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Review: Madden 16

Aug 25 // Steven Hansen
Madden NFL 16 (PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)Developer: EA TiburonPublisher: EA SportsReleased: August 25, 2015MSRP: $59.99 Madden 16 makes an interesting opening gambit, once again going right into a game, this time a fabricated Super Bowl 50 starring the Cardinals and Steelers. No one wanted to watch that match up seven years ago (except me because of the Kurt Warner), but EA insists on framing this nostalgia-less, fake match up with Any Given Sunday editing, close ups on players, and even tepid, badly-acted football dialogue, the kind of jawing written by someone who has not played sport.  Fuck, is it boring. It introduces new (very simple) catching mechanics in painful slow motion setting up situations (oh, one of the teams is trailing!) we're supposed to have emotions in, like I have any stake in Fake Super Bowl 50, like I'm supposed to feel something when alleged rapist Ben Roethlisberger (who narrates later tutorials) tells his mates, "It's time to be the team we're supposed to be right now. Believe in the man to your left and to your right. It's our time right now" like he's reading commercial cue cards. At least the San Jose 49ers' digital Levi's Stadium field hasn't turned to pudding like the real one. This is what Madden is, though. In past years I have creatively ripped on the series for aggressive advertisements of real-world products, which this one seems to have toned down significantly (unless they're coming dynamically as updates post launch). But! Madden is a yearly advertisement for the NFL. From the start menu it encouraged me to share my information with the NFL, promising digital playing cards as a reward. This is what it means to have exclusivity rights to the only meaningful football league (because no one internationally gives a shit), the commodification of players. It is cool to see the increased likeness of Arizona's head coach whose fascinating neck folds and face-scanned pores have him looking like a corrugated version of Dana Carvey's turtliest member of the turtle club. [embed]307755:60128:0[/embed] In 2006 (that would make it Madden 07) I distinctly remember when I fell into the habit of abusing slot receivers instead of number one and number two wide receivers. This meant a lot of balls to the perfectly serviceable Kevin Curtis instead of two of the greats, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. The worst thing about those slot receiver posts, or crossing routes over the middle, has always been linebackers undercutting the passes for picks. Here is the scenario: a player looks reasonably open for a pass. It is a pass any NFL quarterback could make. It is a pass I, an idiot with bad knees, could make. You throw it with a nice arc over the front defensive layer and before the safeties. Madden has never wanted to give you that pass and it has taken near 10 years for the series to introduce "touch passing," a double tap that lets you drop balls into open zones. Ten years. Low and high throws are executed by holding L1 (high) or L2 (low) while passing. The passing game has seen the most new features added this year. Aside from the aforementioned quarterback stuff, there are three types of catches, done by holding one of three buttons while the ball is in the air en route to the receiver. The Aggressive catch (triangle) is for leaping catches and bodying cornerbacks. RAC (square) encourages the player to make a catch in motion and continue running up field, provided they're not about to be clocked. Possession catches (x) are for keeping feet in-bounds or making sure the receiver hangs on to a first down. These useful buttons encourage more user interaction during catches and also speak to a refined interplay between defensive backs and receivers. On the other side of the ball, you can have defenders play the ball (hold triangle) to go for an interception or deflection, or more conservatively play the receiver (hold x) to ensure you make a tackle and possibly knock the ball from them. There is much more realistic jockeying for body position and faithful physics so long as you don't stare too closely at the instant replays. Eventually you'll notice some similar, more dramatic catch animations (a particular one-handed one stuck out), but it is a plus on the whole for verisimilitude, for giving weight and feeling to awesome athletes interacting in a confined space. That's about it, though. There are some neat presentation additions (statistic graphics overlaid on players) and the menus are well laid out, though they are also pretty slow. Load times, too, are still a bit of a problem (and intrusive presentation elements are bothersome when running a hurry up offense). The insistence towards microtransaction-laden Ultimate Team and the new fantasy football-cribbed Draft Champions modes is useless. Throwing, catching, and defending throws have seen some welcomed, long-ignored additions that get a couple yards closer to faithful simulation. You can decide if that's enough. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Madden reviewed photo
Mildly deflated
I do feel, some, for Electronic Arts and the people responsible for making Madden every year. This is only my 4th year (out of  27 releases) covering it and I fear I may have peaked with last year's review. But like a fr...

Review: Nova-111

Aug 25 // Darren Nakamura
Nova-111 (Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One)Developer: Funktronic LabsPublisher: Funktronic LabsReleased: August 25, 2015 (Mac, PC, PS4)MSRP: $14.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Conceptually, it's a little hard to wrap one's head around at first. Thankfully, Nova-111 eases players into the ideas a little at a time, introducing new mechanics throughout the six-hour campaign. Some science experiment has gone wrong and messed up time. Now it's all wonky (that's the technical term). Set on a square grid, each player movement counts as a single turn. For every turn taken, any enemies also get a turn. So far, it sounds pretty standard, but here's the wrinkle: some objects act in real time rather than being set to a schedule of turns. The first example are the stalactites. If the player bumps one from the side or travels underneath it, then it will begin to fall at a steady rate, whether the player (and enemies) are moving or not. It sets up a particularly satisfying scenario: get chased by an enemy, run under a stalactite, then stop dead and just watch as it crushes the pursuer. [embed]307759:60125:0[/embed] As it progresses, Nova-111 adds more and more combinations of real-time and turn-based gameplay. Some enemies' movement is turn-based, but when attacked set off a countdown timer before exploding. Some will grab the player and must be defeated quickly. Eventually, some enemies move in real time, independent of turns taken. It's a real brain bender at times. Just when I thought I had a good handle on the situation, taking things slowly and flawlessly taking out the dangerous aliens, I'd get thrown into a situation where I needed to react quickly and I'd fall apart. The combination of real-time and turn-based gameplay forces me to think differently than I ever have before. It takes two ideas I've known for years and turns them into something that feels totally new. Nova-111 doesn't stop with that basic idea. Through the course of the game's three main areas, new enemies, terrain, and mechanics are presented. There are doors, switches, sliding blocks, oil, teleporters, fire, stealthy bits, and more, each interacting with the weird time scheme in its own way. While tactical combat and puzzles are the main points, exploration also plays a role. The overarching goal is to collect the 111 scientists scattered across the game, most of whom are in fairly well-hidden locations. At first most of the secret areas are accessed by passing behind false walls, but the best are in plain sight but require solving a more taxing puzzle. The art design supports the exploration aspect well. At the beginning of a level, most of it is covered in a sort of fog of war. Any square in line of sight and within a certain range is uncovered, and the uncovering effect (and environments in general) look fantastic. I spent a lot of time in the early levels moving very slowly, just taking in the artwork as more of the world was revealed. The exploration aspect isn't all rosy. Individual levels are broken up into several smaller areas, but each area cannot be played independently. It isn't obvious which area a missing scientist may be in, so going back through old levels for 100% means replaying a lot unnecessarily and wasting a lot of time bumping into walls. The levels take between 20 and 30 minutes apiece, which is just too long for me to want to replay. I would have preferred if each bite-sized area were shown on the level select screen, with its completion statistics displayed. Those who aren't daunted by having to replay entire levels will enjoy the New Game+, which is essentially the same experience but with several cheats available to be toggled on or off. Where previously some care needed to be taken to conserve abilities, New Game+ allows players to go wild with them. Even though I don't see myself replaying Nova-111 for full completion any time soon, I liked what was here. It has a sharp look, some chuckle-silently-in-my-head comedy, and gameplay unlike anything else I have experienced. It forced me to think in a totally new way, which is increasingly uncommon with most established genres. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Nova-111 review photo
Champagne supernova
Genres and mechanics have names for a reason. When something comes up often enough, it's worth developing a shorthand and grouping things together that feel alike. In the past few years, mashing up genres has become the new i...

Review: The Consuming Shadow

Aug 24 // Stephen Turner
The Consuming Shadow (PC) Developer: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw Publisher: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw Released: July 30, 2015MSRP: $9.99 As a lone investigator, you must travel across the UK in a hatchback full of infinite fuel, searching for clues about an invading Elder God and the ritual that will banish them from our world. Starting from the edge of Scotland, you move from town to town (some deadly, some friendly) before arriving in Stonehenge to finish the job. You only have 60 hours before the world ends, so do make those miles count. The Consuming Shadow can best be described as part dungeon crawler, part roguelike travelogue; FTL by way of Call of Cthulhu. It’s a lazy comparison to make, but one quite deserving of a game so transparently stitched together. If you’re expecting anything more than a reskin and a compartmentalization of cannibalized ideas, then The Consuming Shadow will disappoint. To quote Croshaw in the press release: “The graphics aren't the game's strong point: my goal with the game was to create a kind of horror game more akin to literature.” It’s an honest, if somewhat cowardly cop, considering the lack of sympathy that butters his bread. Graphically, it’s supposed to evoke the Commodore and DOS titles of yore, only it looks like Newgrounds Flash game from 2009. [embed]307557:60109:0[/embed] And with that in mind, The Consuming Shadow has to live and die by its own prose. It actually does an excellent job of selling the severity and doubt of each encounter, but it’s also undermined by a lack of procedurally-generated content. The line-by-line variations of the same paragraph quickly turn stale, despite being a solid read. But then, on the flip-side to that, The Consuming Shadow is a purposefully short game. It starts out with a first-person view of your car, which is suitably atmospheric; nothing but motorway signs and a passenger seat full of hastily gathered items. Using a GPS, you have to choose a nearby destination, always being wary of time and distance. Random encounters on the road are a case of risk and reward, but if you don’t have the right equipment, they usually end up being detrimental to your cause. Compared to other roguelikes that offer a fair gamble without the specialist items, The Consuming Shadow’s encounters are almost always stacked against you. Every destination is either a safe haven or a dungeon crawl. The former provides supplies and medical treatment and the latter forms the main crux of the game. Dungeon crawls are where you’ll find clues about each possible invading God and the runic chants needed to banish them; which would be an easy task if not for the scuttling creatures and end-level objectives in your way. Oh, and the fact this where most of The Consuming Shadow’s problems lie. From a third-person landscape perspective, you move through a maze of rooms – be it a house, hospital, warehouse, derelict estate, or park – collecting notes and battling silhouetted enemies. The exploration of an urban environment is a fine horror staple, and it’s a wonderful change from the current crop of first-person jump fests, but all the goodwill is undone by the almost unavoidable attacks and cumbersome controls on a keyboard/mouse setup. Combat is appalling. No witty metaphor or breathless soliloquy, here. It’s appalling. A handgun is always by your side, with three types of limited ammunition, and randomized spells. But between the flaky auto-aim, the minimal field of view and the enemies’ erratic speeds and ranged attacks, combat is a draining experience. Pistol whipping and an exploitation of blind spots turn out to be the key to success, as spells rarely help the cause. While the monsters are varied and left to the imagination, the tactics against them aren’t. I’m pretty sure you're not meant to stand side-by-side with a writhing mass, following it around like a conjoined twin, before pimp-slapping it to death. Since this is a love letter to H.P. Lovecraft, there’s a sanity meter involved. Running away from a problem or encountering a bad decision drains your sanity points, which results in some unnerving hallucinations on the motorway and in the urban mazes. Unfortunately, low sanity also induces an awful QTE event within the decision making. One mistimed click and you’ll blow your head off in a silhouetted suicide. It’s a novelty at first, then a time waster. Every session of The Consuming Shadow is clearly designed for repetition and tailored towards streaming (Croshaw is banking on it for exposure’s sake). Failure is never the end – every game over awards EXP for stat boosts and there are unlockable characters, too – though by the time the needed advantages arrive, it’s far too late in terms of interest. The major problem with The Consuming Shadow is that it’s a bubble-gum experience, especially compared to its peers. When it works, it’s only because of a new discovery. There’s something genuinely thrilling about finding a connection and jotting it down in your table of suspects, before setting off to the next hotspot. But when you enter another procedurally-generated dungeon, it’s a wearisome slog again. The Consuming Shadow is more Frankenstein’s Monster than Eldritch Abomination, shambling along as it does with once fresh parts, dug up from here and there. I can only hope Yahtzee sees the irony the next time he attacks a new game for being old hat or a cut-and-paste job. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review photo
Had more fun in an 8-hour traffic jam
I wasn’t going to mention Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, not initially. But between the infamous handle splashed across the title screen and his pre-emptive comments against certain criticisms in the accompanying pr...

Review: Snakebird

Aug 24 // Ben Davis
Snakebird (PC)Developer: Noumenon GamesPublisher: Noumenon GamesReleased: May 4, 2015MSRP: $6.99 At first glance, Snakebird isn't all that intimidating. It's made to look cute and appealing, with bright colors, simple cartoon graphics, and adorable bird/snake hybrid characters which easily bring to mind more casual games like Angry Birds. But be warned: this is far from a casual experience. On one hand, the cute art style helps by drawing people in and keeping them calm and relaxed while they fail again and again at the puzzles, impaling their adorable snakebirds on spikes and throwing them off of cliffs. But I do worry that the simple graphics might turn some players off to the game too soon. It's definitely not the type of game that it appears to be, but I kind of like that it subverts expectations like that. [embed]307530:60107:0[/embed] The goal of every level is simple: eat all the fruit and get each snakebird into the portal. No snakebird can be left behind, so if one makes it into the portal but the other one can't reach, you might have to start over from the beginning (or at least backtrack a few moves). Eating a piece of fruit increases the snakebird's size by one segment, usually making it easier to navigate certain puzzles. But be careful! Just because a piece of fruit can be reached doesn't mean the puzzle has been solved yet. Most puzzles involve finding the correct path to the fruit, which is not always the most direct path. In fact, the most direct path more often than not will lead to a snakebird getting stuck or dying, but keep in mind that you can easily backtrack in case mistakes are made. If a snakebird dies, the game immediately resets to the last move before death, and you can keep backtracking from there if need be. Once all fruit has been eaten, the portal will open, creating an exit from the level. One of the largest sources of difficulty comes from simply figuring out the physics and abilities of the snakebirds. While there is a tutorial level, it really only covers basic movement and how to open the portal. Everything else is up to the player to figure out, and it's not always obvious. Here are a few mild hints for new players who find themselves getting stuck really early on (possibly even on the second or third levels). Normal physics don't really apply to snakebirds. They always hold their current shape while falling. They can sit on top of floating fruit without eating it. They can push other snakebirds and certain obstacles (or multiple things at once), sometimes even in ways that might not make a whole lot of sense when you think about it. Snakebirds that are pushed will always maintain their current shape. Also, it's usually a good idea to try and figure out what position they will need to end up in to reach the portal, in order to plan out your moves accordingly. Eventually, through trial and error, you'll develop skills and moves that you wouldn't have even dreamed of at the beginning of the game, and you'll start flying through the puzzles, only to get stuck again a little while later on a puzzle which requires a new skill to be discovered. This might leave some players overly frustrated, but options for each level are not endless, so players are bound to figure out a solution as long as they keep trying new things. Snakebird does a good job of keeping things interesting by introducing new mechanics every so often, including the addition of multiple snakebirds in a single level, spikes, movable platforms, and teleportation portals. Each themed area introduces something new, and then there are the special star levels which will test your abilities to the fullest. There are a total of 53 levels, and the difficulty of each level will probably vary from player to player. The map is also non-linear, so beating one level might open up several more to choose from. It took me about 13 hours to beat every level, although I had a particularly tough time figuring out a few of them (a couple that come to mind include level 20 and level 44, both of which took me WAY too long to figure out). Usually, I would have to sit and stare at a difficult level for a while, or even stop playing entirely and just take some time to ponder the level and all of the possibilities, and then come back later with fresh ideas. But the feeling of finally completing a seemingly impossible puzzle after so much failure is just so wonderfully satisfying! Personally, I think Snakebird could have benefited from a few extra features. Including statistics such as the amount of time it took to finish a level or the number of moves used would have added a bit to the replayability. As it is now, once a puzzle is solved, there's really no incentive to go back and try it again. Leaderboards would also be a welcome addition, since I'm sure many players out there figured out way more efficient methods of solving certain puzzles than I did. Snakebird is not for everyone. But for those puzzle-lovers out there seeking the ultimate challenge, definitely give Snakebird a shot. You might be surprised by how often this game will leave you stumped, but that just makes the feeling of overcoming challenges so much sweeter! [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Snakebird review photo
Delightfully challenging
Well-designed, challenging puzzle games can be hard to come by these days, but they are out there. Games like Antichamber, English Country Tune, and Splice are a few Steam titles that come to mind for providing particularly h...

