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Review: Chiptune Champion

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

Review: Hardware: Rivals

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

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

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

Review: Amplitude

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

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider: Endurance Mode

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

Review: Among the Sleep

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

Review: Freedom Planet

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

Review: UnderRail

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

Review: Minecraft: Wii U Edition

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

Review: Sakura Santa

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

Review: Batman: Arkham Knight: Season of Infamy

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

Review: Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star

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

Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

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

Review: Guns Up!

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

Review: Dark Cloud (PS4)

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

Review: Yakuza 5

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

Review: Turok: Dinosaur Hunter

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

Review: King's Quest: Rubble Without a Cause

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

Review: Assassin's Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper

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

Review: Nuclear Throne

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

Review: The Bit.Trip

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

Review: Devil's Third

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

Review: Hearthstone: League of Explorers

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

Review: Girls Like Robots

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

Review: SteamWorld Heist

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

Review: Rayman Adventures

Dec 08 // Brett Makedonski
Rayman Adventures (Android, iOS)Developer: Ubisoft MontpellierPublisher: UbisoftReleased: December 3, 2015MSRP: Free, with microtransactions Rayman Adventures is an auto-runner that often moves at a restrained pace. Swiping on the screen gets the titular character moving, tapping implores him to jump, and swiping again changes direction. And while many runners press ever-onward left to right, Rayman Adventures tries to avoid that trap, usually allowing the player to dictate the flow. Keeping things from speeding out of control is a smart design decision, but not one that's quite consolation enough for inaccurate inputs. Chaining together swipes and taps works sometimes, but it's a bummer each and every time they don't. More damning, the rest of Rayman Adventures feels built around those moments when the controls falter. The big picture going-on in Rayman Adventures involves saving Incrediballs. These quirky creatures help Rayman grow a tree higher and higher into the sky for whatever reason. Incrediballs occasionally appear fully grown, but they'll often take the form of eggs that need to be incubated (either by waiting or by using resources to speed up the process). [embed]325074:61452:0[/embed] Incrediballs feel very much like a direct response to Adventures' lacking controls. The player can call on a number of them to assist them through a level. The game's broken down into three main level types: exploration-based, combat-based, and collection-based. For combat levels, each Incrediball acts as a shield for Rayman, a second (and third and fourth) chance for when the player inevitably runs into the tightly-placed enemies. That's an example of Incrediballs acting as a crutch, but sometimes they're flat-out necessary. In collection scenarios, dedicated Incrediballs act as a magnet for the Lums; there's no performing well without their assistance. Predictably, this all loops back to the fact that Rayman Adventures is a free-to-play title. Incrediballs grow tired and need to be fed in order to be used again. The game dishes out a fair amount of food, but you can always buy some with real money if the need arises. To its credit, Rayman Adventures never gets heavy-handed with the microtransactions. There isn't any sort of mechanic that forces you to either pay or keep waiting, and resources seem to come at a constant enough clip that there exists the possibility it won't ever become an impediment (unlikely as that may be). However, there's a flood of different consumables that make them difficult to keep track of: gems, golden tickets, food, and elixirs can all be earned/purchased, and they all feed right back into one another. For example, tickets (and more) can be bought with gems. That ticket you scratch off might award some food. Food's used to revive Incrediballs which are used to perform well in levels, where the likes of gems might be the prize. Round and round we go. To what end, it's difficult to say. Scaling back and looking at Rayman Adventures as a whole paints it as a game where progress feels meaningless and sometimes confusing. But spending time inside the Rayman-patented lively world is a joy in small bursts, even if the execution is left wanting. Like those other Rayman titles, Adventures effectively captures the spirit of the franchise; it just has a hard time living up to the sterling precedent those games set -- a tall task that maybe the mobile format never had a chance of accomplishing in the first place. [This review is based on a retail build of the game at launch. No microtransactions were purchased.]
Rayman Adventures photo
So close, yet so far
Rayman has had a good run of it as of late. The last two console games -- Origins and Legends -- were fantastic platformers worthy of the highest praise. Now Ubisoft is testing the franchise's viability in the ...

