, bringing about an end to the cycle of repetition. In addition to the campaign there's also multiplayer on any given map, though I haven't had much success with getting it to work a week after launch on the PS4. Whether this is a result of poor netcode or a lack of community is up in the air, but suffice to say that you likely won't be enjoying this feature that often. There's also a selection of weekly challenges, from straight-up races to combat challenges. Races can feature gadgets like pogo sticks, and are actually pretty fun to play when you're not wrestling with the jumping physics. It's one thing to have weak jumps in an easy-going open world format -- another in a pinpoint-precision challenge. Since they feature online leaderboards and two-player co-op (four online if you can muster them up), they serve as a nice distraction. Nom Nom Galaxy isn't particularly exciting, but it's a whimsical little journey that does a decent job at world building. Despite the fact that people are probably clamoring for "more PixelJunk Monsters" as we speak, I'm glad that Q-Games continues to try new things. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Nom Nom Galaxy photo
The great soup war
You really have to give it to Q-Games. With the notable exception of PixelJunk Shooter 2, it has tried something different with pretty much all of its releases, from slot car races, to tower defense, to music visualizers. Not every game is a smash hit, but they all have something unique to offer, including the newly minted Nom Nom Galaxy. 

Review: Til Morning's Light

May 21 // Chris Carter
Til Morning's Light (Android, Fire OS, iOS [reviewed])Developer: WayForwardPublisher: Amazon Game StudiosReleased: May 21, 2015MSRP: $6.99 At the start of the tale, Til Morning's Light feels like it's going to be a typical teenage adventure, with two "popular" girls and an outcast -- otherwise known as our hero, Erica. After being made fun of as a potential fan fiction writer, she's pushed into an abandoned mansion, and the door is boarded up behind her. Those are some pretty sick bullies! It gets even sicker when she realizes that the mansion isn't abandoned after all, and is actually inhabited by ghosts and gross insect-like creatures. Cue the Luigi's Mansion parallels. Armed with only a flashlight out of the gate, Erica will roam about, discovering the secrets of the mansion, filling in various bits and pieces as she goes. She'll go about this by wandering around, which is accomplished by simply holding the screen and moving towards a direction, or tapping where you want to go. Whatever feelings you may have towards touch controls, let me just say, they work wonderfully here. In fact, the entire game is filled with fairly inoffensive touch gimmicks, like rotating pieces of paper around to find more hints (a la Resident Evil), or flicking the screen to search pantries and the like. The whole affair is built upon a really fun atmosphere, as the characters (ghosts, mostly) you meet all have personality, and for the most part, are likable. Their personalities lack depth and the character building is pretty light fare, but it feels more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon, which a lot of potential players will dig. Erica jokes about there being a lot of keys to sift through though, but there's plenty of truth to it. You'll embark upon plenty of fetch quests, with a healthy mix of box puzzles (evoking more Resident Evil parallels) and basic problem-solving. For instance, one old-timey picture has a timestamp on it, which clues you in to the placement of the hour, minute, and second-hands on a nearby clock. If you find yourself stumped, you can pick up coins along the way, which can purchase hints, as well as items from an in-game store. Combat is another big part of the game, taking place on a rhythm-like stage. It's a lot like Elite Beat Agents (but less engaging), starting off with timed taps on the screen, then swipes, and so on. I like the idea in theory, but there's a lot of enemies to fight in the game, and since the battle system isn't super deep, it can occasionally feel tedious. It can get really tough even early on, and as the game states after booting it up, you'll probably want to use headphones. While the mansion isn't exactly open-ended and tends to be a tad too linear at times, you eventually will make your way to more interesting areas -- like the greenhouse wing, which features plenty of holes to dig up for hidden items. It's at this point in the adventure that you'll also unlock the Spectral Phone, which can spot hidden spirits in the wild, with 20 in all to find. That's about as deep as the exploration-angle gets, but it thankfully never gets to the point where it's straight-up dull. Think of a wheel with only one or two spokes on it, and you'll have an idea of what to expect. Til Morning's Light never really goes the full mile with any of its concepts, but they all mesh well together and the presentation is enjoyable enough. I don't think it's going to make headlines or change the horror game in any way, but it's a fun way to spend an afternoon and another respectable showing for Amazon's game division. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Til Morning's Light photo
Nancy Drew meets Luigi's Mansion
WayForward has stuck to doing what it does best -- platformers -- for most of its career. But every so often it branches off and does something a bit different, like Silent Hill: Book of Memories, and now, Til Morning's Light. As an odd mix of Luigi's Mansion filled with rhythm-based combat, it mostly works.

Review: Swords and Soldiers II

May 20 // Chris Carter
Swords and Soldiers II (Wii U)Developers: Ronimo GamesPublisher: Ronimo GamesReleased: May 21, 2015Price: $19.99 This time around, the playable armies of the Chinese and Aztecs have been replaced by Demons and Persians. Although the former two will be sorely missed (I'll never forget some of their sayings), the replacements have more than enough tricks up their sleeve to justify their inclusion. The way Swords and Soldiers II works is strikingly similar to its predecessor. As a strictly "one on one" affair, players will opt to build and research units, sending them in a straight line against another foe. If one gets close enough your units will start attacking their resource accruing units, and just like a complex RTS, your days are numbered as your enemy whittles down your base for a win. It's not just a "set it and forget it" style, as a constant array of diverse spells that can be used at any time keep you on your toes, and can change the tide of any given battle within a round. My favorite part of this scheme however is how quickly everything goes down. After you have the gold, units can be built instantly. Other than the select few instances in a match where you need to erect towers, no real "buildings" need to be created. It's all action all the time, but there is depth to it. While Soldiers does have a story mode, the heart of the game lies within its head-to-head versus and skirmish gametypes. [embed]292182:58551:0[/embed] The campaign is basically table-setting for everything else, giving you a rundown of the strengths and weaknesses of each individual unit, some ideas for how armies counter one another, all set to the tune of a really goofy story that illuminates some background on all three armies. It's not going to win any awards, but the jokes are occasionally laugh out loud funny, mostly due to the superb voicework that carries over into the other modes. Where the sequel mostly succeeds is diversity between the armies. Vikings mostly focus on spells, Demons, towers, and Persians have a health mix of both with their own unique trappings. Every time I started to embed myself in an army I felt like I was playing an utterly different experience, which is definitely a positive. Over time I ended up gravitating towards the Persians, who have some really cool abilities on-hand. I really love the invisible units that are only seen while attacking, but they're balanced, expensive to build, and have plenty of counters. I also enjoyed the low mana-cost cannon structure, which does nothing on its own, but can fire a low-damage, tiny genie-summoning canon shot across the map. I quickly learned that Demons could counter my stealth units by building barrel riders -- suicidal creatures that would explode and destroy them even if they were invisible, and were at a lower cost. In return I researched the bribe skill, which allowed me to take over specific units at a cost of gold and mana. There's hundreds of counters like that across the multitude of characters and strategies present in the game, and thankfully, it's never too overwhelming at any given time. After seeing a new unit you'll have an incentive to try out the army and use it yourself, which is really easy to do considering how open the research tree is at the start. If you want to spend all of your starting gold just to build one big unit -- you can do that. Likewise, you can bunker up with a defensive-strategy at the start, or "Zerg" rush with some low-cost units. It's surprisingly balanced and open-ended. Another new layer of depth is the gold and mana drop mechanic. On every map, airdrops will occasionally fall down and litter the map. You're presented with a choice -- let your gold gatherers stay within the comfort of your base for consistent riches, or brave the world for a massive reward. This is on top of micro-managing your army, spells, researching, and building responsibilities. It gets even more intense on one map in particular, where the only way to any resources of any kind is to pick up drops. Multiplayer is played by way of one mode -- a local versus setup where one player uses the GamePad, and another, the TV. Although the lack of online play is a bummer, Ronimo really chose a perfect platform that caters directly to the dual army conceit. In short, it's a perfect situation for my wife, who prefers the TV and the Wii U Pro Controller (though a Classic Controller Pro and Wiimote can be used), and myself, who vastly prefers the GamePad. I ended up plugging in some noise cancelling headphones so I couldn't hear her unit sounds (and vice versa), and it was a much easier setup than we achieved with the previous game, getting two PCs together, logging into Steam, and hoping we consistently connect to one another. There is one hangup though -- you can set your tweak a few extra stats in versus like your starting gold settings or change up build and cooldown rates, but you need to do this every round once you quit out of a session. It will work if you stay the same armies on the smae level to "rematch," but it feels like an oversight to have to switch it back every time. Your mileage may also vary if you don't have a friend to play with, but then again, that's where Skirmish comes in. If you don't have anyone on hand, you can opt to play with the AI. Surprisingly it's actually challenging, though I will say that the CPU cheats from time to time, like when it throws down an area-of-effect (AOE) ability on the ground, knowing that your invisible units will cross over it. Still, I can put everything on random and play skirmish for hours, despite the fact that there wasn't anyone to revel in my victories with on the couch. Although Swords and Soldiers II has a limited appeal for those of you who like to only game solo, it's a fine strategy title, and a perfect mix of brevity and depth. I'm likely still going to be learning the ins and outs of each army months down the line, which is a really great thing. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Swords and Soldiers II photo
Vikings, Demons, and Persians, oh my
Swords and Soldiers, released in 2009 as Ronimo's first game, was an underrated treasure. Although it was soon eclipsed by their subsequent release of Awesomenauts a few years later, it remained a staple in my house, as it was wonderously easy to pick up and play at any time. Swords and Soldiers II builds upon that foundation and adds just enough depth to keep things interesting.

