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Mothergunship Review: Bullet-Hell Extravaganza

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 07/16/2018 - 20:00

Mothergunship wastes little time in throwing you head-first into its fast-paced and over-the-top bullet-hell experience. As the spiritual successor to indie roguelike FPS Tower of Guns, this homage to '90s action games balances a number of clever mechanics throughout its pulse-pounding jaunt through the inner depths of alien ships. As you're dodging hundreds of enemy bullets [while wielding a railgun, grenade launcher, and a flamethrower on one arm] you'll find that Mothergunship offers a satisfying and fun take on classic first-person shooters.

Stepping into the boots of a space soldier in a power suit, you'll work with a tight-knit crew of rebels, led by The Colonel, who plan to stop an alien invasion of earth led by the titular mastermind Mothergunship. The main story itself is entirely secondary to the action, mostly offering context for the game's antics. However, the many cheesy voice-overs and the self-aware video game humor throughout are surprisingly endearing, even if it's mostly background noise. The Colonel and his crew of rebels--which includes an anthropomorphic frog, poking fun at Star Fox's Slippy Toad--serve great supporting roles as you amass a ridiculous arsenal of weapons and level up your power suit.

When it comes to its core run-and-gun gameplay, Mothergunship keeps things simple. You choose your next mission from your home base--which comes in several categories of various story and side missions that offer bonus rewards. From there, you're dropped into a randomly generated dungeon where you'll fight through rooms full of alien robots as you gain experience and funds to power up and buy new gear. But in true roguelike fashion, your trek through the dungeon's depths will never be the same twice, resulting a constant air of uncertainty.

The dungeons themselves come in three distinct forms, each with their own unique visual style showcasing different aspects of the alien armada. While the layout of specific rooms are the same, which can result in some feelings of deja vu when powering through a run at a fast pace, the order of which you'll encounter them are always different, along with the contents of each room and any rewards you can expect to find. To spice things up, however, you'll have the chance to enter challenge rooms that either increase the difficulty or place a unique handicap--which includes poison floors or jump pads--that offer greater rewards. When you die, which will happen often, you'll not only lose the gear you found on your run, but also the select items you chose to bring in. In some frustrating cases, you may find yourself at the whim of poor results from randomization, leaving you underpowered and outgunned by all the dangerous bots.

With that said, Mothergunship keeps its gameplay focused on fast, twitch-based gameplay in the spirit of old-school FPS games like Doom and Unreal. Starting with only your cybernetic fists and a triple jump--which can be boosted up to 40 jumps, keeping you in the air for long periods of time--you can buy new items in the shops located in the dungeons. Not long after, you'll find yourself circle-strafing, rocket-jumping, and barreling through waves of enemies with your ever-growing arsenal of weapons--which includes lightning guns, railguns, and different varieties of machine guns. When tied with the roguelike elements, the gunplay feels far more tactical, where picking the right weapon or modifier from the in-dungeon shop can make the next few floors a breeze or a hindrance.

By far the most impressive aspect of Mothergunship is its comprehensive gun-crafting system. As you acquire funds and complete missions, you gain new weapons, connecting parts, and modifiers to amplify your arsenal at the various crafting stations in your base or in the dungeons. While you can certainly keep things simple and roll out with a modified machine gun with boosted firing rate, the real fun with gun crafting comes from jury-rigging different weapons that have no business working in unison. Before you know it, you'll be gunning down machines with complex creations on both hands, which can easily soak up real estate on screen if you keep adding to them.

Just when you think you can't fit any more items onto your hodgepodge of armaments, you'll find a connector or mod that presents new opportunities for you. For instance, boosting a weapon's attack power can often result a strong kickback, which can surprisingly keep you suspended in the air and boot you through hallways at great speed. You can easily go all out with your creations, but there is a big catch. The more attachments and weapons you place in your hands, the more ammunition you'll drain. While ammo recharges fairly quickly for both arms, an overly designed gun can be a resource hog--leaving you vulnerable when your gun energy runs dry. This can be especially troubling in fights where you need to move and shoot as quickly as possible.

Coupled with the hectic pace of the game, the weapon system makes many of the fights you'll engage in fresh and exciting. While it's disappointing that Mothergunship doesn't give you that many opportunities to experiment freely with your creations--aside from the base's worry-free firing range and a bonus endless mission that's unlocked after finishing the main story--you'll learn to use and take advantage of the tools you've got on-hand in the field.