Review: Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair

Dec 08 // Jordan Devore
Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair (PlayStation 4)Developer: SandlotPublisher: XSEED GamesReleased: December 8, 2015 (NA) / February 12, 2016 (EU)MSRP: $49.99 Some of those enhancements are immediately apparent; others are hard to pin to down. Visually, this is the best-looking, best-running Earth Defense Force I've played -- which is not to say it looks good or runs all that well by normal standards, mind you. Despite claims of a "steady" 60 frames per second, the game struggles to keep up with itself. Noticeable dips are a common sight when too many Ravagers pile up near your character or when skyscrapers crumble. The drop off usually isn't dramatic enough to be bothersome, but there were a handful of moments during my initial 15-hour-or-so run through the campaign where the frame rate briefly became a choppy, unmanageable mess. This is by no means new for the series, but it is a shame these problems persist on a current console like the PlayStation 4. Thankfully, load times fare significantly better. They're quick. I often made it into levels before I even had a chance to finish reading the tips and tricks shown on the loading screen. Considering how many missions there are (89 in single-player and split-screen; 98 in online co-op), that's a huge deal. These games are heavily built around players returning to levels countless times to earn more armor and cool weapons. No one wants to rack up literal hours of waiting to get into the action. [embed]325050:61450:0[/embed] Generally speaking, EDF 4.1 feels like a remix. Developer Sandlot reused set pieces and story beats in its earlier games, and that doesn't change here. (Again, this is an enhanced version of 2025, which in turn borrowed from 2017, so it's to be expected.) Remember fighting waves of red ants on a beach? Oh, you will. You'll also take on spiders, bees, bipedal robots, and spaceships, all of varying color and form. The mission is always to kill everything (or simply survive until someone tells you the thing you're after can't be killed yet), but there's enough variety strung throughout the campaign that I rarely got bored. The pacing is good, and few levels outstayed their welcome. That said, your results may vary depending on which class you choose (Ranger, Wing Diver, Air Raider, or Fencer), which weapons the random-number generator has blessed you with, and whether or not you're playing alone. The latter three classes are more specialized, but they have better options for getting across EDF's huge environments -- whether it's flying, driving, or dashing -- and they possess some of the more entertaining toys. The Ranger is well-rounded, but he can get stale. To that last point, these games are inherently more enjoyable with a friend (or up to three, if you're playing online). The classes are designed to complement each other, so it's most enjoyable with a mix of characters. The Air Raider, for instance, can buff others, lay down shields, and manually target enemy weak points for teammates' weaponry to lock onto. As far as new foes go, there is one particular encounter worth highlighting. Sandlot has added a new kaiju enemy, Erginus, that spans multiple levels. Your superiors eventually figure out that normal bullets and missiles have no effect on the monster. Naturally, the only way to bring it down is to initiate an absurd Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots-style brawl. You get to take control of a slow-moving "walking fortress" mech and punch the gargantuan approximately three thousand times until it finally keels over. I should have known that was its one and only weakness. A later mission raises the stakes with multiple mechs fending off against multiple Erginus. My first time through, everyone got tangled up in one corner of the map and I had to wait on the AI to die before I could even get within range to throw punches. The whole thing was a stupid, beautiful mess, which is exactly what I hope to find when I play Earth Defense Force. And in case you were wondering, yes -- the mechs are carried in by choppers. Tunnel levels and vehicles are some of my least favorite elements of this series, but both are better than ever here. New lighting effects make underground areas appear as if they are, in fact, set underground, and soldiers have lights on their weapons to compensate. The atmosphere now feels far more appropriate. I still find these levels to be uninteresting and quickly get annoyed when insect bodies pile up and block my shots, but the majority of the game is set above ground. As for vehicles, crucially, you can now see where you're aiming thanks to a laser sight. It's a total godsend. And I can't tell if the handling has been improved or it's merely my imagination, but for once, I genuinely wanted to drive tanks whenever and wherever I could. It helps that one of them is shaped like a spider and can crawl on walls. Bring that one below the surface. I also got the impression that there are more NPCs on the field compared to 2025. By pressing the DualShock 4 touchpad, you can place a marker on specific buildings, enemies, or locations. I was never sure if the AI was reacting to these commands or not (those weren't suggestions, people!), but being able to highlight targets is a great feature for co-op play. Insubordinate or not, more soldiers means more goofy dialog. The strange on-the-ground banter is spontaneous, hilarious, and rarely appropriate for the situation at hand. You can spur specific sayings using the touchpad. My personal favorite is a song that sounds an awful lot like the "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." One variation of the tune goes a little something like this: "To save our mother Earth from any alien attack, from vicious giant insects who have once again come back. We'll unleash all our forces, we won't cut them any slack. The EDF deploys!" My troops have uttered those words no fewer than 50 times and they'll continue to sing on command if they know what's good for them. This is precisely the sort of silliness that makes these games endearing in spite of their technical flaws and lo-fi aesthetic. In organizing my thoughts for this review, I realized I'm not ready to stop playing EDF 4.1. That's exciting, but also scary. I don't typically stick with these games long enough to get deep into the higher difficulty settings. Reaching that point requires a lot of grinding and patience. Too much. But that's where you need to tread to earn the best, most interesting weapons. While part of me hates that the progression system isn't more respectful of our time, I understand the appeal of having something you can keep coming back to for hundreds of hours. There's comfort in that. If I were to stick with a single installment going forward, this would be the one. Some of the upgrades fall short of expectations, and a good deal of the content is overly familiar at this point, but The Shadow of New Despair still represents the series at its best. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
EDF 4.1 review photo
The bugs are back in town
I'm happy Earth Defense Force continues to exist. There's no shortage of modern video games in which your primary interaction with the world is shooting things, but so few of them are lighthearted, charming, or funny. I don't...

