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Review: Kerbal Space Program

May 05 // Jordan Devore
Kerbal Space Program (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: SquadPublisher: SquadReleased: April 27, 2014 (version 1.0)MSRP: $39.99 This is a game built to last. There are people out there spending hundreds of hours playing, learning, and teaching Kerbal Space Program and I'm not talking about some miniscule group of superfans. It's the kind of game that, whether you like it or not, comes creeping into your mind when you're supposed to be off doing literally anything else. It's contagious. There are a lot of deep, dense systems at play, and getting a handle on even the basics (knowing apoapsis from periapsis, prograde from retrograde) necessitates a commitment to learning real-world science and game mechanics before it "gets fun." I mean, sure, cobbling together a rocket, to use that word loosely, is enjoyable. At first. But then I came to realize what was possible in this sandbox and grew restless, forever in search of the next self-set milestone. However much effort you put into Kerbal, you'll get exponentially more back. Early on, you're met with one humbling experience after another. I went into the tutorials all bright-eyed and cheerful before the overwhelming reality of physics (my most dreaded subject in high school) came crashing down on me. The game's cartoon alien astronauts, the Kerbals, are a welcome sight. Their oddball expressions and mannerisms help warm up what would otherwise be a cold, calculated simulation. Not long into a training mission, one of them told me the job at hand "should be pretty easy even if you're not a famous rocket scientist like myself." Not a moment later, there I was, licking my wounds and wondering why that Kerbal had turned my home office into a house of lies. I'm not sure I've ever failed a videogame tutorial multiple times before. This is confidence-shattering stuff. My first hour or so is a blur by now, but I took notes along the way. "Intimidating homework," I summarized. Reading instructions, re-reading them, trying to do what they describe, failing, then repeating the process and inching slightly closer to success -- this is how it goes. Until, suddenly, it clicks. Bliss. [embed]291550:58433:0[/embed] The first time my rocket lifted off correctly, I cracked a smile and laughed with astonishment. It was joyous. Incredible. Then the thing started spinning out of control and the Kerbals trapped inside were doomed. I knew it, but did they? Those poor, brave, totally naive little green men. Upon failing the lesson, my instructor said he wasn't expecting disaster to strike. Personally, I had been counting the seconds. It gets better, though. You, the player, get better. On Twitter, I was told to seek out community-made guides and I'll echo that advice. The in-game tutorials aren't nearly as clear or hands-on as I would've liked, and a lack of grammatical polish didn't make using them any easier. Walkthroughs and wikis might as well be mandatory. There are folks out there like Scott Manley who are producing exceptional videos, and I'd be so lost without them. The simple act of watching someone else solve a problem -- escaping the atmosphere without burning an obscene amount of fuel, matching a distant vessel's orbit, saving a Kerbal lost in space (sorry!) -- can be enough to give you that edge. Thankfully, constructing rockets is simple. You drag individual components onto a 3D stage and snap them together. It's not quite building with LEGO bricks, but given the game's complicated subject matter, it is surprisingly close. Which parts you select for your ship and in what order, however, can be overwhelming. That's more of a problem in Sandbox mode, where you're given total freedom with a vast list of similar-looking pieces, than in Career mode, where new technology trickles in as you grow your space program from the ground up. Another surprise: the controls are, relative to learning astrodynamics, not too tough to figure out. The user interface is initially confusing, what with all of the gauges and that intimidating navigation ball to monitor, but Kerbal Space Program makes smart use of the keyboard. Cobbling together a bunch of ships and finally getting one of them to orbit the Earth-esque planet Kerbin for the first time is an awesome feeling. As in, awe-inspiring. It's a big milestone -- one I won't soon forget -- but there are countless more to tackle. You can switch to a map of space to track your vessel's trajectory and set up maneuvers to reach, say, the Mun (moon), or an asteroid, or make the journey back home. Actually, you can do whatever you want -- this is an open-ended game, after all -- but maybe don't sprint before you can crawl. For me, there is such a thing as too little structure in games, and for that reason I found myself switching back and forth between Kerbal's Sandbox and Career modes. The latter has a tech tree and jobs for you to take on. Newcomers will find its scope far more comfortable. As you gain science points by conducting research in the field and transmitting the data to your base (or physically bringing it and your spacecraft back safely to Kerbin's surface), you'll unlock access to more advanced gear. As you complete jobs -- testing specific parts at certain speeds and altitudes, or taking tourists on a ride without killing them, for example -- you'll get funds to upgrade your space program. A third mode, Science, rests in between Sandbox and Career. You'll still have to earn new parts by collecting science points, but, unlike Career mode, you won't need to worry about your space program's money or reputation woes. There are also several standalone scenarios, some of which were created in collaboration with NASA (get this game into schools!), that bypass the whole planning and building process and put you straight into an active mission. They're a great worry-free practice environment. Outside of those core modes, there are numerous mods to tinker with. The game has attracted a passionate, talented, dedicated community of players and creators. Even if the developers at Squad stop supporting Kerbal Space Program with new content and polish updates, I'm convinced this game will still be relevant a decade from now. My main fear of simulation titles is that I'll get bored. But, come to think of it, not once was I bored with Kerbal Space Program. I may have felt confused, and irritated, and hopeless at times, but those setbacks were fleeting. My desire to improve remains steadfast. Even the smallest accomplishments feel like massive victories, and once you experience that euphoria, you won't want to quit. Watch your ambition soar. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Kerbal Space Program photo
Science doesn't screw around
I might have never touched Kerbal Space Program had it not been offered as a review assignment. What a tremendous shame that would've been. From a comfortable distance, I had seen enough of this hardcore rocket-building and ...

Review: Tropico 5

May 05 // Robert Summa
Tropico 5 (Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox 360) Developer: Kalypso MediaPublisher: Kalypso MediaReleased: April 28, 2015 (PS4)MSRP: $59.99 Tropico 5 is a learning experience. How you choose to learn is completely up to you. There is a mission and campaign mode that will certainly steer you in the right direction, but that didn't appeal to me and I suspect most will want to do more than that as well. As a Civ junkie, I don't like to be limited with my creations -- in that, when a specific mission ends, so does your island. For me, sandbox mode is where I spent most of my time and where I would imagine most players will. Sandbox is the true meat and substance within Tropico 5. Not only can you set your win conditions, but you can choose between multiple economic and political difficulty levels, starting era, the money initially available (unlimited is also an option) and the number of citizens that start on your island. But probably even more critical to your island's success is the land itself. While you will have plenty of pre-made islands to choose from, there is also a map generator that offers endless combinations of whatever creation you want -- for example, you can choose between different sized-islands and the amount of resources available. Even if you skip much of the campaign, you will still be able to learn as you go. Within the game itself is a sort of quest function where specific tasks will need to be completed. Whether it be to build a library or extra military buildings, the game does an excellent job of teaching while doing. For someone like me who hates to read directions or endless strategy guides (preferring to figure stuff out on my own), this is a perfect implementation. But it's not just the quests that will guide you. The detailed faction and happiness statistics will help you be the leader you want to be. There are various factions all vying for greatness and it's your job as leader to finely balance what you want for your island and what your people actually want and need. To help you lead, there is a dynasty system where you can name and set specific management roles to created characters that will give bonuses to buildings based on their specific abilities -- there are generic managers, but you can't level those up like you can dynasty members. For example, you can have a celebrity manager that is best suited for hotels or you can have a magnate who works well with oil and mining buildings. These dynasty members are part of El Presidente's extended family and can benefit you greatly within the game. Ignoring them or their abilities will only make your leadership that much more challenging. Of course, it's not just your island you have to worry about. Tropico 5 is also a nation builder. Within it, you'll have to juggle the trade of exports and imports and appeasing the Russians while at the same time not pissing off the Americans. As time moves on from the Colonial Era to the Modern Era, you will have even more nations and scenarios to deal with. There are many situations in your virtual island experience that feel like they mirror how a real nation and leader needs to function. Tropico 5 is a constant balancing act and a game filled with trial and error. You should be warned, if you find yourself to be a Civ addict, then you will quickly find that Tropico 5 offers the same kind of grab. Hours melt away. As you complete one task, something else comes up that you feel drastically needs your attention. The amount of management, while it can seem overwhelming, is really the draw and appeal of the game. There is a multiplayer component, but really, unless you want to build an island with a friend or desperately want to compete against others, you probably aren't going to bother. It works, so that's all most players can really ask for when it comes to multiplayer within nation builders. The game is not without its minor faults or seemingly-impossible challenges. While I do keep the pace of time in its most forward position, it never felt like I could appease or completely stop rebel attacks or uprisings. These occur when citizens are unhappy or you have specific constitution options active, but no matter what, I found myself dealing with this constant nuisance. Also, there were occasional save issues. In fairness, I played the majority of my time with Spotify running in the background, so whether or not that sometimes caused games not to be saved, I don't know. It doesn't happen often, but it can be devastating if you're not paying attention and haven't saved in a while. Even though there were no real issues with the controls themselves, perfectly placing roads can take some getting used to, but it doesn't strongly detract from the game. While Tropico 5 isn't the game-of-the-year masterpiece of a generation, it's a more-than serviceable sim and strategy title that can satisfy a grossly under-served genre within the console community. If you love SimCity and Civilization and are dying for something similar on your PS4, then there really is no reason not to have and enjoy this game to its fullest extent. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tropico 5 review photo
It's good to be the king
City and civilization games on consoles are a rare thing. I'm not exactly sure why that is, but my guess would be that traditionally, these games only enjoy their moderate success on PC. Whether it be the limitations of conso...

Review: Pleasant Dreams

May 05 // Darren Nakamura
Pleasant Dreams (Tabletop)Designer: Aerjen TammingaPublisher: Aerjen GamesReleased: January 2015MSRP: $20.00 (free print-and-play version)Players: 1-2Play time: 5-10 minutes Pleasant Dreams is about dreaming. Specifically, the goal is to make it through a night's worth of sleep without waking up in terror from a nightmare. Each player has a card and a chit to track wakefulness; zero represents a deep slumber and five is wide awake -- game over. Players take turns drawing cards from the deck, each time announcing how many cards will be drawn between one and five. Each card in the deck has a positive or negative number associated with it, either increasing or decreasing wakefulness. It's possible to get through the entire deck without either player waking up. In those cases, the player who drew the last card in the deck is the winner. At first it seems like the theme and the mechanics are separate, but a few of the details tie them together. Good dreams reduce wakefulness, but they can also be prolonged to increase the effect, at the risk of that same dream morphing into a nightmare. What starts as a fluffy teddy bear can turn into a grotesque spider. Cards are resolved in reverse order from how they are drawn, so if a player declares a draw of three, the first (and only known card) is resolved last and the third card is resolved first. It allows for gambles to be taken if the top card is particularly bad. By drawing more cards at once, it's possible to get good dreams to resolve first that will ease the effect of the final bad dream. The one really smart mechanic in Pleasant Dreams has to do with prolonging the good dreams. By doing this, a player reduces wakefulness further and flips the card over. The backside of that card can be good or bad; regardless, the player who flipped it gets to place it back in the deck wherever he or she chooses. Combined with the ability to choose how many cards to draw, the two mechanics result in a mind game between the two players. Did my opponent just drop a nasty +2 nightmare right under the top card, meaning I should only take one card? Or did he predict I would think that and instead place it in the third spot? At its best, it transcends a simple mathematical card game. Instead of simply manipulating cards in a deck, players are getting into each others' minds. It's the type of experience that evolves with each play in a way. I got into the habit of putting good dreams at the bottom of the deck so I would know that the last chunk of cards would be safe to draw together. Over time, my regular opponent got wise to that and was able to use it against me, dropping a bad one in there to mess up my count. I would have to change strategy accordingly. Pleasant Dreams also functions as a solitaire experience, but it is much less interesting alone. Lacking a second player to psyche out, it turns into a fairly simple exercise in card counting and risk management. There is a variant listed in the rules that basically pushes the solo player's luck, and while it does make victory less of a sure thing it doesn't change that the transition from a head-to-head game to a single player one turns a thoughtful mind game into a math problem. Still, as a two-player game, Pleasant Dreams delivers on the promise of a smart microgame. Despite its small deck size and quick play time, it still manages to create interesting decisions. That the theme is unusual and the artwork is impeccable makes it just that much more compelling. I don't want to play this all the time, but I can definitely see it coming up when I have a spare moment and a willing companion.
Pleasant Dreams review photo
Good night, sweet teddy bear
With tabletop games, simplicity can go a long way. Sure, there are behemoth games filled with figures, dice, worksheets, grids, and more, but one of the best recent trends in the analog space has been a focus on elegance. The...

