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A Hat In Time Review

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 10/06/2017 - 01:54

Though it's not apparent at first, A Hat in Time has all the best ingredients of an N64-era 3D platformer. It's cute and colorful with a wacky cast of characters; it offers a variety of collectibles to find on each level, some far easier to get than others; its worlds hide cheeky secrets and delightful details. While t he first of its four main worlds is disappointingly generic, once it opens up, A Hat in Time offers creative, charming areas that make it feel true to its beloved predecessors without getting stale.

A Hat in Time begins with you, a young girl and captain of your own spaceship, losing all the hourglass-like Time Pieces you need for fuel to get home. 40 of them cascade out your window (never mind that there's a window in a spaceship) and scatter around a mysterious planet, meaning you have to venture down there to find them. Your first stop is Mafia Town. It's a basic island level populated by identical, burly men who speak broken English, and the mafia theme is half-baked on top of that. But hopping through the seaside town, past "in cod we trust" graffitied on the walls, and using your special top hat's objective-highlighting powers to find one of the missing Time Pieces is enough to get acquainted with everything--even the over-the-top voice acting, which you'll probably mute as soon as you have a spare minute to flip through the settings.

You'd think time would be the game's core conceit, but your hat is the star of the show. In addition to Time Pieces, each world also has balls of yarn for you to collect; once you have enough, you can knit a new hat with its own unique powers, like the ability to sprint or use short-range explosives. The yarn itself provides an incentive to explore, and in turn, each hat grants you access (or easier access) to new areas. For the most part, each world is separated into chapters with a Time Piece each, but the worlds themselves are open for you to explore so long as you have the right hats. If that wasn't enough reason to look for all the secrets, you'll also collect gems as you go that can be used to buy pins for your hats. Each pin gives you an extra buff, like magnetically attracting all pickups in your immediate vicinity, and they are definitely worth having in the later, trickier areas.

Once you have all that sorted out, you'll have moved onto the next world, where A Hat in Time comes into its own. You start out in a movie studio, where an owl and a penguin are competing to win an award. The world's chapters are split between their movie sets: half on the owl's old-timey train and half in the penguin's New Orleans-esque party town. You're given a score based on the collectibles you get in each chapter, and the bird whose chapters you perform the best in is named the winner. It's absolutely adorable and unexpected, and your reward for being a completionist and returning to the world later is a clever ending to an already interesting twist.

Each of the worlds in A Hat in Time unravel like this. You explore initially to get balls of yarn for new hats and gems for pins, but if you look hard enough, you'll find more and more rewards. Sometimes it's just a cute reference in a random book or a cheeky remark from an otherwise unimportant NPC. But there are also things you'll have to work harder to find. Tricky platforming can lead to special collectibles called artifacts; you might find a crayon in one area and a box in another, and you have to arrange the full set in your spaceship. Once you combine them correctly, you unlock a special side level where you collect photographs that tell a story about the world. The complete photo albums are cute and flesh out the antagonists just a little bit, which is a treat after beating each of them in their boss fight. There are also bonus levels hidden in each area that take away all the side distractions and present you with clean platforming challenges (and beautiful, almost melancholic music).

While the platforming in A Hat in Time never gets terribly difficult, movement is smooth, and there are plenty of just-barely-made it moments that are simple but satisfying. Once you get the hookshot pin, you'll be able to transition from the ground to a jump to swinging off a hook and back down to the ground seamlessly. Getting from place to place just feels good, and the challenge levels are legitimately fun places to show off the grace in movement you've developed. They are pure and fun and blend well with the more inventive landscapes you're traversing for a 3D platforming homage that doesn't feel by the numbers.

A Hat in Time is slow to start, but it's brimming with the charm and collectible-finding joy of classic 3D platformers. Collectibles are both fun to find and help guide you to the game's best secrets, and seeing everything there is to see is its own reward. The platforming isn't particularly challenging, nor does it do anything especially new, but A Hat in Time's cleverly themed worlds and witty quips lend it a more contemporary feel that's just right for satisfying a 3D platforming craving.

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions Review

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 10/05/2017 - 23:00

When Nintendo announced a Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga remake for the 3DS, I wasn't sure I needed it. The beautiful 2D art, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and blend of action- and turn-based RPG gameplay of the Game Boy Advance original still feels every bit as vibrant and engaging today as it did when it came out 15 years ago. But after playing through Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions, I'm absolutely convinced that it is the definitive way to experience one of Nintendo's best RPGs.

