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Review: Metal Gear Online

Oct 09 // Chris Carter
Metal Gear Online (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Kojima ProductionsPublisher: KonamiRelease: October 6, 2015 (Consoles), TBA 2016 (PC)Price: $59.99 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) $49.99 (PS3, Xbox 360) / Included with MGSV As previously mentioned, Metal Gear Online only has three modes currently. There's a decent amount of variety within those gametypes, but the issue is how everything is playing out right now in the game's meta. In essence, players often aren't using any form of stealth (outside of Cloak and Dagger, which forces one team to do it), or aren't going for the objectives in general. Instead, most games end up being slugfests and devolve into team deathmatch situations. That's not to say that these basic strategies aren't handily countered by players who have the know-how, it's just what's happening. While it's not wholly the fault of the designers, Metal Gear Online doesn't do a great job of facilitating objective play, as the whole thing is kind of a laissez faire situation. That both excites and concerns me. On one hand, I love that MGO is just as vague as Phantom Pain. Instead of spelling out every facet for players, you'll have to just figure out everything on your own, from advanced tactics to the best way to counter enemies. On the other, I'm not confident in Konami's ability to effectively police and update the game in the slightest. It's very possible that there could be a ton of content from Kojima's team waiting to be pushed out in waves over the course of the next year. But since this is all speculation, we only have what's currently in MGO to assess, and it's lacking in areas, chiefly how servers are handled -- or, I should actually note, a lack of servers. It seems as if the game is P2P based, which creates all sorts of issues for players. First off, hosts can remove people from the game, and if they disconnect, everyone gets booted with no XP or rewards. It's egregious to say the least, and not something you really see in a major shooter in 2015. [embed]314621:60673:0[/embed] Then you have issues like the party system not actually placing you on the same team as your party constantly, or the basic inability to join a friend's game in progress through a quick menu option. Thankfully the microtransaction element hasn't bled through for MGO (yet?), but cosmetic equipment is too expensive currently, as it would take hundreds of games to earn some of the higher-up rewards. I would be more okay with the expensive price of gear if the aforementioned booting issues were rectified with dedicated servers. Now, the gameplay is still superb. That's due in part to the fact that it's literally Phantom Pain, online, which is completely fine by me. Every movement is fluid, gunplay handles like a dream, and the sheer flexibility of the engine makes for some breathtaking moments. Aiming, running, and dolphin diving feels better than pretty much every shooter on the market right now. It's crazy how it feels like a natural extension of my adventures with Venom Snake, and how all of my training instantly pays off online. When you distill it down to individual matches, Metal Gear Online is just fun to play. You can boot up a session, and provided that you don't have any connection issues, generally enjoy yourself, even if a lot of people are ignoring objectives. It's a rush to use stealth effectively and have an enemy run by your prone body completely, then dash up to them, choke them out, and Fulton them. Getting to use the Snake and Ocelot special loadouts from time to time is a joy as well, as are all of the little Easter eggs and details locked within MGO. I've seen a lot of complaints that the Walkers are overpowered, but I've found them easy to deal with. Not only are they incredibly easy to spot (and show up on the radar), but they can be swiftly taken out with a quick sniper shot or a few well-placed bullets. Plus, both sides get them, so it's not like one team is at a disadvantage -- people just need to learn how to counter them. For the most part I don't think balance is an issue for MGO -- it's the technical side that drags things down. Even though we don't review what might be (could you imagine how cool it would be to see co-op Metal Gear missions? Now we may never see the day), I'm still torn with the current state of Metal Gear Online. I wouldn't necessarily recommend picking up the entire Metal Gear Solid V package just for online play, as it still has a lot to prove. I'm pulling for it to get better, but I don't trust Konami.
Metal Gear Online photo
It's not over yet, Snake
I've spent a considerable amount of time this week with Metal Gear Online, and despite my initial positive impressions, I'm having some big-picture issues. In short, I'm not sure how long this train is going to be chugging along, especially when you take Konami's recent history into account.

Review: Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash

Oct 08 // Ben Davis
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash (3DS)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoReleased: October 9, 2015MSRP: $29.99 In Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash, pint-sized aliens have invaded Earth, stealing resources along with everyone's favorite snacks, and it's up to Chibi-Robo and his partner Telly (who is now shaped like a computer) to save the day. Chibi-Robo will travel the globe, putting a stop to the aliens' plans and rescuing any snacks he might come across (all based on real name-brand snacks and candies from around the world). To navigate the areas around him, Chibi-Robo uses his plug as a whip to destroy enemies, collect items, grapple onto certain surfaces, or helicopter across pits. The plug can ricochet off of walls as well, opening up a lot of possibilities for interesting platforming as the player tries to angle the perfect shot in order to reach distant objects. The cord starts off rather short at a measly 6 inches at the beginning of each level, but it can be lengthened up to 120 inches by collecting blue orbs. [embed]314129:60631:0[/embed] Aside from the plug mechanics, there are plenty of jumping sections, puzzles to solve, enemy hordes to destroy, items to collect, and even a few levels which have Chibi-Robo skateboarding, wakeboarding, and traveling by balloon to reach the end. There are also some pretty cool boss fights to round out each world. Just looking at the platforming mechanics alone, Zip Lash is a perfectly competent entry to the genre. Each world changes things up with new ideas and interesting layouts, so that the gameplay doesn't become stale too quickly. Once again, Chibi-Robo's health is indicated by his power supply, which slowly depletes as he's moving around and decreases significantly if he falls into a pit or gets hit by an enemy. He can recharge at any outlet by inserting his plug, which will cost a few watts (watts are earned by recycling trash). He can also buy spare batteries as a backup. For the completionist gamers out there, each level is filled with several hidden collectibles to find, including the aforementioned name-brand snacks, special medallions, Chibi-Tots playing hide-and-seek, toys to talk to, and trash to clean up and convert into energy. If something is missed the first time through, levels can be replayed in order to search more thoroughly, but only after certain conditions are met. Which brings me to my least favorite aspect of Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash. Most platforming games like this feature a map with each level laid out on a path, which are then played sequentially. Zip Lash tries to subvert this common feature by implementing the "Destination Wheel." After each level, Chibi-Robo will spin the wheel to select a number. This number determines the amount of spaces he'll move on the map, which in turn determines the next level to play even if it's not the next level in the sequence. Once every level on a map has been discovered and beaten, the player can then proceed to the next map. Basically, this means that most people will be playing the levels out of order, which could have been a neat idea. The problem, however, is that maps are laid out in a circle, and if the player loops around and lands on a level they have already played, they will be forced to play it over again in order to proceed and pick another level. Because of this, this one simple idea of the Destination Wheel single-handedly demolished my excitement for Zip Lash. Being forced to replay levels due to bad luck is not a fun mechanic. The only reason I can think of for this to exist in its current state would be to artificially extend the game's length, and that's not something I can get behind. They even included a separate wheel to spin for boss levels, which is completely pointless and a waste of time as there's only one space on the entire wheel. The Boss Wheel might have been a funny joke if the Destination Wheel wasn't already such an annoyance. Granted, there are ways to sort of bypass the wheel. Wheel numbers can be purchased with moolah (the in-game currency) so that the player will be more likely to land on a number they want. It's also possible to get more than one spin, assuming the player was skilled enough to hit the gold or silver flying saucers at the end of the last level. Finally, once every level has been beaten and the world has been cleared, players will no longer have to spin the wheel for that world and can freely select whichever level they wish. If only it were possible to do that from the start... Unfortunately, the Destination Wheel wasn't the only problem I had with Zip Lash. As if being forced to replay levels due to poor spinning wasn't enough, certain areas of each level will only become accessible after the levels have been completed. These areas are totally optional and are only used for the chance to obtain costumes for Chibi-Robo (which can also be obtained by finding codes posted on Miiverse), but it still sucks to have to replay every level again, possibly for a third time or more if the player is really unlucky, just to find everything. I also had some problems with the lack of checkpoints during the skateboard/wakeboard segments, but that seems like a comparatively small issue next to everything else. All that wheel nonsense sadly soured Zip Lash for me, which is a huge shame because almost everything else about the game is fun and charming. The new platforming mechanics work well, the boss fights are exciting, and Chibi-Robo himself is as cute as always. I would have been content with this game had it not been for the awful Destination Wheel. If you're a die-hard Chibi-Robo! fan, or if the possibility of having to replay the same levels over and over again doesn't bother you too much, then Zip Lash might be for you. Unfortunately, it's tough for me to give this game a good recommendation after the frustrating time I had with it. I still love you, Chibi-Robo, but this was not your best effort! [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Chibi-Robo review photo
Poor little robot...
I've been a fan of Chibi-Robo! ever since the original was released for the GameCube back in 2006. It was a weird, adorable adventure game with a tiny robot who was tasked with cleaning up an enormous house, with happy musica...

Review: Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax

Oct 07 // Kyle MacGregor
Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax (PS Vita, PS3 [reviewed])Developer: French Bread, Ecole Software, SegaPublisher: SegaReleased: November 13, 2014 (JP), October 6, 2015 (NA, EU)MSRP: $29.99 (PS Vita), $39.99 (PS3) Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax has the appearance of a hardcore fighting game, and it certainly has the pedigree, coming from Melty Blood and Under Night In-Birth team French Bread and Ecole Software, but both looks and lineage can be deceiving. Here, the studios (along with their Sega-employed producers and associates at Kadokawa) aimed to deliver a more accessible experience than their previous work, something less impenetrable to the average person than the Guilty Gears or Street Fighters of the world. It's a noble idea. For as enjoyable and well-made as Arc System Works and Capcom's projects are, they are incredibly complex affairs. The barrier to entry with these games is much higher than, say, Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. series, which is more easily enjoyed by newcomers, despite its potential for high-level play. Fighting Climax tries to occupy a similar space, striving to create a middle ground, an intermediate that can appeal to fighting game enthusiasts of all stripes. In attempting to do so, Fighting Climax strips away many of the genre's more byzantine subtleties, while adding tools to facilitate absorption. There are no elaborate inputs here, not by traditional fighting game standards, anyway. The most difficult commands involve quarter-circle and half-circle movements, which makes executing special moves or "climax arts" relatively straightforward without reducing the gameplay experience to something oversimplified or wading into button-mashing territory. Well, that is aside from the auto-combo feature, which allows players to string together a reasonably powerful series of moves merely by hammering on the light attack button repeatedly. It's a concession to beginners, providing a mechanism to chain together a barrage of attacks, but its use is limited, preventing it from being a substitute for actual skill. Also more simplistic than a typical fighting game are the inputs, which are identical across the entire roster. The 14 main fighters, from Toradora's Taiga and Asuna of Sword Art Online fame to the unlockable Selvaria of Valkyria Chronicles and Virtua Fighter's Akira, all have the same commands for their basics attacks, special moves, impact skills, and supers. This makes picking up a new character easy, but weakens the roster considerably. Since every fighter is essentially cut from the same cloth, Fighting Climax doesn't foster as wide a variety of play styles or combat strategies as do its genre peers. And aesthetically, while every character has unique animations based on the source material, most of them fall into the "waifu" female lead archetype, exacerbating the sense of redundancy and lack of diversity present in the mechanics. There's some depth to be found in the assist system, with 23 support characters to choose between and a wide array of support and offensive moves to augment your fighter's innate abilities. These can be used mid-combo at the cost of meter to lay on some added hurt or topple your opponent, or just in normal situations with a cooldown to disrupt or punish other competitors. While assist characters accent the roster, they highlight a myriad of unique figures in the Dengeki Bunko catalogue that would have made for more compelling choices than several of the leading ladies. While everyone will have their own favorites, I was particularly disappointed to see Spice and Wolf's lupine goddess Holo relegated to a supporting role. The stages are also an odd choice, drawing inspiration from a number of Sega franchises (Sonic the Hedgehog, Shinobi, Virtua Fighter, NiGHTS, and Phantasy Star Online among others), rather than the non-Sega worlds the vast majority of the cast is drawn from. While this makes sense in terms of the scant narrative the title's story modes offer, it's curious move on Sega's part to impose itself to such a degree in a game made primarily for fans of Dengeki Bunko's light novels and their anime adaptations.  There is some fan service to be found in the story modes, though, where players get to see characters from various universes interact with one another in cute little vignettes. Beyond that, Fighting Climax offers a bog-standard suite of features fighting game enthusiasts should be familiar with -- a spartan training mode, versus mode, a trio of challenge modes, plus ranked and unranked online versus. Most of it is handled fairly well, but, while I have no major complaints, nothing is terribly exceptional either. French Bread is a talented maker of fighting games, giving the experience a high floor, but this is not the studio's best work. It's perfectly competent, but feels like a major step down from the outstanding Under Night In-Birth, even if the titles were made for different audiences.  While decent enough, Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax may be too simplistic for most hardcore fighting game fans to enjoy as anything more than an ephemeral lark, but is also perhaps still too complex for those that find the genre intimidating. It feels like another instance of game designers shaving off any sharp corners in an attempt to please as many people as possible. Fighting Climax shows a clear reticence to take risks, and its failure to do so betrays its potential to become truly remarkable or distinctive. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Dengeki Fighting Climax photo
Identity Crisis
Teenagers are in a strange point in their lives. No longer children, but not quite yet adults, adolescents exist in an uncomfortable grey area, a metamorphic state that compels them to forge identities independent of their gu...

Review: Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below

Oct 07 // Chris Carter
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below (PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developers: Omega ForcePublisher: Square EnixReleased: October 13, 2015 (US), February 26, 2015 (JP)MSRP: $59.99 Following a very cool opening cinematic, you're greeted with the same iconic designs from Akira Toriyama that we've all come to love over the years -- yes, this might be an Omega Force game, but it's still a Dragon Quest joint. The visual style has translated excellently to this new endeavor, and although I'm sure some will find the realistic regalia meshed with bright goofy enemies jarring at times, it looks even better in action. It's great to see the timeless designs for enemies like the skeletons and slimes still hold up. There's also a lot of detail present, such as the aforementioned skeletons taking off their heads, or golems losing their bricks at times. The writing and story however, are very basic and not indicative of the typical Dragon Quest experience. There's plenty of fun puns (a slime says things like "Goo and help him" a lot) so it is charming, but the dialogue itself never really has any chance to evolve from start to finish. What you see in the first 30 minutes or so is what you get, and it follows the same sort of heroes' "ragtag band" journey schematic throughout. It is a hack and slash game after all, but I expected a bit more. Getting right into the action, players are presented with two control schemes -- one is a standard Warriors setup, and the other literally allows players to mash one-button combos with ease. Given that you can choose between these and a male or female main character to start, new players will relish how easy it is to acclimate. Said combo system takes its cue from Warriors in that specific rotations of light and heavy will lead into new moves (such as a wave-clearing area-of-effect or a vertical launcher), but there's more variance here than meets the eye when it comes to weapon nuance. For instance, swords can parry, staffs impact a wide area, and then there's all sorts of outliers like boomerangs, fisticuffs, whips, axes, bows, deadly fans, and magic. If you're curious, yes some fan favorite characters pop up, ranging from heroes who appeared in Dragon Quest IV through VIII. Players can also block, make use of a fully-featured jump (not just a useless hop), and utilize a rather generous dodge in addition to the classic Musuo power mode after charging up. [embed]312829:60648:0[/embed] Due to the exaggerated nature of the dodge, it makes the proceedings a bit more action-oriented than a lot of games in the past, and leads to a less rigid style of gameplay. Plus, using Musuo mode when combined with Toriyama's designs basically turns you into a Super Saiyan. You can also get more advanced with air dashing, double-jumping, summoning minions (which can go into offensive or defensive mode), party member toggling, and queuing up spells both in combat and in non-action sequences. As for the AI who follows you into battle (there's a real-time party switching element with L2), not enough work was done considering that it's a rather essential element. The AI is mostly involved with the battles at hand, sure, but they tend to loiter far too often, and it can take you out of the game. Maybe it's to actually entice you to switch more often to fire them up, but I wish there were a Gambit system of some sort that allowed you to control their general actions. It's not just the party system that makes Heroes feel like a real RPG though, as the game sports a world map, a pretty deep stat and customization mechanic, skill trees, and shops. You're free to upgrade your armor, magic, and items, and visit the alchemist to create and synthesize new gear. Players can also chat with their party at the bar, use the church to pray and save the game, and eventually get an airship. The sidequests feel right at home and like an authentic Dragon Quest game, and trophies reward players directly -- a system more developers should implement. But while sidequests are generally fun, missions are shorter battles that are often a bit too linear. In other Warriors games you're usually completing multiple objectives on large, sprawling maps with plenty of side areas, but here in Heroes they feel more like arenas that sometimes only span a few screens. Thankfully the bosses are more involved as a result, sometimes featuring flying enemies or multi-foe fights. I won't spoil them here but suffice to say they all have strategies and weak points to discover, and are sufficiently formidable. You'll need to actually switch between party members and think tactically. Alongside of the more bite-sized quest structure though is a complete lack of multiplayer. Yep, that's right -- there's no split-screen or online play of any kind. Whereas it was easy to introduce people into the world of Zelda with some co-op Hyrule Warriors sessions, Heroes is definitely a tougher sell, as the vast majority of Warriors games are shipped with heavy multiplayer elements for a reason. It does have all of the current DLC from Japan bundled in though, which is a plus. Dragon Quest Heroes almost feels like a fully-fledged action RPG, but there are a few things holding it back from greatness. In the end though it still has its charms, alongside of a beautiful art style and a buttery smooth framerate. If you really dig Warriors games and can go at it solo, you'll likely enjoy it.
Dragon Quest review photo
That name though
Close your eyes. Imagine you're stuck on a deserted island for a year -- yes, in this situation, a year is a certainty. If you could only have one game with you for that entire period (and have a working power source, bear wi...

