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Review: Samurai Warriors Chronicles 3

Jun 30 // Chris Carter
Samurai Warriors Chronicles 3 (3DS [reviewed], PS Vita)Developer: Omega ForcePublisher: Tecmo KoeiMSRP: $29.99Released: June 30, 2015 In a sense, although Chronicles 3 is a continuation of the existing Chronicles offshoot series, it actually ends up being bite-sized take on Warriors 4, but with a few twists in tow. Players will create their own warrior right off the bat and follow a more personalized story, putting them smack in the middle of famous figures like Takeda Shingen. It's a strategy fitting for a portable, even if it takes some liberties when it comes to gameplay. What this does is it allows Samurai newcomers to instantly acclimate themselves without having to know any background on the franchise whatsoever. Even with the last full iteration, it was tough to glean a lot of ancillary backstory about armies and characters unless you had kept up with the series. With Chronicles you can just jump right in, and it will assist you in filling in the blanks. There's a bit of choice involved in the pre-battle cutscenes, but it's mainly an illusion and more of an excuse to learn more about the cast. This goes double for the story, which doesn't really change, and is more of a predetermined narrative for your character. Having said that, the "bonding" system does allow you to unlock new scenes (and a few levels) the more you battle (or pay to drink tea) with fellow officers. [embed]295006:59270:0[/embed] For the most part, gameplay is roughly the same: there's your standard attacks and combo openers as well as supers. It's fast, and despite claims of being "repetitive," it's still a damn fun approach to beat-'em-ups. Chronicles 3 takes things a bit further though (as it has in the past) and allows you to swap between four characters in the battlefield at will, which is better than Samurai's recent two-character mechanic, and a great way to always keep you in the action. Instead of running back and forth constantly, you can just switch to someone else. The main storyline took me roughly 10 hours to complete, then it's off to individual battles while you grind up your character and earn gold to buy new outfits. Instead of a bunch of different bonus gametypes, you'll have a simple challenge mode at your disposal, which is basically a score attack on a timer. Most of your enjoyment will derive from grinding it out for rare weapons and fighting enemies across the span of the entire campaign all at once. It's fun, but its appeal is definitely limited and your mileage may vary. I would have preferred more modes. Sadly, the 3DS hardware has not been kind to Chronicles. The game looks incredibly generic, especially in comparison to the detail that was put into Samurai Warriors 4's new character models. You can't even make out faces for enemy soldiers a lot of the time, much less the set pieces in the background. As a reminder, this review is based off the 3DS version (the only one that was provided), which does have the added benefit of constantly displaying the map on the bottom screen. The 3D effect enhances the experience a bit, but sadly, also contributes to some slowdown. It's never unplayable, but it does make things worse and I don't recommend using it. Samurai Warriors Chronicles 3 is held back by the switch to the 3DS, and I recommend just picking up the past core entry instead. In the meantime, I'll attempt to locate a Vita version to see how it compares to Warriors 4, which was also released on the Vita earlier this year. With some of the performance issues smoothed out, this personal story would be more worth telling. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Samurai Warriors review photo
Not quite as punchy on a portable
Samurai Warriors 4 was a noticeable advancement for the series, and added a number of interesting mechanics like instant character switching and more varied move sets for each character. It even solved a few common compl...

Review: J-Stars Victory VS+

Jun 28 // Laura Kate Dale
J-Stars Victory Vs+ (PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Vita) Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: Bandai Namco EntertainmentRelease: June 26, 2015 (EU), June 30, 2015 (US) I may not be the most knowledgeable anime fan out there, but I'm always willing to try out a new series if it looks interesting. As such, I was pretty excited coming into J-Stars Victory VS+. I was hoping to experience well known characters I already knew, as well as finding new characters to get invested in and try watching going forward. Unfortunately, J-Stars Victory VS+ was a bit of a disappointment in that regard. The representations of characters I already knew didn't feel accurate and the hooks to get invested in new series just weren't there for me. So, as this is a fighting game first and foremost, let's talk about the fighting mechanics at play. Every character has one light attack button, a heavy attack button, a special attack button, a block and a dash. While these are tailored to each character, the movesets all feel very similar to play using. While it's cool to see Ichigo pull off a Getsuga Tensho and Goku a Kamehameha, both on a mechanical level act near identically. Every move is an approximation designed to fit a specific combat system's mold, which ultimately takes away some of what makes these characters unique. Defensive techniques like cancels are minimal, so if you wait for an attack animation to start then start mashing buttons you'll usually win. J-Stars Victory VS+ is not a game of skill, it's a game of waiting for any enemy to attempt anything slower than a light attack, interrupting with a light attack then button mashing while they remain locked in your combo. [embed]294934:59255:0[/embed] So, ignoring the fact the combat system itself lacks depth, lets look at how this functions as a pure fanservice game. Just looking at the numbers there is a lot here for fans of Shonen anime to love. There's representation from newer series like D.Gray-man as well as older series like Rurouni Kenshin and a whole host of series in between. There's even inclusions from my super niche sports anime, but only as support characters rather than full playable roster members. Damn, I was just about ready to praise this game for supporting my niche interests. So, let's talk about the modes on offer in J-Stars Victory VS+. There's J-Adventure, where you sail around the world on a tiny boat given to you by god to earn your way into a tournament of champions, where everyone involved seems perfectly fine with the fact god gave them a boat that couldn't get most of the places it needed to go and needlessly pads out the experience with narrative fluff between fights. This mode has four arcs, each of them near narratively identical. I couldn't see any reason players would want to go through all four of these, they're all equally padded and dull. Your other options are Victory Road which sets up special fights loosely themed around anime dream team fights, a standard Arcade mode which offers minimal challenge, local free battles and online free battles. None of these modes felt terribly coherent or fleshed out. On paper, the roster of nearly 40 playable characters is certainly impressive, but what makes these characters unique is rarely utilized fully. Each character's ultimate attack feels decidedly less visually impressive than comparable titles like Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4. The story mode offered on disk features static 2D images of characters that may say the odd single word to each other, but otherwise remain silent. Their dialogue feels terribly homogeneous, stripped down so that every character speaks with the same uniform voice. This doesn't feel like a series of characters clashing for the first time, rather it feels like one person in many different outfits badly acting out their alternative universe fanfiction. Where the games opening cinematic gave me hope for a visually impressive, fanservice heavy experience, the single player largely boiled down to watching static images talk to each other in a weirdly unemotional tone then fight for no adequately explained reason. It just wasn't compelling. Ultimately, J-Stars Victory VS+ only succeeds as numbers on paper, the game itself being largely disappointing. The roster have had much of what made them unique stripped down, stopping me getting truly excited about the characters I knew and preventing me getting a sense of which characters were worth me investing future time watching. The mechanics are shallow, the fanservice is surface level and it only succeeds in terms of its pure number of supported characters. Overall, I walked away rather disappointed. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
J-Stars Victory VS+ photo
Mash, mash, mash, mash, mash, mash......
J-Stars Victory VS+ is a game that's mechanically light, heavy on fanservice volume but that only ever skims the surface of the characters it includes. If you want an anime brawler that focuses on the sheer volume of anime ch...

Based on the new demo, I have a good feeling about Shantae: Half-Genie Hero

Jun 11 // Chris Carter
[embed]293784:58947:0[/embed] The first ever playable build of the game that's been released to the public features three levels -- a water ruins location, a desert, and an action sequence that takes place on a conveyor belt. The first two heavily feature transformations, which thankfully have returned after their absence in Pirate's Curse. For the first stage you'll have the opportunity to change into Shantae's classic monkey form, which can climb up walls and jump with ease, and on the second, she sports a crab transformation with heavy defensive capabilities. As always, her new forms are downright adorable. Unlike Mighty No. 9, which doesn't match its great gameplay with a similarly impressive visual style (it still looks a little bland), Half-Genie Hero is gorgeously hand-drawn. In other words, it looks almost exactly like the concept art: a rarity these days. It also plays great, as the simplistic three-button system (jump, attack, and dance for transformations) works perfectly even in this early build. I dig the bright settings, platforming design, and art direction. Get a look at two of the stages above yourself -- you'll have plenty of time to decide on whether or not to pull the trigger, as WayForward has made it clear that there is still no solid release window for Half-Genie Hero.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero photo
Three levels in Early Access
Back in 2013, WayForward crowdfunded a new project by way of Kickstarter called Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, the fourth game in the storied Shantae series. It managed to raise almost a million dollars in funding, whic...


Review: Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy

Jun 09 // Chris Carter
Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy (PlayStation TV, Vita [reviewed])Developer: Experience Inc.Publisher: MAGES, 5pb. Games (JP) / NIS America (EU, NA)MSRP: $39.99Release Date: July 24, 2014 (Japan) / June 5, 2015 (EU) / June 9, 2015 (NA) Operation Abyss opens up with a bang -- your character has just woken up in the "gloomy darkness," next to multiple severed, bloodied bodies. Holy shit, right? It gets a little bit goofier from there, as a hooded man suddenly appears and tells you "basically, you've been kidnapped," as an army of half-human zombie monsters attack. You're immediately offered a choice: trust the man or not, which doesn't really end up mattering. Then a Magical Girl shows up and fights a giant crocodile. It pretty much never lets up from here. New Tokyo Legacy is set in a near-future version of Japan. Those creatures? They're called Variants, and it's up to the government-funded Code Physics Agency, which you've just been forcefully inducted into, to save the day. It must be said, if the silly intro wasn't any indication, the art for the game is incredible, and full of life. A lot of scenes may feature static portraits, and the dungeon designs might be on the bland side, but the art style (and by proxy, the main cast) is always colorful and interesting. Likewise, the darker elements of the game are just that -- dark. Creatures look suitably horrific, the narrative can go darker when it needs to, and on occasion, I was straight-up creeped out. There's also a ton of weird story elements like the blood of Florence Nightingale, Leonardo da Vinci, and Hanzo Hattori used for "Blood Codes," to gain abilities and special powers. No one can say that Tokyo Legacy isn't unique. [embed]293318:58901:0[/embed] Like most lengthy dungeon crawler experiences (this one is roughly 40 hours), it takes about six hours of walking until it takes off sprinting, and by then I was sucked into the world. Dungeons aren't obtuse, but as previously mentioned, they are on the bland side. After about 10 hours of play some of them started to blend together, and there isn't enough indication on-screen to denote hidden areas or locations of interest. I definitely don't want a streamlined "go here" indicator, it would just be nice if there was an inkling of uniqueness to the dungeons, since everything else is painstakingly crafted. There's lots of customization involved, including equipment and ability choices and statline tweaking. In terms of choices in relation to the narrative, there's not a whole lot here. This is an old school dungeon crawler through and through, and although there are some light forks in the road, none of them are emotional or engaging. Your key plan here is to go and defeat monsters to further the overarching story -- not your personal one. That's partially because each playthrough uses randomly generated characters, which can be customized, but don't necessarily play any real role. That extends to a lack of any real romantic element, since your party is essentially a collective. Unlike Demon Gaze, Operation Abyss' recent predecessor, Legacy is a bit more forgiving. For instance, you can now go freely back to your base if you wish, which is where you'll level up and sort through your massive inventory. The good news is that there's no "rent" or statistical hit to worry about, and if you're having trouble, heading back to rest up isn't a terrible idea. There's still a lot of menus to wade through and stats to painstakingly tweak back and forth, but it's more accessible than a lot of other crawlers since it doesn't penalize you at every turn. Because of that design decision though, it loses a bit of its edge. Despite the fact that Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy can be a bit by-the-numbers inside dungeons, it's anything but in nearly every other facet of the game. While I probably won't be rushing to complete it again anytime soon, it was a lengthy enough adventure that will stay fresh in my mind for some time. [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Operation Abyss photo
The Walking Variants
One of the very first PC games I ever played was a dungeon crawler. It was called MadMaze, a title released on 1989, playable on the Prodigy internet service -- yep, it was during the dialup era. While crawlers may not be one...

