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NBA Live 19 Review: Dribbling Forward

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 09/07/2018 - 05:01

With tight controls, a more engaging career mode, numerous reasons to invest in your character, and fine attention to detail, NBA Live 19 is a surprisingly big drive forward in many aspects for EA's pro basketball franchise. However, its numerous animation and AI issues and lack of significant updates to Franchise mode make the newest entry ultimately feel like only an iterative update on last year's game.

Basketball is a fast and fluid game, and NBA Live 19 excels in replicating this on the court. The game uses the Real Player Motion technology that EA implemented in Madden NFL 19, and this helps make player movement and animations look better and more realistic. There are a number of impressive details that NBA Live 19 replicates authentically, including the transition from jog to run to sprint, how bodies collide when you drive the lane, and the way a player falls to the ground in embarrassment when they get their ankles broken by a well-timed crossover. Players jockeying for position in the post or making a quick cut to get free for a shot look better than ever, while defenders closely guarding an opponent with their hands replicate the kinds of motions you'd see on TV. What's more, player-specific moves, like Steph Curry's step-back jumpshot and Joel Embiid's windmill dunk are all brought into the game with a fine attention to detail. The player models are for the most part more realistic-looking.

The animations have their ugly side, though. Bounce-passes almost never look right, with the ball zipping to the recipient at an inhumanly fast pace and sometimes at impossible angles. During some free throw animations, the player may grip the ball in a way that science says would prevent them from releasing it cleanly or at all. There are also odd sequences related to AI logic. AI players can make strange decisions like fouling on threes consistently and making obviously errant and silly passes. There were also times when AI players would stand in the paint and get called for three-second violations as if they didn't know it would get whistled. These abnormalities are unfortunately common, and take you out of the game.

On the brighter side, NBA Live 19 impressively captures the atmosphere of professional games and basketball culture in general. In professional games, the crowd noise soars when you make a big shot; shoes squeak as players enter scramble for position; players slam into the stanchion after a big play; and you hear the announcer talking about everyone getting free pizza or tacos if the home team scores X number of points. It's impressively close to what you'd see on an NBA broadcast. Street games also faithfully capture a very different subset of basketball culture. There is something special about playing outdoors, and NBA Live nails the presentation of its blacktop courts and atmosphere of fans crowded around the edges trying to get a glimpse. One of the nice new tweaks is that the camera cuts to a cell phone video of someone in the crowd livestreaming the game after big plays. These changes and improvements contribute to an impressive presentation package that pulls you in.

The controls in NBA Live 19 are relatively simple but contain enough depth to give you ample opportunity to play with your own style. Moving the ball around to create scoring lanes is a fine way to play, but there's room to emphasize more stylish and exciting moves. Ankle-breaking crossovers, behind-the-back dribbles, step-backs, and spin moves can all be performed with the flick of a stick in the right direction at the right time. It's also nice that the game recognizes when you're in the paint or when a hole opens up, and it guides you toward making the right play under the circumstances at hand. In past games, you might have pulled up for a jumper two feet away from the rack, but now the game better understands where you are in the key and turns it into a layup or dunk. Executing a play requires strategy and timing, and it all feels fluid as your teammates will, for the most part, make smart cuts to get free. It's up to you to recognize those cuts and runs and make a pass at the right time. NBA Live 19's on-the-court gameplay is the best it has ever been.

NBA Live 19's broadcast presentation is one of its strongest components. The game continues to use the ESPN license, which brings the big-time sports network's graphics, trademark music, and commentator Jalen Rose to the game for halftime highlights and breakdowns in a further bid for realism that enhances the experience. What's more, EA brought in a new commentary team for NBA Live 19 composed of Ed Cohen, who does play-by-play for the New York Knicks in real life, and former Chicago Bulls player Jay Williams. They have a natural-sounding and mostly pleasing back-and-forth, with Cohen making precise comments about statistics, positions, and schemes in his play-by-play role and Williams on color making quips that draw from his years of playing experience. The commentary eventually grows stale, sadly, and this is particularly apparent when playing in Franchise mode where you stick with the same players all the time. Did you know that Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes grew up in Australia playing rugby, and that contributes to the physical nature of his play style? You will, as Williams repeats this line again and again. As it does with the Madden series, EA plans to update NBA Live 19's commentary throughout the season to keep things fresh, and that's fortunate because new and different lines are what the game needs.

One of the most substantial and noteworthy additions to last year's game was the career mode, The One, where you create an amateur player and build them into a superstar. It returns in NBA Live 19 and genuinely feels like it has improved with a globe-trotting story, a deep new mode called Court Battles and the ability to create your own court.

Your journey in The One takes you to notable real-world street courts like Tenement Square in the Philippines, Cherashore Playground in Philadelphia, Quai 54 in Paris, and Parque De Rio in Brazil. The diversity of courts and their related aesthetics--like the Eiffel Tower in the background and colourful structures in Brazil--give you the sense that you're going on a journey as you try to become, well, the one. There are also some fun narrative choices you can make with your mentor and agents, including playful banter about your performance on the court as well as more substantial decisions, like where you want to compete next. This kind of control helps you feel more connected to the player you create and more attached to their journey.

Progression in The One is akin to an RPG where you'll spend skill to increase attributes like passing, rebounding, dribbling, and shooting. In the early stages, you'll notice deficiencies in your player; they might lack dribbling skills to blow by a defender with a finesse move or be unable to catch-and-shoot as fast and effectively as a more accomplished player could. Toughing it out and cutting your teeth in early games, then eventually upgrading your skills to become a more well-rounded player, makes The One's progression system feel rewarding. On the customization side, the character creator finally lets you make a female character, which was a notable absence from last year.

Winning tournaments in The One lets you recruit NBA and WNBA players to your team, and it's a wonderful fantasy fulfillment for basketball fans to build a team of players that can be comprised of any professional player. Another noteworthy element is The League, which sees you taking your created character through the NBA Combine to Draft Day and eventually to the NBA where you can play a full season as your fantasy character on any team you want, and it's exciting to play as your created character alongside NBA superstars.

One of NBA Live 19's deepest modes is the card-collecting Ultimate Team, which fans of EA Sports games will know well. There are a mountain of fantasy challenges available right at the start--more than one thousand in all. had fun earning new players and completing the challenges, but the overall experience feels very grindy. To build your team you can slog away at these challenges or pay real money for "NBA Points" to buy new players that you can use immediately. The Store page where you can buy NBA Points is front and center in the Ultimate Team menus, and this feels like an unnecessary and gross, if unsurprising, push towards microtransactions.

Franchise mode sees some noteworthy new updates, including a pre-draft preview, while the introduction of "Bird Rights" expands and improves on last year's shallow contract negotiation options. However, with no player editor or online functionality, Franchise remains a barebones experience that comes nowhere close to what EA's other sports games offer.

NBA Live 19 also offers numerous online modes including the standard head-to-head matches and deeper, more interesting ones such as Live Run and Live Events. In these, you team up with other players online to take on co-op challenges like winning street court games in 3v3 and 5v5 setups. In addition to acquiring more progression points for your character, you can earn customization items for yourself and your court by completing these challenges. Part of what I like so much about playing basketball in real life is the community aspect of playing together with friends--or strangers--on a court down the street. NBA Live 19 captures that feeling and delivers a rewarding experience for engaging in it.

NBA Live 19 is a capable and competent basketball game that offers a multitude of different ways to play and numerous reasons to keep coming back. Its impressive attention to detail complements the strong foundation set by its presentation and gameplay. However, the AI logic and animation problems are impossible to ignore given they're at the heart of the experience the entire game is based on. These issues, combined with a lackluster franchise mode and a push towards microtransactions, detract from what is an otherwise solid basketball game.

Two Point Hospital Review - Laughter Is The Best Medicine

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 09/06/2018 - 22:08

Back in 1997, Theme Hospital laughed us all back to health with its acutely tongue-in-cheek approach to hospital management simulation. 21 years later, Two Point Hospital pulls at the same nostalgic heart strings, channeling Theme Hospital’s brand of brash, British humour and mixing it with some surprisingly deep economic management gameplay. Two Point Hospital simultaneously pays homage to its predecessor while surgically carving out its own place in your heart.

Two Point Hospital puts you behind the administrator’s desk and charges you with both the grander and finer aspects of managing your new hospital empire, from designing the internal layout of each building down to hiring staff and researching treatments. You’ll start out small with only a single hospital and a handful of illnesses to worry about treating and slowly build your way up towards managing larger locations with multiple buildings and a vast range of wacky illnesses that require special rooms and equipment to treat. Its goofy style--bright colours and characters with big, bulbous heads--belies the depth of its management simulation, finding a good balance between both aspects. Helpful tutorials in each mission ease you into the concepts behind new objectives at a comfortable pace, and as you complete them, you’ll earn stars to unlock new missions as well as room types.

For your hospital to run smoothly and make lots of money, patients need to be diagnosed and then treated as quickly as possible. For some that means a quick trip to the GP’s office, then a jab in the injection room. But for most, this means long stays and visits between different rooms for tests and eventual treatment. For these patients, as well as your staff, you’ll need to make sure there’s plenty of things around to keep their mood up, placing importance on how you make use of your space. Getting it right can make the difference between having the best reputation in the business, or causing an innumerable number of patient deaths, dropping your reputation and bank balance into the toilet. Helpfully, you’re given lots of colourful graphs and floor charts to work out what needs improvement, so you’re not left out in the cold trying to work out why all your patients are rage-quitting and storming out the hospital doors before being treated.

The tools for drawing out rooms and placing furnishings feel intuitive and robust; rooms are drawn out like blueprints on a floor plan, then once you’re happy with the layout you can place your items like desks, bookshelves and coffee machines. Items help add prestige to a room, and are unlocked using Kudosh, a reward currency that’s awarded for completing objectives. The larger the room and the more you fill it with items, the higher its prestige and happier staff and patients will be when using it, meaning staff work longer and for less money and patients will pay you more. This creates an interesting dichotomy between saving available space for a bigger variety of rooms, or building larger, higher-level rooms and seeing the effects that both have on your staff and patients.

Later missions go out of their way to shake up the established gameplay loop by throwing machine-damaging natural disasters like storms and earthquakes at you. You need to draw on everything you’ve learned up to that point as mission objectives broaden and your funds start to spread thin. You also have to consider the mind-boggling number of different treatment rooms to research and prioritise which to build and which patients to turn away. While some diseases only require a pharmacy to cure, others require their own rooms with expensive equipment, and putting all your money into the wrong treatments could leave your bank account reeling.

Thankfully anything that’s researched in one mission becomes available in all others, so if you get stuck somewhere and don’t have the funds to research what you need, you can always go back to a previous hospital and get them to front the research bill instead. This grander focus across all your hospitals extends to a light multiplayer portion in the form of leaderboards. All of your stats like cure rates, money earned and reputation are saved to online leaderboards, where you can compare your successes and failures against your friends. It’s only good for bragging rights, but it’s a nice addition regardless.

Part of Two Point Hospital’s overwhelming charm is its sense of humor, which permeates every corner of the game, from the fantastically funny radio station--complete with fake ads and feature segments--to the pun-laden disease names like Jest Infection or 8-bitten. Someone suffering Mock Star shuffles about with the look and swagger of Freddie Mercury, requiring a session with the psychiatrist to pull them out of it. Equally funny are the contraptions used to cure some of the rarer conditions. The Extract-a-Pan treats Pandemic and is a giant magnet on the end of a tube that pulls the pan off the top of the patient's head. The writing throughout is sharp and witty, with the descriptions of various ailments being a particular high point.

But just discovering those diseases and their often darkly funny symptoms, as well as watching your staff and patients go about their day, feels rewarding enough. Everything moves with the look and flow of a cartoon pantomime; patients will die only to come back as ghosts and haunt your hallways until a janitor can come along and suck them up with a vacuum cleaner. At one point my receptionist got up from his desk, vomited in front of patients because he was disgusted by something, then left to pour a coffee in the break room before demanding a pay raise. It nails the Theme Hospital nostalgia and is so good that even the 20th time you hear the announcer ask patients “not to die in the hallways” is hilarious.

Part of Two Point Hospital’s overwhelming charm is its sense of humor, which permeates every corner of the game.

The one area where the game does suffer is in the minor grind of starting a brand-new hospital for each new mission. After spending hours perfecting several locations, going through the early phases of a new hospital starts to feel more like a chore than it should. It’s not a long process, but it quickly becomes a section you want to rush through to get to the things you haven’t seen yet.

It’s remarkable that it’s taken so long for a spiritual successor to Theme Hospital to show up, but now that it’s here, it feels like it’s been well worth the wait. The exaggerated, cartoon look and relaxed approach to management make it inviting enough for most players, while the deeper aspects of its economy are enough to keep seasoned players engaged. Two Point Hospital not only re-works an old formula into something modern and enjoyable, it also iterates on the classic brand of irresistible charm and wit, making something that’s truly wonderful.

Destiny 2: Forsaken Review In Progress - Story Time

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 09/06/2018 - 04:14

A year after Destiny 2's launch, its third expansion, Forsaken, is now live. I've played around 12 hours so far, completing the story missions, trying the new Strikes, and messing around in the new Gambit mode. Like with the base game--and unlike with the previous two expansions, Curse of Osiris and Warmind--there's a lot to sink your teeth into in Forsaken at launch. Stay tuned for updates as we go and the final review once the Raid drops.

If you played the last two expansions, you shouldn't have too much trouble coming back in. I started the Forsaken campaign at 337 power and was able to fight my way up to over 460 by the end of it, helped along by grinding Heroic Strikes and Gambit matches. As usual, the solo grind is the toughest, while Fireteams of two or three can run the story missions cooperatively to speed up the process (even if you're all underleveled). For newcomers, you'll be able to auto-level one character and start the Forsaken campaign right away, though you have to own all the previous content to actually play.

Forsaken isn't necessarily the best entry point for new players, though, mostly because you won't care about the story at all if you don't know who Cayde-6 is. His death is the catalyst for your whole journey, and the goal this time isn't saving the world; it's revenge. But if you do like him at all, it's Destiny 2's most engaging story yet. The crux of the campaign is hunting the eight Barons, powerful boss-like enemies from the new Scorn race, who helped kill Cayde. The Fallen hate the Scorn, too, which puts you in a shady partnership with a mob boss of an alien named Spider who can help you track them down (for a price). The darker motive is refreshing after taking on the objectively, obviously evil Red Legion in the base game, and the boss-focused structure cuts down on the busy work that plagues other Destiny 2 campaigns.

Each of the Barons has their own style and traits, with some being more memorable than others. The Rider is, unsurprisingly, a big vehicle fan, and you spend most of that mission and fight zipping around an open-ish area on a Pike instead of locked in an arena. The Trickster's level is rife with bombs that look like engrams and a lot of creepily playful taunting. A few of the Baron missions follow the more traditional Destiny level structure, with minions to mow down until you reach the boss room. All together, it's an interesting and rewarding campaign--it has both variety and an overall sense of cohesion, and each step feels significant in building toward the conclusion.