Review: Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

May 05 // Chris Carter
Wolfenstein: The Old Blood (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: MachineGamesPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksReleased: May 5, 2015 (Digital), May 14, 2015 (Physical - AUS, EU, NZ)MSRP: $19.99 The Old Blood is a genius idea on paper. Set as a prequel to The New Order, anyone can pick it up and find themselves on equal footing. When coupled with the budget price of $20, that prospect is made even more appealing. The team was also able to provide some slight enhancements to the engine due to the core focus on the PS4 and Xbox One editions -- it's nothing that noticeable, but it is smoother overall if you really look at things up close. So what is it, exactly? You're basically getting more New Order set the tune of two "episodes," once again starring the heroic B.J. Blazkowicz. The whole bloody affair is roughly eight hours long, filled with secrets and the return of the perk system, which are both implemented to encourage multiple playthroughs. Just like its predecessor, The Old Blood runs at 1080p and 60 frames-per-second on both consoles. In the first episode, "Rudi Jäger and the Den of Wolves," you'll quite literally return to Castle Wolfenstein, as you attempt to obtain a document that sets up the events of the previous game. It doesn't go quite as planned of course, and you'll encounter a few new enemy variants like a sniper, as well as some puzzle-like encounters, and a good mix of stealth and action scenes. It's not mind-blowingly different and it's a tad slow at the start, but it does feel like a proper expansion, and the labyrinthine tunnels of the castle work well when juxtaposed to the mostly open areas from New Order. [embed]291497:58425:0[/embed] The second half, "The Dark Secrets of Helga Von Schabbs," is a little less traditional. Well, okay, it has zombies in it, so it's a lot less traditional, but perfectly fitting for the gaiden "B-movie" feel Old Blood is going for. While the first episode is good in its on right, the town of Wulfburg in the follow-up episode is something completely different from what you're normally used to with MachineGames' reboot. There are a few really tense scenes, and the mystery of Helga and her adventures to uncover occult objects kept me engaged throughout. All of the classic FPS mechanics return, like the glorious multi-weapon wheel that outshines the two-gun limitations usually found on consoles. There's also a few new weapons like the melee-centric pipe and the explosive Kampfpistol, and existing guns have been refined, to the point where everything feels more viable. The perk system is still attached to challenges like stealth takedowns or weapon-specific kills, and is just as inspirational when it comes to driving players to experiment with new playstyles. The old adage "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" works here. Where Old Blood truly shines is its brevity. Both episodes are laser-focused, and don't waste as much time as some missions in the original. Both Castle Wolfenstein and Wulfburg are expansive enough to justify an entire game, and the development team does a good job of managing the pacing between stealth and action. I will say though that both core villains are a little less compelling than Deathshead, the experience is a tad more linear, and there's less character development here in general. Wolfenstein: The Old Blood operates just like an old school PC expansion should, and if you liked New Order, this is a no-brainer. In fact, due to the pulp feel of the second half I even slightly prefer it to the original, and the two interconnected plots are incredibly easy to swallow in an afternoon. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Wolfenstein review photo
Remember when PC expansions felt expansive?
Wolfenstein: The New Order was a refreshing reboot for a series that has a history of having many different development teams at the helm. After a five year hiatus, MachineGames came in and made the franchise its own, pu...

Review: Cosmophony

May 05 // Darren Nakamura
Cosmophony (Android, iPhone, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PlayStation Vita, Wii U)Developer: Bento StudioPublisher: Bento StudioReleased: May 5, 2015 (PlayStation systems)MSRP: $4.99 The setup is about as simple as it gets. Fly/glide/hover/whatever down a seven-lane tube. Avoid smashing into obstacles. Optionally shoot black triangle "enemies." That's about it. There are a couple of different measure for success. Getting through a level without dying is enough to unlock the next level. Doing that while destroying every black triangle along the way is worth a full rating. Each level can be played in Practice Mode or Normal Mode. Aesthetically, Practice Mode takes out the color and some visual effects, but the big difference is that it allows the use of checkpoints and gives the ability to fast-forward or rewind to replay tricky sections. Normal Mode is the real deal: make it through a level from start to finish; any mistake means restarting from the beginning. [embed]291451:58420:0[/embed] Cosmophony's unique hook is that it functions as a rhythm game, but the reliance on rhythm is hidden at first. In the early levels, there is a lot of room for error. Firing a shot at nothing carries no penalty and timing is irrelevant as long as moves are made before crashing. Often I would take out enemies before they were even on screen by spamming the fire button knowing which lane they would be in. That changes by the third level. There is still a little bit of leeway allowed for certain decisions. There is space to overshoot, moving three lanes left instead of two. However, after playing and replaying the same sections a few times, it dawned on me that every button press corresponds to a musical element. It's not just the shooting, but also the movement. Once that became clear, I was able to reach the zen state of concentration where my fingers were doing what they were supposed to be doing before my conscious brain could tell them. So few games hit that sweet spot, where the sound and light and difficulty all come together to create an intense mental experience. Level three of Cosmophony does that for me. Sadly, that falls apart for me at the fourth level. The difficulty ramps up consistently across the levels, but it goes too far to be enjoyable. Where previous levels allowed room for minor error and contained lighter sections for the player to refocus, it turns into a relentless exercise in rote memorization and execution. I was no longer finding my happy place where time slows down; I was only finding frustration. Cosmophony is like a firework. As it's flying up and sending out sparks, interest builds. Once it detonates it's an awesome show of color and sound. After that it's over and everybody goes home. It's short and intense, but it stops being interesting once it oversteps the line between fun and frustrating. I played it and enjoyed it until it felt unfair, and now I probably won't ever touch it again. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Cosmophony review photo
The difficulty sure ain't phony
I had been lulled into a false sense of security. I finished the tutorial and the first level of Cosmophony with a perfect rating in about 15 minutes. "Four more levels of this?" I thought. "Child's play." Cut to an hour and ...

Review: Light Bound

May 04 // Chris Carter
Light Bound (PC)Developer: Garden Knight GamesPublisher: Garden Knight GamesReleased: April 23, 2015MSRP: $9.99 Taking a quick look at one screenshot of Light Bound will give you the gist of what's going on. As a top-down shooter, it pits up to four players against each other in a celestial arena filled with fog-of-war effects and bright colors reminiscent of Pocketwatch Games' Monaco. After booting it up, the game even notes that it "plays best with a controller," and I'd highly recommend following that advice, especially if you're keen on local multiplayer. Movement is all very basic and smooth, as you'll guide your ship around the arena to pick up various power-ups, like spread or bouncy shots. One button controls your attacks, and really, that's about it. Your objective is to stay out of firing range while you roam around and pick up more ammo. [embed]291414:58413:0[/embed] There are a few cool effects that facilitate the action, like the aforementioned fog of war that prevents you from seeing the entire (randomly generated) battlefield at once. Additionally, Light Bound has a cool "gradual unpause" mechanic that slows the action down after resuming a session. Combined with the stylish use of colors, it's a pretty neat looking indie shooter. It's ultimately lacking in variety however, with a score-attack arcade mode and an arena option, the latter of which functions as the meat of the experience. In arcade, you'll gather ammo to quickly take down your AI opponents, with an emphasis on speed, exemplified with a timer that forces you to act quickly. It's endless, with an ego-boosting (or draining) leaderboard listing at the end. While it was interesting at first, I quickly gravitated to the arena. Things aren't that much different over there either, as there are four deathmatch variants (standard kills, lives, tag, and a mode with moving debuff rings), and only one overtly unique mode -- Clutch, which basically operates like Oddball from the Halo series. Your mileage is definitely going to vary depending on how many friends you can get together on the couch, but full bot support is the saving grace of arena mode, as bots are formidable enough to keep you playing (outside of Clutch, where they don't really adhere to the principles of the mode and kind of just go for kills). While it presents an underwhelming amount of play options, Light Bound shines with four players at the helm. There's options for teams (with silly randomly generated player names), and a number of custom options like life and weapon toggles. It isn't going to revolutionize the arena genre, but having four shooter enthusiast friends to split the cost isn't a bad way to go. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Light Bound review photo
Lobster King versus Donkey Tamer
It's interesting to see opinions fly back and forth for offline indie arena games. For years developers have been stating that online play is often impossible for small projects, either due to budget or design limitations, or...

Review: Chroma Squad

May 04 // Josh Tolentino
Chroma Squad (PC) Developer: Behold StudiosPublisher: Behold StudiosReleased: April 30, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Not that they really needed to, of course. Such a "feature" would interfere with play, and there's plenty of service in the game as it is for fans. The play, in this case, is of the turn-based tactical variety, as if Behold took XCOM and ran it through the parodic, pixelated filters of Knights of Pen and Paper.  Like the former, players will manage a small squad of combatants, with unique classes and abilities, running them up against groups of goons and the occasional boss, one turn at a time. Like the latter, every mechanic serves as a distillation of tokusatsu's essence through heavy referencing and a clear, almost palpable appreciation of the source material. The premise alone is ripe enough with potential that it's baffling more games haven't taken advantage: Players manage a fledgling production studio, with each mission treated as an "episode" of an upstart spandex superhero show. Names, casting, and even catchphrases are up for customization, as well as the requisite selection of bright primary colors to outfit the roster with. If players want to commit sentai sacrilege and name a non-red-colored character the "Lead," no one can stop them but their inevitable guilt (guilt, I say!). Cast members can also be selected from a pool of actor candidates, each with their own special qualities.  [embed]291251:58411:0[/embed] When the cameras start rolling and the minions exit wardrobe, the fight is on. The goal of any given mission is to amass as much "audience" as possible, by performing flashy attacks, fancy stunts, and of course, winning the fight. Additionally, optional "Director's Instructions" add extra conditions, such as finishing off boss monsters with a screen-filling finishing move, or not killing off the boss before dispatching the cannon-fodder minions. Such extra goals help introduce variety to the combat, which is more simplistic than one might find in XCOM or other dedicated tactical titles. Enemies follow simple patterns and lack much in the way of extra abilities, so most of the tactics devolve to crowd and ability cooldown management rather than more elegant stratagems. Chroma Squad's main mechanical wrinkle comes in the form of "Teamwork," which allows squad members to leapfrog over each other to boost their movement range, or carry out simultaneous attacks with adjacent teammates. This, alongside somewhat simplistic giant-mecha boss battles, give the game enough of a unique flavor to override its otherwise thin tactical substance.  Following the mission, gained audience is converted into "fans," and also into increased studio funding, the better to buy one's way out of Papier-mâché costumes and into some real spandex duds. Behind the scenes, the studio itself can be outfitted with various upgrades that improve performance in each episode. Buying health care for the actors improves their health in combat, and improving the lighting on set reduces enemies' chance to dodge or counter blows. Materials dropped in combat can also be used to craft customized gear with semi-random statistics, a useful (and cheap) alternative to costly store-bought costumes and weapons. Fan mail can be answered for flavor and smaller benefits, and players can even choose marketing agencies to confer more benefits. Going with a niche-market enthusiast firm might increase the amount of fans gained after an episode, but will likely lack the mass-audience-gathering benefits of a more mainstream advertising push. Tradeoffs like that characterize much of Chroma Squad's meta-game. Speaking of meta-things, the game's narrative and missions regularly break the fourth wall, and form one of the game's potentially divisive aspects. While the self-aware script and obvious understanding of tokusatsu's many conventions and tropes lend it an endearing level of charm, some players might be turned off by references to dated Internet memes and other metahumor. Personally, I found the story hit quite a bit more than it missed, but I will admit that at times the dialog read more like a forum chat log than a script, and wasn't always helped by rough spots in the localization and editing. Then again, it's not like tokusatsu attracts its fans for complex plotting and characterization, so it may balance out in the end for players in the right mindset. What isn't as easy to let by are some unfortunate, if minor, technical and design blemishes on Chroma Squad's pristine pixelation. Mission scripts would occasionally freeze in "cutscene" mode, forcing me to start the mission over. A nasty little bug accidentally equipped low-level equipment on my giant robot, making some late-game boss battles much more tense than I'd have liked them to be. One bug even gave me control of an enemy unit rather than my own squad members for a few turns! Thankfully, dev posts on the forums appear to indicate that Behold is aware of most of the bugs I encountered, and a patch is in the works at the time of this writing. Beyond that, the lack of a mid-mission checkpoint or save, or a mission-select option is inconvenient for players wanting to explore the game's branching story paths (especially for those curious to see what Behold has to say about Kamen Rider). That said, the team has stated a New Game+ option may yet be in the cards for a future update, so repeated playthroughs may become more appealing in the future. Zordon may have wanted "teens with attitude," but Chroma Squad and its unabashed, utterly geeky love-in for all things tokusatsu shows something even harder to find: A game with heart and soul. That heart shines through the rough edges, and in some ways even turns them to its advantage. It might have taken quite a while in getting here, but fans of spandex-clad superheroic finally have the videogame to help them fill that little fantasy. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Chroma Squad review photo
Lights, Camera, Henshin!
Ever since a badly-dubbed lady popped out of a dumpster on the moon, sending a weird computer-man to seek "teenagers with attitude," geeks of a certain age have been on the lookout for a game that can capture the essence of w...

