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Baba is You Review - Game-Changer

Sun, 03/24/2019 - 19:00

Much as we ride roller coasters because we like to be frightened, we solve puzzles because we like to be challenged--and the more complex the puzzle, the more satisfied we can expect to be when it's finally solved. Baba is You has a prodigious capacity for frustration. This deceptively simple-looking indie puzzle game, by Finnish developer Arvi Teikari, swiftly approaches the heights of difficulty scaled by such vexing modern classics as Stephen’s Sausage Roll and The Witness, and shares with those games an uncompromising attitude that isn’t afraid to alienate newcomers intimidated by a challenge. It’s a puzzle game fan’s puzzle game in other words, as grueling as they come. It’s a sharper mind than mine that can make it through its later puzzles without misery. Whatever Baba is You’s shortcomings are, ease isn’t one of them.

Baba is You has an appealing conceit. The basic gameplay resembles an '80s top-down puzzle title like Sokoban or Adventures of Lolo: you control a kind of sheep or rabbit character called Baba, who moves around a fixed environment, pushes objects, and pursues a goal. But many of the rules that govern the game--including what can be traversed, what can be moved, what’s hazardous, what’s the objective, and even what’s under your command--are represented on screen as blocks of text arranged into phrases that work as commands. These blocks can be manipulated and the phrases rearranged, empowering you to eliminate restrictions, neutralize threats, and redefine the conditions of victory. In this way, the solutions for the puzzles in Baba is You are found through rewriting the terms of each problem.

Most words refer either to things (such as “wall”, “lava”, or “flag”) or to properties of things (such as “stop”, “push”, or “win”). When a thing is connected to a property with the verb “is,” that thing adopts that property, and can be modified with various conjunctions, prepositions, verbs, and adjectives, all of which follow the logic of a programming language. For example, suppose on a stage “Baba is you,” “flag is win,” and Baba and the flag are on opposite sides of a lake of lava. If “lava is hot” and “Baba is melt,” then Baba can’t pass the lava to reach the flag. But if “lava is push,” you can push the lava out of the way to reach the goal. Better yet, if “lava is you,” you can reach the flag as the lava, leaving Baba behind entirely.

Baba is You is never better than in these moments of sudden realization--when it dawns on you that you can rewrite the rules and change, get rid of, or become the obstacle in your path, allowing you to figure out what can be done to solve a challenging puzzle. Most of these moments occur early on, as you familiarize yourself with the game's mechanics and start to understand the way that it wants you to approach its puzzles. Baba is You encourages lateral thinking by the nature of its design, and after 15 or 20 stages, you begin to get a feel for its peculiar problems and the oblique strategies they require. The game’s surprises are genuinely delightful, but they are primarily front loaded.

The aesthetic is lo-fi in the extreme, though not without its charms. Its crude lines and simple blocks of color look like a child’s rendition of a NES game in crayon, every letter of the words that make up the commands scrawled in a shaky hand. In later, more complex puzzles, when instructions are crowding the screen and different objects are teeming all around you, scrutinizing this primitive style for clues can feel a bit like looking for codes in an abstract expressionist painting.

Less successful is the music, which is bland, simplistic, and incredibly repetitive. Modeled after retro game soundtracks, it sounds like a poor approximation. It had such an adverse effect on my concentration that it wasn’t long before I muted it and listened to my own music.

As the game progresses, and especially as the language involved gets more complex, words are ushered in whose meaning seems vague and whose purpose remains hazy, and that can make certain puzzles infuriatingly obscure.

Baba is You is lean, stark, and conspicuously light on instruction. New words and conditions are introduced without commentary; what things mean is never explained, and how things function is yours to learn in practice. Such hard-lined rigor makes you feel your intelligence is being respected. It also has the tendency to leave you completely bewildered and confused. The genre’s best games aspire to teach you how to solve their puzzles as they are presented to you, parceling out crucial information elegantly, and subtly, as you proceed from one challenge to the next. The ideal is a kind of unspoken guidance, acquainting you with rules and parameters in a way that feels totally intuitive and clear.

Baba is You doesn’t always do this so well. The earliest levels of its overworld map--including a preliminary stage that offers control prompts for how to navigate, undo actions, and reset--show a few simple approaches to the game’s unique brand of problem-solving. But as the game progresses, and especially as the language involved gets more complex, words are ushered in whose meaning seems vague and whose purpose remains hazy, and that can make certain puzzles infuriatingly obscure. It’s one thing to be confounded by a puzzle, and quite another to be uncertain how the puzzle works or what the puzzle wants. Often, I thought I knew what an ambiguous word did only to find that it didn’t actually do what I thought. More than once I solved a puzzle without understanding why.

For instance, every level has a “you.” Usually it’s Baba, but it can also be a wall, flag, or a little red avatar called Keke. It’s clear almost immediately that you can assume control of any number of different objects by replacing the noun in the sentence that ends “is you,” and that, what’s more, something has to be defined as you in order to continue playing at all. Less clear to me was that “you” is always a property rather than a thing. This means that, while “Baba is win” can be a condition of victory, “win is you” and “you is win” are not. So much of the vernacular of the game I picked up only in fits and starts. For example, I only know from happening upon it that “crab and Baba is you” will allow you to control both a crab and Baba despite being grammatically incorrect, while something like “Baba is you is win” doesn't work as expected.

This matters because you need some sense of why something does or doesn't work in a puzzle game in order to truly own your accomplishments. In one later puzzle, I managed to walk over a body of water unharmed by pushing a pillar into the water and stringing together the phrase “pillar on water is sink.” The property “sink” usually seems to make anything that touches the sinkable object disappear. I have no clue what happened here. Of course, I am sure this does “work out” in the technical sense, and that there is an explanation I’m simply not getting. But I shouldn't have to stumble through a fog of incomprehension in order to find the solution to a logic-based problem. Why does “box has box” clear a path through a lake of water? I couldn’t say, but I gathered it was what I had to do eventually. This feels fundamentally different than merely being stumped, and it doesn’t satisfy in remotely the same way.

A-ha moments are precious things. Their relief can feel miraculous--but only so long as you understand what you’ve done and feel you’ve earned the victory. For the most part, Baba is You’s most brutal stages do offer this balance of challenge and reward. By puzzle 50--there are 200 in all--levels are flipping upside down, rules are compounded elaborately, and sentences are sprawling out to command things like “wall and hedge and key and flag is word,” to take one real late example. It can be torture, but of course in a puzzle game such torture is fun. Baba is You is among the most seriously arduous games of its kind I’ve played, and when its rules are clear and its instructions legible, it’s gratifying in a way only hardcore suffering can be.

Ethereal Review - Stay In Your Lane

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 16:00

By restricting traditional movement and thrusting you into carefully constructed 2D mazes, simply getting around Ethereal's levels presents challenging conundrums that are deeply satisfying to overcome. Despite some uneven pacing and technical issues marring the overall experience, Ethereal is a delightful game that contrasts a soothing ambiance with intricate and challenging puzzle designs.

Ethereal's opening is mysterious, but not in the best way. Starting in a monochrome world with harsh black and white streaks across the screen, it's difficult to make sense of your surroundings and options. It's an unnecessarily confusing introduction to Ethereal, which otherwise takes care to slowly introduce new mechanics before nudging you towards increasingly complex puzzles.

Outside of its central hub, Ethereal is wonderfully colorful. Your avatar leaves inky streaks of color behind them as they move, corresponding to a limited but carefully chosen palette that paints the walls around you with bright hues. A fish-eye style lens warps each world near the edges, making it feel like you're traversing a wrapped around globe rather than an endless 2D plane set on top of a harsh white background. Ethereal's stylings are subtle but work well together, producing a distinctive look that never wears thin.

Movement in Ethereal is central to its puzzles. You're restricted to sliding across 2D planes, with carefully placed walls blocking your progress. You overcome them by hopping through the closest wall either above or below you, shifting you into an entirely new row to move across. It's slightly confusing to wrap your head around at first, but getting the hang of seamlessly moving around each stage is satisfying to learn. Identifying patterns in level layouts lets you quickly zip around each of them, allowing you to reach your objectives with ease and comfortably map a route to your exit once you're done.

Each stage tasks you with obtaining a series of color-coded shapes in sequential order. It's easy to see where most are placed as soon as you enter a level, but reaching them in the order required is rarely straightforward. Although levels are small, they are labyrinthine. They are sometimes made overly complicated, with unnecessary routes and obstacles littering the peripheral of the main stage and baiting you into considering red-herring routes. Misdirection is a core principle of well-designed puzzles, but Ethereal doesn't make it easy enough to rectify a foolish misstep. You'll typically have to redo all your previous moves in reverse to get back on track, which is more confusing than it should be. It quickly becomes frustrating, making each error feel more like a waste of time than a constructive learning experience.

Thankfully, Ethereal's 24 unique puzzles don't struggle with variety. Early ones simply rely on the freshness of the game's movement to generate complexity, but it's not long before new interactions change how you think about moving through each level. One will rotate the level by 90-degrees, for example, turning previously insurmountable walls into new points for you to hop between. Another creates a black, negative space that offers a larger range of movement, which gives you the ability to move walls and alter a level's layout.

These mechanisms are introduced intelligently too, by first appearing in the hub world that precede levels designed around them. Their simple introduction whets your appetite while the larger puzzles they're used in build upon their numerous possibilities in inventive ways. At first, each stage is centered around only one of these mechanics at a time, but puzzles get increasingly challenging as Ethereal starts combining them. The difficulty curve can feel a little steep around the half-way point, and remains a little uneven up until the end, but Ethereal rarely feels unfair, only dipping into frustration when technical issues get in the way.

There were numerous instances where, after interacting with one of the aforementioned mechanisms, a bug inexplicably transported me to another end of the level--often in a position that made movement impossible. In these instances, the only solution is to restart the level entirely, which is frustrating given how long some stages can be. Having to tediously repeat numerous movements in order to return to the same spot you were before is frustrating enough, but occasionally encountering the same bug numerous times in the same level is infuriating.

Ethereal's soothing ambient soundtrack and delightfully catchy sound effects do alleviate the frustrations to a degree, while its ever-changing aesthetic is suitably elegant and effective at keeping you engaged with its puzzles and not distracted by unnecessary visual information. The soft water colors of each stage shift with each objective you reach, eventually being diluted into a simple monochromatic theme once you've finished. It's an effective way to measure your progress through a stage and help inform you of what color shape you've just cleared from the stage without the need for a HUD. Ethereal's visual simplicity echoes its ease of control but doesn't compromise its beauty in the process.

Ethereal's 24 puzzles shouldn't take that long to complete, only overstaying their welcome when technical issues force you to repeatedly restart them. Although there are also a few uneven spikes in difficulty, the game's inviting visuals and soothing sound effects dress puzzles that are intelligently designed around your limited mobility. Ethereal is a satisfyingly challenging and unique puzzle game that serves as a delightful way to spend an afternoon.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review In Progress

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 13:00

While Bloodborne tweaked the combat dynamics of Dark Souls to encourage aggression, Sekiro rewrites the rules of engagement. The building blocks of its combat are recognisable, but this only serves to lure Soulsborne veterans into a false sense of security. Sekiro's combat is incredibly demanding, asking you to study your opponent, find the perfect moment to engage, and execute a split-second follow-up that, if done right, will end the battle in a matter of moments--or if done wrong will end you just as fast.

This might sound akin to what every other From Software game asks of you, but Sekiro pushes these demands further than Dark Souls and Bloodborne ever did. Over the years, From Software fans have become accustomed to the language of Soulsborne games; we recognise scenarios and are wise to the tricks, we can identify viable strategies more quickly, and since the skills are transferable, we can execute these strategies with a measure of confidence. But Sekiro challenges this expertise. It invites you to try and then shows you how little you're actually capable of. Sekiro is affirmation that From Software hasn't lost its bite; that its games can make you feel vulnerable and strike fear in a way few others can. It's a heart-pounding, palm-sweating, and nerve-wracking gameplay experience that instills tension the likes of which I haven't felt since first playing Demon's Souls.

Souls players predominantly hide behind shields and adopt a hit and run approach to combat, and Bloodborne's attack-focused dynamic was a response to this. Similarly, the crux of Sekiro's combat has its origins in Dark Souls. The Poise stat was used to govern how resistant a player was to being staggered or stun-locked by an attack. Sekiro reworks this into a defensive attribute called Posture and uses it to underpin its engagements. Attacks chip away at Posture and will eventually break through the defense, leaving an enemy open to a Deathblow or to having their health attacked directly, which in turn makes their Posture slower to recover. However, this is a very laborious way to wear enemies down, and they will often defiantly counterattack to deal big damage to you. Instead the goal is to deflect an attack the moment before it hits you, which wears down Posture considerably faster.

For low-level enemies it takes just a few encounters to get into the rhythm of it, but as more foes are introduced, it becomes much trickier. Each one has a variety of attacks that have specific tells and counter timings, so spending the time to learn how they all behave and how you should react is vital. Thematically, this style of combat is also coherent with the subject matter of the game in a way that I really appreciate. Battles are measured--a ballet of back and forth movements, the outcome decided by a deadly flourish--swift and precise, as any contest between swordsmen should be.

However, the true test is when you're faced with Sekiro's boss enemies. Calling these encounters "challenging" would be a severe understatement. The attacks these enemies unleash are deadly, to the point where just a single blow can often be enough to kill you. Their moves can be as erratic as they are diverse, and for some of them parrying is simply not an option. Occasionally a red kanji symbol will briefly appear to signal that an unblockable attack is on its way, and in this situation the options are to either jump, dodge to the side, or hope you can sprint away fast enough. In a single second you'll need to identify the attack and execute the appropriate action to save yourself. Bosses have the most Posture and usually require you to land multiple Deathblows on them before they fall, so attempting to simply chip away only draws the battle out. The longer you spend in the battle, the more mentally taxing it becomes. The stress of repeatedly nailing split-second counters begins to mount and just a single slip-up is all it takes to lose everything. As a consequence, these boss battles feel designed to force you to engage with the enemy, to take the fight to them and hope that you've got what it takes. In the moment it can feel unbearably frustrating to keep banging your head up against the challenge, but that frustration pales in comparison to the sheer exhilaration of finally breaking through. After almost every boss battle I completed, I was so overwhelmed by the adrenaline that I had to put the controller down and give myself the time to settle.

Death isn't necessarily the end, however, as Sekiro gives you the option to either submit and die to respawn at a checkpoint, or revive on the spot and continue fighting. This mechanic makes the game just a touch more forgiving by allowing you to recompose yourself and get back in the fight, but it comes at a cost. Each death and each revival has an impact on the world around you. More specifically, it has an impact on the characters you've met on your journey. To explain exactly what that is would be to spoil one of the most interesting parts of Sekiro, so I won't do that--and also, at this point I'm not completely sure what the ramifications and consequences are, such is the mysterious nature of it all. However, the fact that death has a consequence beyond making you lose experience and money is fascinating.

In battle, your character, Wolf, has his fair share of tricks. He's equipped with a prosthetic arm that is capable of having different sub-weapons grafted to it, and they're essential in giving yourself an edge in combat. There's an axe that, while slow to swing, can break through shields; a spear that allows you attack from further away, and can be used to pull weaker enemies towards you or strip armor; firecrackers which can stun enemies; or a flamethrower that can inflict burn damage.