Review: Transformers Devastation

Oct 06 // Chris Carter
Transformers Devastation (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developers: Platinum GamesPublisher: ActivisionReleased: October 6, 2015 MSRP: $49.99 So let's get right into the thick of it -- the action. As you'd expect from Platinum Games, Devastation has a sound bedrock, with a combination of ranged and close-combat maneuvers. Basic abilities include trigger-based aiming, a combo system with light and heavy attacks, a super button, and of course, the power to transformer at will into various vehicles. Combos can even involve transformations on the fly (signified by a blue light with a short window), a slam move can be initiated by transforming mid-air, ranged attacks are capable of headshots, and attacking at top speed breaks enemy shields. As you can see, there's a lot of advanced mechanics at work here. The most technical of all abilities includes the addition of Witch Time (frame-perfect dodging that slows time), a concept taken wholesale from Platinum's own Bayonetta, which I'm totally okay with. Everything feels incredibly smooth. The combos available are just enough to keep action veterans interested without overwhelming newer players. With three difficulty levels to choose from (appropriately balanced, mind -- with three at the start, and two more later), there's something for everyone. Other small touches like NPCs frequently fighting alongside of the player character, 2D sections, and vehicular-based chases or race segments help break up the combat a bit. There's a light amount of exploration involved within Devastation's mission-based structure, similar to most of Platinum's previous work. It's mostly linear, but at various points spokes of that linear wheel will break off, allowing for some form of deviation. That includes conspicuous gates that lead to new chests, or short twitch-based puzzles that provide a reward at the end. I actually really dig this flow, as you can skip a lot of combat sequences if you wish -- just note that many zones will wall off areas until you defeat all the foes within, so you can't just rush through the whole game. [embed]314115:60629:0[/embed] Much to my surprise, all of the playable characters have different styles. Grimlock is more of a grappler, Bumblebee is quicker and doesn't pack a punch, Sideswipe has access to a quicker dash, and so on. They're not wildly different to the point where you'll have to relearn every single facet of the game, but they're nuanced enough that there's actually a reason to pick different Autobots. Devastation also sports an appropriate Saturday morning cartoon narrative that would fit nicely into an afternoon special block. The voices are either spot-on replications (including the campy Teletraan-1), or actual members of the original cast. The gist is that Megatron is yet again after another massive power source, and it's up to the Autobots to save the day -- so don't expect anything new here -- but again, the nonstop action helps propel players from start to finish. There are a few shortcomings, though. For starters, the game is priced at $50, and feels somewhere in-between a full retail release and a downloadable game. There's a lot to sift through here, but I could have gone for more characters, secrets, and unlockable modes (a challenge mode is basically it). Additionally, the RPG systems in place feel like a half-measure, particularly the loot system. While the equippable upgrade chips are a nice touch (and are coupled with a fun little crafting mini-game), managing loot is a nightmare. Throughout each mission, you'll likely acquire something in the neighborhood of 10 weapons, most of which are garbage or only marginally better than what you're using. To really take advantage of these duds, you'll have to synthesize them into better parts, but it's far too much of a chore to do that constantly when you can just forge ahead to more action. The loot system should have been scrapped entirely or pared down far more than its current incarnation. While not a deal-breaker, it could have been handled a lot better. I'm not even sure if there are G1 fans out there anymore. It shouldn't be a deciding factor when picking up Transformers: Devastation though, as it's a great action romp by any right. Just be ready to deal with a few nitpicky issues.
Transformers review photo
None shall fall
I've been a fan of Transformers since I was old enough to understand what television was. The bright colors and toy lines drew me in, but I've been a fan ever since. It's not merely nostalgia that fuels that fire -- it's...

Review: Skyhill

Oct 06 // Stephen Turner
Skyhill (PC) Developers: Mandragora Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment Released: October 6, 2015 MSRP: $14.99 One man’s late-night extravagance ends up being his good fortune as Perry Jason’s penthouse suite shields him from a biological attack. Every guest and staff worker is transformed into a bloodthirsty mutant, leaving him the only human seemingly left alive. But without supplies and a wife lost to the city, he has no choice but to venture down 100 floors to escape this hotel-turned-house of horrors. Sounds easy, right? If only he wasn't already starving to death and in need of some makeshift weapons. Skyhill has the look of a horror game, but it’s a light RPG/roguelike/survival game at heart. You scavenge for food and items, combine ingredients for better supplies, all the while keeping an eye on your increasing hunger pains. It's not a scary game, especially with the comic book horror presentation, but it does an excellent job of handing the tension over to the player and their decisions. Every new floor is a gamble, every consumable carries short-term and long-term effects, and every push downward has to be thought out in advance. Essentially, Skyhill is about knowing when to hold and when to fold. [embed]313976:60617:0[/embed] Starting off in the VIP Room, which also serves as an upgradable home base, you work your way through each floor to reach the lobby (the end goal). Movement is done through a simple click on a room, but every location depletes a point from the hunger bar. Finding food is always the top priority; without it, movement depletes the health bar instead. Much of Skyhill is spent yo-yoing up and down the eponymous building, collecting random items, taking them back to the VIP room to craft better upgrades, then venturing back down to your last location. It might sound like a chore, but it's actually quite effective at creating an air of desperation; pushing forward due to a lack of supplies or a regained purpose. If you’ve played any survival games before, you’ll know what to expect from Skyhill’s crafting system. The tier system is easy to use, and it always tells you the items you need or already own. But keeping a hold of higher-tier items is a challenge, as you’ll always come across an elevator shaft that needs fixing with a certain item that you just created for something else. The same difficult choices happen with food supplies, too; eat the basics now for a short-term boost, or hold out to make bigger meal later on. It’s always a tough call. Of course, Skyhill wouldn't be a horror game without combat. Due to cramped environments onscreen, the game opts for turned-based attacks and statistics. Each mutant type has 2-3 body parts to attack, but the more damage you can inflict, the less likely you are to hit. Players can level up their stats – damage, speed, dexterity, and accuracy – by gaining XP after every fight. Though, honestly, the RPG elements don't really change up the combat, say, beyond landing more hits, and both end up becoming Skyhill’s weaker elements in the second half. Without an option to dodge (though you can retreat), combat is always tit-for-tat, and whoever gets the best string of hits wins. If there was ever a perfect representation of Skyhill’s negative traits, it would be found in the building itself; a rinse-and-repeat of exploration between two rooms and a stairwell. Skyhill never evolves, even close to the ground floor, preferring instead to throw more mutant attacks in the way. The only reason the final 50 floors are tougher is because they're more of a drain on resources; just more of the same without the breather. Still, Skyhill manages to be a decent stab at survivalist horror; rightfully using certain mechanics to avoid an even lesser game. It’s hard to imagine the combat working in real time due to the tiny spaces, or that if every room were visually more complex, it would lead to some tiresome pixel hunting. In a way, Skyhill is economical in what it does, even if it means being the old double-edged sword. That said, when you get right down to the core of it, see how the elements work in your favour or conspire against you, Skyhill admirably creates this tense game of hubris and courage, one that never lets up until you escape or, far more likely, die. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review photo
'We're on an express elevator to hell!'
100 floors up, countless mutants on the way down, and only one way out of town. No, this isn’t your average council estate in Swansea. This is Skyhill.

Review: NHL 16

Oct 06 // Brett Makedonski
NHL 16 (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: EA CanadaPublisher: EA SportsRelease: September 15, 2015MSRP: $59.99 In a genre plagued by incremental increases, this is NHL 16's greatest offering: An on-ice trainer that goes above and beyond. Hockey is a sport that's notorious for its inaccessibility to newcomers. Putting the biscuit in the basket is easy enough to understand, but where should my forwards be positioned when in the defensive zone? What kind of check should I execute when skating backward toward my goal? This training aid helps refine gameplay on-the-fly. It kind of teaches hockey, but more importantly, it teaches how to play NHL 16. For instance, when skating into the offensive zone, a cone will appear that indicates what part of the shooting lane is open and what part is blocked. A target may show up in the corner of the goal to tell you the smartest place to aim. Or, when playing defense, a box will cordon off part of the ice at your zone. Sticking to this area and covering the man in the box is what you're supposed to do. That's how hockey is played; NHL 16, simulation of hockey as it is, wants you to play it just like hockey. Those are two examples, but this on-ice trainer permeates every second of gameplay until you don't want it to anymore. It's a good thing too. I imagine EA had grown tired of players wildly out of position trying to line up huge hits. That's not how hockey looks, and it's not how a digital representation of the game should look. [embed]314010:60626:0[/embed] To its credit, the trainer doesn't stick to a low-level understanding of hockey. If it detects a seasoned player is at the helm, it'll start to adapt so as to offer more nuanced and advanced suggestions. Basically, everyone has something they can learn from this feature and it's incredibly unintrusive despite constantly being on the screen. It's the best part of NHL 16 because it actually enforces an understanding of doing what you're doing. The rest? Well, it's what NHL 15 should've been. Maybe it's unfair to hearken back to a previous game as a reference point, but fuck it. We make the rules around here. The on-ice product in NHL 16 is again solid and it includes the modes that last year's game should have shipped with. The actual hockey-playing in NHL 16 feels extremely similar to NHL 15. There are surely some physics and AI tweaks making ever-desired strides toward realism, but they feel mostly nominal. The game still plays well outside of the occasional rare physics bug. And this. Whatever the hell that was. With regard to the modes, they were mostly done right this time 'round. Be a Pro allows the simulation of shifts until it's your time to hit the ice again. (Curiously, the coach-assigned goals and ratings often seem off. Like, how do I have two goals and an assist, but a "C" ranking on offense for the game?) Likewise, the EA Sports Hockey League has been largely straightened out. Gone are the days of maxing out player skill through real-world currency. Now, everyone has to define their aptitude via a class of player that they pick. It's a smart design decision for the game's leading cooperative mode -- not to mention a surprisingly ungreedy one. Be a GM rounds out the most interesting modes that NHL 16 has to show. In it, you eschew the skates for a suit and tie. You're in control of an NHL franchise, and it's up to you to trade, manage, and motivate players. Games are simulated via a coach's drawing board where major events become markers like a "G" for a goal scored. The fascinating facet of Be a GM lies within the morale system. It's a bit paper-thin, but NHL 16 asks you to make unique speech decisions for different players. Over time, you learn what motivates your guys. Your star's ego might be too fragile for you to just outright yell at him; you may have to baby him instead. NHL 16 isn't perfect, but it's a substantial improvement over what released last year. Mind you, that's not some sheer brilliance; it's just because of general competence. The NHL franchise seems back on track, and it has even introduced the wonderful on-ice trainer. But, that trainer aside, it's tough to shake the feeling that NHL has just caught up instead of innovating. EA Sports spent this iteration making up ground. It was a necessary move, but not one that instills confidence that the developer has grown comfortable with the generational shift in consoles. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
NHL 16 review photo
Training wheels
In the mandatory initial matchup in NHL 16, I was forced to choose between last year's Stanley Cup Final contenders. I had to back either the Chicago Blackhawks who I very much dislike, or the Tampa Bay Lightning who I am ver...

