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Strategy Games

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...

The Banner Saga photo
The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga feels at home on PS4


Barring a couple of control confusions
Jan 11
// Zack Furniss
Kyle plunged into the icy depths of The Banner Saga almost, aw jeez, exactly two years ago. Somehow I never took that same jump, even though vikings, strategy RPGs, and Oregon Trail all put together in a neat little box is My Kinda Thing. Now that it's on consoles, I've finally taken a stab at leading too many people too far across a land that's much too wide on PS4.
Valkyria PS4 photo
Valkyria PS4

Valkyria Chronicles Remaster screens hot and fresh out the kitchen


Coming to PS4 next month in Japan
Jan 10
// Steven Hansen
You know who didn't shank a gimme field goal wide left? Sega, with new screenshots for Valkyria Chronicles Remaster, the PS4 port for the beloved turn-based strategy game. Sega had an easy task, especially after the nice PC r...
Homeworld photo
Homeworld

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak has a cool land-based aircraft carrier


I'm calling it the Kharaktopus
Jan 08
// Darren Nakamura
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is set to come out in less than two weeks on January 20. Maybe you want to watch a trailer for the story before you kharak open your wallet. Maybe I only signed up to write this story because I wa...
XCOM Long War photo
XCOM Long War

The XCOM: Long War mod team is making its own game


End of a long road
Dec 29
// Nic Rowen
I always love it when the creators of a great mod strike out and make their own thing. That's exactly what the minds behind the excellent XCOM mod, Long War, are doing. The team, now branded under the cheeky name of Long War ...
Valkyria Chronicles photo
Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles Remaster looks great in its debut trailer


But we already knew it would!
Dec 25
// Ben Davis
Sega released the debut trailer for Valkyria Chronicles Remaster, set to arrive on PS4 in Japan on February 10. The original was already gorgeous on PS3, so it's no wonder that it will look even better on PS4. Valkyria Chroni...
Banner Saga photo
Banner Saga

Sony acknowledges Vita, saves Banner Saga Vita port


It's a Christmas miracle
Dec 24
// Chris Carter
While Sony is busy blaming everyone but themselves for the failure of the Vita, they basically took it and shot it behind the barn. There's almost nothing coming out for it from Sony, and as I've noted in the past, Atlus is a...
Who let you name this? photo
Who let you name this?

Original Homeworld devs back with prequel tale Deserts of Kharak


Out January 20, 2016
Dec 16
// Steven Hansen
Following up on its early 2015 Homeworld Remastered Collection, Gearbox is publishing developer Blackbird Interactive's new Homeworld tale, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. The "prequel from some of the original creators of&nbs...
Console Banner Saga dated photo
Console Banner Saga dated

Banner Saga Vita on hold over porting studio's closure


Console ports dated for next month
Dec 16
// Steven Hansen
The Banner Saga is coming to PS4 and Xbox One after all. While both the follow up, The Banner Saga 2, and the console ports of the first game have missed their 2015 release windows, the port is slated to come to PS4 and Xbox ...
The Last Remnant photo
The Last Remnant

The Last Remnant lives on in portable form thanks to the Cloud


Remember this game?
Dec 14
// Chris Carter
Square Enix develops so many games, it's hard to keep up. I try my best though, and I distinctly remember The Last Remnant, and despite its lackluster elements, the title screen is still burned in my memory. If you live in Ja...
Tharsis photo
Tharsis

I ate a crew member in Tharsis, it wasn't a big deal or anything


Dice rolls and human rolls (on bread)
Dec 11
// Zack Furniss
I hadn't been keeping up with Choice Provisions' Tharsis, so I had no idea what to expect when Steven assigned me to preview it at PlayStation Experience. As soon as the developer who was leading me through said it was a...

Giveaway: SteamWorld Heist

Dec 10 // Mike Martin
Contest photo
Win one of five copies!
Did you play SteamWorld Dig? No? Well, you damn well should have. Fantastic game. Don't make the same mistake with its sequel: SteamWorld Heist. Thankfully, the awesome folks at Image & Form have made it a little easier f...