Review: Gears of War Ultimate Edition

Aug 24 // Brett Makedonski
Gears of War Ultimate Edition (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: The CoalitionPublisher: Microsoft StudiosRelease: August 25, 2015 (Xbox One), TBA (PC)MSRP: $39.99  The developers of Gears of War Ultimate Edition have called this "the first at its best." Turns out they aren't wrong, but they also aren't quite precise enough. This is Gears of War -- entire franchise included -- at its best. Gameplay at a steady 60 frames-per-second does wonders for the naturally clunky movement. These soldiers now feel less like the tanks they resemble. That's not exactly the case in the campaign, however. Multiplayer over Xbox Live runs at 60FPS, but solo and cooperative play is locked in at 30. Regardless, it's a vast improvement over previous installments. It's immediately noticeable as soon as you pick the controller up. The Ultimate Edition is running on a mature version of Unreal Engine 3 -- the same engine the original Gears of War was built upon -- so this improvement can likely be chalked up to optimization and more powerful hardware in the Xbox One. This newfound fluidity makes everything less frustrating. Cover-based shooting works as it always has, but moving from spot to spot isn't as likely to end up with your character stuck to a wall you didn't intend. Navigating the game's many battlefields is quicker and more enjoyable. [embed]306974:60086:0[/embed] While a slicker movement system is easy to appreciate, it's the combat -- the actual shooting of guns -- that's the real meat of Gears of War. Almost everything about it is perfectly intact. As many bullets as the enemies can soak up, there's resounding satisfaction anytime an enemy gets tagged with a torque bow or a pistol takes a head clean off. Hip-shooting with the Gnasher is still a frustratingly inaccurate prospect, as it seems like things work out in your favor about half the time. But, the greatest compliment you can give Gears of War (and it holds true in Ultimate Edition) is that it makes fighting fun. That shouldn't necessarily be the case for a game that features pop-up shooting gallery one after another, but it is. Active reload is one of the better game mechanics of the past decade in that it constantly keeps the player's attention during a process that they'd otherwise be uninvolved in. The Lancer (a/k/a "chainsaw gun") is iconic and unironically cool. It's on the back of the combat that the rest of Gears of War gets by. A lot of the level design feels dated now. Settings are distinct through the game's five acts, but they're all used the exact same way. Rarely is there clever subversion to keep the player on their toes. More often than not, it's predictable what lies just ahead. To be fair, there are attempts to break this mold; the second act holds two examples. A large swath of this part of the game asks the player to pathfind by blowing up propane tanks in order to illuminate the road. When mixed with fighting, these are some of the best moments in Gears of War, as it adds a puzzle-like element. Conversely, the end of this act dedicates a chapter to vehicle driving. It's poorly executed, and it comes off as a forced and transparent bid at shaking up monotony. Gears of War can be linear to a fault, but that's a trade-off for its cinematic nature. Chapter length is generally short, and a new cutscene is always just around the corner. Setpieces come about fairly frequently, but they're somewhat subdued when compared to other installments in the series. Rather, this Gears of War is the game that set the tone for the over-the-top action to follow. Despite all the cinematics, Gears of War is notably light on narrative. The story details the human struggle against the invading Locust on the planet of Sera. Things are bleak. Humanity has its back against the wall. Everything feels so down and out. This coalition of well-trained troops is the good guys' last chance. For those who actually care, Gears of War's plot can be effective yet simple. It lacks a lot of nuance, as does the dialogue. Most exchanges between characters are gruff one-liners, either overtly aggressive or sarcastic. To be blunt, the dialogue hasn't aged well but this was never the game's strong suit. The greatest disconnect comes from the superb gameplay and the subpar narrative. It's not only the disparity between the two that rings obvious, but also how they fail to work hand-in-hand. Gameplay often feels less like a means of accomplishing a story-specific goal, but more like a means to trigger a cutscene to advance the plot. Pacing is also an issue, as stakes are high and chaotic at all times. There are plenty of faults, but Gears of War's greatest trick is that you don't notice them while you're playing. It's just a good time from start to finish. On a personal note: my roommate and I played through the entirety of the campaign cooperatively on Insane difficulty in two sittings in one day. I couldn't tell you the last time I dedicated that much of a day to a game. That speaks volumes. For anyone looking to boil the Gears of War experience down to its purest and (arguably) most enjoyable form, competitive multiplayer again serves a big role. There are 19 maps and nine modes (including newcomers team deathmatch, king of the hill, and two-on-two with shotguns). It's undeniably quite the large offering. Again, Gears of War is fantastic when it's just unadulterated combat. By today's standards, eight-person multiplayer should seem tiny, but it really doesn't. There's always plenty of fray to be found. Maps are designed in a nice, symmetric way so that everything's balanced. Although, the majority of weapons are immediately disregarded by most people in favor of constant use of the Gnasher, which feels like the way to go at almost all times. Whether the campaign or multiplayer, Gears of War undoubtedly succeeds in constantly entertaining. The Ultimate Edition takes that to a new level through optimized gameplay, smoother controls, and updated visuals. Most importantly, it makes this classic relevant again. Microsoft has a lot riding on the continued prosperity of Gears; after all, it is one of the publisher's largest properties. Gears of War Ultimate Edition effectively reminds why that's the case, just as it reminds why this is the game that partially influenced an entire generation of gaming. It just took a makeover to help us appreciate it again. [Editor's note: At time of writing, the multiplayer component wasn't live for the general public. A handful of multiplayer games were played in a private room hosted by the developer. We'll report on the state of online play at launch and thereafter. If this aspect of the game sees significant problems in the weeks following release, we'll cover those issues.] [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Gears of War review photo
At its best
For better and for worse, Gears of War helped shape the past generation of gaming. Bursting onto the scene in 2006, it helped solidify now-common tropes like chest-high walls, brown and gray shooters, and muscle-bound sp...

Review: Until Dawn

Aug 24 // Chris Carter
Until Dawn (PS4)Developer: Supermassive GamesPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentRelease Date: August 25, 2015MSRP: $59.99 [There will be no major spoilers in this review, but the video may contain minor event spoilers.] Our tale starts off a year before the main storyline with a prelude of sorts, in a cabin high up on an isolated Canadian mountaintop. A bunch of "teens" (I use that term lightly as they all look 30) have gathered for some weekend shenanigans, and of course, something goes awry, leading to the mysterious death of two sisters. A year later, the surviving members of the group decide to go back to the same location (I know, right?), bringing all sorts of emotional baggage with them. Most of you have probably seen this type of campy setup before, but this is exactly what Until Dawn is going for. Soon enough you'll start to see the action ratchet up a bit, as more of the mystery of the mountain is revealed, and a psycho killer shows up, creating some Saw-like situations -- real sick shit. You'll also start to learn a lot more about the characters' motivations, and their relationships with one another, which you can (minimally) influence by way of light choices. By "light," I mean typical Telltale options that don't really influence the game in any meaningful way. The main gimmick here is the "Butterfly Effect," which will branch out your personal story, complete with a butterfly icon explosion on-screen and a handy menu option that lets you view your past choices. It can range from something significant like whether or not you want to risk your life saving a friend, or what door you took in an abandoned building. When the butterflies pop up, it's basically Supermassive's way of saying "this character will remember that." Without spoiling anything, most choices don't matter until the end of the game, where character deaths start to happen more often. [embed]305560:59991:0[/embed] Outside of the choice mechanic that basically surmounts to moving an analog stick in the desired direction, there's lots of walking involved, coupled with QTEs for the action bits. It's unimaginative at times, especially in the shaky intro sections, as those long roads seems to be there mostly to pad the game. After all, there's only so many plain paths you can take in the woods before it gets boring. But after the two hours, more interesting locations start to pop up, which house interesting documents and more bits of lore for you to locate. This is where the game excels. Despite the above issues, I was inspired to play Until Dawn from start to finish in one setting. It was interesting enough where it kept me captivated throughout, and the game is exceptionally good at world-building. While I initially didn't care about the whole meta-narrative surrounding the mountain, I quickly changed my tune as I acquired more totem collectibles -- artifacts that each unlock a few seconds of a secret video that gives you a bit more background on the events of the game. Also, all the Resident Evil style letters and notes are all done very well. Where recent David Cage efforts fail for me is the over-emphasis on performances that end up wooden, and a terrible plot that begs to be taken seriously. Thankfully, while other elements of the game may not be all that riveting or new, Until Dawn dives in with both feet on the horror theme. Sure it's not an excuse for some campy performances, but you really know what you're getting here, and there's no bait and switch involved. The script is also occasionally funny, as are the performances from the (mostly) talented cast. I have to say, it's really weird seeing Brett Dalton as anything other than Grant Ward, but he's mostly enjoyable to watch. My general enjoyment of the core cast goes double for "The Analyst" sections of the game featuring the always delightful Peter Stormare. These portions are easily the best part of the experience, as a mysterious psychologist asks you series of questions (usually about your fears) in various interludes of sorts after each chapter concludes. It slowly gets darker and more twisted over time, and they really nail the tension here. So how long is the game? My playthrough took roughly seven hours, and you'll have the option to replay chapters individually to rectify past wrongs or try out new choices. There's also a few extras involved in the form of little video featurettes that you can probably watch on YouTube in a week. If you aren't keen on hunting for collectibles, you can try to change the ending into one you desire. Until Dawn knows exactly what it is, and doesn't pretend to be anything more. In that process it allows for some predictable plotlines, hammy acting, and lack of meaningful choices, but I'm glad that it exists, and every horror fan owes it to themselves to play it at some point -- especially at a price cut. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Until Dawn review photo
Spooky teen hell dream
I had a chance to play the first few chapters of Until Dawn recently, and it ended at the worst possible moment. Whereas the first hour or so is slowly setting the table for all of the craziness that is about to ensue, when e...

Review: Alphabear

Aug 22 // Darren Nakamura
Alphabear (Android [reviewed], iPad, iPhone)Developer: Spry Fox, LLCPublisher: Spry Fox, LLCReleased: July 8, 2015MSRP: Free (with microtransactions) The core mechanic in Alphabear is easy to pick up, but it bears an elegance upon close inspection. Letter tiles are placed on a variable-sized grid, and players are tasked with forming words with those letters. Using a letter clears it from the board, replaces it with a bear, and reveals new letters in any adjacent spaces. Bears can grow in size as long they have a full rectangle of cleared tiles to fill. Each tile has a countdown on it, decrementing by one for each turn taken. If any countdown reaches zero, that letter turns to stone, removing it from the pool of usable letters and taking up valuable real estate where bears could live. The end goal is to score the most points, which come from two main sources: words formed during a game and bear size at the end. Each letter's value decreases with its counter, so word values are calculated from both length and how close each individual letter is to expiring. For bear size, the aim is to create the biggest bear possible; one full-board bear is worth more than two half-board bears. [embed]307196:60082:0[/embed] All of these mechanics come together to make a game that isn't just about showing off vocabulary and anagram skills. For one, there is focus and direction. Tiles with low counters are shown in increasingly alarming colors, where those one turn away from fossilization pulsate with a deep red but those with four or more are a placid green. Instead of dumping upward of two dozen letters on the player and saying, "make some words," it makes using certain tiles more urgent, bringing them to the forefront. Maybe I could make a ten-letter word with these tiles over here, but I really need to use this J that's about to expire. It also causes the player to think ahead: not only does one want to use all of the tiles showing a one this turn, but he should also make sure he can deal with the tiles showing a two for next turn. Another important result of the base mechanics is the idea of spatial importance. The tiles all have a location, and clearing a tile in a certain area might be more beneficial than doing so in another. Some spaces are marked with a star or a skull, signifying the letter set to appear there will either have an unusually high countdown or an especially low countdown. Setting off a skull when there are several twos left in play is a bad move. The mechanics make the center of the board more important too, because a stone in the way there will prevent having a screen-filling bear at the end, but a stone along the edge or in a corner will only decrease its size by a small amount. The boards aren't all the same; the layout of a particular board affects how players will attack it. The last bit of significance that emerges from Alphabear's mechanics is a strong risk/reward scenario. Forming long words is worth more points right away, but it opens up more tiles at once. It brings more opportunities for even larger words but also more opportunities to miss using a tile in time. Play it safe, unlocking only a few new tiles per turn and banking on a large bear at the end, or go big on word scores at the risk of losing out on bears? There isn't a definite answer. In a word, Alphabear brings strategy to a genre that has severely lacked in it in the past. Considering the countdowns, board layout, and the available letters brings much more nuanced decision-making than the typical directive of "make the biggest word you can think of." Sometimes it's better to make a weaker word in the moment in order to pull ahead in the end. Every single turn presents this mental exercise. Outside of the main meat of the gameplay, there is also an almost Pokémon-esque collection mechanic. Completing a level above a par score nets the player a bear; completing it above a gold score gives a chance for a powerful rare bear. Each of these bears has its own costume and consistent with Spry Fox's modus operandi, they are all adorable. Look at Milky Bear (below)! It's a bear dressed up as a carton of milk. So cute. Each bear has its own powers to bring to the levels. Some only affect score, some have a noticeable impact on gameplay. By collecting the same bear multiple times, it levels up, increasing its multiplier. This makes high scores for future runs of the same board easier to attain. Not only does Alphabear inject strategy into a word puzzle, it also uses these light role-playing game elements to keep me playing. A particular level might be too hard now, but I can come back to it later with some beefed up bears and try it again. At the end of a level, the newly hatched bear will form a series of phrases using the words played during the game. You might have seen these on social media already. It's a silly little touch, but it adds another bit of meta to the experience. Not only do people go for high scores, they also go for words that would make for funny sentences to share with friends. The one big sticking point for many is Alphabear's free-to-play scheme. It uses an energy mechanic (honey), allowing for only a couple of games before honey is depleted. It builds up over time or can be accumulated by watching ads. Personally, I loved the gameplay so much I paid the five bucks for unlimited honey and haven't regretted it. Even then, the bears each have cooldown periods and the other currency (used to wake up sleeping bears and to play special levels) suffers from diminishing returns over the course of a day, so players who buy unlimited honey may still feel stifled. Spry Fox wants players to come back day after day; I'm fine with that, but I know there are many out there who aren't. Indeed, I'm still playing Alphabear on a nearly daily basis. I couldn't say how many hours I've put into it already (I'd estimate maybe 20?), but I'm not even halfway through all of the chapters. The injection of strategic concerns to a word puzzle is such great design. I would like that enough on its own, but the collection aspects, cute bears, and social media meta elevate it further. [This review is based on a free game with microtransactions purchased by the reviewer.]
Alphabear review photo
Word
If you had told me three months ago there was still untapped potential in the genre of using letter tiles to form words, I probably wouldn't have believed you. If you would have told me a word puzzle game would end up being o...

