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Review: Layers of Fear

Feb 14 // Jordan Devore
Layers of Fear (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed], PS4 [tested], Xbox One)Developer: Bloober TeamPublisher: Aspyr MediaRelease: February 16, 2016MSRP: $12.99 In the right circumstances, just about any house -- real or virtual, familiar or foreign -- can start to claw at your mind. In the absence of reassuring light and sound, your imagination is given the all-clear to dream up creepy what-if scenarios you know are obviously irrational but just can't seem to shake. Your eyes and ears begin playing tricks on you. That's the sensation Layers of Fear strives to evoke, except in this case, there truly is something sinister lurking in the shadows. Set on a stormy night in a sprawling, unkempt Victorian home, you play as a renowned painter trying to finish his masterpiece in spite of a longstanding creative block. Your wife and child are no longer here, but their presence still lingers. Written correspondence, clippings, and mementos scattered throughout the house offer hints about what the troubled protagonist was like in his personal and professional life before he spiraled into madness. These objects, the latter of which set off snippets of narration, collectively help to fill in the family's mysterious albeit somewhat predictable past. The majority of this psychological horror game is spent walking around, opening doors and drawers, rather than figuring out puzzles or fending off monsters. This is no action-packed adventure, but it's a trip all the same. Your surroundings are always changing -- sometimes right in front of you, but often, impressively, just outside your gaze. And it's seamless. You can shut a door, immediately open it back up, and see a whole different room. Hallways twist and turn infinitely. Your poor bed melts into the floor. Although the experience is set inside a single house, it doesn't feel limited in terms of scale, set pieces, or imagination. For as much as the floor plan enjoys messing with you, it is rarely confusing. Audio cues provide guidance, as do doors that lock and unlock to keep you headed in the right direction. There were a few spots where I wasn't sure where to go or what to do, and one was a sequence that involved finding obscured checkers. That was a bit of a drag. Occasionally, you'll need to dig around for specific items, but there isn't an inventory to manage, and much of the time you merely need to look in a certain direction to trigger scenery changes. You'll hear a distorted child's cry in the distance and, knowing full well that the only thing of importance in the room is a closed chest, you walk towards it. Up close, you can confirm that, yep, the noise is definitely coming from inside. So you open it. Slowly. Carefully. There's a baby doll and oh god why is it violently twisting? It melts into a thick black goo and you move on, hoping beyond hope that a later sequence doesn't involve sentient toys stalking you in the shadows. For me, the tension was front-loaded. Midway through, I had developed a decent understanding of what I was up against, and then everything felt less ominous. Unlike action-horror games, which can induce fear and adrenaline by requiring you to play well to progress, Layers of Fear failed to feel threatening. I was unnerved at times, but never felt a deep sense of dread. Terrifying or not, I was compelled enough to unintentionally complete the game in a single evening. Granted, it's only a couple of hours long, but the pacing proved captivating. The checkpointing isn't particularly generous, so that worked out for the best. Since your surroundings can irreversibly change, it's possible to miss collectibles. This didn't bother me, but for completionists, there will assuredly be some trial and error involved (though it is somewhat alleviated by the chapter select option and overall short length). After the credits, you can start over on the same save file. I got the impression that there is probably an incentive for doing a new-game-plus run, but couldn't find any conclusive answers. Given a choice between playing on PC, PlayStation 4, or Xbox One, I'd advise against the console versions. This is a game in which you manually open hundreds of doors and cabinets, and those interactions feel far less fluid using a gamepad. Secondly, at least on PS4, the frame rate is disappointing. It was sluggish enough to distract from the spooky atmosphere. Layers of Fear wasn't as frightening as I thought it would be based on early impressions, but I was still entertained by its mind-bending haunted house even when the jump-scares fell flat. [This review is based on a pre-release build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Layers of Fear review photo
It's not all in your head
Layers of Fear has a knack for animating the inanimate. Many of its real-world paintings would appear unsettling even in a well-lit museum on a crowded discount-admission day. (Take, for instance, Goya's Saturn Devouring His ...

Review: Sorcery! Parts 1 & 2

Feb 12 // Josh Tolentino
Sorcery! Parts 1 & 2 (PC [reviewed], iOS, Android)Developer: inkle StudiosPublisher: inkle StudiosReleased: February 3, 2016MSRP: $9.99 In some ways, that question is already answered, as the two parts of Sorcery! featured in this review have been available on iOS (as Sorcery! and Sorcery! 2) since 2013. The PC version is identical in terms of content, so folks who've already gotten their hands on the mobile versions won't find much of a reason to own this one. That said, though, people who are new to the series may be surprised to learn that there's just as much "game" as there is "book" in this gamebook adaptation. This is partially down to the strength of the source material. The original Sorcery! mixed in elements and statistics from pen-and-paper role-playing games, deepening interaction beyond the usual "turn to page [x] to see the result." Inkle rebuilds and tweaks these preexisting systems to bring them more in line with the interactions best suited to video games. [embed]339893:62207:0[/embed] For example, rather than simulate a sword fight by having players roll dice, each unique combat encounter in Sorcery! involves players dragging their character back and forth across the screen to determine the power of their attack, while reading the descriptive text for clues as to which actions to take for maximum effect. The result is a system that feels interactive and properly "game-like" without undermining the fundamental importance of the text to finding success. This also holds true for magic. Most encounters give players the opportunity to "Use Magic!" or "Cast a Spell," prompting them to trade some stamina to cast one of forty-eight available spells. Which spells can be cast at any given time depends on the arrangement of stars, represented by letters etched into the heavens. Arranging three-letter combinations makes for a spell. HOT casts a fireball, ZAP sends out a lightning bolt, and JIG causes an enemy to dance, provided one has picked up a bamboo flute somewhere along their journey.  And what a journey it is. Sorcery! players step into the shoes of an unnamed magician, on a quest to take the Crown of Kings -- a powerful artifact -- back from the villain who stole it, the Archmage of Mampang. The game covers the first two "books" of a four-part series, from the beginning area of the Shamutanti Hills to a second chapter set in the dangerous metropolis of Khare, Cityport of Traps.  Part 1 is a fairly straightforward, old-school adventure, featuring an art style that evokes the quaintly ugly aesthetic of '80s-era fantasy rulebooks. The encounters, mostly taken from the book, feel appealingly grounded and at times risk feeling decidedly mundane to readers more used to the large-scale epics of contemporary video game fantasy.  Part 2, however, is where the game expands, moving beyond what was possible with the original book (the sheer density of available choices would make for a very unwieldy read in physical format), and drives home the power and diversity available when setting up decision-making in text-based games.  Also pleasantly retro is the fact that Sorcery! can be kind of a bastard when it comes to screwing players over. Unexpected traps, sudden deaths, and "Your journey has ended"-type endings are common, though a convenient and punishment-free "rewind" system allows players to walk back any wrong choices they make. In a more forgiving game, this would cheapen the experience of living with consequences. However, given how unfair the adventure can be at times, and in light of the way choices are nested and written without an obvious good or bad path in most cases, I found the rewind to be a fairly balanced way to avoid frustration. Sorcery!'s shortcomings, such as they are, tend to be more technically-rooted. Though it's been reasonably well-adapted for PC, the interface still feels optimized for touch, with large elements that look fine on a phone or tablet screen but are a tad oversized to players using a mouse. The game, or rather the story, is also technically incomplete. The third part of the adventure, Sorcery! 3 is available on mobile platforms (and is reportedly quite a bit more expansive than either of the previous parts), but the fourth and final chapter isn't due to be released until later in 2016, and neither has been announced for PC. Thankfully, cloud saves are cross-platform compatible, so impatient players may consider continuing on their devices if they like this one. Ultimately, quibbles like this are quite minor and easy to overlook in light of the quality of the adventure itself.  By wrapping classical adventure writing in a thoroughly modern play experience, inkle has turned Sorcery! into a great testament to the power and place of text in gaming's canon. [This review is based on a digital retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Arslan: The Warriors of Legend (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Omega ForcePublisher: Koei TecmoReleased: February 9, 2016MSRP: $59.99
Cast a Spell! photo
Use Magic!
For nerds of a certain age, gamebooks hold as much childhood influence as the most memorable classic video games. Gamebooks helped pioneer player-driven narrative; the design lessons learned from the likes of Choose Your Own ...

Review: Atelier Escha & Logy Plus: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky

Feb 12 // Laura Kate Dale
Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky (PS3, Vita [reviewed])Developer: Gust Co. LtdPublisher: Koei TecmoReleased: March 11, 2014 (PS3) / January 19, 2016 (Vita)MSRP: $39.99 (Vita) Atelier Escha & Logy Plus as an RPG centers around two alchemists on a strict deadline to prevent the destruction of their world. Built around an in-game calendar, each mission you take on will require a certain number of your limited days to complete. Longer tasks might yield better rewards, but they carry the inherent risk of running out of time to complete larger objectives as they arise. Ranging from resource collection to battle-heavy dungeons, there's a decent variety of mission types to pick from. The most interesting aspect of this system ends up being how it impacts the party you take into missions and how willing you are to take chances as a player. If you're low on health or resources, you have to weigh the risks of pushing on and failing the mission against the multiple days it might use up to return to town, gather resources, and rest up. This risk management becomes a key part of gameplay, and kept me much more engaged in my performance than I expected. [embed]340946:62241:0[/embed] Giving the player the choice of two playable characters from the start, one male and one female, Escha & Logy's plot follows a very similar narrative structure to Tales of Xillia. While both protagonists work together, spend most of the plot together, and go on largely the same journey, some sections are altered depending on who you play as. The variations in plot are spread pretty far apart, but having the option to have a slightly different adventure on a second playthrough is appealing. Playing as Escha will give players a more alchemy focused, lighthearted view of events as they transpire, while playing as Logy is a more traditional, combat-heavy experience that will feel more familiar to RPG fans not versed in the Atelier's core alchemy mechanics. So, there is one big problem with getting invested in the story of Escha and Logy. While the main plot is well-written and engaging, the opening hours of you're adventure are cripplingly unrepresentative of the rest of the game. Excited for a grand, world-spanning adventure? Better be ready for several hours discussing financial outcomes of investments, business plans, government spending patterns, and uses for awarded stipends. Seriously, the opening hours play out like a Galactic Senate hearing in the Star Wars prequels. A fascinating story follows, but you're going to have to put a few tedious hours in to get to it. Bear that in mind. Where previous Atelier entries have done a poor job of explaining the mechanics behind alchemy and encouraged experimentation early on, Escha and Logy does a much better job of getting players to look at recipes and describing the ways in which they can be modified. While there's still a lot of experimentation in the system, that experimentation is acknowledged early on and not left as a big, daunting barrier that could halt late-game progression. The combat is fairly standard turn-based fighting, but the prep work put into alchemy before missions adds a nice amount of variety to the number of ways a fight can be tackled. Ultimately, Atelier Escha & Logy Plus is probably the best entry point this series has had. Sure, the first few hours are excruciating and I wouldn't blame anyone for not wanting to have to push through that, but the story of personal growth, trust, and ambition that lies behind it was well worth experiencing. The combat is a bit predictable to start, but once you get yourself stuck into the more accessible alchemy system, you'll never go into two fights with the same toolset available, which is refreshing. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Atelier Vita photo
A good entry for newbies
Atelier has always been one of those niche series of RPGs that gets harder to jump into with every entry. Featuring complex and often convoluted alchemy mechanics that have grown tough to break into over the years, the games ...

Review: Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth

Feb 10 // Chris Carter
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth (PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita)Developer: Media VisionPublisher: Bandai Namco EntertainmentReleased: February 2, 2016MSRP: $59.99 Cyber Sleuth stands tall as a cute, vibrant adventure full of interesting setpieces. For those of you who scared of hearing "Arurururu-mon" over and over like previous iterations, the tone is amusing without being too cutesy and annoying, and the option to turn off monster voices in battle helps (I'm sure people would love that for Pokemon). In other words, Media Vision found a good balance between the series' mature and childish elements. The developer has also gone full Internet again. In this edition, your avatar is at the epicenter of a cyber world, complete with Digimon battles and a personified world wide web. The setting is EDEN, a virtual consumer-oriented network run by Kamishiro Enterprises, that prides itself on shopping first and foremost, which the game has mild commentary on to boot. Over the years, viruses and hacking have started to run rampant as a fringe movement, however, and that's where said monsters come in. EDEN is beautiful, to put it bluntly. The blank skies are actually an endearing quality that help differentiate it from many other renditions of the Internet, and the upbeat soundtrack is reminiscent of the Persona series in all the best ways. Avatars also chat about real locations like Roppongi and Shinjuku, and it's generally fun to hang around the world even without a purpose, just like in the .hack games. This is partially because the world is believable. The team put a lot of work into building up its lore and foundation. [embed]340181:62208:0[/embed] Cyber Sleuth doesn't exactly look like a current-generation RPG (mostly because it was originally released on the Vita in Japan), but the brief anime cutscenes help breathe some life into it. As a note, the entire cast is comprised of Japanese voices, and the avatar (male or female, your choice) is mostly a silent partner, only speaking to him or herself. The rest of the characters probably talk half of the time. This halfheartedness spills over to the story somewhat, because while the universe itself is compelling, the "hacker" angle doesn't really go anywhere, and suffers from an overly long intro/tutorial section. The Persona comparisons don't stop at the presentation. The world map is also a menu, with larger hub worlds to explore after making a selection. It's deceptively large, because while it's not truly open world (or even open map like Final Fantasy games), you'll unlock so many areas over the course of your adventure that it will take quite a while to explore them all fully. Since you can save nearly anywhere (Cross-Save is also in), the segmented zones don't become anything more than a minor nuisance. The battle system is basically everything you've seen before from the past few decades of JRPGs. There's an easy-to-read timeline on the side showing turn order, and your 'mon can attack, use a skill, guard, or change out. Yes, random battles are in, which is either deliciously or inexcusably old-school, depending on your tastes. At this point in my life, I'm kind of at a middle-ground mindset. I still love JRPGs dearly, especially those with great world-building and infectious casts, but I can do without the random battles. At the very least, it would be nice to see enemies on-screen -- or, as several games have done lately (such as Bravely Default or the modern Final Fantasy re-releases), allow the option to eliminate them at will, though you can reduce the frequency at some point. As expected, 'mon can level up to gain new skills, and since each one can house up to 20, it can get very deep very quickly, especially when you consider that there's over 240 in all. Party members also follow you, which is a nice touch as you're wading through all of the random battles. Feeding, a DigiFarm meta-game, a lab that levels up non-active 'mons, and evolution are also in, so there's plenty to mess around with if you aren't feeling up to a dungeon crawl at any moment. Said dungeons, however, are mostly linear. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth plays it safe in a lot of ways, but for many of you out there, that's going to be perfectly fine. Just don't expect it to convert you if you're sworn off the formula. [This review is based on a retail version of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Digimon Story review photo
More Persona than Pokemon
For the past week or so, people have been asking me non-stop if we're going to review Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth. I wasn't actually sure if Bandai Namco was going to send a copy (it sent everything else), so for the gam...


