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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...

Review: Zombie Vikings

Sep 16 // Jed Whitaker
Zombie Vikings (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: Zoink!Publisher: Zoink AB, Rising Star GamesReleased: September 1, 2015 (PS4), October (PC), Q4 2015 (Wii U)MSRP: $19.99 Stick It to the Man! developer Zoink! decided to keep the same great art style from that game for Zombie Vikings, which is a like a combination of papercraft, stickers, and a pop-up book. The graphics really pop during the entirety of this Norse brawler, and that is about all the good things I've got to say. If I listened to my kindergarten teacher and "only said something if I had something nice to say," I'd stop here and this would be a very short review, but I'm a big kid now. Speaking of kindergarten, the humor is about on that level. Be ready for poop and anus jokes. Seems like every fantasy adventure game has to make some kind of stupid reference to the Lord of the Rings movies, which I get are iconic and loved by many people, but if I hear one more "you shall not pass" joke, it had better be next-level, second-coming-of-Christ impressive, otherwise don't. I understand that some people reference things and kind of feel like it is an inside joke -- or something only '90s kids will get -- but it isn't funny, especially when done multiple times. [embed]310977:60391:0[/embed] Now that I've made it crystal clear I think the writing and comedy are unfunny garbage, let's move onto gameplay, which isn't terrible but isn't exactly standout either. Zombie Vikings has the typical beat-'em-up flair. You'll be jumping, running, blocking, dodging, and mashing buttons to beat your enemies senseless, as well as using each character's unique special attacks and abilities. These range from more powerful attacks to swooping from the sky like a crow on top of your enemies, and clearly make some characters better than others. All in all, you're still just mindlessly beating up the baddies without much thought. The problem isn't so much what you can do, but the variety of who you're doing it to, as most every level has a variety of three styles of enemies: tiny, medium, and large. The different styles of enemies vary in appearance between stages but perform mostly the same, and after thirty levels, I was bored to tears. Bosses mix it up a bit every few levels, often requiring specific new strategies to clear before you're sent back to the same repetitive enemies. Every now and then there will be levels that mix up the formula a bit -- such as a few where you're forced to run as fast as possible from enemies -- which are the only fun levels throughout the game. Two levels have you playing a game of what equates to soccer mixed with basketball against the CPU and they easily are the most infuriating levels due to the mechanics just not working; points are really hard to score because the goals are extremely finicky when deciding if your ball goes in. Online multiplayer matchmaking was either devoid of players or just didn't function -- neither option would surprise me. Multiplayer felt necessary as you can revive other players instead of being kicked back to checkpoints, and when I was playing alone, I found myself replaying sections far more often due to death than when playing with a local co-op buddy. The cherry on top of this shit sandwich is the insane amount of bugs and glitches I experienced while playing: persistent screen tearing, levels that wouldn't allow me to complete them due to enemies getting stuck off screen or objective items not spawning, enemies getting stuck on and inside terrain, and so on. Zoink! has already released a patch on the European PSN addressing some of these issues earlier this month, which is still absent in the US for one reason or another, but that doesn't excuse the state in which it was released. I can only review the product I have in hand, not what the game could potentially be. I'm a huge fan of the beat-'em-up genre. It can be rather repetitive, but typically that can be overlooked as the games tend to be rather short. Zombie Vikings, however, overstays its welcome and starts to get rather monotonous around halfway through. While it tries to throw in some interesting levels and boss fights, those mostly end up falling flat, just like the humor. On top of all that, the game is buggy with screen-tearing issues, subtitles not working properly, and glitches preventing levels from being completed. If you're looking for a beat-'em-up to play, I'd recommend Castle Crashers Remastered and the original trilogies of Final Fight, Golden Axe, Splatterhouse, and Streets of Rage. Those games are worth far more than the asking price of this tragedy. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Zombie Vikings photo
Laugh at this bug-infested corpse
Comedy is as diverse as the world around it. Some people love Larry the Cable Guy. Others prefer Louis C.K. But one thing is for sure: not every comedian is for every person. The thing that makes you laugh may not make me lau...

