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Review: Lost Orbit

May 11 // Darren Nakamura
Lost Orbit (PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed])Developer: PixelNAUTSPublisher: PixelNAUTSReleased: May 12, 2015MSRP: $11.99 Described as a "dodge-'em-up" by developer PixelNAUTS, Lost Orbit doesn't fall neatly into any one established genre. Harrison has no projectile weaponry, so shoot-'em-up isn't accurate. One of the secondary objectives is to complete levels in under a certain amount of time, but it isn't exactly a racing game either. Each level has the same basic goal: get from one end to the other without being smashed, crushed, dismembered, or otherwise destroyed by any of the many environmental hazards. To begin, Harrison has only a few tools at his disposal. He can hit his thrusters to move forward and he can turn. By collecting Obtainium, he can upgrade his suit with new abilities like a barrel roll, mega boost, and the ability to brake. Risk and reward are central to Lost Orbit's design, and that comes through in the boost ability. By the end, Harrison has a huge stockpile of fuel to use and it allows him to go much faster than normal. A skilled player can shoot for platinum times by cranking down on the boost and never letting up. An unskilled player who tries that will often smash Harrison into a rock. [embed]291882:58486:0[/embed] Peppered throughout the environment are objects more helpful than wayward asteroids. Some planets can be orbited by approaching them slowly. This replenishes and usually offers up a safe spot to collect oneself. Conversely, these planets can also be used to gain a mini boost. To activate it, Harrison must fly close to them with his thrusters on. This sets up its own little risk/reward scenario. Players going for platinum scores will want to blaze past these, but there's a limited window for success. Too far from the planet and no boost is awarded. Too close and well, you can guess what happens when an astronaut goes careening into a solid planet. This is probably one of the smartest pieces of design in the game; it's a single environmental element that serves a different function depending on the style of the player. There are other helpful/dangerous objects to find out in deep space. Gas planets can be flown through for an extended speed boost. Pulsars bounce Harrison off in a predetermined direction. Liquid planets hold the astronaut still before he choose a direction to shoot out. When everything comes together, it's almost like a game of pinball, where lights are flashing and objects are ricocheting and the player is right at the sweet spot of control. While maintaining high speeds the player doesn't have complete control over the situation, but always enough that it doesn't feel unfair. Supporting the gameplay is a poignant narration from an artificial intelligence drone (who sounds a little bit like our own Conrad Zimmerman). It isn't some grand story about good vs. evil, but instead takes a look at being human, growing up, and finding freedom. Forced into a perilous situation, Harrison reacts in a curious way. Previously working as a drone of sorts, he embraces the freedom to fly wherever and do whatever he wants. He puts himself at risk of death because for the first time in long while he is finally living. It's sad and beautiful but also pretty funny in its own way. The presentation complements the gameplay well. Despite being set in the deep darkness of outer space, there are plenty of purples and greens to keep things looking interesting. Some of the speed demon objects like gas planets and ramps have long visual lead-ins to let players know something important is coming a little before it shows up. The soundtrack deserves special mention as one that works well with the rest of the game. It captures the science fiction feel with its drifting electronic melodies, but also has higher energy sections that set the stage for Lost Orbit's fast action. Composer Giancarlo Feltrin did a great job with it; my only complaints are that I would have liked more tracks and for them to be unique to the various star systems. All in all, Lost Orbit is a winner. At about two to three hours to get through its campaign, it doesn't overstay its welcome, but it can definitely last longer for those who want to go for all the platinum medals. It is only ever as easy or as hard as the player wants it to be, and it does that through smart design rather than by artificial difficulty tweaks. Boiled down to its essence it's a game about dodging obstacles, which isn't exactly an amazing concept. But it takes that concept and runs with it, doing its dodging thing well. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Lost Orbit review photo
Cruisin' Milky Way
Flying through space can be great with all of the right tools. Automated navigation systems and high-power lasers can get a vessel through an asteroid field with little incident. Flying solo with just a jetpack and human refl...

Review: Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster

May 10 // Dale North
Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster (PS Vita, PS3 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixReleased:  March 18, 2014MSRP: $39.99 The original Final Fantasy X was and still is a great game. It took the franchise to a new place with its fully voiced scenes, strong storytelling, and visual flair. Its story, which follows summoner Yuna on her journey across the world of Spira to fight Sin, is one of Square Enix's best. Likable characters with memorable outfits, a fantastic musical score, and a powerful ending made this game one of the best role-playing games of the PS2 era. All of these positive aspects hold their value even today in this remake, though some other parts of the game haven't aged as nicely. While it was fully engaging so many years ago, Final Fantasy X's turn-based battle system now seems a bit simplistic compared to more recent JRPGs. Its true turn-based nature leaves the player open for careful decision making, it pales a bit when put up against even other newer franchise games where action is the focus. That said, there are still some great battles to be had in Final Fantasy X, and those that favor strategy over action will certainly enjoy this flash from the past. While Square Enix has spent a fair bit of time on upgrading the visual side of Final Fantasy X, they weren't able to change how cameras used to work in older RPGs during exploration. Set backdrops have the camera jumping abruptly between two scenes, which can be disorienting during exploration, and sometimes downright confusing when navigating dungeons. We're spoiled by modern RPGs where the camera will automatically pan and follow the character. But, current-day RPGs could learn a thing or two from Final Fantasy X. I appreciate that it wastes no time getting the player into real battles, and that it isn't scared to put some early pressure on players. Players are given full access to the game's systems, with little in the way of training wheels or babying. Its directness is somewhat refreshing, and its lack of complicated systems makes it seem more like a pure role-playing experience. One of its systems, the Sphere Grid, is open from the beginning for the taking. Using earned AP from battles to move through a sort of game board to collect abilities and increase powers is fun. This remake adds an Advanced Sphere Grid (from the international version), which brings even deeper levels of exploration and customization. Its navigation is more open and free, which gives the player more freedom to shape characters' powers. Final Fantasy X was always a nice looking game, but Square Enix's overhaul has added so much more visual appeal. I'm pleased to say that this isn't some quick upscale job. They took the time to upgrade backdrops, textures, lighting, user interfaces, and more, and it definitely shows. Spira has never looked better. If you've played Final Fantasy X more than a few times, you'll appreciate how it seems like you're seeing the game's varied locales for the first time. Details pop out, and foreground set pieces have been shined to a polish. Hats off to Square Enix for completely overhauling the character models of the game's main characters. A critical eye will catch that the new Tidus, Yuna, Wakka, and others still have some corners cut in places, but these models still hold up nicely when compared to newer 3D Japanese role-playing games. I'd bet that there's not a series fan out there that won't appreciate their reworking. The cutscenes have been revamped for HD resolution and look great. Some seem like they've been cropped to fit, but the scenes don't really suffer for it. They look and sound great despite being over ten years old now. But there's a slight downside to the visual upgrades in that they sometimes serves to highlight the smaller bits that have not received the upgrade treatment. While the foreground elements of scenes sport shiny new textures, pieces in the background are still made of lower resolution ones, making them look blurry in comparison. The shortcuts stick out, too. In one early scene, crowds of townspeople were made up of a mix of polygonal models and pre-rendered animations. They didn't blend, making this background detail a distraction. For the character models, while your eyes are drawn to their faces in close-up scenes, looking at anything else kind of ruins the magic. Some of the lower parts of the models, like their clothing or legs, appeared to use less polygons than their upper halves. The higher quality main character models never looked right up against second tier characters and NPCs, as other characters did not receive similar visual upgrades. Scenes can jump between a main character and a NPC, showing a high quality face one minute, and then another that looked to use one flat texture for a face. You can't help but feel that all the rest of Spira was cheated. While the HD resolution upgrade works against the whole on occasion, the improvements are mostly excellent, and greatly appreciated. The music has also seen an overhauling, though the changes might be less agreeable to fans of the original score. For the most part, the quality of sound has improved greatly, though some of the choices for certain instruments seem odd. For example, some of the more brassy instruments stick out of the mix against other higher quality sounds. However, most songs sound great. Final Fantasy X still has one of the greatest role-playing game scores ever created, so a few odd patches aren't that big of a problem in the end. It has been quite awhile since I last played Final Fantasy X. I forgot how challenging some of the battles are, how great it felt to acquire and use a character's ultimate weapon, and how high the random encounter rate was. I also forgot how strange this game is in places (Blitzball, thongs, swimming with boots on, an so on) and how much I loved some of the cutscenes. I'm happy to have been able to play Final Fantasy X again; it was a nice upgraded trip down memory lane. I enjoyed Final Fantasy X so much that I was sad to see it end. So when spin-off/sequel Final Fantasy X-2 came along, I was more than ready to jump back into the world of Spira. When I was finally able to play it, I was surprised to find that it featured a different tone, brand new systems, and completely different gameplay. Despite all this, it still ended up being one of my favorite games of the PS2 era. The sphere-hunting antics of Yuna, Rikku and Paine are as entertaining as ever in the HD remaster of Final Fantasy X-2. The mission-based gameplay is a departure from its predecessor's mostly linear progression, but there's plenty of fun to be had in exploring Spira. The new visual upgrades and gameplay features easily make this the best Final Fantasy remaster yet. The battle system of Final Fantasy X-2 holds up well, though it is still too easy to create a powerful class combination to breeze through just about any battle. By my measure, the balance is off; smart players will be able to walk through this game after earning the right equipment. Still, even with the broken balance, X-2 manages to entertain. The Dressphere job system spin-off is still great after all these years, and the mid-battle magical transformations are just as funny as you remember, though they look much better now with their upgraded visuals. Some new dresspheres have been added to the mix; their transformation and attack animations are hilarious and worth seeking out. New Garment Grids have also been included. Final Fantasy X-2's remaster brings along with it the international release gameplay additions. The new Creature Creator is pretty good fun for fans of collecting. Enemies can be captured and trained to be used in battle, but I found that capturing NPCs was even more enjoyable. It's like a complete game within another game with the full ability to customize creatures with different skills. Properly collecting and leveling enemies and NPCs gives you more story bits and sometimes even character-specific endings. Last Mission is a separate game mode that has the heroines working through a tower crawl and a series of bosses to reveal new story elements as play rewards. This game ditches X-2's free customization and open exploration for straight-ahead gameplay that requires careful choices and smart strategy. Last Mission definitely speaks to me as a fan of rogue-likes, but it may not have as much appeal to fans of your typical Final Fantasy game. Compared to the Final Fantasy X remaster, X-2 HD seems more inconsistent. While the upgraded character models are even higher quality than those of Final Fantasy X, the NPCs look even worse alongside them. Close-ups of these NPCs are pretty rough in cutscenes. Background textures are also inconsistent; it doesn't take much sleuthing to realize it. But, when it looks good, it looks really good. The character models seem to sport even more polygons than they did in the remaster of Final Fantasy X. Faces are more filled out, eyes move more realistically, and mouth animations look spot-on. The girls appear to have more makeup on, too. The lighting and spell effects in particular are great, making X-2 look like a current-gen JRPG at times. Oh, and I forgot how great the X-2 opening cutscene was. This J-Pop video of laser beams and hot pants is one for the ages, so I'm really glad it got the remaster treatment. I still think that Final Fantasy X-2's soundtrack is delightfully dorky with its action themes and singers though. It holds up nicely today and fits the game's tone perfectly. Unlike Final Fantasy X, it doesn't sound like they changed much other than a bump for the sound quality. Overall, I think Final Fantasy X-2 looks and feels better than Final Fantasy X. But, unfortunately, it also does not let you pause or skip cutscenes, and there are times when voice and animation synchronization gets off track. The game's frame rate would dip in some dungeons, though never to a terrible number. Admittedly, X-2 is a bit of a hot mess, but I've always loved this game. This remaster has made it even more enjoyable with its new look and content additions. It's not as lovingly crafted as Final Fantasy X is overall, but it makes up for that in pure entertainment value. As far as videogame remasters go, Final Fantasy X and X-2 are at the top of the list as far as quality is concerned. It's clear that Square Enix put a lot of time into both of these beloved titles, and as a series fan I really appreciate that. They've made both of these great games even better with this remastering, and any fan of either should definitely check them out.
Final Fantasy X & X-2 photo
Praise be to Yevon!
Y, R, P -- in position. It's showtime, girls. 

Review: Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters

May 09 // Brittany Vincent
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters (PS3, Vita [reviewed])Developer: Toybox Inc. Publisher: Aksys GamesReleased: March 10, 2015 MSRP: $39.99 You're the newest transfer student to have enrolled at Kurenai Academy, and as such the game wastes no time in getting you to provide your own personal information to give you the impression that the protagonist is little more than an imprint of you. From your height to your blood type, it's all about fitting yourself into the player character, which ties into a decidedly different yet very refreshing branching dialogue system upon which a good portion of the game is built upon. I'll get to that later, but know that after you've customized your character properly, you're embarking on a brand new career with a high school ghost-hunting establishment. After meeting up with a shy young woman named Sayuri Mifune and nondescript male student Masamune Shiga, you're quickly whisked away to join the Gate Keepers, or Kurenai Academy's version of, for all intents and purposes, a ghost-hunting club for after-school mischief. The Gate Keepers meet in a stereotypically crowded club area daily to take on new clients, all of whom are being haunted in some way by wayward spirits who haven't yet passed over to the other side. When you take on a new client, it's as if you're starting a new episode of an anime series, complete with its own opening credits and ending, which ends up lending a refreshing lilt to content that may otherwise feel alien in the visual novel-laden segments of the game. You and your teammates tackle each assignment by delving into dungeon-styled arenas that conjure images of the classic Shin Megami Tensei games, where you're essentially playing a modified strategic grid-based game of Go or Chess. After choosing the gear you'll need to ward off specific ghosts (salt for keeping ghosts at bay and other equipment) you and your team are thrown into a grueling game of remote ghostbusting. Each chapter prefaces the capture of the ghost of the moment (think "magical girl" anime "demon of the week" format) with bit of story told in the typical static background, slightly animated character, and accompanying text style of visual novels. The characters themselves are given gorgeous, beautifully-detailed portraits that swap as they speak, despite how dry the script can be, and their accompanying environments are great-looking as well. These segments take up a bulk of the game aside from "dungeon' exploration, though I didn't have enough for my tastes, especially given the wheel that allows you to interact with other NPCs. It pops up seemingly at random when you're engaged in conversation with others, and contains two different tiers of options to select in order to respond to others. You can choose from a happy face, sad face, confused face, handshake, and an angry face. It's easy enough to decipher -- this denotes the type of response you're going to give on an emotional level. The second wheel corresponds to each of the five senses: eyes, nose, ears, hands, and mouth and the senses they represent, obviously. The game doesn't do an excellent job of communicating to you what these wheels do, but it's fairly simple to figure out. Where the game missteps is by serving up options and actions that don't always correlate with the emotion you want. For instance, if you wanted to be friendly you might choose a loving face and a hand to touch someone, right? The game might not see it that way. It may instead spawn a completely opposite reaction, which can alter your interactions with other characters in a very frustrating way. Perhaps I was going about it incorrectly, but after consulting the official video from Aksys Games that talked about it in length and referencing the manual, which did little to explain it, I realized I just needed to go with it. So I did, resulting in my character becoming some sort of bizarre lecher who used his tongue way more than I feel like he should have. Luckily, there's a diverse and interesting cast of characters to spend time with, and much like the Persona series, each have their own strange little quirks. So you won't have to feel so out of place when you use your hands or eyes in situations where you really shouldn't. The bulk of the game, however, isn't driven by emotion or intent. It's a cold, calculating exercise that's both vexing and challenging at the same time. For each ghost you're setting out to catch, you're given a stipend for supplies, which you'll purchase and set up before each episode. There's a chess-like board upon which you'll set up moves to attack and change positions, though all of the avatars on the board (viewed isometrically) will move at the same time. Most of the time, you'll have no idea where the ghost is, so as the timer ticks down to nothing, you're constantly forced to think about how to best push the ghost to you. Do you put down salt to ensure the ghost can't escape a certain area? Do you push all of your teammate to corner it? What happens when you finally corner the ghost? You get a good look at the ghost of course, as the action switches to first-person a la Shin Megami Tensei: Soul Hackers or games of that ilk, and you see your party landing hits and doing damage. Defeating the bigger boss ghost of each episode wraps up the chapter, and it's done, done, onto the next one from there. It sounds very simple on paper, but it's likely you won't immediately understand any of this. There's a tutorial section at the beginning of the dungeon sections that you can turn to, but after that you're basically thrown to the wolves. I had to spend hours perfecting the system, and even after putting weeks into the game I'm still a little rusty. I learned the ins and outs and peculiarities of the system, but I still feel as though I could have done better. The game should have taken more pains to explain itself, especially since it's such an alternative style of play. But that's what makes Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters so entertaining. It won't hold your hand or force you through a million tutorials. There's a hint of unpredictability that you just don't get from most games anymore, even the niche titles, and that's the main reason I pressed on even when I got frustrated. That's also one of the reasons you'll be spending plenty of time with the game, aside from the fact that there are several side missions, a board game in the hub area, and other surprises to engage you. There aren't as many secret weapons or awesome-looking ghostbusting tools as I would have hoped for, but such is life. Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is certainly one of the most unique titles the Vita has seen or will see by far, and while it can take an astronomical amount of getting used to, it's absolutely worth investing time in. What other game is going to let you bite someone's nose in error when you meant to make a friendly gesture? I rest my case.
Tokyo Twilight photo
More Vita goodness
Whenever the Vita's library expands, I always get unreasonably excited. Double excited if there's a new IP to add to the fold, because I'm seeing a lot of sequels these days. That's why I was ecstatic to hear that Toybox Game...

Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed

May 08 // Chris Carter
Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed (PS TV, Vita [reviewed])Developer: TamsoftPublisher: Compile Heart (JP) / Idea Factory International (EU, US)Released: August 28, 2014 (JP) / May 19, 2015 (US) / May 22, 2015 (EU)MSRP: $39.99 Once again we are whisked away to the parody-filled world of Gamindustri, where the main characters of Neptunia will get into all sorts of wacky antics. Since this isn't a typical RPG, the story is tangential to all of the killing you're going to be doing. You're free to bypass part or all of the story with very easy to enact button presses, skipping ahead to dungeons and gear management at will. The dialog is cute and the voice acting is presentable, but the silly nature of the plot almost always circles around the same feud of "who is the best CPU or journalist in the Gamindustri," and it ends up getting old after a few hours or so. The action of course, is the highlight. Neptunia U's engine looks incredible, especially on the Vita's OLED screen, and more importantly, the framerate and camera are top notch. I simply adore the cel-shaded style. Everything on-screen looks wonderfully detailed, whether it's a faraway landscape or an up-close shot of a character. Each combatant has access to strong or weak attacks, which function just like the Dynasty Warriors series with simplistic combos that trigger new abilities. Characters can also double-jump, dash, and call forth stronger powers (limited by a mana gauge), as well as transform and unleash mega attacks. There's plenty of options like camera tweaking and display settings to ease the clutter of the UI, and a toggle for Japanese or English voice acting is the cherry on top. [embed]291761:58476:0[/embed] For a hack-and-slash the combat is surprisingly deep, even if you won't have to use half of its tricks to best the AI on the standard difficulty setting. Action Unleashed also has a costume break mechanic, where if you use too many strong attacks or get hit too often, some clothing will tear off. Yep, some characters will occasionally bare their underwear, so if you mind that sort of thing, you probably shouldn't play it. What this boils down to is the realization that Action Unleashed is a magical girl Dynasty Warriors, which I am totally ok with. Uni is a personal favorite of mine, as her main gimmick is a rapid-fire rifle that offers up some melee attacks, often melded in the same combo. All 10 playable characters (including series newcomers Dengekiko and Famitsu, based on the popular Japanese culture and gaming outlets) have their own signature style and are fun to play in their own right. There is a snag in terms of pacing, though. Early on, enemies don't put up enough of a fight to put your skills to the test. While their models are great (aping tropes like Dragon Quest's slimes or Pac-Man's ghosts), most of the foes you'll face in the first few hours are cannon fodder, and it isn't until you reach the boss fight in a particular dungeon that you'll really have any sort of a challenge to square off against. Additionally, it must be said that while the mechanics do match up to the Warriors series, the actual flow of a level feels more confined, akin to the Senran Kagura games. Instead of sprawling battlefields with multiple objectives to worry about simultaneously, Action Unleashed's dungeons are linear by comparison. It's a lot less focused on exploration and more-so on constant fights, with a hefty amount of gates -- some levels are just sole rooms with dedicated arena battles. Despite this, it's still a lot of fun to blast everything in sight and try out new styles of play. Once you clear the first few missions and the game opens up, there's a lot more to do in general to keep you interested. You can opt to watch additional scenarios and hang out with the cast of the game to unlock extra scenes, fool around with your current loot and try out new gear combinations, or adjust your bonus abilities, unlocked by killing a certain amount of each enemy type. Neptunia U is ultimately built on replay value, counting on players to repeat missions for better scores, gear, and the goal of reaching max level with all characters. There's also a new difficulty and extra arena mode unlocked after completing the game. Maybe it's just me, but the videogame industry parody theme that the Neptunia series is going for fits with a faster-paced environment -- especially when a better developer is involved. As long as you can deal with a little skin and a silly plotline, Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed is a fun little action romp.
Neptunia U review photo
Compile Heart didn't develop this
Over the years, I've developed a cautionary approach to Compile Heart projects. As a fan of Eastern games in general I'm always receptive to the idea of them, but as a development studio, they don't always follow through as w...

Review: Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character

May 08 // Chris Carter
Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character (PC)Developer: Team Shanghai AlicePublisher: Team Shanghai Alice (JP) / Playism (US)Released: August 12, 2013 (JP) / May 7, 2015 (US)MSRP: $14.99 There's no Texas two-steppin' around it -- the "Western" release is not a good port. There's very little effort put forth at all, mostly due to the fact that it's relatively untouched from the Japanese version, and it's not translated -- at all. Double Dealing Character's menus were already in English, but extra details and bits of the story are all in Japanese, so you'll have to manually update it with an outside fan patch. When Playism announced that it was "bringing Touhou to the West," I assumed it would be a little more than "we made it slightly easier to buy the original Japanese game." Whether this is Playism's doing or Team Shanghai Alice's request, the result is the same.   The actual game, thankfully, is very good, and I must stress though that with the English menus, it is entirely playable. If you haven't experienced a danmaku (also known as bullet hell or curtain fire) game before, the concept is pretty easy to grasp. Tons of bullets will litter the screen at all times (like a curtain), and it's your job to maneuver around various patterns while firing back at your opponents. As is the case with most Touhou games, Double Dealing Character features a standard shot button in addition to one for specials, and a "slow" ability, which I'll explain in a moment. Where the Touhou team excels is in the presentation of it all. The bullet patterns are varied and constantly keep you on your toes, but they're also coupled with a charming art style and catchy music. Double Dealing Character is no exception. It would be fun to read the various story bits that pop up during boss fights and between levels, but again, you'll need a fan patch for that. Not being able to understand it all doesn't fundamentally ruin the game, but Touhou fans are big on their lore for a reason -- it gives context to the proceedings, and elevates the experience significantly. [embed]291754:58465:0[/embed] You'll have access to three characters, all of which have two different variations in tow. Each "ship" (in this case, a magical girl) has a different rate of fire or type of shot, such as a straight bullet or a spread. Specials add even more variety, like one character who uses a giant broom melee attack, or another who fires a deadly void bomb that slowly creeps up the screen. This is where the lack of a translation comes into play again -- you'll have to experiment with each variant since you can't read what they do on the select screen. Now, about that "slow" function I mentioned earlier -- it's another Touhou staple that spices things up a bit. At any time you can hold a button to make your character's flight more precise, which not only shows your hitbox (a blinking light that displays where bullets can damage you), but changes up your shot type as well. Personally, I always map it to the left trigger, so I can comfortably switch in and out of it at will, and it works like a charm. Thankfully there is plug and play controller support, and it's easy to customize your buttons. Like most shoot-'em-ups, Double Dealing Character will last you roughly an hour your first time around, with six stages and an additional EX level. There's also a few extras like a practice mode, music player, and some secrets that you'll definitely need a guide or translation for. Playism may have made it easier to buy into Touhou, but the actual result isn't anything better than just purchasing the game anywhere else. It you're a shoot-'em-up fan and haven't touched the franchise yet, you owe it to yourself to play at least one game in the series -- so why not start here? [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Touhou review photo
Bad port, great shooter
As I've said in the past, I consider myself lucky when it comes to meeting fellow gamers over the years that have had a positive impact on my life. I was fortunate enough to discover the Touhou series back in 2002 at the...

Review: Forgotten Memories: Alternate Realities

May 07 // Jed Whitaker
Forgotten Memories: Alternate Realities (Android, iOS [reviewed on an iPhone 6 Plus], Playstation Vita, Wii U)Developer: Psychose Interactive Inc.Publisher: Psychose Interactive Inc.Released: April 23, 2015 (iOS) / TBA 2015 (Android, PlayStation Vita, Wii U)MSRP: $4.99 Rose Hawkins wakes up after being shot in the face, only remembering that she was searching for a missing girl named Eden. She doesn't recall who shot her, how she is alive, or where she is.  Upon exiting the room Rose is greeted by a hallway formed in red curtains, the kind you'd find at any theater. An antique dictation device is waiting for her, and a message plays automatically from a woman named Noah who has been waiting for her. Noah knows Rose by name, and promises her more information on Eden if she can free her nurse friend from the asylum she is about to enter. Rose comes face to face with Noah in a throne surrounded by mannequins one last time before entering the asylum, Noah still talks through audio dictation for some reason. This is the kind of tone you can expect from Forgotten Memories. [embed]291661:58457:0[/embed] Like any psychological survival horror game, the story is deep, twisted and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Most of the lore you'll come across in case files, notes, and a couple of cutscenes. Forgotten Memories is very old school in this regard, but still manages to have an engaging story worth searching for. Old school is a  word that can be used to describe most parts of the experience, for better or for worse. I almost didn't finish the game due to how difficult the game is, just because the developers felt the need to shove in old school mechanics for old school sake. Saving the game requires tracking down a computer and using a floppy disk, an item that is extremely limited in the game. While classic survival horror games used this save game mechanic, most notably the original Resident Evil series, it sucks for a game on mobile, especially when the game is brutally difficult. Forgotten Memories' app store description originally warned prospective buyers to only purchase the game if you are a hardcore gamer due to the level of challenge involved. They weren't joking -- I almost didn't finish it to how quickly and often I'd die. Luckily I must not have been the only one as the developer quickly released an update that included an easy mode. It provides players with unlimited saves, more ammo, easier enemies and more medkit pickups, among other tweaks. Even with this easy mode I found myself in situations with a sliver of health, no medkits and some distance between myself and the nearest save point.  Touchscreen controls were a mistake, plain and simple, and hopefully they don't carry over to the Vita and Wii U versions of the game. The left side of the screen controls character movement, while the right side controls the camera and aiming. The first place touched on the left side of the screen acts as a center axis, and Rose will move in the direction of your fingers position in reference to said axis. Camera and aiming control seems inconsistent on how much movement there is, often times leading to needing multiple swipes just turn around. On the right side of the screen are also icons that allow you to run or go into an aiming mode with your flashlight or weapon. With a weapon drawn tapping anywhere on the screen will cause Rose to attack. The pipe, the only melee weapon I found in my playthroughs, can be used three times consecutively to perform a powerful combo attack that pushes enemies backwards. Since this piece of junk is your main weapon, combat boils down to letting enemies get close enough to attack, performing the combo, rinse repeat. It leaves a lot to be desired. Shitty controls aside, Forgotten Memories nails the survival horror atmosphere unlike any game I've played in years. Haunting violins can be heard as you search for clues and keys, pounding drums mixed with noise play during combat, and the intro music is haunting, a mainstay of the Silent Hill series. I found my heart beating in my chest with my breath held as I ran past enemies to escape rooms. Hearing distorted singing coming from a shadow-like child that is just down the hallway where you need to go is fucking horrifying. While it is indeed a horrifying affair, it ends all too abruptly at just under an hour and a half on my first playthrough.  Having been in development for years, Forgotten Memories feels like it was purposely cut short to allow for sequels or download content. That being said, the pacing is tight and there is no filler whatsoever, but it still feels like the first chapter of a longer game. Aside from the brevity, awful controls, and dull combat, the game is easily recommendable for those looking for that Silent Hill feel. Though only the desperate should pick up the mobile version, or those that have a compatible controller, otherwise wait for the console and PC releases sometime this year. While the graphics are some of the best I've seen on mobile, they can only be better elsewhere. Forgotten Memories: Alternate Realities is about the best you can do for survival horror currently, if you can stomach the control scheme. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Forgotten Memories review photo
Horror-ible controls
Survival horror has always been one of my favorite genres, with Silent Hill being the absolute king. When I heard about a game inspired by and with voice actors from Silent Hill 2, arguably the best in the series, I was ...

