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Layers of Fear 2 Review - Ghost Ship

Fri, 05/24/2019 - 21:21

Peel back the layers and there's a clear connective tissue tying Layers of Fear 2 and its predecessor together. Both games are centered around an artist gradually losing their grip on reality. While the original game focused on a struggling painter in an opulent Victorian mansion, Layers of Fear 2 shifts art forms to tell the story of a Hollywood actor during the Golden Age of cinema, as he embarks on a new role in a movie being shot aboard a decadent ocean liner. Developer Bloober Team has created something more varied and ambitious than its past work, taking inspiration from iconic film directors like Georges Méliès, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock. And while it is a visually striking horror game, Layers of Fear 2 struggles to establish its own identity and explore its themes of anguish and despair in meaningful ways.

The story itself is like a jigsaw puzzle; some of the pieces come together as the narrative unfolds, but others are scattered across the environment as notes, optional puzzles, sound recordings, and paraphernalia that provide new details on your character's troubled past. You might not be able to put the whole picture together before the game's conclusion, but it's a familiar and clichéd tale that isn't too difficult to discern once events begin to wrap up. Childhood trauma is the key motif, built around the relationship you had with your sister, but Layers of Fear 2 regularly uses routine horror tropes as opposed to something more personal. This decision doesn't coalesce with the story to provide a sense that your character's state of mind and past anguish are shaping what's happening. During the first act you catch spectral forms out of the corner of your eye, and this eventually evolves into frequent appearances from crudely assembled mannequins and a formless monster that stalks you through much of the game. These creatures are unnerving, but they're not really specific to the game or this character, failing to capitalize on the strengths of psychological horror and the inherent importance of a character's fears and trepidations in manifesting intimate threats.

Similarly, much of Layers of Fear 2's art design is wrapped around the classic films that inspired it, which doesn't always come together in a consistent way. Saying it takes place aboard a ship is a tad disingenuous, as the setting is constantly shifting and transporting you to a variety of disparate environments. Overt homages to films such as The Wizard of Oz, A Trip to the Moon, and Nosferatu are littered throughout the game. Some of them are deftly woven into the narrative and the game's own art style, but others lack context and fail to rise above being mere visual spectacles, foregoing any semblance of cohesion with the rest of the game. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you have an appreciation for this era of cinema, but it also makes Layers of Fear 2 feel like an inconsequential mishmash of film references without any clear significance to the story it's trying to tell.

Much of Layers of Fear 2's art design is wrapped around the classic films that inspired it, which doesn't always come together in a consistent way

Your interactions with the world are very tangible, which helps ground you in the game's setting even when the threads of reality are stretched thinner and thinner. The majority of your time is spent simply exploring each space, gathering knick-knacks to fill in the story, and solving puzzles to progress. The conundrums it places before you are never particularly challenging or memorable, whether it's using a dial with 10 numbers to multiply up to a specific digit or manipulating a roll of film to create a doorway. Some of them are in keeping with the tone of the game and its cinematic feel, but others are so inane they just feel out of place.

What Layers of Fear 2 does do well is build atmosphere and an ever-escalating sense of dread. The score is ominous, utilizing string instruments to send a chill down your spine. But there are also plenty of opportunities for the sound design to breathe on its own, too. The creaking of wooden floorboards, rats scurrying past your feet, and the plip-plop of dripping water create tension despite their mundanity. It also makes you hesitant to simply turn around, as the environment toys with impossible spaces, distorting the world around you when you're not looking. When you walk into a room and find a locked door with nowhere else to go but back the way you came, the suspense hits, tapping into that fear of the unknown--of what's waiting to greet you once you turn your head.

Unfortunately, these anxiety-inducing feelings diminish as the game progresses and it leans too heavily on tried and tested tactics. The aforementioned mannequins are consistently impressive due to their creepy stop-motion-esque movement, but they're featured so heavily that their effect as something to be scared of is severely diminished. This is a problem with Layers of Fear 2 as a whole; the protracted playtime of around 10 hours struggles to maintain its early momentum through the last couple of chapters. The formless creature that oftentimes stalks you adds some urgency to what is otherwise a methodical affair, but the most terrifying thing about the chase sequences is the threat of having to redo them if you fail. Sometimes the monster's arrival comes so suddenly that you're dead before even realizing what's happened, and these cheap insta-kills mean you're frustratingly subjected to the same death animation over and over again.

There are remnants of an excellent horror game submerged just below the surface of Layers of Fear 2. Horror icon Tony Todd--of Candyman fame--lends his bassy growl to the disembodied and omnipresent voice of the film's eccentric director. Each word he bellows is a sonorous treat, no matter how terrifying his performance is. The art design, too, while disjointed, conjures some breathtaking imagery that you can't help but marvel at. It's just a shame that Layers of Fear 2 frequently pays lip service to the films and games that clearly inspired it while struggling to find a voice of its own. The story is too hazy to latch onto until the latter stages, and then nothing about it is particularly engaging, with its central mystery building towards something we've seen numerous times before. It occasionally hints at interesting themes but fails to go anywhere with them, falling back on telegraphed jump scares rather than delving deeper into the psychological horror it can only tease at. For every piece of good work there's an analogous aspect that lacks focus and direction. Layers of Fear 2 feels lost at sea.

Observation Review - Space Madness

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 00:00

In Observation you play as SAM (Systems Administration and Maintenance), the AI assistant of a space station that represents the joint efforts of Europe, China, and Russia. Your abilities are limited by your absence of a corporeal form--for most of the game you're controlling the cameras dotted around the station and interacting with any computers or digital panels within their range of vision. You have access to a station map that expands over time, and you're able to jump between cameras across the entire ship at will. It might sound like a limiting conceit, but Observation uses your unique position of omniscient claustrophobia to craft a compelling, creepy, and extremely original narrative experience.

The year is 2026, and you're on the station with Emma Fisher, a European crew member who awakens at the game's beginning to find that she has no contact with the rest of her crew on board. It's immediately clear that something catastrophic has happened; the station is no longer in Earth's orbit, and no-one is answering her attempts at communication. To say much more would be to spoil elements of a plot that are best left to surprise you--the first major twist happens within about 20 minutes. Suffice it to say that Observation's narrative unfurls slowly across the entire length of the game, with its mysteries growing all the more complicated and your sense of dread deepening as the game goes on.

Observation absolutely nails its distinct lo-fi, sci-fi aesthetic. The cameras crackle and jump as you shift between them, and the stylistic film grain and distortion over every visual emphasizes your slight removal from the reality of the situation Emma is facing. Like many science fiction works of the last forty years, Observation is indebted to Ridley Scott's Alien--some of the tech aboard the space station feel like antiquated products of a decade long past. This aesthetic, paired with the game's too-near future setting, gives Observation the pleasant feeling of an uncovered classic or remake of an ambitious, older piece of work. SAM is far and away the most advanced piece of technology on the station, and even when you load up your own system menu (which lets you view the map, check system alerts, and perform other functions that unlock during the game) you're treated to some pleasantly analog and retro buzzing and whirring sound effects.

You experience most of the game through the slow panning and zooming cameras, an effective tool at creating a creeping sense of tension, although the occasional cutscene is used to better capture action at a crucial moment. It's not about jump scares or personally being in danger; again, to say too much more would be to spoil the game's clever pacing, but it's a game that's incredibly effective at building dread more than overt terror.

The actual gameplay is, for the most part, pretty simple. You need to explore the ship as much as you can from your various vantage points, scanning every document and inspecting every laptop you encounter, opening and shutting hatch doors, and interacting with the station's equipment. The bulk of the puzzles boil down to figuring out how to operate SAM's interface, finding schematics to help you operate certain programs, and learning the necessary procedures for the instructions you are given.

The game does an excellent job of taking complex ideas and procedures and presenting them as simple operations. Everything from opening the airlock to securing the doors between sections of the station boils down to a few button presses; occasionally you'll have to take part in what is essentially a timed mini-game, but for the most part, you're just following basic instructions. The main challenge comes from figuring out how the different parts of the ship all work together, and reasoning through the impact of your actions and what information you do and don't currently have access to.

At certain points, you'll need to control a spherical droid that can float around the station--and, more excitingly, outside the station--freely. It's a bit of a pain to control in tight spots, and it's easy to lose your bearings because the concepts of up and down are relative in zero-gravity environments. But there's a real thrill in breaking free from the static cameras and floating through the station, and in getting used to the sphere's limitations. Observation doles these sections out expertly, using the droid when it needs to make you feel more a part of what is happening. It plays on the droid's symbolic sense of place extremely well; it's the physical element of SAM that sells Emma's growing friendship with him.

Often what you need to do next, and how to do it, will be spelled out extremely clearly, though the game's instructions could stand to be a tad clearer in a few sections. One time it seemed like I had hit a particularly abstract puzzle, but it turned out that I'd actually encountered a glitch where a certain event didn't trigger properly, which necessitated a quick checkpoint reset. This was a pain, as the game's checkpointing can be a bit strict--you keep any information you've collected through scanning objects, but it doesn't save after major actions, so it's hard to know exactly what you'll have to redo when you exit out. But it's not too big an issue, as I never lost more than a few minutes of progress.

Slowly discovering every system on board, inspecting every room, and unlocking more menus and commands within SAM's UI is an absolute treat. Observation is a visual stunner, with only the odd lip-sync issue occasionally distracting from the level of polish and craft on display. Later events ramp up the inherent creepy isolation of a space station perfectly, too. The story is compelling and exciting right up until the credits roll, and the game doesn't let up on revelations, twists, or the increasing tension of knowing that the game is building towards something wild. Observation also achieves the extremely rare feat of containing audio logs that are both compelling and make sense within its world.

Observation is a wonderful example of how to do focused, self-contained science-fiction storytelling in a game. It's well-written and clever, and nails the sci-fi tropes and aesthetics it both plays to and builds upon. It's a game that demands to be analyzed and thought about further once you're done with it, and while the internal world of the game is small, inhabiting it is a real pleasure.

Everybody's Golf VR Review - Bogey

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 18:46

The latest title in Sony's long-running golf series, Everybody's Golf VR is the first to bring the series to virtual reality. The transition isn't without its bumps, with the biggest being a lack of Everybody's Golf's traditional competitive modes. But the PSVR golf game does deliver a fairly realistic golfing experience that's both accessible to play and fairly challenging to master.

Everybody's Golf VR abandons the franchise's usual third-person view for a first-person perspective. The three-click swing mechanic (commonly seen in most of today's golf games) is also gone. Instead, you swing your clubs with a PlayStation Move or DualShock 4 controller, hopefully in one smooth motion. The direction of the ball is determined by the angle you hit it, and distance is calculated by how hard you swing. There are other factors to consider when you're on the course as well, such as wind direction and your elevation in relation to the hole.

Actually swinging your arms to hit the ball takes a bit to get used to, but the motion controls are remarkably responsive with a DualShock 4 controller. Once you've got the form down on your swing, you'll be able to reliably hit the ball the way you want to. The same can't be said for the PlayStation Move controller. Occasionally, the Move controller works fine, but I found myself more often than not being unable to even reach the ball with my club while swinging the Move. I ultimately just had to stop using it, as it became too frustrating to play a near-perfect hole only to be stopped short just because my club would not reach down far enough to hit the ball no matter how much I crouched.

In Everybody's Golf VR, the golf balls behave as they're expected to, obeying the laws of gravity when it comes to the arc of your shot or elevation of a slope, and their roll realistically heeds to changes in friction when terrain is affected by different weather patterns, like rain. As previously mentioned, the motion controls are pretty precise. The camera measures whether your swing misses the ball, glances off of it, or makes full contact, and then takes the angle and power of your swing into account. Shifting too much of your body weight to one side or curving your swing typically results in a lousy shot, while maintaining good form sends your ball flying straight as an arrow (provided there are no environmental factors to take into account as well). The game isn't an exact representation of reality--you don't have to swing nearly as aggressively as a professional golfer to achieve distances like one--but Everybody's Golf VR sells you on the experience that you're actually playing golf in your living room.

There's a welcome variety of customization options in Everybody's Golf VR, allowing players of all skill levels to enjoy time on the course. If you're having trouble putting, for example, you can turn on vacuum holes--which suck the ball in provided you get your shot close enough. For a more challenging experience, you can tee up on longer versions of the courses where it's harder to hit par. There are some nice accessibility options as well, such as the choice to play while standing up or sitting down, the option to change your dominant hand from right to left, and the freedom to choose between several sets of clubs--including one that makes it easier to hit the ball straight if you have limited mobility in your arms. There's plenty in Everybody's Golf VR to make the experience appealing to all types of players, and helpful tutorials give newcomers a chance to grasp the basics of the sport until they can get the swing of things.

Everybody's Golf VR's courses are populated with everything you'd expect to see in a golf game, like sand traps and trees, as well as a few things you might not, like dinosaurs. Occasionally, a bee flies in your face or the sound of a wave crashes onto a nearby beach. These sights and sounds are never distracting, but via a PSVR headset and headphones, they do make it feel like each golf course is full of life. Decide to look closely enough, however, and you'll notice the golf resort's reception area and each course is always eerily empty save for your character and either the receptionist or your caddie. It's a tad unsettling.

Though it runs out of steam quickly, Everybody's Golf VR is fun while it lasts, and there are satisfying goals to chase for a time.

Each distinct environment provides more than just a cosmetic change, as a course's aesthetic translates into different environmental hazards to deal with; the Seaside Course is very windy, for example, and its holes have a lot more sand and water traps for your ball to be blown into. A course's hazards aren't enough to force you to drastically change how you play, but they do provide just enough of a welcome challenge to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. It's fun learning about how a new course works, and satisfying to successfully deduce how to adapt to it. In the Seaside Course, for instance, you can risk timing your shot to a powerful gust of wind in hopes it will send your ball flying over an out-of-bounds area--which could save you an entire swing in the long run.

Unfortunately, there aren't many courses for you to play on. And other than Practice Range, the only game mode in Everybody's Golf VR is Course. In Course, you do have the choice of whether you play a random three holes from a course, the first nine, the last nine, or all 18. But with only three courses total, you'll end up replaying the same holes repeatedly in order to unlock all the in-game rewards. It gets tedious after a few hours.

The lack of additional modes in Everybody's Golf VR is a step back in comparison to previous titles in the series, many of which have one or two modes where you can face off against NPCs. As is, the only thing you can do in Everybody's Golf VR is play a course by yourself while your nearby caddie yells words of encouragement. Everybody's Golf VR does lessen some of its tedium with those caddies, though, as the eagerly helpful Riko and teasingly friendly Lucy help make your repeated trips out to the same collection of courses far less lonely.

Replaying courses allows you to unlock additional outfits for your caddie to wear, which is a fun cosmetic reward to chase after. You can also unlock a handful of Events by partnering with a caddie long enough. Some play out like romantically-charged mini dates, but most are just goofy distractions good for a laugh or two. Each caddie has her own unique set of four Events, and though their unlock rates are spread out enough that it will take you a few hours to see them all, once you do there's nothing compelling to work towards in the game.

Despite the lack of different activities in Everybody's Golf VR, the one thing it does do--provide a means of playing golf without actually having to go outside--is relatively enjoyable. Though it runs out of steam quickly, Everybody's Golf VR is fun while it lasts, and there are satisfying goals to chase for a time. Everybody's Golf VR's best feature is its assortment of customization and accessibility options, though, as they allow both golf newbies and veterans to curate their desired experience and just enjoy playing a round.