Review: Dropsy

Sep 15 // Zack Furniss
Dropsy (Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, Windows [reviewed])Developer: Tendershoot, A Jolly CorpsePublisher: Devolver DigitalReleased: September 10, 2015 (Windows, Mac, Linux) / TBA (Android, iOS)MSRP: $9.99 Last week I said that Dropsy's music was "brimming with the earnestness you feel when you're about to tell someone you love them for the first time." I'd like to extend that statement to include the entirety of the game. While it's hard to swallow that idea when it is juxtaposed against the titular clown's disquieting countenance, I assure you that his adventure is more uplifting than it is horrifying. Some background: Dropsy had always looked different, and had a hard time communicating with his fellow humans. Animals, however, always found a fast friend in him. This ability to talk to creatures furred or feathered gave him a skill to perform and please people with. Through use of this talent, Dropsy convinced the crowds to love him. He and his parents were Big Top circus performers until a mysterious accident set the tent and their reputations ablaze. Daddy Dropsy survived, but Mommy Dropsy didn't. A short cinematic conveys all of this to you, and your first "quest" is to leave a memento on your mother's grave in the cemetery on the other side of town. Though it starts off on a somber note, Dropsy quickly becomes an exploration of what it means to bring happiness to a stranger. Dropsy wants to hug everyone to show him that he loves them the way he hopes that they can love him, but most people aren't keen on the idea. By helping each NPC in the game by way of light puzzles, you can eventually earn that sweet, short embrace. Whenever Dropsy meets someone in need, thought bubbles appear over their heads to convey what it is they want or need. The difficulty lays in trying to parse what exactly these small pictures mean, and it can be frustrating at times. But the beauty of this is that it places the player right in Dropsy's clown shoes, effectively showing you how hard it is for the poor guy to communicate. If each character could just verbally tell you what they required, this would be a short game. But that isn't the world Dropsy lives in. Though there is the aforementioned main quest, Dropsy is non-linear in such a way that you can wander the entire city (a beautifully pixelcrunchy mish-mash of city, desert, bayou, and forest) within the first few minutes. People that you meet early on might have secrets that you won't unravel until the back half of the game, which I completed in about five hours. You'll gently float through town with your queue of animal buddies, spreading love to all who will receive the message. Most puzzles are solved by having the right item stored in Dropsy's overalls. These often won't require too much of you, though there are a couple of tricky scenarios in the latter half of the game. There are a couple of pixel hunts and logic leaps that aren't immediately apparent, but that is mostly in regard to side quests. You don't have to make everyone happy in order to complete Dropsy, but I recommend having multiple saves so that you can go back and earn all of those sweet hugs before the ending sequence locks you out. While many suspected that this would be a horror game before it came out or that there would be some disturbing twist halfway through, that never ends up being the case. Instead, this is a celebration of the small victories we achieve when we become even the slightest bit closer to someone. Dropsy's appearance lends itself to terror and has lead to his alienation, but his presence brings an indomitable cheer to anyone who gives him a chance. Every so often, Dropsy subverts this tone with an emotional kick right in your heart's crotch, and it hurts in the best way. In the interest of being as earnest as this game, I felt a hope while playing Dropsy that I don't usually associate with gaming. This a point-and-click where your main interaction with the world is a hug button. You can play as a dog who has a map with all of his favorite places to pee, who wiggles his eyebrows when he finds a new place to mark. You can re-unite families or learn more about your own. There's an optional button in the menu to turn on the sound effects for your clown shoes.  This levity, this world, and these people are going to be with me forever. If you've ever complained about there being too much violence in gaming, or that games are all the same, and you don't play this... I hope somebody hugs you.
Dropsy photo
The best hugventure you can embark upon
I finished Dropsy about a week ago. Though an increased workload at the ol' day job slowed down this review, I'm grateful that I had extra time to put together these thoughts. Most would take that to mean that Dropsy&nbs...

