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Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Nov 09 // Steven Hansen
Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One [reviewed], Xbox 360, PC, PS4)Developer: Crystal Dynamics (Xbox One), Nixxes Software (Xbox 360)Publisher: Microsoft (Xbox One, 360); Square Enix (PC, PS4)MSRP: $59.99Released: November 10, 2015 (Xbox One, Xbox 360); Q1 2016 (PC); Q4 2016 (PS4) Having previously glimpsed the supernatural, Rise of the Tomb Raider's Lara is open to the wild theories of ancient immortality that consumed her father. A brief trip into Syria introduces the new enemy, a highly-funded, obviously evil group called Trinity led by Konstantin, a religious zealot and less comic book version of Uncharted 2's Lazarević. Lara then tries to beat the stonejaw-led shadowy entity to the Siberian wilderness, where most of the game takes place. The first thing I noticed in Syria was its rich orange sands, a strong contrast to the last Tomb Raider's much more muted palette. Then it was Lara's powerful blue glow stick as she began navigating tombs, providing the same orange/cyan look you find in most Hollywood movie color grading. Naturally, when Lara goes to off to Russia and the blue-white snow and ice, she's suddenly packing orange glow sticks. It's not a bad thing, though. Rise of the Tomb Raider is not shy about using unrealistic lighting to set a mood and it works, like when the blizzarding night sky is illuminated with an eerie deep red light thanks to Trinity flares. It's one of the best-looking games this year, but it also goes beyond stylish at times and helps set the mood. Coupled with a camera that occasionally, but never annoyingly, takes control from you to frame the next impressive mountain establishment or some such thing you have to climb. [embed]319740:61038:0[/embed] The combination of framing, use of color, and lighting are welcomed Hollywood cribbing. Most of the additions since the last entry are welcomed, too. The stealth options make more sense in a supposedly serious game hellbent on showing the brutality Lara deals with (gruesome death close-ups are still plentiful), rather than the more discordant Lara-as-Terminator that doesn't jive with the story being told. That said, you can still mostly do that. Even when the game hinted I could stealth through an environment, unless I saw an obvious path, it was easy to loose bows from afar into enemies' heads. Rise also touted the tombs pre-release, which are peppered throughout the world. They're probably the highlight. I think Tomb Raider is a better platformer than shooter and working out these beautiful, often complex environmental puzzles had me yearning for a more ICO-like distribution of puzzle/platforming versus murder. The stealth, too, kind of hints at a game that could've made death and killing meaningful in line with the narrative, but instead we're left with a refinement of the Uncharted series sans one-liners.  Except for the bloat, which kind of flies in the face of the snappy movie cues and Uncharted's beats. Rise borrows slightly from the Legend of Zelda formula in that there are distinct areas ("hubs") organically woven together, but requiring back-tracking with new gear and items. It's a very game-y conceit. In the cinematics I asked why Lara hadn't a camera (or even a cell phone) to prove (evidence!) the things her father died over, but she didn't even slip an iPhone out of her pocket. At the same, coming across a rope and being told I can't cut it until I find a knife, well, why the hell does Lara not have a knife? People who like busywork will probably appreciate the hub areas replete with open-world style challenges (burn all 10 communist propaganda posters, cut down all the snared rabbits, etc.), but it kind of grated on me. I didn't open the map until a few hours in and I immediately wanted to slam it shut after seeing the Assassin's Creed-style unreadable mess of icons. And while these tasks often yield rewards, including XP, it just feels to unnecessary. Which is kind of true, given that I got through the game fine without doing anything but the most convenient extras, and didn't find a +2 damage Polished Barrel to affect my capacity to kill folks all that much. So why's any of it there at all? Rise has a very pressing, dire narrative, and is a joy when you're moving around and exploring the gorgeous environments. Constant IU flashes (10XP!!!) only serve as an intrusion and gum up the works. Having to pause the game and look at a static menu screen to hear picked-up audio logs (already a bit of a lazy, all too convenient way to shove more story into your game) kills momentum, tension, excitement. You just have to stare at a render of a tape recorder if you want to know why the big bad bleeds from his hands. The story handles the necessary, telegraphed third act turn to the supernatural well, but generally suffers from a glossing over. The Burberry-clade arm of Trinity trying to beat Lara to the punch are well-acted, but pretty one-dimensional (even with everything wrapped up in explanatory audio logs). An entire society isolated in the Siberian wilderness speaks perfect English. It's perfunctory Hollywood boilerplate, down to the set up for the sequel, but competently done. Worth noting: I ran into an odd problem late in the game where enemies would disappear. First right before me when I was swinging an ice axe at them as if Lara did so with enough force to banish them from this plane of existence, but then sometimes they'd vanish completely on their own. Once this locked me in a room because whatever needed to trigger to open the door couldn't and I had to restart (not losing much progress), while it also happened during the game's final boss fight, which was anticlimactic. The loss of XP from these tactical Houdinis might impact games on harder difficulty settings where the leveling and crafting system could prove more necessary, though on normal I got to a point where I didn't even care to spend my skill points. That excess is a problem shared with the last Tomb Raider, which bills itself (and thematically tries to be) a survivalist game, but simply isn't. It's a bit goofy ruining the beautiful colors of the world by constantly jamming down the "survival instincts" button to light up objects of interest and clambering around to strip trees of their boughs. Eventually I stopped going out of my way to pick up trash, yet I still always had ammo and arrows. Crafting, skill trees, open-world-style quests: it just feels like bloat. Busy work. And it isn't consistent with the story. Moving around, on the other hand, is sublime. It is odd, though. There's an animation for when Lara is pushed up against a short, maybe knee-high lip; pressing the jump button has her labor up it a bit. Yet if you push the jump button otherwise, she will leap clean four feet into the air like a cat. That amusing inconsistency aside, Lara's movement animations are all so fluid and impressive. If she barely makes a jump, she can slip and fall if you don't press a button. But rather than her needing to get a grip be a recurring quick-time event, it organically happens every time you barely snag a ledge. This means you can tell if that prompt is about to come up and can preemptively push it, and Lara will secure her grip and you can continue about fluidly climbing around. It's a good bit of adding interaction to the platforming without having to pre-plan bits of structure that will start to crumble when you grab them. Rise of the Tomb Raider is better than its predecessor, but only because of its additions; it doesn't fix any of the things that were wrong with Tomb Raider (2013). The story is smoothed down, much of it hidden away in dull audio logs. It's not about "survival" as billed, given the ease of mowing down dozens of folks and plenty of resources. But finding tombs wherein to clamber about ancient Rube Goldberg machines, coupled with the gorgeous visual flair and diverse environments, make Rise's wilderness one worth exploring and elevate Tomb Raider's otherwise perfunctory take on the third-person action platformer. I still get a strong sinking feeling in my stomach when I've misjudged a jump and watch Lara careening towards a splat. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tomb Raider review photo
Get to know 'er
I sometimes forget that Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981. Its breezy pulp adventure quality carries only obvious signifiers of its era (like, Nazis), and the repetition of these tropes act as enough hand waving to the...

Review: Fallout 4

Nov 09 // Chris Carter
Fallout 4 (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Bethesda Game StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksMSRP: $59.99Released: November 10, 2015 [Light spoilers below in the first two paragraphs for the first 30 minutes of the game] With Fallout 4, Bethesda returns to the "where is my family member" storyline that began with the great search for Liam Neeson back in 2008. You'll have a brief opportunity to take in pre-apocalypse life with your family (the day the bombs dropped, on October 23, 2077), then it's off to the Vault, where you will stay, frozen in hyper-sleep, for 200 years. Upon waking up, you're off on a Mel Gibson Ransom-esque quest to find your son. The slight twist of unloading your character 200 years into the future makes for an interesting premise, but it never really fully commits. Often times you'll encounter residents who are confused and "can't believe" that you're from the old world, but those conversations quickly devolve into the matter at hand or another questline. On the other side of the coin, since the world your avatar (male or female) experiences is new, there is no need to play past games in the series outside of knowing the ins and outs of a few bits of lore fluff here and there. Even then, concepts are reexplained with reckless abandon. [End intro spoilers] Without spoiling anything further, the main narrative is generally weaker than most of the side storylines, which isn't anything particularly new with Fallout. Players will start off doing odd jobs for various wastelanders, recruiting new companions and making enemies along the way, with a few twists and turns at the tale's midpoint. Eventually, you'll come across forms of synthetic life, which serves as the crux of a core piece of the story. Again, Bethesda's writing team never fully commits to this concept, and it's kind of just there, with a few "gotcha" moments meant to elicit a response with mixed results. For those who are curious, yes, faction-divergent storylines and endings are possible. Just like in the past, most of your excitement will come from roaming around the wasteland on your own, discovering new abodes and secrets, which is far easier to do in Fallout 4. Small additions like playable retro games make discovery that much more meaningful, along with all of the coveted bobbleheads and comic books strewn about the overworld. The map is so huge and so diverse that there's a new secret boss or location waiting at every turn, and the addition of 12 total companions helps mix things up a bit. [embed]318096:60994:0[/embed] The companion system has been enhanced slightly, as it is now possible to issue basic fetch or interaction commands by clicking on their person, and clicking on an object -- you can also send them to a desired location after parting instead of leaving them to their own devices. It's very rudimentary, but it's a marked improvement. The main narrative clocks in at roughly 15 hours, but players could likely spend well over 100 in a single playthrough and still not find everything. Despite the puffing up of id Software's involvement with the combat systems though, it's relatively the same song and dance. While it is still possible to engage in active combat with an ADS mechanic, the V.A.T.S. aiming system, which pauses your game and allows players to target specific body parts, is still king. Often times I'd waste ammo shooting directly at a foe's head doing little damage, only to switch back to V.A.T.S. and score a one-hit kill headshot. Bethesda has tried to make it a tad more action-oriented with "critical shots" that can be used every so often, but it feels like a half-measure. The good news is if you loved Fallout's combat before, you'll feel right at home. Speaking of homes, housing situations are enhanced thanks to the new home building mechanic. Now instead of finding makeshift diners to camp out at, and storing knick-knacks in random drawers, players can hold a button to bring up a Sims-style crafting system, complete with furniture, power grids, and practical elements like workstations. Even if you're not all that into creating things, it's still quite useful for small quality-of-life additions, like an extra bed to recover life in, and so on. Having said that, there is a caveat -- inventory management is still a pain using the Pip-Boy. To build objects, you'll need to acquire individual elements such as "ceramics," which can be a coffee cup for instance, or "glass," such as a Nuka Cola bottle. The Pip-Boy UI still displays things like an unmanageable list, so it's really tough to see what you have on hand without spending tons of time in menu screens. The same principle goes for weapons and armor. It's doable, but it's annoying. Power armor is also completely revamped, and I'm torn as to its implementation. For one, you can't just "equip" power armor pieces and call it a day. It's now an item or a power-up of sorts that you actually get into, and need to constantly fuel with a specific power source. If you're out of fuel, the suit walks slowly and it's nigh impossible to actually get anywhere. In theory, the idea of building and using your own armor sounds cool, but it's very limited, and there were very few occasions where I'd actively want to go back to a location, grab my suit, and venture out. In fact I'd burn through fuel so quickly that I just said "screw it" most of the time, as it actively stifles exploration. The perk system is probably one of the biggest changes, all said. Perks are now acquired by way of a huge grid with lovable Vault Boy animations, and the possibilities allow for an essentially unlimited amount of leveling. Players can also put points directly into SPECIAL stats (which impact things like conversational ability and carrying capacity) if they wish. It's such a small thing, to make everything so visual, but it actively fueled my quest to acquire more experience and attain more perks, some of which drastically alter gameplay -- like the power to swim openly without gaining radiation sickness. At this point, you're probably aware of Bethesda's history with shipping buggy open-world games by now. If you were hoping that somehow a generational leap would magically buck that trend, prepare to be disappointed. Nearly every classic glitch is accounted for, including occasional save data issues, repeated dialogue, frameskipping, severe frame-rate drops, pop-in, falling through the floor, and so on. For those of you who are used to this with the past work, it's par for the course -- for everyone else who doesn't put up with it, nothing has changed. I should also note that while visual issues were persistently present in the Xbox One edition (reviewed here), I only ran into full-on game crashing twice during my travels. Given how glitchy it is, I can only speculate as to whether or not there will be any game-breaking bugs that completely halt progress, but it seems very likely. After spending over 40 hours with the game, I can safely place it somewhere in the middle of Fallout 3 and New Vegas in terms of quality. A lot of the franchise's signature problems have carried over directly into Fallout 4, but all of its charms have come along for the ride as well. It manages to do a whole lot right, but the story drags at times, and glitches...glitches never change. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fallout 4 review photo
Like war, Fallout games never change
My first introduction to the Fallout series was in 1997, with Interplay's wonderfully open and unique strategy RPG titles. So when Fallout 3 first dropped from Bethesda years later, I was taken aback by a lot of the concessio...

Review: The Age of Decadence

Nov 06 // Patrick Hancock
The Age of Decadence (PC)Developer: Iron Tower StudioPublisher: Iron Tower StudioMSRP: $29.99Release Date: October 14, 2015  The plot of Age of Decadence largely depends on decisions the player makes. While this is par for the course for many RPGs, I want to stress how committed the developers are to this concept. There are decisions within the first half hour of the game that can completely remove characters and their quest lines from the game. In fact, I took one of the first situations pretty lightheartedly, only to have my character's mentor completely removed from the city. I quickly understood the tone set thereafter. There is no shortage of heavy decisions, either. Many times RPGs will pester the player with small-time decisions before laying on an obvious game-changing decision. Age of Decadence throws game-changer after game-changer at the player, and forced me to pull back and contemplate my options many times. There is a lot of gray area in these decisions as well, which even makes going "cruel and evil" or "pure and good" somewhat difficult. Instead of aligning between good and evil, players are more often forced to choose between the many "houses" and alliances already established within the world. Personally, I backstabbed just about anyone dumb enough to trust me, and switched alliances quite frequently. Other players may do the exact opposite and stay with one of the first leaders they come across. The game is truly what the players make of it. Likewise, the gameplay can alter drastically based on decisions the player makes. For example, as I tend to do in RPGs, I made my character a wise-talking son-of-a-bitch. I talked my way out of every fight I came across. Well, okay, sometimes I said the wrong thing and ended up fighting, but after dying almost immediately every time, I simply loaded up the most recent autosave and tried again. Regardless, thanks to my persuasion, streetwise, charisma, impersonate, and lore skills all being high, I was able to smooth-talk and flirty-wink my way past any aggressors I came across.  [embed]318681:61024:0[/embed] Those who choose to go down a more combat-oriented route are in for an almost completely different game. Just as I melodiously coerced my foes to listen to my brilliance, players can brute force their way to the end. Combat works on a turn-based grid, similar to many strategy RPGs. A character's stats and equipment are the deciding factors that go into miss percentage, movement turns, damage, criticals, and so on. In addition to weapon attacks, there are many status effects like bleeding or immobilized to spice things up mid-fight. Combat can feel a bit clunky at times, which is largely a result of the whole game being a bit rough around the edges. The bottom line is that the combat works as it should, once the player understands how the numbers affect the outcome. Death is permanent, but the game does a great job of creating a ton of auto-saves to make sure the player never loses too much progress. When fighting, death may come quickly for those unprepared, and some of the death animations are pretty slick. Each situation even has a small death blurb for the player to read, and they are genuinely interesting, even knowing that it means the player's character has been ruthlessly murdered in some way. Combat scenarios are often extremely difficult. There are a lot of stats to spread out points between, and players who are going a more hybrid route may find themselves dead in a lot of scenarios. Players are first given an opportunity to escape an encounter through words, but if the various speaking skills don't have enough stats in them, that will fail. Then, occasionally there's another way out, like brewing a potion or crafting something. Again, if the player doesn't excel at this, it will fail. Then, there's combat. Occasionally players will have help in battles, but there still needs to be a solid base of skills and stats to succeed. For those planning on spreading out their statistical focus, I'd recommend looking at online guides to prevent future headaches.  While part of me loves that there are so many ways to customize a character, it can get very confusing and frustrating. I knew I wanted to specialize in speech, but there are a handful of areas that affect it. Persuasion, impression, streetwise, lore, and etiquette can all factor in to talking your way out of a situation, but not every skill is always useful. In some situations, persuasion and streetwise are necessary while in others, just etiquette will be enough. It's impossible to know what is more important, so the only solution, to the player, is to spread them out evenly between them.  For anyone worried about the breadth of content: don't be. Due to the choices the player must make, it's impossible to see everything the game has to offer in a single playthrough. Just judging from the achievements available, I've only seen a portion of the content available within the game. Considering how different one playthrough can be from another, it doesn't feel like a slog to go through the game a second time; yes, many of the big events share commonalities, but there are still huge branching paths available to the player all throughout.  The quest design is a lot stronger than typical RPGs. Every quest has some weight to it, even if its not immediately apparent. Exploring some cave could lead to the discovery of a device long since forgotten, or talking with an outpost leader could lead to your next big betrayal. It's crucial to always read the well-written dialogue carefully! There are no quest markers, so if a quest says to talk to somebody, you better remember where they are! Players can fast travel from the very beginning, which took me a while to realize, so there's little downtime in between objectives. The graphic fidelity of Age of Decadence is, well, not great. Just as the gameplay hearkens back to the classic games of decades past, so do the visuals. The animations are hit-and-miss, as it's not uncommon to see every single stationary townsfolk scratch their leg at the same exact time, but as I've mentioned, some of the death animations are extremely well done. The music, on the other hand, is wonderful. Appropriately supporting the fantasy setting and giving powerful moments that much more "oomph," the soundtrack hits all the right notes.  Age of Decadence is an RPG to its core. It offers the player a wealth of choices, many of them carrying lofty consequences along with them. The core design element of player choice transcends simple dialogue choices, as players can progress through the game in a variety of styles. Many games offer up the illusion of choice while failing to actually deliver, but Age of Decadence serves up difficult and tangible crossroads with no looking back. It may have some rough spots, but it is one of the most well-designed RPGs I have had the pleasure of enjoying. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Age of Decadence review photo
Deliciously decadent
The Age of Decadence has been in development for quite some time. Hell, I listed it in my indies game list from 2013! Since then, I've been remembering that it exists every once and a while, only to find out it was still...