Review: Crypt of the NecroDancer

May 04 // Patrick Hancock
Crypt of the NecroDancer (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Brace Yourself GamesPublisher: Brace Yourself Games, KleiRelease Date: April 23, 2015MSRP: $14.99 It would be a criminal act to not immediately mention the music in Crypt of the NecroDancer as it plays a starring role and deserves the first-paragraph treatment. This is mostly due to the fact that music is interwoven into the gameplay itself. The player can only act in time with the beat, which is also when the enemies act. Said beat has a visual representation on the bottom of the screen to help players get accustomed to it, but after a short while most players will be acting based on the audio cue, not the visual. When done correctly, the music, movements, and sound effects line up to create something that can only be described as "groovy."  In a game where music is at the core of the experience, the soundtrack could have easily made the game fall flat. Thankfully, this is not the case. There are three soundtracks built into the game. The default music is by Danny Baranowsky, and it is amazingly brilliant and brilliantly amazing. The tunes for each level are varied, yet all of them are catchy. The other soundtracks are a metal remix by FamilyJules7X and an EDM version by A_Rival, and also assuage the eardrums. Regardless of music preference, players are bound to dig one, if not all, of these versions. It's also possible for players to import their own music for people who don't like good music, or just want to work with something different.  The game isn't just about boppin' along to some great music, though; there is a story at play here. There are cutscenes for characters between zones, and paying attention to them, as well as some in-game hints, alludes to a pretty big overarching story. It's split over multiple playthroughs with different characters, so it will take some time to reveal the whole thing. The lore is legitimately interesting, something many players may not be expecting.  Every action is mapped to the arrow keys. In fact, the game can even be played with a dance pad! There's a specific mode for dance pad play, which makes the game a bit easier since the control method is inherently more difficult. This also serves as an easier mode to introduce players to the game who don't feel they are up to the full challenge quite yet. When playing with a controller, everything is mapped to the face buttons, which can also be remapped to the player's liking. [embed]291156:58414:0[/embed] Attacking is as simple as pressing the direction of the enemy. Items and spells are also available, and are used by pressing a combination of two arrow keys. For example, to use a bomb, players must press down and left (by default) on the beat. Various weapon types will alter where enemies can be killed in relation to the player, and it is of the utmost important to know a weapon's attack range. When moving, the game will check if anything can be attacked first. So if a player is expecting to move forward but an enemy is within attack range, the attack will happen. This means the character will remain stationary, which can be bad news in certain situations. Knowing these attack mechanics is crucial, and thankfully there is a weapon range in the game where players can try out all the different types of weapons and learn them inside and out. I recommend doing this at least once, especially for the whip. In addition to weapons, players have access to a shovel for digging through walls, a consumable item, a torch, armor, a ring, and a spell. Armor is split up into head, chest, and feet, making there a lot of items to equip for a full "set." The items found are random so make sure to pray to RNGesus before each run! Many items must be unlocked before they show up in chests within the dungeon. Unlocking items is permanent and costs diamonds, which can be found in the dungeon itself. Any diamonds not spent in between runs are lost forever, giving the player all the incentive in the world to spend them on something. It's the perfect system of progression in a game that otherwise has very little, ensuring that even the "terrible" runs can usually yield some sort of good news and contribute to the greater good. The dungeon is split into four distinct zones, each with its own atmosphere, enemies, and randomly generated layout. The first two are on the simpler side of things, but the third and fourth zones introduce new tile mechanics and are completely unique. It's amazing how fast confidence plummets after beating one zone and entering another. It's easy to be on a bit of a high after beating a boss for the first time, only to be introduced to a brand new area where players know basically nothing. It's a kick in the pants, and it feels so good. Speaking of the boss fights, each one in NecroDancer is incredibly memorable. Each one has its own theme and executes it perfectly. My favorite is definitely Deep Blues, which puts the player against an entire set of chess pieces as enemies, who move according to the chess ruleset. Seeing a boss for the first time usually results in a bit of laughter followed by an "oh shit" as the gravity of the situation sets in. Then death, of course. Some bosses are definitely easier to comprehend than others (I don't want to use the term "easier in general"), and the boss fights at the end of zones one through three are randomly chosen, which exacerbates the feeling of luck that's inherent in the roguelike genre. There's likely going to be some aggravation from time to time, simply because of bad luck. This frustration is lessened because of the diamond system, but the feeling of futility is occasionally hard to fight back, especially when there's nothing left to spend diamonds on. While each zone shares some common enemies, the enemy variety in each zone is largely unique. Some weapons may feel overpowered in one zone, and completely useless in another simply because of the change in enemy behavior. This makes the "all zones" runs that much harder. Some enemy types will be "buffed" in later zones, adding more health or variants on the original behavior. After completing the four core areas, there is still plenty to keep players occupied. Crypt of the NecroDancer also supports mods, and they are dead simple to use. All you have to do is download a mod from the Steam Workshop, then activate it from the pause menu. Many of the mods are currently music changes or skin changes, but only time will tell how far they go in the future. Different characters are also unlocked by accomplishing certain goals, and these characters are way more than just re-skins of the main character, Candace. The Monk, for example, can choose any one item from the Shopkeeper for free, but will die instantly if he lands on gold. Considering gold is dropped by literally every enemy, this forces a huge change in playstyle. I couldn't even get past the first zone! In addition to the standard dungeon, which can also be tackled with two players in local multiplayer, there is a boss fight arena, an enemy behavior trainer, a codex for advanced skills, a daily challenge, and a level editor. Beating the game once is really only the beginning. There are enough variations on the basic playthrough to keep players coming back for a long time. Crypt of the NecroDancer accomplishes what few games even attempt to do. It merges together two completely different genres: rhythm and roguelike. The frustrations of both come as part of the package, but some intelligent design decisions help to alleviate the issue. For those looking for the next gaming obsession after the likes of Spelunky, Binding of Isaac, or Rogue Legacy, look no further than Crypt of the NecroDancer. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
NecroDancer review! photo
Tunes from the crypt
Dance Dance Revolution was a large part of an earlier era of my life. Going though dance pads year after year until I finally convinced my parents to get me one of the "big boy" pads for a lot more money. Eventually I gr...

Review: The Weaponographist

May 03 // Chris Carter
The Weaponographist (PC)Developer: PuubaPublisher: MastertronicReleased: April 29, 2015MSRP: $9.99 The Weaponographist is designed to be a lot like recent "roguelikes" (whatever that term means these days), and I'd like to think of it as a mix between The Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy. The setup this time around for constantly going in and out of random dungeons is by way of a witch's curse, forcing the hero (who is a bit of an asshole) to rescue a town. He's cursed to fulfill his obligations, and after death, will constantly respawn in town until he succeeds. It's a cute setup, but that's really the only neat thing it has going for it. With plug and play controller support, picking up Weaponographist is easy enough. Each face button will attack on its respective side, and as part of your curse, picking up weapons constantly is key as they'll break over time. If you don't have an item handy you can use your fists until you find another one, pick it up, break it, and repeat. This is the cookie-cutter formula for pretty much every modern roguelike, but unlike a few recent hits, it gets stale after a scant few runs. Townsfolk will have a few upgrades for you here and there, like better fisticuff training, more complex weapon combos with specific armaments, and spells -- a small mechanic that allows you to occasionally bust out fireballs and the like. The problem with the upgrade system is that it's not sexy in the slightest. There's only a few boring purchases available at any given time, most of which passively increase your stats in a non-visible or menial manner. I like the way combat is handled, at least in theory, as you need to constantly kill things in rapid succession to increase in power, and the "break, find" items force you to experiment and get out of your comfort zone. Ultimately, the Isaac comparison ends at the top-down boxed dungeon aesthetic, because it's much less inspired than Edmund McMillen's masterpiece. Every room functions like an arena, with very little in the way of exploration or hidden secrets. There's simply not enough variation, and the amount of time spent in individual rooms is way too long and the end result is grindy combat. As a hypothetical free PlayStation Plus title, The Weaponographist would have some room to flourish as a mindless hack and slash game with a poorly implemented, but nonetheless existent, reward loop. But as it exists right now in its sole PC incarnation, there are many more titles worthy of your time -- including that 1000th run of Isaac you've been putting off.
Weaponographist review photo
As cursed as its hero
When The Weaponographist was described to me as "a speedrunning hack-n-slasher dipped in a bit of rogue sauce," I barfed a lil' bit. Playing it didn't do much to assuage my illness.

Review: Hearthstone: Blackrock Mountain

May 01 // Chris Carter
Hearthstone: Blackrock Mountain (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentReleased: April 2, 2014 to April 30, 2015MSRP: Free-to-play (with microtransactions) For the entire month of April, Blizzard slowly unlocked each of the four wings of Blackrock Mountain expansion. The entire experience is finally available for $24.99 (or 700 in-game gold per wing), and I'm happy to report that it was worth the cash, as it's a step up from Naxxramas in most respects. The key to success with Blackrock is the commitment to the lore and having it fit within the confines of Hearthstone. That classic nostalgic rush you got as a raider in vanilla World of Warcraft is still there when you fight Ragnaros, Nefarian, and their crew, but with all of the goofy quips and dialog you'd expect from a card game that takes place within the same universe. In fact, it's still there even if you're meeting these characters for the first time. What really surprised me is how well Blizzard adapted these boss fights into engaging encounters. There were some bright spots in Naxx as well, but a few Blackrock battles really blew me away. Take Garr, who constantly destroys his own minions in an effort to take you out by way of Deathrattle damage. The catch is that each minion that dies on the same turn does an exponential amount of damage, forcing you to either whittle each enemy down individually, or just go for the all-out kill in four turns. Majordomo Exectus is another amazing confrontation, as he has a specific 8/8 card that he can summon for free if he drops below a certain amount of health. You have to strategically keep him alive until you have enough cards to take him out in one swift blow, or risk fighting an army of super-powered cards. The latter situation is doable with the right deck, which highlights how versatile Hearthstone is in general. There are plenty more unique levels too, like one that only lets you and your opponent play one card per turn of any value -- with concepts like these, the Heroic mode (unlocked after beating each wing) presents the biggest challenge yet. Class challenges are also back, and reward you with two class-specific cards after conquering an enemy with a pre-set deck. Mechanically this is probably the best part of Blizzard's Hearthstone expansions, as they allow you to step out of your comfort zone and experience new styles of play while rewarding you appropriately. It's a tradition that I'd love to see continued. The main aspect that I felt was a step down from Naxxramas however is the general theme of the expansion itself. Naxx felt like a completely different game, with bright hues of green, purple, and red. The cards were utterly unique and unlike anything you had seen before from a design perspective, and I still use many of them today solely based on their aesthetics. With Blackrock there are a lot of great cards as rewards, but a lot of them share the same artwork as the rest of the core set. While it may not look as dazzling as Naxxramas, Blackrock Mountain expansion is still the best add-on yet, edging out the card-only Goblins vs Gnomes. I'm still chipping away at the Heroic fights, and with how many card options are available at this point, I'll probably be messing around with custom decks for weeks. [This review is based on a retail build of the expansion provided by the publisher.]
Hearthstone DLC review photo
The best expansion yet
As I've described in the past, my history with Hearthstone is pretty much inline with how Blizzard wants most of its customer base to enjoy it. I'm loving it in spurts, as it's perfect for quick pick up sessions with fri...

Review: Omega Quintet

Apr 29 // Josh Tolentino
Omega Quintet (PS4) Developer: Compile HeartPublisher: Idea Factory (JP), Idea Factory International (US/EU)Released: October 2, 2014 (JP) / April 28, 2015 (US) / May 1, 2015 (EU)MSRP: $59.99 Speaking of other "firsts," playing Omega Quintet brings to mind the very first Hyperdimension Neptunia title. That's not a good sign, seeing as the original game literally put Matt Razak to sleep back in 2011. Indeed, despite being, on paper, one of the most feature-rich titles Compile Heart has produced, the experience of playing Omega Quintet feels decidedly regressive, a far cry from the comparative refinement that the Neptunia franchise has managed to cultivate over the years. Perhaps some of that disconnect is cultural. Whereas the Neptunia series' light parody of the game industry and its never-ending platform wars will be familiar to most gamers, idol culture -- which informs much of Omega Quintet's setup -- is largely absent outside of Japan. Many of its references to the peculiarities of pop-princess life fall flat for lack of that common ground. On the other hand, not even Neptunia could be considered especially sophisticated in its satire. Anyone familiar with that series would know that the premises, however niche or inventive, really serve as a framework on which to drape a proven mix of cute girls, complex battle systems, anime-tinged humor, and sexualization. Omega Quintet is in much the same way, and its paeans to the life of celebrities are ultimately skin-deep. Except even by those lowered standards and tempered expectations, the game still comes across as lazy and half-hearted, without the charm or spark that helped its cousins rise above their otherwise mundane core.  Omega Quintet at least sounds interesting at first. Its future-set, ostensibly apocalyptic setting is cutely subverted by the fact that the Blare, an existence pushing humanity to the brink of extinction, can only be stopped by the Verse Maidens, a troupe of magical girl idols who sing and fight with giant weapons called "Mics". The Verse Maidens are powered by the adoration of the people, which necessitates their fights being broadcast live like a concert. Sadly, the last active Verse Maiden, Momoka, is retiring, because she's apparently much older than she looks. Enter Otoha, a fresh-faced youngster, and her male friend/player stand-in Takt, as the newest Verse Maiden recruit and the team manager, respectively. As more new Verse Maidens join to take up the reins, various anime-flavored antics ensue alongside goodly amounts of suggestive posing, relationship-building, wacky conversations, and of course, saving the world. The catch, unfortunately, is that all this cutsey waifu fun has to be experienced from the perspective of Takt, one of the least likable male leads ever to be inflicted on videogames. It's as if whomever wrote his lines mistook being a total prick for an aloof kind of coolness. Every word from his mouth is marinated in pointless sarcasm and brain-dead snark that it makes the event scenes -- which already run far too long and stretch their one-note jokes to the breaking point as it is -- a grating exercise in tedium. If he can't even be bothered to care what's going on, why should we? The game can't even be bothered to fully incorporate its premise into the main structure. Omega Quintet comes with a surprisingly robust "PVS" mode, which allows players to essentially construct dance and concert videos from the game's (rather small) collection of idol songs, complete with video recording and upload functions, but there's rarely any point or main-game benefit to engaging it. Ironically, despite the fact that this game is supposed to be Compile Heart's "idol RPG," Neptunia Producing Perfection, which is more of an actual idol-centric game than this could hope to be, came out last year. [embed]290971:58370:0[/embed] If there is a group that could look forward to enjoying Omega Quintet, it's the crowd that comes to JRPGs not for narrative or anime antics, but for abstract and engaging battle systems. Omega Quintet's is enjoyably complex and interesting to master. Where the trend in RPG battle has moved away from menus and into quasi-action game territory, Omega Quintet is all too happy to throw players into a sea of menu selections and gauge-driven turn-based combat. At its core, the game's battling relies on using attacks of varying effectiveness, range, and recovery time to manipulate the turn order. Stacking commands and attacks so that the Verse Maidens all take their turns in quick succession unlocks powerful Harmonics attacks, and building "Voltage" (a gauge representing the audience's fervor) eventually results in engaging the cinematic "Live Concert" mode, a sort of super attack that involves big damage, over-the-top animation, and background lyrics. Throw in Takt's ability to partner up with the Verse Maidens to deliver follow-ups or stat boosts, as well as score-boosting Overkill systems, a Sphere-Grid-like character progression system, and even item and gear crafting, and there's plenty of mechanical fat to chew on. If only the context and characters surrounding this part of the game were more worthwhile. Though there's nothing explicitly wrong with it, Omega Quintet feels far too much like a "by-the-numbers" Compile Heart title to do justice to the studio's first current-gen effort. Its narrative and aesthetic "fluff" ultimately fail to support its dense and otherwise engrossing mechanical heart. For a game about a bunch of girls finding their voices and path in the world, it has distressingly little "voice" of its own.  [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Omega Quintet review photo
Same old song and dance routine
Omega Quintet is a game of firsts. Chronologically, it's the PlayStation 4's first exclusive Japanese RPG (Final Fantasy Type-0 originally being a PSP game). It's also developer Compile Heart's first PS4 game, and by certain logic, the first JRPG to plumb Japan's idol subculture. If only being such a pioneer had resulted in a game that actually put its best foot forward.