The premise is the same: The evil witch Cackletta and her talkative minion Fawful have devised a scheme to conquer both the Mushroom Kingdom and the neighboring Beanbean Kingdom, starting with turning Princess Peach's voice into an explosive force. Bowser, angry that he can't abduct Peach in this state, teams up with Mario and an (unwilling) Luigi to give chase in an airship, only for the brothers to crash-land in foreign territory. Mario and Luigi must brave the strange lands of Beanbean to stop Cackletta's plan. And while that's going on, Bowser's armies are on their own quest to figure out just where the heck he vanished to.

While the core game remains the same, the already great visuals get a gorgeous update on 3DS. The art has been completely redone, from the core sprites of Mario and Luigi to the tiniest of background details, and the result is some of the most beautiful and vibrant 2D art around. Various character animations have also been touched up and expanded upon, giving the brothers and their foes a lot of extra personality through their movements. (Sit back and watch some of the duo's idle animations during combat when you have a spare moment-- – it's a real treat.) The music has also been revised and expanded, with longer melodies and higher-quality instrumentation adding an additional spring to the step of the bouncy, energetic tunes from ace composer Yoko Shimomura. The only disappointment in the audiovisual department is the complete lack of a 3D option;: we've seen how good other “2D- art- in- 3D” games look on the 3DS, and given that the game has its fair share of perspective and platform puzzles, it would have been both a big help and a great visual enhancement.

The silly story of Superstar Saga is brought to life through dialogue and events that evoke the whimsical, humorous nature of the Mario universe. Characters like the elegant Prince of the Beanbean Kingdom and the wicked Cackletta have memorable quirks that make their personas stand out. Even some of the more minor side NPCs, like the Chuckola Bros, have a notable amount of care and attention put into their speech. That still shows through after all these years--though the most memorable character, Fawful, doesn't have quite the impact he once did, coming off an era where nonsensical JRPG translations were common.

The core gameplay remains primarily the same as the original game, with a few enhancements. You explore various environments from an overhead view, using special skills to navigate and solve puzzles when necessary. When you encounter an enemy, you enter a battle sequence that blends turn-based commands with timing-based button presses to both deal extra damage to enemies and evade or counter their attacks. Some subtle improvements from later games in the Mario and Luigi series have been added, too: The pair can now perform an emergency guard during combat by pressing the X button, reducing damage from enemy attacks if you're not confident in your evasion skills. You can also retry boss fights on an easier difficulty if you get a game over. Story scenes can be sped up by holding down the R button, making some of the dialogue-heavy scenes zip by faster if you've seen them before (or if you're a speed reader). These additions help streamline the experience, but by and large, if you remember the events of the original Superstar Saga, you're going through the same motions in the remake.

Most the brand-new content is in a sub-game that opens a little over an hour into the main story. Called "Minion Quest," this is a separate adventure with no bearing on the main story that follows a gallant Goomba who wants to find and rescue his Lord Bowser. To accomplish this, he needs to find other minions from Bowser's army, convince them to band together, and fight against Fawful's brainwashed hordes.

Instead of a traditional RPG, Minion Quest plays like a simplified real-time strategy game: You assemble a small army of troops from characters you've recruited and send them to battle against other armies. It feels pretty hands-off. Most of what you do is just watch characters bop each other and press buttons when prompted, since you can't really control your army the way you would in a proper RTS (for example, you can't tell troops to fall back and guard your commander if enemies break through your lines of defense). It can also get very frustrating and grindy--some quests practically demand you use a specific character type to counter a specific opponent, requiring you to either replay previous quests until you either randomly recruit enough of that character or get your levels high enough that it doesn't matter. And sometimes even when you do bring a counter to the enemy's forces, you can lose for reasons that feel completely arcane. As cute and charming as the cutscenes depicting the power struggle among Bowser's army are, several of the fights in Minion Quest can really test your patience and willingness to continue.

Even though Minion Quest falters, it's still an optional outing that doesn't detract from what's fundamentally an excellent adventure. Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga has aged astonishingly well, and the various improvements offered in this remake only serve to make an already great game even better. Whether you're a series veteran or visiting the Beanbean Kingdom for the very first time, there's no better way to experience this classic RPG.