Review: Vertiginous Golf

May 06 // Brett Makedonski
Vertiginous Golf (PC)Developers: Kinelco, Lone Elk CreativePublisher: Surprise Attack GamesReleased: May 6, 2015Price: $14.99  It'd be short-sighted to say that the developers' intent for Vertiginous Golf isn't worthy of a modest golf clap. There's no question that it would have been perfectly appropriate for them to design some wacky obstacles, slap on some ground-based golf physics, and call it a day. Instead, they opted to invent sprawling, labyrinth-like holes, and take an earnest stab at crafting a story about oppressive industrial-era society. Heady stuff, to be sure. Unfortunately, neither works as well as one may hope. When Vertiginous Golf first transplants the player from dingy street-side shop to above-the-clouds links, it's a sight to behold. It's almost as if BioShock Infinite had a mini-game smack dab in the middle of it (the classist undertones parallel holds up, too). The holes look complex, almost with a Rube Goldberg-ian quality about them -- except different parts aren't dependent upon one another in any way; they just present several unique challenges all within one hole. In the early going -- when the game is teaching the player the ropes -- this works fantastically. Lengthy as the holes may be, they're never too excessive in scope. It's always apparent where the cup is, and what potential routes there are to get there. That doesn't last long. [embed]291071:58441:0[/embed] Once Vertiginous Golf  has the player comfortable with the mechanics, it quickly broadens everything so that nothing is digestible. From the tee box, the player is met with a mess of obstacles, all of it just as dense vertically as it is horizontally. Walls often obscure any long-range view, so it's nigh impossible to go into the hole with a game plan. Just hit the ball with some degree of power and pray for the best. The developers obviously foresaw this as a potential problem and added a feature to help mitigate it. Always accompanying the floating golf club is a metallic hummingbird which can be controlled to fly around the course and get the lay of the land. However, it's mostly rendered useless as so much movement can happen on any given shot that it's often still impossible to predict where the ball may go. That isn't the only concession that Vertiginous Golf's creators made. There's also a rewind function (effectively a mulligan) which can be used sparingly in the likely event of an ill-advised shot. Drawing from the same pool of resources is the ability to guide the ball ever-so-slightly in any given direction. If that weren't enough to frustrate mini-golf purists, there's also a pitching wedge that's available almost all the time. Often times, the best way to traverse Vertiginous Golf's unforgiving terrain is to simply bypass it all through the air. Aim for a spot, hope you picked an apt shot power, and don't worry about all the randomness that comes with the ground obstacles. While effective, implementing this strategy feels a bit like missing the point. However, the wedge can't be used to completely game Vertiginous Golf. The latter part of most holes are in a sort of walled-off container where using the club is banned. Not coincidentally, this is also where the game is at its very worst. Whenever near the walls of these areas (a frequent occurrence), the camera will line up outside the structure, forcing a putt toward the hole with an obscured view. It's barely manageable if there's a straight shot; in the event that there are moving obstacles or a raised cup, resign yourself to taking even more strokes. As the golf portion of Vertiginous Golf is lacking in execution, the story similarly comes up short. In fact, it's actually detrimental to the golfing experience. There's a narrative about a raging class war in a dystopian society, and -- well, it's all very difficult to follow. That's because the plot is only told through audio logs, which are mandatory checkpoints on the golf course. Once these are hit, the talking begins. This falters because each audio log consists of approximately 30 seconds of overwhelming dialogue. To fully take it in means to put down the controller and listen. Given that there are usually four on any given hole, that's a lot of listening and not a lot of playing. This is at direct odds with the action-oriented golf. The narrative and gameplay are so dissonant from one another that it's nearly impossible to enjoy both at the same time. Really, it's the developers' ambition that weighs down Vertiginous Golf. They took a simple, beloved concept and tried doing too much with it. As a result, the course design is rarely rewarding and the elaborate story is poorly presented. No matter how far above the clouds this game is, it landed in the rough.
Vertiginous Golf review photo
'Golf,' and other four-letter words
Golf has a centuries-old reputation as being a maddening game. It's simple in premise, but that simplicity is always lost in transition from theory to execution. "Put tiny white ball in tiny cup" sounds easy enough, but after...

Review: High Strangeness

May 06 // Chris Carter
High Strangeness (PC [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: Barnyard Intelligence GamesPublisher: Midnight CityReleased: May 6, 2015MSRP: $9.99 High Strangeness is a simple tale of a young man named Boyd. He has a cat, he lives a simple life -- until shadow people invade his hometown and set into motion a series of events that will change his world forever. Sound familiar? Strangeness is meant to evoke the feeling of an old school RPG, using elements of both 8-bit and 16-bit adventures, meshing it into what the developer calls "the 12-bit realm." It definitely has an EarthBound-like feel to it, with snappy jokes, real-life oriented weapons like a flashlight and firecrackers, and an otherworldly plot. The writing has the charm of a typical Pokémon game, with cute jokes that are often very meta in nature, but not to the point of just repeatedly spouting obnoxious memes. I never really felt any attachment to the cast or the setting, but the era-appropriate dialog definitely helps along the way. Boyd will fight said shadows mostly by way of his flashlight melee attack, but he'll also have a few other tricks up his sleeve, like the aforementioned firecracker bombs, a set of CDs that basically function like Zelda's arrows, and more far-out weaponry like the power to control a shadow clone. Combat mainly consists of old school hit and run gameplay, with a stamina meter in tow to prevent you from mashing the attack button. It's rudimentary, but it works, especially when  you start to experiment and realize that every weapon is viable. My favorite bit about High Strangeness is the fact that you earn upgrade tokens for every kill (even normal enemies). Since these item or skill enhancements are actually quite useful, it creates a nice incentive to get your hands dirty as often as possible. [embed]291545:58443:0[/embed] The main gimmick however is definitely the concept of plane switching, which you'll unlock roughly 30 minutes in. With the press of a button you can phase between the default 16-bit world and an 8-bit realm, fundamentally changing the way everything works. Some enemies will be easier or tougher depending on what world you're in, and mechanically, basic gameplay changes as well. Boyd can use combos and run in the 16-bit era, but only attacks with one thrust at at time and moves in a grid-like fashion in 8-bit, and so on. The switch isn't instantaneous (it takes a few seconds) so it's not worth it to constantly change, but it is fun to see enemies in a new light or try out new tactics at will. Plus, some puzzles can only be solved by toggling planes, so you'll need to do it every so often -- thank goodness it doesn't get annoying. Because the game is faster paced in the 16-bit visual style I vastly preferred it over 8-bit, and felt like the latter could have used a few extra touches in terms of a unique feel. While it does have a certain amount of charm, High Strangeness is a very linear adventure. Puzzles usually don't take more than a few minutes at a time to solve, and when all is said and done, you'll probably breeze through it in roughly five hours. There is a very cool final boss at the end, but sadly, there's no additional difficulty settings or a New Game+ option, so what you see is what you get. There are also a few wrinkles, like the health and stamina UI that doesn't stay locked in one place, and moves if you get too close to it on the screen. Since the game has some dead space due to the constrained aspect ratio, I wish there were an option to keep it static. Additionally, I wish there were a "quick item switch" button, since pausing the game to change secondary weapons isn't ideal. High Strangeness might be a brief adventure that feels a bit shallow at times, but it's very easy to digest. Because of the short nature of the game it doesn't waste your time, and it's very easy for anyone -- retro enthusiast or not -- to pick up and play. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. I did not back the Kickstarter campaign.]
High Strangeness review photo
Taming strange
[Disclosure: High Strangeness was developed in part by Destructoid community member Ben "AgentMOO" Shostak. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.] Back in 2009, a smal...

Review: Kerbal Space Program

May 05 // Jordan Devore
Kerbal Space Program (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: SquadPublisher: SquadReleased: April 27, 2014 (version 1.0)MSRP: $39.99 This is a game built to last. There are people out there spending hundreds of hours playing, learning, and teaching Kerbal Space Program and I'm not talking about some miniscule group of superfans. It's the kind of game that, whether you like it or not, comes creeping into your mind when you're supposed to be off doing literally anything else. It's contagious. There are a lot of deep, dense systems at play, and getting a handle on even the basics (knowing apoapsis from periapsis, prograde from retrograde) necessitates a commitment to learning real-world science and game mechanics before it "gets fun." I mean, sure, cobbling together a rocket, to use that word loosely, is enjoyable. At first. But then I came to realize what was possible in this sandbox and grew restless, forever in search of the next self-set milestone. However much effort you put into Kerbal, you'll get exponentially more back. Early on, you're met with one humbling experience after another. I went into the tutorials all bright-eyed and cheerful before the overwhelming reality of physics (my most dreaded subject in high school) came crashing down on me. The game's cartoon alien astronauts, the Kerbals, are a welcome sight. Their oddball expressions and mannerisms help warm up what would otherwise be a cold, calculated simulation. Not long into a training mission, one of them told me the job at hand "should be pretty easy even if you're not a famous rocket scientist like myself." Not a moment later, there I was, licking my wounds and wondering why that Kerbal had turned my home office into a house of lies. I'm not sure I've ever failed a videogame tutorial multiple times before. This is confidence-shattering stuff. My first hour or so is a blur by now, but I took notes along the way. "Intimidating homework," I summarized. Reading instructions, re-reading them, trying to do what they describe, failing, then repeating the process and inching slightly closer to success -- this is how it goes. Until, suddenly, it clicks. Bliss. [embed]291550:58433:0[/embed] The first time my rocket lifted off correctly, I cracked a smile and laughed with astonishment. It was joyous. Incredible. Then the thing started spinning out of control and the Kerbals trapped inside were doomed. I knew it, but did they? Those poor, brave, totally naive little green men. Upon failing the lesson, my instructor said he wasn't expecting disaster to strike. Personally, I had been counting the seconds. It gets better, though. You, the player, get better. On Twitter, I was told to seek out community-made guides and I'll echo that advice. The in-game tutorials aren't nearly as clear or hands-on as I would've liked, and a lack of grammatical polish didn't make using them any easier. Walkthroughs and wikis might as well be mandatory. There are folks out there like Scott Manley who are producing exceptional videos, and I'd be so lost without them. The simple act of watching someone else solve a problem -- escaping the atmosphere without burning an obscene amount of fuel, matching a distant vessel's orbit, saving a Kerbal lost in space (sorry!) -- can be enough to give you that edge. Thankfully, constructing rockets is simple. You drag individual components onto a 3D stage and snap them together. It's not quite building with LEGO bricks, but given the game's complicated subject matter, it is surprisingly close. Which parts you select for your ship and in what order, however, can be overwhelming. That's more of a problem in Sandbox mode, where you're given total freedom with a vast list of similar-looking pieces, than in Career mode, where new technology trickles in as you grow your space program from the ground up. Another surprise: the controls are, relative to learning astrodynamics, not too tough to figure out. The user interface is initially confusing, what with all of the gauges and that intimidating navigation ball to monitor, but Kerbal Space Program makes smart use of the keyboard. Cobbling together a bunch of ships and finally getting one of them to orbit the Earth-esque planet Kerbin for the first time is an awesome feeling. As in, awe-inspiring. It's a big milestone -- one I won't soon forget -- but there are countless more to tackle. You can switch to a map of space to track your vessel's trajectory and set up maneuvers to reach, say, the Mun (moon), or an asteroid, or make the journey back home. Actually, you can do whatever you want -- this is an open-ended game, after all -- but maybe don't sprint before you can crawl. For me, there is such a thing as too little structure in games, and for that reason I found myself switching back and forth between Kerbal's Sandbox and Career modes. The latter has a tech tree and jobs for you to take on. Newcomers will find its scope far more comfortable. As you gain science points by conducting research in the field and transmitting the data to your base (or physically bringing it and your spacecraft back safely to Kerbin's surface), you'll unlock access to more advanced gear. As you complete jobs -- testing specific parts at certain speeds and altitudes, or taking tourists on a ride without killing them, for example -- you'll get funds to upgrade your space program. A third mode, Science, rests in between Sandbox and Career. You'll still have to earn new parts by collecting science points, but, unlike Career mode, you won't need to worry about your space program's money or reputation woes. There are also several standalone scenarios, some of which were created in collaboration with NASA (get this game into schools!), that bypass the whole planning and building process and put you straight into an active mission. They're a great worry-free practice environment. Outside of those core modes, there are numerous mods to tinker with. The game has attracted a passionate, talented, dedicated community of players and creators. Even if the developers at Squad stop supporting Kerbal Space Program with new content and polish updates, I'm convinced this game will still be relevant a decade from now. My main fear of simulation titles is that I'll get bored. But, come to think of it, not once was I bored with Kerbal Space Program. I may have felt confused, and irritated, and hopeless at times, but those setbacks were fleeting. My desire to improve remains steadfast. Even the smallest accomplishments feel like massive victories, and once you experience that euphoria, you won't want to quit. Watch your ambition soar. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Kerbal Space Program photo
Science doesn't screw around
I might have never touched Kerbal Space Program had it not been offered as a review assignment. What a tremendous shame that would've been. From a comfortable distance, I had seen enough of this hardcore rocket-building and ...

Review: Tropico 5

May 05 // Robert Summa
Tropico 5 (Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox 360) Developer: Kalypso MediaPublisher: Kalypso MediaReleased: April 28, 2015 (PS4)MSRP: $59.99 Tropico 5 is a learning experience. How you choose to learn is completely up to you. There is a mission and campaign mode that will certainly steer you in the right direction, but that didn't appeal to me and I suspect most will want to do more than that as well. As a Civ junkie, I don't like to be limited with my creations -- in that, when a specific mission ends, so does your island. For me, sandbox mode is where I spent most of my time and where I would imagine most players will. Sandbox is the true meat and substance within Tropico 5. Not only can you set your win conditions, but you can choose between multiple economic and political difficulty levels, starting era, the money initially available (unlimited is also an option) and the number of citizens that start on your island. But probably even more critical to your island's success is the land itself. While you will have plenty of pre-made islands to choose from, there is also a map generator that offers endless combinations of whatever creation you want -- for example, you can choose between different sized-islands and the amount of resources available. Even if you skip much of the campaign, you will still be able to learn as you go. Within the game itself is a sort of quest function where specific tasks will need to be completed. Whether it be to build a library or extra military buildings, the game does an excellent job of teaching while doing. For someone like me who hates to read directions or endless strategy guides (preferring to figure stuff out on my own), this is a perfect implementation. But it's not just the quests that will guide you. The detailed faction and happiness statistics will help you be the leader you want to be. There are various factions all vying for greatness and it's your job as leader to finely balance what you want for your island and what your people actually want and need. To help you lead, there is a dynasty system where you can name and set specific management roles to created characters that will give bonuses to buildings based on their specific abilities -- there are generic managers, but you can't level those up like you can dynasty members. For example, you can have a celebrity manager that is best suited for hotels or you can have a magnate who works well with oil and mining buildings. These dynasty members are part of El Presidente's extended family and can benefit you greatly within the game. Ignoring them or their abilities will only make your leadership that much more challenging. Of course, it's not just your island you have to worry about. Tropico 5 is also a nation builder. Within it, you'll have to juggle the trade of exports and imports and appeasing the Russians while at the same time not pissing off the Americans. As time moves on from the Colonial Era to the Modern Era, you will have even more nations and scenarios to deal with. There are many situations in your virtual island experience that feel like they mirror how a real nation and leader needs to function. Tropico 5 is a constant balancing act and a game filled with trial and error. You should be warned, if you find yourself to be a Civ addict, then you will quickly find that Tropico 5 offers the same kind of grab. Hours melt away. As you complete one task, something else comes up that you feel drastically needs your attention. The amount of management, while it can seem overwhelming, is really the draw and appeal of the game. There is a multiplayer component, but really, unless you want to build an island with a friend or desperately want to compete against others, you probably aren't going to bother. It works, so that's all most players can really ask for when it comes to multiplayer within nation builders. The game is not without its minor faults or seemingly-impossible challenges. While I do keep the pace of time in its most forward position, it never felt like I could appease or completely stop rebel attacks or uprisings. These occur when citizens are unhappy or you have specific constitution options active, but no matter what, I found myself dealing with this constant nuisance. Also, there were occasional save issues. In fairness, I played the majority of my time with Spotify running in the background, so whether or not that sometimes caused games not to be saved, I don't know. It doesn't happen often, but it can be devastating if you're not paying attention and haven't saved in a while. Even though there were no real issues with the controls themselves, perfectly placing roads can take some getting used to, but it doesn't strongly detract from the game. While Tropico 5 isn't the game-of-the-year masterpiece of a generation, it's a more-than serviceable sim and strategy title that can satisfy a grossly under-served genre within the console community. If you love SimCity and Civilization and are dying for something similar on your PS4, then there really is no reason not to have and enjoy this game to its fullest extent. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tropico 5 review photo
It's good to be the king
City and civilization games on consoles are a rare thing. I'm not exactly sure why that is, but my guess would be that traditionally, these games only enjoy their moderate success on PC. Whether it be the limitations of conso...