Review: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Aug 22 // Steven Hansen
Everybody's Gone to Rapture (PS4)Developer: The Chinese RoomPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: August 11, 2015MSRP: $19.99 That technical snafu highlights Raptures biggest problem: it is slow and empty. It is too big. I've lived in San Francisco all my life. It isn't small town England, but I've literally walked it from end to end; it's not huge. And still there are blocks, stores, buildings, entire neighborhoods that I have hardly any connection to, that walking through wouldn't evoke any intimate feeling. The exploratory nature of Gone Home, confined to a single family house and connected with tactile engagement, develops its personal story through telling detail. Rapture, on the other hand, is scaled towards a mysterious apocalypse that has seemingly wiped out all things, including this entire village. It is world-concerning. The "pattern," the frightened townspeople fed lies about "influenza," the bloodied tissues strewn about, the quarantine. And it is stuffed with characters, but you only hear them in snippets, like a radio play, after stumbling on orbs of light (and awkwardly tilting the PS4 controller) or abandoned radios. I, apparently, struggle telling a dozen English voices apart and remembering their names, devoid of context or faces. After triggering enough events to start figuring out who's who, I did appreciate the quality character performances. I clung to these characters' story, too, because it was obvious the mystery of the apocalypse was being withheld. The interpersonal drama of village living, of life lost in war, of forbidden relationships, of difficulties in small, religious community. [embed]305705:60101:0[/embed] But why the long walking between points of interest? Rapture is beautiful, no doubt, but that fidelity and scale means that differing local pubs carry the same hand-written signage and no one seems to have personal affects in their vehicles. The beautiful village is unremarkable to the outsider, and the flitting luminescence of peoples' lives hardly feels grounded in the environment that was meant to have connected them. Snooping through the detritus of peoples' homes should say more. There is a difference between the thematic, profound emptiness of the absence of others and the dull emptiness of a beautiful world that doesn't feel lived-in, though aesthetically consistent. Then we are back to the issues of scale, as the story, which guides you through the waning lives of several characters, loops back to its key ones and back to the science-fiction mystery we've given up on for hours in favor of English infidelity. It almost feels garish to go back to, admitting that the in media res character sketches, the handful of dialogue lines about and around interpersonal drama, are not, in fact, enough. Or at least not obvious enough. The end is the theme extrapolated, turned up. Rapture deals with mature, human subject matter -- failing relationships, aging, death -- with notable verisimilitude before acquiescing to its lurid, fantastical bent. The latter feels disconnected from the initially analog apocalypse and your thoughts on Dear Esther will likely echo off this ornate end. What Rapture does well feels slight. Interwoven character sketches stretched out like clippings of a short story dropped every mile. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Rapture review photo
A moment frozen in time
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture wouldn't end. I was lost in the middle of the 1984 English countryside having made my circuit trudging through several connected areas, yet suddenly I was back somewhere in the middle. Without ...

Review: Fingered

Aug 21 // Nic Rowen
Fingered (PC)Developer: Edmund McMillen and James IdPublisher: Edmund McMillen and James IdRelease Date: August 18, 2015MSRP: $1.87 Fingered, is a deduction game made by Edmund McMillen (Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac) and his frequent collaborator James Id. Which means its a messed up deduction game. Fingered casts you as a detective/executioner determined to clean up this city by taking the shaky, confused, half-contradictory descriptions of criminals from a bunch of weirdo busybodies and fingering somebody with them (in the accusatory sense of the word). Find the person who fits the description best, put them in the chair, and throw the switch on them yourself. Give due process the finger. You start with a line-up of scumbags and shady characters. They all look guilty of something. Look at them, shuffling nervously under a flickering light, holding tiny number cards in front of them like flimsy shields. Who could it be? You can practically smell the flop sweat, the fear.   You go over the witness's clues again confirming the most important facts, what they know they know. The suspect is definitely a heavyset man, so you can let the skinny-boys go. He was probably wearing something hippy-ish (what counts as a hippy these days? Does the witness mean “hipster?”) He's maaaybe kind of a jock? (a fat hippy jock? The hell does that look like?) You do your best to ignore the “um's” and “er's” of indecision, the inherent haziness of memory. It's only a man's life on the line. NBD, right? Try to knock this out before lunch, it's nachos and wings in the cafeteria today -- finger food. One by one you winnow it down, until there’s just two suspects left. They both fit the profile, they're both so similar. But there is at least one big difference between them, one is going to go home while the other will never breath free air again. Which one is up to you. Pick one. Damn one. FINGER one. Whoops, wrong guy.   You get one freebie in Fingered. Sending a single innocent man to the chair will be swept under the rug, but fry up a second one and it's time to turn over your badge and finger gun. This is the likely outcome for most games of Fingered, there are 21 randomized cases to close (the suspects and clues are different each time out) and its so easy to finger the wrong guy. Especially since each witness throws their own curve ball into the mix. Negative Nancy describes everything in loopy double-negatives to trip you up. Bigot Barney has some obvious prejudices you should probably factor in before taking his testimony at face value. And forget about the non-human witnesses, those guys just don't get it at all. After about the tenth criminal, your job gets significantly harder. The witnesses clues get more confusing while external pressures like time-limits and vision obscuring accidents hinder your investigative efforts. The line-up of bizarre, procedurally generated suspects grows longer and stranger. It will take a sharp, quick eye to spot out the telltale details to make your case. It wouldn't be a game by Edmund McMillen if he didn't slide in a few cheeky references to some of his other games. Eagle eyed detectives will spot the occasional guest star or celebrity cameo in the line-up ranging from Meat Boy himself, to other more vilified characters like Charles Manson and Phil Fish. Always a pleasure to finger a familiar face. It would be easy to write Fingered off as weird for the sake of weird. It has a bizarre premise and is presented with the kind of perpetually adolescent gross-out art style of a lot of McMillen's games. It's scored with positively hypnotic jazz and narrated by a guy who sounds like the protagonist of Dragnet strung out on painkillers. It IS weird. But, it's also darkly subversive. A gallows humor take on a kind of justice that really did imprison and execute a lot of innocent people based on dubious descriptions and contrived conjecture. It's not belabored, but there is a bit of a message behind the poop jokes and easy double entendres. It's smarter than you might think at first glance. The randomized criminals and clues combined with the idiosyncrasies of the various witnesses can result in some tricky logic puzzles, line-ups that will leave you stumped. But it never seems unfair. Despite the randomized nature of the game, the perp always seems obvious in retrospect and it never feels like the game is cheating (except possibly the last witness, but it's a joke I won't spoil). Fingered is a pinky-sized bit of fun. It's not hard to get everything you need from the game in a single night of sleuthing, but at the bargain price of $1.87, it feels worth it. A wonderfully weird, smart little game for less than the price of a cup of coffee: you could call it steal or five-fingered discount if that kind of wordplay tickled you. Really though, in all sincerity, I think you should get Fingered.  [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.] 
Fingered review photo
Up to my knuckles in justice
Up until very recently, eyewitness testimony was the single most persuasive form of testimony a jury could hear. If someone could stand up in court, jab their accusing little finger at a suspect and say they definitely (well,...

Review: Risen 3: Titan Lords Enhanced Edition

Aug 21 // Mike Cosimano
Risen 3: Titan Lords (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360)Developer: Piranha BytesPublisher: Deep SilverRelease Date: August 12, 2014 (PC/PS3/Xbox 360) / August 21, 2015 (PS4)MSRP: $39.99 (PS4) $29.99 (PC) $19.99 (Xbox 360, PS3) From the second Risen 3 begins, you can tell something is wrong. There's a very perceptible lag in character movement. Often, a full second would pass before my input was registered. Jumping off a ledge higher than an inch causes the camera to whip upwards -- totally independent of any input! -- giving the player a very good look at your character's upper back and approximately 0.5 inches of the sky. This sucks when there are enemies that need killing and you have to wait for the game to give you back control of the camera. The simple act of getting from place to place feels like a slog, actively discouraging players from exploring a moderately amusing setting. I will certainly say that much for Risen 3: there are pirates and there was nothing particularly wrong in that department. But, alas, we live in a post-Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag world. The aesthetic elements of Black Flag (sea shanties, every noun capitalized, charming dialogue delivered well) helped build a sense of place and time. Risen 3 is a unique example of non-modern anachronisms, with pirates and mages living together in an era that feels unstuck from time. It's a neat concept in theory, and there was a short period where I was kind of digging it. But the more time I spent chatting up the Pirate Admiral (seriously) about teaming up with the Demon Hunters, the more everything began to fall apart. In most cases, two great tastes taste great together, but there's an incongruity here that proves insurmountable. This may be due to the blindingly dull story, which is a rare mix of embarrassing and baffling. Are you sick of dark fantasy stories where the world is on the brink of annihilation because of demonic/supernatural forces to which the hero is mysteriously tied? I know I am! The archetypical hero's journey is not inherently a bad story to tell, but Risen 3 feels almost painfully familiar -- apart from the fact that you play an undead hero. That's okay, I guess. To be fair, there aren't piles of dark fantasy games clogging GameStops like modern shooters in the Call of Duty heyday, but when each game is around 60 hours long, the setting feels tattered after playing just one title. [embed]306876:60066:0[/embed] Even if this particular well had not been exhausted by this point, Risen 3 has a terrible story by any standard. The voice acting ranges from amusingly bad to excruciatingly bad, which only makes the lousy dialogue even worse. There is no reason for the player to care about the proceedings -- your character doesn't even get a name, player-assigned or otherwise. I never cared about the state of the world, partially because the quest system is an absolute mess. Quest upon quest piles up on itself, each more tedious than the last. I will admit to something right now -- I frequently consulted a guide when playing Risen 3. Thankfully, it's been a year since the game originally released, so there are extensive walkthroughs out there. I had a webpage in front of me that literally told me exactly what to do and the quest system still confused me. There's no indication as to which quests are necessary to mainline the story, which I aimed to do in order to wash my hands of this game as soon as possible. God, I hate Risen 3. We haven't even gotten into the combat yet. Fighting an enemy usually goes something like this: you spot a bad guy, the bad guy's attack animation basically teleports to your location and knocks off a chunk of your health, you get knocked to the ground and stun-locked, and then you dodge-roll around the bad guy while your companion (who somehow does way more damage than you ever will) does all the work. The enemies are always faster and stronger. They can break your parry, and you can't do anything to them. It's not like Dark Souls where the relatively underpowered player and carefully planned attacks are part of the game's balance. When the physical distance between the player and the enemy is so variable with so little time to react, combat becomes a crapshoot. Plus, when you die, you have to wait for the game to prompt a save reload and then you've got a 2-3 minute loading screen to look forward to. Let me tell you about the mission that forced me to give up on Risen 3. The open world is split up into islands. Once you get your real pirate ship, fast traveling between islands (there's no island-to-island sailing like in Black Flag) will trigger an event. There was a sea monster fight that was boring and took entirely too long, for example. Based on that, I assumed the majority of the sea-based missions would take that formula. However, I was "treated" to a pirate vs. pirate battle where I had to prevent boarders from destroying my ship. The boarders would bring over gunpowder bombs, which I had around 40 seconds to defuse. Except you can't defuse the bomb until you kill the enemies guarding it. You have to do this three consecutive times, with the amount of enemies increasing every time. I got profoundly lucky in that I had a handful of useful magic spells. Without them, I would not have made it through. It took me hours to make it past the bomb segment, and another handful of hours to chip away at the enemies on the other ship. The first time I beat the boss at the end, it felt like a revelation. And that's when the game broke. My character was standing on nothing as dark waves crashed beneath him. I couldn't move him or the camera. None of the buttons worked. I sat there dumbfounded before closing the application, reasoning that I could jiggle something loose by trying the sequence again. I was wrong. The game had essentially trapped me. The mission I could not complete was apparently mandatory for completing the story. So, in addition to being just bad on a whole host of levels, Risen 3 is broken and poorly optimized. I honestly lost count of the amount of times my save files refused to load. The frame rate often drops to levels unbefitting an otherwise ugly current-generation console game. It's honestly unbelievable that consumers are expected to pay forty dollars for this. Risen 3 is stunning, but not for the reasons the developers intended. Frustrating, ugly, broken, irritating, dull -- I cannot recommend this game to a single person. Even if you enjoyed it on PC, there is no way the busted PS4 version is worth a double-dip. If you want pirates, play Assassins' Creed IV. If you want epic fantasy, play Dragon Age: Inquisition or The Witcher: Wild Hunt. If you want a combination of the two, know that desire could lead you down a very dark road. Please do not buy Risen 3. It is a very bad game.
Risen 3: Titan Lords photo
Dead is better
The best noir films end on a downer. Whatever great conspiracy the hero came so close to unraveling has come out on top -- the bigwigs in charge have evaded justice and a lot of good people died along the way. But the protago...

Review: Gryphon Knight Epic

Aug 20 // Jed Whitaker
Gryphon Knight Epic (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Cyber Rhino Studios Publisher: Cyber Rhino Studios Released: August 20, 2015MSRP: $12.99  A diverse group of warriors set out on a journey to kill a great dragon, and upon doing so find a stash of treasure; Gryphon Knight Epic's intro is seemingly ripped straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien's writing. The same goes for Tree Stache, a mustached tree character met later in the game. The warriors all find weapons and take them with glee, while the gryphon knight himself, Sir Oliver, takes a shiny amulet. Turns out the weapons are cursed, causing all the characters to let their bad sides take control of them and, wouldn't ya know, the only thing that can cure them is the amulet. Sir Oliver is told this information in pretty plain English by his bad side that presents itself as a shadowy physical incarnation of him, but he doesn't seem to grasp it right away. I think Oliver not grasping what was just told to him was supposed to be funny, but it just wasn't, much like all of the writing in Gryphon Knight Epic. You could guess the story, as it has been told a thousand times: Knight frees all his friends, then faces the ultimate evil. The ending is especially cringeworthy. It abruptly sets up a sequel that surely no one will be clamoring for. On the surface level, Gryphon Knight Epic looks like it could be something new for the genre, but the only things it does original are terrible. If you've played more than one side-scrolling shooter, you've probably realized that most of them have one tiny hitbox where the player can take damage and they are otherwise invulnerable. This is not so in this case. If any part of Sir Oliver touches a projectile or enemy, including the feathers on top of his armor, he takes damage. This wouldn't be such a problem if he weren't such a large sprite to begin with.  [embed]307100:60084:0[/embed] Stages can be played in any order and at any of the three difficulty levels, which should be labeled: way too easy, way too hard, and why would I even bother? As a self-proclaimed seasoned veteran of bullet hell shooters, I found myself having to resort to easy mode. The difficulty mostly comes the aforementioned hitbox size, and the fact that bosses are brutally difficult and even a challenge at times on the easiest difficulty. Most games have boss fights with a pretty recognizable pattern that gives the player a visual cue of an impending attack with time to react. That isn't the case here. One particular boss, a giant frog, will quickly snatch Sir Oliver out of the air and chew him up, taking a large portion of his health with little to no time to try to avoid being attacked.  Upon running out of lives -- a concept that should have died with arcades -- you'll be forced back to the level selection map and will have to either play the whole level over again or half of it depending on how far you made it. While it is nice to have checkpoints in most games, this is the only side-scrolling shooter I can think of with them, as most games just let you continue at the exact screen you're at, costing you power-ups or score. Because of these checkpoints, you'll have the displeasure of repeating the same parts of level multiple times, and who doesn't like repeating entire sections of levels multiple times? Oh, that's right, everyone.  Sir Oliver can be made to look left or right with the press of a button, which is useful as enemies can come from both directions, but the way it is implemented mostly kills the usefulness. Say you're heading to the right and then enemies start to approach from your rear. Pressing the button to turn around to attack those enemies gives them time to approach and causes Sir Oliver to start moving towards them at the same time, thus allowing them to be right on top of him before he can even attack. Often times when battling enemies from both sides and maneuvering around the screen, I found myself unintentionally going the wrong direction, which isn't something you ever want a player to experience. Being able to turn back and go the way you just came from would be useful if the game weren't an overall linear affair. I believe there was only one level that required a bit of backtracking to unlock one of the hidden runes found in each level that grant abilities, better states, and some lore. The runes aren't really worth the time it takes to find them as the benefits are minor and the lore isn't all that interesting.  Each time a boss is defeated, you'll gain another magical weapon that uses a bit of an automatically refilling magic bar. These weapons can be used alongside Sir Oliver's trusty crossbow -- which is automatically spammed by holding the designated button -- and are vital to defeating larger enemies and bosses. They deal a considerable amount of damage after being upgraded. Upgrades can be purchased between levels from the gold earned by killing enemies, opening chests, and freeing prisoners in levels.  After playing for around five and a half hours, I found myself unable to afford most of the upgrades, even though I'd completed all of the levels because every time you die, you lose ten percent of your overall gold. Each time Sir Oliver gets hit by an enemy, his squires -- miniature helpers purchased from the store -- lose some of their power as well, making them mostly useless unless you somehow manage to never get attacked. Really, the punishments for getting attacked or dying in Gryphon Knight are far too extreme to allow the game to be enjoyable.  Gryphon Knight Epic isn't a great looking or sounding game. It mostly feels like something you would expect to see in the early days of the original PlayStation; the sprites are all right, the backgrounds are bland and repetitive, and the music is forgettable. At one point, I found myself laughing out loud when I noticed a stage set in the snowy mountains with vikings had elephants and rhinos in the background. From then on I started to realize that each level had an enemy or two that just kind of didn't feel like it fit there: a green blob that looked like a Metroid and a tentacled brain monster come to mind. It felt almost like the devs had created these sprites prior to coming up with the game and just decided to put them to use because they had them laying around.  With hitbox resizing, the ability to move in one direction while shooting in another, and some difficulty adjustments, Gryphon Knight Epic could be an okay game. As it stands, it's a messy medieval hodgepodge that you'd be better off avoiding at all costs. Save yourself some money by instead buying some feathers and a fake beak and putting them on your dog. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Gryphon Knight photo
Part bird, part lion, part shit
I've played side-scrolling shooters starring space ships, fairies, gothic lolitas, but never had I played one starring a knight atop a gryphon. "How original," I thought, with fantasies of knightly glory on my mind. "Surely this theme won't be squandered on a poorly-designed game." Boy, was I wrong.