Review: Dying Light: The Following - Enhanced Edition

Feb 09 // Zack Furniss
Dying Light: The Following - Enhanced Edition (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)Developer: TechlandPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentReleased: February 9, 2016MSRP: $19.99 The Following doesn't weave into Dying Light's main campaign. To start the expansion, you choose it separately in the main menu. You can drag your character's progress and inventory back and forth between the two campaigns at any time, but you can't just go to a fast travel and warp from one to the other. Once you begin, a short cutscene cuts to the chase: your character, Kyle Crane, has become aware of a route leading out of Harran. In this wild outback area, there's a cult that claims to have found some kind of immunity to the zombie virus. As this would benefit your cadre of survivors, you set out to investigate. The new area, called the Countryside, is huge. Techland claims that it's larger than the entirety of the original game, and I'd agree with that after playing to 100% completion. Since there are numerous open fields, it's not quite as packed as the urban environments in Dying Light proper, but I found this to be welcoming. It's not all open, either: you'll go from farms, to beaches, to graveyards, to caves, to factory areas, so you're constantly being stimulated in a new way. With a larger map, the customizable buggy goes from novelty to necessity rather quickly. Using a new Driver skill tree, which you level up by doing racing competitions, ramming zombies, maintaining top speed, and jumping off of ramps, you'll be able to improve your ride and add gadgets such as electrical pulses and UV lights. Since there are always zombies to squash under your wheels, this tree levels up rapidly. The buggy starts off entertaining, and gets better as you tinker with it. You can craft better tires, brakes, engines, and the like to make it faster and more responsive. I'm a sucker for driving in first-person games as it is, and driving in The Following might be the best incarnation I've played to date. A crossbow has also been added to your arsenal, which is a nice way to take out biters without attracting a horde. There are four different bolt types that you can use: normal, toxic, impact, and stun. I generally stuck to the normal arrows, especially when I snuck around the new Volatile caves. In Dying Light, Volatiles are the creatures that only come out during the night and can kill you within seconds if you aren't paying attention. In The Following, you can go directly to their nests to try to thin out their presence in certain areas. If you go in during the day, the caves will be littered with these bastards, and sneaking through with a crossbow was about the most tense this game can get. Going during the night is the safer bet, but I found it less thrilling when the odds weren't stacked against me. Another welcome addition is the Freaks of Nature, giant versions of the more devious types of infected strewn throughout the Countryside. The game recommends that you only try to fight these jerks with friends in co-op sessions, but if you find their weak point (or bring a really good gun like a cheater [me]), you can take them out solo. They offer special blueprints to create ever-more-vicious weapons. Usually you'll find these Freaks when you're on another mission, and suddenly a health bar will appear on the top of the screen a kick-ass John Carpenter-esque song will start pulsing. As far as the missions and story go, they're handled much better than the original game. This time, Techland is less interested in trying to make you care about certain characters and more interested in getting you to find out more about the cult. Instead of being a scary group of folks that are out to kill you, you're tasked with earning their trust so you can learn their secret. This leads to a mission structure where the side quests must be completed in order to progress in the main story. I didn't have a problem with this, because the side stuff, as before, is generally more intriguing than the actual story. Looking back on it, there aren't many story quests in The Following, but it all feels interwoven in a way that encourages you to scour every last bit of the Countryside. The only quest that I had trouble with was the penultimate one that involves some timed driving, and if you have no health packs, you're sort of fucked. I eventually persevered, but it was frustrating to be locked into the finale and unable to make it easier.  The final mission has some curious implications about the overall plot in Dying Light, but the ending shoots that momentum right through the head. I'm still hoping a sequel comes out of this, but I'm a little confused as to where it would go now. At this point, I must mention a caveat: I found Dying Light to be too easy about halfway through the game, so I played The Following on hard. I usually don't like to blather about the "right" way to play a game, but if you're going to play this expansion, I urge you to play hard mode.  Instead of the usual "enemies do more damage, and you do less" type of difficulty, Techland's version of hard is an improvement in almost every way. Medkits are no longer an instant heal, and instead provide healing over time. If you want to craft something or look at your map, you can't pause the game any more. Survivor sense doesn't show you every little item in every little room, so you have to more carefully observe your environments. If this sounds tedious, I promise that it makes the game both more immersive and more rewarding. Since this is part of the Enhanced Edition, which owners of the base game get for free (minus the expansion), there are a litany of other improvements to be found. There are daily bounties and a new Nightmare difficulty that have been added to rack up tons of experience, which you'll want for the new legendary levels. After maxing out a skill tree, points that would've gone to that tree now go to your legendary rank. You can spend these points on various buffs: 50% more firearm damage, more crossbow damage, better health regen, and other bonuses. There are a total of 250 of these points to earn, and they make you incredibly powerful. You'll earn them pretty slowly unless you play on Nightmare mode. In my 22 hours with The Following, I reached level five. Clearly, I need to jump back in there already. The Following was larger than I expected, and it maintains a high level of quality throughout. Being pared down from the bloat of Dying Light earns it more moment-to-moment excitement, and I greedily consumed it over the weekend. The last few minutes have me pondering the future of what's clearly going to become a franchise, and I'm ready for whatever Techland brings next. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Dying Light review photo
It should still be called Far Die
Dying Light surprised the heck out of me last year. While I mostly agree with Chris about the various faults and clichés found within (you can read my thoughts here, from back in my before-Destructoid days), it wa...

Review: Arslan: The Warriors of Legend

Feb 09 // Chris Carter
Arslan: The Warriors of Legend (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Omega ForcePublisher: Koei TecmoReleased: February 9, 2016MSRP: $59.99 One of the chief problems with Arslan is that it assumes, to some extent, that you're familiar with the source material. This will likely be a problem for a lot of you out there as it's a relatively obscure anime. I'm pretty surprised to see that it's been localized, truth be told. It isn't that hard to follow though, as the gist is mostly set up for you in the first few chapters. The titular Arslan is the 14-year-old crown prince of a kingdom who is forced to step up after one of the worst wars his country has ever seen, and he'll have a little help from his friends. That's all a given. But the ins and outs of each character, their idiosyncrasies, and backstories -- much of those are lost in translation, literally. With a history spanning three decades across multiple manga volumes and anime adaptations, there's lots parse. The encyclopedia menu option helps but it's merely a band-aid. That's not to say a certain type of person can't get get drawn into the world -- far from it -- as that's exactly what happened to me. Arslan is more flashy than previous games from Koei Tecmo (with the obvious exception of Pirate Warriors), but it also touches on a few heavy-hitting subjects, albeit on a tertiary level, like slavery and freedom. The anime cutscenes are wonderfully integrated, and there's often a seamless transition to gameplay. Note that it's fully voiced in Japanese and subtitled, with no dub track. [embed]334572:62104:0[/embed] As expected, the same two-button combo system holds up. Combos flow effortlessly once you pick them up, and the efficacy of multiple abilities ensures that you're not just flailing about wildly mashing buttons. There's also the added bonus of blocking and evading, as well as the classic "musou" super attack and a special that's unique to each character. Once I started to unlock more of the cast, I was surprised at how little Omega Force resorted to cloning, accentuated by said special abilities. For instance, Narsus (an outspoken critic of the status quo) wields a paintbrush. Well, a magical paintbrush that can set traps, queue up earthquakes, and cause rainbow explosions. Daryun, Arslan's right hand, is a pole-arm-wielding fiend reminiscent of Warriors characters like Guan Yu, but he sports some of the most interesting animations yet in the series, specifically his prowess on horseback. Elam, an unassuming young kid, ended up being one of my favorite characters. His bow skills surpass most ranged characters in action games today. One dude uses a lute! And the list goes on.  Switching weapons by way of the d-pad also serves to mix up your tactics on the fly. The "Mardan Rush" mechanic is also a standout feature, rallying an entire battalion as a single unit, causing all sorts of mayhem and kill-counts in the thousands in just seconds. There are also several fun RPG elements to Arslan. You can equip up to three skills by way of "cards," which can be earned by completing specific objectives or just playing the game, or by synthesizing your collection. This is fun to do on higher difficulty levels, but it's not something you'll have to micro on normal or below, so don't get too worked up.  But all of that flash and panache comes with a tradeoff: the boss battles are more tedious than you're probably used to. A "shield" system is in place here, which requires players to whittle down a meter until they can do proper damage. The tactic is usually the same, in that hammering on them as much as possible is paramount, saving your musou to deliver the blow after cracking it, and repeating. It would be more of a crushing feeling if nearly every level weren't such a joy to play through. If you can stomach a few minor issues that add up over time, Arslan: The Warriors of Legend will be your huckleberry. True to Warriors form there's plenty of collectibles to find, new weapons to discover, online and offline co-op, and a free-play mode. Like nearly every Omega Force game before it, I'll be playing this one for quite some time. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Warriors review photo
Dynasty anime
Koei Tecmo is killing it in the beat-'em-up action space. While a lot of detractors erroneously claim that all Warriors games are "mindless button mashers," the studio has managed to keep the series interesting for nearl...

Review: Assassin's Creed Chronicles: Russia

Feb 08 // Chris Carter
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: Russia (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed]) Developer: Climax StudiosPublisher: UbisoftReleased: February 9, 2016MSRP: $9.99 I was never really a fan of the modern settings in Assassin's Creed -- at least, the action sequences, because the walking simulator IT department bits from Black Flag on were cool -- but that doesn't mean they can't be done. As such, I was keen on seeing what Climax Studios could do with a tale set in 1918, this time shadowing assassin Nikolai Oreov and the quest for a Bolshevik artifact. The pulp animation cinematics are stunning, but the showstopping elements end there. The cast is simply not memorable, including Nikolai, who is doing "one last job" before he abandons the Assassins and finds a new life for his family elsewhere. It's a good hook but Russia never fully sells it, particularly given the underplayed performances. I don't need a charismatic, wisecracking Nolan North per se, just something to connect with. Russia also desperately wants you to know that "he's old," which should be meaningful, but we got a better angle on that storyline with Ezio in later core games anyway. That feeling of familiarity permeates throughout some of the other elements of the game. The Schlinder's List-esque monochrome and red aesthetics looked dope at first, but started to wear after a few levels. Outside of the blazing red and orange sky, a lot of the areas look too similar, even if it serves to differentiate all of the interaction zones (all those hidden little hovels). Though it does have the added benefit of cordoning off secret areas by purposefully not brightening them, which is rad. [embed]339981:62172:0[/embed] Beyond that, you can expect more of the same compared to the past entries in the trilogy, which is to say great things. The 2D switch-off works wonderfully. The controls are so responsive, and the tools available are not only effective, but succeed in not overwhelming the player. I love that you can approach levels with either a gung-ho or pacifist style, or anything in between, and the running slide assassination ability is still just as satisfying. Unique to Russia, yanking off grates Arkham style with a winch and using phones to distract guards is silly, but it works when juxtaposed to the serious art style. I'm a bit torn on the gunplay however, because while the art of sniping does technically fit the quiet nature of the universe, it wasn't done in such a way that elevates it beyond an arcadey shooting gallery. There are a few sequences where distraction is key, like a mini-puzzle of sorts, but in most cases you're just blasting away at folks until no one is left standing. With six challenges to do (just like India) and a New Game+ option, Assassin's Creed Chronicles: Russia has plenty to offer for a bite-sized package, but it fails to live up to the bar set by its predecessors. The loud and powerful styles of China and India simply trump the final piece of the pie, which goes out with a muted rebel yell. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Assassin's Creed review photo
Once more, with guns
Assassin's Creed Chronicles had a nice thing going on with China and India, delivering some of the classic stealth action the series is known for with a striking new art style and a shift to 2D action. Now Ubisoft i...

Review: Firewatch

Feb 08 // Steven Hansen
Firewatch (PS4, PC [reviewed])Developer: Campo SantoPublisher: Panic Inc., Campo SantoReleased: February 9, 2016MSRP: $19.99 Henry is sad. Why else retreat to the woods of Wyoming to become a fire lookout? It starts in Colorado when Henry, plastered, tries to hit on a woman at a bar. She feels so bad for him she gives him a pity date that turns into a relationship. These bits are done purely with text and music, interspersed by full three dimensional segments of Henry walking out of an elevator into a parking garage and getting into his beat up, fire-engine red pickup. Not unlike Kentucky Route Zero, a high mark in the adventure game genre, Firewatch opens with opportunities for the player to partially define Henry's character. When your girlfriend Julia wants a dog, do you accept the beagle she falls in love with, or insist you get a German shepherd (for protection)? When she asks about children, do you ask her to wait? These choices are not superficial; they are real-life important. More than affecting the outcome of that relationship (you already know he is escaping to the Wyoming woods by the mid-80s), they take on personal meaning in how you sharpen elements of Henry's character.  Mixing these text-adventure-style segments with Henry's dutiful trek into the woods makes them more poignant because you already know how it ends. Badly. Yes. But with a surprising complication. Julia, by then Henry's wife, comes down with early onset Alzheimer's. I didn't expect to be hit that hard by two white text options, but the decision to keep minding her around the house 24/7 or put her in a home was not easy -- and I don't even know what she looks like. While Julia and the relationship are defined in broad strokes, the choice doesn't feel as abstract as choosing to save a character and let another die in The Walking Dead, for example. These are familiar, real-world issues. As Henry settles into his role as lookout, ascending his tower after an eight mile hike, he is met by the voice of Delilah, his boss, who communicates with him via walkie-talkie. This makes up the bulk of the gameplay: walking around, chatting with Delilah via radio. It is a welcomed evolution of the stationary choice-based dialogue trees (you use the triggers so you can walk, talk, and probably even chew gum at the same time). Their conversations are natural thanks to strong dialogue matched by each character's voice performance. Delilah's constant cursing and groan-inducing puns are met by Henry stammering "p-p-p-panties" on the way to keep those aforementioned nude teens from setting off any more fireworks in light of the extreme fire warning. The chemistry is natural as they alternate jabbing back and forth and opening up with one another, though still I found it difficult to bring up my abandoned wife the first few times opportunity arose. Silence is a viable dialogue option. Henry, though, is not just defined through player-guided dialogue. Everything about the production furthers his character. He is not a camera on wheels. You see shorts-clad legs when you look down or his large, meaty hands as he exerts himself clambering up a one meter lip. He is human, average, and the animation work reinforces that. Firewatch is filthy with telling details like these. Some pieces just add flavor (in the confiscated bundle of bottle rockets, one is called the Screaming Wife, and all have original artwork), but it all works towards a cohesive tone. [embed]339920:62167:0[/embed] Art director Olly Moss' color palette is not just pretty to look at. The exaggerated hues work towards the overall tone, from the warm oranges to vivid, dark evenings, while the stylized look is readable, moving away from obfuscating photorealism. I rarely got lost in the unfamiliar woods (though there is a paper map Henry physically pulls up and scribbles notes on). The area is designed and the story paced with just enough backtracking to breed familiarity with the territory, while the relative isolation still leaves it frightening, especially as the story moves away from potential drama-cum-romcom into a thriller.  Most impressive is the thematic cohesion. Firewatch is broadly about guilt, which metastasizes here as isolation-induced paranoia when things turn frightening. After day one on the job Henry comes back to his tower to find the place smashed into. The teens, maybe? Or that silhouette of a hiker spotted on the way back home? While Henry has Delilah on the radio, isolation is what drove him into the woods, perpetuating a cycle of guilt leading to self-imposed loneliness shared by the major characters. The same nagging doubt, decision-questioning, and fear is externalized in the second act as outside forces appear to be stalking Henry and monitoring the conversations between him and Delilah. At which point, incidentally, their carefree, innocent flirting now seems lurid. Something to be ashamed of for the still-married Henry. Let's not forget guilt, internalized anger that can lead to isolation. Ambient sound design shines brightest here, as everything from the weirdly strong rattle of a chain link fence to scurrying in the distance invokes fear -- especially after Henry is sucker punched unconscious on the way to do some fishing. It was here for me Firewatch accessed fear on a Hitchcockian level. No monsters. Only one encounter with some kind of assailant. Still the surveillance, the mystery, the vulnerability and the isolation left me wandering around always checking my six rather than frolicking through gorgeous woods. Music, art, and dialogue quickly established the forest familiar, giving me nostalgia flashes of camping as a kid and first stepping out of the car, dwarfed by redwoods, twigs crunching underfoot. Then that comfort is stripped away. The analog inputs (pulling up the walkie-talkie or map, spinning the same "1234" tumblers to unlock every single park lock box with Henry's paws) combined with unique animation and believable voice work help ground Firewatch, which manages both restraint and maturity in its story without ever going full mumblecore "walking simulator." The warmth of the budding relationship between two voices with natural chemistry is undercut by harsher realities and the drawn out segments of feeling stalked and vulnerable are legitimately stressful. The result is a tight, taut human tale well worth the trek.
Firewatch, with me! photo
A watched fire never kills you
The drunk, nude teens bathing in the lake at sunset summed up Firewatch neatly: "you're just some sad man out in the woods." Kids always know just where to cut. If you could translate the insult quadrant of their brains you'd...