The new Scorn enemies are a welcome addition, too, and feel distinct from the other enemy types. They generally move quickly and can overwhelm you if you're not careful; one crab-like type scuttles around and explodes upon dying, while another charges you with a flaming mace-like weapon and is very intimidating up close. You don't have to change up your approach too much, but learning to fight them--finding their critical points and figuring out how to maneuver around swarms of them--further sets Forsaken's missions apart.

Though we haven't had too much time to dive into Forsaken's new weapons and gear, the new weapons system, which launched just ahead of the expansion, can force you to try new things. The cost of infusion is higher than before, so if you're trying to go as quickly as possible to get Raid-ready, you'll have to give up your old exotics and legendaries for basic gear that drops at the new, higher power levels. The standout addition is the combat bow; it's surprisingly powerful, versatile, and very fun to use. You can shoot accurately from impressively long distances if you hold down the trigger, and you can do decent rapid-fire damage up close, helping the new weapon type hold its own among flashier space guns.

New Strikes are always welcome for those who are tired of running the same ones, but the Forsaken Strikes (including the PS4 exclusive) aren't terribly different from any other Strike--you kill a bunch of mid-tier enemies and then fight a boss. Like in Destiny 2 as a whole, Strikes become more interesting with Nightfall modifiers that increase the teamwork necessary for success.

The better side activity is the new Gambit mode. It's largely cooperative PvE with the occasional PvP twist; you're split into two teams in mostly separate maps, racing to collect and bank a certain number of motes from fallen enemies, and if conditions are right, one team member can "invade" the other team's map to screw with their progress. I still have to play it more to see if it can really keep my interest, but it's a creative combination of elements that are usually kept separate in Destiny 2.

After being let down by Curse of Osiris and Warmind, I'm enjoying Destiny 2 again. The biggest question right now is how long that will last, but there's plenty to keep me occupied before the Raid drops.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 Review - Definitive Edition Update

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 09/06/2018 - 00:53

Editor's note: We originally reviewed Divinity: Original Sin II in September 2017, when it received a 10/10. This review has been amended to reflect our experience with the Definitive Edition on PS4, which is (unsurprisingly) also a 10. You can find our impressions of the new content, console controls, and more at the bottom of the existing review. -- 9/5/18

About midway through Divinity: Original Sin II's campaign when it was first released on PC, I was called on to visit the family farm of a heroic colleague named Gareth. On arrival, I found him mourning his murdered parents and calling on me to help him take revenge. Pretty standard RPG stuff.

But when I went to the farmhouse in search of the killers, I was greeted by paladins who prevented me from going inside. I tried to change their minds during dialogue with the in-game persuasion skill. No dice. I was facing a brick wall with this quest. The only choice I had was to kill the paladins. So that's exactly what I did. But after I stepped over their bodies to proceed into the farmhouse, I discovered that the murderers inside were possessed innocents. No way of releasing them from this magical mental bondage presented itself. The most expeditious way of moving forward with the quest was to kill them. I did that…and then discovered a love letter from a possessed woman to one of the paladins that had stopped me at the door.

Hello, guilt. It took me a long time to get over how bad I felt about killing these people. Part of me wanted to load a save and replay it all. But my victims were already dead. Going back and trying to change what I'd done wouldn't wash the blood from my hands. I eventually moved forward and went on to kill a lot more people in even more heartbreaking ways. Still, I never forgot this scene at the farmhouse, because that was an "innocence lost" moment that opened my eyes to how affective and surprising Divinity II: Original Sin can be.

I don't know if I've ever felt so emotionally wrapped up in a game and its characters, and pulling at your heartstrings is not all that the game does well. Larian Studios has crafted one of the finest role-playing epics of all time, both in its original form on PC and in its Definitive Edition released for PC, PS4, and Xbox One (for specific comments on this version of the game, see the bottom of this review). Meaningful choices, evocative writing, and superb acting in the fully voiced script make for a wholly believable world. The detailed and free-flowing combat engine provides challenging and rewarding turn-based tactical battles that add tension to every action. Character depth includes seemingly endless options for creation, customization, and growth, making every member of your party more of a real individual than the usual collection of buffs and numbers found in most RPGs.

As with its predecessor from 2014, Divinity: Original Sin II's setting remains the D&D-infused fantasy land of Rivellon, but the clock has been moved forward centuries from the original game so you don't need any familiarity with the backstory to quickly get up to speed with what's going on. You take on the role of a Sourceror, a name referring to those that draw arcane power from a mystic material called Source. This substance is controversial in Rivellon, because using it seems to inadvertently summon interdimensional monsters known as Voidwoken. Deploy Source powers and these bizarre creatures show up to kill everyone in sight. Because of this, you're viewed as a danger to society by the Magisters, a governing body of inquisitors and warriors who claim to serve the Divine Order and protect society by rounding up and "curing" Sourcerors.

The story begins with you and the other members of your four-person party (that's the maximum--you can play with any number of companions or even go solo) being sent off to the island prison of Fort Joy with Source-blocking collars around your necks. You soon realize that you have a greater destiny to fulfill, however. Much of this is tied to your past role in a war serving Lucian, sort of a god-king whose legacy has been taken up by Alexander, his son who now leads the Magisters. Eventually, you and the other members of your party discover that you are Godwoken, demigods who have a chance to ascend and basically replace the seven gods under threat by creatures from the Void.

This epic saga is a big undertaking. Expect to use up the better part of 60 to 70 hours to complete the main quest line and a good portion of the many side quests. The story isn't just extensive, though; it's detailed and gripping, largely due to how it avoids good-versus-evil fantasy archetypes common to RPGs. Moral ambiguity is with you every step of the way as you progress from a prison boat to Fort Joy, to the sandy beaches and forests of Reaper's Coast, to the tropical Nameless Isle, and finally the besieged city of Arx.

But while you start off with persecuted Sourcerors on one side and oppressive Magisters on the other, events soon carry you into a world of unrelenting grey where most people are trying to do the right thing, yet failing miserably. Some Sourcerors are criminals. Some Magisters are conflicted about what they are doing and want to change the system. Voidwoken may have good reasons behind their actions in Rivellon. Gods have enough hidden agendas that mortals may be better off without them. Even the paladin faction that shows up in the game as heroes turns into blinkered zealots, overseeing the siege of a city, leaving bodies overflowing atop buckling wooden carts in their wake.

Basically, nobody can be trusted or measured at face value; not even your comrades, as only one of you can ascend to godhood. You're left wide open when it comes to determining a course of action, with very few moments forcing you down a particular path. Play good, play evil, play something in between. This approach is incredibly freeing. It lets you guide your character and party according to your own moral compass, or lack of one. I don't believe I've felt this attuned to a role-playing experience since I played pen-and-paper D&D many years ago.

The story isn't just extensive, though; it's detailed and gripping, largely due to how it avoids good-versus-evil fantasy archetypes common to RPGs.

Freedom with character design and development really boosts this feeling. Character depth is tremendous, and with every hero in the game comes with a wide range of core attributes plus civil abilities, combat abilities, skills, talents, Source abilities, and more. Five racial choices blend the expected--humans and dwarves--with the offbeat--elves who consume body parts and self-conscious undead who hide their faces to avoid scaring NPCs.

You can roll your own protagonist or choose from one of six predefined characters representing each race. Each one comes with a specialized storyline that immerses you deeper into the saga. Even then, you're allowed a free hand to customize everything. You're even able to tell those joining your party what sort of adventurer you'd like them to be. Next to standard classes such as Fighters and Clerics are more innovative options such as Metamorphs and Shadowblades, and a slew of talents that dictate even more nuanced capabilities. So if you want to take on, say, the arrogant lizard Red Prince or the sinister elf Sebille, you're not locked into a set class as you would be in most RPGs.

At a glance, combat is not much different from many computer RPGs. Battles are turn-based, with an allotment of action points governing your decisions. But Divinity: Original Sin II differs from its peers by consistently taking terrain and environmental elements into consideration. Pools of water can be frozen into slippery sheets of ice. High ground gives boosts to damage and low ground restricts it. And enemies turn these battlefield features into advantages, too. Hang out too close to a pool of oil and you can guarantee that an opponent will set it on fire. Evil archers and spellcasters always run or teleport to high locations so that they can snipe from relative safety.

As a result, battles are damn tough. You may have to play and lose some battles at least once in order to assess how the enemy can strike and determine a way to counter their advances. Thankfully, there are a number of difficulty options that let you control the pace of victory. The Explorer option nerfs enemies and boosts heroes to emphasize story over combat difficulty, so you get the flavor of the game without the serious challenge. Classic is the standard mode of play--tough but not insanely challenging. Tactician ups everything a little more, and Honor is the ultimate challenge, where you have just one save slot that gets deleted if everyone is killed. There is something here for just about every level of commitment and ability.

Where most RPGs let you push on and experience almost everything in a single playthrough, it is impossible to experience all that this one has to offer in one play, or maybe even two or three.

I freewheeled in Classic mode as I went, directing characters into roles and training them based on what worked best in battle. Character progression felt as if I was moulding real warriors through an adventure, pitfalls and all. I truly empathized with my party, to the point that I couldn't let any of them go later on to try one of the other heroes on offer, like the witty and talented undead Fane. There's one reason for a replay, but it's not the only one.

Quest design in Divinity: Original Sin II is closer to a pen-and-paper feel than any computer RPG that I've ever played. The biggest reason for this is that you can screw up. An NPC can be randomly killed, shutting down a quest before it starts. Sometimes you simply cannot succeed at a skill check necessary to move a particular adventure along in the way you desire. Failing persuasion checks, as noted above in that farmhouse story, is fairly routine, forcing you to figure out another way forward and damn the consequences. Where most RPGs let you push on and experience almost everything in a single playthrough, it is impossible to experience all that this one has to offer in one play, or maybe even two or three.

Quests are not perfect, though. The journal system of tracking them isn't nearly robust enough to keep up with how many you have going at any given time. You can't search it, and even worse, key elements are frequently not included in the text descriptions. As a result of this quest confusion, I got lost more often than I should have. I spent too much time not sure what I was supposed to be doing due to vague journal entries, or wandering around searching for a key location that for reasons unknown was not noted on the map. I know some will believe this to be a good thing, that we finally have a serious RPG that doesn't hold the hands of its players. But this issue seems more like a disconnect between how quests are offered up during the game and how they are tracked in the journal than any commitment to old-school difficulty.

In addition to the expansive single-player campaign, you can also play with friends cooperatively or dive into an even truer pen-and-paper role-playing simulation with Game Master mode--a section of the game that can live on potentially longer than Divinity's own campaign. This is the kind of game that you're best off playing online with friends; the involved story and the necessity to use teamwork in combat make the game too challenging if you're adventuring with uncooperative strangers.

All of the above has been enhanced with the release of the Definitive Edition of Divinity: Original Sin II.

All of the above has been enhanced with the release of the Definitive Edition of Divinity: Original Sin II, which also sees the game making its console debut on PS4 and Xbox One. Larian Studios was kind to PC owners as well, offering a free upgrade that lets you launch either the original or new versions (old saves are not compatible with the new game). This revamp makes it worthwhile to play one of the greatest RPGs of the past few years all over again. Comprehensive work has refined the plot, quest journal, interface, balance, difficulty, and more. New content has been added, like new encounters in Arx, an expanded tutorial, more informative tool tips, new battles, and a Story mode (which lowers difficulty) for those who want more adventuring and less reloading.

The console version of the Definitive Edition is an almost entirely seamless port of the original PC game. I have to admit that I had my doubts playing the game on PS4 due to concerns about navigating such a complex RPG without the benefit of mouse and keyboard. But Larian has done a superb job of moving the control system to a gamepad. Everything can be accessed readily, mostly using the left stick and the shoulder buttons to open a radial menu where you access character stats, equipment, inventory, skills, and so forth. While this control system lacks the immediacy offered by a cursor and keyboard hotkeys, it is remarkably smooth and soon becomes intuitive.

My only lingering gripe would be with using the control bars for abilities, gear, and spells during combat. You need to flip past a lot of icons over five pages to access all of the skills that your characters need to utilize in order to survive the game's demanding tactical combat. At the same time, the game's mechanics are simply too big to convert from the standard mouse-and-keyboard combo to a gamepad with just a handful of buttons and not encounter some awkwardness.

Other altered elements cut down the amount of busy work required when adventuring through this vast game. The user interface has been enlarged for TV screens, making everything clearer and more distinct. Inventories now encompass the entire party on a single screen, making it easy to check out all of your gear and handle common tasks like learning new skills from books. Items can be transferred between party members with a couple of button presses. Holding down the X button on the PS4 allows you to search large sections of the landscape on a single screen for goodies to loot.

The journal has been comprehensively rewritten with the goal of making the storyline and quests clearer. According to Larian, more than 150,000 words of text have been rewritten or added. Instructions still leave something to be desired, though. In the main quest log now, directions have been condensed to brief sentences that are more to-the-point than in the original version of the game. While it's a more direct approach, the short descriptions rarely tell anything aside from the bare bones about going to certain places, helping NPCs, delivering items, and so forth. It comes at the expense of some of the game's flavor without making quests all that much easier to follow than they were before, in that they lack a lot of specifics. As a result, I still found myself bewildered every now and then with regard to where to go and what to do.

The closing chapter in Arx has been reworked in a similar fashion to increase clarity. Where the original game sort of just threw your heroes into this devastated city with no stated goals other than to find chief villain Dallis, several plot threads have now been expanded, like the one with the dwarves and Deathfog, with new NPCs, extensive dialogue, and new battles adding to the apocalyptic mood. There is definitely more going on in the city, and I felt connected to a bigger picture. There is also a steadier narrative drive to the conclusion. Still, the Arx changes don't make a tremendous difference, as most of the city and its quests are nearly identical to what they were in the original game. And Arx still seems out of place coming after the penultimate Nameless Isle chapter. That puzzle-heavy section of the game continues to feel more like the proper setting for the finale, due to its singular focus on the protagonist's ascension to the ranks of the gods.

A lot of other little changes make appreciable differences. Persuasion appears to be easier, which let me open up quests that walled me off with failure before. This time around I could succeed in swaying NPCs to my point of view much of the time, and I felt that I was able to experience more of the game as a result. Story mode adds resurrection as a skill, includes the ability to readily flee combat, and dramatically reduces battle difficulty. The latter made it easier to tolerate lengthier encounters that I didn't want to slog through again. At the same time, Story Mode doesn't turn the game into a total cakewalk. Gruelling scraps can still be a challenge. But if you do find it too easy, you can shift back to tougher difficulty settings on the fly.

Divinity II: Original Sin will always have a strong degree of complexity, regardless of design changes. The Definitive Edition remains a complicated affair where your path has been left almost entirely wide open. Definitive or not, console or PC, this is a game that remains true to its inscrutable CRPG roots. Once again, though, even while I have to gripe about being left in the dark at times, the freeform design makes it all worthwhile. I'll accept some confusion and uncertainty if the trade-off is a wonderfully realized and almost boundless fantasy world.

From lonely farmhouses through pitched battles with gods in far-flung dimensions, Divinity: Original Sin II is one of the most captivating role-playing games ever made in both its original and Definitive incarnations, with the latter proving that even the most complicated role-players can be ported successfully to gamepad-limited consoles. This immaculately conceived and emotion-wrought fantasy world, topped by brilliant tactical combat, make it one of the finest games of recent years, and it remains an instant classic in the pantheon of RPG greats.

