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Review: Action Henk

May 13 // Jordan Devore
Action Henk (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: RageSquidPublisher: RageSquidReleased: May 11, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Action Henk, who I desperately want to call Action Hank, is past his prime. He's a toy, and a middle-aged, beer-bellied one at that. If you played this game back when it was on Steam Early Access, you can dress him up as a certain ring-carrying blue hedgehog. More than just a fun nod, it fits. There are hints of Sonic the Hedgehog in how Henk builds up his speed, how he roars through loops, and also in the chipper, infectious music. But for as fast as Henk moves, and he is always moving (or you're messing up), it's not hard to follow him, and he doesn't get lost in the chaos. Ghosts are a big help in that regard. Even on your first time through a level, you can race alongside an AI ghost, allowing you to see precisely what it takes to achieve a bronze, silver, or gold medal before executing the winning strategy yourself. This cuts out a fair amount of guesswork and, as a result, unnecessary (see: cheap-feeling) failures. [embed]292039:58519:0[/embed] It's not just running across wooden blocks and vaulting over the (lava) floor of a messy kid's bedroom. Crucially, our aging action hero can slide down ramps to pick up extra speed. Knowing precisely when to start and stop sliding makes all the difference on the leaderboards, as those fractions of a second add up rapidly. It's hard to put into words how enjoyable the movement system is, so I'll just say this: some 70 levels later, it doesn't let up. I'm still digging it. Eventually, Henk comes across a Hookshot, though it's only usable in select levels. Which makes sense, given that the device demands bigger, more open-ended environments to accommodate its huge range. It fits in so well with the existing physics and feel of Action Henk. Flying off a ramp and firing the shot at the exact right moment to fling Henk directly forward is a never-ending joy. The way the device is introduced partway through the game led me to believe there might be more abilities or items later on but, sadly, there aren't. There are more characters to unlock, though. Stages are capped off with a head-to-head race against another toy -- beat them, and they'll join your side. By earning every gold medal for a stage, you'll unlock a coin collection level. These are more compact than the standard fare but they're also less linear. The challenge is primarily in figuring out the best possible route to grab every coin within the time limit. Clear these levels, and you'll earn a new character skin (including one reminiscent of Michael Jackson from "Thriller"). Even if I didn't have the goofy Sonic outfit for Henk, I probably would've stuck with him anyway. I found most of the other characters grotesque. Besides racing against AI and player ghosts, there's also a separate multiplayer mode complete with a chat room. Here, you're competing against other people in real time. You can redo the course as often as you'd like until you're satisfied with your score or the clock runs out. While it's the same old levels from single-player, there's a greater sense of urgency and competition. Finally, there's a level builder with Steam Workshop support. The editor is quick and intuitive to use thanks in large part to the simplicity of the user interface and building blocks. Just drag, drop, copy, and paste pieces onto the screen until you've cobbled together an obstacle course. It's that straightforward. Making something worth sharing will take more time, of course. Barring the final, post-credits set of levels -- which is absolutely brutal -- it shouldn't take more than a few hours to get through Action Henk with decent rankings. Although the game doesn't outstay its welcome, that can be difficult to appreciate. I was left wanting more, particularly in terms of level variety, but the essence of the game is great. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Action Henk review photo
Toy story
Going into Action Henk, a time-trial platforming game starring action figures, I expected to grow frustrated. I figured that once the training wheels came off, the challenge would rise to a point where perfection, or somethin...