The Walking Dead photo
The Walking Dead

Telltale's Walking Dead characters are here for a limited time in Road to Survival


Through January 31
Dec 10
// Darren Nakamura
I tried out The Walking Dead: Road to Survival briefly. For me, the strategy combat was too shallow and the settlement aspect was too much like Farmville with zombies to hold my interest. Maybe you're different, though! Maybe...
XCOM 2 photo
XCOM 2

$20 Season Pass confirmed for XCOM 2


Hmmm
Dec 10
// Chris Carter
Since XCOM 2 is a AAA game that exists, it is getting a Season Pass. This one, though, is a lot easy to swallow than the vast majority of publisher's "Mystery Passes" that I loathe so much. 2K Games is calling it the "Re...

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...

SteamWorld Heist photo
SteamWorld Heist

SteamWorld Heist launches next week on 3DS, with an exclusive theme


Wii U, PS4, XB1, PC, Vita coming later
Dec 03
// Chris Carter
Developer Image & Form has announced that its follow-up to Steamworld Dig, Heist, will launch next week on December 10, on 3DS for $20 ($16.99 until December 31). The other versions (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, Vita) will a...
The Cossacks are coming photo
The Cossacks are coming

Europa Universalis IV on sale in time for Cossacks expansion


Cheap EUIV ahead of 6th expansion
Dec 01
// Steven Hansen
As we famously reported a couple months back: The Cossacks are coming, the Cossacks are coming! Well, those cock and ball sack hybrids have hit Steam as Europa Universalis IV's sixth major expansion. It will run you $20 -- n...
StarCraft II  photo
StarCraft II

StarCraft II co-op goes free-to-play, but only directly with friends


The Starter Edition has been updated
Nov 28
// Chris Carter
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is out, and with it, a few new modes, such as the full co-op portion and Archon Mode -- which allows two players to control one base. But if you aren't willing to take the plunge yet, the Star...

Review: Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires

Nov 26 // Laura Kate Dale
Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One, Vita [Reviewed])Developer: Omega ForcePublisher: Tecmo KoeiReleased: November 24, 2015 (Vita)MSRP: $39.99  Much like past Empires releases, 8's release throws in a handful of new things for you to mess around with. You can get married and have kids, and make decisions about being a freelancer or a servant, but ultimately everything you do is in service of unifying China, usually by force. Right off the bat, you'll create your own hero to fight as, rather than the main entries' focus on fighting as a variety of different warriors. Pick their design, armor, and moveset from Dynasty Warriors 8 and set them off onto an adventure which will involve sticking with them long term, until they carve their own destiny out for themselves. [embed]322746:61270:0[/embed] A big part of the strategy involved in Empires comes down to deciding how to best spend your time. There is a menu-based system in place which gives you a series of options, with each available action taking one month to complete. After a certain number of months, you'll attend or host a war council meeting where your long-term objectives are set. The challenge here is working out how to balance your time. Initially, I sided with a much larger faction and piggybacked on their success. Every time a new objective was set, I had to decide how much of my time to dedicate to furthering the goals of my faction, and how much of the time to put toward working on my own personal goals. Every month I could avoid working on faction goals allowed me to grow slightly closer to independence. There was also the balancing act of working out how long to spend with that faction before going solo. The longer I stayed with them, the more resources I had at my disposal for personal growth, but the larger my faction grew as a potential threat. Knowing one day I would split off, I didn't want to put too much of my effort into beefing up a future enemy. Once you eventually break out solo, you have a lot more say over how to focus strategically. You can go fully diplomatic, violent, or a mixture of the two, but violence overall feels the most fulfilling route. You have to try and keep a mental handle on how thin it's safe to spread your forces, how fast it's safe to expand, how long you can stay put fortifying yourself, and how fast your enemies are expanding their influence. There were a number of things I constantly had to be aware of, but it never felt overwhelming or unfair. Combat is pretty much unchanged from Dynasty Warriors 8, which in my opinion is a good thing. The dual weapon switching, combos, and special attacks remain unchanged, with the main differences being tactical elements of how you engage in fights on the battlefield. Empires features a far more detailed map, with a higher focus on overall strategy when overtaking bases. You'll find a series of strategic bases, which need to be overtaken one after another to work toward the capture of the main base. The more detailed map allows for more strategy, but it also caused me some stress while trying to make progress across the map. Feeling like I had to always be aware of enemy movements and counters to my advance meant that where I would have powered forward in a main Dynasty Warriors game, here I often stopped and backtracked to keep the odd one or two people from slipping through my net. Ultimately, I came away from Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires extremely satisfied. The tactical elements outside of battle were well balanced as to be challenging while fair, and the combat carries over the best elements from the main game. It's a bit of a specific niche it's catering to -- fans of Dynasty Warriors combat and long-term strategy elements -- but if those two things are your jam, then Empires should have you hooked. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Dynasty Warriors photo
Plan to have an awesome time
Back in 2013 when Jim Sterling reviewed Dynasty Warriors 8 and called it a "return to form" for the series, I largely agreed with his review. From its large roster to complex combat system, it featured some of the best fighti...

