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Review: Mighty Switch Force! Academy

Nov 25 // Chris Carter
Mighty Switch Force! Academy (PC)Developer: WayForwardPublisher: WayForwardReleased: November 23, 2015MSRP: $9.99 The gist this time around is that series heroine Patricia Wagon, instead of finding a new line of work, returns to law enforcement in the form of a VR training module assisting new recruits. Academy isn't like past titles in that it's a zoomed-in, Mario-like platformer -- players will see the entire map all at once, similar to one of my all-time favorites, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair. As a result, everything feels a lot more sprawling and involved, especially on a larger monitor or TV screen. Bullets go across the entire board, and maps can be "looped" a la Pac-Man, opening up deep possibilities when it comes to strategic planning that weren't possible in prior iterations. I feel like the "whole screen" gimmick is also far more fair when it comes to the time trial element of the game, as players no longer have to guess as to what's behind a specific turn, or play levels multiple times to learn the layout. I was skeptical of this approach at first, but ultimately came around to it after just two missions. Having said that, there are sparing instances where maps are mirrored, forcing players to do the same basic run twice, even while playing solo -- presumably, this is a side effect of the four player co-op function. Even with that small caveat, Academy remains engaging throughout. Series staples like crumbling blocks and catapults return, as do most of the same exact enemies from the previous games. Academy doesn't really do a whole lot of iterating beyond the multiplayer and zoomed-out angle, but in most cases, that's completely fine. There's 25 stages in all, with five labeled as "classic" bonus maps (all of which support co-op), and four arenas to battle it out in. [embed]322505:61251:0[/embed] While there is a degree of replayability in the game's versus mode, I don't think it would be too forward to expect the entire first game to be added in at some point. Also, the complete lack of online play for either mode can really put a damper on things after you've mastered every level, and there's no level editor in sight, which would have been perfect for this release. Despite my mostly enjoyable experience, it's clear why WayForward works primarily with consoles -- this PC-only game suffers from a lack of options and optimization. For starters, there are nearly no visual options outside of HUD scaling, and the way control schemes are handled is barebones at best. Only player one may use a keyboard, and the others (two through four) must wield controllers. It's odd, because I had controller issues even during solo play, to the point where the "switch" button wasn't recognized. If you're big into the Mighty series, you'll probably have a decent time with Academy. It's a bit too chaotic to be a worthwhile multiplayer party game if that's primarily what you're looking for, but the great gameplay from the past Switch Force games has translated over in a nearly 1:1 ratio, which is fine by me. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Switch Force review photo
Patricia Wagon rides again
WayForward could probably make Mighty Switch Force! games until the end of time, and as long as they retained the basic concept, I'd still play them. They're fun puzzle platformers in spite of their faults, and the memor...

Review: Minecraft: Story Mode: The Last Place You Look

Nov 24 // Darren Nakamura
Minecraft: Story Mode: The Last Place You Look (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: November 24, 2015 (Mac, PC)MSRP: $4.99, $24.99 (Season Pass)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit After having found Ellegaard the redstone engineer and Magnus the griefer in the previous episode, the gang needed only to locate Soren the architect for the full original Order of the Stone to be accounted for. The journey to find Soren takes the party to some peculiar locations, most located in The End. However, since Soren is a master builder, the areas highlighted are more diverse than the typical darkness of The End. Between Soren's feats of engineering in the overworld and colorful constructions in The End, it's a nice nod to Minecraft proper players who are known to build some of the craziest things. Soren himself is a much more likable character than some of the other members of the Order of the Stone. Where Ellegaard and Magnus were basically insufferable (especially after they were brought together), Soren is quirky and at times genuinely funny. Voiced by John Hodgman, he's neurotic and paranoid, but still fun to be around. [embed]321869:61211:0[/embed] Overall, the quality of the writing has taken a half-step up from the previous two episodes. None of the jokes elicited any sustained belly laughs, but I did let out a few snorts and chuckles along the way. The Last Place You Look started up a running gag where Axel falls on top of Lukas repeatedly, which happens just enough to be comical without getting tired. Some of the seeds of drama sown in previous episodes have begun to sprout, and while it still maintains the kid-friendly narrative, it's finally beginning to feel like the events happening matter and Jesse has an important role to play. The greatest success of The Last Place You Look is that it allows the player to feel accomplished while still moving the narrative along. This is, after all, only the third episode in a five-episode season, so anybody who knows Telltale knows everything won't be resolved here. But even so, the climax of this episode feels like a high point for the team. Sure, they're not done with their mission, but they did something, at least. There's never really any downtime during this episode either. Though there are a few sections of walking around and talking or searching for clues, they all serve a purpose and generally lead to action sequences. The first action sequence in particular is probably the best so far in the series, melding the fantastic environments, a sense of danger, and the classic Telltale decision-making into a tight opening credit roll. One thing that might turn some off is the quiet lowering of the bar for success during the action sequences. Some of the quick-time events seem more demanding here than usual, but I noticed after I flubbed a button press or two, the resulting animation didn't seem to react accordingly. Perhaps it takes multiple failures in a single section to make a difference. More experimentation is necessary. As much as I may praise The Last Place You Look, it is with respect to the first two episodes of Minecraft: Story Mode. It definitely is an improvement, but an improvement from mediocrity is just okay. The comedy is slightly improved, but still doesn't hold a candle to that of Tales from the Borderlands. The characters are becoming easier to sympathize with, but they aren't are interesting as those from The Wolf Among Us. The drama is beginning to heat up, but it doesn't come close to what we saw in The Walking Dead. Perhaps it's unfair to compare Minecraft: Story Mode to Telltale's more adult-oriented series. This is built for a particular demographic, and it seems like it's really hitting with that audience. The Last Place You Look is more of the same -- and slightly better, if anything -- so those who have enjoyed the series thus will be pleased to just keep on trucking. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Minecraft review photo
Looking up
Minecraft: Story Mode didn't impress me with its first two episodes. Aimed at young players and Minecraft super fans, its writing didn't have a whole lot going for it past its Saturday morning cartoon plot and series in-jokes...

Review: Bloodborne: The Old Hunters

Nov 23 // Chris Carter
Bloodborne: The Old Hunters (PS4)Developer: From SoftwarePublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: November 24, 2015MSRP: $19.99 (requires core game) Throughout my complete five hour playthrough of The Old Hunters, I couldn't help but think that most of it could have just been in the full game. In fact, a lot of layouts are straight-up reused, not only from an aesthetic standpoint, but in a literal sense. The grand cathedral steps are recreated and only slightly altered, and roughly half of the DLC feels like it could have just been an extension of Yharnam. In some ways that's perfectly fine as it matches up with the rest of the experience, but in others, it's underwhelming. The enemies in particular are new, but a chunk of them aren't as memorable as the foes from other Souls DLCs, in the sense that I didn't really have to alter my tactics to confront them -- a large reason why I love add-ons for previous iterations. The biggest draw of course is the abundance of the titular Hunters, humanoid enemies that operate similarly to the player character. Sure there were a handful of them in the base game, but here, they're front and center, ready to flip some of your own tactics on you. Other enemies aren't as iconic, as there's a decent amount of repeats, from werewolves, to the Cthulu-esque giants, to standard infected townsfolk. The zones are a mixed bag as well. It wasn't until the last stretch of the DLC that I really saw something unique, even if everything up to that point was well designed. Most areas are open, and in the latter half, there's a decent amount of exploration and puzzle solving required. There's also a few mysterious NPCs to deal with, which is a Souls tradition, and I'm happy it was carried over here. [embed]320746:61140:0[/embed] So how are the boss fights? Par for the course, really. While I won't spoil anything, the first major encounter is heavily entwined in the game's lore, and this hulking monstrosity is a sufficient challenge if you're going at it solo. The rest of the boss fights are down down to earth, featuring smaller enemies that mirror the encounters with the aforementioned Hunters. I wasn't blown away by any of them, but I enjoyed the fights all the same, mostly because of the fact that I'm a sucker for smaller scale battles. In all, you're getting roughly five hours worth of content for the core story (about 10 if you do everything), 10 weapons (including a new, good shield), and five bosses. The new "League" update is available to everyone, and augments the overall package quite well. I might sound down on a lot of aspects of The Old Hunters, but ultimately, it will satiate most fans out there. The fact that it was supposed to be two DLCs that were merged into one makes sense, as part of it feels like cut content, and the other half seems like wholly original work. While I'm glad I had an excuse to drop into the world of Yharnam once again, there's a part of me that feels disappointed that this will be the last, and only add-on for Bloodborne. If you're curious as to how to access the DLC, check out the video above. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Bloodborne DLC review photo
All Nightmare Long
While many gamers out there are fighting the good fight against DLC, From Software is certainly making the case for it. Dark Souls had one of the most fantastic add-ons of all time in the form of Artorias of the Abyss, w...