Review: Not a Hero

May 14 // Steven Hansen
Not a Hero (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, PS Vita)Developers: Roll7Publisher: Devolver DigitalReleased: May 14, 2015Price: $12.99 BunnyLord, a rabbit from the future, is running for mayor to prevent humanity from some sort of possibly bee-related extinction on a campaign of hunting down and murdering various crime bosses. His mayoral bid starts with his campaign manager, Steve, and gunman join the cause with rising poll numbers. The health bar shared by Not a Hero's nine playable characters is only a few ticks. It regenerates rather quickly when you're not being shot, but you're often being shot, and one bad volley of enemy fire can kill you immediately. This frailty, which feels more "retro" than the pixel art in and of itself, is mitigated with a cover system, the crutch of the contemporary third-person shooter. Movement here is just as key as shooting, so there is a slide button that you can contextually release before pieces of cover to snap to safety. Shooting while in cover automatically exposes you and enemies can still come head-on and give you a thwack lest you think you can reload in absolute peace. You can play sheepishly -- and cover is helpful when you're down to the last tick of the health bar -- but are not encouraged to. Shots at close range do critical damage while sliding into enemies will knock them out and allow you to perform executions. The result is a cover-supported game rather than a cover-based game. It's there to be used when you're not slide tackling and brutally stabbing folks to death room to room. Your tactics are as brazen as the boss' campaign, which includes perpetuating the war on drugs, rescuing pandas, giving bees to the children, and shooting a not-insignificant amount of police officers. Established trends voters are for. [embed]292134:58536:0[/embed] There are power ups and limited secondary weapon pickups to go along with the nine characters, all of which except the last two feel distinct from one another. There were some power ups I tended to avoid, especially after unlocking an assassin with a devastating, but slow to reload, double barrel shotgun. Coupled with the quick reload power up, the only one not limited to one magazine worth of ammo, it's hard to beat. That same character is quick with a rapid slide which did end in some undue-feeling fall deaths. When I had to jet down a descending series of rooftops, it felt about as precarious as playing a 3D platformer. You can change direction midair which is great for busting out of a window and then busting into one on the floor below, but occasionally I found myself careening forwards to death despite feeling like I'd moved the stick the other way. Having multiple buildings to flit between and different points of entry keeps every multi-floored stage from feeling like a Donkey Kong zigzag to the top, but running or sliding in between any open spaces that weren't perfectly in line with each other just feels a bit off. Additionally, there's just the three visually distinct areas -- the first two of which are even more similar outside of the color swap -- that fall in line with Not a Hero's general flattened action tropes and references. First, it's the Eastern European shipping underbelly. Then it's off to the "urban" (read: dark skinned enemies) area, in an apparent reversal of the first two seasons of The Wire. One of the player characters is Spanish, named Jesus. He wears bright pink, is in a permanent hip thrust animation, and sounds more like Al Pacino doing a Cuban accent in Scarface. Meanwhile the black guy pulls extra magazines out of his afro. On the other hand, the rest of the cast are regional UK in-jokes. The most visually distinct area is the Yakuza-boss-run, an Asian-themed one (much of it related to a sushi restaurant run by bossman Unagi) that also introduces one-hit-kill samurai and ninja, as well as triad folks doing combat barks sometimes not in English, sometimes with thick accents. It also introduces timed door locks which are antithetical to momentum and are often situated at hall ends, meaning you've already done all the murdering on the way there and are waiting for nothing to move on to the next level. And while BunnyLord makes for a unique employer, the extreme irreverence is sometimes amusing and sometimes feels like a forced @dril imitation. There's a bit too much, "Look, it's so random!" at times, like a deadpan presentation of Borderlands 2. More importantly, BunnyLord gives post-mission and pre-mission monologues back to back and to keep the comedic timing you can't just read the text boxes more quickly. It's either wait for the slow text crawl hoping for payoff or just skip it entirely and go shooting. I often went with the latter. Each stage has three optional objectives, too, that go towards determining BunnyLord's political station. Apparently mayor doesn't cut it. But while I completed most everything in the first two areas on my way up from mayor to prime minister to King of England to Global Megalord, I'm stuck as mayor overall. The third act ratchets up the difficulty a lot. I almost spent as much time in the last and third from last stages as I have everywhere else. And I still haven't been able to complete any of the side-goals in the last level, which is basically a boss fight followed by a level, with no checkpoint. It's a bit of a pain, but given how quickly I breezed through a majority of the game, perhaps those more challenging, borderline frustrating bits add to the longevity of what is a pretty lean little game. Translating cover shooters into 2D makes for a good  mix of contemporary and classic sensibilities. It's nice to play a shooter where avoiding enemy bullets is a bit more necessary and I like the tools Not a Hero provides with its slick cover system, mechanically varied cast, and constant chain of slide kicks and executions. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Not a Hero review photo
I can be your hero, baby
Roll7 has received much adulation distilling skateboarding into pixel-based 2D fun with OlliOlli so it's not surprising that the team has been able to do the same with cover-based shooting. But OlliOlli's pixels belie the pol...

Review: Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster

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

Review: Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters

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

Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed

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

Are you satisfied with the price you paid for your PlayStation Vita?

May 08 // Chris Carter
What about you? [embed]291796:58475:0[/embed]
Vita satisfaction photo
Yep
This morning I was typing up a few Vita related stories, and surprise, they were both ports. It reminded me of when I started to realize that the system was in dire straits -- at one point after the portable's launch I looked...

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: 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: MonsterBag

Apr 22 // Steven Hansen
MonsterBag (PlayStation Vita)Developers: IguanaBeePublisher: IguanaBeeReleased: April 7, 2015MSRP: $9.99 Suitably impressed with the trailer's art style, I was still a bit sure how the game actually worked until I played it. Levels are set up with a line of folks to jump between. Reaching Nia, always at the end, is the goal. Tapping left or right flits you across bystanders one at a time, but some are a bit more attentive, requiring you to pause and wait until they aren't looking your way. A series of unfortunate events en route to some kind of alien apocalypse in a narrative escalation reminiscent of Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack means you never quite reach Nia, even when you get to the end of levels. Complicating things beyond increasing sets of hungry eyes per level are certain puzzle elements that make use of V's telekinesis. Various items in the stages can be tapped on if you're in range and then thrown at the NPCs. This starts off innocently enough by fulfilling the character's desire as indicated by little thought bubbles. The angry old man who won't let you pass becomes amicable if you chuck something at the guitarist, causing the latter to throw his axe to the old man, who then shreds and chills out. Soon, though, you're sending spears through people, exposing their internal organs as further items with which to progress. Or beheading scientists to pass retina scans. Levels have a flow of, "get to the first accessible item without being caught, use it on an NPC, then get to whatever item that might've opened up." Only once did I find myself screwing up the combination that I had to restart a level, reaching an impasse without any interactable elements left. [embed]290782:58276:0[/embed] The difficulty, then, comes as more and more enemies are out to get you, which slows your progress as you have to wait for them to avert their gaze to get to one side of the level and often have to then make it back to the start. It can get a bit grating on wider levels, especially when enemies' -- in particular, the later alien monster things -- patterns sync up and you find yourself waiting longer and longer for smaller openings. Getting seen means instant death and regression to a checkpoint, which I occasionally wished were more frequent. Spicing up the puzzling elements are sections where speed is a necessity and those were the most frustrating, not helped by some additional, finicky uses of the Vita touch screen to rotate bits and pull levers. Requiring speed when the distance between two points of character-cover is so heavily watched meant I tried to force more openings with barely-desynced enemy vision patterns, which led to a lot of frustrating deaths. Later levels also introduce more abstract, more complex button-pushing puzzle elements that feel thematically distant and get away from the charming, cobbled together cause-and-effect puzzles that I enjoyed, like tossing lemonade on a thirsty girl or throwing an alien's flaming head to melt down a bigger alien. MonsterBag is a nice bit of light puzzles and charming slapstick, at least until the narrative drives it towards something more serious and mechanical that ups complexity and challenge, but almost feels like a different, less personable game. That backpack is one of the cutest characters in recent memory, though, thanks to its infectious grin and happy hiss, murderous tendencies be damned. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
MonsterBag review photo
Cartoon violence
Animaniacs was all trios and duos (and one solo sexy rat thing) playing off each other for comedy and I couldn't help but think of the Buttons and Mindy skits while playing MonsterBag. Mindy would toddle off into harm's way, ...

Here's how to unlock Kratos in Shovel Knight, and a look at the full boss battle

Apr 21 // Chris Carter
The unlock:  [embed]290778:58265:0[/embed] Basically, you'll need to access the Hall of Champions first on the world map -- you can get there in roughly 30 minutes, and it essentially marks the mid-way point in the game. Go up the first ladder, and head all the way to the right. Blow through the false wall, go to the end of the corridor, and use your downward strike. The scroll to unlock Kratos is in that room. The fight: [embed]290778:58266:0[/embed] The phrase "epic" gets thrown around entirely too often these days, but this is one badass boss. I may have beaten him on my first attempt, but I had a decent loadout and he put up one hell of a fight. I wouldn't exactly call it a system selling encounter, but it was really fun. He also gives you a special item that you can see at the end of the video. The reward: [embed]290778:58267:0[/embed] If you take the item back to the blacksmith in the second town, he'll forge it into a special armor called the Armor of Chaos. It's a brand new set of armor that allows you to use Kratos' Blades of Chaos in-game.
Kratos in Shovel Knight photo
Progression spoilers
You've seen the teasers for Kratos' reveal for the PSN version of Shovel Knight -- no surprises there. But how you actually unlock him is another beast entirely, so beware of spoilers ahead for a rather cryptic meth...