Mothergunship can sometimes feel a bit one-note in its execution, which is made a bit worse by the lackluster payoff after the story's finish. While special missions do open up in the endgame, featuring a truncated set of missions modeled after the main campaign that challenges you to clear through the levels without dying, I came away with the feeling that there's more that could have been done with the game's endgame, which as it stands, feels undercooked and derivative. Having said that, I can't deny that I always had a blast powering through many of the dungeons, especially when managing to clear out an entire room of enemies with only a few shots from my ridiculously overpowered weapon.

With the game's clever gun crafting system added into the mix, familiar tropes and techniques from classic shooting galleries feel super-charged in the game's randomized bullet-hell dungeons. When Mothergunship is firing on all cylinders, it's a satisfying and thrilling shooter where it really counts. With an incredibly fun and never uninteresting gun-crafting mechanic, it certainly goes a long way with its clever hook and an endless flow of enemies to gun down.

20XX Review - Robot Generation

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 07/16/2018 - 18:00

20XX wears its influences on its sleeve. If you're familiar with Mega Man X, then slipping into the metallic bodies of 20XX's two core protagonists--the gunner Nina and the swordsman Ace--will feel like coming home again. Both characters are satisfying to control, and executing combinations of dashes, wall jumps, and attacks is an intuitive process with lots of room for in-depth choreography.

But the levels you tackle are where 20XX differs from its inspiration, with obstacles and enemies procedurally strung together. For the most part, this works as intended, with new enemies and hazards progressively introduced with each new stage. A corridor that is usually calm might be riddled with spike traps the next time you enter it, adding new challenges to a previously safe area. Other times the shift can feel unfair, filling the screen with projectiles and moving parts that demand superhuman reflexes with practically no margin of error. These areas can bring the strongest of runs to a grinding halt through no fault of your own, which is incredibly frustrating.

Dying is central to progression in 20XX though, so even the most infuriating of deaths have silver linings. During each run you'll accrue Soul Chips, a currency used in 20XX's hub world to purchase permanent upgrades, item unlocks, and single-use buffs. Simple additions to your overall health and special weapon energy are priceless during more difficult later stages, while simple perks such as enemies dropping more health or buffs to overall dash speeds provide welcome twists to the gameplay loop you quickly become familiar with.

Additional weapons are also available and are acquired in the same fashion as Mega Man titles: ripped straight from the husks of bosses you defeat. Each boss battle features a central mechanic; a giant mechanical face will employ an impenetrable shield for brief moments during a battle in between flurries of projectile attacks, while a sentient Venus flytrap will lob mortars at you from afar. These and many more abilities can be picked up after each successful victory, or tossed aside for additional life, energy, or run-specific currencies. 20XX forces you to consider what equipment to take and which to leave behind, but it rarely engages you in scenarios where these choices are truly tested.

The very same boss fights are a prime example of this failure. A handful of them provide complex strategies for you to overcome, combining a good mix of precise platforming and attack timing to make victories hard fought and rewarding. Others make good use of the rooms they take place in, providing you with alternative means of attack such as exploding platforms that fall after you touch them. But far too many rely on cheap tricks and uninteresting attack loops. The less egregious of these just feel boring, while the worst unsettle the balance of mechanics to a point where you're forced to just accept taking damage in a hurried attempt to finish your foe off as quickly as possible. And with the randomness of potential upgrades strewn across levels thrown into the mix, having a compelling boss fight is a rare occurrence.

Despite this, it's hard not to get sucked into taking on multiple runs of 20XX's campaign in the hopes of reaching its conclusion. Each individual run is brief enough to make it a perfect match for a portable console such as the Switch, filling in odd gaps of free time with exciting randomized challenges. Daily and Weekly challenges with their own leaderboards are more competitively focused without shaking up the core loop, aside from giving you access to items you might not have unlocked yet for a useful little test drive. The boss rush mode is equally enticing, despite the inconsistencies with their designs. This mode offers a good way of familiarizing yourself with their mechanics without being caught off-guard during a strong run.

20XX isn't just a solo experience, giving you the ability to tackle its campaign with an online partner in tow. Collectible currencies are shared between each player while upgrades are duplicated, presenting you with some opportunities for decision-making but never forcing you into a corner with one player being clearly more valuable than the other. Cooperative play is slightly more chaotic, but having both ranged- and melee-focused characters in a single stage does inject the action with more life, despite the difficulty and complexity of enemies seemingly remaining equal.