Review: Mayan Death Robots

Nov 21 // Patrick Hancock
Mayan Death Robots (PC)Developer: Sileni StudiosPublisher: SOEDESCO PublishingReleased: November 20, 2015MSRP: $14.99  Mayan Death Robots pits two giant robots against each other as a television sport for other robots, I suppose, to watch. Each season of this television show chooses a new planet, and it just so happens that this season is on Earth around the 1500s. The premise is loose and really only serves to usher the player from one mission to the next, but it's definitely cute. Mayan Death Robots is a 1v1 match that plays out similar to the classic Worms games. Players pick one of the eight unique robots and are then plopped into a battlefield. The objective of each game is to destroy the opponent's Core, which is a small box somewhere behind them. In the way, however, is plenty of terrain as well as the enemy robot. Each robot has two types of attacks, the ability to jump, and the ability to create new terrain. That last bit is interesting; each player can create terrain in the form of Tetris blocks anywhere within a certain radius of their robot, as long as it's not floating mid-air. This allows some interesting defensive play in a game that would otherwise be entirely offensive. There's a limit to the amount of blocks, and using it consecutively yields less and less blocks. [embed]321771:61215:0[/embed] Turns happen simultaneously and publicly. There's a short time period to choose an action, then another time period to aim said action, then both players' actions happen at once. However, knowing what an opponent is going to do doesn't mean it can be stopped. If a player sees their opponent shooting straight at the core, that shot will go off. Shooting the ground beneath them or the robot itself won't affect anything since both shots are fired at once. Tiny pixelated Mayans roam about on each player's side, worshiping the giant robot from the sky. Killing the enemy's Mayans will grant a bonus to the explosion size of the player, but it's rarely worth it to fire specifically at Mayans; it is usually just an added benefit of firing at something else. Mayans will also attack the enemy robot if they stand nearby. This is legitimately useful, since they are constantly doing damage while the turn timer is ticking down, and it prevents the opponent from jumping right next to the Core and blowing it to bits. Every so often, an item wheel will spin and award both players randomly selected items. These items are one-time use, but provide some variety to the gameplay that can start to feel tedious after long play sessions. The game incentivizes the player to use the item quickly, since they are lost upon death. If a player is dead when the wheel spins, they do not receive the item. The core gameplay is great. Playing against another human can lead to intense back-and-forth matches. Multiplayer supports two players locally (no online) with either gamepads or the keyboard. It's a nice feature that both players can use the keyboard, since not everyone has controllers for their PC. An odd omission is the total lack of mouse support, even in menus. In a game that focuses on aiming precise shots, it would have been a boon to be able to use the mouse. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect is that players are forced to unlock the playable robots and the more interesting items. Of the ten robots available, six are unlocked from the start and the rest are acquired through the campaign. While I understand the necessity to give the player a feeling of progression, those who buy the game and just want to play with a friend will be disappointed. Luckily, the campaign can be played through with a buddy. All of the robots feel different from each other, despite the only difference being their two attacks. Some of them have special properties, like having their attacks become more powerful the longer they are in the air, or being able to shoot through certain terrain. While they feel unique, all robots play very similarly: get into a position that your attacks benefit from, and shoot away. Each match has the potential to be an intense back-and-forth or a complete slog; it all depends on the players (or AI) involved. The campaign is set up as a series of over 30 "episodes." There is no tutorial, but players will likely pick up the mechanics quickly. Occasionally, these episodes will modify the standard gameplay by adding stage hazards. These hazards tend to be either incredibly annoying or completely useless. Only rarely do they affect gameplay in a unique, interesting way. There is also an occasional stage boss, which removes the cores from the map and asks both players to destroy the monster. This is great, if you're playing with another human. Cooperating with the AI is downright awful. You see, the boss has to be "summoned" by performing certain actions on the map, but the AI doesn't give a shit. The AI is more concerned with destroying the player's core, making it a huge pain to even get the boss to appear most of the time. If the match ends before the boss is summoned, the player must restart the level. The bosses each have their own mechanics, which are very hit or miss. Some bosses, like the map modifiers, are more annoying than they are worth. Plus, after defeating a boss, the cores come back and the match continues like normal. It's a strange cooperative-to-competitive swing that just feels random. Other than the boss levels, there is no way to lose a level while playing the campaign. Sure, the AI can win, but it doesn't matter, the player progresses to the next stage anyway. This makes sense if two humans are playing each other, since one will always win, but not when playing solo. There's no incentive for a single player to all. There are no rankings, stars, or scores to do better in, there's no leaderboards, nothing. A solo player could go through each level and lose, as long as they summon the boss in the boss levels, and progress through the entire campaign and unlock everything.  There's also a Versus mode which is as straightforward as they come. Players can only compete on the modified maps by going through the campaign and selecting that specific episode to play on, but it would have been great to be able to choose these modifiers from a list in Versus mode, potentially mixing and matching some to create some zany situations. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort exists. Versus is as vanilla as it gets. Despite my enjoyment of the game mechanically, I cannot recommend Mayan Death Robots to anyone looking for a worthwhile single-player experience. For those wanting another entertaining local multiplayer game, however, it provides some unique strategic gameplay. It likely won't keep players enthralled for hours on end, but serves as a great addition to any local-multiplayer library.
Mayan Death Robots review photo
Maybe they're friendly death robots...
I really enjoyed my time with Mayan Death Robots at PAX East this year. My buddy and I played a few matches and left anticipating its eventual release. Now that it is released, I was excited to jump in and see the final ...

Review: Renowned Explorers: International Society

Nov 20 // Darren Nakamura
Renowned Explorers: International Society (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Abbey GamesPublisher: Abbey GamesReleased: September 2, 2015MSRP: $19.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit In Renowned Explorers, the goal is to become a particularly renowned explorer among the group known as the Renowned Explorers. This is achieved by going on expeditions, recovering valuable treasures, making scientific discoveries, and navigating combat situations. Basically, an expedition is separated into two parts: resolving text-based events while traveling between nodes on a map and tactical combat on a modified hex grid. Both sections have elements of procedural generation, so there's always a sense of exploring the semi-unknown, even on an expedition to the same location as a previous run. Area maps are covered in fog of war, with only the nearest nodes visible. Combat arenas will vary the layout of obstacles, choke points, and healing zones. [embed]321138:61123:0[/embed] Indeed, Renowned Explorers is a "roguelite," meant to be played multiple times in order to truly master it. Herein lies one of the biggest hurdles I had to get over in order to enjoy it. For a game meant to be played again and again, it just takes way too long. A single run consists of five expeditions, and each expedition can take 30 to 45 minutes depending on how many encounters there are. It took me days to get through my first run because of the time commitment. This does speed up with experience, because combat becomes much faster after learning the ins and outs of it. Even so, expeditions easily last 20 minutes or more, so it's not the kind of "just one more" experience a roguelite needs to really grab somebody. This is exacerbated by the planning phase that occurs in between expeditions. Here, players spend the resources gathered during the previous expedition to purchase improved gear, recruit followers, and perform research. This is easily the densest part of Renowned Explorers for a new player. Every resource is connected to another in some way, and the game takes a laissez-faire approach; it presents a bevy of options and lets the player sort out what to do with them. Navigating the nooks and crannies of the planning phase can be exhausting at first, which makes the thought of taking on a new expedition right away seem that much more unreasonable. By far, my biggest disappointment starting off was with the combat system. It advertises multiple ways to resolve encounters; an explorer can be aggressive with physical attacks, be devious with insults and threats, or be friendly with encouragement. The three styles have a rock-paper-scissors relationship, so an aggressive approach is advantageous against a friendly enemy for instance. The problem with it is that each form of "attack" draws from the same "hit point" meter, which represents a foe's willingness to keep fighting. You could punch an enemy until he has only a sliver of health remaining, then finish him off by encouraging him to believe in your cause. Fighting and talking don't feel like they function differently. The battle system is hardly different than a simple three-element magic system at first. Only after really digging in did I spot the nuance. Some encounters will provide different rewards depending on how they are resolved. More importantly, it's the asymmetry in the rock-paper-scissors system that makes it interesting. Aggressive attack damage is a function of physical power, where devious and friendly attack damage comes from speech power, so an orator might have a stronger pair of scissors than he has a rock, so to speak. Within the speech powers, there is asymmetry as well. In general, devious skills cause debuffs while friendly skills cause buffs -- on friends and enemies alike. So while the current mood might call for a friendly attack, it is still necessary to weigh the risk of increasing the enemy's attack power in return. The point is: the combat system is deeper than it initially lets on, but it takes some effort for a player to really understand that. That basically describes Renowned Explorers: International Society on the whole. It features a set of deep systems with complex mechanics and relationships, but it places most of the burden on the player to discover it. I'll admit, I disliked it until it all fell into place and revealed itself for what it is. I'm not chomping at the bit to keep playing, but I am curious to delve deeper. Different combinations of explorers can beget different tactics both in and out of battle. That thought alone is enough to keep me from uninstalling it.
Renowned Explorers review photo
A lot to dig into
I'm glad I stuck Renowned Explorers out. For the first couple hours it was kind of a slog. Not exactly bad, but dense, unwieldy, and unexciting. I would finish an expedition and quit, not wanting to get back to it until days ...