J-Stars Victory Vs+ is a shallow masher, but it's fanservice done right

Apr 15 // Chris Carter
J-Stars Victory Vs+ (PS3, PS4 [tested], Vita) Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: Bandai Namco EntertainmentRelease: TBA 2015 So what the hell is this game? Well, it's a 2v2 brawler that's set up a lot like Bushido Blade. All battles take place in large arenas in a 3D format, so you can run around to your heart's content as you try to chase down or escape your foes. According to Koji Nakajima, the game's producer, the "core focus" is strictly on 2v2 fighting, with AI taking the place of a partner if you aren't engaging in two-player co-op. The cast is probably the most impressive part, hosting well-known characters like Kenshin, Goku, and Naruto, alongside of more obscure ones like Toriko and Gintoki Sakata, who only dedicated anime fans may know of. The good news is that you'll likely find a lot of favorites regardless as the final cast is massive, weighing in at 52 characters. Even better news -- Nakajima states that there are "no plans for DLC." If you want some background info on the roster, you can check it out by way of an in-game gallery, which details their personal story. The demo I played hosted matches in Hidden Leaf Village from Naruto, furthering the Bushido Blade comparison. Environmental objects like houses can be blown up, paving the way for more destruction, and there's a lot of room to move around. All told, there's over 10 stages in the final build and given the open-ended nature of just the one I played, that seems like more than enough. I did have some camera issues when the action took place in more enclosed spaces, but there is a lock-on feature, and blowing up those spaces made things more manageable. Blowing up stuff is always a good idea in J-Stars. The way the game works is that each team of two needs to achieve three kills total, at which point the round ends and said team is declared the victor. It's simple enough, especially when the control scheme is so easy to pick up. In addition to your typical "weak and strong" attacks there are also a few supers, as well as team ultimates -- in the case of Goku, a Kamehameha and a Spirit Bomb would fulfill those roles respectively. There really is no finesse in J-Stars Victory -- it's a masher through and through. Although there's a lot of nuance in terms of animations (Goku's flight dash is completely different compared to Kenshin's run), every character pretty much operates in the same fashion, mashing either of the two attack buttons when their opponent is open. Attack animations are very lengthy and advanced tactics like canceling are few, so the opportunity to punish is near constant. What's really impressive though is the commitment to how the characters are portrayed in-game. I asked Nakajima to elaborate a bit on how they came up with some of the movesets, and he replied that "it was a really tough thing to reproduce. Since a lot of the cast wasn't strictly action based, we needed to improvise. Take Kankichi Ryotsu, a police officer. His character really likes remote control cars, so we implemented that as an attack in the game." This isn't just a statement to fluff up J-Stars -- it's absolutely true. Although I'm not thrilled by the lack of depth when it comes to the combat system itself, each character feels like a different experience in terms of their animation. J-Stars Victory Vs+ is set to arrive on June 30 in 2015 in the west, and its release is nothing short of a miracle. Just don't go in expecting a deep fighter, and you'll likely enjoy it.
J-Stars Victory Vs+ photo
Damn if it doesn't feel good to beat up Naruto as Goku
It doesn't take an otaku to see the appeal of J-Stars Victory Vs+. It features a host of famous anime characters, from Kenshin to Goku to Naruto. It's like the Marvel vs. Capcom of Shōnen Jump properties, a mag...

Review: Titan Souls

Apr 13 // Steven Hansen
Titan Souls (PC [reviewed], Mac, PS Vita, PS4)Developer: Acid NervePublisher: Devolver Digital  Release: April 14, 2015 MSRP: $14.99 Titan Souls is simple. Its art is in pixels and you wouldn't need much more than an NES controller to accommodate its two-button layout. One button serves as a run (hold) and roll (tap), the other shoots and retrieves a lone arrow. That's some pared down resource management: one. The land is in ruin with pleasantly varied color palettes. The goal is to kill all the monsters guarding fragments of the Titan Soul so you can put it back together. Groups of titans are sequestered around checkpoints in various themed areas and you'll have to walk around a bit to stumble on them. You might not even hit them all because you don't need to kill every titan to beat the game. I am sitting at 16 slain and a nice credit sequence, but no unlock of the conspicuous "TRUTH" achievement that seems to hint at more story resolution than is otherwise present. Mostly though it is a game about killing monsters -- yetis and brains and treasure chests and cursed predecessors -- with your one arrow, which you can retrieve by picking up or by holding down the shoot button and calling it back to you. Of course, you can't move while doing this, which makes it a dangerous tactic, but it is also a necessary way to use the arrow sometimes. [embed]290383:58146:0[/embed] Shadow of Colossus was about endurance, down to the grip gauge. Here, a fight can be over in two seconds, either in your favor or the AI's. This is not about endurance as much as it is relentlessness. About trying again and again and again. Because when enemies are killed in one hit (some take work in exposing weak points), they need to hit hard to compensate. I killed a few titans on my second try. Seconds of effort. Others took a couple dozen tries. The last two made up the bulk of my 306 deaths and it was a thoughtlessly loosed arrow that brought me to the credit sequence. Aside from the last two fights and maybe one other, I found it quickly obvious what to do -- shoot it in the brain, shoot it in the butt. Winning was dependent more on execution than puzzle solving, though there are some inventive uses of your bow's recall power. The one, two seconds of swelling music before somber death or quick success is almost farcical. The brief, but cumulative, walks back to the individual bosses, even from nearby checkpoints, kind of became a nuisance. What would've been nominal loading stacks in rapid succession (compared to the immediate "one more try" return of an Olli Olli or Super Meat Boy). Titan Souls, with its arcane aesthetic and sweeping music, plays at being a moody and thoughtful piece, but it is a punishing, reflex-oriented affair and I'm not sure why boss fights couldn't have just restarted in the boss lairs. It disincentives and punishes death, but in the most annoying way, and walking up the same seven seconds of path over and over after death lacks the tonal poignancy of, say, Shadow of the Colossus's treks between golems. Trying to realize boss patterns a couple seconds of life at a time takes patience. Completion unlocks Hard mode, which is still kicking me around (no more smooth second try victories thus far) as well as Iron (one life) and No Rolls (or run). You can toggle any or all three of these settings on for a more brutal time, but hamstringing myself, leading to more deaths, just exacerbates the problems of unnecessary loads and walks back to bosses.  My normal difficulty run through, save for some exasperation at the final two titans, did make for good pacing. Death or victory come quickly because, for the most part, the titans are designed to leave you few opportunities to win. Running around and staying alive isn't an impressive feat because you're no closer to winning. The moments of opportunity are designed to put you in harms way -- surely killing you should you miss the shot -- doubling down on an intense thrill. The quickness with which these things kill you leaves you always feeling unsafe. That you often have to stare down these charging killers, like drawing an arrow against an oncoming train with a baseball-sized weak point, is exhilarating. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Titan Souls review photo
In the shadow of Shadow of the Colossus
I've always clamored for the all-boss-fights game. Shadow of the Colossus, an inescapable inspiration here, did it right and others have done it wrong, like Prince of Persia (2008), but I love the idea of removing fluff encou...

Review: MLB 15 The Show

Apr 09 // Steven Hansen
MLB 15 The Show (PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita, PS3)Developer: Sony San DiegoPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Release: March 31, 2015 MSRP: $59.99 (PS4), $39.00 (PS3), $19.99 (Vita) I don't think there are baseball fans who care about what brand of jockstrap players are wearing (just its inability to fully conceal Josh Reddick's testicles). I didn't, anyways, but now I am doubting myself. Someone who makes big money decisions on a big money release thinks there are and probably paid these brands big money. And yet the giant Coke bottle slide sticking out of left field at AT&T Park reads "Enjoy Cola," like when an anime flips the McDonalds logo upside down.  When one of your biggest new selling points -- it's right under "gameplay improvements" in its own "new features" list -- is that I am being advertised to, it suggests a lack of ambition. But maybe players do want to crawl through inventory screens to equip a Rawlings® Adirondack® Ash bat that features "great performance wood, professional profile, and great value." But I still play catch with a mitt I found in a park 20 years ago because I like it better than any of the others I've had. So maybe I'm old-fashioned. Still, that you'd have to periodically unlock these things, or buy them with in-game currency (which you can buy with real world, rent-paying currency) rather than have them thrown at you by these companies who'd like famous athletes to rep their brands doesn't follow the "striving for authenticity" excuse.  [embed]290093:58102:0[/embed] The Show has leaned into its effective MLB monopoly like its going for the hit by pitch and some of it is worthwhile. I do enjoy the virtual tourism of visiting new stadiums, or even being back in downtown San Francisco mainstay AT&T Park without forking over the cash. I'd take a Candlestick memorial, too, winds and all. But MLB The Show has many little, longstanding problems hurting its tone, gameplay, and even its authenticity than the now fixed lack of pages and pages of adverts. Take the lack of any corporeal collision physics that sees uncanny replays where players phase through one another or, if in uninterruptible animation, as if they are necking action figures or a cheap electronic football toy. Without it, how do you simulate a 12th inning playoff collision between outfielders? There's the only somewhat improved squirreliness of wondering whether your fielder will do an electric slide out from underneath a dropping pop fly. The in-game commentary that is only there to be turned off, maybe? Instead, a new "directional hitting interface" is trumpeted as fresh. You can pair it with timing and analog swings in the options, using the left stick to aim your hits (rather than as the plate coverage indicator). Except this only adds visual feedback and a few new directions to what The Show has always told me I could do, press up to induce flyballs, down for grounders. Meanwhile, analog hitting has been reduced, as you no longer pull back on the analog stick to stride, just flick forward to hit. Mostly things are intact and the on-field baseball simulation is as satisfying as last year. The game pushes Diamond Dynasty hard in an attempt to make EA-type money with people buying card packs to field an ultimate team. However, my risible satisfaction at naming a team the "San Francisco Existentialists" (after deciding against "Lizzards," the spelling of which always confuses me) and the angelic, plain white pajamas your team starts out with were short-lived novelties to me. I've never had the means or desire to be a collector, though. Online play felt somewhat smoother in limited goes, but I'm on a different (real good) internet connection this year, too. Others have reported the same old problems. The PS4 version's horrendous load times from last year are reduced to just a nuisance, at least, even with a hefty install. It was particularly trying in my new Road to the Show (I couldn't be bothered to upload my PS3's file to the cloud and then import on my PS4) trek through the minor leagues as an under appreciated starting pitcher. This was partly my fault as the slow moving Dynamic Difficulty, one of the great sports game fallbacks as far as new features go, gave my 22-year-old rookie a near-0 ERA. I ended up starting quickly in AAA, where my manager would routinely leave me hurling with a pitch count around 120. After a few of these, with one out to go in the 9th inning of a shutout, my player (a rare #69) fractured his arm. When I was healthy, the manager refused to start me, instead starting a bullpen guy and always inserting me in the second or third inning, from which point I'd usually finish out the game anyways, while in the "Interactions" screen he's tell me I wasn't ready for a starting role. In the bigs, I'd go from starter to an even longer bullpen stint post-injury, which made for a hell of a lot of loading and unnecessary screens between games worth one inning of work. I was also awarded a perfect game for leaving with elbow soreness having made one out in the first, which is when the Nationals were even more adamant about using a bullpen platoon as a fifth starter rather than a starting pitcher with an actual 0 ERA.  The discounted PS3 and Vita versions might be more dollar valuable as more transparent roster updates, provided you don't mind the technical limitations. MLB 15 The Show is still good by virtue of the systems laid down over the last decade, but it has no ambition. Produced on third base thinking it hit a triple, it wouldn't even bother running in a sac fly. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
MLB 15 The Show review photo
Born on third thinking it hit a triple
The Giants have won and lost back to back one-run ballgames to open the 2015 baseball season. They lost a starting pitcher and right fielder to the DL, scratched a first baseman and another starter with injury, called up a ro...