Review: Environmental Station Alpha

Apr 28 // Jed Whitaker
Environmental Station Alpha (PC)Developers: Arvi Teikari, Roope MäkinenPublisher: Hempuli Oy  Released: April 22, 2015 MSRP: $7.99 As a robot sent on a special mission, you'll spend your time exploring a space station filled with different environments, from a forest to a volcano and even a surprisingly well-done water level. Along the way, players will find clues via computers that hint at the previous happenings of the station, upgrades that help you access news areas, and general power upgrades. Most areas contain multiple bosses, and a plethora of secrets to find. Alpha doesn't stray far from the basic Metroidvania formula. Search until you find a boss, kill it, collect an upgrade that allows you to advance to the next area -- then repeat. That isn't by any means a bad thing. You're free to roam as you see fit, but computer terminals will mark areas on your map that give a general idea of where to go; you only need to figure out how to get there. The station is huge. Luckily, there are teleporters that can be activated to jump around areas when needed, cutting backtracking time. Even with a map and this convenient means of travel, I found myself getting lost more than once, especially later in the game when I was forced to retrace my steps to find where the next area was. The fact that you were given these general locations to guide you early on and are no longer provided them later in the campaign feels like an unfortunate design oversight. Finally finding where you need to go can be rewarding, or tedious depending on the amount of time needed. A lot can be done with pixel art, and Environmental Station Alpha is proof of that. Each biome has a unique look and feel and is far more detailed than the retro games that influenced it. Leaves fall around you in the forest biome, bubbles appear in the water, and sparks fly in the volcano biome. Each area has a nice unique effect that really complements the action well. Combine this with a soundtrack that will get stuck in your head, and you have an all-around decent presentation. Throughout the game you'll acquire various upgrades that range from a double jump, to a dash to a hookshot that feels rather similar, to the bionic arm from the original Bionic Commando. The hookshot is really a key item, as the moment you get it you're expected to use it often to traverse each of the station's biomes. Thankfully the hookshot mechanics are solid, allowing you to swing to and fro finding the next boss with ease. While you constantly gain upgrades throughout the game, boss battles never seem too easy or too hard, as their difficulty scales well. Each boss feels unique from the others, having different attack patterns and varying weak points. Since these big bads aren't pushovers, I was neck and neck with many of them, often times at the end of my health bar when I finally defeated them. These confrontations are some of the most satisfying boss battles I've had in a game in some time.  After finishing the initial story a ton of post-game content waits to be found on and off the station, but locating it won't be easy. A cryptic alien language must be decoded and then used to subsequently translate various clues. Following said clues will lead you to multiple endings and a post-game boss. While all this certainly extends its shelf-life, the amount of effort required to translate the hints, which themselves are rather vague, isn't for everyone. Those who persevere will be able to get their save files up to a 202 percent completion when all is said and done. Overall, Environmental Station Alpha didn't reinvent the wheel when it comes to Metroidvania games, but it certainly helped satisfy my appetite. The amount of secrets and post-game crypticness might be great for some, and it does extend the playtime quite a bit, but as a completionist I found it to be more legwork than I'd like. Call me crazy, but I don't like tons of cryptography in my games. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Environmental Station 	 photo
Robots, viruses, and ghosts, oh my!
Metroidvanias are all the rage in the indie scene these days, in part because Nintendo seemingly doesn't want to make a new Metroid game, and Konami turned Castlevania into a God of War clone. Environmental Station Alpha may ...

Review: Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart

Apr 28 // Kyle MacGregor
Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart (PlayStation Vita)Developer: Sting, Compile HeartPublisher: Idea Factory InternationalReleased: February 24, 2015 (NA) February 27, 2015 (EU)MSRP: $39.99  Why was I so hopeful for Hyperdimension Neptunia? Well, the concept of a game that parodies the console wars is almost too good to give up on. The series follows a group of anthropomorphized gaming consoles, each the ruler of her own kingdom, all vying for dominance in what's effectively a grand popularity contest. It's a cute idea, at the very least, with the potential for so much more. I hoped it would be a clever satire, something introspective and comedic that poked fun at the industry in an interesting or meaningful way. Instead, I discovered one jejune RPG after the next, a middling collection of games that lean all too heavily on fan service as crutch. What I wanted this series to be and what it is are two very different things. I probably should have realized that before now, but well, here we are. The latest entry in the franchise, Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart, may be a spin-off, but it hews closely to its source material -- albeit with one notable exception. This is a strategy role-playing game, rather than a more traditional one. However, aside from the difference in combat, those familiar with Compile Heart's previous efforts will know exactly what to expect out of this one. But let's talk about what makes this entry unique. The action takes place on grid-based battlefields. There, players act as the general of a small army, moving units to support allies and assault foes. In addition to the SP gauge, used for special attacks, there's an LP meter, which fuels even more powerful moves and allows the central protagonists to transform into their more powerful goddess forms. LP is an interesting resource, as it's gained by performing special attacks while flanked by friendly units. This will result in a kissing animation, which doubles as a power-up.  This system is a key component of a successful strategy on the battlefield, but it isn't without risk. As you might expect, clustering into tightly-packed ranks makes units more susceptible to area-of-effect attacks, meaning it could as easily pave the way to victory as it could to your undoing. The level design at work here is interesting and varied, constantly shaking things up with a range of traps, puzzles, and obstacles. The objectives are similarly diverse, though I'm not sure the assortment makes the combat terribly compelling. Despite minimal repetition, the pace of play here feels inordinately slow. Battles often feel overly long and drawn out, especially when a protracted series of turns are dedicated entirely to positioning. There are a lot of lulls in the action that mar an otherwise competent tactical experience. The story doesn't help in that regard, with a hackneyed plot and shallow, tropey characters that talk forever about nothing at all. There's some mild referential humor to be found, but it's mostly about the fan service. It has plenty of pantsu and giant, jiggling breasts, which is made all the more creepy by the new chibi art direction. The entire cast look like abominable hypersexualized infants. Speaking of said characters, most of the ones you'll be taking into battle over the course of the game are based on popular Japanese videogame franchises. This was actually one of my favorite parts of the experience, as taking personifications of the Street Fighter, Yakuza, and Dragon Quest (I could go on and on) series into the field was a real joy. Their special attacks (like the Metal Gear-inspired Lid's cardboard box stealth attack) are particularly charming, and serve as nice nods to players who are familiar with the source material. It's just a pity that these characters are often relegated to a support role, as the familiar faces are far more useful on the battlefield. Since Noire, Blanc, Neptune, and Vert can all transform into their extremely mighty goddess forms, it pays to deploy them over your favorites. While transformed, the goddesses are able to fly, making them immune to traps and elements of the landscape that limit conventional troopers. It's a lamentable design choice, impelling players to use the same, stale heroines rather than the revolving door of refreshing newcomers.  There are other questionable choices that hamper the experience, like: lengthy enemy turns, the constant influx of tutorial messages that are more busy than informative, a loading period at the beginning of each fight where the game makes you watch combatants materialize out of thin air, one-hit kills, and a bizarre movement mechanic that doesn't allow you to move units exactly where you'd like them to go -- even if that space is in range. There are just dozens of little annoyances peppered throughout the experience that require the player to be very patient and forgiving. It's unfortunate because there's a decent strategy RPG at Goddess Black Heart's core, but the game just can't seem to get out of its own way. Hyperdimension Neptunia fans may well enjoy this one, but I can't count myself among them. The series has an alluring premise, but it just doesn't push the idea far enough for me. The cloying characters and banal story are just so incredibly vapid, and the respectable strategic gameplay just isn't enough to compensate for the myriad of drawbacks and stumbling blocks. Sorry Noire, but it's time we go our separate ways. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Hyperdevotion Review photo
It's not you, it's me
Falling in love with potential can be dangerous. A mistake people make far too often when forging new relationships is placing undue expectations on others. People grow and change, but it's impossible to know how or when that...

Review: Westerado: Double Barreled

Apr 27 // Jed Whitaker
Westerado: Double Barreled (PC)Developer: Ostrich Banditos Publisher: Adult Swim Games Released: April 16, 2015MSRP: $14.99 It starts like any normal day, waking up to help your family take care of the ranch, rounding up some buffalo back to their pen. The night sky glows orange in the distance while returning home, a strange sight for the west. The glow soon becomes embers as you realize your family ranch is ablaze, blood is strewn about the ground, your mother is slaughtered and your brother is fatally wounded. Your brother doesn't have much information about who did this, but he does give you one single clue, information about the killers clothing. He gurgles blood as he asks for you to end his suffering, you cock your gun, as tears stream down your face you pull the trigger.  The beginning of Westerado is one of the strongest openings of a game I've ever played, and gives the player a real sense of purpose, revenge.  The universe Westerado takes place in is easily recognizable: A western with cowboys, a quest for vengeance, a bank, an oil man, a saloon with strong female characters in tow; this is a spaghetti western. Dialog for characters is written in a south western dialect that makes anyone feel like a real life cowboy when reading it aloud. A film strip overlay is shown behind characters as they converse, just one of many indications found throughout Westerado that indicate it takes place on a film set. All this overlayed with a wonderful soundtrack that would feel at home in any western flick. Searching for the murderer entails wandering from town to town, through deserts and mines while talking to characters along the way. Conversations with characters often times lead to jobs. Jobs range from defending a ranch from bandits, to forcing a drunkard husband to leave the saloon at gunpoint, to sexing up "Miss Tress" a local promiscuous female. The variety of quests is refreshing, as each one is unique from the others. Upon completing these jobs characters reveal more information about the murderer, specifically what they are wearing. Clues are collected for you in a handy dandy notebook, which includes a wanted poster showing the murderer as described by clues.  Jobs aren't completed with just walking and talking as you'll be using your six shooter to leave a trail of bodies on your quest for vengeance. Equipped with infinite ammo, the six shooter is drawn by pressing a bumper button, the hammer is cocked with one press of the right trigger and then fired with a second press. Reloading is done manually one bullet at a time with the left trigger. The controls feel like you're holding an actual six shooter. Aiming, on the other hand, takes some getting used to. Your gun fires in a straight line from the barrel, which works mechanically but seems odd when the game is presented in three dimensional space, but after a few gunfights it will be second nature. Westerado can be played with a co-op partner, with any of the four characters that can be unlocked through multiple playthroughs. Every time you play you'll have a different murderer to gather clues on and locate, though the only things that change are clothing or gender, and the map stays the same. While having a randomly generated map could have been a better choice, it is a minor gripe for an otherwise near flawless game. Rarely do I sit down to play a game, finish it and instantly start a new playthrough; this is one of those games. Westerado is a great package with lots of replayability and can easily be recommended for fans of westerns or revenge flicks. No other experience that I've played has done revenge so well. If you've been hankerin' for a trip to the wild west saddle up and hang onto your hat, Westerado: Double Barreled is a dern tootin' good time. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Westerado Review photo
Yee-haw! Giddy up! Yip! Yip!
Do you like spaghetti westerns with charm, humor, hammy accents and over the top violence? How about revenge flicks, video games with retro style graphics? Do you like fun? Are you breathing oxygen?  Well then partner ya...

Review: Uncanny Valley

Apr 27 // Stephen Turner
Uncanny Valley (PC) Developers: Cowardly Creations Publisher: Cowardly Creations   Released: April 23, 2015  MSRP: $8.99 (10% off until April 30) Things start off well enough with a panic-inducing nightmare, followed by a car journey through the pixelated wilderness. As Tom, the new night watchman at Melior -- an abandoned robotics facility -- it's your job to keep the pilot light running until the place gets bought up by new owners. Tom's only companions are Buck, a grouchy and overweight guard, and Eve, a cleaner who takes a keen interest in the new arrival. But while Tom suffers from nightmares of the past, his rounds at the facility quickly draw him into something much, much worse. Sure, there's a mystery to be found, but like a kid trying to pull a prank on you, it reveals its hand far too soon. In fact, with so many audio tapes freely scattered around the workplace, you'll figure out the major twist before you make it past the first night. Overall, Uncanny Valley is a good story poorly executed. It's choppy and muddled due to a reliance on repeat playthroughs and a presentation of two distinct halves. In the first half of the game, you're given a seven-minute work shift. In that time, you're allowed to go anywhere on four separate floors, where you can read emails, collect audio tapes, or play the arcade machines. Once the time limit is up, you have a choice of snooping around for longer (in which case, Tom eventually collapses from exhaustion) or getting back to your room for a good night's rest. Whatever happens, you're always thrown into a nightmare sequence that can be completed or failed without much consequence, beyond the reward of more backstory. [embed]291010:58344:0[/embed] Then after several shifts, time management is suddenly dropped in favour of a more traditional survival horror experience. It's an odd design choice; one minute, you're scrambling around to fit an investigation into your work schedule, and the next, you're given all the time you need, right before the point of no return. And it's in the second half that Uncanny Valley falls apart. It's certainly more engaging, even if it does wear several influences on its sleeve. There's a health system lifted from Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where injuries slow you down, make you louder, or ruin your aim, while the hide-and-seek gameplay intentionally evoke memories of Clock Tower. Unfortunately, and especially for long standing horror fans, it's the consequence system and vague puzzles that turns all the goodwill into a frustrating experience. For example, after your first enemy encounter, you're conditioned to stay out of their way, but then a door puzzle requires you to get attacked, just so you can control an enemy and let it aid you into the next room. There's thinking out of the box and then there's going back on everything you just said. The consequence system, while subtle early on, ends up being a detriment to the narrative. Get knocked out at one point and you go from Scene A to Scene C, skipping Scene B and its vital exposition in the process; all because you didn't react quickly enough or even know there was a choice. Tailored, unchangable choices are fine, but in one ending, a character shows up injured from a scene I never encountered. In another ending, a suspicious group wait outside for Tom without an introduction or a reminder of their identity. You just had to play better to know. And for that, beyond the facility's macabre history, you never really get enough motivation to care. Your decisions are informed by player experimentation rather than character incentive. In Clock Tower, Jennifer has the option to escape early on, mainly because of Scissor Man and a sense of self-preservation. Here, in an obvious homage, Tom chooses to run away simply because you stumbled upon Buck's car keys, long before you encounter the horrors in the scary basement. As previously stated, Uncanny Valley is intentionally designed for repeated playthroughs, but after the second, third, and fourth try, it feels like a chore as you piece together the core plotline from different decisions. Detours aren't forbidden in storytelling, but with several listless endings on offer (plus one or two deliciously disturbing ones), it never feels definitive. Once you get the gist, there's no need to go back for dimishing returns. But there are positives lurking under all this frustration. For a short game (clocking at 2 hours at best), it does panicky horror quite well; holding off on the worst elements and planting the seeds early on, like the only working generator in the woods. It's more a case of when things strike, not what will strike. Once alerted, enemies smash through doors and chase you down until they fall apart. The shadowy horde that follow Tom in his nightmares are another horrific highlight. The pixel art is equally vivid and grim, with body horrors roaming the hallways and disturbing sciences haunting the background. The soundtrack flicks between reflective melancholy and weighty industrial themes, and the voice acting on the audio tapes is perfectly pitched as offbeat and ominous. All in all, it captures the doom-laden mood of '70s sci-fi perfectly; though, why the game chooses to make all the in-game dialogue as one-lined text is just puzzling. Unfortunately, I never finished my fourth run. Another save bug deleted a key item from my inventory and progression ground to a halt. I felt that after several endings and Tom's history explored, I'd seen enough. All of which brings us back to that original dilemma, for which I'll sadly say that, no, Uncanny Valley isn't worth it. It's a game that rewards you for being better on the next attempt, which means a lot of players will get that same jarring and incomplete experience as I did, early on, only for it to be replaced by waning interest as repetition sets in. I wanted to enjoy Uncanny Valley, especially with its opening concept and jump scares, but despite all the assurances and hard work with those patches, it just wasn't to be. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
PC photo
Should've taken that job at the fireworks factory
I didn’t have the greatest of starts with Uncanny Valley. After only 15 minutes of play time, I’d wandered into one of the “bad” endings seemingly by accident. On my second attempt, I encountered so ma...