Disclosure: Former GameSpot reviews editor Kevin VanOrd currently works at Larian Studios, serving as a writer on Divinity: Original Sin II.

World of Warcraft: Battle For Azeroth Review In Progress

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 09/05/2018 - 01:00

Teldrassil has been burned to the ground. Sylvanas Windrunner steps over the corpses of slain rangers and civilians alike who were impetuous enough to get in her way, only to seal the fate of more innocents in fire and blood as her lithe frame is backlit by an inferno of destruction. The tone of your introduction to Battle for Azeroth is as clear as day: The Horde is evil, and this is no longer a fight about old territories or grievances. This is wartime, and nothing is sacrosanct. Well, apart from the planet that we reside on, the right of foisting faction politics upon new civilizations, and the art of constant, grave misunderstandings.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth swoops in on a plaguebat right where the previous expansion, Legion, leaves off. Everyone is ecstatic about sending the Legion back into the realm that spawned them, and people are getting on with their lives. However, in the closing moments of the last expansion, we saw the introduction of a new resource for Anduin and Sylvanas to butt heads over: azerite. This is key to the central narrative that unfolds; no one really knows what azerite does, but Sargeras left it behind and everyone's convinced that it should be harnessed for destruction. Battle for Azeroth's pre-patch content painted the Horde as warmongering and the Alliance as the bulwark against the violence, and to that end, this new resource is just another symbol for the two to take a moral stance on--a dance of power around yet another weapon that has power beyond our reckoning.

That dance of power is crucial to the initial motivations of both factions and plays out neatly in the narrative that guides you to the expansion's new zones--it's the reason that your various leaders send you out on reconnaissance missions that bring you to those areas. That said, you pivot almost immediately from the big picture concerns of your faction's war effort to the wants and needs of relative strangers. Those familiar with the World of Warcraft canon will have some insight into the motivations of the new allied races you meet--the Kul Tirans and the Zandalari. Both new allies have their own power struggles to contend with before they display any interest in assisting either the Horde or the Alliance, and predictably, this spawns the cycle of fetch quests, reputation gains, and achievements required in order to gain their trust.

The ebb and flow of questing in the zones feels very much like the experience in Legion. It took me around 25 hours to get from level 110 to level 120 on one character, which feels like it keeps pace with solo leveling from the last expansion. Regardless of whether you're Horde or Alliance, you'll get to cherry pick which one of three distinct zones you want to start in. The Horde get down and dirty with the Zandalari trolls, investigating everything from political intrigue to the wrath of blood magic. The Alliance deal with fan-favorite Jaina Proudmoore and the legacy of resentment that her father's death left behind (did we mention the pirates?). In either regard, all these zones have their own self-contained stories for you to see to fruition that indirectly speak to powers beyond our comprehension, meaning while they're equal parts comedic and captivating; they most certainly do not stray from the World of Warcraft formula.

The fact that these condensed stories are so engaging actually works against the impact of the wider expansion's narrative. After spending hours in the desert with the vulpera and the sethrak, and dealing with everything from shepherding cubs to thwarting the plans of long-sleeping god puppets, it's hard to take orders from Sylvanas' right hand. Your faction's leaders seem so far removed from the daily bloodletting and the weariness of dangerous diplomatic relations that doing their bidding starts to feel like a chore. The inhabitants of these new zones are so colorful and so full of life that you feel incentivized to do the myriad of side quests that they tantalizingly offer up to you. It's all too easy to put the main story quests on hold to just spend a couple more minutes in eerie Nazmir, or to risk scurvy in the Tiragarde Sound.

This lack of a coherent, meaningful connection to the overarching azerite panic that serves as Battle for Azeroth's main narrative tension can be frustrating. At the time of writing, three weeks after launch, we're at a point where no raids are out yet, and we're still waiting on plenty of content, so nothing truly definitive really happens to tip either faction's hand after Sylvanas' initial massacre. In the meantime, you passively hoard power and skills without really knowing what good they'll do you later on. For example, you'll power up azerite armor in place of artifact weapons in this expansion, but your armor automatically levels up as you quest, and the selections you make as to quality-of-life skills don't feel as impactful as before. You also don't have to do anything special to get your hands on this armor, which in turn cheapens the gearing experience as you're leveling. The same could be said to some extent about raising your professions; gone are the days of having to sit by a campfire to grind out every godforsaken recipe before you could learn the latest dishes. You can crack into Battle for Azeroth's crafting right away, even if you're a complete novice, which is convenient. But it's hard not to be nostalgic for the days where the trek of profession leveling brought some sense of real achievement.

Once you get to 120, it's a bit of a coin toss as to what you should do while you're waiting for the next batch of content--you're probably best served by doing world quests and improving your reputation in order to unlock the Allied Races. There are other things to cut your teeth on, but the narrative doesn't instill in you a pressing desire to do (or to know) more. At this point in time, Battle for Azeroth offers War Mode and Island Expeditions as tidbits to tide you over until its next patch.

War Mode basically paints a giant bullseye on your chest, slaps you on the back and says "Venture forth, you poor sod." This mode grants you an experience bonus, but the price you pay is drawing the attention of players from the opposing faction. If you're someone with bad memories of Alliance players performing drive-bys on you as your friends scramble to get into Shadowfang Keep, then you may want to stay away from this mode. You may luck out if you're on a server that isn't particularly bloodthirsty, but even those who embrace the chaos will find that it is too much of a double-edged sword; doing well in War Mode ups the ante by letting others know that you're a threat to be put down. If the hounds of war don't sniff you out immediately, then the game's intervention definitely speeds up the process.

Island Expeditions offer their own brand of excitement. While the name suggests that you'll be relaxing on a beach somewhere and enjoying mojitos with Genn Greymane, the reality is the exact opposite. You can participate in Expeditions with AI or other players, and the focus is to undertake a mad dash for azerite within a territory where randomness controls the obstacles that you face: everything from regular to elite mobs, enemy NPCs and players, and the main affair, picking up a whole heap of azerite. While the first few expeditions can feel like a fresh change of pace, the cyclical nature of the activity means it starts to grow old fairly quickly. There are various difficulties of expeditions which offer better rewards with each tier along with tougher enemies, but it feels a like a bandage slapped over the Mythic+-shaped content hole in our hearts.

This expansion wields its central conceit of a dying world with a lack of finesse; something is Badly Wrong but not so wrong that it can't wait for you to gallivant around collecting battle pets for a century before you deal with it. That said, the expansion is rivetingly effective at telling tales about underdogs, witches, family curses and pirate fraternities in ways that make you care. It's in the strength of these segments that cause you to see the cracks in the other aspect of the game--even though we know there's going to be a lot more content made available as the expansion gets patched over time. In the wake of the latest Warbringers visual, it's certain that we'll have some Old God-flavored questions answered sooner rather than later, and a host of new things for the factions to unite over that aren't the giant sword splitting the very realm into pieces.

Battle for Azeroth features the exciting culmination of the intimate character storylines for some of the franchise's most famous heroes and villains, the Allied Races themselves are so well-crafted that it's almost worth it for lore aficionados alone, and visually, World of Warcraft looks the best that it has been in a long time. But the expansion feels like it sometimes relies too heavily on the days when both factions were at each other's throats--the conflict now feels too manufactured to truly incite the war both leaders appear to be gunning for. It's clear that Battle for Azeroth tries very hard to balance the needs of new players with those of long-time fans, and as was the case in Legion, it demonstrates that the line between refinement and oversimplification can feel very thin. It's an overall good addition to World of Warcraft's current state, but it's a gamble as to whether its upcoming content will make it truly special.

Editor's note: This review reflects the state of Battle for Azeroth in the weeks immediately following its launch, and will be updated once we've spent sufficient time with its first major content update, including the new Uldir Raid, Warfronts, and Mythic Keystone dungeons. -- September 4, 2018.

Strange Brigade Review - Co-op With Style

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 09/04/2018 - 21:20

While it definitely carries the troubling legacy of colonialism, there's still something indelibly appealing about the adventure genre--which is to say the genre of adventure broadly, not necessarily adventure games. The trek, the hunt, and the questing through ancient ruins all make a compelling foundation for any journey. That spirit is one that Strange Brigade carries well. It cribs iconography and ideas from the likes of Indiana Jones and its thematic kin for a cooperative romp through unknown jungles packed with zombies, magic, and mysteries--all while nailing the fun-loving wanderlust and, unfortunately, flubbing some of the basics.

The premise is simple enough: a cooperative third-person shooter where you beat down mythical monstrosities. Often these will take the form of a cadre of mobile, combat-hardened mummies or the legendary Minotaur. Your mission, as given to you by the English secret service, is to conquer these foes and help lay to rest the soul of a millennia-old queen whose spirit rampages through the region.

Your crew of four is a raucous bunch, each with their own thematically-appropriate skills and story. Tough-talking Gracie, for instance, provides the industrious muscle for the squad, and Frank is the experienced leader. The pair of magicians include the classically styled Archimedes and the vaguely racist Nalangu, an amalgam of tribalist stereotypes of indigenous shamans and warriors that does Strange Brigade no favors. To be fair, there's little hint of mean-spirit in Strange Brigade itself; it's more a natural consequence of the genre and a failure to adequately or actively push back against some of those tropes. Problematic elements aside, there's plenty of stylized presentation and jovial pomp to keep you entertained--though you'd be more than forgiven to not overlook those touchy aspects, too.

Beyond its setting, it can be a bit tough to nail down what precisely Strange Brigade does that stands out. Gunplay is straightforward, as are its foes--most of whom are either big baddies or swarms of mooks. But the '30s radio serial tone actually works well to create a solid premise for its better elements. Traps and puzzles feel like logical extensions, and the cooperative nature helps you better manage the chaos. While you've no doubt mowed down your share of zombies while an NPC scrambles to unlock a door, shifting that role to another player adds a little something extra. When those panicked shouts come through the headset, you feel imminently responsible for your friend's safety and they trust that you'll have their back.

All of this works with the game's relatively straightforward inventory system. Alongside the spread of traps and obstacles throughout the stage to create an unusual method of traversing and battling, an array of bonuses and upgrades encourage traversal of these branching worlds. You can, and are encouraged to, for instance, manipulate traps to squash, pierce, and dismember teeming hordes of monsters. These battles play out in labyrinthine stages, too, offering a few different ways to guide and control enemies along the way. Everyone in the group will get a chance to flex their skills and contribute at some point.

While the variety of locales is a bit limited--they're all Egyptian-themed to a degree--there's quite a bit of variability within that. Desert areas offer much more open battle spaces than the caverns of an ancient tomb, which will funnel you through cramped passages packed with swinging axe blades and pressure-plate flamethrowers. All-told, you can spend upwards of 10 hours exploring each of them with a crew, and while they're all a bit similar, they don't wear out their welcome too soon.

Each character will have items and supplies they can buy with the loot they collect along the way, and all carry a magical amulet that can absorb the spirits of the baddies they've conquered to unleash super-charged attacks. Other gear, like specialized and temporary weapons--akin to the turrets or miniguns you might be able to wield in more traditional shooters for a time--help break up the pacing a bit more, and offer up a few more chances to coordinate with the team.

Despite the extra fluff, it's hard to shake the sense that Strange Brigade isn't much more than a snack. The tongue-in-cheek tone and setting are the big draws here, and while they facilitate some unusual and entertaining play, they don't do much beyond that. Puzzles are dreadfully simple--bouncing between connect-the-pipes and basic matching games--and upgrades just don't provide a lot to play around with. Each weapon has a few slots, but even that's plug-and-play. For such an unusual world, more types of attacks, weapons, foes, would be a joy. And, unfortunately, what's there does have some significant technical problems. Texture pop-in can be jarring, and a bevy of other problems like clipping issues and uneven loot distribution give the impression that parts of Strange Brigade are in need for further refinement.

The grand result is an amusing adventure that makes a powerful case for more creativity with level design, setting, and pacing in co-op shooters, without thoroughly capitalizing on all of its own best ideas. Traps and their extensive use within many of the levels are a joy, and the underpinning gunplay is strong enough to warrant a sturdy recommendation, but it all comes to a head well before it should.

Marvel's Spider-Man Review: Amazing Fantasy

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 09/04/2018 - 15:00

You can't go past Spider-Man's best stories without a good duality--the awkwardness of Peter Parker versus the confidence of his alter ego, the relatable humanity of his adversaries versus their heinous deeds, and the age-old ditty about juggling power and responsibility. Insomniac's take on Spider-Man juggles dualism too, not just in its narrative themes but its mechanical execution. Intense boss fights are balanced with leisurely exploration. You'll make the most of Spidey's acrobatic abilities in the open world, but also the mundane abilities of his less super-powered allies in linear stages. Dualities usually suggest there's a poorer trait, but they're often integral in characterizing the whole. That's Insomniac's Spider-Man--it's a fantastic experience that completely absorbs you into its unique slice of the Marvel universe, and while that's partly defined by a slew of menial tasks, it becomes easy to forgive, because they're part of what helps complete the fantasy of becoming a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

It's obvious to point out that a lot of the ideas in Marvel's Spider-Man have already appeared in a number of existing video game interpretations of the character--surely one of the pitfalls of revisiting something so perennially popular. But where Insomniac's version elevates itself, and where it makes an immediate impact, is in the slick presentation that neatly wraps major parts of the experience. It's obvious that the last decade of Marvel Cinematic Universe releases has had an effect here--its photorealistic slant shies away from any overt association to comic books. Bright, saturated colors and stirring orchestral hooks are ever-present, and sweeping angles with camera effects majestically frame Spidey's signature combat style and acrobatics around the city, emphasizing them as the hyperreal feats they are.

But it's the story that has benefited from Marvel's popular cinematic formula the most. Insomniac's interpretation spends a lot of time focusing on the human side of the tale, and Marvel's Spider-Man features some solid understated performances. Peter Parker is an experienced Spidey, but still suitably dorky, and his relationships with the important people in his life have a major role to play. The game spends ample time dwelling on supporting characters, a move which aids later narrative developments in producing more effective impacts.

There's always an interesting dynamic with superhero stories--you'll likely be able to accurately predict the fates of characters you're familiar with, but going along for that ride regardless and watching with bated interest to see how things unfold this time around is where the value lies. Marvel's Spider-Man takes inspiration from an Amazing Spider-Man storyline penned by Dan Slott, who is credited as a writer here. Peter's elderly Aunt May works at a homeless shelter run by Martin Li, an entrepreneur with a selfless heart of gold, but also a more negative side. Needless to say, things get complicated and worlds collide, but Insomniac takes multiple hard detours from the source material.

Li and other antagonists also benefit from a generous amount of time devoted to exploring their humanity, through both cutscenes as well as environmental storytelling. Marvel's Spider-Man features segments where you explore key locations as Peter Parker, observing spaces, finding audio logs, listening to Pete's self-narration, chatting with characters, and playing minigames passed off as "scientific research." You'll also occasionally step into the shoes of other characters like Mary Jane, a Daily Bugle journalist in this timeline, as she dives into a more involved investigation using her own unique sets of skills.