Review: Schrodinger's Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark

May 18 // Darren Nakamura
Schrödinger's Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark (PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Italic PigPublisher: Team17Released: May 12, 2015MSRP: $9.99 Raiders of the Lost Quark takes place in the quantum world, zoomed in so far the elementary particles of matter are visible. Previous knowledge about quantum physics is not required to play, though it does enhance the experience a bit. For instance, there are six flavors of quarks: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. Schrödinger's Cat uses the first four flavors of quark in his platforming adventure (charm and strange are much rarer), and just like in real life, the quarks combine in groups of three. This central mechanic is smart. It allows Schrödinger's Cat to employ a lot of different abilities, using only the four shoulder buttons. It starts off with basic combos: three up quarks form a propeller that will carry the cat upward, three down quarks form a drill that will destroy terrain downward, three top quarks form a protective bubble to safely pass through hazards, and three bottom quarks form a platform to stand on. From there, quarks of different flavors can be mixed and matched. Two ups and a down (or two downs and an up) will form a missile that can be fired in any of the four cardinal directions. It ends up being one of the most useful abilities. With all of the combinations, there are 14 different abilities. Though it sounds confusing, it all comes fairly naturally, and there is a helpful quick reference on the pause screen detailing all of the different constructs. [embed]292295:58563:0[/embed] At its best, Quark takes the quark combination mechanic and applies it to a puzzle platformer. Half of the levels are designed, giving the player a specific set of quarks to overcome a specific task. Though several quark groupings can achieve similar outcomes (the copter, base, and bounce constructs will all help Schrödinger's Cat move upward), a limited supply of quarks means having to choose wisely, considering what will be left for other tasks. If it were just the puzzle platformer levels, Schrödinger's Cat would a tight little game that does its thing well. It's unfortunate that between the puzzle levels are procedurally generated filler areas. Though they still make use of the quark combination mechanic, the abundance of quarks takes away any sort of interesting decision making or a need for much forethought. Though there are 14 different abilities, I found myself mostly using the same 4 in these sections. There's no need for creative problem solving when the copter, missile, bubble, and net can do everything that needs to be done. It highlights the drawbacks of procedural generation. It can be a powerful tool for two types of games: enormous sandboxes that would be unreasonable to hand-design (Minecraft) and short, replayable experiences that reward experience over memorization (Spelunky). Raiders of the Lost Quark is neither of these. The procedural levels aren't interesting enough to merit a huge open world and aside from some new dialogue there isn't a whole lot of reason to replay it after going through once. Another downfall that stems from the procedural generation is in the environmental art. The destructible terrain and the chunky grid look outdated in the best cases. At worst, the environments are almost nauseating in their color choices and design. This come in stark contrast with the character artwork. Cutscenes have a sharp cartoon look, and the animations are smooth and visually interesting. Schrödinger's Cat's movement and combat animations are particularly good. The supporting cast members have really inventive designs, bizarre enough to fit well in the weird and wonderful subatomic universe. The art for the quark combinations is noteworthy as well. Looking closely at each construct, players can pick out which quark is performing which function, as they all stretch, bend, and combine together. It even helps from a gameplay perspective, where each design is memorable enough on its own that it helped me recall which quarks to summon for a particular ability. Even with the ones I used less frequently like the parachute, I can picture which colors go into it and use that to activate one without having to pause for the reference. Though the overall story is silly, the writing is good. Comedy in games is difficult, but Raiders of the Lost Quark had me laughing out loud a few times. That said, I'm a science geek, so your mileage may vary when it comes to the physics jokes. On a more disappointing note, I did run into a handful of notable bugs during my play through. On multiple occasions I got stuck in the level geometry. Sometimes there would be a creature listed for capture but that creature wasn't actually present, leading to unnecessary time wasted scouring the area. The Bosons were especially hard to work with; they are supposed to attack one another when brought too close, but I had several that wouldn't budge. None of these issues were gamebreaking; a reset to the last checkpoint or leaving and returning to an area fixed all of them. They still hurt the experience through wasted time. None of those waste as much time as the procedurally generated levels, which are easily the biggest flaw in Schrödinger's Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark. They take up about half of the play time, present very little worthwhile gameplay, and feel like a drudge by the end. If it cut all the fat and featured only the smart puzzle-platforming found in the hand-designed levels, Raiders of the Lost Quark would be a leaner, more engaging, and ultimately much better game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Schrödinger's Cat review photo
A superposition of good and bad
"Schrödinger's Cat" refers to an old physics thought experiment that highlights the weirdness of the quantum theory. Though it generally applies to very small particles, a device could be designed that leverages the prob...

Review: Stretchmo

May 15 // Chris Carter
Stretchmo (3DS)Developers: Intelligent SystemsPublisher: NintendoReleased: May 14, 2015Price: Free-to-play with microtransactions ($9.99 for everything) The way Stretchmo's microtransaction setup works is very confusing at first glance. Initially, you'll have access to a select few intro puzzles. After that, there's one 100 level pack for $4.99, three 50 level packs for $2.99 each, and the option to buy all of them for $9.99 upfront. If you buy each add-on individually, there's a small discount for purchasing more. My guess is that the series didn't perform as well as Nintendo would have hoped outside of Japan, so they want to give international players a chance to "get a taste" for a few bucks. Whatever the case may be, it's not a bad idea as it basically functions as a demo, outside of the fact that there is no way to sample individual packs. As for the game itself, it's pretty much business as usual outside of one new addition. Our heroes will have to solve various block puzzles and reach a predetermined goal (usually at the top of the heap) by pulling and pushing them into submission to create new paths to jump and cross. In this edition you'll have the power to "stretch," blocks on the side, which actually adds quite a bit of depth to the proceedings. You'll soon learn that blocks can be manipulated in a multitude of different ways from every single angle, creating some of the most taxing puzzles yet. Intelligent Systems also brought back the convenient zoom feature, as well as the effective 3D technique, which makes it very easy to move about each creation. Beyond that one new mechanic Stretchmo's gimmick is found in its various level packs, which all have a different theme and character. The 100 core levels are hosted by Mallo, and are actually the easiest of the bunch -- some of which are even remedial. If you enjoy the core Pushmo experience, I'd recommend picking them up, but they aren't anything special. [embed]292153:58540:0[/embed] Poppy is next in line, with items that are themed after real-life objects. While her 50-stage gauntlet has a bit of charm to it it's only marginally more difficult than Mallo's adventure, and I wouldn't say that it's essential in any way. Corin on the other hand kills it with the Fortress of Fun. This add-on brings in more gadgets, including full-on enemy characters to deal with. They remind me of the Sackbots from the Little Big Planet series in that they're crudely designed and only sport a base-level AI, but they're probably the most innovative addition to the series yet, because nearly every level is crafted around avoiding them and jumping on their heads. It adds a degree of twitch action that wasn't really present before. Papa is the last pack in the bunch, and his theme is old NES classics. You'll find levels designed around retro art like an 8-bit Mario head, much like the maps that so many players have created and shared on their own. This add-on however has the benefit of being the most difficult set of levels in the game, and when you add in the stretch ability, I'd be comfortable with making the claim that they're actually some of the biggest challenges in the entire series. For those who are interested, yes, Stretchmo still has a creation studio (that's enabled after you make one purchase). It can read QR codes just like the old iterations, and your gadget unlocks are tied directly to your progress in each pack. In other words, if you want enemies you'll have to buy Corin's levels, and so on. [embed]292153:58557:0[/embed] While all of this is generally pretty great, there are a few downgrades in comparison to the previous version. In particular, the Pushmo World Fair feature from the Wii U release is sorely missed. Although the idea of socially sharing your QR codes with one another is cool, I loved the ability to instantly jump in and casually browse through online creations, even if I didn't play all of them. I also miss the screen real estate provided by the GamePad, which has since spoiled me. Still, the new concepts presented in two of the level packs (Fortress of Fun and NES Expo) make up for it. If you've never given Pushmo a fair shake before, trying out the free stages in Stretchmo is a great way to start. While I'd generally recommend going the full mile and buying the whole thing outright, you can also just spring for the Fortress of Fun for a few bucks and come out on top. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Strechmo review photo
Sure, I'll push some mo'
Nintendo has been silently crafting some killer franchises over the years. While he may not light up sales as much as Mario, after four years, I'd consider Pushmo's Mallo to be a fully-fledged Nintendo character. Now he's back in his fourth game on the 3DS in the form of Stretchmo, which adopts a rather odd free-to-play scheme that essentially functions as a demo.

Review: Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition

May 14 // Chris Carter
Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition (3DS)Developer: GungHo Online EntertainmentPublisher: GungHo Online Entertainment (JP) / Nintendo (EU, US)Released: April 29, 2015 (JP) / May 8, 2015 (EU) / May 22, 2015 (US)MSRP: $29.99 It's not just a checkmark on the side of a game box -- this 3DS package really is two full games in one. You'll get the traditional Puzzle & Dragons experience with Z, as well as a Super Mario Bros.-centric romp. But even the former feels like it was severely influenced by Nintendo, which is definitely a good thing. In the world of Z, Dragon Tamers roam the land in search of adventure, much like Pokémon Trainers. Hell, it even has the option to choose between a male and female protagonist, and the story starts off in your house with a conversation with your mom. It gets even more on the nose from there with a "D-Gear" instead of a Pokédex, and the presentation of red, blue, and green monsters as your first party members. Truth be told, despite how familiar this setup is, and how much the generic story drags at times, it's far more endearing than the gambling nature of the free-to-play mobile game. The events of the story are set in motion by a massive earthquake from the evil organization Team Rocket Paradox, but the world is more captivating than the actual characters or events involved -- odds are you'll be skipping a lot of dialogue. Thankfully, the creature designs in Puzzle & Dragons are interesting to fight and discover, as they look wholly unique, and even while battling static monsters with just a few animations on-screen the game still has a ton of charm. If you do happen to dig the story though, you'll quickly suffer a degree of disappointment, as it takes a backseat in favor of dungeon crawling and constant battling. [embed]291810:58494:0[/embed] Remember, the core principle is to match three orbs on a grid to damage your enemies. You'll drag and drop them on the bottom screen using your stylus, and said orbs will initiate attacks based on elements that you match. So for instance, a simple activation of three fire orbs will kick off a small fire attack from your appropriate party members, but a huge combo of red and blue will see a stronger counter from multiple party members. Matching more than three will also queue up more devastating attacks, and so on -- you've seen this before. Puzzle & Dragons does have a few nuances in place to differentiate itself though, like an active time gauge to keep you on your toes (allowing you to create combos while you're at it), the ability to target specific enemies with the D-pad, and a rock-paper-scissors mechanic with the elements involved. It also has a light amount of party building, as the best way to succeed is to diversify your setup to allow the most coverage in terms of orb attacks. Each character also has a super that can be used every so often, like a direct-damage power or an ability to change up colors of specific orbs. It's not incredibly deep, but there's some meat to it, especially when you pick up more characters and start making decisions on who to use, as well as who to upgrade, and who to sacrifice to make existing party members stronger. As it turns out, the Super Mario Bros. portion of the game is fairly remedial. If you've never played a match-three before or have children, you'll want to play this one first. It has the same basic gameplay, but with a new "story" that involves Mario and the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom, including the lovable Koopa Kids. As usual the plot is fast-tracked here, with Bowser once again capturing Peach due to the power of "mysterious orbs" from the P & D franchise. That swift pace carries on throughout the experience, and it's rather jarring to go from the sprawling Z to this.Remedial as it may be, it has some challenging spots, and it's still worth playing if you dig puzzle games. The thrill of building a party is still present, and although the world isn't all that engaging (it feels as lifeless as the first "New" game on DS), most Nintendo fans won't pass up the chance to fight and capture classic characters like Goombas or Piranha Plants. It's disappointing that the Mario part isn't as fleshed out, but it's more excusable when you add in the fact that the core Z experience is worth the price of entry alone.Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition isn't likely to wow anyone, but it's a pretty comprehensive package that would make a great gift to any match-three addict. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Puzzle & Dragons review photo
Two games in one
Puzzle & Dragons came out some time ago in 2012, and has since taken the world by storm. Although its origins started as a humble match-three puzzle game, GungGo Online cleverly added in slot machine-like addictive qualit...