Review: Shadowrun Chronicles - Boston Lockdown

Apr 27 // Chris Carter
Shadowrun Chronicles - Boston Lockdown (PC) Developer: Cliffhanger ProductionsPublisher: Nordic GamesReleased: April 28, 2015MSRP: $39.99 As a quick crash course on the story, "Shadowrun" literally refers to the act of carrying out plans which are "illegal or quasi-legal." You'll have plenty of chances to engage in said debauchery, as the world has gone through an "Awakening" 65 years before Lockdown, which takes place in 2076. Magic has returned to the world, dwarves, elves, orcs, and trolls are a thing -- oh, and dragons too. Returns took place in Seattle, Dragonfall was in Germany, and this is in Boston. Got it? Action will take place in an isometric strategic format very similar to the XCOM series. Using a classic mouse and keyboard setup, you'll have two maximum movement grids, the second layer of which will allow you to "sprint," and immediately end your turn. The first threshold will still allow you to attack, use a skill, or interact with the environment accordingly. Gameplay is all about positioning and outflanking your opponent, as well as placing emphasis on a risk-reward melee mechanic. For the most part you'll want to conservatively duck into various bits of cover, but since hand-to-hand attacks always result in a higher damage output, there's the chance to get up close and personal. It's all very functional, but to be frank, that's about as technical as the game gets. [embed]290948:58338:0[/embed] As you progress and earn more skills, you'll have the opportunity to delve into various trees and specialize in something that's more your style. Beyond your typical passive bonuses (Mind, Body) there's weapon-centric trees (blades, blunt, pistols, shotguns, automatics), summoning, spellcasting, hacking, and rigging -- the latter of which is more like a "gearhead" conceit. You don't need to hole-up into just one role (although you likely will at first), as you're free to distribute your skills as you see fit. Personally, I went with the automatic rifle route combined with a touch of summoning. Your basic summon includes a spirit bear, which can maul or stun enemies as its own autonomous unit -- it's really cool, but later skills are often less memorable or endearing as more progress is made. With 11 trees that feature anywhere from 13 to 20 skills each, there's a decent amount of options available, but since a lot of those double-up as "advanced" versions, there's not as much variation as I would have hoped. This is by design, as Cliffhanger Productions has stated that it wanted a more streamlined approach with Lockdown. I'd say that with some sacrifices the studio has achieved that goal (for instance, actual statistical changes for different backgrounds and races are marginal at best), but missions often lack that spark often found in other genre staples. Most runs are predicated on simplistic kill orders, which often result in a simple flank with a series of firefights. There's very little room for nuance when most of the weaponry effectively feels the same. The script also doesn't feel as poignant as Hairbrained Schemes' titles, and although there aren't a lot of glaring problems with it, it's tough to truly resonate with Lockdown's world beyond the occasional Red Sox reference. Your gameplay loop precedes as follows: a hub world visit to grab a mission, running said mission, returning to the hub to upgrade, and so on. There's no looming open overworld, no MMO-like exploration -- the hub is one small Boston neighborhood, with a taxi that takes you to each stage, an instance across the city. Along the way you'll earn cash to buy new weapons, armor, and augmentations, and karma nets you more skills -- that's all you need to know. It's a rather confining means of play, but it works, as the almighty call of upgrades and loot is just as powerful as it is anywhere else. So about that former "Online" moniker -- the first thing I noticed as soon as I booted up Boston Lockdown was the chat function. Nearly every avatar looks different due to the heavy amount of cosmetic options, which range from tattoos to visors that would make Geordi La Forge jealous. Even in the tutorial you're privy to a gathering of players, some of which are looking to help out new players, and others advertising their HP and gear to find a more professional-oriented group. The entire interface has been vastly improved from its former Early Access state, as players can simply click on someone's name or their avatar in the hub world to form a group. Friending people is also as easy as sending a request, and the UI itself is very clean, completely devoid of clutter. Players who enjoy a breadth of options are likely going to be disappointed, as Boston Lockdown only allows you to tweak your resolution (up to 1920x1080), fullscreen (with no full-windowed option), a few mouse scrolling variations, and volume control. That's about it. Dedicated Shadowrun fans will likely be disappointed at the lack of depth, and your mileage may vary in terms of the appeal of the multiplayer function, which seemingly took over some of the other more endearing aspects of the series. If you haven't played a game in the series since the SNES however, Boston Lockdown is a decent starting point, and a perfect way to re-acclimate yourself to the genre with friends. If you prefer to fly solo, just go with Shadowrun Returns instead. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Shadowrun Boston review photo
Not featuring Boston's Favorite Son
In case you haven't noticed, Shadowrun has been making a comeback lately. With Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun Returns in 2013 and the subsequent Dragonfall follow-up, the series has enjoyed triumphant return to...

Review: Broken Age: Act 2

Apr 27 // Caitlin Cooke
Broken Age (PC)Developers: Double Fine ProductionsPublisher: Double Fine ProductionsReleased: April 28, 2015 MSRP: PS4, PS Vita, PC, Mac, Linux, Ouya: $25 / iOS and Android: $15 Broken Age is very much designed and intended to be played as one game, not chopped up into two parts. If you've managed to hold out this long to play both acts together, rest assured that you've done yourself a favor. The second act gets straight to business, dumping the player into some heavy plot points right off the bat. The game’s challenging puzzle logic also comes through in full force with no time to ramp -- progressing in the game relies heavily on prior knowledge of the landscape and characters. I asked for more puzzle complexion in my review of Broken Age: Act 1, and boy did I get it. The puzzles are of the same kindred as the first act -- difficult to piece together at first, with a dash of trial and error mixed in. However, this time around the obstacles are far more difficult and obtuse, requiring deep creative thinking, but more often than not bordering on the “impossible to solve without help” realm. I found myself pondering puzzles for long periods of time until eventually giving up, clicking through every possible option as a last resort. Where the first part of Broken Age had more environmental exploration and shorter, more gratifying puzzles, the second act tends to lean on more long-term challenging puzzles. Puzzle solutions from the first portion of the second act were used throughout almost the entirety of the game -- much of my time was spent drawing out diagrams on post-its and endlessly referencing them. The ability to switch between stories is still present, which comes in handy when stuck on a puzzle or in need of a change of scenery. However, during certain parts of the game some puzzles require information from the other side of the story. This caught me off guard at first but was less annoying once it became obvious that this would be a theme throughout the latter half of the game. The bar from Broken Age: Act 1 is definitely met if not exceeded in Act 2 in terms of the visuals, nostalgia, and clever dialogue. However, the setting in the second act is practically the same as the first half of the game, with the exception of a few minor changes. Although I adore the characters in Broken Age and was happy to see them again throughout the second act, I had hoped to experience new scenery and perhaps new characters. The story in Act 2 goes in a strange direction, and feels rushed -- especially compared to the first act, which has an even progression and was much more cohesive. Conversations are had between characters that lay plot points out on the table very quickly, and in an uninventive way. It seems a tad thrown together, and I would have preferred to discover the plot through means of gameplay instead of having it explained via single lines of conversation. Unfortunately, by the end of the game I was also left with with a lot of unanswered questions. Since it had taken a year for this second installment to make it to us, I had expected a little more on that front. Broken Age: Act 1 was so perfect that perhaps my expectations were inflated when playing through the second half. However, despite the challenges Broken Age is still very much a beautiful game with a heartwarming story. The puzzles, as frustrating as they are, come from a place of creative invention that defines the point-and-click genre. I choose to treasure its high points-- the charming characters, ingenious dialogue, and silly childlike whimsy. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. This reviewer also backed the game's Kickstarter campaign.]
Broken Age 2 review photo
Mostly worth the wait
[Disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter. A review copy was used for this verdict.] Three years since the launch of the infamous Double Fine Adventure campaign and a year after Act 1’s much-anticipated release, Broken Ag...

Review: Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure

Apr 24 // Chris Carter
Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure (PC [reviewed], PSP) Developer: Nihon FalcomPublisher: Nihon Falcom (JP), Mastiff (US), 505 Game Street (EU)Released: December 25, 2004 (JP) / March 30, 2015 (US)MSRP: $9.99 From the very moment I booted up Gurumin I fell in love. It's so damn cheery and bright, and that old school retro spirit of adventure is alive and well. With its Dreamcast-style visuals, It brings me back to that whimsical era of gaming where gameplay and fun factor took precedent over all else. You'll play as a young girl named Parin, who sports a giant drill to fight off evil phantoms and help cute "monsters" (yep, monsters are good in Gurumin) who can only been seen by children. Parin is adorable, as she's not only a formidable heroine, but spouts hilarious dialogue at every turn, voiced by an enthusiastic Amber Hood. The entire game including the hub town gives me a big Brave Fencer Musashi vibe, which is a huge bonus for me. At the start of the narrative you'll meet a group of monsters as well as the core phantom group, led by a powerful prince. As the cast starts to fill up you'll find faces voiced by greats like Quinton Flynn, Dee Bradley Baker, and Tara Strong. Every character, good or evil, is memorable, and the campaign plays out in that wonderful storybook kind of way. [embed]290701:58290:0[/embed] Despite its cutesy veneer, Gurumin has a fairly deep combat system. It boasts charge attacks, timed combos, dashes, launchers and aerial raves, and a few more powers as you unlock them. One of the best mechanics is the air dash system, where you can constantly jump off enemies as long as you can lock-on. It's satisfying as hell, and the game gives you an ample amount of open and varied environments in which to test them out. It does have controller support on PC, but I have multiple issues with both the 360 and Xbox One controllers in terms of input lag on the game's menus. It's not a dealbreaker as the emphasis is on action, but it was annoying every so often when I wanted to save my game. It's a good thing Gurumin has a "save anywhere" scheme. It has a lot of the key elements you'd expect from an older JRPG like a world map and equipment system, but it doesn't go overboard. Getting to where you need to be is relatively easy, there's no grinding, and gear nuances begin and end with the head slot. But with these elements in place, it manages to elevate the game above your standard action title, especially when you start getting into some of the gear bonuses that compliment individual styles, like extra defense or leeching health. Gurumin hosts a lengthy 15-to-30-hour campaign, which has plenty of extras predicated on replay value, like multiple difficulty modes, extra sidequests, a new ending, and a hunt for every item. Thankfully, the additional difficulties alter enemy placements and tactics to incentivize multiple playthroughs. I wish there were something a little more out there beyond a few minigames, but it's more than enough to keep you interested for quite a while. I can recommend Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure to just about every action enthusiast out there. Outside of some antiquated elements dating back to the fact that it is an older game at heart, it dares to be positive at nearly every turn, and you won't be able to play it without a smile on your face. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Gurumin review photo
Monstrously fun
Luckily, growing up I had a lot of friends who were either from Japan or were heavily into eastern games -- so the opportunity to play imports, including the coveted Radiant Silver Gun, was always an option.  Gurumi...