Review: TowerFall: Dark World

May 13 // Chris Carter
TowerFall: Dark World (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Matt ThorsonPublisher: MattMakesGames Release Date: May 12, 2015MSRP: $9.99 The main draw for the this $10 add-on is the full four-player "Co-op" mode. It aims to improve upon the existing "Quest Mode," which previously was limited to two people at a time. While the original Quest is still alive and well, co-op actually feels like a legitimate campaign (albeit without a story), with a clearer view of progression for each level set, culminating in a boss battle. Oh, and just like before, you can play it by yourself if you want. Here, you can resurrect teammates by standing near their corpse for a few seconds, and the enemy waves feel more relentless and unique. It helps that there are more variations out there to deal with, from baddies that explode after their death, to doppelgangers, to these projectile-heavy...floating things that will annoy the hell out of you. On Normal mode all four sets of levels will probably take you an hour or so to clear. There are only four bosses on offer, but they're all fun to fight in their own way -- especially the final encounter, which strips you of your ability to fire arrows for most of the fight. These big bads are particularly tantalizing with multiple team members fluttering about the map, resurrecting each other en masse. With three difficulty levels to choose from (Normal, Hardcore, or Legendary, with the latter two limiting your continues), I can see myself coming back for the challenge every so often, especially with friends. [embed]292091:58527:0[/embed] Of course, the real draw here is the core deathmatch mode, which has been improved as a result of the expansion. Two new arrow types have been added, my favorite of which is the remote arrow -- a Bomberman-like attack that can be detonated at will. It even has an alt-fire (Circle instead of Square) that lets you lay down more than one. This one mechanic would be enough to deal with on its own, but when you add in the fact that other players can dash into the arrow before it's triggered to steal it, things get a bit more complicated. The Prism Arrow is also pretty fun, as it traps someone in a box if they try to snatch it out of the air. There's just so much more to learn, and the game is all the better for it. TowerFall's option toggles are also insanely detailed, allowing you to switch out every weapon a la Smash Bros., as well as change-up pretty much everything else, including the implementation of automatic handicaps, slow-mo, "there's always lava," and forcing the arena to always appear dark. My personal favorite is the "scrolling" option, which makes every level look like it's a traditional platforming level -- it works very well with the new DLC stages. It doesn't actually change the arena into a full-on adventure, as the level stays the same since players will simply warp to the other side if they "fall off," but it constantly keeps you on your toes -- particularly on vertically designed stages, where you can theoretically fall forever, fighting it out in the air. Other extras including 10 more characters and new time trials. While the actual archers themselves don't have any unique powers and are more like skins, and the trials feel like par for the course, they're nice additions all the same. For the record, the game still doesn't have online play. If you haven't picked up TowerFall yet, go get it. If you like it, then buy Dark World. It's that simple. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
TowerFall DLC review photo
How high does this tower ascend?
TowerFall quickly became the go-to arena game in my household, especially after it hit the PlayStation 4. While there has been a resurgence of the genre lately with new classics like Samurai Gunn and heavy-hitters l...

Review: NERO

May 13 // Brett Makedonski
NERO (Xbox One [reviewed], PC, Wii U, 3DS)Developers: Storm in a TeacupPublisher: ID@XboxReleased: May 15, 2015 (Xbox One), TBA (PC, Wii U, 3DS)Price: $19.99 But to spend a little more time in NERO's world is a wondrous thing. The omnipresent phosphorescent set-dressing strikes a dissonant chord against the subject material, but works in an odd mutuality. When hope seems like it's sure to slip away forever, the aesthetic inspires in an underlying way. Hey, maybe things will turn out all right after all. As this is a foray through a child's mind who's going through uncertain realities, nothing about NERO is metaphorically black and white. The journey is paced however you see fit. Meandering about is enticing, as everything about it begs for exploration. Backtracking is likely to occur often, as you realize you've been staring at the lustrous sky for too long and forgot to pay attention to your surroundings. Every time this happens, you'll fall a little more in love with NERO. Wandering off the beaten path has its benefits beyond taking in more scenery. NERO is a first-person puzzle-solving game, but it can be very light on the latter if you so choose. The majority of the puzzles are tucked away in areas that aren't even necessary to venture to. Those who opt to complete these brain-teasers will be awarded with an extra slice of narrative. [embed]292028:58522:0[/embed] Honestly, those who take the quick and narrow path through NERO are robbing themselves -- not just of a few puzzles, but of the core experience. It's a game where you slowly figure out that aimless wandering is the aim. It's something that requires some marinating, soaking in the world to fully appreciate it. Approaching NERO with a destination in mind is a mindset that will result in disappointment. Likewise, those who appreciate clearly drawn lines will similarly feel frustration. NERO is intentionally ambiguous at all times about its narrative, but its tone is always striking. Different thematic accents constantly punctuate different scenes; the ones that don't happen to arch over the course of the entire journey. For all the discussion it's sure to raise regarding plot, it's undoubtedly a story of love and loss, grief and guilt, companionship and family, and coping when the world is so goddamn unfair. All that being said, NERO isn't perfect. Detractors will knock it for a short run-time, flat textures, frame rate stutters, and lack of puzzle variety. However, isolating those issues is akin to missing the forest for the trees. There's something greater at play here, and letting yourself become immersed in NERO will likely render those shortcomings moot. Even after finishing, it's difficult to pin NERO down to a concept or feeling that's easy to explain. It's a game that prioritizes emotion above all else, and it does so wonderfully. But as the boy at the heart of this tale learns, emotions are tough to understand, and thus NERO is tough to understand. You'll just know that you felt something, and that sensation alone is worth the journey.
NERO review photo
A strange and distant land
I don't know why I kept playing NERO. That's not a statement meant to express disdain. I literally don't know what -- but something -- drew me to keep trekking through this sad, enamoring world. Its gravitas has a gravity abo...

Review: Invisible, Inc.