Using these prosthetics comes at a cost, however, as they consume Spirit Tokens. These are scattered around the world and can be purchased using Sen, the in-game currency awarded for killing enemies, but you can only hold a limited quantity of them while in the field. This limitation reinforces the idea that they are to be used as part of a strategy instead of relied on as the primary way to defeat enemies. Using them unnecessarily could mean that they're not available when you need them most. Resources such as scrap, gunpowder, and wax can be found to upgrade your prosthetic arsenal and open up new ways to use them.

Wolf's own shinobi abilities can also be developed by spending experience points gained from killing enemies. Unlike previous From Software titles, there isn't a steady stream of new weaponry; the katana is your mainstay throughout, but new Combat Arts flesh out how the sword can be used, and they have a more active role in skirmishes. Whirlwind Slash, for example, lets you control space, while Ichimonji is a heavy overhead strike that has a long windup but dishes out big posture damage. Again, they're designed as an additional strategic consideration. Only one of these can be equipped at a time, so this forces you to think about what you're taking into battle and be methodical in utilizing it. Shinobi Arts, meanwhile, allow you to access skills such as mid-air deflections, vaulting over enemies to deliver backstabs, and specific counters for deadly special moves that enemies will occasionally execute. These various upgrades aren't diverse enough to support dramatically different playstyles, but they do offer just enough room to find a favourable loadout and then develop its effectiveness.

Wolf also has a suite of Innate Abilities, some of which come into play outside of combat. It's here that Sekiro really distinguishes itself from previous From Software titles by revealing itself to be a stealth action game--one that proudly wears its origins as a spiritual successor to the Tenchu series. Most areas have a heavy enemy presence so the odds are stacked against you. Engaging in open combat will draw attention to your presence, so the smarter strategy is to thin out the opposition by systematically picking them off. In previous From Software games, this would involve an awkward kiting process where you edge closer to a single enemy and use items or ranged attacks to lure it into a safer zone to do battle. However, Sekiro has mechanics to support stealth play more directly. You can use your grappling hook to take to the rooftops and scout out a location, taking a note of enemy placements and watching their patrol patterns. You can skulk around buildings, pressing yourself against surfaces to peek around corners. You can shimmy up walls and hang of ledges to reposition, leap off elevated points to plunge your katana into enemies below, or slither under raised buildings and into grass, creeping towards unsuspecting victims. Innate Abilities such as Suppress Presence will make your footsteps quieter, while the ceramic shard item can be thrown to make noise and manipulate movements to your advantage. Being effective with stealth can allow you to circumvent standard combat encounters entirely, so it's in your best interest to take it slow and steady. Enemy behaviour can be inconsistent, however. Sometimes they'll stare through you as if you're not there, and other times they become hyper aware and capable of perfectly tracking your movements during an alert phase, even when you're behind walls or hiding on roofs. They're not particularly sophisticated, but their lethality means they're not to be taken lightly.

The absence of modern stealth conveniences means you place greater scrutiny on your surroundings, and you'll notice just how thoughtfully they've been constructed

There's a simplicity to Sekiro's stealth mechanics that is refreshing. There's no Detective Mode or on-screen indicators to signify how much noise you're making, and instead you're entirely reliant on your basic senses. The absence of these modern stealth genre conveniences means you place greater scrutiny on your surroundings, and you'll notice just how thoughtfully they've been constructed.

The geography of From Software's game worlds are much lauded, with praise heaped upon the way seemingly disparate locations slowly reveal themselves to be interconnected and part of a cohesive whole. That strength of world design is present in Sekrio, and the fact that it's more immediately visible within these contained locations makes taking the stealth approach even more satisfying. Buildings are placed together to encourage exploration and reconnaissance, with roofs almost touching so that you can leap between them and scope out all angles. They overhang just enough that you can take a running jump and use your grappling hook to swing up and across for better vantage points. Pathways diverge and reconnect, creating that satisfying feeling of venturing into the unknown and then emerging into the familiar. Thick tree branches protruding out from the side of mountains can be grappled to and used to sneak into the heart of an area undetected, or around it entirely. There were more than a few occasions where I spotted a temple in the distance, traced the pathway there back to where I was standing, and followed it to discover a hidden area.

Sekiro takes place in Japan, in a land known as Ashina. As a consequence, it is by and large more grounded in reality than the likes of Lordran or Yarhnam. The location remains both striking and memorable, however. Encircled by an ever-visible snowy mountain range, Ashina is built up of dilapidated temples scattered around, housing mercenary warriors and corrupted monks, among other dangerous foes. Man-made pathways dissolve into perilous valleys, where mountainsides must be scaled to reach remote forests patrolled by club-wielding ogres. Fortified castles tower above abandoned towns seized by an army. Ornate statues fill the homes of royalty, while questionable characters linger in the dungeons below. Without spoiling it, Sekiro also takes the opportunity to delve into the supernatural and pull from Japanese mythology.

That juxtaposition of the real and the fantastical is echoed in the story Sekiro tells. It begins simply, with a shinobi that is called into action to save his kidnapped master and uphold his iron oath. But beneath the surface there's more at play--Ashina is a nation on the brink of collapse, its people beset by a mysterious stagnation, and you have the power to decide its fate--familiar themes for From Software. However, the story quickly moves from the realm of warlords driven by ambition to one of mythical bloodlines, demonic monsters, and otherworldly spirits. While the story is undoubtedly told in a more direct fashion than Dark Souls and Bloodborne, there are still numerous nuances to explore, and mysteries to solve, perfect fodder for a rampant community that has built up around From Software's games to mine. Softly muttered lines from Ashina's denizens hint at turmoil from days gone, while item descriptions speak to arcane practices. Talk of far off lands colours in the world around Ashina, while vague mentions of enigmatic figures leaves you questioning what unseen forces are involved in the events that are transpiring.

The unflinching way Sekiro punishes you for missteps and the repetition of trial and error are clearly suited for people of a certain temperament and with a very specific, slightly masochistic taste in games. These are the people that are willing to endure devastating defeats for hours on end and watch as their progress is undone time and time again, just so they can have the intoxicating thrill of overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge that awaits at the end. In that respect, Sekiro is unmistakably a From Software game--but one unlike any we've had so far. When all is said and done, though, it's the combat that has left the deepest marks on me, for better and for worse.

Atop Ashina Castle I stood before a swordsman. It wasn't my first attempt at the duel; we'd been trading steel for close to six hours, and each time the swordsman ruthlessly cut me down. I became desperate. I started making bad decisions. The losses were really getting to me. But I persevered.

My plan was a familiar one, honed through years of repeated Dark Souls and Bloodborne play: observe, dodge, wait for a slow attack, and use the opening to strike--it never fails. He swung his sword and I was out of range. The recovery on the attack was slow so it was the perfect opportunity to land a blow--I'd done it hundreds of times by that point. Except, this time it was different. As I charged in, he quickly corrected himself and fired an arrow, then chased behind it to close the distance and delivered a crushing blow. I lost my composure and finally snapped.

I picked myself up off the ground and rushed at him. He began an onslaught of attacks and, after six hours of learning his style and developing the muscle memory, I just started parrying on instinct. Each one of his swings and each arrow he fired was met with a perfectly timed raise of my sword. Every unblockable attack he lunged at me with was sidestepped or hopped immaculately. I watched as his Posture deplete, edging closer to the breaking point, and at the same time I could feel my breathing become more rapid, my thumbs beginning to tremble. I wore him down and delivered a Deathblow, backed away, and did it all over again, and a third time. In that final moment when I pierced through him with my katana, I was completely overcome with emotion. After six gruelling hours of failure, the winning battle lasted just six minutes. I'm not too proud to admit that I cried, and I'd do it all over again.

Sekiro marries From Software's unique brand of gameplay with stealth action to deliver an experience that is as challenging as it is gratifying. At the time of publish I haven't completed Sekiro. While I have invested upwards of 30 hours into it, there are still a few more locations I need to explore and bosses I need to beat before the credits roll, and I'm excited to do it. This review will be finalized in the coming days.

Hypnospace Outlaw Review - Dot Com Detective

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 01:00

For those of us who already spend our entire waking life tethered to the internet, the concept of Hypnospace will seem like both the logical conclusion to our always-online existence and its literal nightmare scenario. Hypnospace, the titular technology of Hypnospace Outlaw, is a social network you can access while you sleep, thus solving the problem of its users failing to update their status due to having to close their eyes for eight hours a day. It's both ingenious and terrible, and serves as the all-too-horrifyingly-plausible premise of this quite clever, quite funny, simulated '90s web browsing puzzle game.

Log on to Hypnospace and you find yourself jolted back to the late '90s internet age where every page belonged to a webring, had a visitor counter, and blared tinny MIDI music on loop every 15 seconds. The Hypnospace web portal is a walled garden, to use the modern term, split into themed zones that play host to whatever it is people make websites about. Or rather, what people used to make websites about.

It's 1999, the frontier era of the internet, before it was dominated by corporations, where random people stole some HTML and threw up a page dedicated to whatever random things interested them at the time. There's a kind of ramshackle energy at play--whether it's in Bill Aldrin's House of Sound and his raw music reviews or Gus' Temple of Serenity and his earnest new age-isms--that will make those of a certain generation (i.e. me) nostalgic for the looser, weirder, more experimental, yet more innocent internet that we seem to have lost in the years since.

You navigate these sites as a kind of moderator in the employ of Merchantsoft, the startup behind Hypnospace. You're dispatched jobs to track down incidents of content infringement, harassment, illegal activity, and so on, removing the offending text, images, or links from the pages you find them, and issuing warnings to the users who posted them.

Initially, you're assigned specific zones to monitor, and early cases are a simple matter of browsing the pages in each zone until you encounter the relevant material. The pages themselves are mostly spot on in terms of their portrayal of late '90s amateur internet culture and reading through each new page becomes a source of constant amusement. What you're being asked to do as a mod in these early cases isn't especially interesting, but that's fine, because the writing across the board is so sharp.

Things soon get more complicated, and fulfilling each new task requested by your manager becomes more of a puzzle that you really need to work to solve. These puzzles are mostly satisfying to work through. You'll be plugging in search terms to track down potential leads, cross-referencing data and Hypnospace user IDs, reading blog entries to identify clues that might suggest how you could try to crack someone's password, exploring unlisted zones and installing new kinds of software. It quickly becomes a game of internet detective where you're saving documents to your virtual desktop and bookmarking pages of interest to return to later.

Where it suffers is when this sleuthing distracts from the writing. Getting stuck and browsing through the same pages again and again rarely makes any of the jokes funnier. As you progress through the cases, weeks and months pass and you'll see the passage of time reflected as users update their pages--occasionally even in response to your moderating actions--while new pages appear and old ones close. Such updates are welcome, and remarkable given the sheer quantity of pages you're able to browse by the game's end, but you're still going to be looking at the same stuff many times over before you're done.

Hypnospace Outlaw loves the internet, warts and all. It loves how the internet is really still all about weird online communities and their rivalries, feuds, and splinter groups, and how one person's ideas--both good and bad--can gather momentum and spin out of control. It also loves how trivial much of the internet really is, and how we should both celebrate all this made-up nonsense and acknowledge how much of our time with the internet is just frittered away on garbage. It also very accurately simulates that "down the rabbit hole" journey where one click leads to another, and before you realize it, you've spent the night chasing links and can't remember whatever it was that prompted the expedition in the first place.

There are glimpses of darkness through the nostalgic haze, and it's in these moments that you realize that this isn't really just about the internet of the '90s. The cowboy arrogance and shady dealings of Merchantsoft is analogous to many tech startups of today that promise to liberate but only oppress. And in a frightening near-future vision of the gig economy, you're paid in Hypnocoin, a virtual currency accepted at Hypnospace's commercial partners, and only receive payments for reporting violations of Hypnospace's code of conduct. These elements may feel ahead of their time for a game set in 1999, but they make a fair point about where we've taken the internet in the intervening years.

As an exploration of early-ish internet culture, Hypnospace Outlaw demonstrates how far we've travelled online over the past 20 years while at the same time asking whether we've gone anywhere at all. The bandwidth may have improved since 1999 but the content can look all too familiar today.

Tom Clancy's The Division 2 Review In Progress

Sat, 03/16/2019 - 00:01

I don't know why I'm in Washington DC; some lady just told me to be here. But there are civilians in distress, armed gangs roaming the streets, and me, my pals, and the second amendment are apparently the only ones who can actually do anything about it. I have no idea what, if anything, is going on with the bigwigs I met in the White House. But so long as I'm helping folks, sending relatively bad people to bed, walking the pretty streets, and picking up a new pair of gloves every so often, I'm very happy to hang around.

In the world of Tom Clancy's The Division 2, the USA has been ravaged by a virus and society has crumbled. While those who remain try to survive by banding together in groups of various dispositions, the Strategic Homeland Division activates highly specialized sleeper agents to try and restore order. It's a setting ripe in potential, perhaps to tell a ripping techno-thriller story that scrutinizes the structures of our modern society and government, or perhaps to make a video game that leverages the chaos that occurs when multiple idealistic groups clash in a vie for power in a lawless city. The Division 2 only does one of these things.

It's not the story. Throughout the entirety of The Division 2's main campaign, never did the game spend a satisfactory amount of time on any semblance of an overarching plot, or the predicaments of its supposedly important figures. There are no character arcs, only abrupt setups and consequences. Narrative devices, like audio logs found in the world, add nothing of consequence. Even the game's biggest macguffins--the President of the United States and his briefcase containing a cure for the virus--have a minimal amount of absolutely forgettable screen time. The opportunity to use The Division 2 to create meaningful fiction is wasted.

Instead, The Division 2 focuses its narrative chops into worldbuilding. The city, a ravaged Washington DC, initially feels a little homogenous in the way most Western cities do. But after some time, the personality of the different districts--the buildings, the landmarks, the natural spaces, and the ways they've been repurposed or affected by the cataclysm--begins to shine through. It's this strength of environment which lays a very strong foundation for The Division 2 as a video game, creating an engrossing, believable, and contiguous open world.

Moving from your safehouse to the open world and your next mission area is almost entirely seamless. It's something that was also true of the original Division, but that doesn't take away from the fact that the simple act of going from place to place in The Division 2 is one of the game's more rewarding aspects. One road may lead to a skirmish with a rival patrol or an optional activity, another might simply give you another stirring scene of urban decay in the morning sun. An obscured shortcut through an apartment block might turn up some useful items in an abandoned home, which you might decide to donate to the makeshift settlements where civilians have attempted to rebuild their lives.

Visiting those settlements--initially as hovels, before they gradually grow and become more charming, vibrant places thanks to your efforts in the world--becomes a strong motivator in the absence of a plot to chase. Outside main missions, which are dedicated to the weakening of rival factions and achieving indiscriminate objectives, the game's "Projects" are one of the most lucrative means of earning experience to better your character. Projects ask you to donate resources you find out in the world and participate in side activities, encouraging you to spend more time in the world, see new areas, fight new battles, search for new equipment to use, and find enjoyment in that. The Division 2 is, after all, a game devoted to providing you with a continuous stream of gripping conflicts, valuable rewards, and a perpetual sense of progress and satisfaction from doing these things. It does those things very well.