Review: Not a Hero

May 14 // Steven Hansen
Not a Hero (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, PS Vita)Developers: Roll7Publisher: Devolver DigitalReleased: May 14, 2015Price: $12.99 BunnyLord, a rabbit from the future, is running for mayor to prevent humanity from some sort of possibly bee-related extinction on a campaign of hunting down and murdering various crime bosses. His mayoral bid starts with his campaign manager, Steve, and gunman join the cause with rising poll numbers. The health bar shared by Not a Hero's nine playable characters is only a few ticks. It regenerates rather quickly when you're not being shot, but you're often being shot, and one bad volley of enemy fire can kill you immediately. This frailty, which feels more "retro" than the pixel art in and of itself, is mitigated with a cover system, the crutch of the contemporary third-person shooter. Movement here is just as key as shooting, so there is a slide button that you can contextually release before pieces of cover to snap to safety. Shooting while in cover automatically exposes you and enemies can still come head-on and give you a thwack lest you think you can reload in absolute peace. You can play sheepishly -- and cover is helpful when you're down to the last tick of the health bar -- but are not encouraged to. Shots at close range do critical damage while sliding into enemies will knock them out and allow you to perform executions. The result is a cover-supported game rather than a cover-based game. It's there to be used when you're not slide tackling and brutally stabbing folks to death room to room. Your tactics are as brazen as the boss' campaign, which includes perpetuating the war on drugs, rescuing pandas, giving bees to the children, and shooting a not-insignificant amount of police officers. Established trends voters are for. [embed]292134:58536:0[/embed] There are power ups and limited secondary weapon pickups to go along with the nine characters, all of which except the last two feel distinct from one another. There were some power ups I tended to avoid, especially after unlocking an assassin with a devastating, but slow to reload, double barrel shotgun. Coupled with the quick reload power up, the only one not limited to one magazine worth of ammo, it's hard to beat. That same character is quick with a rapid slide which did end in some undue-feeling fall deaths. When I had to jet down a descending series of rooftops, it felt about as precarious as playing a 3D platformer. You can change direction midair which is great for busting out of a window and then busting into one on the floor below, but occasionally I found myself careening forwards to death despite feeling like I'd moved the stick the other way. Having multiple buildings to flit between and different points of entry keeps every multi-floored stage from feeling like a Donkey Kong zigzag to the top, but running or sliding in between any open spaces that weren't perfectly in line with each other just feels a bit off. Additionally, there's just the three visually distinct areas -- the first two of which are even more similar outside of the color swap -- that fall in line with Not a Hero's general flattened action tropes and references. First, it's the Eastern European shipping underbelly. Then it's off to the "urban" (read: dark skinned enemies) area, in an apparent reversal of the first two seasons of The Wire. One of the player characters is Spanish, named Jesus. He wears bright pink, is in a permanent hip thrust animation, and sounds more like Al Pacino doing a Cuban accent in Scarface. Meanwhile the black guy pulls extra magazines out of his afro. On the other hand, the rest of the cast are regional UK in-jokes. The most visually distinct area is the Yakuza-boss-run, an Asian-themed one (much of it related to a sushi restaurant run by bossman Unagi) that also introduces one-hit-kill samurai and ninja, as well as triad folks doing combat barks sometimes not in English, sometimes with thick accents. It also introduces timed door locks which are antithetical to momentum and are often situated at hall ends, meaning you've already done all the murdering on the way there and are waiting for nothing to move on to the next level. And while BunnyLord makes for a unique employer, the extreme irreverence is sometimes amusing and sometimes feels like a forced @dril imitation. There's a bit too much, "Look, it's so random!" at times, like a deadpan presentation of Borderlands 2. More importantly, BunnyLord gives post-mission and pre-mission monologues back to back and to keep the comedic timing you can't just read the text boxes more quickly. It's either wait for the slow text crawl hoping for payoff or just skip it entirely and go shooting. I often went with the latter. Each stage has three optional objectives, too, that go towards determining BunnyLord's political station. Apparently mayor doesn't cut it. But while I completed most everything in the first two areas on my way up from mayor to prime minister to King of England to Global Megalord, I'm stuck as mayor overall. The third act ratchets up the difficulty a lot. I almost spent as much time in the last and third from last stages as I have everywhere else. And I still haven't been able to complete any of the side-goals in the last level, which is basically a boss fight followed by a level, with no checkpoint. It's a bit of a pain, but given how quickly I breezed through a majority of the game, perhaps those more challenging, borderline frustrating bits add to the longevity of what is a pretty lean little game. Translating cover shooters into 2D makes for a good  mix of contemporary and classic sensibilities. It's nice to play a shooter where avoiding enemy bullets is a bit more necessary and I like the tools Not a Hero provides with its slick cover system, mechanically varied cast, and constant chain of slide kicks and executions. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Not a Hero review photo
I can be your hero, baby
Roll7 has received much adulation distilling skateboarding into pixel-based 2D fun with OlliOlli so it's not surprising that the team has been able to do the same with cover-based shooting. But OlliOlli's pixels belie the pol...

Review: Knights of Pen & Paper 2

May 13 // Zack Furniss
Knights of Pen & Paper 2 (Android, iPhone [reviewed], PC)Developer: Kyy GamesPublisher: Paradox InteractiveReleased: May 14, 2015Price: $4.99 (Android, iPhone) Knights of Pen & Paper 2 takes the concept of tabletop gaming and squashes it into something that fits comfortably in your pocket. Miniatures, character sheets, and multiple reference books aren't required to enjoy the world of Paperos. Instead, you'll play as both the dungeon master and up to five adventurers. As dungeon master, you will set up encounters, choosing where your quest will lead and how many/what type of enemies the adventurers will fight. Adventurers must be created by making choices in three different categories: the player's high-school archetype, their character's race, and their character's class. Each choice factors into the adventurer's combat prowess. That's a picture of my cheerleader dwarf barbarian up there for reference. The core stats are now based on the three 20-sided die you see above: red is body, green is senses, and blue is mind. Body determines damage, threat, and how quickly you shake off status effects. Senses is in charge of critical hits, initiative, and attribute rolls. Mind rolls affect health, energy, and your success when you try to investigate an area to find secret items. It's always satisfying to watch these little dice roll, and I'm glad to see they made the stats a bit more clear this time around. After assembling your party, you begin your quest to stop the Paper Knight, a player who is using the 2nd edition of the role-playing game against the wishes of the dungeon master. The residents of Paperos are suffering from the clashing of the 1st and 2nd editions and it is up to you to restore the balance. Having any familiarity with how drastically different editions can be between actual tabletop games goes a long way towards how much you'll get out of Knights' plot. To reach the Paper Knight, you're going to be fighting all manner of beasts ranging from lowly snakes to sky pirates. The turn-based combat has been beefed up since the first game, where the tactics mostly boiled down to finding your favorite ability and putting all of your skill points into it. Character classes still feature four abilities each, but it no longer feels like there's only one obvious choice. The sequel is more focused on status effects such as wound, weakness, stun, and poison. I was happy to find that the RPG sin of useless status effects wasn't implemented here -- the majority of enemies can be targeted by these abilities, and they even begin to feel necessary as the plot progresses.  Spamming one high-level spell isn't the only way to win anymore. My fights frequently went something like this: my Ninja would throw a smoke bomb to stun a crowd, my Thief would throw a barrage of knives to do double damage to the stunned enemies, and then my Warrior would cleave through a row of enemies. My Paladin would hold the threat from remaining monsters and my Mage would finish them off with chain lightning. The variety of character classes helps to reduce repetition, though I eventually got tired of the random encounters sparked by traveling on the world map (there's a roll for that too, of course). Like any good RPG, there is equipment to find and buy, though the crafting system is somewhat odd. While the first Knights had you waiting for real-time hours to pass before you could upgrade a weapon, you can now combine certain items to make better weapons and armor. What's strange is that by the time I had finished the campaign, there were still only a few recipes and I hadn't even seen a couple of the items that could be used. You are able to combine a weapon with an enchantment scroll and a charm to improve its stats, but I never found any charms, at least to my knowledge. It feels as if there are going to be more items to find later on when more content is added. Knights 2 isn't heavy on microtransactions like the first. Though you can buy gold to create more adventurers first or to buy better gear, it never feels required. Kyy Games has found a fun way to provide more content along the way that doesn't force you to pay real money. At any time you can press a magazine button in the top-left corner to see this month's edition of Modern Dungeon, an in-game tome that allows you to buy new character classes, archetypes, and trinkets while also providing silly lore. You can grind for in-game currency to buy these, and there's supposed to be an issue every month. I'll be checking in June to see what's been added. Paperos looks clean and crisp in the new 16-bit style. I played most of it in portrait mode because the interface is larger, but it does cut off most of the environments and I ended up missing some details. Landscape mode is better on the eyes but the buttons become so small that they are difficult to consistently and accurately press. The music is simple and catchy but much too repetitive. I hope you like hearing the same five songs over and over.  I can't help but wish that the jokes were kept to being about the intricacies of editions in Dungeons & Dragons instead of trying to be "sooo random." I realize humor is subjective, but hearing players accuse the dungeon master of making things up on the spot is more entertaining than finding a pixelated Bill Murray who wants your help to "bust" a "geese" because he's a geesebuster. Between Game of Thrones puns and trolls engaging in Internet-speak, I found myself rolling my eyes more than chuckling. If you're a Family Guy fan you'll probably find a lot to love here, but I'm judging you right now. Knights of Pen & Paper 2 is by no means a serious game, and this lightness can be as refreshing as it can be annoying. The refinement of the combat has gone a long way to mitigate the tedium of the first game, but the humor and plot won't do much to keep you engaged. I had enough fun with it that I'm looking forward to next month's Modern Dungeon. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] http://www.destructoid.com//ul/292095-/barbarian-noscale.jpg
Knights of Pen & Paper 2 photo
Fun, but it ain't funny
I played the majority of the original Knights of Pen & Paper on various toilets within the boundaries of Southern California. It was an enjoyable if shallow take on pen-and-paper RPGs with some cringe-worthy, referen...