May 12 // Steven Hansen
Invisible, Inc. (PC [reviewed], Mac)Developers: Klei EntertainmentPublisher: Klei EntertainmentReleased: May 12, 2015Price: $19.99 Stealth games often offer two tonal paths. You are ill-equipped, powerless and possibly stay that way (horror), or you are preternaturally talented, improving stats and skills further until you are Batman-like (most "detective mode" games). Invisible, Inc. gives you all the information needed to succeed. Sight lines are obvious and clear. Enemy routes can be precisely observed (for 1 AP). You can peek around corners or behind doors (again, 1 AP). And you have the Incognita system which can hack devices -- cameras, turrets, item machines -- to help you complete your infiltrations. Screw ups aren't twitch-based dissonance, like frantically steering Snake into a wall when spotted. What you butt up against, then, is a series of balanced checks that gives you tools to succeed and becomes about execution. Hacking requires power, which can be stolen from consoles or generated once per turn (with the default Incognita setup). Agent movement is limited by action points. Hastily enter a door and you may be exposed, without enough AP to set up behind cover. Peek and observe the patrol route of the guard next door and you may find that he is coming right to where you are, your melee stun device is still recharging, and you no longer have the AP needed to get back into cover. And if you think the answer is to take things slow, creeping along a few squares at a time, know that each procedurally generated stage has an alarm that raises by one tick each turn. Every time the alarm goes up a full level, you'll be facing additional cameras or extra, better outfitted guards, or higher power costs when hacking.  [embed]291971:58506:0[/embed] All the systems are at odds with each other and it is exhilarating. You want to find the exit quickly, before things get too difficult to handle, yet the whole point of your infiltration to to quickly prepare for a big standoff, which means it's better to steal all the credits and gear that you can, to explore every room. You have to spend power to open safes, but also to rewire cameras or turrets, things that can more presently do you in. But not doing enough, not filching everything, feels like it will do you in in the long run, too. Credits buy you new gear, which becomes necessary for dealing with tougher enemies, but it's also what you spend to upgrade your agents' movement distance, ability to gain more power from consoles, and so on. It's elegant as hell. A commensurate arms race. You fly around the world, eating hours off the countdown clock. If you take a harder ranked mission, you're more likely to lose, but if you don't, will you be able to win in the long run? For every "2x armor piercing stun baton" you pick up, the next stage could have 3 times armored enemies. There are killing weapons, too. They're good because the enemies won't wake up a couple turns later (they stay incapacitated if an agent is physically pinning them down), but have limited ammo, raise the alarm level more quickly, and leave you paying a bit of "cleaner costs." Decisions, decisions. I love the constant duress and how many options you have. While all the stages are procedurally generated, you do have some idea of what you're getting into, depending on the type of infiltration (going for a vault? a terminal with locations of more points of interest? an executive's suite?) and the particular company (one is particularly robot heavy, rendering your knock out sticks useless) whose site you're breaking into. There's wiggle room. You decide what you're going for. Money takes precedence for me, mostly for agent upgrades, followed by labs that allow me to add cybernetic upgrades to my agents. Of course, a detention center could be housing a third or fourth agent as well, and numbers can be useful if you have the means to outfit them all, or ruthlessly treat new additions as expendable. And while you start off with two default agents and two default power-gaining and hacking programs, you can unlock more mid-game (buy new programs, rescue captive agents), as well as unlock them for use at the start of a campaign. They have different latent skills or default items. And each agent has an alternate with a different load out yet and a new backstory. The programs, too, offer anxiety-inducing risk-reward choices. One power per turn, or two power per turn with the chance of spawning a harmful daemon? Maybe couple that with a lockable character who gains power on enemy daemon installs in an attempt to even out the risks. Klei has also created a robust set of options that allows you to tune the experience to your liking. There are three "standard" modes: beginner, experienced, and expert. Mind you I've played Invisible, Inc. 40 plus hours prior to this, but I found beginner to be too non-threatening of a cakewalk, so maybe start with experienced? Note that expert is the "base difficulty and tuning." Within these options, you can toggle one-turn rewinds (and how many) as well as whole level retries. You can even go deeper than that to adjust settings to your liking. You can extend the campaign from 72 hours, dictate starting power level, turn off danger zone warnings, and more. And on top of all that, there is an extra difficult "expert plus," an endless mode, and an extra difficult endless mode. You can fine tune 20 or so settings in all of them. The turn-based stealth gameplay is empowering, but fraught and fleeting each time you dive deeper into one of the world's least architecturally sensible corporate buildings, rooms budding off rooms, some empty, some dangerous, all necessary. It's a fight to stay equally matched with your enemies and make it to the end. Things can and will go wrong. Sometimes life-saving maneuvering just delays an impending, inevitable loss as you bring the full weight of the guard down on your head. And it's almost always your own damn fault, which is why you'll try again.
Invisible, Inc. photo
Invisible, man
It feels weird to be finally reviewing a game I played more than anything else last year despite it being in Early Access. I mean, I already gave it a Game of the Year award. Klei (Don't Starve, Mark of the Ninja) has perfect...