You spend a lot of time hunkered behind cover, popping out to fire at any enemy dumb enough to expose themselves. With the large amount of weapon variety available, this familiar facet of combat is solid in itself. Add to that the ability to equip two special abilities from a possible eight--which include tools such as riot shields, drones, and from what I can gather, robot bees of some sort--and combat gets pretty interesting. But the vector that really keeps The Division 2's combat lively for upwards of 30 hours is the behavior and diversity of its enemy types.

That time you spend in cover? The Division 2 doesn't want you to just stay there. You can go down very quickly if you're out in the open, but the game has a dozen ways to alway keep you taking those risks and finding better firing positions--aggressive melee units, remote control cars equipped with sawblades, even the regular assault units regularly attempt to outflank you. Those special abilities? You absolutely need to use them to their full potential to survive some encounters, whether by throwing out the seeker mines or the automated turret to keep enemies at bay while you focus on a priority target, or perhaps utilizing the chemical launcher to start a fire and create a zone of denial.

The effort needed to take out an adversary is relatively reasonable for a shooter that prioritizes the RPG nature of its combat model, but some of the tougher enemies have additional, visible layers of protection which you need to focus on breaking if you want to land critical hits. On the flip side, some enemies have additional, obtuse weak points which can work to your advantage, but only if you can hit them. The fuel tank on the back of a flamethrower unit might be feasible, but when you start running into the terrifying robotic quadruped in post-campaign activities, whose tiny weak point only reveals itself seconds before it fires its devastating railgun, you have to assess whether you can afford to take on that challenge among all the other things pressuring you. The Division 2 throws a lot of hurdles at you, but also gives you the means to quickly counter and resolve them. Whether you can juggle that many balls at once is what keeps combat tense and exciting.

What's also exciting is the treasure at the end of these gauntlets. These Washington locations, refashioned into memorable combat arenas, are often rewarding in their own right (a fight in a planetarium is an early standout). But improving your equipment is the vital, tangible part that keeps you feeling like you're making progress. You receive new gear in generous amounts, some dropped by an enemy or looted from a container found in the world, others rewarded for completing a mission, and the next dose always feels in reach. The weapon variety forces you to consider something completely different to take advantage of a power boost, and the armor variety provides an impressive number of different cosmetic looks. The Division 2 incorporates a microtransaction and loot box system for its inconsequential clothing options, though these can be found in the world and earned of your own accord, too.

Like combat, gear remains intriguing throughout Division 2 not just because of the abstract desire to have bigger numbers attached to your person and progress further through the game's challenges, but also through a raft of "talents." These add unique perks that complement particular skills or styles of play, like doing extra damage within a certain range, when enemies are burning, or your armor is depleted. The brands of armor also have a part to play, whereby equipping a number of pieces from a single manufacturer provide additional advantages. These bonuses become particularly attractive to obsess over in the endgame, when the world is retaken by a tougher, more merciless enemy faction called Black Tusk, and you need to ensure your ability to fight them is the best it can be.

For the hundreds of pieces you will inevitably want to discard, the ability to sell or dismantle them for parts to either purchase or craft pieces you want gives value to everything you pick up. Or you might retain them in order to move their talents to better gear of the same type, And, as a wonderful convenience, The Division 2 implements numerous features to inspect, mark, dismantle, or equip things you find so quickly and elegantly--sometimes without ever having to enter a menu--that it improves the whole experience of being in its world.

The same can be said of the game's multiplayer integration, which allows you to easily group up and progress with friends (the game will scale any underpowered players to match the most powerful). Alternatively, you can join a clan, which opens up a variety of weekly challenges, granting valuable rewards, and which features integrated game-wide group communication options. Even if you're only interested in playing alone (which is more challenging, but entirely feasible), the ability to matchmake with other players at any time, whether that be in the open world, before you start a mission, or when you're at a final boss, is a very welcome feature.

And when you beat that final boss of the game's final mission (though, such is the Division 2's lack of plot framing, I honestly couldn't tell you his name to save my life) and you think you've finally run out of treasure to keep luring you through more fights, the metaphorical table gets flipped. Flipped hard. The Washington DC you spent so long liberating from rival factions becomes completely retaken by the aforementioned Black Tusk. You unlock three unique class specializations, each with their own skill trees to work at unlocking. Your focus on growing two-digit numbers on your character (your level) moves to three-digit numbers (the quality of your gear). Even after finishing the campaign, the game still feels enormous.

More challenging, remixed versions of campaign missions and open-world challenges featuring Black Tusk become available. The idea might sound trite, but in practice, these "Invaded" missions often leverage the new enemy types to create terrifying new combat scenarios that maintain the steady ramp-up of challenges, and they give you a fantastic reason to revisit the more memorable combat arenas with a purpose. However, there's still a lot I haven't seen. I've yet to dabble in the three Dark Zones, reward-rich areas where players can potentially find themselves up against other, malicious agents as well as the usual enemies. I'm also yet to participate in Conflict, The Division 2's take on traditional team-based competitive multiplayer modes.

But after spending 30 hours completing the campaign and beginning to dabble in the endgame, I'm still enamored with The Division 2. The range of enemy types continues to keep combat encounters challenging, the equipment I earn and pick up continues to feel different and valuable. The ravaged environments continue to intrigue, and sometimes they're so stunning I find myself needing to take a screenshot before I move on. There is still so much to see in The Division 2, but I want to take the time to see it. I have absolutely no clue why I'm here or what anyone's motivations are, and I wish I had a narrative purpose to my endless hunger for progression. But I'm glad to be here right now.

Note: This review-in-progress will be finalized once substantial time has been spent in The Division 2's endgame content, including Dark Zones and Conflicts.

Left Alive Review - No Will To Survive

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 17:00

You awaken in a city under enemy occupation after neighbouring forces swept in and brutally laid waste to soldiers and civilians alike. You’re separated from your squad, your Wanzer mech heavily damaged and unable to operate, with nothing but the local army’s omnipotent AI, Koshka, to help guide you to safety. Left Alive’s opening salvo shows its certain potential, but while the premise pulls you in, the take away once it’s all over is one of resounding disappointment. Left Alive is an astoundingly infuriating grind that lacks in almost every area, making a wholly unrewarding experience.

Set in the same universe as the long-neglected Front Mission series, you alternate between three main characters--a rookie Wanzer pilot, a former military veteran turned beat cop, and a ghosted merc who’s been presumed dead for two years. Each character is on a different path to try and escape the city that’s overrun with enemy mechs and soldiers. Their paths will intertwine over the course of the game’s 14 missions allowing for some occasionally fun interplay between the protagonists, but that’s about as interesting as their story gets. Moments of both political and personal intrigue go for knockout blows with almost no set up, leaving them feeling flat and impactless, and the story never really gets back on its feet.

Surviving the numerous open-world sections of the city is the main point of Left Alive, avoiding combat where possible and traversing slowly and silently through the torn up streets littered with abandoned cars and flaming piles of rubbish. As you move from point to point, you’ll scavenge items and components--from empty cans and bottles to stripping parts from destroyed drones--in order to craft traps and projectiles. But even with these tools, progress comes slowly, and arduously, for a variety of different reasons, the chief of which is the game’s stunningly poor combat.

Weapons in general feel woefully inadequate and underpowered. Guns are weak and make a lot of noise (inviting any enemy within a block to bear fire down upon your position) and headshots don’t ever result in a one hit kill. Bullet impacts feel scattered and inconsistent, with perfect reticle aim not ensuring a hit--even on the first shot. Melee weapons aren’t much better, you’re more likely to get knocked down yourself before you can them so it’s always a high risk move, and there’s no stealth bonus for sneaky attacks. Projectile weapons are more stealth-oriented as the AI aren’t able to track where a thrown item came from, but they are equally as ineffective at putting the enemy down for good.

The stilted and jittery combat sucks the air out of every enemy engagement, but you’re consistently forced into it. Koshka’s incessant reminder of “Caution, the enemy is approaching” on a loop when in close proximity to a guard just adds to the annoyance. Checkpoints and save points are scarce, and more often than not the direct route to each is blocked by a number of patrolling guards or worse, a comparably overpowered Wanzer, meaning a lot of backtracking to save points in safer zones in order to avoid replaying tedious sections. Although the game’s map tries to usefully point out high alert zones, it doesn’t feel like there’s any tangible difference between the two; safe zones are just as likely to be teeming with patrolling guards as alert zones are.

Side missions come in the form of other survivors, many of whom only need to be accompanied to the nearest shelter, of which there are a handful strewn about each map. Some will go easily, while others are in distress and need convincing to move via a handful of dialogue choices, though these feel trite--it never felt like it mattered if they were rescued or not. They’re helpless and will quickly go down if fired at, unless you clear their path beforehand they have frustratingly little chance of making it to the shelter safely. But the risk of taking more guards head on just to get survivors out quickly turns into a tiring and unfulfilling routine.

Wanzers are the only part of Left Alive that bucks its mediocrity. When moving through the city, these imposing behemoths will patrol along the wider open sections of the map, sweeping the area from on high. Most of the time they can be avoided by finding a clearer route, but sometimes you’ll need to get unnervingly close, creating a palpable sense of fear as you try to sneak by them undetected. Getting noticed by a Wanzer spells almost certain death, unless you can get your hands on a rocket launcher and a good sniping spot, which will take them down with a few well placed shots to the torso.

Even better is when you get behind the controls of a Wanzer and give the enemy a healthy dose of their own medicine. Weapons, from rocket launchers and huge assault rifles to shoulder mounted railguns, each has a distinct feel to them. For example, the railgun requires your mech to kneel to make a more stable platform and then a second to warm up before firing, but will cause tremendous damage with a direct hit. All weapons overheat at different times if not allowed to breathe out in between shots, but if you time it right you can easily alternate between your main four to unload continuous fire.

Save for Wanzer-related activities, almost no part of Left Alive feels good to play; it’s painfully slow, inconsistent, and looks incredibly dated. Environment textures are muddied and lack detail, animations don’t blend together that well which gives everything a slightly jolting look. Blowing up an enemy vehicle sees it simply disappear into thin air behind a flat, low-res fire texture. When you mix moments like that with the already tiring combat, which is compounded further during some utterly infuriating late-game boss fights, it really hits home how far wide of the mark Left Alive is.

Perhaps the worst part is that you can see there’s something here, ideas that have some real potential but never even come close to being realised. The Wanzer combat is genuinely rad, but that’s it. Everything else comes with a heavy caveat; be it how underpowered you feel, the awkward movement, the inconsistent bullet impacts, the ugly environments… the list goes on. There’s almost no joy to be found in playing Left Alive, only bitter disappointment.

Objects In Space Review - Adrift

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 01:39

Space, as I'm sure we're all aware, is incomprehensibly vast. It can be difficult to fathom the scope of large nations in earnest, to say nothing of the endless expanse of the universe. While the vastness of space and its inherent loneliness has been explored time and again in fiction, Objects in Space contributes to that conversation by capturing the beauty of the mundane as you helm a solitary freighter drifting to and fro in a desolate void. Moreover, it positions itself as a rework of '90s adventure games, but with the added draw of real-time combat and problem solving as you and your hauler make your way.

Objects in Space immediately taps your imagination of a grand adventure to the stars. You are one of the first truly interstellar explorers, launched aboard the mighty Cassandra--a colony-spawning vessel with nearly a million inhabitants. Alongside dozens of support craft, the mission of this mega-ship was to create a jumpgate, allowing instant transit back to Earth. Unfortunately, your destination, the Apollo Cluster, was all but barren, putting a major kink in the plan. Even worse, due to some unexpected anomalies, a few of the accompanying ships in Cassandra's support fleet arrived decades later than intended--including yours.

When you finally arrive, your ship is spinning out of control thanks to damage sustained on the trip. A friendly passerby quickly offers their assistance, guiding you through the repairs and introducing you to the basics of your ship. Life in Apollo Cluster is surprisingly low-tech, despite its interstellar nature. As a result, you'll be listening the telltale squeal of metal scraping rock or the klaxon warning of an inbound projectile.

Flight is a decidedly sensory experience in Objects in Space. You're planted at the center of an array of controls, dials, knobs, and monitors. Important data is often split across multiple screens (which is to say both in-game view screens and your own real-world vantage point), with engineering info being kept to a seperate station than the helm or comms. with the constant feed of environmental information, you're always juggling a few different streams of information and responsibilities at any given point.

It's common to set off in a direction and accidentally end up in a pirate-packed nebula or anomaly. These threats require hands-on scanning, and rapid course adjustments. If you don't have enough speed, you can flip off nonessential systems and give the engines a full burn. The sum of these small decisions about piloting, maneuvering and maintenance are often quite impressive, and leave you with the distinct sensation that your experience and your knowledge of your ship get you out of trouble. It's quite a bit to manage, but your trek through the stars gets its texture from the emergent narrative of your choices.

The set-up and execution both work together to set the stage for a great bit of speculative fiction and an excuse to dump you into sociological crucible with only your ship as a trusty companion. In many respects, how you play and what happens along your journey is a vital component of the experience. And by simulating all the mundane bits of space travel, it asks you to fully inhabit the role of space captain at the edge of the cosmos. What you encounter and how you grapple with it becomes an intrinsic part of not just the story, but the story you compose hand-in-hand with the game.

The granularity of the simulation helps build a relationship between you and your ship. Drifting in the black, your ship is your companion. It's the only thing protecting your flesh and bone from the utter lethality of radiation, micro-meteorites, and, of course, that lung-rending vacuum. You'd expect it, then, to be a tough machine--and many ships are, to a point--but they're also vulnerable. When you jump, every system needs to reboot, selling the idea that this is a tremendous feat--one that not even this rugged, mechanical beast can handle.

Your ship can hide secrets and quirks, too. You may or may not discover window shutters, posters, or the like on your particular model. The layout of each ship and system is markedly different. Parts can be swapped out, but only at dock. Changes to your companion are thus a big deal, requiring you to plot a course and go through all the standard docking procedures, and then recruit the help of the station's robotic arms to rearrange things. When it breaks down or gets hit by just about anything, you feel it. Objects in Space uses its aesthetics--both visual and ludic--to craft an enchanting atmosphere.

Objects in Space is committed to its own brand of realism, fashioned from the experience of inhabiting a place. As such, your ship's status is linked to your capabilities; as your ship takes damage, systems will work sporadically before finally giving out. This creates a bit of a moving target--your goal is always to survive, but the challenge grows when you're carrying battle damage from a prior encounter or your sensors are spotty. As a point of contrast, though, you'll also have plenty time to simply “live” in your ship, as it were.

Because this is space, when you are ready to dart off, your course will usually take several minutes or longer. Most of that is downtime, though, unless some obstacle or scenario arises. And it's here that you get quiet moments with little but the hum of your drives and the synth music from your ship's radio to keep you company. These segments of peace do a lot to punctuate the frantic crisis management that permeates many missions.

