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Review: Hearthstone: League of Explorers

Dec 10 // Chris Carter
Hearthstone: League of Explorers (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentReleased: November 12, 2015 to December 10, 2015 MSRP: $19.99 for all four wings The basic setup has been pared down a bit, and I'm mostly fine with it. Instead of focusing on five wings, League has four, strewn about over the course of four weeks (skipping an additional week for the Thanksgiving holiday). It's maddening sometimes to have to wait to access another wing that you paid for, but that's mostly because Hearthstone constantly leaves me wanting more. This expansion really delivers with its single-player scenarios, topping any other fight before it. That's primarily due to the "choose your own adventure" sections, where players will have to deal with an event rather than face a specific enemy. You'll be able to play the odds by taking a high-risk, high-reward option or play it safe, and in the end, strategy usually wills out. Other fights involve mechanics like a staff that makes you invulnerable, and a boss that persistently fills your side with useless minions that explode over time. From a lore perspective, there's a decent amount of references here for fans, from a duel with Lady Naz'jar in the ruined city, to a showdown with Archaedas in Uldaman. I never thought Blizzard would one day make a card game and base it on the rich Warcraft world that it's spent decades developing, but I'm glad it did. As for the other bits, Heroic (hard) versions are still in, and although Hero challenges are a little too easy and straightforward this time around, each one rewards you with one card, so they're still worth playing. [embed]324539:61475:0[/embed] The new cards are also rather disruptive, in a good way. The main characters (pictured above) drastically alter some decks, and a few even allow for completely new deck themes. My personal favorite is Sir Finley Mrrgglton (love that name), a 1-mana 1/3 card that allows players to swap their hero power. It's such a tiny thing, but the ability to use hero powers interchangeably can alter the course of a match. I've also been using the Summing Stone in a few of my decks, which summons a random minion based on the cost of any spell used while it's active. Other cards like Tomb Spiders and Jeweled Scarabs "discover" new minions. Like the themes before it, the types of cards in League are cohesive, and fun to use. Murloc decks in general also got a huge buff, with "Anyfin can Happen" (a 10-mana card that summons seven dead Murlocs), and the Tinyfin (a 0-cost 1/1 card that essentially buffs other Murlocs). Hearthstone: League of Explorers is probably my favorite expansion yet for the game. I feel like Blizzard iterates for every release, and I hope this isn't the end of the adventures to come, as I vastly prefer them to card-only expansions. Maybe next time we'll see even crazier mechanics, like the co-op fight that was only used once in a Tavern Brawl. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Hearthstone review photo
Cheerio
Blizzard is doing a great job of keeping Hearthstone players invested. In addition to the typical daily quest, weekly Tavern Brawl, and Arena schemes invented to reward people with new decks on a constant basis, it has a...

Review: Girls Like Robots

Dec 09 // Darren Nakamura
Girls Like Robots (iPhone, Linux, Mac, PC, Wii U [reviewed])Developer: PopcannibalPublisher: PopcannibalReleased: November 12, 2015 (Wii U)MSRP: $6.99 Girls Like Robots starts off strong. The hand-drawn art is cute and inviting. Characters are expressive and the narrative that strings everything together alternates between comfortably familiar and bizarrely irreverent. Even the central puzzle idea seems to have promise. By taking into account all of the little rules about who likes sitting next to whom, satisfying logic puzzles can be constructed. Indeed, some of the better levels had me reasoning through a succession of a-ha moments, working through the necessary if-then statements in my head in order to come to a suitable solution. Girls Like Robots even does the classic Smart Game Design Thing (™) of introducing a new mechanic over the course of it in order to keep everything fresh. Some levels ask for negative happiness, some are timed, one has an almost Tetris-esque line-clearing mechanic. Sometimes it gets really weird, with fireflies bouncing off blocks to destroy underground insect lords. [embed]325021:61447:0[/embed] And yet despite all that, I found myself bored more often than not with the seating chart gameplay. The early levels in a section are appropriately small, trivially easy in order to introduce a new idea. The problem is that it doesn't scale well: increasing the size of a puzzle increases the difficulty and complexity, but it transforms from a solvable logic exercise to a muddle of trial and error. So few of the puzzles hit the sweet spot, where the solution is neither immediately obvious nor unreasonably obtuse. Even finding the correct solution in some of the bigger challenges isn't satisfying, because the outcome doesn't appear to be substantially different than any number of failing configurations. It's all just a mess of cute characters arranged into rows. Thankfully, there is a skip button to blow past any puzzles that are taking too long. I never used it, but I found myself tempted a few times, simply because I wanted to see where the story would go next but I wasn't enjoying myself while I was actually playing. There's no doubt that Girls Like Robots is charming, and that quality alone is enough to make it worth seeing through to the end. But while the wacky story and self-aware narration is enough to carry interest, the actual puzzles work against that. In the end, the game mirrors its own volcano picnic scene. It's cute, it's weird, it sounds like a fun idea at first, and there are some delicious pies to find here and there, but somebody is going to get burned. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Girls Like Robots review photo
I think they're just okay
Girls like robots. It's the name of the game, and it's the first piece of information given. Most of the time spent is in laying out seating arrangements of emotional square people in an attempt to maximize happiness. Girls l...

Review: SteamWorld Heist

Dec 09 // Chris Carter
SteamWorld Heist (3DS [reviewed], PC, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One)Developer: Image & FormPublisher: Image & FormMSRP: $19.99 ($16.99 until December 31, with a 3DS theme)Released: December 10, 2015 (3DS), TBA (PC, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One) Although Heist is confirmed to take place in the same universe as Dig, the only thing that's remotely similar is the art style. Set in the future after the presumed fictional wild west period, the cast of the game is now spacebound, complete with more advanced weaponry at their disposal. The star of the narrative is Piper, captain of a smuggling ship who gets wrapped up in the ongoing conflict with pirates. Along the way you'll pick up more cast members to add to your home ship, Mass Effect style, all of whom boast unique abilities and statlines. The presentation is just as charming as Dig to boot, with gibberish dialogue (outside of the announcer), memorable characters, and some awesome vocal music tracks. One thing I wasn't too keen on though was the lack of character development, despite the fast-moving plot that gives you plenty of excuses to blow stuff up. While I felt very connected to Dig due to the smaller scale of its world that left me wanting more, the galactic conflict of Heist wasn't quite as compelling. Gameplay-wise, gone is the action platformer conceit, as things are now at a more deliberate pace. Think of how Valkyria Chronicles works -- players get a limited amount of movement, and can perform one action, including a skill or an attack, before their turn ends. You'll get to aim manually, and target any body part or object you wish. You can also opt to sprint further than your allotted movement, though it will immediately end your turn. Many strategy RPGs have used this same system, but I was surprised at how well it works in Heist's 2D space. [embed]324048:61439:0[/embed] Action is relatively fast-going, and there are a ton of nuances built into the combat system to constantly keep things interesting. For instance, weapon loadouts drastically change the way one approaches a situation, as some guns have laser sights, different rates of fire, or new ammo types altogether. When you add in the fact that headshots increase the chance for a critical hit, and that you can knock off enemy hats to add to your collection (of which there are nearly 100), it gets even more interesting. The whole equipment system alone is well crafted, from the way it starts off manageable and eventually ramps up, to the utility of the items in general. Players will have to choose two items per character, shifting their builds significantly and essentially turning them into new playstyles. Selling items is as easy as pressing a button, which makes inventory management effortless and fun without being too streamlined for its own good. Items like extra movement shoes, armor that restricts movement, and healing packs all come into play, and can be used in a static manner or more dynamically as a reaction to each scenario. It's deep without being too overwhelming, so newcomers shouldn't have any issues acclimating to it -- especially since you can alter the difficulty setting on every mission. It helps that maps are always interesting as well, providing multiple paths of entry even earlier into the experience. Because of how open each arena is, placement of your party is important, and finding cover can be relatively difficult when nearly all of it can be destroyed or blown up depending on the situation. There are so many variables involved in every level that missions never truly felt the same, even if I was repeating them to pick up some loot I missed, or clear an objective I previously failed. SteamWorld Heist is both a great entry point for people who normally shy away from strategy games and a good recommendation for veterans. With a deep combat system and a sliding difficulty scale, pretty much everyone can find something they'll like. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
SteamWorld Heist review photo
Smugglers with hearts of gold
SteamWorld Dig is a criminally underrated game. Although some were quick to judge its short length, it's the perfect thing to pick up and play at the drop of a hat, and the pacing is basically perfect. Heist is a co...

Review: Rayman Adventures

Dec 08 // Brett Makedonski
Rayman Adventures (Android, iOS)Developer: Ubisoft MontpellierPublisher: UbisoftReleased: December 3, 2015MSRP: Free, with microtransactions Rayman Adventures is an auto-runner that often moves at a restrained pace. Swiping on the screen gets the titular character moving, tapping implores him to jump, and swiping again changes direction. And while many runners press ever-onward left to right, Rayman Adventures tries to avoid that trap, usually allowing the player to dictate the flow. Keeping things from speeding out of control is a smart design decision, but not one that's quite consolation enough for inaccurate inputs. Chaining together swipes and taps works sometimes, but it's a bummer each and every time they don't. More damning, the rest of Rayman Adventures feels built around those moments when the controls falter. The big picture going-on in Rayman Adventures involves saving Incrediballs. These quirky creatures help Rayman grow a tree higher and higher into the sky for whatever reason. Incrediballs occasionally appear fully grown, but they'll often take the form of eggs that need to be incubated (either by waiting or by using resources to speed up the process). [embed]325074:61452:0[/embed] Incrediballs feel very much like a direct response to Adventures' lacking controls. The player can call on a number of them to assist them through a level. The game's broken down into three main level types: exploration-based, combat-based, and collection-based. For combat levels, each Incrediball acts as a shield for Rayman, a second (and third and fourth) chance for when the player inevitably runs into the tightly-placed enemies. That's an example of Incrediballs acting as a crutch, but sometimes they're flat-out necessary. In collection scenarios, dedicated Incrediballs act as a magnet for the Lums; there's no performing well without their assistance. Predictably, this all loops back to the fact that Rayman Adventures is a free-to-play title. Incrediballs grow tired and need to be fed in order to be used again. The game dishes out a fair amount of food, but you can always buy some with real money if the need arises. To its credit, Rayman Adventures never gets heavy-handed with the microtransactions. There isn't any sort of mechanic that forces you to either pay or keep waiting, and resources seem to come at a constant enough clip that there exists the possibility it won't ever become an impediment (unlikely as that may be). However, there's a flood of different consumables that make them difficult to keep track of: gems, golden tickets, food, and elixirs can all be earned/purchased, and they all feed right back into one another. For example, tickets (and more) can be bought with gems. That ticket you scratch off might award some food. Food's used to revive Incrediballs which are used to perform well in levels, where the likes of gems might be the prize. Round and round we go. To what end, it's difficult to say. Scaling back and looking at Rayman Adventures as a whole paints it as a game where progress feels meaningless and sometimes confusing. But spending time inside the Rayman-patented lively world is a joy in small bursts, even if the execution is left wanting. Like those other Rayman titles, Adventures effectively captures the spirit of the franchise; it just has a hard time living up to the sterling precedent those games set -- a tall task that maybe the mobile format never had a chance of accomplishing in the first place. [This review is based on a retail build of the game at launch. No microtransactions were purchased.]
Rayman Adventures photo
So close, yet so far
Rayman has had a good run of it as of late. The last two console games -- Origins and Legends -- were fantastic platformers worthy of the highest praise. Now Ubisoft is testing the franchise's viability in the ...