Review: Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth

Nov 06 // Nic Rowen
Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth (PC)Developer: Nicalis, Edmund McMillenPublisher: NicalisMSRP: $9.99 (DLC),  $24.99 (Bundle with Rebirth)Released: November 4, 2015 Afterbirth's “back of the box” bullet points are impressive – 120 new items, new level variations for every floor, a pack of new bosses and enemies, a new character, and an entirely new game mode to round it off - but those numbers only tell half of the story (maybe only a quarter). Any game can just add a bunch of new stuff, a crate of duplicate items, a pack of palette-swap enemies, a few coats of paint on some old levels, whatever. What makes Afterbirth so special isn't just how many new little doodads have been dropped into the game, but how perfectly the new additions entwine themselves into the experience. How they fit right in, but at the same time dramatically warp and twist the classic Isaac experience into an entirely new entity. Afterbirth takes a lot of risks to introduce new wrinkles and mechanics. Almost every new item does something wild, or weird, or aggravating. The Glass Cannon lets you fire a powerful mega shot every few seconds, at the cost of depleting your health down to a perilous single half-heart. The Fruitcake randomly changes the type of tears you fire with every shot, constantly shuffling between spread shots, homing tears, holy bolts, and the occasional randomly exploding fire shot (always a treat when you’re not expecting it). Items like the Scalpel, an infinite use ability that lets you make portal style tunnels between two points (either in the same room or different ones) complete changes the way you approach room exploration and some boss fights. Things like the occasional “Item Recycler” in an item room that will let you pay coins to change the offered item to another random selection, lets you make smarter, more interesting choices about how you play. This isn’t just “more stuff;” it’s all different, surprising, and exciting stuff. As someone who spent an ungodly amount of time with the original game, one of the things I've enjoyed the most about Afterbirth is finding new combinations and synergies with old items. There is more of an emphasis on layering and blending items rather than just replacing them in this expansion. An old standby like Mom's Knife can now be combined with the laser beam spewing classic Brimstone to create a spray of butcher knives that will travel across the screen. Or a mix of old and new, like the freshly introduced Incubus pet, a little demon that will mirror Isaac's tear effects, combined with a traditionally poor item like Soy Milk to scrub a room clean with hundreds of tiny, but rapid, tears. Further encouraging fresh experimentation with old items are a slew of new transformation effects. Collecting certain items that belong in the same set will result in a character-changing new look and a bonus ability or two. Rebirth only had two transformations (including the much beloved Guppy transformation that would change Isaac into brokenly powerful manifestation of his dead cat). Afterbirth comes correct with nine entirely new transformations to mutate poor Isaac. The effects of these transformations are weaker on average than the Guppy buff, but are sourced from item pools that are far more common, including several junky items. It's a smart change, instead of being monomaniacally focused on becoming Guppy, there are now potential advantages to picking up so-called dud items, encouraging smart play with a long-term vision. Or they can just serve as a consolation prize for a few limp item rolls. The new boss enemies follow the same philosophy, not just “new,” but “new and different.” Some of them are entirely fresh Afterbirth originals, while others are revamps of classic monsters. All of them are humongous jerks (often to the point of feeling overly difficult and imbalanced compared to the original cast of bosses) and they're all pitching curve balls. Even lightweights like Little Horn, a mere first floor boss, introduce crazy new tricks. He's a diminutive imp who spontaneously creates cartoon black holes for you to fall in which he'll try to herd you towards with slow moving tracking shots like a devilish sheep dog. Bigger bosses (telling would be spoiling) get even crazier, assaulting Isaac with entirely new mechanics as well as blatantly unfair levels of firepower. One particularly crazy fight involves a boss that will buff himself and summon allies if you don't destroy the icons he is constantly spiting out, making it a frantic race to stay on top of them before things gets out of hand. The new fights are wacky, crazy, and occasionally frustrating, but most of all, they're all fresh. Greed Mode, introduced in Afterbirth, turns the traditional Isaac dungeon exploration experience into a much more tightly focused, wave-based horde mode. I like to think of it as Isaac for the person who only has 15 minutes. Get in, kill a few waves, get some money, try to cobble together a build, and get out (by death or by victory) before your lunch break is over. I don't know if it will have a ton of staying power, but it is a fun alternative to getting deep and dirty in the basement. New floor variants and room layouts keep things fresh. Themed floors like the Burning Basement or Dank Depths have their own flavor, unique obstacles, enemies, and (universally killer) soundtracks. There are plenty of new room types, varying in all manner of size, shape, and hazard, making the dungeon crawl feel more natural and less like moving through a grid. Many of these layouts introduce new trap and puzzle elements, confronting players with spike floors that rise and lower in alternating patterns and need to be shut down by pressing different buttons, or explosive TNT chambers that need to be set off in the right order to avoid damage. Again, smart and exciting. There are also innumerable smaller changes to go into, some of which are obvious niceties (like expanded HUD options to display collected items without pausing) while others you can't discuss without sounding like a crazy person to non-Isaac nuts. Little things like “Devil Deal rooms will convert to soul heart prices automatically if you sell your last red heart!” or “the co-op baby can place bombs again, hallelujah!” I know, it sounds like gibberish, but to the diehard Isaac fanbase, these are big deals and welcome changes. Like many roguelikes, Isaac has always had a slightly masochistic bent. I've always said that the unforgiving and random nature of the game is something you have to lean into, have to embrace to really enjoy Isaac. Sadly, Afterbirth takes that bent and presses on it until it breaks, reaching a peak of difficulty that has even an roguelike-apologist like me throwing up my hands in frustration on a regular basis. For every clever, interesting, and fresh idea Afterbirth has, it also has some dickish, spiteful, little aggravation to throw at you as well. Those handy item room recyclers I mentioned earlier? Sure, you could get one of those in an item room, or you could get an item surrounded by spikes, or a “bonus” room infested with monsters, what a cute joke! Those new rooms and traps? Neat, until you wind up in a boss room the size of a closet with TNT barrels or spike blocks in all four corners, have fun with that! The new bosses? Sure, they all have new and clever mechanics, but many of them also flood the screen with nearly unavoidable shots and a legion of minions in addition to whatever fresh hell they're also bringing. I imagine the idea was to challenge seasoned players with this expansion, to push the skills of hardcore Isaac players to their upper limits. But the difficulty in Afterbirth goes so far it loops back around on itself, ending up with a game that feels more luck based than ever. In Rebirth, I used to feel that any run, no matter how unlucky, could be saved by smart play and excellent dodging. In Afterbirth, I’ve had several rounds that felt so hopelessly stacked against me that instead of galvanizing me to play better, they just demoralized me into throwing in the towel, hoping for better items in the next run. That's not a great way to feel after 200 hours of experience in a game. The nastiness of the difficulty spike leaves me in an uncomfortable position with this review. I think that the vast majority of changes made in Afterbirth are superb. The astounding creativity of the new items, modes, and rooms is flat out inspiring, as is the sheer amount of new additions. Afterbirth has found ways to significantly add to and improved on a game that I already considered to be a nearly flawless. I don't want to diminish that accomplishment at all - in a perfect world, this is what all DLC would be like. I'm still having tons of fun with the game and I'll probably be playing it for another hundred hours or so, but I'd be lying if I said I was having as much fun with Afterbirth as I did with Rebirth. It found my limit. You should absolutely play Afterbirth. If you're already an Isaac diehard, or someone fresh to the genre, Afterbirth has hours upon hours of genuine joy in store for you. But you should know it will also have moments of soul-annihilating frustration. Maybe that's the price for flying so close to perfection. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Afterbirth review photo
Deal with the Devil
The Binding of Isaac has always been a game of contradictions to me. It's both a game that embraces the fickleness of chance and the purity of skill. That encourages you to play around, explore, and experiment, but also rewar...

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Nov 06 // Chris Carter
Call of Duty: Black Ops III (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Treyarch (PC, PS4, Xbox One), Beenox/Mercenary Technology (PS3, Xbox 360)Publisher: ActivisionMSRP: $59.99Released: November 6, 2015 I'm just going to get right into it -- this is the weakest campaign yet from Treyarch. Right from the start you can see what it's going for, and things get way too heavy-handed and exposition-laden without actually saying anything. There's lots of talk about a "new Cold War" in the future, and after rescuing an Egyptian minister after an uprising in Cairo, it's off to the races. There's plenty of Terminator-esque "Man vs. Machine" going on with the 2065 backdrop and a touch of surrealism, but all of it has been seen before and done better. To boot, none of the characters are memorable or compelling in any way, and the dialogue is the most generic it's ever been. Part of it is because you're now "The Player" (male or female) instead of someone like Modern Warfare's Soap MacTavish, a character you can somewhat connect with while you're playing. You're kind of just there, and the relationships with each cast member never really have a chance to flourish across all 11 missions. Treyarch seems to have a knack for historical narratives, but I'm not really buying its grimdark sales pitch here. Now, that doesn't mean that the campaign is all bad. The powers that be have now implemented a system where you can choose any mission you want, right from the start, without having played any prior stages. That way if you get bored and want to see the ending, you can skip right to the end. Additionally, the hub center where you can switch your abilities, weapons, and loadout around is convenient, as is the progression system with full XP rewards to encourage multiplayer playthroughs. There's also an arena-based "combat immersion" center to test weapons out in, which looks a lot like Metal Gear's VR missions. [embed]318891:61008:0[/embed] Split-screen play (for two players) is also in, as is online play for the story, on top of a "Nightmare mode" that remixes every level with undead foes. With the recent removal of split-screen from Halo 5, support for multiple players on the same console is a breath of fresh air. Yes, the framerate does suffer as a result of playing couch co-op, but I'm very glad it's there, and that Treyarch is still actively pushing for it. Hell, LAN play is even supported on consoles -- in 2015, that's pretty damn rare. Now, we get to the good stuff -- all the other modes besides the campaign. Although light, the Freerun gametype is a cool way to show off all of the new mechanics (wallrunning and the toned-down jetpack). It's only playable solo and has a scant four maps, but it's really reminiscent of Mirror's Edge's abstract DLC packs, which were my favorite part of the game. Plus, it has leaderboards, which are a major plus for a mode like this. I don't want to spoil much, but the Smash TV-like Dead Ops Arcade is back, and it's better than it was before. Of course, it wouldn't be a Treyarch game without zombies, and I think it's assembled the best cast, alongside of the most interesting setting to date. I'm talking Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Ron Perlman, and Neal McDonough in a Lovecraftian noir city unique. Seeing Goldblum play a washed-up scumbag magician is a treat, and the actors really give it their all for this new chapter of the zombie saga, "Shadows of Evil." While I did appreciate the campaign tie-in for Advanced Warfare's zombie mode, I like where this particular setting is going, and I hope it can keep this same cast going forward. It's also the most fully-featured from a gameplay perspective, with customizable weapon loadouts, individual upgrades, and a leveling system. You can also change up your "Gobblegum Gumballs," which are like miniature $500 soda machines that grant temporary perks. It's a tiny little thing, but it really helps you play the way you want, which is only a recent concept for zombies. In terms of secrets I think this is going to be the most challenging one yet for the community, as a lot of it hinges on changing into the "beast" (read: a Cthulian creature) to unlock specific areas and bonuses. I've spent nearly 15 hours in Shadows of Evil alone and I feel like I've only scratched the surface. What the campaign lacks in personality, zombies makes up for in spades, and that principle also goes for multiplayer. Now players will choose a "specialist," when playing traditional multiplayer, which operates a lot like a unique character skin, with an added ability in tow. For instance, the robot "Reaper" has access to a minigun power-up that comes out of his arm, or a skill that creates non-lethal clones of himself to run around the battlefield. One dude even looks like The Fury from Snake Eater, complete with a flamethrower special. They clearly had a lot of fun designing these creations, and it plays that way. Most of the powers feel balanced, especially when you consider the fact that they can only be used once you earn enough meter for them, which is typically only one or two times per match. This is on top of the classic scorestreak rewards -- but since those reset your meter upon death and the specialist powers don't, it's a way for casual players to engage without feeling like they're never earning anything. Wallrunning also adds a new depth to arenas (of which there are 12 at launch), where specific chokepoints can be circumvented by traversing raised platforms on the sides of some bases. Likewise, swimming, as simple of a mechanic as it is, bids a welcome return from Advanced Warfare, with a lot more freedom in terms of movement and combat. Those of you who found Advanced's crazy twitch movement system to be too frenetic will be pleased to hear that it's been toned down for Black Ops III, as the jetpack is now essentially a double jump, or a slide boost, and that's it. While I did like airdashing and all of the craziness that the last iteration entailed, I'm happy that each game has a distinctly different feel to it. Multiplayer has been overhauled from a features standpoint too, as there's now full support for streaming (including a cavalcade of spectator options), arena ranked playlists with seasons, and an even more convenient instant menu option for perma-muting anyone outside of your party. There have been hundreds of people populating Black Ops III's servers during this testing period without issues, but if anything changes we'll provide updates as needed on the front page. At this point, at least two of the Call of Duty developers (Treyarch and Sledgehammer), have it figured out. They now have a three-year development cycle, which means that technically, each individual game is not a rushed "annual" iteration. While the campaign could certainly be a lot stronger, Black Ops III is living proof of that concept. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Call of Duty review photo
Zombies...uh...zombies, find a way
Call of Duty campaigns are some of the most inconsistent storylines in all of gaming. While some entries are content with wowing you on a constant basis with new setpieces and unique sequences, a number of them (Ghosts&n...

Review: Yo-Kai Watch

Nov 04 // Chris Carter
Yo-Kai Watch (3DS)Developer: Level-5Publisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: July 11, 2013 (Japan), November 6, 2015 (US), TBA 2016 (EU) For those of you who have never heard of Yo-Kai Watch, its premise is actually quite easy to explain. The gist is that a boy named Nate (or a girl named Katie, if you opt for the female lead), unleashes a mysterious Yo-Kai butler out into the world (Whisper) after an innocent stroll in the woods. As a result, Nate gains access to a special watch that allows him to interact with other Yo-Kai, which are part of actual Japanese folklore, and are a mix of sorts between a spirit and a gremlin. From there, you'll embark upon a "catch 'em all" style journey with a loose storyline woven in for good measure. Everything, from the tone down to the gameplay, is a lot more lighthearted than your average RPG. Instead of catching characters and forcing them into tiny living spaces, you'll obtain "friendship tokens," which allow you to summon them at a moment's notice. They still lead their own lives, and you'll often find them roaming around town at their leisure. The fact that the voice cast consists of the same talent from the TV show really adds to the game's charm, and I adore the dynamic between the protagonist and Whisper -- it makes for some surprisingly funny dialogue. Yo-Kai Watch doesn't technically take place in Japan (it's even called Springdale in the international version), but said country's personality is most definitely a core element of the adventure. Even little things like shoes being left at the door of every house you enter, temples and shrines with stray cats, and vending machines on every street corner constantly remind you of Japanese culture. Having visited Tokyo recently for the first time, I really resonated with it, and I was surprised at how alive Level-5's rendition felt. It's done in such a way where anyone can pick up the game and not get confused, and the localization did a great job of not neutering the content for a western audience. It's one of the best balancing acts I've seen as of late, actually -- when a team keeps in dancing toweled men in a bathhouse boss fight, you know they did the right thing. [embed]317946:60945:0[/embed] Do note that this is a game from 2013 however, so while the art still holds up, the engine is very dated, and despite the spot-on 3D, it looks like a DS game. You'll quickly get over that fact as the presentation as a whole is delightful, with bright, vivid colors galore and a catchy soundtrack. I also started to get attached to a lot of the characters in a way that I haven't before in similar games, mostly due to their infectious personalities and engaging personal storylines -- like Jibanyan, a cat that was ran over by a car and is constantly trying to prove his worth to his former master in death. As for combat itself, it's a very odd mix of classic JRPG tendencies and touchscreen-based minigames. The operative word here is "odd," because while combat is real-time, your party members will attack automatically. Players can control item management, choose targets, and queue up occasional special abilities (by tapping balls on the screen or tracing specific patterns), but your party members will still attack at their own leisure. It sounds overly simplistic, but there's a lot of nuance to it particularly when it comes to party management. For starters, you can have six Yo-Kai in your active team, but only three can fight at a time. As a result, you'll have access to a wheel of sorts where players can cycle new combatants in, and spin old ones out. Since each character has a type (similar to Pokémon's fire and grass elements, for example), and similar types power each other up when they're in combat together, this mechanic can get really tricky both in and out of fights. Also, a lot of character's specials (which again, you can engage manually) have unique status effects, like poison, so choosing when to act is key. Where I got most of my enjoyment out of Yo-Kai Watch however is exploration. It really reminds me of the best parts of Mega Man Battle Network when it comes to roaming around town, and it's so easy to just walk around and hunt Yo-Kai at any time. To find them, you don't need to walk around in grass patches, as they're openly located around the world. There's a perpetual "hot and cold" radar up on the screen at all times, leading you to locations like trees and underneath cars where you can search for companions or battles. Additionally, dungeons display enemies front and center on the screen -- yep, there's no random battles to sift through. There's no barriers to entry for recruiting party members either, as you don't need a specific capture item, though there is still a random chance of befriending them after the battle is concluded, so success isn't always guaranteed. There's also tons of fun, rewarding sidequests to participate in (that often bestow good rewards like new characters or shops), secret areas, fishing and bug catching minigames, special Yo-Kai to catch, post-game quests, and hidden items. There is a multiplayer battle component but it's very limited, and doesn't feature online play (that ability is reserved for the sequel and beyond). Yo-Kai Watch isn't the second coming of Pokémon, and that's perfectly okay. If you love to sit by the fire and train your Pokémon for hours, perfecting their EV and IV levels so you can be the very best, you likely won't find the same depth in Yo-Kai. Its world and philosophy is much simpler than that. But as a result, none of it feels frustrating or like work, and I'm constantly tempted to jump back into my adventures with Nate and Whisper. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Yo-Kai Watch review photo
Gera Gera Po
Over the course of the last month, I've gone from knowing next to nothing about Yo-Kai Watch to falling in love with it. My wife and I watch the localized version of the show, I have the theme song stuck in my head perpe...