Review: Unravel

Feb 08 // Caitlin Cooke
Unravel (PC, Xbox One, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Coldwood InteractivePublisher: Electronic ArtsReleased: February 9, 2016MSRP: $19.99 Unravel’s story begins with an elderly woman making her way up to bed as Yarny, the game’s darling protagonist made from red yarn, comes to life downstairs. His adventure begins just outside of the cottage, roaming through the garden and into the beyond in search of lost memories made by the family that once inhabited the house, unraveling himself along the way. Yarny is able to roam freely throughout the cottage, a landing area for the ten chapters in the game which are accessed through framed pictures. Each photo transports our hero to the area it was taken where he encounters fragments of lost family memories, pictures frozen in time. At the end of each chapter he places the memories into a photo album that starts to come to life, weaving pictures into a story. [embed]339641:62166:0[/embed] To capture all the memories you guide Yarny through various terrain and strategize on how to make it past obstacles without unraveling him too much, as he only has limited amounts of yarn before reaching another spool. At first the game throws a lot of yarn techniques and mechanics at you quickly, but with time they start to become second nature. Coming up with clever solutions using environmental props along with grappling, swinging, climbing, rappelling, and tying knots for points of resistance are key to making it through. The yarn puzzles are fairly easy to figure out without being too simple -- each task is fairly small and broken up, not requiring long chains of thought but at the same time being challenging enough to feel rewarded when making it through. There were a few areas I was stuck on for longer than I’d like, but for the most part I found them to be fun and clever. Surprisingly, the levels never felt repetitive and the game was kept fresh by experimenting with the yarn’s mechanics in new environments. Outside influences also give a bit of flavor, requiring additional thought behind the puzzles -- for example, landslides, animal chases, and active machinery all play additional parts to the game beyond the yarn. Because the yarn is finite and will stop unraveling if you use too much, being cautious with solutions is critical to making it past obstacles. Yarny will get visibly distressed and emaciated if you pull too far away -- but don’t worry, you won’t kill him, he just won’t stretch any farther. If you find yourself in a particular bind (literal or no) you are able to reset back to the last save point by holding the down button. This is an extremely useful and necessary feature as it is quite possible to accidentally get yourself in an unsolvable situation. Spools act as save points along with providing the additional thread, and are fairly regular throughout the levels, however there are some small stretches that can wear thin if you’re not careful and make too many mistakes. Unravel as a whole is a whimsical and endearing adventure, pulling you further into the atmosphere through the intricate textures and bright effects. In one of my favorite levels you make your way through a snowy farm, rolling pine cones to make snowballs. The environment was so realistically captured and joyful that I felt I was right there with Yarny rolling around in the snow. Textures and light within the environment are slightly exaggerated, but in that magical way that makes fond memories stand out brighter. Everything from a log to a puddle comes to life beyond what’s contained in reality, almost like watching the most beautiful sceneries replay in your head. There’s a certain sadness to the experience that I can’t quite explain, perhaps lost nostalgia and a lingering familial longing that tugs at the heartstrings. It’s not necessarily "sad" or depressing in the traditional sense, but a thoughtful tale that brings forth various emotions throughout that will vary depending on the player’s personal history and connection to the story. These emotions are certainly drawn out even further by the sepia tones and lovely violin accompaniment, along with the self-discovering nature of the game. Unravel cherishes the best moments in life while recognizing the hard battles we sometimes face as families, all wrapped up within delightful gameplay and stunning scenery. The atmosphere is so compelling that I couldn’t help but feel like a piece of my own story was wrapped up in the game with the rest of the photo album. It’s rare but a special thing when a game manages to impart a story that touches strings deep in the heart, and Unravel manages to meet and exceed this feat. Get ready to have all the feels. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Unravel review photo
Simply beautiful
At first glance Unravel feels akin to LittleBigPlanet with its adorably miniature yarn-clad mascot, but don’t let it fool you. It’s a heartfelt story with little communication beyond imprinted memories, woven with...

Review: A Boy and His Blob

Feb 06 // Brett Makedonski
A Boy and His Blob (Linux, PC, Mac, PS4, PS Vita, Wii, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: WayForward TechnologiesPublisher: Majesco EntertainmentReleased: October 13, 2009 (Wii), January 20, 2016 (Re-released on other platforms)MSRP: $9.99 WayForward's take on A Boy and His Blob is intentionally vague and that's possibly its best quality. In an opening sequence reminiscent of EarthBound, a child is woken in the middle of the night to a crash outside his window. After a brief bout of exploration, Blob is discovered. From there, it's just adventuring for the sake of adventuring, and saving the world for the sake of saving the world. Blob is billed as the greatest asset, a shapeshifter who can perform about a dozen different functions. For example, Boy feeds Blob a jellybean and Blob turns into an anvil. Or a soccer ball. Or a trampoline. Over the course of 40-some levels, variations of this sequence play out hundreds (maybe thousands) of times as the main function of this puzzle platformer. You wouldn't think it from the game's title, but Blob is actually a tertiary character. If it were named more accurately, this would be called A Boy and His Jellybean Wheel. A disconcerting amount of time is spent in a time-frozen state clumsily navigating a menu of the level's eight-or-so pre-assigned jellybeans. After a jellybean is thrown and Blob (hopefully) performs his duties, it's only a matter of seconds until you're forced to again pull up that menu. That process sucks the life out of A Boy and His Blob. Even though most of the game's levels are notably short, they often feel like arduous endeavors because the pace grinds to a crawl. Puzzle solutions are usually easily identifiable -- in fact, there are often giant signs pointing out the answer -- but their execution is needlessly slow and sluggish. [embed]338372:62152:0[/embed] Making matters worse, there are many many instances when Blob simply won't do what you want. Blob has a tendency to shift shapes just ever-so-slightly not quite where intended. It's annoying at first, but becomes a detriment in later levels. That combined with stiff and unresponsive platforming controls often leads to starting the section over from scratch.  And, that's all when Blob is actually on-screen. It's not uncommon for Blob to be missing altogether, either because it was left behind or it hopped into an abyss. When this happens, the game would like for the balloon jellybean to be tossed, causing Blob to eventually float to your position. Mercifully, however, there's a call button that can just be impatiently pressed over and over until it balloons your way automatically, slowly but surely. What A Boy and His Blob has on its side are intangibles, of sorts. They're plucky attributes that significantly and understatedly enhance a game, but don't necessarily make a game. For instance, there's no denying A Boy and His Blob's innocent aesthetic, unspoken emotion, or charming spirit. Those are the qualities that make the game more tolerable than it would otherwise be. Without much option of anything besides leaning on the NES version's method of using Blob (a non-playable character) as the means of gameplay execution, WayForward's take on A Boy and His Blob is frustratingly imprecise and inaccurate. But, by deviating a bit and adding the jellybean wheel, it killed any momentum and turned the game into a slog. That is truly the worst of both worlds. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
A Boy and His Blob review photo
Blah-b
A Boy and His Blob, a 2009 "re-imagining" of the NES game of the same namesake (and recently re-released on current platforms), is an interesting case study. When does retro game design and a devotion to source material becom...

Review: Tachyon Project

Feb 05 // Chris Carter
Tachyon Project (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Eclipse GamesPublisher: Eclipse GamesReleased: July 15, 2015 (PC, Xbox One), Jan 19, 2016 (PS4)MSRP: $9.99 Tachyon, as the name probably suggests, is housed upon a foundation that involves a cheesy cyberpunk hacking plot. Players are placed into a dystopian future of sorts, hacking police stations and corrupt governments by way of a tiny ship. In a way, it's kind of like the setup for the Sly Cooper spinoff Bentley's Hack Pack, but a lot more serious. And really, there is a bit of charm there, especially if you dig the cyberpunk aesthetic. I commend Eclipse Games for trying something other than the "menu to shooting" approach, and it helps ground the campaign a bit and give the whole affair meaning. Some light commentary during missions also helps make things interesting while you're blasting away. The soundtrack, like the story, has a muted, chill feeling to it, which I dig. While Happy Hardcore songs during bullet hell dodging is great, I like the low key electronica soundtrack here, as it meshes well with the game's dark hues and not-too-bright neon visuals. Gameplay-wise, Tachyon operates on a twin-stick control method, with two sets of power-ups mapped to two buttons. That's all you really need to know, and once you start progressing on your journey, more options will open up. The shooting bits in general work well, and I like how using your normal cannon has a recoil effect (but not jarringly so) -- forcing players to course correct and get to know their ship a bit better. Players can also min-max stats by choosing a new chassis to suit their own style of play. I'm more of the defensive health-conscious player myself. Levels primarily stay engaging because of interesting enemy types. It's mostly stuff you've seen before, but black holes that suck up bullets, kamikaze ships, and generally aggressive AI will keep you on your toes. It's also easy to tell everything apart and identify its logic, so you don't have to constantly guess what a specific enemy type is. Tachyon Project isn't a remarkable shooter, but it's well-designed on several levels. There's no multiplayer to speak here, but with a decent campaign, lots of customization, and New Game+/Endless modes, you'll be perfectly fine going at it solo. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tachyon Project photo
Hackin' like Jonny Lee Miller
While the shoot 'em up genre isn't the king it once was, more and more gems are coming out every passing year. New development studios are taking to Steam and mobile, and even Cave is coming out of the woodwork to become rele...

Review: COUGAR 450M Optical Gaming Mouse

Feb 04 // Joe Parlock
Product: COUGAR 450M Optical Gaming Mouse Manufacturer: Cougar Input: One USB 2.0+ Port MSRP: $49.90 First, the numbers. With a maximum of 5000 DPI and a polling rate of up to 1000 Hz, the 450M is fantastically sensitive and responsive. Adequate mouse sensitivity is down to personal taste to an extent, but with that 5000 DPI maximum, I severely doubt anyone is going to find this thing too slow. I played about an hour of Far Cry 4 on it, and noticed absolutely no delay between me and the movement on-screen, which is great.  Using Cougar’s UIX software, the 450M can support up to three different profiles that can contain everything from three DPI settings, which can be swapped between using the on-the-fly DPI switch button, to the more advanced settings like angle snapping, lift distance, and polling rate. The amount of control you’re given over how the mouse works is utterly fantastic, and the UI is easy enough that I was able to get it up and running just how I like it within a couple of minutes. There are four extra macro buttons, two on either side, which can be bound to any function you like in UIX. Personally, I have my top left button bound to my screenshot key, and my bottom left bound to a particularly handy ‘sniper’ function, which lowers your sensitivity and allow you to line up shots more easily while it’s held. I’ve seen this as its own advertised feature with a dedicated button on other mice before, so seeing it simply thrown in as an optional extra for any of those four buttons sure is nice. The thing that surprised me the most, though, is how comfortable the 450M is to hold. I have the dubious luck of having huge ham hands, and so far I’ve very few problems with how the mouse sits. It’s big enough for me to comfortably hold it in a full palm grip without my fingers peeking out over the top of the buttons, which is something I’ve never been able to say about a mouse before. The easy-grip texture on the flanks of the mouse aren’t rough enough to be uncomfortable, but provide just enough grip to make sure your hands don’t slip during gaming. Unfortunately, there are three minor negative points which do take away from the comfort somewhat. Firstly, the glossy finish of the mouse means that people with clammier hands may have trouble getting a decent, comfortable hold on it after a while. It also means if you’re a stickler for clean peripherals, you’ll be forever wiping off finger and handprints from it. Secondly, the mouse is pretty dang thin, meaning the sides of my hand couldn’t get enough lift off of my coarse mouse mat and would wind up rubbing up against it. If you have smaller hands, this might not be a problem, but I would’ve liked the mouse to be a bit wider just to reduce the contact area between my hand and the desk. Lastly, the extra macro buttons on either side of the mouse are placed slightly too far forward for me. I have to stretch to hit the top button on either side, which can be uncomfortable if they’re bound to a function I need to use regularly or kept held during gameplay. None of these are major, deal-breaking problems, but they’re things that also could’ve been easily avoided during the design process. Build quality is a bit of a mixed bag, and is honestly where most of my complaints about the 450M lie. It’s not all bad, of course. The Omicron Micro switches under the buttons are really responsive and 'clicky,' with absolutely no smushing feeling when pressing them. The mouse wheel is also one of the best I’ve ever seen, with it being coated in chunky tire-style rubber. The wheel isn’t set inside the mouse, but occupies a gap in between the two buttons, which makes it easy to clean from all angles. I never thought I’d give so many words to something as nondescript as a mouse wheel, but this one is seriously nice. Unfortunately, the 450M feels more cheaply made than others in this price range that I’ve used, being made out of lightweight and glossy plastics that aren’t as resilient looking as I would’ve liked. For £40-50, I would want something strong and chunky that I know would last many intense gaming sessions, but I just don’t think the 450M would be able to stand the test of time. The Cougar 450M Gaming Mouse is really nice in a lot of ways: it’s comfortable, responsive, and has a vast array of customisable settings. It’s just a shame that there are definite areas for improvement, mostly in the build quality. The mouse is the peripheral which gets the most use, so making sure you have one that both feels good and won’t die on you is important. If you spot this on even a slight discount somewhere, I can wholeheartedly recommend you pick one up. At the price range it’s normally at, there are probably better alternatives out there. [This review is based on retail hardware provided by the manufacturer.] Using Cougar’s UIX software, the 450M can support up to three different profiles that can contain everything from three DPI settings, with can be swapped between using the on-the-fly DPI switch button, to the more advanced settings like angle snapping, lift distance and polling rate. The amount of control you’re given over how the mouse works is utterly fantastic, and the UI is easy enough that I was able to get up and running just how it like it within a couple of minutes. There are four extra macro buttons, two on either side, which can be bound to any function you like in UIX. Personally, I have my top left button bound to my screenshot key, and my bottom left bound to a particularly handy ‘sniper’ function, which lowers your sensitivity and allow you to line up shots more easily while it’s held. I’ve seen this as its own advertised feature with a dedicated button on other mice before, so seeing it simply thrown in as an optional extra for any of those four buttons sure is nice. The thing that surprised me the most, though, is how incredibly comfortable the 450M is to hold. I have the dubious luck of having huge ham hands, and so far I’ve very few problems with how the mouse sits.  It’s big enough for me to comfortably hold it in a full palm grip without my fingers peeking out over the top of the buttons, which is something I’ve never been able to say about a mouse before. The easy-grip texture on the flanks of the mouse aren’t rough enough to be uncomfortable, but provide just enough grip to make sure your hands don’t slip during gaming. Unfortunately, there are three minor negative points which do take away from the comfort somewhat. Firstly, the glossy finish of the mouse means that people with clammier hands may have trouble getting a decent, comfortable hold on it after a while. It also means if you’re a stickler for clean peripherals, you’ll be forever whipping off finger and handprints from it. Secondly, the mouse is pretty dang thin, meaning the sides of my hand couldn’t get enough lift off of my coarse mouse mat and would wind up rubbing up against it. If you have smaller hands this might not be a problem, but I would’ve liked the mouse to be a bit wider just to reduce the contact area between my hand and the desk. Lastly, the extra macro buttons on either side of the mouse are placed slightly too far forward for me. I have to stretch to hit the top button on either side, which can be uncomfortable if they’re bound to a function I need to use regularly or kept held during gameplay like. None of these are major, deal-breaking problems, but they’re things that also could’ve been easily avoided during the design process. Build quality is a bit of a mixed bag, and is honestly where most of my complaints about the 450M lie. It’s not all bad, of course. The buttons are responsive and ‘clicky’, with absolutely no ‘smush’ when pressing them. The mouse wheel is also one of the best I’ve ever seen, with it being coated in chunky tire-style rubber. The wheel isn’t set inside the mouse, but occupies a gap in between the two buttons, which makes it easy to clean from all angles. I never thought I’d give so many words to something as nondescript as a mouse wheel, but this one is seriously nice. Unfortunately, the 450M feels more cheaply made than others in this price range that I’ve used, being made out of lightweight and glossy plastics that aren’t as resilient looking as I would’ve liked. For £40-50 I would want something strong and chunky that I know would last many intense gaming sessions, but I just don’t think the 450M would be able to stand the test of time. The Cougar 450M Gaming Mouse is really nice in a lot of ways: it’s comfortable, responsive, and has a vast array of customisable settings. It’s just a shame that there are definite areas for improvement, mostly in the build quality. The mouse is the peripheral which gets the most use, so making sure you have one that both feels good and won’t die on you is incredibly important.  If you spot this on even a slight discount somewhere, I can whole-heartedly recommend you pick one up. At the price range it’s normally at, there are probably better alternatives out there.
Gaming Mice photo
Feels a bit flimsy, but works great
I’ve never had much luck with gaming mice; either there’s too many moving parts and I break it, or the shape doesn’t fit my hands and feels uncomfortable to use. So when I got Cougar’s 450M ambidextrou...