Review: Typoman

Nov 19 // Ben Davis
Typoman (Wii U)Developer: Brainseed FactoryPublisher: Headup GamesMSRP: $13.99Released: November 19, 2015 In Typoman, the player controls a small hero made out of the letters that spell the word "hero." This little guy must navigate a treacherous landscape riddled with puzzles and traps, all of which are also made out of words and letters, in a quest to reclaim his lost arm. It's your basic puzzle-platformer, with the main draw being that all of the puzzles and platforms are composed of letters. Pits are filled with pointy As, ladders are built out of Hs stacked on top of each other, and traps are created around words like "gas" and "crush." Meanwhile, enemies formed from the words "hate" and "evil" roam the land looking to put an end to the hero's adventure. In order to solve puzzles and bypass traps, the hero must rearrange letters to spell new words. See a raising platform that won't move? Try to form the words "up" or "on" out of the letters nearby. Stuck in front of a flooded pit full of rainwater? Maybe the problem can be solved by adding another letter to the word "rain." The first area of Typoman (what you see in the trailers and demo) is full of simple, clever puzzles such as these, easy enough to solve without help but fun enough to make me smile. [embed]321539:61169:0[/embed] To make spelling easier, the Wii U GamePad can be used to quickly rearrange any nearby letters into new words, provided that the letters are all touching each other. The hero can also rearrange letters manually by picking up individual letters and pushing, pulling, or throwing them into place, but this takes a lot longer than using the GamePad. As the game goes on, the puzzles start to become a lot more complex, but not always in a good way. By the third and final area, almost all of the puzzles involve a "letter dispenser" which provides the hero with nine or more different letters to choose from in order to form a solution. Not all of the letters from the dispenser are necessary, and sometimes a puzzle might require choosing the same letter multiple times. I found these puzzles to be a bit too unintuitive for my liking. Usually, the area would be set up in a way where I wasn't exactly sure what the game even wanted me to do, what type of end-goal action I was looking for, so I ended up just sitting there staring at the letters on the screen for about twenty minutes trying different words that never did anything. Typoman does provide a hint system for these difficult puzzles, which essentially tells the player which word will help them out through vague inspirational quotes. The puzzles become so difficult, though, that it's really hard not to just give up and take the hints after standing around doing nothing for a long time. And even after the solutions were revealed to me, sometimes they still didn't make much sense. For these longer words puzzles, I would have liked for there to be multiple solutions. For example, one puzzle that had me stumped for a long while had a very simple (if illogical) four-letter-word solution to be created out of a possible eight letters. Other words such as "stairs" or "raise" seemed like they could have possibly helped, since the puzzle involved platforms of various heights and distances which needed to be connected, but they did nothing. Instead, each puzzle seems to be looking for one very specific word in order to perform a very specific action, and it's the player's job to try and figure out what exactly the game is looking for. The problem is, neither the word nor the action required is usually very obvious. Puzzles aside, the platforming segments also needed a lot of work. Jumping is very sluggish, and the player is often required to time jumps at the very last possible moment in order to clear pits. On top of that, many of the traps have no warning at all until they have already been triggered, leading to a lot of trial-and-error gameplay. Deaths often felt like they weren't my fault at all, since I usually had no way to know that death was imminent until it was too late (don't even get me started on the final boss, by the way). Luckily, there are no lives and dying simply brings the player back to the beginning of the last puzzle, but it's still frustrating since these types of things happen throughout the entire game. On top of the confusing puzzles and poor platforming, Typoman also had long load times, a surprisingly short length, and a strangely serious, eerie atmosphere which I felt clashed with the otherwise quirky nature of the game. In the end, I was left wondering exactly what type of person Typoman was meant for. As someone who loves words and word games, it wasn't very satisfying to try and figure out which exact words and letters I was expected to use. Getting creative never helped, and instead I usually had to resort to guessing blindly until something worked or simply relying on hints which was no fun at all. And for other people who aren't great at word games or simply don't enjoy them, I can see Typoman becoming very boring very quickly. The beginning of Typoman showed promise, full of amusing and creative moments, something that anyone could enjoy. But unfortunately it wasn't able to hold that momentum for very long and quickly devolved into tedium and confusion, and lots of standing around doing nothing. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Typoman review photo
Not grate
Word games have always been a passion of mine. Looking at a group of letters and trying to form new words out of them can be fun and intellectually stimulating. So what if we took a word game and combined it with a platformer...

Review: Super Star Wars

Nov 18 // Chris Carter
Super Star Wars (PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita, SNES, Wii Virtual Console)Developer: Sculpted Software, LucasArtsPublisher: Nintendo (SNES) / Disney Interactive (PSN)MSRP: $9.99 (Cross-Buy with PS4 and Vita)Release Date: November 17, 2015 Despite the fact that a lot of 2D platformers in the '90s were keen on a linear format, Super Star Wars mixed things up considerably. It's a run-and-gun title at heart, but it has arcade elements, vehicular portions, and some exploration elements peppered in to keep you constantly on your toes. While the first stage (the desert of Tatooine) is straightforward, the game really starts to open up on the third mission, the Sandcrawler. Here, you'll face ridiculously tough platforming sections with hazards, enemies, and moving platforms constantly at odds with the player. Almost every stage has something new to throw at you. Whether it's auto-scrolling sections with platforms crumbling underneath your feet or all-out arena brawls, no one experience feels the same. I love the silly liberties taken with the story, which only loosely follow the film, like Luke fighting a sarlacc in the very first mission. I'm glad that the developers were given a lot of leeway here, especially when you consider the limited settings in A New Hope -- the crew essentially hangs out on Tatooine before heading directly to the Death Star. This change of pace is especially evident for the boss fights -- hulking, memorable masses that are some of the toughest challenges in the game. Speaking of challenge, Super rewards those of you who don't die, gifting a permanent health increase whenever you come across a giant heart power-up, as well as full-use of whatever power-up you happen to have equipped at the time. Oh, and there's one more thing -- checkpoints basically don't exist. [embed]321401:61152:0[/embed] It is missing a bit of variety gameplay-wise though, mostly due to the fact that Luke doesn't really start his Jedi training until the next iteration. Because of this adherence to the source material, Super Star Wars is a shooter through and through, with very little emphasis on melee combat or special powers beyond the Contra-esque power-ups and some ancillary use of Obi-Wan's Lightsaber. Having said that, roughly halfway in you'll have the option to swap characters (Han and Chewbacca join Luke), who bring in their own set of animations with them. As for the "enhancements" that accompany this re-release, they're pretty light. The biggest addition is probably the save state option, which allows players to snapshot their progress anywhere in the game -- it's extremely useful for saving your progress before a boss, or when you just have to pick up and leave. Sadly, it's only one slot, and I would have loved to have seen an option to catalog all of the game's wonderful boss fights. Other than that, you're basically getting a selection of three filters, border options, and leaderboards. You can get a better look at everything in the video above. Super Star Wars remains a classic over two decades later, and I'm happy to see it being reintroduced to a new generation. I sincerely hope this leads to the production of remakes for the superior Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi entries -- perhaps with a few more extras along for the ride. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Super Star Wars photo
As old school as the Force
I'm really surprised that Super Star Wars is getting a re-release in 2015. No, not because "it's old," but rather the fact that it's an exceedingly unforgiving retro game, which doesn't really gel with the hand-holding landscape of modern gaming. While some elements haven't aged all that well, it's still very much a classic.

Review: Hard West

Nov 18 // Zack Furniss
Hard West (PC [reviewed], Mac, Linux)Developer: CreativeForge GamesPublisher: Gambitious Digital EntertainmentMSRP: $19.99Released: November 18, 2015 Hard West starts off so promising. Instead of one big campaign, it's divvied up into eight little chunks starring different characters. The first one stars a father and his son trying to make their own way in life through a combination of mining for gold and killing the men that would try to stop them. This chapter serves as a tutorial of sorts, teaching you the basics of combat. You have two action points, which you can use to move, shoot, or use special abilities. Shooting always ends your turn (some weapons alleviate this), so it's always best to keep moving.  In some circumstances, you can make your own cover by kicking over tables or lifting up barriers. One of the special abilities enables you to ricochet bullets off of metal surfaces in a zig-zag of death across the battlefield, but you're never taught how to do this. Halfway through the game I noticed the slight glow that some metallic objects emanate denoting that you can use this ability. Once you get the hang of these shots, they become an impressive and effective method of dealing death. Though the battles feel mechanically similar to XCOM, one of the main differences in Hard West doesn't stick the landing. Whereas in the former game it was perhaps to easy to rely on the Overwatch ability (wherein you automatically attack enemies who pass your field of vision), here there's no such thing...for the player. If you get too close to an enemy, they have a small range around them in which they can use an attack of opportunity, but you're never afforded this same benefit. This leads to repeated scenarios where you're trying to cautiously approach the enemy so that you don't get too close and get blasted, and then they walk right up to you and shoot you from behind for higher damage. Another new system that Hard West tries is the "setup stage." In some levels, you have the drop on your opponents and you can sneak around. You only have one action point, so you move much more cautiously. In order to successfully infiltrate an area, you have to use the Subdue ability, which prevents enemies from firing at you for a few turns. Enemies sometimes have cones showing their field of vision, but this is inconsistent. Whether that was because of a glitch or my character's stats, I was never sure, The whole system is poorly explained, but luckily you're never forced to use it. Even when I figured out how to successfully do this, going in guns blazing always seemed to be the better option. One of the best parts of the combat is the Luck meter. While you still have percentages telling you how likely you are to hit an enemy, they don't feel as random as most tactical RPGs. Your Aim stat and your position determine if you'll hit, and the enemy's cover simply lessens the damage they receive. Each character has a luck bar that serves as both a sort of armor and your ability resource pool. If you have enough luck, when you get shot at, it'll soar right past you. If you get hit, your luck replenishes so you'll have better odds next time. Once you get a feel for this, you'll learn to risk taking weak hits through cover so you can use your more powerful skills. This all adds up to incredibly entertaining combat when it's not doing its best to frustrate you. Getting bum-rushed time and again isn't fun. But earning increasingly fantastical weapons and cards (which give you active and passive skills) in each campaign remains compelling throughout. When you aren't in combat, each chapter has its own world map and goal. In the aforementioned starting story, part of your HUD shows your family's gold-mining tools. Another chapter sees you managing peons à la Oregon Trail, making sure you have enough food to keep them strong enough to do your bidding, One of my favorites stars a clairvoyant woman as your main character, using her abilities to cheat both poker and death. If we're being reductive, these world map moments are just variations of text adventures, but they're enjoyable and convey a lot of flavor through both these different goals and the story text you have to parse. Once in a while you'll solve a puzzle for better gear, or choose the wrong thing and gain a crippling injury. All of these have a direct effect on the many battles you'll fight, so there's not as much of a disconnect as you might expect. Some choices you make will lead to differences in missions as well, such as choosing to sneak in through the back or charging in through the front. Consumable items, clothing, and weapons don't carry over into the next campaign, so each time is small arms race to get back up to the top. I initially thought this would be frustrating, but since each story is two hours long at the maximum, it never becomes monotonous. Each character's chapter has three special items that they can unlock through a variety of methods that are sold at a vendor who appears throughout the game. This allows you to get to the punch more quickly if you like, and it encourages thorough examination of the map. The playing cards that I mentioned previously are randomly earned by finishing battles and exploring and give you passive and active abilities like being able to turn into a demon or heal whenever you're in the shadows. In keeping with the theme of the ol' west, arranging them into straights and royal flushes provide additional stat bonuses. Since characters don't level up, this provides just enough customization to be interesting instead of overwhelming. So again, this all sounds great! But then there are the bugs. The hot desert sun didn't cook Hard West enough. This is evident everywhere, from menus that take entirely too long to open, to a glitch where accidentally hitting the delete key sets the camera at a horizontal angle on the ground that renders the game nigh-unplayable. There are typos galore in the text and there are times when said text implies that there should be another dialogue option, but there's nothing to be found. I also dealt with a handful of hard crashes. This is frustrating because there's a legitimately great game to be found underneath all of the blood and sand. I'm going to fondly remember the small vignettes in this game. Running around as an inquisitor, manipulating people into killing others so that I can build an eldritch artifact. Seeking revenge as a half-man, half-demon. Playing as the villains I saw in previous chapters, understanding what motivated them to become such evil pricks.  This is a world worth exploring, and I have a feeling we'll be seeing more of it. Maybe that'll be in the form of a huge patch that puts this broken machine back together, or a sequel that brings the best of Hard West to the forefront. What I'd really like to see is a tabletop game in this setting, because it honestly feels like it might be better suited in that realm. Either way, I hope there'll be a reason to come back. 
Hard West photo
A fistful of sand, blood, and bugs
After twenty or so hours in the blistering sun (my cold, unkempt room) with my hands on the well-used revolver (bargain basement keyboard and mouse), I'm walking away from Hard West in turmoil. A tactical turn-based west...