Review: Super Mario Maker

Sep 11 // Chris Carter
Super Mario Maker (Wii U)Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No. 4Publisher: NintendoRelease: September 11, 2015MSRP: $59.99 The core theme behind Super Mario Maker is simplicity. Opening up with a rather lovely tutorial section, you'll be introduced to the creation process, which is as simple as touching an object with your stylus, and placing it in the on-screen grid. The entire experience can be played on the GamePad without the use of a TV, and never seeks to overwhelm the player. As the famous fictional Chef Gusteau once said, "anyone can cook!" and now anyone can create a Mario level. While Super Mario Maker doesn't give you everything your heart desires, you'll find plenty of toys to screw around with, from enemies like Kuribo's Shoe (which are actually Yoshi in select themes), to Giant Goombas that split into more Goombas, that can assist you in crafting objectives like P-Switch-centric puzzles, and even shoot 'em up levels with clouds or Koopa Clown Cars. You can create pipes or doors to send players into different areas of a level, tracks to craft moving platforms -- every basic Mario concept you can think of is here. The bread and butter of Maker is themes. You'll start with the original 8-bit Mario theme as well as the New Super Mario Bros. U series, then eventually work your way up to Mario 3, and the always delightful World. Themes (which have their own unique physics and in a few cases, movesets) can be shifted at the press of a button, including the ability to jump into underground, ghost, water, airship, or castle settings in every sub-franchise. It's awesome to create a level and see it switch to an entirely new gimmick within seconds. An "undo" option, eraser (which can be toggled with quick trigger presses), and a nuke-like reset button make everything easier. Costumes, however, are probably my favorite extra in Mario Maker, which provide players with a way to morph into other characters like Sonic, Pac-Man, or Mega Man. They're unlocked by way of amiibo, or another method I'll get to shortly, and have some unique animations and sound effects in tow, like Pac-Man's shift to an 8-bit sprite when he runs. Sadly, all of these costumes are limited to the 8-bit style only. The more you play it, the more you'll realize that limitations are a recurring issue with Super Mario Maker, despite its immense charm. [embed]306729:60161:0[/embed] Not all of these objects will be available immediately, either. Instead, you'll have to wait nine days to obtain everything, including major themes like Mario 3 and World. I can confirm that players will be able to fast-forward the Wii U clock a day ahead at a time to "unlock" the next set of items. But the process is still painfully tedious, as you have to play five minutes to "allow" the unlock, then switch to the main menu, then back to the game to receive the items, then play for another five minutes, and so on. Since this method is available, the entire requirement is rendered pointless. Having said all that, it wasn't really a dealbreaker in any way for me, and didn't have any direct correlation to my assessment here. However, there are a number of shortcomings inherent to Mario Maker's toolset even after unlocking everything. For starters, there are no assets related to Mario 2 outside of a select few re-skins. Not only is the entire theme missing from the game, but unique objects and enemies such as the iconic Phanto are nowhere to be found. Additionally, there is no way to eliminate the countdown timer (the max is 500 seconds), which takes the wind out of exploration-based creation's sails considerably. There's also a severe limitation in terms of how you can build out levels. Right now you can't choose to create a vertical-themed stage -- you have to go with the same horizontal blueprint the game gives you without fail. Maker also limits the amount of enemies you can have in any given level (for instance, only three Bowsers or roughly 100 smaller enemies) even in the 8-bit theme, which is a silly design. Mario Maker does have a few modes beyond the creation realm, thankfully, including a "10 Mario Challenge" mode that tasks you with completing eight levels in 10 lives. This essentially functions as the campaign, and brings players through a variety of different themes composed by Nintendo. The reward is two-fold -- you'll experience a fun pseudo-story mode, and obtain each blueprint for use later in the game's creation mode. They're relatively easy, but some of them provide mechanics very rarely seen in a core Mario game, and are worth spending several hours on alone. The online hub (titled "Course World") is probably where players are going to spend most of their time in the coming months. Having played other creation games with online functionality for years, I have to say that this is one of the better modules. There's support for everything, from bookmarking levels (with hearts), to viewing your "played" history, to queuing up your own creations, and sorting potential levels with qualifiers like popularity and newly shared. It's crazy to see what people have come up with already in the past few weeks, like re-creations of old school Mega Man levels complete with the 8-bit costume, to the classic "music videos" we've seen for years on end in games like LittleBigPlanet. My one gripe with viewing levels online is that they are automatically "spoiled" right before you start them. Basically, by looking at a stage, it will show the entire layout by default -- there's no way to "hide" this currently, and a lot of courses I played lost their luster as a result of this snafu. As a bonus of sorts, the hub has its own version of the 10 Mario Challenge -- a 100 lives version, which basically grabs levels online and mixes them into a custom world. This is probably my favorite element of the game, as it does a good job of curating content and giving it to you in a rapid-fire format. It also rewards players with costumes upon completion, so you don't need to use amiibo to unlock them. Super Mario Maker is a charming little creation tool, and I'm sure fans will come up with some amazing levels for years to come. However, it feels a bit more constrained than it needs to be, and is in dire need of updates or DLC to keep it going long term. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Super Mario Maker review photo
The costumes are the best part
Ever since I was five years old, I've been drawing my own Mario levels on graph paper. It's a pretty common story, because when I look at a series to give me a platforming baseline, it's usually Mario. Nintendo didn't ju...