Gundam Versus Review

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 10/05/2017 - 20:00

It’s hard not to get a kick out of watching giant robots slug it out, and that’s precisely what Gundam Versus is all about. It's a celebration of all things Gundam on the surface, with over a hundred playable mechs from the many Gundam anime series since 1979's Mobile Suit Gundam. It's a hybrid fighting game at heart that puts you in the pilot’s seat, tactically flying at enemies, dodging attacks, and slamming opponents through buildings. Undoubtedly it’s one for fans of the Gundam universe, but for those unfamiliar with the series and its origins, there’s still a whole lot of enjoyment to be had.

Gundam Versus plays more like a beat-em-up than a traditional fighting game, and depending on which game mode you choose, you’ll play as either a lone wolf or in a group with one or two CPU players--real players if you take it online--and team up to take down the enemy. In the single-player modes you’ll face pre-defined waves of enemies or a team of Gundam. Just beware: most dialogue is left untranslated. It won't prevent you from knowing what to do, but you can't easily follow what most characters have to say, save for your navigator.

Competitive multiplayer is more raw, focusing solely on Gundam-versus-Gundam bouts, which feel more dynamic and dramatic than merely facing off against AI. PvP is not just the most exciting way to play, but also the most gratifying. This is assuming you have a strong connection, as any server issues, which feel particularly prevalent in 3v3 modes, hurt the frame rate and render matches nigh unplayable.

How you go about dispatching the enemy is largely dependent on the mech you choose to pilot. Not that selecting a particular style of Mobile Suit aligns you to one playstyle; thankfully you are free to attack opponents how you see fit. You can lay down cannon fire from long-range then close in for a quick melee combo, or take advantage of your Suit’s maneuverability, waiting for the right moment to counter-attack. But whether you’re effective on the battlefield comes down to how well you learn each mech’s particular behaviors.

Despite the Gundams' impressive power, they are relatively simple to control. You can fly straight up into the air and change direction on a dime using power boosters; you just have to govern them appropriately to avoid overheating. Melee and ranged attacks typically require one button to activate, though you can often combine them for slightly more advanced attacks. However there are some subtle and not-so-subtle variations of this, which means there’s a heap of variety, but it can also feel inscrutable at times. Sometimes pulling back on the left stick and hitting your melee attack throws a block, using the Gundam’s giant shield for protection. But for others, this same move can unleash a devastating attack instead of providing the protection you’re seeking.

Hitting with ranged attacks is more about precise timing--and perhaps a bit of luck. There’s no free aim; everything offensive is governed by a locking system that cycles through enemies by tapping a button. Without a way to lead your target to make sure your shots are landing, often you can get a little lost when trying to cycle through to latch on to the one you want to take down. It could be a little smarter too, as it doesn’t take distance to the target into account when cycling. That split second can be the difference between nailing a sweet combo, or being on the receiving end of deadly flurry of blows that ends the round in a fireball. More annoying--and borderline unfair--is that enemies don’t take any damage from attacks while they’re staggered, but they can seemingly knock you about while you’re in the same position. Feeling like you’re at such a disadvantage under attack can lead to some incredibly frustrating defeats.

Having your mech shot down is something you get used to pretty fast, but it doesn’t mean the end of the battle. Respawns aren’t governed by a number of lives, but rather a Battlefield-style ticket-based system, where the number assigned to your Mobile Suit (as seen on the character select screen) represents the number of tickets respawning in that Mobile Suit will cost. Given the number of tickets you’re allotted changes on a per-battle basis, weighing up that cost versus the level of firepower they provide should factor into your choice. It’s all good and well to default to some of the more powerful suits, but they can be slower and more unwieldy, leaving you open to attack more often than you might be prepared for.

The arenas within which you unleash robot hell give the appearance of being much larger than they really are; the playable area in each is pared down to only a small portion of the map. While this is somewhat disappointing, each of the environments has its own aesthetic style, from a space colony split in half by an asteroid that’s still embedded in its side, to the more familiar surroundings of a large earth city or an open forest or mountain range.

Some of the less spectacular ground and surrounding building textures are highlighted by nice lighting, but the overall scope and size of each arena does enough to make up for the missing detail. And many of the buildings and objects within each arena are destructible, crumbling to chunky pieces as you and your opponents launch all manner of missiles, lasers and big robot fists at each other. It’s a nice touch but also gives the impression of kicking over a tower of foam blocks, lacking the kind of visual quality and wow factor that would bring it up to par with many of the mechs' attacks--some of which, by the way, look devastatingly powerful, with huge flashes of lasers, lights and explosions dominating the screen when they hit their target.