Review: RymdResa

Aug 20 // Conrad Zimmerman
RymdResa (Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: MorgondagPublisher: MorgondagRelease Date: August 20, 2015MSRP: $11.99 RymdResa tells a story of humanity seeking new life for itself in the cosmos, told in three parts. As the game begins, Earth has been destroyed by an asteroid and the player is an explorer roaming a seemingly limitless, procedurally generated universe in search of a planet to colonize and ensure mankind's survival. Successive chapters have the player collecting resources and undertaking a larger journey to a separate universe, each expanding the gameplay with different mechanics and challenges. Early on, the game is about survival and that survival feels very much at risk. This is when RymdResa is at its most entertaining. Launched into space with the only most basic of ships, the player must conserve and protect their resources while traveling to nine sectors or they will die, lost and forgotten. Resources, in this case, means fuel, which doesn't deplete over time of its own accord, only used when the ship's thrusters are employed. Other things you encounter in space do affect your resource count, however. Collisions, mines and attacks from passing ships to can cause a considerable loss, and that's likely to happen quite a bit due to some design aspects working together to make it very difficult to understand how fast your ship is moving and predict collisions. The empty space environment provides little visual context to give that information to the player and a narrow, never changing view distance from the ship makes it such that when objects appear on the screen, they are as likely to fly right into you before a reaction is even possible as creep into the frame. [embed]307050:60067:0[/embed] Frustrating as this is (and it truly is), it also does reinforce the fragility of the player's situation and forces them to take it slow, further dragging out the empty gaps and feeding into the game's overlying thematic tone of helpless melancholy. RymdResa is not subtle about what the game wants the player to feel. Cutscene narration preceding chapters and diary pods produced within them ooze nostalgic regret and longing, delivered by a distant, electronically distorted voice that sounds more like a morose robot than a human. This first chapter in which the player is at their weakest captures that spirit most effectively, but it fades with time and progress. Even the most disastrous attempt to complete a voyage is rewarded in some ways. Players earn skill points with experience levels that can improve the efficiency of resource collection, provide the ability to interact with more environmental objects and help ships to perform better, and these levels carry over across all missions once earned. Spacepoints are constantly being added and subtracted, acting as a form of currency that can be spent to launch voyages with the game's seven other ships, and items to outfit those ships are carried in a general inventory accessible at all times. With these systems, by the time the player makes it through the first chapter and on to the second, they're probably pretty far along in their experience development (which caps out at 40 levels). And, suddenly, the stakes are pretty much gone. A seemingly constant accumulation of items to customize ships begins to provide all manner of attribute bonuses (introducing a whole different problem of inventory maintenance within a system desperate for sorting tools and a constant need to sell off useless junk to make room), so that while you're never invincible, it sure can feel that way. It soon becomes the default to quit a voyage out of a sense of not having anything to do rather than because of a failure to accomplish something. Chapters after the first have objectives which can be approached in a non-linear fashion and incremental progress an ultimately unsuccessful mission accomplishes is retained, removing all sense of urgency. What happens in them isn't all that interesting either, as the player collects "materials" (like resources, but green and serving no function outside of the second chapter's main objective) and faces down inscrutable guardians in a series of two-choice dialogue events where it's rarely clear that there is a right or wrong answer, but you're punished for choosing the wrong one anyway. Vast as the explorable region of the game is, which uses a grid-based system of sectors to indicate player location (the number of which may well be limitless and impossible to chart due to procedural generation), there isn't much one can reliably do within all of that space. In some ways, exploration off the beaten path is thoroughly discouraged despite the many opportunities presented. Teleporters dotted seemingly at random will send you off to a far flung sector, but what's to do once you're there? Drift back through possibly many hundreds of sectors, the vast majority of which will have nothing in them or wander off in some other random direction and hope maybe you come across anything of interest that way. I never have, and it's clear that there's more to this game that I have not experienced. A collection of "Research Notes" is referenced with a menu and there's a whole mechanic designed around using them to craft... something. I've never found one and wouldn't know where to start looking for them. Some people are going to dig into this game, absorb its extremely passive gameplay and have a curiosity which leads them to discover these things that I have not. I'm sure of that. If ambiguity and self-directed discovery are aspects of games you appreciate when they exist, and can handle one where you'll spend most of your time not doing anything, you're the audience RymdResa is looking for. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
RymdResa Review photo
The big empty
"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space." - The Hitchhiker's Guide ...

Review: Curses 'N Chaos

Aug 19 // Patrick Hancock
Curses 'N Chaos (Mac, PC [reviewed]. PS4, PS Vita)Developer: Tribute GamesPublisher: Tribute GamesRelease Date: August 18, 2015MSRP: $9.99  Curses 'N Chaos opens with a beautifully animated cutscene that sets up the threadbare story: Lea and Leo are cursed to live under Thanatos' Shadow by the evil Wizard King and need to kill monsters to break the curse. Then, it's time to fight monsters! Players can choose either character to brawl as, both of whom play the same. Multiplayer can be utilized either locally or online, and the PC version does use Steam for player invites. Gameplay is simple, challenging, beat-em-up action on a single screen. Players can run, attack, jump and double jump, and attacking at different times yields new moves. For example, attacking while jumping performs a jump kick that is stronger than a standard grounded attack. Players can also perform a running punch and an uppercut, both of which are as strong as a jump kick. Oh, and by pressing down, players can dance. This slowly builds up extra points, and it is recommended that players take every opportunity to do this as much as possible. [embed]306739:60064:0[/embed] Single-use items are a huge part of combat. Each player can hold one item at a time, but can also "bank" one by giving it to a friendly owl who will hold it until the player summons it again. Learning how each item acts is just as crucial as learning the enemy patterns. If an item is left on the ground for a few seconds, it will disappear for good, but players can "juggle" items to refresh its timer. New items can be forged in between rounds by using the alchemist. Here's a tip: don't go blindly combining items hoping for the best. There's a Grimiore that spells out what items can be combined, so use it! Once a new item is forged, it can be found and used during battle. The player can also buy items with the money collected from killing monsters, and start off battles by having certain items already. Each stage consists of ten waves of enemies followed by a boss. As the player progresses through the game's thirteen stages, enemies get more complicated behaviors and become harder to take down. The player gets five hearts and three lives to make it to the end.  Completing all the waves and beating the boss is no easy feat. About five levels in is when things start to get nuts, with enemy behaviors becoming much more erratic and difficult to deal with. Enemies that seemed so docile when introduced suddenly become incredibly potent when combined when paired with other enemy types. Enemies between stages do vary, but their behavior is limited. Many of the new enemies introduced are just re-skins of older enemies that take more hits to kill. They all look great and tend to fit a general theme, but I found myself saying "oh, this is just Enemy X, but with twice the health." In addition, each wave has a 60 second timer. When the timer reaches zero, Death shows up. This isn't an automatic loss, in fact it's more like the ghost in Spelunky that chases the player after they spend too much time in a level. Death will chase the player around and slash at them it catches up. A hit from Death means death (duh), but he's easily enough avoided. The biggest difficulty regarding Death comes with the boss fights. They too have a 60 second timer, which is definitely not enough time. Luckily, they will often drop an hourglass item that adds 15 more seconds to the clock, postponing Death's arrival.  The boss fights are traditional "memorize their tells and patterns" battles. They are beautifully animated and sometimes downright cruel in their behavior. Nothing is insurmountable, even for players going at it solo. The difficulty of these boss fights does tend to vary dramatically, though. Some boss fights took me several tries, while later fights left me with no hearts lost, only to have the next one be super difficult again.  While I've already mentioned how great the game looks, thanks in part to Paul Robertson, the audio is equally wonderful. Each track evokes a wave of nostalgia to older generations while simultaneously setting an intense tone for the battles. Likewise, the little jingles are perfect and I don't think I'll ever grow tired of hearing them. The entire art and sound teams over at Tribute has consistently shown that they know how to nail a theme. Curses 'N Chaos is an example of game purity. One screen, simple controls, and intense difficulty. There isn't much replayability outside of playing with new friends or going for a new high score, but just getting through all of the stages the first time will not be quick. For players who fancy a challenge, either solo or with a friend, Curses 'N Chaos is not one to miss. 
Curses N Chaos Review photo
Punches 'N Jump kicks
I've played Curses 'N Chaos at two consecutive PAX conventions, and have come away impressed each time. Part of it was due to their show floor setup of giant arcade cabinets. However, the biggest draw of the game was its...

Review: Smite (Xbox One)

Aug 19 // Chris Carter
Smite (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Hi-Rez StudiosPublisher: Hi-Rez StudiosRelease Date: March 25, 2014 (PC) / August 19, 2015 (Xbox One)MSRP: Free-to-play with microtransactions ($30 for all Gods until August 31) Unlike your typical MOBA experience, SMITE is framed by way of a behind-the-back camera, more akin to an action game than an RTS title. It was predicated on coming to a console day one, mostly because of how simple the control scheme was, and I'm pleased to say that the transition has been incredibly smooth, gameplay-wise. For new players looking to jump in, all you really have to do to play at a base level is understand that the right trigger initiates your auto-attack, and the face buttons correspond to specific abilities, all of which are relatively self-explanatory. Of course, there's a deeper level of understanding required when it comes to leveling up your abilities and buying items and equipment, but the former can even be implemented automatically if you wish. Where Smite really shines is with its assortment of game modes that will appeal to pretty much everyone. While MOBAs typically cycle in the same few gametypes with "guest" modes appearing sparingly, Smite goes all out with five variations available at all times. These include Arena (5v5 all-out fights without lanes), Joust (3v3 one lane), Conquest (standard MOBA 5v5 three lane), Assault (5v5 ARAM), and Siege (4v4 two lanes). You can also spring for four modes that pit you against the AI, should you need the practice. In short, the game has it all, and any one mode will keep you satisfied for quite some time. It's also great that Smite works in a lot of personality into said maps, like the fact that the final "core" is actually a boss character that players have to take down, and the last line of defense is a giant phoenix. There are 67 gods (characters) currently, all from various faiths throughout history. Characters range from well-known deities like Hades, all the way to Sun Wokong, to Guan Yu. While every god does look different enough visually, I couldn't help but realize that playing with a controller really exposes some of the monotony of Smite's gameplay. For the most part, you're going to be holding down RT, firing off a boring series of auto-attacks. Although it is easy to pickup, it's important to realize that although it may look like it, Smite isn't a full-on action game, and that abilities move rather slowly in the grand scheme of things. In a PC MOBA clicking can often keep you constantly engaged as you're always figuring out the best position possible, but Smite can feel sluggish by comparison. For those of you who don't enjoy the genre on PC, this may be the game for you. [embed]305026:59981:0[/embed] It also doesn't help that a lot of abilities tend to blend together, and in one particular session, I played three gods that basically had the exact same attacks, just with slightly different animations. Since you're leveling up the same abilities each time without an option to take new ones, you're going to want to switch gods often to keep things fresh. If you really want to go all in, you can buy the Founder's Pack for $30, which grants you access to every current and future god. It's a pretty great deal as you're essentially "buying out" the game, but unfortunately it's only available until the end of the month. Outside of that, you're left with a rather generous free rotation of 11 characters per week, and an assortment of boosters, items, skins, emotes, and icons. The game is heavily monetized and many things must be purchased with premium currency, but the Founder's Pack and most of what's on offer is fair. There's also a few issues inherent to the Xbox One version of the game. For starters, no Cross-Play capabilities with the PC edition really sucks. Also, Hi-Rez is only offering up account progress transfers for a limited time, one way to the Xbox One, and it's just that -- a progress transfer. Note that experience levels and most of your content will be ported over, but not everything (Gems, mastery levels, and any stats or activities aren't eligible). It's also unfortunate that there's no inherent keyboard support (like many PS4 games). Based on my experience, nearly every player is content on playing without any form of communication, which, as many know, can be a kiss of death in a MOBA. SMITE is a fine game and a great choice for folks who may not spend a lot of time on their PC, but there are a number of shortcomings present in both editions that prevent me from playing it as much as some of its competitors. Still, it's a perfect starting point if you're looking to get into the genre, especially with the intuitive controller scheme.
Smite Xbox One review photo
I'll be done in a minotaur two
Hi-Rez Studios has earned a rather interesting reputation in recent years. After creating Tribes: Ascend, a game heavily reliant on the free-to-play model, fans accused the studio of abandoning the game in record time (roughl...