Review: Action Henk

May 13 // Jordan Devore
Action Henk (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: RageSquidPublisher: RageSquidReleased: May 11, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Action Henk, who I desperately want to call Action Hank, is past his prime. He's a toy, and a middle-aged, beer-bellied one at that. If you played this game back when it was on Steam Early Access, you can dress him up as a certain ring-carrying blue hedgehog. More than just a fun nod, it fits. There are hints of Sonic the Hedgehog in how Henk builds up his speed, how he roars through loops, and also in the chipper, infectious music. But for as fast as Henk moves, and he is always moving (or you're messing up), it's not hard to follow him, and he doesn't get lost in the chaos. Ghosts are a big help in that regard. Even on your first time through a level, you can race alongside an AI ghost, allowing you to see precisely what it takes to achieve a bronze, silver, or gold medal before executing the winning strategy yourself. This cuts out a fair amount of guesswork and, as a result, unnecessary (see: cheap-feeling) failures. [embed]292039:58519:0[/embed] It's not just running across wooden blocks and vaulting over the (lava) floor of a messy kid's bedroom. Crucially, our aging action hero can slide down ramps to pick up extra speed. Knowing precisely when to start and stop sliding makes all the difference on the leaderboards, as those fractions of a second add up rapidly. It's hard to put into words how enjoyable the movement system is, so I'll just say this: some 70 levels later, it doesn't let up. I'm still digging it. Eventually, Henk comes across a Hookshot, though it's only usable in select levels. Which makes sense, given that the device demands bigger, more open-ended environments to accommodate its huge range. It fits in so well with the existing physics and feel of Action Henk. Flying off a ramp and firing the shot at the exact right moment to fling Henk directly forward is a never-ending joy. The way the device is introduced partway through the game led me to believe there might be more abilities or items later on but, sadly, there aren't. There are more characters to unlock, though. Stages are capped off with a head-to-head race against another toy -- beat them, and they'll join your side. By earning every gold medal for a stage, you'll unlock a coin collection level. These are more compact than the standard fare but they're also less linear. The challenge is primarily in figuring out the best possible route to grab every coin within the time limit. Clear these levels, and you'll earn a new character skin (including one reminiscent of Michael Jackson from "Thriller"). Even if I didn't have the goofy Sonic outfit for Henk, I probably would've stuck with him anyway. I found most of the other characters grotesque. Besides racing against AI and player ghosts, there's also a separate multiplayer mode complete with a chat room. Here, you're competing against other people in real time. You can redo the course as often as you'd like until you're satisfied with your score or the clock runs out. While it's the same old levels from single-player, there's a greater sense of urgency and competition. Finally, there's a level builder with Steam Workshop support. The editor is quick and intuitive to use thanks in large part to the simplicity of the user interface and building blocks. Just drag, drop, copy, and paste pieces onto the screen until you've cobbled together an obstacle course. It's that straightforward. Making something worth sharing will take more time, of course. Barring the final, post-credits set of levels -- which is absolutely brutal -- it shouldn't take more than a few hours to get through Action Henk with decent rankings. Although the game doesn't outstay its welcome, that can be difficult to appreciate. I was left wanting more, particularly in terms of level variety, but the essence of the game is great. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Action Henk review photo
Toy story
Going into Action Henk, a time-trial platforming game starring action figures, I expected to grow frustrated. I figured that once the training wheels came off, the challenge would rise to a point where perfection, or somethin...

Review: TowerFall: Dark World

May 13 // Chris Carter
TowerFall: Dark World (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Matt ThorsonPublisher: MattMakesGames Release Date: May 12, 2015MSRP: $9.99 The main draw for the this $10 add-on is the full four-player "Co-op" mode. It aims to improve upon the existing "Quest Mode," which previously was limited to two people at a time. While the original Quest is still alive and well, co-op actually feels like a legitimate campaign (albeit without a story), with a clearer view of progression for each level set, culminating in a boss battle. Oh, and just like before, you can play it by yourself if you want. Here, you can resurrect teammates by standing near their corpse for a few seconds, and the enemy waves feel more relentless and unique. It helps that there are more variations out there to deal with, from baddies that explode after their death, to doppelgangers, to these projectile-heavy...floating things that will annoy the hell out of you. On Normal mode all four sets of levels will probably take you an hour or so to clear. There are only four bosses on offer, but they're all fun to fight in their own way -- especially the final encounter, which strips you of your ability to fire arrows for most of the fight. These big bads are particularly tantalizing with multiple team members fluttering about the map, resurrecting each other en masse. With three difficulty levels to choose from (Normal, Hardcore, or Legendary, with the latter two limiting your continues), I can see myself coming back for the challenge every so often, especially with friends. [embed]292091:58527:0[/embed] Of course, the real draw here is the core deathmatch mode, which has been improved as a result of the expansion. Two new arrow types have been added, my favorite of which is the remote arrow -- a Bomberman-like attack that can be detonated at will. It even has an alt-fire (Circle instead of Square) that lets you lay down more than one. This one mechanic would be enough to deal with on its own, but when you add in the fact that other players can dash into the arrow before it's triggered to steal it, things get a bit more complicated. The Prism Arrow is also pretty fun, as it traps someone in a box if they try to snatch it out of the air. There's just so much more to learn, and the game is all the better for it. TowerFall's option toggles are also insanely detailed, allowing you to switch out every weapon a la Smash Bros., as well as change-up pretty much everything else, including the implementation of automatic handicaps, slow-mo, "there's always lava," and forcing the arena to always appear dark. My personal favorite is the "scrolling" option, which makes every level look like it's a traditional platforming level -- it works very well with the new DLC stages. It doesn't actually change the arena into a full-on adventure, as the level stays the same since players will simply warp to the other side if they "fall off," but it constantly keeps you on your toes -- particularly on vertically designed stages, where you can theoretically fall forever, fighting it out in the air. Other extras including 10 more characters and new time trials. While the actual archers themselves don't have any unique powers and are more like skins, and the trials feel like par for the course, they're nice additions all the same. For the record, the game still doesn't have online play. If you haven't picked up TowerFall yet, go get it. If you like it, then buy Dark World. It's that simple. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
TowerFall DLC review photo
How high does this tower ascend?
TowerFall quickly became the go-to arena game in my household, especially after it hit the PlayStation 4. While there has been a resurgence of the genre lately with new classics like Samurai Gunn and heavy-hitters l...

Review: NERO

May 13 // Brett Makedonski
NERO (Xbox One [reviewed], PC, Wii U, 3DS)Developers: Storm in a TeacupPublisher: ID@XboxReleased: May 15, 2015 (Xbox One), TBA (PC, Wii U, 3DS)Price: $19.99 But to spend a little more time in NERO's world is a wondrous thing. The omnipresent phosphorescent set-dressing strikes a dissonant chord against the subject material, but works in an odd mutuality. When hope seems like it's sure to slip away forever, the aesthetic inspires in an underlying way. Hey, maybe things will turn out all right after all. As this is a foray through a child's mind who's going through uncertain realities, nothing about NERO is metaphorically black and white. The journey is paced however you see fit. Meandering about is enticing, as everything about it begs for exploration. Backtracking is likely to occur often, as you realize you've been staring at the lustrous sky for too long and forgot to pay attention to your surroundings. Every time this happens, you'll fall a little more in love with NERO. Wandering off the beaten path has its benefits beyond taking in more scenery. NERO is a first-person puzzle-solving game, but it can be very light on the latter if you so choose. The majority of the puzzles are tucked away in areas that aren't even necessary to venture to. Those who opt to complete these brain-teasers will be awarded with an extra slice of narrative. [embed]292028:58522:0[/embed] Honestly, those who take the quick and narrow path through NERO are robbing themselves -- not just of a few puzzles, but of the core experience. It's a game where you slowly figure out that aimless wandering is the aim. It's something that requires some marinating, soaking in the world to fully appreciate it. Approaching NERO with a destination in mind is a mindset that will result in disappointment. Likewise, those who appreciate clearly drawn lines will similarly feel frustration. NERO is intentionally ambiguous at all times about its narrative, but its tone is always striking. Different thematic accents constantly punctuate different scenes; the ones that don't happen to arch over the course of the entire journey. For all the discussion it's sure to raise regarding plot, it's undoubtedly a story of love and loss, grief and guilt, companionship and family, and coping when the world is so goddamn unfair. All that being said, NERO isn't perfect. Detractors will knock it for a short run-time, flat textures, frame rate stutters, and lack of puzzle variety. However, isolating those issues is akin to missing the forest for the trees. There's something greater at play here, and letting yourself become immersed in NERO will likely render those shortcomings moot. Even after finishing, it's difficult to pin NERO down to a concept or feeling that's easy to explain. It's a game that prioritizes emotion above all else, and it does so wonderfully. But as the boy at the heart of this tale learns, emotions are tough to understand, and thus NERO is tough to understand. You'll just know that you felt something, and that sensation alone is worth the journey.
NERO review photo
A strange and distant land
I don't know why I kept playing NERO. That's not a statement meant to express disdain. I literally don't know what -- but something -- drew me to keep trekking through this sad, enamoring world. Its gravitas has a gravity abo...

Review: Invisible, Inc.

May 12 // Steven Hansen
Invisible, Inc. (PC [reviewed], Mac)Developers: Klei EntertainmentPublisher: Klei EntertainmentReleased: May 12, 2015Price: $19.99 Stealth games often offer two tonal paths. You are ill-equipped, powerless and possibly stay that way (horror), or you are preternaturally talented, improving stats and skills further until you are Batman-like (most "detective mode" games). Invisible, Inc. gives you all the information needed to succeed. Sight lines are obvious and clear. Enemy routes can be precisely observed (for 1 AP). You can peek around corners or behind doors (again, 1 AP). And you have the Incognita system which can hack devices -- cameras, turrets, item machines -- to help you complete your infiltrations. Screw ups aren't twitch-based dissonance, like frantically steering Snake into a wall when spotted. What you butt up against, then, is a series of balanced checks that gives you tools to succeed and becomes about execution. Hacking requires power, which can be stolen from consoles or generated once per turn (with the default Incognita setup). Agent movement is limited by action points. Hastily enter a door and you may be exposed, without enough AP to set up behind cover. Peek and observe the patrol route of the guard next door and you may find that he is coming right to where you are, your melee stun device is still recharging, and you no longer have the AP needed to get back into cover. And if you think the answer is to take things slow, creeping along a few squares at a time, know that each procedurally generated stage has an alarm that raises by one tick each turn. Every time the alarm goes up a full level, you'll be facing additional cameras or extra, better outfitted guards, or higher power costs when hacking.  [embed]291971:58506:0[/embed] All the systems are at odds with each other and it is exhilarating. You want to find the exit quickly, before things get too difficult to handle, yet the whole point of your infiltration to to quickly prepare for a big standoff, which means it's better to steal all the credits and gear that you can, to explore every room. You have to spend power to open safes, but also to rewire cameras or turrets, things that can more presently do you in. But not doing enough, not filching everything, feels like it will do you in in the long run, too. Credits buy you new gear, which becomes necessary for dealing with tougher enemies, but it's also what you spend to upgrade your agents' movement distance, ability to gain more power from consoles, and so on. It's elegant as hell. A commensurate arms race. You fly around the world, eating hours off the countdown clock. If you take a harder ranked mission, you're more likely to lose, but if you don't, will you be able to win in the long run? For every "2x armor piercing stun baton" you pick up, the next stage could have 3 times armored enemies. There are killing weapons, too. They're good because the enemies won't wake up a couple turns later (they stay incapacitated if an agent is physically pinning them down), but have limited ammo, raise the alarm level more quickly, and leave you paying a bit of "cleaner costs." Decisions, decisions. I love the constant duress and how many options you have. While all the stages are procedurally generated, you do have some idea of what you're getting into, depending on the type of infiltration (going for a vault? a terminal with locations of more points of interest? an executive's suite?) and the particular company (one is particularly robot heavy, rendering your knock out sticks useless) whose site you're breaking into. There's wiggle room. You decide what you're going for. Money takes precedence for me, mostly for agent upgrades, followed by labs that allow me to add cybernetic upgrades to my agents. Of course, a detention center could be housing a third or fourth agent as well, and numbers can be useful if you have the means to outfit them all, or ruthlessly treat new additions as expendable. And while you start off with two default agents and two default power-gaining and hacking programs, you can unlock more mid-game (buy new programs, rescue captive agents), as well as unlock them for use at the start of a campaign. They have different latent skills or default items. And each agent has an alternate with a different load out yet and a new backstory. The programs, too, offer anxiety-inducing risk-reward choices. One power per turn, or two power per turn with the chance of spawning a harmful daemon? Maybe couple that with a lockable character who gains power on enemy daemon installs in an attempt to even out the risks. Klei has also created a robust set of options that allows you to tune the experience to your liking. There are three "standard" modes: beginner, experienced, and expert. Mind you I've played Invisible, Inc. 40 plus hours prior to this, but I found beginner to be too non-threatening of a cakewalk, so maybe start with experienced? Note that expert is the "base difficulty and tuning." Within these options, you can toggle one-turn rewinds (and how many) as well as whole level retries. You can even go deeper than that to adjust settings to your liking. You can extend the campaign from 72 hours, dictate starting power level, turn off danger zone warnings, and more. And on top of all that, there is an extra difficult "expert plus," an endless mode, and an extra difficult endless mode. You can fine tune 20 or so settings in all of them. The turn-based stealth gameplay is empowering, but fraught and fleeting each time you dive deeper into one of the world's least architecturally sensible corporate buildings, rooms budding off rooms, some empty, some dangerous, all necessary. It's a fight to stay equally matched with your enemies and make it to the end. Things can and will go wrong. Sometimes life-saving maneuvering just delays an impending, inevitable loss as you bring the full weight of the guard down on your head. And it's almost always your own damn fault, which is why you'll try again.
Invisible, Inc. photo
Invisible, man
It feels weird to be finally reviewing a game I played more than anything else last year despite it being in Early Access. I mean, I already gave it a Game of the Year award. Klei (Don't Starve, Mark of the Ninja) has perfect...