Review: Axiom Verge

Mar 30 // Conrad Zimmerman
Axiom Verge (PC, PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita)Developer: Tom HappPublisher: Tom HappReleased: March 31, 2015MSRP: $19.99 Axiom Verge is a 2D exploration platformer set on an alien world. The player controls Trace, a scientist who awakens in a machine on the as-yet undiscovered planet Sudra with no understanding as to how he got there, tasked by the remnants of an ancient race to save them from destruction. As the story develops, through psychic conversations, scripted exploration sequences, and collected texts, Trace will learn some of the history of the planet, its decline, and the role it plays in the universe, discovering that his arrival there isn't the accident he believes it is. The narrative of Axiom Verge functions best in its negative space, the aspects which aren't made explicit. Trace is character who does exhibit a change over the course of events, but it's not a satisfying transition. Initially viewing events with the kind of healthy skepticism one would expect of his scientific profession, he erodes quickly into a one-note good guy figure. That's a bummer because his position in the plot suggests a much more nuanced personality and raises a number of interesting philosophical questions regarding humanity's potential, ambition, and morality. Ultimately, however, he feels as two-dimensional as the sprites comprising him. Setting Trace aside, Sudra and its inhabitants are fascinating. Every part of the planet incorporates biomechanical technology in some way, and the environments pulse eerily with power. The Rushalki, the race of living machines slowly dying with Sudra, are monstrous, beautiful creations made all the more impressive by their 16-bit style of sprite rendering. [embed]289696:57976:0[/embed] The gameplay design follows a familiar pattern of defending against myriad creatures and discovering environmental obstacles for which new equipment is required to pass. With rare exception, the tools collected are useful both for exploration and combat. A drill acquired early on to destroy certain weak blocks can also function as a short-range weapon, for example. The most interesting item, the "Address Disruptor," is a sort of hacking beam which can be used in places where the environment seems to exhibit graphical glitches to clear a path through them or make invisible platforms appear. Enemies are also affected by the Address Disruptor, and every creature responds to it in a different way. Some become easier to kill, others harder, and some develop other exploitable, beneficial traits which are fun to discover and experiment with. Many of these items will also require upgrades along the way, and every such upgrade has a dramatic effect on the player's ability to travel across Sudra. One of the best examples is the remote drone, a little spider robot which can be launched to crawl through narrow spaces and collect items. With upgrades, the drone functions as a teleportation beacon which instantly warps Trace to its current position. Not only is this ability useful for getting into areas the drone's limited capabilities alone can't access, firing the beacon into the air and teleporting to it at the peak of its ascent makes climbing vertical areas much faster and easier. The depth to which the game design incorporates every possible function for each piece of essential equipment is one of its most impressive qualities. In addition to equipment, weapons abound in Axiom Verge. There are dozens of them to collect, all distinct, and the seemingly constant acquisition of them quickly develops into an arsenal. Standard fare, like short-range spread weapons and projectiles which explode on contact are nestled alongside the "Tethered Charge," a ball of electrical energy launched like a yo-yo. Weapons can be switched at any time, either through the main inventory screen or a selection wheel, with the option to assign weapons to two quick-select buttons as well. The variety is interesting, but players will likely find two or three mainstays to use through the majority of the game and only experiment with most of the weapons when first acquired or when faced with one of the game's brutal boss encounters. The real merit of the quantity of killing implements is in how their acquisition affects the seeming pace of play. Discovering these, along with a steady stream of upgrades which increase all weapon damage, range, and projectile size makes the game not only feel dense with content but that it's moving at a constant, rapid pace. Every collected item, even seemingly unreadable text files, helps to provide a forward momentum that pushes the player on and keeps them engaged. Bosses are grotesque, mutated monstrosities and are amazing to behold. These big fights are likely to be overwhelming on the first attempt, as boss enemies typically do a considerable amount of damage relative to the amount of health Trace has when he encounters them. Their patterns are never very complex, making it easy to develop an approach to fighting them based on available weapons, but they have loads of health and maintaining proper execution of the plan while they're slowly worn down is where the challenge lies. There is one exception to this in the largest of the game's bosses, featuring numerous weak points to target and tactics which change with their destruction, where the situation demands a more complex plan than "dodge and shoot." Apart from this standout battle, the bosses are much more interesting to look at than fight a lot of the time. While many games of this style will occasionally lock a player in a few small rooms until they collect a necessary ability to escape, Axiom Verge utilizes this level design technique in some very large areas. At roughly the midpoint, for example, it becomes impossible to leave the two regions at the eastern edge of the world map, a considerable expanse of the game's space which will be returned to and further explored later. With such a large area open to the player to explore, but so many unacquired abilities necessary to explore it, it's an aspect in which the game risks interrupting that sense of steady progress it establishes early on. There are scant tools available when this happens. The game map, a grid-based flat representation of the world's room structure common to the genre, is functional but feature poor, and it can occasionally be difficult to distinguish the light pink wall outline color from the darker pink background used for most rooms. Unfortunately, those gaps are basically the only clues the game gives. While dialogue gives information on what Trace's next objective is, it provides absolutely no useful geographical guidance, which you'd think would be the least that an ancient machine race could do to help. That becomes less of a problem on subsequent playthroughs. Axiom Verge is in many ways built for replay, specifically speed runs, and includes a gameplay mode which eliminates the game's plot pauses and randomized elements to ensure an easy standard for such competition. Many obvious opportunities to exploit the game's design become quickly apparent, such as the save system which returns Trace to the most recently used save room upon death but without eliminating any progress, and it's easy to see how a savvy player could cut down a lot of travel time by collecting an item and seeking a quick death. Axiom Verge is a fun, challenging game. While some aspects of the narrative -- particularly its protagonist -- have rough edges to them, it remains intriguing and mysterious through to its climax. It looks and sounds great, and offers a diversity of weapons rarely seen in games of its type. Easy to get lost in, its sizeable world has a density to match, with hidden rooms and collectibles only available through creative application of acquired abilities. And while the basic gameplay will likely be very familiar, there are a fair few fresh touches which should pleasantly surprise players. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Axiom Verge review photo
Verging on greatness
It seems like a foregone conclusion when looking at Axiom Verge that comparisons are going to be made to Metroid. It is, without doubt, similar in more ways than it differs from Nintendo's iconic franchise. The differences matter, though, and Axiom Verge merges classic environment design with new mechanical twists, producing a game that feels both familiar and fresh at the same time.

Atari bullying indie developer behind Tempest 2000

Mar 19 // Kyle MacGregor
Shortly after TxK's launch last year, Atari began to browbeat Minter and Llamasoft over the game. In a letter dated June 9, 2014, the company's legal representation argued TxK infringed on Atari's intellectual property, calling the game a "blatant copy of the Tempest games" utterly devoid of any semblance of originality. Atari demanded TxK be removed from the market, and requested any copies be destroyed, deleted, or delivered to Atari along with the title's source code. Nearly a year later, Minter decided to let the world know, allowing months upon months of frustrations boil over via Twitter. "I am beyond disgusted," he wrote. " I could never have imagined one day being savaged by [Atari's] undead corpse, my own seminal work turned against me." Minter was also taken aback by the tone of the letter, which asserts Minter merely updated the original game, downplaying his involvement with the revival. "No amount of legal mumbo jumbo can erase the fact that I designed and coded Tempest 2000," he retorted. "The fact that they are willing to pay someone to wilfully [sic] distort the truth in that fashion says it all about them really." It isn't the first time Minter's former employer distorted something to his detriment. Over on his website, Minter rebuffed Atari's arguments regarding TxK's originality, or lack thereof. He recalled there is actually precedent regarding how distinct games must be to be considered different under the law, which, funnily enough, involves both Tempest 2000 and Atari. Do you remember there was a PlayStation port of Tempest 2000 called "Tempest X"? I always wondered why the name was changed, and other little aspects of the gameplay were altered. years later I managed to chat online with the guy who did the port, and he told me that the changes were made "to reduce the royalty burden." How so? Well, my original arrangement with Atari was that I was to receive a royalty on any ports of Tempest 2000. "Tempest X" was made exactly enough different that it would be legally considered a different game, cutting me out of any royalties. Minter notes Tempest 2000 and Tempest X share the same source code, soundtrack, and power-up progression. Tempest 2000 was even included in X as a hidden unlockable. "Yet now," Minter writes, "Atari claim that TxK is in fact *closer* legally to Tempest 2000 than Tempest X was." Destructoid reached out to Atari for comment and received the following in response: Atari values and protects its intellectual property and expects others to respect its copyrights and trademarks. When Llamasoft launched TxK in early 2014, Atari was surprised and dismayed by the very close similarities between TxK and the Tempest franchise. Atari was not alone in noticing the incredible likeness between the titles. Several major gaming outlets also remarked at the similarity of features and overall appearance of TxK to Tempest; one stated of TxK, “This is essentially Tempest.” There is no lawsuit. Atari has been in continuous contact with the developer since the game launched in hopes that the matter would be resolved. Atari also quoted a trio of reviews from IGN, GameSpot, and Gaming Nexus to support its point. However, while the company claims says its doing this to protect its marks, Minter points out there are many Tempest clones floating around the mobile space "unmolested." The man now seems to want the company to just leave him alone. Minter says he is working on a new project that is "literally another world away from anything 'Atari.'" [embed]289241:57853:0[/embed] Perhaps Atari will spawn a Tempest MMO, like the recently announced Asteroids: Outpost.
TxK photo
New ports of spiritual successor TxK 'will now never see the light of day'
Atari thought it was "absolutely rubbish," the Jaguar designer told developer Jeff Minter in 1993. The man felt compelled to pull Minter aside at the console's launch party and let him know how little Atari thought of Minter'...

What Samus Wants photo
If she did, her game would probably look a lot like Axiom Verge
Dan Adelman worked for Nintendo for many years, and was one of their unsung heroes for much of that time. While he has consistently voiced affection and respect for the company, he did end up resigning last year, in part bec...