Team Sonic Racing Review - Gotta Go-Kart Fast

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 14:00

Team Sonic Racing is a wonderfully varied, fast and frenetic kart racer that, while a little derivative on the surface, successfully carves out its own space with a focus on team racing. Although Sonic, Tails and the gang might not carry the same weight as their mustachioed counterpart in red, and despite a few technical hiccups, Team Sonic Racing stands tall on the podium as a fun and colourful arcade racer that’s easy for anyone to enjoy.

There are numerous types of races to kick things off with, including your standard four-race Grand Prix, Quick Races, Time Trials and both local and online multiplayer. However, most of the characters and circuits are locked behind progress in the game’s Team Adventure mode. Oddly, this mode features a fully-voiced, yet conveniently skippable story that you have to hit a specific button to see (on PS4 you hit Square to play the story at the start of a race or X to skip to the race only) making it very easy to miss entirely. But while the accompanying story is quickly forgettable, the mode itself gets a lot right in terms of variety and structure, which is great, because that's where you'll spend the majority of your hours trying to progress.

In Team Adventure, completing objectives throughout each event will unlock the next event along the overworld path, along with more of the story. But the real focus is obtaining new car customizations, characters to race with, and tracks to race on in single-player mode. Car upgrades are gained by spending credits earned through races on Mod Pods, an unexciting form of loot box that reward you with vinyls to paint your car with, or new parts to change its handling characteristics. The system feels tacked on and arbitrary; a simpler structure of doling out upgrades as rewards post-race would have been more fulfilling.

There are 14 different race variations altogether, and Team Adventure uses a mix of them all, breaking up the eventual monotony of the standard races. There are more hits among these modes than misses, like an excellent car handling challenge where you need to skim star gates on the track while drifting, without hitting them--the closer you get to each gate, the higher your score goes. Another highlight is a mode where your only goal is to take down as many of Dr. Eggman’s Eggpawns on the track before time runs out. But others, like a timed race where the checkpoints move around on the road while you dodge traffic, lack the enjoyable flow present in the stronger circuits due to a stop-start nature. Team Sonic Racing feels its best when it’s moving fast, not when you’re trying to get back up to speed.

There are seven worlds with three tracks each, and they each have their own sense of place and vibrancy. Casino Park is a maelstrom of colors, music, and slot machines, while Seaside Hill shows off circuits by the sea, replete with wildlife like a giant mechanical squid or a massive flipping orca. Many of Team Sonic Racing’s 21 tracks feature branching paths, with some opening up shortcuts or secret areas to discover. Stumbling across these always feels fruitful as they’re often filled with rings to collect, as well as helping you gain a few positions on the track.

Teams are made up of three drivers each, one from each available class: speed, technique, and power. Speed drivers can repel enemy projectiles by timing their boosts to perfection. The Technique class is more handling-focused and drive over different surfaces without experiencing any slowdown, while Power class characters can knock opponents out of the way more easily as well as crash through any structural obstacles without slowing down or being damaged. There is a tangible difference to how each class and character feels in terms of speed and handling, meaning there's an advantage to picking a more favourable class for different individual events, but that’s not to say you can’t get it done with whichever character you like. Overall car handling feels wonderful, and drifting between corners flows like a breeze.

Out on the track, while your overall focus is on your own performance, the added element of team racing gives you a lot more to think about while sliding through corners and dodging rockets. If you spot a teammate stopped on the track, you can skim past them to give them a speed boost and get them back in the race, and you can follow the visible wake from your team’s leading driver to get a slingshot past them. If each member times it right, it’s possible for your team to leapfrog to the front of the pack in convincing fashion, and that feels excellent. Annoyingly, it’s nigh on impossible to practice something like this outside of multiplayer, as the AI aren’t quite up to pulling off this kind of strategy with great reliability.

Special items and boosts--known as Wisps--are laid across the track in various places, giving you an item to help your team or hinder your opponents with. Mechanically, many of these items and boosts bare a strong similarity to what you find in Mario Kart 8. While they achieve their purpose of helping you gap the field or compress the pack all while looking flashy, none of them are as amusing or fun as the Grey Quake, an item that flies out in front of the leader and grows huge rocky spires out of the ground, blocking the track.

There’s also a neat sharing mechanic that lets you request or share spare items with your teammates, and it comes with several cool advantages. Shared items are stronger and can often be used more than once, plus they fill your Team Ultimate meter. When this meter is full, you and your team can each unleash a powerful boost that not only makes you invincible, but also a wrecking ball, pushing anyone and anything out of your path to the front of the field. Timing the activation of the ultimate with your teammates also increases boost power, furthering the importance of keeping in sync. I did notice some consistent graphical stuttering whenever triggering the ultimate, but it only lasts a few frames and doesn’t really disrupt the action that much.

There’s both casual and ranked multiplayer, and while it remains to be seen how busy the ranked servers will be, our testing of the casual matchmaking prior to the game’s release was as smooth as expected. It could be a little snappier between races, but aside from having to be a little patient while the scores tally, it’s everything you can expect from an arcade racer. What is a little disappointing is the game’s performance in couch co-op. While not unplayable by any stretch, the framerate while playing two-player split screen on the PlayStation 4 Pro was surprisingly inconsistent, never feeling as smooth as you’d want, and certainly never matching its reasonable single-player performance.

The essence of Team Sonic Racing is good; its handling feels tight and smooth, drifting has a good flow to it, and the items are fun to use, as are the tracks to race on. It doesn’t bring much new to the genre, but it delivers where it counts. The racing is fast and fun, and the team aspects offer enough of a change to the formula to make Team Sonic Racing the endearing arcade racer it is.

Total War: Three Kingdoms Review - A Dynasty Of Warriors

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 15:00

You're facing down the scattered remnants of the last, great Han warlords, and your entire adult life so far has been building to this moment. Ever since you first took up arms at the age of eighteen against the corruption bleeding China dry, vengeance has been the one thing driving you forward. People call you the Bandit Queen, spitting the title at your feet in battle before your twin axes cleave their heads from their shoulders. As your forces pursue routed, scarlet-clad warriors, you feel the gaze of one of your lieutenants upon you, pivoting almost too late to meet their steel with your own. However, you're resigned to this by now, and he meets a gurgling end like so many before him who disagreed with your methods. No general suffers any threats to their rule, even when the peasantry starts to mutter about you and the old tyrant, Dong Zhou, in the same breath. There are no saints in Total War: Three Kingdoms, just a castell of death and destruction with its apex pointed squarely at the throne.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is essentially the Chinese version of The Iliad in construction. Larger-than-life characters, an at-times heady mix of romance and intrigue, and a hell of a lot of fighting are what define it. However, it's almost entirely unique as a text because of the fact that it is widely treated as a reasonable record of the events of the turbulent period of 169 AD to 280 AD in Chinese history, despite embellishment. The Total War franchise is no stranger to adapting the militaristic trials and tribulations of our world's past, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a work that has at times straddled the dual worlds of academia and fantasy.

While the popular Dynasty Warriors games have very successfully depicted the fantasy, it's not been as easy to capture the intricate, personal stories of now-recognisable figures like Cao Cao, or to capture how they played into the wider scheme of the world as we know it. Total War: Three Kingdoms focuses keenly on those key figures and their motivations, using the literature's extensive canon as fodder for your own strategic in-game actions. Thrown into the thick of the battles and diplomacy of 190 AD, you'll need guts, gore, and perseverance to either unite China or to break the chains of oppression that hold its people fast, and Creative Assembly has succeeded in translating the themes from a decades-long, larger-than-life epic into a form that will appeal to both Total War enthusiasts and rookies alike.

For the uninitiated, Total War is a mix of turn-based strategy and real-time battles where you take full control of squadrons of warriors and watch them duke it out against your foes on a picturesque patch of blood-stained grass. When you're not exerting military might on everyone else, entries in the series have historically focused on strategy elements akin to those that you would see in traditional 4X games like Civilzation. You have to balance expanding cities with diplomacy, manage population growth and happiness, and also deal with the very real concerns of keeping enemies off your tail. You do this by managing a series of complex, interconnected systems that influence everything from your inner circle to what a certain township might have to trade in winter. Give a town a governor with a green thumb and see trade flourish, or marry off a dissenter to an enemy and see previous peace treaties wither. As with every strategy title, the consequences of your choices are far-reaching, and Total War is an exercise in choosing wisely.

The first thing that will stand out with Three Kingdoms is how it puts its best foot forward on its production values. Dynamic weather, lighting, and beautiful watercolour environments--ranging from mountains to besieged cottages--paint a striking backdrop for the conflict and bloodshed to follow. Your generals themselves remain rendered larger than life and in great detail, and their idle chatter (fully voiced in Chinese, if you so choose) lend them a lot of personality when you're taking your time deciding on your next move. The UI is also clean and well-designed; Three Kingdoms is a return to the usual gamut of interactive windows providing the minute details and statistics seen in older Total War titles, but information can be pinned and dismissed at will so you aren't fighting a battlefield of clutter.

Detailed mechanics from previous titles return, which means a lot of information for more recent Total War fans to contend with. This is particularly noticeable when wrangling your allies, which is now essentially a full-time job. Managing relationships within your own coterie is no longer as easy as paying them to look the other way, nor are the effects almost instantaneous. It's now a long game of min-maxing retinues, victories, ideal reforms, and placation. While you're picking a general, faction identities are not as set in stone in practice as they may have been in previous titles. Playstyles ranging from expansionist and war-mongering to diplomatic can all be found in the same faction, and this translates nicely to create a dynamic inner circle.

Some of the streamlining done in recent Total War titles has been walked back, potentially to emphasize Three Kingdom's focus on cults of personality in adherence with the source material for the game; your advisors and family members are all fully-fledged characters of their own with personality traits that will conflict, sometimes fatally, with your ethos. Making concerted decisions over a long period of time that are in line with your vassals' beliefs are necessary to keep them keen, lest you cop a challenge and a sword in the back when you least expect it. The threat of defection from your wider allies is always on the horizon too; the factions fighting over China are as fractured as the land itself. Where Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia invited you to ruminate upon keeping your faction cohesive so as to ensure that your reformations would live on, diplomacy and faction politics in Three Kingdoms feel much more like putting pressure on a bleeding wound. Everyone starts at each other's throats, with the major balance of power being in favour of the Han Empire.

Whether you were part of the Yellow Turban rebellion, an independent warlord, or a former seneschal of the Empire, everyone at the time was clamoring for a piece of the pie, and having that reflected in Three Kingdom's mechanics is a nice touch. But you can sometimes feel pigeon-holed into conflict in a way that restricts your agency as a player. War declarations come hard and fast, with AIs as mercurial at decision-making as their portrayals in the source material. Sure, you can suggest marriage or pay a tithe, but taking the peaceful road often shakes out to be incredibly costly in negotiations. By the time you're staring down a line of cavalry encroaching on your territory, you can often feel like you only have one real option: to fight to the death.

Combat in Three Kingdoms' main campaign has two distinct strains depending on which mode you're playing in: Romance, or the more traditional Historical option, which is more reminiscent of how Total War usually operates. While you can delegate combat to a dice roll of AI-generated auto-battling odds, getting bogged down in the minutiae of the battlefield is incredibly thrilling. You'll marshal your forces and pit them against those of your foes' in the pseudo weapons triangle of cavalry, infantry, and assorted others, all in real time. Whether it be a relentless siege against a settlement, meeting the Han empire in open combat, or simply trying to hold it together as someone else knocks on your gates with axe-wielding bandits, Total War's depiction of battlefield conflict is where it has always excelled, and Three Kingdoms is no different.

However, the distinctive, much-trumpeted difference between Three Kingdoms and previous titles is the aforementioned Romance mode. This is where the fantastical merges with the historical in a way that offers you a new way to dominate opponents on the battlefield. In this mode, your generals stand head and shoulders above the rest, capable of single-handedly taking out entire squadrons on their own even as they yell out orders to the men rallying around them. In Romance mode, the strength of said generals grows in epic scale and scope over time, much in line with the fantastical deeds they perform in the source material. Generals also have the option to engage in duels with each other, which provides a spectacular, clash of the titans-style combative satisfaction. Three Kingdoms also lets you take these types of confrontations one step further in the new Battle mode, which lets you reenact famous skirmishes from Chinese history as these storied generals. It's both nicely educational and a refreshing change of pace.

The game's tutorial is decent at helping you parse the essential mechanics from the math soup, but it feels like a large expository information dump as Three Kingdoms attempts to get you up to speed on both the world's ingrained politics and what to do with all these damn menus and buttons. You're given a crash course in everything from how to wage war to how to manage the people under your rule within the first 20 turns, which is mechanically almost a lifetime in-game, but not very long at all for someone who isn't familiar with Total War or the Three Kingdoms story to get properly acclimatised. But to its credit, Three Kingdoms does provide plenty of helpful supplementary material and difficulty adjustments to help rookies learn what they need to know to succeed, given enough time--from instructional videos to the pace in which the game unravels its conflicts on Easy difficulty, as well as the ability to streamline processes like waging war and building prosperous townships (the latter mostly through a one-size fits all approach to reformation). With enough patience, it's easy to be infected with Total War once you finally get your mouth around that first, overly-large bite.

Three Kingdoms feels like a breath of fresh air. By harkening back to the intricacies of older titles and builds on some of the foundations laid by Thrones of Britannia, it offers a distinctly contemporary and thorough experience. This is the most ambitious that Total War has ever been, from the variety of different ways that you can enjoy the game to the sheer scope of the stories that they've weaved around each unique character's playable experience. Three Kingdoms feels like the rightful evolution of the series, pulling from its roots in historical military tactics to come up with an engrossing modern strategy game that is always a delight, even in its less well-oiled moments.

Darkwood Review - Welcome To The Forest, Meat

Tue, 05/14/2019 - 18:46

When Darkwood originally launched in early access in 2014, it was an ambitious game that suffered from clunkiness and a lack of identity. In GameSpot's early access review, writer Brett Todd admired its willingness to experiment with aesthetics and rework the concept of permadeath, but couldn't get past the fact that it wasn't quite ready to go on sale. Now, in 2019, Darkwood is an entirely new game.

It was inevitable that Darkwood would be compared to similar open-world survival games like the Burtonesque Don't Starve, and from a gameplay standpoint their top-down perspectives and day/night cycles are similar. However, the most recent iteration of this macabre indie game is unwaveringly confident in itself. Darkwood revels in its eponymous darkness--even its daytime cycles are subjected to limited visibility, courtesy of its field-of-vision illumination. The best thing about this is that it doesn't rely on nighttime to be scary. Even at the crack of dawn, venturing too far from your hideout can result in you coming face to face with blood-curdling, satanic sadists hellbent on mauling you to death.

The game assimilates a plethora of systems into its makeup, including crafting, bartering, and combat. Although the mechanics are quite complex, Darkwood offers an intense but fair learning curve. While the controls are clearly mapped out on the pause menu, learning how to manipulate some of the game's ostensibly unimportant mechanics can give you a major edge as you progress into its more difficult areas. For example, the game affords you skills in exchange for cooking in ominous ovens. These skills usually only have a minor impact on the game, allowing you to benefit from a daily single-use perk such as running without taking stamina into account. However, these perks come at a cost: For every skill you gain, you must apply a negative effect designed to hinder you for the rest of your playthrough. These are incredibly minor, but in a game as brutally unforgiving as Darkwood, it's essential to level up with caution, which subverts the entire idea of leveling up rapidly in the first place.