Gundam Versus is dedicated to the Gundam universe, and the treatment of the source material is easy to appreciate, even for someone unfamiliar with the series. That said, some loose mechanics, the paltry localization, and multiplayer's inability to deal with less-than-perfect network connections aren't easy to ignore. A smarter locking system, better demonstration of the differences between various Mobile Suits and the ability to attack downed enemies like they can to you would make for an improved experience, on the battlefield at least. But Gundam Versus nonetheless offers some light-hearted, robot smashing fun.

Middle-earth: Shadow Of War Review

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 10/05/2017 - 14:14

One of the first people you meet in Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a woman with midnight black hair and a dress torn in intentionally strategic locations. You'll then learn that she's a version of Shelob, a giant deadly spider creature. The game explains her mysterious human form in time, and while fans of Lord of the Rings lore might have trouble embracing this unique interpretation of Tolkien storytelling, it shows that Shadow of War is a game that's willing to take risks with its source material. And, in a way, this example represents the full arc of the game: off-putting in the beginning, disappointing in the end, but seeing how they explain it all is an exciting ride.

Like its predecessor, Shadow of War is populated by powerful Orc Captains that have specific strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits defined by the game's Nemesis system. The number of fears, special abilities, and beneficial powers are much more robust than the first game, making it important to find a strategic approach to taking down some of the game's more powerful foes. The amount of information you get about each Orc once you've revealed its vulnerabilities can feel almost overwhelming, but you quickly adapt to the game's shorthand and what traits to look out for.

Your primary goal is to raise an army against the forces of Mordor by recruiting every Orcish leader you meet. These characters strike the perfect balance of humor and absurdity against the dull seriousness of the human cast, and you'll wish the quirkier denizens of Mordor could be constant companions instead of the brief vignettes that flash across the screen when you either kill or are killed by one. One especially colorful character I met was an Orc prophet who yelled at me about some serpent cult he was a part of; I ended up killing him, but it left a lot of questions in my mind about how Orc religions work.

Most of your time in Mordor is spent killing Orcs. Building off the first game, Shadow of War has a free-flowing combat system that lets you dominate creatures one-on-one but still stay in control when surrounded by a dozen or more adversaries. That momentum slows when too many things are happening on-screen at once, though. When an enemy captain is ready to be coerced over to your side an icon above his head turns green. Incoming attacks can be countered following a flashing prompt, and you have a slew of different abilities to take out legions of enemies. But the chaos of battle can make targeting opponents frustrating.

That's a shame because Shadow of War's most memorable moments revolve around its large-scale Siege battles, where you take over Orc-controlled fortresses using your own loyal followers. With an army of Orcs at your back, both pressing the offensive on a castle and protecting it are equally exciting, and the final entrance into the main hall of a fortress for the final fight feels as reverent and grand as walking into a towering cathedral in real life.

In the moment, these tense battles are the core of the Shadow of War experience, but the overarching narrative outside of the broad "tour Mordor, fight Sauron's forces," feels directionless. Part of that's because you don't spend enough time with any secondary characters (except for Gollum, whose brief appearance is somehow still too long). Characters you meet in the game have relatively short asides that range from the absolutely boring "save some Gondorians" to the furiously funny "learn how fight pits work with Bruz the Orc." It's hard to get invested in the stories of less interesting characters, and once you've completed a few of their quests, they disappear forever anyway. And, like most open-world games, after you've spent a couple hours running around collecting trinkets, it makes an NPC's entreaty about an imminent enemy invasion feel less immediately pressing.

But, narrative problems aside, some of the setpieces are breathlessly fun. You ride a drake, team up with some ridiculous Orcs, fight an imposing, flame-winged Balrog, battle the Ringwraiths. It's a greatest-hits compilation of the most bad-ass moments from The Lord of the Rings. After a slow-building introductory act, the game gains momentum as it crashes toward what seems like a final standoff against the forces of evil. And this fight addresses criticism of the previous game; it's an epic multi-stage battle that does still have QTEs, but no more than the ones you find while playing through the game normally.

Bafflingly that battle isn't the end of the game. Shadow of War continues on, but with its momentum drained completely. What should be an exciting climax instead descends into a tedious slog for a cutscene that doesn't quite feel worth the time and effort. In the game's actual final act, you cycle through the four fortresses you explored previously for a total of 20 more defending siege battles. If you haven't upgraded the Orcs you met early in the game--and up until this point, there was no reason to--you have to replace and upgrade your entire retinue of Orcs to match this more powerful invading force.