The obstacles of your journey are somewhat predictable. Pirates, asteroids, and so on are all pretty standard fare, though how you grapple with and overcome them is always unique. With such a broad array of options and tactics to use--dumping cargo, creative flying, etc.--you're mostly limited by your imagination and cleverness. Some strategies, like flipping your ship into a weird position, drawing others into a fight, or nixing non-essential systems to save up power for a massive engine burn, when executed well, give you the feeling of being not just a brilliant captain, but the entire crew of a much larger spacecraft. There's a raw, almost space cowboy feeling that emerges after a few encounters that permeates the game. And, provided that you keep flying, you'll feel like a hotshot scoundrel in no time.

Those with affinity for the kind of nuanced technical challenges of running a space freight business will be enraptured, but such players will be far from the only ones. In its best moments, Objects in Space can work a unique kind of magic. Few other games pull away the barriers between ship and captain so completely, and yet lean so hard on the mundane. Pulling yourself away from the real world and allowing the mysteries and adventure soak in can take a bit, but once you're settled into your chair and piloting, you'll find there you'll find there's no place quite like it anywhere--be it our world or its own.

ToeJam & Earl: Back In The Groove Review - Rapper's Delight

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 20:35

ToeJam & Earl was in many respects typical of the kind of game that defined the Genesis--charmingly eccentric, ostentatiously hip, staunchly uncommercial. A broad comic pastiche of tropes from early hip-hop and mid-'80s New York street style, this low-key co-op dungeon-crawler about alien rappers had what you'd call a vibe, and as one might have put it then, it was a trip just to groove with it. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is faithful to this spirit. A ground-up remake from series creator Greg Johnson, it adheres so closely to the source material that it's hard to critique without it reading like a referendum on the original. Everything about the experience has been designed to make you nostalgic for the early 1990s, and sinking into its reverie of the past can be appealing. But too often it reminds you how far we've come since then, and makes you remember why certain things are better left behind.

The setup is identical. As the game begins, our extraterrestrial heroes have crash-landed on Earth, their ship totally obliterated. At the same time, a black hole has warped the world out of recognition, the upshot of which is the planet has been laid out across small tracts of land stacked one on top of the other, the lot of them connected by elevators--sort of like a Salvador Dali landscape crossed with Super Mario Galaxy. The object of the game is to collect the 10 pieces of scattered debris that together comprise your ship so you can return home to planet Funkotron. The pieces are hidden, their locations randomized, and the distorted quasi-earth that houses them teeming with nefarious earthlings out to thwart you for reasons unexplained. It's glib and vaguely surreal. It's absurd, but you get the sense you're not meant to question it.

Your pursuit of the 10 missing ship pieces unfolds not unlike the exploration of a dungeon in old fantasy role-playing games; Back in the Groove is a more or less standard example of the roguelite genre. Earth's ascending series of floating-island stages are generated procedurally--with the option to play a "fixed" mode that trains you to a static set of levels--while enemies and loot, both abundant, are randomized on each playthrough. Enemy placement and distance between objectives have the luck-of-the-draw quality that makes roguelites so engrossing (if frustrating), and death is permanent, demanding from-the-start replays.

What distinguishes ToeJam & Earl from other roguelites are its style and its attitude. One of the first things you notice is how mellow it feels. It's an extremely gentle, easy-going game. That's not to say it can't be difficult--on random mode, I died frequently and agonizingly, and won by the skin of my teeth. But there's a kind of unflappable composure and lackadaisical pace throughout that makes the experience feel relaxed. This is a game that not only permits but rewards lounging in a hot tub for as long as you'd like, and in which the heroes don't run but saunter. Where most games tend toward the urgent and dramatic, ToeJam & Earl prefers things unhurried. The word for it is chill. It's very likeable.

The overall look of ToeJam & Earl is unmistakable. Its vibrant aesthetic drew from a variety of urban artists of the era, including the pop art of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and the subway graffiti of Futura and Zephyr, and in its own cartoonish way the game is as authentic a snapshot of the period's hip-hop and street culture as films like Breakin or Wild Style. Of course, what was contemporary in 1991 is decidedly retro in 2019, and its bright acrylic colors and bold animations are all the more striking for their vintage air. This is particularly true of the patterned backgrounds used as interstitial lulls between levels. In the original these were loading screens; here they're technically unnecessary, but they add something unquantifiable, like grace notes, and have been wisely left in. It's in such touches that Back in the Groove best captures the mood of its predecessors.

Old-school hip-hop looms over ToeJam & Earl, but it's actually funk, not rap, that provides the music. As the title promises, grooves abound. The newly recorded soundtrack, a raft of jams by virtuoso bassist Cody Wright, features such aptly named tracks as "Slow Groovin," "The Bass Master," and "Funk Funk Funk E," which sound as advertised. It's hardly the most diverse score, but I never found it repetitive. Those endless basslines feel inseparable from the tempo of the action and atmosphere of the setting, and as such contribute to what is on the whole a really coherent style. Tone, rhythm, visual design--it's all of a piece. And the few elements introduced expressly for the remake, like new enemies, items, and playable characters, don't depart from the template of the original in the slightest.

There are things one expects even the most faithful throwback to modernize. But as if to protect the essence of ToeJam & Earl, next to nothing about the classic gameplay has been modified, supplemented, or otherwise upgraded. The game still controls like it's mapped to three buttons, and rather than streamlined it's merely simplistic. There's not much more to do than walk around and alternately locate ship parts and elevators as you evade earthlings, most of whom are so predictable and easily avoided that death is usually caused not by any one tricky enemy but by a bunch of them crowding you in a flourish of unlucky randomization. A pair of basic minigames (a crude rhythm game and an endless runner) feel like afterthoughts, and from beginning to end the campaign can be completed by a skilled player in under two hours.

Items, like much else in ToeJam & Earl, are distributed at random, gift-wrapped and unidentified until opened or divined by magic. These presents are in ample supply, and there's a staggering number of types to discover, most of them outlandish. Some, like earthling-pelting tomatoes or enemy-attracting decoys, have obvious (if limited) benefits. Others, like an alarm that sits above your head and alerts enemies to your position or a kind of bomb that causes you to immediately self-destruct, are gag gifts, better left unopened. Most seem pretty arbitrary, as though included because they're amusing. None struck me as particularly useful--even the slingshot, which should be straightforward, is ineffective. They have no real effect on strategy, except as blunt instruments, and more often than not their randomness is a burden.

A simple progression system--another holdover from the Genesis version--allows you to level up and earn titles ranging from "Weiner" to "Funklord." Now this system has been expanded upon with a basic stats tree governing your speed, luck, and so on, and in Back in the Groove graduation from one title to the next bears with it additional points in each category. The entire system is underdeveloped, and while boosts to these attributes no doubt do have some bearing on your speed or the frequency with which you happen upon valuable presents, the effect of levelling up on anything other than your health meter seems negligible. It mattered so little to my success moment-to-moment that I often forgot to redeem my level-ups when I'd earned them.

Online multiplayer is one of the rare other modern amenities, and it is an awkward fit. ToeJam & Earl was a quintessential couch co-op game circa 1991; two players felt fundamental to a full experience. But while local multiplayer still delights as expected, playing with up to three friends or strangers online is not remotely the same. There just isn't enough ground to cover in a given level to warrant four different people searching for the same elevator, and not enough content other than that to keep everyone busy; walking around together is redundant, and splitting up a waste of time, as whoever happens on the goal first has to stand around waiting for the rest of the gang to catch up. One tardy straggler can make a level feel interminable.

As if to protect the essence of ToeJam & Earl, next to nothing about the classic gameplay has been modified, supplemented, or otherwise upgraded.

In its first incarnation, ToeJam & Earl could seriously strain the Sega hardware. An environment bustling with enemies could slow the frame rate nearly to a halt, and the game's madcap sense of creative abandon sometimes seemed too much for the console to handle. Back in the Groove suffers from similar technical defects, even on PlayStation 4, to the point where I honestly wondered whether the persistent freezing and stuttering might not be an ingenious reference to its underperforming forebear. There are intermittent problems with the randomization process, too, including, on multiple occasions, the failure of game-essential objects to appear, preventing advancement to the next level. Several times I arrived on a new level to find that the elevator to the following level was nowhere to be found, requiring me to exit and load a previous save file.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove belongs completely and unapologetically to the early 1990s. This remake's most attractive features--its dazzling animation, its infectious bass--are ambrosia for the nostalgic and derive much of their charm from their fidelity to the Genesis original. But a lot has changed over the last 30 years, and the game too often fails to gracefully integrate new features to a modern standard. For every wistful reminder of bygone days and the pleasures of the era, there's a lingering fault or drawback that could have been smoothed over or mended. The issue with Back in the Groove's unwavering faithfulness to its predecessor is inextricable from what makes it occasionally so much fun: It's both captured the good and brought the bad back with it.

The Occupation Review - On The Clock

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 06:00

I'm glad I played through The Occupation a second time. My first playthrough did not end well. Yes, I made it to the end, I saw a final cutscene and watched the credits roll, but I wouldn't say I reached the conclusion of the story. In fact, I felt like I'd barely scratched the surface.

After finishing it a second time I had a good handle on the major events of this bureaucratic thriller, but it wasn't until I'd played all the way through for a third time--and replayed individual sections several times over--that I felt confident I understood the motivations of the main characters. Even now, I'm contemplating a fourth go in an effort to figure out the smaller details and fathom just how deep the conspiracy goes.

The Occupation is a story-driven stealth-adventure game that rewards repeat plays even if it can also, at times, feel hostile to the idea of enabling you to delve into its narrative nooks and crannies. It tells a mature, challenging story that is both overtly political and ambiguous enough to leave plenty to interpretation, while its core stealth mechanics deliver a suitably tense experience.

For most of the game you play as an investigative journalist who is reporting on a terrorist attack at the stately campus of a prominent IT company. An immigrant employee of the company has been arrested in connection with the alleged bombing, but you've received a tip-off that not all is quite so simple. There's also the matter of the company's work on a personal data harvesting project that seems worryingly linked to the British government's proposed Union Act, an anti-immigrant and anti-civil liberty bill about to face a crucial vote in parliament. It may well be set in the 1980s, but the issues tackled feel all too relevant today. It's a smart story that's told with a deft, delicate touch.

It's essentially a detective story in which you investigate scenes, gather clues, compile evidence, and interrogate eye-witnesses. You have arranged interviews with three key players at the company, and in between your appointments, you are able to explore the offices. The catch: you're on a time limit during each of the three main investigative periods. When that time is up--and it varies between 30 and 60 minutes of real-ish time--your interview starts regardless of how much incriminating information you've managed to obtain, and your line of questioning is limited to what you can actually prove.

Navigating the office space is in itself a challenge. These buildings are a maze of corridors, security checks, staff-only areas, ventilation shafts, crawlspaces, and temporary construction sites. Remembering how to get from one room to another when you have to travel to another floor, in and out of restricted areas, stealing an ID card here, shutting off the mains power there, is a stern memory test even once you're familiar with the basic layout. But the environments have a real tactile feel that makes you want to keep exploring them.

Complicating matters further, if any staff find you in a restricted area--rifling through their filing cabinets, for example--they'll ask you to leave, and if you persist, call security. Fortunately there are gaps you can exploit, both physical ones like the vent under that desk that leads into the locked room next door and temporal ones like those few minutes you have to log in to someone's computer and read their emails before they return from the bathroom. Little touches, like pausing to close the blinds in an office window before continuing your snooping, go a long way to making you feel like a genuine detective.

Sneaking around is your best bet to avoid attracting unwanted attention, particularly from Steve, the company's amiable security guy, who wanders the complex and will usher you out of anywhere you shouldn't be. Sometimes he'll spot you from a distance and come to investigate, giving you time to leave the area or find somewhere to hide while he searches. The stealth is just light enough that you get to feel like you slipped by effortlessly without having to worry too much about memorizing patrol patterns or keeping to the shadows. Sometimes it's a bit silly, though, and requires suspension of disbelief like when you clearly dash into a closet from which the only exit is through a vent, but Steve just goes, "Huh, I wonder where he went?"

On one hilarious occasion, Steve caught me trying to access someone's computer, so I tried ducking under the desk. He sighed, "I know you're in there," as he entered the room, walked over to the desk and crouched down next to me, shining his torch directly in my ever-so-guilty face. I could only laugh as he escorted me outside and gave me my final warning.

Piecing together the clues obtained from all your clandestine activities while you match them to your mental map of the facility is extremely satisfying. A crumpled note found in a trashcan might suggest that someone is hiding something, but now that you’ve found a way into their office you realize you don’t have the password to their computer and will have to rethink your approach. Your dossier, which updates whenever you reveal something of significance, suggests your next steps but rarely spells out the solution. When you have multiple lines of investigation on the go it can be taxing to keep them all straight, but it’s also hugely enjoyable to scan your dossier again and try to spot that vital connection you’ve been missing.

However, it's highly unlikely that anyone could collect every important clue on their first attempt, meaning your mandatory interviews with the key players will feel frustrating and almost painfully ineffective. There are no do-overs without actually starting a new game--the game autosaves only at the beginning of the investigation period, and you cannot create a manual save. It's frustrating when you run out of time and realize you didn't collect all the clues; on my initial playthrough I had nothing at all to pin on my first interviewee while I failed the second investigation period so badly my interview was canceled entirely. One option is to accept failure and resign yourself to playing through the whole thing a second time.

But I'm so glad I did. On my second playthrough I was able to find more clues that proved the company was lying about certain things, and I discovered whole new areas of the offices I hadn't even seen the first time around. Still, I knew there were things I'd missed, things I didn't yet understand.

I went back for a third playthrough. I had my handwritten notes from my second playthrough, and made sure I added to them whenever I turned up something new. But, as the minutes ticked away, I knew I wasn't going to find out everything. Time was running out and I still didn't know how to get into that office or how I was going to get that document printed. If I went to the interview without being fully prepared, the game would autosave and I'd have to move on whether I wanted to or not. So I quit out. I restarted a fourth time. Then a fifth.

I still haven't cracked that first interview. I've finished the game three times now, played that opening section six times, and seen two different endings based on my choices and performance throughout. Each time through, I am discovering something new, some document that adds to my pool of knowledge or some previously unrevealed connection between two people that casts a new light on their relationship. It makes me feel like a proper detective. But it's an arduous process, replaying the whole section over and over, for what feels like ever-diminishing returns. I can't help but wish there was some sort of time rewind mechanic to alleviate the repetition.

Of course, it seems churlish to complain too much about a game I'm enjoying enough to willingly replaying it again and again to explore every facet of its story. The Occupation is the sort of game you'll find yourself thinking about when you're not playing it, that gets under your skin in ways you didn't even realize. I'm going to play it again. Maybe this time I'll completely crack the case.

Assault Android Cactus+ Review - Robots Rock

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 00:00

Assault Android Cactus, first released on PC back in 2015, is a game that feels perfectly suited to the Switch. It's the sort of experience that works equally at home on your TV and in your hands during a morning commute. Thanks to a handful of new additions and some excellent port work, this new 'plus' edition is the definitive way to experience Witch Beam's excellent twin-stick shooter.

Assault Android Cactus+ isn't a major overhaul of the original, but it's a significant iteration. As before, there are 25 levels to play through, nine playable characters--five of them unlockable--and the game's focus is on chasing high scores and earning higher ranks for performance by repeating levels. The further you go, the more enemies the game hurls at you in each level, and the more hits it takes to kill them. It's a frantic experience, one where you're almost constantly beset by loads of enemies, swarming and firing shots at you. By the end of the campaign the onslaughts can feel unending, even though, in truth, levels only last a few minutes each.