Review: Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair

Dec 08 // Jordan Devore
Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair (PlayStation 4)Developer: SandlotPublisher: XSEED GamesReleased: December 8, 2015 (NA) / February 12, 2016 (EU)MSRP: $49.99 Some of those enhancements are immediately apparent; others are hard to pin to down. Visually, this is the best-looking, best-running Earth Defense Force I've played -- which is not to say it looks good or runs all that well by normal standards, mind you. Despite claims of a "steady" 60 frames per second, the game struggles to keep up with itself. Noticeable dips are a common sight when too many Ravagers pile up near your character or when skyscrapers crumble. The drop off usually isn't dramatic enough to be bothersome, but there were a handful of moments during my initial 15-hour-or-so run through the campaign where the frame rate briefly became a choppy, unmanageable mess. This is by no means new for the series, but it is a shame these problems persist on a current console like the PlayStation 4. Thankfully, load times fare significantly better. They're quick. I often made it into levels before I even had a chance to finish reading the tips and tricks shown on the loading screen. Considering how many missions there are (89 in single-player and split-screen; 98 in online co-op), that's a huge deal. These games are heavily built around players returning to levels countless times to earn more armor and cool weapons. No one wants to rack up literal hours of waiting to get into the action. [embed]325050:61450:0[/embed] Generally speaking, EDF 4.1 feels like a remix. Developer Sandlot reused set pieces and story beats in its earlier games, and that doesn't change here. (Again, this is an enhanced version of 2025, which in turn borrowed from 2017, so it's to be expected.) Remember fighting waves of red ants on a beach? Oh, you will. You'll also take on spiders, bees, bipedal robots, and spaceships, all of varying color and form. The mission is always to kill everything (or simply survive until someone tells you the thing you're after can't be killed yet), but there's enough variety strung throughout the campaign that I rarely got bored. The pacing is good, and few levels outstayed their welcome. That said, your results may vary depending on which class you choose (Ranger, Wing Diver, Air Raider, or Fencer), which weapons the random-number generator has blessed you with, and whether or not you're playing alone. The latter three classes are more specialized, but they have better options for getting across EDF's huge environments -- whether it's flying, driving, or dashing -- and they possess some of the more entertaining toys. The Ranger is well-rounded, but he can get stale. To that last point, these games are inherently more enjoyable with a friend (or up to three, if you're playing online). The classes are designed to complement each other, so it's most enjoyable with a mix of characters. The Air Raider, for instance, can buff others, lay down shields, and manually target enemy weak points for teammates' weaponry to lock onto. As far as new foes go, there is one particular encounter worth highlighting. Sandlot has added a new kaiju enemy, Erginus, that spans multiple levels. Your superiors eventually figure out that normal bullets and missiles have no effect on the monster. Naturally, the only way to bring it down is to initiate an absurd Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots-style brawl. You get to take control of a slow-moving "walking fortress" mech and punch the gargantuan approximately three thousand times until it finally keels over. I should have known that was its one and only weakness. A later mission raises the stakes with multiple mechs fending off against multiple Erginus. My first time through, everyone got tangled up in one corner of the map and I had to wait on the AI to die before I could even get within range to throw punches. The whole thing was a stupid, beautiful mess, which is exactly what I hope to find when I play Earth Defense Force. And in case you were wondering, yes -- the mechs are carried in by choppers. Tunnel levels and vehicles are some of my least favorite elements of this series, but both are better than ever here. New lighting effects make underground areas appear as if they are, in fact, set underground, and soldiers have lights on their weapons to compensate. The atmosphere now feels far more appropriate. I still find these levels to be uninteresting and quickly get annoyed when insect bodies pile up and block my shots, but the majority of the game is set above ground. As for vehicles, crucially, you can now see where you're aiming thanks to a laser sight. It's a total godsend. And I can't tell if the handling has been improved or it's merely my imagination, but for once, I genuinely wanted to drive tanks whenever and wherever I could. It helps that one of them is shaped like a spider and can crawl on walls. Bring that one below the surface. I also got the impression that there are more NPCs on the field compared to 2025. By pressing the DualShock 4 touchpad, you can place a marker on specific buildings, enemies, or locations. I was never sure if the AI was reacting to these commands or not (those weren't suggestions, people!), but being able to highlight targets is a great feature for co-op play. Insubordinate or not, more soldiers means more goofy dialog. The strange on-the-ground banter is spontaneous, hilarious, and rarely appropriate for the situation at hand. You can spur specific sayings using the touchpad. My personal favorite is a song that sounds an awful lot like the "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." One variation of the tune goes a little something like this: "To save our mother Earth from any alien attack, from vicious giant insects who have once again come back. We'll unleash all our forces, we won't cut them any slack. The EDF deploys!" My troops have uttered those words no fewer than 50 times and they'll continue to sing on command if they know what's good for them. This is precisely the sort of silliness that makes these games endearing in spite of their technical flaws and lo-fi aesthetic. In organizing my thoughts for this review, I realized I'm not ready to stop playing EDF 4.1. That's exciting, but also scary. I don't typically stick with these games long enough to get deep into the higher difficulty settings. Reaching that point requires a lot of grinding and patience. Too much. But that's where you need to tread to earn the best, most interesting weapons. While part of me hates that the progression system isn't more respectful of our time, I understand the appeal of having something you can keep coming back to for hundreds of hours. There's comfort in that. If I were to stick with a single installment going forward, this would be the one. Some of the upgrades fall short of expectations, and a good deal of the content is overly familiar at this point, but The Shadow of New Despair still represents the series at its best. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
EDF 4.1 review photo
The bugs are back in town
I'm happy Earth Defense Force continues to exist. There's no shortage of modern video games in which your primary interaction with the world is shooting things, but so few of them are lighthearted, charming, or funny. I don't...

Review: Fast Racing Neo

Dec 08 // Laura Kate Dale
Fast Racing Neo (Wii U)Developer: Shin'en MultimediaPublisher: Shin'en MultimediaReleased: December 10, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Fast Racing Neo is an arcade-style racing game that really captures a feeling of extreme speed from the get go. Environments stretch and blur as you fly around hairpin turns, jumps land with an immense thud if you're not lined up correctly, and every collision feels like a fist strapped to a lightning bolt smacked into solid concrete. The racing is immensely fast, as the name makes clear, and the sense of weight and substance behind vehicles helps every movement feel important, responsive, and in control. Considering the speed at which tracks fly past, the design of the game is stunning. Environments from tropical roadways to interstellar future tubes all feel distinct and memorable, with turns, hazards, and beneficial points well signposted. Turns are clear from a distance, and every design element is colored in such a way that it's recognizable as a neon point in the distance. [embed]324776:61432:0[/embed] The main feature that mechanically sets Neo apart from comparable super speed racing games is an engine color switching mechanic. By tapping the left bumper on your controller, you can switch the color of your glowing neon engines between blue and orange mid-race. These colors correspond to glowing sections on the track which will boost your vehicle speed considerably, as well as match up with boost jumps. The key to maximizing your speed is keeping up with the colors as they switch to maintain boosts and cut corners on tracks. The risk involved in the system is that there is a substantial drop in speed if your color clashes with a boost pad or jump you tried to use. If you touch a blue pad with orange engines, you'll find every other vehicle on the track zooming past you within seconds. The potential rewards are high, but if you're unsure, you may be better off avoiding these rewards in the heat of the moment. Also on the track are orbs that fill up a manual boost meter, which almost doubles your speed and allows you to push through vehicles that you collide with, knocking them aside with priority. The game boasts local and online multiplayer, which both work surprisingly well. Online races seemed to be lag free. The hectic pace is maintained throughout with minimal drops from races. Local multiplayer was done via split-screen, and while there was a visible drop in resolution, the sense of speed remains and it was still clear enough what was going on. It also features "Hero Mode," which ups the speed considerably, requires players to finish in first place, mirrors every track, and causes your manual boost meter to double as a shield meter. This gametype is quite frankly ludicrous, and gave me a real challenge to tackle once the main cups were cleared. Oh, before I forget, the whole game is playable on the Wii U GamePad in single-player, and it holds up really nicely on that smaller screen. Fast Racing Neo made a strong impression right off the bat, and is easily one of my favorite games this year. It's fast, it's responsive, it has a compelling color-switching mechanic, and Hero Mode provides a stupidly fast-paced challenge that's going to last me quite some time. I have very little bad to say about this game beside the fact that the resolution dips in split-screen. When that's the worst you can say about a game, it's pretty darn impressive. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fast Racing Neo photo
So fast the paint's peeling off my car
In the three years since the launch of the Wii U, one of the most notably absent Nintendo properties on the console has been F-Zero. The series, which focused on futuristic fast-paced track racing, has been dormant for over a...