Review: Need for Speed

Nov 03 // Chris Carter
Need for Speed (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ghost GamesPublisher: Electronic ArtsMSRP: $59.99Released: November 3, 2015 As you may have heard, Need for Speed is an online-centric game, and jumping in from the title screen will place you into a multiplayer lobby, similar to GTA Online. Thankfully, you can play fully solo if you want. For the most part, online play has been rather sound (with a large pool of EA Access players available), minus a few small hiccups like another person spawning on top of my car and some minor frame-skipping when players are connecting. Most of them are amusing, and not really game-breaking in any way. The story this time is...a bit like a Fast & Furious movie, before they turned into the entertaining heists they are today. Speed utilizes an age-old technique of live-action FMVs to progress its narrative, with real actors playing both the digitized and cinematic renditions of themselves. Now, I like silly popcorn storylines as much as the next guy, but this one is a lot of white noise. Said FMVs also aren't integrated directly into gameplay in a unique way -- they're just cutscenes, and don't segue seamlessly into the in-game engine. You play the part of a young kid who has just been invited to a local street racing event. Much like Paul Walker in the first Fast film, you'll join a crew, and slowly work your way up the ranks to earn REP (experience) and progress through the storyline. Said crew involves a female mechanic with an attitude, a fast and loose crew leader, and your personal best friend, Spike, a trust-fund kid who lives for danger. Uh, yeah. Need for Speed tries to introduce "memorable" characters by having them all do quirky things after meeting them, but the performances never really sell it. It's cool that they periodically call you up, and you can place a name to their face (plus, a lot of effort went into the FMVs themselves in terms of locations and extras), but I've already forgotten who most of them are as I type out this review. The heavy emphasis on tweets, hashtags, and social media doesn't help elevate the tone, either.  [embed]318070:60920:0[/embed] When it comes to the in-game visuals on the other hand, I'm torn. The actual street and cars look great, but structures don't have a lot of detail. Ghost Games boasts that the map is twice as big as Rivals, but I didn't really notice since a lot of locales looked the exact same. The game is locked in at 30 frames per second on consoles, which is disappointing (as is the lack of split-screen support), but like past titles I didn't have any issues acclimating. For those who are interested in what type of music plays on the radio, here's an example of the musical stylings you can expect from Speed -- again, like the engine, it's hit or miss. Gameplay-wise, Speed does a great job of accommodating both veterans and casual fans alike. It's mostly an arcade-style racer, with tight handling and simplistic driving conditions, but players can tweak cars individually to their liking, as well as customize loadouts. You can go as far as swapping out your hood, lights, mirrors, fenders, trunk, exhaust, license plate, wheels, side skirts, and more. What's great about Speed out of the gate is that there are apparently no plans for paid DLC or microtransactions, and every car is unlocked from the start -- provided you have the cash to buy them. Starting off, players can choose between a Honda Civic, a Ford Mustang, and a Subaru BRZ. From there, you'll work from $8,000 Volvos all the way up to $200,000 Ferraris. Cash is earned at a rather generous rate, so you can keep filling up your garage and customizing at will. It's sad that it's weird to see a AAA game these days without double XP Red Bull bonuses and microtransactions, but here you go. As you tear through the core story, you'll have plenty of activities to choose from, which is great news for when you start nodding off after the FMVs. There's daily challenges, a fully featured one-button snapshot and share mechanic, and hundreds of events to find all over the world. It's also really fun to just drive around aimlessly, as the game uses a Tony Hawk-like combo system that constantly earns you REP (along with multipliers) for doing dangerous things like reaching top speed, driving into incoming traffic, and triggering near misses. The longer your combo, the more REP you earn, so it gives you an incentive to play the way you want. Autolog, which shares your scores and allows you to compete with your friends constantly, is still a thing. When you factor in Need for Speed's forgettable story, you're left with a slightly above average racing game that's not as enjoyable as past series entries. From a pure gameplay perspective, it works, but it never manages to elevate itself. If you're in the mood for a new cinematic racer though, you could do a whole lot worse. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Need for Speed photo
Neither first, nor last
I can't believe Need for Speed has been around for over 20 years. I remember playing the initial entry on my PC for the first time, and I spent many an hour escaping cops in the first Hot Pursuit. But as the years went on, the Speed series had a bunch of ups and downs, with odd side stories alongside of core titles. The latest game falls somewhere in-between.

Review: Kingdom

Nov 02 // Steven Hansen
Kingdom (PC [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Noio, LicoricePublisher: Raw FuryMSRP: $9.99Released: October 21, 2015 (PC); 2016 (Xbox One) Kingdom takes the sprawling, granular nation-building of games like Civilization, stripping labyrinthine menus down to a button press. As a randomly generated King or Queen atop your horse, you can walk left or right, and sprint for as long as the horse's stamina allows. Otherwise, the only thing you can do is drop a coin from your purse.  You're versed in this simplified building with a brief tutorial section that encourages you to start a camp fire, hire two peasants (one coin recruits wandering souls into citizenship), buy a bow, buy a hammer, and build a wall on either side. Whichever citizen picked up the hammer will start building the wall while the archer starts shooting game, which will net you coins. Kingdom is completely hands-off from there.  It's possible to wander too far left or right by the time the first night hits, at which point you might get attacked by a crowd of malevolent, No-Face-looking creeps that'll bop your crown off your head and snatch it. So your kingdom goes. You didn't even last a night. Each run becomes as much about experiential learning, figuring out the systems, and this is where Kingdom shines. Deciding on the proper allocation of funds, or learning little tricks like rushing far into the wilderness to scare deer back towards your archers (they're worth three coins to the rabbits' one) for early gold gain. But then you've survived long enough to realize farms are the income-generator of the future and stock up on scythes. You've expanded so far there are hardly any deer left, anyways. [embed]318616:60960:0[/embed] While these moments of clarity are appreciated, Kingdom's hands-off approach can frustrate. I went weeks into a run (the day and night cycle is very quick) and expanded considerably, but the goblins' nighttime raids -- particularly the huge waves that occur every five nights -- kept utterly destroying my facilities, stealing my citizen's tools (removing them from their job) and coins (reverting them back to peasants, who need to be re-recruited for a coin). Later I would realize that it's because I didn't invest in the shrine I walked past deep in the woods (I couldn't afford it), which would grant my kingdom the knowledge of masonry and provide a host of stronger wall upgrades and the like. But while the inscrutability can grate, the biggest problem is the simulation not holding up to its scope once you've puzzled everything out. Kingdom's simplification eventually impeded me more than the massive night raids that early on feel somewhat unearned, like an asshole shaking your Etch-a-Sketch. Archers not stationed in towers, for example, all pool behind the nearest wall at night to shoot at incoming enemies. This means that once that one wall goes, you could lose clusters of dozens of archers, while all the other walls the enemy waves will slowly tear through are only protected by lone tower-mounted archers. And while it becomes apparent immediately there is a need to put yourself behind the kingdom's walls at night, the archer AI (and, later, knights) will frequently get themselves picked off by not being home before dark. Archers will often bunch of inappropriately, too; I've had had double the amount of archers on one monster-free end of the kingdom while the other was under attack. Once you know exactly what to do, the beginning bit of building out your kingdom feels pretty rote. Start with the next-furthest walls to get the inner set for free. Travel far left or right to make sure the masonry shrine is close, and probably the one that strengthens archers, too, or you're screwed. Hope that you don't get a weird load out where there's just no wildlife early on and no way to make money (happened once). Eventually I would consistently get to a point where I constantly had way more gold -- the sack literally over-flowing, coins falling into the river -- than I could use, yet still couldn't make any quicker headway on successfully "beating" the game because of the bottleneck caused by a lack of citizens and the quick day/night cycle compounded by my expanding kingdom length and limitations on the horse's stamina. You recruit peasants from outlying campsites, but expansion in either direction can destroy those sites, decreasing your stock of recruits. Plus, each site will only net you two folks per day. It can require a ton of time to replenish your forces after a big wave, thanks to flying enemies that can permanently kill citizens, just to have it happen again five days later. It takes some precision and failure to avoid a Sisyphean set up, but by that time the building becomes rote, the exploration is gone, and it becomes simply a gorgeous set of systems you're minding like a bean counter, except they're jumping beans. The lack of precision, then, caused by the stream-lining that is so laudable, becomes frustrating. While learning certain things feels like honest revelation, I too often felt like I was playing against the game, like when I'd force mounted archers out of their towers by starting new construction on them, because mounted archers won't hunt to generate profit, even though it becomes obvious there are no daytime threats. Or when I would try to start a new project nearer the city center to distract my engineers who were blithely heading out into the unprotected night into a swarm of pickpocket goblins to work on a further out project because I mistimed how long it would take them to get the cue and start walking all the way across the kingdom. Kingdom very cleverly reduces a complex genre down to something digestible, but that same simplification struggles against its later scope. When your land grows too wide, traveling end to end becomes a chore (it can waste entire day/night cycles), while getting to that point requires gaming somewhat imprecise AI. Losing it all after an hour basically means re-doing the early game the exact same way and finding a point of divergence, say, at the 50 minute mark that previously undid you. It's too much retreading as the simulation naturally caps how quickly you can return to prior strength regardless of accumulated knowledge. When all the arcane is teased out and the seams obvious, not even the beautiful score and gorgeous pixel reflection in the river can encourage me to execute the precise, efficient moves that would lead me to victory.  But while I wasn't so interested in mechanically performing the "correct" blueprint of success after I figured it out, the journey towards acquiring that knowledge was still worthwhile. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Nothing lasts photo
My horse, my horse...
I can remember building sandcastles in San Francisco's wonderfully-named Ocean Beach when I was young, armed with just one bucket with an embattled parapet mold to give the formations that distinct "castle" look, and another ...

Review: Poncho

Nov 02 // Laura Kate Dale
Poncho (Mac, PC [reviewed], Vita, Wii U)Developer: Delve InteractivePublisher: Rising Star GamesReleased: November 3 (PC, Mac), TBA (Vita, Wii U)MSRP:  $14.99, £10.99Rig: Intel Core i5-4690K @ 3.5 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, Windows 7 64-bit Having witnessed the end of the world, robotic protagonist Poncho sets out in search of a gigantic tower, in the hopes that tracking it down will allow the world to be saved. Poncho is a side scrolling, pixel art, 2D platformer with a twist. While parallax layers are generally only aesthetic, in Poncho you play an adorable robot who can leap at will between foreground and background environment layers. Jumps between layers take into account your vertical height. Momentum is conserved during the layer jump, so the challenge is getting yourself into the perfect gap at the perfect time. The biggest problem with Poncho, as well as the biggest strength it had going for it, is the way puzzles are designed to incorporate switching layers. When the puzzles work they are fantastic. Jumping off a foreground platform, timing your layer switch perfectly so you land on a background platform, continuing your movement to leap and mid-jump switch again to catch yourself in box, before switching forward one layer further to drop a small distance to safety. When layer switching puzzles are well thought out, they are a joy to play through.  [embed]318651:60965:0[/embed] When those puzzles fall apart in execution, the game tends to become a frustrating mess, where progress is arbitrarily slow, and lengthy twitch challenges are presented with minimal safety nets. Vertical jump puzzles that go on far too long, with failure resulting in starting from scratch. Horizontal jumping challenges where numerous platforms switch layers at differing speeds, without the ability to study all of them in advance of attempting the challenge. Solid platforms that incorrectly register as having been landed on, causing infinite falling loops. A good chunk of Poncho's level design stopped being inventive and ended up simply frustrating. Also of note, often Poncho feels like its reaction-based platforming and slow, methodical exploration gameplay are at odds. Keys hidden through the world need to be collected to progress, but often I missed hiding places in the world because I was too concerned with managing to complete a lengthy, safety net-free challenge. When the only chance to collect information on a puzzle is while half way through it, searching for progression-unlocking keys was the last thing on my mind. Ultimately I'm left at a little bit of a loss with Poncho. It's a great concept, and when it's working it's a great inventive challenge, but when it goes downhill, it put a huge damper on my experience as a whole. I wanted to like it, but it was tough given some of the rough puzzle and level designs on show. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Poncho review photo
Adorable concept, poor execution
The first time I played Poncho was at EGX around two years ago. Its unique visual identity, compelling set of gameplay mechanics, and endearing protagonist drew my attention among the crowd of other indie games playable at th...

Review: Mushihimesama

Nov 02 // Chris Carter
Mushihimesama (Arcade, PC [reviewed], PS3, iOS, Xbox 360)Developer: CavePublisher: Degica (PC)MSRP: $19.99Released: October 12, 2004 (Arcade), December 15, 2011 (iOS), November 5, 2015 (PC) Mushihimesama is translated to "Bug Princess" in English, which is an apt name as an insectoid theme permeates the shooter. You may play the role of a human girl, but you'll ride on a bug, blast other bugs, and take on gigantic, intimidating bug bosses. This unconventional theme (shmups usually feature traditional spaceships) helps set Mushihimesama apart from the pack immediately. Don't expect anything in the way of a narrative, though -- the story is once again rather throwaway in favor of focusing on the action (a princess races to find a cure for her village). Bug Princess was crafted after cave had nearly 10 years of development experience under its belt, and the enemy and bullet designs really reflect that. You may have seen this infamous video from the game's Xbox 360 sequel (Mushihimesama Futari). While players won't be taking on that exact same encounter, the game's harder difficulties can get similarly insane. For those of you who opt for lower settings however, the game plays out more like a bullet purgatory, with deliberate patterns that are manageable and direct across all five stages. Because ultimately, great shmups aren't just action games, they have elements of puzzle titles peppered in as well. While blowing things up and earning a high score is paramount, the way that Cave and its competitors design enemy patterns indicates a huge attention to detail, as they're not just strewn about for good measure, and always have a counter to them with specific degrees of movement. This is especially true for Mushihimesama, and I enjoyed relearning some patterns as well as giving my twitch skills a test with the PC release. Thankfully, this edition also features full two-player co-op (with drop-in support) if you want to bring another friend into the mix. [embed]318273:60921:0[/embed] As a port, Mushihimesama far exceeds the amount of effort that went into Playism's localization of Touhou 14. It's fully translated, there's options for 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios, full screen mode, screen rotation (for vertical monitors), fully customizable controls (for keyboards and controllers), and allowances for UI additions like arcade joysticks and buttons. Players can also tweak the difficulty before each session (original, maniac, and ultra), including the total ship count and the points required to earn an extra life. It's a limitation of the first game, but I wish there were more characters, and not just three variations of the same princess. The difficulty curve is perfect, as original is manageable even by casual fans, maniac significantly steps things up a bit in a way veterans will appreciate, and maniac, for once, earns the moniker. Almost immediately with the latter difficulty, you'll see regular enemies fill up the entire screen with giant bullet-curtain mazes, forcing players to use everything they've picked up from the genre to survive. Although it wasn't factored into this assessment, there's a V1.5 "Matsuri" DLC available for $4.99 at launch that essentially adds in a new arranged mode with a remixed soundtrack. It's a bit redundant to say as nearly every Cave shooter is a "must play" title, but Mushihimesama is required reading for shmup fans. Whether you're going at it solo or with a friend, on the highest difficulty setting or the lowest, Mushihimesama is incredibly easy to spend an afternoon with for years to come. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Mushihimesama photo
Bug Princess finally hits PC
I was lucky to have been introduced to Cave shooters at a young age. I had a friend who lived in Japan and had family there, so he'd just bring games back over and we'd play them. Most were ported from the arcades to the PS2,...