Review: Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash

Nov 18 // Chris Carter
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash (Wii U)Developer: Camelot SoftwarePublisher: NintendoMSRP: $49.99Release Date: November 20, 2015 There's no two ways about it -- Ultra Smash  is a bare-bones game. If you came to this court expecting anything other than basic tennis, you will walk away disappointed. And even then, it doesn't handle the basics as well as its predecessors. There is a degree of strategy at work in Ultra Smash, just like in the past games in the series. Serves can be timed for greater effect, specific hits can be returned as direct counters (such as returning a topspin with a slice), while twitch movement and the ability to predict your opponent's moves are still paramount to your success. In that regard, nothing really has changed. You do have a few extra control options as the GamePad can mirror the TV (and I do mean "mirror," as perspectives aren't shifted for same-screen play, sadly) or function as a scoreboard. The Wii U Pro Controller and the Wii mote can also be used, though the latter does not feature motion support. The core modes are Classic or Mega Battle, the latter of which just throws in a Mega Mushroom occasionally to allow your characters to grow larger for a limited time, with enhanced stats to boot. Yep, the big gimmick this time is a power-up, and only one of them, on top of the fact that only one player per side can get it at a time. There's no story mode and no real experience to gain outside of coins (which unlock a mere four characters and courts paved with new material, like carpet) -- what you see is what you get. [embed]320462:61082:0[/embed] Other modes are just as paltry. There's the Mega Ball Rally, which tasks players with slicing a ball back and forth until someone (either another person or the CPU) screws up. It's literally one round and then it's over. It's almost indistinguishable from the other modes. Then there's the amiibo-based Knockout Challenge, which is the closest you're going to get to a progression-based system. In short, you'll be pitted against a crescendoing circuit of matches one after another, earning some bonus rewards (which again, can just be bought with coins) along the way. It's basically Classic mode with the ability to play with an amiibo partner, without any of the amiibo depth from other games like Smash Bros. I had a chance to try out online play before launch, and things seemed rather smooth, even if there are no lobbies or extras of any kind. It's probably the only real shining light of this package, but even then, it feels odd that it's a surprise for a Nintendo game to feature it in 2015. Of course there's a caveat -- you cannot play directly with friends. And... that's all you're getting. If you can stomach playing classic mode for hours on end with someone local, you'll probably find something to love here. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash feels like it was rushed into the holiday season to mask the absence of Star Fox. You're better off just playing any other previous game in the series, which is particularly easy to do since the first game is on the Wii U Virtual Console for just 10 bucks. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Mario Tennis review photo
Swing low
Once upon a time, Mario Tennis was a national pastime at pretty much every household I visited. Back in the year 2000 there weren't a whole lot of alternative sports games outside of a few gems (I miss EA Sports Big), an...

Review: Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series: The Ice Dragon

Nov 17 // Darren Nakamura
Game of Thrones - A Telltale Game Series: The Ice Dragon (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: November 17, 2015MSRP: $4.99 (episode), $29.99 (season)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit The reason I'm being so cavalier with discussing in general terms how my story ended -- spoilers be damned -- is that other players might see things play out quite differently. It took the whole season to make good on the promises that we may shape the future of House Forrester, but The Ice Dragon finally introduces significant divergence. Important characters may live or die, depending on not only the choices presented in this episode, but also on those made earlier. With Asher joining Rodrik and the convergence of those two paths at the end of A Nest of Vipers, more time can be spent on each individual thread. Up north, Gared and company finally make it to the North Grove. Down south, Mira learns who had been conspiring against her. Nestled in the middle of it all is the drama in Ironrath, with the Whitehills mounting up for war against the Forresters. Gared's path is probably the most disappointing of the three. After five episodes wondering what the significance of the North Grove is, I was hoping for a revelation when he finally made it. The main concrete takeaway is that it's important and must be protected, but precisely why is up for debate. [embed]321059:61115:0[/embed] What makes Gared's journey to the North Grove sting so much as a part of the story of the Forresters is that it feels like he made no measurable impact on any other section. The final recap does hint that he might have been a bigger player in the grand scheme if I had made different choices, but my personal Gared could have been cut from the story entirely and it would have made no difference. In contrast, Mira's scheming in King's Landing is at least mentioned by the characters on the home front. She may not have had any concrete effects on the conflict at Ironrath, but her path still feels important in the overall narrative. In Sons of Winter, I was so pleased with myself for winning a war of words as Mira. I was shrewd and calculating, manipulating the situation to get exactly what I wanted. Somewhere along the line I lost that slyness and turned into a softie, and Mira paid for it. I can't say I'm happy with how Mira turns out at the end of this episode, but I don't think I'd be particularly pleased with the possible alternatives either. Of course, the main action is at Ironrath, where the Whitehills have mounted up for war against the Forresters. There were hints in this episode at a possible diplomatic solution, but as Asher and his band of gladiators, battle seemed like the most appropriate option. The climactic scene is probably the most brutal in any Telltale game to date. There was figurative backstabbing followed by literal backstabbing. There was frontstabbing. There was sidestabbing. There was ramming a greatsword into someone's mouth and out the back of his head. Good lord, there was a lot of stabbing. It fits the universe perfectly, in that in one fell swoop a dozen named characters meet their ends, and the whole time I'm watching in horror, muttering obscenities to myself and wishing thing weren't the way they are. Valar morghulis: all men must die; fans of the source are well-versed in that concept, but it hurts more when it's my men dying. There may still be a glimmer of hope for the Forresters, despite being broken, beaten, battered, and beheaded. The finale leaves a few loose ends open (possibly for a second season), but the family as we have known it is done. In a way, I'm almost pleased the story finishes the way it does. In Iron From Ice, I noted the similarities between the Forrester clan and the more famous Starks. I realize now that I modeled my Forresters' behavior after them as well. I fought with honor and I did the right thing, though it eventually spelled my own doom. I can take solace in the moral victory. The Ice Dragon caps off a year of fretting and worrying. Telltale's take on Game of Thrones has been spot-on in that regard. Now that it's over it's almost a relief, even with a bleak end. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Game of Thrones review photo
A chilling finale
In my review for The Lost Lords, the second episode of Game of Thrones, I lamented that I was making all the wrong decisions and that my version of House Forrester was doomed. With The Ice Dragon wrapping up the series, my pr...

Review: Knight Squad

Nov 17 // Jordan Devore
Knight Squad (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Chainsawesome GamesPublisher: Chainsawesome GamesMSRP: $14.99Released: November 16, 2015 One of the things I appreciate about Knight Squad is its simplicity. You move and aim with the analog stick, and attack with a button press. That's about it! Whether you're wielding the default sword or you pick up a laser gun, a bow, or a boomerang, it's those same basic controls. The modes, while varied, aren't hard to grasp, either. Regardless of the objective at hand, you're going to kill or be killed. Death is swift. There's almost always a little ghost floating off a skeleton, because there's almost always someone dying. Knights have one health point (two if they nab a shield power-up). With seven other players running amok on a single-screen arena, it sure is easy to get taken out. Thankfully, you'll be back on the battlefield mere seconds later. There is very little downtime. [embed]321181:61130:0[/embed] As far as modes go, nine are included with the base game and several more are available as DLC. I suspect folks will quickly narrow the list down to two or three personal favorites and ignore the rest. Capture the Grail (free for all) Capture the Flag (four vs. four) Soccer (four vs. four) Gladiator (free for all) Last Man Standing (free for all) Team Deathmatch (four vs. four) Juggernaut (free for all) Domination (four vs. four) Crystal Rush (four vs. four) Knight Squad covers the usual bases. Excluding the standard deathmatch, all of the modes actively encourage players to congregate. You're either going after a flag, a grail, a soccer ball, a particular spot that grants bonus points, a particular player with an overpowered weapon, or an object that needs to be captured, attacked, or defended. The end result is chaos. Pure chaos. I like Capture the Flag best. It's classic, and it works well in this top-down, fast-paced arena format. I also dig Juggernaut. Matches begin with a minigun in the center of the map. If you reach it first, you'll not only have a ridiculously good weapon, you'll gain a shield, too. From this point on, the other players tend to team up. They'll charge at you from all directions. Most won't make it. But eventually, someone will manage to break your shield, and someone else will get close enough to strike the killing blow, grab the gun, and become the new juggernaut. That cycle repeats until the timer hits zero, and it's thrilling the whole way through. When you don't have a full lineup of human players, AI bots will fill out the roster -- but they aren't nearly as exciting to compete against. I'd go so far as to specifically not recommend getting Knight Squad unless you have people to play with, whether that's locally or online. The game also offers six standalone single-player challenges. They're challenging, all right, but I'd hesitate to call them enjoyable. You'll face skeletons, worms, trolls, dragons, knights, and a bullet-hell boss. These encounters could have been good, but there are too many needless frustrations holding them back. Your character is really dang slow relative to the enemies, for one. There aren't checkpoints. If you mess up once, you die, and when you die, there isn't an "instant restart" option. Finally, the levels are gated, so most players won't even see them all. At best, these challenges are a distraction from the real fun. It's important to note that now through December 15, 2015, Knight Squad is free to download with an Xbox Live Gold account. If you're thinking of playing, this is a good time to do so while the player base is at its largest and most active. I didn't have much trouble getting into matches, aside from technical issues (a couple of crashes) and hosts dropping out (there aren't dedicated servers). So far, I haven't encountered any noticeable lag. There's no shortage of cool party games these days, and Knight Squad stands among them. It's not something I see myself returning to time and time again like some of its peers, but I got a kick out its accessible, action-packed multiplayer. If you're coming along for the ride, be sure to bring friends. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Knight Squad review photo
Dibs on the blue one!
Gauntlet as an eight-person competitive arena game? Sure, I'm in. That more-or-less accurate summary is about all it took for me to give Knight Squad a look. Hearing a few co-workers sing the game's praises at conventions als...