From the outside it looks hardcore, but one of Assault Android Cactus' strengths is how discernable and navigable the chaos is. Enemy bullets are generally slow-moving, and some enemies are far less dangerous than others. Each android comes equipped with a primary weapon and a more powerful sub-weapon, each of which is given a generously short recharge time, so it's often possible to slip right into a huge group of enemies, do enormous damage, and slip out again. Enemies can drop power-ups, which let you speed up, give you additional firepower, or--best of all--temporarily cause all enemies to power down, letting you rack up kills. Getting kills in quick succession lets you build chain combos--the key to getting a high score is making sure that one of your enemies dies every 2.5 seconds, which means switching between damaging more hardy enemies and wiping out the smaller, more vulnerable baddies often.

To beat a level, and to maintain a high score and thus earn a good rank, you'll want to take as few hits as possible. Getting knocked down rips 10% off your total score thus far, which can be frustrating, particularly in the near-endless 'Infinity Drive' mode, where your total score can remain static or drop over a long period as knockdowns rack up. Every now and then a downed enemy will drop a battery, which you need to collect to charge your power, so going too slowly will drain your battery right down. You'll only hit a Game Over screen if you run out of charge, which can lead to great, tense moments as you fling yourself right through dangerous territory to grab a battery at the last moment.

The game supports up to four players, too, with enemy numbers scaling, and unique leaderboards depending on how many androids you send out into the fray. This means that it's a great fit for parties or multiplayer nights, but as a primarily solo player, AAC never feels lesser for being played alone. If you're planning on playing it with newcomers, though, it's worth being aware that some characters are much easier to get to grips with--and thus more enjoyable to play as--than others. Any character with a slow rate of fire can feel ill-suited to the game's fast pace, and while there are potential strategic advantages to using a railgun or a shotgun, I found myself opting for the faster characters every time.

Levels will typically feature some sort of topographical gimmick. There could be walls that appear and disappear, conveyor belts that make movement tricky, or floors that fall away and rise back up depending on where you're standing. Each presents unique challenges for how you can move through them, and while only a few of them require that you fundamentally change how you play, each one provides a neat twist. The five bosses, meanwhile, are all challenging and fun in their own ways, changing forms and attack patterns throughout their fights. These bosses are Assault Android Cactus+ at its most bullet-hellish, and learning how to weave between their attacks while doing damage is extremely satisfying.

The campaign is a challenge, but not an extreme one--the end boss gave me more grief than any other level, but I still managed to beat in within six attempts. The new Campaign+, which is unlocked once you beat the final boss and is currently exclusive to the Switch version, will push you harder. It takes each level and boss fight from the original and ramps it up--right from the beginning, there's a considerable spike in the number of enemies you'll face in each level, and they tend to be hardier than the ones in the regular campaign, requiring far more shots to kill. Campaign+ might not add any entirely new levels, but doubling the number of leaderboards you have to compete on gives you more incentive to keep coming back and improving.

Curiously, while most levels are noticeably more difficult than they were before in Campaign+, I found that there were some exceptions. Later levels, which were already designed with heavy enemy loads in mind, feel about the same when a few more are thrown in, except the scores you can earn are now much higher. The most profound changes are found in the boss fights, which transform from relative challenges into utter bastards across the board. They're still an enjoyable challenge, though, and thankfully every level is immediately unlocked in Campaign+, so you can jump around and skip any levels that are causing you frustration.

Less showy, but no less significant, is the new addition of single-stick controls. This is an accessibility option, allowing you to play with a single Joy-Con with auto-aiming enabled, and it works extremely well. These controls even helped me to see the value in some of the more complex androids--Shitake's railgun, and its ability to hit multiple enemies at once, is much easier to use with auto-aim. You lose just enough control that the absolute highest scores on the leaderboard are still going to come from players who are using both sticks, but in terms of enjoyment, the game loses surprisingly little when played this way.

The other tweaks made for the '+' edition are minor--new costumes, the option to rewatch the game's few cutscenes, and some balance changes--but there's also no trade-off in opting for the Switch version. The machine shows no signs of struggle running Assault Android Cactus+, holding a steady framerate in both handheld and TV modes regardless of how many enemies are on screen. The game's clean, uncomplicated visual style suits the small screen well, and although you'll need an Internet connection for leaderboards, trying for high scores on the bus, or--if your commute is long enough--plugging into the Infinity Drive feels irresistible.

Assault Android Cactus+ is the ultimate version of an excellent game, and a perfect marriage between console and content. It's exciting and intense without ever being impenetrable, and the new Campaign+ feature is a great reason to dive back into the game even if you've already completed it elsewhere.

Devil May Cry 5 Review - It's A Jackpot

Wed, 03/06/2019 - 16:00

As you send demons flying across the screen in Devil May Cry 5, a strong sense of familiarity will hit you. This is "old school" Devil May Cry, a simplistic network of hallways and arenas where you humiliate demons with absurd weaponry as a thumping battle theme fuels the bliss of every well-executed combo. DMC5 marks a return to the previous series continuity, and everything you remember about how those games played has been resurrected and improved. It is a brilliant iteration of the series’ best qualities--but it innovates as much as it reiterates, balancing new and old with infectious confidence.

The majority of your time in DMC5 is spent killing demons. With an array of melee and projectile attacks, you inflict complex combo strings while performing split-second dodges to evade incoming attacks. An in-game ranking system continually judges your style, encouraging you to better your performance. Protagonists Nero, Dante, and newcomer V each offer their own unique playstyles that makes the simple objective of clearing rooms of enemies continually exhilarating. Combat is where the game most expresses itself, showcasing the nuances of its mechanical depth in a variety of creative ways.

Nero is where new and old ideas come together. Replacing his lone Devil Bringer from DMC4 are new prosthetic arms called Devil Breakers. With them, you can pull enemies towards you, as well as tap into an assortment of special abilities depending on which Devil Breaker model you have equipped. For example, Overture can deliver a wide shock attack, while Punch Line shoots a rocket-powered fist that continuously damages enemies. Devil Breakers significantly evolve Nero’s playstyle by expanding his attacks, but what’s most curious is how switching between them requires you to discard your current one in order to equip the next down the line. At first, this seems like an arbitrary way to access each arm’s unique abilities--not to mention there’s little done to justify this rule in-game other than asserting that they’re simply "fragile."

However, this limitation introduces a thrilling spontaneity to combat that encourages you to be industrious and adaptable. You’re initially compelled to be frugal with Devil Breakers, but as you expand the number you can carry, you start hitting a rhythm expending them with strategic grace, flowing from one stylish combo to the next. But even with the best reflexes, an enemy can shatter a Devil Breaker mid-combo, which forces you to adjust your strategy on the fly. A persistent tension underlies using Nero’s Devil Breakers, melding high-consequence tactics with impulsive creativity. The gratifying free-flowing strategies that Devil Breakers inspire makes it easy to overlook any initial frustrations. They present a brilliant dichotomy that strengthens and amplifies the idiosyncrasies of Nero's more accessible playstyle.

Where Nero brings new flair to classic mechanics, V is fresh and unexpected. Unlike his sword-touting brethren, V damages enemies from afar with his two familiars: a shape-shifting panther named Shadow and a demonic bird named Griffon (DMC1 fans should instantly recognize these creatures). The former inflicts melee attacks, while the latter shoots projectiles. Each have their own regenerating health bar and can be taken out of combat temporarily if you're not careful. V also has a third familiar named Nightmare. This giant golem acts as more as a Devil Trigger-like last resort who can inflict ridiculous damage all on his own for a short duration. In addition, it can be commandeered to inflict more direct assaults on enemies. An enemy cannot be killed by a familiar’s attacks alone, though; V himself must inflict the final blow. V requires a patience that goes against your general instinct to be confrontational. As a result, his more deliberate pace can be occasionally irritating, especially when your familiars have trouble focusing on the proper target during a hectic fight. It’s a bit disorienting due to the lack of feedback from hitting enemies with your familiars.

Despite this, V’s emphasis on space management and calculated movement is a fantastic change of pace. Cunningly avoiding attacks as you command your familiars to deliver complex juggles is a satisfying thrill. And it's made all the more rewarding by the impact of a final blow alongside V's brief poetic soliloquies. V demands restraint, a quality that defies the offensive strategies of previous characters. His abilities may not seem like much, but he reframes the way DMC is played, demonstrating that there's still room for original and refreshing ideas in combat. V's inventive playstyle is a superb addition that feels right at home alongside Nero and Dante.

Old-timer Dante most maintains traditional mechanics, but he’s also where combat is most creative. Like his DMC4 counterpart, he’s able to seamlessly switch between four different fighting styles, each with their own unique maneuvers and setups. This time, though, he can equip up to four weapons and four guns. It’s a joy to perform combos with Dante‘s extensive arsenal; you're capable of rush-stabbing a demon, break-dance-fighting them while they’re down, and then propelling them into the air with a demonic motorcycle chainsaw.

While part of the fun is taking in the spectacle of a fight, playing as Dante is really about expressing yourself. There are so many attack combinations available that you can’t help but get sucked into learning the nuances of his every ability to achieve your desired style and flair. DMC historically excels when it’s continually motivating you to not only master its systems, but to execute upon them as elegantly and creatively as possible. Eventually, you get into a kind of flow with Dante, where combat is less about thinking than it is about feeling your way through it. Each character in DMC5 exemplifies this depth and intensity, but it’s with Dante’s open-ended combos where it feels most liberating and rewarding.

With an abundance of fighting systems to learn, it helps that you’re gradually weaned into them. The campaign’s pacing is deliberate, starting you with the more accessible Nero, then switching you to strategic spacing of V before opening up combat entirely with Dante. But even as you grow accustomed to how everyone plays, new mechanics are constantly introduced, keeping you thoroughly engaged in the highs of DMC5's stylish combat.

There are plenty of foes that test your abilities, too. Bosses in particular offer the most rewarding trials, with different challenges to suit each character's playstyle. For instance, one pushes Dante's ability to maintain quick and effective damage, where another is tailored specifically to V's vulnerability at close-range, forcing you to frequently manage your spacing while keeping your familiars in play. There are a couple bosses tied to relatively anticlimactic set pieces, but these are few and far between. The challenges are kept consistent, supplying riveting duels and new layers of complexity that inspire you to improve. And even with repeated deaths, a lenient continue system keeps the action and drama moving.

Speaking of drama, DMC5’s story is an engrossing, albeit predictable, saga with plenty of extravagant action to keep you thoroughly entertained. It has a non-linear structure that has you switching perspectives to get the full picture, which lends variety to the events unfolding before you. Set in the duration of a single day, you're notified of the passing of time at the start of every mission. The narrative benefits from this approach to storytelling, keeping you invested in what each mission has to contribute to your understanding of the timeline.

The return to familiar characters is perhaps the story’s most endearing quality. In fact, there are several loving nods to many of the series’ most iconic moments scattered throughout-- a particular instance involving Dante and a hat is a hilarious acknowledgement to the character's history. While some characters, like fan-favorites Trish and Lady, don’t have much to contribute, their presence at least brings a sense of camaraderie. However, a couple of nude scenes involving them come across as tasteless; with so many pleasing callbacks and references, moments like this awkwardly stand out. They feel cheap and unnecessary, hurting Trish and Lady's already minimal characterizations. It stands in stark contrast to the always delightful gunsmith Nico, who's established as headstrong, intelligent, and the reason why Nero is able to make short work of demons in the first place.

The story ties a nice bow on the classic continuity’s unanswered questions, allowing for satisfying conclusions for its major protagonists.

In spite of its more ambitious scale, DMC5's story leaves room for meaningful character development. It's by no means a nuanced study of its protagonists that digs deep into what makes them tick. But their motivations are always made abundantly clear, making for compelling melodrama whenever they clash against one another. You grow attached to their impassioned, if a bit simplistic, plights--if only to see how they'll overcome the harrowing challenges set before them. Ultimately, the story ties a nice bow on the classic continuity’s unanswered questions, allowing for satisfying conclusions for its major protagonists.

There is an effort to pull DMC5's more grandiose moments together on a mechanical level with the Cameo System, which adds a subtle online cooperative element to the formula. Some missions often include the presence of another character exploring a nearby area or even acting alongside you. By default these characters are AI controlled, but through the Cameo System they're controlled either by other players online or their respective ghost data. A cool concept on paper, the feature is largely underutilized with only one particularly exciting instance where you actually get to fight alongside another player. That said, seeing another player from afar does add a novel yet fleeting solidarity to your journey.

DMC5 thrives on the stylistic and mechanical prowess of its predecessors. It sticks to tradition above all else, pursuing a few ambitious new ideas along the way, but mostly maintaining the series’ focus on intricate fighting systems and campy bravado. Rarely does the game stumble, consistently leveraging its spectacle and mechanical depth to push aside any small frustrations. All the while, the story exudes a charismatic charm that keeps you constantly intrigued as you’re refining your skills. DMC5 proves the series can still be brilliant and imaginative without compromising its longest-held traditions.

Kirby's Extra Epic Yarn Review - Yarn Good Game

Tue, 03/05/2019 - 14:00

In 2010, Kirby's Epic Yarn spun the traditional formula of Dream Land's favorite hero on its head, reimaging Kirby stuck in a world made entirely of yarn, buttons, and zippers. Extra Epic Yarn ports Kirby's sidescrolling platforming adventure from Wii to 3DS and stitches on a few new features and modes for good measure. Most of Extra Epic Yarn plays as you might remember the original game--and it still looks just as good--but the port's additions craft new, enjoyable ways for you to approach its content.

Kirby does not have his trademark abilities in Patch Land, so you need to rely on his new knitted form to find unorthodox ways of overcoming obstacles and vanquishing foes. To attack, for example, Kirby throws out a whip of yarn to unravel enemies before wrapping the material up into a ball that can be thrown. There are also moments within levels where Kirby will take on a new shape, which briefly alters gameplay--when Kirby is a fighter jet, for example, Extra Epic Yarn becomes a fixed shooter.

Epic Yarn recaptures the charming simplicity of Kirby's earliest adventures, while also reimagining Dream Land's hero in a fun new way with its yarn-based aesthetics. The game retains the franchise's focus on simple platforming challenges populated throughout cleverly designed levels as well. Extra Epic Yarn adds on to this formula by including craft-focused variations of some of Kirby's traditional transformations in the platforming sections. Certain items on each stage transform Kirby if you manage to whip them up, allowing him to attack and occasionally navigate a stage in a new way. For instance, Nylon (Tornado) Kirby can spin at high enough speeds to pull apart any enemy or damage bosses, but the attack can also be used to briefly hover through the air. These new abilities are not necessary to completing any level, but several of them allow Kirby to more easily attack and jump at the same time, which adds a nice flow to the platforming. And like previous Kirby titles, you can stick with one you enjoy and bring it from one stage to the next.

It would have been nice to see Kirby's transformations inspire new puzzles in Extra Epic Yarn. Every stage--as far as I can tell--has been faithfully replicated, so there's not one puzzle you can't figure out without a transformation. It feels like a lost opportunity to implement a more creative application of Kirby's new powers.