Review: Minecraft: Story Mode: Assembly Required

Nov 02 // Darren Nakamura
Minecraft: Story Mode: Assembly Required (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: October 27, 2015 (Mac, PC)MSRP: $4.99, $24.99 (Season Pass)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit The one big risk Telltale took with this episode was hinted at the end of The Order of the Stone. Depending on whether players choose to side with Olivia and seek out Ellegaard or to side with Axel and look for Magnus, the entire first act of the episode will play out totally differently. On the one hand, it's a bold step forward for Telltale, which is often criticized for touting its choice-based gameplay while delivering roughly the same story to everybody regardless of the decisions made. With the choice of Ellegaard vs. Magnus, the consequences were immediate and impactful, affecting a huge chunk of this episode. The final outcome might not be any different, but the journey certainly is. On the other hand, it provides for an experience uneven among players. The first half of the episode takes about 40 minutes to get through, and most people will only see one of the two segments. It stings a little because I chose to find Ellegaard, but was later led to believe that the Magnus section is the more entertaining of the two. If nothing else, it might convince me to start up a second save file just to see what I missed. [embed]318431:60938:0[/embed] Speaking of Ellegaard and Magnus, both characters are fairly unlikable. Ellegaard is haughty and aloof and Magnus is snide and combative. It creates a conflict between the two that might serve a narrative purpose in the future, but mostly just makes me wish I could have chosen neither of them right now. That turns out not to matter much, since both make an exit not long into the collective journey and bring the group back down to the core members again. Just when Story Mode threatens to feature a real, interesting human moment, the action leading to the episode's climax starts up, postponing the good stuff until a future episode. The cast continues to perform adequately. Each of the characters has his or her own distinct personality, and the actors deliver well enough. The writing is still falling flat for me. Things are happening, the narrative is progressing, but it's just not especially good yet. None of the jokes made me laugh. None of the drama made me think. After two episodes of Minecraft: Story Mode, I find myself struggling to care. It's a story and I am experiencing it, but that's the best I can muster. It's not bad enough that I'm dreading having to play three more episodes, but it's not good enough that I'm looking forward to it either. It could cease to exist and I would be utterly unfazed. There is some hope for the future of the series, as Assembly Required has planted some interesting seeds of what's to come, but it's not quite there yet. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Minecraft review photo
The story is building...
Telltale fans have grown accustomed to a two-to-four month wait between episodes. So when the studio surprise launched Assembly Required just two weeks after The Order of the Stone, it caught everybody off guard. Even though ...

Review: Sword Coast Legends

Oct 31 // Zack Furniss
Sword Coast Legend (PC[reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)Developer: n-Space, Digital ExtremesPublisher: Digital ExtremesMSRP: $39.99Released: October 20, 2015 (PC), 2016 (PS4, Xbox One) Let's skip past the initiative roll and go straight to the most baffling decision n-Space made. Dungeons & Dragons' 5th edition came out last year and has remained hugely popular since then. This leaves an opportunity for n-Space to both attract new fans and provide old fans with the oft-dreamed of digital stomping ground. It would be difficult to achieve, but if traditional D&D and Sword Coast Legends offered even a semblance of parity, people would be willing to forgo the magic of an evening's revelry with real friends in exchange for the convenience of playing online. Instead, there's an uncomfortable content divide. Even as you start creating a character, it feels like half of the game is missing. There are only 5 available races at launch, as opposed to the 9 that are in the Player's Handbook  (12 if we count the races added in the Elemental Evil Player's Guide). This feels even seedier when one of the first NPCs you meet in the single-player campaign is a Tiefling, one of the races that you can't choose. Likewise, only 6 out of 12 character classes are available. Tieflings are confirmed to be coming soon, but this piecemeal distribution feels seedy. For now, upcoming DLC will be free, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see future races and classes for sale. Once you get past your race and class, you'll choose your abilities from skill trees that don't match up with what you can choose in the pen-and-paper game. These abilities are used in an isometric, real-time combat system that feels like a somersault through tar. It falls somewhere in between the turn-based combat of Divinity: Original Sin and the instant gratification of Diablo. I generally don't mind slower combat but this could have been fairly titled Cooldown: The Game since you never have much more to do than wait for powerful attacks to be ready again. You can set it up to be a more tactical game by setting up different pause rules (such as pausing after every attack, or when a character dies), but since every enemy seems to have too many hit points, that doesn't feel much better. Most dungeons go on like this: your rogue searches ahead for traps and secret doors, you eventually encounter enemies, and you kill them with monotonous MMO-style combat. If you're lucky, you might have to solve a puzzle. If you're really lucky, said puzzle will make you think for fifteen seconds. Usually you're just matching runes to open doors, though there are a couple of tricky segments. These are never fun, just time-consuming. Did we really have to do the "turn off a 3x3 grid of lights" puzzle again? No! No! The single-player campaign isn't especially exciting, but the story is serviceable. Your character is a member of guild that's been plagued with bad dreams, and you'll battle monsters and demons across Faerûn and the Underdark. Curiously few dragons, though. Plot beats are predictable, but the cast of characters are entertaining enough to keep you going. Hommet, the cordial, sarcastic Necromancer, is a highlight. You'll have plenty to do if you want to finish all of the side-quests and find all sorts of fancy loot, but the core combat isn't compelling enough to warrant a replay. I finished in about 25 hours, which felt too long by half. There's also drop-in, drop-out multiplayer that works consistently, which helps break the monotony. After trudging through the campaign, I played with the creation tools. I could forgive a forgettable campaign if I was going to be able to forge my own. These too are a letdown. Though you can create your own quests with your own flavor text, the system feels limited. Everything is prefabricated and it's difficult to create a module that is significantly different from someone else's. In the end, all you can really do is have your players kill x amount of things, find x amount of things, or kill a boss. There are no skill checks, so the imagination possible in pen-and-paper is restricted here. Most player-created modules can be played without a Dungeon Master, but it's more fun when one is present. Dungeon Masters play as small wisps visible to the other players, mischievously whipping from room to room. You can place traps, enemies, and all sorts of weird little objects just to be strange. I quite enjoyed surrounding my players with treasure chests as they tried fighting a demon spider, tantalizing them with untold riches if they could survive the battle. Of course, I made half of them mimics, and all but one of the rest disappear. Moments like these show the promise of more open tools, and give me hope for the game's future. It really doesn't help that Sword Coast Legends looks so completely dull. The vibrant colors do help to offset this, but it looks as though it could have come out in the mid-2000s. Environments fare much better than the character models, which look and move like rigid action figures. In a game where you're going to be spending so much time in dungeons, it'd be nice if they were somewhat different from one another. Particle effects also suffer, and make the combat feel even less crunchy. Spells feel neither tactile nor tactical. Inon Zur's music is often sweeping and memorable, and is a definite highlight. Every so often, the right song comes on and the game clicks, becoming a Diablo-lite where you can mindlessly clear dungeon after dungeon, and it's not so bad. But then you remember that it's a game about telling instead of showing, where flavor text reminds you that the nice little town you keep going to is supposed to be rowdy and full of pirates. Where you'll once again kill entirely too many rats. I experienced a great deal of bugs in my time with Sword Coast Legends. Items would fail to be clickable, enemies would be invisible (and no, it wasn't a failed perception roll), it crashed to desktop a few times, and there's a widespread need for polish. A few more months on the anvil were clearly needed to hammer out the unfinished edges. In fact, in a few more months (or even years), Sword Coast Legends' creation tools might be a powerhouse. If n-Space remains steadfast and keeps working on them, this might eventually be the digital Dungeons & Dragons many were hoping for. People won't mind buying new adventures, classes, and races if they come out alongside new pen-and-paper releases! But don't blow all of your goodwill with sectioned-off content. As a Dungeon Master, I'm selfishly rooting for you. Just no more gods-damned 3x3 light grid puzzles.
Sword Coast Legends photo
Underbaked in the Underdark
The elevator pitch for Sword Coast Legends was concocted in a cauldron specifically to make the Zack Furnisses of the world greedily salivate. "That 5th edition D&D that you love Dungon Mastering for your players?" n...

Review: Human Resource Machine

Oct 30 // Laura Kate Dale
Human Resource Machine (PC [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: Tomorrow CorporationPublisher: Tomorrow CorporationReleased: October 15, 2015MSRP: $9.99, £6.99 Human Resource Machine is a game that functionally aims to teach its players basic visual programming logic. You are a human, programming analogue tasks need completing on a day to day process. Players will need to create a visual programming loop that will allow you to mindlessly complete your task over and over. The reason you need to do your job in an efficient, automated, programming manner? Robots are coming to take your job. Initially, these programming tasks are accessible enough for non coders to wrap their head around quickly. Need to transport all inbox items to the outbox in an unchanged order? Take an item from the inbox, take it to the outbox, loop back to the start until everything has been moved. Need to take a pair of inbox items and take them to the outbox, but in the opposite order? Take the first item, place it on the floor, take the second item to the outbox. Pick the first item off the floor, take that to the outbox. Jump to the start and repeat. The problem is, around half way through the game starts requiring you to understand programming logic concepts it hasn't taught you before. Reading up on these concepts online can be complex, and working out how to build a programming function after only short while being hand held through basics can be rather frustrating. [embed]318222:60916:0[/embed] Here's one: build a machine that recognizes zero sum strings, then add up everything in the string, then create a Fibonacci sequence up to but not exceeding the value of your zero sum string, and place all values from the resulting Fibonacci sequence into the outbox using a limited set of tools. You can copy from or to limited memory spaces on the floor, add held and stored values together or increase a memory value by one. That kind of logic takes several considerable leaps, on top of trying to master a technique you only just learned for the first time. I think ultimately this is my biggest problem with Human Resource Machine. It's presented in advertising as a step by step tutorial on learning programming logic, but for newcomers to code some of the logical leaps are to complex to get through any method besides trial and error. For those who already program, much of the early game will likely be too easy. I feel like Machine doesn't really commit fully to being a game for new coders or for experienced programmers. It tries and fails to straddle a difficulty line. The game's plot is also essentially non-existent. The trailer tells you robots are coming for your job, which would clearly be better performed by a robot. Eventually, robots arrive and are better at your job than you. Some of the hints of an interesting story are there, but there is no pay off at all. Considering the subtly delivered narratives in World of Goo and Little Inferno, this was a real shame. Still, let's talk a little about what Human Resource Machine gets right. For those who keep up with the programming challenges as they are introduced, there are also a pair of optional optimization challenges for each puzzle -- such as, "have fewer than X instructions in your program," or "completely process the data in less than Y moves." Often it's impossible to complete both challenges with a single program, so it pushes you to re-optimize processes rather than just finding a solution that works. Learning where you could cut dead weight from a programming string felt hugely rewarding. The game also encourages players to not just successfully process a given set of data, but behind the scenes multiple sets of data are run through your program to ensure it works for every set, not just the current set. If a data set exists for which your program would break, that data set is provided to you, so you can debug the program step by step and see where it falls apart. The inclusion of step by step debugging tools to watch where your program's holes are was really beneficial, and encouraged understanding how your solution works, rather than just being content with the success itself. I came out of Human Resource Machine unsure who it was really designed for. It's at times too simple for experienced programmers, and often made leaps too large for beginners to overcome without obtuse outside research. While I had a sense of accomplishment every time I made progress, said progress at times felt like I was an infant thrown into water and expected to swim straight away. I might manage it, but it's not the ideal teaching method to leave me feeling comfortable going forward. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Human Resource Machine photo
My brain is not a machine
Tomorrow Corporation, the studio behind World of Goo and Little Inferno, is one of my favorite indie developers of the last couple of years. Known for creating polished indie games with accessible mechanics and interesti...

Review: Overlord: Fellowship of Evil

Oct 29 // Jed Whitaker
Overlord: Fellowship of Evil (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)Developer: CodemastersPublisher: CodemastersReleased: October 19, 2015MSRP: $18.99 When Codemasters announced it was making another Overlord game, it was met with excitement. That is, until people saw the gameplay; a top-down hack and slash Diablo-like. After having played the full seven-hour campaign, I can tell you if you were expecting a bad Diablo clone, you weren't far off. The combat feels like a combination of Diablo and the Gauntlet series: mindless button mashing and killing lots of enemies. Let me stress that when I say mindless, I mean mindless; there were times I could literally feel myself looking away from the screen and staring at the beige walls in my lackluster apartment while I instinctively mashed the attack button, not a thought going through my mind. I've played lots of dull games in my day, but this one takes the cake and takes a giant dump on it, then throws it into a dumpster half filled with water, trash, and drowned rats. While that description may make it sound interesting, I assure you this is one train wreck you won't want to go near, or even look at. Fellowship of Evil's visual style reminds me a lot of early Unreal Engine 3 games, as the game is mostly shades of brown, red, blue, and gray. There are only a few different locales you'll visit, and only one single level was easy on the eyes, which is the very last level that somehow bursts with color. [embed]317942:60902:0[/embed] Aside from trudging through long, ugly levels with snooze-fest combat, there are puzzles to complete, if you can call them that. Is it really a puzzle if the answer is mere feet away, or if the camera obnoxiously pans to the next step in the puzzle as if  you couldn't have just figured it out yourself? These sorry excuse for brain teasers have you stepping on switches in a certain order or sending the correct colored minion through colorful fire to step on a switch to open the gate to the next area, just so you can continue mindlessly beating swarms of the same few enemies, over and over and over. Since this is supposed to be a co-op RPG, up to four people can suffer through this monotony together, gathering loot after each wave of enemies is destroyed throughout levels. Instead of having loot drop from enemies, Codemasters decided to spawn tons of breakable chests that explode, throwing various forms of currency in all directions. The first time this happens I couldn't help but feel excited, but after seeing it over 50 times I couldn't be bothered to care. Each form of loot can be used to upgrade your character and minions, as well as purchasing new weapons; none of which are needed. Every character feels very overpowered and upgrades only make them more so, so there ends up being very little challenge by the end. Minions can be used for combat, but seem to serve little purpose other than distracting enemies, which isn't really necessary since they can easily be stun locked just by chipping away at them until they are dead. Some boss fights require minions, but use the same colored fire gimmick as the puzzles, and are just as mindlessly dull. Not only is this sorry excuse for a game boring and ugly, it is also quite buggy. Various times throughout my play through I encountered enemies freezing in place on death, or comically flying up and off the screen. While playing on couch co-op only the first player actually gets any loot, while the other players can collect loot but not spend or save it, thus just denying loot from player one. This may be by design as I was playing on the PC through Steam which has no way of signing in multiple players to their accounts, but Codemasters should have thought of that when it decided to sell the game on Steam in the first place. I played a majority of this game online, or at least in the online mode as only one time did a random player join my game. In the middle of a level another player popped in, helped for a bit, then disappeared before the level was over with, and that was it. It seemed like a smooth experience, but clearly there aren't a lot of people playing this online, nor should there be, because it is utter tripe. The only enjoyable part of the entire experience was the writing and voice acting. Gnarl, the narrator from the original games is back and leading the charge again, making clever little quips and jokes along the way. Hilarious but I don't think many people are willing to eat a shit sandwich to get to a diamond, or in this case a few chuckles. Overlord: Fellowship of Evil is an experience I'll be glad to forget: a mindless, tedious, boring excuse for a game that tortures the player throughout, much like the characters in the game torturing the poor souls of the innocent. Maybe that is the point and Codemasters has done an amazing piece of art. As if.
Review: Overlord: FoE photo
Shit. That would be my review of Overlord: Fellowship of Evil if one word reviews were passable, but since that isn't the case I guess I'll give you all a few paragraphs describing shit. Are you one of the few people who remember the Overlord series with fondness? Then stop reading now and forget this game ever existed, you'll be better off having never played it. 