Review: Star Wars Battlefront

Nov 17 // Chris Carter
Star Wars Battlefront (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE)Publisher: Electronic ArtsMSRP: $59.99Release Date: November 17, 2015 My main problem with Star Wars Battlefront is how arcadey the game feels, when it's very clear DICE is trying to push a fully-fledged shooter on you. The end result is a Frankenstein's monster of sorts, with a lot of fun bits, and some elements of overproduction and bloat fixed in to boot. Let's start with how the game handles class creation. "Cards" are basically uninspired loadout options, with the tired gating process to boot. Why does the game feature a "credits" system on top of ranked level gating? Call of Duty solved this conundrum ages ago with tokens, which simplify everything with a singular in-game currency that you can use to unlock things. With Battlefront, it feels like DICE is actively gating you at every turn, and willingly deterring you from experimentation. Once you actually open up your options they aren't exactly mind-blowing either, with generic powers like "focus fire" (more temporary accuracy), or Thermal Detonators, which are just grenades. The only standout is the jump pack. All of the aesthetic options lack personality as well, and beyond the token gender and race choices, everything looks the same. Whereas previous titles would allow players to choose between multiple races with drastically different abilities (read: droids), every Battlefront player is humanoid in nature, whether they're a Twi'lek rebel or a Stormtrooper, they all operate the same. [embed]320463:61122:0[/embed] That isn't to say that the game isn't fun. Locations are sprawling and full of life, even if the character models aren't nearly as vibrant. Every single environment is detailed to the point where it looks like it was taken directly from the films, and most of the time, there's a gigantic battle playing out in the skies above, adding a dire feel to every match. I really like most of the modes, particularly Supremacy, Fighter Squadron, and Hero Hunt. There are nine in all, and all of them are fine in their own way. Supremacy is basically the new core mode of the game, featuring a "capture the point" tug of war system. It fits with Star Wars' high-octane action, as tons of different vehicles are scattered about at a frantic pace, to the point where every spawn is interesting. This game type is pretty much always fun when it's featured in a Battlefront game, and I haven't had a bad experience yet. Fighter Squadron, while rudimentary, is also a go-to of mine. Across several landscapes two teams will battle it out in the sky, solely in vehicles. It's not even close to the thrill of a proper X-Wing or Tie Fighter game, but again, as an arcade-like experience, it does the trick. Barrel rolls, quick turns, shields, and missile locks are all in, and it feels unique enough to set itself apart from other similar titles. My other standout favorite is Hero Hunt. This one basically teeters from a team-based mode to a free-for-all in an instant, placing a collective of soldiers against one named character -- the person to score the killing blow gets to play as that hero. It's a rush due to the fact that heroes cycle after every death, and fighting the jet-pack wielding Boba Fett is a completely different experience than taking on a Force user. You're constantly forced to change up how you approach any given situation (and learn all of their abilities, and how they impact the flow of a match), and the recognizable characters elevate the mode. Playing online is the gift that keeps on giving with Battlefront. There's a wide variety of game types to choose from without having so many that the community feels segmented. Even in EA Access there are plenty of people online, and games fill rather quickly. Then you have the mission mode, which is separate from everything else. I'm not convinced that it's much more than a fleeting fancy, even with an online or offline co-op partner. The first half consists of basic "versus" battles with or without placing players in the shoes of heroes and villains, and survival essentially amounts to another horde mode. What's weird about the former is that it's so incredibly limited, almost for no reason. The game forces you to play with "tokens," similar to Call of Duty's "Kill Confirmed," and with just four maps, it gets old in an afternoon. Why did it have to be like this? Why aren't there more maps, and better bots available? It feels rushed, almost like EA had to add in a token offline game type just to have it in there. The same goes for survival, because while I do like that the wave-based mode has an "end," unlike many other boring infinite horde modes, there isn't much to it. Occasionally waves will throw an AT-ST or Tie Fighter at you, and all players have to do is blast it into oblivion with environmental weapons or their normal gear. They have a lot of health even on normal, so it can get incredibly tedious. In short, do not count on a reliable single player component. Star Wars Battlefront feels authentic in many ways, but that authenticity is aggressively pursued at the cost of gameplay, and is often tacked-on. If you're in the mood for a relatively shallow shooter with caveats you likely won't be disappointed, but I wish that DICE had a little more time to polish it and add more substance. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher, as well as time spent online with the EA Access program on Xbox One, purchased by the reviewer.]
Star Wars review photo
Ready are you? What know you of ready?
Star Wars has been a part of my reality ever since my parents showed me the first film on VHS. From there I attended the release of every movie in the series, including the re-releases of the original trilogy -- if you'r...

Review: Clandestine

Nov 14 // Patrick Hancock
Clandestine (PC)Developer: Logic ArtistsPublisher: Logic ArtistsMSRP: $24.99Released: November 5, 2015 Clandestine takes place in 1996, with the Soviet Union still fresh on everyone's mind. Players play as either Katya or Martin, field operatives who investigate bad guys who have done bad stuff. Honestly, a lot of the plot went over my head, generally because my friend and I were laughing so hard over voice chat that we missed just about everything. Clandestine falls perfectly into the "so bad, it's great" category with its cutscenes. Movements are rigid and imprecise, voice acting is god awful, and things clip through each other. In fact, the characters' boss has a goatee that clips through his face when he talks. Sure, this could be seen as a terrible oversight from the developers, but it's so in-line with the quality of the rest of the aesthetic that somehow it works. The game's structure has players walking around a headquarters between missions in order to get new information on what just happened, as well as what is coming next. It's nice to have legitimate downtime before each mission, and roaming around the building with a friend can yield wonderful things. HQ is essentially a playground that becomes a game of "what goofy position can I get myself into next?" In a way, it reminded me of walking around the base in Perfect Dark. [embed]320445:61104:0[/embed] Mission objectives often have Katya sneaking into specific areas to either interrogate someone for information, or set up a rootkit on a computer for Martin to hack into and download specific data. While boiling the objectives down to their core makes Clandestine sound same-y, the variation of maps and context keep things fresh from mission to mission. There are even some choices the players can make that affect specific plot elements and mission objectives. Gameplay entirely depends on which character players control. Katya's gameplay is third-person stealth, while Martin's is computer-terminal hacking. Katya's controls will be familiar to anyone who has played a third-person game before. She can stick to walls, which is a bit janky at times (but never janky enough to ruin a mission). Her job is to avoid detection from guards and cameras by not being seen or making too much noise. Katya players can approach a mission as they please; it's possible to go in and out without trying to make a peep, or bring a slew of firepower and kill anyone they deem necessary. The game rewards players for a variety of playstyles, and doesn't really encourage one over another.  Players controlling Martin have a completely different game in front of them. Martin's screen is split into four sections: hacking network, camera feed, tactical map, and console. The console is there simply to display mission objectives. The hacking network is a grid of terminals that Martin can hack into. Some are PCs in the map, others are locked doors, and some are miscellaneous objects around the level. Martin controls a little avatar in the network and moves along the grid with the WASD movement keys. Hacking a computer will reveal its login credentials, hacking a door will tell Martin the code, etc. The network admin also has an avatar that chases the player down, disabling them for about five seconds if caught. The tactical map is a blueprint of the level that Katya is currently in. If Katya comes up to a locked door, she can ask Martin to get the code. Martin can click on the door on the tactical map, it will highlight its node in the network, then Martin can make his way over to it and get the code, tell it to Katya, and Katya inputs it on her end. This is a simple, yet elegant asymmetric design that truly requires teamwork to pull off. Katya has a camera on her at all times, which Martin can use to see what she sees. He can also hack into cameras around the map, taking over their vision on his camera feed. If Martin controls a camera, it will not "spot" Katya, so she's safe to roam the area. This also allows Martin to scan a room before Katya enters, which is incredibly useful given the fact that Martin can also tag guards on the map, making them visible to Katya through walls. Players flying solo as Katya can switch between characters at will. While it works, it's missing the best element of Clandestine: working together with a buddy. When alone, the hilariously bad cutscenes are suddenly just...disappointing. The coordinated tactics aren't there. It feels like a much more shallow game in its single-player mode. Players can join random games online, but doing so will always make the joining player control Martin. This is especially frustrating if two friends want to switch roles. The best way we could figure was to send each other our save files when we wanted to switch roles, and then change who hosts the game. Despite the serious tone set by the plot, it's best to go into Clandestine with a light-hearted approach. The movement is a bit clunky, the animations and voice acting are stiff as a board, and there's plenty of visual issues. However, the core gameplay and asymmetric ideas work well together. Grab a friend (this step is very important), jump on to a third-party voice chat program, and go play Clandestine. I have no doubt you'll come away with a memorable gaming experience. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Clandestine review photo
An asymmetrically wonky good time
Asymmetric multiplayer is not an easy feat to pull off efficiently. Sure, it's relatively simple to create two gameplay styles within the same game, but to make them blend together to create a unique ebb and flow is something...