Review: Color Guardians

May 12 // Darren Nakamura
Color Guardians (Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PlayStation Vita)Developer: Fair Play LabsPublisher: Niffler LtdReleased: May 12, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Color Guardians is a cutesy runner, but its manner of dealing with obstacles is what sets it apart from others in the genre. Each of the three playable Color Guardians can change color at will between blue, red, and yellow. Combined with the three lanes where the action takes place, players are basically choosing among nine different states to be in. Going from any one state to another takes only three button presses at most; often it is fewer than that. The reason for switching between lanes is obvious; sometimes there is a rock in one lane that needs to be dodged. Changing color is necessary for nearly every other interaction. To start, the color orbs littering the environments can only be collected by a character of a matching color. Over the course of the game, new objects and obstacles are added, most of which require a certain color in order to function or bypass. With that setup, one could imagine level design that requires finger gymnastics resembling the input of an old school cheat code, but it starts out more plainly. To ease players in, the first few levels don't require fast color switches and they don't even use yellow. It's a decent primer for what to expect, but it takes too long to get to the good stuff. [embed]291885:58487:0[/embed] To make up for that, some extra mechanics are thrown in so that the early levels aren't totally mundane for those who catch on quickly. To get full credit for collecting a color orb, the Color Guardians not only have to be that color, but they also have to be spinning, achieved by pressing the button that corresponds to that color. Additionally, points are awarded for switching colors or lanes, on top of the base points for collecting orbs. The theory behind these two mechanics is commendable. They allow for open-ended scoring. Even if one player spins into every orb perfectly, another can do that with an extraneous color change thrown in to score just a bit higher on the leaderboard. Risk switching to the wrong color before switching back, get rewarded with a better score. The high score on a given level is theoretically unlimited. Though it sounds like it could be tackled with elegance, in actual play it just leads to a lot of button mashing. With a string of red orbs to collect, one could treat it like a dance, rhythmically alternating between red and blue. It turns out to be easier and more effective to continuously smash both buttons nearly simultaneously, with the button for red coming just after the button for blue. It's not very satisfying. Thankfully, this is alleviated in the later levels by virtue of difficulty. Once things really start moving and the levels require constant switching between lanes and colors, there is less room for high score chasing. There are some clever sections that subvert expectations, like where players want to switch to an off color in order to intentionally miss a jump. Color Guardians is at its best toward the late game when simply getting through is a challenge. This is all brought to a grinding halt by one of the most poorly designed final boss fights I can remember. Throughout the regular levels, success can be found through training. The levels are designed, so tricky situations can be navigated by building muscle memory of the same button presses. Turning that design philosophy on its head, the last level is basically Random Number Generator: The Boss Fight. Without going into too much detail about how the fight works, it puts players in a situation where even if they execute everything correctly, there is at best a 67% chance of landing a hit and at worst a 0% chance. Yes, not only is it governed by a random number generator, it also contains situations where landing a hit is literally impossible. To beat the boss, three sets of two hits need to land, where each set must be completed in quick succession. I could write an essay on how this fight is so poorly designed. I might actually do that. For now, I'll just say that the last fight alone took me around three hours to complete. The actual winning run was only about five minutes. It just took that long to finally roll all the right dice. When it comes to art design, I normally applaud the use of color. Color Guardians takes it too far, with its ultra-saturated primary color palette. It's almost nauseating. The uncanny perma-smiles on the protagonists faces don't help much either. I was prepared to give Color Guardians a solid "meh" at first. Its central concept is GOOD and it shines when it lets itself do that without any room for button mashing, but that only happens during the last third of it. Building up to that is a fairly dull experience, not without challenge but certainly without excitement. If it had ended just before the final boss, it would be a forgettable runner that underdelivers on a good idea. After that terrible fight, I actively disliked it. Play this if you like a challenge and have patience to get to the good stuff, but don't even bother finishing it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Color Guardians review photo
Color me bad
I put a lot of value in elegance. Solving a math problem in an unconventional way using two steps is inherently cooler than doing it in twenty steps. A single shot from a sniper rifle taking down a faraway target is more impr...