Procedural generation is sometimes lambasted as a cheap alternative to intricate level design, and 20XX doesn't always do enough to break that stereotype. But despite its inconsistent level make-ups and underwhelming boss designs, 20XX is still an engrossing side-scroller that perfects the feeling of navigating dangerous, pitfall and enemy-filled stages. Nostalgic itches are sometimes tough to scratch with modern reincarnations of older formulas, but 20XX is a satisfying iteration on a fan-favorite formula. Even if the results are mixed, it's easy to appreciate a Mega Man-styled adventure that never has to end.

Fighting EX Layer Review: One-On-One Fun

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 07/13/2018 - 19:00

Fighting EX Layer is a one-one-one fighting game that's built for a very specific audience. There's no tutorial, no story mode, not even a basic arcade mode yet. However, the resulting game is built purely on competitive fighting with focused efforts on making the brawling as satisfying and engaging as possible. And to that end, developer Arika succeeded spectacularly.

Fighting EX Layer comes from Arika, the developer behind the Street Fighter EX series for the PlayStation 1 and 2, and features many of the original characters created for those games. Faces like Blair Dame, Doctrine Dark, and the fan favorite Skullomania are all here to deliver epic beatdowns while looking better than ever. If you enjoyed the SFEX games, playing EX Layer feels like seeing old friends again after a very long time--though you don't need to remember the roster from a 1996 game to have fun with its colorful cast of fighters.

Of course, characters in a fighting game are just empty shells without a solid fighting engine to back them up, and EX Layer delivers that. The six-button fighter incorporates throws, dashes, a special overhead attack, varied special moves and super attacks, and basic attack chain combos (executed by pressing light-to-strong attack buttons in succession.) Movement, particularly dashing, feels swift and responsive even for slower characters, and basic attacks are satisfying thanks to a combination of well-designed animations and delightful auditory and visual flourishes.

This solid gameplay provides the foundation for EX Layer's two defining mechanics. The first is the ability to chain attacks into special and super moves, which is achieved by cancelling mid-animation into a stronger skill. While many fighting games do this, EX Layer is notable for how smooth and free-flowing the cancelling feels; timing windows tend to be generous, and there are only a few restrictions on what attacks can chain into others, leading to some spectacular combos involving multiple special and super skills fired off in rapid succession. Allen's Justice Fist special move has a tremendous recovery time that makes it difficult to utilize on its own, for example, but by cancelling it into a super move, it becomes a lot more versatile. The cancelling, combined with dash-oriented movement, makes for a game that's very focused on aggressive, in-your-face tactics.

The other major element that sets EX Layer apart is the Gougi, pre-constructed decks of five special skills--either active or passive--that activate when certain conditions are met over the course of the fight. Effects can range from an increase in movement speed after a certain amount of time has passed to special properties attached to your attacks after you land hits with them a certain number of times. There are currently 15 Gougi decks available in the “standard” version and five available in the lower-priced “light” version, with more potentially on the way as DLC.

The skills that activate in each Gougi are designed to pair well with each other. The Infinity deck, for example, contains three boosts to building super meter and two other skills that make use of this extra meter gain, allowing you to play by building and spending meter very quickly. Other decks can change basics of the game in some unique and challenging ways; the Stealth Raptor deck transforms dashes into short hops, while Sky Dancer gives you a homing jump that will let you land near your opponent from any distance. This results in some Gougi decks being easier to use than others, but the more technical decks offer some intriguing potential to those willing to put in the time and effort to work with them.

It's in the thick of battle when you really see how much Gougi can impact a match. Many of the effects don't activate until a couple of rounds in, meaning that you'll gain access to new skills and abilities throughout the entire match. This challenges you to not only change up your fighting style and take full advantage of your unlocked skills as the battle wages on, but also to adapt to your opponent's ever-evolving set of skills. Due to the aggressive nature of its combat and the Gougi boosts, the playing field in EX Layer is practically always changing in a fun, organic way.

The fact that Gougi and attack cancelling are so versatile makes for a game that feels designed expressly for people who savor the technical aspects of fighting games--the kind of folks who will gladly spend hours upon hours in Training Mode just experimenting to find cool and interesting techniques. With its lack of single-player modes (besides a versus-CPU Kumite mode buried under menus), Fighting EX Layer is expressly targeting the hardcore competitor. While Arika has said that there are no plans for expanding the single-player element of the game anytime soon beyond an eventual arcade mode, it's showing that it's dedicated to maintaining the health of the community. Unfortunately, for such a competition-focused game, the netcode can be spotty, leading to some noticeable lag and occasionally frustrating matches if you don't have anyone to fight against locally. If you keep to high-bar connections, things usually go a lot more smoothly.

