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The Pedestrian Review - A Sign Of The Times

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 17:00

It’s human nature to be curious about what seemingly mundane and inanimate things get up to while we’re not looking. Such thinking spawned mythos like fairies in people’s gardens, borrowers, and the Toy Story saga, and now we come to street signs. What do those little human figures get up to when no-one is around? If The Pedestrian is to be believed, the answer is 2D platforming, solving lots and lots of puzzles, and taking control of electrical devices in an attempt to escape their confines.

In taking control of a human figure (either with or without a dress) your adventure in The Pedestrian is mostly confined to various street signs, blueprints, and other 2D surfaces. In the background, blurred into obscurity, are the beautiful 3D landscapes of the world they exist in. You can run, jump, and climb with light platforming maneuvers to get to new areas, but the crux of The Pedestrian's puzzling comes from the ability to zoom out and rearrange the positions of the 2D signs and flat surfaces, creating doorways and new paths. Once you regain control of the person symbol, you can then use these new doorways to access the other signs to complete puzzles and move forward. Rearranging the playing field adds a layer of complexity that will have you thinking about obstacles in two different ways for the majority of the experience.

There’s a satisfaction in ordering the panels of a level in your own way, which then allows you to jump back in and complete the puzzle. The process is not totally freeform, as doors and ladders on one panel will only connect to those on another if they are properly aligned, and there are often obstacles in the way that might impede a certain way of doing things. However, there's definitely a very godlike feel to the control it gives you. Occasionally my solutions felt so chaotic that I wondered if they were the intended direction; other times the puzzles felt intentionally crafted to lead me to certain results. But there is overall a nice feeling that you are figuring out things on your own, in your own way.

Extra difficulty lies in the fact that you can’t make most changes to the arrangement of your 2D platforming world without resetting other things--activated switches will deactivate, and key items will be lost, so you need to go in with a plan. Sometimes resetting is necessary, especially if you hit a dead-end, but later you'll be able to freeze some signs to prevent them from resetting, keeping the elements there active for your next attempt. The concept moves you to start thinking about puzzles in a way that's almost akin to time travel. Having to manage a puzzle board full of different segments filled with switches, keys, and laser beams, among other things, and then literally having to manage time and space to reach a goal provides some surprisingly challenging and satisfying scenarios.

The Pedestrian serves out these scenarios in bite-sized pieces. Even when presented with a larger puzzle, it’s still broken down into several smaller sections, which certainly makes them easier to comprehend. However, because of this structure, The Pedestrian can begin to feel a little too samey, especially when the reward for completing a puzzle is almost always more puzzles. It works very well as a game to spend half an hour with and then return to later, rather than slog out the whole four-hour duration in one unending sign barrage. I’d often find myself leaving it due to puzzle fatigue or being a little stuck, then come back to it later with renewed inspiration to immediately solve the troublesome puzzle, ready for a little more.

The introduction of new concepts and escalation in difficulty are gently paced, and only when new elements are first added does it really ever feel daunting--some of the puzzles I spent the longest on were just working out exactly how a new mechanic worked or could be used since the game doesn’t often provide much direction. Instead, the Pedestrian then gives you plenty of opportunities to explore and understand new features in subsequent levels and encourages you to work things out for yourself. The initial frustration is always made up for by the enhanced understanding and satisfaction of working it out on your own. It also ensured I completely grasped all the concepts, which allowed me to then solve increasingly difficult puzzles I’m sure I would have been stumped by otherwise. The payoff for making me feel stupid for one puzzle allowed me to feel incredibly smart for many other harder challenges.

There’s a real freshness to The Pedestrian's take on puzzle-platforming and world manipulation. The constant introduction of new, sometimes surprisingly complex ideas means there’s enough to keep you moving through the nicely segmented challenges. The levels themselves can be quite repetitive in both look and feel, making the game tiresome during long play sessions, but it lends itself well to short-burst experiences and never lets you feel too lost. The Pedestrian executes its charming premise well, with just enough complexity to keep your brain pleasantly stimulated.

Through the Darkest of Times Review - The Good Fight

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 17:00

I push past a group of brownshirts threatening a Jewish shopkeeper. They're holding placards that read "Don't buy from the Jews!" and accusing the owner of being a parasite on the German community. The woman inside cringes as I enter the shop and warns me the men outside won't like it if I buy anything. But I insist and hand her my grocery list. At the end of the exchange I have three dialogue options: "There will be better times ahead," "I'm so sorry," and "I don't know what to say." All of them feel devastating and inadequate.