Samus wants to be in Shovel Knight

Mar 11 // Jonathan Holmes
What Samus Wants photo
Like Stella, Samus wants her groove back
When we last checked in with Samus, she was trying to score an interview with Tim Rogers, co-creator of Videoball. Despite the fact that she's been appearing in videogames for over 25 years, he still didn't know who she was....

Review: OlliOlli 2: Welcome to Olliwood

Mar 10 // Kyle MacGregor
OlliOlli 2: Welcome to Olliwood (PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita)Developer: Roll7Publisher: Roll7Released: March 3, 2015MSRP: $14.99 (Cross-Buy, Free at launch via PS Plus) OlliOlli 2 seems nearly identical to its predecessor, or that was my initial impression, at least. My memories deceived me, though. After spending many hours comparing the games side by side, I can confidently say OlliOlli 2 is a great leap forward. This feels like the game Roll7 always wanted to make. Outside of the sleek, new art direction, the most apparent distinction at work here is the manual, a trick where skateboarders balance on their back wheels while moving forward. It may sound like a small difference, but it makes for a world of difference. Landing a manual after pulling off a grind or trick allows players to keep a combo going, allowing you to string together a series of maneuvers into a single, colossal trick.   The manual introduces a critical element of risk and reward, daring players to keep a combo going throughout an entire level and punishing those who deliver anything less than excellence. It really reinforces a key tenet from the original OlliOlli: precision. The experience demands players land or grind in a very particular way if they want to be successful and get the most out of their efforts. OlliOlli 2 has a smooth learning curve. The campaign starts out with an in-depth tutorial covering the basic systems at play, then throws players into a series of five worlds, each with five levels, all of which have five special challenges to complete. The difficulty ramps up at a steady pace, easing players in with straightforward stages and concluding with stages even veterans will be lucky to just survive, let alone pull off any impressive combos. Along the way the challenges do a great job at encouraging players to experiment and try various play-styles that may not arise naturally. This goes a long way toward expanding one's skillset, which will come in use once you start focusing on climbing the leaderboards. Once a level's five objectives are completed successfully, a more difficult version of that stage will unlock. There's even a third tier (which unlocks upon completion all five challenges in every level across both Amateur and Pro modes), which is apparently so difficult it only goads players to endure. The new-look visual design is a real treat. This time around the aesthetic is far brighter and more colorful, thanks in large part to the more varied and fantastical settings. OlliOlli 2 takes players on a journey through sun-drenched Southern California landscapes with movie studio backlots, the Wild West, a Central American rainforest dotted with Aztec pyramids, a futuristic cityscape, and a post-apocalyptic amusement park. It's a brilliant collection of backdrops with a lot of personality. The art retains the simplistic vibe of the original game, but moves away from the muddy pixels in favor of a far cleaner presentation. This, combined with the silky smooth animation and impeccably tight controls makes OlliOlli 2 handle like a dream. Even at its most difficult, the experience seems fair. When I wipe out, I'm upset with myself, rather than the developers, realizing it's poor execution on my part that's at fault, not shoddy design. Honestly, it's difficult to levy complaints against Roll7 for creating a more absorbing and beautiful follow-up to one of my favorite titles of last year, but it feels a bit safe. It might have been nice to see some new modes or something. Aside from career mode, spot challenges, and daily grind competitions, the only new addition is local multiplayer, which didn't release with the game. The studio promises to add in the feature later on, but its absence at launch is a tad disappointing.  Despite those minor gripes, Roll7 has easily outdone itself with this one. OlliOlli 2: Welcome to Olliwood is a massive step up from the original game. It's a gorgeous, worthy successor that's even more absorbing and difficult to put down. Get ready for your next gaming obsession. [This review is based on an retail build of the game acquired via PlayStation Plus.]
Review: OlliOlli 2 photo
Sicky sicky gnar, bro bro!
OlliOlli was a pleasant surprise. A year ago, the minimalist skateboarding game materialized out of nowhere, deconstructing the genre and distilling its essence down the barest essentials. It stripped away any traces of exces...

Review: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

Mar 10 // Chris Carter
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number  (PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, Vita)Developer: Dennaton GamesPublisher: Devolver DigitalReleased: March 10, 2015MSRP: $14.99 For those of you who didn't play the first game, Hotline basically functions as a top-down shooter with a completely open-ended style of play. Each map features a host of different enemy types and weapons, all of which can be used in an almost endless combination of ways. Your goal is to simple destroy an entire floor of foes, move on to the next part, and repeat the process until everyone is dead. It's that simple. After the very first broken-down door I was hooked again. Heck, even when I proceeded to die five times in rapid succession immediately, I had a blast. It's still amazing to me how many different ways you can approach a room, and no two methods between players are the same. That's due in part to a slight randomization for each spawn, where select enemies may not have the exact same weapons or may vary in their patrol routine -- but for the most part, the maps are technically laid out in the same manner, allowing you to divine a plan of sorts. Of course, plans almost never go off without a hitch, and you'll constantly have to reinvent the way you approach every level. While it may seem like going in guns blazing in a certain room is the quickest way to clear out the guys impervious to melee attacks, it's easy to miss a window right where you're standing that leaves you open to gunfire. It's variations like this that cause you to think twice before doing anything, and patience ultimately wins out in most circumstances. It's not just a shooter, it's a thinking man's game. There are still are some cases of poor AI though, where luck will win out above all else. While most enemies will come running if they hear gunfire, some are oblivious to muzzle shots two feet from their face. In very rare occasions, baddies glitched into doorways, rendering them invincible for a few seconds, only to re-materialize and take me out when I wasn't looking. It's maddening to die repeatedly, especially on tougher stages, but these instances are so few and far between that they didn't impede my overall enjoyment. [embed]288703:57643:0[/embed] One of the big draws of Hotline 2 is the addition of more masks, which function as playable characters. Powers like roll dodging can change the game up significantly. Another character can't use lethal weapons, and ejects bullets from guns Batman-style. A different style, one of my personal favorites, focuses on lethal punches, but cannot use weapons at all. "Alex and Ash," another standout mask, actually features two people at once in an Ice Climbers-like situation. If Alex dies both perish, but the duo wields a chainsaw and pistol, respectively, that are controlled with two different buttons. Without giving away the context, there's also a number of jungle scenes that really remind me of the old-school MSX and NES Metal Gear -- the character featured here can even switch between CQC at will. There's also a cool "heist-like" level featuring multiple perspectives and rapid character switching. Thankfully, Hotline 2 has plug-and-play controller support for those of you who prefer it -- it just worked. You can also fully customize your keyboard or gamepad controls. Musically, Hotline Miami is still at the top of its game, and Hotline 2 is easily one of my favorite gaming OSTs in recent memory. The hard-hitting electronica beats fit perfectly with the high-octane atmosphere, and artists such as M|O|O|N, El Huervo, Perturbator, and Magic Sword absolutely nail their compositions. From a narrative standpoint, Hotline 2 jumps around a lot more than its predecessor. There's no cohesive "Jacket" and "Helmet" tale this time around, as Dennaton is content on shifting the perspective to multiple gangs, a corrupt cop, a soldier, and a few other surprises. The entire affair is framed around a violent action movie, and once again the concept of what's real and what's not comes into play. There are a select few cutscenes of sexual nature, but the latter can be turned off, and everything is par for the course for the series in general. The story is often engrossing, but the content not surprising in games where you brutally murder hundreds of people to "win." When Hotline 2 is said and done, there's 25 levels to play with. And in case you're worried: no, the totally manageable stealth level that everyone hated for some reason does not return -- it's all action all the time. There's also a hard mode to tinker with if you're so inclined, which restarts your journey back to the first level and functions as a new playthrough. In addition to the inherent score-attack element built into the game, you'll also have the level editor to play with, exclusive to the PC version. It's shockingly easy to use, and right now, the interface reminds me of '90s first-person-shooter editors. Everything is an instant click away, from furniture to stairs to enemies, meaning pretty much anyone can craft stages without advanced programming knowledge. While I'm not super keen on creating my own puzzles, I'm anxious to see what the community comes up with. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is more of the same, but that's not a bad thing if that's all you want out of it. After beating the sequel I was immediately inspired to go back and play the original, which in turn inspired me to start playing Wrong Number again. Between the level editor and the iron-clad gameplay, I'll be enjoying this franchise for years to come. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Hotline 2 review photo
More of the old ultraviolence
For some, Hotline Miami was an existential look at the current macro-state of videogames. You were told to commit random acts of murder seemingly without remorse, and at the end, you get a bit of interesting commentary on the...

Volume is a more thoughtful approach to Metal Gear Solid VR Mission-like stealth

Mar 05 // Steven Hansen
[embed]288637:57627:0[/embed] You do move around in real time, somersaulting over low walls and sticking to others for cover, but Volume isn't about hunting, human-like AI (especially not with the standard pawns). If you're spotted and cut enough corners to get away or duck into a locker, guards will simply reposition and you'll have another chance to get past them correctly. Thanks to plentiful checkpoints, each level -- there will be 100 -- acts as a series of connected stealth puzzles that tasks you with getting all the little blips and getting out.  Locksley will also be outfitted with gadgets picked up on the scene. You can hold one at a time and they add to the mind teasing. The Oddity will attract the undivided attention of any guard in sight, Figment sends a ghost clone running in a line, Mute will silence your footsteps so you can run, and so on. One other nice thing about the checkpoint system is that every time you die and get sent back, the stage timer reverts to whatever time it was at when you first activated the checkpoint. That way one screw up won't kill a leader board run or require you to replay the entire level from start. While I was enjoying sneaking about and feeling out how Volume plays, there is some story here as a, "near future retelling of the Robin Hood legend" starring the voice talents of Andy Serkis (Lords of the Rings, Enslaved) and Jim Sterling (Destructoid). There will also be hefty map-making and customization options to play with.
Volume preview photo
From the creator of Thomas Was Alone
Volume is a fitting name for a polygonal, Metal Gear Solid VR Missions-looking stealth game with enough rectangles to feed a geometry class for the entire year. In the case of Mike Bithell's Thomas Was Alone follow-up, howeve...