On a pure gameplay level, Fighting EX Layer is an absolute treat. What it lacks in bells and whistles it delivers in pure, fun combat. This is a game made for the sort of people who will spend hours perfecting an impractical, extremely-precise combo in training mode simply for the satisfaction of having done it. If that describes you, then Fighting EX Layer will be worth everything you put into it.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker Nintendo Switch Review: Time For Adventure

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 07/12/2018 - 23:55

Nintendo has all but cornered the market on streamlined, cute adventures for all ages. While Captain Toad made his first appearance in Super Mario Galaxy, he's since been spun off into his own puzzle-platforming series based on a very different type of design philosophy than you may be used to. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker debuted on the Wii U back in 2014, but as Nintendo moves much of its legacy system's library onto the Switch, Toad has another shot at stardom. And it's certainly a worthy outing--even four years on--for anyone who appreciates clever puzzles.

The core gameplay conceit is one of level design. You'll need to rotate a cuboid world around Captain Toad as you look for clues and solutions from multiple angles. Each move helps change the level, affecting how different parts react to one another and to you. As you turn the stage, you can see different pieces and elements. It's not uncommon to shift things around and notice a "POW" block in a convenient location. Toss a turnip from the other side, and you can dissolve a wall with its power and move through.

Perspective matters, and the obstacles that can affect how you use your perspective are fertile ground for spectacular puzzles. And it allows a breadth of pacing options as well. Some stages feel tense and rushed, but some are set against calming pink clouds. A calm stage can be followed immediately by one filled with foes and traps, though, shifting where and how you focus your attention. The progression is steady enough--both within stages and across them--that you'll be left, more often than not, feeling clever and encouraged.

This is all true for both the Wii U and Switch versions, but the Switch version adds in a few things, most notably local co-operative multiplayer. Ostensibly a distinctive addition (as there's also a 3DS port that lacks it), it is poorly executed the majority of the time. Each player gets one of the Switch's Joy-Cons, splitting the typical play into two roles. One handles Toad's movement, while the other dispatches enemies and shifts the camera. It's a bizarre twist that could feel a lot more developed than it is. As it works, neither role gives much for its player to do and having enemies largely handled by one person cuts down on the scope of the platforming and the puzzles, making each stage feel like a cut-down version instead of a solid addition in its own right.

That said, the sharper screen on the Switch and addition of about a dozen new areas and modes make this version a strictly better choice, and the short, relatively simple stages of Captain Toad lend themselves to a portable environment. Of course, it also carries with it the weaknesses of its forebear. Even with the bonus content, Treasure Tracker is a bit short. You're left with the sense that there could be plenty more and that the idea of rotating through levels doesn't get its full due.

Despite a smattering of minor complaints, Captain Toad stands as a pint-sized version of Nintendo's stellar first party pedigree. It's among the best Mario spin-offs around and a delightful iteration on old ideas.

Octopath Traveler Review: Divide And Conquer

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:00

Retro throwbacks rarely go for the mid-'90s mix of 2D sprites and low-res 3D models, but along comes Octopath Traveler, a game that manages to both faithfully recreate the aesthetic and add to it in subtle yet meaningful ways. It's a great look, one that draws you into the world and delights you with small artistic touches that bring something magical to otherwise simple environments. Enemies and bosses alike are lavishly drawn despite the confines of the game's intentional low-res aesthetic. It's a similar treatment that you can find in a game like Final Fantasy VI, where rough sprites in the overworld transform into big, detailed illustrations in battle.

Taking pleasure in the dreamy, diorama-esque look of Octopath will satisfy you for a while, as will the immediately likable combat system, which implements a few small innovations to revitalize the otherwise traditional turn-based mechanics. What may ultimately trip you up, however, is the narrative--a collection of eight short stories each divided up into four chapters of increasingly higher difficulty. After picking a protagonist at the start of the game, you gather allies by travelling to their icons on a map.

This approach is viable in theory, but Octopath woefully struggles to weave interesting tales despite the wide range of personalities behind them. You get an intro, a spirited launch into a quest, a revelatory examination of people and places, and then a conclusion, each chapter lasting roughly one or two hours with a lot of drawn-out dialogue. Coupled with wildly varying English voice acting, it's all too easy to want to reach for the skip button when a story sequence slowly winds up. In these moments, everyone but the relevant character is relegated to being backseat companions, hidden away from view entirely. The only time your team acts as such outside of battle is during rare opportunities that you get a banter notification, which allows for a brief discussion between a couple of characters, dependent on who's in your party. These can be entertaining from time to time, but they are too infrequent and inconsequential to truly matter.