Review: Fortified

Feb 04 // Jed Whitaker
Fortified (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: ClapfootPublisher: ClapfootMSRP: $14.99Released: February 3, 2016 Fortified's story is quite familiar; robotic martians come to Earth and start destroying every living thing in their path, and it is up to four heroes to stop them. In this case, the heroes are made up of four different selectable characters ranging from a spaceman, a rocket scientist, a secret agent and, of course, a handsome captain of the team. For my playthrough, I chose to play as mostly the rocket scientist as she was the only female character available. Each character has special abilities that they can do for a brief time upon filling a meter, and the rocket scientist's allows her to fly around the map with endless clips of ammo and invulnerability. Her starting weapon is a grenade launcher that knocks enemies in every direct with each explosion, which is a nice way to delay the advancement of martians. Each level plays out in a varying number of waves of enemies. Before each wave, players have the ability to stage defenses along the path enemies will be following as they attempt to blow up your base, or, in this case, rocket ship. Some stages only have one rocket; others have multiple and if any of them are destroyed, the level is lost. During waves, players can freely attack with their weapons of choice which have unlimited ammo but varying reload times. After completing stages, characters gain experience points and upon leveling up gain points to unlock and upgrade weapons and defenses. Each character levels independently and has their own set of unlockables, though it appears there may be some crossover between characters. XP is only gained when completing levels for the first time on each difficulty, or by grinding the endless waves of Invasion mode, so you can't cheese the system and grind the first level to unlock everything quickly. This keeps the game from being a total cakewalk, but it certainly isn't hard. [embed]338092:62075:0[/embed] I was able to complete the 12 stages on offer without much of a challenge. I believe I had to retry three or four levels, but that was typically caused by loading into the levels without needed defenses. Specifically, early on in the game, I was given the choice between unlocking a couple of options, and I didn't choose the auto-turret that fires at flying enemies, therefore I got quickly bested in the next stage. Luckily, you can redistribute your points between levels as you see fit, and unlock the necessary equipment without any hassle. While there are two other difficulties available -- hard and the unlockable insane difficulty -- they don't feel like what I was hoping for. Hard limits you to 15 seconds between waves with a 15-second respawn timer, but otherwise felt the same as the normal difficulty. Insane only has five seconds between waves, enemies can kill you in one or two hits, and respawns are only at the start of each wave. The time between waves doesn't matter so much as you can place defenses whenever, nor does an extended respawn timer for the most part. Insane mode felt mostly unfair and cheesy. Multiplayer, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult in the sense that enemies take far more damage before keeling over. I would have preferred to see more enemies instead of having them be proverbial bullet sponges, but I guess this is intended to encourage players to work together -- if only players did that. Can't blame the developer for your teammates not communicating or working together, though. Overall the online experience was smooth, with no noticeable issues. Playing Invasion mode with a high-level character felt far too easy, as I was able to build enough defenses to sit back and let them do all the work for me. That said, it is a nice addition, but only has three different maps to play on, so unless you plan on using it to grind XP, I don't think it adds much longevity to the game. While 12 levels may seem like a low amount, it felt just right to me. The game didn't overstay its welcome and the levels were varied enough to remain interesting. Some of these levels have over 700 enemies to kill, with tons of them on the screen at the same time. Impressively, the Xbox One version didn't have any noticeable framerate issues or slowdowns, keeping a pretty nice 60-ish frames per second. While the graphics aren't all that spectacular, the art style stays true to the films of old that it is based on. As far as audio goes, get ready to hear the same song over and over, as apparently there can be only one. Somehow, I still found myself both humming it and hating it by the time the credits rolled. Overall, I enjoyed my time with Fortified, but it is hard to recommend as a single-player-only experience due to it being too easy, and with no split-screen on offer, you're going to have to make friends or play with randoms online. The entire story consists of three short cutscenes, so those wanting a deep narrative need not apply. If you're looking for a campy romp with some friends and a few thousand martians, though, Fortified is easy to recommend. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Fortified (PC, Xbox One)Developer: ClapfootPublisher: ClapfootMSRP: $14.99Release Date: February 3, 2016 If you're familiar with any of the campy 1950's sci-fi flicks, then Fortified's story will be quite familiar; robotic Martians come to planet earth and start destroying every living thing in their path, and it is up to four heroes to stop them. In this case, the heroes are made up of four different selectable characters ranging from a spaceman, a rocket scientist, a secret agent and, of course, a handsome captain of the team. For my playthrough, I chose to play as the rocket scientist as she was the only female character available. Each character has special abilities that they can do for a brief time upon filling a meter, and the rocket scientist's allows her to fly around the map with endless clips of ammo and invulnerability. Her starting weapon is a grenade launcher that knocks enemies in every direct with each explosion, which is a nice way to delay the advancement of Martians. Each level plays out in a varying number of waves of enemies. Before each wave, players have the ability to stage defenses along the path enemies will be following as they attempt to blow up your base, or, in this case, rocket ship. Some stages only have one rocket; others have multiple and if any of them is destroyed the level is lost. During waves, players can freely attack with their weapons of choice which have unlimited ammo but varying reload times. After completing stages, characters gain experience points and upon leveling up gain points to unlock and upgrade weapons and defenses. Each character levels independently and has their own set of unlockables though it appears there may be some crossover between characters. XP is only gained when completing levels for the first time on each difficulty, or by grinding the endless waves of Invasion mode, so you can't cheese the system and grind the first level to unlock everything quickly. This keeps the game from being a total cakewalk, but it certainly isn't hard. [embed]338092:62075:0[/embed] I was able to complete the 12 stages on offer without much of a challenge. I believe I had to retry three or four levels, but that was typically caused by loading into the levels without needed defenses. Specifically, early on in the game, I was given the choice between unlocking a couple of options, and I didn't choose the auto-turret that fires at flying enemies, therefore I got quickly bested in the next stage. Luckily you can redistribute your points between levels as you see fit, and unlocked the needed equipment without any hassle. While there are two harder difficulties available, the hard and unlockable insane modes, they don't feel like the difficulty I was looking for. Hard limits you to 15 seconds between waves with a 15 second respawn timer, but otherwise felt the same as the normal difficulty. Insane only has five seconds between waves; enemies can kill you in one or two hits, and respawns are only at the start of each wave. The time between waves doesn't matter so much as you can place defenses at any time, nor does an extended respawn timer for the most part. Insane mode felt mostly unfair and cheesy, but might be the best way to play if the difficulty doesn't scale with multiplayer; I hope that is the case. Playing Invasion mode with a high-level character felt far too easy, as I was able to build enough defenses to sit back and let them do all the work for me. That said, it is a nice addition, but only has three different maps to play on, so unless you plan on using it to grind XP I don't think it adds much longevity the game.
Review: Fortified photo
Domo arigato Mr. Martian Roboto
The 1950s were considered the golden age of campy sci-fi films, with aliens often invading Earth alongside giant animals, and, of course, robots.  Fortified tries to recreate the feeling of those films in a third-pe...

Review: Blitz Breaker

Feb 04 // Chris Carter
Blitz Breaker (PC [reviewed], iOS)Developer: Boncho GamesPublisher: Boncho GamesReleased: February 2, 2016 (PC), TBA (iOS)MSRP: $2.99 Blitz Breaker doesn't waste any time. Within seconds, you're in, learning the game's ins and outs, which are comprised of a sole jump button and directional inputs (with support for a keyboard or gamepad). Your player character can't move traditionally, and therein lies the gimmick. Instead, pressing a button will allow you to dash in any one of the cardinal directions. Jumping is a tertiary function, only used in specific cases, because trying to actually control your leap will only result in a wild dash. Here's the most interesting part of the game, mechanically -- once you commit to a direction, you have to see it through until you hit something. Since you can't just course correct constantly, it becomes part puzzler in that sense, especially when rooms start filling with spikes and conveyor belts. Smashing against a wall is commonplace, with the resulting force often catapulting you into danger. You'll need quick reflexes to get through this one, but paying attention to your surroundings is key too, so there's a balance. Some of my favorite puzzles involve multi-screen sequences, which force players to recall layouts to unlock doors and smash barriers that are required to reach the exit at the end of every stage. There is some trial and error involved though, as dashing into another unknown screen can result in an instant death. It's not too frustrating given the lenient level restart option, with the exception of boss gauntlets, which can get pretty tough and lengthy. [embed]338811:62114:0[/embed] The simplicity and relatively small rooms are clearly made with a mobile audience in mind, which makes sense after I realized that it's coming to iOS at some point in the future. Thankfully, pesky IAP (mobile DLC) is nowhere to be found, and you're getting the whole enchilada with your purchase. There is an "arcade" mode, but it's basically just a different delivery system for the campaign. With no multiplayer component, there isn't a whole lot there after all 101 levels are completed -- and once you get the hang of the game, they go by quickly. Blitz's art style is reminiscent of a bygone era, but the design team puts its own spin on it, and the soundtrack is one of the best indie productions in recent memory. Blitz Breaker will bring a smile to your face if you enjoy games like Super Meat Boy, though the experience isn't nearly as deep. Once you've blazed your way through, there isn't much there to coax you into staying, but you'll have fun with the ride all the same. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Blitz Breaker photo
Gotta bump fast
I've said it before, but I really enjoy this era of gaming. Sure, there were a lot of classics in the retro era, but many were few and far between from the same usual suspects. Now we have talented developers ready and willin...

Review: Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4

Feb 04 // Laura Kate Dale
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Cyber Connect 2Publisher: Bandai NamcoReleased: February 9, 2016MSRP: $49.99 Much like the previous Ninja Storm games, this is a combination of 3D multiplayer fighting with a truncated re-telling of the story of Shippuden. Starting in the midst of The Great Ninja War, Ultimate Ninja Storm 4's story mode tells the same tale as the manga and anime, cutting out any side action and pruning what’s left to the bare essentials. Where did Kakashi get his Sharingan? Who is the guy in the orange mask? Will Naruto ever convince people to “believe it”? As a reminder of the story’s progression and to round off my enjoyment of Naruto, Ninja Storm 4 was a solid, satisfying experience. Featuring full English and Japanese voice tracks from the cast of the anime, the story mode tends to switch between ten-minute chunks of anime cutscene and short fight sequences as appropriate. There's an awful lot of watching compared to playing, but as someone looking to get through the story, that suited me just fine. The combat, which remains unchanged between the single-player story and multiplayer modes, favours style over substance. Characters use the same combo button presses and control in much the same way as each other. The primary difference between the cast is in visual flourish, the speed at which they move, and the type of over-the-top special attack they employ. It's designed so that once you have wrapped your head around controlling one character, you can switch and play as another with very little additional practice needed. [embed]338210:62087:0[/embed] In versus mode, you pick three characters from which to build a team. While you can switch characters mid-battle, the most interesting aspect of team selection is that pairing together characters with pre-existing narrative ties can result in the ability to perform special combination moves unique to the game. Put Sasuke and Naruto together, for example, and you'll see a pretty cool-looking lightning Chidori Rasengan combination attack. This simplification of combat mechanics is, in many ways, a welcome blessing, as the roster in Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is enormous. There are multiple variants of the main cast with unique move-sets, everyone from end-of-the-story villains to minor characters. I spent hours with the game just trying to see every character's top-end skills pulled off, and am well aware there's a whole bunch of combination attacks I still have not seen. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is fairly simple as a fighting game, and has evolved little mechanically over past iterations. Thankfully for me, it really didn't need to do either of those things. It's an extravagant, over-the-top spectacle where you get to watch teenage ninjas blow up chunks of the planet using magic attacks, and that's pretty cool. If, like me, you fell off the Naruto bandwagon during the early parts of Ninja War, it's a great way to put a few hours in and still know how the whole narrative ended up playing out. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Naruto photo
Simple, flashy, over the top
Almost a decade ago, in my mid-teens, I was hugely into Naruto. As a socially awkward nerd who had just discovered that Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon were part of a larger media genre, I spent years avidly following the adven...