Review: Armikrog

Oct 06 // Caitlin Cooke
Armikrog (PC)Developer: Pencil Test StudiosPublisher: Versus EvilReleased: September 30, 2015MSRP: $29.99 The game opens with a spectacular bang, showcasing an animated sequence of our hero Tommynaut and his sidekick Beak Beak crash landing into Armikrog, a strange complex on planet Spiro 5. Within its walls there are puzzles to explore, secrets to unlock, and history to discover as Tommy and Beak Beak make their way through the desolate alien buildings full of various oddities to find a way home. From the onset Armikrog contains the charming, silly humor you’d expect from a TenNapel game, and of course throwback themes that reference The Neverhood. Gameplay rests on your ability to explore and figure things out on your own, moving from room to room collecting items that will come into play later. The age-old point-and-click rule of thumb “click on literally everything” especially rings true as each area contains various puzzles which you (hopefully) put together to make it through to the next building in the complex. There’s not much life to Armikrog save for a few adorable fuzzy blocks, raptor-like creatures on wheels, and alien octopi who speak in a strange tongue – but it’s up to you to figure out why. A statue of a wise-looking man appears in different rooms from time to time and talks to you in a whimsical manner imparting general advice, but that’s about the most interaction you’ll have besides chatting with Beak Beak. Just like being in The Neverhood, for the most part, you’re on your own. At any given time you can switch between controlling Tommy and Beak Beak with a simple click. Beak Beak’s abilities allow him to fit into small doors and occasionally fly around which prove useful when finding various items, however that’s generally the extent of the dual-character system. Tommy doesn’t really have any special abilities going for him (besides being the protagonist, if that counts). It’s fairly obvious when you need to use Tommy vs. Beak Beak, like when a button needs to be pressed or stood on, but the tricky part is understanding the order of when these things need to happen as contextual clues are virtually non-existent. The gameplay mechanics are quite simple since there’s not much to the action besides clicking on things and moving from room to room, however it’s the complication of the controls which may throw players off. Old-school game logic is very much prevalent – I often took an extremely long time to figure something out only to realize I wasn’t in the exact spot for it to trigger. There were also moments when the opposite was true, and actions were far too fluid – like a traveling cart that can send you flying in various directions if you’re not careful. Puzzles range from straightforward to insanely obtuse, and there were a few interesting ones in between that hit the sweet spot. I particularly enjoyed a music-based puzzle that popped up from time to time which had me placing little adorable nursery toys in a certain order. For the most part, puzzles rely on your ability to keep track of certain themes and recall various symbols and patterns throughout your journey. Unless you want to rely on GameFAQs, keeping a notebook and pen handy are pretty much key. Armikrog didn’t hold my hand and indicate what I’d done right or wrong, so blindly guessing and forging through by clicking around was a common strategy. I found myself backtracking through rooms multiple times to see if I had missed anything, but more often than not I just had a general misunderstanding or difficulty navigating puzzles. Some puzzles have a distinct or unclear order to them that won't register if done incorrectly. I also had trouble with certain color-specific puzzles – some feature yellow and orange, or blue and purple pieces that I found to be nearly indistinguishable from each other. Those who have a hard time with colors may have difficulty getting through these puzzles as well. The lack of an inventory, although a callback to The Neverhood, was still something sorely needed. After picking up an item, Tommy puts it into his stomach, and it’s never to be seen again save for when you click on the correct place on the screen. I would often forget which items were on hand, making it hard to connect the dots when the time came. There were also a few outdated choices in terms of the interface – the manual save/load function is ancient, the cursor is plain without indicating what can be interacted with and how, to name a few. I believe Armikrog aimed to be specifically old school in this sense, but it was a tad frustrating. Whether these choices were intentionally nostalgic or not, it got in the way of actual gameplay. Armikrog could use a bit more tightening in general. Subtitles were inaccurate to the point that it was fun for me just to turn them on and see what dialogue was meant to be in the game originally. However, the biggest offender was the bugginess around puzzles. At some points, they wouldn’t trigger correctly – for example after feeding a bug to Beak Beak (which is meant to trigger his flying abilities), he just sat there staring at me instead. There was also one point when he became stuck in his flying state, unable to move or trigger anything. Saving often is necessary to prevent situations like this. On the brighter side, the environments are stunning and truly make the game come to life in a way that was hard to achieve back in The Neverhood days. Graphics are crisp and vibrant, animations are smooth, and the environment is full of quirky textures like fuzz and moss that make it pop. The clay is of course the hallmark style of the game, and sometimes I found myself getting lost looking thinking how long it took someone to mold that particular scene. Music by Terry Scott Taylor was wonderfully quirky, but I wish there were more of it throughout. It was especially noticeable when working on a puzzle for a long time, as a single song would play and stop for a long period of time, then pick back up again later at a random interval. Similarly, despite the voice acting being top notch, I also noticed that sound clips would fade in and out when Tommy or Beak Beak were meant to speak – subtitles would appear but nothing would come out of their mouths. Armikrog’s story is simple and charming, even though the pacing is a tad rushed for my tastes. Besides the opening sequence, there’s not much to the plot until the very end. I was hoping for more substance, or even more silly vignettes to keep me company – but perhaps I’m being selfish considering how long it takes to animate one of those sequences. Overall, I appreciated the atmosphere and especially one of the very last puzzles, which I felt was one of the more creative things I’d ever experienced in a game. Armikrog does not surpass The Neverhood, but just like a successor to any celebrated piece of media, that would have been an impossible task. However, it does contain a unique charm in its own right which fans of The Neverhood or other old-school point-and-click adventures will especially appreciate. Those followers will likely forgive its faults for a taste of nostalgia, but others new to this realm may find it too outdated and unpolished.
Armikrog review photo
Claymation heaven
I still have my original copy of The Neverhood, bestowed upon me when my family bought our first Gateway computer in the mid-'90s. I was in complete awe over the challengingly silly puzzles, phenomenal claymation, and the ecl...

Review: Rock Band 4

Oct 05 // Chris Carter
Rock Band 4 (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: HarmonixPublisher: Harmonix (with distribution by Mad Catz)Released: October 6, 2015MSRP: $59.99 (game), $129.99 (guitar bundle), $249.99 (Band-in-a-Box) So let's get right into it. The setlist (seen here) is going to be a point of contention for many. Point blank, I'm not really a fan of most of it, for multiple reasons. Firstly, U2 (the Guy Fieri of music) was added last-minute, and features not one but two songs featured in career mode. This completely obliterated the "random" feature for one of the groups I played with, as they hilariously refused to play U2 on the principle that they "might" come up. Then you have the issue of era disparity due to a disjointed design. Often times you'll find similar types of music grouped together, but generally speaking, Rock Band 4 is all over the place. For instance, there's one Elvis song ("Suspicious Minds," which I really dig), but then, there's nothing else even close to that age or style of music. You also have the issue of showcasing a heavy helping of B-hits from major artists, like "Kick it Out" from Heart or "Prayer" from Disturbed. Of course, music is subjective, but my major issue is the lack of any real epic rock tracks (and I don't mean "epic" in the bad meme sense) on offer here, which every rhythm game tends to provide. I mean, "That Smell" from Lynyrd Skynyrd? You can't help but feel like the rights to a lot of big-ticket songs weren't on the table, some of which instead went to Activision's Guitar Hero Live. But I think this weaker setlist is kind of what Harmonix is going for. They're banking on the fact that you already own a ton of DLC, or are willing to shell out for it. That's going to be a point of contention for many people, who may have started out in the Rock Band ecosystem on Xbox, but like most of this generation, have since switched to PS4 exclusively. I'm kind of torn on where I stand personally, because while I do see Rock Band as a "platform," I wish the included setlist were as strong as it has been in the past. Just to clarify with Harmonix as of this week, I double-checked on the DLC roadmap beyond the singles in the store now (of which there are hundreds of piecemeal tracks). Track packs (read: those discs of songs you bought) are being worked on currently, and aren't up for launch. Additionally, title exports (Rock Band 1 and 2 songs mostly) are not available yet, and have no time frame at the moment. Finally, Harmonix is "looking into" exporting Rock Band 3 but nothing is finalized. None of this affects this review as it's all theoretical, but it's good to know. As disappointed as I am with the base setlist, the game, as always, is sound. The common theme here with Rock Band 4 is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," which is great for those of you who just want a current-gen Rock Band, and bad if you wanted something revolutionary. While the voting system (which allows players to select tracks, or vague categories such as eras and genres in a democratic fashion) is very cool, the career mode, despite promises of a major shakeup with the choice system, is largely the same. [embed]312826:60607:0[/embed] While there are choices such as picking between selling out and making more money in the short term or going on the road and garnering more long-term fans, they all feel very gamey in the end ("do you want fans or money?"). I really like the little story blurbs that pop up along the way that provide updates for the narrative such as "your van that you bought for next to nothing lost a door," but they really are more fluff than substance. Plus, the concept of playing tons of gigs with set songs (and some open-ended lists) for cash to buy new accessories never appealed to me -- when combined with the so-so story and the fact that every song is unlocked from the get-go, it doesn't feel like a gametype worth the effort. As a result, most of my time was spent with the quick tour and freeplay modes, which are still a lot of fun with a group. It's as simple as syncing the instruments (which is incredibly easy to do now) and pressing start, then you're ready to rock. The aforementioned voting system is a ton of fun, as it accepts every band member's choices, then triggers a slot machine-like animation that randomly picks one. It's fair, and it's a nice break from manually choosing songs. In terms of the adjustments to the instruments themselves, I also have mixed feelings. Everything has been marginally upgraded (both physically and in-game), but I'm still reeling from the complete lack of keyboard and Pro Guitar support. Harmonix certainly has a strong argument in that most players simply did not use these features last time around, but I can't help but feel like Rock Band 4 has been downgraded as a result. While I never really preferred the Rock Band style guitars (X-plorer for life), the build is noticeably more sturdy, which also applies for the new drum kit and microphone. The new gameplay feature with the guitar is the addition of freestyle sections, which no longer bound players to the rigors of tough solo portions. For casual players, this change is pretty great, and allows anyone to rock out in a fashion that more accurately portrays the spirit of the franchise. In essence, during your solo spots, you'll see new markers for blue and orange freestyle notations in the track. You'll simply strum to the beat, with the blue portion notating the top frets and the orange noting the bottom, and that's basically it. Sometimes you'll have to strum once and hold, for others, you'll have to shift rapidly to different frets. You won't lose any momentum here if you screw up, and every fret will cue a different sound, so you can come up with your own concoctions. The best part is this is wholly optional, so if you want to shred "Through the Fire and Flames" on expert, you can. Also, every song supports a full-time freestyle solo through a separate menu option. The drums have remained mostly the same, outside of Dynamic Drum Fills, and, as an exception to the lack of Pro instruments, Pro Drums (if you buy the Mad Catz Rock Band 4 Cymbal Expansion Kit of course). The former feature allows you to deploy Overdrive (Star Power) during pre-determined sections -- it's a minor change, and fortunately, like most of the new stuff, you can also turn this off. If you rock the mic, you'll have a few other marginal improvements as well. Now there's Freestyle Vocals, which allows people to improvise a bit. As long as you still sing on key, you'll be able to score points. It makes things a little more fun for singers as they don't have to follow as rigid of a pattern. Again, every instrument has been improved on paper, but not in a way that completely eclipses a lot of the advancements made with the last iteration. The physical element of bringing over instruments is also a bit strained, partially outside of Harmonix's purview. Firstly, you'll have to follow their compatibility chart here to see if your device will even work with the new game. Additionally, due to the shift in technology from the 360 to the Xbox One, you'll need a $20 adapter to even use your old instruments that do work. When you add in that nothing works cross-console family, things get even more tricky, as it'll cost you $250 to grab a new guitar, drum kit, and a mic -- and if you want to get a second guitar, it gets even pricier.  Rock Band 4 is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, it's not only a hassle to switch generations due to the fact that so many elements don't work with the new one, but additionally -- Rock Band 3 is still a thing, supports all of your DLC, and has more features. On the other, there's nothing inherently wrong with this iteration, and for those of you who missed out in the past or have broken 360s or PS3s, you'll still be able to rock out into the night with friends and have a whole lot of fun. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. The Band-in-a-Box bundle with a guitar, drum kit, and mic was assessed for this review. DLC or pre-order content of any kind was not provided, and was purchased by the reviewer.]
Rock Band 4 photo
Back in plastic
[Disclosure: Nick Chester, who is currently employed at Harmonix, previously worked at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the preview. I personally didn't work with Chester ...

Review: Read Only Memories

Oct 02 // Ben Davis
Read Only Memories (PC [reviewed], Mac, Linux)Developer: MidBossPublisher: MidBossReleased: October 6, 2015MSRP: $9.99 The story of Read Only Memories begins with the appearance of a peculiar robot named Turing, who breaks into the player character's apartment after their creator, Hayden, was mysteriously kidnapped. Turing decides that the player character, who is a journalist and a friend of Hayden's, is the most statistically likely to be able to help them. Thus begins the search for Hayden in the technologically advanced, cyberpunk-inspired city of Neo-San Francisco in 2064. In this futuristic setting, scientists have discovered many new ways of enhancing the human body through cybernetics as well as genetic modification, meaning it's common to see people with robotic limbs, blue skin, rabbit ears, and other such bizarre enhancements walking around as if it's completely normal. Not to mention the ROMs, robots like Turing, which are just as commonplace and are on the verge of becoming sapient, able to think and feel as humans do. As expected, anti-hybrid and -cybernetic groups such as the Human Revolution have begun to pop up warning people of the dangers of such technologies. [embed]313479:60589:0[/embed] During the player's search for Hayden, they will meet a colorful cast of strange and interesting characters and be asked to participate in some rather shady activities, sneaking around the law in an attempt to learn secrets and uncover truths. Some characters can be trusted while other cannot, but they're all able to provide leads, information, and other helpful things if the player can successfully persuade them. The gameplay largely consists of your typical point-and-click adventure mechanics, nothing really new here but it works just fine. People and objects can be interacted with by looking, touching, talking, or using an item. Interacting with the same thing multiple times might yield different results, so sometimes it's a good idea to look at, touch, or talk to someone or something more than once. There's also a wide variety of items at the player's disposal, which can be picked up and used in certain situations. There is no item combining to be done, however, and pixel hunting is not a problem since anything that can be interacted with will be highlighted by mousing over it, so many of the more annoying adventure game elements were left alone. Much of the gameplay centers around conversations and choosing dialogue options, but there are plenty of puzzle-solving sections as well. These include direct puzzles, such as looking at a map and closing off intersections in order to divert a cab back to the player, as well as more indirect puzzles like trying to find the right item to gain access to a house or figuring out how to coerce someone into giving up information. None of the puzzles are too obtuse, and some of them are rather forgiving if the player messes up at first. The story features several branching paths and alternate endings, depending on how the player chooses to interact with characters and how successful they are at figuring out puzzles. It's possible to befriend or make enemies with several of the characters, so try and decide who will be the most helpful and choose the appropriate responses. Breaking the law and causing mischief seem to be unavoidable, but how it's done is up to the player. As most of Read Only Memories involves reading text, I found the writing to be entertaining and engaging, if overly-technical at times. They did a great job of giving every character a thorough backstory, making each of them interesting and relatable with their own quirks and behaviors. I particularly enjoyed Turing's fondness for painting and the player character's strange obsession with plants. There were, however, a few groan-worthy references and an occasionally disappointing lack of variety in dialogue options. Read Only Memories originally set out to do one thing: foster the inclusion of diverse characters, especially those of the LGBT persuasion. Thankfully, the end product is much more than just that. The characters' sexualities and gender identities, which include plenty of gay and straight, trans- and cis-gendered individuals, are revealed in a natural way or left up to the player's imagination. Meanwhile, we have a story built around mystery and intrigue, with topics of crime, technology, and politics taking the forefront of the discussion in the lives of these characters who just happen to be a certain way. Personally, I felt the LGBT themes were handled appropriately and naturally without being too heavy-handed, but I'm sure some will disagree with me. I would recommend Read Only Memories to anyone who enjoys point-and-click adventure games, as it's an excellent addition to the genre, borrowing many of its key elements while ditching some of the more obnoxious ones. It's also a great choice for anyone who is looking for more diversity in their video games, as it does a wonderful job of promoting inclusion without making it the sole focus. Plus, there's an awesome, adorable little robot friend to hang out with, and who doesn't want that? [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Read Only Memories review photo
Cyberpunk chic
MidBoss, the team behind the LGBT-centric gaming convention, GaymerX, has been having quite a successful time lately. After reaching its Kickstarter funding goals at the end of 2013, the team has been hard at work creating it...