It's no doubt disappointing to report that Octopath's stories are more or less a wash, but that doesn't mean the world is any less intriguing on its own. On the contrary, it's constantly refreshing to see how much care has gone into fleshing out run-of-the-mill NPCs, many of whom have peculiar backgrounds that outshine some of the more mundane major characters. Side quests allow you to explore these personalities a bit further than usual, but there's enough variety and colorful writing to make fly-by introductions worthwhile whenever you come to a new territory. Octopath's towns are brimming with excuses to look twice at the unsung heroes and villains that call your rest stops home.

NPCs feature other smart interactive touches that call upon your characters' individual strengths. Just like you'd inquire into backstories, you can steal belongings (or talk strangers into selling what you can't steal), allure them into following your crew and helping out in battle, or pick a fight with them in the middle of town--just a few of your options. Some of these actions carry a chance of success, and repeat failure in a particular town can temporarily kill your reputation, preventing further attempts until you pay the local barkeep to spread positive gossip about you to their customers. It's a punishment that's easy to overcome, and it's a little strange that you can so freely try to rob the same person ad nauseum until you succeed, but it's nonetheless great to have that added layer to exploration.

Without a broad objective steering your party across the world map, you're instead guided by icons that tell you where to pick up the next chapter for a specific character and what level your party should be to survive random encounters with beasts and brigands. The initial stops circle a sizable body of water in the middle, with each round of chapters shifting ever slightly outward towards the edge of the map. The procession of events and markers is measured in such a way to provide natural progress through each character's personal adventure. Keep up with the logical order and you may never have to grind for experience if you avoid fast traveling to previously visited locations.

In order to activate a chapter, you need the relevant character in your party, but even if you neglect to cycle party members regularly enough to keep them on even footing by the time they're called upon, you can still carry a grossly under-leveled character into battle without too much concern. It's one of many reasons why Octopath's battle system feels so fresh: it's about what you hit the enemy with rather than how hard the hit lands.

Every enemy in Octopath is vulnerable to at least one particular element or weapon type, and most are vulnerable to three or more. A grid beneath their sprite in battle will automatically tell you how many vulnerabilities they have, but it's up to you to uncover the specifics by hitting them with everything you've got. When you successfully strike with a relevant spell or weapon, an icon fills in a space on the grid so you have a clear record of what to do throughout the battle and in future encounters. With these tactics in mind, your goal is to break your enemy's defenses by hitting them enough times with effective attacks to whittle away their shield. Once broken, an enemy will lose their next turn and remain in a highly vulnerable state where attacks hurt them a little more than usual.

Despite the lackluster stories that pull you through the world, Octopath thrives on its character progression and the temptations of high-level challenges and rewards.

The other important piece of combat is the battle point system. Battle points act as extra swings of a weapon in a turn, or as a means to power up magic attacks. Every character gets one BP added to their slate per turn so long as they don't spend BP, which will delay the accrual process by an additional turn. In most cases, saving up BP is a beneficial way to wear down an enemy's shield in one turn with a single character. But once an enemy is broken, BP is best used to fortify single attacks during that window of opportunity.

The concept of breaking enemies is paramount during boss battles (which often include a pair of sidekicks), long affairs that test your ability to remain focused on your resources, characters' turn order, and unusual dangers, like coordinated attacks against your party that can insta-kill characters when you least expect it. If you're fighting around the experience level that Octopath suggests for these fights, you may find yourself engaged in a 30-minute test of your ability to remain organized and focused. Common enemies will pose formidable challenges as well, but those fights go a lot quicker, and you're afforded more opportunities to flex your various skills for the fun of it, rather than to satisfy the punishing demands of excruciating bosses.

Your battle party is only as good as you make them, which means not only earning enough experience points to level up and learn new skills, but coordinating individual skillsets to diversify your options while also doubling down on your most effective attacks. Each of the eight characters starts with a distinct job, and as you explore the world, you uncover shrines that let you assign a secondary job as well--each secondary job is limited to one character at a time. Managing two jobs and equipping passive support abilities recalls RPG like Final Fantasy Tactics, but unlike such games that typically give you free reign to stuff your party with overpowered job configurations, Octopath smartly limits your options to prevent you from breaking the system.

You will no doubt come to prefer certain jobs over others, but some of the most valuable skills are tied to characters rather than their assignments. H'annit, the hunter, has the unique ability to capture enemies that can be summoned during future battles a limited number of times, whereas Alfyn the apothecary can make medicine mid-battle by synthesizing salves with expendable ingredients, for example. Between these unique character skills and the variety of jobs on hand, your party will transform on a regular basis to keep up with the demands of bosses and particularly finicky enemy types. This constant search for new strategies leads to a wonderful variety of experiences and accomplishments by the time you reach Octopath's end.