As a result, opting to favor survivability over gratifyingly quick forward momentum often allows you to live longer in the end--something that's absolutely essential on Darkwood's harder modes, where lives are limited. But even on Normal difficulty, it's important that you recognize that this is an ambiguous world that necessitates experimentation. As the world deteriorates into madness around you, the only way to survive is to adapt alongside decay. Rather than help you, Darkwood's systems affect you in a much more neutral way. I spent a night boarded up in a hideout that was fortified to the teeth with barriers only to be attacked by packs of demonic dogs moments before the saving grace of the sunrise. However, I also happened to survive three nights in a row by hiding inconspicuously in a cramped corner, praying that I wasn't overwhelmed by hordes of red chompers in the twilight.

Because you're never truly safe in Darkwood, it's easy to lose track of time. Eventually, days seem to merge into one another, and it becomes startlingly clear that the majority of society has descended into an irreparable state of madness. People live in a perpetually frozen cycle of day and night in which there are only two recurring parts of the same day, repeated eternally. The characters you meet are mostly uninterested in speaking with you, but among the Silent Forest's more amicable residents are an aspiring astronaut named Piotrek, who is attempting to build a rocket ship out of hunks of scrap metal, and a muttering musician who plays dissonant, apocalyptic notes on a broken violin in an effort to win the hand of a woman kept locked in the basement by her older sister--something made all the more horrifying by how poorly he performs. These post-plague virtuosos are at home in Darkwood's chaos, and their chosen vocations reflect the fact that they've already been absorbed by the chaos of this dynamic and disintegrating world. That's one of the most horrifying things about Darkwood: the way in which humanity learns to use madness as an asset in a world without order.

That's one of the most horrifying things about Darkwood: the way in which humanity learns to use madness as an asset in a world without order.

There are, however, some aspects of Darkwood that indicate the transient nature of life in the forest. At the beginning of the game, you're given the opportunity to euthanize your wounded dog, who sits outside your house whimpering in pain. If you choose not to, the dog transforms into a vicious varmint by the time you return later, ferociously clawing and gnawing at you in a deranged state of mindless violence. Darkwood's narrative is ambiguous at the best of times and is mostly to do with choosing which NPCs to favor in various subplots, but easily-overlooked details like this dog's fate tell disturbing tales of their own. As a result, some subplots only tell part of the story. Other details are intricately interwoven into the environment, and these narrative manifestations and the more ostensible plot points are of equal importance in understanding the world at large.

That's what makes Darkwood so brilliantly-suited to console. Although on the surface a keyboard suits the game's mechanics--namely its hotfixed inventory system and the quickfire solutions that are often necessary for survival in the night--there's something much more visceral about playing with analog sticks and haptic feedback. Instead of simply pressing a combination of keys to attack anathemic abominations, you need to use hyper-sensitive camera control to succeed in combat. Dodging is mapped to an analog click, whereas shooting a gun genuinely feels instinctive because enemies close distance at an alarming rate. It's easy to miss point-blank because of a knee-jerk reaction, and it's the fact that you can be punished once and for all for doing so that makes the game all the more hair-raising.

What makes Darkwood truly special, though, is its world. At one point in the game, you visit an area simply known as "The Village." Here, a group of deranged denizens worship a gnarled sow, deifying it as "The Mother of all Pigs." Almost everyone in the village has descended into a state of utter insanity, with one of the town’s most domineering residents having developed a gravitation toward chickens after locking up her own sister to save her marrying a chagrined musician. Most of the citizens here immediately associate you with an aura of antipathy, but the fact they live in such an aloof society is horrifying. All around, the world is darkening and fading, and this singular town, serving as a bastion against a descent into savagery, is inevitably lost. Because you, the safe and sound player, get to witness it from an external perspective, The Village's encroaching demise is drastically more affecting. This is the last of the world, and it's due to go out not with a bang, but a whimper.

While Darkwood is an absolute marvel in terms of its aesthetics and gameplay--as well as its disarmingly dissonant score--I experienced several bugs that caused me to lose minor progress. In one case, I was trapped behind a disassembled tractor, which forced me to quit to the main menu and restart the game in order to press onward. On top of this, one of the game's areas caused the frame rate to drop so dramatically that playing became a chore. This was easily rectified, again simply requiring a soft reboot, but these glitches are a disappointing nuisance plaguing an otherwise exceptional game.

However, these bugs aren't game-breaking. And even though they irritated me, I couldn’t pull myself away from Darkwood, no matter how much its uncanny world made me audibly squeal. Rather than relying on jump scares--although they are present, to a minor degree--Darkwood psychologically unhinges you. You’re consistently lured into a false sense of security as you hole up in an ironclad hideaway before night falls, or when seemingly benevolent NPCs beguile you with promises of collaboration against the hordes of darkness. It’s horror by subversion, because it’s only when you’re safest that you let your guard down--and it’s only when you take that singular breath of respite that you concede to utter susceptibility. There’s nothing quite as scary as momentarily looking away before being drawn back in by a sound cue or a controller vibration. And before you know it, it’s fight or flight, as you fall into the fray of the unforgiving darkness and are forced to compose yourself within a split second or risk losing half your inventory.

In Darkwood, there’s an item you can show several NPCs called "photo of a road." What’s interesting about this is that several of these entirely disparate wanderers have the exact same response to this curious snapshot. "Around here," they say, "all roads lead to nowhere." And as Darkwood’s forest is guzzled up by the rapidly encroaching night, roads are no longer places-between-places. Instead, they’re a communal necropolis, waiting for the creatures of the night to tribute more destitute dupes to its earthy, deathly soil.

A Plague Tale: Innocence Review - A Sea Of Putrid Rats

Tue, 05/14/2019 - 00:00

One of the most macabre scenes in A Plague Tale: Innocence is the eponymous plague, manifesting in the form of cursed rats. These vermin have a malevolent, otherworldly presence, their incessant screeching and scratching on stone pavements and atop piles of corpses making for a nightmarish, cacophonous din. Like sewage sludge, these creatures pour out of crevices towards their unwitting victims, ravaging them until they are just skin and bones. It’s an incredibly grotesque and spine-chilling sight--one that will linger in your mind hours later.

But even though the rats are a constant presence in Innocence, they merely serve as the backdrop for its more poignant moments, featuring the two characters you’ll spend the bulk of your time with: Amicia and Hugo de Rune, a pair of young siblings who are suddenly thrust into this hellscape of war and pestilence. Set amidst the Hundred Years’ War during the Middle Ages, the comfort the siblings once knew as children to a noble French family has been ruthlessly shattered. The Black Death, too, has wrought terror upon the country, with the bulk of the French population either dying from the plague or eaten by rats. Compounding this is the Inquisition, a fanatical group of knights keen to get their hands on the last of the de Rune descendants. Surrounded with sludgy pools of grimy rats, and with murderous knights hunting them down at every other turn, the duo need to gather their wits, leaning on stealthier means to escape from this mess. But not only do you have to navigate through the bedlam as the teenage Amicia, you’ll also have to take care of the five-year-old Hugo; he panics and shouts for Amicia when she ventures too far from him--as any young child will presumably do when surrounded by a neverending miasma of death and decay.

This arrangement does give Innocence the appearance of an elaborate escort mission, but fortunately, the game knows how to subvert the tedium that’s so typical of such games. A huge part is due to how human Innocence is. Despite his neediness and naiveté, Hugo is easy to grow fond of. His childlike wonder cuts through the wretchedness of their circumstances, allowing him--and helping Amicia--to appreciate the beauty even in the bleakest of times. In one scene, he quickly takes off to a nearby pier, fascinated by the curious sight of bubbles from frogs in the lake. Even a small gesture from him, such as plucking a flower--a symbol of tenacity in such trying times--to gently place it among Amicia’s braids, captures the warmth of their relationship. Such moments are heart-wrenchingly sweet, and you’ll share Amicia’s growing attachment to Hugo; his companionship is even greatly missed when she has to be paired up with other characters you meet along the way. On a mechanical level, it also helps that the artificial intelligence behind the characters isn’t hopelessly illogical, at least most of the time. Hugo isn’t usually one to chase after a butterfly in the thick of trouble, but the game still has its moments where a companion might accidentally take a kamikaze dive into a pool of quivering rats. Thankfully, these blunders are mercifully rare.

With survival being the thematic core of the game, Innocence is, at its crux, a series of survival puzzles; you’ll need to avoid the ravenous rat colonies, as well as evade the knights of the Inquisition. The rodents are terrified of light and will scuttle away at its mere presence--a weakness you can exploit to make your way across death-stricken battlefields and cities. Yet key to survival is also vigilance; wander too close to the rats, and they will attempt to devour you, clawing at the fringes of the light as their teeth chatter with insatiable hunger. And when a few stray rodents manage to latch onto you, Amicia can drown in a whirlpool of vermin, as they viciously and noisily gnaw on her. Few scenes in video games manage to be quite as eerie as this, heightening the game’s cloying atmosphere of despair and danger.

What’s decidedly less impressive, however, are the members of the Inquisition. As children, Amicia and Hugo won’t survive most direct confrontations with these armored brutes, who are only too eager to swing their cudgels and swords upon discovering them. Luckily for the de Rune siblings, the knights are also dumb as rocks; these barbarians are easily distracted by loud noises or sudden movements, such as by smashing a pot near their feet or tossing a rock towards a nearby chest full of armor. After staring at the offending object for a minute, the knight will mutter a variant of “Guess it’s just my imagination”--the most hackneyed and quintessential line used by hilariously obtuse NPCs in stealth games--and lumber back to their post, completely bewildered by the sound. In another far more egregious gaffe, another knight, while gawking at rats stripping his comrade to the bones, would grouse about the pointlessness of searching for his murderer, since they must be far gone by now. He then settled back to his programmed patrol, his back turned against the torrent of crazed rodents. For a game whose storytelling relies heavily on its atmosphere of dread and fear, such illogical instances absolutely butcher the mood.

That said, the game’s puzzles eventually ramp up in difficulty in later chapters, which renders combat and confrontations unavoidable at certain points. As dim-witted as the knights are, they’re still mostly decked out in heavy armor and weaponry--and can make devastating enemies. To compensate for her lack of brute strength, Amicia can modify and augment her trusty slingshot and ammunitions with the right materials and a dash of basic alchemy, turning the humble tool into a deadly and versatile weapon. Hugo isn’t a passive companion either; reaching cramped, hard-to-access places is his forte, and he’s gutsy enough to crawl through smaller breaches in walls alone to open up new paths for Amicia--provided the coast is cleared. Other characters, like a talented young alchemist named Lucas and a pair of orphaned thieves called Mellie and Arthur, will come with vastly different capabilities--and each with their own affairs to settle in this dire tale.

Scenes of desolation and tragedy mark Innocence’s dark, intriguing world, tied together with a narrative that’s genuinely moving without resorting to fetishizing the children’s sufferings. Despite their challenging situation, the siblings make do with what little help they get, bolstered by Amicia’s astounding resourcefulness, to survive this catastrophic mess. The game also magnifies the cataclysmic impact of the Black Death through a lens of cosmic horror, invoking the frightful atmosphere of H.P. Lovecraft’s macabre stories; the slithering rats, whether they are scurrying in the dank blackness beneath the city or trailing around half-eaten cadavers, never fails to be disconcerting. On the other hand, its villainous characters are almost painfully one-dimensional, with predictable twists and turns in the plot. This renders some of its revelations lackluster.

Powerfully ghoulish depictions of the plague and rats aside, Innocence is ultimately an emotive story of resilience against harrowing odds. The game’s title is an obvious nod towards the loss of innocence the endearing young cast faces throughout their journey. But more than that, it also speaks of the depths of human depravity and the agonizing cost of survival in the midst of war. Despite the unremitting horrors of Innocence’s beginnings, the game occasionally lets in a faint glimpse of hope. One of my favorite moments is when Amicia spots another wildflower in a lone trek across the city, nestled among the decay of the rats’ revolting nests. Without her brother around, she picks it up, and places it gingerly in her own hair--a personal reminder to keep trudging on amidst the hardships, and a testament to her growing strength and tenacity. Despite flashes of predictability, moments like these will bring a lump to your throat, as it did mine.

Rage 2 Review - A Real Splatfest

Mon, 05/13/2019 - 13:00

At a certain point in Rage 2, you become an unstoppable force, a lone wolf that can take down bandit camps, monsters 10 times your size, and crowds of deformed humanoids with your gratifying, destructive abilities and weapons. Not only does your suite of superpowers make combat a blast, it's the key to developing a satisfying momentum. It's too bad that, more often than not, the game doesn't do enough to keep that momentum going.

Rage 2 doesn't waste a lot of time trying to explain to you why things are the way they are. It instead thrusts you into an open world with its fair share of places to go and things to do. In addition to bandits, mutants, and monsters, there's the villainous organization, The Authority, who wiped out your hometown. As the last ranger--elite soldiers with superpowered suits--it's up to you to corral three key leaders by carrying out their missions and finishing Project Dagger, a biological weapon to kill the Authority's seemingly immortal tyrant General Cross. It doesn't really matter who's who, just that you need to destroy those who are hostile. You're only marginally "super" at the start, but the gradual ascent to hero status is rewarding in that you accumulate a roster of devastatingly fun toys.

Arks spread across the map unlock powers called nanotrites as well as multi-purpose weapons, and these tools pave the way for dynamic approaches to some intense combat scenarios. Nanotrites can be used in isolation or in sequence, creating a diverse yet easy-to-understand set of abilities that allow you to efficiently rip through enemies. For example, Slam is a strong ground-pound that does area-of-effect damage, and Shatter tears through armor and forcefully sends foes flying backward. Their strong impact is matched by their effectiveness, and when combined with a beefy shotgun or rocket launcher, you create a distinct, destructive flow in combat. It's not unlike nailing down an attack rotation in an RPG and seamlessly swapping firearms for the right situation in an arena shooter.

Once you start stringing kills in succession, you can go into overdrive for a temporary boost where you essentially become invulnerable and weapons fire in an even more powerful mode. With all these capabilities in mind, you never have to resort to one individual tactic in fights because you're consistently cycling through all of your extraordinary tools. It's easy to see and feel the parallels with the modern Doom and Wolfenstein games, but Rage 2 distinguishes itself with how much you have at your disposal and how it's all intuitive to use.

You constantly evolve your arsenal via extensive upgrade trees. It's not just about enhancing weapon damage or increasing overall health; nanotrites can be made more useful with shorter cooldown timers, bigger target areas, and additional effects. Weapons also have branching perks, and special unlocks called Projects stack even more buffs on top of all your other capabilities. Upgrading all these facets can fundamentally change how you operate during the moment to moment action and open up new, devastating approaches in combat.

Rage 2's biggest issue is that it's structurally bare; most of its wasteland is made up of short, fragmented activities that hardly ask much from you and don't lead to anything worthwhile.

What Rage 2 is short on, however, are opportunities to put all those abilities to good use. The main campaign structure makes itself clear early on; do a mission for each of three different leaders, fill a trust meter by finishing corresponding side activities, then complete one more mission for each of them before the finale. It doesn't sound like much, because it isn't. Some of these missions make for the game's better moments, but combat sequences wrap up just as you get into a rhythm. And the main questline as a whole comes to an underwhelming head rather quickly.

Take a late-game mission, for example. You bust into a base with a massive tank, then blast through rooms of enemies before fighting a beast that takes more than a few shots to kill. But the tank sequence is essentially a thin on-rails drive-by, the rooms of enemies are recycled, and that beast is the same as ones you've fought before. There isn't much surprise or imagination for a campaign mission that's supposed to build toward a conclusion. Only once did the campaign put me in a position to get creative or extensively use my powers, and that was at the final boss.