Review: SWR JST DX Selective Memory Erase Effect

Apr 24 // Jed Whitaker
SWR JST DX Selective Memory Erase Effect (PC)Developers: Nekomura Games Publisher: Nekomura Games Released: April 20, 2015 MSRP: $4.99 SWR centers around Etta -- a blue haired android girl with a low battery -- controlling her robotic toy cat M1MI in an attempt to logout of an operating system gone rogue. M1MI can double jump, as well as do a close attack with his sword and throw knives to take out enemies from afar. Throwing knives are limited in number, but are strewn throughout levels and never run scarce. SWR is old school hard, one hit from any enemy or projectile ends the life of M1MI, luckily continues are infinite, no quarters required. Rendered at the same resolution as arcade games of old, and intact with a high score counter on the top of the screen, Selective Memory Erase Effect would feel at home in a nice standing cabinet. Upon launching the game, text is displayed just like an arcade game would show upon being turned on and from then on the screen is persistently filled with beautiful pixel based art with a nice scanline filter. Etta wonders aloud in cutscenes between stages where she sometimes has conversations with boss characters. Bosses plead with Etta to not log out of the system, as they have been enjoying their freedom from doing OS functions. Each baddie is designed around being a different part of the OS, such as a watchdog that would normally be an antivirus program, or a squid that would be the networking function. Upon their death, a colorful screen will be displayed showing the dead boss while music that would feel at home in a 1980's drama plays. These scenes made me feel bad for killing them, though that clearly may have been the point. The bosses do warn that logging out could have a dangerous outcome giving the narrative a slight mystery element. [embed]290780:58328:0[/embed] While SWR starts as a beautiful sidescroller, it changes up the formula a bit a few times: once for some underwater environments and again for a minecart level and even a boating stage. The minecart conceit, while fun, was easily the weakest part of the game. While automatically scrolling from left to right M1MI has to jump and duck to avoid randomly generated obstacles, all while boulders fall from the top of the screen. The randomness of the level caused multiple unavoidable deaths in an otherwise fantastic game.  SWR JST DX Selective Memory Erase Effect's artstyle is what initially drew me in, and luckily the rest of the game was up to par as well. I was especially impressed with the attention to minor details that made it feel like an arcade game down to some graphical glitches that I hope were included purposefully to give it that arcade feel. The characters are interesting, the story was very enjoyable and for $5 it was well worth my two hour playthrough. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
SWR JST DX review photo
1990's retro chic
SWR JST DX Selective Memory Erase Effect, or Sword Justice Deluxe Selective Memory Erase Effect, as it's also known, is one of those indie titles that tries to mimic games of old while still making a fresh new ...

Review: Mario Kart 8 DLC Pack 2

Apr 23 // Jordan Devore
Mario Kart 8 DLC Pack 2 (Wii U)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoReleased: April 23, 2015MSRP: $7.99 ($11.99 bundled with DLC Pack 1) First up, let's run through exactly what's included in DLC Pack 2: Characters: Villager (male and female), Isabelle, and Dry Bowser Vehicles: Streetle, City Tripper, P-Wing, and Bone Rattler Vehicle Parts: Paper Glider and Leaf Tires Crossing Cup tracks: Baby Park, Cheese Land, Wild Woods, and Animal Crossing Bell Cup tracks: Neo Bowser City, Ribbon Road, Super Bell Subway, and Big Blue Whereas last time we got two characters who looked like retreads of the existing lineup (Tanooki Mario and Cat Peach), here there's Dry Bowser as the lone offender -- but he's so awesome on his badass, metallic, skeletal bike that I'm not even going to complain. Isabelle is a cute addition to the roster and, hey, cute is fine. But the Villager duo is where it's at for my money ($7.99). The boy's patterned pants are the best. Like, I went so far as to jot down a note about them between races. That might sound silly. It is. But for a game packed so full of little flourishes, you've got to appreciate the attention to detail. I particularly dig how Animal Crossing's iconic "Oh shit!" piano sound plays when you fall off course as one of these characters. I don't have much to say about the three other new vehicles, but admittedly I'm not one to dissect stats and stick to certain builds because they are technically superior. Aesthetics matter, too! With that in mind: the Streetle has a chubby beetle-esque frame; the City Tripper reminds me of a Vespa; and the P-Wing has got a cool sort of Speed Racer thing going for it. It wasn't long at all before I returned to old favorites like the Sport Bike, though. [embed]290911:58308:0[/embed] "The tracks," you might be thinking. "Get to the tracks already! That's what we care about." Yes, yes, I agree. No more stalling. (And thanks for the segue!) First up is Baby Park, a short and sweet oval-shaped course modeled after a bustling theme park. During its seven micro laps, you will probably be hit with a bunch of items and hit back just as hard. It's equal parts chaos and joy. Whether in first place or last, everyone's so bunched together that it feels like you're in the middle of the pack, always. I somehow took first place in an online match and it was as if I had cheated death himself. Cheese Land, a desert area with edible-looking rock formations, makes terrific use of the game's depth-of-field effects for its sprawling vistas. This track has come a long way since its debut in Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance, that's for sure. Unquestionably pretty, but not necessarily a standout track in my mind. Wild Woods, however, stands out. It might even be the standout. It's this oasis hidden deep within a lush forest and there's a little village of Shy Guys and Toads and they've got a waterslide which you of course get to race across. Someone at Nintendo finally figured out that driving down waterslides in Mario Kart is what rainbows must taste like: magic. Next is Animal Crossing, which closes out the Crossing Cup. It's a relatively simple area that shifts seasons to dramatic and delightful effect. Northern lights glimmer during winter in one playthrough, while cherry blossoms flow in another. Seeing this world and these characters rendered so beautifully has me giddy at the possibility of a new Animal Crossing on Wii U. Just, wow. Neo Bowser City kicks off the Bell Cup with a rain-soaked neon cityscape. It's a nice change of scenery from the usual castles and lava we associate with Bowser, but the layout didn't feel all that unique. Still, I have to commend the designers for coming up with these places that feel seem like tracks in a racing videogame and more like cross sections of living worlds. Hundreds of races later, we might still be picking out fresh details in the environment. Ribbon Road, another upgrade of an old Game Boy Advance track, might be my favorite. It's miniature Mario Kart in a child's bedroom, complete with those wind-up dudes from the end of Super Mario World, swaying jack-in-the-boxes that you'll need to glide around, and a monstrously large movie poster for "Kung-Fu Lakitu" plastered on a wall. It's a pitch-perfect theme and the course itself is continuously exciting to navigate. What a keeper. Super Bell Subway isn't as visually arresting as its predecessors but speeding through an underground subway makes for a good time all the same. This can be one of the more rewarding courses depending on if you're (un)lucky enough to get sandwiched between two trains. Finally, there's Big Blue, a track that translates well from F-Zero (and I'm not just saying that because of the fist-pumping theme song). It's another one of those long, one-lap tracks people either love or loathe. I adore 'em. Between the competing conveyer belts, the waterslide-like pathways and, yes, that amazing song, I thought to myself "So this is what it feels like to truly be alive." Is this all working up toward a future F-Zero game or are DLC cameos in Mario Kart 8 as good as it gets for fans? Ignorance might be bliss. The free new 200cc option isn't a part of DLC Pack 2 (and as such I'm not factoring it into this review), but since it's out on the same day, I figured you'd want to know at least a little about it. As expected, it is exhilarating. Also as expected, it takes some getting used to. I'm not even sure the AI is fully ready for it. The action moves at such a rapid pace that you need to rethink your routes and strategies (and possibly your vehicle of choice) or risk crashing into walls or falling over the edge frequently. Repeat after me: "there is a brake button." The free update also adds more costumes for Mario Kart 8's Mii character which you can unlock by scanning supported amiibo. I saw someone online with a Kirby sitting on their head and that was neat for a second before I got shot to hell with shells. Your results may vary. As with DLC Pack 1, Nintendo has shown what great downloadable content can look like and that it doesn't need to arrive on day one or even month one. While not every new track is memorable, there is a consistent quality here and a few of them represent Mario Kart at its best. It was a treat to see other Nintendo properties dip into the game last year and that novelty hasn't worn off yet. This is the future of the series. It has to be. [This review is based on a final build of the DLC purchased by the reviewer.]
Mario Kart DLC review photo
Animal Crossing is in the house
Nintendo is back with more crossover content for Mario Kart 8 and even as an on-again, off-again fan of the series, today feels reminiscent of waking up on Christmas morning with confidence that the present you most wanted th...

Review: Lost Within

Apr 23 // Chris Carter
Lost Within (Android FireOS [reviewed on a Kindle Fire HD], iOS)Developer: Amazon Game Studios, Human Head StudiosPublisher: Amazon Game StudiosReleased: April 17, 2015MSRP: $6.99 The setting of this spooky affair is the old Weatherby Asylum -- an abandoned relic of the past, set to be demolished in one day's time. Of course, your stupid idiot police officer avatar winds up "checking it out" one last time to see if there are any stragglers, and you get sucked into a hellish underworld of scary fun. It's a setup you've seen a million times before, but Lost Within has a level of polish rarely seen from the genre, not to mention that it's a mobile-only affair. Using touch-style controls you'll navigate the labyrinthine tunnels of horror, and they are surprisingly responsive. All you have to do is touch an area to get there, double-tap to run, swipe to turn, tap to use defensive items, and you can even use your device to lean around corners with an optional gyro setting. Mobile games have really come a long way, and co-developers Amazon Game Studios and Human Head should be commended. That polish extends to the visual style as well, which is stunning on an Amazon Fire HD tablet. The crazy writing on the wall that you'd expect out of an asylum is clear and concise, and every environment looks like there was a lot of work put into it. Screenshots don't really do it justice, as the framerate and smooth engine are the strongest aspects of Lost Within. [embed]290846:58289:0[/embed] This is a jump-scare game under-the-skin though, and it won't really offer up a lot that you haven't seen or rolled your eyes at before. I really like the literature that narrates the history of the asylum and its inhabitants, as it strays from the typical "diary" setup often with things like newspaper clippings, but once you're done reading up, it's back to a corridor simulator with "scary" monsters. In case you couldn't pick up on that obvious sarcasm, those creatures aren't really all that threatening, or nearly as interesting as the lore bits. Said corridors are often fun to roam through thanks to the mechanics, and freaky flashbacks are a constant source of entertainment beyond running and outwitting the baddies in the "real" world. What Lost Within really thrives on is the ability to tell a compelling story in an easily-digestible way throughout the experience. In-between the jumps and frights I had a burning desire to unravel the game's various mysteries, and press on to the next area. Amazon Game Studios only has a few games under its belt, but it's already making a name for itself in the industry. With a little more creativity Lost Within could be a full-blown retail game, which could be where the publisher is heading with the acquisition of Double Helix and a few other talented developers. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Lost Within review photo
Warning: it's another asylum game
Jump-scare horror games, or "YouTube Bait" as they're often now called, are a dime-a-dozen. Especially ones based in an asylum. Lost Within is a jump-scare horror game that takes place in an asylum (cue the laugh track). Thankfully, it has a handful of redeeming qualities that elevate it above the competition.

Review: MonsterBag

Apr 22 // Steven Hansen
MonsterBag (PlayStation Vita)Developers: IguanaBeePublisher: IguanaBeeReleased: April 7, 2015MSRP: $9.99 Suitably impressed with the trailer's art style, I was still a bit sure how the game actually worked until I played it. Levels are set up with a line of folks to jump between. Reaching Nia, always at the end, is the goal. Tapping left or right flits you across bystanders one at a time, but some are a bit more attentive, requiring you to pause and wait until they aren't looking your way. A series of unfortunate events en route to some kind of alien apocalypse in a narrative escalation reminiscent of Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack means you never quite reach Nia, even when you get to the end of levels. Complicating things beyond increasing sets of hungry eyes per level are certain puzzle elements that make use of V's telekinesis. Various items in the stages can be tapped on if you're in range and then thrown at the NPCs. This starts off innocently enough by fulfilling the character's desire as indicated by little thought bubbles. The angry old man who won't let you pass becomes amicable if you chuck something at the guitarist, causing the latter to throw his axe to the old man, who then shreds and chills out. Soon, though, you're sending spears through people, exposing their internal organs as further items with which to progress. Or beheading scientists to pass retina scans. Levels have a flow of, "get to the first accessible item without being caught, use it on an NPC, then get to whatever item that might've opened up." Only once did I find myself screwing up the combination that I had to restart a level, reaching an impasse without any interactable elements left. [embed]290782:58276:0[/embed] The difficulty, then, comes as more and more enemies are out to get you, which slows your progress as you have to wait for them to avert their gaze to get to one side of the level and often have to then make it back to the start. It can get a bit grating on wider levels, especially when enemies' -- in particular, the later alien monster things -- patterns sync up and you find yourself waiting longer and longer for smaller openings. Getting seen means instant death and regression to a checkpoint, which I occasionally wished were more frequent. Spicing up the puzzling elements are sections where speed is a necessity and those were the most frustrating, not helped by some additional, finicky uses of the Vita touch screen to rotate bits and pull levers. Requiring speed when the distance between two points of character-cover is so heavily watched meant I tried to force more openings with barely-desynced enemy vision patterns, which led to a lot of frustrating deaths. Later levels also introduce more abstract, more complex button-pushing puzzle elements that feel thematically distant and get away from the charming, cobbled together cause-and-effect puzzles that I enjoyed, like tossing lemonade on a thirsty girl or throwing an alien's flaming head to melt down a bigger alien. MonsterBag is a nice bit of light puzzles and charming slapstick, at least until the narrative drives it towards something more serious and mechanical that ups complexity and challenge, but almost feels like a different, less personable game. That backpack is one of the cutest characters in recent memory, though, thanks to its infectious grin and happy hiss, murderous tendencies be damned. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
MonsterBag review photo
Cartoon violence
Animaniacs was all trios and duos (and one solo sexy rat thing) playing off each other for comedy and I couldn't help but think of the Buttons and Mindy skits while playing MonsterBag. Mindy would toddle off into harm's way, ...