Review: Castle Crashers Remastered

Sep 11 // Jordan Devore
Castle Crashers Remastered (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: The BehemothPublisher: The BehemothReleased: September 9, 2015 (Xbox One)MSRP: $14.99 It didn't help that I was alone for most of the journey. Not only does the pacing plod as you methodically take out enemies by yourself, but certain fights aren't balanced well for solo play. When everyone's out to get you -- just you -- and they can collectively launch a volley of projectiles that stun, over and over again, it's hard to retaliate. My way around this was and still is to juggle foes in the air, but it's not fun feeling like you have to resort to such tactics. Of course, Castle Crashers is best played with companions -- even if it's just one other player. But I have a lone Xbox One gamepad and despite The Behemoth's promised matchmaking and network improvements for Remastered, my attempts at online co-op were sluggish. Even when slowdown wasn't an issue, it was hard to find other players around my character's level. While I opted to start fresh, you don't have to. If you played Castle Crashers on Xbox 360 and upload that save data via Xbox Live Gold, you can bring over your progress to Xbox One including weapons, animal orbs, and characters (but not including things like gold and consumables). That's terrific. So is the initial pricing for Castle Crashers Remastered. It's free if you're a Gold subscriber who owned the original game on Xbox 360. You have through September 20, 2015 to claim your copy, after which point the game will cost $5 with the loyalty discount. [embed]310233:60324:0[/embed] To be clear, Remastered is not a remake. It's more of a touch-up than anything -- a way to keep Castle Crashers easily accessible and relevant as the industry moves away from last-generation consoles. It's smoother (with a frame rate doubled to 60FPS) and better-looking (with five times larger textures). But this is a game from 2008 at its core. While the character designs remain charming as ever, certain backgrounds and other elements don't hold up as consistently. Bonus characters and animal orbs that were previously obtainable as DLC are now integrated, and the shallow, button-mashing mini-game All You Can Quaff is gone. In its place is a far superior time-waster called Back Off Barbarian. I didn't get it at first, but now I really dig it. You hop around a tile-based world and try not to get squished by other characters. The twist is that movement isn't as straightfoward as pressing up to move up. Instead, adjacent tiles are color-coded to match the Xbox controller's A/B/X/Y buttons. So depending on where you are at on the board, you may have to hit Y to move up. Or maybe X! You have to think fast to survive for as long as possible. Once Back Off Barbarian gets going, it's nerve-wracking in all the right ways. As much as I enjoyed the new mini-game, it's hardly enough of an incentive to justify paying full price for Remastered. It's a similar situation with the visual upgrades and behind-the-scenes tweaks. If you can snag the loyalty discount, by all means, go for it. An eventual Steam version is also planned, but release date and pricing details haven't been announced yet. I maintain that Castle Crashers is a good game. Great, even, if you're playing cooperatively. But seven years later, I'm not nearly as smitten. I just can't endlessly grind battles like I used to. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Castle Crashers review photo
Bring friends (or lots of potions)
In 2008, Castle Crashers rekindled my dormant love of beat-'em-ups. It had imaginative characters, strange and varied locales, and the four-player co-op was great at encouraging friendly competition. There wasn't much else li...

Review: Circa Infinity

Sep 09 // Ben Pack
Circa Infinity (Mac, PC [reviewed]) Developer: Kenny Sun Publisher: Kenny Sun Released: September 9, 2015 MSRP: $9.99 The game is so simple there's no tutorial. You play as two nameless characters who must traverse through a seemingly endless corridor of black and white circles while avoiding any red demons that cross their path. The whole aesthetic can be summed up by the question "What if they made a game based on the animation that plays when you enter the TV world in Persona 4?" You can move the character left and right, and hit the action button to either dip down or jump up, depending on what color circle you are in.  Infinity consists of 50 levels split up into five sections. These all do a great job of slowly introducing new mechanics and folding them back into existing challenges. Each section feels distinct, not dissimilar to Braid. The earliest levels teach you the basics of how to dodge enemies, then section two introduces challenges like enemies that will only move when you do.  Sections end with boss fights, which do a great job of wrapping up the lesson of each stage while supplying a completely new gameplay experience. These are the only areas that feel like having a bit of a tutorial might be good, but you can still manage to figure out their secrets without too much worry. The game also features a speedrun mode for those who want to master the stages. As you would expect, things get incredibly difficult. The hardest part of Circa Infinity is keeping track of which direction you are moving in since left and right don't really mean anything when you're running around a circle. This doesn't help that the game itself may make you dizzy. You die if you touch an enemy, but it only sends you back one circle. It's very easy to get frustrated and get sent back several circles, but there are also checkpoints before particularly hard sequences. Outside of a few boss moments, it never feels unfair. The music fits well. It keeps you in a trance-like state. Each section features a different song, as well as unique boss music. The main problem with the soundtrack is that it loops fairly often, which can add to the exhaustion if you're having trouble with a particular level and are spending upwards of an hour on a section. If you can get past the fact that this is another indie puzzle platformer with a simplistic art style, Circa Infinity is well worth the cost. Brilliant level design and a great aesthetic keep the game fresh from start to finish. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Ascendant (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Hapa GamesPublisher: Hapa GamesRelease Date: May 13, 2014 (PC) / September 8, 2015 (PS4)MSRP: $9.99
Circa Infinity review photo
'Circle Infinity'
Circa Infinity is a trip, as the game is about as simple as it gets. There are three buttons, mostly three colors, and every level is just a circle. But as you start to dig deeper, and the mechanics evolve, Circa Infinity reveals itself as a brilliant puzzle platformer.