Main missions rarely make use of the vast open world the game has to offer, too. There's a sprawling jungle to the north and wide desert plains in the southwest, and only one main quest takes you to each of those locations. At no stage are you introduced to their central towns, so they really exist for faceless NPCs to tell you about side quest locations, which you can very well find on your own by chasing down question marks that populate your map.

Side quests litter Rage 2's expansive wasteland, though it's made up of standard open-world fare, like clearing out a bandit den or pumping a huge mutant full of lead. Although fairly one-note, Convoys add some variety by incorporating car combat. Perhaps the best of the bunch is in taking over recharge stations where you have to fend off waves of increasingly stronger enemies with deadly efficiency--it's the most challenging type of mission as you have to pull out every stop and get creative with your powers and weapons, especially at higher difficulties.

Rage 2 also lacks an identifiable charisma, which is disappointing for a post-apocalyptic world. While it makes a good first impression by kicking off with an unhinged, in-your-face attitude, it unfortunately never builds upon it.

However, it gets to a point where you wonder why you're taking on all these brief missions. Sure, you get currency and materials for upgrades, but you're just getting them for the sake of it. Rage 2's biggest issue is that it's structurally bare; most of its wasteland is made up of short, fragmented activities that hardly ask much from you and don't lead to anything worthwhile.

Rage 2 also lacks an identifiable charisma, which is disappointing for a post-apocalyptic world. While it makes a good first impression by kicking off with an unhinged, in-your-face attitude, it unfortunately never builds upon it. In fact, the narrative devolves into a series of interactions with bland characters that make the storytelling come off as hamfisted. It makes a few attempts at humor which don't land, and the setting's deranged archetypes fall flat. It doesn't let the subpar narrative get in the way for the most part, though stilted dialogue sequences try to bridge the gap between missions.

It's as if the game is trying to strike a balance between the nonchalant badassery of Doom and the larger-than-life characterizations of Wolfenstein, and missing the mark on both ends of the spectrum leaves it directionless. As a result, it's hard to care about what you're doing in the world without much intrigue or a sensible thread to weave all your standard open-world activities together.

Other minor issues may frustrate you as well, like the constant game-pausing notifications for rewards and progress that interrupt the pacing. For a game all about fast-paced combat, it's truly an odd choice to stop everything to say you completed a mission even as conversations are playing out. Also, dialogue may just cut out completely mid-conversation.

I spent some time after finishing the campaign flying the Icarus gyrocopter from side quest to side quest while overlooking the vastness of Rage 2's open world. It's a gruesome wasteland with the potential to be a wide playground of opportunities to flex your robust set of abilities and weapons. And at times, it gave me just that. Yet I couldn't stop thinking about how that potential was left untapped. Open world games sometimes overstay their welcome, and it's odd to see Rage 2 have the exact opposite problem.

Rage 2 is at its best when you're given the chance to keep up a gratifying momentum in combat, but struggles to setup the scenarios its combat deserves. It's satisfying in the way clearing out an open-world checklist is, especially because powers are such a joy to use. The disappointment comes from the fact that those activities are rudimentary in nature and the decent ones end well before you get your fill.

Life Is Strange 2: Episode 3 Review - Choosing Sides

Thu, 05/09/2019 - 17:00

The third episode of Life Is Strange 2 takes place two months after we last saw Sean Diaz and his little brother Daniel escaping Beaver Creek, Oregon because of yet another plan gone wrong. There's a lot to get caught up on here, but Sean's journal does a good job of making sure you don't feel like you've missed out. The end of Sean's most recent entry reads, "It's not easy," and as I sat there a couple of hours later completely unable to decide how Sean should proceed in a high stakes situation, I couldn't have agreed more.

The road has taken a toll on the brothers, but they've found themselves a ragtag group of friends and a makeshift community campsite in Humboldt County, California to call home. Their financial situation is also looking up thanks to a couple of not-so-legal jobs working on a weed farm. These were arranged by Finn, a hippie backpacker they first met back in Oregon who now works on the farm. The pace slows right down in Episode 3, and while that's reflective of life on the road, it means that having an investment in the characters and their development is essential in keeping you engaged. Fortunately, with a campsite full of colorful characters to learn from and bounce personalities off of, you get to learn a lot about who the boys are apart from one another and watch them discover who they want to become.

Just in case you've lost track of the events so far (it has been almost four real-world months since the last episode), Episode 3 begins with a flashback to a time before the brothers were forced to leave Seattle. Initially, this feels like retreading ground you're already familiar with, but it serves to reintroduce not only what life was like before the brothers were on the run, but it's also a reminder that the growing pains of their adolescence are the same, no matter how much their lives have changed.

For example, there's a flashback of a sibling tiff that leads to a conversation between Sean and his father Esteban, who asks his son to help take care of his little brother. The discussion is compassionate and respectful; Esteban tells Sean he's proud of him and asks him to go talk to Daniel. Sean does so and this moment mirrors the beats of the prior conversation. The reintroduction of Esteban weighs on your decision-making over the rest of the episode as you try to play the role of brother, father figure, friend, and keeper to Daniel and his supernatural abilities. The realization that there is no way to do all of the above is a frustrating reality for both you and Sean, and this adds nuance to your decision making.

As with the previous episode, Life Is Strange 2's greatest strength is the care it puts into characterization and writing. The ongoing complication of this episode is Sean discovering who he is, what he thinks, and facing very tangible romantic prospects while Daniel feels like he's losing his brother. There are almost a dozen vastly different characters to engage with in Episode 3, and relationships feel fluid and changeable. The relatability of Sean's character makes it easy to sink into his shoes when you talk to your companions. Your connection to Sean's mindset is most clear when Daniel grows close to Finn and you feel an undeniable sense of jealousy when he trades out the watch you gave him for a bracelet from Finn. You feel fear when Daniel acts out and endangers himself, nervous when testing out the waters of a new relationship, and the constant weight of trying to make the right decision when there isn't one. The natural performances, writing, and genuine character moments coalesce to give each character weight and complexity, making them easy to care about.

The environment is lovingly rendered down to the most minute details, and it paints a full and clear picture of what life is like with your makeshift community in the California forest. You can overhear conversations as you walk around the campsite, there's a chore list nailed to a tree, and there are giant redwoods to admire in every direction. There is a larger focus on the series' contemplative cutscenes set to an evocative alternative soundtrack, which underpins the coming of age vibe of the episode.

Aside from a couple of late-game scenes, interactive moments are less of a focus--though there are narrative reasons behind it. Occasions where you're trimming buds of marijuana, sketching your companions, and trying to steal a truck break up the blocks of wandering and conversation in a refreshing way, but they're the minority of your playtime. Fortunately, it's far more interesting to watch Daniel grapple with having to grow up so quickly and Sean trying to decide between doing what's right for his brother or what's right for himself as a young adult figuring out who he wants to be.

With Sean and Daniel spending all their time around other people, there are few occasions for Daniel to use his powers, despite them having grown significantly stronger. While his abilities spark some interesting conversations and eventually shift the flow of the plot, they largely take a back seat to the rest of the narrative right up until they're used to cause some inescapable dramatic upheaval. As they've been used this way multiple times in the story so far, these moments begin to feel predictable--and though the implications are interesting, it's certainly a crisis you can see coming.

Your connection with Daniel will begin to fray regardless of your prior relationship and binary decisions can still not go the way you'd like because characters act out of their own interest. This agency makes the people you interact with far more interesting. Just because you make a choice doesn't mean the story will unravel that way as the motivations of independent characters are prioritized, so they won't necessarily do as Sean asks. The story branches are also starting to bear pretty significant fruit, with a few wonderful scenes regarding the exploration of romance, sexuality, individuality. While there is less interactivity this episode, the achievement in portraying genuine and evolving young characters and the challenges of adolescence remains engaging.

Despite its supernatural themes, Life Is Strange almost always delivers an honest moment instead of a sensationalized one. There's something far more relatable about a teenager mumbling apologies after their "first time" instead of dancing down the street to the tune of "You Make My Dreams Come True," and it's these moments that truly solidify your investment in Sean. At one point, Finn tells Sean, "Memories are just lessons for the future." For a story that so rarely lets its characters escape unscathed no matter how you choose to act, it's a solid adage. The goal of making it to Puerto Lobos feels increasingly immaterial given the escalation of Daniel's powers and the hurdles in their way. As they say, the journey matters far more than the destination, and Sean and Daniel's journey is one that continues to intrigue.

Whispers of a Machine Review - Quiet Greatness

Wed, 05/08/2019 - 02:00

In Whispers of a Machine, a retro-styled point-and-click adventure, interesting themes and mechanical elements relating to human augmentation are stapled onto a recognizable framework. Your character, murder investigator Vera Englund, has access to cybernetically augmented abilities thanks to some neat future-science, and she can do things like perform biometric readings of the folks she is interviewing to pick up on anomalies in their heart rate and composition, conduct forensic scans over environments to pick up on potentially vital information for her investigation, and increase her strength for moments where brute force is necessary.

But it's not a game that dives deep into the nature of augmentation, or which uses augmentation for most of its puzzles. Because of this, the game ultimately doesn't quite live up to the full potential of its premise. Regardless, it's easy to appreciate Whispers of a Machine for what it is--a damn good point-and-click adventure with a lot of unique, interesting ideas.

Throughout Whispers of a Machine, there are decisions you can make during dialogue and puzzles that are tied to one of three different styles of approach: empathetic, analytical, or assertive, and following each one of these will lead to different outcomes later on down the line. During dialogue, you're typically given these three choices of response, and although they're not labeled, it's usually clear which approach each one matches to. Cleverly, the puzzles that track these choices don't explicitly signpost the fact that there are multiple solutions, meaning that the game will, on occasion, track a decision that is perhaps closer to your natural instinct than any intentional roleplaying you're doing. In one early example, it’s not entirely clear that there’s more than one way to get a vent open, but the game will remember which methodology you arrive at and whether you seek help from others or find a way to get it opened yourself.

The broad plot remains largely the same regardless of how you play. At the game's opening, Vera is sent to investigate a murder in Nordsund, a small, quiet town that sits atop a giant spire, isolated from the abandoned roads and wasteland below. The lore of both the city and the larger game world are slowly unfurled over the course of the story. Whispers of a Machine is set in a near-future following "The Collapse," a cataclysmic event that you learn more about as you play. A.I. is outlawed, while augmentation allows humans in certain occupations to excel, but taking the "blue" that is essential to keep your augmentations working comes at a heavy mental cost.

Nordsund, the locals assure you, is not the sort of city where people get murdered--and yet by the time Vera arrives, a second murder has already been committed. It's up to Vera to find the link between the victims, identify their killer, and, inevitably, deal with the larger conflict that has spawned this violence. Getting to the bottom of this means investigating the town and getting to know several of its citizens. Nordsund is grimy and cramped, sparsely populated and made up of garbage dumps, poorly assembled shacks, repurposed buildings, and elevators that never seem to work.

The murder plot ends up drawing Vera into a much larger investigation into warring political and ideological factions, ultimately leading to a conclusion that sees Vera grappling with issues from her own past (and a few potential endings, depending on your choices). The story is well told, unveiling new details and character beats at a steady pace throughout, offering up a good mix of foreshadowing and red herrings to keep you on your toes. The lore underpinning it all isn't anything too exciting, though--there are a lot of standard science-fiction tropes revisited, and the game ultimately doesn't have a lot to say about its own A.I. apocalypse beyond the fact that it happened. But Vera is a likable protagonist with a compelling backstory, and the game's small cast is eclectic and brought to life by some great vocal performances.

Your choices will dictate which augmentations you can unlock. If you respond empathetically to the game's cast during the first day of your investigation, for instance, on the second day you'll unlock the ability to energise machines, objects, and people with a little jolt; if you were purely analytical in your approach to puzzles and conversations, though, you'll be gifted with enhanced sight, while assertive players will be given an amnesia ability to affect their target's memories. Depending on which powers you unlock, the solutions that are available to you for certain puzzles later in the game will change completely, essentially creating ‘new’ puzzles. A second playthrough in which you make different choices will only differ at a handful of points, but these unlockable powers are fun to test out and discover the limits of, even though each one is only really used a few times.

The puzzles are, for the most part, smart and engaging. Your ability to progress is tied not just to how you reason through a situation, but to how much attention you've been paying to the evidence and the key locations around town. The payoff for remembering a detail from earlier in the game can be great--one late puzzle, for instance, is reliant on recognizing a certain sound in the background of a cassette tape found near the game's beginning.

Using Vera’s augmentations to progress makes for an interesting dynamic, too--remembering that you can access her augmented strength or scan the environment for DNA samples is empowering, but the game never loses sight of Vera’s character, or her skills for deduction and reasoning, underneath these powers. There are very few puzzles that you could accuse of being obtuse; there's one that is perhaps a little too outside-the-box, but it's not so wild that it requires random guesswork. Getting to know Nordsund is a pleasure, and when you finish the game--which is unlikely to take longer than about five hours--it's easy to feel a little sad about needing to leave a place that, for all its grim-future grime, was interesting.

Despite having big ideas, Whispers of a Machine is ultimately a traditional example of the genre with some neat ideas rather than something revelatory. But it's very good at what it does, and those augmentations help to differentiate it from all the other adventure games out there. It's short but gripping, offering a well-written, interesting and clever experience that wraps up well and which rewards your choices and play style with unique powers and puzzle solutions.

World War Z Review - Zombie Zeitgeist

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 23:52

Despite its departure from the novel, the film adaptation of World War Z was compelling because of its terrifyingly fast and uncharacteristically cooperative zombies. Seeing hundreds and thousands of undead bodies crawling over one another to create haunting swarms or towering pillars helped make the staple fictional enemy feel fresh, and it’s the exact energy that gives its loose video game adaptation the same strong foundation. When it's all about gunning down thousands of enemies with a couple of friends, World War Z is at its most entertaining.

Simplicity is at the heart of World War Z. Each of its 11 stages are filled to the brim with undead enemies for you and up to three friends to mow your way through, using an assortment of firearms, special weapons, and explosives. There's not much else to each of these missions that make them more complicated, which works for World War Z in its initial hours. The straightforward nature of gameplay makes it incredibly easy to jump into a match and immediately understand how to contribute. Pointing a gun at enemies and pulling the trigger rewards you with satisfyingly gruesome kills that thin the horde, allowing you to push further to the next objective. Optional lower difficulties for each stage let you get by without much synchronized play, letting you get to grips with World War Z's multiple classes.

Unlike Left 4 Dead, which is clearly an inspiration for the cooperative gameplay, World War Z gives you the flexibility to choose which roles you fulfill in a team. Although you're able to equip any weapon you find, classes determine what you start with and what unique abilities you bring to each match. The Exterminator, for example, excels at lobbing Molotovs into gathering waves of undead enemies and has an upgrade tree that increases damage done to enemies that are on fire. The Medic can heal teammates without a first aid kit, and Gunslinger can distribute ammunition for use across all weapons. Classes can be tweaked slightly with unlockable traits (which you purchase with in-game currency earned from playing matches), though you can only equip a handful at a time.