Review: Pleasant Dreams

May 05 // Darren Nakamura
Pleasant Dreams (Tabletop)Designer: Aerjen TammingaPublisher: Aerjen GamesReleased: January 2015MSRP: $20.00 (free print-and-play version)Players: 1-2Play time: 5-10 minutes Pleasant Dreams is about dreaming. Specifically, the goal is to make it through a night's worth of sleep without waking up in terror from a nightmare. Each player has a card and a chit to track wakefulness; zero represents a deep slumber and five is wide awake -- game over. Players take turns drawing cards from the deck, each time announcing how many cards will be drawn between one and five. Each card in the deck has a positive or negative number associated with it, either increasing or decreasing wakefulness. It's possible to get through the entire deck without either player waking up. In those cases, the player who drew the last card in the deck is the winner. At first it seems like the theme and the mechanics are separate, but a few of the details tie them together. Good dreams reduce wakefulness, but they can also be prolonged to increase the effect, at the risk of that same dream morphing into a nightmare. What starts as a fluffy teddy bear can turn into a grotesque spider. Cards are resolved in reverse order from how they are drawn, so if a player declares a draw of three, the first (and only known card) is resolved last and the third card is resolved first. It allows for gambles to be taken if the top card is particularly bad. By drawing more cards at once, it's possible to get good dreams to resolve first that will ease the effect of the final bad dream. The one really smart mechanic in Pleasant Dreams has to do with prolonging the good dreams. By doing this, a player reduces wakefulness further and flips the card over. The backside of that card can be good or bad; regardless, the player who flipped it gets to place it back in the deck wherever he or she chooses. Combined with the ability to choose how many cards to draw, the two mechanics result in a mind game between the two players. Did my opponent just drop a nasty +2 nightmare right under the top card, meaning I should only take one card? Or did he predict I would think that and instead place it in the third spot? At its best, it transcends a simple mathematical card game. Instead of simply manipulating cards in a deck, players are getting into each others' minds. It's the type of experience that evolves with each play in a way. I got into the habit of putting good dreams at the bottom of the deck so I would know that the last chunk of cards would be safe to draw together. Over time, my regular opponent got wise to that and was able to use it against me, dropping a bad one in there to mess up my count. I would have to change strategy accordingly. Pleasant Dreams also functions as a solitaire experience, but it is much less interesting alone. Lacking a second player to psyche out, it turns into a fairly simple exercise in card counting and risk management. There is a variant listed in the rules that basically pushes the solo player's luck, and while it does make victory less of a sure thing it doesn't change that the transition from a head-to-head game to a single player one turns a thoughtful mind game into a math problem. Still, as a two-player game, Pleasant Dreams delivers on the promise of a smart microgame. Despite its small deck size and quick play time, it still manages to create interesting decisions. That the theme is unusual and the artwork is impeccable makes it just that much more compelling. I don't want to play this all the time, but I can definitely see it coming up when I have a spare moment and a willing companion.
Pleasant Dreams review photo
Good night, sweet teddy bear
With tabletop games, simplicity can go a long way. Sure, there are behemoth games filled with figures, dice, worksheets, grids, and more, but one of the best recent trends in the analog space has been a focus on elegance. The...

Review: Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

May 05 // Chris Carter
Wolfenstein: The Old Blood (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: MachineGamesPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksReleased: May 5, 2015 (Digital), May 14, 2015 (Physical - AUS, EU, NZ)MSRP: $19.99 The Old Blood is a genius idea on paper. Set as a prequel to The New Order, anyone can pick it up and find themselves on equal footing. When coupled with the budget price of $20, that prospect is made even more appealing. The team was also able to provide some slight enhancements to the engine due to the core focus on the PS4 and Xbox One editions -- it's nothing that noticeable, but it is smoother overall if you really look at things up close. So what is it, exactly? You're basically getting more New Order set the tune of two "episodes," once again starring the heroic B.J. Blazkowicz. The whole bloody affair is roughly eight hours long, filled with secrets and the return of the perk system, which are both implemented to encourage multiple playthroughs. Just like its predecessor, The Old Blood runs at 1080p and 60 frames-per-second on both consoles. In the first episode, "Rudi Jäger and the Den of Wolves," you'll quite literally return to Castle Wolfenstein, as you attempt to obtain a document that sets up the events of the previous game. It doesn't go quite as planned of course, and you'll encounter a few new enemy variants like a sniper, as well as some puzzle-like encounters, and a good mix of stealth and action scenes. It's not mind-blowingly different and it's a tad slow at the start, but it does feel like a proper expansion, and the labyrinthine tunnels of the castle work well when juxtaposed to the mostly open areas from New Order. [embed]291497:58425:0[/embed] The second half, "The Dark Secrets of Helga Von Schabbs," is a little less traditional. Well, okay, it has zombies in it, so it's a lot less traditional, but perfectly fitting for the gaiden "B-movie" feel Old Blood is going for. While the first episode is good in its on right, the town of Wulfburg in the follow-up episode is something completely different from what you're normally used to with MachineGames' reboot. There are a few really tense scenes, and the mystery of Helga and her adventures to uncover occult objects kept me engaged throughout. All of the classic FPS mechanics return, like the glorious multi-weapon wheel that outshines the two-gun limitations usually found on consoles. There's also a few new weapons like the melee-centric pipe and the explosive Kampfpistol, and existing guns have been refined, to the point where everything feels more viable. The perk system is still attached to challenges like stealth takedowns or weapon-specific kills, and is just as inspirational when it comes to driving players to experiment with new playstyles. The old adage "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" works here. Where Old Blood truly shines is its brevity. Both episodes are laser-focused, and don't waste as much time as some missions in the original. Both Castle Wolfenstein and Wulfburg are expansive enough to justify an entire game, and the development team does a good job of managing the pacing between stealth and action. I will say though that both core villains are a little less compelling than Deathshead, the experience is a tad more linear, and there's less character development here in general. Wolfenstein: The Old Blood operates just like an old school PC expansion should, and if you liked New Order, this is a no-brainer. In fact, due to the pulp feel of the second half I even slightly prefer it to the original, and the two interconnected plots are incredibly easy to swallow in an afternoon. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Wolfenstein review photo
Remember when PC expansions felt expansive?
Wolfenstein: The New Order was a refreshing reboot for a series that has a history of having many different development teams at the helm. After a five year hiatus, MachineGames came in and made the franchise its own, pu...

Review: Cosmophony

May 05 // Darren Nakamura
Cosmophony (Android, iPhone, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PlayStation Vita, Wii U)Developer: Bento StudioPublisher: Bento StudioReleased: May 5, 2015 (PlayStation systems)MSRP: $4.99 The setup is about as simple as it gets. Fly/glide/hover/whatever down a seven-lane tube. Avoid smashing into obstacles. Optionally shoot black triangle "enemies." That's about it. There are a couple of different measure for success. Getting through a level without dying is enough to unlock the next level. Doing that while destroying every black triangle along the way is worth a full rating. Each level can be played in Practice Mode or Normal Mode. Aesthetically, Practice Mode takes out the color and some visual effects, but the big difference is that it allows the use of checkpoints and gives the ability to fast-forward or rewind to replay tricky sections. Normal Mode is the real deal: make it through a level from start to finish; any mistake means restarting from the beginning. [embed]291451:58420:0[/embed] Cosmophony's unique hook is that it functions as a rhythm game, but the reliance on rhythm is hidden at first. In the early levels, there is a lot of room for error. Firing a shot at nothing carries no penalty and timing is irrelevant as long as moves are made before crashing. Often I would take out enemies before they were even on screen by spamming the fire button knowing which lane they would be in. That changes by the third level. There is still a little bit of leeway allowed for certain decisions. There is space to overshoot, moving three lanes left instead of two. However, after playing and replaying the same sections a few times, it dawned on me that every button press corresponds to a musical element. It's not just the shooting, but also the movement. Once that became clear, I was able to reach the zen state of concentration where my fingers were doing what they were supposed to be doing before my conscious brain could tell them. So few games hit that sweet spot, where the sound and light and difficulty all come together to create an intense mental experience. Level three of Cosmophony does that for me. Sadly, that falls apart for me at the fourth level. The difficulty ramps up consistently across the levels, but it goes too far to be enjoyable. Where previous levels allowed room for minor error and contained lighter sections for the player to refocus, it turns into a relentless exercise in rote memorization and execution. I was no longer finding my happy place where time slows down; I was only finding frustration. Cosmophony is like a firework. As it's flying up and sending out sparks, interest builds. Once it detonates it's an awesome show of color and sound. After that it's over and everybody goes home. It's short and intense, but it stops being interesting once it oversteps the line between fun and frustrating. I played it and enjoyed it until it felt unfair, and now I probably won't ever touch it again. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Cosmophony review photo
The difficulty sure ain't phony
I had been lulled into a false sense of security. I finished the tutorial and the first level of Cosmophony with a perfect rating in about 15 minutes. "Four more levels of this?" I thought. "Child's play." Cut to an hour and ...

Review: Light Bound

May 04 // Chris Carter
Light Bound (PC)Developer: Garden Knight GamesPublisher: Garden Knight GamesReleased: April 23, 2015MSRP: $9.99 Taking a quick look at one screenshot of Light Bound will give you the gist of what's going on. As a top-down shooter, it pits up to four players against each other in a celestial arena filled with fog-of-war effects and bright colors reminiscent of Pocketwatch Games' Monaco. After booting it up, the game even notes that it "plays best with a controller," and I'd highly recommend following that advice, especially if you're keen on local multiplayer. Movement is all very basic and smooth, as you'll guide your ship around the arena to pick up various power-ups, like spread or bouncy shots. One button controls your attacks, and really, that's about it. Your objective is to stay out of firing range while you roam around and pick up more ammo. [embed]291414:58413:0[/embed] There are a few cool effects that facilitate the action, like the aforementioned fog of war that prevents you from seeing the entire (randomly generated) battlefield at once. Additionally, Light Bound has a cool "gradual unpause" mechanic that slows the action down after resuming a session. Combined with the stylish use of colors, it's a pretty neat looking indie shooter. It's ultimately lacking in variety however, with a score-attack arcade mode and an arena option, the latter of which functions as the meat of the experience. In arcade, you'll gather ammo to quickly take down your AI opponents, with an emphasis on speed, exemplified with a timer that forces you to act quickly. It's endless, with an ego-boosting (or draining) leaderboard listing at the end. While it was interesting at first, I quickly gravitated to the arena. Things aren't that much different over there either, as there are four deathmatch variants (standard kills, lives, tag, and a mode with moving debuff rings), and only one overtly unique mode -- Clutch, which basically operates like Oddball from the Halo series. Your mileage is definitely going to vary depending on how many friends you can get together on the couch, but full bot support is the saving grace of arena mode, as bots are formidable enough to keep you playing (outside of Clutch, where they don't really adhere to the principles of the mode and kind of just go for kills). While it presents an underwhelming amount of play options, Light Bound shines with four players at the helm. There's options for teams (with silly randomly generated player names), and a number of custom options like life and weapon toggles. It isn't going to revolutionize the arena genre, but having four shooter enthusiast friends to split the cost isn't a bad way to go. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Light Bound review photo
Lobster King versus Donkey Tamer
It's interesting to see opinions fly back and forth for offline indie arena games. For years developers have been stating that online play is often impossible for small projects, either due to budget or design limitations, or...

Review: Chroma Squad

May 04 // Josh Tolentino
Chroma Squad (PC) Developer: Behold StudiosPublisher: Behold StudiosReleased: April 30, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Not that they really needed to, of course. Such a "feature" would interfere with play, and there's plenty of service in the game as it is for fans. The play, in this case, is of the turn-based tactical variety, as if Behold took XCOM and ran it through the parodic, pixelated filters of Knights of Pen and Paper.  Like the former, players will manage a small squad of combatants, with unique classes and abilities, running them up against groups of goons and the occasional boss, one turn at a time. Like the latter, every mechanic serves as a distillation of tokusatsu's essence through heavy referencing and a clear, almost palpable appreciation of the source material. The premise alone is ripe enough with potential that it's baffling more games haven't taken advantage: Players manage a fledgling production studio, with each mission treated as an "episode" of an upstart spandex superhero show. Names, casting, and even catchphrases are up for customization, as well as the requisite selection of bright primary colors to outfit the roster with. If players want to commit sentai sacrilege and name a non-red-colored character the "Lead," no one can stop them but their inevitable guilt (guilt, I say!). Cast members can also be selected from a pool of actor candidates, each with their own special qualities.  [embed]291251:58411:0[/embed] When the cameras start rolling and the minions exit wardrobe, the fight is on. The goal of any given mission is to amass as much "audience" as possible, by performing flashy attacks, fancy stunts, and of course, winning the fight. Additionally, optional "Director's Instructions" add extra conditions, such as finishing off boss monsters with a screen-filling finishing move, or not killing off the boss before dispatching the cannon-fodder minions. Such extra goals help introduce variety to the combat, which is more simplistic than one might find in XCOM or other dedicated tactical titles. Enemies follow simple patterns and lack much in the way of extra abilities, so most of the tactics devolve to crowd and ability cooldown management rather than more elegant stratagems. Chroma Squad's main mechanical wrinkle comes in the form of "Teamwork," which allows squad members to leapfrog over each other to boost their movement range, or carry out simultaneous attacks with adjacent teammates. This, alongside somewhat simplistic giant-mecha boss battles, give the game enough of a unique flavor to override its otherwise thin tactical substance.  Following the mission, gained audience is converted into "fans," and also into increased studio funding, the better to buy one's way out of Papier-mâché costumes and into some real spandex duds. Behind the scenes, the studio itself can be outfitted with various upgrades that improve performance in each episode. Buying health care for the actors improves their health in combat, and improving the lighting on set reduces enemies' chance to dodge or counter blows. Materials dropped in combat can also be used to craft customized gear with semi-random statistics, a useful (and cheap) alternative to costly store-bought costumes and weapons. Fan mail can be answered for flavor and smaller benefits, and players can even choose marketing agencies to confer more benefits. Going with a niche-market enthusiast firm might increase the amount of fans gained after an episode, but will likely lack the mass-audience-gathering benefits of a more mainstream advertising push. Tradeoffs like that characterize much of Chroma Squad's meta-game. Speaking of meta-things, the game's narrative and missions regularly break the fourth wall, and form one of the game's potentially divisive aspects. While the self-aware script and obvious understanding of tokusatsu's many conventions and tropes lend it an endearing level of charm, some players might be turned off by references to dated Internet memes and other metahumor. Personally, I found the story hit quite a bit more than it missed, but I will admit that at times the dialog read more like a forum chat log than a script, and wasn't always helped by rough spots in the localization and editing. Then again, it's not like tokusatsu attracts its fans for complex plotting and characterization, so it may balance out in the end for players in the right mindset. What isn't as easy to let by are some unfortunate, if minor, technical and design blemishes on Chroma Squad's pristine pixelation. Mission scripts would occasionally freeze in "cutscene" mode, forcing me to start the mission over. A nasty little bug accidentally equipped low-level equipment on my giant robot, making some late-game boss battles much more tense than I'd have liked them to be. One bug even gave me control of an enemy unit rather than my own squad members for a few turns! Thankfully, dev posts on the forums appear to indicate that Behold is aware of most of the bugs I encountered, and a patch is in the works at the time of this writing. Beyond that, the lack of a mid-mission checkpoint or save, or a mission-select option is inconvenient for players wanting to explore the game's branching story paths (especially for those curious to see what Behold has to say about Kamen Rider). That said, the team has stated a New Game+ option may yet be in the cards for a future update, so repeated playthroughs may become more appealing in the future. Zordon may have wanted "teens with attitude," but Chroma Squad and its unabashed, utterly geeky love-in for all things tokusatsu shows something even harder to find: A game with heart and soul. That heart shines through the rough edges, and in some ways even turns them to its advantage. It might have taken quite a while in getting here, but fans of spandex-clad superheroic finally have the videogame to help them fill that little fantasy. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Chroma Squad review photo
Lights, Camera, Henshin!
Ever since a badly-dubbed lady popped out of a dumpster on the moon, sending a weird computer-man to seek "teenagers with attitude," geeks of a certain age have been on the lookout for a game that can capture the essence of w...