When you're one person trying to resist the Nazi juggernaut in 1930s Germany, your best course of action is not at all obvious; indeed, anything you choose to do can often feel futile. There were so many occasions during Through the Darkest of Times that I questioned whether I was doing the right thing or if anything I did could even make a difference. Frequently, I simply didn't know what to say. All I knew was that I had to keep fighting, keep surviving, keep resisting, and hope that it would be enough.

Through the Darkest of Times is billed as a historical resistance strategy game and plays out akin to a kind of narrative boardgame as you lead a band of as many as five freedom fighters against the Reich. Its story begins in 1933 as Hitler's appointment as Chancellor confirms the Nazi party's seizure of power. The four-act structure skips ahead to 1936 and the Berlin Olympics, to the occupation of France and invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and to the final months of the war, before a brief epilogue in 1946, a year after the Allied victory. The time periods it visits chart an emotional journey that feels authentic: Disbelief gives way to anger and fear as the truth about the Nazis' goals is revealed; suffering and grief lead to the steeling of a righteous fury; and finally, glimpses of cautious optimism are tempered by an uncertain future.

Each turn you play your hand, as it were, assigning resistance members to undertake missions across a map of Berlin. After ending a turn you see the results come in: Charlotte managed to get those leaflets printed; Arthur collected donations down at the factory but may have been spotted by the authorities; Gerhard was arrested while painting slogans on the campus walls. You're managing assets and resources--we need two people for this job, a truck and some explosives for that job--and getting the logistics in order becomes the primary focus. Always the director of operations, never the operative.

Strategic decisions are forced through scarcity. A 20-turn limit is applied during each act, which is nowhere near enough time to do every available mission. Major missions often have plenty of prerequisites, too. If you want to eventually bust a group of prisoners out of a torture camp, you're going to need some brownshirt uniforms, and to get those you're first going to have to do a recon mission. Constant is the pressure to stop and think about what you realistically have the time and resources to accomplish.

Throwing a spanner in the works, certain actions can also trigger new missions that might only be available for a handful of turns. Can you afford to spare someone to tackle a side mission without disrupting your main goal? Meanwhile, you're now running low on funds to get those books printed, so Angelika is probably going to have to ignore that meeting with a British Secret Service contact and instead try to steal new funds from the SA, the Nazi militia. The decisions swiftly pile up over the course of 20 turns and with them comes a growing anxiety that there simply aren't enough turns to get anything done.

At times I felt like I was drowning. Aside from a few narrative threads that run through the whole game, and your early choices flowing on accordingly, the start of each act essentially resets the strategic layer. You keep your recruited members and their gained experience, but all your resources--your money, all that paper and paint you'd bought, that precious intel, the medicine, gasoline, bicycles, and so on--are returned to square one. So you've got to build it all up again. With each reset, and, indeed, even on a second playthrough, I'd begin with a clear head, pick one specific goal and tell myself that was my sole focus. But every time, without fail, by halfway through I'd find myself pulled this way and that, only able to partially complete a few mission chains but never managing to pull off something big. It's immensely frustrating, that feeling of there simply not being enough hours in the day to get it all done. Looming over it, the knowledge of all that partial progress going to waste and ultimately counting for nought.

It wasn't just me feeling this way. The members of my resistance movement, as they met up each week to discuss their next moves, would also find themselves experiencing a similar sensation of despair. Peter would fret about whether they were doing enough. Juliane would worry that the situation was hopeless. I found it reassuring that I wasn't the only one struggling to find the motivation to continue.

Away from the dry mechanics of the strategic layer, it was during these narrative interludes in between turns that I truly connected with the plight of the German people. One day Rosalinde found out her brother had joined the SA. She was despondent, but I was able to encourage her to take advantage of this and get information out of him. A few weeks later she raised fears that her brother now suspected her of being a resistance member and I had a choice: tell her to leave the group for her own safety or force her stay. The brother had inadvertently given us valuable intel, but I'd grown to care for Rosalinde and couldn't bear the thought of her being discovered. Reluctantly, I asked her to leave.