The classes are fun to experiment with, and as you start taking on harder versions of each stage, they become more crucial to your success. At higher difficulties enemies are more ferocious and deadly, while you have fewer chances to revive downed teammates before they die. Friendly fire also becomes more unforgiving, making the frenetic nature of firefights a lot more challenging to deal with. These combine to better encourage well-balanced team configurations that capitalize on both healing and offensive abilities in order to survive, highlighting the usefulness of each class ability better than lower difficulties.

Playing as your favorite class unlocks perks for said class faster, and the same applies to the weapons you pick up. Kills accumulated with each weapon levels them up, giving you new attachments to purchase that increase damage, handling, reload speeds, and more. Weapons are separated into ascending tiers, with tiers increasing as you progress through a stage. Although you'll start with a Tier 1 pump-action shotgun, for example, you can just as easily find a magazine-loaded and automatic version before the climactic final battle of each story chapter. This gives you a reason to slow down and poke around each of World War Z's maps, as well as hunt down valuable explosives that give you entry into weapon-laden safe rooms. Picking up a new and improved weapon has an immediate and tangible effect on your ability to cut down increasingly large hordes, which makes finding the perfect one rewarding.

Stage-specific objectives are less exciting, though, only serving to push you from one combat encounter to the next without much strategy. Most of them just pad each mission with uninteresting interactions with switches or terminals just to group everyone up again before the next big zombie encounter. They're boring and rarely offer any opportunities for synchronized team play. Only a handful of scenarios attempt to add some variety into the mix, and even fewer succeed. One standout encounter tasked me and my team to venture into a multi-level room filled with toxic gases, forcing us to hunt for keycards that could be used to interact with terminals and bring the gas level down. This one scenario makes you wish there were more like it spread throughout the multiple story chapters, and it's frustrating that it isn't the case.

The combat set-pieces these objectives funnel you towards are more regularly engaging. World War Z replicates the signature dread of its film adaptation by inundating you with hundreds of enemies at a time. These "swarms" are fantastically exciting to strategize around. You'll get the chance to place up some defenses before the swarm invades, setting up automated gun turrets or electrified fences to aggressively attack chokepoints or establish new ones to slow down their movement. The sheer scale of these battles is impressive. It's haunting to watch zombies cascading off the sides of buildings or collecting to scale tall fences, all with the single mind to come and tear you and your team apart. Breaking down these swarms is both challenging and satisfying, giving you a sense of accomplishment when the tide subsides and enemy numbers thin to a slow trickle.

Each swarm is fun to battle against, but their predictability and placement in each stage quickly diminishes their effect on the action. World War Z's stages don't change outside of difficulty scaling. Sneaky Lurker enemies who can jump and pin you down will appear in the exact same areas of each map every time; a large and dangerous Bull will charge at you during the same set-piece battles that trigger in the same places during each chapter, while enemy-attracting Screamers will pool together foes at choreographed stages during each level. The predictable placement of these special enemies makes return trips to story chapters less exciting due to their predictability, which diminishes their appeal.

Breaking down these swarms is both challenging and satisfying... but their predictability and placement in each stage quickly diminishes their effect on the action.

This swarm mechanic permeates World War Z's limited PvP modes too, turning simple team deathmatches or king-of-the-hill skirmishes into fights not only against other players, but also dynamic pockets of undead enemies. This is the only surprising spin on PvP, considering that the loose shooting buckles under the weight of the precise requirements of more serious competitive play. It's nice to have something outside of the limited chapters in PvE, but it has a severely limited appeal without any competitive-focused progression or exemplary modes to make your time invested feel worth it.

It doesn't take long for the 11 chapters to feel tiresome, especially when World War Z struggles to remain stable and keep you in games. I had the game hard crash and boot me back to the PS4 dashboard on numerous occasions, during anything from intense firefights to simply joining an online game. The frame rate was also wildly unstable, especially when being rushed by hundreds of foes on screen. It's not surprising that it happens, but it still negatively impacts the fluidity of each encounter. The four locations that house each of the chapters are delightfully varied and immediately recognizable (the two chapters in the cherry blossom petal-littered streets of Tokyo were particularly beautiful), but they can sometimes also fall prey to flat and boring textures that struggle to enrapture you with the desolate apocalypse around you.

World War Z has many rough edges that are easy to spot, exacerbated by limited content that makes repeated playthroughs less interesting with each run. But it's also a cooperative shooter that has the space for those dynamic and ridiculous player stories to emerge in. The rush of taking down a swarm with friends is core to what makes World War Z's action work so well, and it rewards you well for the time spent on the classes and weapons you like. It could benefit from having more to go around, but if there's a future for World War Z and its chaotic cooperative action, this is a good foundation to build it on.

Giga Wrecker Alt Review - Hunk Of Junk

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 22:15

If not for the studio logo when you start up Giga Wrecker Alt, you'd never know it was made by one of the most successful video game developers in history. It isn't just that this lacks any connection to Game Freak's iconic Pokemon series. Giga Wrecker Alt, an enhanced port of the 2017 PC release, doesn't have the cohesion present in the Pokemon games, and its blend of clever ideas is held back by poor implementation.

The core mechanic behind Giga Wrecker is novel: You destroy robots to gather debris, which can then be formed into objects like blocks, weapons, and tools. These help you to resolve both platforming and puzzles, and the giant debris blocks also make a handy melee weapon against the bots. The bigger the debris pile you carry around with your cybernetic arm, the better it will serve as a bludgeon against larger robots, and the more and bigger tools you can create.

For example, many puzzle rooms have pressure-sensitive switches that are only activated by the maximum size debris block. The solution, then, comes from taking down progressively heftier machines to build a big enough stockpile. Junk piles can also be cut or drilled through to make platforms, or a block piece can be used to deflect a laser. It's an inventive idea that merges combat, puzzle-solving, and platforming under a single gameplay hook.

However, it isn't long before the concept meets its limitations. Giga Wrecker often asks more of you than it's willing to give, making for an unforgiving and frustrating experience. Most pervasively, the physics systems at the heart of the game are inconsistent. Even when you already know the solution, you'll spend a significant amount of time performing it over and over waiting for the pieces to fall in place just so. Then, with the puzzle resolved, you'll be asked to escape to a door without falling into an instant-kill trap, which is where poor checkpointing issues arise--if you fail, you'll need to begin the puzzle again. At one point, I solved a particularly tricky puzzle and then jumped onto a moving platform, only to have the camera pull away to highlight that I had solved it. By the time camera control was restored, I was in a spike pit, dead.

The checkpointing that does exist is odd and erratic. Since the physics-based puzzles are prone to unresolvable errors, each major room includes a reset point highlighted in noticeable hot pink. These are activated by pressing up, which leads to unintentional activation on a fairly regular basis. If you don't hit these reset points, though, you'll find yourself sometimes checkpointed at the start of a puzzle and other times checkpointed when you first entered a room and repeating a dialogue sequence. I got in the habit of hitting a reset point as soon as I entered any room, just to make sure I set the checkpoint there.

Even putting aside unlucky moments and fiddly checkpoints, though, the platforming can be a struggle. The controls are imprecise, and you'll often continue to slide after releasing a direction or move an uncertain distance from a light, fine-tuned tap. Inching closer to an edge to prepare for a tricky jump will occasionally result in going right over it.

The platforming and puzzles are scattered across three major areas joined by a central hub. Progression generally comes from solving rooms to activate nodes, which then open up doorways locked behind a set number of those nodes. Rinse, repeat. The overworld map that shows how these areas connect is nonsensical, only giving the vaguest idea of direction to find the next doorway, but the areas are small enough that memorization eventually sets in.

The one area that works as intended is combat, but this element is underserved. The robot destruction is mostly about gathering debris, so enemies are few and far between, and you dispatch them with environmental hazards more than your limited arsenal of weapons. The more challenging combat comes from the boss battles: three named characters with two battles apiece, followed by a single final battle. These rare moments are where the combat shines, relying on the same debris-gathering mechanic but challenging you to gather it by countering their moves in between dodging devastating attacks. These fights are challenging, and as opposed to the rest of the game, they leave you with a feeling of accomplishment rather than exhausted relief.

Even putting aside unlucky moments and fiddly checkpoints, the platforming can be a struggle.

While much of the game grows more complex over time, the story actually becomes simpler and more accessible. You're put into the shoes of Reika Rekkeiji, a young girl who barely survived an apparent robot apocalypse thanks to an emergency surgery that gave her a cybernetic arm. The art style helps reinforce Reika's mindset, as her cyborg arm has a spindly sense of body horror. It looks twisted and unnatural on her frame, and as she starts to encounter humanoid "Astra" class robots, their appendages are similarly awkward, elongated, and misplaced on their bodies. It's a subtle and creepy way of showing rather than telling one of the story's major themes.

Giga Wrecker uses some staid plot tropes, like the classic amnesiac protagonist, and at first it feels like showing up to a book club without having done the reading. Characters make multiple inside references to the ongoing robot conflict with such ease and familiarity that I genuinely wondered if it was adapted from an existing franchise. As the story proceeds it slowly clarifies itself. It all carries a distinct tone of anime melodrama, complete with soul-searching soliloquies about the nature of war and violence. It isn't breaking new ground, but it's fine enough.

Despite its glimmers of inventiveness and artistry, Giga Wrecker Alt is its own worst enemy. The puzzles are too frustrating and the platforming too fiddly to recommend it. Game Freak set out to make something very different than the series it's most known for, and the studio's trademark creativity shines through in brief moments. The execution on the whole, though, is sadly lacking.

Anno 1800 Review - Hidden Figures

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 03:00

At the heart of any European town founded before the 19th century lies a church. It's the same with Anno 1800. At the center of your city sits a magnificent cathedral, its spectacular steeple reaching for the heavens and illuminating the lives of everyone who passes by. It’s a very beautiful church, but it’s hiding something.

At the heart of Anno 1800 lies an intimidating and complex financial simulation. It may seem like you're overseeing the rise and occasional fall of a European-style city as it comes of industrial age. But really, you're juggling numbers, thumb wedged in the accounts ledger, finessing production efficiencies and stabilizing trade fluctuations. Anno 1800 is perhaps the prettiest spreadsheet I've ever seen.

Each randomly generated map in the core sandbox mode unfurls as a mostly blank canvas, a glistening sea dotted with fertile islands waiting to be claimed by you and your (AI or human) opponents. As you grow and expand your reach across multiple islands and into the New World--and your empire undergoes its Industrial Revolution--you'll employ more advanced technologies, extracting coal and oil to fuel great belching factories and formidable steam engines. But the basic principle remains constant: Satisfy your population by employing them to manufacture natural resources into commodities that encourage more people to move to your cities.

Everything becomes a production chain for you to configure, massage and optimize. Early on the choices you're making here are relatively simple; the virgin terrain of your first settlement makes it easy to place the knitter near the farm so the wool is delivered swiftly and the warehouse within range so the finished goods can be collected for immediate sale. But soon the need for a navy means you've had to build a sailmaker's yard which is now diverting wool previously used by the knitter. Building another sheep farm means finding the physical space for an additional farm as well as for all the extra housing for the new farmers. Extend this scenario a few hours into a game and it will encompass dozens of productions chains of increasing complexity and inter-connectivity.

Managing these productions chains--whether it's work clothes and sails or beer and pocket watches--is an enjoyable exercise in a kind of "balancing the books" sense. You know you have to spend resources to grow, but your success depends on finding that ever-moving sweet spot between overreaching and not pushing far enough. It's necessary to keep the requisite resources flowing and meet the housing and job demands of your population, but it's not sufficient. To maintain a firm hand on your economy you have to appreciate the various financial levers available to you, allowing fine adjustments to tax rates and production ratios that can genuinely mean the difference between keeping it in the black and going bankrupt.

Of course, it's also just as enjoyable to play the more visual puzzle game of city planning, slotting in that new building not only where its specific dimensions fit, but where it also retains proximity to its related structures in the chain. Nobly assisting matters here is the "move" tool that lets you--for no resource cost at all--pick up and move any building to another location. Need to pop a police station downtown but there's no room? Just move the nearby houses further down the street to open up the space. It really does look utterly beautiful when it all comes together, too, like an exquisitely detailed diorama that you can poke, prod and tweak to your heart’s content. There’s even a first-person mode that lets you walk the streets and observe all your townsfolk going about their day to day business. I especially welcomed the moments I was able to spend admiring the view before some new urgent matter warranted investigation and I had to return to crunching those numbers.

Spinning all the plates becomes even trickier as you advance into the Industrial Age. Production chains that were once straightforward, one-to-one input/output ratios turn into logistical nightmares as multiple buildings start feeding into multiple other buildings. The demands of the job are only exacerbated by a lack of clarity in the feedback you're given when things aren't operating at full capacity. Simple things like knowing how many flour mills and grain farms support a bakery just aren't communicated clearly enough in-game or in the non-existent manual. I spent hours engaged in trial and error in such situations before finding a comprehensive external wiki that I found myself alt-tabbing to constantly while I played.

There is a campaign mode that functions as a tutorial before it segues into the main sandbox. And there is an additional setting that enables a more guided experience, providing you with specific goals at the appropriate moments. I found both very welcome, even as someone who had played some of the previous Anno games. But at the same time, I felt that other important aspects weren't explained thoroughly enough, if at all, and it was frustrating to guess at solutions to problems I wasn't confident I'd even diagnosed correctly.

Much of Anno 1800 is spent watching numbers go up and down. Total gold is going down. Now it's going back up again. There aren't enough workers for the number of available jobs. Okay, now there are too many workers and not enough engineers. Sometimes it's clear why these things are happening and sometimes it's obvious what you can do to rectify the situation. However, other times it isn't and it's really quite panic-inducing. My stomach tightened whenever the numbers plummeted into the red, but as soon as they shot back into the black I would feel a surge of relief. Even so, outside of these sharp swings, when the numbers remained relatively stable and my economy seemed to be ticking over steadily, I couldn't shake this nagging sense that everything was always on the verge of complete collapse.

I spent all of my time playing Anno 1800 in a mild yet pervasive state of anxiety. As a city-building sim that emphasizes economic management, it is as robust and powerful as the steel factories it allows you to pollute the skies with. But for all the natural beauty of its island paradise and the architectural splendor of its churches, theatres, and piers, it's just a little too cold in its reliance on numbers and a little too impenetrable in its reluctance to show you its workings. I'm glad I visited, but I don't think I'd want to live there.

BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! Review - Hip To Be Square

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 14:00

The charming simplicity of BoxBoy, a series now four games deep, is right there in the character design. Qbby, the eponymous BoxBoy, has four corners, two dot eyes, and two legs. Qucy, who is newly playable in this game across both single-player and co-op, is the same design but with a big bow on her head. The BoxBoy games are lean and minimalist--this Switch version has some details in the background and a bit more color, but otherwise retains the 3DS series' visual simplicity. It's focused on giving you a dozen hours of fun and a bunch of puzzles that won't break your brain. They're not the kind of puzzle games you need to obsess over or master and BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! follows this trend, although its new co-op mode demands a slightly higher level of engagement.

As with previous games in the series, BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! tasks you with solving puzzles by growing boxes out of yourself and using them to pass obstacles. In each level you're given a limit for how many boxes you can grow, which will change what sort of structures you can build and use. For example, if your limit is 2 boxes you can only build a small vertical or horizontal stack, but if you have a limit of 3 or more you can push out two horizontal boxes and one vertical to form a step, and then potentially keep building from there.