Review: Infinity Runner

Apr 22 // Darren Nakamura
Infinity Runner (Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Wii U, Xbox One)Developers: Wales InteractivePublisher: Wales InteractiveReleased: April 22, 2015MSRP: $6.99 On paper, gameplay in Infinity Runner is simple. The protagonist automatically runs forward while the player controls jumping, sliding, turning, and positioning in one of three lanes. Right away, control is the first problem. While it is responsive enough for the reaction-based gameplay, it isn't intuitive. Where the left thumbstick is used to avoid obstacles on the x-axis, it doesn't control jumping and sliding, the abilities used to avoid obstacles on the y-axis. Further, with those actions mapped to L2 and R2, there isn't an ingrained connection between button and function (as there would be if it were L1 and L2). Throughout the game to the last level, I found myself jumping when I meant to slide and vice versa. The right thumbstick controls looking, which itself controls turning left or right when the path forks. Since this occupies the same "obstacle avoidance" area in my brain, I found myself wanting the left stick to take care of turning too. It doesn't. It almost feels like playing a legacy first-person shooter after years of practice with the current standard control scheme; the muscle memory needs to be retrained for quick decisions. To say that quick decisions are necessary would be an understatement. Early on there are doors that block view of the upcoming hallway, and those are fine. Later on, the obstacles to avoid basically require rote learning and trial-and-error play. Not only are the necessary moves not telegraphed giving enough time for reaction, they sometimes are not clear at all. There were several sections where I could tell something needed to be avoided, but it's not obvious whether the hazard required a jump, a slide, a strafe, or some combination. There were some sections where I wasn't even sure what got me. [embed]290671:58228:0[/embed] Compounding on that is the unnecessary retreading in place due to a lives system. In each level, there are checkpoints where a runner can restart if he meets an unfortunate end further on, but only a limited pool of lives is available; after those are spent, it's back to the beginning of the level. Coupled with poor feedback on what exactly needs to be done, this leads to situations where a single obstacle will end a run and players will have to spend the time to get back to that point just to experiment to see how to surpass it. As a point of example, there is one section late in the game where the hero is jumping on a series of spaceships, then must jump from the last one in order to make it back to a catwalk. By jumping the gap onto the last ship, there isn't enough time to jump off. I tried the first jump as early as possible but the recovery time kept me from being able to hit the second jump in time. It turns out that the first jump is totally unnecessary; despite the gap between ships, the player is meant to just walk between them and jump off the last one. Infinity Runner does a decent job of tweaking gameplay between levels to keep it from being totally homogeneous. Sometimes the power will cut out and only the emergency lighting is visible. Sometimes the running will switch to freefalling. Sometimes there is combat made up of quick-time events. Sometimes the protagonist turns into a wolf and runs through a tube. None of it is particularly good, but at least it's different. As with the gameplay, the story sounds fine at a base level but falls apart in practice. The protagonist is a werewolf trying to escape from the spaceship Infinity. He doesn't know he's a werewolf at first, but then disembodied female voice Riley tells him. Disembodied female voice Riley says a lot of things at the player, generally through stilted voice work and cringeworthy writing. Sometimes she says things when the player would really rather be concentrating on not dying. Often she echoes through the DualShock 4's speaker, way too loudly. One time disembodied female voice Riley told me to jump. I jumped and I died because I jumped too soon. I should have waited and then jumped when I would have jumped anyway. Another time disembodied female voice Riley told me to run and I snorted. Do I have a choice? A little way into the game disembodied female voice Riley's lips stop moving when she talks, but it's an improvement because the lip movements never matched her words to begin with. Shortly after disembodied female voice Riley tells the protagonist that he is a werewolf, the pair sees a different werewolf, and then disembodied female voice Riley incredulously says she doesn't know what that monster is. It's a werewolf; you just talked about werewolves; how can you not know what that is? I don't like disembodied female voice Riley very much. After the final boss battle quick-time event (complete with its own trial-and-error sequence that had me restarting the level), disembodied female voice Riley is finally ready to divulge more information about her identity and motivations to the player, but then the boss shows up again and interrupts the communication. And then: "To be continued." It's optimistic, at least. The graphics are shiny and the art direction is passable. Most of it takes place in the drab gray hallways of a spaceship, but there are flashes of reds, greens, and blues denoting hazards. The music is pretty hard to bear; it has a sort of high energy industrial electronic feel to it that is not conducive to concentrating. There's a Trophy for turning the music off. I did that and found the experience to be slightly more tolerable. The message that Trophy sends: this music is bad and the developer knows it. There isn't a lot to like here. Banal gameplay, cheap deaths, poor feedback, dull quick-time event combat, bad acting, worse writing, and an overall amateurish presentation. The most enjoyable part of this experience was venting to a colleague about how bad it is. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Infinity Runner review photo
Doesn't last forever, thankfully
Infinite runners have their place in gaming. After Canabalt, a seemingly endless stream of 2D endless runners showed up for a piece of the action. After Temple Run, the same happened for behind-the-back 3D runners. Infinity R...

Review: JumpJet Rex

Apr 22 // Chris Carter
JumpJet Rex (PC)Developers: TreeFortress GamesPublisher: TreeFortress GamesReleased: April 22, 2015MSRP: $9.99 JumpJet Rex is more than just an amazingly cute dinosaur. I absolutely love the aesthetic, as it perfectly encapsulates the retro era without feeling too dated. Some aspects like the font look fairly cheap, but the style is authentic while making its on mark on the genre. The world map with the tiny free-roaming ship icon is just the best. As for the level design, think of each level as an enclosed arena with branching paths -- the first thing that comes to mind is the second X-Men game on Genesis. Your task is to boost into various rings throughout each stage to unlock the exit, collecting coins along the way. Every level has three goals, and thus, three stars to earn -- no deaths, a par time, and a simple completion. You'll accomplish these tasks with a dead-simple set of controls, which allow vertical and horizontal movement. Jumps are unlimited, as is air dashing, and the latter will cause a bullet to fly out of your feet in the opposite direction. To propel yourself upward you can opt to use a dedicated button for faster movement, and in turn, a special butt stomp method to slam down to the ground faster. [embed]290727:58248:0[/embed] At first, the dedicated vertical options didn't seem all that important as you can simply leap and fall at will, but as the hazards start to get trickier, they become almost second nature. It's interesting how the developer was able to create a fairly deep movement system with nothing more than jumping and dashing. Having been in Early Access since January, developer TreeFortress Games has had the chance to work most of the kinks out, too. Don't be scared of the learning curve either, as JumpJet has a lenient checkpoint system in place, with unlimited respawns. You likely won't earn two of the three stars that way, but eventually you can brute force your way to the completion medal, which is enough to get you by for most of the game until you go back and do things properly -- even boss fights have optional checkpoints that save throughout subsequent phases. Just note that progress is gated somewhat, so you will need a lot of those stars to see the end. Thankfully, each level is pre-programmed with a ton of replay value, so even going back through old stages is fun. There's plenty of speedrun and time trial opportunities, as your ghost is automatically queued up from your previous runs. You can even race ghosts of other players online, including your friends and anyone currently ranked on the leaderboard. The game's total of 126 stars is a massive undertaking, so you'll need the practice. Oh, and four-player local co-op is definitely a welcome feature. My chief complaint with Rex rests with the way each level is designed. Even though every level is distinctly different in terms of its theme and layout, they feel the same. You have the three aforementioned tasks every time, and you have to jump or dive through every ring to unlock the goal. Some levels try to mix things up with a tiny room rather than a labyrinthine map, but it feels grating when you miss a ring at the start and have to return to it, despite any momentum you may have worked up. A radar showing said rings in the corner helps, but it really screws up the pacing if you happen to overlook one. JumpJet Rex feels right at home alongside of a lot of the classic retro games it pays homage to, but it also has some great modern updates and tweaks. While I could go for a little more variety in terms of the overarching goals it presents, I still found myself jumping in constantly to best my last ghost run even after the credits rolled. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
JumpJet Rex review photo
See Rex jump
As a kid of the '90s, I'm no stranger to mascot platformers. Aero the Acrobat, Jersey Devil -- I've pretty much played them all, and for the most part, they were safe and enjoyable experiences. But in the current era dom...

Review: Blue Estate

Apr 21 // Chris Carter
Blue Estate (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)Developers: HeSawPublisher: Focus Home InteractiveReleased: April 8, 2015 (PC)MSRP: $12.99 It's important to note right off the bat that if you're easily offended, you probably won't have a good time with Blue Estate. It's based on the comic by artists Viktor Kalvachev and Kosta Yanev. It litters its narrative with scantily clad women, racial stereotypes, insensitive dialog, and even fat jokes. Personally I kind of glossed over all of it, but the bad news is that even if offensive jokes are your thing, none of it is particularly clever or funny. The game goes out of its way to note that pretty much every character, "especially" the protagonist Tony Luciano is a "scumbag," but they're not memorable scumbags, I'll tell you that much. In fact, the entire tale is one big bore-fest, as it's a one-note revenge-fest that kicks off with Tony getting his woman back and taking down anyone who gets in his way, and ends up with some dude named Clarence. It's kind of like a less intentionally funny House of the Dead Overkill, and instead of endearing camp, we get more scenes that are loud, brash, and forgettable. Those of you who follow the comic will likely get a lot of the in-jokes, but since a good deal of them are predicated on prior knowledge of the source material, they often fall flat. Each stage in the three-to-four hour shoot-fest is serviceable, but the feeling of sameness will start to creep in after the first few offerings. All of the enemies look and act identically, and although there are some hidden objects scattered about, there's no cool "split path" gimmick to make things interesting. QTEs, including melee attacks aren't enough to elevate it beyond what's typically found in your average light gun affair, nor are the scant three bosses littered across the entire story. On PC I had the opportunity to test out the game using a mouse, a Leap Motion peripheral, an Xbox One gamepad, and a light gun. Although all of the control schemes work well, I'd recommend using the latter option if it's available, as it makes everything a lot more enjoyable. Aiming is very smooth, and since the only other mechanics are ducking for cover, switching weapons, and movement-sensitive QTEs, there's no latent control issues to worry about. Any sort of nuance to shooting is rudimentary, with a light combo system for killing people quickly, and a head shot bonus. That's about it. While the levels themselves don't stand out on their own, it's still a joy to be aiming at the ground to reload, duck behind cover, and shoot a screen in 2015. Call it nostalgia, but it's even better with a local co-op partner. You won't get much mileage when the story is said and done though, since the only other mode available is a single-stage arcade setting. For those of you who don't have a motion option on PC, Blue Estate is one shooter you can absolutely pass on. One day it may catch your eye on a dirt cheap Steam sale, and a light gun may come across your desk -- at that point, you may as well give it a shot. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Blue Estate review photo
Bring a light gun, or don't come
Blue Estate attempts to bring back that amazing '90s arcade shooter feel, when rock bands could save the world from evil corporations, and Sega was the king of the buddy cop cabinet genre. If you don't have a light gun for your PC, you can go ahead and skip this one entirely.

Review: Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China

Apr 21 // Chris Carter
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed]) Developer: UbisoftPublisher: UbisoftReleased: April 21, 2015MSRP: $9.99 (China is part of the Assassin's Creed Unity Season Pass) Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China isn't a new concept, as Assassin's Creed II: Discovery basically built upon the older Prince of Persia games, which Ubisoft even took a crack at last generation with a remaster. Nonetheless it's a welcome one on paper if we get to see other parts of the world beyond western civilizations, even if it does feel rushed in many aspects. The story this time around follows Shao Jun, one of the lone assassins left in her order after Zhang Yong of the Tigers (Templars) wiped them out. It takes place after the events of Assassin's Creed: Embers, which ties her into the core storyline by way of a chance encounter with Ezio Auditore. Fans will enjoy the connection for sure, but most of you out there can completely ignore it as yet another wacky "Assassins versus Templars" adventure and just enjoy this as a 2D platformer. You might want to ignore the story anyway, because it's not very good. Framed as a standard revenge tale, Shao Jun will hobble across various landscapes killing whoever gets in her way to the top. The dialog is particularly terrible and not in a funny B-movie way, and no one that turns up is memorable. I know a lot of people didn't dig the meta-narrative fluff in the core series, but at least it was something worth talking about. In many ways it feels like a missed opportunity to flesh out the brotherhood in China, but hot damn if the setting itself isn't beautiful. [embed]290711:58237:0[/embed] In fact, the first thing I noticed about the game was the killer art style. The lazy slideshow cutscenes aren't that big of a deal when everything looks like a living painting, especially Shao's flowing red cape. In-game the art is still wonderful, but the environments themselves often lack detail, with washed-out backgrounds making a frequent appearance. That feeling of disappointment will pass quickly though once you reach another vibrant setpiece. Fans of the core series will find it easy to acclimate, as the controls are very similar. There's a button to hold down to run and initiate reckless mode, a button to go all stealthy, and your standard light and heavy attacks. While the narrative isn't all that slick, Shao Jun controls like a master assassin, and I had very few issues getting her to go anywhere I needed her to be. Grabbing ledges, crawling about, and avoiding guards was a breeze. All of this action will be navigated around awareness cones for enemies, which are visible front and center on-screen. Enemies are fairly observant of their surroundings, with clear "sound" circles and other nuances influencing their movements, but sadly they don't follow you to the ends of the earth like past games -- if you're in a tricky spot, they'll just sit there for about 10 seconds before returning to their patrol route. It reminds me of the camp of the original Tenchu, with mixed results. Non-lethal force is preferred, but Shao has access to a whistle ability for distractions, in addition to firecrackers, daggers, and a noisemaker tool. Every power feels roughly the same which makes for some dull variations early on, but every level will unlock newer, cooler abilities that mix things up much more than her basic skillset. I'm talking grappling hooks, more options for hiding places (like that "quick switch" leap Sam Fischer is so good at), and sliding assassinations. Melee combat is run-of-the-mill but it looks sexy, especially when coupled with Shao's unique animations. Backwards blocks and bullet dodges are fluid and responsive, which is key as you'll be doing both of those things a lot. You won't fight many interesting enemies, but even the meat grinder of foes the game throws at you is fun with this system. Once you're done with the five-to-six-hour adventure there's two New Game+ options to replay with slightly different mechanics, which do just enough to justify another playthrough or two. Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China has the makings of a good 2D Prince of Persia re-awakening, but it lacks a lot of character both aesthetically and mechanically. Still, there's very little actually wrong with it if you're looking for another platformer to add to your pile. Hopefully future iterations of the Chronicles subseries can build upon the foundation that China has provided. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Assassin's Creed review photo
Shao Jun gettin' it done
Just last week I asked readers if they were into the idea of 2D Assassin's Creed games. Roughly 41% were on board, 33% preferred the 3D iterations, and 26% have checked out of the series entirely. Ubisoft doesn't really care what you think, though. As long as they sell, those assassins will keep on stabbin'.