Review: Ascendant

Sep 08 // Chris Carter
Ascendant (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Hapa GamesPublisher: Hapa GamesRelease Date: May 13, 2014 (PC) / September 8, 2015 (PS4)MSRP: $9.99 While Ascendant is a hack and slash first and foremost, it follows a metroidvania style, with a boxed-base map. It's only an illusion however, as most of the game's rooms are standard challenge rooms, with very little in the way of actual exploration. You'll battle your way through said rooms, acquiring slight statistical bonuses (but never enough to get you pumped) and items, until you die -- then you start all over again. The concept is neat, but it never really follows through, nor does it entice the player to actually keep going with nearly enough carrots to go along with the stick of permadeath. Ascendant sports a cool "seasons" theme, with each portion of the game culminating in a boss fight followed by another art style, but the visual flair begins and ends with that concept. While it may look colorful and vibrant at a glance, the actual in-game visuals are fairly unimpressive. This is exacerbated by the fact that nearly every enemy in the game looks like same. As most of you know by now, I'm a fan of tougher games, but having an experience focus on that fact doesn't excuse a dip in quality. Ascendant is difficult, mostly because all of the upgrades you obtain throughout the course of each run aren't all that great, and you'll have to rely on your raw combat skill to get by. Each character has a dash (which can be done in the air), a block (with a parry), standard combos, a few spells, and a launcher system. [embed]309645:60283:0[/embed] At first I was on board with the combat, but the way launchers work turned me off a bit. To launch foes, you'll have to beat them up a bit first, then you can slam them into a specific direction. It's not really conducive to comboing or juggling -- they kind of just speedily fly away. Combat doesn't have a whole lot of impact, and while the dash system ensures that dodging is paramount, your offensive repertoire feels shallow. The fact that the game is procedurally generated also doesn't help its case. Whereas a lot of other similar titles have a variety of different obstacles to overcome, most of Ascendant's rooms (particularly early on) are simple boxes with very little in the way of platforming. I get that the team was probably going for a more combat-oriented game, gating off exits left and right, but the end result is rather jarring when you're fighting the same boring enemies over and over. Boss fights can be a blast, and highlight the vision of the developer's quite well -- even if there aren't enough of them. In a confined space with pre-determined rule sets and patterns, Ascendant does a decent job of playing with its mechanics, forcing players to master every element of the game to proceed. But then it's right back into the open world, completing the same menial actions, until another big bad crosses your path. Playing a co-op game will severely boost your enjoyment, but you'll encounter all of the same problems over again. It's almost like developer Hapa Games had two really cool ideas and tried to integrate them both into Ascendant, with mixed results. At times it has flashes of brilliance with its focus on raw skill and combat, and others, it feels like you're just aimlessly wandering another barren landscape, in search of a rush.
Ascendant PS4 review photo
We're getting to the point where the roguelike formula doesn't inspire "oohs" and "ahhs" like it used to. Where a game could generally have had the label "tough as nails," and earned instant cred, it's becoming increasingly h...