With your blocks you can bridge gaps, block lasers, protect yourself from spikes, activate switches, and more. As both the single-player and co-op campaigns progress, you unlock new abilities. You can push yourself off the ground with a vertical stack and hop along, hanging off the side of it; you can fire your blocks across the screen; you can form a 'hook' with your blocks and use it to pull yourself up to a higher level. These skills and others are introduced gradually, and their applications are made immediately clear before their potential uses are stretched out over the levels that follow. The worlds you play through, which group levels together, are typically themed around specific obstacles and abilities, and towards the end of the game you'll face levels that will ask you to combine the numerous different skills you've learned. None of them are particularly difficult, but sleuthing through all your different options and figuring out the best way forward is satisfying.

BoxBoy! + BoyGirl! Is the biggest game in the series, featuring 270 levels across three different campaigns, though there is some repetition in puzzle motifs. Alongside single-player and co-op, there's also an unlockable mode featuring Qudy, a rectangular box person who can turn himself sideways and make boxes that are either tall or long depending on his orientation. Qudy's quest is a fun extra, and the developers find some cool ways to work his oblong shape into puzzles. Maneuvering his lanky frame through each level is an interesting new challenge, although he's given fewer exciting abilities than his other box pals.

It's the co-op mode that represents the biggest shake-up in BoxBoy! + BoxGirl!, as two players can team up to solve puzzles that require BoxBoy and BoxGirl to work together. Each character has their own box limit and will often need to perform different tasks in different parts of the level to benefit one another. The extremely simple controls mean that you can comfortably play with one Joy-Con each (which is good because there's no online play), and good communication is essential so that you can share ideas and puzzle through scenarios together.

The puzzles are easy enough that less experienced players won't come up against too many challenges--two series veterans will likely breeze through the campaign, although they'll have a good time doing so. Brilliantly, you can also play the whole co-op campaign alone, switching between the two characters. Features like this usually don't work so well in games built specifically for co-op, but it's a good fit for these puzzles, which never require simultaneous action from both boxes. With some of Bye-Bye BoxBoy's more inventive elements--such as different block types--having sadly been dropped, co-op is far and away the biggest highlight that this entry brings to the series.

You earn two different currency when you complete levels, one of which can be spent on various bonuses--challenge levels, music to listen to, mostly unnecessary 'assist' items and lousy 'comic' panels--while the other can be spent on cute costumes and in-level hints. You can unlock more of each type of currency by completing levels with as few boxes as possible and by collecting the crowns that pop up in each of them, which represents the game's greatest challenge.

Collecting crowns is inessential to your progress, and the extra currency they earn you isn't particularly important--it builds up fast just by completing levels--but I still found myself instinctively trying to collect all of them. Sometimes the crown placement will be unimaginative, requiring little effort to nab. But often you'll need to think outside the box (pardon the pun) and really ponder how you can use your boxes within the environment, and puzzle through uses for your abilities you had not considered, to reach them. Grabbing the crowns is frequently more rewarding than just finishing the level, although if you want to tick off your other objective and finish the level with few blocks used, it's often best to ignore the crowns, meaning that completionists might want to run through many levels twice.

In some ways, this game feels like a reintroduction to the series, which is fair, since it's BoxBoy's Switch debut. If you've played the previous BoxBoy games, you know what you're getting here--it's more of the same, but with a cool new co-op mode and the minor twist to the format that Qudy introduces. That's enough--BoxBoy has always been a light snack of a game, and it remains a great game to slowly chip away at when you're not in the mood for anything too taxing. For newcomers, it's a great entry point into the series, and a good low-stakes puzzle game to relax with. While Bye-Bye BoxBoy! remains the pinnacle of the series, BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! is a more than worthy entry.

Days Gone Review - Yikes On Bikes

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 13:01

This review contains minor spoilers about mission structure and overall story direction. There are no spoilers for major narrative moments.

Around 10 hours into Days Gone, you're thrown into a hunting tutorial apropos of nothing. The over-the-top libertarian character takes you out with a rifle and shows you how to track a deer, although you've already had a tracking tutorial. You're then tasked with getting more meat for you and your buddy because your supply is running low, something you never have to do again. You also don't cook or eat; you can only donate meat to camps around the map to earn a negligible amount of trust and money with them. After a little while, even stopping to get meat off wolves that attacked you doesn't seem worth it.

Like many things in Days Gone, hunting exists just to be there, an idea that is picked up and then abandoned at random. Unlike hunting, some of those ideas are even good in the moment. But most aspects of Days Gone lack purpose. Its many narrative threads flirt with being meaningful and interesting but never quite commit, with characters whose actions and motivations don't make sense. Riding a souped-up motorcycle through the world and taking out zombie nests and hordes is satisfying in the way that completing open-world checklists often is, but by the end, you're left to wonder what the point of it all was.

The first act of the game--about 20 hours or so--sets up quite a few narrative arcs. Two years after the initial "Freaker" outbreak, biker buddies Deacon St. John and Boozer have become drifters doing odd jobs for nearby survivor camps and keeping mostly to themselves. Deacon's wife, Sarah, had been stabbed at the very beginning of the outbreak; Deacon put her on a government helicopter bound for a refugee camp so she could get medical attention, but when he and Boozer arrived, the camp has been overrun by Freaks, and Sarah had apparently died. Deacon is understandably not coping with it well. Boozer suggests riding north and leaving the memories behind, but Deacon's bike breaks down and is subsequently looted for parts, so one of your main goals is to earn trust and credits at the nearby camps in order to rebuild your motorcycle.

The motorcycle is central to everything you do in Days Gone. Getting anywhere, including by fast travel, requires your bike, and if you want to save while out in the world, you better be right next to it. Getting off your bike is a matter of both your entrance and your exit; you need to stop far enough away from enemies so they don't hear you coming, but you also need to be able to run to your bike quickly if things go south and you need to escape. And, as you're sneaking past Freakers to loot things like bandages and ammo, you also need to be on the lookout for a gas can and some scrap metal to keep your bike in top shape--if it breaks down or runs out of gas, you're basically screwed. That said, gas and other loot do regenerate if you leave and return to a location, so you'll never truly run out of anything so long as you put in the time to look for it.

At the beginning, you do jobs for two camps: Copeland's conspiracy theorist stronghold and Tucker's hellish forced-labor camp. Copeland's has a mechanic capable of upgrading your bike, while Tucker's has a well-stocked weapons merchant. Your starter junk bike gets about a mile per gallon, and you can't store a gas can on your bike or your person, so you either have to return to a camp to fuel up or constantly scrounge for gas cans out in Freaker territory. This makes wandering around and doing things in the open world frustrating at first, so you do a lot of throwaway missions for the two camps to start.

Many of these early missions consist of cookie-cutter bounty-hunting and rescue jobs in which you go to a place, track a person using your apparently psychic Survival Vision to highlight footprints and other clues, and then kill some bandits or Freakers. Some of these require you to take the target alive, which often means chasing them on your bike and shooting at their tires with your pistol. If you happen to run out of gas or ammo, or if your bike is already weak and breaks down after a couple of bumpy turns, you auto-fail these missions and have to start over. You also accelerate with R2 and shoot with R1, which, while not horrible, is clunky and awkward.

One early scene involving a drug thief kicks off a series of missions like these that, once completed, has no bearing on the rest of the game despite initial appearances; once you track down the stolen drugs you have to choose which camp to return them to, but there are no consequences either way, and then the situation is dropped entirely. The only result is getting some trust and credits with one of the camps--I chose Copeland simply because I wanted money for a better fuel tank. A lot of the story missions going forward, as you discover a third, more narratively relevant camp, follow the same structures as these earlier missions. But the focus on Tucker and Copeland specifically amounts to hours of nothing in the grand scheme of the story. Tucker's forced labor doesn't come back to bite anyone, and while Tucker and Copeland don't seem to like each other, doing work for one camp doesn't affect your relationship with the other. Once you get to the third camp, Lost Lake, Tucker and Copeland cease to matter at all, not least because Lost Lake has both a better mechanic and better weapons.

Once you upgrade your bike a bit, though, the world opens up. No longer bound by low gas mileage and a weak arsenal, you can head further out and more handily take on enemy-controlled areas around the map. You clear ambush camps by killing everyone present and eliminate Freaker infestation zones by burning all their nests. In addition to trust and credits, clearing an ambush camp nets you resources to loot, a map of the area, and a new fast travel point; destroying an infestation zone allows you to fast travel in the area. Unlocking the map and neutralizing threats is satisfying in the way that cleaning up clutter bit by bit is, and you can see your work pay off in your bike's upgrades. However, there's little variety between each ambush camp and infestation zone, and they get repetitive early--especially because Deacon dry-heaves and whines about the nests smelling horrible at each one.

The real motivation to do all of this is twofold. Early on in the game, Deacon's best friend Boozer is attacked by a group of Rippers, a doomsday cult with a number of bizarre rituals. The Rippers singe a tattoo off Boozer's arm and leave him with third-degree burns, so Deacon's purpose in life is to keep Boozer alive and healthy. This mostly involves finding sterile bandages and the one mission where you gather meat for him. On top of that, though, Deacon sees a helicopter belonging to the government agency NERO, which had been involved in the initial relief effort, flying overhead. That gives Deacon a bit of hope that Sarah might still be alive, since he'd put her on a NERO helicopter after she was stabbed, so you start stalking the NERO soldiers and scientists to investigate further.

There are a number of flashbacks to Deacon's relationship with Sarah before the outbreak, bolstered by his hope that she's alive. They're largely awkward cutscenes interspersed with short sections of walking slowly while Sarah and Deacon talk about surface-level topics, and they don't ever provide a convincing reason why they're together. Deacon is a biker and Sarah is a "nice girl" scientist, which is fine, but "opposites attract" isn't enough to make their relationship compelling. It's romantic in that Deacon hasn't given up on Sarah, but the main takeaway from the flashbacks is that they're physically attracted to each other and that Deacon doesn't talk about his feelings.

The NERO arc is where things really pick up. Spying on the NERO scientists consists of insta-fail stealth missions. They can be frustrating before you unlock abilities to improve your stealth skills, but the conversations you overhear are legitimately interesting and answer questions that other zombie fiction often neglects. For example, you learn from one eavesdropping on a scientist studying Freaker scat that they eat more than just other people and each other--they also eat plants, and that means they're not going to starve any time soon (like in 28 Days Later). Deacon quickly gets in contact with a NERO researcher who uses government resources to track down what might have happened to Sarah. Even though their relationship is confusing, it is a tempting mystery.

Abandoned Nero medical units and research sites contain more small details, including recorders that play snippets of scenes--a scientist studying a Freaker specimen, the moment a camp got overrun, or just banter between soldiers. Getting inside a unit is a matter of refueling the generator, making sure to find and disable every speaker nearby so the noise doesn't attract Freakers. Finding each speaker can be a bit tricky at certain sites, which makes the moment you turn the power on more exciting and the realization that you're in the clear more of a relief. And in addition to satisfying your curiosity, you're also given the more tangible reward of an injector that improves your health, stamina, and bullet-time-like focus ability.

As you learn more about NERO and the Freakers, you're introduced to new, more powerful types of Freaks, including a berserker and an all-female variant that screams to attract more Freaks your way. They don't really provide new challenges so much as slow you down, and they feel like a stopgap measure to tide you over until the first horde-based mission around 40 hours into the game. That first horde mission is exhilarating--running around while using tight spaces and molotovs to keep the horde off you, eventually taking out hundreds of Freakers, is a well-earned victory. But that mission is followed very quickly by another one, and after a short break, you have two more nearly back-to-back horde missions that lead up to the end of the main story. Without any breathing room, the hordes are exhausting to deal with, and you'll likely have to stop everything to loot and rebuild your stockpile of resources after each one just so you can progress.

Ultimately, though, Days Gone isn't about NERO or Sarah or the Freakers. It's about Deacon, and what he wants is what matters. Narrative threads are dropped as soon as Deacon no longer has a use for them. Copeland and Tucker only matter until Deacon gets to a camp that has better supplies. Boozer's health is only important because it's Deacon's reason for living. Even the fascinating little details about the Freakers are useless to Deacon, who only cares about Sarah--but not what Sarah wants or needs, just that his "ol' lady" might be alive somewhere. Every character is seen through this Deacon-focused lens, and as a result, they're two-dimensional.

Deacon is selfish, and it's simply boring that the game is uncritical of him.

Deacon does not learn anything over the course of the game, and the story is concerned with validating his actions and feelings above all else. When one character urges him not to kill anyone in cold blood, Deacon "proves" that murder is better than mercy. As Boozer nearly breaks through to Deacon about learning to let go, Deacon learns something new about NERO and clings to his hope even harder. Deacon also has a policy where he doesn't kill unarmed women, which does not affect the story in any way and goes completely unexamined. There's no introspection here; Deacon is selfish, and it's simply boring that the game is uncritical of him.

I did a lot of things in Days Gone. I burned every single Freaker nest; I cleared every ambush camp; I maxed out my bike; I took out a few optional hordes just because. Like Deacon with Sarah, I kept going because I hoped to find something, to follow a thread to a possibly fascinating or satisfying or impactful conclusion. But at the end of it all, I'd only gotten scraps.

SteamWorld Quest Review - Letting Off Some Steam

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 17:00

It's easy to be immediately charmed by SteamWorld Quest's colorful fantasy world and the band of merry heroes you'll journey across it with. Their plight is simple and straightforward, making its adventure of confronting evil and its tightening grip on the kingdom around you palatable without feeling overbearing. Underneath this whimsical veneer, however, is a daunting strategy game, one which uses its clever take on turn-based card combat to create a wickedly complex system of decision-making opportunities. But it's also one that is designed intelligently enough to make each part easy to learn and engage with.

With regard to gameplay, SteamWorld Quest bears no resemblance to the rest of the games in the series. This is first and foremost a turn-based strategy game, with a light sprinkling of role-playing thrown into the mix in the form of character classes to differentiate each of your five potential party members. Each character features a variety of moves that deal different types of damage and inflict status effects on foes. Fire attacks will deal additional damage to enemies that deal frost, electrical attacks will have the chance to stun enemies for several turns, and poison will inflict recurring damage over time. It's easy to pick up and play, which helps SteamWorld Quest get you right into its combat without strenuous onboarding.

The act of deciding what moves to enact in combat is a bit more complex, though. It's governed by a deck of 24 cards, made up by your party of three who can bring eight cards each. In battle, new cards are drawn with each turn, while your deck resets automatically once depleted. Cards that represent the most basic moves in your repertoire cost nothing to play and in turn reward you with cogs once placed on the field. These cogs act as a currency that you spend to play more powerful cards--ones that inflict greater damage, target multiple enemies, or buff your party with helpful attributes--making you consider when to hold back and when to go all in.

The process of constructing a deck that works cohesively is as engaging as combat itself. You can combine multiple character-specific cards in powerful ways; for example, simply playing all three of one character's cards in a turn will play a bonus fourth move automatically, which itself is governed by the weapon you choose to equip on the character in question. Some cards will perform better when used as a follow-up to a specific character's card, boosting damage or adding a bonus effect. Your effectiveness in combat then is not just about the decks you construct, but all the ways in which you use the hands dealt to you efficiently. All these options can initially feel overwhelming, but the restriction to just eight cards per character condenses your options down to a level that balances its complexity without sacrificing its potential depth.

Combat is accentuated by delicately detailed character models that do a great job of retaining the signature SteamWorld look while also slickly adapting to the new high-fantasy setting. The vibrant coloring on each main character is also aptly used to inform you of what type of abilities they bring to the table. The red-hot knight's armor of Armilly alludes to her ferocious fire-based attacks, while the yellow and rose-petal adorned gown of a mysterious samurai flows with each of his fast-striking electrical attacks. Being able to tell this information at a glance is helpful, and on top of that, each design looks great.