Review: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

May 12 // Chris Carter
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: CD Projekt REDPublisher: Bandai Namco (Europe), WB Games (NA), Spike Chunsoft (Japan)Released: May 19, 2015MSRP: $59.99 From the very start, The Witcher 3 is a return to form in terms of presenting the core Witcher lore from the first game. Unlike the second iteration, where many elements important to the overarching story were teased or merely mentioned in passing, you get to see more events up close. You'll have the chance to experience The Wild Hunt itself even more-so than the original title, which is going to be a huge bonus for fans of the series. You get to delve deeper into the world as a whole, and the more personal take on Geralt makes it even better. Over the course of The Wild Hunt, players will experience Geralt as a teacher, lover, and hero. There are far more opportunities to actually be a Witcher, haggling for goods and demanding gold for your service. These elements were always communicated in past games to some degree, but given the vast scope of this title, you'll actually get to live it on a constant basis here. The script as a whole is also much sharper, with stronger dialog and a funnier general feel. It helps that it hosts the most interesting cast yet, like a funny young creature that loves to poop, a terrifying trio of witches, a dumb goat named Princess, and one very angry ghost baby. The setup this time around involves Ciri, a young woman that Geralt has essentially raised as his own daughter. She's trained with Witchers, but she also hosts a power no one quite understands that has sparked the interest of The Wild Hunt -- a mysterious and powerful group that roams the land and terrifies everyone who comes in contact with them. Geralt kicks off the adventure in search of Ciri, attempting to find her in various locations, learning of her whereabouts through story missions. Occasionally you'll get to control Ciri herself in short standalone sequences, which serve as a window into her point of view and are a welcome brief departure from the Geralt show. [embed]291344:58447:0[/embed] In general, choices feel like they carry more weight in The Wild Hunt, and the characters are more fleshed out as a whole. I felt like the second game had way too many "Would you like to do option A or option B?" black and white choices, but the third iteration brings back some of the ambiguity from the original. There is immediacy to your decisions, but there are lasting consequences in some cases, with individuals that I actually cared about. I like Ciri in particular, and was inspired to press on to find out what happened to her. More importantly, the game is designed as a large collective of little choices compared to a few sweeping options in The Witcher 2. Having a bit of control over nearly every aspect of your personal story is a much more desirable design. A lot of you out there will probably be disappointed to learn that combat is now essentially Assassin's Creed, as most of the nuances like stances from the first game and the slower flow of the second game are now gone. Instead, you'll attack with light and heavy attacks, spicing things up with a few magic abilities, and separate dodge and roll buttons. Geralt still carries his trademark steel sword for humanoid opponents and silver for creatures, but since he automatically takes the appropriate one out most of the time, that bit of strategy is quashed too. It's not enough to make the game "easy" (especially on higher settings) but normal is significantly more hack and slash oriented than The Witcher 2. For all of the streamlined changes though, I actually enjoy this take on combat the most. Your magic abilities run the gamut of everything you'd need, from traps to projectiles to a defensive shield, and the dodge mechanic works better than it ever has, which makes battles feel more action-oriented and less like an outdated pen-and-paper scheme. When you add in the ability to parry and counter, combat gets even more interesting. Ciri's bits are even less expansive, as she can't access an equipment or inventory screen at all, and only has a few unique spells at her disposal. When you're exploring about, the way fast travel is handled is just about perfect. You can technically use it, but players will need to have explored the target area first, and access an actual dedicated fast-travel signpost. It encourages you to see the world without pulling your hair out and losing tons of time manually getting to places you've already been. Roach, your horse, will assist in finding those new locations, and the controls are fairly versatile with walking, running, and galloping options. Sailing is probably my favorite means of travel, and in one instance I was even left stranded on an island after enemies capsized my ship! Questing is also much more satisfying now because The Wild Hunt is less "tunnel" oriented. Thanks to the advancements of newer tech, the open world can be fully explored by climbing, sailing, and horseback riding. The climbing mechanics are a welcome addition, but like a lot of other sandbox titles (I'm looking at you, Bethesda), it comes with its own set of glitches and rough animations. Specifically, ridges and edges are problem areas, and I had Geralt get stuck a few times in the game world or die to very questionable amounts of fall damage. It doesn't help the situation when a few main story quests have bugs in them as well. It should be noted though that there is a very forgiving checkpoint save system, and you can manually save at any time. I suggest doing so often. Once you get your first look at the world and see the new engine up-close, you'll likely forget about those stiff movements and occasional rough patches. The draw distance is wonderful, and the map in general is insanely detailed. While there are three particular areas that are instanced (cut off from the rest of the world), the core area is huge, and would take you hours to fully traverse and explore, even if you didn't stop to actually do anything. For the purposes of this review, I played The Witcher 3 on PS4, which features 1080p visuals, with a 30 frames-per-second cap. Unfortunately that latter figure is noticeable all too often, especially when you're outside, moving the camera about, and fighting multiple enemies. I have to give it to CD Projekt RED for creating a beautiful, vast universe with very little in the way of load times, but the console edition does feel like a compromise. If you have the rig, I highly recommend taking a look at the PC version, though I haven't had a chance to test out its stability just yet. There is something to be aware of in addition to the technical issues. While the combat and overall story have been improved, a lot of quests (particularly the transitions between story missions) involve "Witcher Vision." Yep, Arkham's Detective Vision mechanic is now a part of the Witcher world, and you're going to be spending a lot of time holding down a button, looking at footprints, and following them blindly to the next sequence. At first it's a really cool mechanic, and appropriately represents a Witcher's advanced sensory and tracking capabilities. But once you do it roughly 100 times, it gets a tad old. If you're looking for a lengthy adventure, you'll find pretty much everything you need here. With four difficulty levels (including a super easy mode) there's something for everyone. Alchemy mechanics shine in The Wild Hunt, as there are lots of ingredient nodes all across the world, easily visible on the game's mini-map -- almost like the developers took a page from the newer Far Cry games. There's literally hundreds of quests to complete, secret locations to find, and buried treasure to search for. The core story will last you a good while. It took me roughly 50 hours to complete the game. Hilariously enough, there is one point that feels like it's the end, to the point where the game even warns you that you should save and that you cannot turn back after entering the area. After I finished that sequence, it turned out that I had at least another 10 hours to go. Once the story is said and done, a few select sidequests can't be completed, but you're plopped back into the world, ready to explore. I suspect I'll be at it for over 100 hours by the time I'm ready to put the game back on the shelf. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a huge step up from its predecessor, mostly because it manages to tell a more compelling and personal tale. At the same time, that intimate feel is juxtaposed against a gigantic, sprawling open-world adventure that may hit some snags along the way but still comes out on top. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
The Witcher 3 review photo
100% more Witchay Woman
I have an odd history with The Witcher series. I absolutely fell in love with the first game near launch, at the behest of a friend, and adored the way it approached morality. Typically, games of that era would offer up black...