Review: I am Bread

Sep 08 // Darren Nakamura
I am Bread (Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed])Developer: Bossa StudiosPublisher: Bossa StudiosReleased: April 9, 2015 (Mac, PC), August 25, 2015 (PS4)MSRP: $12.99 I'm glad I stuck with I am Bread until the end. There was a point about halfway through when I considered giving up. I was spending a lot of time getting to the end of a level and then failing and having to start from the beginning. I was constantly fighting the camera in addition to the controls. I just wasn't having any fun. Eventually, it gets better. As a slice of bread, each of the four corners is assigned one of the shoulder buttons. Holding one of the buttons will make that corner stick to a surface. By alternating which corners are anchored, the bread can walk, climb, and even jump. The big problem I faced early on has to do shape of the bread. It is essentially a rectangle, and it is constantly flipping and rotating. Though the corners are labeled with their corresponding buttons, it doesn't feel intuitive. Sometimes the top left corner on screen is controlled by L1; sometimes it's controlled by R2. After spending more time with it, some nuance does show up. Since it's cut from a loaf of bread, the slice has two rounded corners; those are always L1 and R1. Also, since the length and width of the slice aren't equal, orientation can be manipulated in order to increase or decrease stride. There is room for impressive maneuvers to be performed, but man is it hard to get to that point. [embed]309590:60274:0[/embed] Even after coming to terms with the unintuitive controls, I never felt quite comfortable with the camera. It's always sluggish to respond, it doesn't allow any zoom control, and it's often clipping through walls and objects in tight quarters. The main goal in I am Bread is to become toast without getting dirty or wet. This means a lot of climbing along walls and across furniture. It isn't always clear what surfaces are safe. Toenail clippings on a pillow (ew) are hard to spot, and moldy walls aren't clearly delineated from clean walls. Getting to the end of a level with 100% edibility takes some trial and error. It is somewhat open in that there are multiple paths across an area and occasionally there are multiple heating elements available for toasting. It's a bit of a missed opportunity for organic difficulty scaling; I can imagine there being a fast-but-difficult route to complement the slower-but-easier route. As it is, there doesn't seem to be any obvious structure. Though the story mode was more frustrating than fun for me, the additional modes add their own twists along with new bread types. Bagel Race switches in a round rolling bagel, adds cardboard race track pieces to the levels, and has players hitting checkpoints as quickly as possible. Rampage uses a baguette, which features simpler two-button control as it tries to smash as many plates and vases as possible in a strict time limit. Cheese Hunt features cracker bread, which is more rigid and is prone to breaking, as it focuses more on exploration. Finally, Zero G adds rockets to each of the bread's four corners, allowing for total control in the zero gravity environments. As much as I didn't particularly like the plodding, frustrating story mode, I can't help but be impressed by how differently each of the additional modes plays. All of them are difficult to control, but I ended up finding some enjoyment in Bagel Race and Zero G. Fortunately, every mode is available from the start. Still, when I think about I am Bread as a whole, I'm reluctant to say it's good. It's a silly idea and it seems like developer Bossa Studios had a lot of fun building all of the different modes, but I wish I were having that much fun playing it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
I Am Bread review photo
Not worth the dough
I can only imagine how I am Bread came to be. I picture a couple of friends sitting around, drinking, when one says, "Man, wouldn't it be funny if we made a game where you play as a slice of bread?" Then everybody laughs and ...