Review: Stella Glow

Nov 13 // Chris Carter
Stella Glow (3DS)Developer: ImageepochPublisher: AtlusMSRP: $49.99Release Date: November 17, 2015 Our journey begins with Alto, a young man who (surprise) has amnesia, and is found by a girl named Risette, who takes him into her mother's house. Three years later Alto encounters Hilda, a "sort of good sort of bad" witch, who is commonly referred to as "The Witch of Disaster" -- with a name like that, who wouldn't be inclined to be bad sometimes? Risette then unlocks an ancient power from one of Alto's artifacts, and becomes a witch herself -- then it's off to the royal palace, where they are tasked with hunting Hilda by recruiting more witches. You can probably guess where it goes from here. Alto is a country boy of sorts, but accepts to call to become a reluctant "aw shucks" shonen sword master. The rest of the party runs the gamut of anime tropes, and while they can occasionally get annoying, the cast is memorable enough and all sport a great set of designs. There are a few nuanced storylines peppered in, like the tale of a misunderstood witch who was doomed to live as an outcast. Another character hides her face in a cardboard box because she's shy, but wears revealing clothing. The cast is massive, and since there's no "job" switching in Stella Glow, all of them act unique both in and out of combat. Speaking of combat, much like the Arc series, it's still a lot like Final Fantasy Tactics. Utilizing chibi characters on a grid-like format, players can move about the battlefield, use items or skills, and choose to "wait" in a specific direction to guard against directional attacks. A lot of games still use the grid style because it works, even to this day. There's a certain order to it that warrants a respect beyond relegating it to "old school nostalgia," and planning out party movements and attacks is never a chore. When you're actually engaged with an enemy an Advanced Wars style miniature cutscene will play, and as expected, some characters have counter-attacks available. As previously stated, the cast really makes a different here, as some party members have access to special abilities like guarding characters they're adjacent to, which makes placement paramount. Don't expect a whole lot of depth and customization though (stats are applied instantly, and equipment management isn't all that difficult, even accounting for the materia-like socket system). [embed]320467:61085:0[/embed] Really, the game isn't all that tough in general. I feel like it will be challenging enough for those of you who don't keep up with the genre, but for veterans, you'll rarely find a taxing quest until later in the storyline. This is partially due to the fact that the AI isn't overly aggressive, and tends to hang back more, waiting for a better opportunity to strike. On the flipside, that means that there's no frustrating fake difficulty spikes for the sake of it. Like most SRPGs, Stella is hella long. There's at least 40 hours of gameplay here if you only opt for the story, and leveling up characters, locating the additional endings (over 10), completing sidequests and sidestories will likely elevate it to double that. Like most games with a billion endings, your mileage may vary depending on your affinity towards a specific character, but the ones I saw ranged from unsatisfying to sufficient. For those you are wondering, the voicework is in English, and the songs, which are heavily woven into the game's narrative, are performed in Japanese. In many ways, Stella Glow is a by-the-numbers strategy RPG, but it does have a partially interesting cast, some unique storylines, and a working combat system. Imageepoch has had some ups and downs in their lengthy career, but thankfully they can at least end on somewhat of a high note. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Stella Glow photo
Imageepoch's swan song
That's all she wrote for Imageepoch. The developer responsible for the Luminos Arc series and Arc Rise Fantasia filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and it seems like they're out of the industry entirely with the laun...

Review: Sword Art Online: Lost Song

Nov 13 // Josh Tolentino
Sword Art Online: Lost Song (PS4, PS3, PS Vita [reviewed])Developer: ArtdinkPublisher: Bandai Namco GamesMSRP: $39.99 (Vita), $59.99 (PS4)Released: November 17, 2015 (NA), November 13, 2015 (EU), April 28, 2015 (SEA), March 26, 2015 (JP) [Note: This review is based on the English-language version of Lost Song released in Southeast Asia on April 28, 2015. While there may be some differences between this version and the North American/EU ones, we expect the core experience will be highly similar, if not identical.] Let's not mince words: Like its predecessor Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, Lost Song is meant for existing fans of Sword Art Online (or at least of Hollow Fragment), and few else outside that sphere. In fact, Lost Song's main plot virtually ensures that only those invested Kirito and the gang's adventures and interactions will find fulfillment from the game's narrative.  But first, an aside: When it came to the anime and novels, the reason the ALO-set story arcs felt so weak was the overriding sense that the show was treading water. In contrast to original's grand hook of "dying in the game means death for real", the goal of Kirito playing ALO to search for Asuna carried not nearly as much weight. This was exacerbated in the second season, which followed up an excellent murder mystery set in Gun Gale Online with Kirito and his pals literally just doing a raid and some quests in ALO for a nice sword. It came to pass that when ALO was onscreen, Sword Art Online became less about exciting adventures and speculative future game design than essentially watching a bunch of nonexistent Let's Players play a nonexistent game. Lost Song falls afoul of ALO's curse as well, with even its central story afflicted with the same sense of meandering and lack of stakes. Still placed in Hollow Fragment's alternative timeline (which saw the cast stuck in SAO for much longer than in the "canon", and adding characters like Sinon under different circumstances), Lost Song sees Kirito and his posse moving to ALfheim Online right on time for the game to debut "Svart ALfheim", its first expansion, consisting of five massive floating islands. Being the top-class gamers they are, the crew resolves to be the first to burn through it. [embed]318569:61096:0[/embed] The quest for "world-first" (a motivation familiar to anyone who's played an MMO) eventually brings them into conflict with Shamrock, a massive guild run by Seven, an idol/scientist (!) who's taking the opportunity run a big social experiment within ALO. If the whole premise of Lost Song's plot sounds like the kind of inter-guild "drama" that plays out on forums and social media feeds for actual games today, one wouldn't be too far off. This puts the bulk of the game's narrative appeal in the interactions between cast members new and old, told via entertaining Tales of-style vignettes, in-game events, and lengthy personal quests, some of which adapt storylines from the canon like the well-received "Mother's Rosario" arc. In a nice touch, these events are mostly encountered semi-randomly and often without explicit prompting. A minor thing, to be sure, but one that channels the "live" qualities of MMO play, where impromptu encounters and stories grow even against otherwise static environs and content. Ultimately, though, those invested in seeing the characters of Sword Art Online again, sporting their ALO-styled redesigns and touting long-running in-jokes, will get their fill, but players seeking epic adventure or the kind of JRPG saga that ends with the heroes saving the world will come away disappointed. It doesn't help, either, that Lost Song doesn't work very hard to introduce players to the characters themselves. In some ways that's to be expected, seeing as this is a sequel to Hollow Fragment and mostly features the same faces (with a few more added), but curious folks who just want to know what the fuss over Sword Art Online is all about would be better served by picking up Re: Hollow Fragment (the "Director's Cut" PS4 port of Hollow Fragment), or just watching the anime. Narrative pitfalls aside, Lost Song is at least less of a slog to play, mechanically, bringing some new, entertaining gimmicks to the table. The combat system ditches the auto-attacks, casting times, and menus of Hollow Fragment for a straightforward, directly-controlled action-RPG setup. Players can string together combos of light and heavy attacks, controlling any three of up to seventeen playable characters (they can even replace Kirito as the leader!), each wielding a number of weapons with signature skills and magic. Special moves and magic can be triggered by combining shoulder and face buttons. New attacks, spells, and passive effects can be unlocked by leveling up their weapon skills through use, and assigning them to preferred button combinations. A Union gauge fills up in battle, and when triggered enables devastating "Switch" attacks involving the whole party. While simpler and arguably less deep than Hollow Fragment, the new system is more engaging and wastes less time. Most low-level foes can be dispatched in seconds, and fighting large bosses rewards mobility and effective use of buffs and debuffs to chop away at their massive, stacked health bars. AI companions fight and support effectively, and need little in the way of handholding unless severely under-leveled. New gear can be found in the field, or bought, identified, and upgraded at Agil and Lisbeth's shops while Side Quests and Extra Quests can be accepted at the hub town's tavern. Side Quests usually fall into the "Kill X number of Y enemy" category, but Extra Quests usually pose an additional challenge, involving big takedowns of one or more boss-class foes for better rewards. And then there's the flying. Being a fairy-themed game, ALO plants wings on all its characters to enable long-distance travel and a level of verticality rarely embraced in the RPG space. Lost Song gladly obliges, featuring huge, open-world maps populated by roaming enemies and dotted with dungeons at varying altitudes. Players can switch from running on the ground to hovering to racing through the air with a flick of the D-pad. While a bit fiddly at first, this mobility quickly becomes second nature and makes a genuine difference when fighting outdoors, as aerial dashes can be used to set up powerful charging attacks, and hovering up high can put safe distances between players and ground-bound foes. Fighting indoors, however, is more of a chore, as most dungeons prohibit flying and often take place against large numbers of enemies spawning in ways that cause the combat camera and lock-on function to freak out unpleasantly. Worse still, the dungeons themselves are so bland and unimaginative that I initially mistook them for being procedurally generated. Having players visit these dungeons in order to progress just hammers home the apathetic level design. And there's even multiplayer, making Lost Song the only Sword Art Online game that's actually, well, online. Local and online play sessions are available, including a PVP versus mode, and team battles against roided-out versions of the single-player bosses. It's an alright option to have, but there's little compelling reason to engage with it. Players can use custom characters, but the customization options are so limited that anything created just resembles the generic NPC characters littering the hub world. For better or worse, Sword Art Online: Lost Song replicates both the highs and lows of its predecessors. Existing fans of the series will find plenty to like in the further adventures of Kirito and his MMO pals, despite a dull main story. The revamped mechanics also support a steady drip-feed of Sword Art Online fan service mainly by not getting in the way too much. Unfortunately, Lost Song stumbles hardest when trying to engage players outside that sphere of pre-existing investment, and in some ways ends up an even less suitable jumping-off point for newbies who want to get in on enjoying the franchise. My advice to those folks would be to watch the anime or try out Hollow Fragment first. If they're still jonesing for some more of this motley crew of irredeemable MMO nerds when they're done, then Lost Song will be music to their ears. [This review is based on a retail copy of the game acquired by the reviewer.] Fallout 4 (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Bethesda Game StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksMSRP: $59.99Released: November 10, 2015
SAO: Lost Song Review photo
Familiar Tune
Ask most folks who watched the Sword Art Online anime series, and they'll likely tell you that the show's weaker moments usually coincided with events set in ALfheim Online (ALO), a fairy-themed virtual reality MMO that ...