On top of new transformations, Extra Epic Yarn also adds Devilish mode, which is the game's version of a hard difficulty. In Devilish mode, a small devil will follow Kirby and try to attack him. Striking back will cause the devil to scurry off, but it will return eventually and you'll have to hit it again if you want to get rid of it. And you do want to get rid of it. Unlike Normal mode, Kirby can be unwound in Devilish mode from taking too many hits, which forces you to start a stage from the very beginning. Devilish mode can present quite the challenge on later stages, where longer levels present more opportunities for a misplaced jump or slow attack. The new mode never becomes frustrating, though, thanks in large part to the implementation of the aforementioned transformation abilities. Devilish mode might not have worked in the more methodical Epic Yarn, but the ability to do quick, sweeping attacks while on the move with Kirby's transformations allows for Extra Epic Yarn to be more action-oriented. It's still tough at times, but as someone who thought Epic Yarn was too easy, Devilish mode introduces the challenge I want in a second playthrough.

Extra Epic Yarn also adds two new minigames which put you in control of either Meta Knight or King Dedede. Meta Knight Slash & Bead has you cut your way through stages as you collect beads, doing your best to slice through as many enemies as quickly as possible to earn more time. Dedede Gogogo is a much faster-paced variation of the same formula, pushing you to sprint through a stage instead of fight your way through it. Each minigame only has four stages, all of which only last a few minutes. Both work as enjoyable distractions when you want to take a break from the campaign--similar to Samurai Kirby and Megaton Punch in previous titles.

Epic Yarn recaptures the charming simplicity of Kirby's earliest adventures, while also reimagining Dream Land's hero in a fun new way with its craft-focused aesthetics.

One last change that comes in Extra Epic Yarn is the loss of motion controls, which were used in certain story levels in the original game on Wii and Wii U. You only notice the motion controls are gone in a few infrequent instances: the sections where Kirby turns himself into a train. Before, you laid out the train's path by pointing at the screen and dragging where you wanted the track to go. In the 3DS port, you use the control stick or d-pad, which is just harder to do. It's possible, sure, but I can't help but think incorporating stylus support in those sections would have made them easier.

Extra Epic Yarn brings new life to a Kirby game that's nearly a decade old. Everything there is to love about Epic Yarn is still here, but the addition of traditional transformation abilities and challenging Devilish mode provide options for anyone looking for a different or more difficult platforming experience. The two new minigames aren't game-changing additions, but they're both fun to complete and provide a change of pace if you ever need a break from the campaign. Whether you're looking to relive Kirby's adventure into Patch Land or want to pick up the game for the first time, Extra Epic Yarn provides hours of good fun, all wrapped up in charming, craft-influenced visuals. This 3DS port is the best version of the game, hands down.

Dead Or Alive 6 Review In Progress - Battle Ready

Fri, 03/01/2019 - 14:00

In the cutthroat world of fighting games, Dead or Alive has consistently proven that it's a solid contender. From its arcade debut in 1996, the series has made a name for itself with striking visuals, fun and memorable characters, and engaging fighting action, carrying the series along through some of the genre's darkest days. Now, Dead or Alive finds itself in one of the most crowded markets the genre has ever seen. Dead or Alive 6 still has the chops to stand out after all this time--though it does slightly stumble along the way.

When you first boot up Dead or Alive 6, you're greeted by a close-up of one of the game's many characters, staring you straight in the face as you navigate through the initial set of menus. It's an early glimpse at DoA6's graphical prowess, as you get to see one of the cast members before they step into the ring and turn into a bruised and battered brawler. The way the fighters themselves sustain visual damage during a fight is quite impressive. There's dirt, torn clothing, and flying sweat--even some of the heavier hits leave a little bit of blood, transforming every match into a fierce brawl. Thankfully, if you find these effects distasteful or distracting, there's also the option to turn them off. Combined with the flashy character costumes and colorful, elaborate arenas, DoA6 is a game with a distinct visual flair.

But the game's appeal is more than surface-level. DoA6 delivers solid, satisfying combat with its own twists. New to the franchise is a Break Gauge that fills as you deal or receive damage with your blows--a mechanic that's been seen in many other fighting games. There are a few things you can do with this shiny new gauge, thanks to a newly added "special" button that puts it to use: An offensive sidestep into an attack by pressing up or down in tandem with the special button, do a "Break Hold" universal hold counterattack by pressing back and the special button. Finally, you can execute a powerful "Break Blow" by either pressing towards the opponent and the special, or automatically at the end of a four-hit special button auto-combo, assuming the Break Gauge is full. These Break Blows are incredibly flashy, packing a serious punch both in lifebar and visual damage to the opponent. It's hard not to feel a bit demoralized when you're watching your fighter get physically wrecked by a secret ninja skill or a fist to an extremely vulnerable face--but it's super rewarding to push that same humiliation onto your foe.

The Break Gauge is a great addition to the game, as it's easy to understand and doesn't require a lot of execution beyond knowing when to use each special technique. All of these techniques are useful; the sidestep attacks can screw up somebody fishing for you to mess up a hold counter, the Break Hold can take some of the guesswork out of hold counters (and counter an opponent's Break Blow), and Break Blows just look cool and satisfying as hell… well, provided you can land them.

But the Break Blows aren't the only flashy thing about DoA6's combat. The series is known for having some pretty wild combat arenas, and DoA6's lush battlefields might be some of the craziest yet. They include a dilapidated theme park overrun by dinosaurs, a moss-encrusted battleship being assaulted by an angry kraken, and a multi-car pile-up with some very volatile vehicles that might go kaboom when someone touches them. These stages are littered with specific danger zones that both play an amusing cinematic and deal extra combat damage to an enemy when you send them flying into one with a well-placed blow. In some cases, you can even pull off unique combos with the aid of danger zones; the aforementioned dinosaur stage features an angry pterodactyl mama who will hoist a fighter into the air before dropping them again, setting them up for a big juggle combo. Alas, while the really nutty stages are quite memorable, most are a lot more sedate, and the stage selection as a whole feels somewhat lacking.

DoA6 also offers plenty of minor tweaks to the moment-to-moment gameplay, and options to make the game more beginner-friendly (such as simplifying the game's hold counterattack system inputs), but the most important thing is that the fighting just feels good. The rock-paper-scissors element of the holds-throws-attacks balance works nicely into gameplay with smooth animation that feeds into a seamless flow of combat. Every character offers something unique in terms of their fighting style, but once you have the basics down, it's not too hard to learn another character if you're not feeling who you're currently playing with. And while I'm not terribly fond of the designs of the two new characters (street brawler Diego is terribly generic, and blue-haired anime teen scientist NiCO looks like she belongs in a different game entirely), they both bring something new to the table in terms of their combat abilities.

Where DoA6 falters, however, is in its single-player content. Story Mode isn't too bad; the cinematics mostly use the in-game graphics engine, further showcasing DoA6's strong visuals, and the game wisely has an optional tutorial feature that teaches you basic strings for each character you'll assume control of so you're not thrust into blind combat. However, the weird multi-timeline presentation is a mess both in terms of interface and storytelling, leading to a confusing series of events that oscillates wildly between serious drama and goofy comedy.

Then there's the other big single-player mode, DOA Quest: a series of themed battles that offer in-game rewards, like parts for new character costumes and in-game money used to purchase and view extra story content. By completing sub-objectives in these battles-- like landing a specific attack a certain number of times or beating a quest within a time limit--you earn additional rewards and unlock more quests to attempt.

DoA6 also offers plenty of minor tweaks to the moment-to-moment gameplay, and options to make the game more beginner-friendly, but the most important thing is that the fighting just feels good.

DOA Quest isn't a bad idea on its own, but the game's grindy, frustrating unlock system turns a fine little challenge mode into an absolute chore. The main thing you'll want to use DOA Quest (and other single-player modes like Arcade Mode) for is unlocking character costumes and customization options, of which there are many. However, you'll soon discover that when you earn points that go towards unlocking new outfits, you have absolutely no say in where they will go. You could earn 300 costume points in a quest featuring Zack, for example, and those points you earn would go towards unlocking a random costume for Hayabusa instead--meaning you invested time and effort to earn partial rewards for a character you potentially don't care about. This happens a lot. To add insult to injury, even when you do get enough points to open up a costume for a character, you still have to pay earned in-game money to actually buy and wear it. It's an extremely ill-thought-out grind that sucks all of the reward out of playing single-player.

As of the time of this writing, the game's online servers haven't gone live, so we are waiting to see how the game's netcode and online interface stacks up before finalizing the review. For the time being, though, we can say that DoA6 is a fun, engaging fighter with great-feeling, easy-to-pick-up combat, a strong sense of visual style, and a lot of personality. If you're looking for a new fighting game to learn the ins and outs of--or perhaps a nice entry into the 3D side of fighting games--DoA6 is a fighter of choice.

Devotion Review - House Of Horrors

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 22:17

The most effective horror can seep its way into the mundanity of our everyday lives, ruminating beneath the surface before wrapping its malevolent tendrils around our sense of comfort and familiarity. Years after it was removed from sale, the bite-sized slice of P.T. we were privy to still manages to evoke those trembling feelings of unease more potently than almost any other horror game since--making each trip around that unremarkable L-shaped corridor an intimidating test of nerves. Devotion, a new psychological horror game from Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games, evokes P.T.'s terrifying spirit to paint an inventive, thought-provoking, and insidious portrait of family life within the claustrophobic confines of a small Taiwanese apartment.

Set throughout the 1980s, Devotion focuses on a strained family of three: struggling screenwriter Du Feng Yu, retired singer and movie star Li Fang, and their sickly young daughter Mei Shin, who aspires to be like her mother. The game predominantly takes place within the five rooms of their modest apartment, with a narrative that takes you on a distressing tour through the years and various configurations of this intimate space. The attention to detail in each facet of the apartment is striking, as every nook and cranny is thoughtfully assembled to replicate an authentic, lived-in home. There are old newspapers being used as makeshift tablecloths, pencils and discarded scripts messily strewn across desks, a corridor that's extravagantly decorated with the haphazard art of Meh Shin and her litany of crayons, and a calendar hung above the CRT TV that notates significant dates in the family's lives. Each detail, no matter how meaningful or insignificant, establishes and effectively reinforces Devotion's disconcerting sense of familiarity. This nuanced sense of place ensures that whenever your eyes are averted elsewhere and the apartment begins to shift and transcend its limitations--sometimes dramatically, other times subtly--it's all the more unnerving when you turn around and come face-to-face with a surreal distortion.

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All of these details, from the apartment's transforming arrangement of rooms, its varying lighting, the tempestuous weather rattling away at the windows outside, and the way the building mutates around you, are all in service of Red Candle's profound storytelling. The central tale is intimately focused on the family of three, but Devotion manages to weave a tangled web that deftly examines the impact that mental illness, societal pressure and expectations, and religious fanaticism can have on a beleaguered family. For as much as Devotion is about its characters and the fantastic way their development coalesces with that of the ever-changing apartment--with the increasingly dishevelled rooms acting as a poignant metaphor for the family--it's also about a specific time and place; delving into the role of women in 1980's Taiwan, feminine beauty standards, the infancy of mental health research and the stigmas attached to it, and the sometimes dangerous faith desperate people will place in religion. Explorations of Taoism and Buddhism might not completely resonate with a Western audience, but the story is told in such a way that it's relatively easy to read through the lines and understand the awful, heartbreaking extremes people are willing to go to for those they love.

Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games, evokes P.T.'s terrifying spirit to paint an inventive, thought-provoking, and insidious portrait of family life

Impassioned voice acting brings Devotion's limited number of cutscenes to life, but most of the story is told through the myriad items you gather, read, and manipulate as you traverse through different variations of the family home during 1980, 1985, and 1986. Puzzle solving is relatively straightforward, with any items you find inevitably being used to solve a particular conundrum. All of your interactions are geared towards unravelling the mystery of exactly what happened within the unassuming walls of this family home. A note you found earlier might inform a scene later on, while coming to understand the family's relationship with one another will gradually evolve the context and meaning of certain trinkets aside from the revelations discovered in its most gut-punching moments. Devotion might be mechanically simple--knowing to put a camera on a tripod isn't going to wrack your brain, for example--but its strengths come from simply immersing you in a place with an engaging story you'll want to see through to its conclusion. There are a couple of jump scares, but they feel earned within the oppressive atmosphere achieved through ominous music, sounds, and unsettling imagery, with striking motifs tracing everything back to the family's shattered lives.

Unlike a lot of contemporary horror games, Devotion also resists the temptation to dabble in frustrating trial-and-error stealth sections or monotonous conflicts with monsters in an attempt to heighten any perceived sense of excitement. There is one regrettable chase scene late in the game, which is undeniably Devotion's lowest point, but it's also brief and easy enough that it doesn't overstay its welcome. At three hours in length it's feasible to reach the end credits in one sitting, and that might be the ideal way to experience it. The pacing is almost immaculate aside from a plodding stroll towards the game's final act, but even this is easy to push to the back of your mind once you've reached its stunning conclusion.

Devotion doesn't quite match the anxiety-inducing frights that permeate each cautious step forward in games like P.T. and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but its domestic terror burrows deep inside your psyche long after the final credits have rolled. The sorrowful story it tells meshes malice with tenderness, metaphor with stark truths, and achieves it all with the nuanced kind of environmental storytelling other games can only strive for. There are moments when it jumps out of the genre completely, surprising you with a sudden tonal shift, and others where the oftentimes clichéd presence of a children's doll is used to signal a character's poignant detachment. Everything Devotion does is in service of this story and its character development; you learn about these people's lives, empathize with their plight, and come to understand their actions, even if you don't agree with them. Home is where the heart is, and Devotion is a shining example of what the horror genre is capable of.

Editor's note: At the time of publishing Devotion is not available to purchase on Steam. The game was pulled by Red Candle Games, which stated this was due to "technical issues that cause unexpected crashes and among other reasons." The game was also caught up in a controversy surrounding art in the game which looked to be based on a meme of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Addressing this, Red Candle Games said "our team would also review our game material once again making sure no other unintended materials was inserted." The game is expected to be made available again in the future.

Ape Out Review - Monkey Business

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 14:00

Ape Out is, at heart, a game about jazz. The soundtrack is crafted by your improvised actions as you careen a runaway ape through the game’s levels, leaving a path of destruction and bloodshed in your wake. It’s high energy and exciting, even if, by the end, it feels like you’re playing the same basic tunes over and over.

It's a very simple game, at least in terms of how it's played--You're an ape, and you must run through each level without getting blown up or shot three times by human enemies. The camera is positioned above you, giving you a Hotline Miami-esque omnipotence when it comes to where your enemies are positioned. You can push enemies, who will splat and die if they hit a solid object, or you can grab them, at which point they'll fire at least one shot from their gun straight forward, hopefully into another person. A grabbed enemy can be thrown with more precision, which is especially handy if they're wearing an explosive pack, which will blow up and take out anything within its blast radius. You'll spend most of your time running forward, smacking enemies as you go, occasionally snaking away to avoid a mob or stopping to rip a steel door off its hinges.