Review: Logitech G933 Artemis Spectrum Wireless Gaming Headset

Feb 03 // Laura Kate Dale
Product: Logitech G933 Artemis Spectrum Wireless Gaming HeadsetManufacturer: LogitechInput: One USB 2.0+ PortMSRP: $199.99/£169.99 So, let's talk a little about the design of the G933 first. The headset, black and slightly industrial in design, is incredibly comfortable to wear. Featuring rectangular ear cups that surround and encase the entire ear rather than sitting on the outer ear and a sturdy, padded headband, I found the headset very comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. The headset features a small strip of colour changing lights, which can be switched off using buttons on the headset if desired. Ear cups can be repositioned from the headband for head size, supporting surprisingly small and large extremes, and the ear cups also rotate to fit the head. The headset is quite bulky and does not feature any method of being folded which might make transporting cumbersome, but for a stay-at-home gaming headset it's very much was I was looking for. The included wireless dongle fits neatly inside one of the ear pieces when not in use, behind a well-designed magnetic panel. The included microphone also nicely folds away into the earpiece when not in use, making it less immediately obvious it's a gaming headset. [embed]338768:62113:0[/embed] It's important to note before we go any further that the G933 headset only works wirelessly on PC, with PS4, Xbox One, and mobile functions restricted to cabled connections. The headphones feature an auxiliary port for use with those other pieces of hardware, as well as a USB port for wired PC gaming and charging, alongside a host of buttons. The left ear piece hosts a dial for volume control, buttons mapped to audio profile presets, and a power button for using the headset wirelessly. All of the buttons were easy enough to find while wearing it. So, how is the quality when using this as a wired headset with a standard microphone lead? Extremely strong. The basic audio profile is tuned surprisingly well to both gaming and a variety of music genres. If you want to switch to something more bass or treble heavy, the hot keys on the headset do a really strong job of keeping pace. The high end of the volume is going to be loud enough for those of you looking to truly drown out the world, and the overall audio quality was exactly what I would expect out of a high-end pair of headphones. The advertised 7.1 surround sound worked perfectly out the box, and required no setup. Also, at the top end on volume, there was minimal audio leakage to those around me, which is reassuring. As for the wireless setup? Absolutely no noticeable drop in audio quality. Setting the headset up was as simple as plugging in the provided USB dongle and switching on the headset to switch the default audio output to the headset. It also has a surprisingly large wireless range, which is impressive for a device designed for a gaming setup. The headset lasted around eight hours on full volume with the coloured lights turned on, and almost four hours longer with the lights switched off. In terms of gaming specific audio, I tested the headset with Rise of the Tomb Raider, American Truck Simulator, and Tales from the Borderlands. In Tomb Raider, it did a great job of highlighting directional audio for gunshots, while keeping vocals at the front of the mix when needed. American Truck Simulator kept a nice base rumble going that was nice and distinct from the sound of the radio in my cab. Borderlands focused on vocals and sound effects in the mix, but without drowning out music. Overall, I was very impressed with its handling of multiple types of games. So far I have been nothing but positive, but I do have one notable drawback that holds the G933 from being a unanimous recommendation, and that is the quality of the inbuilt microphone. While it's certainly clear enough for you to be understood by other players, it has a decidedly hollow sound when used for voice chat or recording. It's likely not a deal breaker if you're just using it for in game chat, but it's certainly not a high-end microphone. As someone who regularly podcasts, it's not going to hold a candle to dedicated microphones. Overall, I am incredibly impressed by the G933 as a high-end wireless gaming headset. It held its own with every kind of audio I threw at it, it was comfortable, and it looks great. The fact audio quality is maintained wirelessly is a big pro for PC gamers, as is the surprisingly strong range on the headset. Just be aware the built-in mic won't blow anyone away. [This review is based on retail hardware provided by the manufacturer.]
Logitech photo
Music to my ears
I'm not going to lie, Logitech is not a name I've traditionally associated with quality equipment for a gaming setup. Realistically, the only time I tend to browse Logitech products is when I need a cheap basic keyboard or mo...

Review: Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel

Feb 02 // Kyle MacGregor
Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel (PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: ExamuPublisher: Marvelous, XSEED GamesReleased: December 10, 2015 (JP), February 2, 2016 (NA), Early 2016 (EU)MSRP: $29.99 (PS3), $39.99 (PS4) Following in the footsteps of the aforementioned Persona 4 Arena and Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax, Nitroplus Blasterz markets itself as a game that is easy to pick up, but difficult to master. Targeting both fighting game enthusiasts and Nitroplus fans that might have never thrown a dragon punch, it attempts to walk a line between something players from both camps can get behind. I'd argue that line is drawn a little closer to the hardcore side of things. While the inputs for special attacks and super moves are relatively easy to execute in contrast with some one-on-one fighters, if you're the sort of person who struggles to pull off quarter circle motions, you're probably in for a bad time. That said, there are certain concessions for more casual players, like the "Variable Rush," a special lunge attack that launches characters into a short-lived combo. If the Variable Rush connects, players can essentially button mash to execute a customizable string of impressive-looking attacks that change depending on which face buttons are pressed. It's not necessarily the most effective use of meter (costing two of three power bars), but it's easy to execute and reasonably effective. Beyond the standard light, medium, and heavy attacks are launching "Heavy Action" moves and "Escape Actions," which, depending on directional inputs, can be used to perform everything from short hops, cancels, rolls, air dashes, and defensive maneuvers. One of the more interesting (and useful) Escape Actions is the "Vanishing Guard," which negates chip damage when blocking and, if pressed at the right moment, acts as a parry, giving the user a momentary advantage over the enemy to strike back or get away. Vanishing Guard has its limitations, though, as it can only block either high or low, leaving one angle open for enemies to exploit. [embed]337261:62032:0[/embed] Of course, each character has plenty of unique special and super moves, as well as a single "Lethal Blaze" attack, which, for the price of full meter, triggers a fighter-specific mini-cutscene that unleashes an assault powerful enough to turn the tide of a one-sided match or swiftly end a nail-biter. Lethal Blaze also can be wielded as a trump card by taking priority over other attacks. There are a couple other minor systems at play, but I want to talk about the characters. The main roster contains twelve main combatants, including the sword-wielding Saber (Fate/Zero), ranged fighters Saya and Anna, cat-throwing Nitroplus mascot Super Sonico, zone-controlling Ein, Spider-Man-esque Muramasa, grappling Ethica, and Ouka, a heavy-hitting robotic walking crucifix. While there isn't a male character in the bunch, the cast is very diverse in terms of mechanics, so players shouldn't have trouble finding at least one or two characters that suits their tastes and personal play-style. But the fun only begins with the core cast. In addition to main characters, players will also take into battle two (of twenty) additional partners that can significantly impact how a match unfolds. Each partner comes has a unique move -- and I mean unique. One rides a hang-glider in from off-screen, aiming to crash into your opponent, while others can summon overwhelming swarms of minions, like zombies or bugs. Another sends in a barrage of missiles from the sky, and a few don't attack at all, instead doing things like giving both sides a bar of meter or placing buffs in the middle of a stage, impelling players to play tug-o'-war over the bonuses. The partner blitz attacks recall the arcana system from developer Examu's Arcana Heart series, which allows players to accent their character with different abilities and gives the game an added level of strategy. In my time online with the online mode (which, by the way, is fine -- if a tad spartan), I noticed a pattern of opponents picking partners to counter one another, as the impacts their assist attacks provide can mean the difference between victory and defeat. I can imagine high-level competitors spending a lot of time working out which partners are best in particular spots and situations, offering an incredible amount of depth for those who seek it. In addition to that added level of complexity, Examu also left its mark on Nitroplus Blasterz by allowing Aino, one of the characters from its Arcana Heart series, to join the roster as a DLC character along with Senran Kagura's Homura. While I haven't spent as much time with them as the rest of the cast (they were not available pre-release), I've enjoyed the few matches I've been able to use them in and could easily see one becoming one of my mains, along with Anna and Saber. Since both Aino and Homura are free for the first week following the game's launch, that provides a little added incentive for interested parties to pick the game up early. While I'm certain some players will balk at the dearth of bonus features or collectibles, that sort of stuff (along with the visual novel-style "Another Story" mode) doesn't really interest me. I'm more than content with your standard arcade, score attack, network, and versus modes if the gameplay is solid -- and it is. That's where I derive my enjoyment from. And I appreciate added perks like cross-platform and cross-region play, so I can compete against players on PlayStation 3 and people from other countries. Even though I still have no idea who most of these characters are, that didn't end up mattering to me in the end. Nitroplus Blasterz is a fast, smooth, strategic, and generally entertaining fighting game that has found a happy medium between accessibility and depth. Provided a decent-sized community builds around the game, this is a fighter I could see myself enjoying for a long time to come. [This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.]
Nitroplus Blasterz Review photo
No nostalgia necessary
I recently attended a tribute night at a local brewery, where musicians were invited to serenade patrons with songs from the '70s. Early on that evening, I glanced around the darkened beer hall to discover I was a few decades...

Review: Harvest Moon: Seeds of Memories

Feb 02 // Alissa McAloon
Harvest Moon: Seeds of Memories (Android, iOS [reviewed], PC)Developer: NatsumePublisher: NatsumeReleased: January 13, 2016MSRP: $9.99 This is the first time a traditional Harvest Moon game has released for mobile, and I was honestly surprised by how functional the controls were. There are two different ways to interact with the world -- talk mode and farm mode -- but both control by tapping and dragging your finger across the screen. Even in farm mode, there's no need to switch between tools; tapping a plot of farmable land automatically uses whichever tool is appropriate, be it a hoe, watering can, or fertilizer. The downside to this is it's easy to accidentally till a circle around the plant you're trying to water. That's not the biggest problem in the world, but it is entirely the reason the neat rows of seeds I tried to plant look like a drunken art project. As with any Harvest Moon game, Seeds of Memories starts when your character, a young traveler, decides to settle into a small town and transform an abandoned farm into a productive, fertile homestead. After a quick tutorial, you discover that the townspeople have lost some of their memories and, by making some new memories of your own, you can help them remember.  There's a few good fishing spots, a mountain to explore, and a town filled with various characters to chat with. If you're familiar with this series, you'll find it easy to quickly slip into a daily routine of farm chores, foraging, and potential spouse romancing. But for those in need of a little more motivation, there is a list of memory milestones that represent different accomplishments to be made, from celebrating a townsperson's birthday to upgrading your house. Chasing down all 150 memories helps introduce more direction into a game that is otherwise somewhat aimless.  It isn't hard to find busywork, but after a while it becomes difficult to find a reason to keep playing. Even with all of the memories and events to experience, Seeds of Memories simply lacks the personality and charm past titles have brought to the franchise. The townspeople never seemed interesting beyond their comically exaggerated accents. Bonding with characters is necessary to unlock new seeds and further the story, but it always felt more like a chore than anything else. Toward the end of my time with the game, I just stopped visiting the town entirely except to purchase livestock or seeds.  Seeds of Memories has the all promise of a solid Harvest Moon title, but it fails to develop those features into anything substantial. Its forgettable storyline is somewhat redeemed by how well the actual farming side of things works, but that alone isn't enough to make it worthy of your time.  [This review is based on a retail copy of the game acquired by the reviewer.]
Review photo
Better off forgotten
I've been religiously playing Harvest Moon games for more than half my life. The addiction started when my dad bought Harvest Moon: Back to Nature for our PlayStation back in 2002. I remember racing home every day to play it...

Review: AIPD - Artificial Intelligence Police Department

Feb 02 // Chris Carter
AIPD - Artificial Intelligence Police Department (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Blazing BadgerPublisher: Mamor GamesReleased: January 29, 2016MSRP: $9.99 One part Geometry Wars, one part...Geometry Wars, AIPD is a shmup that sports interesting neon visuals and a bumpin' soundtrack. It's relatively easy to pick up given its twin-stick nature, as the only nuances you'll need to learn are the differences between the scant few powerups at your disposal. There's gadgets like slo-mo, shields, and the like to choose from, most of which you've seen before. Despite the lack of innovation, AIPD succeeds at a base level with tight controls and a fun aesthetic. I also like how it occasionally switches objectives after clearing out specific waves, and presents players with a choice of challenges -- something like picking between "enemies do more damage," or "players earn less points." It keeps you on your toes constantly. And since there's several difficulty levels available, the top of which is actually challenging, it mixes things up even more. But once you realize that those challenge nodes are basically there as a smoke and mirror effect to hide the fact that there's one level (a circle), the formula starts to falter. There's just a few enemy types in total to do battle with, and only two -- the laser-blasting Battleship and the snake-like Bouncer -- are truly unique. The rest feel like fodder, and wander around aimlessly without any real rhyme or reason. Even though there's two colors (red and purple) to differentiate them, most of the time I couldn't tell them apart. [embed]338525:62101:0[/embed] As time goes on, you have the options to unlock new weapons and starting loadouts, but that's about it. Mechanics like the heat meter, which halts fire momentarily to jettison a bomb that can harm the player, are cool in theory (it sounds cool just talking about it), but they only serve to break up the pacing. The few modes that are available feel too similar, and the "creation" mode that I was initially excited to dive into only allows players to choose custom rulesets from a strict table, so you aren't actually given a lot of freedom. The good news is that AIPD supports up to four players locally, so if you have three other friends who are die-hard shmup fans, it's worth checking out. Otherwise you can steer clear and pick up the heap of other great shooters on Steam or PS4. Those platforms have no shortage of them. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
AIPD review photo
Yes, that's the actual title
Who polices the AI Police? Good question.

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III: Awakening

Feb 02 // Chris Carter
Call of Duty: Black Ops III (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: TreyarchPublisher: ActivisionReleased: February 2, 2016 (PS4) / TBA (PC, Xbox One)MSRP: $14.99 ($50 Season Pass for four packs) When it comes to map design, Treyarch is one of the best in the business. One of its go-to staples is the three-lane approach, which allows for all sorts of interesting firefights and strategies throughout every game type. It takes it to an extreme here with Gauntlet, as it hosts three unique themes in each lane -- tropical, arctic, and industrial. Each area evokes feelings of the past Black Ops maps, Jungle, Discovery, and Kowloon respectively, which is good company to be in. Gauntlet is instantly recognizable, and really feels like three maps in one. If anything it's a bit too tunnel-oriented as folks will no doubt have issues with a lack of elevation (especially in the arctic and jungle themes), but it gets the job done and I'm glad it's in the rotation. [embed]338194:62083:0[/embed] Splash (pictured up top) is typical Treyarch at its finest. It's an absurd water park map that wouldn't feel out of place at Disney World's Caribbean Beach Resort. It's bright, it's littered with shops and rides, and even has a Main Street area. Water slides dot the landscape, as do cute mascot signs that top the previous meta Burger Town franchise -- it would feel right at home in the wackier Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare games. It's crazy that you can consistently read the detail on individual signs now as well (a few of which made me laugh, like the "no selfie stick" one), instead of haphazardly trying to read blurry scrawls. It's one of my favorite maps in years, with a wide array of open areas and indoor close-quarters combat sections. Skyjacked, quite simply, is a remake of Hijacked from Black Ops II. This map was a bit divisive in the community due to its close-quarters focus and propensity to promote camping, so most of you have already made up your mind on it. Personally it was one of my favorites, so I'm glad to see Treyarch bringing it back here, and was happy to play it again. The new theme isn't a half-measure like some past remakes, as the entire affair now takes place in a floating fortress, set to the backdrop of an ongoing city battle. It's a remake of a good map that's made even better due to jumpjet and wallrunning capabilities. There's usually one map that I outright dislike in a pack, and this time it's Rise. It's far too gated and familiar for my tastes, and is nearly indistinguishable from a few industrial levels included in the base package (namely Exodus). There are times where you'd think a cool new area is just waiting around a corner, but then the game doesn't allow you to actually go there due to invisible walls. It's almost like they spent too much time building the other three to really put the proper amount of care in here. If it comes up in the rotation I usually cringe. Der Eisendrache (The Iron Dragon) caps off the DLC, which immediately adds more of an incentive to pick up Awakening. Peppering in one zombie (or alien) map is a strategy the other Call of Duty developers (Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer) have adopted for good reason -- the sheer amount of depth in these things keep people coming back for more. I really dig the whole castle theme, which basically goes full Wolfenstein from the start. I'm sad to see the Jeff Goldblum crew seemingly isn't returning for more, but the original cast is iconic enough to last, spearheaded by Steve Blum's Dempsey. The animated intro certainly helps give the level a different feel as well, and it's crazy that Treyarch is still building upon the lore it created so many years ago in World at War. Der Eisendrache surprised me as well with its open layout, with plenty of room to move, lots of teleporters, and tons of secrets that players will be tracking down weeks after launch. As Nikolai even remarks during Der Eisendrache, "will there ever be an end to this nightmare?" Not as long as Activision keeps selling DLC, there isn't! But one man's nightmare is another man's video game, and the good news is that each Call of Duty developer has been pushing itself harder in recent years to justify the price. If you still play Black Ops III, you can't really go wrong with Awakening -- especially since the new maps are now built into normal playlists from the get-go.
Call of Duty DLC review photo
Four maps and some zombies
It's still crazy to me that I'm loading up a Call of Duty DLC pack first on PlayStation 4. After years of Microsoft-dominated timed exclusivity Sony finally has its shot at heading it up, and it has perfect timing with Black Ops III. As one of the best Call of Duty games in years, it allows Awakening plenty of room to breathe, and lets Treyarch be its unconventional self.