Review: Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines

Mar 03 // Josh Tolentino
Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines (PS Vita [Reviewed], PlayStation TV)Developer: Alfa SystemPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: March 3, 2015 MSRP: $19.99 About that "dead soon" thing: It's the premise of the game. Players start as the head of a Japanese clan (that they construct themselves in a rather detailed character-creation interface), murdered to a man in a gruesome ritual of human sacrifice after being framed for the disasters rocking 12th-century Kyoto. Fate is kind, though, and a few members are brought back to life to exact revenge upon the wrongdoers. Unfortunately, everything has a cost, and the price for a second chance is the dual curses of Ephemerality and Broken Lineage. The first curse dooms all members of the clan to drop dead two years after their birth. The second prevents them from having offspring with humans. Talk about a double-whammy!  Thus the mission is set: Continue the family line long enough to break the curses, by having children with willing gods and spirits (sidestepping the "Broken Lineage" part), and having those children have their own children before their two years are up, in addition to becoming strong enough to defeat the villain that cursed the clan in the first place. It's a morbid and deliciously effective premise, so much so that one wonders why it hasn't been thought of before. [embed]288441:57592:0[/embed] Except...it has, for Oreshika is technically a sequel to 1999's Ore no Shikabane wo Koete Yuke, an influential PS1 RPG that involved largely the same concepts. That said, the game never made overseas, which makes it completely new to most players. Its relative age, though, would explain why Oreshika feels like a pleasant throwback to the early years of Japanese RPG-making, when the primary influences on design came from free-roaming dungeon-crawlers like Ultima and Wizardry. That same narrative-light, systems-heavy approach largely defines Oreshika's play experience, which should delight fans who've begun to chafe under the typically linear storytelling of most JRPGs. That isn't to say the story beats are absent. Oreshika has its own complement of directed cutscenes and dialog sequences, most involving named, voiced side characters. They appear during certain missions to drop some exposition or plot twists, and in some cases join the party. The meshing of traditional narrative with the game's more free-form structure isn't perfect, and it's during these moments that the player's own created clan can feel like extras in what is ostensibly their story. The missteps are mostly inoffensive, though, and to be fair, the story does end up going deeper than might have been possible without the benefit of more defined characters to fall back on. Then again, perhaps that more traditional story wasn't that necessary at all, because for me, the most memorable moments in Oreshika come with each passing minute of my family's short, short life. The game is conducted on a month-to-month basis, either raiding or preparing to raid one of the land's many labyrinths. The preparation involves buying gear and items for use during the raid, improving the local town to upgrade the various shops' offerings, or performing the "Rite of Union" with many gods and goddesses to create offspring and ensure the family's continuation. That might sound like a lot of babies to magic up, but considering that thanks to the rigors of dungeon-raiding many of the clan's members will kick the bucket long before their two years are up, a deep bench is critical. Longer games can go for hundreds of generations, and every death can hurt, thanks to the "XCOM effect" of growing attached to people one had a hand in creating and customizing themselves. Dying family even leave semi-randomized "parting words" upon their passing. Oreshika's also quite adept at making that customization feel like it matters. Every new addition to the family takes on the characteristics of their parents, including inheriting physical features (which can turn out hilariously when uniting with some of the less "human" gods), and statistical traits. The game's item creation system allows "heirloom" gear to be created that gains power every time a departing family member bequeaths it to a new generation. And the game is all too happy to use the PS Vita's built-in screen capture function to take "family album" photos and collect them like fond mementos of bosses beaten and dungeons delved. It's almost strange that for all the time one spends preparing for dungeon raids, Oreshika's combat and exploration are designed to be over and done with as quickly as possible. When out in the world, players are literally on the clock. A real-time counter ticks down towards the end of a given month, which lasts between five and ten minutes, depending on how many battles one gets into. At the end, players are given the option to go home, or continue the raid through the next month without rest, increasing the chance that tired or injured party members might die permanently. Given that every character is already born with a very short lifespan, the timers instill a kind of frenzied pace and tension to what could otherwise have been a ponderous affair. "Frenzied" is also a good way to describe Oreshika's visuals, which are a riot of color and animation. The game's watercolor tones and melding of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock style, traditional folkloric creatures, and anime character design make it one of the best-looking titles on the platform, and possibly one of the prettiest "anime" games since the original Valkyria Chronicles. And thankfully, unlike many games that involve procreation as a concept, Oreshika lacks much of the prurient undertone that make such titles slightly embarrassing to play at times. As lovely as the characters are environments don't fare quite as well, as the pace at which a typical dungeon run is conducted doesn't leave a lot of time to admire the sights. A limited camera setup and frequent use of revisiting (often to unlock a shortcut using a key found in some other dungeon) can also sap locations of their initial charm. Despite the fact most of us will never have played the game it's a sequel to, the quality of Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines shines through its gorgeous visuals and deep mechanics. Come to think of it, there's no more fitting way for a game that's about leaving a worthwhile legacy to conduct itself. [This review is based on a digital retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Oreshika Review photo
Generations of phwoar
Like many games of its type, Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines features a tiny graphic in its text boxes to remind players they can press a button to advance to the next line. Usually the graphic is of an X or O button pressi...

Review: Helldivers

Mar 03 // Conrad Zimmerman
Helldivers (PS4 [reviewed], PS3, PS Vita)Developer: Arrowhead Game StudiosPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment AmericaReleased: March 3, 2015MSRP: $19.99 Helldivers is a squad-based sci-fi shooter, presented from an overhead perspective. Players take the role of a Helldiver, a special forces soldier trained to drop onto enemy planets from orbit as the tip of humanity's conquering spear. Given command of a ship, Helldivers are directed to venture into star systems controlled by three alien races which threaten Super Earth's way of life, pressing forward in an effort to conquer alien homeworlds. While there's an absence of any real plot, the setting of Helldivers does enough to establish itself as a pointed satire of American exceptionalism, colonialism, and military pride. From propaganda messages promoting the idea that Super Earth is spreading "democracy" through the galaxy (by the totally legitimate means of conquest), to the flavor dialogue spoken by Helldivers in the midst of a firefight ("Have a nice cup of liber-tea!"), it presents a scenario in which it's made perfectly clear that there are no "good guys" in this war, only conquerors. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the sparse but effective setting material does just enough to allow the player to consider what they're engaging in without distracting from the action, while delivering wry chuckles here and there. [embed]288491:57587:0[/embed] Gameplay takes the form of planetary assaults, planned from the player's orbiting ship. Choosing between one of the three fronts of the galactic war, players are presented with a range of incrementally difficult worlds to attack, each with missions which must be completed to deliver it into the control of the Super Earth government. Missions consist of objectives which, while varying based on which race is being fought, boil down to defending control points, activating Super Earth technology already on the planet, escorting people and supplies, and destroying enemy installations. It's a decent variety, and missions tend to offer a mix of objectives across the maps, rarely weighing too heavily on any one type of activity once the player is taking on missions with three and four objectives to complete. Escort tasks will probably still be everyone's least favorite thing to do, whether it's leading a group of survivors or following a supply train, but there isn't a whole lot of punishment received for failing objectives on a mission, so long as you can get off the planet. Every mission ends with a last stand scenario where the team must hold out against oncoming enemies for an extraction shuttle to carry them safely away, and at least one Helldiver must extract for the mission to succeed. On the ground, Helldivers plays with an interesting balance of stealth and combat. Enemy patrols roam the map, looking for your squad. At worst, these are small packs of a few enemies that can be easily dispatched, but they're a tremendous threat to the mission. If a patrol spots the squad, they have to be killed immediately. Within seconds, patrol units can call in reinforcements to do real damage. And, while those troops are being dealt with, more patrols are moving in and calling their own squads of heavy hitters, snowballing into an massive conflict. Before long, the only options available become retreat or death. This system allows the game to produce two distinct, potent forms of tension for the player. Combat encounters are exhilarating, with enemies actively working to flank and surround, Helldivers firing madly into hordes. That's all good stuff. But the system of patrol units makes it equally tense to be out of combat, knowing that an encounter with the potential to escalate into an unsalvageable mess could happen at any moment. The three enemy races, Bugs, Illuminates, and Cyborgs, are all distinct entities. Illuminate patrols consist of lone scouting robots, while the Cyborgs have a pack of light troopers surrounding a sturdier commander and Bugs use units of four scouts, all able to call reinforcements. Cyborgs focus more on ranged weapons and Bugs take up a hard melee approach to combat. All of the races have their light, medium, and heavy enemy types, but that and a common enemy in humanity is about all they share. Helldivers can access many implements of destruction to help bring democracy to the galaxy. Players select a primary weapon before missions from a pretty standard selection of assault rifles, shotguns and submachine guns, though more exotic flamethrowers and laser cannons are options too. All of the weapons are fun to play with and there is no weapon with disadvantages that cannot be overcome by skillful use. In addition to guns, players complete their loadout with four "strategems," special abilities provided by the Helldiver's vessel in orbit. Strategems come in many shapes and sizes. Some drop in a pod with extra ammunition, powerful secondary weapons, or even vehicles. Others provide defensive countermeasures, like enemy lures and antipersonnel mines, while more offensive strategems lay down strafing fire or drop explosives. They're even used to heal and return fallen comrades to the battle. Coordinating with your squad in selecting them further enhances their power, as more squad members means more options. These powerful tools also come with some downsides. Deploying a strategem is a two-step process which begins by using a communication device to input an authorization code, achieved by correctly tapping out an onscreen sequence for the desired strategem with the directional pad. This puts a targeting beacon in the player's hand, which may be thrown into the field to indicate where the strategem should be deployed. Here's the hitch: If one wanted to get technical, one could say it's actually a three-step process, in that the first step is putting down the gun. If you're tapping away at codes, you are not shooting that horde of cyborgs bearing down on you, and you're certainly not going to be able to take out that patrol creeping up from behind. And then there's gravity. The Helldiver's requisitions arrive on the planet essentially the same way the Helldivers themselves did; they're dropped in from orbit. And while it seems obvious that you would avoid the immediate area around a beacon to which a phone booth sized hunk of metal is expected to plummet any second now, that little beacon can be overlooked when the bullets are flying (this is, of course, also a useful tactic for eliminating more troublesome enemies). It's especially risky when reviving squad members, as there's always doubt as to exactly where in the proximity of the beacon one to three people are going to suddenly crash on. Losing one Helldiver in the act of reviving another is a common occurence. There is a certain measure of glee to be taken from Helldivers' unsympathetic attitude toward its rules of engagement. Friendly fire isn't a possibility; it's a certainty, but it's one the game applies to all living things and can be exploited as a combat strategy. Defensive turrets are able to distinguish friend from foe, but they cannot distinguish between foe and friend standing in front of foe. They'll just cut down anything in the direction of a target, knocking a hapless Helldiver prone and struggling for life. Death happens so often and so quickly, it becomes a source of constant humor. You will eventually see someone crushed by an extraction shuttle as it lands and you will probably laugh. They will probably laugh too. Completing missions earns experience points toward increasing rank, with higher ranks gaining access to more powerful weaponry. Weapons and strategems can be upgraded by spending resource points, earned with each rank and by collecting samples scattered throughout mission areas. Finishing all of the missions on a planet provides its own reward, either a new strategem or bonus experience points. Missions also award influence, representing the player's contribution to the larger galactic war participated in by all players. Influence is earned by finishing all mission objectives successfully, escaping with the full squad intact, and keeping casualties to a minimum, with higher difficulties multiplying the amount of influence earned. These points are used to determine leaderboard rankings, but also to determine the course of the war. A single war will last four to six weeks, with the results affecting the difficulty of the war to follow. Each front is represented by a map with sectors separating Super Earth and the enemy homeworlds. Sectors become controlled by Super Earth when enough influence has been earned by all players, eventually extending all the way to the enemy homeworld. Reaching a homeworld triggers an event during which players have a limited amount of time to assault the source of an enemy race in the hope of conquering them completely, a feat which will require far more people than the small group playing in pre-release. The galactic war doesn't have a huge impact on the game, other than providing an excuse for event missions to occur. Yet, it does make you feel as though you're contributing to the accomplishment of a goal, and it's satisfying to see the rundown of which sectors have been taken and lost since the last time you played. It feels like something's happening around you, even if that something may just be statistics. Helldivers is best experienced as a multiplayer game, and joining an online session is about as quick and easy as starting a mission of your own. A couple of quick menu selections and you will, quite literally, drop in on another player's mission in progress. Local multiplayer is also an option and, in the absence of outside life, it's still enjoyable solo. Playing alone requires different strategies and offers less flexibility in strategem selection, which does make the already brutal higher difficulties seem even more insurmountable, but the satisfaction of single-handedly conquering a planet cannot be denied. Unrelenting and brutal, Helldivers delivers fast-paced combat, epic standoffs and a comical approach to death. Its enemies are varied, powerful and a constant threat to the players. While the full impact of the larger multiplayer experience remains to be seen, it still adds a nice little scratch to the progress itch. The strategem system provides great flexibility in squad building with many ways to build out team roles to maximize defensive and offensive capabilities. With procedural map generation and just enough mission and enemy variety to prevent a sense of repetition, the twelve levels of difficulty ought to keep players challenged for a good long time. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Helldivers review photo
In the grim darkness of the near future...
Mankind has expanded throughout the galaxy, having come together under one government, a "managed" democracy. From the Super Earth homeworld, humanity spreads its message of liberation and freedom to every planet they land upon; the liberation of their natural resources and freedom from human opposition, that is. And if you don't like it, expect them to spread a whole lot of ordinance instead.