Explore and conquer the galaxy in Stellaris

Nov 24 // Steven Hansen
Stellaris (PC)Developer: Paradox Development Studio Publisher: Paradox Interactive Release: TBA So, conquest in space, again, with Stellaris. The Beyond Earth comparison isn't just based on the sci-fi theme, as director Henrik Fåhraeus explained to me last week, Stellaris, "is a grand strategy game masquerading as a 4X game." In that sense it's a departure from past Paradox successes and the upcoming, WWII-set Hearts of Iron IV. He explained in a blog post earlier this year, "The early game is thus characterized by exploration and discovering the wonders of the galaxy," until reaching the mid-game wherein, "there is not much left to colonize and your easy expansion grinds to a halt. At this point, the map stabilizes into the Stellaris equivalent of the world map in Europa Universalis." You begin as one planet directed by a set of cultural guidelines (shown off to us last week was an Individualist Xenophobic empire, which made for a good first encounter with another large empire during which the only dialogue option was, "Alien scum!") that has just discovered faster than light travel. You'll choose between slower , free-moving warp travel; hyperspace across straight lines; and wormhole travels, which requires wormhole stations to be built. [embed]322210:61231:0[/embed] As opposed to pre-canned societies, there are over 100 alien portraits that can be aligned with a variety of traits, so "you will never meet the same aliens again;" or, at least, those bug-eyed purple asshole from your third game might be an inquisitive, pacifist sect next time you encounter that alien art. There are a few other parameters to set, like how many large empires will populate the galaxy you're exploring, but there are also quick start and preset options that reflect Paradox's attempt to widen its appeal, "without compromising our level of depth and complexity." There is an in-game adviser, for example, full voiced to help guide burgeoning emperors (or democratically-elected fish-faced idiots, whatever). In fact, Stellaris is Paradox's first project with a dedicated audio director. Coupled with all the space-faring in a full-figured galaxy and it could prove a little more inviting than playing on a giant map if the grand scope of spaaace isn't too alienating itself. Other simplifications include ditching tech trees for a system, "more like a collectible card game where you draw three cards and pick one." Research into Physics, Society, and Engineering is dictated by your scientists' traits and immediate options are weighted to be most convenient to you at any given time, though sometimes rare research opportunities pop up ("space amoeba weapons" were mentioned). Game progression goes something like this. Start on your home planet, represented by squares arranged 4x4 wherein you can place population unites (and strive for adjacency bonuses, like XCOM's base-builder). Send your science ship around to survey the galaxy, including addressing strange anomalies. In the demoed instance, we were drawn to a distress signal much like our own. There was a 10% failure rate, which just means missing out on the anomaly, though there is potential for catastrophic failure. In this case, the crew of the discovered ship was dead by brain parasite and a trait of our surveying scientist is the only thing that saved our crew from succumbing. Instances like these are neatly thrown into a Situation Log and you can research them from there. Then you'll want to send out ships for colonization and build construction ships to take advantage of resources (habitable planets are rare and meant to be cherished). There's a detailed ship builder, but you can auto-build for the best, too. "I don't want the flow in this game to be too micromanagey," Fåhraeus said. Other systems will start looping back around later. The population of a colonized planet or even your native planet can splinter off into factions of warring ideology, leaving you to choose if you want to say, quash the insurrection with force or give rein to a splintered, population-supported political spin off group. Eventually you will make it to the aforementioned mid-game, where it's "more like Europa Universalis" and you're butting up against large, rival empires. If one scouts you, it has the option to research you before you research it, and make first contact. There are other, smaller civilizations you'll discover, too, some pre-industrial, some post-technology.  To counter past Paradox games' anti-climactic endings when "you reach a point where you know you won," and are just trudging along to victory, late game crises are introduced, revolving around things like dangerous technological advancements or sentient robot worker uprisings -- things that threaten the whole galaxy. And there's maneuvering to do there, too, like letting the killbots off your biggest threat while allying elsewhere, bolstering yourself for the impending man-vs-bot slaughter. Also, you can "uplift" alien wildlife and, say, create a planet of space-faring, extremely loyal dolphins to go space crusade in your name, amen. Stellaris is "coming soon."
Stellaris preview photo
In space no one can hear you scheme
Earlier this year, Paradox offered an alternative for the many disappointed by EA's botched SimCity two years earlier by publishing Colossal Order's excellent city-building-simulator Cities: Skylines. Now Paradox's internal s...