Review: LEGO Dimensions

Oct 01 // Chris Carter
LEGO Dimensions (PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Traveller's TalesPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentReleased: September 27, 2015MSRP: $99.99 (Starter Pack), $29.99 (Level Pack), $14.99 (Fun Pack) Yet again, I'll explain how the toys are factored in, especially since LEGO Dimensions in particular can get confusing. For $99.99 you'll get the Starter Pack (reviewed here), which consists of the core game, three physical characters (Gandalf, Batman, and Wyldstyle), a physical Batmobile, and real life LEGOs to build the portal (called a Toy Pad). There are two major things to factor in here -- it's pricier than most toys-to-life games by at least $20, augmented by the fact that you're actually getting an actual miniature LEGO set. Straight-up, a lot of your enjoyment for LEGO Dimensions hinges on how much you enjoy playing with LEGOs as a whole. For example, to build the base, my wife and I spent roughly an hour. If you have a kid who plays with toys on a regular basis, this is a no-brainer -- for everyone else, that prospect may seem like too much of a task, and you're basically paying the premium for that. On the other end you have two additional purchasing options, Level Packs and Fun Packs, which are essentially DLC. The former unlocks a hub for $29.99 and comes with a character and two objects, and the latter unlocks a mission and one object. Oh, and then there's the Team Packs for $24.99, with two characters and two objects. Confused yet? Yeah it's all a bit much, and if you weren't averse to toys-to-life before, you probably will be now. But for everyone else, here's the rub -- you can play the entire story with just the Starter Kit, and for each franchise you buy a toy for, you'll unlock additional worlds. So for Portal, the only way to gain access to that DLC set is through a sole Level Pack, but some franchises (like Ghostbusters and The Simpsons) may have multiple Level or Fun Packs. No one ever said LEGOs or figure-based games was a cheap hobby, and now they've been Frankensteined together. [embed]313069:60565:0[/embed] But despite all that, LEGO Dimensions is one of the more interesting Traveller's Tales titles in years. As it turns out mixing up all of these properties involves some hilarious results, mostly thanks to the wit of the writing staff. Of particular note is Homer Simpson's breaking of the fourth wall to comment on cross-branding, and Batman's interactions with various characters like the Wicked Witch of the West. It surpasses the "that's so random!" realm of comedy and succeeds in melding all 14 (!) IPs together. The campaign's story is dead simple -- an evil entity wants to rule all worlds -- but the journey is where it excels. Due to the nature of the three starter characters you'll mostly play through the three hub worlds (Lord of the Rings, DC Universe, and the LEGO Movie), but you'll also cross paths with other worlds briefly, like the aforementioned Oz, Springfield, and Scooby Doo's realm. It's refreshing, and you never linger in one zone for too long. With this setup, it's far more fun than most of the other LEGO games, which tend to overstay their welcome over time with just one theme. LEGO Dimensions' use of the physical toys and portal is also a step ahead of its competition. For one, you can place up to six characters (most only allow two), one vehicle, and other objects all at once. Another cool mechanic involves the placement of the toys themselves during boss fights. Some encounters will actually force you to move your figures on the physical base to avoid attacks -- that's some serious Metal Gear Psycho Mantis-like stuff right there. Traveller's Tales succeeds in mixing up that type of gameplay all throughout the experience, and I never felt like I was missing out with just the Starter Kit. However, I couldn't help but feel like it was still an above average $60 LEGO game with $40 of additional baggage. Again, you're getting real LEGO blocks here, but I would have preferred a smaller premium to get them. Also, WB has planned out DLC and content packs all the way through May 2016, which leaves them plenty of room to develop another potential sequel next year. I'm sort of torn in LEGO Dimensions. It's one of the most expensive propositions in all of gaming right now, but the gameplay is there and the Starter Pack stands on its own. While the campaign can be a bit uneven at times, the always reliable LEGO charm and the innovation of the physical aspect of Dimensions allows it to excel. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. Only the Starter Pack was provided.]
LEGO Dimensions photo
An expensive, but fun hobby
As I've talked about in the past, I'm usually the go-to person for the toys-to-life genre. I'm a kid at heart, and occasionally, I can enjoy a silly kids movie for the fun of it. No series has encapsulated that silliness more...

Review: The Beginner's Guide

Oct 01 // Darren Nakamura
The Beginner's Guide (Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Everything Unlimited LtdPublisher: Everything Unlimited LtdReleased: October 1, 2015MSRP: $9.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit The Beginner's Guide opens on a de_dust-like Counter-Strike map with Wreden narrating. It isn't Wreden narrating to save money on a voice actor or Wreden narrating the in-game story. Davey Wreden is narrating as Davey Wreden, telling a story about his personal life. He was once friends with another game designer named Coda. Ever since meeting at a game jam, he had been fascinated with Coda's work. Most of the games are short, five to ten-minute affairs involving walking and philosophical musing. All were built in Source, but the art styles vary. Coda never released his games publicly, but Wreden hounded him to play each one upon completion. What we play through is Coda's entire body of work, presented chronologically. All the while, Wreden offers insight about game design, from the nuts and bolts of the tools used to the deeper symbolism of a particular segment, whether it was intentional or unintentional. [embed]313130:60582:0[/embed] Unlike a lot of these narrative-focused games, which allow the player to passively experience the story, absorbing or ignoring as much as desired, it's the kind of experience that demands intellectual engagement. I mean that literally; Wreden explicitly asks the player to send him critical analysis, providing an email address toward that end. There is exactly one puzzle in The Beginner's Guide, and it is repeated a few times. It involves two doors and solving it requires an irreversible step. When solved, the entrance is sealed and the exit is open, providing only one possible path: forward. Wreden's interpretation of this puzzle involves a symbolic closure of the past, marking something as "complete" and putting it out of mind. While I was playing through, my mind went to thoughts about having to take risks in order to progress and the idea of finding comfort in familiar things.  The structure provides a strange sense of immersion only a few games can manage. I am not the avatar of the character in these environments navigating through them; I am the guy sitting at his computer, playing a game while another guy talks to me about it. The story being told is a history that took place in the real world, and together we are piecing together the deeper meaning behind these weird art games. The roundabout immersion is ironic in a way. Normally making it clear the player is just someone playing a game adds a layer of disconnect. Since the reality matches with the premise in The Beginner's Guide, it actually drew me into the meta-narrative even more closely. I realized about halfway through just how emotionally invested I had become. I found myself marveling at Coda's creations just as Wreden had done before me. I spent time reading every note posted in one section even after being told I didn't have to. I wanted to understand the person who made these just as much as Wreden. I was grateful for his aid when it came to surpassing the intentionally frustrating or impossible barriers. I had to see it through to the end. And then, just as my emotional investment hit its peak, the revelatory climax rolls in. Maybe Coda isn't the enigma Wreden paints him as. Maybe he just wants to be left alone. Wait, maybe he wouldn't want me playing his games. Maybe I'm violating his personal space by participating. Maybe I'm an asshole for doing things against someone else's wishes. Maybe I'm a bigger asshole for writing a whole review about it. My involvement as just the guy sitting at his computer playing a game is non-negligible at this point. I've been thinking about this game a lot for the past 36 hours. It demanded I think about it, at first only superficially, but later more substantively. I mulled over a lot of questions when I should have been sleeping. I continued thinking right when I woke up. I think I dreamed about it in between. I won't spoil with the explicit questions here, but I'm sure we will be talking more frankly soon. On the surface, The Beginner's Guide is a game about game design and critical analysis. Digging deeper, it provides a window into the mind of a man I might not have fully understood otherwise. It does all of this in a way only a video game could. More than anything else, it has caused me a lot of introspection, a feat few games ever achieve. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Beginner's Guide review photo
Start here
The Stanley Parable is famous for its fourth wall-breaking narrative, taking the maligned "walking simulator" genre and showing how effective it can be in the hands of a capable designer. When writer Davey Wreden surprise-ann...

Review: Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5

Sep 29 // Chris Carter
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: RobomodoPublisher: ActivisionReleased: September 29, 2015 (PS4, Xbox One) / November 10, 2015 (PS3, Xbox 360)MSRP: $59.99 (!) So let's get right into it. Just as before, you'll have the option to ollie, grind, manual, and revert your way into lengthy combos, with the added power of the "slam" mechanic. This new move will allow you to drop quickly to the ground straight into a grind. It's really gamey, but kind of cool once you actually get used to it. Personally, I tend to hold the button quite a bit to pre-load my grinds, so it was jarring at first. Everything else is still here, like spine transfers, plants, and special tricks. In the end though, it seems as if Robomodo can't be trusted to make a glitch-free game. I really liked Tony Hawk HD, but man was it a glitch-fest, filled with wonky physics and collision issues. It's the same thing in Tony Hawk 5, but worse to an extent. Revert timing and the like feels on-point, but it's mostly the objects and solid areas, some of which aren't filled in properly, that cause issues. Additionally, missions lag when they start up for a few seconds, sometimes rendering the level in real-time. There are some online issues at launch, namely causing players to stand still for periods of time or disappear entirely. That's not to say the game is fundamentally broken however, as these problems usually come up every 10 minutes or so on certain surfaces. The frame rate dips a bit on some levels, but for the most part, it is playable. It just needs a lot more polish. [embed]312863:60562:0[/embed] Career mode is par for the course, bringing you through a handful of levels with mission-based objectives, on top of the typical "find the DVD/VHS tape" and "S-K-A-T-E letters" challenges. The series has been mission-centric for a long while now (ever since THPS 4), but I've never really been a fan. I like how the first three games were literally free skate levels that just happened to have objectives in them. The unlock method is also rigid in Tony Hawk 5 -- earning stars for new levels isn't cumulative, as you'll need to earn 15 in each preceding level to unlock the new one. I do like the levels as a general rule, but they feel so middle-of-the-road, and I probably won't remember them as fondly as I remember a lot of the classic stages. With all that said, the core gameplay is there. I like how you need to beat every mission in a stage on the highest "Sick" rating to unlock new Pro challenges, and despite it working against you at times, it will test your skills as a digital skater, regardless of whether or not you're a seasoned veteran. Good lines for fun combo strings are still present, and every level will have you thinking of new ways to combo, like a puzzle. Additionally, the online portion of the game (which basically transforms levels into inoffensive social hubs) doesn't hurt anything, and you can still play the entire game solo if you want. Speaking of online play, it's also available in the form of side modes, but they're a pain to set up, and don't involve split-screen couch co-op. You can queue a round for quick match, trick attack, deathmatch, combo mambo (single combos win out over total score), big head (you have to do tricks to refresh your life bar), and king of the hill. It's a diversion for sure, and one you can skip out on entirely. In the meantime, I'm having trouble connecting to games and getting people in, possibly because versus modes are hidden in the in-game menu. The create-a-park mode is also back, and even though there are only five themes, the entire affair isn't as limited as it was in past titles. This is mostly because the Complexity Meter is a bit more lenient, allowing for players to place hundreds of different objects in a single arena before it caps out. There's sadly no "create-a-skater" option, but you can customize the pros available, and change their costumes to some sufficiently wacky outfits (like cops and robots). On a higher note, the soundtrack is actually pretty good, and although it doesn't have an iconic song like "Superman," it gets the job done and feels authentic. I didn't outright hate Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5, as it distills a lot of the franchise's good points into an arcadey modern format. There are flashes of brilliance, but much of that is piggybacking off of the foundation its predecessors have already created. Considering that Activision signed a deal with Tony Hawk for more games a while back that's set to expire soon, I sincerely hope change is on the horizon if more titles are in the cards. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tony Hawk 5 review photo
This franchise needs a new developer
I grew up with the Tony Hawk franchise -- at least, Neversoft's vision of it. Game after game, even some of the more questionable ones, held my interest until Proving Ground led the series astray. But in 2007, ...

Review: PewDiePie: Legend of the Brofist

Sep 29 // Jed Whitaker
PewDiePie: Legend of the Brofist (Android, iOS [reviewed on an iPhone 6S Plus])Developer: Outerminds Inc.Publisher: Outerminds Inc.Released: September 24, 2015MSRP: $4.99 PewDiePie: Legend of the Brofist caught me off guard with its production values and gameplay. At first, I was expecting a half-assed cash-in on PewDiePie and the other co-starring YouTubers' popularity, but instead I found a fully voice-acted platformer reminiscent of such classics as DuckTales and the more recent Shovel Knight. Yeah, I can't believe I just typed those words either. Using the left side of the screen as a virtual joystick that spawns wherever your finger first touches and the right side of the screen as a jump button, you'll help PewDiePie and friends hunt down the evil barrel king that stole all his fans, aka bros. Going from left to right while jumping on enemies to kill them isn't revolutionary, but the ease and precision of the controls are. I've played many touch screen games and this is the first that felt like it nailed translating traditional controls; deaths felt like my own fault and jumping between platforms surrounded by certain death was smooth as butter. Each level adds something new, such as jumping from moving cars and rhinos, to a side-scrolling space shooter, to levels where you must avoid enemies for a set amount of time in a small area until help arrives. Help is provided by other popular YouTubers like Markplier and Jacksepticeye, whom voice themselves.  [embed]312909:60547:0[/embed] These other YouTubers can then be unlocked, and each have their own unlockable abilities as well that can be equipped two at a time -- one attack and one defense. Abilities have a cooldown timer that is replenished by killing enemies or digging through piles of debris found throughout stages. This debris also grants coins and/or health power-ups and sometimes a collectible patch, of which there are many. Attack abilities are mostly useless; I found jumping on enemies' heads to be easier than waiting on them to walk through a pug's fart cloud. Defensive abilities fair a bit better. One of them grants you three hearts of health every so often, which can be useful for boss fights and the more difficult levels. All abilities and characters are unlocked in a store using in-game currency that's earned by killing enemies, found throughout the level, and awarded at the end of levels based on performance and difficulty. Speaking of difficulty, there are four options to choose from, the default being easy mode. I tried a few levels on hard, the second lowest difficulty, and found them to live up to that label, adding more enemies that hit a bit harder. For the purpose of this review, I played most levels on the default easy difficulty, which proved challenging at times.  My only qualms with the game in general are that it seemed like not enough coins could be earned to unlock everything by the end (likely to entice players to go through the harder difficulties), that I had to watch cute pugs die, and that some characters used stereotypical gender signifiers. As you go through the levels as PewDiePie, you're joined by his two adorable pugs who will sacrifice their pugly lives instead of letting their owner take the last hit. Upon this sacrifice, they gib into little puppy chunks, and give a heartbreaking yelp. While this drove me to be more careful, it was disturbing. As for the gender signifiers, there are some barrels that are pink and give birth to smaller barrels upon death, and a rhino wearing lipstick -- a minor complaint but nothing I'll lose sleep over. While I didn't get any of the references or inside jokes like why PewDiePie is being attacked by barrels, or the copious amount of ducks and exploding cows, I could appreciate that it was something zany his fans will surely love. For those wanting a solid mobile platformer, consider dropping the five bucks on PewDiePie: Legend of the Brofist, as it has a kickass chiptune soundtrack, colorful levels, and tight touchscreen platforming. If you're a PewDiePie fan, then making the purchase is a no-brainer. The game took me a just over a couple of hours to complete, though completionists will be able to get a lot more mileage out of it. My time and money were well spent, and it almost made me want to watch a PewDiePie video. Almost. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Review: PewDiePie: LotB photo
*Yelling and farting sounds here*
Anyone who frequents YouTube knows who PewDiePie is, but if you don't, he is an over-the-top let's player that parents don't get and kids love, as well as the most-subscribed person on YouTube. And now he has his own game.&nb...