Review: Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders from Planet Space

Dec 08 // Jed Whitaker
Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders from Planet Space (PlayStation Vita, PS TV)Developer: SandlotPublisher: XSEED GamesReleased: December 8, 2015MSRP: $29.99 If you're like me, you've played every EDF game and know what to expect when it comes to them, and this iteration doesn't break from the formula. In this enhanced remake of the second game in the EDF series -- originally only released for PS2 in Japan and Europe -- you'll be playing as one of three classes: Infantry, Pale Wing, or Air Raider. Infantry is your basic soldier that uses weapons you'd find in most modern day armed forces: assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers and so on. Pale Wing, on the other hand, is a female soldier with a jetpack and futuristic weapons; she moves slowly and is mostly useless on the ground while being nimble in the sky. Air Raider is a new addition that wasn't in the original release, and it mostly uses deployable weapons and plays more of a support role. In my playthrough, I sampled each class before decided to stick with the familiar infantry, as they just seem like an all around fit when playing solo while Pale Wing and Air Raider might fair a bit better in multiplayer. While up to four player online co-op is available, I was not able to test the functionality before release, so I can only assume the other classes fair a bit better online. [embed]325189:61454:0[/embed] Each of the three classes have their sets of weapons that are unlockable via pickups randomly dropped by enemies. This mixed with the six available difficulty levels adds a lot of replayability, on top of completing the game with each class; if you're a completionist, you'll get your $29.99 worth here.  Initially, I was concerned this being a port of the second game in the series would mean more repetition and less variety, but I was pleased to find out that wasn't the case. EDF2 has the best collection of enemies of any of the other games in the series. Aside from giant ants and spiders there are rolly pollies, flying saucers, centipedes, and daddy long legs-like walkers that are taller than skyscrapers. While this doesn't completely quash the repetitiveness of killing giant bugs and UFOs every stage, it certainly helps. Even the notorious slowdown that the EDF series is infamous for is mostly missing. In my playthrough, I experienced maybe two or three instances of choppiness due to the amount of enemies on screen, which surprising considering the Vita isn't exactly a powerhouse.  It isn't all explosions and sunshine, though. Most levels offer a tank, a speeder bike, and a helicopter, all of which control terribly. The tank is slow and clunky, the speeder bike is too fast to be controllable and useful, and the helicopter's guns aren't strong enough to be of use if you're lucky enough to hit something with them, and flying too high causes lots of pop in. On top of the terrible driving controls, the aiming just plain sucks for vehicles, mostly due to lack of crosshairs, which are provided when outside the vehicle.  Some stages take place in the city at night, where basically everything is pitch black (to a fault) other than windows in skyscrapers that shine brightly with a fuzzy glow around them, which just looks plain awful. Otherwise, graphically EDF2 looks like basically every other game in the series, which isn't surprising considering some of the levels feel almost identical if they aren't actually identical.  Aside from those issues, the main problem I had with the game was some enemies not being aggressive, instead opting to hang around in the far reaches of maps. Nearly every level's objective is 'murder all the bugs' and there was at least four or five times I had to either hunt and search to find the last enemies hiding spot, or slowly walk across the whole map. While tedious, these walks weren't the end of the world for me, just minor inconveniences of my fun-filled destructive romp. Earth Defense Force 2 may not be a brand new game per se, but has enough original content to keep it feeling fresh alongside the other recent releases in the series. With a lot of replayability, online four-player co-op, and a budget price tag it is easy to recommend to Vita owners looking for some campy over-the-top action in spite of its flaws.  EDF! EDF! EDF! EDF! EDF! [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] EarDefense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair (PlayStation 4)Developer: SandlotPublisher: XSEED GamesReleased: December 8, 2015MSRP: $49.99
Review: EDF2 photo
Honey I Shrunk the Kids 2: Buggernauts
Two words. Giant. Bugs. Also giant spaceships, giant kaiju, and giant explosions. If you're looking for campy sci-fi action on your Vita look no further than Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders from Planet Space.

Review: Fat Princess Adventures

Dec 07 // Chris Carter
Fat Princess Adventures (PS4)Developer: Fun BitsPublisher: SonyMSRP: $19.99Released: December 5, 2015 The entire gimmick this time around of Adventures is a Gauntlet-style hack-and-slash. Gone are the days of setting up elaborate base defenses and competing with other players in a giant game of Capture the Flag -- instead, you're mostly going to be pushing one of two attack buttons as you slaughter hundreds of foes on a relatively linear quest. Now, that's not inherently a bad thing, as Adventures is a competent action game with a few tricks up its sleeve. This time, the classes have been streamlined to four jobs: Warrior, Engineer, Mage, and Archer. The former two are melee based and the latter two are ranged, so it's pretty straightforward from there. As stated though the actual combat bits are quite good, despite their mindless foundation. Power attacks like a shield stun can often augment the effectiveness of other abilities, and the lock-on feature is simple to use, but flawless in execution. What I like in particular is that players can swap out classes at any time after hitting a checkpoint, which keeps things fresh through every stage, especially when more people are involved. Yep, Adventures commits to its hack-and-slash nature, and supports four players both offline and online. It's a drop-in and drop-out enabled game, so even playing solo can be enjoyable, as others will join in randomly, equip new roles, and switch up the flow of a match in an instant. Loot is also distributed rather swiftly, ensuring that you have a constant need to try out new playstyles. [embed]325020:61446:0[/embed] Having said that, the actual loot system isn't all that exciting. Sure, there are cool modifiers like a burn debuff for fire swords and the like, but none of it really transcends the realm of "slash slash slash," which is particularly grating when the enemy troops are mostly cannon fodder. But just as things are starting to get dull, an elite enemy (a la Diablo) will swoop in and grant you some new piece of loot, and all will be well again.  Once each level is completed, you can also go to the "Grindhouse" -- a mode that allows you to replay stages with extra rewards in tow, and challenge modifiers, like the restriction of using only one class. With local friends on board, this mechanic will last you quite a while. Bosses on the other hand could have used a bit more effort on Fun Bits' part. To be frank, they rely on the tired old mechanic of throwing "adds" (additional enemies) at players with reckless abandon. Some of the ideas are cool (using the overdrive mechanic as the only means of damaging a boss, or throwing cake at NPCs to power them up), but the strategy is almost always the same in the end: dodge power attacks, which are usually in a line, slash the adds, then focus the boss. In line with the uninspired boss encounters, don't expect a whole lot of substance outside of the quirky veneer. The story is rather trite, mostly consisting of a narrative that involves both princesses being captured by the evil Bitter Queen. It's something you've seen a million times before, and it's not done any better than all of the cartoons and games before it. The massive voice cast (with veterans like Nolan North, Steve Blum, and Tara Strong) does help its case though, as do the gallons of blood that flow from enemies, contrasting nicely with the cutesy fairy tale setup. Fat Princess Adventures is an enjoyable distraction for hardcore fans of the hack-and-slash genre, but now I just want a proper new Princess game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fat Princess review photo
I hope this leads to another core entry
I'm going to come out and say it -- Fat Princess was criminally underrated. With a charming art style and an incredibly deep combat system, it shot its way into my heart at launch, despite the fact that the community die...

Review: Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

Dec 07 // Laura Kate Dale
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam (3DS)Developer: AlphaDreamPublisher: NintendoReleased: December 4, 2015 (EU) / January 22, 2016 (NA)MSRP: £29.99 / $39.99 USD Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam tells the story of a crossover between the Mario franchise's two RPG iterations, the Mario & Luigi series and the Paper Mario games. In the world of Mario & Luigi, the cowardly green brother and an inquisitive toad go exploring in the depths of Princess Peach's castle, and happen upon a dusty old book. Upon opening the book, which just so happens to be the book in which Paper Mario's universe is contained, our heroes' wafer thin counterparts are unleashed into the 3D world, alongside a number of side characters and villains who also escape with them.  From here it's pretty predictable. Two Bowsers meet, they steal two princesses, two sets of brothers attempt to rescue them. Pretty predictable Mario plot. The narrative presentation on the whole is one of the strongest points on the whole of this latest RPG adventure. The dialogue, character interactions, and general writing were constantly cute, intelligently written, and surprisingly creative for what could easily have been a paint-by-numbers affair.  The localisation of the script is superb, a real step above what you see from most text-heavy adventures. The writing is consistently charming, intelligently self aware, tuned for cultural tastes, and snappy. When not trying to explain mechanics the writing is incredibly well paced and a joy to experience. [embed]324775:61431:0[/embed] The biggest issue for the narrative presentation and writing from moment to moment is the fact that Mario and Luigi remain mute throughout the adventure. This often leads to characters around them explaining their intent in less than elegant ways. Far too often a Toad might interject with a line like "What's that Mario, you think Bowser might have gone this way?" just so Mario could nod yes and the scene could progress. It's a minor issue with an otherwise good set of writing. While the overall plot may play things a little too safe, the journey to get there is very well written. Right, let's get on to the meat of what you're actually doing when you play Paper Jam. You explore the main world from an isometric view, with both Mario and Luigi following your control stick movements. You use the A button to make Mario jump, the B button for Luigi and both if you want them both to jump. This concept of having one button tied to each brother carries over into the combat system and actually works really nicely. At all times both brothers are under your control, it's just up to you to manage both in real time. Combat feels very familiar if you're a long time fan of the Mario RPGs. Enter a turn-based battle, select your attack, and time button presses to deal more damage to enemies or take less damage when being attacked. What helps the combat in Paper Jam stay fresh is the way this individual buttons for each brother mechanic fits in. If you decide to do two-person team attacks, you'll have to keep an eye on which brother is about to be active in the attack and make sure to press his button in time with the attack. If you're being attacked, you'll not only need to time your defense, but keep an eye on who the target is and defend him rather than the other brother. This mental back and forth in combat may seem a small addition, but it really helps freshen up an already strong combat system. The increased difficulty this brought to combat was a really nice thing to see. Boss battles will start as standard fight, but as they progress take some really interesting turns mechanically. From minigame integration to rhythm-based giant papercraft battles, boss fights throw a handful of new battle experiences at the player, ensuring each becomes a really memorable and unique encounter. Occasionally these experiments are more minor misses than hits, but overall I was thankful for the attempts at creative boss battle types. They were usually not too tactical, but it did feel rewarding to watch these bizarre spectacles unfold. The biggest problem with the core gameplay is that outside of battles, much of the it felt very much like things I have already seen and done in other Mario games. Hit blocks with your head, jump on platforms, go down pipes, and collect mushrooms. It's rarely a challenge to move between fights, and very little in the environments felt like it was new, or pushing the creative limits of a Mario environment. Another minor issue Paper Jam struggles with is excessive hand holding when new mechanics are introduced throughout the adventure. Every time something new is expected of you, the game makes sure to spend considerably longer than is necessary overly cautiously explaining what is expected of you. It's painstakingly thorough, which is certainly going to irritate more experienced players. Overall, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is a really rock solid game, with a few visible creases that need to be noted before purchase. It captures the bright colorful fun of the Mario universe perfectly, pairing it with incredibly well-localized dialogue and a very strong combat system. While it sometimes holds your hand for a little too long and at times fails to take proper risks, it was consistently polished, enjoyable and memorable. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Paper Jam photo
Sharp seams, minor creases
Ever since Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo, I've been a big fan of the concept of the Mario-centric RPG. Take characters we know well, bring them into a world with a more structured narrative...