Review: Mayan Death Robots

Nov 21 // Patrick Hancock
Mayan Death Robots (PC)Developer: Sileni StudiosPublisher: SOEDESCO PublishingReleased: November 20, 2015MSRP: $14.99  Mayan Death Robots pits two giant robots against each other as a television sport for other robots, I suppose, to watch. Each season of this television show chooses a new planet, and it just so happens that this season is on Earth around the 1500s. The premise is loose and really only serves to usher the player from one mission to the next, but it's definitely cute. Mayan Death Robots is a 1v1 match that plays out similar to the classic Worms games. Players pick one of the eight unique robots and are then plopped into a battlefield. The objective of each game is to destroy the opponent's Core, which is a small box somewhere behind them. In the way, however, is plenty of terrain as well as the enemy robot. Each robot has two types of attacks, the ability to jump, and the ability to create new terrain. That last bit is interesting; each player can create terrain in the form of Tetris blocks anywhere within a certain radius of their robot, as long as it's not floating mid-air. This allows some interesting defensive play in a game that would otherwise be entirely offensive. There's a limit to the amount of blocks, and using it consecutively yields less and less blocks. [embed]321771:61215:0[/embed] Turns happen simultaneously and publicly. There's a short time period to choose an action, then another time period to aim said action, then both players' actions happen at once. However, knowing what an opponent is going to do doesn't mean it can be stopped. If a player sees their opponent shooting straight at the core, that shot will go off. Shooting the ground beneath them or the robot itself won't affect anything since both shots are fired at once. Tiny pixelated Mayans roam about on each player's side, worshiping the giant robot from the sky. Killing the enemy's Mayans will grant a bonus to the explosion size of the player, but it's rarely worth it to fire specifically at Mayans; it is usually just an added benefit of firing at something else. Mayans will also attack the enemy robot if they stand nearby. This is legitimately useful, since they are constantly doing damage while the turn timer is ticking down, and it prevents the opponent from jumping right next to the Core and blowing it to bits. Every so often, an item wheel will spin and award both players randomly selected items. These items are one-time use, but provide some variety to the gameplay that can start to feel tedious after long play sessions. The game incentivizes the player to use the item quickly, since they are lost upon death. If a player is dead when the wheel spins, they do not receive the item. The core gameplay is great. Playing against another human can lead to intense back-and-forth matches. Multiplayer supports two players locally (no online) with either gamepads or the keyboard. It's a nice feature that both players can use the keyboard, since not everyone has controllers for their PC. An odd omission is the total lack of mouse support, even in menus. In a game that focuses on aiming precise shots, it would have been a boon to be able to use the mouse. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect is that players are forced to unlock the playable robots and the more interesting items. Of the ten robots available, six are unlocked from the start and the rest are acquired through the campaign. While I understand the necessity to give the player a feeling of progression, those who buy the game and just want to play with a friend will be disappointed. Luckily, the campaign can be played through with a buddy. All of the robots feel different from each other, despite the only difference being their two attacks. Some of them have special properties, like having their attacks become more powerful the longer they are in the air, or being able to shoot through certain terrain. While they feel unique, all robots play very similarly: get into a position that your attacks benefit from, and shoot away. Each match has the potential to be an intense back-and-forth or a complete slog; it all depends on the players (or AI) involved. The campaign is set up as a series of over 30 "episodes." There is no tutorial, but players will likely pick up the mechanics quickly. Occasionally, these episodes will modify the standard gameplay by adding stage hazards. These hazards tend to be either incredibly annoying or completely useless. Only rarely do they affect gameplay in a unique, interesting way. There is also an occasional stage boss, which removes the cores from the map and asks both players to destroy the monster. This is great, if you're playing with another human. Cooperating with the AI is downright awful. You see, the boss has to be "summoned" by performing certain actions on the map, but the AI doesn't give a shit. The AI is more concerned with destroying the player's core, making it a huge pain to even get the boss to appear most of the time. If the match ends before the boss is summoned, the player must restart the level. The bosses each have their own mechanics, which are very hit or miss. Some bosses, like the map modifiers, are more annoying than they are worth. Plus, after defeating a boss, the cores come back and the match continues like normal. It's a strange cooperative-to-competitive swing that just feels random. Other than the boss levels, there is no way to lose a level while playing the campaign. Sure, the AI can win, but it doesn't matter, the player progresses to the next stage anyway. This makes sense if two humans are playing each other, since one will always win, but not when playing solo. There's no incentive for a single player to win...at all. There are no rankings, stars, or scores to do better in, there's no leaderboards, nothing. A solo player could go through each level and lose, as long as they summon the boss in the boss levels, and progress through the entire campaign and unlock everything.  There's also a Versus mode which is as straightforward as they come. Players can only compete on the modified maps by going through the campaign and selecting that specific episode to play on, but it would have been great to be able to choose these modifiers from a list in Versus mode, potentially mixing and matching some to create some zany situations. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort exists. Versus is as vanilla as it gets. Despite my enjoyment of the game mechanically, I cannot recommend Mayan Death Robots to anyone looking for a worthwhile single-player experience. For those wanting another entertaining local multiplayer game, however, it provides some unique strategic gameplay. It likely won't keep players enthralled for hours on end, but serves as a great addition to any local-multiplayer library.
Mayan Death Robots review photo
Maybe they're friendly death robots...
I really enjoyed my time with Mayan Death Robots at PAX East this year. My buddy and I played a few matches and left anticipating its eventual release. Now that it is released, I was excited to jump in and see the final ...

XCOM 2 gallery photo
XCOM 2 gallery

XCOM 2 looks quite nice outdoors


Can't take my eyes off of you
Nov 20
// Jordan Devore
Sometimes, I just want to look at the world of XCOM free of distraction. It's quite pleasant, in fact, when you aren't obsessively worrying about the many ways in which your squad can and likely will perish. Or how your never...