Review: StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

Nov 12 // Chris Carter
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void (PC)Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentMSRP: $39.99 (Standard), $59.99 (Digital Deluxe)Released: November 10, 2015 The rest of the story missions are on par with the initial set, as players delve deeper into the story of the Protoss and their attempt to reclaim their homeworld and save the galaxy. I was surprised, though, to see that the narrative not only seeks to wrap up the fate of Auir and the Protoss race, but the rest of the core cast as well. Call it cheesy, but Blizzard actually wraps up things nicely here, and doesn't leave fans wanting. Yes, there will be Ghost missions as DLC down the line, but the story of StarCraft truly feels complete, partially due to the assistance of a tri-mission epilogue. That's not to say that things are executed flawlessly, of course. There are still some odd storylines, weird choices from characters, and absolutely ridiculous phrases uttered throughout. But all told, things are far more focused. The camera is off the struggle of Raynor and Kerrigan's relationship, and more on the survival of the entire galaxy. I fully expect a lot of fans to dislike the finale for various reasons we'll be discussing for years on end once people have had a chance to finish it. Elements of customization also appear like never before in the series, with the power to change up your home ship (The Spear of Adun), and the heroes themselves. These are augmented by sidequests, which actively encourages players to reach out and do everything there is to do in each mission. While a few levels did tend to blend together (craft a base and army, and smash into another one), the story and carried progress keep things going, and I didn't find myself getting bored like I did with Wings of Liberty. [embed]319826:61049:0[/embed] Co-op allows you to select between six heroes (Raynor, Kerrigan, Artanis, Swann, Zagara, and Vorazun), all of whom carry over their experience to subsequent playthroughs. It's a lot like Heroes of the Storm in a way, where you can work your way toward new bonuses, level-ups, and upgrades over time with each character. Objectives include tasks like destroying vehicles or other units, and are rather menial in nature. It's important to note though that you don't play as these heroes -- they just provided bonuses and alter the style of your army. Also, leveling up allows you to access some of the more advanced units, like the Terran Battlecruiser. There's matchmaking support, and given the simplicity of the mode, it works well even with random players. Although I would have preferred a full-on mode with playable heroes, co-op really does the trick, and I wish it had been implemented sooner. I had a blast getting to know other players I was matched up with, trading strategies, and just talking about the game. It's a relaxed mode that will scratch that itch if you find yourself plummeting on the ladder, or failing in the new tournament system. So how is multiplayer? Relatively the same, with the addition of two new units per army. Actually, I should say the gameplay is the same, but the added bonus of all of these units seeks to change up the meta considerably. The return of the Lurkers for the Zerg is a standout unit, and memories of Brood War came rushing back within seconds. The Disruptor is probably the most unique unit in Void, as it shoots a ball of pure energy that can hit both friends and foes. While casting, it's immobile and vulnerable, so players will have to treat it as a priority target. The thing oozes Protoss inside and out. As for the other units, the Liberator is basically like an aerial Siege Tank, the Cyclone is an early-game harassment vehicle, the Adept not only looks badass but it also teleports around like a more mobile late-game Zealot option, and Ravagers are like mobile artillery, eating through force fields. As you can clearly see, all of them bring something new to the table and are welcome in their own right. The meta will no doubt drastically shift in the months to come, but as of now, I'm having the same amount of fun online as I always have. Archon Mode is another welcome addition, and while I can see people skipping out on it entirely, it will likely draw in a niche crowd. The gist is that two people will control one base, which can lead to some interesting playstyles, like one player micromanaging air units while the other hits foes from the ground. Where its potential really lies is a tool for teaching, so friends can walk newcomers through the basics of base building and combat. If you're invested in StarCraft II's story already, you likely won't be disappointed by Legacy of the Void's tale. If you haven't played any form of StarCraft II yet and are intrigued by the prospect of another RTS, this is probably the strongest the game has ever been. It's a perfect time to jump in. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
StarCraft II review photo
My life for Aiur
When I last left StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, I had completed most of the story. Having now played it all, I've walked away satisfied, not only from this expansion, but from the series as a whole. Decades after its inception, Blizzard is still at the top of its class in terms of cinematic storytelling, and the new game modes don't hurt the appeal of the overall package in the slightest.

Review: Moco Moco Friends

Nov 11 // Chris Carter
Moco Moco Friends (3DS)Developer: RacjinPublisher: Aksys GamesMSRP: $39.99 (a portion of proceeds go to Make a Wish)Release Date: November 17, 2015 Moco Moco's main conceit lies with "Plushkins," which are described as "cute but violent" creatures who can only be controlled by witches. Moco, the titular witch, has just graduated. She wants to be the very best -- naturally -- and is on a quest to obtain the Stella Medal. That's all you're really getting in the way of a story, so be warned. Despite the shallow setup, the presentation is undeniable charming. Creatures are literally sentient stuffed animals, and the cast consists of characters like a dog who is afraid of going bald to a talking cat-head staff. Every character is so amazingly upbeat, including some of the adversaries, that you can't help but smile while playing. It helps that the in-game character models are well animated, but the artwork is generally faded, and the dialogue font just It's obviously translated for the English release, but all of the vocal work is raw Japanese -- which is fine by me, but may be jarring for others. Additionally, don't get your hopes up over the prospect of exploration. This is mostly a dungeon crawler. Most of the game's chapters consist of an errand or object that's found at the bottom of a dungeon, which can be accessed in list format in the hub world. It's fun, but repetitive, as most of the areas look the same and the mazes aren't all that complex. Rooms are linked in a box-like fashion with very little deviation, and enemies are visible on-screen, initiating a combat sequence if touched. You've seen this all before, I'm sure. [embed]320280:61075:0[/embed] Combat is thankfully a tad more nuanced. Each party member boasts a separate set of skills, which can range from offensive magic, to healing powers, to party buffs. Creatures also belong to a pool of elements, which counter each other in a rock, paper, scissors type fashion. Selecting abilities instantly using the d-pad or touch screen is a cinch, and the fast-forward button makes trash fights much more manageable. As time goes on, bosses start to get tougher, and while it never really reaches the point of becoming overly challenging, this is a pretty competent RPG all told. Once you return to the hub though, Moco's world starts to shrink back to size. There's a crafting station, item shop, and a garden that grows in real time, but that's about it. Players can use yarn to create new monsters, which is kind of cool (there's 120 to capture in all), but tedium will likely start to sink in after 10 hours or so when you delve into dungeon after dungeon. While I did enjoy acquiring new party members and items on a consistent basis, this isn't something I'd recommend playing for hours on end. Beyond the cute veneer, Moco Moco Friends is a slightly above average dungeon crawler with a decent crafting system and serviceable combat mechanic. At this point, there are so many better games to choose from, but if you can't get enough RPGs, Moco is ready and willing to accept your call. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Moco Moco Friends photo
Gotta sew them all
While the concept of catching cute monsters and battling them is innately linked to the iconic Pokémon series, I'm hesitant to plaster the word "clone" over similar games, as RPGs have had party-based systems for ...

Review: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (Patch 3.1)

Nov 11 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)Released: June 23, 2015 Whereas past patches tended to lead towards an epic conclusion with a pesky Primal, 3.1, As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness in many ways is a table-setting diversion. The brand new trial encounter (Knights of the Round EX) is not gated by the main story questline -- players can just pick that up from the Mor Dhona bar -- and the tale essentially consists of a series of errands and cutscenes, with only one instanced mission at the end. All said, it will take you roughly an hour to complete. It basically deals with locating missing comrades after the events of the story and has no real payoff other than furthering the Warrior of Darkness arc, which will likely slowly play out throughout the entire course of Heavensward, until another expansion comes around. That said, it still has a lot of personality. I enjoyed seeing the new cast interact with one another. The real star of this patch though is the new exploratory mission mode. Billed as an open-world sandbox, you're thrown into a randomly generated high-level zone with various objectives, including combat challenges and gathering activities. In a Guild Wars 2-like twist, players will share rewards and XP if they fight named creatures in this mode while encountering other parties, and everyone can contribute to objectives as a party.  The rewards are excellent, and the entire affair plays out like a giant randomized hunt. It's a rush to fly around with a bunch of strangers and locate targets, and killing a bunch of high-priority enemies will spawn newer, tougher bosses. While it's meant to be played as a group you can still solo queue for it, as long as you're okay with rolling greed for everything against everyone else. I played this more than anything else this patch and don't see myself getting tired of it. [embed]320086:61066:0[/embed] Players can also head into two new dungeons and the 24-person Void Ark raid, meant to mirror the Crystal Tower casual activities in vanilla Realm Reborn. I'm happy with how the two dungeons (Saint Mocianne's Arboretum and Pharos Sirius Hard) turned out. The developers have it down to a science now (the same goes for the new EX encounter, King Thordan, which is just as fun as every EX in the past, and perfectly tuned in terms of difficulty). Bosses are fun without being too tough for people just passing through in matchmaking, and the locations, although heavily gated to prevent speedrunning, are full of detail. While patches typically provide three new dungeons, I'm actually fine with a pair of them, and the trend of one new location and one remake is something I can get behind. The Void Ark is very similar in that regard, but it also provides a brand new arc, which I personally feel is stronger than Crystal Tower's. The encounters are a tad easier than the previous casual raids, which I'm starting to have mixed feelings about. I get that the philosophy is accessibility, but at the same time, I feel like the developers aren't preparing the player base for tougher activities, some of which support matchmaking tools. On the flipside, I'm a bit more invested in the story this time around, as they've weaved Diabolos into it, as well as another fan-favorite character from the series that I won't spoil here. So what else does 3.1 entail? A bunch of ancillary stuff. For one, you have the Vanu Vanu beast tribe quests, which will provide hardcore players with another faction to grind for. I was never big on the tribes as they felt far too repetitive for menial rewards, and only adding one tribe feels like a half-measure -- people will just grind it out in a few minutes and move on daily. The Gold Saucer also got a small update in the form of a new wing, two new mini-games, and the Lord of Verminion strategy game, as well as some new Triple Triad cards. I'm really glad the team is still pushing this zone, as it's the perfect place to go while you're waiting for queue times, or if you want to spend a few minutes in the game without doing anything important. No, Verminion isn't quite Pokémon, but it adds in another use for minions, and it's definitely fun enough to play a few times on a weekly basis. Other quality-of-life fixes are in, like the fact that the DualShock 4 is now plug and play on PC. There are new camera options, enhanced companion functionality like full support for other mounts, a small Ninja buff to bring them in line with other DPS, more flying mounts, and the ability to ride in Idyllshire. Another controversial change is the "solution" to the housing market -- demolition -- or as other MMOs call it, "decay." After 45 days, your house will be demolished, unless you log in and prevent it. It's...a very typical strategy for more hardcore games, but for a casual MMO like Final Fantasy, it feels out of place. I wish Square Enix would just fix the housing issue with bigger wards and more of them, but the developers haven't actually addressed it in months. All in all, I'm a bit conflicted on 3.1 I adore the exploratory missions, and find them to be one of my favorite gametypes in an MMO to date. The new dungeons (as well as the Void Ark) are strong, and the story, while brief, is engaging. But at the same time, this is clearly a catch-up patch, with the typical loop consisting of players grinding for Poetic Tomes to better face the existing Alexander Savage raid. Sadly, there's no new wing for Alexander, and most disappointing of all, the anticipated continuation of the Zodiac weapon questline is nowhere to be found, as it has been pushed to a later patch I'm not sure if As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness is enough to really pull anyone back in if they quit recently, but I'm having fun with it regardless. I can see myself doing the Void Ark weekly for the foreseeable future, and logging in regularly to do more exploratory missions. I just hope the team has more up its sleeve sooner than later. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Final Fantasy XIV photo
As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward was a tremendous expansion, all things considered. It brought in a whole new storyline that was worth getting invested in, new classes, and tons of additional activities including a raid. B...