Review: Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Oct 28 // Brett Makedonski
Assassin's Creed Syndicate (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ubisoft QuebecPublisher: UbisoftMSRP: $59.99Released: October 23, 2015 (PS4, Xbox One), November 19, 2015 (PC) An early sequence concerns itself with getting illegal opiates in medicine off the streets. The player must trace this back all the way up the supply chain from seller to distributor to manufacturer and, eventually, to the doctor who's behind it all. One high-profile assassination, and the city's a little better off than before. That's an evident narrative example of how Syndicate conveys this ever-present march toward improving London, but gameplay elements also support it. The biggest side-task asks that you liberate sections of town. Once enough of those are cleared, there's a gang war to take over the borough. And, once that's done, that particular one-seventh of the city is rid of Templar influence. It's a formula that Assassin's Creed has drawn from before, but it's hard not to feel as if it works best in Syndicate. That persistent slow-burn sense of accomplishment is present, as it usually is when you see the tides turn in an open-world game. But, the way Syndicate connects gameplay to narrative makes everything really come together. Progress is being made and it's apparent in the way the town goes about its business. [embed]315655:60898:0[/embed] A pivotal reason that this effort succeeds is because Syndicate has a cast of characters that are interesting and memorable. Crawford Starrick is easily one of the best villains in the series, as he puppeteers all of the going-ons. A late-introduced person is simply divine in his madness. By the time his arc resolves, he reminds more of Batman's Joker than anyone from Assassin's Creed's lore. Anchoring this effort are the dual protagonists: Jacob and Evie Frye. As siblings are wont to do, they have a bit of a rivalry that escalates throughout the course of the narrative. Their relationship is strung along by things their father used to say, as interpreted by them individually. As such, they have differing opinions on their goals and how to accomplish them, and they're constantly reminding the other of it. It grows tiresome before long. Really, I suspect that the two protagonist formula was a means for Ubisoft to explore divergent intentions within the course of one game. Evie is hellbent on recovering a Piece of Eden that's hidden somewhere in London; Jacob's set on reclaiming the city and fighting for the people's rights (he's surprisingly altruistic considering his brash demeanor). Told within the the arc of a single hero, these interests wouldn't make for a cohesive game. It'd feel schizophrenic in its approach. But, by breaking it up for two people to pursue, it makes sense. Syndicate's better off for having explored both of these angles, thus, it's better off for having tried the tandem protagonists. For all the big-picture stuff that Syndicate does right, almost all of its missteps are in the gameplay. The franchise mainstays like non-notable assassinations work just as fine as they always have (although combat still lacks sufficient impact to prove satisfying). It's the innovative parts that mostly fall flat. Horse-drawn carriages control awfully and are a pain to drive. Kidnapping is mapped to the same button as other post-kidnapping actions, often leading to mishaps with your hostage. The worst sin comes in the form of the game's most marketable feature. The grappling hook, even with its finicky nature, makes traversing London quick and simple. But it comes at the cost of almost completely cutting climbing out of Assassin's Creed. Simply walking up to a building and pushing the left bumper will transport you to the top. The grappling hook actually feels like cheating after spending eight games getting there the hard way. It's easy to appreciate Ubisoft saving you a bit of time, but pulling back and reflecting after several hours of play will lead you to realize that you've scaled just a tiny fraction of what you have in past titles. Climbing is a major mechanic that drew a lot of people to Assassin's Creed in the first place, so it's sad seeing Syndicate relegate it to an afterthought. Assassinations are the other large appeal to Assassin's Creed titles. Syndicate does them better than ever before. Extrapolating upon the "black box" missions in Unity, we're treated to unique, intriguing, and exciting kills of the game's most notable targets. For instance, that doctor mentioned oh-so many paragraphs up? It'd be easy enough to rush in and off him. Instead, I pickpocketed the keys off of a guard to open all the doors in the asylum. Then, I made my way to the basement where I hid the body of a medical corpse, and laid down in its place. I was wheeled up to the doctor, where I assassinated him as he was about to conduct an inhumane experiment on me. This is where Assassin's Creed as a whole is at its very best and most shows its promise. Anyone who's blowing them off is doing themselves a huge disservice and probably playing the game the wrong way. These black box missions are where you get to feel like an actual assassin and get clever with your kills -- even if it's still scripted in a way. It's a nice compromise after we figured out that open-world scenarios lead to more botched attempts than anything else. A game of this magnitude is bound to have its successes and failures, and Assassin's Creed Syndicate definitely has both. But, in most instances, gameplay and narrative are interwoven nicely enough to keep us vested in our pursuit of a better London. As such, it often seems as if the bad isn't all that noticeable. That's a threshold Assassin's Creed has struggled to hit over the years, and this is the first time it has accomplished that maybe since Brotherhood. One of the more poignant moments in Syndicate is a scene where Crawford Starrick is solemnly playing piano. At the conclusion of the slow, heartfelt song, he earnestly sings "In such a moment, I but ask that you'll remember me. That you'll remember me." We remember you, Assassin's Creed. And now, we have hope for what else you can do.
AC Syndicate review photo
Come together
Perched atop some large edifice in Assassin's Creed Syndicate's London, I hesitated. Many slickly-presented columns of light reached toward the sky in all directions -- each one indicating yet another thing to do in an effort...

Review: Assault Android Cactus

Oct 28 // Chris Carter
Assault Android Cactus (PC [reviewed], PS4, PS Vita, Wii U)Developer: Witch BeamPublisher: Witch BeamReleased: September 23, 2015 (PC) / TBA 2016 (PS4, PS Vita, Wii U)MSRP: $14.99 Although Cactus starts with a cute little intro video that sets up the whole shooty affair, it's a fleeting moment, as the game quickly centers in on gameplay over exposition. It essentially features a galactic police officer named Cactus, who crash lands into a gigantic spaceship and saves three other bystanders from certain death. United, they band together to defeat the mysterious evil force on board, headed by four guardians (boss characters). Cactus has one hell of a presentation for an indie project. While the narrative might be light (voice acting is few and far between), the visual style makes up for it in spades. Every character looks and feels different, and the enemies are varied to the point where each individual baddie requires a slightly different strategy. The sound effects are spot-on and have a weight them, and the musical score is more than enough to get you in the mood to shoot things. What I really like about Cactus is that each stage feels unique. Most of them are confined arenas, but the vast majority of them morph as the level progresses in interesting ways. For instance, one starts off with mysterious boxes littered about the landscape, which sequentially explode, opening up more of the map, at the cost of another giant enemy to fight. Other arenas feature small scrolling sections similar to a dungeon crawler, or fixed areas that add hectic hazards to the mix periodically. [embed]317399:60845:0[/embed] Each character has a different main weapon (from a typical shoot 'em up single-shot cannon to a shotgun), and a temporary alternate fire triggered by dodging. My personal favorite pick is Aubergine, who has a droid as her main ability (which can be controlled remotely, and independently from her own movements), and a singularity gun as her alt fire. Cactus is a twin-stick shooter for sure, but its core concept is what sets it apart -- the battery mechanic. With Cactus, your battery is perpetually running out, and only killing massive amounts of enemies will yield you a recharge power-up. If you take too much damage you'll simply fall down, with the power to mash buttons and pick yourself back up. For reference, four players are supported locally, and all of them share the same battery. Things can get pretty crazy, especially with the sheer amount of enemies the game throws out. You have to be constantly moving to stay alive, taking advantage of the various pickups like speed or firepower boosts, along with lockdown icons that temporarily disable all the enemies on-screen. If you aren't always moving around and seeking out batteries and power-ups, you won't make it far. The story mode will only take you a few hours to complete (or less), but Cactus shines when playing with friends -- plus, there's additional "Infinity Drive" (survival) and "Daily Drive" modes to conquer. Assault Android Cactus kind of snuck up on me, and is easily one of my favorite shooters of the year. I'm really interested in seeing what developer Witch Beam comes up with next. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Assault Android Cactus photo
A fantastic twin-stick fix
Every once in a while a game slips past my grasp due to any number of assignments that I have to tackle at a time. One such title is Assault Android Cactus, which I really enjoyed during its Early Access incarnation, and happened to launch just recently on Steam. I regret not jumping into the final version immediately, as it's one of the best twin-stick shooters in a long while.

Review: The Park

Oct 27 // Chris Carter
The Park (PC)Developer: FuncomPublisher: FuncomRelease:  October 27, 2015MSRP: $12.99 At a base level, The Park seems to be about a mother and her lost child, but it crescendos into much more than that. Yes, this is a walking simulator alright, with limited amounts of items to inspect, and no inventory management. You'll traipse around, hear some monologues, learn more about the characters and the park itself, and essentially watch a film play out with some degree of interactivity. It's more involved than your average title, as you can ride the rides in the park (a Ferris wheel, rollercoaster, and the like), and look around at your surroundings while doing so. There's also a decent amount of lore-building involved, and not just because of the Lovecraftian themes that are intertwined with the Funcom-verse. I actually enjoyed reading tidbits about various incidents at the park, and how they involve the cast. While the park itself is cool, the exposition starts off a little stilted. The script is incredibly flowery with its opening monologues, and doesn't give you any real reason to care about the cast. It's almost like watching an amateur poetry hour at times, and there was a point where I rolled my mind's eye at some of the lines. Slowly but surely though, The Park spirals into a tale of depression, with some light adult themes. It gets better, darker, and examines mental illness in a rather unique way. [embed]317523:60854:0[/embed] As far as the presentation goes, in some ways, it would have been better as a short film. The Park might feature a sprawling setting, but a lot of it consists of filler. There are long paths that essentially function as loading screens. The Park isn't going to wow anyone from a visual standpoint, but the effects involved are cool-looking, invoking a perspective that is slowly losing grip on reality. Without spoiling anything, it kind of reminded me of the film The Babadook. If you're looking for pure horror, maybe go elsewhere. The Park isn't a "survival" game nor is it going for scares -- there's only one portion that provides that feeling, in fact. Instead, the narrative attempts a more disturbing tone, with realistic and relatable problems told through the veil of a creepy theme park. I don't want to give away too much as The Park is only an hour long, but I admire Funcom's effort with this experimental take on the genre. It really does try something different, even if you can feel the core themes sneaking up on you a mile away.
The Park review photo
Dunwich horror
The "walking simulator" genre has thrived in recent years. With titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home hitting it off with audiences, it's no wonder the "adventure lite" (as I call it) market is influencing new exper...

Review: The Legend of Legacy

Oct 26 // Kyle MacGregor
The Legend of Legacy (3DS)Developer: FuRyuPublisher: Atlus USARelease:  January 22, 2015 (JP) October 13, 2015 (NA) February 5, 2016 (EU)MSRP: $39.99 The expedition rings hollow from the outset, presenting players with a diversity of characters, all of whom have a unique opening sequence. It's a seductive come-on, one that hints at a multi-sided story that never manifests. The narrative threads converge almost immediately and then vanish, leaving players to explore Avalon with little impetus for hours at a time. The script is sapped by an absurd lack of dialogue, which prevents the cast from distinguishing themselves and essentially renders them stock characters. The Legend of Legacy, hamstrung by its sparse narrative and superficial characters, is forced to lean squarely on a repetitive formula. From the time it begins to the moment the credits roll, players will travel to a location, explore every nook and cranny there to create a maps, then sell that to a merchant. You can then pay the merchant for new destinations to explore, map, profit on, and repeat. Much like the story, The Legend of Legacy's exploration and combat components manage to leave a strong first impression, but they lose their effectiveness over time. It's almost as though FuRyu stumbled across an ingredient list for an excellent dish, but got the proportions all wrong. Individually, elements have the potential to be wonderful; they just don't come across that way in the melting pot. The turn-based battle system has some promise, allowing players to switch between various combat formations. Depending on the formations, individual characters will receive bonuses pursuant to their roles in battle. A defender will use a buckler to shield allies from damage, while a support character heals, and someone else attacks. While there are only two formations at the outset, players are given the ability to create their own -- an option that would be enticing if the battle system were deeper and it felt necessary. What might have been a strategic highlight soon curdles and becomes rote. The experience suffers from diminishing returns, with systems encouraging players to settle on a finite number of battle strategies and seldom deviate from them. Rather than have characters level-up, individual skills do. So, repeated use of, say, a sword will make a character more proficient with that type of weapon. But should one give that character an axe, bow, spear, or even a larger sword, they'll be back at square one, meaning it's beneficial to to decide which characters and weapons to use early on and stick with those choices, rather than experiment at all. In addition to impelling players to perform the same actions again and again, The Legend of Legacy doubles down on the repetition with a shortfall of enemy variety. The species of monster from a forest environment might reappear in the desert or alongside one another as palette swaps, a small irritation that just serves to compound a feeling of monotony that's pervasive throughout the game. Even endearing qualities, like the pop-up book-style visuals, which sees terrain and scenery sprout out from the ground, can cut both ways. Aesthetically, environments look very nice, but have a way of concealing enemies. And in a game with far too many fights for its own good, stumbling into a battle on accident due to a bit of poor camera positioning can be so exasperating. It also feels too focused and even reserved to a fault. At a time when many of its peers seem so enamored with heavy-handed tutorials and overabundance of side content, FuRyu is running in the opposite direction. This is an experience that could desperately use something to do other than plod along the critical path, or do a better job explaining some its more mystifying gameplay systems. If this appraisal sounds overly critical, it's because it comes from a place of love. The Legend of Legacy comes so close to being a compelling role-playing game, but it just doesn't do enough to earn the amount of patience it requires of players, let alone reward it. This may be a story about a treasure hunt, but it certainly is no treasure. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Legend of Legacy photo
Lost in the woods
Juan Ponce de León's hunt for the Fountain of Youth is a legend far more emblematic of many adventures than most depicted in media. The conquistador committed the lion's share of his days to exploring the New Worl...

Review: Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide

Oct 26 // Joe Parlock
Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)Developer: FatsharkPublisher: FatsharkReleased: October 23, 2015 (PC) / TBA 2016 (PS4, Xbox One)MSRP: $29.99 Vermintide is set in the underused gothic End Times setting of the Warhammer universe, where the city of Ubersreik has come under siege from a rising army of Skaven (rat-men). Taking control of one of five different character classes, four teammates can fight their way through 13 different missions. Vermintide’s writing certainly isn’t going to win any awards: each mission is very loosely connected by a pretty unimportant story that serves purely as exposition for the level about to be played and not much else. To take out the Skaven, each class has a huge array of different weapons and equipment to choose from. Some, such as the elf and the mage, rely more on ranged tactics, whereas the likes of the dwarf and the old mercenary are more able to get up close and personal and do some real damage with melee weapons. Each class serves their own role, and no matter what combination of the five a team has, they all mesh well together to ensure no one character is carrying the others. Melee combat feels meaty and bloody, and despite it ultimately comes down to mashing one button until everything is dead, it feels a lot more involving than that. Once I had mastered the timing required for blocking, I was going toe to toe with even the strongest enemies and coming out on top, and god damn did it feel good. It’s nowhere near as complex Chivalry or Bloodborne, but Skaven were turning into puffs of red mist and piles of giblets left, right and centre, and for a brief time I was a rodent-killing god to be revered and feared. There’s great variety to the different stages, and it's obvious Fatshark know how to make use of environments to make the co-op play interesting. From trudging through the city streets, to wading through the swamps toward a Skaven camp, each level feels unique and manages a decent balance of linear chokepoint corridors with some fantastically complex larger areas to make sure no environment grows stale. For example, one mission takes place entirely in one big area where the team are scrounging for barrels of what I assume is gunpowder. The different platforms turn the space into a vertical maze of ramps and ladders that mean they can be fatally separated in a very short distance. Good stuff. Once they’ve succeeded, the entire team are rewarded with random pieces of loot, decided by a dice roll. The character progression of Vermintide is one of the biggest differences between it and similar titles. In a way, it works a lot like Team Fortress 2’s massive array of items: much of the loot available works as more of a ‘sidegrade’ than an upgrade. Most items aren’t categorically better than an item you already have, but may mesh better with your preferred playstyle. For example, my fire mage has two staves I like to swap between: one functions as a shotgun, with a focused beam as a secondary attack to take out further enemies; the other feels more like a rifle with faster more precise shots, and as a secondary it has a large short-range area of effect attack. Neither is better than the other, but I really have to change how I play depending on which I choose to use in a mission. There will, of course, come a point where I am vastly over-leveled for them, but by then I’ll have a whole new group of staves to pick from. The chances of getting the loot you want in the dice roll can be improved through collecting grimoires, tomes, and extra die scattered around the mission. The catch here is that these two item types take up space that could be used for precious healing items. They add a degree of risk vs. reward to the game, as those who replay levels with a more gutsy approach will net better rewards than those who play super conservatively. It’s a cool system that can really pull teams together, knowing there will be tangible rewards for covering each other in the long run. Unfortunately, these are just extras. When you strip away the superfluous bells and whistles and get down to just killing the shit out of a horde of Skaven, what you’re left with is a game that is ultimately treading into the same territory we saw years ago. Vermintide doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve; it wears them as a full lycra bodysuit that leaves nothing to the imagination. For starters, the Skaven’s AI is pretty much the same as any zombie game’s ever: they spawn, they’ll rush towards you and will keep hitting you until they die. I get rat-men wouldn’t be the most intelligent thing in the world, but if they’re smart enough to make armour and formulate tactics (stopping which is the basis for many of the missions), then surely they’d know how to freaking flank every once in a while? Most of the stronger boss type Skaven have an L4D analogue: the sneaky, pouncing Gutter Runners are practically Hunters, Pack Masters can pull players away from their team just like the Smoker, and the Ogre Rat is the literally just the Tank with a rodent face stapled on Silence of the Lambs style. That lack of originality extends to the missions too. While the environments are brilliant, the way levels progress feels exactly like Left 4 Dead. You’re tasked with moving through an ultimately linear space while fighting back against procedurally spawned hordes of enemies, with supplies and more intense ambushes happening at the drop of a hat. Eventually, you and your comrades will come to a conclusion that generally involves holding out against an extended onslaught of enemies before escaping to an extraction point. If it’s not that, your team will be tasked with going through a slightly more open area to collect a predetermined amount of a certain material, all while surviving against the hordes of enemies. Even the teamwork mechanics are the same as Left 4 Dead. If a teammate takes too much damage, they will become incapacitated on the floor until someone can get them up. If they happen to die while incapacitated, they will spawn a little later in the level to be rescued by the remaining members. Players can even become incapacitated by dangling over deadly drops, waiting for someone to pull them up. Identical to Left 4 goddamn Dead. As I have said, I adore that series. It’s got hectic shooting, combined with a necessity for tight teamwork that can really pull even total strangers together. Dispatching hordes of zombies in a gory fashion with a variety of weapons and in a variety of locales always made going back into the game just as fun as the first time, and Vermintide very much feels the same way. Except Left 4 Dead 2 came out six years ago, and it shows the few improvements its made over its most obvious inspiration just aren’t enough to let it stand on its own merits. Unoriginality aside, I also noticed a fair few technical problems with Vermintide, especially when it came to the backend server that manages the character progression and matchmaking. There were relatively frequent periods of downtime, or times where matchmaking would take far, far longer than normal. Fatshark have managed to keep on top of most problems, and seem to be fixing them quickly in the days following the game’s release, but they’ve still been prevalent enough to get in the way of me playing the game. Ultimately, Vermintide is more than the sum of its parts. It has wonderful visual direction and level design, with a character progression system that made me want to carry on grinding for new loot just to see what options it’d open up for me. The combat is satisfying, and the way teamwork is encouraged meant I managed to connect with total strangers in ways I haven’t had the chance to for a very long time. I wasn’t getting annoyed at random people on the internet, for the duration of that mission they were my teammates, and even things like Payday haven’t managed to give me that feeling. I’ve had a lot of fun, and certainly don’t regret any of my time with it. I absolutely recommend anyone who enjoys co-op FPS to give it a try, because it might well be the best to have come out in a long time.  I just wished that Fatshark had tried to be as original in the gameplay as they have in the visual direction. At times, it just felt like I was playing a mod, and depending on how you look at it that’s either the biggest compliment or the absolute worst thing I could say about Vermintide. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Vermintide photo
I feel like I've done this before...
Left 4 Dead is one of my favourite games. The summer of 2009 was spent staying up until five o’clock in the morning, playing the same campaigns with the same group of friends, and it was by far the most fun I’ve e...