Despite the lackluster stories that pull you through the world, Octopath thrives on its character progression and the temptations of high-level challenges and rewards. The promise of new jobs, exciting boss fights, and powerful gear will inspire you to poke around every corner, and there are no shortage of discoveries to strive for. And all the while, you're treated to one of the most interesting and effective re-imaginings of a retro aesthetic around. Octopath will likely be a divisive game due to its fractured storytelling, but it's one worth playing despite its lesser qualities. Its high points are simply too good to ignore.

Sonic Mania Plus Review - Encore! Encore!

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 07/10/2018 - 17:35

From the opening title's splash screen, Sonic Mania's presentation is intoxicating. Its colorful, retro 2D graphics and vibrant '90s-inspired pop soundtrack is enough to make any Sega Genesis fan squeal in excitement. In this jointly developed game, Sega and members of the Sonic fan-hack community have created a loving homage to the blue hedgehog's glory days. But Sonic's latest outing isn't only concerned with reminding you of his past; though it is decadent in this regard. Sonic Mania exceeds expectations of what a new game in the franchise can look and play like, managing to simultaneously be a charming celebration of the past and a natural progression of the series' classic 2D formula.

Taking place shortly after the events of Sonic & Knuckles, the game's story sees Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles getting involved once again in a battle against Dr. Eggman--this time over a mysterious emerald artifact. However, the conniving scientist isn't alone; enlisting the help of the Hard-Boiled Heavies--a group of customized Eggrobos. But the story takes a backseat as the time honored premise endures: defeat Eggman and his baddies, and collect all the Chaos Emeralds.

Sonic Mania makes a strong first impression thanks to amazing visuals and music. Its presentation replicates the charming aesthetic of Sonic's earliest games with thorough detail. While the pixelated sprites of Sonic and friends are reminiscent of their Sega Genesis' counterparts, they take on a new life with a higher degree of detail and animation quality. The new effects add an extra layer of personality to the iconic characters that's a joy to see in motion.

On the other end of the spectrum, the game sports an assortment of new music tracks and remixes of greatest hits. They channel the New Jack Swing dance music stylings that heavily influenced Sonic's soundtracks in the '90s, remaining just as catchy and well-orchestrated here. Both visuals and music work together in Sonic Mania to build up an aesthetic that's evocative of earlier games, but in a pleasing style that feels contemporary all on its own.

On top of Sonic Mania's fantastic presentation, the game also controls like a classic-style Sonic game. You have the option to play as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles; you can even work cooperatively with another player as Sonic and Tails a la Sonic 2. From the get go, the movement physics and overall feel of each character are distinct yet familiar, staying faithful to the originals. The gang's unique abilities remain intact, albeit with one exception: Sonic has a new Drop Dash, which allows him to quickly roll forward after a jump. It's a small addition, but it provides a handy new way to pick up speed or avoid incoming danger.

It can feel exhilarating to pass through a multitude of pathways, especially at top speed.

Level design is at the series' best here, sporting 12 zones that are each meticulously designed with cleverly placed obstacles and varied pathways that keep you guessing. It can feel exhilarating to pass through a multitude of pathways, especially at top speed. No route ahead ever feels incorrect as you sprint through loops or hit springs launching you into different directions, and there are rarely any instances where the action halts without reason. And thanks to the visibility granted by the widescreen aspect ratio and the smooth framerate, your awareness and sense of control running through a zone feels better than Sonic's classic outings ever did.

It also helps that levels are designed around the abilities of each character. While Sonic can blaze a trail through a zone, Knuckles and Tails can find other paths beyond his reach thanks to their respective climbing and flying abilities, which often lead to new ways of experiencing the same stage. It's enjoyable to engage with the subtle ways each character interacts with the world and the conveniences they offer. And you're rewarded for taking the time to do so, as on some occasions, characters even get completely new levels to explore that are designed specifically around their abilities.

We all know where this goes...

Sonic Mania closely follows its forebears, utilizing the exhilarating sense of speed that the 2D games charted their success upon. However, it never incorporates elements from the past purely for the sake of nostalgia; rather, it expands upon the familiar with new ideas of its own. This is most apparent when you play remixed versions of older zones from the first five games. Sonic Mania's version of Sonic 2's Chemical Plant zone introduces a mechanic where you constantly jump on jelly to bounce upwards to new parts of the level. Changes like this liven up the design of well-known levels, offering fresh and gratifying new experiences.