Review: Shadow Puppeteer

Feb 01 // Laura Kate Dale
Shadow Puppeteer (PC, Wii U [Reviewed])Developer: Sarepta StudioPublisher: Snow Cannon GamesReleased: January 28, 2016MSRP: $14.99 Shadow Puppeteer is a puzzle-platformer about a young boy whose body and shadow become severed by an evil figure, and their quest to become one again. You use one analogue stick to move the child in 3D space, while using the other stick to control his shadow on a 2D plane. The boy can move items around, altering the locations of shadows, and can pass through obstacles like smoke that cast a solid shadow, blocking movement for the shadow child. The first thing to note about Shadow Puppeteer is its lack of technical polish. Cutscenes have visible compression artifacting, the menus are poorly produced, every move to another small environment involves a lengthy loading screen and the beautiful art style is let down by the quality of the in-game models when compared to the visual design of the cutscenes. In short, it looks and feels very rough around the edges. [embed]338045:62072:0[/embed] While playing Shadow Puppeteer, I couldn't help but compare it to Contrast and Brothers, the two games whose mechanics it poorly mimics. Where Brothers' use of dual character control felt seamless and responsive, SP frequently felt loose, unresponsive, and fiddly. Where the shadow manipulation puzzles in Contrast were thematically tied and provided impressive visual spectacle upon completion, those in Shadow Puppeteer often felt basic, simplified, and unconnected to the world of the narrative. Oh, and the game is terrible at proper checkpointing. There were times where I died, had to replay multiple rooms, each with a load time between them, and re-watch a cutscene to return to making progress. This did not feel challenging; it just felt tedious. Shadow Puppeteer tries to do interesting things, but ultimately comes off as unpolished, bland, repetitive, and mediocre. I really tried to enjoy it, but I just couldn't bring myself to care about it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Indie photo
The worst of both worlds
Shadow Puppeteer; a game that takes the shadow-manipulation mechanics of Contrast and the dual character control of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and wraps them in a Tim Burton aesthetic… and doesn't do any on...

Review: LEGO Marvel's Avengers

Jan 29 // Chris Carter
LEGO Marvel's Avengers (3DS, PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: TT Fusion, TT GamesPublisher: WB Interactive EntertainmentReleased: January 16, 2016MSRP: $29.99 (3DS, Vita), $39.99 (PC) $49.99 ( PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360), $59.99 (PS4, Xbox One) Marvel's Avengers is the latest beat-'em-up in a long line of Traveller's Tales LEGO joints, a subseries that has hosted roughly 30 games since 2005. It follows the same rough format as past titles, with a few added bits of panache (like more cinematic attacks and sequences) for good measure. You probably know the drill by now -- multiple characters are on-screen at a time, all of which sport several attacks, but they have slightly different ways of going about it. For instance, Captain America and Hulk are both melee fighters, but Cap will be able to reflect beams, and Hulk can smash through giant machinery. Iron Man and Thor excel at range and can fly, but the former can melt metal with his beams. You get the idea. Playing with a partner will enhance your experience tenfold as you can operate in tandem with one another, as going at it solo puts a damper on things by forcing you to switch characters often. That's even more true for Avengers, where the two-person synergy attacks (like Thor slamming into Cap's shield for a shockwave) are that much more satisfying. The best part, the LEGO franchise's signature silly humor, is intact. Interactions and events play out in a similar manner, so there aren't a lot of surprises, but additional jokes and a general sense of lightheartedness actually elevate a few dud portions of the films. As such, every cutscene brings a smile to my face, and helps break up the repetition a bit. I never really minded the shift from the gibberish "LEGO speak" of the past into full voice acting, as Traveller's Tales has always maintained the same tone successfully. [embed]337320:62048:0[/embed] That cavalier, cartoony attitude can go a bit overboard, though. While including over 200 characters is a cool notion, especially for kids who are fans of some of the more obscure heroes, you end up with an overwhelming number of clones and a general sense of vanilla loadouts. They're also inherently limited by the plotlines put forth in the MCU so they can't deviate too much, compared to a wholly original game like Dimensions. So where does LEGO Marvel start to really falter? Its inability to stick to one script at at time. It jumps around so many films that it fails to tell a cohesive story, and assumes you've seen every movie. If you haven't, you'll probably be a mite bewildered as to what's going on. In fact, the game kind of just jumps into Age of Ultron's intro with no rhyme, reason, or setup, before moving onto scenes from both Captain America movies, Thor 2, Iron Man 3, and more. And don't think there's some overarching "Galactus is narrating the story" device -- it just happens as it comes. The open world hubs are a welcome respite from the constant bang bang action, in that sense. As for me, I've experienced every bit of the MCU outside of the comics, so it did mostly make sense. Some is good, some is bad (Agent Carter, which just returned to TV, is pretty good!), but the vast majority of it is easy to follow. It's not like you're going to be scratching you head trying to decipher poignant plotlines -- the game just mostly lacks context, and suffers from fanservice-itis. The latter especially comes into play when the game splices in direct quotes from the film, some of which feel forced, with an odd audio mix to boot. Does your kid constantly go on about Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr. while they run around the room in their Hawkeye outfit? Pick up LEGO Marvel's Avengers and add it to the massive pile of LEGO games you likely already have. It's a fun mindless romp through a couple of interesting setpieces, but not a whole lot more than that when it comes down to it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
LEGO Marvel's Avengers photo
WB always finds out, bro
The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) is intimidating, to say the least. In addition to all of the feature films there's also official tie-in comics, one-shot short films, multiple sequels that set up sequels, and now, eight separate television shows with multiple seasons across two networks. If you haven't been at least following the movies, LEGO Marvel's Avengers probably isn't for you.

Review: American Truck Simulator

Jan 29 // Patrick Hancock
American Truck Simulator (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: SCS SoftwarePublisher: SCS SoftwareRelease Date: February 3, 2016MSRP: $19.99  Euro Truck Simulator has quietly worked its way into the lives of many gamers over the years, myself included. I'm not sure why or when I thought I'd enjoy it, but I'm certainly glad the decision was made. These types of games are many things for many people; some enjoy the serenity, others enjoy the realism, and I'm sure there are those who turn their trucks into a replica of Darkside from Twisted Metal and ram into anything that crosses their path. For those veterans, American Truck Simulator is more of the same but in a new region. Calling it "American" seems a bit disingenuous at the moment, since players can only drive through California and Nevada. That's a lot of area to be sure, but hardly represents America. Many will envision a coast-to-coast trek from New York to Los Angeles, or traveling on Route 66 from state to state, but neither of these are possible at the moment. I say "at the moment" because, like Euro Truck Simulator before it, players should understand that they are buying into a platform. Nevada is technically free DLC at launch (and is included in this review), and the development team is working on Arizona as future free DLC as well. As of now there's no definitive DLC roadmap, but SCS Software has stated that "it will take us years to cover the continent," if it is financially viable. For newcomers to the series, or those simply curious as to how this is a real thing, here's the deal. Players assume the role of an American truck driver, making cargo deliveries in California and Nevada. Early on, taking jobs from various companies, using their trucks, is a steady income. As profit increases, players can afford their own trucks and even hire other drivers to carry out jobs. There are only two trucks available at the moment, which is a bit of a bummer. There are, of course, plans to add more, but as of now there are a Kentworth T 680 and a Peterbilt 579. There are variations of the two and plenty of  customization options, which help make them stand out more, but it's still only two models of truck at launch. Drivers will also gain experience and level up as deliveries are completed. Upon leveling, stat points can be distributed to categories like fuel economy, long-distance deliveries, and unlocking new types of cargo. As if making an expensive delivery wasn't nerve-wracking enough, think about delivering explosive or chemical cargo! Increasing these statistics will net the player higher rewards for completing assignments under those categories. The benefits are very detailed to the player, allowing them to make informed decisions when leveling up. While driving, it's important to remember the rules of the road. Running a red light will result in a fine (damn red light cameras), as will speeding. While Euro Truck Simulator utilized speed cameras, here in America things work a little differently. Cops are constantly on patrol, and if caught speeding near one, a fine will instantly be deducted. There's no car chase or even getting pulled over, just cop lights and sirens and $1,000 removed from your bank account. Along the way, players may need to stop for gas, rest, get weighed at weigh stations, or get repairs. These must be done at certain locations and have corresponding meters on the HUD. The biggest concern with these is the time invested, since each assignment has a window in which the recipient expects their items to be delivered in. Just a heads up: if you're driver starts yawning, stop at a rest station! The traffic AI seems to be vastly improved in American Truck Simulator. Cars will stop early at intersections, making those wide turns that much easier. They also rarely pull out in front of your giant truck barreling down on them, though I have had that happen once or twice. Hell, they'll even slow down if your blinker is on to let you move over! Well, sometimes. There are a few different control methods, ranging from very simple to complex. Steering can be done with the keyboard or mouse, and of course the game supports both console and steering wheel controllers. I found myself most  comfortable with the Steam Controller and gyro controls. The biggest gap between the simple and the complex is changing gears manually, though even at its most complex it's not exactly a "hardcore" simulator. There's definitely a lot to manage, especially for me, but people who were looking for more depth in this entry won't find it here. Is it difficult? Well, it's as difficult as you want it to be. Making the controls complex is an easy way to make the game more engaging. Personally, I think the most difficult aspect is parking. When delivering cargo there will be three options. The hardest option yields the most experience, and will ask players to pull some fancy backing up and maneuvering in order to place the trailer where it needs to go.  The second option is much more achievable, while the third option is to skip it entirely and earn no bonus experience. It's a great to be able to say "you know what? I really don't feel like parking this explosive gas tank right now." To help pass time, a good amount of radio stations are available to listen to while on the road, and it is also possible to input a personal music library by relocating some files on your computer. I enjoyed listening to some classic rock stations while "working." I must say, listening to Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" while driving a big rig at night into Las Vegas is something that will stick with me probably forever. That's in part due to the beautiful engine. The scenery is quite a change of pace compared to the European scenery, which helps make this feel like something fresh, despite the mechanical similarities. Cities are also fleshed out more and feel more "alive" than ever before. Google Maps has been used to help create a realistic recreation of the Golden State, so many areas will be immediately recognizable to those familiar with them. Yes, players will begin to see repeat storefronts over and over again, but it hardly detracts from the overall immersion. American Truck Simulator caters to a wide array of people. There's something to be said for the serenity of cruising down a highway at night and obeying all the traffic laws. It's also a great opportunity to enjoy some audiobooks or podcasts while somewhat-mindlessly growing a trucking enterprise.  Those looking for vast mechanical or design improvements in the series won't find them here. The map is relatively small, considering the size of America, but the tradeoff is worth it: the scenery is fresh, accurate, and varied, while cities feel much more realistic. With two trucks and two included states, and another one on its way, American Truck Simulator is an investment into the series' future, but it's not a steep one and easily earns its value with what is already presented. So, while it may not be possible to go from Phoenix, Arizona all the way to Tacoma, it is possible to go from Oakland to Sactown, the Bay Area and back down. And that's just fine. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
American Truck Sim Review photo
California love
I live in New Jersey, so I think I know a thing or two about California. After all, I've listened to plenty of N.W.A. and Tupac, plus I've seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  Oh, and I've been to California a whole lot to visit my brother and for that one E3 I attended. Does this make me an expert? Yes. Yes it does.

Review: Bombshell

Jan 29 // Steven Hansen
Bombshell (PC)Developer: Interceptor EntertainmentPublisher: 3D RealmsReleased: January 29, 2016MSRP: $34.99 The most surprising thing about this 2016 heir to the Duke Nukem throne is how toothless it is. The Duke's puerile shtick is beyond dated as 2011's tragedy Duke Nukem Forever might remind us, but save for a rocket launcher called the "PMS" -- haha, menstruation! -- Bombshell is tonally distinct, and instead goes for a nerfed "ooh rah" à la Independence Day. It even opens with a Fourth of July alien invasion of the White House and kidnapped president (whose American flag eye patch is, admittedly, hilarious). The result is a milquetoast lead whose repeated, constant combat barks like, "I never thought aliens would land on the White House lawn" or "You're not worth the metal you're made of" or "Die, alien scum" do disservice to a solid acting performance. Making an old-school, character-led action game with a boring character is a huge misstep. In the opening cutscene, Shelly's jeep is blown up. It's on screen and blown up in a few seconds. There are two combat barks devoted to complaining about her lost car and they're totally unearned. I forgot there even was a car until roughly the 25th mention. At one point an enemy must've fallen off the map without dying because I had to hear his robotic droning about his shield every five seconds for the next 45 minutes.  [embed]337527:62042:0[/embed] In addition to being boring, Bombshell is a bit broken. I fell through the level and died three times. Shelly got stuck in place on a couple occasions, necessitating a restart to accompany the countless times she hitched on the environment. Enemies get stuck, too, or at least some choose to lay down arms and not attack until I kill them, anyway. Sometimes the map, which is uncovered as you explore, completely erases itself and leaves you with no sense of direction. The latter was far more annoying than I thought it could be, especially given that it was coupled with archaic level design. There are three distinct areas in Bombshell, including an ice stage, because this is a video game, and they're all designed like someone cracked a sheet of glass and traced the sprawling result. There are constant dead ends, fetch quests, and side quests that actually require backtracking to turn in. The mini-map, on the other hand, is incredibly useful because the camera is kept so tight that you will regularly run face-first into bullets if you navigate by watching Shelly move rather than watching the blips on the mini-map. Apparently fixed isometric perspective shooters were also missing a huge thing all these years: platforming. Most of my deaths came after falling into a pool of water or after walking over a nonsensical hole in the ground like some Wile E. Coyote shit, like the architect of the alien home world had a debilitating Swiss cheese fetish. But it isn't just that there is platforming, it's that it is floaty and unsatisfying. One of the reasons Shelly's lines bomb (besides that they're vacuous and repeated a hundred times) is that they're so disconnected from the character in the isometric view, and similarly there isn't anything to ground or give weight to her jumps. Even her walking animation is like a hockey puck on ice. That missing weight is a big part of why Bombshell's most redeeming factors, the twin-stick-style shooting, also falls flat. The weapons (rapid-fire machine gun, shotgun, flamethrower, and so on) have little stopping power. Enemies don't seem to react when shot, but instead absorb bullets like sponges until their HP empties and they limply rag doll to the floor. The first two worlds accost you with loads of pain-in-the-ass tiny enemies that poison (damage over time) or freeze you (slow movement speed) while the last just goes full bore and sends out six Gundam-sized robots at a time. I appreciated being able to see them more clearly than the ankle-biters, but seeing giant robot after giant robot go weak in the knees after getting hit with a laser beam was almost pathetic. Also, the last level theme (it goes alien, ice, metal) looks exactly like the end of Mass Effect 2 down to the Terminator-cribbed robots. Which reminds: Bombshell has some of the worst boss fights I have ever played. Sticking to conventions, they tend to be of the three-phase fare and toss regular enemies into the mix to make things more difficult. By the last form of the first boss I was out of ammo save for Shelly's default, infinite-ammo weapon. I beat it by standing pissing distance in front of the boss and holding the trigger for a few minutes while scrolling through Twitter. The same thing happened with the boss of the ice world, which decided it just wasn't interested in attacking me during its final phase. Every once in a while, during a taut firefight that actually necessitates mixing and matching weapons (the shotgun alt fire, a stun gun, is possibly too useful), there are glimpses of a solid shooter let down by everything else around it. As it stands, playing Bombshell for more than an hour at a time is like ingesting a sedative, save for flashes of rage as you fall through the map one more time or are asked to find six more crystals. [This review is based on a build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Bombshell reviewed photo
Dud Nukem
"It's so hard to believe this is real. It's like a video game or something." A random soldier told me this in Bombshell and it's not the worst meta dialogue in the game. Shelly "Bombshell" Harrison is quick to complain about ...