Review: Laserlife

Sep 29 // Ben Davis
Laserlife (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Choice ProvisionsPublisher: Choice ProvisionsReleased: September 22, 2015 (PC, PS4), TBA (Xbox One)MSRP: $14.99 Laserlife tells the story of an astronaut who died out in space, whose body drifts aimlessly along with the wreckage of a space ship. The body is discovered by "future intelligences who have no concept of humankind" as they delve into the astronaut's subconscious to extract memories in an attempt to learn of the skeleton's history and how this human ended up dead in outer space. Players control the future extraterrestrial entity in the form of two lasers. Each laser is controlled separately with the analog sticks, and they can both reach any part of the screen. Movement is very fluid and the lasers feel great to control as they spin and dance effortlessly around the screen. Each level consists of four stages. During the first stage, Memory Molecule Collection, players must move into position and press the trigger buttons at the right moment to collect memory molecules. Later levels introduce molecules which must be held in position as well as ones which must be moved to a new position. An insufficient amount of molecules collected during the first stage will reset the level, but this was never a problem for me while playing on normal difficulty. [embed]313018:60553:0[/embed] The second stage, Memory Harmonization, involves moving into position in order to hit targets. The hit boxes for the targets seem to be smaller than they are for memory molecules, so movements need to be slightly more precise, although the targets turn green once the lasers are in the correct position. These were the most difficult stages for me personally, even though they just involve moving around without having to time button presses. The final two stages are the easiest. During the Warp Phase, players must avoid colliding with red barriers, or mental blocks, by moving towards the openings. Finally, the Memory Materialization stage finishes out the level with the player moving the analog sticks as quickly as possible until the bar at the top of the screen has depleted. Once all of this has been completed, the memory will be fully extracted and appear as a physical manifestation of a significant object from the astronaut's life. If players find that the game is too challenging, or too easy, there are a few difficulty settings to choose from which will increase or decrease the amount of obstacles to deal with. There are also leaderboards to browse, with separate leaderboards for each difficulty, if that's something that interests you. Music is obviously a huge part of any rhythm game, and the soundtrack could easily make or break the game. Laserlife's soundtrack is very chill and atmospheric, which fits perfectly with the outer space setting. It's best to play this game with headphones in order to really focus on the music. I felt the soundtrack could have been a bit more varied at times, however, since all of the songs are very spacey and sometimes started to sound a bit similar after a while. Maybe they could have had some tracks that fit more with the theme of some of the memories, like a lullaby for the childhood memories, or even mixed in more spoken parts. One of my favorite tracks was used towards the end of the game, which had mission control voices being played over the music. I felt that was an idea they could have experimented with a bit more, because it worked really well for that one level. Unlike the Bit.Trip games, the sound effects from collecting memories and hitting targets don't really add much to the music itself, which was slightly disappointing. Obstacles are arranged so that they match up to the music of course, but interacting with them merely makes a dull sound which is often barely audible against the soundtrack. Having more robust sound effects might have helped make the soundtrack pop a bit more, and it would also be easier for the player to tell when they missed something. Laserlife has a lot of big ideas and an interesting premise. I love the concept of extraterrestrial life coming into contact with a human skeleton adrift in space, and trying to learn something about the strange creature's origins. The grand themes of human existence and the persistence of memory are ideas that I would like to see more games try to tackle. In this case, however, I found the overall experience to be a little underwhelming. It's fun for a short rhythm game, but with only 12 levels, it felt like Laserlife never really got a chance to fully explore the broad topics it brought to the table. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Laserlife review photo
Drifting through space
Choice Provisions is best known for the excellent rhythm-based series, Bit.Trip, a saga spanning six games (and one spin-off) which abstractly dealt with themes about a man's journey through life. The studio has been toying w...

Review: Persona 4: Dancing All Night

Sep 29 // Kyle MacGregor
Persona 4: Dancing All Night (PS Vita)Developer: Atlus Publisher: AtlusReleased: September 29, 2015MSRP: $49.99 Taking place shortly after the events of Persona 4, Dancing All Night opens with Rise Kujikawa and a couple members of the gang in a dance studio. The former idol is mounting a comeback and has enlisted her friends as backup dancers to perform at a large music festival. Of course, things quickly go awry. A cursed Internet video has droves of people falling into comas, and to top it all off, members of Kanamin Kitchen, the pop group headed by Rise's frenemy Kanami Mashita, have gone missing. We soon find out the women have been transported to an alternate dimension called the Midnight Stage, where a mysterious voice and hordes of Shadows hold them hostage. Kanamin Kitchen's captors prey on idols' identity crises and try to make them fall in line with the image of what people think believe are, or want them to be, rather than wage any sort of painful personal struggle. The Investigation Team naturally comes to the rescue, except in this world they can't use their Personas to fight. The only way to beat back the Shadows and save Rise and Kanami's friends is to dance. It's a contrived plot device to shoehorn in rhythmic gameplay based on Sega's Hatsune Miku: Project Diva series, but honestly, who cares when the end result is a damn good time?  [embed]311909:60472:0[/embed] The mechanics at work here are nothing revolutionary. Notes appear in the center of a circle and fly outward toward six zones on circle's perimeter in formations based on music. Players are tasked with keeping the beat, the success or failure of which will determine things like high scores, whether new levels are unlocked, and earn in-game currency for purchasing items and costumes. Dancing All Night functions perfectly, and its three main difficulty settings all feel appropriately challenging. Regardless of which you choose, a poor performance will result in a quick hook, though a mediocre one may allow you to complete a level without passing. This can be a powerful motivator, and definitely kept me coming back to some of the tougher stages. On top of the standard fare, there's also an even harder (hidden) difficulty setting awaiting dedicated players. So good luck with that! Aside from the joy of watching familiar faces like Teddie and Chie cavort around in ridiculous outfits, what makes Dancing All Night a blast is the music itself. One of my favorite aspects of the Persona series is composer Shoji Meguro's handiwork, which is obviously thrust into the spotlight this time around. After completing both the story and free dance modes (plus redeeming some downloadable content) I've unlocked 36 songs, spanning everything from original Persona 4 tracks to spin-off theme songs and even a live performance. However, while that may conceptually seem like a decent-sized selection, it doesn't always feel that way. Half of the soundtrack is padded out with remixes that may or may not resonate with players. While I absolutely loved many of them, there are others I will seldom play again. I found it difficult at times to appreciate versions of songs I've adored for years, only to have some DJ somewhere strip the track of nearly all its personality and transform it into something else entirely. Dancing All Night's uneven score wasn't the only facet of the experience that wasn't as compelling as it could have been. The story is somewhat plodding at times and suffers from repetition, following multiple groups that tread similar ground for most of the game. While there are some pensive themes at work, endearing new characters, and a dramatic finale once the narrative threads begin to converge, the plot doesn't quite live up to its source material -- which is probably expected, given how phenomenal that is. This fusion of visual novel of rhythm game isn't exactly perfect, but speaking as someone who loves Persona (and Shoji Meguro's work in particular), I really enjoyed my time with this one. It might be pure fan service, but sometimes maybe that's enough. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. Several DLC tracks were also provided by the publisher. ]
Review: P4D photo
Your prize cow
Persona 4 was a story about acceptance. We all have a dark side, some aspect of our personality we dislike about ourselves, something we choose to repress and hide away from the rest of the world. This isn't the healthiest pr...

Review: Afro Samurai 2: Revenge of Kuma Volume 1

Sep 29 // Chris Carter
Afro Samurai 2: Revenge of Kuma Volume 1 (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developers: Redacted StudiosPublisher: Versus EvilReleased: September 22, 2015 MSRP: $14.99 (standard), $34.99 (trilogy bundle), $54.99 (ultimate pack) To give you a bit of background, this series does not feature the titular Afro Samurai (though he is around somewhat) -- instead, it focuses on Kuma, who as no surprise wears a giant bear head. Billed as a "brave warrior who once protected the great temple," he was betrayed by Afro, and now walks the Earth in search of revenge. You'll learn a bit more about how Kuma died during the course of this first volume, which is a continuation of the original game. The entire time during my play session, I was basically asking myself why this had to exist. There are elements of the Afro Samurai franchise I like, but forcing people to play through this new, quite frankly terrible series to delve into it is almost insulting. Why not just produce an OVA or even a web short? Much of the game consists of beyond campy voice acting, like anyone was invited into the studio for recording sessions, and simple art stills that fail to effectively tell any sort of cohesive narrative. There's also a really weird (but mostly good) RZA score that is peppered throughout Afro Samurai 2 that doesn't quite fit with the rest of the game. It just feels like this shouldn't have even gone to the developmental stages as a video game. The lack of quality control is most apparent with the sound editing, which is so bad you'll hear loud beats during key story sequences that drown out entire bits of dialogue. Major issues even pile up beyond that, as I noticed multiple sequences where the narrative audio was cut out prematurely, and the game has constant framerate issues both in and out of combat, leading to an overall shaky experience. One time I even entered a tutorial, came back out, and subsequently fell off a cliff, forcing me to restart the chapter. [embed]312865:60543:0[/embed] I thought the non-playable bits were bad, but I wasn't quite ready for everything else. There are some really weird "interactive" cutscenes that mostly consist of your character crawling on the ground during some dramatic event and picking up items or looking for some obscure object. If these were meant to instill some sort of emotional effect, they utterly failed, partially due to the wonky physics and broken game engine. The action sequences are also horrid, partially due to the aforementioned framerate issues, but also because of the fact that it doesn't even feel like a budget game that would be welcome on the original PlayStation. Kuma has access to counters, attacks, jumps, and a typical rage (Devil Trigger) ability, as well as the power to switch styles. It's all painfully slow, and to add insult to injury, many of the animations don't even connect. You're basically just going to mash attack and counter occasionally with very little nuance involved. The camera is also a huge problem, as it's fixed and it constantly flips out in a seizure-worthy fashion. What's particularly troubling about the way the camera works is when you're traversing stages, you often can't see what's ahead of you, leading to some lame pitfall deaths or ambushes. It's not like the game is hard by any means as it's essentially a button-masher, but it's constantly working against you at all turns through technical faults. This lurid affair will last roughly two hours, which is the standard for episodic games. Yet, the fact that you have to suffer through this begs the question entirely -- "why was this episodic at all?" Were they going to lose the license or something? I usually hold off on telling people not to get an episodic game until more of it is available, but even after playing the first volume of Afro Samurai 2, I can say with authority, "do not get this."
Afro Samurai 2 review photo
Digital seppuku
In the words of Samuel L. Jackson, "what kind of fucked up repugnant shit is this?" It's Afro Samurai 2.

Review: Skylanders: SuperChargers

Sep 28 // Chris Carter
Skylanders SuperChargers (3DS, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: Vicarious VisionsPublisher: ActivisionReleased: September 20, 2015MSRP: $74.99 (Starter pack, two characters, vehicle, base, game) To be frank, I was worried about the state of Skylanders after Trap Team. I mean, sure, it was a great action game and still had its charms, but I was starting to think that Activision had been scraping the bottom of the barrel with its newest gimmick. With the vehicular-based focus however, Vicarious Visions has turned the formula on its head again, going back to basics with old-school, sensible tendencies. The focus here is vehicles, and not just cars. Land, sea, and air-based transportation is at the crux of the experience, with the Starter Pack providing the former. To be clear, there are elemental gates for ancillary content (forcing players to use certain toys to access some areas), but the fact that the entire core game can be completed with one land vehicle, and the vast majority of sidequests are accessible with just one sea and air toy respectively is a massive step up from past titles. Yes, you will have to spend a bit of extra cash to get everything, but I was completely satisfied with the main campaign on its own terms. Speaking of the toys themselves, they're still at the top of their game. All of the vehicles sport moving parts, and take me back to my Micro Machines days, racing cars across a table with glee. There are fewer new characters this time around in favor of the vehicles, which is fine in my book, as they're much easier to wrap your head around with three distinct varieties. Just like before, two players can play together on the same console with two different Skylanders -- here, a vehicle can be added to the mix with the new portal. Yes, that's one vehicle. While I initially thought it was a limitation, it actually feels like a more deliberate design choice, as sharing a ride is much more fun as a co-op experience. [embed]312286:60536:0[/embed] One person drives, and the other shoots -- it's that simple. With the touch of a button you can switch roles, should someone else want to take the driver's seat. Movement is intuitive, as the driver is only focusing on traversal, and the shooting bits cleverly make use of a reticle to avoid the need for the driver to always be in sync with their partner. In short, it allows everyone a ton of freedom, but it isn't too overwhelming of a prospect to hop from car to car. The story this time around doesn't require any prior knowledge of the series, which simultaneously works in its favor and hurts the setup. Once again, Kaos (who is still charming as "Not Invader Zim," but is getting a bit old at this point) reigns supreme, it's just that this time he's taken the noble Eon captive, leaving your ragtag team of Patrick Warburton and company to save the day. It's a plot that belongs in a Saturday morning cartoon, but the sleek visuals and upbeat performances sell it well enough. During the 10-hour campaign, you'll find plenty of variety when it comes to mission types, enemy patterns, themes, and gameplay. One moment you might be diving underwater in an obstacle course of sorts with a submarine, and the next, you're up in the air dogfighting, Star Fox style (yes, you can barrel roll). The pacing is excellent, and boss fights are seen in a whole new light as vehicular confrontations. But this time you'll have Mario Kart-esque races as a distraction as well, which are easily the best pieces of side content yet for the series. The entire affair feels thoroughly integrated into the game itself, without feeling like a tacked-on "me too" mode. One race for instance features a level populated by two giant dragons, who constantly are visible throughout the track, and occasionally pop out to cause havoc for the participants. Each level feels like it was given a sufficient amount of love, to the point where I'd put many of them on par with classics like Diddy Kong Racing and some of the best Mario Kart games. That's not to say that it completely measures up to its contemporaries. The item system feels limited, and the combat system in general (all cars can use their standard attacks during races) is disjointed, as some elements from the campaign don't quite work in this gametype. Plus, you'll need to buy a certain number of toys to access every track. No, it's not perfect, but again, as a side mode, it does its job and then some. Online play for the campaign and racing modes also don't hurt its case, on top of the revamped Triple Triad-like Skystones mini-game. I'm utterly surprised that Activision hasn't run this franchise into the ground yet. Skylanders: SuperChargers reinvigorates my interest in the series, and I'd go so far as to say that I wouldn't mind a full-on SuperChargers racing spin-off in the same vein as a proper Mario Kart game (note that the Wii and 3DS editions are racing games, essentially). After all, a little competition never hurt anyone -- maybe they can put that Crash Bandicoot license to good use. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. The Starter Pack and a few additional toys were provided as well.]
Skylanders review photo
Back to business
Year after year, I can generally count on the Skylanders games. I had zero hope for Spyro's return back in 2011, but every single iteration has been a competent brawler. While Activision can be accused of running franchi...

Review: A Fistful of Gun

Sep 28 // Stephen Turner
A Fistful of Gun (PC) Developers: FarmerGnome Publisher: Devolver Digital Released: September 23, 2015 MSRP: $12.99 A Fistful of Gun is a bombardment of the senses. It’s your usual post-modern, knowing wink to the camera fare; very loud, very brash, but also raising a smile with its constructive asides and one-liners. So, an evil railroad tycoon has made a deal with the devil, but he’s about to get some karmic retribution from a diverse group of gunslingers. Along the way, these 11 wronged men (well, more than 11 if you count a whole regiment sharing a single horse) will take down anyone who stands in their way – KKK members, bandits, soldiers, Indians, voodoo men, the whole clichéd lot. And that’s it for the threadbare plot, really. The Story Mode is a marathon of randomised arena-based firefights, each one barely lasting more than a minute or two. Sometimes, you’re given an objective to complete in addition to killing everyone on screen, be it pushing a cart to its destination, duels and assassinations, or saving a hoedown from a stampede, to more loopy scenarios like Peyote trials and Bomb Fiestas. And since you can choose your next challenge, it’s always refreshing to see the variety and difficulty on the player’s own terms. [embed]312707:60526:0[/embed] Graphically, the Western setting is merely functional. Each location has its share of destructible environments, but it all looks intentionally sparse. Being a twitch shooter, you’re required to keep your attention on several things at once: your gunslinger, the bullets headed your way, and the tiny aiming reticule. The pixel art is charming when it’s calm, but when things erupt in spectacular fashion, it’s hard to keep track of the tiny characters and the aiming reticule is usually lost to the earthy colour palette. A Fistful of Gun is a difficult game, but it does offer plenty of risk/reward strategies in the way of power-ups, handicaps, and character playstyles. Causing havoc in the neutral zones might offer more money or lives, but you’ll also earn a wanted level and choice to either fight a fairly unstoppable Sheriff or take a fairly humiliating challenge like getting through the next level with an unpredictable hog or an explosive piñata on your back. Usually, if you can successfully weave in and out of trouble, you can pick up various whiskey bottles that can slow down time or give you extra damage. Horses give you extra speed and since this is a one-hit-kill kind of game, they allow you a second wind at the expense of their life. The main gimmick here is the different unlockable gunslingers. Each man has their own unique control scheme or weapon use. So for example, Abel can fire off six rapid shots in a row, but has to reload the whole cylinder before firing again. Virgil’s blunderbuss has to be charged for maximum effect, while Duke has a chaingun at the expense of movement speed, and Billy’s gun can only be fired by pressing the right key shown above his head. Some are clearly more favourable than others, and a select few are there for the added challenge, but nobody ever comes across as overpowered. While they all have to be randomly unlocked in the campaign, everybody is available straight away in Arcade Mode, and it’s also in this mode that A Fistful of Gun becomes more accessible, more fun. Basically, it’s an infinite gauntlet of arenas, where you’re rewarded with modifiers to take into the next battle – explosive bullets, faster movement speed, better accuracy, etc. But more importantly, it also benefits from having local co-op. It’s through that brief glimpse of partnership that I saw A Fistful of Gun at its fullest potential. Online is a mix of Arcade and Versus Modes (no co-op SP campaign, sadly) for up to nine players. Though, on launch weekend, the servers were dead. Ideally, it’s played best with a friends list, but if you don’t have a posse to call upon, then you won’t have much luck with public games; not to mention a lack of instant game matchmaking (which is supposedly being rectified in the near future). It would be pretty ridiculous to mark down A Fistful of Gun over a lack of consumer interest, but as a word to the wise and since many of its modes are reliant on co-op, it does currently come across as half a game. No, A Fistful of Gun’s only major errors lie in its repetitive and muddied action, all blasted through an ADD pacing. It’s still fun and humorous, but that relentless nature condenses its longevity into just a couple of sessions. If you’ll pardon the ham-fisted metaphor, A Fistful of Gun can best be described as a stick of dynamite with a short fuse; explosive and disposable in the brief time you’ll spend with it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review photo
'My mistake... Four HUNDRED coffins'
Ah, another day, another pixel-art indie game with a Wild West theme. That said, A Fistful of Gun could’ve been set on the Moon and you’d be too busy dodging bullet hells and listening to arcade cabinet music to e...