New zones, on top of offering a suite of charming visuals and catchy melodies, deliver plenty of inventive concepts that diversify and build upon the series' fast-paced level design. Whether it's by encouraging you to freeze yourself into an ice block to smash through walls, or challenging you to figure out a maze-like sequence of gates to reach the end of a zone, the ideas the game explores give it a strong sense of identity compared to the originals.

In the same style as Sonic 3, every level culminates in a boss fight--ranging from relatively simple, to demanding set-piece battles where you go head-to-head with Eggman and his minions. However, there are some fights that pay homage not only to past games, but early spin-offs from the Sonic's history, such as Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine and Sonic Fighters. There's also a fair number of more challenging battles that require more advanced tactics to beat. One has you dodging projectiles as you use a series of poles to propel yourself towards a spider robot. Boss fights offer a great balance of difficulty, steadily challenging and entertaining you in numerous ways as you progress.

The past and present seamlessly intermingle in Sonic Mania, answering your nostalgic yearning, while satisfying your thirst for fresh concepts.

The more you play Sonic Mania, the more it rewards you with reasons to keep playing. Additional modes like Competition and Time Attack offer other ways to experience its levels. Aside from acquiring all the Chaos Emeralds to obtain the true ending, one of the most compelling reasons to replay zones come from Secrets--Sonic Mania's term for unlocks that give you access to new characters and abilities. For example, you can play through the entire campaign using Sonic's Insta-Shield ability from Sonic 3. You can even unlock "& Knuckles" mode, where a second player can play cooperatively with you as Knuckles instead of Tails.

For years the Sonic series has chased the legacy of its early games, constantly delivering experiences that either came close or failed to recapture the spirit that made them classics. Whether it was by getting wrapped up in story or putting too much emphasis on speed instead of level design, the newer games lost track of what made the originals great. Sonic Mania methodically uses its sentimental appeal to great effect, but in the process, it heals the wounds inflicted by its most disappointing predecessors and surpasses the series' best with its smart and interpretive design. An excellent 2D platformer, Sonic Mania goes beyond expectations, managing to be not only a proper evolution of the series' iconic formula, but the best Sonic game ever made.

Editor's note: Alongside Sonic Mania's physical release is a $5 update (included with the physical) that introduces new features that add even more diversity to the game's high-speed thrills. The most noteworthy addition are classic--albeit lesser-known--characters Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel, who each sport their own unique abilities. Mighty's ground pound makes for a satisfying way to pick up speed and dispatch enemies, and his resistance to spike traps is a nice bonus if you're more a player with an unhealthy desire to accelerate. On the other hand, Ray's momentum-based glide ability takes some getting used to, requiring you to alternate directions on the D-pad after jumping to maintain flight. The thrill of stringing together his high-flying antics with a well-timed jump onto an enemy or platform is well worth the effort to learn. Both Mighty and Ray offer subtle, yet substantial additions to the well-established formula.

Returning players are likely to spend the most time in Encore mode, a new campaign that takes you through remixed versions of the game's stages. But there's a twist: swappable characters replace extra lives. You start as Sonic and slowly accumulate the game's playable cast via item boxes and bonus challenges scattered across the stage. You can control and switch between two characters at a time, but when one dies, that character is lost and switched out with whoever you have left on reserve. Encore Mode is a welcome change-of-pace that makes Sonic Mania's already fantastic levels more tense and exciting. And the ability to play all five characters in a single mode makes the experience all the more varied and joyous.

Beyond these additions and small tweaks, including balancing fixes and the ability to use secret options in any of your save files, Sonic Mania is the same exuberant celebration of Sonic's past. While it was already a fantastic package on the outset, this new update makes it even better than before. If you missed Sonic Mania the first time around, now is the perfect time to catch up.

The original review text and list of good and bad points have been updated to reflect the current version of Sonic Mania. - Matt Espineli, July 10, 6:00 AM PT

Rainbow Skies Review: Rainbow in the Dark

Game Spot Reviews - Sun, 07/08/2018 - 15:00

Rainbow Moon wasn't a hugely impactful game when it released in 2012, but it was nevertheless a charming and scrappy RPG that found an audience who remember it fondly. The belated follow-up, Rainbow Skies, is decidedly less memorable, serving up an RPG experience that's better at filling time than providing entertainment. It has an enormous amount of content and a story that will take dozens of hours to play through, but unfortunately that doesn't count for much once boredom sets in.