Review: Halo 5: Guardians

Oct 26 // Chris Carter
Halo 5: Guardians (Xbox One)Developer: 343 IndustriesPublisher: Microsoft StudiosReleased: October 27, 2015MSRP: $59.99 While Guardians may have a no-nonsense intro that places you immediately into the fray, it already assumes that you know a ton of the franchise's backstory. There's so much lore at this point, spanning comics, web series, and other shows, that it's hard to keep up. The basic gist this time around is Master Chief is missing, Jameson Locke is sent to find him, and the Forerunners are still the big bad of the franchise. Everything else in-between is kind of a blur. The campaign features 15 missions in all, and is heavily built around the concept of fireteams -- which means you'll have three other characters following you around at all times, ready to take orders by way of AI constructs, or as player characters. If you're going the solo route, you can order your team to move to certain locations, or attack specific targets. It's rudimentary at best, as the only command you have is a single d-pad stroke that does either of those two options, but it's very cool to see your team banter and blow enemies away by your side. Your teammates can also revive you if you're down (though there are still insta-kill mechanics and pitfall deaths), getting you back into the action faster. [embed]315608:60816:0[/embed] Halo 5 features linear, more Call of Duty-style levels, with the occasional miniature sandbox or mid-sized arenas distractions. What I like about the campaign mechanically is it's always forcing you to switch weapons (between the human, Covenant, and Forerunner variety), which constantly puts you out of your comfort zone. There are a ton of weapons in the franchise at this point, and it feels like 343 didn't skimp out or remove any -- so you expect somewhat of a learning curve. When it comes to the campaign though, nothing blew me away outside of a few select missions. The first five are table-setting affairs, as it stands, but even after you progress through those, the narrative  never really goes anywhere. The story is rather annoying in a way, as it relies heavily on past games to a fault. I really enjoyed the original tale of Halo: Combat Evolved, with the simplistic story of the conflict between Covenant and humans, with the Flood in the middle, but this "new" trilogy isn't really doing it for me. Sure, the action is spot-on, but the Forerunners aren't a compelling enemy, as far too much of their history is billed with mystique, and I couldn't be bothered to care about any of the cast members outside of a light amount of nostalgia for Chief.  I also had a few technical issues during my playthrough. There were some weird instances where progression didn't trigger and a door didn't open because there was an enemy stuck in a far corner somewhere. Also, on a few occasions my team didn't revive me even though they were right there, or outright refused to move or take orders. Guardians features drop-in drop-out multiplayer, which is great because the four-person campaign component never feels forced, but the lack of split-screen is an utter shame. For reference, it took me roughly six hours to finish the story on the standard difficulty setting. How does it play? So well that you'll often forget about how mediocre the campaign is. The gameplay has changed significantly, mostly due to new mobility options and the power to aim down the sights of your gun (also known as ADS or Iron Sights). Players can also press a button to boost, which works both on land and in the air, and hold the melee button to slam down to the ground, or press it while running to trigger a dash attack. It feels like a quicker, hybrid arena shooter now with all these changes. Warzone, however, is leaps and bounds more fun than the story. It's billed as a 12v12 mode that features a massive base tug-of-war, with enemy AI meddling on the side. In short, it feels like a bite-sized story mixed with multiplayer, and accomplishes most of the goals it sets out to achieve. For example, at the start of a match, you'll have to clear out your own base -- there's no downtime involved. From there, Warzone constantly throws things at you, from sub-objectives to boss fights, with plenty of PVP action injected for good measure. 12v12 is by no means a massive amount of players, but it gets the job done, especially when coupled with the aforementioned PVE mechanics. There's always something to do, and always players to kill. The large map size also brings something to Halo that really hasn't been done before, as they're roughly three times bigger than past locations in the series. Because of my time with Warzone, I've felt inspired to find a group of people to play with down the line. I think this mode has potential for some really memorable matches. There's a straight non-AI variation available as well, if you prefer that. So that's Warzone. On the other end of Halo 5's PVP component, you have Arena -- traditional deathmatch game-types across a handful of different modes. There's Team Arena (with CTF, deathmatch, and Stronghold variants), Slayer (FFA), Breakout (one life), free-for-all, and the classic SWAT mode (no shields, no radar), with promises of more playlists post launch. You can also create custom games online if you wish, with specific rule sets. Once you acclimate to ADS, it's basically the same Halo you've played many times before, for better or worse. The levels in Guardians are decently balanced, though. There's 15 at launch, and the pool is admirable, consisting of several different locations and layouts. "Plaza" is one of my standout favorites, as it's an entropic map that's vertically inclined, and both stylish and practical. There isn't one map that I've groaned at (outside of the Midship remake, which is a good arena, but one I've played constantly for over a decade), and if I was ever bored of the small to mid-sized layouts, I just went back to Warzone. As for the multiplayer experience as a whole, there's a strong emphasis on dedicated servers, which the game prominently informs you it's using during every matchmaking sequence. It's been smooth sailing so far, but if there's any changes we'll provide an update after launch. This doesn't factor into the review, but all Halo 5: Guardians maps (15 planned so far) will also be provided for free, presumably due to the sustainable funds generated from the microtransactions. Additionally, Forge mode will be released sometime in December. So how about those "REQ" microtransactions? They're pretty painless, actually. While they provide power-ups, such as single-use vehicles or weapons for Warzone play, they're entirely optional in Arena, and provide cosmetic upgrades (skins, and animations) or experience boosts -- think Mass Effect 3. You can basically choose to ignore the system entirely and still excel, or slowly accrue in-game currency to buy them. Either way, it doesn't really impact the experience as a whole. If it weren't for Warzone, Halo 5: Guardians would probably be somewhere on the lower end of the franchise spectrum for me. It's still a fantastic and well-oiled machine, but the story falls flat, and the shift in gameplay mechanics result in the loss of some elements that made the series so unique in the first place. Still, if you're looking to shoot some dudes online, Guardians is your huckleberry. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Halo 5 review photo
Master Chef vs. Locke from Lost
Halo really grabbed me back in 2001. I had just won an Xbox from a Taco Bell contest (no joke), and I was getting ready to sell it when a friend told me about a little old sci-fi shooter from Bungie. After playing H...

Review: Penarium

Oct 23 // Alissa McAloon
Penarium (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One) Developer: Self Made Miracle Publisher: Team17 Released: September 22, 2015 MSRP: $9.99 The controls, like much of Penarium, are outwardly straightforward but still offer a lot of room for unique play-styles. Willy is only able to run left and right and can also double jump in the air. PC players have the most freedom here and can use WASD, the arrow keys, or some combination of the two to get around. But know that Penarium is brutal, no matter what platform it's played on. Unlike similar titles that favor a gamepad, the game has the somewhat unique distinction of being equally playable on both controllers and keyboard. Though Penarium offers three game modes, its campaign is easily its meatiest experience. The story is told through thirty levels spread across three different arenas. Things start slow and simple, but quickly evolve into chaos. Different objectives, such as breaking barrels placed throughout a level or popping balloons in a specific order, become increasingly difficult as a myriad of different traps enter the equation. Homing missiles, deathly icicles, sticky platforms, barrel-stealing birds, terrain destroying electricity, or a roaming swarm of bees could all complicate whatever task Willy has to complete. Overall there aren't a ton of traps in the game, but it is fond of throwing multiple traps at Willy at once to keep things interesting. Conquering one pair of traps isn't enough after a few levels. Eventually objectives will have you collect thirty barrels, but rotate in a new set of traps every five. This is where the unforgiving element of Penarium comes in. Dying on the final set of traps, maybe even seconds before completing the task, kicks you right back to the beginning of that level. There are no checkpoints between trap-sets, and no rewards for making it so close to victory. The difficulty is punishing, but at the same time never feels impossible. Persistence, skill, and a tiny bit of luck are all necessities if you want to clear all thirty levels. Campaign offers players a variety of fun tasks to conquer, which makes it all the more of a shame that multiplayer shares none of that uniqueness. Two players either compete or work together to capture a series of randomly placed buttons, each with their own trap combinations to overcome. The whole package isn't terrible for the first few rounds, but after a while it becomes apparent that repetitive multiplayer mode lacks that stressful charm that Penarium built its campaign on. Arcade mode is a somewhat fuller experience, but still falls short when compared to the campaign. Playable on any of the three arenas, arcade mode endlessly tasks you with collecting as many barrels as possible before an eventual death. Traps rotate out every five barrels to keep things interesting, but it still had a hard time holding my attention. Even with the arcade-exclusive ability system that exchanges coins for random use skills, the scoreboard focused mode fails to offer anything to really keep players engaged. Penarium is incredibly fun, but could have been even better if the multiplayer and arcade modes had taken some inspiration from the campaign. But even then, what's left is overall a fantastic experience. The game is difficult, but I haven't found myself so lovingly furious with a game since Spelunky. It works well within the scope of its own mechanics to create a game that stays consistently challenging, without ever feeling truly impossible. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Penarium photo
Unforgivingly cruel in the very best way
Fans of soul-crushing platformers like Super Meat Boy and Spelunky will feel right at home within the sadistic circus rings of Penarium. The 2D arena survival-fest puts players in the shoes of a young farmer named Willy, who ...

Review: Bedlam

Oct 21 // Patrick Hancock
Bedlam (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: RedBedlamPublisher: KISS ltdReleased: October 13, 2015MSRP: $19.99 The player assumes the role of Athena, a normal everyday woman who has somehow woken up inside a virtual world of a video game. She makes plenty of self-aware quips throughout Bedlam, ranging from obvious and cringy to downright hysterical. She quickly realizes she's in a shooter from the '90s, and it's not long until she manages to escape through a glitch in the game to be transporting to various other worlds. Bedlam will take players through different time periods and genres of video games, but does eventually become too formulaic. Players will enter a world, complete its objectives, enter an "in between" glitch world, and then move on to the next section. While not predictable in the sense that the new world will be a surprise, the concept becomes rigid and boring. There is an underlying story besides "look at the funny parody worlds," and unfolds through in-game radio chatter and hidden sections within each world. It's all based on the book by the same name, which I haven't read, but seems to deal with essentially the same thing. In a way, Bedlam felt like a long winded way of saying "hey, you should read the book." The story is somewhat engaging and certainly well written, but the lack of closure at the end of the game was a huge letdown. Bedlam handles like a first-person shooter, with one or two exceptions, and does a great job of nailing down the shooting mechanics. Each world has a unique set of weapons to acquire, but ammo for each gun is limited to its respective world. This sounds like an interesting mechanic on paper, but in reality the player gets so many guns that ammo is never an issue due to the wide breadth of options. In fact, and I didn't think I'd ever say this, but there are likely too many weapons. They all have their small quirks and differences, but all of the shotguns, machine guns, and pistols might as well be identical. The large number of options also makes it a pain to switch between weapons, especially when using the mousewheel. Every number on the keyboard is assigned to a weapon, and it never really felt worth it to memorize what was where.  There are also platforming sections that take place during the in between glitch worlds. I'm hesitant to even call them platforming sections since the player is literally jumping over small distances from one long rectangle to the next. They are in no way challenging, but I did die a few times, usually because I had no idea that there was no ground in between certain sections. Most of these sections are only there to keep the player busy while radio chatter occurs to thicken the plot. [embed]316393:60801:0[/embed] Perhaps the best part of Bedlam is the "tour" through various styles of first-person shooter tropes. I won't spoil them all here, but all of the classic FPS environments are present, and some that will definitely take players by surprise and have them laughing. Of course, going back in time does have its design downfalls, as some worlds are more barren than anything else, and there's a few instances of poor mission design that will leave players frustrated and anxious to jump into the next section. The last level in particular is especially drab. It falls into the classic pitfall of "throw everything possible at the player and see how they do." Honestly, I used the explosive weapons to rocket-jump through just about all of it. Perhaps that was intended, but considering how wonky rocket-jumping physics are in Bedlam, I highly doubt it. Each world ends with a boss, and they're all impressively mediocre. The big thing shows up, player shoots it a lot -- fin. The last boss in particular is tedious, and offers up just about zero challenge to the player. Despite the poor boss fights, the game has enough brilliant small moments to really stand out. After I had completed the game, the things that stuck with me were the tiny segments that used its plot device to its strength and didn't adhere to the obvious formula that it was playing with. I'm confident in saying that there are enough of these to keep the player interested throughout most of the game. To accompany the decade-hopping mechanics, the game's aesthetic varies from place to place as well. Most noticeably, the models get progressively better as the meta-titles get more modern. However, things like the health and body armor pickups remain the same throughout every world. It would have been interesting to see the developer also explore how health system evolved as the genre itself did, but instead we get floating health packs that are way out of place in most of the worlds. The voice acting, at least, is top notch. The radio chatter is entertaining and very well done, it's just a shame that a handful of times I was forced to read the subtitles because the surrounding noises, like being in a firefight, drowned out the actual voice acting.  Bedlam will take players on a jaunt through various first-person shooter worlds, but the problem is that none of them are particularly great. There are some absolutely wonderful and memorable moments strewn throughout the five or six hour experience, but they are brought down by some poor design in both the missions and boss fights, and essentially the entire last chapter. I genuinely did have some great laughs, and there are worse ways to kill an afternoon, but ironically Bedlam falls prey to many of the same issues of the games it apes. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Bedlam Review photo
Actually, it's relatively tame
Similar to Evoland and its sequel, Bedlam is a game that hops between time periods and genres of gaming history. The latter, however, is a first-person shooter. I've grown up playing as many FPS games and mods ...