Review: Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

Sep 08 // Jed Whitaker
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime (Linux, Max, PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Asteroid BasePublisher: Asteroid BaseReleased: September 9, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime takes place in outer space, the final frontier, a place of wonder filled with various anthropomorphic species, and a heart-shaped space station called the Ardor Reactor, which is powered by love and protected by the League Of Very Empathetic Rescue Spacenauts, also known as The Lovers. Everything was fine and dandy until the dark forces of anti-love destroyed the Ardor Reactor, ripped a hole in spacetime itself and took prisoner many of the lovely inhabitants. That is where The Lovers come in to save the day, running to and fro to control their circular spaceship while spreading love throughout the cosmos. While the story isn't exactly new -- evil force caused by evil being ruins the day, fix it -- the cute presentation and charm more than make up for it. Everything in Lovers is completely adorable, including the enemies. Lots of bright colors fill the screen, and love is emphasized at every turn. As you and a friend guide The Lovers through spacetime you'll be jumping from role to role inside various circular spaceships. Stations include thrusters, shields, turrets, navigation, and laser. Manning the guns is a pretty straightforward affair of aiming and firing, shields can be rotated around the ship to prevent damage from terrain, enemies, and projectiles, and the laser can be triggered causing it to automatically fire while rotating around the ship before needing to cool down. [embed]309747:60277:0[/embed] Piloting the ship is a bit different than any other game I've played. By default, you'll be rotating a thruster around the outside of your ship to determine what direction you'll be heading. If the thruster is on the bottom left of the ship, you'll be heading up and to the right, if it is on the top then you'll head down, and so on. While it may sound confusing, piloting only requires the brief tutorial to get used to and you'll be zipping through the cosmos in no time as if it were second nature.  Your goal throughout each colorful level in the four campaigns you'll be exploring is to find five of a possible ten captive critters to advance to the next stage. Collecting critters also increases your ranking, which unlocks different ships and upgrades for them, so exploring to find all ten critters per stage has its benefits. Gems are also found floating in containers in each stage and can be used to power up each station with power, beam, and metal abilities. Stations can be upgraded to hold two gems each, allowing you to mix and match gems to gain different effects. For example: two metal gems on the shield form a large spiky barrier that rotates a bit slower than other shields but provides more protection, or a power gem and a metal gem on a turret creates a powerful rocket that can be manually controlled. Experimenting with gems until you find the perfect configuration is exciting and leads to hilarious results, especially on the laser.  Campaigns have four levels and then a boss fight with massive creatures based on real-world constellations. Boss fights are as you'd probably expect: learn the bosses pattern, take its health bar down enough to piss it off, avoid an even larger barrage of attacks, success. Don't be fooled though, bosses are no pushovers and we found ourselves teetering on death whenever we finally defeated each boss.  Nearly every level seems to add at least one new enemy or mechanic, which keeps the entire journey fresh. The first campaign gives you the basics, before later campaigns add underwater combat, solar winds, and even wormholes that teleport you throughout the stage. Some of the more interesting stages include stationary defenses against waves of enemies and one particular stage that had to be completed in under five minutes before a star explodes killing everything in sight. We rushed through this time-limited level and ended up getting the last of ten bunnies with ten seconds to spare on the clock. We could see the exit as the clock hit zero, but luckily for us the explosion was a gradual one allowing us to make it by the skin of our teeth. I've never held my breath during a game as much as I have during Lovers, which makes the sigh of relief afterwards all that more rewarding. After finishing each campaign you'll be awarded a badge showing that you've completed it with each ship. While it isn't necessary to complete each campaign with each ship to reach the ending, it does add a bit of replayability and difficulty, especially if you're using the Jelly Roll ship. When piloting Jelly Roll your thruster rotates the entire ship, causing your controls to also change inside the ship along with it. When we played through one campaign with the Jelly Roll we found ourselves getting confused but laughing about it the whole time, though it certainly made the boss extra challenging. Completionists will be happy with the unlockable ships and added difficulty they provide.  Completing each campaign unlocks new cute Lovers to play as which don't change the gameplay, but instead just add to the overwhelming amount of cuteness the game already oozes. One of my favorite things about the Lovers is they have no gender signifiers, thus allowing you to technically be any gender you so wish to view yourself as. Those of you without a couch cooperative buddy -- as there is no online mode -- will be playing alongside a computer-controlled cat or dog that can be directed to man each of the stations at your will. Unfortunately your CPU partner will not control the thrusters, so all driving will be up to you, but the AI is very competent at the other stations. While Lovers is still very much playable as a single player title, it certainly shines as one of the best co-op experiences I've ever had and that is the way I feel it is meant to be experienced. Being able to blast asteroids and baddies out of the way while someone else is driving the ship is far more fun than watching an AI do it for you.  Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime reminds me why I love video games, because it provides a unique and colorful journey to get totally immersed in that can be enjoyed with a loved one. Probably the most original game I've played to completion in the past five years, and worthy every penny of its asking price. If you've got a loved one to play with, do yourselves a favor and play this game as soon as possible, you won't regret a your lovely journey through space.
Dangerous Space review photo
The Power of Love
Throughout my history of gaming there have been games that stand out as important bonding experiences: Bubble Bobble with my mom, Bomberman with my college roommate, and now Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime with...