But the way Ape Out elevates its relatively straightforward gameplay loop is by evoking the feeling of creating music, thanks to Matt Boch's captivating procedural soundtrack, which generates a drum-heavy percussion beat under the action. During lulls, the music fades to a calm, but when the action gets frenetic the drums and cymbal crashes kick in hard, and there are occasional horns and contextual changes depending on what's happening in any given stage. Additionally, the levels are presented as though they were albums, with each new subsection representing a track, complete with transitions from Side A to Side B at the midway point. It's a fascinating system which gives those moments where you're in the middle of a killing spree a significant extra kick. It's a repetitive game--you're ultimately doing the same thing continually over the whole course of the game--but it can also be quite propulsive and thrilling, especially when you're on a good run.

The stages themselves are starkly designed, with limited color palettes and simple geometric shapes. The ape itself is a single orange shape, and enemies are demarcated by a handful of different designs. There's a slight film grain effect over the action that gives everything a subtle jittery quality, and the album motif is even baked into the loading screens, which make the faint scratching noises of a vinyl record that is left on the turntable after the music has finished. The game’s greatest strength is how defined and consistent this aesthetic is. The unique art blends perfectly with the soundtrack, making the game's violence a bit more palatable than it might have otherwise been, and its boldness pulls you into the action very well.

It's great that Ape Out has so much style and flair, because it's essential to your investment due to the game's lack of variety. There are slight variations in how each level operates--the third album, for instance, features combustible liquids that can create walls of fire if you throw an explosives expert into them, and in the second (and best) album there are windows that riot police can rappel through--but they never dramatically alter how you need to play the game. A few new enemy types pop up, but the methods you use to deal with them never really change. There are a handful of good sections where the lights go out and you need to track enemy movements based on the beams of their flashlights, and they highlight how much the game could have benefited from more interesting gimmicks and variety. It’s a shame that Ape Out isn’t more playful, because whenever new ideas are introduced, they’re always welcome--there just aren’t that many of them. The game is short, yet some levels still feel superfluous and samey. I kept hoping a level would come along that would fundamentally change how I had to play, but this never happened.

Levels are semi-procedurally generated, so while some landmarks and choke-points will always pop up in roughly the same spot, the exact layout and enemy placements will change. This means that you'll sometimes find yourself in situations where a huge number of enemies swarm you at once, and properly defending yourself is all but impossible. Several times I encountered enemies wearing explosive vests and found that avoiding both their blast radius and gunfire from another enemy was frustrating and futile. The game isn't too difficult on the default difficulty, although there are occasional spikes when a level is a bit longer, which gives enemies more time to put bullets into you.

Ape Out is a game that draws you in with its strong aesthetic style and flair, but it feels short on ideas. When you're barrelling through a room, knocking multiple enemies into walls and watching them explode into puddles of blood, it can be quite exciting. But the game never really rises above being a mild thrill, and a lack the variety means that it’s too repetitive to truly make a strong impact. Ape Out isn't as creative with its level designs and challenges as it is with its soundtrack and art, but as it stands it’s a pleasant, jazzy way to spend a few hours.

Trials Rising Review - Bunny-Hopping Along

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 21:38

Trials Rising is a sequel to a franchise that has a lot of things figured out. After multiple entries that have helped refine gameplay that was already good to start off with, Rising doesn't veer too far off the track. It still has a wonderfully diverse set of destinations to visit, each with their own over-the-top track design and goofy finish line antics. Each course still encourages you to repeat it nearly obsessively in the pursuit of that next perfect run to show off online. Trials Rising has the same engrossing gameplay the series is known for, but it offers no new surprises.

Trials Rising is no more complicated to pick up and play than any of its predecessors. You only need to worry about your throttle, brakes, and the pitch of your motorcycle as you race across Rising's many 2D tracks, set in anything from a Russian missile silo to a tomato festival in the Italian countryside. This simplicity in control is complemented by a deep learning curve, challenging you to understand how Trials' physics work. They're not realistic by any stretch, but they do adhere to a set of rules that you'll need to become comfortable with to beat its most challenging courses.

The balance of your motorcycle is the first hurdle. Although you're only given access to three during the lengthy campaign (more can be unlocked using either in-game currency or real money), each of them handles in very different ways. One gives you more thrust from a stationary start but limits your rotational speed in the air, while another has a frame so light that you need to be cautious of applying too much throttle on a straight and having your front wheel fly into the air above you. Trials Rising gives you suggestions on which motorcycles are best for certain courses, and it is fun moving from one extreme to the other in between events and learning to adjust accordingly.

Controlling your motorcycle consists of shifting weight either backwards or forwards, determining whether you're going to gently roll over a hill at the end of a steep climb or see your wheels bounce away from the platform before you hurtle towards failure. It doesn't take long for basic maneuvers to start feeling like second nature. Small actions--such as leaning back to embrace a landing or shifting forward to go down a steep ascent--start blending together to create a tangible flow to Rising's earlier courses.

These levels are less challenging and more instructive, giving you ample room to experiment with Rising's mechanics while also rewarding you well for less-than-perfect finishes. Later courses start increasing the difficulty significantly. Tracks require careful consideration over throttle control and feature more gruelling skills tests, which punish even the slightest miscalculation. You have a large number of events between these two extremes, though, which makes each new challenge feel like an appropriate test of your skills rather than a jarring spike in difficulty.

However, even the most carefully executed runs through a course can become undone by obstacles that rely on seemingly random outcomes instead of skill to overcome. Catapults, exploding platforms, and more add an unpredictable nature to later courses that often feels more frustrating than exciting. A small variation on where you stop on a catapult before it fires you into the air can lead to wildly different outcomes, for example. It's one thing to fail a course and identify where you can get better, but it's another to be having the best run yet only to fail right at the end and not understand how you could've avoided it.

Rising has an incredibly useful training school that has new courses unlock as you progress through the campaign. These events teach you new techniques that give you a deeper understanding of how to control your motorcycle while also providing challenging proving grounds to test how much you've learned. These provide some of the toughest challenges Rising has to offer, but without the stress of needing to finish first in a race or worry about how many times you fail.

New to Rising are contract objectives from in-game "sponsors," which offer an additional level of challenge and extra rewards. With sponsors, courses you've already participated in can be replayed with some additional objectives. Anything from pulling off flips to limiting the number of faults you can have is on the table, tasking you with reprogramming your muscle memory and coming up with new routines on familiar tracks. Some of the most difficult sponsors will require you to finish first across several events; make a mistake along the way and you might as well start over. These are the least interesting of the bunch by virtue of feeling too unforgiving (even by Trials standards), but they're thankfully not required to unlock new events.

Rising's more stunt-focused events are less rewarding. If the rest of Trials Rising only has one toe dipped into a pool of absurdity, these events have the whole leg. You can use the ragdoll physics of your rider to steer balls into a basketball hoop or aim for exploding barrels to try and bounce yourself along a never-ending track. None of these events really test your understanding of Trials' main mechanics and are instead just positioned as quick palate cleansers for in-between events. None of them are precise in the way that other events are, making them less engaging to learn and a slog to play.

All events in Rising contribute to an overall player level, which you increase in order to access to events and unlock gear to customize both your rider and their motorcycles. Customization items are obfuscated in crates that randomly spit out three items at a time, with duplicates becoming a frequent occurrence just a few hours in. Frustratingly, these duplicates aren't immediately turned into in-game currency to save you the effort, instead forcing you to dive into multiple menus for each category of gear and sell them individually. The gear itself isn't varied or visually appealing enough to justify this headache, and it was easy to forget about it entirely after just a few minutes of wrestling with it.

Trials Rising also features a suite of multiplayer options, ranging from public and private multiplayer matches to more intimate--and hilarious--local multiplayer modes. Online multiplayer is straightforward; you join lobbies with up to seven other racers and compete across three courses, with points awarded based on your finishes. Trials plays better in a local multiplayer setting, and Rising's Party mode lets you organize up to eight courses into a single playlist with custom rules that up to four players can compete in. A new tandem motorcycle makes things even sillier. Two players control a single motorcycle through a course, making smooth course runs nigh impossible as you struggle to maintain control. It's a fun distraction that can be played for brief laughs.

Trials Rising isn't a reinvention of the franchise--it's an invitation to lose more hours to new exhilarating, technical, and ridiculous Trials courses.

Rising still lets you create brand-new courses from scratch, and race on any that other players have uploaded, but its tools for construction are still ridiculously complicated to grasp. The course editor has no tutorials on how to get up and running and no templates which you can build upon to make editing slightly quicker. The confusing menus, overwhelming taskbar at the bottom of the screen, and unintuitive movement within the editor make trying to create even just a simple track a needlessly difficult chore.

Trials Rising maintains the engrossing, challenging, and occasionally slapstick gameplay from past entries in the series, building upon it in small ways with a smartly implemented school to teach fundamental skills and modifiers to make events worth revisiting. But it also doesn't fix issues from the past, either. Its track editor remains uninviting to learn, and the more outrageous stunt events and course obstacles frustratingly lean more into random luck than calculated skill. Trials Rising isn't a reinvention of the franchise--it's an invitation to lose more hours to new exhilarating, technical, and ridiculous Trials courses.

Anthem Review - No I In Team

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 23:51

Launching upward off a jungle floor and bursting through a thick canopy of trees, bobbing and weaving your way under a waterfall as you take in the lush landscape below you, is one of the highlights of Anthem. Flight, in these moments, is freeing, serene and exhilarating all at once. But you will eventually have to come back down to earth. When you don't have a means to cool down in the air, you have to interrupt your flight to cool off on the ground--or else your suit will overheat and send you careening downward much more violently. This is what Anthem is like as a whole: a game where promising moments are bookended by frustration, where good ideas are undone before they can be fully realized.

It can take a while to warm up to Anthem in the first place. In its intro mission, you are a rookie Freelancer--a hero type who battles threats to humanity in mechanized combat suits called javelins. But that brief mission ends in failure, and after a two-year time skip, you're now an experienced Freelancer. As a result, everyone talks to you as if you know everything about the world, even though much of the game's space-fantasy jargon is explained only in codex entries. "Shapers," "Arcanists," to "silence" this or that "relic"--all the dialogue is structured as if you already know what all these things are, so there's not even an element of mystery to it. It's just hard to follow.

The story and overall worldbuilding do a great disservice to the characters, which have elements of what you might think of as BioWare's pedigree. The main cast is well-acted and genuine, with complicated emotions and motivations that might have been interesting had they been given time to grow. Two characters are mad at you for the events of the tutorial, even though it's never quite clear why; that bad blood spills over into your relationship with your current partner-in-Freelancing, Owen, and there's enough believable awkwardness there to make you almost feel bad for him. But because the narrative is so poorly set up, the drama feels unearned, the "emotional" reveals robbed of their impact, and any connection you might have had to the characters just out of reach.

Exacerbating all of this is Anthem's loot game core, which is simple on paper. After every mission, you return to your base of operations, Fort Tarsis, to talk to people, get new missions, and tinker with your javelins using the loot you picked up from the previous mission. Missions themselves almost universally involve some quick narrative setup followed by flying, completing routine tasks, and plenty of combat (with more brief plot-related stuff thrown in via radio chatter).

But this general structure doesn't work well in practice. You're told up front that playing Anthem with others is the best way to play and that you'll get better rewards in a group, but this means asking your friends to be quiet every few minutes so you can hear a bit of dialogue or to wait patiently while you tweak your loadout. Playing solo is better if you want to take your time and talk to different characters, but doing so can make missions more difficult or tedious. Matchmaking with random people is the best option, since you'll have people with you for grindy parts but will leave you alone for the story--but even then, it's easy to lose track of what's going on, especially if someone in your team is ahead of you and triggering dialogue early.

And no matter what, you'll have to return to Fort Tarsis after each expedition, which makes for choppy pacing in both the story and the gameplay. There's no way to change your loadout on the go and no way to just continue on to another mission right away, and there are currently a number of loading screens in between leaving and returning to Fort Tarsis. It's hard to really get into any kind of flow.

When I finally took the time to talk to NPCs in between missions, I found endearing characters and brief but interesting bits of story spread between them. There's one girl who just loves animals no matter how dangerous, and she'll happily tell you all about them; there's the oldest man in Fort Tarsis, who admits to doing some shady things to earn that title; there's an old woman whose daughter has been missing for years and might just need some kindness. Though it took some patience to do it, I was glad I stopped to listen to them.

Throughout all of this, combat is the main thing keeping Anthem afloat. There are four types of javelins--Ranger, Storm, Interceptor, and Colossus--that are essentially a soldier, mage, assassin, and tank, respectively. Each plays differently, with a different pool of abilities, and you aren't locked into the one you start with; you unlock them as you level up. That, combined with a handful of new weapons and abilities after each mission, means that you're almost always experimenting with new loadouts and playstyles.

I initially picked the Ranger, thinking it would be a good all-around class while I was learning the basics. But the guns alone aren't enough to make Anthem combat's exciting; I found a lot of the weapons, especially shotguns, to feel ineffectual. The Ranger's abilities are pretty straightforward, too--you get grenades and missiles and the like--which left me largely unimpressed with combat in the beginning. But then I unlocked the speedy Interceptor, whose gymnastic jumps and swift melee strikes are incredibly satisfying, and I started to get excited about trying new things in each successive mission.

The Storm javelin became my favorite, though, because it both has interesting elemental abilities and can hover for minutes, not seconds, at a time before overheating. Its assortment of powers lends itself well to getting combos, which result in a satisfying explosion of sorts and a more chaotic battlefield. But more importantly, it's the only javelin that doesn't require frequent stops on the ground, and as a result it provides the most dynamic combat--you can go from shooting basic enemies in a hallway to floating above the battlefield, raining down lightning to wipe out five at once while scoping out the area for your team.

Generally, all of the javelins can easily jet out of sticky situations in a pinch or briefly hover in the air to gain the upper hand, and combining movement with your abilities is consistently a good time. But when fighting titans and certain other bosses, there's a catch; a lot of them use fire attacks that overheat your suit and ground you instantly, robbing the fight of much of what makes combat interesting. You can still use your abilities, but they don't do much in these fights, and they fall flat compared to the often bombastic impact they have on regular enemies. This extends to the final fight, which is especially underwhelming.

The endgame thus far is to complete high numbers of the various mission types, which amounts to repeating many individual missions. The draw is better gear, but without compelling high-level fights, you don't have anything to build toward with all that grinding. A post-credits cutscene has the most intriguing plot point in the game and serves as a preview of what might come later on--but right now it's just a promise, rather than a true incentive to keep going.

It's worth noting that the early access period saw a number of technical hiccups. Dropped audio, server issues, long loading times, missions not registering as complete--I didn't have a single session without some sort of problem. A day-one patch aims to iron much of this out, but overall, the poor structure and pacing are a more frustrating problem.

Anthem has good ideas, but it struggles significantly with the execution. It's a co-op game that works best with no one talking; it buries genuinely interesting character moments and puts its most incomprehensible story bits at the forefront; its combat is exciting until you get to the boss fights and find your wings have been clipped. Even the simple, exhilarating act of flying is frequently interrupted by the limitations of your javelin, and you never quite shake that feeling of disappointment--of knowing, throughout the good parts of Anthem, that you'll inevitably come crashing back down.