Review: Fast Racing Neo

Dec 08 // Laura Kate Dale
Fast Racing Neo (Wii U)Developer: Shin'en MultimediaPublisher: Shin'en MultimediaReleased: December 10, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Fast Racing Neo is an arcade-style racing game that really captures a feeling of extreme speed from the get go. Environments stretch and blur as you fly around hairpin turns, jumps land with an immense thud if you're not lined up correctly, and every collision feels like a fist strapped to a lightning bolt smacked into solid concrete. The racing is immensely fast, as the name makes clear, and the sense of weight and substance behind vehicles helps every movement feel important, responsive, and in control. Considering the speed at which tracks fly past, the design of the game is stunning. Environments from tropical roadways to interstellar future tubes all feel distinct and memorable, with turns, hazards, and beneficial points well signposted. Turns are clear from a distance, and every design element is colored in such a way that it's recognizable as a neon point in the distance. [embed]324776:61432:0[/embed] The main feature that mechanically sets Neo apart from comparable super speed racing games is an engine color switching mechanic. By tapping the left bumper on your controller, you can switch the color of your glowing neon engines between blue and orange mid-race. These colors correspond to glowing sections on the track which will boost your vehicle speed considerably, as well as match up with boost jumps. The key to maximizing your speed is keeping up with the colors as they switch to maintain boosts and cut corners on tracks. The risk involved in the system is that there is a substantial drop in speed if your color clashes with a boost pad or jump you tried to use. If you touch a blue pad with orange engines, you'll find every other vehicle on the track zooming past you within seconds. The potential rewards are high, but if you're unsure, you may be better off avoiding these rewards in the heat of the moment. Also on the track are orbs that fill up a manual boost meter, which almost doubles your speed and allows you to push through vehicles that you collide with, knocking them aside with priority. The game boasts local and online multiplayer, which both work surprisingly well. Online races seemed to be lag free. The hectic pace is maintained throughout with minimal drops from races. Local multiplayer was done via split-screen, and while there was a visible drop in resolution, the sense of speed remains and it was still clear enough what was going on. It also features "Hero Mode," which ups the speed considerably, requires players to finish in first place, mirrors every track, and causes your manual boost meter to double as a shield meter. This gametype is quite frankly ludicrous, and gave me a real challenge to tackle once the main cups were cleared. Oh, before I forget, the whole game is playable on the Wii U GamePad in single-player, and it holds up really nicely on that smaller screen. Fast Racing Neo made a strong impression right off the bat, and is easily one of my favorite games this year. It's fast, it's responsive, it has a compelling color-switching mechanic, and Hero Mode provides a stupidly fast-paced challenge that's going to last me quite some time. I have very little bad to say about this game beside the fact that the resolution dips in split-screen. When that's the worst you can say about a game, it's pretty darn impressive. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fast Racing Neo photo
So fast the paint's peeling off my car
In the three years since the launch of the Wii U, one of the most notably absent Nintendo properties on the console has been F-Zero. The series, which focused on futuristic fast-paced track racing, has been dormant for over a...