Review: Hold Your Fire: A Game About Responsibility

Sep 27 // Jonathan Holmes
Hold Your Fire: A Game About Responsibility (Wii U)Developer: Alkterios GamesPublisher: Alkterios GamesReleased: September 24, 2015MSRP: $1.99 Hold Your Fire's central hook won't be a surprise to most of you. It's right there in the title. Still, the concept itself is sort of interesting. It's a top-down shmup where every spacecraft you encounter could be an enemy, or it might be an innocent passer by. You can't tell until they fire at you first. If you shoot a non-enemy ship, you die instantly. If you let an enemy ship pass you by, you die instantly. If you get shot by an enemy ship, you die instantly. This puts you in a pretty tense position. That tension, along with the amusing text-based dialog and the surprisingly interesting musical score, are the three reasons why I played the game for as long as I did... which was for about 25 minutes. It took maybe five minutes of trial and error to get the hang of how to take out enemy ships. After I had that figured out, it was time for a 20-minute run of pure repetition and absolutely no new ideas. Ships appear at the top of the screen and move straight to the bottom of the screen. Sometimes they fire at you, also straight down. If they fire at you, you should move in front of it after it fires and shoot it. That's it. That the entire game as far as I can tell. If something else happens after twenty minutes of that, then I'll be happy to amend this review, but the game has given me no indication that it ever changes things up. There is a score counter and a death counter (which stopped working once I hit 4/9 deaths), but other than that, it lacks any sense of progression past its first wave or two of enemies.  The success of Canabalt and Flappy Bird may have convinced some lot of game developers that a simple, one-note game design can lead to an acceptable product. That may be true for other games, but in this case, it didn't work out at all. Adding any level of variation to the enemy patterns, bullet patterns, or literally any other potentially fulfilling dynamic to the design could have led to this game being worth a buck, maybe two, but that's not what the developers at Alkterios Games did here, for reasons that only they likely understand. What if a fast food restaurant sold you a new $2 hamburger called "Hold the Fat: A Burger About Eating Responsibly" that was packaged in a regular fast food hamburger box, but when you opened the box, all you got was a small, one-sided, badly drawn picture of a hamburger? That would be funny for exactly as long as it would take for you to realize that you stomach is still empty and you're $2 poorer for having experienced the "joke." This is the game equivalent of that so-called burger. It's nearly impossible to recommend.  [Addendum: I had a hunch that it was impossible that a developer would include this little content in a game for sale on the Wii U eShop, and I'm happy to say that it looks like my hunch was right. It's come to light that issues with my external hard drive may have resulted in me missing out on a large portion of the game. We're looking into the issue as we speak, and hope to have the review amended accordingly soon. In the meantime, do not take this review and review score as a full reflection of what Hold Your Fire has to offer.]
Hold Your Fire photo
Hold your purchase
Back when the Nintendo Entertainment System first launched, console games had developed a reputation for being "landmine purchases," meaning that they look safe until you touch them and they blow up in your face. E.T. fo...

Review: Destiny: The Taken King

Sep 25 // Chris Carter
Destiny: The Taken King (PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: BungiePublisher: Activision Released: September 15, 2015MSRP: $39.99 (digital) / $59.99 (physical) Lets start with the multitude of changes Bungie has made to this husk of a game since launch. It took a full year, but now, the vault is finally sufficient for storing a realistic amount of items. The Gunsmith, once a pointless relic a week after launch, now actually does something meaningful, and has his own questlines in tow. Ghost shells and class items have defense ratings, you can recreate and upgrade Exotics at will, class quests have been implemented to help players acclimate, and armor materials have been streamlined. This is in addition to a ton of quality of life updates the game has accrued this past year like alternative methods of gathering reagents. It's finally starting to take shape. Other major shifts include Nolan North completely taking over for Dinklebot as your companion, who has been completely and utterly erased from existence due to the online-only nature of the game. Ghost now sounds a little more enthusiastic, and presumably will have more actual voicework going forward for future DLCs -- great decision, Bungie, as Dinklage's previous DLC work felt like archived, pasted voices. Another big addition is the quest log, which, while barebones, actually provides players with some vague idea of what to do and where to go when choosing missions, which is leaps and bounds better than the nonexistent system before. Nightfalls, the ultimate weekly activity outside of the raid, are now less tedious, as they don't instantly boot you to orbit anymore upon death, all but ensuring that players won't camp out in the same cheese (exploit) spot for fear of having to restart 30 or more minutes of progress. Likewise, Weekly Heroics are now thankfully removed and integrated into a playlist with better rewards, and the daily heroic only needs to be completed by one character for account-wide rewards. Finally, all of the PlayStation exclusive Year One content is now available for Xbox platforms. Every single one of these aforementioned changes is positive, though this is how Destiny should have been at launch. But even still, Bungie has proven it can't write a story for beans. The narrative this time around is that a new big bad, Oryx, the father of Crota (who you killed in the first DLC), has entered the picture. It's everyone versus him basically, and that's pretty much all you need to know from start to finish. While it has all the makings of a basic moustache-twirling villain plot, it's actually coherent this time around, which is a massive step up from the awful story of the original. It's a step in the right direction, but coherency doesn't automatically translate into quality -- it's still pretty bad. [embed]312285:60513:0[/embed] It's just that this time, Bungie decided to put Nathan Fillion's character Cayde-6 at the forefront, where he has plenty of time to do Fillion-type things and crack wise at every turn. Your mileage may vary in terms of how much you enjoy the Mal Reynolds character that Firefly fans (and Fillion himself) have been clinging to all these years, but suffice to say I'm kind of tired of the shtick. Not to mention the fact that it's a bit odd that Cayde, who practically said nothing during Year One, is suddenly chatty. Also, all of the meaningful lore still isn't accessible in-game, instead forcing players to go online to to access the Grimoire system. After a full year this is utterly indefensible. So how is the actual content that you're paying at least $40 for? Well, somewhere in-between a DLC and another full game's worth. You're getting roughly nine (short) story missions, four Strikes (three for Xbox), a raid, three new subclasses, seven PVP maps, a small number of sidequests (including an arena diversion called the Court of Oryx), and new pieces of gear. Once again though, the story bits are rather disappointing, mostly consisting of missions you can breeze through in 10 minutes or so. That isn't to say that they aren't fun, but most players are likely going to conquer the entire story in a casual afternoon, which isn't the greatest feeling if you already spent $60 to $90 on the previous versions of the game on top of the Taken King. Oh, and roughly half of the areas are re-used, too. Alternatively, the third subclass quests for each class are actually pretty fun and inventive, even if they also only last 10 minutes or so, and take place in the same areas as the campaign (or borrow existing locations from PVP). It also helps that since every class can now control all three elements, dungeons and raids are that much more fun with so many different combinations of loadouts. The saving grace however is the Dreadnaught, an entirely new location to be patrolled, with its own set of missions and Strikes. Billed as Oryx's home base, this Hive ship is actually pretty cool looking, and is the first actually new exploration hub (the tiny Reef was pretty pathetic) Bungie has implemented since the launch of the game. Why the previous DLCs didn't have something like this is beyond me. The gimmick this time around is the "Taken," enemy type, which are basically souped-up denizens of Oryx. He restructures their bodies to serve him, and as a result, have this shadowy sort of glow going on. They're cool on paper, but once you realize that the Taken are literally just reskinned existing enemies, they lose their luster quite a bit. In my mind, they basically sum up Destiny's constant need to re-use existing content rather than actually provide something new. The Strikes however, like the attempt at a story, are another step in the right direction. Bungie has overhauled them so they're a bit more streamlined, and provide players with more to do than just shoot regular enemies before they face a giant bullet sponge boss. For instance, one tasks party members with grabbing a ball as a key of sorts, and running through the level with it to unlock various doors. Shield Brothers features a fun fight with two bosses, and Sunless Cell hosts a final boss encounter in complete darkness. When you add in the fact that the new Strike playlists actually give good rewards, they're suddenly much more fun to play. Additionally, the raid, King's Fall, is par for the course. Raids are easily my favorite aspect of the experience, and give us a quick one hour glimpse each week into the game that Destiny could be. The boss fights here are fast, fun, and puzzling, and I had a blast trying to figure it out with my group. Once again though many players won't even see this raid, as it still requires them to manually find a group and meet the entry requirements. Finally, PVP is getting seven new maps (eight on PSN), as well as a few modes. My personal favorite is The Drifter, which is an abandoned ship in The Reef, sporting a really cool atmosphere and design. PVP is a bit more robust now in general, with three new modes in tow. Mayhem is a hyper-ability based mode, Rift is like a capture the flag/basketball hybrid, and Zone Control is basically what the original PVP mode should have been -- where only capturing objectives, not kills, obtain points for your team. This is very close to the same competent but flawed shooter you played last year. Brand new players should probably jump on this opportunity to try the game out with the "Legendary Edition," which provides the base game, both DLCs, and the Taken King expansion, but anyone who hated Year One will only find the improvements to be incremental at best. Slowly but surely, Bungie is morphing this chimera of a game into something more presentable. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Destiny DLC review photo
The beta period is over
Year One Destiny players got taken for a ride. It's very clear that Bungie shipped an unfinished game, riddled with questionable design decisions, a bare-bones story, and a distinct lack of content. Hell, the developer w...

Review: Undertale

Sep 24 // Ben Davis
Undertale (PC)Developer: Toby FoxPublisher: Toby FoxReleased: September 15, 2015MSRP: $9.99 Undertale is the story of a human child who falls into a deep underground cavern filled with monsters and must find a way to escape back to the surface. The monsters had all been banished there by the humans long ago, so tensions are high whenever a human drops in to visit. The player quickly meets two monsters, a flower named Flowey and a motherly cow/rabbit monster named Toriel. They seem nice enough, but they are monsters after all, so should they really be trusted? The journey through the caves is filled with puzzles, turn-based random encounters, and a whole lot of humor. The outstanding gameplay mechanic here, though, is combat. It's a unique system, and even though encounters are random, they don't occur often enough to become an annoyance. In fact, I usually found myself looking forward to my next encounter. [embed]312265:60496:0[/embed] The turn-based combat in Undertale works very differently from most other RPGs. While attacking or defending, a box will appear with a short mini-game to complete in order to determine the amount of damage given or received. Attack mini-games involve stopping a moving bar along a slider at the perfect moment for maximum damage. The majority of defense mini-games play out a bit like a bullet hell; enemies will usually send out a volley of projectiles, and the player must move their heart around to avoid getting hit by anything. Bosses each have their own slight alterations to the defense mechanics, and the game does a good job of changing things up from time to time so that it's not always strictly bullet hells. Attacking is not the only option, however. There are two other choices, Act and Mercy, which will provide much of the core combat gameplay for many players. The Act option offers several ways to interact with the enemy, which change depending on which monster is being fought. These can range from friendly actions such as "Compliment" or "Hug" to meaner things such as "Pick On" or "Ignore." Choose the wrong interaction and the monster might become more aggressive. Choose the correct interaction and the monster might become happier or no longer wish to fight. When this happens, the Mercy function opens up and the fight can be ended non-violently. I honestly enjoyed trying out every possible option anyway, even if I already knew what to do, just to see how the monsters would react. Basically, it's the player's choice whether to destroy the monsters or show them mercy. Killing monsters grants money and XP which can raise the human's LV. Sparing monsters is only rewarded with money (and perhaps a new friend). It's entirely possible to play through the entire game without killing anything and remain at LV 1, and it's also possible to kill everything. But keep in mind that every decision has consequences. Aside from combat, there are also puzzles to be solved in order to navigate the caverns, but for the most part these are very light. I can't imagine many players will get stuck on any of the puzzles, and actually some of them are solved by the monsters themselves because they doubt the human's abilities. The puzzles aren't particularly impressive, but they're used more as a way to keep things interesting as the player is exploring rather than trying to stump them. One of Undertale's greatest strengths is its wonderful cast of characters and its extremely witty sense of humor. While the main character is sort of a gender-neutral blank slate for the player to inhabit, the monsters are anything but. I quickly fell in love with just about every character I came across, even some of the common enemies, since it's possible to have conversations with them during battle. Everyone in Undertale is so memorable and interesting, I just wanted to hug them all (and I did hug some of them!). The humor is spot-on as well. I haven't laughed out loud this consistently during a game since EarthBound. Between listening to a long conversation of terrible skeleton puns, having a flexing contest with a muscle-headed merhorse, cooking and eating a cup of instant noodles in the midst of battle, finding out how item names like Butterscotch Pie or Spider Donut are abbreviated, and hundreds of other hilarious moments, my face was starting to hurt from smiling and laughing so much. The thing that really hooked me, sealing the deal for Undertale being such a phenomenal game, was how it deals with player choices. I don't want to spoil much in this regard, but there are multiple endings as well as many moments and lines of dialogue which can be altered depending on the player's actions, and some of the things the game remembered seriously surprised me. It's really difficult to talk about what makes Undertale so great without spoiling anything, but if the concept sounds interesting to you at all, I highly recommend checking it out. Don't let the somewhat plain-looking graphics turn you off, because the game more than makes up for that through its superb gameplay, characters, and writing (not to mention the excellent soundtrack!). And actually, many areas, objects, and characters are surprisingly beautiful and well-drawn, so even the lackluster art style started to grow on me after a while. Undertale provided me with many hours of laughter, happiness, and warm, fuzzy feelings, all the while surprising me with some truly sad and shocking moments out of the blue. It's the kind of game that I'll want to replay many times in order to see how all of the various choices play out, and I'm sure I will remember it fondly for years to come. I hope everyone else can find as much joy from playing Undertale as I have! [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Undertale review photo
Pure happiness
Every once in a while, a game comes along that takes you completely by surprise. I noticed a lot of people talking about Undertale recently, and how great it was. The screenshots looked a little underwhelming, but I decided t...