Mary Jane's stages feature rudimentary stealth mechanics on top of regular exploration, and her clandestine skillset becomes more diverse as you continue to revisit her side of the story. These mechanics aren't particularly demanding and you don't use them enough to wear out their welcome, but these supporting segments do feature some memorably tense scenarios and as a whole do help create a stronger attachment to the characters. It's easy to find yourself feeling more involved.

All this narrative build-up pays off in a big way, too, and when the game does reach its tipping point, it's shocking how devastating the events can feel--even if you can predict what's coming. Marvel's Spider-Man is very good at making its stakes feel sky-high, evil actions genuinely villainous, consequences actually upsetting. The story is emotionally charged and effective at spurring you into action--late in the game, there's an urgency that builds up and succeeds in creating the superhero's dilemma of being pulled in multiple places at once, each option a dire situation, and the circumstances make you feel helpless despite your supernatural abilities. It's an incredible feeling, and the major beats of Spider-Man's story missions are certainly one of the game's highlights.

The high bar set in the main plot shines a harsher light on the rest of the game's activities, though. The game features a number of side quests, most of which branch off the main story, but these don't have the same narrative energy as the main throughline, which makes them much less compelling. There are also a number of other optional activities, all ostensibly moderate tests of skill asking you to exercise your abilities in combat, traversal, or stealth. These challenges can be unique, but the dressing on them can also be uninspired, making them strange at best (curing avian flu in pigeons) and menial at worst (three different kinds of horde mode-style challenges).

Dealing with trivial matters are all part of being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, of course. Randomly occurring crimes, as well as two different collectible-hunting activities that encourage you to explore the city, are the activities that best embody this idea, despite becoming repetitive. But when tasks like backing up computer data, relieving the city's steam pipe pressure, or catching pigeons suddenly become Spidey's number one, life-or-death priority when there's some pretty serious stuff going on in the main story, it's hard not to be a little bewildered.

The best incentive to complete activities is tied to progression--each type offers its own unique tokens as the reward, used to purchase new suits, gadgets, and upgrades. Oddly, the most exciting activities are the ones plainly labeled as "Challenge Missions." These ask you to push yourself in time trials to break a series of benchmarks records for bonus tokens. Completing challenge missions are surprisingly the most motivating and rewarding of all the activities, even containing some special surprises.

The strangest part about the game's activities lies in the use of a trite open-world mechanic: tower reveals. You begin the game with a blank world map, and it's necessary to make time to traverse through each of Manhattan's neighborhoods to find and reactivate a number of towers in order to uncover the map and pinpoint optional activities. There is some light narrative justification for this (Spidey needs to get access to local police radio for info on crimes) but it doesn't address the puzzling nature of a veteran Spider-Man not innately knowing how to get around New York City.

However, for all the bewildering mundanity, the optional activities do provide some welcome relief in pacing from the more intense episodes of the main story. In fact, the game at times will give Spidey (and by extension, you) dedicated time for breaks in between missions to clear your head with some silly, low-stakes activities. And in the end, despite their obvious flaws, they are undeniably irresistible to seek out and complete, purely because they act as a satisfactory enough reason to get out there and play with Spider-Man's sensational web-slinging mechanics.

Swinging around New York as Spider-Man is endlessly fulfilling. It's a relatively straightforward system that isn't overly demanding on inputs, but the minor adjustments and variables in terrain you need to consider while in motion (webs require tangible attach points), as well as the weighty feeling of Spidey makes the process feel satisfyingly manual--there's just enough effort required to make you feel as if it's all on you. During a big swing, you may decide to hold on for just a little longer so you can leap higher and gain elevation. Then, while mid-somersault, you scan the environment and assess that a water tower atop a building you cleared is the best next option, so you accurately shoot a web to zip to its vertex, but when Spidey makes contact, you perfectly time a jump and push off with a bonus burst of forward momentum.

The fluid animations, visual effects, and controller rumble play a big part in selling the intensity, the speed and the giddiness of flinging yourself through the air. Spidey transitions between different movement techniques seamlessly in most cases, and there's also a slowdown mechanic that assists in helping you make more accurate and graceful traversal decisions. Holding L2 will slow down time to a crawl and let you manually aim a zip-to-point maneuver, but also let you initiate surprise attacks on enemies or perform other tasks--taking a photo of an iconic NYC monument to complete a challenge mid-swing, for example, can give you a wonderful feeling of competency. Because it's such an involved task, swinging around is Spider-Man's greatest joy. Despite its simplicity, every move you connect feels like a small victory, and the pace is rhythmic enough that putting in the effort to move elegantly becomes an absorbing experience.

There's a similar gratification to be had from Spider-Man's combat. The Arkham Asylum-inspired crowd fighting system suitably characterizes Spidey's acrobatic nature, and like web-slinging, observing the enemies and environment to find your next best move makes it a satisfying puzzle. It only takes a few hits for Spidey to go down, so picking the right gadgets and powers for the job, using the right techniques for different kinds of enemies, being proactive in using your skills to manage overwhelming groups, and working to earn buffs and long combos by focusing on hitting your attacks and dodges with perfect timing keeps even relatively unchallenging encounters interesting.

Combat-specific challenges also encourage you to mix up your technique, but it's the fluid transitions between attacks and the appearance of a natural flow that again sell the excitement. Spidey's flashy finishers and their over-the-top camera movements work to add some pizazz in addition to being an excellent tool in their own right, though you'll see these animations countless time throughout the course of the game, and they do start to lose their impact. This also true of the optional stealth mechanics which, while effective, will often see you watching the same stealth takedown animations again and again if you choose to go down that path.

What helps curb the monotony of combat later in the game are the story's boss battles. These fights are intensely chaotic affairs, featuring unique takedowns and bombastic set pieces. Though the solution to beating them doesn't take much to figure out, your opponents attack relentlessly, meaning you'll have to constantly stay on your toes, moving and dodging around while waiting for an opening--a dynamic that feels very true to the character, which goes a long way in making these moments memorable.

Minor shortcomings don't detract from Insomniac's achievement in creating a game that feels like an authentic interpretation of a beloved creation. The feeling of embodying Spidey and using his abilities is astonishing, and the time spent on exploring its major characters help make its story feel heartfelt, despite superhero bombast. There have been open-world Spider-Man games before, but none so riveting and full of personality, none that explore and do justice to this many facets of the universe. Insomniac has created a superior Spider-Man experience that leaves a lasting impression, one that has you longing for just one more swing around New York City, even after the credits roll.

Planet Alpha Review: A Beautiful Planet

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 09/04/2018 - 09:00

From the outset, Planet Alpha is purposefully vague about what is going on. Your unnamed protagonist, a non-entity in an unrevealing spacesuit, limps through a series of harsh environments during the game's opening. After a minute, they stagger and collapse only to awake in a new area. The how and why of this event and everything that happens afterward never become important. This is a game of mystery and discovery where you're never sure who you are, where you're heading, or why you're on this glorious, mysterious planet. Planet Alpha does not have answers to the questions you might have--it's a sightseeing tour of a planet that feels truly alien, by way of a 2D puzzle platformer.

The sights and locations you'll see and explore are varied, with each of the game's chapters taking you to a different environment. You move through catacombs, jungles, enormous architectural structures, and even across islands floating in the sky. There is beauty in every environment, but nothing beats the deep backgrounds of the game's numerous outdoor sections, which teem with life and a sense of history. It's clear that something has gone terribly wrong on the eponymous planet and watching it all unfold--occasionally becoming involved in incidents as they break out--is a pleasure. While you might leave without a clear idea of what just happened, there's a coherency to Planet Alpha that suggests some deeply established lore.

From its opening moments through to its closing credits, Planet Alpha is stunning. It's the sort of game that dedicated screenshot buttons were made for--you feel like a tourist taking holiday snaps, only you're coming home with pictures of giant squid-aliens, bioluminescent plants, and inter-species battles that break out in the distance. There's no UI on the screen, so you can really appreciate how beautiful everything looks. The camera often zooms out to let you take in the scope and beauty of your surroundings and the vistas that stretch to a distant horizon. A large part of the appeal is wondering what you might see around the corner.

Planet Alpha focuses on platforming puzzles--you'll frequently have to move climbable boxes and figure out how to avoid the hostile creatures and robots that inhabit the planet. There are no real head-scratchers though, and succeeding is mostly a matter of paying attention to your environment and timing your actions well. Getting past enemies usually requires either some rudimentary stealth (like hiding among foliage or behind a pillar until an enemy moves) or luring them into danger. This can be frustrating since the AI patterns of your enemies are unpredictable, but the feeling of relief in finally managing to lure a killer robot to its death is always satisfying. Several sections can be solved through trial and error, and running forward and getting killed is sometimes the easiest way to work out how to avoid getting killed next time--respawning is very quick, and changes you make to the environment persist.

For reasons never fully explained, you also have the power to rotate the planet with the shoulder buttons. At first, you're only able to do this in designated spots, but later in the game you can do it anywhere. This means that you can switch from daytime to nighttime, making use of the day/night cycle and the fact that some elements of the environment change between the two. For instance, during the day, a mushroom might appear as a platform you can jump on, and at night some plants awaken and unfurl, allowing you to use them as cover as you sneak through an area. Rotating the planet can also move elements within the environment, so a platform might rise or shift, or a door might open if you rotate in the right direction. These puzzles are interesting, but they're rarely challenging or clever, and while the world rotation ability feels inherently grand when you first start using it, there are no unexpected twists or new interesting wrinkles in how this mechanic works. There’s beauty in watching the shift happen, though, as luminescent plants glow in the moonlight and the dawning sun casts a glorious light across the planet.

Planet Alpha gets trickier when you're asked to perform death-defying physical feats. Large sections of the game feel reminiscent of Uncharted and its ilk, as you scramble up walls and leap between pillars, or slide down an embankment and jump at just the right moment to avoid falling to your doom. These moments can be quite exciting, and there are plenty of great scripted sequences throughout the game that see you just barely surviving as you run, jump and climb away from danger. But the controls can feel stiff in instances where precision is required, and sometimes you'll fall to your death because your last-microsecond jump didn't register or because you character doesn't grab the ledge for some reason.

This is an especially big issue during a handful of sequences that warp you into what seems to be another dimension, a trippy, dark void full of huge floating blocks where gravity is greatly reduced. These sections are weird, even by "mysterious game set on an alien planet" standards, but their pure focus on low-gravity platforming can be exciting at times. Flinging across long jumps is exhilarating--if you're on a moving block and jump from it right as it comes to a stop you'll be sent flying, which allows for traversal puzzles on a bigger scale than anything outside of the void. But these areas can also get frustrating when the physics aren't quite gelling and you're finding yourself being flung further than expected, desperately wishing you could wall jump off the floating pillars you're smacking into.

While there are moments of frustration in its platforming, and the puzzles are relatively unsophisticated, the locations of Planet Alpha will most certainly stick with you. It doesn't matter why you're there, or what it is you're looking for. There's great pleasure in just existing on this planet, in navigating its harsh terrain and admiring its vistas, and the sheer beauty of it all makes the game's shortcomings easy to bear.

Freedom Planet Review -- Speedy Ambitions

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 09/01/2018 - 15:00

As a 2D platformer, Freedom Planet draws much of its inspiration from classic Sonic the Hedgehog. The game exhibits a riveting sense of speed, lively retro visuals and music, and clever level design packed with exciting touches. Challenging large-scale boss fights typically reserved for 2D side-scrolling shoot 'em ups, such as Gunstar Heroes and Contra, are frequent and satisfying. There's great ambition in what Freedom Planet manages to blend together, and while some of its highest moments are accompanied by a few blemishes that are difficult to look past, it's still a joy to play.

Freedom Planet's story starts out simple: when an alien force invades the peaceful planet of anthropomorphic protagonists Lilac, Carol, and Milla, the three are called upon to help thwart the tyrannical ambitions of its evil leader, Lord Brevon. Despite sounding rudimentary, the story makes a big show of itself with lengthy cutscenes interspersed between each of its 10 stages. There's a great amount of detail written into the world and surrounding lore with characters and locations given more background than you'd expect.

Unfortunately, none of this development ever amounts to anything remarkable or intriguing, often relying on a bevy of tropes to push the narrative forward. What's worse is the main cast's painfully overacted performances, which results in a litany of cringeworthy moments in both funny and serious scenes. It is possible to play the game in Classic Mode, which removes all the story cutscenes. While this benefits the experience as a whole, you simply wouldn't know this to be the best way to play the game without having experienced the mediocrity of its writing and presentation first.

Where Freedom Planet is likely to hook you is in its level design. There's a ton of pleasure to be had zipping to and fro across the varied multi-lane pathways of each stage, which feature a wealth of loops to pass and well-placed hazards to avoid. The routes are generally easy to navigate with brief platforming challenges that keep you moving from one pathway to the next. Like the 2D Sonic games that inspired it, Freedom Planet's stages are split across two parts, but the separation between them isn't heavily signposted, instead pushing you from one section to the next as soon as a boss is defeated. This subtle shift increases your time spent running across stages, and as each one comes to close, you'll feel a stronger sense of accomplishment to the trials and tribulations you experienced in your journey through it.

Each stage exudes its own personality, and there's plenty of visual diversity present. You'll clear through shopping malls inspired by Chinese-motifs, explore bamboo forests, and cross a fleet of airships. There's some decent pixelated art on display, but a lot of it appears flat with textures from the foreground and background often blending together, which can cause minor inconveniences during certain platforming challenges.

Speaking of which, a higher focus on platforming provides some welcomed respite from racing towards a stage's finish line. In addition, you'll often stick around in some areas to engage in melee combat against crowds of enemies. All of this is aided by how each of the three playable characters have their own distinct modes of navigation and combat. While Lilac can use her Dragon Boost ability to instantly zip across the environment and make short work of enemies in her way, the more combat-oriented Carol and defense-focused Milla have to rely on their pounce and energy shield abilities, respectively, in order to pick up speed and dispatch foes. Each of their abilities lead you toward new paths you wouldn't be able to reach otherwise, and you're rewarded for putting in the time as other characters, as they occasionally get their own stages designed specifically around their abilities.

Bookending Freedom Planet's stages are boss fights that are as tough as they are ostentatious. They're not too demanding at first, but as you progress, they start to require advanced tactics that test both your timing and reflexes. There's an impressive sense of scale to the battles. One fight has you dueling against a giant robotic mantis who jumps all around the battlefield to slice you, while another has you engaging in a high-speed chase with an an evil snake mercenary piloting a massive dog mech. These moments are some of Freedom Planet's most memorable, especially because each character has very different ways of dealing with them. Lilac has to rely on her standard melee and jumping spin attacks to hit bosses, using her Dragon Boost to fly up in the air to avoid screen-filling attacks. On the other hand, Carol doesn't have the same conveniences as Lilac, instead relying on precision platforming and her wall jump ability to avoid larger boss attacks.

Lilac and Carol are the definite highlights of the roster, as their utilitarian movesets make them a joy to use. Both characters are rewarding to play in their own right, providing their own unique thrills and challenges. However, the same can't be said for Milla, whose abilities feel more like an afterthought to round out the pack. Compared to her more able-bodied comrades, Milla lacks any meaningful way to quickly pick up speed, which often slows down the pacing of levels that are more built around moving swiftly. Her energy shield's short range is a pain to use, and its various attacks aren't all that functional when you're moving through areas filled with enemies due to their slow startup.