Review: Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders from Planet Space

Dec 08 // Jed Whitaker
Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders from Planet Space (PlayStation Vita, PS TV)Developer: SandlotPublisher: XSEED GamesReleased: December 8, 2015MSRP: $29.99 If you're like me, you've played every EDF game and know what to expect when it comes to them, and this iteration doesn't break from the formula. In this enhanced remake of the second game in the EDF series -- originally only released for PS2 in Japan and Europe -- you'll be playing as one of three classes: Infantry, Pale Wing, or Air Raider. Infantry is your basic soldier that uses weapons you'd find in most modern day armed forces: assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers and so on. Pale Wing, on the other hand, is a female soldier with a jetpack and futuristic weapons; she moves slowly and is mostly useless on the ground while being nimble in the sky. Air Raider is a new addition that wasn't in the original release, and it mostly uses deployable weapons and plays more of a support role. In my playthrough, I sampled each class before decided to stick with the familiar infantry, as they just seem like an all around fit when playing solo while Pale Wing and Air Raider might fair a bit better in multiplayer. While up to four player online co-op is available, I was not able to test the functionality before release, so I can only assume the other classes fair a bit better online. [embed]325189:61454:0[/embed] Each of the three classes have their sets of weapons that are unlockable via pickups randomly dropped by enemies. This mixed with the six available difficulty levels adds a lot of replayability, on top of completing the game with each class; if you're a completionist, you'll get your $29.99 worth here.  Initially, I was concerned this being a port of the second game in the series would mean more repetition and less variety, but I was pleased to find out that wasn't the case. EDF2 has the best collection of enemies of any of the other games in the series. Aside from giant ants and spiders there are rolly pollies, flying saucers, centipedes, and daddy long legs-like walkers that are taller than skyscrapers. While this doesn't completely quash the repetitiveness of killing giant bugs and UFOs every stage, it certainly helps. Even the notorious slowdown that the EDF series is infamous for is mostly missing. In my playthrough, I experienced maybe two or three instances of choppiness due to the amount of enemies on screen, which surprising considering the Vita isn't exactly a powerhouse.  It isn't all explosions and sunshine, though. Most levels offer a tank, a speeder bike, and a helicopter, all of which control terribly. The tank is slow and clunky, the speeder bike is too fast to be controllable and useful, and the helicopter's guns aren't strong enough to be of use if you're lucky enough to hit something with them, and flying too high causes lots of pop in. On top of the terrible driving controls, the aiming just plain sucks for vehicles, mostly due to lack of crosshairs, which are provided when outside the vehicle.  Some stages take place in the city at night, where basically everything is pitch black (to a fault) other than windows in skyscrapers that shine brightly with a fuzzy glow around them, which just looks plain awful. Otherwise, graphically EDF2 looks like basically every other game in the series, which isn't surprising considering some of the levels feel almost identical if they aren't actually identical.  Aside from those issues, the main problem I had with the game was some enemies not being aggressive, instead opting to hang around in the far reaches of maps. Nearly every level's objective is 'murder all the bugs' and there was at least four or five times I had to either hunt and search to find the last enemies hiding spot, or slowly walk across the whole map. While tedious, these walks weren't the end of the world for me, just minor inconveniences of my fun-filled destructive romp. Earth Defense Force 2 may not be a brand new game per se, but has enough original content to keep it feeling fresh alongside the other recent releases in the series. With a lot of replayability, online four-player co-op, and a budget price tag it is easy to recommend to Vita owners looking for some campy over-the-top action in spite of its flaws.  EDF! EDF! EDF! EDF! EDF! [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] EarDefense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair (PlayStation 4)Developer: SandlotPublisher: XSEED GamesReleased: December 8, 2015MSRP: $49.99
Review: EDF2 photo
Honey I Shrunk the Kids 2: Buggernauts
Two words. Giant. Bugs. Also giant spaceships, giant kaiju, and giant explosions. If you're looking for campy sci-fi action on your Vita look no further than Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders from Planet Space.