On a second playthrough, I decided to run a more ruthless ship, to be the type of revolutionary who would stop at nothing. So when Lotte told me she was pregnant and wanted out in order to protect her imminent child, I demanded she remained with us. Morale in the group plummeted and, one day, Lotte just never showed up for the resistance meeting. Later I discovered she'd lost her baby and fled. It stung, of course, though I was able to coldly characterise her exit as a betrayal of the cause, thanks to the flexibility of the dialogue choices offered during these scenes.

Given the particulars of the premise--you're absolutely not doing anything other than fighting back against the Nazis here--I was pleasantly surprised to see how different choices I'd made across two playthroughs could shape two such wildly different personalities. The strategic layer seems readymade for replays, as you strive for efficiency to reach those end goals, but I was initially worried that the story scenes wouldn't withstand repetition. To an extent, that is the case, and on my second playthrough I found myself fast-clicking through conversations I'd already seen. But making different choices allowed me to interpret our struggle in a new light, and as a result, grow attached to a second collection of otherwise randomly-generated characters.

The tone is bleak, as you'd expect, almost unrelenting in its horror. A trip to a camp where the Nazis have rounded up Berlin's Romani population is grim, especially when you witness children being separated from their parents by brownshirts and taken away for unexplained medical reasons. I met a Russian woman who had escaped a massacre on the Eastern Front and made it to Berlin. She told me of the German army's scorched-earth approach in the east, of the mass graves and hangings of Russian civilians. It was heart-wrenching and, at times, almost too much to handle.

Yet there is some respite. Angelika got married and we celebrated with a party in the park. We managed to track down Monica's missing husband and reunite her family. Even as I fled to an underground train station to find shelter from an air raid, I was able to stop and help a Jewish man who was trying to hide the star on his coat that would preclude him from accessing the shelter. Such moments of community, of kindness, of hope that there's still something worth fighting for, are peppered throughout Through the Darkest of Times, seemingly appearing just when the desperation of the strategic layer had left me at my lowest ebb.

The twin aspects of the game could be better integrated. The narrative scenes are vividly realized despite the minimal presentation, often profoundly moving, and filled with choices that carry weight that can be felt weeks and occasionally years later. But outside the story interludes, there's a frustrating lack of specificity. You distribute "leaflets" and paint "slogans" and smuggle "books" and recover "intel," but none of it is described in any detail. The content is void on the strategic side, its components reduced to mechanical symbols. True, there is some overlap--a story scene might prompt a new mission on the map--but it's all one-way traffic, and your choices in one sphere are of disappointingly little consequence to the other.

Through the Darkest of Times paints what feels like an accurate portrait of life in Nazi Germany. Cherry-picking major events, like the Reichstag Fire or the opening ceremony of the Olympics, it convincingly places you at the scene, putting you in the shoes of a regular German trying to come to grips with how one person--or even five people--can respond in the presence of evil. It depicts everyday life, and everyday people, both those seduced by ideology and those finding the strength to rally against it. I'm not sure it offers any answers--indeed, I suspect my frustrations with futility were intentional. One person alone can't change the world. But that's no reason not to fight for it.

Kunai Review - Seeing Red

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 14:00

Kunai's premise is a familiar one. Humankind has reached the pinnacle of technological advancement and brought about their own downfall, inviting an army of AI-controlled robots to nearly wipe out all life on earth. A small resistance of remaining humans and conflict-averse droids begin fighting back, but without a miracle, that battle is all but lost lost. Tabby, a cheerfully emoting tablet in ninja robes, is that miracle.

Kunai is both outlandish and endearing, starting squarely with its odd protagonist. Tabby--a dexterous tablet in a world dominated by robots with CRT-like heads and barely any traces of humankind--is on a quest to extinguish an AI uprising and prevent humanity's extinction. Kunai's world is fragmented into varied areas, giving you multiple paths to explore in its opening hours, with your growing toolset opening up new avenues to explore as you progress. Kunai features the familiar DNA of action-platformers and Metroidvanias, combining satisfying platforming and engrossing combat to great effect.

You start out with just a sword, and you can use it to quickly carve through the metal exteriors of robot foes and stylishly protect yourself from projectiles with a flurry of swings. You have a generous jump, too, that allows you to attack from above and continuously bounce between enemies after each swipe. Getting into a rhythm of bouncing off one enemy and directly onto the next while not missing an attack in between is both easy to grasp and satisfying to pull off. Kunai's combat scenarios generally feature only a handful of enemies at a time, too, giving you ample space to feel like a kickass ninja consistently.