Milla's abilities are admittedly entertaining to use against bosses--whose difficult patterns oftentimes feel more built around the abilities of Lilac and Carol. At times, these instances feel like they're weighed against you, but they often pave way to tense and fulfilling uphill battles that demand you to act more defensively. A momentary satisfaction, this sense of reward quickly wears off when you begin a new stage and realize just how much you're bypassing threats simply because of how long it takes for Milla to fight against normal enemies.

Despite echoing the design of early 2D Sonic games, Freedom Planet manages to create its own take on the formula that's well worth playing. For a game that emphasizes tightly-paced stage design and challenging boss fights, it's disappointing that the game's story never reaches the same heights. But if you have any vested interest in Sonic-like games or 2D action-platformers, you'd be remiss not to add this one to your queue--just make sure to play in Classic Mode.

Little Dragons Cafe Review - Dragging On

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 08/31/2018 - 17:29

Little Dragons Cafe defies categorization. Despite being the latest endeavor from Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada, it's not a farming sim. While you have to manage your cafe, keeping the staff in line and adjusting the menu to fit your needs, it's also not really a management sim. You instead split your time between exploring with your dragon to hunt down recipes and ingredients and going hands-on at the cafe--and they combine to make a strangely satisfying loop. But Little Dragons Cafe is also held back by frustrating pacing problems in its story and progression, as well as technical hiccups that make it feel outdated.

In Little Dragons Cafe, you're one of a pair of twins whose mother has fallen into a deep sleep. You learn that she's part dragon, and in order to save her, you need to raise a dragon while also running the family cafe. You meet new cafe customers with problems of their own, and one by one, you help each of them through their struggles (mostly using food) to progress. There's a lot of silliness and cheerful platitudes throughout the story, and they're largely sweet, if a little corny; one customer, for example, is an angry young girl who learns to better understand her father through a comforting shrimp dish.

Each character's story is broken up into around a dozen short scenes, usually one per day. Early on, you'll only be able to explore the area immediately around the cafe; unlocking new areas is dependent on your dragon's size (two physically small stages and two stages that you can ride and fly on), which is in turn dependent on your progression through the story. The pace of the story lags behind that of exploration, and you'll find yourself ready to move on, having found every recipe and ingredient in the early areas, before the story structure will allow you to. The slowness feels forced and artificial, rather than a choice you make to fit the game's relaxed pastoral setting.

This early section is also dragged down by janky movement controls. You can jump, but it's clumsy, and you'll often have to tweak where you're standing slightly to actually get onto something. A hilly area in particular is filled with ledges you can jump down from but not back onto, forcing you to backtrack multiple times to reach everything on foot. Despite all that, though, you'll still outpace the story.

Little Dragons Cafe improves a lot once your dragon can fly. New regions, like a rocky cliffside set to upbeat music and a more subdued waterfall filled with rare ingredients, provide more variety in both your day-to-day exploration and in your cafe's menu. Flying eliminates all the problems with navigating on foot, and it becomes faster and easier to gather everything you need over the course of a day. Your cafe, too, becomes busier; you'll likely run out of ingredients faster than you can gather them, and you either have to consistently harvest what you need or plan your menu around what you have on hand. It's a satisfying balancing act that keeps you heading out day after day, even after you've thoroughly searched each area.

Creatively, cooking itself is a short rhythm minigame in which your accuracy helps determine the quality of the dish. The prompts often seem to be just off-beat, but the game is also forgiving, and creating high-quality dishes isn't difficult. The actual fun comes from coordinating your menu--in addition to regularly swapping out recipes as your ingredient stock fluctuates, you can check it to see which recipes are popular and which need to be swapped out for better ones. It's not a complex or deep system, and you don't have to try too hard to keep customers happy, but tinkering with it gives all that gathering a purpose.

You can also spend time on the actual operations of the cafe, including taking and serving orders, cleaning plates, and reining in the group of goofy weirdos that comprise the staff. While they're mostly likeable in cutscenes, the staff is not very helpful or efficient as employees and will frequently run into you and block your path as you try to complete tasks. They also slack off periodically, and while you can talk to them to get them back in line, the cafe won't suffer much for their poor performance. Generally, helping out in the cafe is busywork--the only incentive to do it is the guilt trip you might get from your sibling for shirking your responsibilities.

Little Dragons Cafe is heartwarming overall, with cute character designs and joyful music to accompany each colorful region. The dragon in particular is adorable as a baby, encouraging you to bond with (and feed) it as it grows. Unfortunately, texture shimmer, lag before cutscenes load, and limited lighting effects make it feel like a much older game than it is. The technical problems aren't obtrusive, but combined with the control and pacing issues, they do make Little Dragons Cafe feel like a much older game.

In many ways, Little Dragons Cafe doesn't really fit a modern mold. It's conservative with the goals it gives you, spacing out progression so much that it's easy to get impatient with it. None of your individual tasks are very complex or challenging, either. But when the right parts come together, it can be fun to succeed in its charming world, and it's easy to lose track of time hunting for hidden recipes or rare ingredients to make the best dishes possible. If anything, it's a lovely game to relax to--even if you're forced into a slow pace.

The Golf Club 2019 Review

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 08/30/2018 - 00:11

The first two Golf Club games from HB Studios were capable and compelling golf sims, but they lacked the punch of the official PGA Tour license. Thanks to a new deal, HB Studios now has the license, and this--along with solid, smooth swing controls and fine attention to the small details of golf--helps make The Golf Club 2019 a drive forward for the golf simulation series.

The Golf Club 2019 brings six real-world courses to the game, including some of the well-known ones like TPC Sawgrass (home of the Players Championship) and TPC Scottsdale (home of the Phoenix Waste Management Open). The licensed courses are baked into the game's new PGA Tour career mode, with fictional courses filling in the gaps. The six TPC courses are modeled with a fine attention to detail. The famous and dramatic No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass shines in the Florida sun, and I found myself holding my breath teeing it up to the protected island green. The love-it-or-hate-it party hole, No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale, is captured faithfully with its huge stadium-like atmosphere and massive crowds. The Shriners tournament at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas even includes fezzes as tee boxes just like in real life. If you've seen a broadcast or walked any of these courses in person, they will look familiar. The Golf Club 2019 is a good-looking game, particularly when playing at dusk with sunspots peeking through the clouds. And there is a fine attention to the small details. The distinctive cracking sound of a well-struck drive reflects what you hear on the course in real life and on TV. You'll hear birds chirping and see beautiful vistas of mountainsides, lakes, deserts, and lush forests.

That level of realism, depth, and detail doesn't extend to the other aspects of the career mode, however. There are no player likenesses, so don't expect to tee it up as the recently resurging Tiger Woods. Also absent are famous courses like Augusta National and St. Andrews. As a result, The Golf Club 2019's PGA Tour career mode feels limited, especially when only six of the mode's 32 events take place on real golf courses. Although the fictional courses are beautiful, challenging, and diverse, I was left wanting a lot more for a career mode carrying the PGA Tour name. That being said, it was a memorable and challenging journey to advance through the different tours, building skills and experience on the way to the top.

It's too bad that the journey to becoming the best golfer is not generally a fun one to listen to. Just like in last year's game, tournament commentary in The Golf Club 2019 is distractingly rough at times. You'll hear the commentary team making out-of-place comments and repeating themselves very often. It almost never feels natural and comes across as forced and contrived, with main commentator John McCarthy speaking in overly hushed, serious tones However, the commentary while playing solo, outside of a tournament atmosphere, is another story. In this more relaxed setup, McCarthy is a delight. He cheers you on and makes polite, playful little jabs when you miss a putt or shank a shot. He even makes groaning, guttural noises when you narrowly miss a putt, and he mimics Borat with a "Very nice" quip when you make a difficult shot.

As you progress through a PGA Tour season, you'll level up your player and unlock new customization options like clothing and clubs. You also unlock sponsorship tiers and related items after wins, including gear from real-world companies like Under Armour. These rewards, in addition to a rival system that tracks your progress against a fictional player on the tour, give you ample reasons to keep coming back and shoot low scores. It's also nice to see that progression--for the career mode and head-to-head multiplayer--does not include leveling up the attributes of your player. This helps keep everyone on a level playing field, unable to smash a drive many yards longer just because they've played more. Also of note is that the character creator is extremely deep, letting you tweak things like the fine contours on your face and the color of your hair with a wide spectrum of options. Weirdly, the game only offers one shade of darker skin tone, which stands in contrast to the plethora of other personalization options to choose from.

On the course, The Golf Club 2019 is the most mechanically sound, challenging, and rewarding golf sim out there. The swing mechanics heavily emphasize tempo. It's a real challenge to make sure you're swinging with the right speed and direction to send the ball where you want it to go off the tee box or with a short iron into a green. One of the most exciting and compelling parts about golf is creating your own shots and scrambling, and The Golf Club 2019 gives you the tools you need to succeed in this regard. The game automatically recommends clubs and shot angles, but these are mostly suggestions on how to play it safe. While there are times when it's important to make safe, normal shots, that isn't always the case and the mechanics are fluid and dynamic enough to give you fine control when you need it the most. Very often you will be in between clubs on a critical approach shot, and your success or failure depends on your ability to dial in the right combination of many distinct elements like height, fade, power, and direction, all of which you manipulate simultaneously. There are also times when you will need to go for a gutsy shot over water or trees, or with draw/fade to get around a corner. It's a thrill when you get this right, and a gut-punch when you don't.

Getting to the green is just the start, and putting is where your skills will truly be tested. The game lets you see the undulation of each green, but you must pick a line and judge the speed correctly to send the ball rolling in. Like the two games before it, The Golf Club 2019 earns its simulation nature by being difficult, particularly on the greens. You are punished for poor swings and misreading wind and lies, and the game's most challenging courses will put all of your skills to the test in an experience that can feel frustrating at first but ultimately rewarding when it all comes together. While the game is unquestionably difficult, the swing mechanics and systems for drives, iron shots, and putting, always feel fair. The ball might not always go where you want it to, but you can always reasonably pin your failure on something you could improve.

A lot of the animations in The Golf Club 2019 are very good. The way your character's knees buckle when they miss a close putt faithfully captures the pain of that experience many golfers know too well, and. things like body positioning over the ball and the angles and extensions of your character's arms and hands from start to finish appear natural. Unfortunately, there are some problems as well. There is a fist-pump animation you'll see after sinking a nice putt, and while it's effective in capturing the magnitude and emotional expression of the moment, it's the same animation over and over again which eventually makes what should be an exciting moment a boring one. Some of the animations when your player gets in a precarious position, like near the water or on the lip of a bunker, are not very fluid. There are further unfortunate moments of strangeness, including your character standing over the hole when they sink a putt and galleries during competition rounds looking in the wrong direction and acting in unison as they clap and cheer. These weird moments detract from what is otherwise a well-presented package.

Another major element of The Golf Club 2019 is its robust course-creator that was one of the signature elements of the first two games. Using a relatively simple and intuitive interface, you can adjust and design almost everything on your course. Want to add alligators next to the tee box on a Par 5 that stretches over water on a blustery day to make the tee off even scarier? Go for it. You can upload and share courses with the community, and the ability to play new and never-before-seen courses will surely keep golf fans coming back for a new challenge.

Additionally, the game brings back last year's online-focused Societies mode, which lets you create and join clubs where you and your friends (or the wider public) can compete against other players' ghosts in seasons that run for multiple weeks. There is also head-to-head online multiplayer that, for the first time, now lets you play Skins and Alt-Shot game modes in addition to standard ones like Stroke and Match play. However, as of 10 AM AEST on August 29, I was unable to find any head-to-head online matches on PC.

The Golf Club 2019 remains a challenging and ultimately rewarding golf sim with a solid swing system that puts a premium on skill and strategy. The addition of the PGA Tour license is a welcome but limited addition that gives the game a further level of realism and authenticity, while the course-creator again shines as one of the franchise's standout features. Despite its issues, The Golf Club 2019 is the franchise's most attractive package yet.

Hollow Knight Review - An Exceptional Adventure

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 08/29/2018 - 23:02

Hollow Knight routinely finds ways to surprise you and regularly delivers more than you might have bargained for. Its rich 2D world is filled with tragic tales of a lost kingdom that unfurl during an expansive adventure that feels breathless from its humble beginnings to its climatic, emotional end. Its demanding combat and smartly designed platforming puzzles made a strong debut on PC last year, but the more complete package on Nintendo Switch with every bit of DLC to date is a more robust challenge filled with excitement and dread--and one that you’ll struggle to pull yourself away from.

Hollow Knight doesn't concern itself with exposition and very quickly lets you loose on a massive, sprawling world with little direction. There's no hint as to your purpose within its curious bug kingdom, one that has seen better days and now lies rotting beneath the surface of the last standing settlement, Dirtmouth. Its citizens--from harmless-looking beetles to aggressively violent bees--protect their spaces with ferocity. There's peril in adventuring through Hollow Knight's world, but there's always something new to poke at to entice you to push further through.

Central to Hollow Knight's compelling exploration is the large map itself. None of it is filled in from the start, and Hollow Knight doesn't even present you with a way to track your travels until several hours in. This is frustrating at first. You'll become hopelessly lost in the labyrinths below Dirtmouth, unsure of whether you're heading towards progress or in the opposite direction entirely. Purchasable maps help fill in the blanks, but even then, you'll need to equip a specific item just to see where you are at any given time. It's overwhelming before you get your bearings, but overcoming that initial hurdle provides you the skills and knowledge required to traverse the rest of Hollow Knight's intricate world.

Hollow Knight's distinct spaces are a marvel in design. Each bears a striking aesthetic to make it clear where you are and what sorts of enemies you should expect to face. The depth of their variations is what truly stands out. Honeycomb-laden halls stretch out over multiple screens in a rich, royal bee hive, contrasted by desolate and lonely caverns on the edges of the kingdom. The creaky and eerie waterways below the City of Tears sits comfortably next to the dark catacombs of a spider's nest, with webs obscuring your view to only increase the tension preceding a surprise attack. Hollow Knight's spaces each tell a story, and you can engross yourself in the small tales its sparse inhabitants tell through text to piece together what befell this once regal society. They're accompanied by wonderful musical scores that breathe an immense amount of personality into each area with fitting backdrops, but Hollow Knight also understands that silence is sometimes just as effective.

Exploration is governed by key items you'll find around the map, giving you new abilities to traverse previously inaccessible areas. The Mantis Claw, for example, allows you to augment your regular jump with chained wall jumps. Another will let you fly across seemingly endless caverns of spikes without a care in the world. It's immediately clear when you're not equipped for an area, which helps avoid any potential frustration. A dangerous acidic pool will prevent you from reaching clear pathways to new areas, for example, while a large stretch of thorny vines prevents you from crossing large chasms safely without something to aid you. Its multiple sections also fold over into themselves in ingenious ways, and uncovering useful shortcuts, hidden passageways, and crucial resting places are paramount to avoiding tedious backtracking.