Review: Color Guardians

May 12 // Darren Nakamura
Color Guardians (Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PlayStation Vita)Developer: Fair Play LabsPublisher: Niffler LtdReleased: May 12, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Color Guardians is a cutesy runner, but its manner of dealing with obstacles is what sets it apart from others in the genre. Each of the three playable Color Guardians can change color at will between blue, red, and yellow. Combined with the three lanes where the action takes place, players are basically choosing among nine different states to be in. Going from any one state to another takes only three button presses at most; often it is fewer than that. The reason for switching between lanes is obvious; sometimes there is a rock in one lane that needs to be dodged. Changing color is necessary for nearly every other interaction. To start, the color orbs littering the environments can only be collected by a character of a matching color. Over the course of the game, new objects and obstacles are added, most of which require a certain color in order to function or bypass. With that setup, one could imagine level design that requires finger gymnastics resembling the input of an old school cheat code, but it starts out more plainly. To ease players in, the first few levels don't require fast color switches and they don't even use yellow. It's a decent primer for what to expect, but it takes too long to get to the good stuff. [embed]291885:58487:0[/embed] To make up for that, some extra mechanics are thrown in so that the early levels aren't totally mundane for those who catch on quickly. To get full credit for collecting a color orb, the Color Guardians not only have to be that color, but they also have to be spinning, achieved by pressing the button that corresponds to that color. Additionally, points are awarded for switching colors or lanes, on top of the base points for collecting orbs. The theory behind these two mechanics is commendable. They allow for open-ended scoring. Even if one player spins into every orb perfectly, another can do that with an extraneous color change thrown in to score just a bit higher on the leaderboard. Risk switching to the wrong color before switching back, get rewarded with a better score. The high score on a given level is theoretically unlimited. Though it sounds like it could be tackled with elegance, in actual play it just leads to a lot of button mashing. With a string of red orbs to collect, one could treat it like a dance, rhythmically alternating between red and blue. It turns out to be easier and more effective to continuously smash both buttons nearly simultaneously, with the button for red coming just after the button for blue. It's not very satisfying. Thankfully, this is alleviated in the later levels by virtue of difficulty. Once things really start moving and the levels require constant switching between lanes and colors, there is less room for high score chasing. There are some clever sections that subvert expectations, like where players want to switch to an off color in order to intentionally miss a jump. Color Guardians is at its best toward the late game when simply getting through is a challenge. This is all brought to a grinding halt by one of the most poorly designed final boss fights I can remember. Throughout the regular levels, success can be found through training. The levels are designed, so tricky situations can be navigated by building muscle memory of the same button presses. Turning that design philosophy on its head, the last level is basically Random Number Generator: The Boss Fight. Without going into too much detail about how the fight works, it puts players in a situation where even if they execute everything correctly, there is at best a 67% chance of landing a hit and at worst a 0% chance. Yes, not only is it governed by a random number generator, it also contains situations where landing a hit is literally impossible. To beat the boss, three sets of two hits need to land, where each set must be completed in quick succession. I could write an essay on how this fight is so poorly designed. I might actually do that. For now, I'll just say that the last fight alone took me around three hours to complete. The actual winning run was only about five minutes. It just took that long to finally roll all the right dice. When it comes to art design, I normally applaud the use of color. Color Guardians takes it too far, with its ultra-saturated primary color palette. It's almost nauseating. The uncanny perma-smiles on the protagonists faces don't help much either. I was prepared to give Color Guardians a solid "meh" at first. Its central concept is GOOD and it shines when it lets itself do that without any room for button mashing, but that only happens during the last third of it. Building up to that is a fairly dull experience, not without challenge but certainly without excitement. If it had ended just before the final boss, it would be a forgettable runner that underdelivers on a good idea. After that terrible fight, I actively disliked it. Play this if you like a challenge and have patience to get to the good stuff, but don't even bother finishing it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Color Guardians review photo
Color me bad
I put a lot of value in elegance. Solving a math problem in an unconventional way using two steps is inherently cooler than doing it in twenty steps. A single shot from a sniper rifle taking down a faraway target is more impr...

Review: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

May 12 // Chris Carter
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: CD Projekt REDPublisher: Bandai Namco (Europe), WB Games (NA), Spike Chunsoft (Japan)Released: May 19, 2015MSRP: $59.99 From the very start, The Witcher 3 is a return to form in terms of presenting the core Witcher lore from the first game. Unlike the second iteration, where many elements important to the overarching story were teased or merely mentioned in passing, you get to see more events up close. You'll have the chance to experience The Wild Hunt itself even more-so than the original title, which is going to be a huge bonus for fans of the series. You get to delve deeper into the world as a whole, and the more personal take on Geralt makes it even better. Over the course of The Wild Hunt, players will experience Geralt as a teacher, lover, and hero. There are far more opportunities to actually be a Witcher, haggling for goods and demanding gold for your service. These elements were always communicated in past games to some degree, but given the vast scope of this title, you'll actually get to live it on a constant basis here. The script as a whole is also much sharper, with stronger dialog and a funnier general feel. It helps that it hosts the most interesting cast yet, like a funny young creature that loves to poop, a terrifying trio of witches, a dumb goat named Princess, and one very angry ghost baby. The setup this time around involves Ciri, a young woman that Geralt has essentially raised as his own daughter. She's trained with Witchers, but she also hosts a power no one quite understands that has sparked the interest of The Wild Hunt -- a mysterious and powerful group that roams the land and terrifies everyone who comes in contact with them. Geralt kicks off the adventure in search of Ciri, attempting to find her in various locations, learning of her whereabouts through story missions. Occasionally you'll get to control Ciri herself in short standalone sequences, which serve as a window into her point of view and are a welcome brief departure from the Geralt show. [embed]291344:58447:0[/embed] In general, choices feel like they carry more weight in The Wild Hunt, and the characters are more fleshed out as a whole. I felt like the second game had way too many "Would you like to do option A or option B?" black and white choices, but the third iteration brings back some of the ambiguity from the original. There is immediacy to your decisions, but there are lasting consequences in some cases, with individuals that I actually cared about. I like Ciri in particular, and was inspired to press on to find out what happened to her. More importantly, the game is designed as a large collective of little choices compared to a few sweeping options in The Witcher 2. Having a bit of control over nearly every aspect of your personal story is a much more desirable design. A lot of you out there will probably be disappointed to learn that combat is now essentially Assassin's Creed, as most of the nuances like stances from the first game and the slower flow of the second game are now gone. Instead, you'll attack with light and heavy attacks, spicing things up with a few magic abilities, and separate dodge and roll buttons. Geralt still carries his trademark steel sword for humanoid opponents and silver for creatures, but since he automatically takes the appropriate one out most of the time, that bit of strategy is quashed too. It's not enough to make the game "easy" (especially on higher settings) but normal is significantly more hack and slash oriented than The Witcher 2. For all of the streamlined changes though, I actually enjoy this take on combat the most. Your magic abilities run the gamut of everything you'd need, from traps to projectiles to a defensive shield, and the dodge mechanic works better than it ever has, which makes battles feel more action-oriented and less like an outdated pen-and-paper scheme. When you add in the ability to parry and counter, combat gets even more interesting. Ciri's bits are even less expansive, as she can't access an equipment or inventory screen at all, and only has a few unique spells at her disposal. When you're exploring about, the way fast travel is handled is just about perfect. You can technically use it, but players will need to have explored the target area first, and access an actual dedicated fast-travel signpost. It encourages you to see the world without pulling your hair out and losing tons of time manually getting to places you've already been. Roach, your horse, will assist in finding those new locations, and the controls are fairly versatile with walking, running, and galloping options. Sailing is probably my favorite means of travel, and in one instance I was even left stranded on an island after enemies capsized my ship! Questing is also much more satisfying now because The Wild Hunt is less "tunnel" oriented. Thanks to the advancements of newer tech, the open world can be fully explored by climbing, sailing, and horseback riding. The climbing mechanics are a welcome addition, but like a lot of other sandbox titles (I'm looking at you, Bethesda), it comes with its own set of glitches and rough animations. Specifically, ridges and edges are problem areas, and I had Geralt get stuck a few times in the game world or die to very questionable amounts of fall damage. It doesn't help the situation when a few main story quests have bugs in them as well. It should be noted though that there is a very forgiving checkpoint save system, and you can manually save at any time. I suggest doing so often. Once you get your first look at the world and see the new engine up-close, you'll likely forget about those stiff movements and occasional rough patches. The draw distance is wonderful, and the map in general is insanely detailed. While there are three particular areas that are instanced (cut off from the rest of the world), the core area is huge, and would take you hours to fully traverse and explore, even if you didn't stop to actually do anything. For the purposes of this review, I played The Witcher 3 on PS4, which features 1080p visuals, with a 30 frames-per-second cap. Unfortunately that latter figure is noticeable all too often, especially when you're outside, moving the camera about, and fighting multiple enemies. I have to give it to CD Projekt RED for creating a beautiful, vast universe with very little in the way of load times, but the console edition does feel like a compromise. If you have the rig, I highly recommend taking a look at the PC version, though I haven't had a chance to test out its stability just yet. There is something to be aware of in addition to the technical issues. While the combat and overall story have been improved, a lot of quests (particularly the transitions between story missions) involve "Witcher Vision." Yep, Arkham's Detective Vision mechanic is now a part of the Witcher world, and you're going to be spending a lot of time holding down a button, looking at footprints, and following them blindly to the next sequence. At first it's a really cool mechanic, and appropriately represents a Witcher's advanced sensory and tracking capabilities. But once you do it roughly 100 times, it gets a tad old. If you're looking for a lengthy adventure, you'll find pretty much everything you need here. With four difficulty levels (including a super easy mode) there's something for everyone. Alchemy mechanics shine in The Wild Hunt, as there are lots of ingredient nodes all across the world, easily visible on the game's mini-map -- almost like the developers took a page from the newer Far Cry games. There's literally hundreds of quests to complete, secret locations to find, and buried treasure to search for. The core story will last you a good while. It took me roughly 50 hours to complete the game. Hilariously enough, there is one point that feels like it's the end, to the point where the game even warns you that you should save and that you cannot turn back after entering the area. After I finished that sequence, it turned out that I had at least another 10 hours to go. Once the story is said and done, a few select sidequests can't be completed, but you're plopped back into the world, ready to explore. I suspect I'll be at it for over 100 hours by the time I'm ready to put the game back on the shelf. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a huge step up from its predecessor, mostly because it manages to tell a more compelling and personal tale. At the same time, that intimate feel is juxtaposed against a gigantic, sprawling open-world adventure that may hit some snags along the way but still comes out on top. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
The Witcher 3 review photo
100% more Witchay Woman
I have an odd history with The Witcher series. I absolutely fell in love with the first game near launch, at the behest of a friend, and adored the way it approached morality. Typically, games of that era would offer up black...