Review: Crypt of the NecroDancer

May 04 // Patrick Hancock
Crypt of the NecroDancer (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Brace Yourself GamesPublisher: Brace Yourself Games, KleiRelease Date: April 23, 2015MSRP: $14.99 It would be a criminal act to not immediately mention the music in Crypt of the NecroDancer as it plays a starring role and deserves the first-paragraph treatment. This is mostly due to the fact that music is interwoven into the gameplay itself. The player can only act in time with the beat, which is also when the enemies act. Said beat has a visual representation on the bottom of the screen to help players get accustomed to it, but after a short while most players will be acting based on the audio cue, not the visual. When done correctly, the music, movements, and sound effects line up to create something that can only be described as "groovy."  In a game where music is at the core of the experience, the soundtrack could have easily made the game fall flat. Thankfully, this is not the case. There are three soundtracks built into the game. The default music is by Danny Baranowsky, and it is amazingly brilliant and brilliantly amazing. The tunes for each level are varied, yet all of them are catchy. The other soundtracks are a metal remix by FamilyJules7X and an EDM version by A_Rival, and also assuage the eardrums. Regardless of music preference, players are bound to dig one, if not all, of these versions. It's also possible for players to import their own music for people who don't like good music, or just want to work with something different.  The game isn't just about boppin' along to some great music, though; there is a story at play here. There are cutscenes for characters between zones, and paying attention to them, as well as some in-game hints, alludes to a pretty big overarching story. It's split over multiple playthroughs with different characters, so it will take some time to reveal the whole thing. The lore is legitimately interesting, something many players may not be expecting.  Every action is mapped to the arrow keys. In fact, the game can even be played with a dance pad! There's a specific mode for dance pad play, which makes the game a bit easier since the control method is inherently more difficult. This also serves as an easier mode to introduce players to the game who don't feel they are up to the full challenge quite yet. When playing with a controller, everything is mapped to the face buttons, which can also be remapped to the player's liking. [embed]291156:58414:0[/embed] Attacking is as simple as pressing the direction of the enemy. Items and spells are also available, and are used by pressing a combination of two arrow keys. For example, to use a bomb, players must press down and left (by default) on the beat. Various weapon types will alter where enemies can be killed in relation to the player, and it is of the utmost important to know a weapon's attack range. When moving, the game will check if anything can be attacked first. So if a player is expecting to move forward but an enemy is within attack range, the attack will happen. This means the character will remain stationary, which can be bad news in certain situations. Knowing these attack mechanics is crucial, and thankfully there is a weapon range in the game where players can try out all the different types of weapons and learn them inside and out. I recommend doing this at least once, especially for the whip. In addition to weapons, players have access to a shovel for digging through walls, a consumable item, a torch, armor, a ring, and a spell. Armor is split up into head, chest, and feet, making there a lot of items to equip for a full "set." The items found are random so make sure to pray to RNGesus before each run! Many items must be unlocked before they show up in chests within the dungeon. Unlocking items is permanent and costs diamonds, which can be found in the dungeon itself. Any diamonds not spent in between runs are lost forever, giving the player all the incentive in the world to spend them on something. It's the perfect system of progression in a game that otherwise has very little, ensuring that even the "terrible" runs can usually yield some sort of good news and contribute to the greater good. The dungeon is split into four distinct zones, each with its own atmosphere, enemies, and randomly generated layout. The first two are on the simpler side of things, but the third and fourth zones introduce new tile mechanics and are completely unique. It's amazing how fast confidence plummets after beating one zone and entering another. It's easy to be on a bit of a high after beating a boss for the first time, only to be introduced to a brand new area where players know basically nothing. It's a kick in the pants, and it feels so good. Speaking of the boss fights, each one in NecroDancer is incredibly memorable. Each one has its own theme and executes it perfectly. My favorite is definitely Deep Blues, which puts the player against an entire set of chess pieces as enemies, who move according to the chess ruleset. Seeing a boss for the first time usually results in a bit of laughter followed by an "oh shit" as the gravity of the situation sets in. Then death, of course. Some bosses are definitely easier to comprehend than others (I don't want to use the term "easier in general"), and the boss fights at the end of zones one through three are randomly chosen, which exacerbates the feeling of luck that's inherent in the roguelike genre. There's likely going to be some aggravation from time to time, simply because of bad luck. This frustration is lessened because of the diamond system, but the feeling of futility is occasionally hard to fight back, especially when there's nothing left to spend diamonds on. While each zone shares some common enemies, the enemy variety in each zone is largely unique. Some weapons may feel overpowered in one zone, and completely useless in another simply because of the change in enemy behavior. This makes the "all zones" runs that much harder. Some enemy types will be "buffed" in later zones, adding more health or variants on the original behavior. After completing the four core areas, there is still plenty to keep players occupied. Crypt of the NecroDancer also supports mods, and they are dead simple to use. All you have to do is download a mod from the Steam Workshop, then activate it from the pause menu. Many of the mods are currently music changes or skin changes, but only time will tell how far they go in the future. Different characters are also unlocked by accomplishing certain goals, and these characters are way more than just re-skins of the main character, Candace. The Monk, for example, can choose any one item from the Shopkeeper for free, but will die instantly if he lands on gold. Considering gold is dropped by literally every enemy, this forces a huge change in playstyle. I couldn't even get past the first zone! In addition to the standard dungeon, which can also be tackled with two players in local multiplayer, there is a boss fight arena, an enemy behavior trainer, a codex for advanced skills, a daily challenge, and a level editor. Beating the game once is really only the beginning. There are enough variations on the basic playthrough to keep players coming back for a long time. Crypt of the NecroDancer accomplishes what few games even attempt to do. It merges together two completely different genres: rhythm and roguelike. The frustrations of both come as part of the package, but some intelligent design decisions help to alleviate the issue. For those looking for the next gaming obsession after the likes of Spelunky, Binding of Isaac, or Rogue Legacy, look no further than Crypt of the NecroDancer. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
NecroDancer review! photo
Tunes from the crypt
Dance Dance Revolution was a large part of an earlier era of my life. Going though dance pads year after year until I finally convinced my parents to get me one of the "big boy" pads for a lot more money. Eventually I gr...

Review: The Weaponographist

May 03 // Chris Carter
The Weaponographist (PC)Developer: PuubaPublisher: MastertronicReleased: April 29, 2015MSRP: $9.99 The Weaponographist is designed to be a lot like recent "roguelikes" (whatever that term means these days), and I'd like to think of it as a mix between The Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy. The setup this time around for constantly going in and out of random dungeons is by way of a witch's curse, forcing the hero (who is a bit of an asshole) to rescue a town. He's cursed to fulfill his obligations, and after death, will constantly respawn in town until he succeeds. It's a cute setup, but that's really the only neat thing it has going for it. With plug and play controller support, picking up Weaponographist is easy enough. Each face button will attack on its respective side, and as part of your curse, picking up weapons constantly is key as they'll break over time. If you don't have an item handy you can use your fists until you find another one, pick it up, break it, and repeat. This is the cookie-cutter formula for pretty much every modern roguelike, but unlike a few recent hits, it gets stale after a scant few runs. Townsfolk will have a few upgrades for you here and there, like better fisticuff training, more complex weapon combos with specific armaments, and spells -- a small mechanic that allows you to occasionally bust out fireballs and the like. The problem with the upgrade system is that it's not sexy in the slightest. There's only a few boring purchases available at any given time, most of which passively increase your stats in a non-visible or menial manner. I like the way combat is handled, at least in theory, as you need to constantly kill things in rapid succession to increase in power, and the "break, find" items force you to experiment and get out of your comfort zone. Ultimately, the Isaac comparison ends at the top-down boxed dungeon aesthetic, because it's much less inspired than Edmund McMillen's masterpiece. Every room functions like an arena, with very little in the way of exploration or hidden secrets. There's simply not enough variation, and the amount of time spent in individual rooms is way too long and the end result is grindy combat. As a hypothetical free PlayStation Plus title, The Weaponographist would have some room to flourish as a mindless hack and slash game with a poorly implemented, but nonetheless existent, reward loop. But as it exists right now in its sole PC incarnation, there are many more titles worthy of your time -- including that 1000th run of Isaac you've been putting off.
Weaponographist review photo
As cursed as its hero
When The Weaponographist was described to me as "a speedrunning hack-n-slasher dipped in a bit of rogue sauce," I barfed a lil' bit. Playing it didn't do much to assuage my illness.

Review: Project CARS

May 01 // Brett Makedonski
Project CARS (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developers: Slightly Mad StudiosPublisher: Bandai NamcoReleased: May 6, 2015 (PC), May 12 (PS4, Xbox One)Price: $59.99 Even though Project CARS is difficult, it's all rather appropriate. I've never raced cars before, but I imagine it to be an unrelentingly tough gig. There are a dozen or so drivers that are all after the same checkered flag. Slightly Mad has done a fantastic job crafting a racing experience that reflects real-life competition. Whereas other games often feel like races take place around the player, Project CARS feels like the player is one small part of the race. However, in the heat of the moment, one could be forgiven if they don't agree with that. Project CARS' AI can be so aggressive at times that it seems as if the game is trying to pound the player into submission. Opponents will veer across the track to block progress, and they'll occasionally send you skidding into the gravel trap. Sure, it's an accurate portrayal of racing, but, man, that comes as no consolation at all when it dooms the entire race. The AI isn't the only opponent in Project CARS; you're a constant threat to cause your own downfall. In the rare event that you break free from the pack, the most minute of miscalculated turns will send you straight to the back. One tire overstepping the bounds of the track will often send the car skidding off into a pile of tires, relegating you to an unimpressive finish. Also, this title doesn't play the rubberbanding game, so once the leaders have created separation, you're likely to stay off the podium. Again, frustrating, but that's what you signed up for when you booted up Project CARS. [embed]291507:58427:0[/embed] All that annoyance isn't aided by the fact that Project CARS starts the career with the lowest levels of kart racing, which just so happen to be the most uncontrollable vehicles in the game. It's almost like a trial by fire of sorts, a challenge from Slightly Mad that if you can command these unwieldy beasts, you're good enough to play this game. I was handily defeated so consistently during these races that I wondered if tweaking vehicle settings was an absolute necessity to success. That's where Project CARS' commitment to being for hardcore simulation fans became actively detrimental. Before each race, the menu will implore the player to make alterations, but offers little in the way of guidance as to what anything does. Those who know the ins and outs of cars may take great pleasure in adjusting camber angles and changing suspension heights, but the layman will be left wondering if they're actively at a disadvantage. Honestly, they probably are. Regardless of where all those sliders end up, Slightly Mad has some great driving to offer. The cars all have an appropriate weight about them, only seeming floaty when they're the lightest of vehicles. Project CARS also mandates a nice degree of subtlety with the throttle and brake, often requiring barely touching the gas to optimally weave through a set of turns. The most appreciated facet of driving is that most of the 70-some vehicles feel legitimately unique from one another, meaning that each takes some time behind the wheel before you can control it efficiently. That learning curve won't be welcomed by everyone, however. A lot of nuance is needed, and it's difficult to master. This is especially true with a standard gamepad, which is how the majority of people will play Project CARS. These controllers are often too finicky, and will send the car careening further and more slapdash than the player intended. Those with proper racing wheels will surely have an easier time. One aspect of Project CARS that never fails to impress is its aesthetic. Everything is stunningly gorgeous at all times, even when the sun blinds you as you're trying to corner. The scenery might be at its best during the rainfall, which looks fantastic, but adds another degree of difficulty as the slick roads definitely impact driving performance. Unfortunately, it also impacts game performance, as rainy weather acts as a kind of stress test, and it's where the frame rate dipped the most noticeably in the Xbox One version of the game. For a title that touts itself as offering a staggering amount of control, Project CARS is ironically rather shallow. While all cars are unlocked right from the get-go, the player has no say in what they drive throughout the career. Once signed up for a new league in which to compete, the game decides what vehicle the races take place in. Likewise, outside of the standard career progression, there just isn't much more to do in Project CARS. It basically boils down to the obligatory multiplayer, some community events, and some one-player quickmatches. The game doesn't give the player much incentive to keep playing, so that drive has to be internal. If it isn't, you might find yourself putting down Project CARS sooner than you'd think. Actually, Project CARS' career is paced in such a way that it directly conflicts with the desire to keep playing. Every race is preceded by a practice and qualifying round. Each of those lasts a minimum of ten minutes. You can probably afford to skip practice (easy, Allen Iverson), but qualifying is borderline mandatory. Bypassing it, or simulating to the end after a solid lap, means you run the very real risk of starting the race in last place. If that happens, it's unlikely that you'll finish first. The AI is just too good to let you overcome those odds. You were probably damned before you even began. Admittedly, Project CARS isn't for everyone. In fact, it isn't for most people. It's niche, and it's for those who take their racing games seriously. It does most of what it sets out to do, and it does that very well. However, the broad appeal is lacking, as the long learning curve likely outweighs what most are willing to put up with. But, for those who put in the time and manage to take the checkered flag, this title has a supremely rewarding experience that most anyone can feel proud of, regardless of familiarity with cars.
Project CARS review photo
Hard charger
Project CARS is a game that revels in its inaccessibility. It was made specifically for people who have come to expect more from their realistic racing simulators. Developer Slightly Mad took that desire and ran with it....