Review: Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours

Dec 06 // Jed Whitaker
Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours (PC [reviewed], PS4, PS Vita)Developer: TaitoPublisher: DegicaMSRP: $59.99 (PS4) / $49.99 (PC) / $39.99 (Vita)Released: November 30, 2015 (PS4, Vita), December 3, 2015 (PC) Dariusburst was originally released as a Japan-exclusive PSP game before being revamped for arcades as Dariusburst: Another Chronicle. An expanded version was later released in arcades called Dariusburst: Another Chronicle EX, which is included in Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours as AC mode.  AC mode offers a few different flavors of play: Original, which closely emulates the original arcade game; EX, which ups the difficulty; and Chronicle, which offers around 3,000 areas. Everything in AC mode displays in an ultra wide screen aspect ratio true to the arcade game; this means the top and bottom of the screen are black while the middle is a long narrow playing field, unless you own an ultrawide monitor. On paper, this sounds silly, but it somehow makes the game feel a lot more arcade-like, especially if playing on PC where the game can be played across multiple monitors.  Original and EX modes are pretty standard Darius affairs: select one of three starting stages, move from left to right shooting enemies with your standard weapon and burst attack, collect upgrades by killing colored enemies, fight a giant boss ship, decide where to go next, complete three stages, and that's it. Rinse, repeat. Each path correlates to difficulty and has its own stages and bosses. The only standout features are being able to select from various ships that each play a bit different, and the ability to play with up to four players locally.  Chronicle mode is laid out across planets with each containing numerous areas to liberate. Each area offers different challenges such as using only specific ships which have varying weapons, or playing with multiple players. Because there is no online play, you'll have to gather together other space shooter fans or wait till someone else playing on the same cabinet completes that challenge. [embed]323296:61428:0[/embed] AC mode functions as if you are playing one of 64 physical arcade cabinets, which you are randomly assigned to when first launching of the game. Because the game doesn't explain this (or anything really), I switched to cabinet one in the menu, as I thought 13 would be an odd place to start. Players on each cabinet work together in Chronicle mode to liberate the various areas on the planets, meaning if you don't happen to have three other friends, someone will eventually liberate that area allowing you to select others. That said, you don't have to complete areas in any order and can jump around between planets at will. Chronicle mode having around 3,000 areas sounds like fantastic value, until you realize most of the areas are the same few levels just with tweaked challenges, orders, and ships. If you and three local friends are not opposed to grinding and repetition, you might dig Chronicle mode, but to me it just seems like fluff.  The same criticisms can be said about Chronicle Saviours' CS mode, as it is over 200 areas of repeating levels and bosses. CS mode at least offers a different aspect ratio that fills more of the screen and feels more like a home experience, and a level selection web with dated quips that resemble a very shallow story. There is also something to work toward in CS mode, as ships are unlocked to be used as you wish via points earned based on your score, though I found myself mostly using the default ship for each area. Aside from the filler content, Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours has satisfying combat all around. Tons of enemies fill the screen, bosses are massive three-dimensional fish or crustaceans, and the soundtrack is killer. I could see myself popping in every now to check on progress in Chronicle mode, and perhaps play a level or two, but this certainly isn't the kind of game you'll want to attempt to marathon. The price discrepancy between platforms makes little sense and is borderline offensive. The PC offers multiple monitor support, while the PS4 and Vita offer Trophies and cross-save support, but not cross-buy. The Vita version lacks multiplayer. While this isn't the first time I've seen a game released on consoles at a premium price, it is still a poor practice. For what equates to a fancy enhanced port of a nearly six-year-old game, $39.99 is far too much, let alone $59.99 on PC. Unless you're a die-hard space shooter fan who doesn't mind repetitive filler content, it is hard to recommend Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours at the current price point, even if it does have solid gameplay. I'd suggest waiting till it goes on sale for somewhere around $20 or less, as that is a far more reasonable cost.  [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Superbeat: Xonic (Vita, PS TV)Developer: NurijoyPublisher: PM Studios, Atlus & ActtilMSRP: $39.99Released: November 10, 2015
Review: Dariusburst photo
Fish drowning in filler
The Darius series may not be as recognized as competing space shooters such as R-Type and Gradius, but it deserves its spot alongside those series as the best shooters of all time. This latest iteration packs in an ...

Review: Kung Fu Panda: Showdown of Legendary Legends

Dec 04 // Chris Carter
Kung Fu Panda: Showdown of Legendary Legends (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: Vicious Cycle SoftwarePublisher: Little OrbitMSRP: $39.99 ($29.99 on 3DS)Released: December 1, 2015  When I say Showdown is a Smash Bros. clone, I mean it. The game prominently features tilts, double jumps (triple jumps with an up+special), edge guarding, orb-based blocking and rolling, and so on. There's even an option to jump with the up direction. Grabs operate in the same manner, with the ability to queue up standard attacks or a directional throw -- the similarities are more than uncanny. While many will be quick to judge it, developers have been cloning Smash for over a decade, so it's absolutely nothing new. There isn't the amount of polish here that you'd expect from a first-party Nintendo title, but Vicious Cycle does a good enough job of grasping the basics. In short, it plays well. Movement is precise, the controls actually work when you try to initiate charged attacks and the like, and each character feels different in terms of their animations, and unique abilities (bird characters can flap, a la Kirby's float jump). The visuals are also very clean, and bright to boot. There's a vibrant feel to everything, and tons of detail in character models like Po, where you can see his individual strands of fur. I was fairly surprised, all told, with how well this whole shebang was put together. Characters can get pretty obscure beyond Po and the Furious Five, including Po's "father" Mr. Ping, and the Soothsayer from the second film. There's 20 in all, and though Mantis and Viper are strangely absent, they are available as assist summons. That's a decently padded roster, and the 12 arenas all offer up something of their own, whether it's small hazards here and there, or a full-on scrolling platforming gimmick. Items aren't nearly as varied as other arena brawlers, but they're completely optional, and yes, there's even a Final Destination-like stage for all you purists out there. [embed]323785:61350:0[/embed] Having said all that, it is a bit sloppy on occasion, despite the keen visual style. The hit detection and framerate are off at times, especially when there's four players on-screen causing all kinds of havoc. This is particularly an issue with special abilities from certain characters. While the actual animations are great, the moveset pool sort of shrinks over time once you've played the entire roster. Things start to blend together. If you aren't expecting an advanced fighter, it's not so bad, but knowing that it could have been so much more makes it disappointing. There's also no real story or campaign, as the single-player element is billed as a "Tournament" setup, which basically translates to "random matches against CPUs." Beyond that there's a free-play mode with bots (with five difficultly settings), and offline or online four-player multiplayer. I unfortunately wasn't able to test out the online functionality outside of a few matches even after launch (there isn't much of a community, all told), and it wasn't really a smooth experience. Kung Fu Panda: Showdown of Legendary Legends is a lot better than I expected it to be, but it still suffers from a lack of polish in the gameplay department. If you're a casual fighting game fan, really dig the franchise, and have some friends to play with though, you'll probably have an awesome time. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Kung Fu Panda photo
Don't tell Monkey
I'm not ashamed to admit that I love the Kung Fu Panda films. My wife and I went into the first expecting absolutely nothing, and came away very impressed by the antics of Jack Black, Ian McShane, and crew. Also, tapping...

Review: Animal Crossing amiibo Festival

Dec 03 // CJ Andriessen
Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival (Wii U)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $59.99Released: November 13, 2015 (US), November 20, 2015 (EU), November 21, 2015 (JP, AU) Right off the bat you should know that you do not need to buy any additional amiibo figures to enjoy this Festival, but you will need at least one pack of Animal Crossing amiibo cards to experience everything the game has to offer. Players can use one of the two amiibo figures included with the game or one of several generic Villager characters. Sorry, your Villager amiibo doesn't work here, because that would make too much sense now wouldn't it. If you've read about this game already then you probably know about Desert Island Escape and how fun it is. It is fun, but it's also unplayable until you unlock it. To do that, you'll need to play through the board game portion of Festival several times, collecting Happy Points. The board game itself is easy for anyone to understand: players take turns moving around a game board collecting Bells and/or Happy Points. Landing on a pink square will reward you with these while purple squares will take them away. At the end of the game, Bells are converted to Happy Points and the player with the most points wins. The board game itself isn't that exciting and many will find it flat-out boring. This isn't Mario Party or Wii Party U where you compete against other players in mini-games. Instead, it's just you and up to three other people rolling dice, moving a few spaces and then watching a scene play out that either helps or hurts you. You can also play the game by yourself with three AI controlled characters, though the thought of someone doing that makes my soul cry. To its credit, I will say the amiibo Festival thoroughly adapts the Animal Crossing experience into a board game. Trademarks of the franchise, such as visitors coming to town and new residents moving in, add variety to the simple game play. When Redd visits, for instance, he'll sell you cards that you can use in place of rolling the dice. Phineas breaks out a roulette wheel to reward a player, Joan sells her turnips and Dr. Shrunk gives players a card while telling some truly horrendous "jokes." Holidays, bug catching contests, fishing contests and other Animal Crossing staples are present as well. [embed]323535:61348:0[/embed] There isn't really any strategy to be found in this game, outside of getting some choice cards from Redd, Shrunk, and others. The roll of the dice controls all, from deciding who wins fishing/bug catching contests to how much you can sell your turnips for. If you're worried amiibo Festival might contain some of the "unfair" star granting moments from the Mario Party series, fret not; this game forgoes those type of friendship-ruining shenanigans for something that is more about players enjoying themselves rather than competing against one another. At the end of each game, Happy Points are converted into Happy Tickets (where 100 points equals one ticket). Those tickets can be spent augmenting the game board or unlocking the mini-games. You are forced to choose between making the board game more interesting or accessing what could be fun mini-games, but allow me to make that choice for you: unlock Desert Island Escape and spend the rest of your points upgrading that game board. In my experience, it took five playthroughs of the board game to unlock all of the mini-games, and that was with the decision to forgo updating the game board and getting lady luck on my side to end one playthrough with 10 Happy Tickets. If you're wondering how long five playthroughs is, it's about six hours. You are given the option to set a time limit for the game, but less time equals fewer Happy Points. While one playthrough of the board game was of light enjoyment, several days of playing the game again and again proved to be tedious. amiibo Festival's existence as video game isn't as fully realized as it could be. As a digital product, the game can easily implement rules and conditions that could be too burdensome for a physical board game. Animal Crossing amiibo figures level up to unlock new costumes and expressions; also you can scan amiibo cards to move new characters into the game board town. Unfortunately, it doesn't take full advantage of being a video game. The scenes you watch when you land on a pink or purple square tend to repeat as early as your second playthrough and a lack of variety in the game board will become apparent all too quickly. The game also fails to include a suspend game feature outside of hitting the Home button. As I said above, you will need to purchase a pack of Animal Crossing amiibo Cards to experience the entirety of the game. The mini-games Mystery Campers and amiibo Card Battle require six amiibo cards to play while the other six games can be played with the three exclusive cards that come with it. The less said about most of these mini-games the better as I doubt many people will return to them after a single playthrough. In all honesty I can't tell you which one is worse: Quiz Show for its baffling execution, Acorn Chase for its reliance on a not-always-reliable NFC reader or Fruit Path for being... scratch that, Fruit Path is easily the worst. Instead of focusing entirely on the bad, let's talk about Desert Island Escape, as its obviously the one mini-game that had more than an hour of thought put into it. This single-player game has you controlling three characters that have been scanned in from their amiibo cards. The object of the game is to find the pieces you need to build a raft to escape the island before you run out of days. You also need to gather food and collect supplies to build tools that will help you on your journey. What I love about Desert Island Escape is how varied your experience will be depending on which amiibo cards you're using. Different characters have different skills. Cats are better at fishing, bears are great at gathering honey, bunnies like to sleep for a day and then move more than double the amount of spaces the next day. There is so much strategy found in such a simple premise that it almost feels like more development time went into this than the rest of the game. If you already own a lot of amiibo cards you will have a blast with this game because you can attack each of the 30 stages in new and interesting ways depending on who you're playing with. This game is so enjoyable, I'm hoping Desert Island Escape could somehow pulls a Captain Toad and end up as its own, separate franchise. As fun as that mini-game is, Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival is probably not a game you should buy. Had the board game been an extra feature or weekly activity in the next mainline Animal Crossing game (hint, hint Nintendo), it would easily serve as yet another feature that enhances an already rewarding experience. As its own thing, it fall short. Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival isn't a bad game, save for most of the mini-games, it's just not interesting enough to warrant the long term investment needed to see everything it has to offer. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
amiibo Festival photo
More like 'bored' game, amirite?
Earlier this year, Animal Crossing series director Aya Kyogoku was asked why she decided to make Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival. She said it was because the team thought amiibo were cute and really wanted an Animal Crossing...