Review: Tales from the Borderlands: Escape Plan Bravo

Aug 18 // Darren Nakamura
Tales from the Borderlands: Escape Plan Bravo (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: August 18, 2015 (Mac, PC, PS3, PS4)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 [Editor's note: there will be no major spoilers present for the episode reviewed here, but events in previous episodes may be discussed.] Things were looking bad for Fiona and Rhys at the end of the third episode. Sure, Gortys found her first upgrade and the path to the Vault of the Traveler became clearer, but newcomer Vallory had the group pretty well pinned under her thumb by the end. Complicating matters was the revelation that the final Gortys upgrade isn't even on Pandora; it's up on Hyperion's moon base Helios. For a series known for fast travel between exotic locations and featuring interstellar travel as part of its lore, it's easy to forget just how infrequently anybody takes a trip off Pandora. Usually, denizens of the wasteland are stuck there. And so the first act of this episode involves the non-negligible task of actually getting from Pandora to Helios. The group grows as August and Vallory's henchmen ride along to ensure Rhys and Fiona don't try anything funny and Scooter hops in as the on-board mechanic. It's a pretty motley crew, well deserving of the '80s rock credits sequence rocket launch montage. [embed]306135:60017:0[/embed] Telltale continues to demonstrate its comedic mastery with Tales from the Borderlands. One of the funniest parts comes from a totally visual gag within the launch montage. It elicited more laughs with no words than some comedy games do with thousands. The written jokes here are on point too. Each of the characters brings something different. Gortys remains a highlight through the whole ordeal, even if she has fewer lines than she did in the previous episode. Fiona's sarcasm hits just the right notes. Handsome Jack is about as likable as a murderous psychopath can be. The plan that comes together even allows players to act like total assholes without having to feel too bad about it. The trip to Helios also allows for one of the most bizarre scenes in recent memory. Without spoiling too much: it's a classic Telltale quick-time event action sequence, but it involves a horde of Hyperion accountants and a lot of mouth-made sound effects. It isn't all laughs. The series has had its serious moments in the past, but Escape Plan Bravo will cement Tales into the overall Borderlands lore. It is no longer a side story on Pandora. It feels like its own proper entry in the timeline, with real effects on the world Gearbox built. It's a stark contrast with Telltale's other current series Game of Thrones. While the events in that series are important to the Telltale-designed protagonists, they aren't important to anybody else in that world. Telltale's characters and story in Tales from the Borderlands are important to Borderlands as a whole. I have to imagine there is at least a modicum of trepidation when handing over a franchise to another developer, but if Gearbox had any fears that Telltale wouldn't do right by Borderlands, those fears would be unfounded. If anything, it feels like Gearbox needs to hire the Telltale writers to consult on Borderlands 3. Escape Plan Bravo solidifies Tales as a must-play series for those interested in the Borderlands universe. I cannot wait for the last episode, The Vault of the Traveler. There is so much to resolve: Vallory, Handsome Jack, Vaughn, Gortys, the masked man, Felix, the vault. I'm stressing out just thinking about it all. There isn't much more to say without spoiling the best episode of Tales from the Borderlands yet. I laughed. I cried. I haven't been able to say that about a Borderlands game since Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep, or about a Telltale game since the first season of The Walking Dead. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Borderlands review photo
Encore! Encore!
[Disclosure: Anthony Burch, who consulted on the story for Tales from the Borderlands, was previously employed at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.] Tales ...

Review: Volume

Aug 18 // Darren Nakamura
Volume (Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita)Developer: Bithell GamesPublisher: Bithell GamesReleased: August 18, 2015MSRP: $19.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Bithell has cited Metal Gear Solid as an inspiration for Volume, and the similarities are easy to see. Specifically, it evokes Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions with its simplified visuals and a structure that follows a string of small, self-contained rooms to clear. Volume is more stealth puzzle than stealth action, with some levels leaning further than others in the pensive direction. The starkly colored, clearly delineated environments work exceptionally well to communicate important gameplay information. Coupled with the enemy vision cones laid directly onto the floor and the visible sound radius, there is never any question what might have set a particular guard off. Protagonist Robert Locksley (get it?) starts off with nothing but his wits and whistle. He defaults to a slow, sneaky walk and can crouch lower behind single-block walls to stay out of sight. He is also able to set off sinks and toilets to lure the guards from their posts, or he can just purse his lips and let out a sound that will cause them to hone in on the position. [embed]306112:60012:0[/embed] Eventually, a host of gadgets unlock to help Rob on his way. The Bugle can be thrown to cause a faraway noise. The Oddity will hold an enemy's attention regardless of any sounds. The Mute allows Rob to run silently. There are more, and each one feels useful and fun to play with in its own right. Smartly, gadgets are tied to levels and Rob can only hold one at a time, so the right tools for the job are always there without overwhelming the player with unnecessary options. Of course, this gives rise to some occasions where a particular gadget would fit the situation perfectly, but the challenge is in solving that problem with something else. Over the course of the 100 story levels, Rob uses an old "Volume" -- a VR simulator in the future -- to broadcast to the world how to break into properties of the wealthiest citizens and steal their belongings without harming any person. He isn't exactly robbing from the rich and giving to the poor; he's teaching the poor how to rob from the rich themselves. Therein lies a bit of a discontinuity between gameplay and narrative. The more gamey aspects of Volume work well in the context of having clear objectives and solve puzzles, but when Rob broadcasts himself alerting every guard and touching the exit square just as he's about to be shot, it doesn't really make sense for somebody to want to replicate that performance in the real (in-game) world. A worse offender in this regard is with the checkpointing, which, like most of Volume's gameplay elements, is very lenient. By touching a checkpoint, current progress in a level is saved, but enemy locations are reset upon restarting. It's clear why this is the case: it keeps the player from being caught in a death loop if he were to hit a checkpoint just before being killed, but it brings up some edge cases where the fastest solution involves being caught and resetting the enemies. The fact that it doesn't gel with the idea of Rob showing the public how to pull off these heists just adds to the weirdness. The leniency makes Volume a one-and-done type of experience. The par times are easy to hit on the first try for most levels even with a few flubs in play. (I only had to go back and retry two.) I would have appreciated some extra incentive to really master a level, like bonuses for exceptional times or for completing a level without being spotted. Still, even without any added replay value, the campaign runs about six hours; it's not meager by any means. I ran into a handful of bugs during my playthrough, though most were reportedly squashed before launch. I did still encounter one particularly annoying glitch in the level editor, where menu items were constantly scrolling, making it difficult -- though not impossible -- to engage in my usual level editor ritual of making a playable Mr. Destructoid likeness. When I think about Volume, I'm of two minds about it. From a pure gameplay perspective, it handles stealth in a way that always feels fair and, if anything, is almost too forgiving. It conveys information clearly and it's never too frustrating. My biggest complaint of what's here is the ability for a player to cheese through a level, abusing the checkpoint system or the exit square to call something a win despite feeling like a clumsy mess. However, a lot of where Volume suffers is in what's not here. I wish I could pan around a level to formulate a plan before diving in. I wish I were given incentive to play well instead of just adequately. Volume is not a bad game. But it still leaves me wanting for something more out of it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Volume review photo
Does not go to eleven
[Disclosure: Jim Sterling and Leigh Alexander, who are both credited in Volume, were previously employed at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.] I went into Volum...

Review: Beyond Eyes

Aug 17 // Jed Whitaker
Beyond Eyes (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Tiger & SquidPublisher: Team17Release Date: August 4, 2015 (Xbox One), August 11, 2015 (PC)MSRP: $14.99 Rae is a young girl playing with some friends and fireworks when something goes wrong, causing sparks to fly into her eyes and permanently blind her. Her friends move on with their lives, leaving her alone with nothing but her thoughts to keep her company that summer, until a friendly neighborhood cat shows up. Rae quickly befriends this cat and names it Nani. It comes and goes as it pleases and eventually just stops showing up, prompting Rae to journey outside of her home to try to find her feline friend. It really is never explained how little or much Rae can see, though I was lead to believe she could see a very short distance around her due to the way the graphics paint themselves in as Rae moves. You can be considered legally blind -- in the United States at least -- and still be able to partially see, so perhaps she is in that murky area?  As Rae slowly walks the world will paint itself in around her in an extremely beautiful water color-esque way, which I'd imagine is a visual representation of how Rae sees the world or at the very least perceives it. As birds chirp, dogs bark and other sounds are heard, Rae visualizes them, providing clues as to where to walk. [embed]305547:60010:0[/embed] Walking is really all there is to Beyond Eyes, with maybe three or so presses of an action button: better known as a walking simulator. At one point a young girl tosses her ball out of reach and asks Rae to find it, which really is kind of an asshole thing to do to someone who is clearly at the very least visually impaired. Rae walks around with her hands out at times so she can feel for objects that she may collide with, so it isn't exactly hard to figure out that she is blind. It isn't like there is a whole lot of story in Beyond Eyes either, it could be summed up as "Girl gets blinded, girl befriends cat, girl searches for cat after it stops visiting." The whole thing was over for me in an hour and a half, though I missed most of the achievements that are seemingly just there to encourage more exploration thus extending play time.  There really just needed to be more of everything: more story, more to do, and more reasons to do it. With such a beautiful art style and such a unique character Beyond Eyes had a chance to be something really special but instead it just feels like walking past a beautiful painting, as it is over in the blink of an eye. You'd be better off visiting your local art gallery than spending full price on this, so give it a pass until it eventually drops in price. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Beyond Eyes photo
Blindly searching for pussy
If you know me, you know I yearn for diversity in games and new experiences in general, which is why I jumped at the chance to review Beyond Eyes. It has people of color, the main character is blind, and the art style is beautiful. I just wish the devs would have done more, all this wasted potential.

Review: Goat Simulator (PS4)

Aug 15 // Mike Cosimano
Goat Simulator (Android, iOS, PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Coffee Stain StudiosPublisher: Coffee Stain StudiosRelease Date: April 1, 2014 (PC) / September 16, 2015 (Android/iOS) / April 17, 2015 (Xbox One/360) / August 11, 2015 (PS3/PS4)MSRP: $9.99 (PC/PS3/PS4/Xbox 360/Xbox One / $4.99 (Android/iOS) When you start Goat Simulator, the game's four-legged protagonist is dropped into an ordinary town and tasked with jumping over a fence. It's a clever subversion of standard game tutorials, and it will be the last time I use the word 'clever' in this review. From there, the game provides the player with little challenges, like pressing the 'Baa' button or running on a wall for a certain period of time. These challenges help boost your score, much like almost everything else in the game. Licking people is worth a handful of points, for example. There are unique things to do in the world -- like finding EDM musician deadmau5 and licking him -- that earn both points and an achievement on your platform of choice. The achievement list can be a help if you're looking for things to do, but some are so obtuse that you're better off trying to explore the world. Herein lies Goat Simulator's Achilles' Heel -- it plays like trash. This is ostensibly part of the game's larger gag, there's even a button dedicated to entering a ragdoll state. But the game tries to have it both ways. Collectibles litter the map (including a handful you need for achievements) and some of them would be challenging to acquire in a superior title. Feats of skill in a game with frustrating controls are certainly impressive, but that doesn't make the struggle any fun. There are a bunch of modifiers, some of which are fun to play with for approximately ten minutes. The jetpack is chuckle-worthy and the VR modifier is an unyielding nightmare straight out of a PG-rated Hellraiser. It is also worth seeing. I used the modifiers as ripcords throughout my playthrough -- when things got too dull, I would hit the jetpack button and watch as the goat flew around in slow-motion. It wasn't hilarious, but it was something to break up my numerous attempts at nailing the manual challenge. (You can perform 'manuals' by flicking the stick back and forth and then trying to balance the goat on its front legs. It's awful) [embed]305553:59993:0[/embed] The game's core joke is difficult to criticize because humor is subjective; one man's guffaw is another man's blank stare. I have a vivid memory of watching Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom in a packed theater and being the only person laughing along. The jokes I found so tickling absolutely failed to play with the rest of the audience. And that's fine! I can sit here telling you that Goat Simulator is just not that amusing for the rest of my life, and that won't register with half of my audience. However, I cannot imagine the people who "get" Goat Simulator will be okay with paying for the experience. Not to keep coming back to movies (comedy games are something of a rarity, so I have to look outwards) but I wouldn't spend full price on a film that gives away its best jokes in the trailer, no matter how funny those jokes were. I played the game on PS4, where it costs $10. That is unconscionable. If one were so inclined, Goat Simulator could go on forever. It's a playground, not a series of objectives, and no high score can hide that. But it's not worth an hour of your time, let alone days. The game has two areas and lacks both the MMO and Zombie DLC. There's just so little to do and even less that's worth doing. Even if the price was right (and that price is free, regardless of platform) Goat Simulator is not worth playing. It's a game designed for YouTube, not the average consumer. Reward this shrewd business decision by not buying this game and just watching some clips online instead.
Goat Simulator review photo
Baa-ring
There's something to be said for games that revolve around a single joke. If you've wrung every possible guffaw out of a game within the first half-hour, you can just close it and move on with your life. In theory, Goat ...

Review: Commander Cherry's Puzzled Journey

Aug 14 // Jed Whitaker
Commander Cherry's Puzzled Journey (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Grandé GamesPublisher: Grandé GamesRelease Date: August 11, 2015 (PS4), August 14, 2015 (Xbox One)MSRP: $13.99 Think of the most basic indie platformer you've ever played with minimal graphics and okay at best platforming mechanics, because that is what Commander Cherry's Puzzled Journey is, only worse.  Commander Cherry has to get from one side of the ten available levels to the other, using snapshots of your body taken with the Xbox One Kinect or the Playstation Eye as platforms. When posing for pictures you'll have to position yourself so the edges of your body touch red circles causing them to light up, thus making them collectible for Commander Cherry. These yellow dots must be collected to allow advancement to the next part of the level and granting you a rating of yo, yoga, or yogawesome depending on how well you performed, then rinse and repeat for what felt like a billion times. Here's the thing about capturing your body in crazy poses: in theory it sounds great, but in practice the functionality blows. The Kinect was picking up like half my arms, half my face, and half my legs. On top of that, the detection wasn't that great, often times leaving wide areas of the room behind me in the picture, instead of cropping me out. So don't be fooled by Commander Cherry's original trailer, it certainly doesn't work as well as I was led to believe it was; foolish me. [embed]304686:59976:0[/embed] As far as the actual platforming goes it could be better. Early on you're asked to press a button that shows you all what all the controls are, only you can't do two of the functions yet: double jump and laser. You can only double jump if you have a power-up that turns your weak mustache into a long wizard-like beard, but the game doesn't tell you that as the control screen just says "Hold A to double jump" which isn't even how you double jump once you have the ability! The laser is granted to you in later levels allowing you to cut through your snapshots of yourself, which helps a great deal and should have been available from the start. Speaking of available from the start, double jump should have been as well. The platforming isn't exactly smooth, and most of the time I only found myself able to make it through sections when I had the power-up. The double jump power-up is lost upon falling to your death or hitting the weird eyeball grass and oranges that shoot flames, much like the super mushroom power-up in Super Mario Bros. The big difference between this and Super Mario Bros. is the added double jump ability; getting hit as Mario makes you smaller and harder to hit versus in Commander Cherry it just causes you to lose functionality and makes the game harder. Because of this I started to purposefully kill myself three times in a row when I lost the double jump ability, as it causes a power-up to spawn for you. Nothing says "this might not be a great idea" like someone playing your game and killing themselves deliberately to make your game even remotely possible let alone enjoyable. I'm clearly not in shape, at all -- though Seaman once told me round is indeed a shape -- but I didn't have much trouble posing to complete the platforming puzzles. Poses start with just making basic platforms to guide your character across, but eventually add other mechanics, like avoiding touching grass-like eyeballs, blocking firebreath from oranges, and bodies that move when you have Commander Cherry jump on them. The problem is it gets tedious when sometimes you're asked to make up to six poses for one section while holding the controller in your hand and contorting your body in all different positions. It just wasn't fun, and eventually I had to take a break as my knees, and back started to ache a bit. Later on I figured out I could just play while sitting in my chair closer to the camera, and totally cheesed my way through the final levels with no shame.  All the levels look pretty similar, just bland textureless polygons, and what music there was was pretty forgettable, just like the rest of the game. With only ten levels you'd think Commander Cherry's Puzzled Journey was over far too soon, but it was quite the opposite; I couldn't wait for this yoga-like Hell to be over. Knowing the game was made by only two people makes me feel a bit like a yogasshole by saying this game is yogawful, but this is one cherry pit I couldn't wait to spit out. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Commander Cherry photo
Yogawful
"A game that captures pictures of you when you pose to build levels for your character to platform on? This is gonna be a blast," I thought naively as I excitedly volunteered to review Commander Cherry's Puzzled Journey, "Finally something I can use my Kinect for!" Note to self: Never, ever, ever volunteer to review a Kinect game again, no matter how cool it might look.