Review: Hearthstone: Blackrock Mountain

May 01 // Chris Carter
Hearthstone: Blackrock Mountain (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentReleased: April 2, 2014 to April 30, 2015MSRP: Free-to-play (with microtransactions) For the entire month of April, Blizzard slowly unlocked each of the four wings of Blackrock Mountain expansion. The entire experience is finally available for $24.99 (or 700 in-game gold per wing), and I'm happy to report that it was worth the cash, as it's a step up from Naxxramas in most respects. The key to success with Blackrock is the commitment to the lore and having it fit within the confines of Hearthstone. That classic nostalgic rush you got as a raider in vanilla World of Warcraft is still there when you fight Ragnaros, Nefarian, and their crew, but with all of the goofy quips and dialog you'd expect from a card game that takes place within the same universe. In fact, it's still there even if you're meeting these characters for the first time. What really surprised me is how well Blizzard adapted these boss fights into engaging encounters. There were some bright spots in Naxx as well, but a few Blackrock battles really blew me away. Take Garr, who constantly destroys his own minions in an effort to take you out by way of Deathrattle damage. The catch is that each minion that dies on the same turn does an exponential amount of damage, forcing you to either whittle each enemy down individually, or just go for the all-out kill in four turns. Majordomo Exectus is another amazing confrontation, as he has a specific 8/8 card that he can summon for free if he drops below a certain amount of health. You have to strategically keep him alive until you have enough cards to take him out in one swift blow, or risk fighting an army of super-powered cards. The latter situation is doable with the right deck, which highlights how versatile Hearthstone is in general. There are plenty more unique levels too, like one that only lets you and your opponent play one card per turn of any value -- with concepts like these, the Heroic mode (unlocked after beating each wing) presents the biggest challenge yet. Class challenges are also back, and reward you with two class-specific cards after conquering an enemy with a pre-set deck. Mechanically this is probably the best part of Blizzard's Hearthstone expansions, as they allow you to step out of your comfort zone and experience new styles of play while rewarding you appropriately. It's a tradition that I'd love to see continued. The main aspect that I felt was a step down from Naxxramas however is the general theme of the expansion itself. Naxx felt like a completely different game, with bright hues of green, purple, and red. The cards were utterly unique and unlike anything you had seen before from a design perspective, and I still use many of them today solely based on their aesthetics. With Blackrock there are a lot of great cards as rewards, but a lot of them share the same artwork as the rest of the core set. While it may not look as dazzling as Naxxramas, Blackrock Mountain expansion is still the best add-on yet, edging out the card-only Goblins vs Gnomes. I'm still chipping away at the Heroic fights, and with how many card options are available at this point, I'll probably be messing around with custom decks for weeks. [This review is based on a retail build of the expansion provided by the publisher.]
Hearthstone DLC review photo
The best expansion yet
As I've described in the past, my history with Hearthstone is pretty much inline with how Blizzard wants most of its customer base to enjoy it. I'm loving it in spurts, as it's perfect for quick pick up sessions with fri...

Review: Omega Quintet

Apr 29 // Josh Tolentino
Omega Quintet (PS4) Developer: Compile HeartPublisher: Idea Factory (JP), Idea Factory International (US/EU)Released: October 2, 2014 (JP) / April 28, 2015 (US) / May 1, 2015 (EU)MSRP: $59.99 Speaking of other "firsts," playing Omega Quintet brings to mind the very first Hyperdimension Neptunia title. That's not a good sign, seeing as the original game literally put Matt Razak to sleep back in 2011. Indeed, despite being, on paper, one of the most feature-rich titles Compile Heart has produced, the experience of playing Omega Quintet feels decidedly regressive, a far cry from the comparative refinement that the Neptunia franchise has managed to cultivate over the years. Perhaps some of that disconnect is cultural. Whereas the Neptunia series' light parody of the game industry and its never-ending platform wars will be familiar to most gamers, idol culture -- which informs much of Omega Quintet's setup -- is largely absent outside of Japan. Many of its references to the peculiarities of pop-princess life fall flat for lack of that common ground. On the other hand, not even Neptunia could be considered especially sophisticated in its satire. Anyone familiar with that series would know that the premises, however niche or inventive, really serve as a framework on which to drape a proven mix of cute girls, complex battle systems, anime-tinged humor, and sexualization. Omega Quintet is in much the same way, and its paeans to the life of celebrities are ultimately skin-deep. Except even by those lowered standards and tempered expectations, the game still comes across as lazy and half-hearted, without the charm or spark that helped its cousins rise above their otherwise mundane core.  Omega Quintet at least sounds interesting at first. Its future-set, ostensibly apocalyptic setting is cutely subverted by the fact that the Blare, an existence pushing humanity to the brink of extinction, can only be stopped by the Verse Maidens, a troupe of magical girl idols who sing and fight with giant weapons called "Mics". The Verse Maidens are powered by the adoration of the people, which necessitates their fights being broadcast live like a concert. Sadly, the last active Verse Maiden, Momoka, is retiring, because she's apparently much older than she looks. Enter Otoha, a fresh-faced youngster, and her male friend/player stand-in Takt, as the newest Verse Maiden recruit and the team manager, respectively. As more new Verse Maidens join to take up the reins, various anime-flavored antics ensue alongside goodly amounts of suggestive posing, relationship-building, wacky conversations, and of course, saving the world. The catch, unfortunately, is that all this cutsey waifu fun has to be experienced from the perspective of Takt, one of the least likable male leads ever to be inflicted on videogames. It's as if whomever wrote his lines mistook being a total prick for an aloof kind of coolness. Every word from his mouth is marinated in pointless sarcasm and brain-dead snark that it makes the event scenes -- which already run far too long and stretch their one-note jokes to the breaking point as it is -- a grating exercise in tedium. If he can't even be bothered to care what's going on, why should we? The game can't even be bothered to fully incorporate its premise into the main structure. Omega Quintet comes with a surprisingly robust "PVS" mode, which allows players to essentially construct dance and concert videos from the game's (rather small) collection of idol songs, complete with video recording and upload functions, but there's rarely any point or main-game benefit to engaging it. Ironically, despite the fact that this game is supposed to be Compile Heart's "idol RPG," Neptunia Producing Perfection, which is more of an actual idol-centric game than this could hope to be, came out last year. [embed]290971:58370:0[/embed] If there is a group that could look forward to enjoying Omega Quintet, it's the crowd that comes to JRPGs not for narrative or anime antics, but for abstract and engaging battle systems. Omega Quintet's is enjoyably complex and interesting to master. Where the trend in RPG battle has moved away from menus and into quasi-action game territory, Omega Quintet is all too happy to throw players into a sea of menu selections and gauge-driven turn-based combat. At its core, the game's battling relies on using attacks of varying effectiveness, range, and recovery time to manipulate the turn order. Stacking commands and attacks so that the Verse Maidens all take their turns in quick succession unlocks powerful Harmonics attacks, and building "Voltage" (a gauge representing the audience's fervor) eventually results in engaging the cinematic "Live Concert" mode, a sort of super attack that involves big damage, over-the-top animation, and background lyrics. Throw in Takt's ability to partner up with the Verse Maidens to deliver follow-ups or stat boosts, as well as score-boosting Overkill systems, a Sphere-Grid-like character progression system, and even item and gear crafting, and there's plenty of mechanical fat to chew on. If only the context and characters surrounding this part of the game were more worthwhile. Though there's nothing explicitly wrong with it, Omega Quintet feels far too much like a "by-the-numbers" Compile Heart title to do justice to the studio's first current-gen effort. Its narrative and aesthetic "fluff" ultimately fail to support its dense and otherwise engrossing mechanical heart. For a game about a bunch of girls finding their voices and path in the world, it has distressingly little "voice" of its own.  [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Omega Quintet review photo
Same old song and dance routine
Omega Quintet is a game of firsts. Chronologically, it's the PlayStation 4's first exclusive Japanese RPG (Final Fantasy Type-0 originally being a PSP game). It's also developer Compile Heart's first PS4 game, and by certain logic, the first JRPG to plumb Japan's idol subculture. If only being such a pioneer had resulted in a game that actually put its best foot forward.

Review: Environmental Station Alpha

Apr 28 // Jed Whitaker
Environmental Station Alpha (PC)Developers: Arvi Teikari, Roope MäkinenPublisher: Hempuli Oy  Released: April 22, 2015 MSRP: $7.99 As a robot sent on a special mission, you'll spend your time exploring a space station filled with different environments, from a forest to a volcano and even a surprisingly well-done water level. Along the way, players will find clues via computers that hint at the previous happenings of the station, upgrades that help you access news areas, and general power upgrades. Most areas contain multiple bosses, and a plethora of secrets to find. Alpha doesn't stray far from the basic Metroidvania formula. Search until you find a boss, kill it, collect an upgrade that allows you to advance to the next area -- then repeat. That isn't by any means a bad thing. You're free to roam as you see fit, but computer terminals will mark areas on your map that give a general idea of where to go; you only need to figure out how to get there. The station is huge. Luckily, there are teleporters that can be activated to jump around areas when needed, cutting backtracking time. Even with a map and this convenient means of travel, I found myself getting lost more than once, especially later in the game when I was forced to retrace my steps to find where the next area was. The fact that you were given these general locations to guide you early on and are no longer provided them later in the campaign feels like an unfortunate design oversight. Finally finding where you need to go can be rewarding, or tedious depending on the amount of time needed. A lot can be done with pixel art, and Environmental Station Alpha is proof of that. Each biome has a unique look and feel and is far more detailed than the retro games that influenced it. Leaves fall around you in the forest biome, bubbles appear in the water, and sparks fly in the volcano biome. Each area has a nice unique effect that really complements the action well. Combine this with a soundtrack that will get stuck in your head, and you have an all-around decent presentation. Throughout the game you'll acquire various upgrades that range from a double jump, to a dash to a hookshot that feels rather similar, to the bionic arm from the original Bionic Commando. The hookshot is really a key item, as the moment you get it you're expected to use it often to traverse each of the station's biomes. Thankfully the hookshot mechanics are solid, allowing you to swing to and fro finding the next boss with ease. While you constantly gain upgrades throughout the game, boss battles never seem too easy or too hard, as their difficulty scales well. Each boss feels unique from the others, having different attack patterns and varying weak points. Since these big bads aren't pushovers, I was neck and neck with many of them, often times at the end of my health bar when I finally defeated them. These confrontations are some of the most satisfying boss battles I've had in a game in some time.  After finishing the initial story a ton of post-game content waits to be found on and off the station, but locating it won't be easy. A cryptic alien language must be decoded and then used to subsequently translate various clues. Following said clues will lead you to multiple endings and a post-game boss. While all this certainly extends its shelf-life, the amount of effort required to translate the hints, which themselves are rather vague, isn't for everyone. Those who persevere will be able to get their save files up to a 202 percent completion when all is said and done. Overall, Environmental Station Alpha didn't reinvent the wheel when it comes to Metroidvania games, but it certainly helped satisfy my appetite. The amount of secrets and post-game crypticness might be great for some, and it does extend the playtime quite a bit, but as a completionist I found it to be more legwork than I'd like. Call me crazy, but I don't like tons of cryptography in my games. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Environmental Station 	 photo
Robots, viruses, and ghosts, oh my!
Metroidvanias are all the rage in the indie scene these days, in part because Nintendo seemingly doesn't want to make a new Metroid game, and Konami turned Castlevania into a God of War clone. Environmental Station Alpha may ...

Review: Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart

Apr 28 // Kyle MacGregor
Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart (PlayStation Vita)Developer: Sting, Compile HeartPublisher: Idea Factory InternationalReleased: February 24, 2015 (NA) February 27, 2015 (EU)MSRP: $39.99  Why was I so hopeful for Hyperdimension Neptunia? Well, the concept of a game that parodies the console wars is almost too good to give up on. The series follows a group of anthropomorphized gaming consoles, each the ruler of her own kingdom, all vying for dominance in what's effectively a grand popularity contest. It's a cute idea, at the very least, with the potential for so much more. I hoped it would be a clever satire, something introspective and comedic that poked fun at the industry in an interesting or meaningful way. Instead, I discovered one jejune RPG after the next, a middling collection of games that lean all too heavily on fan service as crutch. What I wanted this series to be and what it is are two very different things. I probably should have realized that before now, but well, here we are. The latest entry in the franchise, Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart, may be a spin-off, but it hews closely to its source material -- albeit with one notable exception. This is a strategy role-playing game, rather than a more traditional one. However, aside from the difference in combat, those familiar with Compile Heart's previous efforts will know exactly what to expect out of this one. But let's talk about what makes this entry unique. The action takes place on grid-based battlefields. There, players act as the general of a small army, moving units to support allies and assault foes. In addition to the SP gauge, used for special attacks, there's an LP meter, which fuels even more powerful moves and allows the central protagonists to transform into their more powerful goddess forms. LP is an interesting resource, as it's gained by performing special attacks while flanked by friendly units. This will result in a kissing animation, which doubles as a power-up.  This system is a key component of a successful strategy on the battlefield, but it isn't without risk. As you might expect, clustering into tightly-packed ranks makes units more susceptible to area-of-effect attacks, meaning it could as easily pave the way to victory as it could to your undoing. The level design at work here is interesting and varied, constantly shaking things up with a range of traps, puzzles, and obstacles. The objectives are similarly diverse, though I'm not sure the assortment makes the combat terribly compelling. Despite minimal repetition, the pace of play here feels inordinately slow. Battles often feel overly long and drawn out, especially when a protracted series of turns are dedicated entirely to positioning. There are a lot of lulls in the action that mar an otherwise competent tactical experience. The story doesn't help in that regard, with a hackneyed plot and shallow, tropey characters that talk forever about nothing at all. There's some mild referential humor to be found, but it's mostly about the fan service. It has plenty of pantsu and giant, jiggling breasts, which is made all the more creepy by the new chibi art direction. The entire cast look like abominable hypersexualized infants. Speaking of said characters, most of the ones you'll be taking into battle over the course of the game are based on popular Japanese videogame franchises. This was actually one of my favorite parts of the experience, as taking personifications of the Street Fighter, Yakuza, and Dragon Quest (I could go on and on) series into the field was a real joy. Their special attacks (like the Metal Gear-inspired Lid's cardboard box stealth attack) are particularly charming, and serve as nice nods to players who are familiar with the source material. It's just a pity that these characters are often relegated to a support role, as the familiar faces are far more useful on the battlefield. Since Noire, Blanc, Neptune, and Vert can all transform into their extremely mighty goddess forms, it pays to deploy them over your favorites. While transformed, the goddesses are able to fly, making them immune to traps and elements of the landscape that limit conventional troopers. It's a lamentable design choice, impelling players to use the same, stale heroines rather than the revolving door of refreshing newcomers.  There are other questionable choices that hamper the experience, like: lengthy enemy turns, the constant influx of tutorial messages that are more busy than informative, a loading period at the beginning of each fight where the game makes you watch combatants materialize out of thin air, one-hit kills, and a bizarre movement mechanic that doesn't allow you to move units exactly where you'd like them to go -- even if that space is in range. There are just dozens of little annoyances peppered throughout the experience that require the player to be very patient and forgiving. It's unfortunate because there's a decent strategy RPG at Goddess Black Heart's core, but the game just can't seem to get out of its own way. Hyperdimension Neptunia fans may well enjoy this one, but I can't count myself among them. The series has an alluring premise, but it just doesn't push the idea far enough for me. The cloying characters and banal story are just so incredibly vapid, and the respectable strategic gameplay just isn't enough to compensate for the myriad of drawbacks and stumbling blocks. Sorry Noire, but it's time we go our separate ways. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Hyperdevotion Review photo
It's not you, it's me
Falling in love with potential can be dangerous. A mistake people make far too often when forging new relationships is placing undue expectations on others. People grow and change, but it's impossible to know how or when that...