Review: Forza Motorsport 6

Sep 08 // Chris Carter
Forza Motorsport 6 (Xbox One)Developer: Turn 10 StudiosPublisher: Microsoft StudiosRelease Date: September 15, 2015MSRP: $59.99 After a few minutes with the 2017 Ford GT in the tutorial (which is actually rather affordable in-game), you'll kick off three qualifying matches, which subsequently unlock the rest of the game. I started with a modest '97 Mazda RX7, with a small degree of CPU assistance to get my bearings again. This is probably my favorite part of Forza -- yes, it's a simulator, but you can fine-tune the experience to cater to your needs. If you haven't touched a racer in years, the game can show you exactly where to take turns with arrow paths on the ground that change colors based on the appropriate speed. You can also have Forza operate your braking procedures for you, so you won't fly off course or crash into walls all that often. Of course, the excellent rewind feature is back, so you can re-do a fateful turn that may have cost you the race. If you disable all of these options though, it's probably the most advanced racing simulator yet. The Xbox One controller is still by far the best standard controller for racers, with the nuanced haptic feedback system actually providing kickback. I also had an opportunity to play Forza 6 with the Logitech's G29 Driving Force, and my experience far surpassed that of its PS4 counterparts. If you've been waiting to pick up a wheel, this is probably the game to do it with. [embed]309093:60245:0[/embed] The Drivatar system also returns, which, as we know at this point, is less a gimmick and more of a proven idea. What's amazing about this mechanic is that we've had data collected for years from Forza 5 and Horizon 2, so when I jumped into Forza 6, I was immediately greeted by these AI/player combo drivers. They're still just as fun to race against as they were in the past, mostly because of erratic behavior that separates them from the orderly AI. The visual enhancements of Forza 5 have been perfected, up to and including the working odometer for each car interior. The game is still 1080p60, but the level of detail on tracks (which Forza 6 has a lot more of) is insane. This is heightened by the research Turn 10 did on the effect of rain on each track, and as a result, puddles form exactly where they would in real life. It really forces you to know (and trust) your vehicle, and you'll have to not only learn each track's ins and outs, but the rain element as well. Sometimes I found that I could sprint over it at certain angles, and in other instances, I hydroplaned the crap out of my car. Sim fans will love that they have to master yet another element of each track, even if they're already familiar. The flow of Forza 6 involves a career mode, separated by street, sport, touring, pro, and ultimate tiers. The concept here to break up the relatively standard career is "Stories of Motorsport," a loving tribute to historical races mixed in with other gamey challenges. I'm talking showcase events like racing an IndyCar at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway taking curves at over 200 mph, reliving the birth of Grand Prix racing, bowling for pins, or going up against The Stig from Top Gear. Speaking of Top Gear, it does return in a minimal capacity, but the lack of Jeremy Clarkson stings a bit. Although I had limited access to multiplayer, there is support for up to 24 players across seven modes, including your standard race setting and tag. There's also league support and a free-play mode that supports split-screen play. If you're interested in trying out any car you want, you can rent it without a charge to in-game currency -- you just won't get any experience for that race. So let's talk cars and tracks. Straight-up, Forza 6 feels like a more complete game, hosting over 450 vehicles at launch (without paid DLC), as opposed to Forza 5's roughly 200. You can still tune them up, customize their look, and download/upload new patterns -- of which there are hundreds, spanning multiple games at this point. The running theme with Forza 6 is that it's very easy to pick up for newcomers, since it basically functions as a new game and a "GOTY" edition of sorts, sporting tons of content from past titles without resorting to add-ons. This is partially because Turn 10 brought back the prize wheel from Horizon 2, which allows players to randomly earn a prize after leveling up, up to and including million-credit cars. Even though I only earned a supercar once, the other rewards are generally pretty great, so I still felt like I was progressing credits-wise. And this leads into another important element of Forza 6 -- there are no microtransactions to speak of, at least at launch. If you can't buy a car with your credits, tough, you'll have to earn them. This also goes for the new "mod" system, which kind of plays out like Titanfall's Burn Cards. You can activate one-use mods to better your handling or grip after buying packs of mods, or take "dares," which are like challenges of sorts, which provide their own rewards. Again, this thankfully doesn't feel necessary (it isn't even enabled online), and it's not linked to a microtransaction system...yet. There are also 25 tracks, each with multiple variations, which kicks Forza 5's 14 to the curb. With the aforementioned new details (especially with refreshing levels like Rio de Janeiro, which hasn't appeared since the first game) and the new rain, even the old ones feel new. Despite a lot of these upgrades, Forza 6 does feel somewhat like an apology letter for the last main iteration. It's important to note that if you don't really love the idea of reworked rain effects, you probably won't find a whole lot that's fundamentally new outside of the fact that there's just more to do in general. For me though, it was enough to outright bring me back into the racing fold. I found myself racing for hours, racking up credits, ferociously buying new cars to add to my garage, and cursing at my friend's Drivatars. Forza 6 is the new king of simulation racing. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Forza 6 review photo
Turn 10 turns a new leaf
Although I used to play racing games for hundreds of hours, it really takes something special to get me hooked again. Recently, after the somewhat rushed release of Forza 5, I naturally gravitated toward other racers, including the Horizon series. But even still, I wasn't crazy about them. That is, until I played Forza Motorsport 6.

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