Backtracking itself is only dangerous because Hollow Knight is designed to make your travels as hard as possible. There are hundreds of enemies waiting to knock you back to your last resting area, each with unique attack patterns and behaviors. Mosquitoes are easy to swat away in small numbers, but swarms of the fast-moving devils can become problematic in areas with limited platforms to traverse between. Conversely, larger enemies that deal more damage to you will routinely appear in claustrophobic spaces, such as the heavily armored beetles in Deepnest or the grotesque leeches in the Royal Waterways. These foes make you consider charting out alternative routes to avoid them entirely or entice you to formulate smart attacking options to reap monetary rewards from a successful takedown. Both approaches feel satisfying in their own right because their solutions are not immediately apparent, giving you a real sense of accomplishment for figuring them out.

Combat is deceptively simple, though, and more focused on timing and patience than dexterity. For a long stretch, Hollow Knight only gives you a single attack to work with, but your repertoire is eventually filled out with omnidirectional spells, risky charged attacks, and status-affecting Charms, with enemies keeping up in kind to provide appropriately advanced challenges. It feels great to revisit an early area in the game and cruise through sections of the map that you once had to navigate cautiously. Hollow Knight features plenty of new challenges to uncover, though, be it secret combat arenas, grueling platforming, or hidden boss battles. The more you look, the more you're rewarded for doing so.

What makes Hollow Knight feel especially brutal at times is the way it handles death. Each time you die you'll have to navigate back to your body to reclaim dropped currency. You'll additionally have to duel your disembodied soul hanging over your death spot to reclaim it, which can present problems if you find yourself falling in a particularly dangerous area. For a large part of the game, you'll use money to acquire upgrades and core items required for progress, so losing a large chunk of it due to careless error is demoralizing. Still, it's difficult to feel frustrated considering how carefully designed each combat scenario is and how exceptionally good Hollow Knight is at putting the onus of failure squarely on your shoulders.

Hollow Knight offers a ridiculous amount of good content. Its main quest will last easily around 30 hours, without relying on artificially padded areas or needlessly repetitive backtracking. But over the year-plus since its release on PC, Hollow Knight has seen large updates. Three DLC packs have added significant swaths of content to the existing package for free, in the vein of quality-of-life changes, various Charms, and new quests and characters to interact with. Some are small enough that it's hard to imagine Hollow Knight existing at a time without them (the ability to pin areas on your map, for example, was curiously not present at launch), while others give you more to chew on should the main narrative not satiate your appetite.

The largest of these content packs is Godmaster, which feels like the ideal way for you to truly test your Hollow Knight prowess. It gives you three new areas to explore that aren't as expansive as you might expect, but do set the stage for rematches against previously defeated bosses. You'll be able to tackle them with modifiers that limit your total health, deny your use of offensive spells, or reduce the amount of damage you deal out. This makes even the more straightforward bosses found in the early portions of the game test your skills in new ways by forcing you to be more patient and react without useful abilities you might have become comfortable with. The proximity of each of these fights also makes you appreciate how much variety Hollow Knight's large roster of enemies features, and just how difficult it can be to adapt from one to the next in a small window of time. Given that some challenges require you to have found certain characters, you'll find renewed incentive to explore areas you thought you had already charted, engrossing you yet again into its loop of exploration.

Godmaster feels like the ideal way for you to truly test your Hollow Knight prowess.

Hollow Knight feels exceptional because so many of its smaller, expertly designed parts fit so well together over an extraordinarily long adventure that could easily have fallen prey to poor pacing. But its expansive enemy roster and routinely surprising areas and platforming challenges ensure that your journey through this fallen bug kingdom is one you're unlikely to forget. Hollow Knight offers a surprisingly large and harrowing adventure, and it's a treat that every bit of it is just as divine as that last.

Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate Review - A Formidable Beast

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 08/29/2018 - 15:00

With Monster Hunter: World, the famously esoteric series received a massive overhaul, including many changes that lowered the barrier to entry for new players. Dozens of quality-of-life boons not seen in previous entries--easy quest tracking, extensive tutorials, and more nuanced combat, just to name a few--have made the series a lot more accessible than it's ever been. Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate, a Switch port of the 2016 3DS entry, has basically none of those improvements. Generations is tough as nails, unforgiving, and downright cruel at times--especially if you're coming off of World. Even so, it makes plenty of strong cases for its less-forgiving systems and offers up some thrilling challenges for Nintendo's hybrid console.

If you're at all lost on the basic premise of Monster Hunter, rest assured, all you need to know is in the name. Your job is to pick out a ridiculous weapon, find some over-the-top armor, pick a beast to hunt, and bring it down. Truth be told, Generations flubs all but that last bit on some level. You're plopped into a world packed to the gills with fantastical beasts and gargantuan creatures with little to guide you.

For starters, there are about a dozen weapons that handle in wildly different ways. The insect glaive, for instance, gives you a massive pole arm and a helpful insect that acts as a support character. If that isn't enough to give you pause, even the standard sword and shield don't carry the play style you might expect. Where in most games the classic fantasy gear pairing might lend itself to a sturdy, rough-and-tumble fighter able to get in close and mix up attacks and blocks, in Monster Hunter, the class works best as a support. Plus, given the prevalence of long-reach weapons, the shield is helpful, but doesn't keep you out danger in quite the same way.

What you pick is all a matter of preference, but if you plan on running multiplayer hunts (which is highly recommended), you'll want to coordinate your picks with your friends so you've got good coverage. And, if you're new to the series, it's definitely going to help to have someone take point and offer recommendations. Beyond that, though, multiplayer helps make fights more manageable. Enemies scale with how many companions you bring, but having specialized roles and team coordination and strategizing to fall back on when the going gets tough isn’t just about making these challenges surmountable, but about joining together with other players to revel in the carnage. Otherwise, you'll be stuck experimenting with weapons until you find the right one or picking one and sticking with it come hell or high water.

At first, you won't have much in the way of beasts to fight. Where Monster Hunter World throws you right into the thick of combat, Generations has a long, slow grind to the interesting foes--the idea being that you can cut your teeth on the weaklings for some time before you're tasked with a major hunt. Unfortunately, this also means that a good chunk of the early game is a slog.

Breaking that up a bit are the Palicos, anthropomorphized cats that come in a few different flavors across the Monster Hunter games. In this iteration, they are a distinct playstyle unto themselves. As you gather Palico friends to help you along the way, you can take control of them and go on quests like you would as your human avatar, albeit with a few twists. You can't use items, limiting certain types of tactics, but they also don't run out of stamina and can survive extreme temperatures thanks to their fur coats. Those distinctions are enough to offer some variety as you progress and give you a chance to get a better understanding of the world.

A big part of the game is also gathering supplies from the environment to craft gear and potions, and that's another area where Prowlers (an honorific given to Palicos that take up hunting) come in. Because they each have a distinct style, from a party support to grenadier, it's worth it to experiment with each and see which fits for you, especially since you'll gain bonuses for the whole clan of kitties if you level each type up. The catch, though, is that while all these extras offer more flexibility in play style, it's in service to Generations' proclivity for grinding through content.

In a sense, though, that's the point. All the small hunts and gathering missions work together for the grand goal of tracking and hunting the game's biggest and baddest monsters. Hunts are an ordeal, but the effort that precedes the triumph makes victory all the sweeter. And that's no mere platitude. Monsters are tricky beasts that are all too happy to grind you to dust, but knowing how to disable a creature, or misdirect it with a flashbang and then also having put the work into prepping that knowledge and the supplies to match is an unparalleled experience.

Part of that stems from the fact that these bouts are grueling affairs. And across that time, you're watching for telegraphed attacks and possible openings to unleash your own volleys. How you maneuver and jockey for that position as well as pacing out your item use to fit the battle is exhilarating. The grandiose scale of these fights is truly something to behold. And there's something grippingly primal about them. When you're facing down the gargantuan metallic black dragon Kushala Daora, it just wouldn't do to have it felled in a few short minutes. That's where Monster Hunter breaks from like-minded outings. Nowhere else will you feel quite the same level of powerlessness, and then, through perseverance and planning, reap the high of a successful hunt.

Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate game is not for the faint of heart. It is a commitment, and it's not something that you genuinely play casually.

And that's all that matters here. The Switch port specifically has more critters to fell than any of its predecessors----and almost three times the current Monster Hunter World roster. That, combined with some new combat styles and an added difficulty level make it one of the strongest entries for classic fans of the series yet. Hunter Arts and styles, two features new to the original 2016 Monster Hunter Generations, have been beefed up, adding some new techniques and offering plenty of additional content for those coming back for a second round.

Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate game is not for the faint of heart. It is a commitment, and it's not something that you genuinely play casually. You can sink dozens of hours into the game and still not get close to conquering the full set of monsters contained within. For those that are down for such an extraordinary adventure, there's more than enough here to thrill and delight. Just know what you're getting into. You will struggle to understand the basics if this is your first Monster Hunter game, but there are incredible rewards should you make it over every one of its initial hurdles.

Into The Breach Review: Mechanized Masterpiece

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 08/28/2018 - 23:43

In 2012, Subset Games released FTL--a strategy roguelite whose best moments were when everything worked like a well-oiled machine, but also when you were frantically trying to adapt to dangerous, unexpected situations in the spur of the moment. Into The Breach, Subset's sophomore effort, again has you enacting carefully planned strategies. The difference is that when the going gets tough, Into The Breach's turn-based mechanics and tactical tools allow you to improvise precisely, and respond purposefully, with perfectly choreographed counters in an aggressive ballet that feels amazing to conduct again and again.

In a world where giant monsters called Vek threaten the earth, humanity has devised equally giant, human-operated mechs to combat them. Humanity has also invented time-travel technology to give pilots the opportunity to go back in time and start the whole conflict over, should the worst happen. You command a squad of three mech pilots whose purpose is to deter the advances of the Vek, one region at a time, through four different island stages with the ultimate goal of destroying their hive.

In each region, your primary objective is to stop Vek from causing collateral damage--each civilian building destroyed depletes part of the game's overall power grid meter, and if it hits zero, your game is over. However, Vek almost always outnumber your squad, with even more continually spawning in, which makes wiping them out entirely a difficult task. Into The Breach is a tactics game with an emphasis on deterrence and creatively mitigating damage with the limited tools at your disposal.

It's a daunting task, but there is one central feature that makes this process enjoyable and manageable: Every action the enemy will make in their next attack phase is clearly telegraphed through the UI during your turn. You can see which tile a particular Vek will hit and how much damage it will do, meaning you can assess your priorities and the response options you have available, then take direct steps to address the fated outcome. In the critical moments, just before a Vek flattens a hospital, you might dash in and tackle it out of range, and into the firing line of another Vek. Or, if your mech lacks close-combat abilities, you might move into harm's way to prevent the building from destruction. You might notice that more Vek will be spawning from the ground, and decide to throw a boulder on the tile to stop them from emerging, or shoot an off-the-mark missile, letting the explosion push another Vek on top of it.

Knowing the exact outcome of each action means that Into The Breach feels like a game of violent chess, in the best way possible. Each turn will have you pondering over possible moves and outcomes, threats you can feasibly attend to, and pieces you can afford to sacrifice--common characteristics found in any good turn-based tactics game. But because the possibility spaces of Into The Breach skirmishes are so confined (every battle takes place on an 8x8 grid, just like a chessboard, filled with impassable squares) decisions can be reached quickly, and momentum rarely comes to a standstill for long.

What also makes these decisions so entertaining to consider is not just the novelty of the way different components can interact in delightful ways, it's the certainty of how they will interact. Into The Breach is a tactical game that features a relative lack of probability, uncertainty, and risk. Attacks will always connect and do a distinct amount of damage, the grid-based scenarios mean units move and take actions in exact distances, and nothing ever occurs without at least some warning. The transparency and amount of information communicated provide great peace of mind, since every action you take will go as planned.

The only exception is that when a Vek attacks a building, there is a tiny chance that the building will withstand damage. The probability of this happening is related to your overall grid power and can be increased, but the percentage value is always so low that this rare occurrence feels more like a miracle when it happens, rather than a coin toss you can take a chance on.

The game's time-travel conceit also has a part to play here--you have the ability to undo unit movement, and each battle gives you a single opportunity to completely rewind and re-perform a turn. It's possible to execute your most optimal plan for each scenario every time, and the result is that turns in battle can feel like choreographed moves in an action movie, a confidently flawless dance of wind-ups, feints, counters, and turnabouts.

You can unlock up to eight different premade squads, each comprised of three unique units, which focus on entirely different styles of combat. The diversity here is significant enough that each team calls for distinct strategic approaches. The default squad, Rift Walkers, focuses on straightforward, head-first, push-pull techniques. The Blitzkrieg crew works best when corralling Vek together in order to execute a lightning attack that courses through multiple enemies. The Flame Walkers focus on setting everything ablaze and knocking Vek into fire for damage-over-time en masse. Each different combination of mechs can completely change how you perceive a battlefield; things that are obstacles for one squad could be advantageous strategic assets for another.

But where the possibilities of Into The Breach really open up is in its custom and random squad options, and the imaginative experimentation that comes from putting together unique all-star teams with individual mechs from different squads, along with your choice of starting pilot--whom all possess an exclusive trait. You might have a team composed of a mech who shields buildings and units, one that freezes anything on the map into a massive block of ice, one whose sole ability is to push everything surrounding it away, and a pilot that can perform one additional action each turn if they don't move. Can you complete a run of the game with that custom squad of pacifists? The game's structure makes these unorthodox options enjoyable challenges that are legitimately interesting to explore.

Into The Breach maintains a roguelike structure of procedurally generated trials and permadeath, but when a campaign goes south not all is lost. If a mech is destroyed during a battle, it will return in the next, only without its pilot and their unique trait. Too much collateral damage is game over but means you have the chance to send one of your living pilots--experience points and bonus traits intact--back in time to captain a new squad, in a new campaign. The game is difficult, but starting over isn't tiresome because your actions so directly determine outcomes, and you always feel you can improve. And individual battles are so swift and satisfying that they become a craving that you'll want to keep feeding over and over.

The clean and understated surface elements of Into The Breach complement the precise nature of its mechanics. The simple presentation, as well as the sharp UI layout, is attractively utilitarian and serves as a crucial component of the game's readability. There is no explicit plot outside of the time-traveling conceit, but the flavor text--small snippets of dialogue for each mech pilot and island leader, whom you'll encounter again and again throughout multiple playthroughs--adds a modest but pleasant facet of character to contextualize the world and round out the overall tone.

There is so much strategic joy in seeing the potential destruction a swarm of giant monsters is about to unleash on a city, then quickly staging and executing elaborate counter maneuvers to ruin the party. Into The Breach's focus on foresight makes its turn-based encounters an action-packed, risk-free puzzle, and the remarkable diversity of playstyles afforded by unique units keeps each new run interesting. It's a pleasure to see what kind of life-threatening predicaments await for you to creatively resolve in every new turn, every new battle, and every new campaign. Into The Breach is a pristine and pragmatic tactical gem with dynamic conflicts that will inspire you to jump back in again, and again, and again.

The Messenger Review: Fleet Footed

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 08/28/2018 - 15:00

It is evident from the onset that The Messenger is heavily influenced--aesthetically and mechanically--by the classic Ninja Gaiden series. But it's also quickly evident that the game doesn't just wear its influences on its sleeve, it also brings a brilliant new take on the action-platformer genre.