Review: Westerado: Double Barreled

Apr 27 // Jed Whitaker
Westerado: Double Barreled (PC)Developer: Ostrich Banditos Publisher: Adult Swim Games Released: April 16, 2015MSRP: $14.99 It starts like any normal day, waking up to help your family take care of the ranch, rounding up some buffalo back to their pen. The night sky glows orange in the distance while returning home, a strange sight for the west. The glow soon becomes embers as you realize your family ranch is ablaze, blood is strewn about the ground, your mother is slaughtered and your brother is fatally wounded. Your brother doesn't have much information about who did this, but he does give you one single clue, information about the killers clothing. He gurgles blood as he asks for you to end his suffering, you cock your gun, as tears stream down your face you pull the trigger.  The beginning of Westerado is one of the strongest openings of a game I've ever played, and gives the player a real sense of purpose, revenge.  The universe Westerado takes place in is easily recognizable: A western with cowboys, a quest for vengeance, a bank, an oil man, a saloon with strong female characters in tow; this is a spaghetti western. Dialog for characters is written in a south western dialect that makes anyone feel like a real life cowboy when reading it aloud. A film strip overlay is shown behind characters as they converse, just one of many indications found throughout Westerado that indicate it takes place on a film set. All this overlayed with a wonderful soundtrack that would feel at home in any western flick. Searching for the murderer entails wandering from town to town, through deserts and mines while talking to characters along the way. Conversations with characters often times lead to jobs. Jobs range from defending a ranch from bandits, to forcing a drunkard husband to leave the saloon at gunpoint, to sexing up "Miss Tress" a local promiscuous female. The variety of quests is refreshing, as each one is unique from the others. Upon completing these jobs characters reveal more information about the murderer, specifically what they are wearing. Clues are collected for you in a handy dandy notebook, which includes a wanted poster showing the murderer as described by clues.  Jobs aren't completed with just walking and talking as you'll be using your six shooter to leave a trail of bodies on your quest for vengeance. Equipped with infinite ammo, the six shooter is drawn by pressing a bumper button, the hammer is cocked with one press of the right trigger and then fired with a second press. Reloading is done manually one bullet at a time with the left trigger. The controls feel like you're holding an actual six shooter. Aiming, on the other hand, takes some getting used to. Your gun fires in a straight line from the barrel, which works mechanically but seems odd when the game is presented in three dimensional space, but after a few gunfights it will be second nature. Westerado can be played with a co-op partner, with any of the four characters that can be unlocked through multiple playthroughs. Every time you play you'll have a different murderer to gather clues on and locate, though the only things that change are clothing or gender, and the map stays the same. While having a randomly generated map could have been a better choice, it is a minor gripe for an otherwise near flawless game. Rarely do I sit down to play a game, finish it and instantly start a new playthrough; this is one of those games. Westerado is a great package with lots of replayability and can easily be recommended for fans of westerns or revenge flicks. No other experience that I've played has done revenge so well. If you've been hankerin' for a trip to the wild west saddle up and hang onto your hat, Westerado: Double Barreled is a dern tootin' good time. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Westerado Review photo
Yee-haw! Giddy up! Yip! Yip!
Do you like spaghetti westerns with charm, humor, hammy accents and over the top violence? How about revenge flicks, video games with retro style graphics? Do you like fun? Are you breathing oxygen?  Well then partner ya...

Review: Uncanny Valley

Apr 27 // Stephen Turner
Uncanny Valley (PC) Developers: Cowardly Creations Publisher: Cowardly Creations   Released: April 23, 2015  MSRP: $8.99 (10% off until April 30) Things start off well enough with a panic-inducing nightmare, followed by a car journey through the pixelated wilderness. As Tom, the new night watchman at Melior -- an abandoned robotics facility -- it's your job to keep the pilot light running until the place gets bought up by new owners. Tom's only companions are Buck, a grouchy and overweight guard, and Eve, a cleaner who takes a keen interest in the new arrival. But while Tom suffers from nightmares of the past, his rounds at the facility quickly draw him into something much, much worse. Sure, there's a mystery to be found, but like a kid trying to pull a prank on you, it reveals its hand far too soon. In fact, with so many audio tapes freely scattered around the workplace, you'll figure out the major twist before you make it past the first night. Overall, Uncanny Valley is a good story poorly executed. It's choppy and muddled due to a reliance on repeat playthroughs and a presentation of two distinct halves. In the first half of the game, you're given a seven-minute work shift. In that time, you're allowed to go anywhere on four separate floors, where you can read emails, collect audio tapes, or play the arcade machines. Once the time limit is up, you have a choice of snooping around for longer (in which case, Tom eventually collapses from exhaustion) or getting back to your room for a good night's rest. Whatever happens, you're always thrown into a nightmare sequence that can be completed or failed without much consequence, beyond the reward of more backstory. [embed]291010:58344:0[/embed] Then after several shifts, time management is suddenly dropped in favour of a more traditional survival horror experience. It's an odd design choice; one minute, you're scrambling around to fit an investigation into your work schedule, and the next, you're given all the time you need, right before the point of no return. And it's in the second half that Uncanny Valley falls apart. It's certainly more engaging, even if it does wear several influences on its sleeve. There's a health system lifted from Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where injuries slow you down, make you louder, or ruin your aim, while the hide-and-seek gameplay intentionally evoke memories of Clock Tower. Unfortunately, and especially for long standing horror fans, it's the consequence system and vague puzzles that turns all the goodwill into a frustrating experience. For example, after your first enemy encounter, you're conditioned to stay out of their way, but then a door puzzle requires you to get attacked, just so you can control an enemy and let it aid you into the next room. There's thinking out of the box and then there's going back on everything you just said. The consequence system, while subtle early on, ends up being a detriment to the narrative. Get knocked out at one point and you go from Scene A to Scene C, skipping Scene B and its vital exposition in the process; all because you didn't react quickly enough or even know there was a choice. Tailored, unchangable choices are fine, but in one ending, a character shows up injured from a scene I never encountered. In another ending, a suspicious group wait outside for Tom without an introduction or a reminder of their identity. You just had to play better to know. And for that, beyond the facility's macabre history, you never really get enough motivation to care. Your decisions are informed by player experimentation rather than character incentive. In Clock Tower, Jennifer has the option to escape early on, mainly because of Scissor Man and a sense of self-preservation. Here, in an obvious homage, Tom chooses to run away simply because you stumbled upon Buck's car keys, long before you encounter the horrors in the scary basement. As previously stated, Uncanny Valley is intentionally designed for repeated playthroughs, but after the second, third, and fourth try, it feels like a chore as you piece together the core plotline from different decisions. Detours aren't forbidden in storytelling, but with several listless endings on offer (plus one or two deliciously disturbing ones), it never feels definitive. Once you get the gist, there's no need to go back for dimishing returns. But there are positives lurking under all this frustration. For a short game (clocking at 2 hours at best), it does panicky horror quite well; holding off on the worst elements and planting the seeds early on, like the only working generator in the woods. It's more a case of when things strike, not what will strike. Once alerted, enemies smash through doors and chase you down until they fall apart. The shadowy horde that follow Tom in his nightmares are another horrific highlight. The pixel art is equally vivid and grim, with body horrors roaming the hallways and disturbing sciences haunting the background. The soundtrack flicks between reflective melancholy and weighty industrial themes, and the voice acting on the audio tapes is perfectly pitched as offbeat and ominous. All in all, it captures the doom-laden mood of '70s sci-fi perfectly; though, why the game chooses to make all the in-game dialogue as one-lined text is just puzzling. Unfortunately, I never finished my fourth run. Another save bug deleted a key item from my inventory and progression ground to a halt. I felt that after several endings and Tom's history explored, I'd seen enough. All of which brings us back to that original dilemma, for which I'll sadly say that, no, Uncanny Valley isn't worth it. It's a game that rewards you for being better on the next attempt, which means a lot of players will get that same jarring and incomplete experience as I did, early on, only for it to be replaced by waning interest as repetition sets in. I wanted to enjoy Uncanny Valley, especially with its opening concept and jump scares, but despite all the assurances and hard work with those patches, it just wasn't to be. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
PC photo
Should've taken that job at the fireworks factory
I didn’t have the greatest of starts with Uncanny Valley. After only 15 minutes of play time, I’d wandered into one of the “bad” endings seemingly by accident. On my second attempt, I encountered so ma...

Review: Shadowrun Chronicles - Boston Lockdown

Apr 27 // Chris Carter
Shadowrun Chronicles - Boston Lockdown (PC) Developer: Cliffhanger ProductionsPublisher: Nordic GamesReleased: April 28, 2015MSRP: $39.99 As a quick crash course on the story, "Shadowrun" literally refers to the act of carrying out plans which are "illegal or quasi-legal." You'll have plenty of chances to engage in said debauchery, as the world has gone through an "Awakening" 65 years before Lockdown, which takes place in 2076. Magic has returned to the world, dwarves, elves, orcs, and trolls are a thing -- oh, and dragons too. Returns took place in Seattle, Dragonfall was in Germany, and this is in Boston. Got it? Action will take place in an isometric strategic format very similar to the XCOM series. Using a classic mouse and keyboard setup, you'll have two maximum movement grids, the second layer of which will allow you to "sprint," and immediately end your turn. The first threshold will still allow you to attack, use a skill, or interact with the environment accordingly. Gameplay is all about positioning and outflanking your opponent, as well as placing emphasis on a risk-reward melee mechanic. For the most part you'll want to conservatively duck into various bits of cover, but since hand-to-hand attacks always result in a higher damage output, there's the chance to get up close and personal. It's all very functional, but to be frank, that's about as technical as the game gets. [embed]290948:58338:0[/embed] As you progress and earn more skills, you'll have the opportunity to delve into various trees and specialize in something that's more your style. Beyond your typical passive bonuses (Mind, Body) there's weapon-centric trees (blades, blunt, pistols, shotguns, automatics), summoning, spellcasting, hacking, and rigging -- the latter of which is more like a "gearhead" conceit. You don't need to hole-up into just one role (although you likely will at first), as you're free to distribute your skills as you see fit. Personally, I went with the automatic rifle route combined with a touch of summoning. Your basic summon includes a spirit bear, which can maul or stun enemies as its own autonomous unit -- it's really cool, but later skills are often less memorable or endearing as more progress is made. With 11 trees that feature anywhere from 13 to 20 skills each, there's a decent amount of options available, but since a lot of those double-up as "advanced" versions, there's not as much variation as I would have hoped. This is by design, as Cliffhanger Productions has stated that it wanted a more streamlined approach with Lockdown. I'd say that with some sacrifices the studio has achieved that goal (for instance, actual statistical changes for different backgrounds and races are marginal at best), but missions often lack that spark often found in other genre staples. Most runs are predicated on simplistic kill orders, which often result in a simple flank with a series of firefights. There's very little room for nuance when most of the weaponry effectively feels the same. The script also doesn't feel as poignant as Hairbrained Schemes' titles, and although there aren't a lot of glaring problems with it, it's tough to truly resonate with Lockdown's world beyond the occasional Red Sox reference. Your gameplay loop precedes as follows: a hub world visit to grab a mission, running said mission, returning to the hub to upgrade, and so on. There's no looming open overworld, no MMO-like exploration -- the hub is one small Boston neighborhood, with a taxi that takes you to each stage, an instance across the city. Along the way you'll earn cash to buy new weapons, armor, and augmentations, and karma nets you more skills -- that's all you need to know. It's a rather confining means of play, but it works, as the almighty call of upgrades and loot is just as powerful as it is anywhere else. So about that former "Online" moniker -- the first thing I noticed as soon as I booted up Boston Lockdown was the chat function. Nearly every avatar looks different due to the heavy amount of cosmetic options, which range from tattoos to visors that would make Geordi La Forge jealous. Even in the tutorial you're privy to a gathering of players, some of which are looking to help out new players, and others advertising their HP and gear to find a more professional-oriented group. The entire interface has been vastly improved from its former Early Access state, as players can simply click on someone's name or their avatar in the hub world to form a group. Friending people is also as easy as sending a request, and the UI itself is very clean, completely devoid of clutter. Players who enjoy a breadth of options are likely going to be disappointed, as Boston Lockdown only allows you to tweak your resolution (up to 1920x1080), fullscreen (with no full-windowed option), a few mouse scrolling variations, and volume control. That's about it. Dedicated Shadowrun fans will likely be disappointed at the lack of depth, and your mileage may vary in terms of the appeal of the multiplayer function, which seemingly took over some of the other more endearing aspects of the series. If you haven't played a game in the series since the SNES however, Boston Lockdown is a decent starting point, and a perfect way to re-acclimate yourself to the genre with friends. If you prefer to fly solo, just go with Shadowrun Returns instead. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Shadowrun Boston review photo
Not featuring Boston's Favorite Son
In case you haven't noticed, Shadowrun has been making a comeback lately. With Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun Returns in 2013 and the subsequent Dragonfall follow-up, the series has enjoyed triumphant return to...

Review: Broken Age: Act 2

Apr 27 // Caitlin Cooke
Broken Age (PC)Developers: Double Fine ProductionsPublisher: Double Fine ProductionsReleased: April 28, 2015 MSRP: PS4, PS Vita, PC, Mac, Linux, Ouya: $25 / iOS and Android: $15 Broken Age is very much designed and intended to be played as one game, not chopped up into two parts. If you've managed to hold out this long to play both acts together, rest assured that you've done yourself a favor. The second act gets straight to business, dumping the player into some heavy plot points right off the bat. The game’s challenging puzzle logic also comes through in full force with no time to ramp -- progressing in the game relies heavily on prior knowledge of the landscape and characters. I asked for more puzzle complexion in my review of Broken Age: Act 1, and boy did I get it. The puzzles are of the same kindred as the first act -- difficult to piece together at first, with a dash of trial and error mixed in. However, this time around the obstacles are far more difficult and obtuse, requiring deep creative thinking, but more often than not bordering on the “impossible to solve without help” realm. I found myself pondering puzzles for long periods of time until eventually giving up, clicking through every possible option as a last resort. Where the first part of Broken Age had more environmental exploration and shorter, more gratifying puzzles, the second act tends to lean on more long-term challenging puzzles. Puzzle solutions from the first portion of the second act were used throughout almost the entirety of the game -- much of my time was spent drawing out diagrams on post-its and endlessly referencing them. The ability to switch between stories is still present, which comes in handy when stuck on a puzzle or in need of a change of scenery. However, during certain parts of the game some puzzles require information from the other side of the story. This caught me off guard at first but was less annoying once it became obvious that this would be a theme throughout the latter half of the game. The bar from Broken Age: Act 1 is definitely met if not exceeded in Act 2 in terms of the visuals, nostalgia, and clever dialogue. However, the setting in the second act is practically the same as the first half of the game, with the exception of a few minor changes. Although I adore the characters in Broken Age and was happy to see them again throughout the second act, I had hoped to experience new scenery and perhaps new characters. The story in Act 2 goes in a strange direction, and feels rushed -- especially compared to the first act, which has an even progression and was much more cohesive. Conversations are had between characters that lay plot points out on the table very quickly, and in an uninventive way. It seems a tad thrown together, and I would have preferred to discover the plot through means of gameplay instead of having it explained via single lines of conversation. Unfortunately, by the end of the game I was also left with with a lot of unanswered questions. Since it had taken a year for this second installment to make it to us, I had expected a little more on that front. Broken Age: Act 1 was so perfect that perhaps my expectations were inflated when playing through the second half. However, despite the challenges Broken Age is still very much a beautiful game with a heartwarming story. The puzzles, as frustrating as they are, come from a place of creative invention that defines the point-and-click genre. I choose to treasure its high points-- the charming characters, ingenious dialogue, and silly childlike whimsy. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. This reviewer also backed the game's Kickstarter campaign.]
Broken Age 2 review photo
Mostly worth the wait
[Disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter. A review copy was used for this verdict.] Three years since the launch of the infamous Double Fine Adventure campaign and a year after Act 1’s much-anticipated release, Broken Ag...