Review: Toy Soldiers: War Chest

Aug 11 // Chris Carter
Toy Soldiers: War Chest (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Signal StudiosPublisher: UbisoftRelease Date: August 11, 2015MSRP: $14.99 (base game), $4.99 (premium armies), $14.99 (all four armies) The gist of Toy Soldiers is that it melds together elements of RTS and action gameplay, with both a top-down camera and the ability to jump into turrets and control infantry units. You'll start off with an empty battlefield and a base (much like tower defense), with specific plots in which to build turrets. These range from anti-infantry guns to satellite-based artillery, depending on which army you choose. All of them have upgradable capabilities like more range or more damage, but at a cost of cash, which you'll slowly accrue during each round. In short, there's a decent amount of strategy involved despite the fact that the flow is rather fast-paced. You can jump into any turret at any time, and easily switch between them by way of the d-pad. Once you've earned a super by killing enough enemies, you'll be able to take control of your hero unit, or do something flashy like call a bomb strike. The campaign is really fun, and that's mostly due to the amount of variety packed into it. You'll have the option of controlling four base armies -- the World War-themed Kaiser, the sci-fi Phantom, the My Little Pony-like StarBright, and the fantasy-based Dark Lord. Everyone has their own themed units, levels, and turrets, and again, they all have different functionality. It's especially fun to take control of a hero unit while your turrets do their thing automatically, sprinting about the battlefield, throwing grenades, dodging, and sniping enemies at will. While this is a timed ability, you can gather battery pickups to increase said timer, before you're taken back to the RTS and turret viewpoint. [embed]302923:59932:0[/embed] The campaign is meaty enough to justify the purchase of the base game (more on that later), but there's also two-player local co-op, and a four-player online mode, which can be both public and private. Local play was pretty flawless in my testing sessions, but online games took a little while to populate, likely due to the fact that the game only launched today. While the core experience is great, I have an issue with the way it's packaged, namely by Ubisoft. For one, the frame rate, even on a current-gen system like the Xbox One, can drop a bit during heavy waves. It's not a game-breaking drop, but it's annoying all the same, especially since Toy Soldiers isn't all that demanding visually. Another issue is the inclusion of microtransactions. Now, like most Ubisoft games, they aren't required and the game doesn't feel weighted towards them specifically, but the fact that they're there for in-game currency feels odd. To top things off, Uplay is crammed in there as well. This is further exacerbated by the premium army pricing scheme. While the base game with the four aforementioned themes is $15, you'll need to pay $15 more (or $5 per) to net all of the new armies -- you know, the exciting ones -- G.I. Joe, Cobra Commander, Ezio, and He-Man. This brings the price up to $30, which doesn't feel quite right. The good news is that these guest stars are worth it; they look and feel differently enough compared to the vanilla forces, complete with their own signature looks and sound effects. They also play in a unique way, as He-Man and Ezio focus on melee damage, and the G.I. Joe duo are ranged. While I won't begrudge the inclusion of an Assassin's Creed character (it makes perfect sense), two G.I. Joe additions feel like a wasted slot -- imagine instead if there was a Transformers army (foiled again by Activision!), or even something wild like Swat Kats. I have problems with the way Toy Soldiers: War Chest is packaged, but thankfully it does uphold the same classic focus on strategy and action. You'll have to foot the bill for those costly licenses, but it's mostly worth it, warts and all. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Toy Soldiers review photo
I...have..the power! (of DLC)
Over the years, I haven't really paid that much attention to the Toy Soldiers series. I mean, I played them a bit, but never truly gave the games their due. With War Chest however, the crazy injection of nostalgic I...

Review: Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon

Aug 08 // Ben Davis
Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon (PC [reviewed], PS4, Vita, iOS, Android)Developer: Tiger StylePublisher: Tiger StyleRelease Date: August 6, 2015 (PC, iOS) / TBA (PS4, Vita, Android)MSRP: $12.99 Spider is primarily about eating insects and getting high scores. You play as the titular character in a large, seemingly abandoned estate, and come equipped with all of the skills a real spider would have. It can cling to almost any surface, move around very quickly, jump incredible distances, and spin webs to trap prey. Playing as a speedy, acrobatic hunter feels really great, and the controls are very responsive and precise. But on top of the slick web-slinging gameplay, there's also an underlying puzzle game hidden in the recesses of the estate for players who want to delve a bit deeper. The core gameplay is simple enough to learn the basics very quickly. Basically, jump from one surface to another while spinning a web to start building, and try to create geometric shapes which will be filled in automatically once completed. These webs will trap passing insects, which can then be eaten for points and more silk to spin more webs. Eating multiple insects without leaving the web will increase a combo meter, but the combo will reset to zero once the spider touches any other surface. [embed]297461:59879:0[/embed] Gameplay leaves plenty of room to develop new skills and strategies to maximize your score. Combos remain as long as the spider is touching a web, so you can try building multiple webs to jump between to keep the combo going. More points are earned by eating smaller insects first and saving the larger and rarer ones until the combo meter has built up a bit, so figuring out which insects to catch and eat in which order can drastically alter your score. Different insects require different strategies to eat them. Most have to be caught in a web, but some will need to be led into the web somehow and some can only be caught in strong webs. These strong insects might destroy webs that are too weak, releasing any other captured insects in the process. Other insects can only be killed by being tackled, such as hornets and ants. These have a separate combo meter which runs out in ten seconds unless the spider tackles another insect to keep it going. Just jump into them to eat them. No webs necessary! But be careful, because some of them can fight back. Spider also has an interesting time and weather mechanic. The game detects your location and mimics the current time and weather in-game, between four different scenarios (clear day, rainy day, clear night, and rainy night). You can choose to opt out of the location services as well, in which case it just uses the developer's location. It also tracks the current phase of the moon if it's a clear night. The time, weather, and moon phases all affect gameplay in different ways. Certain insects only come out when it's daytime or while it's raining, and some areas can only be accessed during certain weather conditions. Sometimes, the level will feel completely different between night and day. For example, one level in the barn is filled with a normal variety of flying insects during the day, but at night it becomes infested with hornet nests, totally changing the way you play it. My only complaint is that I felt some of the levels could have used more obvious differences between the various time and weather scenarios, but for the most part there was a good variety. Then there are the moon phases, and this is where the underlying puzzle game comes in. While roaming the estate as a spider, you'll come across secret areas and clues pertaining to certain mysteries. Many of these clues can only be found and solved if special requirements are met, such as playing during a new moon or at night while it's raining, although some of them can also be completed whenever. Solving mysteries will unlock more areas to play, and the game cannot be truly beaten until all clues are found and the final mystery is solved. While time traveling and altering weather mechanics is an option for those less patient players, Spider is really meant to be played slowly over a period of time. Try playing at different times of the day to find new stuff. Or if it starts to rain one day, then try to find some time to jump into the game and see what all has changed with the gloomy weather. Once you start finding clues, you can begin to synchronize your gaming schedule with the phases of the moon and plan out certain nights to return to the game to check on something. Eventually, as the month goes on, you'll start to unravel the mysteries of the estate. Or, if you don't care about all that, there's still the incredibly fun web-slinging, insect-catching action to focus on, which should be more than enough to keep you engaged. I'm sure some players will be more involved with achieving high scores and climbing up the leaderboards than trying to solve riddles and look for clues. Either way you choose to play, it's still a great game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Spider review photo
Strong web
I will take any opportunity to play as an animal in a video game. Let me control a dolphin, a wolf, a shark, or even a tiny little mosquito and I'm happy. As you surely already guessed, Rite of the Shrouded Moon puts the...

Review: Astral Breakers

Aug 06 // Chris Carter
Astral Breakers (PC, Wii U [reviewed])Developer: Intropy GamesPublisher: Intropy GamesRelease Date: August 6, 2015MSRP: $4.99 The gist of the story is that a Big Bang-style event creates "Astral Spheres," which the 12 Zodiac constellations then fight over as they vie for power over the universe. Kira, a helpful star, has tasked you with restoring order. It's cute but shallow, with very little in the way of world-building or exposition. It also doesn't help that the sidebar dialogue consists of uninspired meme-filled jokes. By the time you actually start up the game though, things get much more exciting. In essence, you're dropping orbs down in a straight line, trying to connect as many like-colored ones as possible. After dropping several orbs your cursor at the top of the screen will start glowing, which allows you to press a button to drop a "breaker," which will blow up any connecting orbs of that color. Think Puzzle Fighter, but you get to choose when to drop breakers. What's really cool about this system is that you control your destiny. Players can set up chains by preloading breakers at all sides of structures, all of which are easy to see due to their bold color schemes. It's fun to take risks and build massive combos (here's an example), which will in turn drop more trash (the puzzle term for orbs dumped on the opposing side's screen) on your enemy, screwing up their board. It's fast, and the controls are responsive. There's also another layer of complexity involved with said trash drops, as each character has a different style denoted by an "intensity" rating. High intensity characters will drop easy to solve trash but at a faster rate, changing up the way you approach the game, and forcing players to act quickly and make lots of smaller moves. On the flipside, low intensity players will rely on meticulous big combos. After playing for a bit, you'll also have the opportunity to design your own sign and style, which is neat. [embed]297134:59784:0[/embed] Solo mode is very limited, because after you've defeated all the opposing zodiac signs in combat, it ends. Naturally the difficulty ramps up towards the end where the AI will start putting up more of a fight, but since it only takes roughly 30 minutes to complete, the good stuff is over before it starts. Thankfully there is a versus AI mode on top of the campaign, but it also has the same crescendoing difficulty scheme which can get boring during that initial climb. To really enjoy Astral Breakers to the fullest, you'll need a friend, especially since there's no online play. To augment your standard versus mode there's also a co-op setting, which can get really fun as you attempt to score as many points as possible. Like most versus puzzlers, if you can find someone to share it with, you'll get a ton of leeway, especially given the strong foundation. I wish Astral Breakers had a more involved single player component and a smoother visual style, but for the most part, there's a serviceable core experience here. Just don't dive in alone. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Astral Breakers review photo
Gemini Man
I'm lucky that I've had a number of friends to play games with growing up. Before the dawn of online play (I didn't leave the house for a week when I discovered dial-up Diablo and Xbox Live), the only option was to pull ...

Review: Galak-Z: The Dimensional

Aug 05 // Chris Carter
Galak-Z: The Dimensional (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: 17-BitPublisher: 17-BitRelease Date: August 4, 2015 (PS4) / TBA (PC)MSRP: $19.99 The way Galak-Z presents itself is by way of "seasons," which are supposed to be set up in a way that mirrors a television show of sorts. Players must complete five missions per season without dying, otherwise they'll be forced to start over from the beginning of that season. It's a way to justify the roguelike elements of the game (notably permadeath) and provide players with some respite for failure. While the idea actually works from a narrative standpoint, I found this style to be a bit more frustrating than it should be. Rogue Legacy handled progression brilliantly, allowing players to slowly accrue upgrades and "lock" maps into place when they wished. Similarly, Spelunky's shortcuts felt organic, like you were exploring a giant labyrinthine maze that was seemingly connected. Here, seasons feel isolated and disconnected -- you're essentially just completing randomly generated levels one after another. This is easier to swallow because of the endearing anime style of the game. It's a love letter to classic franchises like Gundam, but it manages to pack in a ton of 17-bit's signature look, from the decals plastered on the ships to the delightful VCR-styled menu screens. I also love the minimalist approach to storytelling, as each level may provide you with unique tidbits on the game's world, which are remixed, so to speak, after death. Having said that, I think the voice acting is dreadful, and not in a "so bad it's good way." Thankfully there isn't a whole lot of it. In terms of gameplay, this isn't a standard twin-stick shooter -- it's much deeper than that. After a quick tutorial, it's fairly easy to get the hang of the forward and reverse thrusters, the latter of which allow you to moonwalk (moonboost?) backwards to continue engagement. Pressing both of them allows you to brake, which provides pinpoint movement, as well as the ability to thrust cancel whenever you feel like it. Oh, and you can also press square to "juke," which has a little effect of your ship coming out of the screen and dodging bullets. It's really cool. Check out the full control scheme here. [embed]297236:59841:0[/embed] Sound plays a factor in the game as well, as a blue ring around your ship displays how far enemy units can hear you. Yep, your goal is going to actually be avoiding combat as often as you can, because again, death is a big deal in Galak-Z, and it sort of plays into the Last Starfighter vibe that the story is going for. It's also good then that shields can withstand environmental impacts for the most part and regenerate after a few seconds, so you won't have too many frustrating deaths. While permadeath is hard-hitting, you can earn temporary upgrades that will help you avoid your demise, exchange "Crash Coins" for instant upgrades, and locate blueprints, which grant the in-game shop permanent fixtures for future playthroughs. Note that while that blueprints are stocked for every session, you will still have to buy them with scrap (currency you'll find in the world), so you truly are restarting with nothing to your name most of the time. That right there is probably going to scare a lot of people away. While I generally don't mind a learning curve, there is some tedium involved -- more-so than most roguelikes. While many games don't have clear "objectives," and would rather see you explore at your own pace, the chopped-up level scheme doesn't always gel in terms of pacing. For some missions, I was able to fly right into a really unique area like a lava cave, blow up some bugs, and escape with a jump point relatively close to the objective. For others, I had to fly through a long network of caverns, find a boring box, blow it up, and then fly back for upwards of five minutes just to complete that stage. But for every randomly generated disappointment, there's an array of fun moments. Since multiple factions will attack each other in-game, it's a joy to pit them against one another, and slowly reap the benefits from afar with your missiles and all of the wonderful toys you've acquired through your current season. I don't want to spoil the transforming mech bit too much, but suffice to say it adds yet another layer on top of everything, and is just as satisfying as it sounds. Getting through a season and learning all of the tricks involved over time provides a clear sense of accomplishment, and you'll need to put in some work to reap those benefits. I wish Galak-Z: The Dimensional wasn't so fragmented, because the core experience is a treat for roguelike and space combat fans alike. Even 15 hours through I was still seeing new items and upgrades, which is a testament to its lasting power, warts and all -- I just need to take breaks from the tedium every so often. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Galak-Z review photo
Amuro Blu-ray
There aren't enough mech games out there. I mean sure, I grew up with Mechwarrior, G-Nome, Armored Core, and Heavy Gear, among countless others over the years, but it's still not enough. It's never enough. While Galak-Z does have some issues, it does manage to keep the dream mostly alive.