Adding to your airborne maneuverability early on are the kunai, a pair of grappling hooks equipped in each hand that let you swing around environments with ease. Augmenting standard movement with the aerial freedom of your kunai injects combat with a captivating sense of flow. It's effortless to chain together swings to maintain airtime while bouncing between enemies to attack.

A variety of layouts from screen to screen challenge you to use your tools creatively. More open expanses let you freely hop around, but don't offer many points for you to hook your kunai into. Cramped pathways limit your aerial maneuverability, encouraging you to deflect more projectiles and choose your attacks wisely. Each area throws in unique elements that supplement this--the dense forest features vines that you can use to climb on while mines feature fragile walls that crumble if you swing from them--keeping platforming and combat entertaining throughout.

You're free to explore the multiple areas of Kunai's large map as far as your equipment will take you. Each new item you find doubles as both a weapon and a tool to navigate the world in new ways. Your dual machine guns, for example, act as both a powerful medium range attack and a creative means to float over large gaps, since you can use downward fire to sustain your jump for as long as you have bullets to fire. Each new item's use is also easy to understand from the get-go, calling to mind locked doors or obstructed pathways that can now be cleared with your new abilities, making it easy to decide where to push onto next.

Each new item expands your limited moveset in exciting ways, but navigating to each specific part of the map where they might be useful becomes taxing quickly. Individual segments in Kunai's areas offer up enough variety in their construction to encourage different combat strategies, but they don't coalesce in a way that makes navigating the same spaces as interesting on return visits. In some cases coming to the end of a critical path and reaching its respective goal is deflated by the realisation that you need to navigate all the way back to where you started, sometimes without anything new in your arsenal to shake up the return journey. It's disappointing to brush through an area with a fine comb only to be contacted over radio and redirected without any real narrative progression, especially when there are no fast-travel systems to alleviate the backtracking.

This is exacerbated in some later stages in which it can be unclear where your next objective lies, with all possible paths requiring a tool you don't yet have. The aimless wandering is especially tiresome because poking around Kunai's world isn't incredibly rewarding either, even with optional chests hidden throughout each area for you to uncover. Some contain cosmetic hats for some visual variety while others hold valuable in-game currency for upgrades, but it's the few featuring parts of a health upgrade that are worth seeking out. The issue is that the majority of the chests lie at the end of passageways hidden entirely from view, only revealing themselves when you accidentally brush close to their entrance and cause the textures obfuscating them to fade away. It's a disappointingly basic way to hide them, making your discoveries feel more lucky than well deduced.

Although navigating each area multiple times isn't as fun as it should be, the gorgeous visual shifts between them are a delight. Kunai's limited color palette is used to accentuate its varied areas with subtlety. Each of the areas features different muted colours for their backdrop, such as the flat greys and dim blues of its opening factory and the bright greens of its AI-infested forests. The variation makes shifting between each area not only clear but visually delightful too. While most colors are muted, bright reds are especially prominent. Not only does it help make enemies and points of importance stand out from the background, it imbues each slash of your sword and subsequent connecting strike with a powerful punch that bathes the screen in sharp, contrasting red hues. It works in tandem with a well-measured screenshake effect that gives Kunai's combat a stylish look in motion.

This sense of style doesn't transition, however, to Kunai's limited story. It sets up an initial premise and gives you an understanding of what you're fighting for, but doesn't leave much for you to uncover about its world beyond that. The only avenue for learning more about Kunai's world is through limited but surprisingly entertaining interactions with other resistance robots. Usually denoted by their chunky CRT monitor heads and calming blue shading, these side characters add some levity to the setting by making light of disastrous events with silly puns and small, humorous anecdotes. Although there are other important named characters that are meant to add more to the narrative, they don't stand out as much as each brief interaction you have when arriving at a new camp.

It's disappointing that there isn't more to dig into when it comes down to Kunai's set dressing, especially when it's paired with such a striking visual style and engrossing combat. Kunai's level design pushes you to keep adapting while affording you the space to finish off a group of enemies with a series of pinpoint grappling hook swings, precise double jumps, and intelligently integrated swings of your sword. Kunai loses some of its momentum far too frequently, but when it hits a balance between its engrossing combat and satisfying platforming, it's difficult to put down.