Review: Renowned Explorers: International Society

Nov 20 // Darren Nakamura
Renowned Explorers: International Society (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Abbey GamesPublisher: Abbey GamesReleased: September 2, 2015MSRP: $19.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit In Renowned Explorers, the goal is to become a particularly renowned explorer among the group known as the Renowned Explorers. This is achieved by going on expeditions, recovering valuable treasures, making scientific discoveries, and navigating combat situations. Basically, an expedition is separated into two parts: resolving text-based events while traveling between nodes on a map and tactical combat on a modified hex grid. Both sections have elements of procedural generation, so there's always a sense of exploring the semi-unknown, even on an expedition to the same location as a previous run. Area maps are covered in fog of war, with only the nearest nodes visible. Combat arenas will vary the layout of obstacles, choke points, and healing zones. [embed]321138:61123:0[/embed] Indeed, Renowned Explorers is a "roguelite," meant to be played multiple times in order to truly master it. Herein lies one of the biggest hurdles I had to get over in order to enjoy it. For a game meant to be played again and again, it just takes way too long. A single run consists of five expeditions, and each expedition can take 30 to 45 minutes depending on how many encounters there are. It took me days to get through my first run because of the time commitment. This does speed up with experience, because combat becomes much faster after learning the ins and outs of it. Even so, expeditions easily last 20 minutes or more, so it's not the kind of "just one more" experience a roguelite needs to really grab somebody. This is exacerbated by the planning phase that occurs in between expeditions. Here, players spend the resources gathered during the previous expedition to purchase improved gear, recruit followers, and perform research. This is easily the densest part of Renowned Explorers for a new player. Every resource is connected to another in some way, and the game takes a laissez-faire approach; it presents a bevy of options and lets the player sort out what to do with them. Navigating the nooks and crannies of the planning phase can be exhausting at first, which makes the thought of taking on a new expedition right away seem that much more unreasonable. By far, my biggest disappointment starting off was with the combat system. It advertises multiple ways to resolve encounters; an explorer can be aggressive with physical attacks, be devious with insults and threats, or be friendly with encouragement. The three styles have a rock-paper-scissors relationship, so an aggressive approach is advantageous against a friendly enemy for instance. The problem with it is that each form of "attack" draws from the same "hit point" meter, which represents a foe's willingness to keep fighting. You could punch an enemy until he has only a sliver of health remaining, then finish him off by encouraging him to believe in your cause. Fighting and talking don't feel like they function differently. The battle system is hardly different than a simple three-element magic system at first. Only after really digging in did I spot the nuance. Some encounters will provide different rewards depending on how they are resolved. More importantly, it's the asymmetry in the rock-paper-scissors system that makes it interesting. Aggressive attack damage is a function of physical power, where devious and friendly attack damage comes from speech power, so an orator might have a stronger pair of scissors than he has a rock, so to speak. Within the speech powers, there is asymmetry as well. In general, devious skills cause debuffs while friendly skills cause buffs -- on friends and enemies alike. So while the current mood might call for a friendly attack, it is still necessary to weigh the risk of increasing the enemy's attack power in return. The point is: the combat system is deeper than it initially lets on, but it takes some effort for a player to really understand that. That basically describes Renowned Explorers: International Society on the whole. It features a set of deep systems with complex mechanics and relationships, but it places most of the burden on the player to discover it. I'll admit, I disliked it until it all fell into place and revealed itself for what it is. I'm not chomping at the bit to keep playing, but I am curious to delve deeper. Different combinations of explorers can beget different tactics both in and out of battle. That thought alone is enough to keep me from uninstalling it.
Renowned Explorers review photo
A lot to dig into
I'm glad I stuck Renowned Explorers out. For the first couple hours it was kind of a slog. Not exactly bad, but dense, unwieldy, and unexciting. I would finish an expedition and quit, not wanting to get back to it until days ...

First Valkyria trailer photo
First trailer and way more screenshots
So I jumped the gun yesterday when I said Valkyria: Azure Revolution and Valkyria Chronicles Remaster (PS4) news was petering off. Yesterday's plain, boring website is now home to a bunch of new screens, the first footage of...

Valkyria PS4 details photo
Valkyria PS4 details

Valkyria: Azure Revolution, Valkyria Chronicles Remaster get websites


Plus box art
Nov 19
// Steven Hansen
Two days ago an announcement, yesterday the first screens, and today...web pages. Well, yes, things do get less exciting after their initial release. Gotta slow the pace down to be able to blow you out of the water with the n...
Valkyria shots photo
Valkyria shots

First shots of Valkyria: Azure Revolution and the PS4 remaster


New Valkyria series game coming to PS4
Nov 18
// Steven Hansen
I don't know if it was the Valkyria Chronicles Steam release success or Sega just doing its regular couple years of apologizing with good releases before falling into a funk again, but there is a new, anime-as-hell Valkyria C...
Valkyria Chronicles photo
Valkyria Chronicles

A new Valkyria Chronicles and a remaster are coming to PS4


Next year in Japan
Nov 17
// Jordan Devore
As it turns out, Sega's recent Valkyria trademark was worth getting excited over after all. The company has a new game in the series and a remaster of the original Valkyria Chronicles in development for PlayStation 4, accordi...