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes

Oct 21 // Chris Carter
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (3DS)Developer: Nintendo EPD, GrezzoPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: October 23, 2015 This time around, Tri Force takes place in the kingdom of Hytopia, bordering the desolate Drablands, home of an evil witch. Said witch is jealous of the princess' beauty, so she casts a spell on her to hide it forever, with a skin-tight suit that won't come off. Only chosen heroes can enter the Drablands and break the curse, which is obviously where you come in. It's not the most original setup, but I like it. The new setting and cast of characters (including the depressed king) help make Tri Force more interesting. Although the general setup of the game involves level-based dungeon crawling for loot, there is a hub world, and bits of story woven in along the way. The town hosts a costume shop (more on that later), a daily chest-picking minigame, a Miiverse gallery, and a few extra NPCs to talk to as well as several secrets. It will only take you a few minutes to trod through, but it has enough character to get by. Link (or more appropriately, the "hero") has a few abilities at his disposal right away -- dashing, swordplay, and picking up items. The rest will have to be acquired by way of dungeon items (such as traditional arrows and bombs) or costumes. The latter will grant you special abilities, mostly in the form of boosting items or powers, and can be crafted at the aforementioned shop. It's important to note that this is the basis for the entire game, which is provided in a Skinner box fashion similar to MMOs or other dungeon crawlers. The multiplayer element adds new mechanics entirely, most notably the "totem" system. Here, you'll be able to pick up one or two Links (or in turn, get picked up), which will allow players to access greater heights, or slash their sword and use items at the top. Often times you'll have to create a stack of just two Links while the other player hits a switch, and so on, leading to some interesting puzzles that have the mark of a classic Zelda game, with the obvious Tri Force teamwork twist. [embed]315403:60732:0[/embed] Your loop will consist of entering dungeons, besting them, and then choosing from a selection of chests at the end. You'll be granted materials, which can be pieced together to create new costumes, and thus, a new strategy with which to approach each level. You can of course "beat the game" straight through and not experiment, but the spirit of Tri Force is decidedly Diablo-like in nature, leading players to return to levels constantly -- if you dislike that type of gameplay, I'm warning you now. Strangely, the online component is very advanced for a Nintendo game. Online play is available with full matchmaking capabilities, as well as friend-specific lobbies, and a robust offline component that allows for download play. Hell, there's even a blacklist function so you can block people online who ruin games. There's no voice chat of course, but the emote system and intuitive nature of the dungeons don't require it in the slightest. In fact I actually prefer some of the cuter emotes, like the cheerleader dance that gets progressively larger on-screen the faster you tap it. I had the chance to play online numerous times with strangers, and it was a pleasurable experience to say the least. The game often allows players to shine individually, but divvies out unique items to everyone, forcing all members to work in tandem. For instance, one game I was the only person with a bow, so I had to hit far away switches and enemies while my teammates carried me to the appropriate height. Meanwhile, they had to clear blocks with bombs so I could reach those switches and back them up with my sword. It was a rush, and that feeling didn't really let up through the entire campaign as I played through it with teammates. Bosses are even more fun, as they provide for an array of different strategies that involve anything from splitting up to working as a totemic unit. Each zone mixes up the theme and new mechanics just enough to keep you interested, especially if you're learning all of these concepts for the very first time with two other people. Plus, it feels good to save the day with a new costume you just picked up earlier that afternoon. Solo play however isn't nearly as fun. Whereas Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures had plenty of concessions for those who decided to play by themselves, Tri Force Heroes is the exact opposite. Here, you'll have to deal with "Doppels," which are copies of your character -- they emulate the other two players. To transfer your essence into another Doppel, you'll have to tap their portrait on the touch screen. It's not only a pain to have to do this manually without a button shortcut, but it essentially amounts to doing each level three times over as you'll have to get to a location, select another Doppel, and repeat. Very early on you'll learn that picking up Doppels in a totem formation and moving as a group is a way to go, but puzzles are often so complex that you need to break up frequently, and thus, control the Doppels individually again. It's puzzling why Nintendo didn't create a new campaign just for single-player folk. I mean, to play by yourself you have to enter a completely different room in the castle, so it already had the groundwork to be its own game type. I would outright suggest that you avoid Tri Force Heroes if you plan on going at it alone. The good news is that the online portion works wonderfully, and with download play, you can get a local three-person game running up in no time. If you don't fit that criteria though, you can probably pass on Link's newest adventure. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Zelda review photo
It's dangerous to go alone
People often say Zelda never innovates, but I'd argue that they haven't been paying attention to the many unique games in the series. Titles like Minish Cap feel completely different while maintaining the class...

Review: Tales from the Borderlands: The Vault of the Traveler

Oct 20 // Darren Nakamura
Tales from the Borderlands: The Vault of the Traveler (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: October 20, 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.] At the end of the previous episode, so many questions were left unresolved. What happened to Felix? Where is Vaughn? How is Rhys going to deal with Handsome Jack? Who is the Stranger who kidnapped Fiona and Rhys to get the whole thing started? All of those questions get answered. The story of the Stranger is particularly well done. Over the course of the series it has become clear he was a known character. I had a couple of guesses, some of which were shot down along the way as people died. When it was finally revealed, it caught me by surprise, but doesn't feel like a cheap copout twist. Some hints were there on the way. The other big question looming over the series over its duration centers on Gortys. Most of the story takes place via flashback narration in which the perky robot is happy and healthy, but the present-day bits have had Rhys, Fiona, and the Stranger collecting her pieces all over again. What happened to her? [embed]315774:60751:0[/embed] It's a question I personally fretted over because Gortys has become my favorite character in the entire Borderlands universe. Her unrelenting optimism and childlike demeanor are so refreshing on the cutthroat planet of Pandora, giving her best lines that much more comedic weight. Gortys delivers several laugh-out-loud funny lines this time around, but a sad effect of Telltale design is that some players might never even hear them. My favorite came as a response to one of the dialogue choices. It almost makes me want to play through again just to see if there were any great lines I missed out on. This episode gives another substantial reason to warrant a second play through. Getting ready for the final confrontation, the usual gang of suspects has to put together a team, pulling from the supporting cast reaching back as far as episode one. In a move Telltale ought to adopt for all its series, it spells out exactly who is available and why or why not based on past choices. I covered for Athena when Janey was suspicious after the chase in Hollow Point, so she would be willing to fight with me again. I was hesitant to call myself a Vault Hunter, so Zer0 never took much notice and was unavailable. Not only would I have to replay this last episode if I wanted to see Zer0 in action again, I'd have to basically start from the beginning. Given how good this series is, I'm not upset about that. I doubt the final outcome of the fight with the Traveler is any different depending on which characters join in, but the battle itself is customized depending on who is there. It's intrinsically cool to see each character in action given the circumstances of the encounter, but I am reluctant to spoil the specifics. One of the aspects of this series that amazes me is just how impactful it can be on the Borderlands universe. What started out as a story about a middle manager and a lowly grifter has irrevocably altered Pandora as a whole. While The Pre-Sequel worked within the confines of the existing lore, providing back story for Hyperion and Handsome Jack, Tales builds new stuff on top, setting up for the inevitable Borderlands 3. Thinking of the future, there are a few open-ended plot points in this last episode. Though a lot of past choices were highlighted and their effects were explicitly shown, the choice that puzzled me the most is given to Rhys as he is describing his struggle with Handsome Jack. As far as I could tell, nothing in this series was affected by it despite its potentially huge consequences. Additionally, there's the very end. After the climactic battle with the Traveler, as the group is celebrating and grabbing loot, there's one final scene that might be setting up for a whole new adventure starring Rhys and/or Fiona. Whether that becomes Tales from the Borderlands Season Two or part of the mainline series, I don't know. But it will definitely get Borderlands nerds excited considering the possibilities. I cannot recommend Tales enough. Borderlands fans will love the fresh take on the dark comedy universe. Telltale fans will love the smart writing and callbacks to choices made throughout. People who don't fall into those categories might still love it because it is just that great. This last episode maintains the action, drama, and comedy present throughout the series. It ties up all the major loose ends while leaving just a hint of room for more to come. Most of all, it solidifies Tales from the Borderlands as Telltale's best series to date, a pinnacle of modern adventure gaming. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Borderlands finale review photo
Your journey ends here
[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.] What a...

Review: Life is Strange: Polarized

Oct 20 // Brett Makedonski
Life is Strange: Polarized (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One[reviewed])Developer: Dontnod EntertainmentPublisher: Square EnixRelease date: October 20, 2015MSRP: $4.99 (Each Episode) To this point, Life is Strange's greatest strength has been in the Arcadia Bay that developer Dontnod created, which is a place that we experienced mostly on our own. We'd walk around, observe, converse -- whatever we could do to learn a little more about the town. Great depth was added simply by letting us look at everything. It's no coincidence that Max told us early on in episode one that she's "always looking." In Polarized, she isn't always looking. Instead, she's quickly pulled from scene to scene with little time to take in her surroundings. Life is Strange's most poignant bits are often the ones where Max is allowed to reflect, to slow down. The last episode put less of an emphasis on this, but it still worked. Pulling the same trick twice in a row doesn't fare as well, as this doesn't quite feel like the same game that we meticulously pored over for four episodes. More damaging than the quick pace is the manner with which Polarized treats Life is Strange's characters. So many of them were flawed yet sympathetic in some way. There were very few that existed outside of a moral grey area -- even the ones who seemed like they should be pure evil. Unfortunately, this chapter mostly does away with that nuance. Too many characters are revealed to be straight-up heroes, villains, or pawns. We were conflicted about these people in the past. Now we're essentially told how to feel about them. It takes away a lot of the heart-string pulling and leaves you numb to their arcs. [embed]316331:60781:0[/embed] As often as Polarized deviates from the Life is Strange formula, it's not always a detriment. Some parts are the strongest sections of the episode. These are the moments when Life is Strange is at its most Twilight Zone, which is a side that Dontnod has largely abstained from. There's an entire backward scene where everyone walks and talks in reverse; it's a real joy. Earlier, there's a conversation with an antagonist where Max has no dialogue options but to offer sincere admiration. It's weird and uncomfortable enough to make your skin crawl. While that forced interaction worked, others aren't as successful -- especially when they come at critical junctures. Apart from one very notable occurrence, much of Polarized gives the player very little agency over Max's choices. That's a problem when the four previous episodes thrived on it. Actually, Polarized goes so far as to retroactively render some previous decisions moot, sacrificing a major game feature for narrative good. Despite finding issues with this chapter at every turn, I found myself more or less fulfilled with the conclusion -- although, I firmly believe that's an enthusiasm for Life is Strange as a whole as opposed to this installment alone. I think Dontnod discovered that it created a world that sprawled a little too far, and it wasn't sure how to bring it all to an end. So, it went with the easiest option. Or, as an art critic in this chapter phrased it, it took the path of least regret. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] (Previous Life is Strange reviews: Chrysalis, Out of Time, Chaos Theory, Dark Room)
Life is Strange review photo
The path of least regret
It's perfectly fitting that Life is Strange's final episode is subtitled Polarized. I can't think of a more apt word to describe my mindset right now. Life is Strange's conclusion left me satisfied, but not for the same reaso...

Review: Downwell

Oct 20 // Steven Hansen
Downwell (PC [reviewed], Android, iOS)Developer: MoppinPublisher: Devolver DigitalReleased: October 15, 2015MSRP: $2.99 Downwell asks you to learn with it, explaining nothing outside of the control scheme (move with directional pad or analog, jump and shoot with one button) and the upgrades between levels. Initial expeditions down the well are clumsy. Your Gunboots start with limited charge (think: ammo) and you have to refill them by touching solid ground. Or -- wait, they refill when you stomp on an enemies' head, too? -- and, oh no, don't try and stomp on an enemy that is an angry bright red. These are the kind of things you learn as you delve deeper and deeper into Downwell's four worlds (three levels each) and they are presented intelligently. For example, the first spat of blood red enemies that you shouldn't be jumping on all have spikes, video game shorthand for danger. Later ones won't warn you so nicely. And of course there's trial and error, too, like touching a hot stove, for those who don't get it. Level randomization requires you stay engaged. Different power up offerings between levels will change how you play. Dimension-shattering time voids are occasionally cut into the well walls and host a treasure trove of gems or different ammunition. The latter is where the Super Crate Box comparison is obvious. [embed]316411:60790:0[/embed] Changing ammo isn't a strict necessity, but it practically is, given that picking up a new ammo types will often come with a heart or some battery charge for the Gunboots (more ammunition between reloads), but different ammo types function in drastically different ways. Shooting is actually more useful in fighting gravity and keeping yourself from falling too quickly into unseen trouble than it is for killing enemies; they should typically be bopped. Especially since bopping enemies fills your Gunboots and stringing together kills without touching down gives you rewards. It's best to stomp out enemies, using your ammo stores to occasionally slow your descent or send you across the screen to stomp something else. Aside from the constantly changing levels, ammo types, and upgrades, new "styles" are unlocked over time, like the "Boulder style," which features a much fatter boy who starts with six HP instead of four, but only gets to choose from two between-level upgrades instead of three. Then of course there are dozens of Palette options that change the colors of the game, though I have only found a handful I like as much as the default black, white and red. The variety makes the frequent deaths more palatable and I would probably buy a custom dedicated handheld that just played this game. Because death comes so quickly, health is at a premium. If you slowly inch your way down the well, stopping at every platform and dutifully eliminating enemies, you'll take forever and likely not rack up enough gems to clear out shops, which are operated by the the most adorable timeline version of a snowman (who gives a good disapproving face when you jump behind the counter). But as you get better and can chain combos, netting gem, battery (ammo) and health bonuses, you can stay in the black, even increase your max HP. It's all about building a better, more equipped you while you play. It's always fraught, mind. You are working against gravity and your stabilizing shots will sometimes rip the ground from under you as you destroy blocks on the way down that might have offered reprieve. Or you accidentally shoot an enemy you're coming up on, losing a chance to replenish your ammo, and end up in a dangerous free fall. My 15-hour transition from inelegant tank (Boulder style) laboring down the well to eyes-closed, 25-kill-combo (Levitate) falling with style has been a flurry of close calls, of "one more run," of consistently dying to the boss despite doubling my starting health. The knees-braced bullet pounding side winding across the screen to slow my descent, the meaty pop of brain stomping and the brief upward moment it grants before gravity yanks me down again. And for such a noble reason. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Downwell review photo
Falling with style
Once upon a time I was falling in love, now I'm only falling down wells. Downwell is a game about getting down a well, but the only way to get down the well is to learn how to get down the well well. Because this Game Boy thr...

Review: Pulse

Oct 20 // Jed Whitaker
Pulse (PC)Developer: Pixel Pi GamesPublisher: Pixel Pi GamesReleased: October 20, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Eva's story isn't exactly original as it is essentially a mashup of a Disney cartoon and M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. Pulse centers around Eva, a girl blinded at a young age, who defies her parents and attempts a dangerous pilgrimage using only echolocation and her imagination to visualize the world around her. What motivated Eva to embark on this journey is never explained, though the results of her actions are evident by the time credits roll in around an hour and a half later. That's right, an hour and a half for a penny shy of 15 dollars, which means you're paying over 16 cents per minute of gameplay. On top of that, there is a Steam achievement for beating the game under 30 minutes, so it clearly can be done faster. Whether or not the cost of entry is worth it depends on how much you value the artistic style of Pulse, because the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. That isn't to say that it's bad, just that it doesn't really go anywhere. From the moment the game starts and you take your first few steps, you'll have grasped everything it has to offer. [embed]316434:60795:0[/embed] Walking causes colorful rippling sound waves to trace the world hidden within the black void that is Eva's vision. Following the paths as they are revealed in the darkness, you'll come across Mokos, which are round, Furby-like critters with giant puppy dog eyes. Mokos can be picked up and thrown to cause sound in the distance -- giving Eva a brief glimpse at the level ahead -- and can be placed in giant hamster wheels to open closed doors.  The only area where Pulse really deviates the gameplay is one requiring Eva to walk slowly across a frozen lake, taking care to pay attention to where the ice is cracking beneath her feet thus allowing a safe passage. Aside from that, you'll come across a couple of areas of simple platforming, and not much more, which is honestly a shame for how great the game looks. Unity isn't exactly known for having the best-looking games, but Pulse proves that the engine isn't the problem by having one of the most gorgeous presentations this year; from a vibrant forest, to a tundra, to a living cave, Pulse is stunning. Due to the way Eva is imagining how the world around her looks, the world is brightly colored in a minimalist way, meaning each level only has a few colors total. One level is mostly blue, while another is mostly shades of orange, which sounds like it would hard to navigate, but the creators made it work and I never found myself lost a single time.  Pixel Pi Games managed to take the concept of a blind heroine and create something beautiful around it, but considering the game took less time to complete than this review and costs 15 dollars, it is hard to recommend to anyone but those thirsty for an artistic game or a unique character. If Pulse had a longer, more in-depth story with evolving gameplay, it would be easily recommendable. As it stands now, it feels more like a proof-of-concept than a full-fledged game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Pulse photo
Expensive art without vision
While having a blind protagonist isn't exactly a brand new idea, Pulse tackles the subject in a unique way that proves that video games are indeed art by being one of the most colorful experiences I've played to date.  Unfortunately art sometimes comes with a high price and ends up not only lacking vision, but being a bit short-sighted.