Kentucky Route Zero Review - Where The Streets Have No Name

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 19:41

There's always something deeply unnerving about a gas station at night. Depending on the road, it can be the only point of light for miles and miles, and beyond is nothing but an infinite abyss of curves and strange noises in between you and your destination. That Kentucky Route Zero's very first image is a gas station at twilight is apt. The game knocks you off-kilter in the first seconds, placing you in the last fading glow of sunlight before nightfall on a threadbare stretch of road. Even when the game's at its most peaceful and gentle, it never quite feels stable or permanent, like everything good, bad, strange, or affecting that happens in the next five acts could disappear into the darkness at any moment.

That sense of impermanence is such a crucial part of Kentucky Route Zero, more so now that it's a complete work with a full arc and definitive ending. Beyond the various oddities and nonsensical moments, at its heart it's a game about American progress and the corpses it leaves in its wake, a pensive Wizard of Oz-like point-and-click adventure through a country whose yellow brick road is built on futile hopes and unanswered prayers. Its version of Kentucky is a nothing-place of American dreams breathing their last, if they're not already dead. Its protagonist, a grizzled, tired delivery truck driver named Conway, is headed in the same direction.

Conway ends up here making his final delivery for his friend Lysette's antique store, after which he intends to retire. However, the road to the delivery address on 5 Dogwood Drive takes him through the Zero, an abstract Kentucky highway where, it seems, all things obsolete--people, places, objects--come to make residence. The Zero is, essentially, America's purgatory, a place that looks like cubist paintings of Silent Hill, and sounds like detuned radios and the white noise of old TVs. Hiding behind all of it are old creaky workers lamenting that they never earned enough to move away and coal miners crushed to death after giving their blood and sweat to a corporation they will never stop owing money to. Their stories are underscored by soul-shaking music that only the wrinkled and withered remember or perform. Every major beat of Conway's journey is punctuated by American requiems, ranging from mournful bluegrass elegies about people time forgot, sung by shadowy riverfolk, to ethereal love songs so powerful the skies literally open up over the stage to accept them.

You navigate the Zero--in all of its fever-dream weirdness--primarily through dialogue trees and old-school adventure game mechanics. It's fairly linear when it comes to the particulars of making progress; either a tiny box will come up at your destination telling you to click on it to proceed, or you can simply run through every option until you proceed anyway. But staying on task is harder than it seems. Every area has one interaction that will advance the story, but there are a dozen other objects to examine, a dozen other NPC stories to hear, or a dozen other switches and buttons and context-sensitive areas to walk that shift the perspective of the entire area. All that added potential context really takes effort to ignore.

In the first area of the game, Conway has a talk with a friendly gas station attendant about the road, about old age, about poetry, even. Then the power goes out, and Conway has to make his way into the gas station's mineshaft-turned-basement after the lights suddenly shut off. There, while flipping the circuit breakers, you come across and invisibly assist in grabbing some fallen dice for what appears to be a D&D game in progress in another dimension. Why, exactly, is there a D&D game happening in another dimension? You never quite know--there are, admittedly, some long threads to pull on in this game that lead nowhere, and although that's deliberate, it is occasionally frustrating--but that deceptively simple task is what passes for a tutorial in Kentucky Route Zero. It shows you exactly how it's going to try and sway you from the end goal time and time again.

The vast menagerie of characters Conway meets on this journey contain multitudes; their dwellings and belongings are full of histories and unresolved relationships. These things beg for your attention and curiosity, urgent gold boxes waiting to be clicked on your way to the next critical step in the story. Often, they create more questions about these people and their world than they answer, but it becomes clear over time that there are answers, in every area, begging for you to chase them down. The entire game is a minefield of curiosity, where the only way to plow through to the end of each Act is to either thoroughly exhaust your curiosity or have absolutely none of it. The former is much more rewarding, and the game excels at making you want it, always placing the next narrative breadcrumb or the next leading question or the next inquisitive line of dialogue within easy reach, even if the payoff is miles down the road. However, it also means it's very easy to lose the main plot in the process.

That's especially true since much of the poignancy and power of the main plot often requires you to proactively listen to and learn from the world. The stories being told along the way can take many forms--from homespun wisdom to analytical science theses to ordinary phone conversations between loved ones--but the game bets the farm on you being comprehensively thorough about engaging with all of it. With no way to rewind and play specific scenes over again without replaying the entire Act, missing a specific bit of information can leave entire portions of the game as obtuse, and not in the intentional way some scenes are.