Review: Toren

May 12 // Chris Carter
Toren (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: SwordtalesPublisher: Versus EvilReleased: May 12, 2015MSRP: $9.99 Toren is a surreal game. You'll start off as an infant, quickly growing into a young girl who is seemingly trapped in a giant tower without any real context. The story is primarily told through clever poems, which are never on the nose or in your face. It's a good idea, as there are some awesome moments, like one specific event near the start where prose will shoot across the screen while looking into a telescope. Most of the narrative relates to the heroine and her direct conflict with a dragon, but a lot of it is also internal, and deals with the hero's journey trope in a unique way. It's just a beautiful game inside and out, but it's a bit rough around the edges. It's not optimized very well on the PC, and even using a decent rig (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 880M 8GB, 8GB RAM, i7-4810), Toren was consistently sluggish on the two highest (and even on medium) graphical settings, among a host of glitches like falling through floors and the camera getting stuck occasionally. There also isn't a whole lot in terms of menu customization, with a scant few resolution options, a fullscreen toggle, and a few checkboxes for motion blur and SSAO (screen space ambient occlusion). Additionally, I had a lot of problems with controller support. Despite trying multiple times with both Xbox One and PS4 gamepads, the functionality would often break mid-game, or wouldn't work in the first place. I can only assume it's handled better natively on the PS4, but the PC port, which is the only build I currently have access to, has been a source of contention for me. Gameplay-wise, Toren works on a three-button system -- one for actions (attacking or grabbing, usually), one to jump, and another to "look." Most puzzles involve rather simplistic platforming, but it must be said that the entire experience is just as soothing as the art style. In particular, I really like how the look button gives you vague hints without telling you directly where to go, and the solutions will usually have you saying "I can't believe I missed that" out loud (in a good way). It plays out much like your standard action-adventure game, with elements of free-roaming, puzzle-solving, platforming, and even stealth. In other words, it has a little bit of everything. Toren's jumping mechanics are a tad rough as they're very floaty, but the development team keeps things simple, so you won't be ripping your hair out too often outside of the aforementioned issues. Puzzles include things like dropping sand into specifically marked shapes, snapping statues into place (like Resident Evil), and so on. Said stealth sequences are equally simplistic, mostly involving quick movements to avoid an omega-attack from the dragon. You're not going to find a whole lot of cocnepts that aren't already present in other adventure games, but they're done well here. Thankfully, every aspect simply feels connected and in its proper place. For instance, early in the game you'll acquire a sword and turn into a young woman. Most gear acquisitions feel like an accomplishment with an emotional reward attached, rather than an item that raises your stats by a few points. These RPG-like mechanics are few and far between in favor of the more standard action-adventure elements, but welcome. Toren is a very cool concept that's held back by its rough presentation, especially on the PC platform. Truth be told though, I think developer Swordtales should keep making games and simply refine its touch, as the studio clearly has the knack for it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Toren PC review photo
No, not the Warcraft race
When I first saw Toren, I was intrigued. It has a killer art style, and the concept of seeing a young girl grow up into a woman before our eyes to fulfill a mysterious destiny is an interesting premise indeed. Sadly, not everything goes as smoothly as you'd expect, at least when it comes to the PC version.