Review: Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance

Sep 22 // Chris Carter
Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance (PS4)Developer: NIS Publisher: NIS Released: October 6, 2015MSRP: $59.99 This time around, Void Dark, an evil overlord, sparks the largest Netherworld war in history. As a result of essentially alienating the entire galaxy, a heap of rival overlords rise up in revolt, one of which is led by the stoic warrior Killia. Because of the focus on global (or universal) conflict, the narrative feels more sprawling in Alliance of Vengeance, which works both for and against it. This is more of a gradual story, building up over time, than the small-group feel of most of the series. Hell, in Disgaea 3, the main character wants to kill his dad for smashing his video games. As a result, the characters aren't quite as crazy or manic as Laharl and Mao -- they have bigger things at stake. Killia's silent archetype does get old after a while, but his style actually works from a gameplay perspective, so I never felt fully disconnected from him. Seraphina, the Princess Overlord of the Gorgeous, is a bit more annoying. She has that "hohohoho!" laugh that's popular in anime, and her jokes of dominating everyone around her get old very quickly. But like all Disgaea characters, she opens up over time and reveals more depth, particularly with her backstory. She also fills in for Etna in-between chapters, delivering the comedic interludes that are clearly too absurd to be canon. There are plenty of side-conversations to have, and an archive function in the game's hub world allows players to re-watch cutscenes or dialog bits. Ailliance of Vengeance's weakest point is probably the narrative this time around. Particularly for the first 10 hours or so, the pace is relatively slow. You know nothing of the true motivations of most of the cast, and the main draw seems to be "fight, fight, fight until we get to Void Dark." You'll get a few flashes of story here and there, but for the most part it's one-dimensional, at least for the first half. [embed]309993:60317:0[/embed] As for the rest of the cast, it's about par for the course -- you have your meathead, your subservient Prinnies, your overconfident youngsters, and so on. There wasn't anyone I outright loved like Almaz or Mr. Champloo from Disgaea 3, but no one is excessively annoying or not worth using during missions. I've always felt like Disgaea is what you make it, party-wise. Since the class creation system is more robust than ever, you can literally custom-tailor your own characters if you don't like the core cast. It helps that the animations are beautiful, as is the artwork. It's not going to push the PS4 even close to its limits, but it's far better looking than the last entries on PS3, and it's crazy how gorgeous anime-style games look on current consoles. It's all so smooth, colorful, and well-crafted. Even characters that belong to the same class look different enough, especially when they wield a variety of weapons, which yield their own sets of personality. Disgaea 5 kicks off in record time, as you're placed into the main hub in minutes. Like every other game in the series, you'll launch missions from here, equip your party, and shoot the breeze with various NPCs. The tools available are a bit more expansive than other games, most notably the crazy character creation mechanic I mentioned above. In addition to a name and color scheme, you'll also be able to hire them at your current level, alter their personality, and change every single one of their skills if you wish. For instance, you could create a fury-crazed warrior with a red hue named Immortan Joe, debuff his ranged attacks, and reapply those points into close-combat, high-risk abilities. As usual, the "all at once" player turns in combat work splendidly. If you've never played a Disgaea game before, your entire team gets to do their turn, and then the enemy team does theirs. It's an interesting juxtaposition to the alternating scheme used in most SRPGs, and it's even more nuanced when you take into account the "execute" function that lets you play out part of your turn in the order that you selected. This is on top of the crazy counter-attacks that will play out randomly (as well as counter-counters and counter-counter-counters), and team-up attacks that initiate when you're near a party member on the grid. You also need to watch for enemy "Evilties" this time, which may produce effects like making foes stronger next to other baddies, and so on. Likewise, your team has their own set of Evilties, like Seraphina's ability to do more damage to males. Combined with the Geo system (colored zones that also provide buffs or debuffs), you'll have to pay attention at all times to get the most out of a battle. Eventually, you'll unlock the power to place characters in "Support Squads," granting them special bonuses with the caveat that each squad is limited in number. Oh, and there's the Revenge system that powers up characters after the death of a connected party member, the Item World and council system return, and new classes like Dark Knights (one of my new favorites), Maids (an item-based class), and Fairies (who absorb magic) join the fray. Thankfully, there are a lot of game options to customize the experience as well, including jacking up the movement speed during hub sequences, upping combat speed, skipping animations, and auto-scrolling conversations, which are mostly fully-voiced. While I don't have access to it yet and it didn't influence this review, Alliance of Vengeance still has the contentious DLC strategy as past titles. I feel like the series has enough content to last you at least 100 hours on its own, but I still don't like the idea of selling fan-favorite characters piecemeal directly after launch. Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance may not have the best story or cast in the series, but it gets the job done, and brings a ton of advancements with it in the process. I'll probably be playing this one for years to come, and I sincerely hope NIS is able to continue this series. It's still one of the best SRPG franchises in the business. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Disgaea 5 review photo
Finding The Lost
I can count on the Disgaea series. While NIS always seems to be trying to recreate the magic of the initial release, every game manages to capture the essence of SRPGs in a charming and robust manner. The story isn't as impressive as the last entry, but Alliance of Vengeance has made a number of advancements to the Disgaea formula.

Review: Aerannis

Sep 22 // Jed Whitaker
Aerannis (PC)Developer: ektomarch Publisher: ektomarch Released: September 15, 2015MSRP: $9.99Rig: Intel Core i7-3930K @ 3.2 GHz, 32GB DDR3 RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 980, Windows 10 64-bit, Intel 750 SSD After receiving an email from one of the developers stating you play as a transgender character, I couldn't help but give Aerannis a chance. I was rather surprised how well the Kickstarted game was able to mesh the adventure genre with a stealthy metroidvania. Traversing different parts of the cyberpunk world to find and complete missions -- mostly consisting of either stealthy sneaking, hits, or investigating -- was pretty satisfying and never felt dull.  The formula is overall pretty simple: Talk to your robot buddy / boss / NPC and receive a mission with directions, follow the directions till you find an arrow in front of described building, do the mission, rinse and repeat. The world isn't exactly huge, but save stations allow you to fast travel between them, thankfully cutting down on dull backtracking that many games in the same genre suffer from.  Missions are all relatively similar even if the goal at the end can be a bit different: Going from point A to point B while hiding or blasting enemies until you reach the goal. But thankfully new mechanics, weapons, and enemies are introduced along the way to keep things interesting, such as the abilities to hang from ledges, jump off walls, and drop varying types of bombs. In a few levels you'll also be tasked with taking down giant boss monsters, which are always satisfying and unique.  [embed]311778:60469:0[/embed] As someone who typically hates stealth sections in games, I actually found the stealth missions fairly enjoyable as they are a bit more action-oriented than games like Hitman. I found myself never having to wait more than a few seconds for an enemy to mill about allowing me to either sneak by or grab them from behind with the decision of instantly killing them or taking them hostage, with any option being equally satisfying.  Politics: this game has them and we have to talk about them. Seeing as you play as a transgender female in a world where men don't exist because... well... the game doesn't really ever explain this, nor does it explain how trans females exists with no males. Are babies born male and forced to be female? How are babies born? I feel like the developers had some kind of agenda with the game's story but never truly make it 100% clear one way or another, which is probably intentional. I imagine that players of every belief will be able to feel like Aerannis story falls into what they think if they wanted.  For instance, one section has you enter a part of the city known as TERF Turf, where radical feminists are in control and rally against "snowflakes" as they call them, a shortened version of the pejorative "special snowflakes" which is often used to slur transgender people. TERF is an acronym for "Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists" by the way, so it makes sense that the sign outside their part of town says "you must be this cis to enter" with a picture of a tampon. The game treats TERFs as the main villains even going as far as referring to them as Nazis, though without directly saying the word. So many people will take this as meaning "excluding trans people is bad" while others will surely interrupt it as "all feminists are bad," a distinction that is never directly made. My biggest gripe with the game is it never really says anything. Sure it talks about feminism, transgender people, and diversity, but what is the message it is trying to convey? In the end the whole thing kind of feels like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist who finds the most radical outlier of a group and makes an example of them for what a said group must be like, when that isn't necessarily true. I have a hunch the developers' intentions was to try to hide a wolf in sheep's clothing or apply gotcha tactics by having players play as a transgender character while preaching to them about the dangers of feminism -- insert laughter here -- and it really just never works, mostly because the writing is less than great and the message isn't clear. For a game having two endings, neither really had much to say or made sense to the context of the rest of the game. One ending has the main character reveal a secret twist they had been keeping the entire game, which would be fine if their internal dialogue wasn't presented at times, which made the ending feel jarring and disconnected from the rest of the experience. The other ending just goes completely off the rails that had me audibly exclaim "What the fuck!?" Maybe that is part of the beauty of Aerannis -- aside from its crisp pixel art, matching soundtrack and solid gameplay -- is that it is like staring into the abyss of the mind of a conspiracy theorist, or any random internet hive-mind; it might not make much sense, it might be completely off kilter with the real world, and it might be the complete opposite of what I believe, but it was still good for a laugh. Aerannis is a beautiful, diverse metroidvania with solid mechanics mixed in with some tin-foil hat madness, and regardless of your political views you should give it a shot; you might just enjoy it, I know I did. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Aerannis photo
Transgender Feminist Illuminati Blues
In a cyberpunk future where men cease to exist, a trans woman and for-hire assassin is fighting the feminist Illuminati that runs the government. Along the way she encounters shape shifting monsters that often are shaped like...

Review: Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer

Sep 22 // Ben Davis
Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer (3DS)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoRelease Date: September 25, 2015MSRP: $39.99 Happy Home Designer puts the player in the role of interior decorator as an employee of the Happy Home Academy. It's your job to listen to clients' requests, fulfill their needs, and add your own bit of flair to their home designs. There are more than 300 villagers in need of decorating advice, and Isabelle will visit with requests to design public facilities around town. Each villager request will have a special theme to follow pertaining to their vision of an ideal home, such as "a tropical resort," "a forest of books," or "a bamboo playground." They'll bring along a few pieces of their favorite furniture which must be used in the design, but the rest is up to you. Design their yards, the exterior of their homes, and of course the inside as well, and try to fit the theme to make the clients happy. Isabelle will also drop by occasionally with requests to design larger public spaces, such as restaurants, schools, hospitals, and more. Many of these buildings have multiple rooms to decorate, each with their own set of requirements. These were the most fun for me, because I got to use items which I never wanted to use in my own home in previous Animal Crossing games, and the layouts were a lot different than what I was used to working with, so everything felt new to me. [embed]311329:60430:0[/embed] Every new request adds new items to the catalog of furniture at your disposal. Any of these new items are sure to make the client happy, although ultimately it really doesn't matter too much. They will be pleased as long as the furniture they brought along is used, and it's actually not possible to say that the house is finished until those items have been placed, so there's really no way to make any of the clients unhappy. This was the most disappointing thing about the game to me. I was hoping to be graded on my designs, with the ability to make clients happier with more thoughtful interior decorating skills or upset if their house turned out to be a disaster. In reality, they'll be just as happy if you take time designing a beautiful house as they will be if you walk in, unpack their boxes, and say that everything is finished without adding or moving anything at all. It's terribly unsatisfying, but I suppose it does give players the freedom to play however they like without the fear of upsetting any of the villagers. Fortunately, your designs can be graded by other players if you choose to upload them to the Internet via the Happy Home Network. Houses and public facilities can be rated by four different categories: cuteness, coolness, uniqueness, and the "I'd live here!" factor. If you find an interesting design online, you can visit that person's house to walk around and check it out before giving an assessment. It's a pretty neat feature and a good way to get some feedback, but it's not quite the same as having the game score your designs. That being said, designing rooms is still super fun, and easier than ever to do. Just drag, drop, and rotate furniture with the touch screen, add more items from the catalog, duplicate items with the L and R buttons, drag unwanted stuff to the trash can, and voila! No more slowly pushing and pulling furniture into place (but you can do that too if you want). Also, there are no bells to worry about, so the only limit to the amount of items which can be added to a room is the space afforded by the floor plan. Decorating rooms in Animal Crossing has never been simpler. There are also options to add ceiling fixtures, create your own custom designs, have Cyrus refurbish stuff, add background noise other than music, and more which can all be unlocked with Play Coins. Once a house or public space is finished, you're free to go back and visit it whenever to hang out with the residents or offer a remodel (although public spaces can only be remodeled after they have all been built). Villagers who have been helped already can be found walking around town, and new potential clients can also be found wandering around with thought bubbles above their heads. Finished public spaces will also be used by villagers, and their roles within the buildings can be chosen by the player (meaning you can decide which villagers are customers or employees). Happy Home Designer features support for amiibo cards. The game includes one amiibo card to start with, and more can be bought in packs for $5.99. The cards can be used to design homes for special villagers who wouldn't normally come by as clients. I got Lyle's card, for example, a higher-up at the Happy Home Academy, so I got to decorate my coworker's home. The cards can also be used to summon villagers to public spaces, so the town can be populated by all of your favorite villagers. That's essentially all there is to Happy Home Designer. Just design homes and admire the finished projects. But even for such a simple idea, I still find myself going back in to see which villagers are looking for a new home and how interesting their theme sounds. It's strangely addicting, and designing homes for some of the more offbeat villagers like the mad scientists, wrestling fanatics, and criminal masterminds is really fun. I just wish they had built in some kind of grading rhetoric for how well your designs resonated with the clients. There has always been a grading mechanic for your own homes in previous Animal Crossing games, where the Happy Home Academy would award points based on how well the furniture fit together, how everything was arranged, and so forth. It's strange they would scrap that idea for a game built entirely around the Happy Home Academy, but that's the way it is. I would recommend Happy Home Designer for anyone who really enjoys designing and decorating virtual spaces. If finding the perfect furniture for your house in Animal Crossing was your favorite part of the series, then you'll surely get some enjoyment out of this game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Animal Crossing review photo
Comfortable living
Animal Crossing's home design feature was actually the thing that got me hooked on the series in the first place. Back when I was addicted to building houses in The Sims, one of my friends came over for a visit and broug...

Review: Extreme Exorcism

Sep 22 // Jed Whitaker
Extreme Exorcism (PC, PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Golden Ruby Games Publisher: RipstoneRelease Date: September 23, 2015MSRP: $12.99 If you've played one of the many indie couch competitive games that have become popular in the past year or two, you know the drill here: gather three of your friends together and fight to the death. The gimmick in Extreme Exorcism is that winning a round causes a ghost to replay your previous actions, including firing weapons that can kill your enemies, or even yourself depending on the various customizable settings. By default each player can carry up to three weapons at a time, which spawn in predetermined places around each of over 45 stages. Weapons range from basic punches and kicks to rocket launchers, boomerangs, and magical staffs. While the variety of weapons is nice, nothing really feels original, though familiarity makes the game very pick-up-and-play friendly.  Matches are fast and furious, especially when playing with the maximum of four players. Each time someone wins a round, a ghost will spawn of their previous win, and ghosts stay on screen until exorcised via the purple wings weapon that spawns from time to time. The fact that you can potentially have ghosts from four different players running around the screen firing off rocks and kung-fu kicks in every direction makes for some hectic games.  [embed]311776:60466:0[/embed] For those of you without friends in real life, there is an arcade mode and the challenge mode. Arcade mode is a series of matches in each level of the game where you're required to kill so many of your previous ghosts to unlock each level. The first ghost is spawned by killing a possessed chair, which is super simple as the AI isn't anything special, as it doesn't need to be since you're fighting your ghosts. Arcade mode is simple enough to be enjoyable alone, but can be played with up to four players as well, working together towards an enjoyable fight with a boss in the final level.  Challenge mode, however, is for one player only. In 50 different challenges you'll be tasked with completing different goals such as killing 100 chairs with three lives, or completing five rounds only using a boomerang. The challenge mode lives up to its name. It is easily the most challenging part of Extreme Exorcism and will test even the most seasoned players. I was able to unlock every challenge, but completing them is a different story, though I didn't really feel pressed to complete them given that there is no real reward other than feeling accomplished, and achievements if you care about those.  If anything, Extreme Exorcism is a game for those who have tried TowerFall and Samurai Gunn at their parties and want something even more hectic, and bustin' makes them feel good; otherwise players new to the genre may feel a bit overwhelmed with the amount of on-screen action. As for me, I'll stick to the classics for my get-togethers. Simplicity is what appeals to me when I'm trashed and I'd rather not projectile vomit from my eyes trying to keep up with all those ghosts. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Extreme Exorcism photo
No head spinning here
Four teenagers enter a haunted house and get killed by each other until ghosts show up. No, it isn't the plot to House on Haunted Hill but the mechanics of Extreme Exorcism, the new couch competitive game from Golden Rub...