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider - Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch

Jan 29 // Laura Kate Dale
Rise of the Tomb Raider - Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Crystal DynamicsPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $9.99Released: January 26, 2016 Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch is a short, story focused piece of Tomb Raider DLC that focuses on creepy supernatural elements, tough environmental puzzles, and exploring the complex relationship between Lara Croft and her father. Set in the Wicked Vale, a new region exclusive to the DLC, Baba Yaga tasks Lara with hunting down Baba Yaga, a witch who has allegedly terrorised locals for generations. Gone are the enemies that make sense, replaced by ethereal tormentors. While these foes and obstacles may be mechanically very similar to enemies in the base game, they feel very tonally different in practice and work well to emphasise the game's narrative themes. Oh, and the fact the DLC culminates in an over the top awesome supernatural boss battle, which provides satisfying amounts of conclusion to the plot, is fairly impressive. While most of the DLC is set in the Wicked Vale, an environment that was fascinating to explore, one section does throw you back into a combat arena from the main game. With the DLC only clocking in at two hours long, it's disappointing that any of it was retreading old ground. [embed]337554:62045:0[/embed] While the gameplay in Baba Yaga is unchanged from the main game, the difficulty of environmental puzzles is nicely ramped up, paced for progression from the end of the base game. Completing it unlocks a new weapon that fits nicely with the themes of the DLC as a bonus, but the lack of any new post game challenge tombs meant I had very little incentive to try my new weapon out. So, here's the deal with Rise of the Tomb Raider's newest DLC. If you're looking for several hours of story content that's supernatural in nature, yet offers very little additional content post story? Well, Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch is probably your thing. Just be aware it reuses some assets in that two hour length and offers very little in the way of options for using your weapon once the story is over. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.] 
Rise of the Tomb Raider photo
That's one freaky temple
Rise of The Tomb Raider's main campaign, while lengthy, tries to keep its gameplay grounded for the most part in realistic threats. The game's first story DLC, Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch, turns that on its head, repla...

Review: Darkest Dungeon

Jan 27 // Nic Rowen
Darkest Dungeon (PC)Developer: Red Hook StudiosPublisher: Red Hook StudiosReleased: January 19, 2016MSRP: $19.99 Darkest Dungeon is an absolutely merciless exercise in roguelike themes. It is all about micromanagement, skillful use of scarce resources, determination in the face of insurmountable odds, and the ability to press on after a particularly bad roll of the RNG wipes out your All-Star squad of heroes. Make no mistake, it can be frustrating. Unlike other roguelikes you may have played where the whims of fortune sabotage a 30-minute run or one mission, Darkest Dungeon has no problem with wiping out hours of investment in a character or trinket. If that sounds like the kind of thing that would make you break your keyboard over your knee, consider a trip to the dungeon carefully. If you have a dark streak of sadism in you though, you may have just found your game.  While the game is certainly fiendish in its difficulty and brutal with its punishments, you're not totally helpless to luck and chance. Darkest Dungeon is a game played in two distinct portions. The first is a sort of management and strategic level where you direct resources to different parts of your ancestral hamlet and roster of warriors. The other is the actual dungeon dive, the tactical application of all that planning and building, the individual choices of which hallway to go down, which darkened corner to peer into, and which enemy should be brought low in what order. Through skillful manipulation of both levels, victory can be snatched from seemingly impossible challenges. In the hamlet, you are the omniscient master of the land, deciding who to hire, who to send on adventures, and which institutions to upgrade. Each aspect of the hamlet plays a crucial role in fighting the dark. The Stagecoach ferries fresh meat and raw recruits to bolster your ranks and replace the fallen. Services provided at the Guild and Blacksmith can improve your warriors' skills and equipment. The Sanitarium will remove diseases of the mind and body (for a steep fee) that may otherwise render a hero useless. Of course, the Abbey and Bar are necessary to provide comfort, meaning, and solace to your men. Whether they relax through quiet meditation, or through the fleshy pleasures of the neighborhood brothel, paying for a few nights worth of recuperation can save them from breaking in the next dungeon. Properly investing in the right aspects of your hamlet at the right time is just as important as making wise decisions in battle. All of the different services are desperately necessary and, especially at the beginning of the game, you'll never have enough coin or heirlooms (different upgrade resources needed for different buildings) to maintain them all. You need to be crafty and shrewd, making your meager wealth stretch as far as it can go while knowing you are compromising in one area to prop up another. The same merciless economics apply to your roster. Heroes cost a fortune to upgrade with better weapons and higher-level skills – an investment that can be lost in an instant to a bad battle. Otherwise potent warriors can also slowly become crippled by afflictions and phobias after too many trips to the dungeon, and while all maladies can be cured, the cost sometimes outweighs the benefit. Knowing when it's best to spend money to rehabilitate a Crusader who picked up a drinking habit and fear of the occult after his last disastrous mission, or when to spend that money equipping and upgrading his replacement, is the pitiless key to progression. In the dungeon, the emphasis switches from the overarching, to the granular. In the 2D side-to-side lineup of the characters, it is of the utmost importance to carefully consider where each of your heroes stands. Every hero and monster possesses skills that can only be used from one position or another that will only effect a foe standing in specific spots. Some of these can be quite general, for example being anywhere in the first few rows will generally let a Bounty Hunter attack anyone in the opposite first three rows. Contrarily, the Hellion with her swooping spear has a move that she can only use in the very first rank to attack the very last opponent. While it sounds needlessly obscure, that single move became one of my favorites in the entire game.  With 14 different classes to choose from, each of whom have seven possible combat skills that are all limited in terms of where they can be used and what they can hit, experimentation is key. There is no ideal team or strategy to be found. Different adventurers do better or worse in specific areas based on their damage type and common skills and you need to adjust. You can crutch on the Crusader and Vestal to wade through the skeletons of the Ruins with their extra damage against the unholy and the lack of nuance in the skeleton's attack plan. When you get to the twisted mermen and giant crabs of the Cove however, you'll want a strong Man-at-Arms to defend the front-line while a Plague Doctor hurls poison blight that will do more damage than any sword trying to pierce their scales. While in most RPGs the heroes are never in danger from rank-and-file monsters, in Darkest Dungeon, every battle holds the potential for defeat – either from a splashy total party wipe, or the slow erosion of a party's ability to press on. Healing is an uphill climb. There are only a few classes capable of restoring other party members and their heals are meager or rely on swings of luck. Some characters are capable of healing themselves, but these are often front-line warriors who are better off attacking a monster than trying to frantically repair damage. You don't recover anything after a battle, so a victory in the moment can set your party up for total defeat in the next if the enemy undermines you enough. Knowing when to abandon a quest and when to stick it out is an important judgment call, but while retreating may save your life, it also burdens the party with the stressful shame of coming back to town empty handed. Stress is a significant factor in every battle. Some of the most dangerous and insidious monsters in the game have very weak attacks, but can do things that cause your party stress. When a hero reaches a critical point of stress, their resolve will be tested in a moment of truth. Sometimes a hero will have a moment of valiant triumph and when the abyss stares into them they will not blink, becoming stronger for the experience. All the more common though, the frailty of man is revealed and a warrior will suffer a psychological break. An affliction of the mind is a terrible thing. Party members afflicted with paranoia, masochism, selfishness, or those who turn their abuse outward will drag the party down. They'll disobey orders, refuse heals or buffs out of distrust and fear, hurl insults or sing mad ramblings that unnerve the other fighters. If you let them, a broken fighter will hamstring healthy ones. You either need to cure them or cut them loose. Exploring each dungeon is done in a slightly odd manner. You always move across the screen in a straight line from left-to-right when traveling from hallways to rooms. A map grid lets you choose your route and with a little luck and a few stat-boosting skills, the occasional scouting report will let you see your opposition and potential treasure in advance. A torch light system dynamically changes the difficulty – the more well lit you keep the dungeon, the easier it is. Keep the light low and your party will quiver with fear and you'll encounter stronger monsters, but the treasures to be found will be that much greater to reward your bravery. Simply moving through these dungeons takes a toll on your adventurers. Stress accumulates as you dive deeper into the beast's lair, and retreating only causes more. Traps litter each area. The observant explorer can disarm them with a little luck, but even the most wary party is likely to stumble into a few. Curiosities like ancient scrolls, pagan shrines, and freshly dug graves tempt the party to test fate as each oddity they encounter has the potential for reward or affliction. Reading an old scroll is as likely to provide insight as it is to shatter the mind with a grim revelation. Properly provisioning your party with supplies helps tilt these odds in your favor. If you pack holy water, you can cleanse occult talismans. A shovel will let you pass an obstacle of rubble without stressing your party out by making them dig by hand. Bandages and medicinal herbs can staunch bleeding, remove debuffs, and allow the safe handling of unsanitary crevasses or torture equipment one may find in a dungeon. At this point, I'm fine with everything Darkest Dungeon has to offer, even where I can see elements that will bother other players. I think the management aspect is interesting and I like that is pushes you to cultivate diverse teams and experiment even if some players will likely be annoyed that they can't focus on a favored team composition. The battle system is fantastic, despite the occasional bad turns of luck that can feel unfair and some of the cheaper enemies that become more frustrating than thrilling. Unfortunately, even while I enjoy those mechanics, Darkest Dungeon manages to wear out its welcome due to the sheer grind demanded of the player. At certain points, when ascending to a new level plateau or encountering a new sort of boss, the difficulty spikes to a degree that is way out of hand. You'll be thrilled when you get your first squad of adventurers to level three and they will no longer bother themselves with lower-level missions. A new challenge! Sadly, you'll likely find that team totally unprepared for the newfound challenge and probably beat a hasty retreat or lose a few of them. With them now too weak to do the missions they are leveled for, and too haughty to deign running an easier mission, you'll have to park them for hours as you grind other teams trying to find trinkets to give them the edge and upgrade the guild and blacksmith to a point where they can reach full potential. The amount of busywork needed to prop up more valuable heroes and expand the hamlet becomes too much. Running squads of lowly heroes you have no intention of keeping just so you can get enough heirloom scrolls to level up the Blacksmith quickly devolves into tedium. This is especially pronounced at the very end of the game where you need several fully leveled teams of four to take on the last series of missions. Not only are the missions tremendously difficult, but retreating from one guarantees one member will die. Adding to this, once a warrior successfully completes one of the final missions, they won't go on another. You end up in a situation where you can easily burn a team or two to a party wipe, easily lose one or two members to a retreat, and then end up with nobody suitable on the roster left to take on the next mission. Instead, you're expected to grind yet more characters up to full level for another run. God help you if you lose your last Vestal and need to take a fresh healer from level zero to six. Eventually, the economy tends towards abundance and you'll have plenty of gold to streamline the process as much as possible, but you'll still need to run more than a dozen missions to get them fit for duty. This is where Darkest Dungeon stumbles and my own mind turns to darkness. When I start the mental arithmetic of how much work it will take to just to make another attempt at the final dungeons, I reel and sputter. Hours and hours of stress and suffering just for a chance at the end? This is no way for rational people to spend their time. You'd have to be mad. And yet you'll do it. You'll do it because at this point the game will have its hooks in you and you won't be able to let go. If you've stuck with it to that point, you might grumble and moan like me, but you'll press on. Maybe the developers meant for it to be so. A commentary on unhinged ambition, a way of making you feel as weary and beaten down as that Crusader nursing his second week in a row at the bar, dragging his feet towards another inevitable damned expedition. Despite the grind, despite the perhaps undue commitment to brutality, and despite what I feel is a joke at the player's expense at the end, Darkest Dungeon still manages to be one of the most engaging and intriguing roguelikes I've ever played and I'll probably still be diving dungeons and trying new party compositions weeks from now. After all, it would be madness to stop at this point. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Darkest Dungeon review photo
What we are in the dark
Most games gloss right over the psychological effects of combat and stress. RPGs see parties of cheery young adventurers slaughter their way through entire countrysides worth of kobolds and giant rats for the sake of justice ...

Review: Final Fantasy Explorers

Jan 26 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy Explorers (3DS)Developer: Square Enix, RacjinPublisher: Square EnixReleased: January 26, 2016MSRP: $39.99 Right at the character creation screen, it's immediately evident that Final Fantasy Explorers is a dated game. It was released in 2014 in Japan, after all, and the limitations of the tool itself will not inspire any confidence. I actually got a laugh out of the initial male avatar -- it had typical chibi-like features but a rock-hard manchild set of abs. It won't matter much when you're all suited up in gear, and the game has a Goku hairstyle in its small pool of options, so it gets a pass. Like many other entries in the series, Explorers revolves around crystals (of course), and the overall plot is kind of secondary to leveling up, acquiring cash, and completing missions, which lead to those sweet, sweet boss battles we all crave. You'll roam about in a Monster Hunter-esque hub world complete with shops, upgrade centers, and a few other fixins (like a one-mission-bonus-granting fortune teller who takes Play Coins as payment) as you take on new quests that lead you out into the overworld. Combat is based around AP, which fuels your abilities and is used when sprinting. The game has a rudimentary lock-on feature, the option to use the Circle Pad Pro (or the New 3DS nub) to control the camera, L or R toggles menus for your powers (with four mapped to each trigger, for a total of eight active abilities), an auto-attack button, and that's really it. To dodge or do anything fancy, you'll need to equip a skill for it, and even then, it's a bit rigid in nature. Make no mistake, this is not a high-intensity twitch action game. [embed]335296:61957:0[/embed] You'll get the keys to the kingdom so to speak after roughly 30 minutes of tutorials, where Explorers will provide you with five jobs (classes) right away: Knight, Monk, Ranger, White Mage, and Black Mage. Thankfully, it isn't as rigid as a lot of other RPGs in that jobs and abilities can often overlap. With the exception of, say, a Knight using bow-based skills while equipped with a sword, players can thankfully experiment a bit. Almost anyone can use magic, including the always helpful Cure spell. It's a great concession for newcomers and veterans alike. You can really mess around with nearly everything available to tool up your dream build -- which includes silly "Trance" modes featuring fan-favorite characters like Cloud. As time goes on it only gets deeper, as an impressive 21 jobs are at your disposal. The freedom to do what you want is even better when playing with a party (both locally or online). Team synergy and class makeups aren't necessarily bound by the RPG Trinity (tank, healer, damage), but are composed a bit more loosely, to the point where everyone can have fun with what they want to play -- like a Dragoon that can use his jumps along with evasion techniques from other jobs for maximum mobility. Speaking of multiplayer, there is support for lobbies online (rather than shoddy matchmaking), which allowed me to get into a number of games even before launch. If you're going at it solo, you can bring up to three other monsters with you on your travels, with the caveat that the AI isn't very intelligent or nearly as effective as players. By the time you fight Shiva several hours in, it picks up, but as a general rule Explorers is a slow burn. Now, I did have fun working my way up the ladder, earning more jobs, and crafting my own equipment, but it's a bit too slow going at times. As such, the "it gets better after you put time into it" argument comes to mind, but plenty of games do allow for an enjoyable early game to accompany the payoff. That's not the case here, to an extent. If you do end up sticking with it though, you'll find a 100-hour RPG full of stuff to do, including an endgame that involves fighting all of the core bosses again with new strategies in tow. Like many games filled to the brim with different classes, a lot of my time was spent trying out new jobs. While some of them don't feel wildly different from one another, the dichotomy between the three core playstyles (melee, ranged, and magic) is strong enough to feel like you're playing a different game. Final Fantasy Explorers has a litany of pacing issues, particularly when it comes to its quests and, visually, it feels like a DS-era game at times. But players who are willing to jump in with both feet will find a lot to love, and that goes double if you're planning to play through the adventure with a friend. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Final Fantasy review photo
Eidolon Hunter
If one wanted to delve into the world of Final Fantasy for the first time, the barrier to entry is generally rather high. You have a host of 50-hour JRPGs, several daunting MMOs, and a number of complicated and deep tactical spinoffs. Final Fantasy Explorers tries to ease people into the world of Black and White mages with a different, gentler approach, albeit with its own set of flaws.

