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Review: Rick and Morty: Pocket Mortys

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

Review: Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India

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

Review: Tharsis

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

Review: That Dragon, Cancer

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

Review: Pony Island

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

Review: Chiptune Champion

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

Review: Hardware: Rivals

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

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

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

Review: Amplitude

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

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider: Endurance Mode

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

Review: Among the Sleep

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

Review: Freedom Planet

Jan 03 // Jed Whitaker
Freedom Planet (PC [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: GalaxyTrail Publisher: GalaxyTrail MSRP: $14.99Released: July 21, 2014 (PC), October 1, 2015 (Wii U) Having started out as a Sonic the Hedgehog fan game, Freedom Planet unsurprisingly looks, sounds, and plays similarly to the beloved original Sega Genesis trilogy with a hint of some of the newer Sonic games. However, instead of rolling or jumping onto enemies to kill them, the two main protagonists, Lilac and Carol, have a dedicated attack button that makes them punch and kick. Simply touching an enemy doesn't inflict damage; instead, they have to be attacking, which can be both a good and a bad thing; good because you'll almost never get slowed down, and bad for a similar reason, as levels end far too quickly. There are three characters on offer and each play differently. The main character is Lilac, a furry dragon who has a punch attack, a kick, a double jump that causes her to whirlwind enemies, and a mid-air dash that works similarly to the one from the classic Rocket Knight Adventures, which is by all means a good thing. The level design doesn't encourage the use of the mid-air dash very often, a shame since it's a unique move, but the times you do need it feel solid and thought out. The mid-air dash can also be used similarly to Sonic's spin dash to be able to instantly get a boost of speed from a dead stop. The other character available in the story-based adventure mode is Carol the wildcat. Carol still has the same kicks and punches as Lilac, but attempting to double jump with her will have her gliding through the air. Instead of being able to dash, Carol has a rapid-fire kick that inflicts a lot of damage in a short period of time. She can also wall jump, which allows reaching parts of levels that may not be accessible to Lilac. The biggest difference between Carol and Lilac, however, is that she can pick up gas cans littered across levels to spawn a motorcycle. Yes, you read that right, a motorcycle. When on her motorcycle, Carol zips around quickly, and can still punch and kick, while double jumping makes her spin attacking enemies multiple times per second. Best of all her motorcycle can drive up walls, which is as useful as it is comical.  [embed]330156:61704:0[/embed] Adventure mode is the story-driven mode that includes plenty of cutscenes with fully voiced lines, but it is also probably my least favorite mode. The story isn't all that interesting or original -- an evil villain with an army of robots steals a powerful stone -- but mostly because the other bits of the story are hard to follow and make little sense. On top of that, the voice acting is inconsistent both in terms of quality and fidelity; some lines sound like they were recorded on a professional setup and others almost sound like a Skype call recording. Even worse some of the cutscenes barely add anything of value to the story or development of characters, like a drawn-out slumber party scene between the protagonists in their clubhouse that would have felt more at home in a fan fiction story about the character's lives than in the actual game. Also, when playing as Carol, players will miss out on bits of the story, which makes for an even more confusing and disjointed experience, as the narrative was clearly written with Lilac in mind. While I appreciate the time and effort that went into the adventure mode, I think classic mode (which removes the tedious voice acting and cutscenes) makes for an all-around better experience. Classic mode also features a third playable character, Milla, who is apparently a basset hound. Personally, I don't see the resemblance, but I'll take the developer's word for it. Milla plays quite differently from our other heroes. Her attack button can be used to strike quickly with a single press causing a short green burst that works like a melee, or a long press spawns a shield. Milla's special attack spawns a green cube above her head that can be used as a long range laser beam or tossed as a short range projectile. When being used as a beam this attack propels Milla in the opposite direction; thus, it can be used to help navigate through the levels, along with her flapping ears that lift her up in the air for a short time when double jumping.  The level design feels familiar, as you're zipping from left to right, going up and down hills and around loops, while occasionally being forced to platform. However, levels do take their own spin (pun intended) on Sonic's formula; water levels allow swimming in any direction for instance, while other environments have buttons to physically press to advance. That said, no specific stage stands out, perhaps, as I mentioned before, because you breeze through them all so quickly. Each character has an exclusive level built around their unique abilities, but unfortunately, these aren't taken advantage of elsewhere. That said, if I had to rank these levels alongside the 16-bit Sonic games, I'd put them right between the second and third games for Sega Genesis, they are nowhere near as creative as anything seen in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but aren't as straightforward as Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Overall, Freedom Planet's adventure mode takes around two and a half hours to complete, which is a good amount of time for a retro-themed platformer. The only problem with this is I found myself spending most of my time battling bosses in later levels. Early bosses are fun and require little effort, while late game bosses are brutal and demand some skill. This is easily one of the worst parts of the whole experience. There are lots of cheap shots, and one hit kills. Many games by first-time developers have a tendency to be a bit more challenging to the average player, perhaps because the developers build a game for themselves.  While Freedom Planet isn't a perfect experience, it is still a very enjoyable and easily one of the best Sonic the Hedgehog-esque games I've played in years. If you were looking for something to scratch that 16-bit Sonic itch this might be it. Just don't say I didn't warn you about the questionable story, voice acting, and late game bosses. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Review: Freedom Planet photo
Sonic the Furhog
Here at Destructoid, we don't often review games originally released well over a year ago, but we are making a special exception for Freedom Planet. With a sequel just announced, I discovered we never reviewed the original, one of the best Sonic the Hedgehog-esque games I've played in years. Yiff out in the night with your fellow furries and prepare to go fast.