To play Kentucky Route Zero means having to be present and honed in on the world in a way that doesn't happen often in games. That frequently means hearing information relayed in a vast rainbow of ways, the game subtly training you to hear other people whose voices and experiences we are often trained by the modern world to tune out. The sharpness of the dialogue is so crucial and executed so well in that regard. Information is conveyed through every interaction, but even with the minor NPCs, the game emphasizes their worth as a character first and a mechanical function of the game second. Whether their next line opens the way to the next scene or not, there's a sense in every line of dialogue in the game that lives have been lived, this character has a history here we will never know, and their weariness is on display and palpable. It makes the world of this game feel real and tangible and lived in, which accentuates the disquieting fact that there are people who actually live in such desolation.

Lines of dialogue from side characters can inform another character's major decisions to take the journey of their lifetime later. A stray line during a radio broadcast can tell you why Conway wound up at a particular location or why a road is blocked, or why the history of a place matters. But as engaging as it all is, especially in the later Acts of the game where you start having more control over which character to follow into the next scene, new information and character development can happen in a scene that you might've missed entirely. Still, the solution is to play that Act again, and there's so much to see and hear in the game that it's possible to have a very different and equally worthwhile experience next time.

Sometimes the new information comes from choosing the dialogue in a straight one-on-one conversation; sometimes, you get a totally different perspective out of nowhere, like a segment where you select dialogue between museum researchers as they talk about your present actions in the past tense while watching you on a security camera playback. It forces you to think about how others view Conway and the companions who come to ride with him along the way with some level of psychological distance, a storytelling risk that pays off the more we start to learn about why these characters are who they are.

That risk starts to pay off starting in Act III, where you can control the other side of a conversation, selecting responses for both Conway and the other participant. After seeing a doctor about an injury, and seeing the nightmarish remedy for that injury once he's awake, you can choose to let Conway be out of sorts from the anesthesia or perfectly lucid. Through the next line of dialogue, you can let him and the doctor talk about continued treatment, let Conway stew in bitterness or very justifiable fear, or hop right into the worrisome particulars of the bill. It's a captivating game of conversational tennis against yourself. You wind up experiencing and creating the story all at once, which makes the game more mechanically dream-like than anything. Combined with just how abstract many of the concepts and emotions you bounce back and forth can be, it's not just a difference of agency so much as using that agency to form a group perspective, a collective conscience these characters will never know, but you do.

Very little in the overarching story of the Zero happens necessarily by your choice, and that's a hard fact of real life that has been translated admirably here. No matter how much you tell your companions that your injury is fine or dodge questions about how deep in debt you are to those who help you, as Conway himself says, every man eventually has to settle up. And in that respect, the larger beats of this story will occur regardless of the choices you make. The intricate control you have over many of the game's conversations isn't about changing your fate, but how you parse it and accept it. That dovetails beautifully into the larger themes of the game, of getting to the acceptance stage of all the grief each character has endured. In that acceptance, you do have complete control. People in this game will get ill, you will miss your chance to tell someone you loved them, you won't quite know what their last wishes were, and the world outside the Zero will often intrude and make life just a little harder for its residents once again. You can be angry, or petulant, or morose, and you can let that be the story of this world, but that's a choice you can make in every scene. To sit with each interactable character is to sit with and have empathy for their failures.

That empathy is important given how alienating and lonely Kentucky Route Zero can feel. Much of the game's interpretation of Kentucky life is portrayed in a very spartan, angular style of giant polygons meticulously fit together like puzzle pieces until they resemble minimalist facsimiles of human beings, trees, houses, and the like. It's often stark and eerie, which makes the moments where it's striking and stunning all the more effective. An early transition from the outside of a house to its interior occurs by watching the vector lines that form the building's exterior move aside like shrinking geometric vines. One of the most powerful examples is a simple scene of Conway and Lysette sitting at a breakfast table. The geometric white streaks at Conway's temples and his slouching back hint at his exhaustion, informing his decision to make this next delivery his last; Lysette's face blank, but held wistfully, and framed by square glasses pointed blankly towards the outside world even. It's an abstract picture that still speaks volumes.

It should be said that Act V ends not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with the kind of deep sigh you hear from working folks at five o'clock on a Friday after a hard week.