Review: Project CARS

May 11 // Brett Makedonski
Project CARS (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developers: Slightly Mad StudiosPublisher: Bandai NamcoReleased: May 6, 2015 (PC), May 12 (PS4, Xbox One)Price: $59.99 Even though Project CARS is difficult, it's all rather appropriate. I've never raced cars before, but I imagine it to be an unrelentingly tough gig. There are a dozen or so drivers that are all after the same checkered flag. Slightly Mad has done a fantastic job crafting a racing experience that reflects real-life competition. Whereas other games often feel like races take place around the player, Project CARS feels like the player is one small part of the race. However, in the heat of the moment, one could be forgiven if they don't agree with that. Project CARS' AI can be so aggressive at times that it seems as if the game is trying to pound the player into submission. Opponents will veer across the track to block progress, and they'll occasionally send you skidding into the gravel trap. Sure, it's an accurate portrayal of racing, but, man, that comes as no consolation at all when it dooms the entire race. The AI isn't the only opponent in Project CARS; you're a constant threat to cause your own downfall. In the rare event that you break free from the pack, the most minute of miscalculated turns will send you straight to the back. One tire overstepping the bounds of the track will often send the car skidding off into a pile of tires, relegating you to an unimpressive finish. Also, this title doesn't play the rubberbanding game, so once the leaders have created separation, you're likely to stay off the podium. Again, frustrating, but that's what you signed up for when you booted up Project CARS. [embed]291507:58427:0[/embed] All that annoyance isn't aided by the fact that Project CARS starts the career with the lowest levels of kart racing, which just so happen to be the most uncontrollable vehicles in the game. It's almost like a trial by fire of sorts, a challenge from Slightly Mad that if you can command these unwieldy beasts, you're good enough to play this game. I was handily defeated so consistently during these races that I wondered if tweaking vehicle settings was an absolute necessity to success. That's where Project CARS' commitment to being for hardcore simulation fans became actively detrimental. Before each race, the menu will implore the player to make alterations, but offers little in the way of guidance as to what anything does. Those who know the ins and outs of cars may take great pleasure in adjusting camber angles and changing suspension heights, but the layman will be left wondering if they're actively at a disadvantage. Honestly, they probably are. Regardless of where all those sliders end up, Slightly Mad has some great driving to offer. The cars all have an appropriate weight about them, only seeming floaty when they're the lightest of vehicles. Project CARS also mandates a nice degree of subtlety with the throttle and brake, often requiring barely touching the gas to optimally weave through a set of turns. The most appreciated facet of driving is that most of the 70-some vehicles feel legitimately unique from one another, meaning that each takes some time behind the wheel before you can control it efficiently. That learning curve won't be welcomed by everyone, however. A lot of nuance is needed, and it's difficult to master. This is especially true with a standard gamepad, which is how the majority of people will play Project CARS. These controllers are often too finicky, and will send the car careening further and more slapdash than the player intended. Those with proper racing wheels will surely have an easier time. One aspect of Project CARS that never fails to impress is its aesthetic. Everything is stunningly gorgeous at all times, even when the sun blinds you as you're trying to corner. The scenery might be at its best during the rainfall, which looks fantastic, but adds another degree of difficulty as the slick roads definitely impact driving performance. Unfortunately, it also impacts game performance, as rainy weather acts as a kind of stress test, and it's where the frame rate dipped the most noticeably in the Xbox One version of the game. For a title that touts itself as offering a staggering amount of control, Project CARS is ironically rather shallow. While all cars are unlocked right from the get-go, the player has no say in what they drive throughout the career. Once signed up for a new league in which to compete, the game decides what vehicle the races take place in. Likewise, outside of the standard career progression, there just isn't much more to do in Project CARS. It basically boils down to the obligatory multiplayer, some community events, and some one-player quickmatches. The game doesn't give the player much incentive to keep playing, so that drive has to be internal. If it isn't, you might find yourself putting down Project CARS sooner than you'd think. Actually, Project CARS' career is paced in such a way that it directly conflicts with the desire to keep playing. Every race is preceded by a practice and qualifying round. Each of those lasts a minimum of ten minutes. You can probably afford to skip practice (easy, Allen Iverson), but qualifying is borderline mandatory. Bypassing it, or simulating to the end after a solid lap, means you run the very real risk of starting the race in last place. If that happens, it's unlikely that you'll finish first. The AI is just too good to let you overcome those odds. You were probably damned before you even began. Admittedly, Project CARS isn't for everyone. In fact, it isn't for most people. It's niche, and it's for those who take their racing games seriously. It does most of what it sets out to do, and it does that very well. However, the broad appeal is lacking, as the long learning curve likely outweighs what most are willing to put up with. But, for those who put in the time and manage to take the checkered flag, this title has a supremely rewarding experience that most anyone can feel proud of, regardless of familiarity with cars.
Project CARS review photo
Hard charger
Project CARS is a game that revels in its inaccessibility. It was made specifically for people who have come to expect more from their realistic racing simulators. Developer Slightly Mad took that desire and ran with it....