Review: Pokemon Picross

Dec 03 // Darren Nakamura
Pokémon Picross (3DS)Developer: Jupiter CorporationPublisher: NintendoReleased: December 3, 2015MSRP: "Free to start" (but actually $30) "Picross" is the term Nintendo uses for the logic puzzles more commonly called "nonograms." The puzzles have an elegance to them; they are built upon just a few simple rules, but those rules result in a network of tips and tricks for finding the solutions. The solutions themselves are typically more interesting than a sudoku, kakuro, or ken ken. Rather than ending up with a grid filled with numbers, a well-built picross puzzle creates an image, adding an extra reward at the end. Not only is there the intrinsic satisfaction of having found the solution, there's the bonus of having created a monochromatic, pixelated piece of art. Pokémon Picross capitalizes on that reward at the end even further. Not only does it offer the usual puzzle goodness, but completing a puzzle also nets the player a Pokémon. It doesn't matter how many times and in how many forms I've caught 'em all, the drive to catch 'em all here is just as strong. [embed]323769:61340:0[/embed] The Pokémon confer special abilities to use in puzzles. Some automatically reveal a section of the puzzle. Some provide real-time hints or fix mistakes. Some manipulate the timer, slowing it through a run or stopping it entirely for a short period of time. For the picross purist, it feels strange using these abilities at first. Indeed, it's entirely possible to go into a puzzle without setting any Pokémon in the team. For a while I did just that, playing classic picross; it was just my wits versus the puzzle challenge. However, another addition threw that off for me soon enough. Most levels include bonus missions past completing the picture. Some of the missions are simple: use a certain type of Pokémon or activate a certain ability. Those vary from puzzle to puzzle, but every level has a timed challenge. While many are easy enough to surmount unassisted, some would be downright impossible without abilities. One time, I went up against a 15x15 grid asking me to finish it in less than a minute. I set up my team carefully, bombed a huge chunk out immediately, activated a time freeze, and highlighted important clues. I finished with the timer reading only four seconds, and it felt awesome. A potential downside to the mission structure is that it requires backtracking in order to fully complete everything. Some missions will pop up that ask for a certain Pokémon that hasn't been encountered yet. On the one hand, it adds replay value for completionists, but on the other, solving the same puzzle multiple times isn't as fun as taking on new puzzles. One of the reasons to go back and complete missions is another cool addition to Pokémon Picross. Some challenges will award a mural piece. These are small 10x10 puzzle grids, but they come together in an 8x8 mural, creating a much higher resolution image over a much longer period. I haven't finished a mural yet, but I'm looking forward to seeing it come together. The last big tweak is the inclusion of mega rows and columns. These only appear in a separate path, which mirrors the main path exactly. These add a new mechanic to the nonograms, with numbers that span two rows or columns describing an amorphous chunk of pixels rather than a neat line. For picross enthusiasts, this is a huge change. After doing hundreds (thousands?) of these puzzles, the process can become rote. Even with ever-changing target images, certain number patterns can emerge and a general algorithm can be followed. The mega rows throw a wrench into that, forcing the player to actively reason through it and use more advanced logic than usual. I welcome the new mechanic, but I can imagine purists shunning it. By far, the biggest psychological hurdle players will have to surmount with Pokémon Picross is its pricing presentation. It is advertised as "free to start," which some might interpret as free-to-play. Indeed, there is an energy mechanic and a separate currency (Picrites) that can be purchased with real money. It looks and acts like a free-to-play game at first glance. It is (probably) technically possible to play it in its entirety without spending a dime. Picrites are required to unlock new sets of stages, and after exhausting the available missions, Picrites can be earned indefinitely through the daily challenges. However, Picrite income is dwarfed by spending. Early on, a single daily challenge awards about five Picrites and level sets can easily cost in the hundreds. One single Mega Pokémon level costs 500 Picrites, which would take ages to grind out. Thankfully, Pokémon Picross does what I wish most free-to-play games did. After spending enough money -- about $30 -- on Picrites, the currency supply becomes infinite. With those infinite Picrites, players can make the energy bar infinite as well. Essentially, putting enough money in turns it from a free-to-play into a standard-style retail game. There's no more waiting for a timer or being gouged by microtransactions, just playing. To look at the pricing scheme another way, you can download the Pokémon Picross demo for free, but the full game costs $30. With that in mind, I have no qualms about recommending Pokémon Picross for those willing to pay full price. I got a code to download it a few days early, dipped my toes into the microtransactions, then soon decided it was worth purchasing the infinite Picrites with my own money. The only difference between this and Picross DS is the $30 I paid for this came after I already knew I liked it instead of before. Picross with Pokémon. That's all this needed to be, and that's what this appears to be at a glance, but further inspection reveals much more. The murals provide long-term motivation. The missions provide short-term reward. The mega rows encourage nonstandard nonogram logic over rote processes. Aside from the strangely disguised pricing scheme, the new additions to Pokémon Picross exceed expectations. [This review is based on a retail build of the game essentially purchased by the reviewer.]
Pokemon Picross review photo
Gotta swatch 'em all!
I thought I knew exactly what to expect with Pokémon Picross. Picross, but with pictures of Pokémon. Sold. That's all I need. Give it to me now. I even joked with our reviews director Chris that I could probably...

Review: Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege

Dec 02 // Chris Carter
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ubisoft MontrealPublisher: UbisoftMSRP: $59.99Release Date: December 1, 2015  First and foremost, let me make it clear that Siege is still very much a strategic game, despite an increased emphasis on action. The crux is engrossed in the "siege" concept, where two teams of players are placed on opposing sides of offense and defense. The former is tasked with infiltrating a specific area, usually a building of some sort, and the latter will put up barricades and properly booby-trap the zone to protect an objective. Defensive capabilities are quite versatile beyond placing traps, with the ability to patch up windows à la Call of Duty's zombies mode, or deploy items for the rest of your team. The sheer entropy that comes out of this simple premise is lovely. There are so many options for breaching and a litany of defensive options that no one game is the same. Players can rappel up almost any window and break in, sneak around and breach doors with charges or a good old fashioned sledgehammer, or blow up walls and create new entrances. The concept of a destructible environment is not new (games like the original Red Faction have been doing it for ages), but the development team really follows through here, with a good balance of destruction to keep things tense. Part of the variety comes from the 20 Operators, which are essentially the classes of Siege. Archetypes range from a bruiser, to a "brainy" tech girl, to a medic, but all of them have a unique twist gameplay-wise that sets them apart from one another. It's also imperative that your team works together, choosing combinations that complement each ability -- this is partially forced by the fact that the game doesn't allow two people on a team to pick the same Operator. In the end though, any combo works relatively well as long as the team is on top of things, and players don't run blindly into rooms without thinking of all of the options available. [embed]323032:61291:0[/embed] While the 5v5 asymmetrical game type is the core mode, there are also two more facets at play -- Terrorist Hunt (PVE) and Situations (single player). The former is a lot like horde mode with a twist, as players will be dropped into levels with randomized objectives and enemy placement, with three varying levels of difficulty to choose from. While I prefer the insanity of playing human opponents given the open-ended nature of the game, I really enjoyed taking breaks with the PVE mode, as it really does provide a ton of different scenarios across its 11 maps. It's tough, too, as one bad move can result in a near-death experience, requiring others to rally around your low health pool, and bust out tactics like going in a vanguard formation with a shield-wielding Operator. From what I've seen people really attempt to use a mic, and if you strive for a shooter that transcends the "point and shoot" mentality, you'll find solace with Siege. If desired, players can also go at it solo, which is a nice option for those of you who don't love being online all the time. Having said that, there is no campaign whatsoever. Instead, you'll have your pick of 11 Situations, which are very similar to Terrorist Hunt, but with their own set of challenges. For instance, finishing a level with a certain amount of health or completing specific tasks will net you instant renown. I actually really like this mode, as objectives can be completed individually, even if you fail a mission -- so there's incentive to come back over time and eventually "three-star" each Situation. It's absolutely not a substitute for a full-on story mode, but it's one of my favorite non-campaign additions in a while, in a sea of multiplayer-only shooters. As previously stated, the way these characters are unlocked will likely turn off some, but it's very much par for the course for the genre, and even ahead of the curve in many ways, actually. In fact, I'm sitting here, having only played the game for a few days, with 10 of the 20 Operators, which isn't bad at all. If you hate the idea of microtransactions on principle you'll likely be angry here, but on my end, I was easily able to ignore them and still enjoy Siege. As for server issues, I've heard reports of other platforms' lack of stability, but Siege has been very reliable for me on Xbox One in the past 48 hours. While there are occasional bouts of connection problems after booting up the game, the issue is resolved in seconds, and I've played hours-long sessions with no problems. Rainbow Six Siege has a lot going for it when it comes to the long haul. While three modes doesn't sound like a lot, the sheer volume of variables involved will result in an experience that constantly stays fresh, even with the current pool of 11 maps. While a few other major shooters have let me down this year, I think Siege is one of the games I'll be playing the most going forward.
Rainbow Six Siege photo
A new taste of Rainbow
The original Rainbow Six was one of the first squad shooters I ever played, outside of the Delta Force series (both debuted in the same year). I still remember hanging out at my friend's house with his dad, who also...