It's an entire section that should have been cut or severely truncated, and playing through the repetitious levels felt like padding meant only to make the game last longer.

The enemies you face level up with each encounter, so you're also forced into upgrading each castle over and over again, either by building up your current Orc army or finding new fighters and replacing the old. This Sisyphean quest has no corresponding significant characters to keep you company or explain why it's important to tackle the defense missions in the order you do. It's not even clear, exactly, why you want to do them at all.

More than once I felt like giving up on this quest thinking I'd stumbled onto some optional side content that was clearly only made for obsessed completionists. But enduring on, I found that finishing every stage unlocks the final cutscene and credits. It did not feel worth it.

It's an entire section that should have been cut or severely truncated, and playing through the repetitious levels felt like padding meant only to make the game last longer. But although the game's final act is the most egregious, there are several other systems that Shadow of War fails to justify.

Almost every item and Orc has some type of associated rarity (which scales from Common to Rare to Epic to Legendary), and with higher rarity comes more abilities. For Orcs, this means that they have additional, more powerful attributes that aren't available elsewhere. For weapons, it includes perks like "48% chance that a headshot lights enemies on fire." The buffs are useful, but the effects aren't so amazing that you'd keep a significantly underpowered weapon or Orc just for its benefits. It feels like a system tacked on purely to add another set of items to collect.

The menu systems for your Orcs and weapons is the part that feels most overburdened. It's grating that there's no way to sort or search through your own army if, say, you need an Orc with a cursed weapon and an immunity to beast attacks to take out an especially tricky opponent. But to find out what skills are active based on your current weapon loadout, you have to go to each item in your menu and read up on what you have equipped. There's no overview screen that lists out what effects you currently have active.

Like so many of the other game's systems, the storefront feels less predatory and more like a cluelessly unnecessary addition.

And buried within the weapon screens is yet another separate item menu, this one for gems. Gems are stat-boosters you find throughout the game that give each item yet another upgrade like increasing the chance that enemies killed with that weapon drop in-game currency or a 12.5% increase to the amount of experience you earn. They're helpful, but managing the upgrades for yet another set of items that are nested as a menu within your own equipment amounts to busywork.

Even with the Russian nesting doll of item menus, the most initially intimidating and complex of Shadow of War's systems is its skills menu. There are six primary skill tracks with points that have to be unlocked in order, and each skill has a separate unlockable set of 2-3 sub-skills (only one of which can be activated at any time). The ability grid is so dense and spread out that it's a chore to read through and decide what to put your points into every time you level up. And reallocating in the middle of battle (say if you want an area of effect attack to shoot out flames instead of poison), involves too much work and slows down battle too much to be practical.

As an example of how overwrought with options the skill system is, there's an upgrade that unlocks the ability to "collect items by walking over them." In normal play, you actually have to manually push a button to pick up every item you come across. It's an ability worth prioritizing when you're looking to spend skill points, but it's nonsensical that such a basic quality of life improvement isn't just the default way item collection works.

Despite the bloated feel of its systems, you earn all of these skill points, weapons, and Orcs at such a frantic pace that the game doesn't feel dragged down in the same way as it does by the final act.

Going beyond skills and menus, one of Shadow of War's more controversial additions is its online storefront where you can pay real-world money to earn loot boxes that have guaranteed high-rarity Orcs and equipment. One early quest in the game gives you a small sum of the paid currency to purchase some loot boxes, but you can also buy them from the store using an earned in-game currency called Mirian.

Although loot boxes that are purchased with in-game currency only go up to Epic tier rewards including gear and Orc followers, instead of the paid currency's Legendaries, the difference in quality between the two, in practice, isn't substantially different. And after finishing the game, even with buying a dozen or so 1,200 Mirian loot crates over the course of my adventure, I was still left with over 70,000 Mirian in reserve. Like so many of the other game's systems, the storefront feels less predatory and more like a cluelessly unnecessary addition.

And that addition sums up several of Shadow of War's additions--things like the storefront and the menus and loot system don't make the game terrible, it just would've been better without them. It tries to be larger than its predecessor, there are more abilities, more weapons, more Orcs, yet it leaves you wanting less. But at its core, it's a fun experience with brilliant moments that provide fascinating insight into some of the untold stories of Middle-earth. I just wish it had known when to stop.

GameSpot has updated the penultimate paragraph in this review to provide further clarification on the types of drops available through paid loot boxes.

Look Of The Day

In Style Fashion News Feed - Thu, 10/05/2017 - 10:00

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