Review: Toren

May 12 // Chris Carter
Toren (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: SwordtalesPublisher: Versus EvilReleased: May 12, 2015MSRP: $9.99 Toren is a surreal game. You'll start off as an infant, quickly growing into a young girl who is seemingly trapped in a giant tower without any real context. The story is primarily told through clever poems, which are never on the nose or in your face. It's a good idea, as there are some awesome moments, like one specific event near the start where prose will shoot across the screen while looking into a telescope. Most of the narrative relates to the heroine and her direct conflict with a dragon, but a lot of it is also internal, and deals with the hero's journey trope in a unique way. It's just a beautiful game inside and out, but it's a bit rough around the edges. It's not optimized very well on the PC, and even using a decent rig (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 880M 8GB, 8GB RAM, i7-4810), Toren was consistently sluggish on the two highest (and even on medium) graphical settings, among a host of glitches like falling through floors and the camera getting stuck occasionally. There also isn't a whole lot in terms of menu customization, with a scant few resolution options, a fullscreen toggle, and a few checkboxes for motion blur and SSAO (screen space ambient occlusion). Additionally, I had a lot of problems with controller support. Despite trying multiple times with both Xbox One and PS4 gamepads, the functionality would often break mid-game, or wouldn't work in the first place. I can only assume it's handled better natively on the PS4, but the PC port, which is the only build I currently have access to, has been a source of contention for me. Gameplay-wise, Toren works on a three-button system -- one for actions (attacking or grabbing, usually), one to jump, and another to "look." Most puzzles involve rather simplistic platforming, but it must be said that the entire experience is just as soothing as the art style. In particular, I really like how the look button gives you vague hints without telling you directly where to go, and the solutions will usually have you saying "I can't believe I missed that" out loud (in a good way). It plays out much like your standard action-adventure game, with elements of free-roaming, puzzle-solving, platforming, and even stealth. In other words, it has a little bit of everything. Toren's jumping mechanics are a tad rough as they're very floaty, but the development team keeps things simple, so you won't be ripping your hair out too often outside of the aforementioned issues. Puzzles include things like dropping sand into specifically marked shapes, snapping statues into place (like Resident Evil), and so on. Said stealth sequences are equally simplistic, mostly involving quick movements to avoid an omega-attack from the dragon. You're not going to find a whole lot of cocnepts that aren't already present in other adventure games, but they're done well here. Thankfully, every aspect simply feels connected and in its proper place. For instance, early in the game you'll acquire a sword and turn into a young woman. Most gear acquisitions feel like an accomplishment with an emotional reward attached, rather than an item that raises your stats by a few points. These RPG-like mechanics are few and far between in favor of the more standard action-adventure elements, but welcome. Toren is a very cool concept that's held back by its rough presentation, especially on the PC platform. Truth be told though, I think developer Swordtales should keep making games and simply refine its touch, as the studio clearly has the knack for it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Toren PC review photo
No, not the Warcraft race
When I first saw Toren, I was intrigued. It has a killer art style, and the concept of seeing a young girl grow up into a woman before our eyes to fulfill a mysterious destiny is an interesting premise indeed. Sadly, not everything goes as smoothly as you'd expect, at least when it comes to the PC version.

Review: Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains

May 11 // Chris Carter
Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains (3DS)Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: AtlusReleased: May 12, 2015MSRP: $39.99 Just like the TV show, you'll embark upon a campaign that takes place across multiple points of view -- Eren, Mikasa, Armin, Levi, and Sasha. It re-explains the gist of the anime, where humans are under constant threat from mysterious Titans, and have subsequently sealed themselves into cities with giant walls. Thankfully it picks up after Eren, the main super shonen hero has been trained, and it doesn't waste much time with the Battle of Trost happening in mere minutes. The actual cutscenes are not new information or footage, as they are ripped directly from the anime, and the dialog is only in Japanese. It's a recap of sorts of the show, but with a lot of filler cut for time, which is definitely a good thing. Battles take place in an arena-like format, kind of like a baby God Hand, but not nearly as open or interesting. In other words, there's enough room to move about and locate boxes to slash, but they're not packed with secrets or anything.Amazingly, Humanity in Chains' gameplay emulates the feeling of zipping about in the show. You can use the R trigger to "Spider-Man swing" around cities at will, which is a blast. Y allows you to aim your hooks (you can even do it in the air), and players will be doing most of their combat in the air, which makes for a fairly action-packed experienced -- if you want, you can beat some missions without ever touching the ground. [embed]291391:58445:0[/embed] Most of your attacks will be swooping in to engage Titans (and their weak spots at the nape of their neck) with a timed QTE of sorts. It's cinematic, with a zoomed-in camera to boot, but it's also functional and easy to use -- and it's ever so satisfying to cut off an arm or a leg even if you don't get a killing blow. The Circle Pad Pro or New 3DS nub can be used as a camera if you have either one. I wouldn't recommend playing with 3D on, as it slows the frame rate down to a crawl, even on the New 3DS, which is a massive disappointment. The action is all very cool looking and fun to play, if a bit muted by enemies who practice similar mechanics, and déjà vu  environments (with plenty of retreading and re-used maps). Part of the reason the Titans aren't all that compelling to fight is that the AI is fairly easy to counter, and a lot of foes are kind of just "there," wandering around. Still, it does accurately capture the feeling of the show, and when Titans are aggressive, it's an odd balancing act that works. I'd actually claim that it looks more badass than the anime does on a consistent basis. After a couple of hours into the roughly 10-hour campaign you'll unlock "World Mode," the real meat of the game. Here you'll access the sole multiplayer component of Humanity in Chains (both offline and online with matchmaking), as well as an RPG-heavy system that allows you to create a character, level him up, and recruit new members into your party. It's a lot more involved than I thought, forcing you to scale up your base of operations, purchase supplies, pay to recruit soldiers, and embark upon missions much tougher than the story. You'll have to repeat a lot of missions to grind up more currency, but if you're so inclined you can also start up online sessions (which were smooth, in my experience) to mix things up a bit, and hire "mercenaries" by way of StreetPassing friends. My favorite aspect of World Mode is access to more open plain levels, where you can't rely on fluttering about on invisible buildings, and have to rely on horseback riding and pinpoint Titan attacks. It still has a lot of the same closed city maps though, so it's not a game-changer. Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains often can't shake the limitations of the 3DS platform, but it captures most of what makes the anime's world so captivating. If you can deal with similar environments and a lack of compelling objectives outside of the rat-race of World Mode, you'll have a lot of fun here. But in some ways, it feels like a tech demo for the next title. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Attack on Titan review photo
Now with slightly less crybaby Armin
If you even have one friend who enjoys anime, odds are you've heard of Attack on Titan. As a fan myself it seemed right up my alley, and my weekly anime club ended up giving it a shot last year. Sadly, I wasn't impressed. Whi...

Review: Lost Orbit

May 11 // Darren Nakamura
Lost Orbit (PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed])Developer: PixelNAUTSPublisher: PixelNAUTSReleased: May 12, 2015MSRP: $11.99 Described as a "dodge-'em-up" by developer PixelNAUTS, Lost Orbit doesn't fall neatly into any one established genre. Harrison has no projectile weaponry, so shoot-'em-up isn't accurate. One of the secondary objectives is to complete levels in under a certain amount of time, but it isn't exactly a racing game either. Each level has the same basic goal: get from one end to the other without being smashed, crushed, dismembered, or otherwise destroyed by any of the many environmental hazards. To begin, Harrison has only a few tools at his disposal. He can hit his thrusters to move forward and he can turn. By collecting Obtainium, he can upgrade his suit with new abilities like a barrel roll, mega boost, and the ability to brake. Risk and reward are central to Lost Orbit's design, and that comes through in the boost ability. By the end, Harrison has a huge stockpile of fuel to use and it allows him to go much faster than normal. A skilled player can shoot for platinum times by cranking down on the boost and never letting up. An unskilled player who tries that will often smash Harrison into a rock. [embed]291882:58486:0[/embed] Peppered throughout the environment are objects more helpful than wayward asteroids. Some planets can be orbited by approaching them slowly. This replenishes and usually offers up a safe spot to collect oneself. Conversely, these planets can also be used to gain a mini boost. To activate it, Harrison must fly close to them with his thrusters on. This sets up its own little risk/reward scenario. Players going for platinum scores will want to blaze past these, but there's a limited window for success. Too far from the planet and no boost is awarded. Too close and well, you can guess what happens when an astronaut goes careening into a solid planet. This is probably one of the smartest pieces of design in the game; it's a single environmental element that serves a different function depending on the style of the player. There are other helpful/dangerous objects to find out in deep space. Gas planets can be flown through for an extended speed boost. Pulsars bounce Harrison off in a predetermined direction. Liquid planets hold the astronaut still before he choose a direction to shoot out. When everything comes together, it's almost like a game of pinball, where lights are flashing and objects are ricocheting and the player is right at the sweet spot of control. While maintaining high speeds the player doesn't have complete control over the situation, but always enough that it doesn't feel unfair. Supporting the gameplay is a poignant narration from an artificial intelligence drone (who sounds a little bit like our own Conrad Zimmerman). It isn't some grand story about good vs. evil, but instead takes a look at being human, growing up, and finding freedom. Forced into a perilous situation, Harrison reacts in a curious way. Previously working as a drone of sorts, he embraces the freedom to fly wherever and do whatever he wants. He puts himself at risk of death because for the first time in long while he is finally living. It's sad and beautiful but also pretty funny in its own way. The presentation complements the gameplay well. Despite being set in the deep darkness of outer space, there are plenty of purples and greens to keep things looking interesting. Some of the speed demon objects like gas planets and ramps have long visual lead-ins to let players know something important is coming a little before it shows up. The soundtrack deserves special mention as one that works well with the rest of the game. It captures the science fiction feel with its drifting electronic melodies, but also has higher energy sections that set the stage for Lost Orbit's fast action. Composer Giancarlo Feltrin did a great job with it; my only complaints are that I would have liked more tracks and for them to be unique to the various star systems. All in all, Lost Orbit is a winner. At about two to three hours to get through its campaign, it doesn't overstay its welcome, but it can definitely last longer for those who want to go for all the platinum medals. It is only ever as easy or as hard as the player wants it to be, and it does that through smart design rather than by artificial difficulty tweaks. Boiled down to its essence it's a game about dodging obstacles, which isn't exactly an amazing concept. But it takes that concept and runs with it, doing its dodging thing well. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Lost Orbit review photo
Cruisin' Milky Way
Flying through space can be great with all of the right tools. Automated navigation systems and high-power lasers can get a vessel through an asteroid field with little incident. Flying solo with just a jetpack and human refl...