Review: Dementium Remastered

Dec 02 // Jed Whitaker
Dementium Remastered (3DS)Developer: Renegade KidPublisher: Renegade KidMSRP: $14.99Released: December 03, 2015 First things first, if you were hoping this would fill the hole in your heart that is Silent Hills, it won't. If anything Dementium Remastered is like a combination of all the bad parts of the Silent Hill games with repetitive enemies, copy pasted environments, and dull combat, only way worse. They could have called this Dementium: Spooky Hallways or Dementia: Have I Been Here Before? and they wouldn't have been wrong. While wandering through these repetitive hallways, you'll be tasked with using either the ABXY buttons or the stylus to aim your guns and melee weapons. I opted to use mostly the stylus even though holding the 3DS with one hand caused a bit of cramping during my playtime, as buttons just didn't provide the precision needed. Enemies just come right for you and can easily be warded off without much thought, making me question which was more brainless: the AI or the combat? Considering you can run past most all enemies, I'd probably lean towards them. Enemies consist of your standard fair of zombies, worms, flies and screaming tongue-waggling decapitated heads (Hey Kids, WANT TO DIE!?) which are the creepiest of the bunch, but after seeing them all numerous times they lose their fear factor. A few boss battles take place throughout the game, two of which get repeated. Bosses flash red when attacked and are invincible during this time, making boss fights tedious running backwards and attacking for the most part.  [embed]323292:61337:0[/embed] There are a few different guns to find through the short stumble through the dark, but they never really come in handy apart from worms and bosses. About a third of the way through the game you can backtrack a bit to unlock a melee weapon that does the job for everything else.  As far as the remastering for the 3DS without having played the original all I can say is I shut off the 3D almost instantly. Due to the game being so dark when not carrying the flashlight it messed with my eyes more than it helped add any depth. Renegade Kid have also stated there are some other tweaks like save points, and enemies don't respawn anymore, something that surely would have made me rage quit the original had I played it.  If you're hoping for a story at all, you'll be disappointed. The opening just drops you right into a mental ward without much of any information, and barely anything gets revealed throughout the story. The ending was the rotten cherry on top that just screams directly into your face "find out what happens next in the sequel." No thanks. Fuck that. That is two and a half hours of my life I'll never get back. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon (3DS)Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: November 20, 2015 Superbeat: Xonic (Vita, PS TV)Developer: NurijoyPublisher: PM Studios, Atlus & ActtilMSRP: $39.99Released: November 10, 2015 Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon (3DS)Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: November 20, 2015 [embed]323292:61337:0[/embed]
Review Dementium Remaster photo
Better off dead
Dementium was originally pitched by Renegade Kid to Konami as a proof of concept for a Silent Hill game on the Nintendo DS. Konami turned them down and thus we ended up with Dementium: The Ward on the DS instea...

Review: Just Cause 3

Nov 30 // Patrick Hancock
Just Cause 3 (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One)Developer: Avalanche StudiosPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $59.99Release Date: December 1, 2015 Reviewed on: Intel i7-4770k 3.50 GHz, 8GB of RAM, Geforce GTX 970, Windows 10.  Just Cause 3 once again follows the exploits of Rico Rodriguez on a quest to liberate a region from a corrupt dictator, settlement by settlement. This time Rico has access to Medici, a nation under the control of Sebastiano Di Ravello. Medici is about the same size of Just Cause 2's Panau, which is to say it is huge. One big reason why Medici is a sought-after nation is due to its resource of Bavarium, a super-resource that allows for all sorts of militaristic applications. While I'm sure most players are not coming for the plot, the writers do a great job to keep the player entertained with the cast of characters involved. Rico has a handful of allies that aid him and the rebels throughout the campaign, and each character is great. Sure, they're essentially B-movie caricatures, but they're lovable caricatures. Despite the urgency and political turmoil constantly woven into each action Rico undertakes, his allies always seemed to put a big grin on my face. A lot of this comes down to two three things: the writing, voice acting, and animations. Again, the overarching narrative isn't going to blow any minds, but the moment-to-moment dialogue between the few important characters is consistently wonderful. Best of all, each voice actor delivers lines in a casual and believable way, something that is helped by realistic accompanying animations. No, there's no Bolo Santosi, but not every game is perfect. [embed]322878:61303:0[/embed] The bulk of the experience involves blowing the shit out of anything and everything. In order to take down Di Ravello, Rico must go from location to location, destroying everything owned by the evil dictator. It just so happens that about 95 percent of those items are highly explosive! When entering an area, whether it be a military base or a settlement, a list of destructible objects appear on the left side of the screen and it is the player's job to take them out. As less and less objects remain, they become more and more visible on the game's map, preventing the player from searching forever for that one last thing. The most useful tools at Rico's disposal are his grappling hooks. Not only is it possible to grapple onto a surface and travel straight to it, but Rico can use it to attach two separate items and pull them together. In Just Cause 3, it is possible to have up to six grappling hooks at a time. Six! This means twelve items can be linked to each other in a number of ways, and they can all converge on each other at once. Anyone who has played the previous game knows just how ridiculous that sounds. Okay, so there's explosives and grappling, but those aren't even the best mechanics, all things told. Movement in Just Cause 3 is easily the most fluid and beautiful system I've ever used. Seriously, I have never enjoyed moving around an open world as much as I have in Just Cause 3. There are three systems that mesh together: the grappling hook, the parachute, and, most importantly, the newly-acquired wing suit.  There's a lot of verticality to Medici, which makes flying around with the wing suit an absolute thrill. Plus, with the grappling hook available, it's possible to glide almost indefinitely at high speeds. I rarely used a vehicle to get around at all, since it was often slower and way less entertaining. The exception is when traveling over a large amount of water, since there is nothing to grapple onto and pull Rico along. Other than the campaign missions and settlements to liberate, Medici has random events, challenges, and collectibles. The random events might be to help tow someone's car to a gas station, or to prevent a group of friendly rebels from suffering the fate of a firing squad. There aren't too many varieties, but the distractions are quick and the rewards can easily be worth it. Some of the challenges are the standard "maneuvering a vehicle through rings," but others perfectly show off the game's mechanics and carefree attitude. Perhaps my favorite is a very Burnout-esque challenge that has players drive a car with a bomb strapped to it to a desired location only to jump out at the last moment to create chaos. The twist here is that, like Keanu Reeves in Speed, if the car goes below a certain speed, the bomb will explode. It's not as strict as the movie, but if a player goes too slow for too long, the challenge is failed. Others, like the wing suit courses, are also great and help hone specific skills. Players are awarded up to five "gears," depending on performance. Think of them like star ratings. Acquiring gears in certain challenge categories go towards unlocking new upgrades in those areas. For example, performing well in the Speed challenges gives Rico more upgrades for his explosives. Many of the upgrades make things simply better or more useful, like adding explosive charges, but some are more play-style driven. Players can turn these upgrades on and off at will once they are unlocked. For those looking to get more gears in challenges, keep this in mind; it is way easier to get a high score at the end of the game than it is at the beginning due to upgrades. Since this is an open world game in 2015, there's a smattering of collectibles strewn throughout Medici. I'm not one to care about them, but for those who do, Just Cause 3 has your back. If anything collectible is nearby, a small radar blip appears on the bottom of the screen that increases in signal strength as the item draws near. In addition, liberating a province (usually made of three to seven settlements) pinpoints the locations of these hidden items on the map. The biggest thing to realize while playing Just Cause 3 is it is mostly up to the player to keep things interesting. Liberating settlement after settlement does get stale, especially because they're essentially identical to one other, just with different layouts. Always using the same weapons to destroy the same objects gets old quickly. If players aren't inspired to get creative with their destruction, it's easy to get bored. The game gives the players all the tools needed to keep things fresh, but provides no tangible incentive to do so, therefore any such incentive must be intrinsically motivated. My recommendation is to keep doing challenges. By completing challenges and unlocking new upgrades, players will naturally want to play around with those upgrades. Well, what better way to test them out then when liberating a settlement? It would have been appreciated if various weapons had their own challenges, which would push players into switching it up more often. The story missions spice things up with some different objectives, but even those tend to repeat and feel "samey" after a while. Occasionally story missions will be locked, forcing the player to liberate more provinces or specific settlements before progressing. There's usually a canonical reason given for this, but it can easily lead to the player feeling burnt out. Liberating two or three provinces means going through about 15 settlements in a row. That's....a lot, especially considering how similar each one is to any other. Again, I'll offer some advice. Liberate settlements as you travel around. See a settlement? Blow the shit out of it and free those people! This will leave random settlements already completed, which means when you are forced to do so, it's much less tedious. Another way to help break the monotony is to call in Rebel Drops. These allow Rico to ask for some presents like vehicles, weapons, and explosives, to be dropped right in front of him. They are limited, but the system is much easier to understand and operate than the previous game's black market. If the feeling of staleness is creeping up, call in a rebel drop containing any assortment of items, and find the best way to use them in tandem! Visually, Just Cause 3 looks great, especially in motion on PC. The visuals are highly customizable with the standard graphical options expected on the platform. I ran everything at "Very High" and got a constant 60 frames-per-second... once I turned the motion blur off. I experimented with many different settings, and the lack of motion blur easily yielded the best performance. I did have some rare instances of artifacting, but was never able to actually reproduce them intentionally. I also ran in to a terrible glitch where Rico was performing the "dammit I got hit" animation every three-seconds, preventing me from doing, well, anything. A quick restart fixed the issue and I never saw it again, fortunately enough. Then, there's the issue with signing in to the Square Enix servers. The first thing the game does upon booting it up is to log in to the servers. The game is not always-online, but wants to connect to show players leaderboards for a variety of categories. These are things like longest time in a wing suit or most consecutive headshots. If a player loses connection, it pauses the game immediately and tries to reconnect. If it can't, the player can elect to go into offline mode. Great! Offline mode sounds wonderful. Except it tries to reconnect all the damn time. After a short while of being in offline mode, whenever the player checks the map, pauses the game, or initiates a challenge, the game will try to reconnect to the servers. The result is a constant view of the connection screen - either disconnecting or attempting to reconnect. This makes the game nigh unplayable with a spotty Internet connection. If that worries you, a solution on PC is to play the game through Steam's "offline mode." I can only hope there's an easier solution down the road. The enjoyment players get from Just Cause 3 will come from exactly how they approach the game. Those looking to fly around and blow up just about everything in sight will be elated with one of the most fluid movement systems in any game and the gorgeous explosion visuals that really pack a punch. As bizarre as it sounds though, blowing everything sky high can start to feel tedious after a while without proper motivation.  I'm sure you'll be seeing a ton of animated GIFs of Just Cause 3 for a while to come, due to all of the wacky things that can happen within the game. It truly is an insane, explosion-filled romp through a beautiful nation chock-full of cheeky humor. It provides some of the best open-world tools ever. This is definitely a case of "it is what you make of it," and for those with intrinsic motivation to make it the best will be greeted with just that. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Just Cause 3 Review! photo
The best Spider-Man game yet
While driving down the New Jersey parkway for Thanksgiving, I began to notice a lot of water and radio towers perched high above the trees. "Wow, I could easily blow them up or tether them to the ground and bring them down," ...