Review: Act of Aggression

Sep 21 // Patrick Hancock
Act of Aggression (PC)Developer: Eugen SystemsPublisher: Focus Home InteractiveReleased: September 2, 2015MSRP: $44.99  Act of Aggression's plot takes place in the near-future where political agencies are being exploitative during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The player takes the side of the Chimera and U.S. government, who believe a group called the Cartel are behind this financial crisis. There are also standalone missions that play out from the perspective of the Cartel. The campaign isn't the most interesting story, which is compounded by downright terrible voice acting. I'm honestly not sure if they were going for a "so bad it's good" angle, but the end result is just bad.  The campaign also does a poor job of acting as the game's tutorial. After completing a campaign, jumping into an online match will be mostly foreign. Personally, I recommend playing through AI skirmish matches to get used to how the actual game handles before jumping online. That way, players can take their time reading unit descriptions and getting a feel for the various factions. [embed]309347:60454:0[/embed] Gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has played a real-time strategy game before. Players need to harvest resources, build up their base, create an army, and wipe out the opponents' base. There are four resources to keep track of: oil, aluminum, rare earth elements, and electricity. The first three are harvestable from the map using Refineries, but electricity is created by specific buildings. There are other ways to acquire certain resources, like occupying banks or constructing specific buildings.  Not everything is par-for-the-course RTS gameplay. Players can send ground troops to occupy any building that litters the map. Soldiers inside of buildings have increased defenses from that structure, with the obvious downside of being stuck inside the building. Enemies can either attack the building in an attempt to destroy it and kill the soldiers inside, or send in their own troops to fight inside. Winning battles inside of buildings seems to be a case of numbers; having more soldiers than the enemy will end in a victory. There are tons of buildings spread across just about every map, which makes traversing an area way more interesting since the enemy can be in any of them. As mentioned, large bank buildings will generate (finite) resources when occupied, so the early game usually consists of players rushing towards those areas. It's easy enough for players to take a bank next to their base, but heading directly towards an enemy bank early on can also be worth it. It's an incredible gameplay mechanic that truly does alter competitive play. Another important element involves prisoners of war. After a soldier is defeated in battle, they don't disappear from the map. Instead, they become a unit that has no action other than to move. Players can have the wounded soldiers retreat to base, but if an enemy gets there first, they can capture the POW. From there the enemy can generate resources, and even be traded for different resources. This is something that can really impact the late-game, and can easily separate mediocre and great players.  Base building is standard for the genre, and consists of three tiers of buildings. Certain structures need to be built before constructing anything from a higher tier, and many of the late-game buildings require rare earth elements, the late-game resource. It feels like a natural progression, and still allows for many different "builds" and strategies. Perhaps the best part about playing Act of Aggression is that it actually feels like war. Players, in general, need to have a well-balanced army to see any sort of success. "Deathballs" of a single unit can see mild success, but will usually fail to bring complete victory (trust me, I've tried). Having a balanced army, stationing units in buildings, and occasionally calling in airstrikes made me feel more like a strategist than any RTS in recent memory. Each faction can also build a "superweapon," which takes the form of a nuclear missile. All three superweapons are pretty much identical, with some numbers being changed like area of effect and damage. These aren't an automatic victory once they are built, and in fact can be defended against by certain factions with specific structures.  It's important to note that "actions per minute," or APM, isn't an emphasis here. Players won't need to worry very much about micromanaging their armies in the midst of an intense battle. It's more about keeping your enemy on their toes with a strong overarching strategy, along with intelligent placements and makeups of an army. Visually, Act of Aggression impresses. Players may not realize it, but zooming in reveals a nice level of detail given to each of the units. It can be hard, using the normal camera level, to discern between specific units which makes combating armies tougher than it needs to be.  It's unclear whether or not Act of Aggression will have any legs to stand on within a few months. The player count hovers around the 1,000 to 2,000 range at any given time and I've had no shortage of players to compete against online. The larger price tag is likely limiting its playerbase, and it can be hard to justify due to the lackluster single-player option.  This might not be the prophet of the next wave of "golden-era" RTS games, but it's a fresh entry to a genre that desperately needs it. It's one of the few games that has truly made me feel like a strategist, and changes the way I approach familiar situations when playing online. For those only interest in single-player, I'd recommend looking elsewhere. If online multiplayer or even AI skirmishes are all you need, Act of Aggression delivers a wonderful product. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Act of Aggression review photo
Enter the hotseat
Act of Aggression claims to be built like games from the "golden era of RTS." You know, back when StarCraft and Command and Conquer were taking the industry by storm. At least, I assume that's what they mean because...

Review: SOMA

Sep 21 // Caitlin Cooke
SOMA (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: Frictional GamesPublisher: Frictional GamesRelease Date: September 22, 2015MSRP: $29.99 In SOMA you play as Simon Jarrett, an unlikely fellow trapped inside a deep underwater facility named PATHOS-II. The machines are strangely talking like people, monsters wander the corridors aimlessly as if looking for something or someone, and most of the systems are completely shut down. The complex is clearly in disarray, and it’s up to you to make it through alive and discover what caused the collapse of the facility. There is little guiding Simon in his exploration through PATHOS-II save for Catherine, a scientist you find via a comms link. She is virtually the only guide you have in the game, explaining what you need to make it through to the next area. However, most of SOMA rests on your ability to parse through notes and other aspects of the environment to discover what might need to be done next.   The environment is highly interactive with lots of care in the details -- practically everything can be examined, from sketches and magazine articles to ancillary objects, all of which give more flavor to the atmosphere and in some cases provide hints for how to move forward in the game. Simple controls also make it easy to focus on the story and interactivity of the world, allowing you to hone in on your ability to discover and learn bits of what happened to the facility. The general flow walking through the facility is very natural, and despite the story and gameplay being fairly linear, it never actually feels forced in this way. There’s no journal, written objectives, or anything of that kind -- exploration (and sometimes Catherine’s guidance) grants you more insight into what you need to do next. Maps are only provided in some larger areas, and are fixed in one place, so relying on memory is key -- especially when hiding and running from monsters. SOMA has no combat, but this doesn’t mean that it lacks action. The game finds clever ways to make your brain work, from solving interesting puzzles to having you navigate maze-like environments filled with monsters -- or sometimes both at the same time to keep you on your toes. Puzzles err on the side of being a bit easy, but are integrated seamlessly within the plot and environment (via old computers, mechanics, and other elements), so nothing seems out of place. Monsters are carefully placed in certain areas and are typically one-offs -- i.e., you’re only dealing with one at a time. If you run into one (or if one runs into you), Simon will instantly pass out and wake up in the same location, sans monster, but with an impairment that renders your screen dizzy and altered. There are several “healing” points throughout the levels that can remedy your dizziness so you’re not shambling around for too long. However, if you’re still dizzy and don’t avoid the monster safely the second time, it’s game over and you’re back to the beginning of the area. [embed]311740:60456:0[/embed] The monster designs are unique and frightening, ranging from human-like robots to creepy underwater disco-ball-headed humanoids and twisted abominations, each having their own patterned behaviors and rules. For example, some monsters are blind so sneaking around is possible, but for others, looking straight at them will cause an instant death. Thankfully, there is  a way to detect them -- if any monster is in close proximity to Simon (even through walls), your screen starts to distort and turn to static, and will grow worse as they get closer. Save for one particularly nightmarish portion where you are trapped in an extremely dark maze full of monsters chasing you about, SOMA has a good balance between exploration, puzzles, and these monster bits. I was however a bit disappointed that there were only a few monster types in the game, and most of them only make one appearance. I liked that they kept things new but would have preferred to see some re-appearances down the line, especially because the monsters were so creative in their mannerisms and design. It's delightful they didn’t overuse the whole “run away from the monster” shtick to boost tension at every given turn. Sometimes just being in a desolate, dark environment surrounded by water and metallic-sounding creaks is enough to cause fear and tension in itself. The atmosphere does plenty good on its own creating jump scares from utilizing lighting, sounds, and other ambient elements. The man vs. machinery theme is also extremely unsettling -- often times creating disturbing images of human bodies being leeched. SOMA is executed extremely well across the board from the plot, to the ease of gameplay, all the way up to the voice acting. I felt immersed and anxious the entire ride, and although the story isn’t 100% tied up or concrete by the end, it leaves players some room to interpret what may have happened and what’s to come -- and what is right or wrong. It pushes you to think about the nature of being human, and at a few points forces you to make tough decisions based on your morals and what you believe to be right. The beauty, however, is that nothing is right. No matter how you proceed, there’s always a piece of you left wondering if you chose correctly. SOMA gets everything right about the the survival horror genre. It’s like someone created the perfect video game mixtape -- a little bit of abandoned underwater atmosphere from BioShock, detailed environments a la Gone Home, and (of course) the frenzied monster mechanics from Amnesia. Even if you dislike non-combat-oriented games, I dare you to give it a try.  [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
SOMA review photo
Sci-fi excellence
What makes us human? Is it our physical body, our intellect, our spirit -- or all of the above? These questions permeate an underwater world where everything’s gone mad. The machines have lost it, taking over all that w...

Review: Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows

Sep 17 // Chris Carter
Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows (3DS, PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One])Developer: Yacht Club GamesPublisher: Yacht Club GamesRelease Date: September 17, 2014MSRP: Free (with $14.99 Shovel Knight purchase) The main draw here is the new campaign, with a completely playable Plague Knight. As a note, you're required to beat the original story to unlock it, but there's also a code available that will likely be widespread after the expansion's release. For the purposes of this review however I didn't use the code, as I wanted to replay the entire base campaign so I could directly compare it while it was fresh in my mind. Whereas the original story involved Shovel Knight's quest to defeat the evil Enchantress, Plague of Shadows is an alternate timeline of sorts, where our hero was bested (but not killed), and evil rules the land. Plague Knight decides to seek out his own fortune, developing a potion of unlimited power in secret. The levels are, for the most part, the same, but are reworked to cater to Plague's particular set of skills. Most, if not all stages, have completely new paths and areas as well. This remix concept paid off, because while the actual themes of the levels were familiar, it felt like I was playing a new game. Heck, he even gets his own town. Plague Knight sports a double-jump by default, as well as a charge attack that explodes and provides a triple-leap. Because of the nature of the charge, players can employ a lot of fancy maneuvers, delaying your explosion to basically go anywhere you want. Even using his potions mid-air will delay your descent. You'll basically have to relearn the game's mechanics, as Plague Knight feels utterly different. He's a bit more loose than Shovel Knight, sliding to and fro as he runs. Attacking is even more nuanced, as Plague's potions are a delayed explosion (initially), so you can hit stronger enemies with your first barrage, and aim subsequent projectiles as traps of sorts to blow up later. From there you can upgrade your standard attack to use a longer fuse, or even orbit around your character like a shield. Overall I'd say he has more options than Shovel, but is much tougher to master. As far as collectibles go, there are Green Cipher Coins to locate (which open up more shop options) as well as cash to acquire. The Ciphers remind me of the red coins in Yoshi's Island, and they're just as fun to hunt for. The fact that the number of overall coins out there is known (420) makes them more addicting to collect, and this is on top of the musical sheets to find (now scrap sheets). My favorite new element of the game is probably the tonic system, which allows you to drink an item to gain a temporary life point until death. It's a bit more strategic and deliberate system. There is one minor hangup -- don't put too much stock in the challenge mode, which is hosted by a playable Shovel Knight. Of the challenges, most are rematches (boss rushes). A few of the boss-centric challenges are pretty tough, like the one that tasks you with beating The Big Creep in under a minute, with the minimum amount of life available. The first 10 have fairly difficult bits like riding an enemy to the end of a lengthy scrolling arena. Plague of Shadows also has its own achievements (albeit 20 compared to Shovel's 45), but I'm told that he will not take on Kratos or the Battletoads, as those fights are exclusive to the core campaign. Shovel Knight already felt complete at launch, but Plague of Shadows just makes it even more enticing. The fact that it's a free update for existing (and new) owners rather than paid DLC is the cherry on top. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Shovel Knight DLC review photo
Bubonic Chronic
I can't believe it's been over a year since Shovel Knight released -- time flies, right? Over the course of that year, I've beaten it on every conceivable platform outside of the PC edition, playing it over and over...

Review: Leo's Fortune

Sep 16 // Darren Nakamura
Leo's Fortune (Android, iOS, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Windows Phone, Xbox One)Developer: 1337 & SenriPublisher: Tilting PointRelease: April 23, 2014 (mobile), September 8, 2015 (Mac, PC, PS4), September 11, 2015 (Xbox One)MSRP: $4.99 (mobile), $6.99 (non-mobile) Originally released on mobile last year, Leo's Fortune is now playable with a controller elsewhere. It's equal parts precision platformer, speed platformer, and puzzle platformer, alternating between the three to keep the experience fresh throughout. Leopold is a slippery guy, which aids in the speed sections. Certain areas have ramps and curves built in, giving Leo a playground to jump, inflate, and dive toward the exit quickly. Of the three styles of platforming present, this is the most exciting. The other two styles slow Leo down considerably. With his inflate ability, he can not only jump and launch off walls, but he can also slow his descent, giving himself greater control in spiky sections. Here, Leopold's slipperiness can get him into trouble; he will sometimes maintain momentum from a speed section straight into a trap. It can be difficult to make the small adjustments necessary for the precision segments, because pressing in one direction for more than a split second will send him careening in that direction. The puzzles are a welcome change of pace, though they never really tax the brain. For the most part, they are the same kinds of physics-based puzzles we've seen elsewhere. They're certainly not bad, but they're never mindblowing either. [embed]310626:60351:0[/embed] All of this is tied together by an after school special-esque story. Though the specifics of the big twist aren't exactly predictable, it's clear throughout that Leopold is barking up the wrong trees and stands to learn a life lesson. It's almost like one of Aesop's fables; it comes with the moral of appreciating people over possessions, which is a great message to teach children, but feels trite to those who have heard it before. In that way, the story mirrors the puzzle sections. It's totally serviceable, but I'm not particularly impressed by it. Where Leo's Fortune excels is in the presentation. Leopold's fuzz and a lot of the environmental effects are fantastically animated. Leo slides as he moves, meaning he doesn't have any walking or rolling animation, but despite that he exudes personality, particularly through facial expressions. I love the look he gives when he inflates. So what we have in all is a beautiful platformer with ups and downs (literally and figuratively), a mundane narrative with a good message, and some real difficulty toward the end. The whole game probably only takes about an hour or two to finish (with full game speedruns clocking in at about 45 minutes. It's not a must-buy, not even for platformer fans, but it's a cute little game that most people can find some fun with. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Leo's Fortune review photo
Favors the bold
Coins. Plenty of games have them scattered around to collect, but few explain why they're there in the first place. If they're so valuable, why did somebody just leave them there? Leo's Fortune gives a reason. The titular mus...

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