Review: Blackhole

Mar 02 // Conrad Zimmerman
Blackhole (PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One)Developer: FiolaSoft GamesPublisher: FiolaSoft GamesReleased: February 27, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Blackhole tells the story of the star ship Endura and its crew who, tasked with saving the Earth from impending doom, find themselves trapped inside a multi-dimensional entity. Only the ship's most menial laborer and its artificial intelligence, Aluria, can rescue the crew, repair the Endura, and finish the mission. As "the coffee guy," players will explore the entity's varied dimensions, collecting "selfburns" (nanobots capable of fixing the ship) while looking for critical ship components and missing crewmembers. The writing in Blackhole is surprisingly good, with an intriguing mystery behind the origins of Aluria and the true purpose of the Endura's mission slowly revealed as the player progresses. Peppered liberally with jokes riffing on pop culture and sci-fi tropes, conversations with the crew are fully voiced with solid performances throughout. Occasionally corny but never dull, it scores big on charm despite suffering a bit in presentation due to its stage-based progression. [embed]288460:57582:0[/embed] Each dimension in the game contains a central hub area with about ten stages to explore, each containing multiple selfburns to be collected and ending with levels in which a crewmember can be rescued and a missing ship part retrieved. And this is where the plot progression becomes a bit of a hassle, as finishing a level opens up a new dialogue with a crewmember (who is supposed to be locating the next part or crewmember), but the player is expected to travel back to the beginning of the hub area to speak with them and get an update on their progress. It isn't mandatory that you speak with crew members immediately, and the hub stages are designed to loop back to their origin point (so the player will get to them eventually if they just keep moving forward), but then those conversations just stack up and the player has to sit through them all right after the high of accomplishing a dimension's most challenging stage. It kills the pacing and has the potential to turn what should be a light break from the action into a chore to be endured. Blackhole offers puzzles and platforming through its central mechanic, gravity platforms. Touching a gravity platform rotates the world around the player, usually opening a new route through the same environment they just traversed. Every stage in the game features this mechanic as a central component, tucking selfburns into areas only accessible when approached from the proper stage orientation. Only one selfburn has to be collected from a stage to unlock the next (and there's usually one that's significantly easier to nab), which allows the player to progress past levels which present a struggle. Eventually, stages will have to be revisited to collect more selfburns, as each dimension has a minimum requirement before allowing progress to the next set of levels. The gravity platform mechanic puts a tremendous demand on level design, and Blackhole delivers brilliantly in this respect. Every stage brings a new challenge that feels fresh and each dimension is unique, with its own stage elements that utilize gravity platforms in new ways. These include pulley systems, climbable walls, trampolines, and more, all of which function in different ways based on the stage orientation. The variety is broad and each environmental object is explored thoroughly, as levels squeeze every bit of potential use for them through the course of the dimension. It's a thinker's game, but equally demanding of platform skills. Knowing how to reach a selfburn is one thing, while actually executing that plan can be quite another. Simply collecting the selfburns isn't enough either; the player must also exit the level from where they started it and death returns the coffee guy to the stage entrance to start all over again. Only the selfburns collected in the best run count toward the total, meaning that to actually earn all of them requires a perfect, single run through the stage in which all selfburns are picked up and the exit reached. It often means executing a variety of difficult maneuvers, one after another, and completely finishing a stage feels like a real accomplishment. Packed full of challenges in an endearing package, Blackhole is an excellent 2D platform adventure which succeeds in nearly every aspect of its design. It's polished, visually attractive, and doesn't skimp on variety or difficulty. While the story could be delivered in a more convenient fashion, its writing is of a quality rarely seen in action/puzzle titles, performed skillfully by its actors and accompanied by catchy stage music. In a time when there seems to be a sudden rush of 2D platform titles, Blackhole is a cut above the rest. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Blackhole review photo
In space, no one can hear you giggle
There certainly have been a lot of creative 2D platform games releasing over the last couple of months, enough that there seems to be some genuine competition in the genre. If you're finding yourself in a position where it has become difficult to choose, allow me to make it easier.  Get Blackhole. Problem solved.

Review: Roundabout

Feb 24 // Brett Makedonski
Roundabout (PC, Xbox One [reviewed], PS4, PS Vita)Developer: No GoblinReleased: September 18, 2014 (PC); February 20, 2015 (Xbox One); TBA (PS4, PS Vita)MSRP: $14.99 Behind the wheel of this luxurious, tumbling vehicle is Georgio Manos, a silent but savvy type. See, she knows that in the business world, personal #brand is everything and differentiation just might be her meal ticket. As such, she's become the world's first revolving limousine driver (although, not the last). It's a marketing strategy that probably comes off as illogical at best and wantonly reckless at worst, but Roundabout isn't the kind of game whose motives you question. No, it's the sort of game where you just enjoy the ride. Manos, who's taxiing -- err, limoing -- passengers around, ironically takes a backseat to the wacky citizens of the keenly named town of Roundabout. Through full motion video scenes before and after every trip, we are introduced to the likes of a DMV instructor who, oh yeah, also happens to be an unintentionally racist baseball coach (what's it to ya?), and an activist who definitely didn't do anything wrong, but we should probably make a getaway as quick as possible. And then there's Beth, who's, well, she's Beth. Every encounter with Roundabout's characters is awkward and forced; it's labored and sometimes cringe-worthy. Make no mistake, though -- that's precisely what makes it so lovable. No Goblin nailed the amateur production values that watermarked FMV games of decades ago. Each bizarre clip ranges from chuckle-worthy to memorably funny, and drives the desire to pick up yet another passenger as soon as possible. [embed]288106:57476:0[/embed] However, once in control of the limousine (if ever truly "in control"), Roundabout continually proves that it's no joke. The very first attempt at steering it along through a rudimentary driver's education course feels like an impossible undertaking. The clunky, erratic car just can't be effectively guided. That's saying something for seasoned videogame players that have essentially spent the better part of a lifetime moving an object from Point A to Point B as efficiently and problem-free as possible. Minutes later, maybe a half-hour at most, something clicks. Suddenly, it kind of makes sense. This behemoth is still unwieldy, but there's a method to mitigating damage. Weaving in and out of obstacles in an odd, elongated manner becomes second nature. Well, it does until a temporary relapse when trying to brute through a section; that never, ever ends well. As crazy as it might sound, once able to somewhat control the limousine, Roundabout transforms from a bout of reactionary reflexes to a puzzle game that relies on pathfinding. Don't get me wrong: execution is still very much key, but it's a much simpler affair by comparison. Then, a jump maneuver is learned approximately one-third of the way through, and we can add a healthy dash of platformer, if we're trying to nail Roundabout down to a genre. Really, the fact that Roundabout eventually isn't unendingly frustrating is a testament to No Goblin as a developer. By all means, this should be a game that's incredibly off-putting, where its quirky humor is the saving grace. That's not the case. It takes a while to get the hang of, but once that aforementioned click happens, it's so supremely rewarding. In fact, it's not until someone wants to really dig deep into Roundabout that any of No Goblin's missteps will become apparent. Every passenger ride comes equipped with a set of optional constraints to complete for those who fancy themselves the best damn revolving limousine driver in the land. These range from relatively simple (don't use any upgrades) to incredibly difficult (don't hit anything, complete very quickly). In the process of trying to tick these off one by one, any particular mission may have to be attempted several times. Each go starts with the same few seconds of video (as short as you can mash through to skip) and the ride is marred by the same dialogue over and over. Suddenly, all of Roundabout's charm has turned irritating. Likewise, Roundabout does a poor job of telling the player what the objectives are until after a ride has been completed. There's no way to get a quick refresher on-the-go. In a broader sense, there's no indication that a mission has been completed and that there's no need to travel to that spot on the map anymore. While those complaints are niggling to perfectionists, it's not the takeaway here. What's remarkable is that No Goblin took what had all the makings of a gimmick mechanic and turned it into something that feels like a legitimately useful staple, something that requires patience and skill to figure out. Roundabout manages to be simultaneously cumbersome and stiff, and brilliant and endearing -- chances are you'll go 'round and 'round. Actually, that's precisely what you'll do. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Roundabout review photo
Merry go-round
For its first game, developer No Goblin seemingly subscribed to the K.I.S.S. school of thought: "Keep it simple, stupid." But, perhaps the studio misunderstood the acronym to mean "keep it simple and stupid." That'd explain h...