Review: The Witness

Jan 25 // Brett Makedonski
The Witness (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Thekla, Inc.Publisher: Thekla, Inc.MSRP: $39.99Released: January 26, 2016  I have vivid memories of sitting in geometry class in ninth grade and listening to the teacher explain why geometry is a different beast than the other maths we had already learned. "Don't feel bad if you can't do this yet," he said. "The reason is because it's chemically impossible for you. We're doing theorems and proofs -- your brain hasn't ever been asked to think like that before. The synapses in your brain need to fire off in order to be able to understand this; when that happens, you'll get it and this will all be easy for you." That "A-HA!" moment my geometry teacher spoke of -- all those synapses firing to form a revelation -- is the greatest reward The Witness has to offer and it happens countless times. It never grows old. After a bit, it's no longer new, but it's always fresh. The fundamentals of The Witness are line puzzles. Grids, often in the shape of a rectangle, require navigating in a specific fashion to satisfy certain constraints and to reach the end-point. This is repeated hundreds of time over as the basic building block of the game. Through clever subversion, ever-evolving rule sets, and alternative methods, repetition never becomes cause for concern. Again, just like the many many moments of epiphany, the puzzles cease being new before long, but they are always fresh. [embed]335133:61964:0[/embed] Well, that comes with a caveat. They are fresh as long as you want them to be. The Witness is largely fueled by your desire to discover. Once that wanes, so will your interest. The game's island is drenched in mystery and detail, not all of which is able to be immediately appreciated. When that happens, it's just another revelation that hasn't formed yet. For what it's worth, I'm 40-some hours in, and my interest hasn't waned in the slightest; it has only grown considerably. The reason for this is because The Witness smartly preys on the curiosity of human nature. Every direction has an inviting setting just begging to be explored. It's a given that those settings will contain challenges -- challenges that are imperative to continue exploring. It's cyclical and gives way to a competitive mindset to not be bested even if we're not necessarily mentally equipped yet. It's all in the pursuit of just seeing more. We want to see more because seeing is learning, and that's in the fiber of our being. What truly makes The Witness everything that it is lies somewhere between the fundamentals of the puzzles and the deeply philosophical of everything else. These two work in tandem, complementing each other even when they seem worlds apart. There are so many layers of separation between the two that it's almost impossible to perceive or even conceive. But, they're there, working hand-in-hand and, on some level, one in the same. You'd be hard-pressed to declare that one of these components is closer to defining The Witness than the other. Truthfully, I wish I didn't have to score The Witness. I don't want to set people up for that expectation; I don't want a voice in the back of their head that says "Okay, when does this become a ten?" In a way, that's unfair and detrimental to how the game should be experienced, which is as open-minded and unassuming as possible. Don't go to The Witness. Let The Witness come to you. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Witness review photo
Come see
I am worthless. I am garbage. I am a dolt. I am brilliant. I am special. I am a genius. Those are the two extremes of self-value that The Witness constantly inflicts. It's a continuous loop of not getting it until you totally get it. Then, you don't get it again.

Review: Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

Jan 20 // Patrick Hancock
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (PC)Developer: Blackbird InteractivePublisher: Gearbox SoftwareReleased: January 20, 2016MSRP: $49.99 Deserts of Kharak is a prequel to previous titles, and takes place on the desert planet of Kharak (duh). The "primary anomaly" has been detected in the Kharak desert, and Rachel S'jet and company need to head deep into Gaalsian territory to retrieve it. Players who know their lore already know what that anomaly is, but that doesn't detract in any way from the 13-mission campaign. Unlike many other real-time strategy games, the campaign is the main draw in Homeworld. The lore is rich, yet approachable for newcomers. Some of the jargon will be confusing at first, but it doesn't take long to grasp what or who a Kiith is or that Rachel S'jet is not a case of a misplaced apostrophe. The missions themselves are varied. They do a great job of teaching the player the mechanics and introducing new units at a comfortable pace. The best thing about the campaign, which was also true for the originals, is that the player's army stays with them between missions. The units who survive are the same ones that start the next mission. The same goes for resources, too, which makes them very finite. Finishing a mission in good standing goes a long way here, and forces the player to play intelligently. This design also dictates playstyle. When I had heavy losses at the end of a successful mission, I went into the next one with extreme caution. I looked at my current resources and the resources available and actually thought about the most efficient way to spend them. This can be turned off with an option, but in the spirit of the series, you should keep it in tact. [embed]335091:61939:0[/embed] A big problem is the AI. It's not so great. There have been times when I could see my enemies clear as day, and they were just sitting there. Forever. I never bothered with them unless the mission forced me to clear all remaining forces. Other times, the AI simply follows its path until the player puts ground units within range. It is possible to pelt a group of units over and over again with air strikes until they are completely dead, and they will never respond. Scenarios like this are worsened by the fact that the campaign is, overall, fantastic. Cutscenes are gorgeous and often set a threatening atmosphere, only to be followed up by awful AI behavior. Tense moments dissipate pretty quick when a cluster of enemy units is just dancing around a bit in a circle while being attacked from a distance. Despite this, there are some amazing scripted moments throughout the campaign. A cutscene may show a large enemy force heading the player's way, then show the same force in-game. That's when the music kicks in. The music in Deserts of Kharak is nothing short of perfect. It raises the intensity of battles and sets the mood so well that I very much looked forward to the next large-scale battle. In fact, the entire aesthetic is spot-on. Zooming in shows the intricacies of movement for the units -- particularly the wheels of vehicles maneuvering around rough terrain. Once you feel comfortable with how a battle is going, try zooming in nice and close and watching the action. It looks great! I know what you're thinking. "How can it be Homeworld if it's not in space?" Rest assured, this is Homeworld through and through. Remember watching your ships swirl around while attacking other units? The same goes for the smaller units in Deserts of Kharak. That feeling of continuity throughout the campaign as your units stayed persistent? Still there, and in spades. Since the "main base" is also a mobile unit, the feeling of having your own personal convoy is firmly implanted into the design of the game. Having the main base, called a Carrier, as a unit is certainly an interesting mechanic to utilize. It can be quite the powerful unit, too, making the idea to use it offensively enticing. The Carrier has energy that can be routed to different aspects of the ship: defense, self-repair, missiles, and range. All self-explanatory. The player can change these on the fly, though energy is limited by artifacts, which can be collected and returned to increase available energy. The most interesting gameplay mechanic is line of sight. If a unit can't logically see another, it can't fire at it. This makes the terrain of each map incredibly important. Having and holding the high ground can make or break a battle in many cases. The game does a great job of conveying this information to the player. If a unit can't see another, a broken red line appears. While issuing many of the commands, a "blueprint" of the terrain will appear, clearly showing what is high ground and what is not. Terrain also affects unit pathing. Well, it affects one unit's pathing. The Carrier is a large (read: very large) unit, and can't simply drive over hills like the others. It's important to remember that it needs to take the roundabout way, since it'll be the only unit to do so unless otherwise ordered. Just...keep that in mind when playing. Homeworld has always primarily been a single-player experience. That being said, there are AI Skirmish and multiplayer options. The issue is that there are only two races, both of which play similarly. There are also only five maps. Stir these facts together into a pot, and it doesn't yield the greatest competitive experience.  The main competitive mode is artifact retrieval, which tasks both players to fight over artifacts scattered over the map. The objective is to pick one up with a specific unit and bring it to a designated area. It's neat, but the whole multiplayer experience just feels rather shallow. For free-for-all matches of more than two players, deathmatch is the only available option. I've run into a handful of bugs in Deserts of Kharak, and judging from the forums, I'm not the only one. The most annoying, which may not even be a "bug," is that the camera goes to an awful position after every in-game cutscene and needs to be reset. Other than that, there were a couple of cutscene glitches where animations wouldn't play or in-game talk continued while a cinematic was playing. It's also impossible to re-bind the keys, which is hopefully an oversight, not intentional. While the multiplayer is mediocre at best, the campaign more than compensates for fans of the series. All the worries of "it can't be Homeworld if it's not in space!" should be put to rest, because Deserts of Kharak says otherwise. The asking price is a bit steep for those who are just interested in the campaign, since most won't bother to touch multiplayer. That being said, the campaign is well executed for veterans and newbies alike, proving that over a decade without Homeworld is far too long. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] 
Homeworld Review photo
Muad'Kiith
Homeworld is back! What a great sentence to type. After Gearbox Software acquired the rights to the series and released Homeworld Remastered, I figured that would be it. But now Blackbird Interactive, a team made up of franch...

Review: Rebel Galaxy

Jan 20 // Nic Rowen
Rebel Galaxy (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Double Damage GamesPublisher: Double Damage GamesReleased: October 20, 2015 (PC), January 5, 2016 (PS4)MSRP: $19.99 Rebel Galaxy puts you in the boots of a space-faring renegade just looking to make a buck at the edge of the known universe. I mean, yes, you're estranged aunt mysteriously gifted you her old ship which was weird, and she also left you in possession of an alien artifact which, wouldn't you know it, happens to house an ancient A.I (don't they all) and you should probably look into that at some point -- but you also have to stack that paper! The main plot can be safely tackled at your leisure while you put time into building your personal net worth and outfitting the ship of your dreams. How you do that is up to you. As a kind of spiritual successor to Freelancer, Rebel Galaxy allows you to make your way through life on the rim anyway you like. As long as it involves shooting people. At every space station there is a mission board brimming with contracts from the various factions in the game. You can run drugs for a criminal cartel, bust up a pirate siege for the militia, provide some armed backup for the merchant guild, or pick up shady dead-drops for a cloak-and-dagger agency. Of course, let's not forget the most classic of all fictional space-faring economies: the glamorous world of asteroid mining. While there is plenty of outward variety in contract types, almost all of them will result in an inevitable shootout. Even the mining. Especially the mining. This is my ore and you can't have any of it. *pew pew* Thankfully, the space combat on tap is pretty damn cool. As I mentioned earlier, your ship in Rebel Galaxy performs more like a boat than a spaceship, locked on a single two-dimensional plane that you can steer around on left and right, but not up and down. Other capital ships are locked to the same plane, making standoffs with them feel like large naval battles (your most powerful weapons are actually broadside cannons, hammering home the effect). Meanwhile, smaller ships -- such as enemy fighters and your hired wingman -- zip around in a fully 3D space. They'll be coiling and wrapping around your larger vessel as you try to train your various mounted turrets on them, worry about the exposed shielding on your portside, and prepare to deflect an incoming volley of torpedoes. The battles become frantic, glorious displays. When you aren't manually aiming weapons yourself, the shipboard A.I will take over the unoccupied ones, making your ship a floating little ball of hell that is constantly spewing fire in all directions during a brawl. When you finally get a decent vessel that can mount a variety of laser turrets, homing missiles, and a full rack of broadsides, the spectacle of lights, colors, and exploding ships can be downright jaw-dropping. Active abilities like deflector shields and manually locking weapons (to make sure you don't just let auto-pilot do all the work) and different equipment set-ups can encourage some downright risky strategies if you like to roll the bones.  [embed]335426:61927:0[/embed] A reputation system governs how much each faction loves/loathes you. Taking a job from one faction pretty much always means screwing someone else over, so it is impossible to make friends with everyone. That said, it also never really came to much in my game. Space pirates hated me, the militia were kinda dickish but not overtly aggressive, and pretty much nobody else cared that I existed. It's a lot of numbers and systems that don't seem to really amount to much -- a theme that is repeated in many of the game's mechanics. Rebel Galaxy is built on a mountain of minutiae that seems important and interesting, and I suppose on an intellectual level it is, but amounts to little. For example, a living economy governs commodity trading at different stations. Not only do stations buy and sell different space tchotchkes and doodads, but the type of government that rules the station, current political situation, and other special events have an effect the market. Conditions like an arms race will bump up the price of salvaged munitions and weapons tech, for example. Where it gets really crazy, however, is that condition also spawns a treaty ship that will eventually make its way to the station to put an end to the arms race. If you'd rather keep hocking guns on a seller's market, you can go out and destroy that ship to prolong the conflict. That's all super cool but also, sadly, pointless. Those situations don't affect the plot or change anything else about the world. They just rearrange the stats on one of several dozen identical stations. While playing the market seems like a neat idea, it is also time consuming and inefficient compared to just going out and blowing stuff up. If I had to describe Rebel Galaxy in one word, it would be "broad," not "deep." There is a ton to do and all kinds of interesting interacting systems, but they only exist as curiosities. For a game that borrows so much from the likes of Firefly and the Millennium Falcons of the world, I was somewhat disappointed that there didn't seem to be any great options to play as a scoundrel, a lawbreaker with a heart of gold. You can take on illegal work and choose hardball dialog options of course, but I wanted to smuggle contraband and slick talk my way out of double-dealings. In Rebel Galaxy, walking the outlaw path has you trafficking space slaves and murdering random traders for their shitty cargo of worthless ceramic plating. It's good guy or Reaver, without a lot of gray in between. Speaking of the Firefly tone, Rebel Galaxy has a very distinct soundtrack of Kid Rock-esque tunes in an effort to capture that same space-western mystique. For the first little while I was really digging the vibe. A "dirty south meets final frontier" kind of thing. But as my time with the game stretched on and I was treated to the same three or four songs about being a "bad man" and sharing a train seat with Satan over and over again, I felt a little part of my soul chip away and drift into the void. The game constantly blares butt-rock at full volume, and every single song sounds almost exactly the same. Imagine being stuck at a NASCAR after-party that never ends and you'll get the picture. The soundtrack isn't the only thing that wears out its welcome. For as much as Rebel Galaxy wants to be a sort of deep-space simulation where you can be and do whomever and whatever you want, it all too quickly blurs together into a mushy pile of "bleh." Every mission is essentially the same, the only difference is the number and strength of the ships you'll be fighting. Every distress call is a fight with pirates (imperiled trader or "unexpected" trap, flip a coin). Every dialog interaction with bartenders, traders, and pirates run the same options and same canned responses. Enemies have such a limited arsenal of combat barks and threats I was actually hearing them in my sleep after spending a week with the game. The worse sin is that it somehow expects you to dig all of this repeated content for hours and hours on end. The game is every bit a treadmill as a typical MMO, only there is no one else to talk to and you can't make your ship dance. Every ship and piece of equipment costs exponentially more than the last. Small upgrades take half a dozen missions or more to earn, and you can forget about the high-end gear. You travel around the galaxy in real time, manually going to warp speed toward every destination, and coming to a dead stop every time a random piece of space junk floats in your way.  For a single player game that already has plenty to see and do, it feels needlessly padded. In space, no one can hear you grind. Yet, despite my many complaints, Rebel Galaxy did put a smile on my face. It's an ambitious little game that regrettably tries too hard to grab something out of its reach, but what it does get its hands on is excellent. The combat is spectacular, the atmosphere is charming (prolonged exposure to the soundtrack aside) and while there isn't as much depth to the game's systems as it would like you to believe, they are fun to poke and prod at when you get tired of blasting people with your lasers. Rebel Galaxy is the kind of game I'd want save for a rainy day when all I want to do is set my brain on auto-pilot and lose a few hours watching pretty colors and dreaming about being Han Solo. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Rebel Galaxy review photo
Aim to misbehave
I've heard people say space is an ocean. I've also heard it called the wild west of the future. With a background track of dirty butt-rock, a cast of colorful miscreants, and a movement system that feels more like steering a ...


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