Review: Fat Princess Adventures

Dec 07 // Chris Carter
Fat Princess Adventures (PS4)Developer: Fun BitsPublisher: SonyMSRP: $19.99Released: December 5, 2015 The entire gimmick this time around of Adventures is a Gauntlet-style hack-and-slash. Gone are the days of setting up elaborate base defenses and competing with other players in a giant game of Capture the Flag -- instead, you're mostly going to be pushing one of two attack buttons as you slaughter hundreds of foes on a relatively linear quest. Now, that's not inherently a bad thing, as Adventures is a competent action game with a few tricks up its sleeve. This time, the classes have been streamlined to four jobs: Warrior, Engineer, Mage, and Archer. The former two are melee based and the latter two are ranged, so it's pretty straightforward from there. As stated though the actual combat bits are quite good, despite their mindless foundation. Power attacks like a shield stun can often augment the effectiveness of other abilities, and the lock-on feature is simple to use, but flawless in execution. What I like in particular is that players can swap out classes at any time after hitting a checkpoint, which keeps things fresh through every stage, especially when more people are involved. Yep, Adventures commits to its hack-and-slash nature, and supports four players both offline and online. It's a drop-in and drop-out enabled game, so even playing solo can be enjoyable, as others will join in randomly, equip new roles, and switch up the flow of a match in an instant. Loot is also distributed rather swiftly, ensuring that you have a constant need to try out new playstyles. [embed]325020:61446:0[/embed] Having said that, the actual loot system isn't all that exciting. Sure, there are cool modifiers like a burn debuff for fire swords and the like, but none of it really transcends the realm of "slash slash slash," which is particularly grating when the enemy troops are mostly cannon fodder. But just as things are starting to get dull, an elite enemy (a la Diablo) will swoop in and grant you some new piece of loot, and all will be well again.  Once each level is completed, you can also go to the "Grindhouse" -- a mode that allows you to replay stages with extra rewards in tow, and challenge modifiers, like the restriction of using only one class. With local friends on board, this mechanic will last you quite a while. Bosses on the other hand could have used a bit more effort on Fun Bits' part. To be frank, they rely on the tired old mechanic of throwing "adds" (additional enemies) at players with reckless abandon. Some of the ideas are cool (using the overdrive mechanic as the only means of damaging a boss, or throwing cake at NPCs to power them up), but the strategy is almost always the same in the end: dodge power attacks, which are usually in a line, slash the adds, then focus the boss. In line with the uninspired boss encounters, don't expect a whole lot of substance outside of the quirky veneer. The story is rather trite, mostly consisting of a narrative that involves both princesses being captured by the evil Bitter Queen. It's something you've seen a million times before, and it's not done any better than all of the cartoons and games before it. The massive voice cast (with veterans like Nolan North, Steve Blum, and Tara Strong) does help its case though, as do the gallons of blood that flow from enemies, contrasting nicely with the cutesy fairy tale setup. Fat Princess Adventures is an enjoyable distraction for hardcore fans of the hack-and-slash genre, but now I just want a proper new Princess game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fat Princess review photo
I hope this leads to another core entry
I'm going to come out and say it -- Fat Princess was criminally underrated. With a charming art style and an incredibly deep combat system, it shot its way into my heart at launch, despite the fact that the community die...


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