Stylistic and impressively detailed effects also help each combat encounter feel intense, despite having a turn-based rhythm. Blistering fireballs explode in a blaze of red and orange glory on impact, and electrifying lightning attacks bounce furiously between foes while engulfing them in static. Some moves have repeated effects, layering damage numbers and sprites atop one another furiously until the attack has ended. These often resulted in the frame rate dropping to a complete crawl at times, however, and it was most prominent when the Switch was running in docked mode. It's infrequent enough to not hinder gameplay, but it is an eyesore when it does crop up.

That's a shame, because SteamWorld Quest looks delightful both inside and outside of combat, sucking you into its steampunk-inspired medieval world. The bold outline that each character bears helps them stick out from the hand-drawn backdrops you explore, but none of those backdrops go unnoticed, either. Gorgeous and brightly coloured forests contrast dark and gloomy castles whose hallways are sparsely lit with auburn lanterns. Your adventure also moves you along from one intriguing setting to the next, letting you take in the sights of an abandoned sorcery school before whisking you away to snow-capped mountains with billowing winds. Each chapter of SteamWorld Quest gives you something new to look at, and it's always a rewarding transition.

With so many combat options to play around with and captivating backdrops to accompany them, it's disappointing that SteamWorld Quest struggles to find a balance in its difficulty. Each chapter--broken up into small areas filled with either small treasure to collect or groups of enemies to fight--features increasingly varied foes to test your decks against. Despite their changing movesets and elemental defences, most regular enouncters feel too easy, rarely forcing you to consider strategic changes to your constructed decks or active party members. At a point I was simply making changes for the sake of curiosity and not necessity. This can trick you into a false sense of security, encouraging you to focus on only a subset of cards available to each character. This becomes problematic when SteamWorld Quest suddenly introduces daunting and demanding combat scenarios, while giving you few avenues to rectify poor past choices.

These encounters are predominantly made up of SteamWorld Quest's nightmarish boss battles. They are far more challenging than the foes that litter the areas around them, acting as unfair skill checks that ask you to understand your abilities in ways you're not required to elsewhere. Since you can only store a single saved game at a time, it's impossible to go back a handful of hours and better prepare your party, either, locking you into the decisions you've made and forcing you to rapidly rotate though your available options until a combination (hopefully) works. It's frustrating, too, because most of these bosses can feel like they break the rules of combat that all other enemies conform to. They can consistently pull off powerful moves one after the other without the same strict resource requirements you're confined to, bombarding you with damage you can't wrestle with effectively. Given that most of these encounters can be prolonged bouts, it's hard to work up the motivation to try again after a loss.

The process of constructing a deck that works cohesively is as engaging as combat itself.

Outside of its frequent and occasionally rigorous combat encounters, SteamWorld Quest plays it safe. Its narrative is framed as a story being told to characters you might be familiar with from other SteamWorld games, giving it a subtle attachment to the rest of the series. It is a simple, sometimes juvenile tale of a band of misfits coming together and vanquishing an uncomplex force of evil. It retains the same tongue-in-cheek wit of past SteamWorld games, with chuckle-worthy one-liners thrown in throughout. It keeps the narrative light and humorous, even as it eventually explores the purpose of heroes in an age where no one seems to care about society one way or the other. Although SteamWorld Quest falls short of ever saying something meaningful, it does leave the door open for even more tales in the future.

It's difficult to ignore Steamworld Quest's missteps, especially when it transforms itself from a delightful romp through a light-hearted medieval kingdom into a grueling test against unfair enemies. Despite most encounters not pushing you to play with new party configurations, building a powerful deck of moves is still rewarding when you see your clever experiments play out. Quest gives you a lot of complex combinations to play around with while also keeping things approachable enough to not feel daunting. Its uneven difficulty saps some enjoyment out of the otherwise whimsical journey through this new and gorgeous kingdom, but it's still one that is admirably accessible while deep enough to be engaging throughout its 20-hour adventure.

Mortal Kombat 11 Review In Progress

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 13:00

The new big bad in Mortal Kombat is named Kronika, and she's causing a ruckus by messing with time and rewriting history. Characters are getting erased or colliding with their past selves, while alliances are reverting and new ones are being made--it's the kind of chaos that's ripe for conflict. Nothing that happened with Mortal Kombat before really matters anymore; the series is giving itself a clean slate, and not just with the lore in the story. Netherrealm's multifaceted fighting system has been streamlined, and comprehensive tutorials and practice functions are focussed on making sure no matter where you're coming from, you're well-equipped to dive deep into Mortal Kombat 11.

It's hard not to get excited about the story mode in a Netherrealm game given the studio's history of crafting involved narratives, and Mortal Kombat 11 unsurprisingly delivers an entertaining and polished blockbuster-style cinematic experience with its tale of Kronika's time-bending antics. Combat is woven in with a number of cutscenes, though you'll probably spend more time watching well-choreographed action rather than participating. But the story is a great primer for some of the series' more popular characters nonetheless, and the joys of Kronika's time manipulation means that even if you're a passing fan and aren't up-to-date with all of the wacky stuff that's happened in the universe lately, you can still get a kick out of seeing classic versions of familiar faces, who are just as baffled as you about what's happened to their future selves since.

Watching the character interactions between young and old selves are a highlight, and with the exception of a somewhat flat Sonya Blade, the solid performances are endearingly sincere with some unexpected moments of introspection. By the time it ended I was eager for more--more of Johnny Cage being embarrassed by his younger self, more of the bromance between Liu Kang and Kung Lao, the sappy dynamic between parents and children. But the story mode hits that perfect balance of being just enough and not overstaying its welcome. The plot conceits are regularly ridiculous, especially when family members and lovers get into fatal tiffs, but it's a delightfully bombastic and outlandish visual spectacle if nothing else.

Mortal Kombat 11's eclectic roster includes a solid selection of the series' iconic fighters, along with some of the great additions from Mortal Kombat X, like gunslinger Erron Black and the grotesque insectoid D'Vorah. Three brand new characters do their best to help the lineup branch out--Geras is a tanky character with the ability to rewind and manipulate time, Cetrion is an elder god with flashy elemental powers, the Kollector has a wonderfully unsettling, six-armed demonic design--and they all add an inspired diversity to the familiar roster of magical ninjas and military hard-asses. Character variations also help to keep things diverse. A returning concept from Mortal Kombat X, each character can select between different sets of special moves that alter their playstyle. You can now customize these loadouts in MK11, but only two predetermined movesets are acceptable for serious competitive play. Even so, it means there are a few things to consider when picking which fighter to use.

Some key changes streamline the mechanics of MK11, resulting in a fighting system that somehow feels more active and aggressive than its predecessors. The special meter system has been simplified to allow for amplified offensive and defensive maneuvers to be used at almost any time--gone is the idea of needing to hold back and save up two or three bars of a meter to perform a particular kind of technique. Dedicated meters for defensive and offensive techniques, along with rapid recharge rates mean amplified techniques can be used a little more liberally. "Fatal Blows" replace MKX's X-Ray techniques, serving as a last-ditch comeback mechanic that can be activated once per match when your health is nearly depleted, adding a heightened tension when things get down to the wire. Significant block damage discourages you from being overly defensive, while learning the perfect-timing demands of the "flawless block" system is encouraged to mitigate some damage and open up turnabout opportunities. Running and stamina meters have been removed and dash distances feel shorter, honing MK11's focus on always being within striking distance of your opponent. All of these tweaks mean there is rarely a low moment in a Mortal Kombat 11 fight.

If you're new to the series, learning all those intricacies of the fighting system, special moves, and combo strings for characters can be intimidating. Fortunately, Mortal Kombat 11 does a lot to help onboard you to almost all of its concepts. Following the good work seen in Injustice 2, Mortal Kombat 11 features a comprehensive series of fantastic practical tutorials, with everything from teaching you basic attacks to more advanced lessons on managing the ebb and flow of a match, strategies on how to change or maintain the dynamic of a fight (like dealing with corners or projectile spam), and how to approach building your own combos. What's more, there are also a series of tutorials that succinctly break down expert-level concepts, such as one that shows you what frame data is and how it works in clear, visual terms. Not only that, there are lessons on how to interpret that information and use it in a practical scenario--it'll teach you what makes a move "safe" or "unsafe," how to create pressure in a fight, and even how to perform frame traps. It's an impressive resource that doesn't just give you a better understanding of Mortal Kombat 11's systems, but a deeper understanding of fighting game mechanics in general--knowledge that you can take to any other title.

Character-specific tutorials exist, too, and are more than just a simple rundown of all available techniques. These helpful lessons focus on the most useful and practical abilities and combos for a particular character and give you suggestions on when to use them, the pros and cons of doing so, and what you could follow up with. Furthermore, the in-game move lists are incredibly comprehensive, providing all sorts of helpful data for each move's properties, so you can easily discern something like which of your character's moves has the quickest startup. It's valuable information and knowledge which Netherrealm has been building upon in its last few games and is presented at its best in MK11. Of course, if you're the kind of player that couldn't care less about the advanced stuff and just wants to jump in and see blood spilled, Mortal Kombat 11 can certainly be just as entertaining. Predetermined combo strings, flashy special moves, and humorously over-the-top barbarity means that the game is a joy to watch and participate in, whether the players are just messing around or taking it seriously.

In addition to the game's story mode, MK11 sees the return of Klassic Towers, a more straightforward single-player mode where you fight a series of opponents before eventually facing big boss Kronika. But the real meat of the single-player offering is the Towers Of Time, MK11's version of the limited-time ladders seen in other Netherrealm games, which feature unique modifiers that can affect the playing field, combatants, and mechanics. The idea is that the Towers Of Time provide you with an ever-rotating palette of different single-player challenges to take on for various rewards, but the downside is that here, the odds are nearly always stacked against you.

Some modifiers in the Towers Of Time can affect both you and your opponent equally, like a tilting stage that drains the health of whoever is lower. But more often, the challenges I took on featured negative modifiers that solely affected me, which means they felt horribly cruel and unbalanced. No matter how good you think you are at Mortal Kombat (or how bad you think I am), trying to fight an opponent where you're constantly being targeted and shot and frozen in place by devastating lasers from the sky, or being chased by missiles that turn your screen pitch black if one hits you, is a rotten experience. Being the loner in a 2vs1 match, or fighting a much hardier opponent whose attacks can't be interrupted, is more of an exercise in frustration than it is a hearty challenge.

To overcome the more challenging Towers Of Time, MK11 encourages that you make liberal use of "Konsumables," a large variety of limited-use items that you can equip and activate during a fight. These have their own individual properties, whether it be countering a particular modifier effect, or giving you access to an additional ability. The catch is, the way that you obtain these Konsumables is through luck, perhaps earning one through completing other towers, or spending "Koins" you've accumulated from the game's activities to open one of hundreds of randomized chests in the Krypt, MK11's third-person quasi-puzzle-adventure mode designed for unlocking collectables like cosmetics, concept art, and countless other bits and pieces.

So, there's no guarantee you'll have the right item to help you out on a particular tower, and if you don't, it's going to be a steep uphill battle. But in my experience, even if I did have a suitable item, using it really didn't feel like evening the odds. In the example of the aforementioned blinding missiles, using the item to counter the effects of darkness modifiers meant I could only mitigate one or two missiles before the effect wore off, at which point I would have to wait for the item to come off a long cooldown timer and then manually reactivate it in the middle of the fight, which opens me up to severe punishment from my opponent.

I've only seen four days worth of Towers during the pre-release review period, so their behavior and difficulty may well change in the future. I'll continue to monitor the challenge varieties in the Towers Of Time during the week of launch to see whether the feeling of overwhelmingly unbalanced odds continues. While MK11's "Premium" microtransaction store wasn't live during the review period, the reliance on Konsumables to help even the odds in Towers Of Time, as well as the random nature of their acquisition, certainly makes me curious as to how you'll be able to spend the game's virtual currency, "Time Krystals," when the store goes live.

There's another issue in the way that the game handles its customizable gear for each character. Taking cues from Netherrealm's previous release, Injustice 2, each fighter in Mortal Kombat 11 has three interchangeable pieces of equipment that you're able to receive as a reward, level up, and equip with "augments" once you've done so. The problem is, there's not a lot of motivation to care about that stuff at all. With a few exceptions, gear parts are usually small and aren't a focal point of your character model. You're changing out weapons and pieces of flair rather than entire costume pieces--alternate costumes are predetermined and are unlocked through performing activities like Towers Of Time--so there's little motivation to change them up early on, especially when you'll likely have been earning experience on the default set you've already got equipped. Accruing experience to level up gear for specific characters is a slow process, especially if you like to use multiple fighters; the augments you can equip drop rarely, and the buffs they add for single-player activities are mostly meager. In Injustice 2, even if you didn't really care about the abilities a piece of gear had, they were at least interesting cosmetic parts that you could mix and match to customize a character in your own way for competitive play. Gear in MK11 by comparison just doesn't feel as interesting or meaningful to toy around with.

MK11 also features a range of online multiplayer modes, including ranked and casual matchmaking, as well as private options like lobbies and the ability to practice with a friend. I'll be testing the performance of these modes over the next week once the game is widely available to the public. Additionally, GameSpot was not provided copies of Mortal Kombat 11 on PC or Nintendo Switch during the review period, and I'll be aiming to spend some time with those versions of the game--the PC release of Mortal Kombat X was certainly not without issues, and I'm curious to see how the game performs in the Switch's handheld mode. This review will remain in-progress until I've had adequate time to get a feel of these aspects, on top of keeping an eye on the Towers Of Time.

MK11 isn't just a sequel for series fans and Netherrealm devotees, it's a gateway into the realm of fighting games for anyone who has a passing interest in watching ruthless warriors beat each other silly. Streamlined mechanics keep the act of fighting furiously exciting no matter what your skill level, and comprehensive tutorials encourage you to dig into the nitty-gritty. There's a diverse roster of interesting characters and playstyles, and the story mode is an entertaining romp. The unfulfilling approaches to the game's dynamic single-player content and progression may feel like they've totally whiffed (at least at this early stage), but Mortal Kombat 11 hits where it matters.

Katana Zero Review - Slow-Motion Samurai

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 15:00

The neon-soaked hallways and dirty streets of Katana Zero do a great job of sucking you into its broken world. Gangsters operate unhindered as society is still reeling from a devastating war, one whose loss has littered the streets with homeless war veterans and bars with resentful and drunken citizens looking for a fight. You are that fight--a ruthless sword-wielding assassin with the ability to slow down time--and Katana Zero gives you delicately designed scenarios to slice and dice your way through. Its abrupt ending is an unwelcome surprise, but the riveting action is complemented by an intelligently presented narrative with a variety of captivating themes that is difficult to pull away from.

Katana Zero puts you in the shoes of a nameless assassin haunted by the fractured misdeeds from the past war. This war forms the backbone of Katana Zero's central mystery, which does take time to unravel. What starts out as straightforward assassination missions ordered by a shadowy organization slowly unfurls to encapsulate themes of post-traumatic stress, war crimes, and government killings. This plays out across multiple acts, comprised of small side-scrolling stages containing violent and thoughtful combat throughout.