Tetris 99 Review - I've Got 99 Problems And You're One Of Them

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 18:47

What can be said about Tetris that hasn't been said already? Well, that depends on the type of Tetris game in question. Tetris Effect changed the conversation around the classic puzzle concept last year by directly tying your actions and the flow of stages to the fluctuating rhythm of an eclectic (and all-around amazing) soundtrack. In the case of the Switch-exclusive Tetris 99, the moment-to-moment gameplay is more immediately recognizable, but a new twist helps it stand out from Tetris games of old: a 99-player last-player-standing competition. It's chaotic, which can work in your favor or lead to moments that feel practically unfair. Thankfully, with the solid gameplay at its foundation and a quick means of getting into a new match, no game of Tetris 99 feels like time wasted.

The competitive aspect of Tetris 99 is something most people are familiar with, albeit based on less ambitious setups. Clear some lines, and a batch of junk lines will appear in a queue next to your opponent's puzzle space. If they can clear lines of their own, the junk-in-waiting can be negated; if no new lines are completed, the weight of your success will bear down on their board and reduce the free space for mid-drop tetrimino trickery.

This straightforward setup has, in the past, been utilized in two-player scenarios. With 99 players competing at once here, all visible next to your puzzle space with lines appearing and disappearing between players every few seconds, your early matches will feel a little confusing.

Somewhat frustratingly, Tetris 99 offers no explanation of its inner workings nor the function of various attack modes you can pick from during a match. You can get really far by simply playing Tetris the way you always have, but an uninformed player will always be at a severe disadvantage. Even though all the info is a quick internet search away, it's disappointing that Tetris 99 is bereft of these details or explanations.

So here it goes: You can influence automated attack patterns using the right analog stick, determining whether your offensive lines get sent to randoms, players attacking you, people near death, or players who have done the most killing in the match. Playing handheld, you can also use the Switch touchscreen to target players manually. Less intuitively, when playing docked, the left analog stick can be used to cycle through the phalanx of players on either side of your screen.

The control given to you by most of these options can be used in strategic ways, but none more so than by attacking killers, AKA the "badges" option. It's named thusly because killing a player nets you a portion of a badge and, better yet, any belonging to the defeated player. These badges enhance the output of your attacks, throwing more lines per combo and making the final moments of a match a living hell for your opponents. With the increasing speed of a Tetris 99 match, manually picking your targets based on small icons is an expert's game, so these automated attack profiles are ultimately to your benefit, even if they aren't explained well and could potentially be a source of confusion for new players.

The beauty of Tetris 99 is the tried-and-true game at the center of it all. Tetris is a god among games, and competitive Tetris only enhances the rising tension of a match. Tetris 99, being a game with so many competitors and a default "random" attack pattern, means that you will inevitably enter matches where the odds feel stacked against you from the beginning with no rhyme or reason. And when that happens, you may find that you have no recourse with a screen full of junk lines.

Even though each loss isn't always a lesson learned, it's also just a small roadblock, as a new match is generally seconds, rather than minutes, away. Simply hold down a button to start a search for new players, and watch the screen fill up with opponents in the blink of an eye. There may come a time when the countdown clock expires and matches have less than 99 players, but at launch, that is a very rare occurrence.

Tetris 99 may not be a proper battle royale game, but it taps into the same emotional well, where a large number of players vying for supremacy creates an ever-present intensity that's difficult to shake. Add that layer to a game that's plenty capable of instilling tension on its own, and you've got a riveting experience that even at its worst is still a game very much worth playing. There's obvious room for improvement, but that's the last thing on your mind when the pieces start falling and the players start dropping.

Yo-kai Watch 3 Review - Tokyo To Texas

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 19:02

If you had to explain Yo-kai Watch in a nutshell to someone who's never heard of or played it, you might boil it down to "Pokemon but with Japanese ghosts" or "Baby's first Shin Megami Tensei." Anything grim or distressing about a kid who can talk to ghosts goes by the wayside when the ghosts are comical entities like a missing left sock or a possessed police car. In this third expansive and quirky outing for the Yo-kai Watch series, our hero Nate has to take on a quest far more daunting than anything he’s faced so far: moving to America.

Specifically, Nate's family ends up moving to BBQ, an over-the-top caricature of Texas, for his dad's job, and finds that the U.S. has supernatural problems all its own that he and his best yokai buddies, a cat named Jibanyan and an uber-effete ghost butler named Whisper, have to handle. Meanwhile, back in Nate's hometown of Springdale (which is located in Japan), a bubbly ball of nerdy energy named Hailey-Anne is enticed into buying a Yo-kai Watch of her own, which ties her to Usapyon, a ghost astronaut rabbit. Stuck with each other, they form a detective agency.

That's really over-the-top as far as a game aimed squarely at a younger audience goes, and that's largely a result of how it's been localized. Yo-kai Watch 3 was originally two games in Japan, with Nate and Hailey-Anne's stories comprising a game each. The version released in the West has combined the two, allowing players to switch to the other campaign at will, before the two stories converge in the later hours. It's a daring choice that allows you a ton of control over how you experience the sprawling narrative, but it also highlights just how much the narrative didn't need to sprawl to begin with. The first major plot points of both stories--Nate meeting a boy in BBQ who can see yokai as well, and Hailey-Anne starting the detective agency--are a good five or six hours in. Having both stories in the same package is a positive, but having to manually thread together two stories that could already stand to be a little more concise is less so.

On the plus side, that does give you ample reason to slow down and really take in your surroundings, which is really one of the greater joys in this game. Despite the aesthetic, the interpretations of Japan and Texas are surprisingly intricate places full of people worth speaking to and places to wander off to. As the game went on, one of my favorite things to do in it was to ride the trains in Springdale, missing stops just to look around. In addition, Nate's story has the compelling element of him trying to get accustomed to American culture, and on occasion, work you do in one of the towns--unlocking an app, or asking someone for a favor--affects the story in the other. But by and large, much of the first half of the game has both Nate and Hailey-Anne doing random fetch quests or being distracted with the game's numerous side missions, which are fun but wholly tangential from the main game. That creates a major problem with pacing early on.

Yo-kai Watch has always been an accessible series, and this third entry is no different. The cycle of gameplay usually boils down to Nate finding a possessed human doing something unusual, using the watch to reveal the yokai controlling them, and getting into a simple showdown with it. After these battles, there's a strong chance it joins your menagerie of friendly yokai who can be used to fight other yokai--of which there are a whopping 600-plus. There are very few of what seasoned RPG veterans might consider a dungeon, and when there are, as long as you've found at least six yokai you like, you can blow through nearly all of them in mere minutes, with no real pressing need to collect more except for the sheer joy of collecting them.

Combat does ostensibly have some measure of depth compared to the series' predecessors, with the addition of a 3x3 grid system that allows you to move yokai around to dodge attacks and pick up special items. There's also plenty of information about each yokai which you can put to good use, such as elemental weaknesses and their preferred food. That's all alongside familiar mechanics like quirky mini-games used to heal yokai that have been afflicted with status effects or to charge up ultimate (or more accurately, Soultimate) attacks. But with the exception of the occasional boss fight and the rather welcome difficulty spike of the final third of the game, it's rare that you actually have to utilize any of these mechanics. So much of the game's combat is a passive experience, but neglecting to have a full grasp of it when the game finally expects you to be proactive in battle will eventually get you in serious trouble.

These are the things that make Yo-kai Watch excellent as an introductory RPG for beginners. For everyone else, however, the game has to endear itself in between major plot points on sheer charm which, thankfully, it's more than capable of delivering. On the Hailey-Anne side, what comes off as grating over-enthusiasm at the start settles down over time to become unflappable optimism and curiosity. The girl fears absolutely nothing, even when giant demons start showing up that send her running through the streets. Her alliance with Usapyon evolves from one of convenience to a genuinely sweet elementary school partnership over time, especially as the details of Usapyon's origins become clearer.

Having both stories in the same package is a positive, but having to manually thread together two stories that could already stand to be a little more concise is less so.

As mentioned, Nate's side has an even more intriguing angle. For some reason, the localization obscures the fact that Nate's hometown of Springdale is in Japan, but the touchstones of a kid dealing with severe culture shock are still here. Even when American culture is as hilariously exaggerated as it is, there's something subtly poignant about an ostensibly Japanese kid exploring an all-American city for the first time. And as his circle of friends expands to include Buck, a wild-haired kid with a deep southern drawl, so too does his experience with American yokai and all the loud and proud aspects of such.

It's still a game aimed at a young crowd, though, and the game's poignancy is undercut a bit by wild reactions, non-sequitur humor, and impromptu j-pop musicals. Most of the scarier aspects of the game dealing with the existence and management of the afterlife have been softened to the absolute extreme. The game was only ever going to get so serious, and the winking nods to more adult fare like The Godfather, Fist of the North Star, The X-Files, and Twin Peaks are indeed just that: playful winks. It's less the competitive Growlithe-eat-Growlithe world of Pokemon than a cheerful, wacky playground where Pokemon-like creatures happen to live.

There's not much to Yo-kai Watch 3, but there’s still a lot of charm to be found. The towns of Springdale and BBQ are both bright, pleasant places to be; the people in it are even more so. Visiting the world of Yo-kai Watch for the third time is a fun time, even though you’ll end up staying a lot longer than perhaps necessary.

Eastshade Review - Brushing Up

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 04:00

There's a blacksmith, toiling away in the markets of the capital of Nava, who thinks making swords is boring. Why create something, she argues, when death is its only use? She'd rather make a kettle any day of the week. So I bought her kettle, and now I can brew all kinds of delicious, and at times mysterious, tea whenever I hole up and camp in the wilderness. And I still haven't found a sword.

Eastshade is a non-violent, first-person adventure game set in a rolling open world full of quests. Imagine an Elder Scrolls game was an old boot, and you picked it up, turned it upside down and shook it until all the combat and magic and loot, every orc and dragon and bandit fell out. Then you took a shoehorn and eased a walking simulator inside the wrinkled leather before setting off on a delightful stroll across the countryside. Eastshade is just about the loveliest, prettiest, and just bloody nicest game I've played in years.

You play an artist, recently shipwrecked in Eastshade near the small coastal village of Lyndor. After a kind chap finds you on the beach and lets you rest in his cozy cave until you recover, you resume your journey to visit and then paint your just-passed mother's favorite places in Eastshade. It's a simple setup, paying tribute to a lost loved one, and it's indicative of the kind of sincere, touching gestures you'll carry out over the course of the game.

The flow of Eastshade will be familiar to anyone who has played an open-world RPG in recent years. You speak to NPCs, at first enquiring about the local history and points of interest before delving into something more personal and finally unlocking a unique quest. A child and aspiring painter asks you to help her acquire some art supplies. A smitten merchant wants some advice on how she should pursue her romantic interest. A park ranger needs your assistance in catching and caring for an injured waterfox. Not everyone has a story to tell--there are plenty of mute, generic NPCs filling the streets--but the ones you do meet almost always open up to you in the sweetest of ways.

Most quests involve tracking down the next person in the quest chain or venturing afar to find a particular item. Some, however, require your talents as an artist. Indeed, it seems that once an Eastshadian discovers you can paint, they're quick to realize how much they'd really like some oil on canvas hanging over the fireplace. One keen art-lover asked me to paint him a picture of a chicken, so I made my way over the markets where I'd earlier spied some chickens nestling among the hay, set down my easel and painted the perfect poultry portrait.

The act of painting itself isn't simulated in any way. You simply use the mouse to drag a frame across the screen. Anything within that frame is then captured, rendered in a painterly style, and reproduced on the canvas. In essence, you're taking screenshots. As such there's much pleasure to be had in framing your subject, as anyone who has unearthed the joys of a game's photo mode can attest. I was asked by a particularly pompous villager to paint his portrait, and fully capture all his self-described nobility and heroism. He was sitting in a tavern at the time, next to a huge fireplace whose chimney stretched to the double-story ceiling, so I framed him as this tiny figure dwarfed by the imposing stone furnace. He was grateful, of course--I'm sure the game logic merely checks if the required subject is in the frame--but I found it extremely satisfying.

At a certain point you will also gain the ability to register with another local artist and begin taking commissions to earn glowstones, the local currency. It functions much like a job board: you check in, accept the gig, then return later with the finished painting and collect your cash. Each commission gives you a description of the type of painting desired and it's up to you to figure out where you need to go and what you need to include in the frame. Some are easy to identify, like a specific request for a windmill, but you may have no idea where to find it. Others are more vague, like a “starry cavern” or a “natural arch.” Either way, it's enjoyable to have your memory of the landscape tested as you struggle to recall elements of the terrain.

Sometimes you won't have a spare canvas to paint on, meaning you'll have to obtain the materials necessary to craft a new canvas. Fortunately, there are wooden boards and piles of cloth lying around the various towns and villages, and NPCs don't seem to mind at all if you walk into their homes and grab some. It's a good idea to thoroughly explore every area and collect any such craftable materials as there doesn't seem to be any limit on how much you can carry. I found I typically had enough canvases to complete quest-critical paintings, but if I'd wanted to paint for fun, as it were, I would have had to tediously wait for previously collected materials to respawn or spend my hard-earned glowstones to buy them.

Money's tight, you see, and there are other things worth purchasing. This isn't an RPG, so you won't be selling loot to finance your endeavors--though there is a sort of joke merchant who will buy anything off you for the princely sum of one glowstone. However, there are items you will need in order to access new areas of the world. A coat, for example, lets you continue to explore the countryside during the cold nights, while a tent lets you camp outdoors overnight or simply rest for a while if you need to meet someone at a certain time of day.

You'll find yourself walking a fine line between securing what you need to complete your current tasks and saving up to afford what you need to unlock new quest possibilities. I remember standing in the markets and agonizing over whether to spend what little money I had on a fishing rod (because one quest wanted me to catch a particular type of fish) or a kettle (because my pockets were already bursting with all different kinds of plants and herbs). It was a genuinely stressful moment in a game otherwise conducted entirely in serene contemplation.

Eastshade is a slow game. There's an awful lot of walking, or running once you realize there's the option, and you'll spend almost all your time trekking back and forth between villages or strolling across town from one shop to the next, ferrying this item to that person and hoping to speak to so-and-so about this-and-that. It would quickly grow tiresome were it not for the dinky penny-farthing bicycle you can buy and the presence of craftable fast travel items, and more importantly, the immense natural beauty found in every corner, along every path, and over every crest of the world.

Indeed, Eastshade is a slow game that moves at just the right pace. From the warm, golden sunlight filtering through the dense canopy of the Great Tree to the pools of water on the terrace farms that skirt the city glittering in the morning light, you'll constantly find yourself stopping to catch your breath. Even after treading the same cobbled road a dozen or more times, hours later I would still find myself admiring the scenery, expansive vistas and minute details alike.

The pace perfectly complements your actions, too. This is a game about taking your time and paying attention to the environment through which you're moving. You have a quest log and a map of the land, but there are no quest markers or waypoints telling you where to go. You have to read the lay of the land and remember details of where you've been. As you travel, the geographical contours of the world gradually become imprinted in your mind until you could paint them almost from memory alone. Almost.

By giving you a paintbrush (and a kettle) instead of a sword, Eastshade is a rare first-person open world game that's not about killing but rather about doing good deeds, helping people see the error of their ways, and bringing communities together all through the power of art. It's a breath of fresh Eastshadian air and a genuine, unironic feel-good game. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to put the kettle on.