Review: Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure

Apr 24 // Chris Carter
Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure (PC [reviewed], PSP) Developer: Nihon FalcomPublisher: Nihon Falcom (JP), Mastiff (US), 505 Game Street (EU)Released: December 25, 2004 (JP) / March 30, 2015 (US)MSRP: $9.99 From the very moment I booted up Gurumin I fell in love. It's so damn cheery and bright, and that old school retro spirit of adventure is alive and well. With its Dreamcast-style visuals, It brings me back to that whimsical era of gaming where gameplay and fun factor took precedent over all else. You'll play as a young girl named Parin, who sports a giant drill to fight off evil phantoms and help cute "monsters" (yep, monsters are good in Gurumin) who can only been seen by children. Parin is adorable, as she's not only a formidable heroine, but spouts hilarious dialogue at every turn, voiced by an enthusiastic Amber Hood. The entire game including the hub town gives me a big Brave Fencer Musashi vibe, which is a huge bonus for me. At the start of the narrative you'll meet a group of monsters as well as the core phantom group, led by a powerful prince. As the cast starts to fill up you'll find faces voiced by greats like Quinton Flynn, Dee Bradley Baker, and Tara Strong. Every character, good or evil, is memorable, and the campaign plays out in that wonderful storybook kind of way. [embed]290701:58290:0[/embed] Despite its cutesy veneer, Gurumin has a fairly deep combat system. It boasts charge attacks, timed combos, dashes, launchers and aerial raves, and a few more powers as you unlock them. One of the best mechanics is the air dash system, where you can constantly jump off enemies as long as you can lock-on. It's satisfying as hell, and the game gives you an ample amount of open and varied environments in which to test them out. It does have controller support on PC, but I have multiple issues with both the 360 and Xbox One controllers in terms of input lag on the game's menus. It's not a dealbreaker as the emphasis is on action, but it was annoying every so often when I wanted to save my game. It's a good thing Gurumin has a "save anywhere" scheme. It has a lot of the key elements you'd expect from an older JRPG like a world map and equipment system, but it doesn't go overboard. Getting to where you need to be is relatively easy, there's no grinding, and gear nuances begin and end with the head slot. But with these elements in place, it manages to elevate the game above your standard action title, especially when you start getting into some of the gear bonuses that compliment individual styles, like extra defense or leeching health. Gurumin hosts a lengthy 15-to-30-hour campaign, which has plenty of extras predicated on replay value, like multiple difficulty modes, extra sidequests, a new ending, and a hunt for every item. Thankfully, the additional difficulties alter enemy placements and tactics to incentivize multiple playthroughs. I wish there were something a little more out there beyond a few minigames, but it's more than enough to keep you interested for quite a while. I can recommend Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure to just about every action enthusiast out there. Outside of some antiquated elements dating back to the fact that it is an older game at heart, it dares to be positive at nearly every turn, and you won't be able to play it without a smile on your face. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Gurumin review photo
Monstrously fun
Luckily, growing up I had a lot of friends who were either from Japan or were heavily into eastern games -- so the opportunity to play imports, including the coveted Radiant Silver Gun, was always an option.  Gurumi...

Review: SWR JST DX Selective Memory Erase Effect

Apr 24 // Jed Whitaker
SWR JST DX Selective Memory Erase Effect (PC)Developers: Nekomura Games Publisher: Nekomura Games Released: April 20, 2015 MSRP: $4.99 SWR centers around Etta -- a blue haired android girl with a low battery -- controlling her robotic toy cat M1MI in an attempt to logout of an operating system gone rogue. M1MI can double jump, as well as do a close attack with his sword and throw knives to take out enemies from afar. Throwing knives are limited in number, but are strewn throughout levels and never run scarce. SWR is old school hard, one hit from any enemy or projectile ends the life of M1MI, luckily continues are infinite, no quarters required. Rendered at the same resolution as arcade games of old, and intact with a high score counter on the top of the screen, Selective Memory Erase Effect would feel at home in a nice standing cabinet. Upon launching the game, text is displayed just like an arcade game would show upon being turned on and from then on the screen is persistently filled with beautiful pixel based art with a nice scanline filter. Etta wonders aloud in cutscenes between stages where she sometimes has conversations with boss characters. Bosses plead with Etta to not log out of the system, as they have been enjoying their freedom from doing OS functions. Each baddie is designed around being a different part of the OS, such as a watchdog that would normally be an antivirus program, or a squid that would be the networking function. Upon their death, a colorful screen will be displayed showing the dead boss while music that would feel at home in a 1980's drama plays. These scenes made me feel bad for killing them, though that clearly may have been the point. The bosses do warn that logging out could have a dangerous outcome giving the narrative a slight mystery element. [embed]290780:58328:0[/embed] While SWR starts as a beautiful sidescroller, it changes up the formula a bit a few times: once for some underwater environments and again for a minecart level and even a boating stage. The minecart conceit, while fun, was easily the weakest part of the game. While automatically scrolling from left to right M1MI has to jump and duck to avoid randomly generated obstacles, all while boulders fall from the top of the screen. The randomness of the level caused multiple unavoidable deaths in an otherwise fantastic game.  SWR JST DX Selective Memory Erase Effect's artstyle is what initially drew me in, and luckily the rest of the game was up to par as well. I was especially impressed with the attention to minor details that made it feel like an arcade game down to some graphical glitches that I hope were included purposefully to give it that arcade feel. The characters are interesting, the story was very enjoyable and for $5 it was well worth my two hour playthrough. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
SWR JST DX review photo
1990's retro chic
SWR JST DX Selective Memory Erase Effect, or Sword Justice Deluxe Selective Memory Erase Effect, as it's also known, is one of those indie titles that tries to mimic games of old while still making a fresh new ...

Review: Mario Kart 8 DLC Pack 2

Apr 23 // Jordan Devore
Mario Kart 8 DLC Pack 2 (Wii U)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoReleased: April 23, 2015MSRP: $7.99 ($11.99 bundled with DLC Pack 1) First up, let's run through exactly what's included in DLC Pack 2: Characters: Villager (male and female), Isabelle, and Dry Bowser Vehicles: Streetle, City Tripper, P-Wing, and Bone Rattler Vehicle Parts: Paper Glider and Leaf Tires Crossing Cup tracks: Baby Park, Cheese Land, Wild Woods, and Animal Crossing Bell Cup tracks: Neo Bowser City, Ribbon Road, Super Bell Subway, and Big Blue Whereas last time we got two characters who looked like retreads of the existing lineup (Tanooki Mario and Cat Peach), here there's Dry Bowser as the lone offender -- but he's so awesome on his badass, metallic, skeletal bike that I'm not even going to complain. Isabelle is a cute addition to the roster and, hey, cute is fine. But the Villager duo is where it's at for my money ($7.99). The boy's patterned pants are the best. Like, I went so far as to jot down a note about them between races. That might sound silly. It is. But for a game packed so full of little flourishes, you've got to appreciate the attention to detail. I particularly dig how Animal Crossing's iconic "Oh shit!" piano sound plays when you fall off course as one of these characters. I don't have much to say about the three other new vehicles, but admittedly I'm not one to dissect stats and stick to certain builds because they are technically superior. Aesthetics matter, too! With that in mind: the Streetle has a chubby beetle-esque frame; the City Tripper reminds me of a Vespa; and the P-Wing has got a cool sort of Speed Racer thing going for it. It wasn't long at all before I returned to old favorites like the Sport Bike, though. [embed]290911:58308:0[/embed] "The tracks," you might be thinking. "Get to the tracks already! That's what we care about." Yes, yes, I agree. No more stalling. (And thanks for the segue!) First up is Baby Park, a short and sweet oval-shaped course modeled after a bustling theme park. During its seven micro laps, you will probably be hit with a bunch of items and hit back just as hard. It's equal parts chaos and joy. Whether in first place or last, everyone's so bunched together that it feels like you're in the middle of the pack, always. I somehow took first place in an online match and it was as if I had cheated death himself. Cheese Land, a desert area with edible-looking rock formations, makes terrific use of the game's depth-of-field effects for its sprawling vistas. This track has come a long way since its debut in Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance, that's for sure. Unquestionably pretty, but not necessarily a standout track in my mind. Wild Woods, however, stands out. It might even be the standout. It's this oasis hidden deep within a lush forest and there's a little village of Shy Guys and Toads and they've got a waterslide which you of course get to race across. Someone at Nintendo finally figured out that driving down waterslides in Mario Kart is what rainbows must taste like: magic. Next is Animal Crossing, which closes out the Crossing Cup. It's a relatively simple area that shifts seasons to dramatic and delightful effect. Northern lights glimmer during winter in one playthrough, while cherry blossoms flow in another. Seeing this world and these characters rendered so beautifully has me giddy at the possibility of a new Animal Crossing on Wii U. Just, wow. Neo Bowser City kicks off the Bell Cup with a rain-soaked neon cityscape. It's a nice change of scenery from the usual castles and lava we associate with Bowser, but the layout didn't feel all that unique. Still, I have to commend the designers for coming up with these places that feel seem like tracks in a racing videogame and more like cross sections of living worlds. Hundreds of races later, we might still be picking out fresh details in the environment. Ribbon Road, another upgrade of an old Game Boy Advance track, might be my favorite. It's miniature Mario Kart in a child's bedroom, complete with those wind-up dudes from the end of Super Mario World, swaying jack-in-the-boxes that you'll need to glide around, and a monstrously large movie poster for "Kung-Fu Lakitu" plastered on a wall. It's a pitch-perfect theme and the course itself is continuously exciting to navigate. What a keeper. Super Bell Subway isn't as visually arresting as its predecessors but speeding through an underground subway makes for a good time all the same. This can be one of the more rewarding courses depending on if you're (un)lucky enough to get sandwiched between two trains. Finally, there's Big Blue, a track that translates well from F-Zero (and I'm not just saying that because of the fist-pumping theme song). It's another one of those long, one-lap tracks people either love or loathe. I adore 'em. Between the competing conveyer belts, the waterslide-like pathways and, yes, that amazing song, I thought to myself "So this is what it feels like to truly be alive." Is this all working up toward a future F-Zero game or are DLC cameos in Mario Kart 8 as good as it gets for fans? Ignorance might be bliss. The free new 200cc option isn't a part of DLC Pack 2 (and as such I'm not factoring it into this review), but since it's out on the same day, I figured you'd want to know at least a little about it. As expected, it is exhilarating. Also as expected, it takes some getting used to. I'm not even sure the AI is fully ready for it. The action moves at such a rapid pace that you need to rethink your routes and strategies (and possibly your vehicle of choice) or risk crashing into walls or falling over the edge frequently. Repeat after me: "there is a brake button." The free update also adds more costumes for Mario Kart 8's Mii character which you can unlock by scanning supported amiibo. I saw someone online with a Kirby sitting on their head and that was neat for a second before I got shot to hell with shells. Your results may vary. As with DLC Pack 1, Nintendo has shown what great downloadable content can look like and that it doesn't need to arrive on day one or even month one. While not every new track is memorable, there is a consistent quality here and a few of them represent Mario Kart at its best. It was a treat to see other Nintendo properties dip into the game last year and that novelty hasn't worn off yet. This is the future of the series. It has to be. [This review is based on a final build of the DLC purchased by the reviewer.]
Mario Kart DLC review photo
Animal Crossing is in the house
Nintendo is back with more crossover content for Mario Kart 8 and even as an on-again, off-again fan of the series, today feels reminiscent of waking up on Christmas morning with confidence that the present you most wanted th...

Review: Lost Within

Apr 23 // Chris Carter
Lost Within (Android FireOS [reviewed on a Kindle Fire HD], iOS)Developer: Amazon Game Studios, Human Head StudiosPublisher: Amazon Game StudiosReleased: April 17, 2015MSRP: $6.99 The setting of this spooky affair is the old Weatherby Asylum -- an abandoned relic of the past, set to be demolished in one day's time. Of course, your stupid idiot police officer avatar winds up "checking it out" one last time to see if there are any stragglers, and you get sucked into a hellish underworld of scary fun. It's a setup you've seen a million times before, but Lost Within has a level of polish rarely seen from the genre, not to mention that it's a mobile-only affair. Using touch-style controls you'll navigate the labyrinthine tunnels of horror, and they are surprisingly responsive. All you have to do is touch an area to get there, double-tap to run, swipe to turn, tap to use defensive items, and you can even use your device to lean around corners with an optional gyro setting. Mobile games have really come a long way, and co-developers Amazon Game Studios and Human Head should be commended. That polish extends to the visual style as well, which is stunning on an Amazon Fire HD tablet. The crazy writing on the wall that you'd expect out of an asylum is clear and concise, and every environment looks like there was a lot of work put into it. Screenshots don't really do it justice, as the framerate and smooth engine are the strongest aspects of Lost Within. [embed]290846:58289:0[/embed] This is a jump-scare game under-the-skin though, and it won't really offer up a lot that you haven't seen or rolled your eyes at before. I really like the literature that narrates the history of the asylum and its inhabitants, as it strays from the typical "diary" setup often with things like newspaper clippings, but once you're done reading up, it's back to a corridor simulator with "scary" monsters. In case you couldn't pick up on that obvious sarcasm, those creatures aren't really all that threatening, or nearly as interesting as the lore bits. Said corridors are often fun to roam through thanks to the mechanics, and freaky flashbacks are a constant source of entertainment beyond running and outwitting the baddies in the "real" world. What Lost Within really thrives on is the ability to tell a compelling story in an easily-digestible way throughout the experience. In-between the jumps and frights I had a burning desire to unravel the game's various mysteries, and press on to the next area. Amazon Game Studios only has a few games under its belt, but it's already making a name for itself in the industry. With a little more creativity Lost Within could be a full-blown retail game, which could be where the publisher is heading with the acquisition of Double Helix and a few other talented developers. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Lost Within review photo
Warning: it's another asylum game
Jump-scare horror games, or "YouTube Bait" as they're often now called, are a dime-a-dozen. Especially ones based in an asylum. Lost Within is a jump-scare horror game that takes place in an asylum (cue the laugh track). Thankfully, it has a handful of redeeming qualities that elevate it above the competition.


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