Review: Mortal Kombat X

Apr 14 // Chris Carter
Mortal Kombat X (PC, PS3, PS4 [tested], Xbox 360, Xbox One) Developer: NetherRealm Studios, High Voltage Software (PS3, Xbox 360)Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentReleased: April 14, 2015 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) / June 2, 2015 (PS3, Xbox 360)MSRP: $59.99 It sounds absurd, but the story of Mortal Kombat 2011 is a tough act to follow. The universe was NetherRealm's playground, offering up alliances and betrayals at every turn. There were no rules, and it did a fantastic job to the point where I'd easily call it one of my favorite fighting game story modes ever. With Mortal Kombat X, it's not quite as over-the-top, unpredictable, or even as lengthy. After Shao Kahn's attempt to rule, Shinnok is up to his old tricks again, as was hinted in the previous ending. The warriors of Earthrealm managed to seal him within his amulet, but of course, certain evil characters have an agenda to fulfill, and the realms are once again in peril. Most of the campaign takes place 25 years later, allowing for a certain degree of progeny-based storylines to accompany the new additions to the roster. I'm really torn on the new roster in general (29 kombatants, with five as DLC), not just in terms of characterization, but gameplay as well. I'm a huge fan of Kotal Kahn, D'Vorah, and his gunslinging manservant Erron Black. Cassie Cage and Jacqui Briggs iterate enough on their parents (Sonya/Johnny and Jax respectively), but Kung Jin and Takeda feel like wasted slots to me. [embed]290360:58138:0[/embed] Takeda in particular has a really horrid background involving abandonment issues from his father Kenshi, and it comes across far cheesier than the rest of the game's attempts to link various relationships. For that matter, Cassie's role in the story feels incredibly forced as well. The strength of the roster overall hides these blemishes for the most part, including the absurd DLC practices by WB, as the on-disc world of Mortal Kombat X is definitely worth exploring, no matter how brief (the story clocks in at just several hours). I think the tone overall is funnier than the last game, and the action scenes are just as entertaining. A few players though (myself included) may feel like it's a bit too streamlined, particularly due to the fact that it eliminates all of the crazy parts of 2011 (like uber-hard boss battles and 1v2 matches) and sticks with standard 1v1 bouts. A lot of you out there will probably love the lack of frustration, but I felt like it was a tad too simplistic despite it being a fun ride. The core fighting system is relatively untouched though, which I'm more than okay with. Two punches, two kicks, and a block button are at the forefront of the game's mechanics, with simple command moves offering up concepts like slide kicks, teleport punches, and projectiles. The lovely three-tiered meter is back with EX moves (powered up command abilities), combo breakers, and X-Ray supers in tow, which is not only easy to pick up, but incredibly versatile. Combos aren't terribly long in Mortal Kombat X but they are complex, and the right ones can deal a deadly amount of damage. It's good then that you can break them by conserving your bar instead of always using X-Rays, and punish with EX moves that you will have access to on a regular basis. There's even advanced tactics like meter burn canceling to avoid punishes, and environmental cues (which can be toggled on or off) that allow you to use the background as a weapon or a jungle gym. As previously mentioned the roster is a great mix of styles, from rushdown to zoning, without going over-the-top with the latter. A number of characters have really interesting wake-up games and other tactics that advanced players will relish -- in other words, this is a pretty deep fighter that you'll have to spend some time with to really stand a chance. I love the new model designs and the engine, which feels decidedly less dated at launch. Existing characters like Ermac now have a lot more personality, which is perfectly accentuated through his move set, including three variations. Yep, every character in Mortal Kombat X has a choice of three modifiers, which in Ermac's case would allow him to fly, or gain access to a set of new command moves. It's not as complex as adding three new characters in my mind, but it will easily serve as a way to vex hardcore players as they'll have to learn every frame of every variant as they spend their time in the "lab" practicing. There are modes beyond the story of course, like Faction War, a meta-game that is constantly being played behind-the-scenes, Towers, a large collective of challenge rooms, and other tidbits like Test Your Might or Test Your Luck. Towers is probably the breakout hit in Mortal Kombat X, with traditional series of fights and "Living Towers," which rotate on a hourly, daily, and weekly basis. Test Your Luck is also a standout, providing random round parameters like "no arms" or other wacky statistical changes. It's perfect for people who don't normally excel at fighting games and don't want to learn every character's ins and outs. Faction War isn't really a game-changing concept, but it is a decent way to keep hardcore people playing. You'll have the choice of joining a certain clan or group at the start (praise Lin Kuei) for a bit of extra little fluff. Each match you win will contribute to your team's overall ranking, and fun rewards like more currency or bragging rights can be yours after a certain time period has passed. Just like the new first-person Krypt mode, it's a great extra to keep you playing even when you don't feel like fighting a traditional match. My experience with the netcode has been mixed. For a good while I'll have fairly uninterrupted matches, but online play is limited by the system NetherRealm currently has in place. In other words, if you are close to someone geographically, it will play better. This sounds like common sense, but in 2015 online gaming is so massive and so global that everything needs to work comprehensively. As such, some matches stuttered -- not to the point of fully breaking constantly -- but stuttering can be the difference between a win and a loss in a competitive match. If you have a local friend to play with this is a non-issue, as nearly every mode is available offline. Likewise, if most of your Mortal Kombat buddies aren't located across the globe, you should be mostly good to go. Mortal Kombat X's impact isn't as explosive as 2011, but it's well polished and a worthy successor. I think with a more reliable netcode it will grow into one of the biggest fighting games of 2015, and as more DLC characters are added to the roster, it will become even more enticing for that Komplete Kollection purchase. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. A Goro unlock code was also provided on launch day.]
Mortal Kombat X photo
Still not ready for a series Fatality
Fighting game developers are in a really tough spot when it comes to sequels. If you don't iterate enough, newcomers will be tempted to call it a "rehash." If you iterate too much, hardcore fans may feel alienated by the vast...

Review: Titan Souls

Apr 13 // Steven Hansen
Titan Souls (PC [reviewed], Mac, PS Vita, PS4)Developer: Acid NervePublisher: Devolver Digital  Release: April 14, 2015 MSRP: $14.99 Titan Souls is simple. Its art is in pixels and you wouldn't need much more than an NES controller to accommodate its two-button layout. One button serves as a run (hold) and roll (tap), the other shoots and retrieves a lone arrow. That's some pared down resource management: one. The land is in ruin with pleasantly varied color palettes. The goal is to kill all the monsters guarding fragments of the Titan Soul so you can put it back together. Groups of titans are sequestered around checkpoints in various themed areas and you'll have to walk around a bit to stumble on them. You might not even hit them all because you don't need to kill every titan to beat the game. I am sitting at 16 slain and a nice credit sequence, but no unlock of the conspicuous "TRUTH" achievement that seems to hint at more story resolution than is otherwise present. Mostly though it is a game about killing monsters -- yetis and brains and treasure chests and cursed predecessors -- with your one arrow, which you can retrieve by picking up or by holding down the shoot button and calling it back to you. Of course, you can't move while doing this, which makes it a dangerous tactic, but it is also a necessary way to use the arrow sometimes. [embed]290383:58146:0[/embed] Shadow of Colossus was about endurance, down to the grip gauge. Here, a fight can be over in two seconds, either in your favor or the AI's. This is not about endurance as much as it is relentlessness. About trying again and again and again. Because when enemies are killed in one hit (some take work in exposing weak points), they need to hit hard to compensate. I killed a few titans on my second try. Seconds of effort. Others took a couple dozen tries. The last two made up the bulk of my 306 deaths and it was a thoughtlessly loosed arrow that brought me to the credit sequence. Aside from the last two fights and maybe one other, I found it quickly obvious what to do -- shoot it in the brain, shoot it in the butt. Winning was dependent more on execution than puzzle solving, though there are some inventive uses of your bow's recall power. The one, two seconds of swelling music before somber death or quick success is almost farcical. The brief, but cumulative, walks back to the individual bosses, even from nearby checkpoints, kind of became a nuisance. What would've been nominal loading stacks in rapid succession (compared to the immediate "one more try" return of an Olli Olli or Super Meat Boy). Titan Souls, with its arcane aesthetic and sweeping music, plays at being a moody and thoughtful piece, but it is a punishing, reflex-oriented affair and I'm not sure why boss fights couldn't have just restarted in the boss lairs. It disincentives and punishes death, but in the most annoying way, and walking up the same seven seconds of path over and over after death lacks the tonal poignancy of, say, Shadow of the Colossus's treks between golems. Trying to realize boss patterns a couple seconds of life at a time takes patience. Completion unlocks Hard mode, which is still kicking me around (no more smooth second try victories thus far) as well as Iron (one life) and No Rolls (or run). You can toggle any or all three of these settings on for a more brutal time, but hamstringing myself, leading to more deaths, just exacerbates the problems of unnecessary loads and walks back to bosses.  My normal difficulty run through, save for some exasperation at the final two titans, did make for good pacing. Death or victory come quickly because, for the most part, the titans are designed to leave you few opportunities to win. Running around and staying alive isn't an impressive feat because you're no closer to winning. The moments of opportunity are designed to put you in harms way -- surely killing you should you miss the shot -- doubling down on an intense thrill. The quickness with which these things kill you leaves you always feeling unsafe. That you often have to stare down these charging killers, like drawing an arrow against an oncoming train with a baseball-sized weak point, is exhilarating. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Titan Souls review photo
In the shadow of Shadow of the Colossus
I've always clamored for the all-boss-fights game. Shadow of the Colossus, an inescapable inspiration here, did it right and others have done it wrong, like Prince of Persia (2008), but I love the idea of removing fluff encou...

Review: MLB 15 The Show

Apr 09 // Steven Hansen
MLB 15 The Show (PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita, PS3)Developer: Sony San DiegoPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Release: March 31, 2015 MSRP: $59.99 (PS4), $39.00 (PS3), $19.99 (Vita) I don't think there are baseball fans who care about what brand of jockstrap players are wearing (just its inability to fully conceal Josh Reddick's testicles). I didn't, anyways, but now I am doubting myself. Someone who makes big money decisions on a big money release thinks there are and probably paid these brands big money. And yet the giant Coke bottle slide sticking out of left field at AT&T Park reads "Enjoy Cola," like when an anime flips the McDonalds logo upside down.  When one of your biggest new selling points -- it's right under "gameplay improvements" in its own "new features" list -- is that I am being advertised to, it suggests a lack of ambition. But maybe players do want to crawl through inventory screens to equip a Rawlings® Adirondack® Ash bat that features "great performance wood, professional profile, and great value." But I still play catch with a mitt I found in a park 20 years ago because I like it better than any of the others I've had. So maybe I'm old-fashioned. Still, that you'd have to periodically unlock these things, or buy them with in-game currency (which you can buy with real world, rent-paying currency) rather than have them thrown at you by these companies who'd like famous athletes to rep their brands doesn't follow the "striving for authenticity" excuse.  [embed]290093:58102:0[/embed] The Show has leaned into its effective MLB monopoly like its going for the hit by pitch and some of it is worthwhile. I do enjoy the virtual tourism of visiting new stadiums, or even being back in downtown San Francisco mainstay AT&T Park without forking over the cash. I'd take a Candlestick memorial, too, winds and all. But MLB The Show has many little, longstanding problems hurting its tone, gameplay, and even its authenticity than the now fixed lack of pages and pages of adverts. Take the lack of any corporeal collision physics that sees uncanny replays where players phase through one another or, if in uninterruptible animation, as if they are necking action figures or a cheap electronic football toy. Without it, how do you simulate a 12th inning playoff collision between outfielders? There's the only somewhat improved squirreliness of wondering whether your fielder will do an electric slide out from underneath a dropping pop fly. The in-game commentary that is only there to be turned off, maybe? Instead, a new "directional hitting interface" is trumpeted as fresh. You can pair it with timing and analog swings in the options, using the left stick to aim your hits (rather than as the plate coverage indicator). Except this only adds visual feedback and a few new directions to what The Show has always told me I could do, press up to induce flyballs, down for grounders. Meanwhile, analog hitting has been reduced, as you no longer pull back on the analog stick to stride, just flick forward to hit. Mostly things are intact and the on-field baseball simulation is as satisfying as last year. The game pushes Diamond Dynasty hard in an attempt to make EA-type money with people buying card packs to field an ultimate team. However, my risible satisfaction at naming a team the "San Francisco Existentialists" (after deciding against "Lizzards," the spelling of which always confuses me) and the angelic, plain white pajamas your team starts out with were short-lived novelties to me. I've never had the means or desire to be a collector, though. Online play felt somewhat smoother in limited goes, but I'm on a different (real good) internet connection this year, too. Others have reported the same old problems. The PS4 version's horrendous load times from last year are reduced to just a nuisance, at least, even with a hefty install. It was particularly trying in my new Road to the Show (I couldn't be bothered to upload my PS3's file to the cloud and then import on my PS4) trek through the minor leagues as an under appreciated starting pitcher. This was partly my fault as the slow moving Dynamic Difficulty, one of the great sports game fallbacks as far as new features go, gave my 22-year-old rookie a near-0 ERA. I ended up starting quickly in AAA, where my manager would routinely leave me hurling with a pitch count around 120. After a few of these, with one out to go in the 9th inning of a shutout, my player (a rare #69) fractured his arm. When I was healthy, the manager refused to start me, instead starting a bullpen guy and always inserting me in the second or third inning, from which point I'd usually finish out the game anyways, while in the "Interactions" screen he's tell me I wasn't ready for a starting role. In the bigs, I'd go from starter to an even longer bullpen stint post-injury, which made for a hell of a lot of loading and unnecessary screens between games worth one inning of work. I was also awarded a perfect game for leaving with elbow soreness having made one out in the first, which is when the Nationals were even more adamant about using a bullpen platoon as a fifth starter rather than a starting pitcher with an actual 0 ERA.  The discounted PS3 and Vita versions might be more dollar valuable as more transparent roster updates, provided you don't mind the technical limitations. MLB 15 The Show is still good by virtue of the systems laid down over the last decade, but it has no ambition. Produced on third base thinking it hit a triple, it wouldn't even bother running in a sac fly. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
MLB 15 The Show review photo
Born on third thinking it hit a triple
The Giants have won and lost back to back one-run ballgames to open the 2015 baseball season. They lost a starting pitcher and right fielder to the DL, scratched a first baseman and another starter with injury, called up a ro...







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