Review: Superbeat: Xonic

Nov 30 // Jed Whitaker
Superbeat: Xonic (PS Vita [reviewed], PS TV)Developer: NurijoyPublisher: PM Studios, Atlus & ActtilMSRP: $39.99Released: November 10, 2015 This spiritual successor to the DJMax series has you tapping on the edges of the screen as visualized music from various genres fly at you, or optionally using the D-pad and buttons if that is you'd prefer. Personally I found that Superbeat was far more suited to touchscreen gameplay than traditional controls. By using touch you never have to think about what buttons to press, instead just matching the notes as they connect with the screen, which in turn makes things a tiny bit easier. The only downside to touch is getting used to the scratch notes, which are yellow notes that require tapping then quickly swiping either up or down based on the arrow inside of them. Scratch notes really gave me trouble till I'd spent days with the game and finally found the perfect technique to trigger them. Aside from that, the gameplay is spot on. Hitting notes just feel great on the smooth OLED of my launch edition Vita, even if I didn't recognize any of the music upon first playing it. By the time I was finished with the game I found myself humming along to songs and going back to play my favorites to level up.  [embed]323291:61307:0[/embed] Superbeat has an XP leveling system that is used to unlock songs and World Tour stages. XP is gained by completing songs, and bonus XP are awarded for difficulty and perks related to unlockable DJ Icons. DJ Icons can grant perks or protections such as double health, more recovery, more XP and even break shields. Shields are used to prevent damage being taken and combos being broken and are necessary for many of the World Tour stages unless you're a natural born finger dancer.  World Tour is really where you'll spend most of your time with the game, completing various challenges that require various goals such as massive combos that last across songs, perfectly played songs, and achieving high scores. My biggest gripe with the game is that the difficulty of World Tour stages doesn't really match up with their listed difficulty; I often found myself failing the easy stages while breezing through medium and hard difficulties.  The Tour stages that are brutally difficult require you to get 90%+ JUD, with JUD being related to score. While DJ Icons can help you pass many stages, they do little to help pass JUD stages, as the shields only grant you "good" rated presses instead of "superbeats" that give you a higher score. Some of the challenges are so hard that I found it damned near impossible to complete them in my time with the game, meaning I missed out on one last set of challenges and another "fart" sound effect that can be used in place of the default rimshot sound effect played when hitting notes.  After close to 40 hours with the game, I'm nowhere near acquiring all the unlockables, though I've managed to unlock every track -- all of which I really enjoy aside from one metal song that gives Crazytown's "Butterfly" a run for its title of 'shittiest song ever.' I rarely play my Vita, but now I'm going to have to pack it and Xonic along with me for any flights as my new go to "don't panic because you could die at any moment" game.  Superbeat: Xonic is an original enough take on the rhythm genre to make it feel fresh again and is easily the best touch screen based music game I've played with Cytus coming a close second. Filled to the brim with catchy tunes, I'll be revisiting Superbeat in the coming months anytime I travel. Apart from some brutally difficult challenges, the only other thing holding me back from giving this game a perfect score is that it is on the Vita, a system that I'd still regret buying even if this was the second best rhythm game I've ever played -- long live the king, PaRappa the Rapper. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon (3DS)Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: November 20, 2015 [embed]323291:61307:0[/embed]
Superbeat review photo
Fingering has never been so fun
I've been playing rhythm games since they exploded onto the scene with PaRappa the Rapper in 1997, and having nearly played at least one title of every rhythm game series released I can easily say Superbeat: Xonic is top tier. But be forewarned, this is the Dark Souls...nay...the 127 Hours of music games, only you get to keep your arms attached. SUPERBEAT: XONiC

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles X

Nov 30 // Chris Carter
Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U)Developer: Monolith SoftPublisher: NintendoReleased: April 29, 2015 (Japan), December 4, 2015 (EU, US)MSRP: $59.99 X's timeline starts in 2054 AD, when a mysterious alien race assaults the Earth and decimates the human race as we know it. Arks deploy across the universe, and the only known survivor is the White Whale, which crash lands on the distant planet Mira. Cue a quest to kickstart mankind's new home, and you have your basic gist of what's going on. To be clear, the story is not related to the original Xenoblade in any way. You do not need to have played the other game to have an idea of what's going on, and by JRPG standards, X's story is rather clear and concise. The player goes through the experience as a silent protagonist, with a minor amount of dialogue choices (more like moods) in tow. There is no branching narrative here -- instead, you'll follow a linear storyline, with the ability to take control of any party member as your primary avatar, including the one you create. Where X really shines isn't by way of its serviceable, yet sometimes drawn-out story; it's the ability to create your own adventures. Through the use of a lone base (New LA) and a formidable, yet vulnerable organization called BLADE, you'll slowly learn more about Mira, the creatures that inhabit it, and the dangers involved beyond the alien race trying to wipe out your species. The giant, sprawling maps (of which there are five, all accessible at the start) are a dream come true for exploration enthusiasts, with secrets at every turn and points of interest every minute or so. While the visuals aren't anything to gawk at on a grand scale, the draw distance is absolutely incredible, to the point where I'm in awe Monolith was able to squeeze these textures into a Wii U title. Walking around in X is wondrous, and spotting giant screens-high enemies and world bosses (Indigens and Tyrants, respectively) is something you need to do yourself to truly grasp the game's scale. [embed]322015:61313:0[/embed] Players will start off with a male or female avatar of their choosing, and it's off to the races, with a rather quick tutorial session. From there, the game completely ceases to hold your hand, which is going to be a massive point of contention for some. Point blank, X is not a game you can casually pick up and play -- you need to immerse yourself in it. This not only goes for leveling up your character, but unlocking the requirements for story missions. Xenoblade Chronicles X is a tough and unforgiving game if you have no affinity toward the JRPG genre. Sure, there are a few modern conveniences peppered in, like fast travel, a detailed world map (accessible at all times on the GamePad screen), and the ability to save anywhere, but you will need to master nearly every facet of X to progress past the first few chapters. Hell, you'll need to actually read the manual to pick up on a few major things, old-school style, and I ended up taking paper notes just like I did in the NES days. It's going to be a polarizing thing for sure, but personally, I'm stoked to play something like this again. Learning all the game's ins and outs was a joy. It's particularly satisfying to take everything in and feel like you've accomplished something. The battle system is just as unforgiving as a lot of other aspects of X. It's based on an auto-attack system that presents you with a few skills at the start (such as power attacks or debuffs), but after a few hours the learning curve really ramps up. Players will have to juggle between ranged and melee attacks and abilities, both of which have their own styles, pros, and cons. By way of an MMO hotbar with icons and cooldowns, you'll have to micromanage all of the tools available to you, learn what abilities combo with others, and divine the right time to use them. Combat is also nuanced in practice, as enemies often have appendages that can be broken for strategic value. On paper it sounds like basic stuff, but once I earned the dodge and block abilities, timing became absolutely key to surviving a boss battle. Additionally, mastering other facets like the Soul Voice system (a harmless QTE that pops up occasionally, allowing you to heal your party), and knowledge of passive skill synergy will help. If all of that sounds scary, maybe Xenoblade Chronicles X isn't the game for you. Don't worry about the controls though. They work great, mostly thanks to the GamePad. As mentioned previously, it's constantly available as a map and fast travel datapad of sorts. If you're so inclined you can also use the Wii U Pro Controller, which works fine as well. In terms of length, X hits that sweet spot a lot of games in the genre tend to provide -- 50 hours or so for the story, and double that to do everything. What sets this JRPG apart from most of the competition however, is its ability to grab the player's attention throughout, and not just during specific juicy story sections. I would often spend hours at a time just aimlessly wandering around, finding mining locations to raise my income, and hunting down Tyrants. Every zone has a distinct feel to it, and in all, I've probably spent 10 hours in each individual area. Skells (mechs) have been a huge part of the game's marketing scheme, and it's important to know that you won't get them until roughly 20 to 30 hours into the core story (this is assuming you only do a light amount of exploring on top of that). After unlocking the opportunity to even obtain the license to pilot one, you'll have to complete a lengthy multi-tier optional questline. When I had first heard that figure based on player's experiences with the Japanese version I was turned off, but actually playing X, I quickly forgot about them, and when Skells did arrive, they felt like a cherry on top, opening up brand new exploration options via flight. Xenoblade does come with an online component, and just to be clear, I wasn't able to fully test it out. In addition to multiplayer squad support, there's also a system where you can recruit or interact with potential party members in an asynchronous manner, the latter of which I personally did have access to during my review period. It's a nice little bonus, as adding in a member from a vast online pool of players (even pre-launch) can help you fulfill a need in your party makeup that may be missing. Otherwise, this can be played completely offline, without any fear of missing out of an essential part of the game. This is one of the more interesting reviews I've done as of late because I know Xenoblade Chronicles X will be divisive. But it truly feels like an MMO world I've been living in for several weeks now. The more grimdark theme isn't quite as charming as the original Xenoblade, but everything else makes up for it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Xenoblade review photo
I'm really feeling it
When Xenoblade Chronicles was announced for localization on the Wii, my heart skipped a beat. While there are plenty of JRPGs to go around, the more the merrier, and I wouldn't pass up the chance to experience another Monolith Soft game. I didn't quite have the same reaction to Xenoblade Chronicles X at first, but it really grew on me over time.