Review: Rodea the Sky Soldier

Nov 09 // Chris Carter
Rodea the Sky Soldier (3DS, Wii, Wii U [reviewed])Developer: Kadokawa Games, PropePublisher: Kadokawa Shoten, NISMSRP: $39.99 (3DS) / $59.99 (Wii U with Wii edition for first-print copies)Released: April 2, 2015 (Japan), November 10, 2015 (US) Rodea is a strange, strange game. While the Wii version uses IR movement and is more in line with the creator's original vision, and the 3DS edition has even more differences, this assessment deals directly with the Wii U. This is a traditional single-player action game with RPG elements, most of which remind me of the golden age of JRPGs. You have your shonen hero (Rodea), a robot who has been stricken with amnesia at the start of the game, and must stop the evil Naga empire from taking over. Oh, there's one catch: his princess gave him an actual heart, so he's not a soulless machine. If you end up choosing the Japanese audio option, the narrative, while cheesy, is watchable. Where Rodea really spreads its wings is the open-ended flight gameplay, similar to Nights into Dreams. Within the confines of each semi-open level, Rodea can move around on foot, jump, hover, boost attack enemies, and blast off into the sky. The gist is that he has a limited flight time (it's actually rather generous), and once his meter is expended, he must either pivot off of a solid object, or land on the ground and start a new flight pattern. It's jarring at first, but it's easy to get the hang of after about 30 minutes, and you have a huge degree of freedom. Some of it is even automated (grabbing pickups, grinding wires), but never to the extreme degree of the 3D Sonic titles. Although the GamePad does support off-screen play, there's no need to even look at it, as the controls are entirely traditional on Wii U. The open design works both for and against Rodea. While it's amazing to look into the horizon at times and see areas you can readily explore, the draw distance is often so poor that it's tough to plot out a full course. Additionally, a lot of zones tend to blend together, with entire areas that have nothing more than empty plains seemingly unfinished. Rodea also starts to falter when it adds more elements to the mix beyond its core conceit. While the boost attack is fairly foolproof (it's a lot like the 3D Sonic games' homing attack), gunplay is shoehorned in. It isn't fun at all. The fact that the controls feel dated isn't entirely the player's fault, as the entire game feels like something out of last generation, and possibly even a generation before that. That's not to say Rodea doesn't sport a beautiful art style -- because it does -- just that occurrences like slowdown, pop-in, and occasional glitches are present more than they should be. Individual missions can get boring, but flying is always a joy, and bosses are often the highlight. They'll range from humanoid fights to giant hulking monstrosities, and both varieties are a blast while they last. This is a decently long affair, with over 25 levels, upgrades to purchase, and even a secret shop with extras like an additional mode. You can expect anywhere from 15-30 hours once everything is said and done. You rarely see things like this outside of DLC, so it's refreshing that the game feels so feature complete, even if it technically has three different versions in the end. Rodea the Sky Soldier really hits that sweet spot when it comes to evoking the wonder of flight, but the troubled developmental process is tangible in the final build. For those of you who can stomach older experiences however, you'll likely overlook some of its issues and find a lot to love. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Rodea review photo
A rusted robot with a heart
The history of Rodea the Sky Soldier is one muddled with platform changes and developmental issues galore. Originally slated as a Wii game in 2010, producer Yuji Naka ran into publishing troubles, and the project was ess...

Review: Just Dance 2016

Nov 09 // Caitlin Cooke
Just Dance 2016 (Xbox One [reviewed], Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Wii)Developer: UbisoftPublisher: UbisoftMSRP: $49.99 (Just Dance Unlimited streaming service is an additional $6.99/month, 39.99/year)Release Date: October 20, 2015  In addition to the usual modes in the Just Dance series there are a few new ones present to provide different offerings to newcomers and spice things up a bit for seasoned players. Along with the normal competitive Dance Party mode, you can now play cooperatively with other players and work together to reach a high score. Dance Quest is also new, showcasing an interesting concept where you compete against a robot leaderboard and move through the ranks in a set playlist. World Video Challenge allows players to compete with people from around the world in a pre-recorded environment, and Showtime is the most different of the bunch, essentially allowing players to participate in glorified karaoke. Perhaps one of the most useful features to be carried over from Just Dance 2015 is the ability to play the game without a Kinect by holding your smartphone, and allowing up to six players to join in. The Kinect seems to be a forgotten accessory these days as the game no longer supports menu navigation through Kinect, rather players need to use the controller to scroll through. I find this to be a win in my book as I never felt as if it did a good enough job of tracking navigation anyway. The phone navigation is fairly smooth overall but with a limited interface compared to using the controller. I also found the phone tracking buggy at times and even less reliable than using the Kinect to play. For example, if my phone had some kind of notification (like a low battery indicator) go off, it paused the game mid-dance. This caused a lot of frustration since I didn’t really feel like disabling notifications every time I turned the game on. However, I do feel the added flexibility of allowing smartphone play is worth it overall and I’m glad they included it again. Unfortunately the meat of the game, the song list, is lackluster. Recent hits seem sparse, and the variety of genres and time periods also seem to be missing. A majority of the music combs sub-par top hits from the past five years, with only a few one-off gems out of the bunch. I would have liked to see more hits from the '80s and '90s, or at the least better songs from recent years. The choreography for the most part seems lacking across the board with a few exceptions. Perhaps it’s impossible to raise the bar here with six other versions behind its back, or maybe it's betting on the unlimited streaming service to fill the gaps. Some of the dances stand out -- for example, in “Under the Sea” you mimic Ariel and have to sit down, using arm movements and moving your “fins” to the beat. There are also a few interesting choices that mix the game up including a kung-fu style choreographed segment, an Irish dance, and a song featuring Hatsune Miku. These are the high points of the game, especially if you love making your friends dance to silly songs. Outside of this, it’s standard pop fare. The new Showtime mode isn’t much to talk about unless you enjoy humiliating your friends, in which case it’s a complete masterpiece. There is no set choreography, just pure singing and forming your own dance moves to an effects-driven video filled with overlays. It’s not something I enjoyed doing on my own, but watching friends go through it was delightful. I do however wish it offered more songs as you can only pick from a handful -- I suppose designing those overlays and graphics takes a lot of time. The game overall feels a bit limited -- despite all of the new modes, it doesn’t seem very open in terms of what you can do. For example, the Showtime and other video uploads only show a few brief clips from other players around the world, and there isn’t really any way to sort or find new videos -- it only shows you what’s popular and what’s most recent. I was also disappointed that Dance Quest mode, although a bright concept, was extremely limited in that you’re dancing against robot scores (not real people) and you’re not able to create playlists or jump around to different quests. Despite my qualms, I had fun playing Just Dance 2016 -- but then again, it’s hard not to. It’s still a favored party game and one that has almost perfected the fun-for-all game model. Heck, it’s reached a point where it’s thrown in some mediocre new modes and a subscription model just to keep itself fresh, so in some cases you can call this a success. However you can also say that Just Dance is a dying breed, one that is taking its last breath to capitalize on the streaming craze that’s enveloped our little gaming world. I say we don’t think about it too deeply, and just dance. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Just Dance 2016 photo
I've had a little bit too much (much)
Yes, another Just Dance -- the seventh in the series -- has arrived. This latest edition is no exception to the usual hallmarks that defines the series with its ease of accessibility and colorful party atmosphere. It hol...

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider

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

Review: Fallout 4

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

Review: The Age of Decadence

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

Review: Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth

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

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III

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

Review: Yo-Kai Watch

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

Review: Need for Speed

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

Review: Kingdom

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

Review: Poncho

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

Review: Mushihimesama

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

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