Rainbow Skies begins in Arca, a skybound city that floats above the continent of Lunah. Damion, a monster tamer in training and your typical RPG foolhardy hero, is preparing for his final test (which serves as a battle tutorial, naturally). Things go wrong and Damion, along with his frenemy Layne, end up falling from Arca. Down on Lunah, a young magician named Ashly is trying to master a bonding spell that will make monsters follow her commands, and after a series of predictable mishaps she ends up bonded to Damion and Layne, the three unable to leave one another's company.

Searching the world to find the counter spell that will undo this bond is the primary motivation for the first fifteen-or-so hours. It's not a particularly strong motivating force, and while there are attempts made to have fun with it, the game suffers from a waffly script that grows less charming the further you get in. By the time a more substantial 'save the world' plotline kicks in halfway through the game, it's not enough to drive a deeper sense of investment into the game's bland world.

Lunah is not an exciting world to explore. There's little sense of variety or personality between its numerous townships and dungeons, nor are the NPCs you meet along the way lack any distinct charisma. It also suffers from an unsightly art style, with repetitive settings and monsters that often look plasticky. The few scant cut-scenes and voice samples are similarly unappealing. The old-school eight-directional movement feels rigid, and the movement speed through the world is irritatingly slow.

The combat system is more exciting than anything the overworld can offer up, as the mechanics that dictate your skills and the game's difficulty have some flair to them. Some enemies are visible in the game world and can be run into, initiating combat, or you can choose to activate random encounters by pressing 'X' when you're informed that an enemy is nearby, which is a welcome touch.

In battle, you and your opponents are transferred to a grid-based map. Your team consists of the three protagonists and an increasing number of monsters you can recruit to your side (this is a game with many different mechanics--you're still getting tutorials past the twenty-hour mark). Combatants each take turns in an order determined by their speed stats, and are able to perform a limited number of 'actions'. Moving just one square costs a single action, and you can't make many actions on a turn, meaning that you may of often resort to planting characters in a stationary position and hurling whichever attacks are able to reach nearby enemies. Each battlefield is virtually identical (a small obstacle or two being the only differentiator), meaning that there's little room for tactical nuance beyond deciding which enemies to hit first.

Practically every aspect of your character can level up, from individual attacks to weapons and armor--the more you use something, the stronger it gets. Seeing your characters evolve and improve is rewarding, and if you play at the default difficulty setting you rarely need to grind--if an enemy proves too difficult, you probably need to upgrade your skills and equipment with the money and skill points you've unlocked up to that point.

However, the most effective ways to strengthen your characters in battle can also encourage repetition. Because most of your strongest attacks are reliant on specific placement of your characters and the enemies on the battlefield, and your bigger attacks tend to use up more action points and a lot of mana, it's often not worth getting too fancy in a skirmish unless you get lucky and happen to have, say, four enemies standing in the exact squares your strongest attack will hit.

I found myself using the first attacks I unlocked in the game, which leveled up and could do a lot of damage to a single enemy, over and over until the end of the game. The versatility of Ashly's fireball, a single-unit attack with low mana cost and enormous range, meant that it far outstripped every other ability I gained in terms of usefulness. This meant that most of the battles in the game played out the same way, with only very occasional boss fights demanding any more acumen or strategic thought.

If you're interested in greater challenges however, Rainbow Skies does take an interesting approach to difficulty. In most towns, you can increase the game's difficulty if you have met certain conditions. To jump from the second difficulty to the third, for instance, you need to win ten fights at that level. If you turn the difficulty back down to the default (which can be done at any time from the menu) you'll need to win ten fights again to move back to the second difficulty. It's a smart system, although for many players the default difficulty will be enough. It's not hugely challenging, but each increase means significantly more grinding is necessary. If the game wasn't already extremely repetitive this might be a more enticing prospect.

Perhaps Rainbow Skies' best feature, if you own a Vita, is its implementation of Cross-Save. If you buy the game on PS3, PS4, or Vita you immediately own it on all three of them, and can swap saves between them. The Vita experience is the same as the PS4 version, and if you have Internet access you can download your save file from the server and keep going. The art looks better on the smaller screen, and it's a game that benefits from not having your full concentration on it--one better suited to quick pre-sleep sessions, or as a distraction while half-watching TV.

Rainbow Skies is the RPG equivalent of a store brand Cola--cheaper, but with far less flavor than the bigger brand names, and liable to go flat on you much faster. It gets the job done if you're looking for a real time sink, and there's potential depth there if you're willing to wade through repetitive combat to get there, but it's simply isn't enjoyable enough to justify the commitment it demands.

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