Review: UnderRail

Dec 30 // Josh Tolentino
UnderRail (PC)Developer: Stygian SoftwarePublisher: Stygian SoftwareReleased: December 18, 2015MSRP: $14.99 The good news is that most of UnderRail's potential flaws are largely dependent on how highly a given player regards the era of late-90s PC role-playing games. As an isometric-perspective, tile-based, post-apocalyptic RPG with turn-based combat, it's so much a student of the likes of Fallout and Arcanum that it's not surprising to see some of its fans call it "the game Fallout 3 should have been." That debate aside, UnderRail certainly plays as enjoyably as those older games with regard to its systems. Everything from its perk-and-skill-based character creation scheme to its action-point-governed combat system works as well as one might have expected from such a game. That style didn't need much fixing 18-odd years ago, and UnderRail proves the fact. [embed]328021:61683:0[/embed] This isn't to say that the game is devoid of new ideas. Nearly two decades of design hindsight do manifest in some ways, such as in a more intuitive approach to stealthy play, and an (optional) experience system that privileges exploration and thoroughness over combat prowess. Item crafting also makes an appearance in a more contemporary style, incorporating stat choices in ways that feel meaningful and rewarding for players who emphasize less combat-focused character builds. The addition of spell-like psionic abilities also gives the game a cyberpunk edge. Unfortunately, the places where UnderRail feels like it falls short are the ones where the games of Fallout's era hold up best: in atmosphere, art, and writing. As a world and a narrative, UnderRail feels less like its own setting than a slightly genericized spin-off of Metro 2033 (though technically UnderRail's development predates the release of 4A's shooter series). Humanity can no longer live on the surface of the planet for reasons, and have reconstructed society in the titular UnderRail, a vast network of subway lines and stations. Players begin as a newly accepted resident of South Gate Station, a neutral settlement on the borders of larger, more politicized factions. Starting out doing errands for the stationmasters, players uncover a larger conspiracy, following it to its roots. It works well enough, but the flat writing lacks the creative spark that made those older games stand out, igniting imaginations to fill the gaps where primitive graphical engines couldn't provide the details. As it stands, UnderRail's world to me is less an intriguing setting than a series of cave labyrinths filled with mannequins. A few other curious omissions -- like an overly vague quest journal (good luck remembering what you needed to do in a quest without writing it down), and the complete absence of a world or local map -- feel like steps back from those very old titles. It's an area where being conspicuously retro doesn't help.  Ultimately, UnderRail is a loving tribute act to the role-playing games of yesteryear, and in preserving those old forms and mechanics, also recaptures some of their soul and the unique sense of possibility afforded by those old, arcane systems. But it also falters when it comes to replicating the narrative and atmospheric qualities that cemented those old games as lasting classics in many players' minds.  If what you miss most about games like Fallout is the act of rolling your character, exploring a space from that particular camera angle, allocating your AP in combat, or tweaking a build after several runs' worth of trial and error, you'll be in good hands with UnderRail. Otherwise, it may be more productive to simply play the older games again. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Underrail Review photo
Home Under Da Riles
Dejan Radisic first began development of UnderRail, then known as Timelapse Vertigo, almost seven years ago. Originally a solo effort, and then later conducted by Radisic and his team at Stygian Software, the game proceeded a...

Review: Minecraft: Wii U Edition

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

Review: Sakura Santa

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

Review: Batman: Arkham Knight: Season of Infamy

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

Review: Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star

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

Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

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

Review: Guns Up!

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

Review: Dark Cloud (PS4)

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

Review: Yakuza 5

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

Review: Turok: Dinosaur Hunter

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

Review: King's Quest: Rubble Without a Cause

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

Review: Assassin's Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper

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

Review: Nuclear Throne

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

Review: The Bit.Trip

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

Review: Devil's Third

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

Review: Hearthstone: League of Explorers

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

Review: Girls Like Robots

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

Review: SteamWorld Heist

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


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