Review: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Reckoning

Aug 04 // Chris Carter
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Reckoning DLC (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Sledgehammer Games (Current-gen) / High Moon Studios (Last-gen) / Raven Software (Zombies)Publisher: ActivisionReleased: August 4, 2015MSRP: $14.99 ($50 Season Pass for four packs) Let's kick things off with Overload, the sexiest map in Reckoning. Taking place in a giant Middle Eastern hotel complex, it has all of the pizazz you'd expect, and more. It's a great mix of indoor and outdoor environments, with a layout that keeps you in the action while allowing you to have condensed firefights. It allows the Exo movement and jetpack mechanic to really breathe without confining it like some maps in the past have. It also has these little tesla coil things littered about, which are basic in their functionality (an area-of-effect jolt when shot), but very cool aesthetically -- plus, they sound really neat. Next up is Swarm, a map set in a ruined Korean city. It's nice to see the series return to a setting like this, as I enjoyed "Magma" in Black Ops II. There's plenty of windows to boost into and buildings to hide in, and the map lends itself to vertical movement well. They really go with the destruction theme, and there's a ton of detail present that I wasn't expecting. It's another great showing for Reckoning. Fracture is an ice level that reminds me of The Thing, in a good way. The backgrounds are very detailed, and the smaller, more intimate theme works to its advantage. It's basically all outdoors, which gives it a distinct feel compared to the rest of the DLC. Although Array from the original Black Ops is probably my favorite snow map in Call of Duty history, Fracture does the frozen sub-genre proud. Quarantine, the last of the four core maps in Reckoning, gives off a distinct Walking Dead TV series vibe, which I dig. It also feels like it has a Call of Duty 4 theme with its simplicity, but it's not as vertical as I hoped it would be. The general gist is that the arena is a testing site for experiments on primates, complete with tons of banana boxes and even a room full of live test subjects. It's a rather generic theme, but it must be said that I do enjoy playing it in the rotation. I wouldn't consider it a wasted slot. [embed]297123:59780:0[/embed] Now, onto the best part -- the zombie level. Following along with the narrative that saw the demise of John Malkovich's character (and the debut of Bruce Campbell), and his ascension into zombie-hood, Descent is one of the most unique zombie stages in the entire series (the one that featured mafia ghosts withstanding). It straight-up feels like you're in a Bond villain base, which is partially true as Malkovich is there to taunt you every step of the way as you navigate your path through an underwater testing site. As you make your way through each wave, various power-ups will start to appear at the top of the deck, which you can periodically gather. These range from standard stuff like turrets, to more interesting mechanisms like defensive AI robots that float around your character. Everything feels much more action-packed and desperate, with more firepower and abilities to match the more aggressive enemies. At times, Malkovich will teleport you to a room for a boss fight session of sorts, with different hazards to avoid (like laser grids above you, preventing double-jumps) and a variety of enemies to best in close-quarters. It's a sight to behold with four players, as power-ups are constantly appearing in this secluded room while you fight for your life. Again, intensity is what they're going for here, and it really works. I'd have to think about it for a while, but it may be the most fun I've had with zombies since first playing World at War. I mean, Malkovich actually says the line "The teleporters are mine now, bitch," to give you an idea of what I'm talking about here. At the end of the day, I'm happy with what Sledgehammer Games (and Raven) brought to the table with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare as a whole. Though it'll be tough to dethrone the current kings of the franchise (Treyarch), I have more confidence in their follow-up than before, and I'm eager to see what they can come up with next. At this point Infinity Ward is a lame duck, and the odd developer out. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Call of Duty DLC review photo
Did John Malkovich just call me a bitch?
So here we are with the Reckoning DLC pack, the last add-on for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare after Havoc, Ascendance, and Supremacy. All in all, it's been a great ride, and slowly but surely, each map pack has improved upon the last. It's great then that Advanced Warfare is going out with a bang with its best DLC yet.

Review: Submerged

Aug 03 // Jed Whitaker
Submerged (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One)Developer: Uppercut Games Pty LtdPublisher: Uppercut Games Pty LtdRelease Date: August 4, 2015 (PC / PS4 NA), August 5, 2015 (PS4 EU), August 7, 2015 (Xbox One)MSRP: $19.99Rig: Intel Core i7-3930K @ 3.2 GHz, with 32GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 980, Windows 10 64-bit An immobile young boy with a gash on his abdomen and a young girl arrive on a boat to what looks to be a very tall church surrounded by water and the peaks of skyscrapers; the girl spots a parachute on the top of a skyscraper in the distance and decides to investigate. Upon hopping back in the boat and making her way to the structure without issue she slowly climbs to the top and finds an emergency ration that conveniently has just what she needs to help her brother.  Instead of scaling back down the skyscraper a cutscene plays showing the girl arriving back at the church and standing over her brother applying bandages. She then takes a nap before waking up and spouting off some random thing she needs to find to help her brother recover from his ailment, and sets off to scale another skyscraper. This cycle happens nine more times over the course of around four hours before a very predictable ending as unceremonious as the beginning. Maneuvering the boat between the top most portions of skyscrapers through the glistening ocean underneath you as dolphins, whales, stingrays and other wildlife make themselves known is awe-inspiring at first; then you realize everything kind of looks the same. The main buildings where rations are located have their own unique architecture from afar, but when scaling up them they all seem rather similar. [embed]297002:59765:0[/embed] Driving the boat isn't exactly thrilling and at times can feel rather clunky especially when trying to fit through tight spaces and bouncing off surroundings. A boost button gives one a bit of extra speed at the cost of making it even harder to control, but it isn't that useful as the game is open and exploration of basically the entire world is necessary. A map and periscope are provided to make exploration a bit easier; the map fills itself in while exploring, and the periscope can be used to locate rations, drawings and boost upgrades. Any items spotted with the periscope are marked on the map for easy locating. These tools combined make finding most everything rather easy, though they aren't exactly hard to locate to begin with. Climbing up buildings is the other main activity in Submerged, and it couldn't be more dull. Close-up views of cement walls of the girl shimmying along randomly placed ledges just to climb up and find another ledge to shimmy and climb; it is one of the utmost boring gameplay mechanics in any game ever, and it makes up a majority of time spent in Submerged. Occasionally there will be a drain pipe to climb while enduring an extremely annoying clunk sound each time the character's hands hit it, as if she were holding stones in her palms; luckily a minute climb up a ladder on the side of a crane at one point is more bearable. There are branching paths while ascending buildings where 60 collectable drawings can be found that tell the story of how the city came to it's watery demise. Each building that houses a ration will have a few of drawings, mostly on their own little side paths that are easy to spot. If a drawing is passed while ascending and the ration box is located you'll have to make the call whether or not it would be worth it to backtrack, as grabbing the ration will take you back to your brother automatically and  you'll have to re-scale the building otherwise. Since there are no fast travel points and the ration boxes can't be reused to go back to your brother it leads to tedious backtracking no matter which option is chosen, there just may be more or less of a trek.  The rest of the city story drawings can be spotted in small buildings tucked around the city. These small buildings are nearly identical to each other and just require climbing up one or two easy to spot ledges to get to drawings, and have clearly been used as an excuse to extend the length of a still short game.  Overall collecting all the drawings easily took more time than gathering all ten rations, and those who don't care about the story of the city will surely be able to complete the game in around two hours or less. I personally collected all the drawings and I still don't know exactly what happened to the city; the drawings equate to colorful cave paintings and leave a lot to interpretation. In hindsight, I'd recommend not fretting too much about collecting them at all. The main story is also told through similar drawings displayed with no real contextual in-game reason after collecting rations and going back to your brother. What little story here is so predictable and trope-ridden that it was hard to care about; a troubled family with an alcoholic adult and a protective older sister. I'm all for playing as a female character, but a girl in a post-apocalyptic world whose only trait is that she takes care of her younger male sibling just isn't interesting or original. The story has been done a million times over, and really the only thing original Submerged has going for it is the setting.  Within under ten minutes time you'll have experienced all the game has to offer; boring boating, equally dull scaling of buildings and peering out a periscope to find the next white and green building to climb. There is no failstate, no urgency, no combat, just moving from point to point and monotonously collecting shit. The story isn't interesting, the gameplay is boring, everything looks the same aside from a few landmarks, and the whole ordeal is over in no time. You're better off saving your money instead of sinking it on the titanic failure that is Submerged. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Submerged review photo
Drowning in monotony
Sometimes games take concepts from other popular titles and combine them into a beautiful mix -- this is not one of those games.  Was boating your favorite part of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker? Do you play Unchart...

Review: World of Tanks

Aug 03 // Brett Makedonski
World of Tanks (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: WargamingPublisher: WargamingRelease Date: July 28, 2015 (Xbox One)MSRP: Free-to-play (with microtransactions) Really, World of Tanks treads the line uneasily that all massively multiplayer online titles do: How do you make a game like this rewarding and nuanced for experienced players, yet inviting and engaging enough for a new audience? Extrapolating from that (and more importantly): How do you convert both Group A and Group B into dollar signs? Wargaming doesn't always do a great job of it, as its intentions often seem paper-thin. That aforesaid selfishness is where the moneymaking lies though, and it can come at the expense of the experience. World of Tanks on Xbox One gives people no reason to press forward except for personal gain. Being killed in a match means it's the end of that match as far as you're concerned. Sure, one could theoretically watch the rest of the round through the cameras of other players, but literally no one will do that. Instead, they'll head back to the garage, hop into another tank, and try again in a different match. This was my exact experience for much of my time with World of Tanks. After several hours of playing (but possibly more spent in loading screens), I checked my stats to see that I had a victory rate of just about 50 percent. That's not bad at all, but I had no idea. Worse yet, I didn't really care. I only cared about the currency dripfeeding into my account at the conclusion of each match. That's all World of Tanks wants us to care about. [embed]296821:59762:0[/embed] The last statement is made obvious by the way which Wargaming organically introduces players to some later-game content. During matches, it's not completely uncommon to come up against an opponent that seems literally invincible. Your ammunition will do next to nothing to it; it will dispose of you with the disdain of a Midwesterner swatting one of a thousand mosquitoes on a humid July night. That is your goal -- you want to be that guy. Make no mistake about it: World of Tanks is a continual left-to-right surge through a spiderweb of tanks you don't yet have, but might have very soon. Those first few come relatively quickly and the progression feels real. After that, everything gets slower. Each match contributes, but less so than before. Looking ahead through that web, some of it seems unattainable (or at the very least, extremely far off). World of Tanks wants your time or your wallet -- pick your poison. Fortunately, giving it your time isn't the worst option. World of Tanks can be rewarding. Every hit landed on another player is satisfying. Blowing them up is exponentially better than just damaging them. Surviving the entire match, destroying several on the other team, and/or capturing a base might just make you feel like you're General Patton. You start to think "I'm getting better. If I keep playing like this, those end-game tanks will be mine in no time!" These are the immutable highs of World of Tanks. It's simply enthralling when you set off on a literal warpath and cut down everything in your way. This is the meat of the game, and it's a prime cut. Excelling at tank-play against other humans feels very, very good. At this point, imminent defeat in the next match is all but assured. That's where World of Tanks is at its worst. Barring the progression frustrations, it's all too often that you'll feel like your opponents know something you don't. Their death machines are probably superior to yours, sure. Still, they'll angle their tanks in such a way that they never expose the weak part of the armor that you didn't even know was weak. They're really good, and you're not sure how to get to that level. The game doesn't teach you, and it doesn't seem like you'll ever learn on your own. It's very unintuitive. For everything that might appear impossible, what you do pick up on your own is invaluable. It isn't long before rushing in looks like a fool's game. Flank, hide, proceed with caution. These vehicles may be harbingers of destruction, but you can't treat them as such. Each minute movement actually means something when you're in the thick of it. These are the times when you'll feel a strategic sense in World of Tanks. Suddenly, things aren't so bad again. Everything seems possible, at least. And, that's what World of Tanks thrives on -- a cyclical mindset between frustration, slight progression, and back to frustration. There are intermittent spurts of elation peppered in occasionally in the event of an outstanding performance. Otherwise, it's right back to not quite understanding why others know more than you do. Which poison did they pick? Time or wallet? Or, heaven forbid, both? Anyone who truly appreciates World of Tanks won't need a review to guide them. They're already well beyond the long barrier to entry. Everyone else will likely find themselves similarly on the outside looking in. There might be something special to World of Tanks, but it's not something that's immediately apparent; it's something that only shows itself after a significant investment. The gameplay can be rewarding at times, but most won't have the patience (or the money) to ever get to that point. Thus, World of Tanks won't ever be more than a quick detour on the way to something that's easier to comprehend. [This review is based on a retail build of the free game downloaded by the reviewer.]
World of Tanks review photo
Pick your poison
World of Tanks is a selfish game. It acts selfishly in that it hides information from its players, expecting them to figure out any and all intricacies on their own. Similarly, it asks its userbase to roll into combat as...

Review: Rare Replay

Aug 03 // Chris Carter
Rare Replay (Xbox One)Developer: RarePublisher: Microsoft StudiosReleased: August 4, 2015MSRP: $29.99 From the moment I booted it up, Rare Replay was not only charming, but welcoming as well. I love the carnival style menus with old timey posters, as it's a nice little touch that clues us in on how much work went into it. The menu is very clearly defined and every game is detailed in a straightforward way, from the number of players to the release year. In addition to 10,000 achievements, there's also a "stamp" system that works as an internal record keeper of sorts, which unlocks various video extras. Said videos are basically miniature documentaries, ranging from takedowns of Rare, to existing games, to cancelled projects, and are very well done. I was really surprised by how interesting these clips were; even the more drab ones are filled with lots of new information. The menus are responsive as well, and after clicking a game, it takes roughly five seconds to load. It's crazy how much Rare thought of, as Replay includes built-in instruction manuals, auto-save functionality, and three save slots per game. There's also emulator-esque tools at your disposal, like quick saving in older games, cheats like instant rewinding (conveniently mapped to the left trigger), a toggle for infinite lives, and even a CRT monitor filter. All in all, it's a wonderful package presentation-wise. As for the games themselves there are 30 in all, 15 of which can probably be considered "retro" even by older gamers' standards, dating before 1994. That includes staples like the incredible Battletoads and Snake Rattle 'n' Roll, as well as a handful of more obscure games like Gunfright and Underwurlde. My time with a lot of these titles has been rather mixed, as some of them are too dated for their own good, but most of them absolutely hold up as arcade-like experiences. [embed]296727:59711:0[/embed] Having said that, the "Snapshots" mode (basically a challenge gametype with bits and pieces of select titles) is an excellent way to become acclimated to some of these games. Tasks range from typical score attack sessions to beating specific areas with specific limitations, to survival challenges. The best part? You can score over the goal and test your might by way of leaderboards. There are 16 games in all with Snapshots, and six more challenging multi-game playlists. As you start to move into the mid-'90s, more of the "classic" Rare fare starts to shine, like Blast Corps., Banjo Kazooie, Perfect Dark, and Jet Force Gemini. All of the games that had multiplayer enabled still have it within the ports themselves, and it was incredibly easy to just turn on another Xbox One controller and go at it with another player. One game I didn't expect to love was Battletoads Arcade, which was never released on a home console before Rare Replay. On the other hand, if I had to pick the worst game in the package it would probably be Killer Instinct Gold, which is a bare-bones version of the second game. It kind of makes sense though, as Killer Instinct 1 and 2 already exist on the Xbox One in the form of Killer Instinct 2013 bonuses, so Gold's inclusion is still unique. The modern games are pretty much all great, including Viva Piñata, one of the best zen garden simulators to date, and Jetpac Refuelled, a standout game on the Xbox Live Arcade, even today. Kameo, which was not a great full retail price launch title all the way back in 2005, is a great little extra in Replay, and is worth playing. At the end of the day the selection of games is superb, and one of the only missing games I wanted was GoldenEye. In case you're wondering, yes, every game that supported online play still does so in Rare Replay, though I wasn't able to test out this extensively before launch -- we'll provide updates if there are any issues after launch. For clarity on a few technical things, all of the Xbox 360 games are provided as separate installs by way of the disc (Banjo Kazooie, Tooie, Nuts & Bolts, Perfect Dark, Zero, Viva Piñata, Trouble in Paradise, Jetpac Refuelled, Kameo), but have full Rare Replay's features, and holding the start button still conveniently brings you back to the core menu. There's a wonky little first-time setup on the Xbox 360 side of things, but once it finishes you're all good. Since a lot of these games are still at least $10 on the Xbox Live Arcade, $30 for the lot (and more) is a great deal. Rare Replay is a new milestone for compilations. A great deal of care was put into the project, and 30 games is enough meat to ensure that everyone will really enjoy at least half of them. I sincerely hope this is the start of a revival of the classic Rare we know and love. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Rare Replay review photo
From the Stamper garage to Microsoft
The first Rare game I ever played was Snake Rattle 'n' Roll in 1990, but the company has been around for quite some time. Vs. Slalom was technically Rare's first title. Tim and Chris Stamper, the heart and soul...