Review: htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary

Feb 22 // Josh Tolentino
htoL#NiQ: The Firely Diary (PS Vita)Developer: Nippon Ichi SoftwarePublisher: NIS AmericaReleased: February 24, 2015MSRP: $19.99 First, to that bit about minimalism: htoL#NiQ has virtually no written or spoken dialog, or even text. Apart from some prompts explaining the basic controls and a brief crawl in the opening, players won't even encounter so much as a lettered sign in the background. The plot, such as it is, is delivered almost entirely in-game, via environmental clues and lightly interactive flashbacks.  The game screen itself is largely free of HUDs and icons, and combined with low-lit environments that flicker as if beaming from a vintage film projector, gives off a universally gloomy, unsettling aura that contrasts well with the cutesy character design. The flashback scenes are rendered in a totally different, isometric style that recalls older RPGs like Contact. [embed]287859:57450:0[/embed] Exploring this downbeat dystopia is Mion, a silver-haired waif with big eyes, a pair of branches growing from her head, and all the self-preservation instinct of a videogame lemming. Accompanying her are Lumen and Umbra, the titular fireflies and the only means by which players can guide Mion through the wilderness. Players can use the touch screen to move Lumen, with Mion following her Navi-esque companion wherever it goes. Lumen can also signal Mion to throw switches, push boxes, and other puzzle-solving interactions. Umbra, on the other hand, resides in Mion's shadow, and can only be controlled by shifting to an alternate dimension with a tap of the rear touchpad. From there, Umbra can move through shadows freely - including those cast by Lumen's glow - and interact with objects too far away for Mion to reach. Manipulating the environment and using the firefly duo to help maneuver Mion past various hazards forms the bulk of htoL#NiQ's mechanics. This all sounds simple enough, but the game in which these mechanics are employed is an artifact of what I can only describe as gleeful, knowing sadism. htoL#NiQ is one of the most difficult games I've ever played, and the bulk of my playtime has been spent dying, over and over and over again. That's not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as the last few years have brought a new renaissance for tough, uncompromising game design, but the type of pain dealt by htoL#NiQ is of a very particular type, one that's been justifiably abandoned by most modern titles. Simply put, this game trades in pure, trial-and-error frustration. Thanks to a combination of deliberately lethargic controls and deathtrap-obsessed level design, virtually no challenge the game poses can be passed on the first try - or the 48th try, for that matter. That's how long it took me to overcome just a single checkpoint in the second level, a checkpoint that, performed successfully, takes about a minute to transition through.  Since Mion can only be moved by moving Lumen ahead of her, a slight delay accompanies every movement, and Mion herself hits her top speed at "leisurely stroll", even when pursued by rampaging hellbeasts made of shadow. The awkwardness of using the touch screen and rear touch pad to control Lumen and Umbra can be alleviated somewhat by switching to an optional control scheme that uses the analog stick and face buttons, but the precision and sluggishness in movement remains. Worse still, some challenges demand precise timing to trigger environmental actions using Umbra, but the pauses that accompany attempting to switch to Umbra's dimension make that timing even tougher to nail down. Add in hidden enemies, barely-telegraphed hazards, instant death, and occasional randomized factors that cheapen every death, and htoL#NiQ ends up embodying a strange sort of videogame Murphy's Law: Anything that can kill Mion, will kill Mion. Several times.  To clarify, there's nothing wrong with deliberate, "slow" controls. As a fan of Monster Hunter and the Souls games, I can appreciate that style, and intention behind them being in this game is fairly clear. htoL#NiQ aims for the kind of dynamic that defined the likes of classics like Ico. The problem here is the decision to combine the tension of having to escort a helpless charge with such demanding level design. The stress of both having to keep the charge safe as well as perform feats of precision timing and speed is almost too much that would stand to gain the most from the game's low-key storytelling and unique aesthetic. Extending the comparison further, if htoL#NiQ were to be compared to Ico, the difference between the two in terms of difficulty would be akin to trying to shepherd Yorda through the Tower of Latria from Demon's Souls.   It simply isn't fun to have to redo every section just to pass - or replay certain portions perfectly just to access all the game's collectible flashback scenes (which form its most substantial narrative payoff), but then again, I did retry a single section forty-eight times in a row, so there may be something to htoL#NiQ, after all. The creepy atmosphere and interesting visuals were just enough to keep me hooked alongside its grim, intriguing story. And of course, there's the stubborn, bitter, vengeful thrill of finally defeating a game that's seemingly designed with the middle finger extended towards its players.  I won't lie: htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary feels like an ordeal to play, but it is worth noting that historically, surviving an ordeal was often taken as a sign of being blessed by a higher power. That notion may appeal to some types of players, and it's they who'll find the fun in this gorgeous, cruel game. Everyone else should just hang back and ask how it went. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
htoL#NiQ Review photo
Oh Dear, Diary
No, that isn't an encoding error up there in the headline: "htoL#NiQ" is indeed this PS Vita game's title, and is essentially a very stylish way to type "The Firefly Diary" in Japanese. Whatever personal peculiarities led the...

Review: Pix the Cat

Feb 03 // Steven Hansen
Pix the Cat (PC [reviewed], PS Vita, PS4 ) Developer: Pastagames Publisher: Focus Home InteractiveReleased: January 29, 2015 MSRP: $9.99 The main attraction is the arcade mode and its Main Grid. Pix is always moving, you pick the direction. You start on level one, collect eggs, gain a trail of duckling, deposit them into targeted holes without crashing into them or a wall. Once the plane is egg-free, you tunnel deeper and repeat until time runs out.  The rest is arcade perfectionism. If you pick up all the ducklings before depositing them into the holes, you get a combo bonus. More points. Stringing together planes of Perfects is the key to topping leaderboards. Impeding that is the occasional puzzle-like design of some levels, that organically encourage you to snake in on yourself unless you exercise on the fly route correction. You also pick up speed as you play -- you even get a speed bonus by grinding on walls if you make your turns well in advance -- which is the pure reflex-testing part. Going faster ensures you go deeper and have more opportunity to score but it's harder to keep from running into a spike, or your own tail, breaking your combo and the remaining eggs on the board.    [embed]287131:57148:0[/embed] That's about it. The Main board changes slightly every time you play -- the board will be flipped upside down, egg placement slightly offset -- just so the game can't be machine-memorized, but it's all about incremental improvement. And it's a heck of a lot of frantic, neon fun. You can also choose your announcer voice (Doctor Doom is great, but Lady Bot sounds like an older Beemo), turn various ghosts on or off (friends' best, your best, global best). My only real complaint is that this is the sort of game that begs for an arcade joystick. Playing with the Xbox 360 analog feels much looser than I'd like, while I couldn't be quick enough with three fingers on the keypad. Let's not talk about the 360 d-pad. Maybe those of you who picked it up free on PS4 or Vita have better luck in that regard.  Pix comes with three other modes as well. Nostalgia, with its 1920s animation aesthetic, is all about speed, with you picking up a board (or a few) worth of eggs within the time limit, no drop off needed. Laboratory slows things down and emphasizes the puzzle portion. You move in whatever direction you choose until you run into something that stops you, like a lot of games with icy floor puzzles, all the while collecting eggs to deposit only once you've nabbed them all. You're graded based on how many moves you make on the board. There's also an amusing two- to four-player competitive multiplayer mode that pits robot Pixs against once another. You collect eggs to use as single-shot ammo to stun your opponents and make a point by dashing into them. The Arena rounds out a varied package that, some looseness to the controls aside, manages to be fun in a few different ways.
Pix the Cat reviewed photo
Infinite nest
Pix is a mix of the two most saccharine basic emoticons, :3 and ^_^, a face for the forgotten mascot age. Just too cute, and not in a way that ever betrays the fiendish score-chaser underneath. Sincere cuteness. A real testam...

Review: Brandish: The Dark Revenant

Feb 02 // Kyle MacGregor
Brandish: The Dark Revenant (PSP, PS Vita and PS TV compatible)Developer: Nihon FalcomPublisher: XSEED GamesMSRP: $19.99Released: January 13, 2014 Despite having a history spanning decades, Brandish doesn't have much of a tale to tell. The adventure centers on Ares Toraernos, a young warrior who finds himself lost in a labyrinthine spire deep within the subterranean kingdom of Vittoria. His only interests are survival and escape. Brandish isn't without its charms, though. There's an endearing roadrunner and coyote dynamic between the protagonist and his nemesis Dela Delon, a vengeful sorceress who spends most of her time falling into pits. It's a game largely bereft of narrative, almost happily so. Falcom seems more than content to thrust old school dungeon crawling squarely into center stage.  Traipsing through mazes in search of the next staircase is the primary focus. However, the journey to the surface isn't as simple as it sounds. As one might expect, the tower is teeming with monsters, traps, and pitfalls. The treacherous setting is almost the principal character of this yarn. [embed]286365:57119:0[/embed] Brandish is difficult, but unlike the original, it's not challenging for the wrong reasons. While nearly identical in most respects, massive improvements have been made to the camera controls. Both versions share a top-down perspective. The hero is positioned in the center of the screen and can move forward, backward, and side to side using the control pad. Turning to the right or left is handled with the shoulder buttons, which actually pivot the world around the character. The design initially seems clumsy and odd, though it's never as bewildering as it was back in the day. The original game rapidly transitioned from one perspective to the next in a jarring fashion, whereas the remake has a clear twisting animation. This is definitely the version you want to play. Again, Brandish is all about surviving long enough to find your way to the next staircase, and there are a myriad of traps, foes, and puzzles along the way to prevent you from achieving that goal. The action-heavy combat actually reminds me a little of baseball. It has this rhythm, a comforting repetition that gives rise to the unexpected. Ares' shield automatically blocks most attacks, allowing you to focus on when and how to attack. It's a fairly simplistic setup, which is good because you'll frequently be combating more than one enemy at a time while avoiding environmental hazards. Another concern you'll have in battle is weapon degradation. Most arms can only be used a set number of times. This means you'll probably want to keep that powerful sword in reserve in case you come across an imposing adversary, as opposed to needlessly annihilating a common grunt. Yes, there are bosses, but they're rare. These encounters serve to punctuate the journey and test your mettle more than anything. While it can be quite tough, Brandish is rarely unforgiving. Falcom does an admirable job of showing you the ropes, gradually increasing the challenge and adding new elements as soon as you get handle on the old ones. The only major spike in difficulty occurs in the Dark Zone, which seems to have more pitfalls than walkable terrain, a limited field of view, and devastating enemies. Even if you're constantly dying, Brandish isn't discouraging.  It has a save-anywhere feature and checkpoints at every floor. It also backs that up with an item called "retry bread," allowing you to respawn at a particular location should you fall in battle. Taking advantage of these tools will help mitigate most of your frustrations, especially when things get a tad onerous later on. As much as I enjoy Brandish, it probably isn't for everyone. Those looking for a sweeping story about legendary heroes are barking up the wrong tree. This game is about marching through trap-laden mazes and solving puzzles at a deliberate pace. Go in with the right mindset and you will discover a well-crafted role-playing game, one which has aged surprisingly well. It may have taken forever to get here, but Brandish: The Dark Revenant was worth the wait. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Brandish PSP review photo
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