You play as a young ninja warrior tasked with delivering a sacred scroll to the top of a mountain after his village is attacked by demons. It isn't a wholly original idea by any means, but The Messenger eschews any self-seriousness in favor of a humorous and self-referential tone, regularly riffing on action-platformer tropes through the ninja warrior's conversations with various characters. The excellent writing keeps things lively and fresh, with jokes and pop culture references interwoven with an ambitious and clever narrative involving a time-travel mechanic that ties well into the gameplay system.

The ninja's skillset is initially limited, but it expands quickly to include abilities like a rope dart, wall climbing, and aerial gliding as well as a couple of optional techniques like a boomerang shuriken. Most interestingly, The Messenger replaces the classic double-jump move with something called cloudstepping, an ability that only makes double-jumping available after you've successfully landed a sword blow on an enemy or object mid-air.

This means you simply can't double-jump just anywhere, and an element of skill and timing is added to regular proceedings--chain several hits in succession and you can almost fly across the map by cloudstepping, but whiff one slash and you will find yourself staring into a bottomless pit. There is a great satisfaction to be found in the demands of successful cloudstepping, and the controls are impressively responsive to accompany your needs here.

The rewarding high-risk mechanic is complemented by The Messenger's smart design. Almost every level is crafted in such a way that it can be traversed using a number of different approaches, and exploration and experimentation are encouraged at every corner. You can take the straightforward route, or you can attempt the more difficult cloudstepping route that ultimately yields greater rewards due to numerous well-hidden secrets sprinkled throughout the game.

The Messenger starts off fairly easy, but the difficulty quickly increases as you acquire more abilities. Harder obstacles and challenges are introduced, and the game forces you to make the most of your abilities in order to keep up. Death is common, but the momentum never stops due to the use of generous checkpoints, allowing you to quickly learn from past mistakes and improve your muscle memory. The Messenger never feels too overwhelming or too easy, and its pacing and difficulty curve is nicely balanced--there is always a satisfaction to be had when a secret is found, a difficult obstacle is conquered, or a boss is defeated.

The Messenger also features a big twist: While the first half of the game is a linear action-platformer, once the midway point is reached, the game's narrative expands, unlocking time travel to and from the future. The game switches from its vibrant 8-bit aesthetic to an even more beautiful 16-bit art style, with richer backgrounds, a more diverse color palette, and more advanced audio processing to contrast with its previously chiptune soundtrack.

Additionally, the map and mechanics open up in the style of a Metroidvania, and a mechanic is introduced which allows you to travel back and forth between eras. A whole new dimension of puzzling opens up, creating even more tantalizing opportunities for exploration--you'll have to go back and forth often to maneuver around a level's physical obstacles and differences in each time zone. It's a simple but creative and aesthetically impressive mechanic that works very well.

The only thing that becomes distracting at this point in the game is the limited number of enemy types--there aren't that many of them, and encountering and killing the same monsters over and over again as you explore can become tedious. And while the 20-or-so hours of time-traveling, traversal, and swordfights lead you to a satisfying and appropriate climax, the game has an abrupt ending that robs you of any sense of closure.

The Messenger takes the best parts of the action-platformers it takes influence from and reinterprets them well. With clever writing, well-designed levels, and balanced difficulty curve, the game continuously hooks you with enticing skill-based challenges and satisfying payoffs. Your character might have an immediate imperative to delivering a world-saving scroll, but the journey there definitely one to savor.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes Of An Elusive Age Review - Back To The Good-Old Days

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 08/28/2018 - 14:00

The Dragon Quest series is a standard-bearer for an entire genre. Numerous JRPGs that have come and gone over the years have adapted from--and built upon--many of the formulas Dragon Quest established in the 8-bit era. While series like Final Fantasy have transformed dramatically over time, Dragon Quest tends towards traditionalism, enshrining many of its core gameplay and story concepts from game to game.

Dragon Quest XI is no exception. The chosen hero and his growing group of party members go on a globe-spanning adventure in a realm of fantasy and magic, exploring dungeons, solving story beats to proceed, and battling foes in turn-based combat. It’s a tale you're probably familiar with if you've played any classic JRPG. But Dragon Quest XI is proof that traditions and tropes don't have to feel worn-out and dull, as this gorgeous adventure will challenge your skills, tug at your heartstrings, and keep you eagerly playing further and further into its lengthy quest.

The hero of Dragon Quest XI is the reincarnation of the Luminary, a chosen warrior who will destroy a foretold dark presence. Yet the glorious hero is not welcomed with open arms when his destiny is revealed; some fear him as a harbinger that disaster is imminent, and wish him dead. As the hero adventures from his hometown into the wider world, he makes many friends, encounters wicked monsters, endures intense tribulations, and fights for light in the shadow of an empire manipulated by darkness.

That setup likely sounds quite familiar. The story in Dragon Quest XI doesn’t really offer any novel plot beats or twists, but that's not a knock against it; the game does a spectacular job of melding familiar story elements with engaging characters and excellent choreography.

For example, a tournament sequence is something you see in a lot of JRPGs, but the presentation, characterization, and sprinkling of humor present in Dragon Quest XI’s tournament arc makes it truly unforgettable. One memorable sequence involves the hero learning about his mysterious origins and the land that he came from. While that sounds like nothing more than a genre cliché, the way it's presented here is absolutely beautiful and touching.

The characterization of the game's various personalities helps a lot in making the story and world as engaging as it is. Every member of your party has a well-developed, unique personality that accentuates their role. For example, one of the more iconic party members is the flamboyant entertainer, Sylvando. His over-the-top mannerisms, cheerful attitude, and combat prowess make him stand out, but you also get an impression that the clown act might belie something buried in his past. There are plenty of fun NPCs you'll interact with in the story as well, such as a love-starved mermaid, an eccentric dean of an elite girls' prep school, and a stunningly incompetent prince. Finally, villains like the conflicted Sir Hendrick and the cunning Jasper present a constant threat that pushes you ever-forward.

Like the story and world, Dragon Quest XI's combat is familiar and traditional, but presented in a charming and engaging way that makes it feel anything but dated.

Special praise should be given to the game's localization. While it does change quite a few character and place names from the Japanese version, it does a magnificent job of making the dialogue and overall mood of the game feel warm, soulful, and inviting. Character personalities and the flavor of various regions of the world come through in dialogue with delightful flourishes (I feel for the editor who had to write hundreds of dialogue boxes for the characters who only speak in haiku), and even incidental menu and combat text has a fun, lighthearted feel to it that makes simply running through menus more lively. And when things get somber and serious, the writing changes to match, knowing full well what sort of tone needs to be set.

Dragon Quest XI is a very linear game; you hit one story point, solve whatever problem you're facing there (be it by defeating a monster, collecting an item, beating a minigame, or various combinations of these things), then venture out to the next area where you're presented with a new story beat, slashing down mobs of enemies along the way to build up your characters' levels. You can go off the beaten path a bit to complete subquests and explore optional areas, but most locales are completely locked off until you hit a specific point in the story.

Like the story and world, Dragon Quest XI's combat is familiar and traditional, but presented in a charming and engaging way that makes it feel anything but dated. Characters and enemies take individual turns based on their agility, and you choose what characters do by either picking commands from a text-based menu or setting the CPU to act based on preset guidelines. Animations play out as blows are exchanged and spells are cast, and every so often there’s a funky little twist to the fight that livens things up, like characters achieving a "pepped up" state that raises their abilities and grants them access to special attacks.

While there's a setting in the options that allows you to physically move characters during battle (rather than having them stay in a stationary row), it doesn’t change the combat significantly; positioning doesn't affect attacks, and the fighting remains strictly turn-driven. Though it's relatively basic, little animations, messages, and quirks about combat, like enemies that fuse together or bizarre status conditions, keep you interested and engaged. Boss battles aren’t terribly common, but the big fights are truly trying, challenging you to make use of your learned spells and skills against a foe that will utterly wipe you out if you don't play strategically.

Despite Dragon Quest XI's massive length (anywhere from 60 to over 100 hours, depending on how you pace yourself and how much extra content and questing you do), it rarely feels like it’s dragging its feet. There's practically always a new place to explore, a new character to encounter, or a new threat to tackle. The game occasionally fails to maintain its otherwise steady pace--a mid-game sequence involving the search for magical orbs is particularly troublesome--but it doesn't often keep you in one place or dealing with one subplot for too long. You also won't have to grind if you're smart about picking enemy fights and divvying up character skill points. And if you ever need a bit of break, you can invest time in various mini-games like crafting items, horse racing, and a casino with slots and poker, among other things.

Innovation in games is talked about a lot, but it's also great to see traditional gameplay formulas that have been around for decades presented exceptionally well. Dragon Quest XI is one of the best modern examples of this; its beautiful presentation, both visual- and story-wise, combines with a tried-and-true gameplay formula for a journey that’s full of heart and soul. Once you find yourself sucked into the world of Dragon Quest XI, it's going to be hard to put down until you reach the grand finale.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 Review In Progress

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 08/28/2018 - 03:07

The shackles are off for Pro Evolution Soccer 2019. No longer burdened by an obligation to develop for the previous generation of consoles, PES 2019 feels like the beginning of an exciting new era for Konami's long-running football series. The visuals have received a much-needed overhaul, while the on-pitch action has been tightened up, refined, and improved. The series’ lack of impactful licenses and insipid UI and commentary are issues that persist, but PES 2019 builds on what was already a runaway title winner to set a new high bar for the series.

The improvements to PES's superlative brand of football initially appear trivial, like Konami simply slapped a new lick of paint on last year's game. It still adopts the same methodical pace, tangible sense of weight, and breadth of passing as PES 2018, but after a couple of matches you begin to notice subtle changes that gradually add up. The impact of another year's worth of development becomes palpable.

Passing is, of course, the bedrock of any great football game, and PES 2019 enhances its passing dynamism with a plethora of new animations, bringing each kick of the ball to life with startling accuracy. Players are intelligent enough to contextually know what pass to play and when, giving you a greater sense of control over each passing move. If you're receiving the ball under pressure from a burly centre-half, you'll have the confidence to know you can potentially flick the ball around the corner to an overlapping winger or deftly play it back to a midfielder so he can knock it into space with the outside of his boot.

There's an impressive variety of passes in any one match, while the fluidity of the players' movement and the responsiveness behind each button press lead to moments of scintillating football--whether you're patiently building from the back, carving a team open with a clinical counter-attack, or hoofing it up to your big target man. PES's passing mechanics have been so accomplished for so many years now that there's always been a singular pleasure in simply shifting the ball between teammates. That outstanding feeling has only intensified in PES 2019.

Ball physics have been reworked and greatly contribute to this, too, making that little white sphere feel considerably more like a separate entity than ever before. It never appears as if the ball is rigidly stuck to your player's feet, nor are your passes laser-guided to their target. There's an authentic flow and unpredictability to the way the ball moves, curling and dipping through the air, spinning off a goalkeeper's fingertips, and neatly coming under the delicate control of a player like Mesut Özil. No one would blame you if you hopped into a replay just to ogle the ball's flight path and the animation that preceded it. Sending a diagonal pass to the opposite wing just feels right, and this excellence emanates out to each aspect of PES 2019's on-pitch action.

Players are more reactive off the ball and make smarter runs, pointing to the space they're about to sprint into to let you know when to unleash that inch-perfect through ball. There's more physicality to matches in PES 2019, too. Hurtling into a tackle and fighting tooth-and-nail to win the ball back with a defender is much more active and satisfying as a result. Players will jostle for position, realistically clattering into each other, and it feels rewarding to barge an attacker off the ball, or hold off a defender with a diminutive winger, before using a feint to create some space and escape their clutches.

Executing feints, step-overs, and other skill moves is intuitive, with each one mapped to the left and right sticks. There are few better feelings in PES than leaving a defender for dead with an eye-opening piece of skill, and this feeds into an added emphasis on player individuality. Cut inside with Lionel Messi and he's liable to flick the ball over the outstretched leg of a defender, using his low centre of gravity to peel past them, before rasping a left-footed shot into the bottom corner of the net. Meanwhile, someone like Paul Pogba will saunter around the midfield, finding pockets of space and using his large frame to maintain possession, while Roberto Firmino will occasionally bust out a no-look pass, and Cristiano Ronaldo will hang in the air on crosses for what feels like eternity, or smash in a dipping 30-yard screamer that has the 'keeper rueing his luck. PES has a recent history of making both its players and its teams feel unique, and with a deluge of superb new animations, PES 2019 is no different.

It's not all roses, however, as it does still share some of the more disappointing aspects of its predecessors. Referees, for example, are maddeningly inconsistent; both too lenient and too harsh in the same match, while match presentation is bland and lifeless. A new naturalistic lighting engine produces some stunning sights, casting realistic shadows across much improved grass and crowd textures. But the UI surrounding it still feels trapped in the past, and stalwart commentators Peter Drury and Jim Beglin return with the same disjointed dialogue we've come to know and hate, with little in the way of new lines. Drury will still get overly excited by tame shots, and there's only so many times you can listen to Beglin say "If you don't speculate, you won't accumulate" across multiple games before you're tempted to turn the commentary off completely.

Some of the teams that are officially partnered with PES get the red carpet treatment, with recognisable chants and an authentic atmosphere permeating every home match. Play with Liverpool at Anfield and the kop will belt out "You'll never walk alone" before the match begins. On the flip side of this, teams with no official ties to PES receive canned crowd noises and indecipherable chants that rob these games of any ambience. This isn't terrible, but after showing a more accurate depiction of a Saturday afternoon matchday, the lack of a distinct atmosphere in these games can't help but feel like a downgrade.

Disappointingly, Master League remains almost untouched. The International Champions Cup debuts as a short pre-season tournament, and transfer negotiations have been slightly reworked, giving you more flexibility when it comes to player fees and contracts. You can now include clauses like clean-sheet bonuses and sell-on fees so there's not just a lump sum involved, but AI transfer logic still isn't particularly smart. Budgets and fees don't replicate the reality of the transfer market, with much smaller numbers than the astronomical prices we've seen players going for in recent years. It's possible to buy a player like Aymeric Laporte for £12 million a mere six months after Manchester City splashed out £57 million for the central defender in the real world.At least goalkeepers have finally seen some enhancements. They're essentially useless when rushing off the goal line, regularly failing to close down an attacking player's angles, but this is where the faults end. Each number one's ability as a shot stopper has seen a marked improvement. Just like elsewhere on the pitch, goalkeepers have been blessed with a range of new animations that banish their previously robotic nature. They'll pull off some eye-catching saves, getting fingertips to shots destined for the top corner, or just generally making themselves as big as possible in order to get something, anything, on an incoming shot.

You'll need your 'keeper to be on top form in the latter stages of a match, too. The stamina system in PES 2019 has been reworked to place significantly more importance on your players' fitness. This has been dubbed "visible fatigue," and it does exactly what it says. Run a team ragged and their midfield and defence will visibly tire as the match wears on, potentially opening up space for you to exploit with fresh legs off the bench. This isn't a one-way street, though, as you'll need to be mindful of your own players' stamina as well--your star midfielder isn't much use if he can barely muster a light jog. This forces you to play a more considered game of football, sprinting only when it's absolutely necessary and making timely substitutions when the situation calls for it. This is a literal game-changing feature, and it wonderfully complements PES's brand of authentic, methodical football.