Review: Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains

May 11 // Chris Carter
Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains (3DS)Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: AtlusReleased: May 12, 2015MSRP: $39.99 Just like the TV show, you'll embark upon a campaign that takes place across multiple points of view -- Eren, Mikasa, Armin, Levi, and Sasha. It re-explains the gist of the anime, where humans are under constant threat from mysterious Titans, and have subsequently sealed themselves into cities with giant walls. Thankfully it picks up after Eren, the main super shonen hero has been trained, and it doesn't waste much time with the Battle of Trost happening in mere minutes. The actual cutscenes are not new information or footage, as they are ripped directly from the anime, and the dialog is only in Japanese. It's a recap of sorts of the show, but with a lot of filler cut for time, which is definitely a good thing. Battles take place in an arena-like format, kind of like a baby God Hand, but not nearly as open or interesting. In other words, there's enough room to move about and locate boxes to slash, but they're not packed with secrets or anything.Amazingly, Humanity in Chains' gameplay emulates the feeling of zipping about in the show. You can use the R trigger to "Spider-Man swing" around cities at will, which is a blast. Y allows you to aim your hooks (you can even do it in the air), and players will be doing most of their combat in the air, which makes for a fairly action-packed experienced -- if you want, you can beat some missions without ever touching the ground. [embed]291391:58445:0[/embed] Most of your attacks will be swooping in to engage Titans (and their weak spots at the nape of their neck) with a timed QTE of sorts. It's cinematic, with a zoomed-in camera to boot, but it's also functional and easy to use -- and it's ever so satisfying to cut off an arm or a leg even if you don't get a killing blow. The Circle Pad Pro or New 3DS nub can be used as a camera if you have either one. I wouldn't recommend playing with 3D on, as it slows the frame rate down to a crawl, even on the New 3DS, which is a massive disappointment. The action is all very cool looking and fun to play, if a bit muted by enemies who practice similar mechanics, and déjà vu  environments (with plenty of retreading and re-used maps). Part of the reason the Titans aren't all that compelling to fight is that the AI is fairly easy to counter, and a lot of foes are kind of just "there," wandering around. Still, it does accurately capture the feeling of the show, and when Titans are aggressive, it's an odd balancing act that works. I'd actually claim that it looks more badass than the anime does on a consistent basis. After a couple of hours into the roughly 10-hour campaign you'll unlock "World Mode," the real meat of the game. Here you'll access the sole multiplayer component of Humanity in Chains (both offline and online with matchmaking), as well as an RPG-heavy system that allows you to create a character, level him up, and recruit new members into your party. It's a lot more involved than I thought, forcing you to scale up your base of operations, purchase supplies, pay to recruit soldiers, and embark upon missions much tougher than the story. You'll have to repeat a lot of missions to grind up more currency, but if you're so inclined you can also start up online sessions (which were smooth, in my experience) to mix things up a bit, and hire "mercenaries" by way of StreetPassing friends. My favorite aspect of World Mode is access to more open plain levels, where you can't rely on fluttering about on invisible buildings, and have to rely on horseback riding and pinpoint Titan attacks. It still has a lot of the same closed city maps though, so it's not a game-changer. Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains often can't shake the limitations of the 3DS platform, but it captures most of what makes the anime's world so captivating. If you can deal with similar environments and a lack of compelling objectives outside of the rat-race of World Mode, you'll have a lot of fun here. But in some ways, it feels like a tech demo for the next title. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Attack on Titan review photo
Now with slightly less crybaby Armin
If you even have one friend who enjoys anime, odds are you've heard of Attack on Titan. As a fan myself it seemed right up my alley, and my weekly anime club ended up giving it a shot last year. Sadly, I wasn't impressed. Whi...

Review: Lost Orbit

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

Review: Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters

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

Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed

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

Review: Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character

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

Review: Forgotten Memories: Alternate Realities

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

Review: Vertiginous Golf

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

Review: High Strangeness

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

Review: Kerbal Space Program

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

Review: Tropico 5

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

Review: Pleasant Dreams

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

Review: Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

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

Review: Cosmophony

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

Review: Light Bound

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

Review: Chroma Squad

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

Review: Crypt of the NecroDancer

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

Review: The Weaponographist

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

Review: Hearthstone: Blackrock Mountain

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

Review: Omega Quintet

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

Review: Environmental Station Alpha

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

Review: Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart

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

Review: Westerado: Double Barreled

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







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