Review: Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight

Jul 31 // Chris Carter
Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight (3DS)Developer: AtlusPublisher: Curve DigitalRelease Date: August 4, 2015 (US) / February 12, 2016 (Europe)MSRP: $49.99 (Atlus tax) For those unaware, the Untold portion of the moniker denotes the inclusion of an all-new story mode, complete with preset characters and a new narrative. It sounds weird, but any Etrian fan knows that the series started off with dungeon-crawler roots, and thus, allowed players to basically create and customize whoever they wanted --with a loose story binding it all together. Thankfully, The Fafnir Knight includes both gametypes and multiple difficulty options for players of all backgrounds If you spring for the new setup, the tale starts off with low-key princess protection duty with your childhood friend Flavio, but quickly evolves into a grand tale of adventure to seek out the city at the bottom of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth. Early into the fray, your hero awakens their true power -- the Fafnir Knight class, capable of transformation. While the story itself isn't as memorable as a lot of recent JRPGs, it's still a fun enough narrative with a cast of likable characters. The dialog in particular isn't riveting stuff, nor is it laugh-out-loud funny; it's serviceable, which is essentially how I feel about Etrian in general. Dungeon crawling is basically the same as always (now with the enhanced 3D style), and with Fafnir Knight, you'll have the ability to manually map out your findings on the bottom screen. Or, if you're feeling a bit more conservative, it can automatically populate. FOEs have returned, which are basically giant superbosses present throughout the game. [embed]296957:59744:0[/embed] Like many JRPG superbosses, they aren't easy to best. You'll generally have to avoid them early on or risk instant death. Since they're visible on the screen, it's easy to see where they're coming from however, and you'll have to either deduce their patterns or use trap items to fool them. It's a nice little diversion, and returning later on to defeat a pesky FOE is a great feeling. Don't think that a more concise campaign implies that the formula has been dumbed down, as players will still be able to create an initial avatar and customize the classes of story characters. There is a caveat: you'll need to sacrifice five levels to switch classes. Additionally, you can't just call upon the guild to create new characters at will. To further muddy the waters, the Grimoire system seeks to mix things up a bit, as you can now equip party members with items that allow them to tap into additional classes. However, it feels extremely limited in nature, as most of them are a random drop, and it took me hours to find the few specific tomes I really wanted. It's an odd gambit by Atlus even in the confines of the Fafnir story, as the Etrian series has always prided itself on full customization. It's a bit easier to forgive once you dig into the new cooking mechanic, which has been expanded in an unprecedented manner. Now, you can customize ingredients and discover new recipes to craft as you cook your way to statistical bonuses for your adventures. Eventually, this diversion works its way more and more into the story. The Duke of the main town allows you to potentially earn a profit from the restaurant as you expand and re-invest in the town. It's a nice little meta-narrative and adds some lightheartedness to the game. Classic mode is of course, utterly different. It's a less limited tale featuring a mysterious labyrinth, and the experience is more about the journey than a real story. You can register new party members at will, and you're free to choose from over 10 classes at the start. It's very intimidating for non-RPG fans, so I recommend trying out story mode first. And really, that's what's so great about the Untold series -- it allows new players to acclimate without holding their hand too often, and still provides a way for hardcore fans to create limitless combinations of parties to their heart's content. Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight is a remake that's perfectly timed and well crafted, despite the fact that the formula isn't quite as fresh as the wholly new Etrian IV (I really miss the more open-ended maps). Now all Atlus needs to do is remaster Etrian III, and it'll have all four core entries ready to play on the 3DS. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Etrian Odyssey 2 review photo
A worthwhile update
It sounds crazy, but 2008 was a long time ago. That's when Etrian Odyssey II was first released for the Nintendo DS, and seven years later, Atlus has decided to bring it to a new audience with The Fafnir Knight. While a few of the advancements from later games don't translate perfectly, it's still a worthwhile dungeon romp, and another great entry in this storied series.

Review: Magic Duels: Origins

Jul 31 // Caitlin Cooke
Magic Duels: Origins (PC [reviewed], iOS)Developer: Stainless Games Ltd.Publisher: Wizards of the Coast LLCReleased: July 29, 2015MSRP: Free As its name implies, the story mode within Magic Duels: Origins centers on the early lives of well-known Planeswalkers in the series -- including Jace, Chandra, and Liliana. Each backstory is broken down into five chapters, which detail coming-of-age moments in their lives before becoming full-fledged Planeswalkers. Chapters begin with a short prologue and art piece which set the stage for the upcoming duel, and upon completion end in a similar vein. Battle Mode is the main attraction, containing the normal modes you’d find in any Magic game -- Versus battle (vs Human), Solo battle (vs AI), and Two-headed Giant (2v2). Solo battles come in three flavors -- easy, medium, hard -- however, you’re not able to select your AI opponent (the deck is random). It’s also unclear how the matching system works for the Versus battle system, since the servers were down the majority of the time and I wasn’t able to test it out. I also found it unfortunate that there are no extra fun modes present, as was common in the DoTP series (like Planechase or Archenemy), which I personally miss. In Origin’s free-to-play model, players collect coins via completion of Story and Battle duels or by shelling out cash. Coins are then used to trade in for booster packs, which are added to your overall collection. A single booster pack runs for 150 coins, which equals roughly $2.00 if you were to purchase the coins yourself. You can also buy coins in bulk at a discount, going all the way up to 7,500 coins for $39.99. Origins makes it surprisingly easy to collect coins -- completing a Planeswalker’s story (5 duels) is enough to get you a pack, or dueling a random human roughly 7 times could net the same amount. Quests, which are essentially achievements, rotate in and out and dish out coins when certain stipulations are met (for example: win two duels with a forest/mountain combo deck, put 20 +1/+1 counters on a creature, et cetera). After only a few hours of playing through some of the story, a few battles, and earning Quest achievements, I had enough coins to unlock 3 or 4 packs. I was surprised that the built-in cards were fairly solid (and a lot of new ones, to boot). Origins also features Planeswalker cards, an added layer of challenge which is also a first for Magic’s online games. It didn’t take me long to build some decent decks after opening a few booster packs, although with 251 total cards and only 6 cards in a pack collecting them all seems daunting. Deck-building has come a long way since the Duels of the Planeswalkers series was first introduced. In Origins, the two options are to build everything from scratch or to use the deck wizard. Building a deck from scratch gives players pretty much any freedom they need when building a deck -- it even has a nice filter system, allowing players to sort by parameters including rarity, type, and cost. Swapping cards in and out is pretty seamless, and I like that I could go through my booster cards to pick out the ones I want and have the game do the math and complete the rest of the deck for me. The deck wizard is much more restrictive, but probably the best option for brand new players. After selecting mana types, it walks players through three steps and explains which cards to choose along the way. Being a casual player who doesn’t really enjoy building decks, I actually found the deck wizard to be even more overwhelming than the “build from scratch” option. It’s oddly restrictive, as it doesn’t really give you much room to look at your available cards -- each step only displays a handful of cards to choose from at any given time. Although Origins has a number of viable options for deck-building, there were a few strange occurrences I noticed when building decks. When using autocomplete in the deck-builder, sometimes odd choices would be made -- for example, a lone forest land card would be slotted in when no forest mana was needed, or a card that calls for enchantments when none were found in the deck. Origins also makes it difficult to rebuild a deck if it was originally made with the wizard, as you’re not able to switch freely between modes. This means that if you get new cards in your booster pack that you want to add to your decks built with the wizard, you’re pretty much out of luck. My attempts to join a multiplayer duel over the course of two days were pretty much thwarted with network errors, which is a real bummer seeing how playing with actual people is the crux of playing Magic. I also found that occasionally the game would boot me out of the server entirely, rendering my account virtually useless. Hopefully Stainless will be able to sort out the server issues, as the game does not allow you to collect or spend coins, even in Story mode or AI battles. This is quite frustrating since the main purpose of the game is to collect these coins to spend them on booster packs and improve your deck. I also found it disappointing that you’re not able to earn coins via playing with friends. I’m assuming this is because it would be much easier to cheat the system, however, even giving small rewards via Quests, or a small amount of coins seems like it would encourage more friendly duels versus people taking advantage. Despite their servers not being ready, I feel Magic Duels: Origins brings the best of both worlds together, finally: a fun way to learn and play Magic with the competitiveness of collecting and putting together strong decks for duels in a fairly balanced system. I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt, hoping that the server issues improve with time, but in the meantime playing through the story and battling AI is still entertaining. Those new to Magic will find it easy to dive in and learn the intricacies of deck-building, while more experienced players should finally have the customization and card variety they’ve been asking for. Nothing beats the real thing (playing in person) for a lot of expert Magic players; however, I feel like this is a big step in the right direction. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Magic Duels: Origins photo
Free-to-play done right
My addiction to Magic began with the first Duels of the Planeswalkers game for the 360 back in 2009. Although it had its shortcomings (mana tapping, anyone?), the DoTP series created an accessible way for new (or rusty) playe...

Review: The Swindle

Jul 31 // Zack Furniss
The Swindle (PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One)Developer: Size Five GamesPublisher: Curve DigitalRelease Date: July 28, 2015 (PC, PS3, PS4, Vita) / July 31 (Xbox One) / TBD (Wii U)MSRP: $14.99 I'll be honest, this review didn't come out on release day because I couldn't beat the fucking game in time. The Swindle starts off simply enough: the robotic police force that defends all of that sweet future funding projects a light in front of them indicating their line of sight. If you take a second to observe most obstacles and enemies, chances are you'll understand how they'll react in any given situation. That's the beauty of Size Five Games' newest creation: through its hand-drawn art and deft understanding of visual cues, a glance at your surroundings is usually enough to convey all of the information regardless of your location. With a general lack of tutorials, it's appreciated that there was a strong knowledge of mise-en-scène (ha! I've justified taking that one directing class now) involved in The Swindle's creation. A successful robbery goes as follows: from a side-scrolling perspective, your scoundrel will arrive at a procedurally-generated location ripe for the plucking. With a combination of climbing, sneaking, and watching, you just might be able to walk away with a considerable sum of money. Small vaults/chests/containers are strewn about, but aren't worth much. Computers (which are hacked through deliciously tense QTEs) are where you'll want to focus your efforts, as they offer the best payday. If you're spotted, you run the risk of dying and losing your character, though your purchased abilities are universal. The police will send increasingly deadly forces at you, but you can still get away if you reach your escape pod without dying. For the first 40 days or so, I felt like I was building a slow, subtle mastery over my surroundings. Though I started by robbing the poor to work my way up, the ramshackle security systems were enough to keep me vigilant. The intricacies of wall-climbing became more familiar to me, and various upgrades to my thieves expanded the possible approaches available at each newly-generated building. I watched many of these swindlers embrace sweet death via bullets, failed hacking attempts on explosives, and oh-so-many plunges off of tiled roofs. Each time, a new one rose with a new outfit and name: Lafeyette Weedbruiser lasted six successful heists before a wheelchair-clad robot shot her down from a magnificent double-jump. I eventually earned enough money to move onto the warehouse districts and the mansions. Each area was progressively more difficult but offered more lucrative lucre. I bought bombs, money-accruing bugs, and the ability to hack doors and security systems, feeling as though the Devil's Basilisk would be mine with days to spare. It wasn't until I purchased the right to try to pilfer from the casinos and banks that I hit an iron wall of challenge. Instead of skulking into buildings with multiple access points and hacking easily-reached computers for big bucks, I was relegated to picking up chump change and scrambling back to my escape pod before the tenacious security bots spotted me during one of my many slip-ups. The titular swindle is actually the final stage, where you attempt to steal the AI device. You need to be prepared for the big event by having the right tools and upgraded thieves, but you also need to pay for entry. Saving up £400,000 is already hard enough; however, failure requires you to pay the whole amount for each successive attempt. Since you'll be spending your hard-earned money on necessary upgrades like teleportation, triple-jumps, and being able to stop in the middle of a wall slide (seriously, buy this), that buy-in price makes an already difficult game feel ludicrously unfair. There are ways to buy extra days towards the end, but the price goes up each time. That's the game over screen, which I saw at the end of multiple attempts at all 100 days. I'm not one to balk at a challenge, but the finite lives combined with the money requirement of the last level feel like an artificial attempt to gate willing players away from the ending. I have no doubt that somebody is on Twitch at this very moment, controlling The Swindle with Donkey Konga drums ghosting through the final stage, but the vast majority of players will mostly find the latter half of the game frustrating. I think it's telling that most of the coverage I've read has only shown screenshots of the first few stages.  There's also the weird bloom effect that permeates some of your jaunt through London. While it makes sense to have your vision obscured when the alarms are blaring and the lights are flashing red, occasionally the screen is bloomed beyond belief and you can't discern the minutiae on the screen. I've committed almost-perfect crimes, hacking security systems and clearing out guards, only to land on an explosive I could barely see. Get used to seeing starbursts of paper money explode from your fresh corpses for the slightest of transgressions. The collision on spike pits also is a bit wonky, and I've died a fair few times just for standing close to one. Depending on the kind of player you are, you might just start finding exploits to accelerate your progress. I'm not all that ashamed to admit that I took advantage of bugs, which seem to go against the whole risk/reward theme of The Swindle. If you get close to a computer, you can place a bug that will siphon cash to your account at a rate of £/second. This goes directly to your account, so you can avoid having to run back to the escape pod to keep whatever you earn. The thrill of sneaking off with a sack full of cash is somewhat diminished when you can place a bunch of bugs and wait by the exit, but I found myself relying on this method in order to actually reach the Devil's Basilisk. Since hacking is accomplished via directional QTEs, you can just spin the stick in a circle without punishment (unless it's a mine, which will explode upon an incorrect input). I only did this once out of curiosity, but it feels like an unnoticed exploit. Hacking is my favorite part of the game, so I couldn't cheat myself out of that experience without feeling like a sad sack. For the record, I played on a gamepad, which was much more comfortable than the keyboard layout. The Swindle is nowhere near an entirely negative experience. It's a festival of moments, of anecdotes filled with failures and smiles. I found myself holding my breath as I hacked a computer with just enough time to dodge three heavy guards coming my way, jumped over two electricity traps, clung to a wall to let a patrol pass, and bombed myself a new escape route. These pockets of perfection kept me hooked, and made me boot up The Swindle again and again in order to preserve this world of rogues. That, and my dedication to you guys. Now, the Devil's Basilisk is for all of us to share. You're goddamned welcome. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
The Swindle photo
Steal shit, get hit
A band of thieves in Steampunk Victorian London has been tasked with preventing Scotland Yard's creation of the ultimate surveillance device: The Devil's Basilisk. If they fail to swindle said device in 100 days (read: lives)...


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