Review: Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon

Nov 27 // Ben Davis
Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon (3DS)Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: November 20, 2015 To start things off in Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon, the player will take a short personality test. The test determines which of the 20 starter Pokémon they will become; it also chooses their partner. However, the results can be overruled if the player is unhappy with their chosen 'mon. The game picked Mudkip for me, with Torchic as my parter, so I just went with it. The story of Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon revolves around a human who has been turned into a Pokémon and has lost their memory. The Pokéhuman wakes up in confusion to find that they're being attacked by a group of Beheeyem, but they're quickly led to safety by a kind Nuzleaf with a southern accent who shows them the ropes and brings them into town. Once in town, the player will make some new friends, meet up with their destined partner, and begin going on expeditions into mystery dungeons. From here, the main storyline will begin to reveal itself in bits and pieces. There are whispers of Pokémon around the world mysteriously being turned to stone, the Beheeyem are still following the player, and their memory of being a human refuses to return to them. Eventually, everything will start to fall into place and a grand adventure of world-ending proportions will unfold. But before all of that happens, there are dungeons to explore. These make up the core gameplay, of course. Mystery dungeons are made up of randomly generated grid-based floors filled with enemy Pokémon, items, and traps. Enemies only move when the player moves, so sometimes it's best to take things one step at a time so as to avoid suddenly becoming overwhelmed with foes. [embed]322769:61271:0[/embed] To attack, just hold down the left bumper to open up a menu of four possible moves, then select an action. It's also possible to combo moves with other team members by tapping the right bumper, which activates an "Alliance" to hit an enemy with multiple moves at once. Strategy is key to winning battles. Sometimes the best course of action is to waste a turn so that the enemy might move closer, opening up the possibility to land the first strike. Or, maybe it would be safer to switch positions with another teammate so they can take a blow and allow others to heal. Perhaps a liberal use of items will get the player out of a jam. A lot of planning and foresight is necessary in order to survive most confrontations, so simply spamming attacks is not going to cut it for the most part. Moving around dungeons will slowly heal injured Pokémon, but it will also decrease a hunger gauge as well, and if hunger reaches zero then the Pokémon's health will slowly begin to deplete. On top of that, there are status effects to worry about, such as poison or burns, which will stop Pokémon from regenerating health and will hurt them. Other effects, like confusion, can mess with a Pokémon's movement or ability to act. This can prove to be very annoying and potentially dangerous, so it's always a good idea to have the proper items available. Actually, a big part of mystery dungeon navigation involves managing items effectively. Only a certain amount can be held at once, but items will be scattered about all over the place and will quickly fill up the bag. It's a good idea to figure out which are the most important and plan accordingly. Some of the more important ones are oran berries and reviver seeds which are necessary for healing, elixirs which replenish the PP of moves, apples which stave off hunger, and wands and orbs that keep enemies at bay or help with dungeon navigation. There are also "Looplets" which act as the sole source of accessory. These can be upgraded with "Emeras" or gems which provide a wide array of different effects to help with combat and navigation (some may even cause a Mega Evolution!), but the Emeras will disappear upon exiting a dungeon. If the player fails a dungeon, they will lose all the items and money currently being held, unless they opt to wait for a rescue mission. These can be arranged on Pelipper Island, where the player can request help from other players via passwords, QR codes, local wireless, or IR connection. Alternatively, the player can simply return to their old save in order to retain items and money, but of course progress might be lost. Helper Pokémon can also be sent out from Pelipper Island for streetpass purposes, although I haven't encountered any yet. While story dungeons will force the player to use specific teams of Pokémon, normal dungeons will allow the player to choose any three Pokémon they wish to use. More Pokémon can be recruited by completing expeditions or simply chatting with folks around town, so the pool of possible allies will continue to grow larger and larger. All 720 Pokémon are available to be recruited, including legendaries, gender variations, all forms of Unown, and more. Using Pokémon in dungeons will allow them to level up and and learn new moves. I don't believe they can evolve, but since their evolutions can also be recruited, it doesn't really matter too much. Normal expeditions are where Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon really shines, but unfortunately they are few and far between until the main story has been completed. Free play finally opens up in the epilogue, but players are looking at about 20+ hours of gameplay and cutscenes before that happens. Aside from that, my only real complaints are the lack of skippable cutscenes and the fact that some story missions don't provide much opportunity for preparation. Even though it often allows the player to choose the items they want to take along and check out the shops beforehand, I still occasionally found myself woefully unprepared for story missions and ended up getting stuck with lousy equipment. The game also tends to save before long cutscenes right before boss fights, so I was forced to rewatch the same scenes over and over again whenever I died. The one before the final boss was particularly frustrating; it was so long! I'd have to say my favorite part of Super Mystery Dungeon is the way the Pokémon are portrayed. In most games and in the anime, the Pokémon simply say their own names and their personalities, if they have one at all, can only be implied. The main cast of characters in Super Mystery Dungeon consists of a good mix of Pokémon from each generation, and they're all given their own voice, each with different quirks, opinions, personalities, and sometimes even accents. It's really fun to learn about these guys in a new light. Some that I liked before I ended up hating this time around (like Pancham and Shelmet, those jerks!), while others that I may have ignored in previous games quickly became some of my favorites (like Espurr!). The cutscenes may have been long and the story may have been a little over-the-top, but I'd say it was worth it in the end just to get to know some of the Pokémon a bit better. Having never played any of the previous entries in the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series, I can't really compare it to the earlier games. However, for my first foray into Pokémon roguelikes, I had a great time! The difficulty seemed to ramp up considerably in some places, but between items, Emeras, and the random elements, I was generally able to figure out a strategy that worked well enough for me to just barely make it through. But if that doesn't work for some players, there are always the rescue missions to fall back on in case of an emergency. If you're like me and you haven't tried a Mystery Dungeon game yet, this one comes highly recommended. I'm fairly confident fans of the series will not be disappointed either. On its own, Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon is a quirky, light-hearted spin-off with well-developed dungeon crawling gameplay that provides a satisfying level of difficulty and gives the player plenty of room to develop their own strategies, all the while offering tons of customization options with a huge roster of potential allies and moves. It's a solid entry in the Pokémon franchise. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Super Mystery Dungeon photo
Like Magic(karp)
The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon spin-off series transports the colorful cast of pocket monsters from the role-playing games into the challenging world of a roguelike dungeon crawler. Super Mystery Dungeon retains the charm...

Review: Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires

Nov 26 // Laura Kate Dale
Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One, Vita [Reviewed])Developer: Omega ForcePublisher: Tecmo KoeiReleased: November 24, 2015 (Vita)MSRP: $39.99  Much like past Empires releases, 8's release throws in a handful of new things for you to mess around with. You can get married and have kids, and make decisions about being a freelancer or a servant, but ultimately everything you do is in service of unifying China, usually by force. Right off the bat, you'll create your own hero to fight as, rather than the main entries' focus on fighting as a variety of different warriors. Pick their design, armor, and moveset from Dynasty Warriors 8 and set them off onto an adventure which will involve sticking with them long term, until they carve their own destiny out for themselves. [embed]322746:61270:0[/embed] A big part of the strategy involved in Empires comes down to deciding how to best spend your time. There is a menu-based system in place which gives you a series of options, with each available action taking one month to complete. After a certain number of months, you'll attend or host a war council meeting where your long-term objectives are set. The challenge here is working out how to balance your time. Initially, I sided with a much larger faction and piggybacked on their success. Every time a new objective was set, I had to decide how much of my time to dedicate to furthering the goals of my faction, and how much of the time to put toward working on my own personal goals. Every month I could avoid working on faction goals allowed me to grow slightly closer to independence. There was also the balancing act of working out how long to spend with that faction before going solo. The longer I stayed with them, the more resources I had at my disposal for personal growth, but the larger my faction grew as a potential threat. Knowing one day I would split off, I didn't want to put too much of my effort into beefing up a future enemy. Once you eventually break out solo, you have a lot more say over how to focus strategically. You can go fully diplomatic, violent, or a mixture of the two, but violence overall feels the most fulfilling route. You have to try and keep a mental handle on how thin it's safe to spread your forces, how fast it's safe to expand, how long you can stay put fortifying yourself, and how fast your enemies are expanding their influence. There were a number of things I constantly had to be aware of, but it never felt overwhelming or unfair. Combat is pretty much unchanged from Dynasty Warriors 8, which in my opinion is a good thing. The dual weapon switching, combos, and special attacks remain unchanged, with the main differences being tactical elements of how you engage in fights on the battlefield. Empires features a far more detailed map, with a higher focus on overall strategy when overtaking bases. You'll find a series of strategic bases, which need to be overtaken one after another to work toward the capture of the main base. The more detailed map allows for more strategy, but it also caused me some stress while trying to make progress across the map. Feeling like I had to always be aware of enemy movements and counters to my advance meant that where I would have powered forward in a main Dynasty Warriors game, here I often stopped and backtracked to keep the odd one or two people from slipping through my net. Ultimately, I came away from Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires extremely satisfied. The tactical elements outside of battle were well balanced as to be challenging while fair, and the combat carries over the best elements from the main game. It's a bit of a specific niche it's catering to -- fans of Dynasty Warriors combat and long-term strategy elements -- but if those two things are your jam, then Empires should have you hooked. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Dynasty Warriors photo
Plan to have an awesome time
Back in 2013 when Jim Sterling reviewed Dynasty Warriors 8 and called it a "return to form" for the series, I largely agreed with his review. From its large roster to complex combat system, it featured some of the best fighti...

Review: Mighty Switch Force! Academy

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

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

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

Review: Bloodborne: The Old Hunters

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

Review: Mayan Death Robots

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

Review: Renowned Explorers: International Society

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

Review: Typoman

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

Review: Super Star Wars

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

Review: Hard West

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

Review: Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash

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

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

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


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