Genetic experimentation and drug use are central to both Katana Zero's story and gameplay. Thanks to a steady supply of a blue serum, you're able to augment your simple sword slashes with the ability to slow down time. This lets you pull off some incredibly stylish maneuvers and experiment with a malleable dynamic to the otherwise straight-forward combat. Slow-motion rolls can be combined with precise movement to quickly close distances, and your sword is not just for close-quarter slashing--it can be used to perfectly time a bullet deflection back to its sender. When combined with stage-specific items that can be used as long-range projectiles and security systems that can be transformed from a deterrent into an environmental weapon, Katana Zero doesn't struggle to keep its combat exciting.

It helps that each stage is thoughtfully compact given how dangerously fragile you are. A single hit will send you back to the beginning of a stage, with fast respawns making the transition almost instant. This not only avoids the sting of detrimental progress loss, but also gets you back into the engrossing action quickly. There are a few stages that feel excessively long and end up being frustrating, but they're thankfully few and far between.

The variety of enemies keeps each encounter from feeling repetitive, gently introducing more dangerous foes that will force you to change up your comforting strategies. Enemies with shields will push you away before swiftly firing at you on the ground, while knife-wielding gangsters can stagger you and delay your attacks for a brief (but deadly) moment. The ways levels combine these different enemies turns each of them into clever combat puzzles, where your twitchy instincts need to be supplemented by thoughtful planning and careful consideration of who to target first.

Katana Zero doesn't shy away from telling its story through scenes of unsettling torture and vivid violence, yet it successfully contrasts this with delicately quiet character moments and some heartfelt relationships that help ground a protagonist that would otherwise be impossible to empathize with. It works incredibly well thanks to a creative approach to character conversations, which are often just as important as your violent exploits outside of them. Instead of just being given choices for responses, conversations allow you to interrupt characters to alter both the tone and direction of the scene. Characters react intelligently to your manners during an exchange, expressing disgust at your audacity to cut them off or surprise at your unexpected courtesy.

Depending on how you respond, certain small narrative changes can take place too. In one instance I found myself pretending to love anime to convince a hotel receptionist to let me pass, which later helped me avoid the police as she corroborated my alibi. The same conversation played out differently the second time, as my short temper with the same receptionist led her to turn on me when getting questioned about my blood-soaked clothing. Small diversions like this don't have an impact on the trajectory of the main story, and there are a handful of scenarios where you'll be forced into a specific response in order to progress. But Katana Zero mostly handles your branching conversational decisions with grace, eloquently incorporating them into small but inconsequential changes to its excellently written dialogue.

Each character moment lands thanks to the sublime pixel artwork. There's an immense amount of detail packed into each sprite, bringing the colorful yet distressing world around you to life with its sheer variety. Character sprites are the most impressive, featuring delicate animation that lends a lot of emotion to each conversation and story beat. These extend to the thoughtful effects applied to simple dialogue bubbles, which use a combination of flashing colors, moving parts, and aggressive screen shake to allow important interactions to hit hard. Katana Zero doesn't just use its retro-inspired style to pull on nostalgic strings. It elevates the style entirely with a sense of depth and detail that is difficult not to appreciate.

Katana Zero doesn't shy away from telling its story through scenes of unsettling torture and vivid violence, yet it successfully contrasts this with delicately quiet character moments and some heartfelt relationships.

The real pity is that despite its slick presentation and enthralling dialogue, Katana Zero's story just doesn't wrap up in a satisfying way. It starts introducing its central themes about halfway through and only increases in momentum from there, seemingly building to an enticing climax. But it swerves unexpectedly at the end to reveal that this entry is only the first chapter in a larger tale. After four or so hours you're left with a number of unhandled narrative threads and an unsatisfying conclusion, which dampens the exciting momentum that was building up. It's a deflating and abrupt end to the proceedings, with no promise of more to come in the future.

The uncertain future of the story that Katana Zero so brilliantly sets up is concerning, but that shouldn't deter you from diving into this compelling introductory chapter. Its combat provides an exciting challenge that tests both strategy and reflex, while also giving you clever abilities to make it as stylish as possible. The narrative contextualization of both your abilities and role within Katana Zero's world is expertly written, with a clever dialogue system letting you inject personality into character interactions. Katana Zero is bloody and brutal, but it's also a heartfelt tale that you shouldn't overlook lightly.

Falcon Age Review - High Flying

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 01:30

Having an animal retrieve something at your command is one of the great joys of being a pet owner. It's difficult to put into words. My girlfriend's daschund hardly listens and doesn't know any tricks, but when you ask him to fetch his plum-sized orange ball, he finds it, wherever it is, and brings it to your feet, tail wagging delightedly. Falcon Age, a first-person action-adventure game for PlayStation VR, understands the special fellowship that exists between a person and their pet, and it expresses beautifully the trust and affection that caring for an animal can make you feel. Besides robust combat and fine crafting, it captures that simple, precious thrill of playing fetch--and captures it so well that, after a few hours in the company of this bird, you may feel you've adopted a new pet.

Falcon Age places in your charge a baby falcon whose mother is killed protecting it, and over the course of a roughly four-hour campaign you feed it, train it, nurture it, lead it into battle, and otherwise act as its full-time caretaker. This can be done conventionally, on a television and with a DualShock 4, or in virtual reality, with a PSVR headset and a pair of Move controllers (or in VR with a DualShock, if you so prefer). Falcon Age was designed expressly to be played in virtual reality, though, so the traditional, non-VR gameplay feels like something of an afterthought. It's adequate in two dimensions with familiar first-person controls, but the game's best qualities are appreciable only with the headset on and the Move controllers in your hands. If you want to really bond with your bird, you need to be able to reach out and touch it.

You play as Ara, one of the few humans left on a planet ravaged by robot colonizers. As the game opens, Ara is imprisoned, forced to follow a monotonous daily loop of "reeducation" in the form of morning quizzes and hard labor mining ore by pickaxe outside. Soon enough, she escapes, and the story follows her efforts to adopt the ancient traditions of her near-extinct people while fighting alongside the scrappy resistance that aims to take the planet back from its unwelcome invaders. Interestingly, the story begins near what seems to be the end of the colonization; the planet has already been exhaustively ransacked for resources, and as we arrive it looks long-since despoiled. The air of late-stage devastation--evident in every bleak vista and arid valley--makes fresh a premise that might otherwise feel too familiar.

It also makes clear the game's politics, which are as central to Falcon Age as the bird is. The background of the story--a sprawling, rapacious colonial superpower ransacks a planet of its valuables, strong-arming the natives into wildly unjust obedience--is obviously meant to suggest certain real-world analogues, and it's hard not to keep the historical parallels in mind when hearing this tale from the perspective of the oppressed. Even the falcon is poignant here; you're told early on that falconry is part of the traditions of the native population, rapidly disappearing under tyrannical rule. It's a simple parable, but it's relevant, and it lends the game a seriousness that belies the impression of a game about an adorable bird.

As you and your falcon make your way through the desolate landscape, attacking robot outposts and learning to practice farming on the recaptured soil, you discover encampments, encounter other survivors, and, in keeping with the demands of an adventure game, meet merchants with things for you to buy and people with errands for you to complete. The world itself feels well-realized and intriguingly stark, as you chart vast plains of barren rock depleted of verdure and pitted with fixtures of sleek, ominous steel. The conversations you have with its inhabitants, on the other hand, tend jarringly slangy and sarcastic, with dialogue that clangs as oddly careless. Your hero, in particular, often talks like an angsty teenager, with options to sass in practically every exchange with other people. The snarky one-liners struck me as totally inappropriate to the setting.

Communication with your feathered friend is, thankfully, much more natural--perhaps because it's entirely unspoken. For your troubles, it's at your command. The mechanics are simple, modeled on the basic techniques of falconry. Your bird's default state is airborne, circling the sky above you. Bringing a fist to your lips calls it to you, and raising a hand invites it to land on your wrist. While perched, it can be fed, stroked, played with, or tended to if wounded--more on that later. The Move controllers are very responsive to even subtle movements, and the bird AI is sharp enough that I almost never had trouble getting it to follow my commands or fly to me when needed. It feels like a natural extension of your own body in an elegant, smoothly integrated way.

You can dress your bird, equip it with items and armour, and direct it toward points of interest in the environment before you. Sometimes this takes the form of a kind of problem-solving, as in certain AI-companion puzzle games such as The Last Guardian. A drawbridge out of reach can be lowered for use if you direct your falcon to cut the string holding it aloft, for instance. Other times it's a matter of getting along as partners in the wild. Your falcon will hunt animals, pick fruit from trees, or collect bits of ore for you if so instructed; stronger creatures, such as big armoured beasts who burrow in the sand, you can tackle together, taking turns striking and jockeying for advantage. While you are bereft of beak or talons, you are equipped with an electric baton and whip, which isn't too shabby. You may have to whip plates of shell off the back of a lumbering animal to expose a weak point where your falcon can swoop in.

It's at robot basecamps that the hunt becomes a full-blown battle--and it's here, too, where the surprising depth of the game's combat system reveals itself. The basic strategy involves tagging enemies and standing back while your animal does his thing, but in more challenging skirmishes you're obliged to be an active, nimble participant. Your falcon can pin certain enemies in place for you to attack their weaknesses; it also relies on you, in some cases, to attack first, and it's enormously satisfying to work out the right approach to a new situation. At their most complex, these are battles of wits and reflexes--a challenge that's gratifying rather than frustrating, thanks to precise, intuitive controls with the Move setup, especially with free roam on.

Like deflecting a bullet with a knife in Superhot, looking down the sights of a sniper rifle in Killing Floor Incursion, or slashing a block in half in Beat Saber, interacting with your bird in Falcon Age has a tactile pleasure that is truly satisfying. The bird itself, meanwhile, looks great, behaves believably, and feels on the whole like a coherent, fully realized character; more than a sidekick or ally, you come to think of it as a companion, like a cat or dog at home. The highest compliment I can think to pay Falcon Age is that it evoked the same feeling I get caring for my real-life pets--including the real wince of bone-deep alarm I felt anytime my bird was at risk of injury. This is about much more than a cute animal. It's about a bond, and one Falcon Age nails.

Pathway Review - Pulp Friction

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 03:00

When you're struggling, Pathway sends you a dog to help out. It's that kind of game. You might have seen your squad massacred in the North African desert, but look! Here's a cute puppy called Donut. He's even got sharp teeth and the "Anti-Fascist" character trait that means he does +20% damage against Nazis. In moments like these, Pathway picks you back up and says maybe you can still complete the mission after all. Pathway is generous like that.

Heavily indebted to the genre of mid-20th-century pulp adventure of which Indiana Jones is the obvious cultural touchstone, Pathway depicts a world where the Nazis are plundering ancient artifacts to harness their powers in occult experiments and so must obviously be stopped by an international band of mercenaries. It's a light, breezy, knock-about game of turn-based combat that understandably always wants you to succeed at killing Nazis, with or without a surprise canine companion. However, it lacks tactical depth and, while killing Nazis is a noble pursuit, its moral stance is less sure-footed when it steps into the territory of tired colonialist tropes.

The core of Pathway is in its XCOM-style combat. Every encounter is preceded by a planning phase in which you place each member of your squad onto the battlefield. Smart players can take advantage of this head start by positioning their squad to, say, rush an exposed enemy on the first turn. In an early sign of Pathway's charitable spirit, you get this planning phase even when your squad has been ambushed and, unlike in XCOM, you'll never see an enemy already in cover on the first turn of a fight.

During combat, each squad member can typically perform separate two actions--move and shoot, heal and reload, or some combination thereof--and much of the time an encounter consists of outflanking an enemy to get off a shot at them around whatever cover they happen to be hiding behind. Characters can also perform special actions depending on the weapon they carry and, in some cases, the skills they possess. Pistols, for example, allow for a special double-shot action that can target two enemies, while characters require specific skills to use items like grenades or medkits in combat.

And that's about as deep as it gets, unfortunately. Aside from minor variations in clip size and range, all the guns function in much the same fashion and can drop most enemies in one to two shots. As a result, a character with an assault rifle plays no differently to one with a shotgun. The only meaningfully different weapon is the knife, not merely the game's only melee weapon but the weapon with the highest damage potential. Since there's no "zone of control" or "attack of opportunity" mechanic (outside a special action reserved for sniper rifles), it's perfectly feasible to run right up to enemies, jump over their cover and attack from the adjacent square. In fact, it's often the most effective approach, no matter how silly it looks or tactically uninteresting it becomes.

Fights can still be challenging, even on the default normal difficulty. A way of evening the odds is to have the enemy greatly outnumber you. Unimaginative, sure, but it gets the job done. At other times, some enemies will have access to special abilities that you don't, while others can move further than your squad. These factors create situations where you're encouraged to think several turns in advance, coordinate attacks between your squad members, and time your limited special actions.

But still, most of the time you're not really feeling that pressure. Most of the time you're just moving and shooting, moving and shooting, with the odd moving and knifing thrown in. Where the lack of depth is truly exposed is in the slim variety of actions on display, a failure that can be attributed to the derivative nature of each character's skill tree. Indeed, when leveling up characters don't earn new abilities, they merely improve existing ones; they'll boost that chance to for a critical hit, perhaps, or beef up their HP. True, you can unlock the ability for a character to use an additional weapon, so that they can now carry a shotgun as well as a pistol, but it's hard to get excited about that when, again, weapons don't function in any meaningfully different way.

The lack of variety extends to the maps on which the battles take place. There is barely a handful of scenarios--Nazi camp, desert village, underground temple--and you're served up a seemingly randomly-generated version assembled from stock parts each time you enter combat. A benefit of this approach is that you never know exactly what you're going to get, but on the flip side, it means that none of the individual battlefields are ever memorable and they all end up blurring into one by the end of a campaign. That's not to say the arenas are poorly designed; they're serviceable and little more.

Linking one encounter to the next is a campaign structure that sees you plotting a pathway across a network of nodes. At each node, you hit a narrative event that could be anything from following some Nazis into a mysterious mineshaft to finding an oasis at which you can rest. Sometimes you might end up in a fight, sometimes you might find some treasure or a trader with whom you can buy and sell, and sometimes nothing happens at all. It's a bit like FTL, really, except instead of zipping across space you're driving a jeep across the Sahara.

These narrative moments are fun and typically well-written. They often allow for choices that can lead to surprising results and occasionally let you utilize the skills of one of the squad characters you've opted to take on the journey. But they do a poor job of depicting the African people whose countries, from Morocco and Egypt and beyond, have been invaded by the Germans. The locals you meet are helpless simpletons, peaceful goat herders at best and, at worst, cowards hiding in ruined villages and collapsed caves until you wander by to hopefully rescue them. These poor people can't do anything until saved by a globetrotting band of wealthy adventurers.

Further, throughout the entire game, you're collecting treasure, much of it ancient religious and cultural relics of the people you're ostensibly helping. Literally the only thing to do with this treasure is sell it to fund the purchase of more fuel for your jeep and ammunition for your guns. Retrieve an ancient inscribed vase from the altar room of a secret temple? That goes for $250 at the next trader stop. The suggested idea is you're keeping these precious relics out of Nazi hands, but surely there's a better option than looting them for yourself and then selling them back to the people you stole it from.

Pathway looks and sounds great, it nails the pulpy attitude it's aiming for, and, of course, it's always fun to shoot Nazis. But the more I played, the more the cracks started to show, the more samey it all became, and the more uncomfortable some aspects of its design made me feel. I still enjoyed much of my time with Pathway. There's a pleasure to be had in both its aesthetic choices and the frictionless grind of its structure, but I came away wanting more--more tactical meat in its combat and a more thoughtful approach to the way it chose to represent its world.