Review: Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster

May 10 // Dale North
Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster (PS Vita, PS3 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixReleased:  March 18, 2014MSRP: $39.99 The original Final Fantasy X was and still is a great game. It took the franchise to a new place with its fully voiced scenes, strong storytelling, and visual flair. Its story, which follows summoner Yuna on her journey across the world of Spira to fight Sin, is one of Square Enix's best. Likable characters with memorable outfits, a fantastic musical score, and a powerful ending made this game one of the best role-playing games of the PS2 era. All of these positive aspects hold their value even today in this remake, though some other parts of the game haven't aged as nicely. While it was fully engaging so many years ago, Final Fantasy X's turn-based battle system now seems a bit simplistic compared to more recent JRPGs. Its true turn-based nature leaves the player open for careful decision making, it pales a bit when put up against even other newer franchise games where action is the focus. That said, there are still some great battles to be had in Final Fantasy X, and those that favor strategy over action will certainly enjoy this flash from the past. While Square Enix has spent a fair bit of time on upgrading the visual side of Final Fantasy X, they weren't able to change how cameras used to work in older RPGs during exploration. Set backdrops have the camera jumping abruptly between two scenes, which can be disorienting during exploration, and sometimes downright confusing when navigating dungeons. We're spoiled by modern RPGs where the camera will automatically pan and follow the character. But, current-day RPGs could learn a thing or two from Final Fantasy X. I appreciate that it wastes no time getting the player into real battles, and that it isn't scared to put some early pressure on players. Players are given full access to the game's systems, with little in the way of training wheels or babying. Its directness is somewhat refreshing, and its lack of complicated systems makes it seem more like a pure role-playing experience. One of its systems, the Sphere Grid, is open from the beginning for the taking. Using earned AP from battles to move through a sort of game board to collect abilities and increase powers is fun. This remake adds an Advanced Sphere Grid (from the international version), which brings even deeper levels of exploration and customization. Its navigation is more open and free, which gives the player more freedom to shape characters' powers. Final Fantasy X was always a nice looking game, but Square Enix's overhaul has added so much more visual appeal. I'm pleased to say that this isn't some quick upscale job. They took the time to upgrade backdrops, textures, lighting, user interfaces, and more, and it definitely shows. Spira has never looked better. If you've played Final Fantasy X more than a few times, you'll appreciate how it seems like you're seeing the game's varied locales for the first time. Details pop out, and foreground set pieces have been shined to a polish. Hats off to Square Enix for completely overhauling the character models of the game's main characters. A critical eye will catch that the new Tidus, Yuna, Wakka, and others still have some corners cut in places, but these models still hold up nicely when compared to newer 3D Japanese role-playing games. I'd bet that there's not a series fan out there that won't appreciate their reworking. The cutscenes have been revamped for HD resolution and look great. Some seem like they've been cropped to fit, but the scenes don't really suffer for it. They look and sound great despite being over ten years old now. But there's a slight downside to the visual upgrades in that they sometimes serves to highlight the smaller bits that have not received the upgrade treatment. While the foreground elements of scenes sport shiny new textures, pieces in the background are still made of lower resolution ones, making them look blurry in comparison. The shortcuts stick out, too. In one early scene, crowds of townspeople were made up of a mix of polygonal models and pre-rendered animations. They didn't blend, making this background detail a distraction. For the character models, while your eyes are drawn to their faces in close-up scenes, looking at anything else kind of ruins the magic. Some of the lower parts of the models, like their clothing or legs, appeared to use less polygons than their upper halves. The higher quality main character models never looked right up against second tier characters and NPCs, as other characters did not receive similar visual upgrades. Scenes can jump between a main character and a NPC, showing a high quality face one minute, and then another that looked to use one flat texture for a face. You can't help but feel that all the rest of Spira was cheated. While the HD resolution upgrade works against the whole on occasion, the improvements are mostly excellent, and greatly appreciated. The music has also seen an overhauling, though the changes might be less agreeable to fans of the original score. For the most part, the quality of sound has improved greatly, though some of the choices for certain instruments seem odd. For example, some of the more brassy instruments stick out of the mix against other higher quality sounds. However, most songs sound great. Final Fantasy X still has one of the greatest role-playing game scores ever created, so a few odd patches aren't that big of a problem in the end. It has been quite awhile since I last played Final Fantasy X. I forgot how challenging some of the battles are, how great it felt to acquire and use a character's ultimate weapon, and how high the random encounter rate was. I also forgot how strange this game is in places (Blitzball, thongs, swimming with boots on, an so on) and how much I loved some of the cutscenes. I'm happy to have been able to play Final Fantasy X again; it was a nice upgraded trip down memory lane. I enjoyed Final Fantasy X so much that I was sad to see it end. So when spin-off/sequel Final Fantasy X-2 came along, I was more than ready to jump back into the world of Spira. When I was finally able to play it, I was surprised to find that it featured a different tone, brand new systems, and completely different gameplay. Despite all this, it still ended up being one of my favorite games of the PS2 era. The sphere-hunting antics of Yuna, Rikku and Paine are as entertaining as ever in the HD remaster of Final Fantasy X-2. The mission-based gameplay is a departure from its predecessor's mostly linear progression, but there's plenty of fun to be had in exploring Spira. The new visual upgrades and gameplay features easily make this the best Final Fantasy remaster yet. The battle system of Final Fantasy X-2 holds up well, though it is still too easy to create a powerful class combination to breeze through just about any battle. By my measure, the balance is off; smart players will be able to walk through this game after earning the right equipment. Still, even with the broken balance, X-2 manages to entertain. The Dressphere job system spin-off is still great after all these years, and the mid-battle magical transformations are just as funny as you remember, though they look much better now with their upgraded visuals. Some new dresspheres have been added to the mix; their transformation and attack animations are hilarious and worth seeking out. New Garment Grids have also been included. Final Fantasy X-2's remaster brings along with it the international release gameplay additions. The new Creature Creator is pretty good fun for fans of collecting. Enemies can be captured and trained to be used in battle, but I found that capturing NPCs was even more enjoyable. It's like a complete game within another game with the full ability to customize creatures with different skills. Properly collecting and leveling enemies and NPCs gives you more story bits and sometimes even character-specific endings. Last Mission is a separate game mode that has the heroines working through a tower crawl and a series of bosses to reveal new story elements as play rewards. This game ditches X-2's free customization and open exploration for straight-ahead gameplay that requires careful choices and smart strategy. Last Mission definitely speaks to me as a fan of rogue-likes, but it may not have as much appeal to fans of your typical Final Fantasy game. Compared to the Final Fantasy X remaster, X-2 HD seems more inconsistent. While the upgraded character models are even higher quality than those of Final Fantasy X, the NPCs look even worse alongside them. Close-ups of these NPCs are pretty rough in cutscenes. Background textures are also inconsistent; it doesn't take much sleuthing to realize it. But, when it looks good, it looks really good. The character models seem to sport even more polygons than they did in the remaster of Final Fantasy X. Faces are more filled out, eyes move more realistically, and mouth animations look spot-on. The girls appear to have more makeup on, too. The lighting and spell effects in particular are great, making X-2 look like a current-gen JRPG at times. Oh, and I forgot how great the X-2 opening cutscene was. This J-Pop video of laser beams and hot pants is one for the ages, so I'm really glad it got the remaster treatment. I still think that Final Fantasy X-2's soundtrack is delightfully dorky with its action themes and singers though. It holds up nicely today and fits the game's tone perfectly. Unlike Final Fantasy X, it doesn't sound like they changed much other than a bump for the sound quality. Overall, I think Final Fantasy X-2 looks and feels better than Final Fantasy X. But, unfortunately, it also does not let you pause or skip cutscenes, and there are times when voice and animation synchronization gets off track. The game's frame rate would dip in some dungeons, though never to a terrible number. Admittedly, X-2 is a bit of a hot mess, but I've always loved this game. This remaster has made it even more enjoyable with its new look and content additions. It's not as lovingly crafted as Final Fantasy X is overall, but it makes up for that in pure entertainment value. As far as videogame remasters go, Final Fantasy X and X-2 are at the top of the list as far as quality is concerned. It's clear that Square Enix put a lot of time into both of these beloved titles, and as a series fan I really appreciate that. They've made both of these great games even better with this remastering, and any fan of either should definitely check them out.
Final Fantasy X & X-2 photo
Praise be to Yevon!
Y, R, P -- in position. It's showtime, girls. 