It's a shame, then, that PES is still trailing FIFA when it comes to official licensing. Losing the Champions League and Europa League licences to the EA behemoth is a massive blow for PES. To Konami's credit, it has responded by obtaining more licensed leagues than ever before, with the likes of the Scottish Premiership, the Russian Premier Liga, and Superliga Argentina all being featured in their official forms. They're certainly welcome additions, but these aren't standout leagues that are going to move the needle the same way the English Premier League or La Liga would. If you want to play in the Madrid derby you're still stuck choosing between KB Red White and MD White, and the Bundesliga is completely absent beyond Schalke 04 and Bayer Leverkusen, meaning two of Europe's biggest clubs--Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich--are nowhere to be found. Thankfully, the PES community does an amazing job creating update files if you want to mod in the teams, players, and kits that are missing, but you're out of luck on Xbox One where this isn't possible.

For as long as EA continues to develop FIFA and hold a monopoly over official licences, PES will be the scrappy underdog just hoping for a surprise upset, even when it's fielding the likes of London Blue and PV White Red. The lack of licences for top-tier leagues remains a disheartening sticking point, but PES continues to make brilliant strides on the pitch, building on what was already an incredibly satisfying game of football to produce one of the greatest playing football games of all time. It might be lacking off the pitch, but put it on the field against the competition and a famous giant killing wouldn't be all that surprising.

Editor's note: This will remain a review in progress until we test Pro Evolution Soccer 2019's online modes at launch.

Donut County Review: Pit Falls

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 08/27/2018 - 15:00

Donut County must be inspired by Katamari Damacy, one of the most important 'weird' games of the last 15 years. Much like that PlayStation 2 classic, it's all about absorbing increasingly large items, although in this case you're sucking them into a hole rather than rolling them into a ball. You drag the hole across the ground in each of the game's 22 short levels, swallowing up any items that will fit. You start small, grabbing rocks, pieces of fruit, and inconsequential detritus, but the hole grows as you gather more items into it, letting you nab bigger objects and eventually, swallow everything in the level.

Donut County is, for the most part, a lackadaisical and gentle game. The control scheme is extremely simple, and the game's laidback attitude is reflected in its pleasantly chunky art style and folksy soundtrack. It's focused on the simple pleasures of manipulating in-game physics and the inherent fun of making objects and living beings fall into holes. When you're finding the tipping point of an object--seeking the moment at which it'll teeter over and tumble sideways through the hole, or when you're trying to make an object fall over so you can nab the items sitting atop it--Donut County can be a lot of fun. But while controlling a malevolent hole that sucks in objects, people, and eventually buildings and structures is satisfying, there's not a whole lot to the game beyond these mild pleasures. Donut County is not as deep as the holes it contains.

The in-game explanation for these holes is that BK, a raccoon who works in the county's donut shop, is controlling them via an app. Most levels play out as flashbacks, with cutscenes showing the people BK has swallowed up reminiscing about what has happened to them while gathered around a fire in their new underground home (the earth, as it turns out, is hollow). The plot goes in some strange directions as it casually works through and untangles its own strange internal logic, and the script is full of irreverent 'Internet' speak--the term 'lol' pops up frequently in the dialog, which is very casual throughout. The flippancy of the script is charming at times, but it also means that Donut County is difficult to get truly invested in. BK is not particularly likeable, and his friendship with Mira--his human best friend, who encourages him to face up to what he has done--feels one-sided. The game clearly isn't striving to offer a deep narrative experience, but there are quite a few 'story' scenes and most of them aren't particularly engaging or funny.

Donut County lacks scale, too, with most levels feeling like they're ending prematurely. Whereas you would sometimes roll up the entire world in Katamari games, levels in Donut County peak with you swallowing, at most, a building. The game instead focuses on the impact certain objects can have on the hole, often with clever or comical effect. Swallow up two rabbits, for instance, and love hearts will spring from the hole before a swarm of newly-born rabbits shoots back out. Swallow up a fire and some corn cobs and you'll soon have popcorn shooting back out, which must then be collected again. The game is at its best when it's testing out new ideas or gimmicks like these, but ultimately there aren't that many clever things you can do with a sentient hole, and many levels absolutely whiz by without introducing anything new. The physics of the hole also don't quite feel right sometimes--occasionally, objects don't behave how they should after most of the floor disappears out from underneath them, which can be frustrating.

The last half-hour or so of Donut County is the game at its most inventive. While there are puzzles throughout the game the solutions are often immediately obvious, that is, until the final few levels where they become more intricate and enjoyable. Your hole becomes equipped with a catapult that is capable of firing objects back out, leading to a few neat puzzles where you need to spit objects back into the world to progress. These are mostly straightforward--for instance, you might need to catapult a frog out to capture a bunch of flies floating around the screen--but they add some much-needed variety to proceedings and open some new puzzle possibilities. Unfortunately, the catapult is only used a few times, albeit to an interesting effect, and it's a shame that it isn't gained early and used more frequently throughout. The final level hints at something greater still, taking the game in a different direction--without spoiling the ending, it's an unexpected twist on what has come before, making you wish the rest of the game held such surprises.

Donut County is a game with fun ideas and a pleasantly relaxed attitude, but it's not the most compelling of experiences. It's easy to control, clever, amusing, and I finished it across a single session without growing bored. But it doesn't offer the catharsis you might expect from a game about wanton destruction, and its lightness and short runtime make it feel inconsequential. Once it's done you're unlikely to think about it much again, let alone play it through a second time. Like a donut, it's sweet and satisfying, but you're acutely aware that there's a hole in the middle of it.

Death's Gambit Review - A Maddening Mission

Game Spot Reviews - Sun, 08/26/2018 - 20:00

With its interconnected world, gorgeous character design, and strong story premise, Death's Gambit looks every bit the promising 2D action-platformer on paper. Although inconsistent combat and sluggish movement combine to rein in that promise, some clever gameplay tricks and distinctive boss fights keep things refreshing enough to lessen the grind.

Death's Gambit shrouds itself in mystery from the get-go, giving you very little information before setting you off into its gorgeous pixel-art labyrinth. You select a class and an item to start with, a choice that proves largely inconsequential except for your starting skill points, before waking up on a burning battlefield. You control Sorun, a soldier who is granted immortality after signing a contract with Death to wipe the land of other immortal beings. It's a great premise that's backed up by some strong story sequences that play out between your inevitable deaths, helping to set up Sorun's tragic background and the beginning of his journey as one of Death's personal handlers.

The core gameplay loop will feel very familiar to anyone who's spent some time with From Software's Souls games. Progress comes through grinding it out against powerful enemies, death after death, and combat requires exact timing of both attacks and defensive maneuvers. As you venture deeper into the world, the basics are taught through inscribed gravestones that rise from the ground as you pass near them. As you slice and hammer your way through enemies, you'll collect shards that are used to level up character skills. You spend these points at Death Idols, statues scattered around the world where you can rest to level up and respawn after death.

Death's Gambit diverges from the established formula when you die, because you don't drop your collection of shards. Instead, you drop a Phoenix Plume, a feather that's used predominantly to heal yourself but can also be imbued into your weapon to increase its attack damage. And although you can collect them from where you died, you can also spend shards to reclaim lost Plumes--handy given that the world is one big linked maze and its easy to lose track of plumes. Given Plumes aren’t tied to player progression, it can encourage you to take a more gung-ho attitude when entering fights, which rarely go in your favor at first.

With the exception of the largest variants, enemies will respawn every time you rest at an Idol, giving you plenty of opportunities to grind out shards and gain early levels quickly. But despite this, there are numerous areas where the difficulty spikes harshly and progress screeches to a halt. More often than not this also means replaying the same sections over and over, highlighting some of the more irritating and inconsistent parts of the game's combat, which oscillates from calculated and tactical to slow and cumbersome with annoying regularity.

Combat feels deliberately heavy. Attacks are beautifully animated and need a short wind up before the strike, placing an emphasis on timing over button-mashing. Landing hits in combat fills your soul meter, which is used to trigger weapon abilities, and these can range from powerful attacks to defensive spells. But while there are occasional moments when it feels like it comes together, all too often it feels unsatisfying in the end. This partly comes down to movement feeling awkward, both when in combat and while platforming in general, but also because it relies excessively on stamina management, requiring a level of patience the combat rarely earns. Jumps feel underpowered and imprecise, and the weapons themselves, aside from a bit of visual flair, feel plain and unexciting to use. Encounters just feel flat, and when you mix that up with enemies that can kill you with ease, it doesn't make for a great time.

Thankfully, the world isn’t just full of enemies; there are some friendly characters you’ll meet along the way too. Most folks you meet will wind up back in the game’s main hub and safe area, Central Sanctuary. The shopkeeper there will sell you items and auras, while many others will teach you new weapon abilities, provided you have the shards to pay for them. The cast of characters you'll meet along the way are all gorgeously designed, especially their avatars shown during dialogue sequences. Death and Origa are particular highlights; with Death's broad, imposing wings and intricate vest, and Origa's battle-worn armor and hooded cloak.

Bosses are visually less consistent, ranging from an imposing but detailed Gaian giant the size of an apartment building to the Tundra Lord, who looks like a horned zombie beast that was half chewed and spat out; noticeably lacking the detail present on other characters. Boss fights also offer the most interesting departure from the typical moment-to-moment activities, with some delightfully mind-bending sequences where the world warps and twists; the Thalamus fight is a particular highlight, relying less on combat and more on reactions and memory. It's very clever.

Despite its rewarding exploration and intriguing story, Death's Gambit is consistently held back by its combat, which lacks the responsiveness you need when fighting enemies that can kill you in seconds.

Most impressive, though, is the environmental art and world design. Its weaving, interconnected layout can cause you to get lost at times, but it's small enough that moving from place to place doesn't take long if you’ve cleared it of enemies. The world will change over time, too, either after taking down certain bosses or after you’ve found a particular item, granting access to previously blocked off regions. Exploration feels rewarding as there’s no shortage of things to uncover, like tomes that grant a small damage bonuses against certain bosses, or a link back to another part of the world, opening up new shortcuts and streamlining the world traversal in a way that’s appreciated after hours and hours of grinding the same locations.

Despite its rewarding exploration and intriguing story, Death's Gambit is consistently held back by its combat, which lacks the responsiveness you need when fighting enemies that can kill you in seconds. Occasionally it feels like it all comes together, but too often it's a chore, and when you're into your 30th run of the same section of a dungeon and you get piled on, it's crushing. While I was turned off by the excessive grind, Death's Gambit offers some pay off to those who don't mind pushing through the gauntlet. But you'll really have to work for it.

The King's Bird Review: A Rocky Flight

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 08/23/2018 - 16:00

There are moments of unfettered joy in A King’s Bird. As you glide through tight corridors or shinny up a long passageway to the heavens, the freedom of no longer being shackled by gravity takes hold. It’s during these stretches where the minimalist art and serene score combine beautifully with your graceful movements that A King’s Bird reaches its potential. But those feelings are fleeting. Instead of bottling the rush of flight, A King’s Bird instead conjures frustration and tedium as you struggle to replicate that brief happiness that vanishes before you could even appreciate it.

Although there is almost no story to speak of in A King’s Bird, it’s told in a lovely manner that meshes wonderfully with the abstract world. An argument between (presumably) a king and his daughter (though it’s never spelled out who any person is) breaks out, but instead of their harsh voices crashing against the pristine aesthetic, dreamy instrumental music floats from their mouths. The feelings are captured without a single word being uttered: a begging question, a firm no, a rush toward rebellion. The story sets an intriguing mood that the rest of the game fails to live up to.

A King’s Bird is a platformer that hinges on maintaining your momentum to overcome the many hurdles that stand between you and the exit. The environments are populated by pillars, horizontal walkways, and slanted surfaces and your only tools are the ability to climb up walls and glide for short distances. Bounce quickly between two pillars and then leap off the very top to build your kinetic energy. Once airborne, zip through the air like a frantic hummingbird, extending your limited flight capabilities by brushing against surfaces as you zero in on your destination.

During the early stages, there’s a great sense of freedom as you glide gracefully around the myriad landscapes. Jumping off a high point to gain as much speed as possible before pulling up to reach new heights gives you that happy queasiness normally found while riding roller coasters. Zipping through the introductory levels is joyous because there are so few restraints. Figuring out how to climb walls to boost the distance you can glide is fun because the world works as a playground waiting to be explored. Even just running across a smooth plateau is pleasant because the surreal architecture is so pleasing to look at.

It’s after you’ve learned the basics that the game stumbles back to earth. There are, of course, obstacles more dangerous than mere pillars. Poison ivy covers parts of the surfaces and death awaits as soon as you make contact with this dangerous substance. A steep challenge is a welcome addition to any platformer if the mechanics and level design can hold up to such stress, but the controls in A King’s Bird aren’t nearly precise enough to complement this level of difficulty.

That nasty poison ivy is situated in the most devious positions and it takes near-perfect execution to float by unscathed. A King’s Bird is undone by the very exuberance that made it so exciting early on. Gliding at top speeds through holes in pillars and across bottomless pits is fun if there is plenty of space between you and death, but as the walls close tighter around you, that fun begins to dissipate. It’s just too hard to consistently pull off the fine movement necessary to wind your way through these traps. So death comes early and often as you bang your head against the wall in the hopes of lucking your way past a truly aggravating part.

The fast speed of your hero clashes with the pinpoint precision needed to excel. A King’s Bird has a zoomed out view that makes your character appear small even on large screens, and this is great in the early going because it lets you see the obstacles that lay before you. But as the difficulty ramps up, and there are only a few pixels between life and death, that far-away view makes it mighty hard to see exactly what you’re trying to pull off. Furthermore, the game often stutters during the moments when you’re flying the fastest, and those slight hiccups usually mean an unceremonious death.

The game isn’t helped by the collectible little birds that hover around each level waiting to be nabbed. These white beings can be difficult to see against the light backgrounds, adding another layer of frustration to an experience that’s already overflowing with it. That free-flowing momentum that makes the early going so appealing is absent as you get deeper into the game. Instead of gliding gracefully through a level you instead spend a dozen lives to struggle to the next checkpoint before you calm your nerves, dry your hands, and try as hard as you can to get to the next checkpoint without throwing your controller.

A King’s Bird also suffers from a lack of real variety. The levels are basically indistinguishable from one another (aside from the color palette) so the game becomes a homogenous marathon to the end. There are a few levels where your gliding powers are stripped away, though the change isn’t as drastic as it sounds because you’re still using your momentum to clear gaps and clamber up pillars. And the lone boss fight is so chaotic at times that it’s hard to know which particle is you and which is a meteor trying to end your life.

It’s a shame A King’s Bird falters because the concept is so enticing. After braving my way through the dozens of increasingly maddening levels, I revisited the early stages and was once again transported to a dreamlike world where beauty and serenity shine through. Difficulty has its place in platformers, but there are games where too much challenge can distract from the core conceit. A King’s Bird locks you in a hopeless cage when all you want to do is fly.


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