Review: Tales of Zestiria

Oct 20 // Chris Carter
Tales of Zestiria (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Bandai Namco Studios, tri-CrescendoPublisher: Bandai Namco EntertainmentMSRP: $49.99 (PC, PS3), $59.99 (PS4)Released: January 22, 2015 (JP), October 16, 2015 (EU) October 20, 2015 (US) If you've played a Tales game before, you pretty much know what to expect. This is still very much a hero's journey affair, with the main character Sorey embarking upon an epic quest to become a Shepard and save the world. This is complicated by two warring nations, the evil Heldaf, and the Hellion -- monsters created out of pure evil energy. Along the way Sorey will conscript new companions into his crew, including his childhood friend Mikleo. For the most part, the story stays on point and doesn't stray from its primary goal of a fantasy epic. Just when you think it's starting to get crazy with the juxtaposition of humans and the heavenly Seraphim race, Zestiria quickly grounds things with Sorey as a tether, who was raised by the latter but is still a human. It's all very straight-forward, partially to a fault, and is easy to follow. Zestiria houses a stable of interesting, memorable characters, but they don't necessarily grow over time. Sorey also sports a bit of a drab persona, but again, it helps that he's at least likable. As you may have heard, Zestiria has generated a fair bit of controversy over in Japan when it was released earlier this year. The crux of the issue stems from a character named Alisha, who was heavily promoted before the game's release, and then relegated to a side character that wasn't in most of the game -- and later sold as DLC. The games producer even apologized for it. This in no way effects the review, but it's something to be aware of in case you might have heard something negative about Zestiria in the past. Ultimately, I'm ok with this being Sorey's tale. When it comes to exploration, Zestiria walks a fine line between open environments and too many linear dungeon-like settings. It's actually more open than both Xillia games, but don't get the impression that they're as sprawling as say, Xenoblade Chronicles. I'm ok with this compromise though, as the developers have stuffed a ton of secrets into the game's universe, including monoliths that grant you information, and cute hidden creatures called Normin that grant you rewards the the effort of finding them. The concise focus also helps make the dungeons less of a slog, and allows them focus more on a centralized theme or puzzle element. [embed]316377:60788:0[/embed] Combat is easily the most meaningful advancement Zestiria has made, however. It's now a lot more action-oriented, and relies on SC (spirit chain) energy, which adds a new strategic element to the mix. At first players will start off with just 4-hit combos, which are essentially a mash session, but the game quickly ramps up into something much more interesting. For starters, your attacks get stronger as you expend SC, but unloading all of it will leave you vulnerable. To recharge SC you'll have to guard or stay idle, leaving you open to attack. It's interesting, as sometimes you'll want to go all out on a foe if they're stunned or if you're attempting to finish them off, but it can completely backfire. It's a nice risk-reward system that's present in every fight, not just boss encounters. Other advanced arts like quickstepping (dodging) come into play on a constant basis. Oh, and certain characters can actually fuse, Dragon Ball style, with Seraphim companions to supercharge their abilities, which is just as fun as it sounds. Everything having to do with character customization is supercharged this time around, actually. Players can stack skills for each party member to make them stronger, or diversify their elemental loadouts to create new skills. There's also a host of meta-abilities like snack preparation and discovery, which recharge party member's health bars and present icons on the minimap respectively. You can even further augment characters with abilities like auto-guard, and alter your AI's strategic tendencies when you're not in control. They really went all-out when it comes to the game's core mechanics. Like most Tales games, Zestiria has a beautiful art style in tow, with plenty of bright colors and endearing character designs. It has its limitations however, as it is a PS3 game at heart, and longshots typically don't have the same impact. Also, the camera angle is insufferable at times, especially indoors, and can't be easily manipulated. Thankfully dual audio comes standard with the western release, and both the dub and sub are well done. You can also alter the battle difficulty at any time, lengthy combo input windows, utilize fast-travel, skip cutscenes, and even skip individual lines of dialogue. Oh, and players can save anywhere with a quick save system, which is convenient. Tales of Zestiria plays by the book in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to its cast and narrative. But it's still a great entry into the series, and a welcome return for old fans, especially as far as the battle system is concerned. In fact, it's even inspired me to go back and finish both Xillia titles -- that's the magic of the Tales series at work. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tales of Zestiria review photo
A tale of two Shepherds
My history with the Tales series is sort of akin to an on again, off again relationship. I was introduced to Phantasia by way of a friend's import copy, and immediately fell in love. After that I only dabbled in a f...

Review: Guitar Hero Live

Oct 20 // Chris Carter
Guitar Hero Live (PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: FreeStyleGamesPublisher: ActivisionMSRP: $99.99 (Game + guitar), $149.99 (Game + two guitars)Released: October 23, 2015 The first thing you'll notice about Guitar Hero Live is that the controller itself has been reworked. Now, instead of the typical color-coded five button setup, you'll find two rows of three buttons -- one row is white, and the other, black. I didn't realize this until later on, but it's actually easier for newcomers to pick up since you don't have to use your pinky finger at all, but tougher for veterans who are used to a 10-year institution of the same old setup. Honestly, I loved having to relearn everything I knew. While I was rocking it out to expert-level songs in Rock Band 4 immediately after years of retirement, it took me multiple days to get a basic grasp on Guitar Hero Live. It recreated that unique feeling of picking up a plastic guitar for the first time. It also helps that Live has five difficulty levels (basic, casual, regular, advanced, and expert), that all ramp up perfectly depending on your skillset. It's especially important to note that the former settings only require you to use one row of buttons, which will help you slowly acclimate to the new setup. As time went on and I started jacking up the difficulty, the game gets crazy tough. There's a major focus on one-finger vertical cords, as well as split cords with multiple combinations, and open strumming cues with no buttons. It's far from a realistic guitar simulator, but I really dug the increased emphasis on chords and fancy finger-work. It may feel like a step down at first glance, but there's a lot of depth found in these six buttons. The chief reason why FreeStyleGames was able to seemingly perfect this aspect of the game is because Live is guitar-centric again. Yep, there's no drums, no keyboard, no "bass" ensemble -- both players play lead guitar. There is the option to hook up a USB microphone to sing vocals, but they are absolutely ancillary to the experience, and I wouldn't recommend picking up the game for singing in the slightest. Technically, vocals add in support for the third player, but Live is definitely focused on the same one or two-person jam session that the original brought to the table in 2005. Again, I'm totally okay with this, as the series started to get stale when it tried to be too much like Rock Band. [embed]315533:60780:0[/embed] There's also a fundamental shift with the story mode, which no longer displays lifeless uncanny valley avatars strumming along to the song. Instead, the developers have recorded live footage with real bands playing each song with a live crowd, and strapped a camera to the lead guitarist to simulate a first-person view. Yes, it's FMV, but the end result is done so well that it blows past the Mad Dog McCrees of old. For each set (three songs), your character will start backstage. Here you'll get a bit of setup, perhaps some light drama, a quick chat with a stagehand, and on occasion, a visit from a makeup artist. It helps set the scene and gives you the basic gist of what it feels like to walk out onto a stage in front of thousands of people. As the song progresses, the camera will dip and dive across the stage with your character. Now here's the neat part -- depending on how well you play, the FMV will shift in a surrealist fashion to suit the situation. For instance, playing well will net you a cheering crowd and lots of smiles from your fellow bandmates. Playing poorly will shift the FMV into a negative state, with shaking heads and plenty of boos from the audience. It's such a little thing, but the band itself will start giving you a hard time vocally as well, which is jarring and motivating at the same time. I'm not going to act like this system elicits any kind of actual emotional response, but it's very cool to watch and it's seamlessly done. I'm genuinely surprised they went through the effort of essentially recording two entire concerts for each set of songs. The included setlist itself is rather diverse, consisting of classic rock songs from Queen, The Who, and The Rolling Stones, alongside of more modern groups like Green Day and Fall Out Boy, all the way up to Skrillex ("Bangarang" works better than you'd think) and a recent Eminem song ("Berzerk"). It has something for everyone, with a good spread of indie hits, folk music, and top 100 joints. While the actual story mode is only playable solo, there is a freeplay mode with all 42 on-disc tracks that you can enjoy with a partner, which also features the FMV setup. So that's the first half of Guitar Hero. Next up is the other half: Guitar Hero TV (GHTV). As you may have heard, this concept is going to be rather controversial in nature, as it features microtransactions, and a "stream-centric" DLC model where you can't actually buy songs, but play them on-demand. I fully expected to hate it based on concept alone, but to my surprise, it's probably one of my favorite modes in any rhythm game to date. Let me explain a bit -- GHTV is a multi-faceted affair. At its core is the "channel" system, which currently hosts two playlists. These shift every half hour with new tracks and genres, and quite literally follow the traditional television model, where everyone is playing the exact same thing at the same time, complete with leaderboards. In other words, if you boot it up, you may be jumping in mid-song into a competition. This aspect of Live is devoid of microtransactions. You can play both channels for free without paying Tokens (more on that later) as long as you want. And that's just what I did for days on end. During one of my testing sessions, I played the channel system for three hours straight, earning Tokens for on-demand plays along the way. Since this system is curated, I stepped out of my comfort zone, and discovered new bands, or played songs that I wouldn't normally play from bands I already knew about. It broke the typical rhythm rut where I'd only play my favorite tracks, and it's a really cool feeling. GHTV also has the added benefit of hosting music videos for every single available song. As someone who grew up with MTV, it was a joy to watch them all over again, especially classics like Tenacious D's "Tribute." It's also a lot more fun to watch music videos as a spectator compared to the aforementioned uncanny avatars. Since the channels are going to be constantly updated over time, I'm excited to see what the future holds.  The other side of GHTV is on-demand and features microtransactions. Here's how it works: for each track played, you'll earn Tokens. If you do poorly, you'll earn roughly 100-130 Tokens on average. If you do well, you'll net close to 200. You can also earn daily rewards for logging into the game and bonuses for ranking up. One on-demand play is about 600 Tokens, and there's also the option to buy cosmetic bits like new note highways and player cards. Finally, there's a "Party Pass" for $5.99 that grants you access to the entire TV catalog (hundreds of songs) for 24 hours. Here's the good news -- you can basically ignore all of this nonsense if you play the channels. Personally, I put in over 20 hours into GHTV and haven't felt compelled to spend a cent, with 70 spare freeplay sessions banked. You might not feel the same if you hate the principle of not owning content, but as a regular subscriber to streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, it's not a difficult concept to grasp. While GHTV has the potential to turn a lot of people off, I would be satisfied just playing channels for the immediate future. Both the channels and on-demand support two players. Guitar Hero Live completely took me be surprise. I love the new controller design, the FMV portions work far better than they should, and Guitar Hero TV hooked me with its channel concept. Going forward, I'm hoping that the model further reinvents itself by introducing the world to new music. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher, specifically, the dual guitar package.]
Guitar Hero Live photo
An axe to grind
As I've said many times in the past, I was a Guitar Hero man all the way up until I first laid eyes on that beautiful keyboard for Rock Band 3. The Hero series was stale, iterating annually (sometimes multiple times...

Review: Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water

Oct 19 // Zack Furniss
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water (Wii U [eShop only])Developer: Koei Tecmo, Nintendo Software Planning & DevelopmentPublisher: NintendoReleased: October 22, 2015MSRP: $49.99 This time around, the ghost-infested location is Mount Hikami, which is a stand-in for Aokigahara (worth a read if you want to hate trees), the real-life Suicide Forest. Initially, this feels like the perfect environment for Fatal Frame. A series that deals with ancient, forbidden rituals in Japan should feel at home in the suicide capital of the world. Unfortunately, the setting feels wasted as soon as you start playing. For the first hour and a half, you're locked on a ridiculously linear path. A supporting character gives you a tutorial on how to use the camera and explore your environment, and you can't do anything except what she tells you. "Let's go upstairs," she monotonically asserts. If you try to go off the path, the camera forces you back around. If this segment was a few minutes long, it would be forgivable, yet this feeling of restriction creeps back in sporadically throughout. Want to go down that road in the forest? "You must find Fuyuhi," the dialog box insists, as you're pointed back towards your current objective. Objectives are another unwelcome addition. Instead of having to explore Mount Hikami, you can almost always hold a button to watch a ghostly image of whoever you're trying to find appear, heading in the direction of your objective. Although past games in the series have erred on the side of obfuscation, the areas you wander about are mostly small and confined. Having a constant push in the correct direction feels obtrusive, as if Maiden of Black Water doesn't trust its own visual cues to convey your intended destination. Using the GamePad as the Camera Obscura should make up for the lackluster exploration, but the control scheme fails to feel intuitive in any way. Be prepared to keep the pad at eye-level at all times, since pressing the camera button in your lap will make your perspective start at your crotch. You can either choose to use the gyroscope and analog stick or just the analog stick, and I would recommend the latter after the novelty of the GamePad wears off. The main problem with the gyroscope is that you're required to rotate the controller to take certain pictures, but when combating spirits you still need to use twin stick movement to avoid attacks. Even when the pad is completely vertical the sticks don't compensate, so you still have to hold forward to move forward, which sounds rational but feels awkward as all hell in practice. If you're like me and invert your Y-axis, good fucking luck making this work. You'll still have to turn it like this with the gyroscope turned off, because Fatal Frame really wants to justify its use of the GamePad. Koei Tecmo didn't think we could handle puzzles this time around, so the next best idea it had was that some keys could only be found by taking pictures with a correctly oriented camera. It's not difficult, but it never goes beyond feeling like an afterthought. Even simple movement can be frustrating; occasionally, turning around becomes more arduous than fighting ghosts. Battling ghosts with the Camera Obscura is relatively similar to past iterations, which the exception of tilting the camera to get portrait shots. Ghosts now have small fragments that float around them, and if you can take a picture with five targets, you'll do more damage to them. There are also three different characters who have their own abilities with the camera, like charged shots or chains of 8 rapid-fire photographs. You can also upgrade the camera's stats, improving its damage or the lenses that you find throughout Mount Hikami. Snapping photos of the ghosts with these lenses is cathartic, and it's heart-warming/chilling to hear that old Camera Obscura sound. That catharsis doesn't remain for too long, since you'll be encountering enemies about every two minutes. Tension never has a chance to build since there's always a specter ready to pounce at you. Instead of dreading ghosts because they're horrifying, you'll dread them because of the repetition they bring. Pacing was not a priority here. In keeping with the aquatic theme, there's a new "wetness" gauge that fills up when you're running through rain or attacked by certain ghosts. If you're thoroughly soaked, you'll take more damage, but your pictures become more potent. This risk-reward system could have added some much-needed adrenaline to the combat, but the change in damage values is negligible. The wetness gauge never goes beyond an excuse to ogle a bit of rain-soaked bra strap. There's also an abundance of healing items that render both this status effect and any damage you receive toothless. Tell-tale shiny glints betray herbal medicines and better film hidden all throughout Mount Hikami. This becomes increasingly far-fetched as you explore each area in the game entirely too many times, yet the items are always replenished. I'm usually not one to point out clichés, but Maiden of Black Water found a way to make items infuriatingly annoying. Y'see, you don't just press a button to pick something up. You have to hold a trigger to slooooooooooooowly reach out towards the object while a bweeeeeeeeyooooooooo sound rings in your ears. Each time you do this, there's a ~20% chance that a disembodied ghostly hand will grab your wrist, weakly shaking you and doing a minuscule amount of harm. It happens often, is never scary, and will make you angry. I can't fathom why this mechanic was even considered, as it murders any semblance of pacing left in the game. So many horror games are given passes for poor controls and mechanics if they manage to raise your heartbeat. Maiden of Black Water fails even in this regard. The aforementioned pacing is the crux of the issue, but unimaginative enemy and location designs are also to blame. While I can remember most of the enemies from the previous games, I'm having trouble remembering all of the ghosts from the one I just played. You'll fight a bunch of shrine maidens and one memorable guy with a big knife, and one woman who convincingly moves as if she's still hanging from the rope that she used to kill herself. The rest? They're...people, I guess. Nothing as good as the Broken Neck Woman, or the Woman in the Box, or the Kusabi. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water seems so, so tired. Maidens, rituals, sacrifices, suicides, water, black hair growing and covering every surface...we've seen all of this done before and with more skill. Two small moments offer an enticing glimpse at what could have been: a short trip to a cable car station and a short episode where you're monitoring surveillance cameras. The second I got to the modern-looking cable car station, I realized how much this series needs to go to new places. I was wrong about Aokigahara, it was more of the same. That surveillance episode subverts the camera theme, making you helplessly watch as phantoms slowly encroach upon your friends' rooms. If new concepts like these were used throughout, this could have been something special. At least there's a hefty amount of game here. My first playthrough took about 13 hours, and there's a bonus episode where you can play as Ayane from Dead or Alive. It's not great, but playing Fatal Frame stealthily is at least a novel idea. There's also the Nightmare difficulty and the bonus costumes you can unlock for further replayability. It's too bad that most of that is backtracking through the same areas time and again. I experienced four freezes in my time with the game. I'd recommend not looking at your photo list to see your recent pictures, as that's what led to each freeze. The only way I could get out of the menu was by doing a hard system reset. That I wasn't able to look at pictures in a game about taking pictures is a fantastic summation of my experience. Off-TV Play made too much sense for Koei Tecmo to get it right; it's playable, but whether you're using headphones or not, you can't hear any of the in-game voices (dual audio, by the way!) or music. You need the TV for that. Nintendo seemed hesitant to bring Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water overseas, and I'm sure it'll be monitoring how it sells to gauge interest. Twelve-year-old me would be upset with this review, and he'd blame that asshole Zack Furniss for condemning the series to death with a damning review. He'd be in the comments below telling me that I wasn't playing it right, or that it wasn't my type of game. All I would have to say to him is this: If this what Fatal Frame is now, I don't want it anymore. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fatal Frame review photo
Treading trashwater
I was on the cusp of adolescence when I first played the original Fatal Frame. My friend Richard and I spent many a summer night with eyes wide from the horrors we had witnessed in the Himuro Mansion. The sequel Crimson Butte...

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