Review: Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters

May 09 // Brittany Vincent
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters (PS3, Vita [reviewed])Developer: Toybox Inc. Publisher: Aksys GamesReleased: March 10, 2015 MSRP: $39.99 You're the newest transfer student to have enrolled at Kurenai Academy, and as such the game wastes no time in getting you to provide your own personal information to give you the impression that the protagonist is little more than an imprint of you. From your height to your blood type, it's all about fitting yourself into the player character, which ties into a decidedly different yet very refreshing branching dialogue system upon which a good portion of the game is built upon. I'll get to that later, but know that after you've customized your character properly, you're embarking on a brand new career with a high school ghost-hunting establishment. After meeting up with a shy young woman named Sayuri Mifune and nondescript male student Masamune Shiga, you're quickly whisked away to join the Gate Keepers, or Kurenai Academy's version of, for all intents and purposes, a ghost-hunting club for after-school mischief. The Gate Keepers meet in a stereotypically crowded club area daily to take on new clients, all of whom are being haunted in some way by wayward spirits who haven't yet passed over to the other side. When you take on a new client, it's as if you're starting a new episode of an anime series, complete with its own opening credits and ending, which ends up lending a refreshing lilt to content that may otherwise feel alien in the visual novel-laden segments of the game. You and your teammates tackle each assignment by delving into dungeon-styled arenas that conjure images of the classic Shin Megami Tensei games, where you're essentially playing a modified strategic grid-based game of Go or Chess. After choosing the gear you'll need to ward off specific ghosts (salt for keeping ghosts at bay and other equipment) you and your team are thrown into a grueling game of remote ghostbusting. Each chapter prefaces the capture of the ghost of the moment (think "magical girl" anime "demon of the week" format) with bit of story told in the typical static background, slightly animated character, and accompanying text style of visual novels. The characters themselves are given gorgeous, beautifully-detailed portraits that swap as they speak, despite how dry the script can be, and their accompanying environments are great-looking as well. These segments take up a bulk of the game aside from "dungeon' exploration, though I didn't have enough for my tastes, especially given the wheel that allows you to interact with other NPCs. It pops up seemingly at random when you're engaged in conversation with others, and contains two different tiers of options to select in order to respond to others. You can choose from a happy face, sad face, confused face, handshake, and an angry face. It's easy enough to decipher -- this denotes the type of response you're going to give on an emotional level. The second wheel corresponds to each of the five senses: eyes, nose, ears, hands, and mouth and the senses they represent, obviously. The game doesn't do an excellent job of communicating to you what these wheels do, but it's fairly simple to figure out. Where the game missteps is by serving up options and actions that don't always correlate with the emotion you want. For instance, if you wanted to be friendly you might choose a loving face and a hand to touch someone, right? The game might not see it that way. It may instead spawn a completely opposite reaction, which can alter your interactions with other characters in a very frustrating way. Perhaps I was going about it incorrectly, but after consulting the official video from Aksys Games that talked about it in length and referencing the manual, which did little to explain it, I realized I just needed to go with it. So I did, resulting in my character becoming some sort of bizarre lecher who used his tongue way more than I feel like he should have. Luckily, there's a diverse and interesting cast of characters to spend time with, and much like the Persona series, each have their own strange little quirks. So you won't have to feel so out of place when you use your hands or eyes in situations where you really shouldn't. The bulk of the game, however, isn't driven by emotion or intent. It's a cold, calculating exercise that's both vexing and challenging at the same time. For each ghost you're setting out to catch, you're given a stipend for supplies, which you'll purchase and set up before each episode. There's a chess-like board upon which you'll set up moves to attack and change positions, though all of the avatars on the board (viewed isometrically) will move at the same time. Most of the time, you'll have no idea where the ghost is, so as the timer ticks down to nothing, you're constantly forced to think about how to best push the ghost to you. Do you put down salt to ensure the ghost can't escape a certain area? Do you push all of your teammate to corner it? What happens when you finally corner the ghost? You get a good look at the ghost of course, as the action switches to first-person a la Shin Megami Tensei: Soul Hackers or games of that ilk, and you see your party landing hits and doing damage. Defeating the bigger boss ghost of each episode wraps up the chapter, and it's done, done, onto the next one from there. It sounds very simple on paper, but it's likely you won't immediately understand any of this. There's a tutorial section at the beginning of the dungeon sections that you can turn to, but after that you're basically thrown to the wolves. I had to spend hours perfecting the system, and even after putting weeks into the game I'm still a little rusty. I learned the ins and outs and peculiarities of the system, but I still feel as though I could have done better. The game should have taken more pains to explain itself, especially since it's such an alternative style of play. But that's what makes Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters so entertaining. It won't hold your hand or force you through a million tutorials. There's a hint of unpredictability that you just don't get from most games anymore, even the niche titles, and that's the main reason I pressed on even when I got frustrated. That's also one of the reasons you'll be spending plenty of time with the game, aside from the fact that there are several side missions, a board game in the hub area, and other surprises to engage you. There aren't as many secret weapons or awesome-looking ghostbusting tools as I would have hoped for, but such is life. Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is certainly one of the most unique titles the Vita has seen or will see by far, and while it can take an astronomical amount of getting used to, it's absolutely worth investing time in. What other game is going to let you bite someone's nose in error when you meant to make a friendly gesture? I rest my case.
Tokyo Twilight photo
More Vita goodness
Whenever the Vita's library expands, I always get unreasonably excited. Double excited if there's a new IP to add to the fold, because I'm seeing a lot of sequels these days. That's why I was ecstatic to hear that Toybox Game...

Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed

May 08 // Chris Carter
Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed (PS TV, Vita [reviewed])Developer: TamsoftPublisher: Compile Heart (JP) / Idea Factory International (EU, US)Released: August 28, 2014 (JP) / May 19, 2015 (US) / May 22, 2015 (EU)MSRP: $39.99 Once again we are whisked away to the parody-filled world of Gamindustri, where the main characters of Neptunia will get into all sorts of wacky antics. Since this isn't a typical RPG, the story is tangential to all of the killing you're going to be doing. You're free to bypass part or all of the story with very easy to enact button presses, skipping ahead to dungeons and gear management at will. The dialog is cute and the voice acting is presentable, but the silly nature of the plot almost always circles around the same feud of "who is the best CPU or journalist in the Gamindustri," and it ends up getting old after a few hours or so. The action of course, is the highlight. Neptunia U's engine looks incredible, especially on the Vita's OLED screen, and more importantly, the framerate and camera are top notch. I simply adore the cel-shaded style. Everything on-screen looks wonderfully detailed, whether it's a faraway landscape or an up-close shot of a character. Each combatant has access to strong or weak attacks, which function just like the Dynasty Warriors series with simplistic combos that trigger new abilities. Characters can also double-jump, dash, and call forth stronger powers (limited by a mana gauge), as well as transform and unleash mega attacks. There's plenty of options like camera tweaking and display settings to ease the clutter of the UI, and a toggle for Japanese or English voice acting is the cherry on top. [embed]291761:58476:0[/embed] For a hack-and-slash the combat is surprisingly deep, even if you won't have to use half of its tricks to best the AI on the standard difficulty setting. Action Unleashed also has a costume break mechanic, where if you use too many strong attacks or get hit too often, some clothing will tear off. Yep, some characters will occasionally bare their underwear, so if you mind that sort of thing, you probably shouldn't play it. What this boils down to is the realization that Action Unleashed is a magical girl Dynasty Warriors, which I am totally ok with. Uni is a personal favorite of mine, as her main gimmick is a rapid-fire rifle that offers up some melee attacks, often melded in the same combo. All 10 playable characters (including series newcomers Dengekiko and Famitsu, based on the popular Japanese culture and gaming outlets) have their own signature style and are fun to play in their own right. There is a snag in terms of pacing, though. Early on, enemies don't put up enough of a fight to put your skills to the test. While their models are great (aping tropes like Dragon Quest's slimes or Pac-Man's ghosts), most of the foes you'll face in the first few hours are cannon fodder, and it isn't until you reach the boss fight in a particular dungeon that you'll really have any sort of a challenge to square off against. Additionally, it must be said that while the mechanics do match up to the Warriors series, the actual flow of a level feels more confined, akin to the Senran Kagura games. Instead of sprawling battlefields with multiple objectives to worry about simultaneously, Action Unleashed's dungeons are linear by comparison. It's a lot less focused on exploration and more-so on constant fights, with a hefty amount of gates -- some levels are just sole rooms with dedicated arena battles. Despite this, it's still a lot of fun to blast everything in sight and try out new styles of play. Once you clear the first few missions and the game opens up, there's a lot more to do in general to keep you interested. You can opt to watch additional scenarios and hang out with the cast of the game to unlock extra scenes, fool around with your current loot and try out new gear combinations, or adjust your bonus abilities, unlocked by killing a certain amount of each enemy type. Neptunia U is ultimately built on replay value, counting on players to repeat missions for better scores, gear, and the goal of reaching max level with all characters. There's also a new difficulty and extra arena mode unlocked after completing the game. Maybe it's just me, but the videogame industry parody theme that the Neptunia series is going for fits with a faster-paced environment -- especially when a better developer is involved. As long as you can deal with a little skin and a silly plotline, Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed is a fun little action romp.
Neptunia U review photo
Compile Heart didn't develop this
Over the years, I've developed a cautionary approach to Compile Heart projects. As a fan of Eastern games in general I'm always receptive to the idea of them, but as a development studio, they don't always follow through as w...

Review: Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character

May 08 // Chris Carter
Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character (PC)Developer: Team Shanghai AlicePublisher: Team Shanghai Alice (JP) / Playism (US)Released: August 12, 2013 (JP) / May 7, 2015 (US)MSRP: $14.99 There's no Texas two-steppin' around it -- the "Western" release is not a good port. There's very little effort put forth at all, mostly due to the fact that it's relatively untouched from the Japanese version, and it's not translated -- at all. Double Dealing Character's menus were already in English, but extra details and bits of the story are all in Japanese, so you'll have to manually update it with an outside fan patch. When Playism announced that it was "bringing Touhou to the West," I assumed it would be a little more than "we made it slightly easier to buy the original Japanese game." Whether this is Playism's doing or Team Shanghai Alice's request, the result is the same.   The actual game, thankfully, is very good, and I must stress though that with the English menus, it is entirely playable. If you haven't experienced a danmaku (also known as bullet hell or curtain fire) game before, the concept is pretty easy to grasp. Tons of bullets will litter the screen at all times (like a curtain), and it's your job to maneuver around various patterns while firing back at your opponents. As is the case with most Touhou games, Double Dealing Character features a standard shot button in addition to one for specials, and a "slow" ability, which I'll explain in a moment. Where the Touhou team excels is in the presentation of it all. The bullet patterns are varied and constantly keep you on your toes, but they're also coupled with a charming art style and catchy music. Double Dealing Character is no exception. It would be fun to read the various story bits that pop up during boss fights and between levels, but again, you'll need a fan patch for that. Not being able to understand it all doesn't fundamentally ruin the game, but Touhou fans are big on their lore for a reason -- it gives context to the proceedings, and elevates the experience significantly. [embed]291754:58465:0[/embed] You'll have access to three characters, all of which have two different variations in tow. Each "ship" (in this case, a magical girl) has a different rate of fire or type of shot, such as a straight bullet or a spread. Specials add even more variety, like one character who uses a giant broom melee attack, or another who fires a deadly void bomb that slowly creeps up the screen. This is where the lack of a translation comes into play again -- you'll have to experiment with each variant since you can't read what they do on the select screen. Now, about that "slow" function I mentioned earlier -- it's another Touhou staple that spices things up a bit. At any time you can hold a button to make your character's flight more precise, which not only shows your hitbox (a blinking light that displays where bullets can damage you), but changes up your shot type as well. Personally, I always map it to the left trigger, so I can comfortably switch in and out of it at will, and it works like a charm. Thankfully there is plug and play controller support, and it's easy to customize your buttons. Like most shoot-'em-ups, Double Dealing Character will last you roughly an hour your first time around, with six stages and an additional EX level. There's also a few extras like a practice mode, music player, and some secrets that you'll definitely need a guide or translation for. Playism may have made it easier to buy into Touhou, but the actual result isn't anything better than just purchasing the game anywhere else. It you're a shoot-'em-up fan and haven't touched the franchise yet, you owe it to yourself to play at least one game in the series -- so why not start here? [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Touhou review photo
Bad port, great shooter
As I've said in the past, I consider myself lucky when it comes to meeting fellow gamers over the years that have had a positive impact on my life. I was fortunate enough to discover the Touhou series back in 2002 at the...


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