Review: Stella Glow

Nov 13 // Chris Carter
Stella Glow (3DS)Developer: ImageepochPublisher: AtlusMSRP: $49.99Release Date: November 17, 2015 Our journey begins with Alto, a young man who (surprise) has amnesia, and is found by a girl named Risette, who takes him into her mother's house. Three years later Alto encounters Hilda, a "sort of good sort of bad" witch, who is commonly referred to as "The Witch of Disaster" -- with a name like that, who wouldn't be inclined to be bad sometimes? Risette then unlocks an ancient power from one of Alto's artifacts, and becomes a witch herself -- then it's off to the royal palace, where they are tasked with hunting Hilda by recruiting more witches. You can probably guess where it goes from here. Alto is a country boy of sorts, but accepts to call to become a reluctant "aw shucks" shonen sword master. The rest of the party runs the gamut of anime tropes, and while they can occasionally get annoying, the cast is memorable enough and all sport a great set of designs. There are a few nuanced storylines peppered in, like the tale of a misunderstood witch who was doomed to live as an outcast. Another character hides her face in a cardboard box because she's shy, but wears revealing clothing. The cast is massive, and since there's no "job" switching in Stella Glow, all of them act unique both in and out of combat. Speaking of combat, much like the Arc series, it's still a lot like Final Fantasy Tactics. Utilizing chibi characters on a grid-like format, players can move about the battlefield, use items or skills, and choose to "wait" in a specific direction to guard against directional attacks. A lot of games still use the grid style because it works, even to this day. There's a certain order to it that warrants a respect beyond relegating it to "old school nostalgia," and planning out party movements and attacks is never a chore. When you're actually engaged with an enemy an Advanced Wars style miniature cutscene will play, and as expected, some characters have counter-attacks available. As previously stated, the cast really makes a different here, as some party members have access to special abilities like guarding characters they're adjacent to, which makes placement paramount. Don't expect a whole lot of depth and customization though (stats are applied instantly, and equipment management isn't all that difficult, even accounting for the materia-like socket system). [embed]320467:61085:0[/embed] Really, the game isn't all that tough in general. I feel like it will be challenging enough for those of you who don't keep up with the genre, but for veterans, you'll rarely find a taxing quest until later in the storyline. This is partially due to the fact that the AI isn't overly aggressive, and tends to hang back more, waiting for a better opportunity to strike. On the flipside, that means that there's no frustrating fake difficulty spikes for the sake of it. Like most SRPGs, Stella is hella long. There's at least 40 hours of gameplay here if you only opt for the story, and leveling up characters, locating the additional endings (over 10), completing sidequests and sidestories will likely elevate it to double that. Like most games with a billion endings, your mileage may vary depending on your affinity towards a specific character, but the ones I saw ranged from unsatisfying to sufficient. For those you are wondering, the voicework is in English, and the songs, which are heavily woven into the game's narrative, are performed in Japanese. In many ways, Stella Glow is a by-the-numbers strategy RPG, but it does have a partially interesting cast, some unique storylines, and a working combat system. Imageepoch has had some ups and downs in their lengthy career, but thankfully they can at least end on somewhat of a high note. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Stella Glow photo
Imageepoch's swan song
That's all she wrote for Imageepoch. The developer responsible for the Luminos Arc series and Arc Rise Fantasia filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and it seems like they're out of the industry entirely with the laun...

Paladins photo
Paladins

Smite developer's Paladins gets a Founder's Pack, beta date


Oh yeah, this game
Nov 13
// Chris Carter
Paladins: Champions of the Realm is a thing that exists, and is the newest first-person team shooter project from the folks over at Hi-Rez who created the controversial Tribes Ascend and Smite. While there hasn't been a ...

Review: StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

Nov 12 // Chris Carter
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void (PC)Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentMSRP: $39.99 (Standard), $59.99 (Digital Deluxe)Released: November 10, 2015 The rest of the story missions are on par with the initial set, as players delve deeper into the story of the Protoss and their attempt to reclaim their homeworld and save the galaxy. I was surprised, though, to see that the narrative not only seeks to wrap up the fate of Auir and the Protoss race, but the rest of the core cast as well. Call it cheesy, but Blizzard actually wraps up things nicely here, and doesn't leave fans wanting. Yes, there will be Ghost missions as DLC down the line, but the story of StarCraft truly feels complete, partially due to the assistance of a tri-mission epilogue. That's not to say that things are executed flawlessly, of course. There are still some odd storylines, weird choices from characters, and absolutely ridiculous phrases uttered throughout. But all told, things are far more focused. The camera is off the struggle of Raynor and Kerrigan's relationship, and more on the survival of the entire galaxy. I fully expect a lot of fans to dislike the finale for various reasons we'll be discussing for years on end once people have had a chance to finish it. Elements of customization also appear like never before in the series, with the power to change up your home ship (The Spear of Adun), and the heroes themselves. These are augmented by sidequests, which actively encourages players to reach out and do everything there is to do in each mission. While a few levels did tend to blend together (craft a base and army, and smash into another one), the story and carried progress keep things going, and I didn't find myself getting bored like I did with Wings of Liberty. [embed]319826:61049:0[/embed] Co-op allows you to select between six heroes (Raynor, Kerrigan, Artanis, Swann, Zagara, and Vorazun), all of whom carry over their experience to subsequent playthroughs. It's a lot like Heroes of the Storm in a way, where you can work your way toward new bonuses, level-ups, and upgrades over time with each character. Objectives include tasks like destroying vehicles or other units, and are rather menial in nature. It's important to note though that you don't play as these heroes -- they just provided bonuses and alter the style of your army. Also, leveling up allows you to access some of the more advanced units, like the Terran Battlecruiser. There's matchmaking support, and given the simplicity of the mode, it works well even with random players. Although I would have preferred a full-on mode with playable heroes, co-op really does the trick, and I wish it had been implemented sooner. I had a blast getting to know other players I was matched up with, trading strategies, and just talking about the game. It's a relaxed mode that will scratch that itch if you find yourself plummeting on the ladder, or failing in the new tournament system. So how is multiplayer? Relatively the same, with the addition of two new units per army. Actually, I should say the gameplay is the same, but the added bonus of all of these units seeks to change up the meta considerably. The return of the Lurkers for the Zerg is a standout unit, and memories of Brood War came rushing back within seconds. The Disruptor is probably the most unique unit in Void, as it shoots a ball of pure energy that can hit both friends and foes. While casting, it's immobile and vulnerable, so players will have to treat it as a priority target. The thing oozes Protoss inside and out. As for the other units, the Liberator is basically like an aerial Siege Tank, the Cyclone is an early-game harassment vehicle, the Adept not only looks badass but it also teleports around like a more mobile late-game Zealot option, and Ravagers are like mobile artillery, eating through force fields. As you can clearly see, all of them bring something new to the table and are welcome in their own right. The meta will no doubt drastically shift in the months to come, but as of now, I'm having the same amount of fun online as I always have. Archon Mode is another welcome addition, and while I can see people skipping out on it entirely, it will likely draw in a niche crowd. The gist is that two people will control one base, which can lead to some interesting playstyles, like one player micromanaging air units while the other hits foes from the ground. Where its potential really lies is a tool for teaching, so friends can walk newcomers through the basics of base building and combat. If you're invested in StarCraft II's story already, you likely won't be disappointed by Legacy of the Void's tale. If you haven't played any form of StarCraft II yet and are intrigued by the prospect of another RTS, this is probably the strongest the game has ever been. It's a perfect time to jump in. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
StarCraft II review photo
My life for Aiur
When I last left StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, I had completed most of the story. Having now played it all, I've walked away satisfied, not only from this expansion, but from the series as a whole. Decades after its inception, Blizzard is still at the top of its class in terms of cinematic storytelling, and the new game modes don't hurt the appeal of the overall package in the slightest.


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