The game's aesthetic is capable of portraying breathtaking Midwestern landscapes, stark monuments to the coldness of industry, unfeeling research rooms, and cathedrals to forgotten American ephemera, bolstered ever so slightly by some new and subtle graphical grace notes added to the game since Act IV's release. New lighting effects have been added, with specific scenes being brightened, and, most notably, a dazzling starfield effect during the game's stand-out musical number, “Too Late To Love You.” Those scattered moments of warmth and wonder have been sweetened all the more by the changes, making the scenes of respite even more welcome and memorable. Still, it all pales in comparison to what awaits you in the long-anticipated Act V: a heavenly place of sun and grass, demolished by the raging storms and flooding. The visually exhilarating elements of the final landscape make the horror of all the death and destruction hit even heavier.

Despite that initial visual gutstab of Act V, it should be said that it ends not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with the kind of deep sigh you hear from working folks at five o'clock on a Friday after a hard week. I assumed, going into that final Act, that we'd be looking at a story of rebellion, a day of reckoning for the marginalized and downtrodden. I should've known better. Kentucky Route Zero isn't screaming for vengeance against all that America has lost, though there is an undeniable righteous anti-capitalist streak running throughout.

The game doesn't so much resolve all the seething tensions and unfulfilled promises seen prior, but demands that you shoulder some of the weight of remembering and honoring what you've seen and heard. The overall point of the game is that not everyone's life will be paid off in a way that provides catharsis, or comfort, or satisfaction. Sometimes it just ends, sometimes it keeps going whether we're there to see it or not, and sometimes it's just disappointment. Conway has debts to pay, and there is a chance he drops dead working to pay them back. That is as American as it gets in the 21st century. What Act V does, though, is give everyone one last chance to rail against that fact, mourn it, continue to have hopes regardless which, too, is what it is to live here. Kentucky Route Zero has been priming us for seven years to recognize that life isn't fair, though we'd gain so much if it was, and sometimes we're lucky enough to make it as fair as it can be. But just as often, we're not. Kentucky Route Zero is ultimately a story about America's ghosts, literal and metaphorical. It's a story about entire ways of life coming to one singular place to die quietly, hopefully with dignity. In all of its oddity, it never backs down from the fact that all that is now dead will stay dead, and for those who have settled in along the Zero, that includes the American dream.

Kingdom Hearts 3 Re:Mind Review - Not Simple Or Clean

Fri, 01/31/2020 - 01:16

Kingdom Hearts 3 Re:Mind's title doesn't lie. It's more of an addendum to Kingdom Hearts 3 than a meaningful addition. In some ways, it's fitting that a franchise as labyrinthine as Kingdom Hearts received such a strange expansion. Re:Mind is a brief but laborious retread of events we already experienced last year, dressed up with new details that only make the already maddeningly elaborate story all the more obtuse. The DLC also brings back Replica Data bosses, which provide a ridiculous challenge that requires inordinate level grinding. [Editor's note: This review contains spoilers for the ending boss and area in Kingdom Hearts 3.]

Kingdom Hearts 3 ended with Sora going off on his own to search for Kairi. Re:Mind takes you on that quest in typical Kingdom Hearts fashion: neither simply nor cleanly. It runs synchronously with the events at the Keyblade Graveyard, meaning you actually have to replay the climax again from the Keyblade Graveyard maze all the way to the showdown with Xehanort. Though the explanation for how this is possible is very silly, Re:Mind is essentially a director's cut.

As a reminder, the Keyblade Graveyard doesn't really feature any exploration. It's a series of boss fights separated by lengthy cutscenes. Luxord still hides behind a playing card taunting Sora, and cutscenes stop the action in similar spots. Some of the dialogue and cutscenes are reworked while others are new, but the biggest difference is the option to play as Riku, Roxas, Kairi, or Aqua in several fights. Unfortunately, playing as these characters actually makes the slick and stylish combat less fun. All of them feel like weaker versions of Sora with limited movesets, and it also doesn't help that the Keyblade Graveyard itself is the blandest world in Kingdom Hearts 3, devoid of the colorful and pleasant trappings of the Disney worlds that made the majority of original campaign hum.

Even the new content that's spliced into the repeated events largely fails to make the journey worthwhile. Scala ad Caelum opens up to reveal a new section before you square off against Xehanort. Though the area is fairly big, it's desolate and exists only as a space to complete a rather banal fetch quest. It's filler content in a story filled with recycled fights. There's a fan service sequence that's actually pretty enjoyable, however. Without spoiling it, it's the type of scene that will make fans fondly remember the decades-long journey that brought us to this point. It's a brief event that doesn't make up for five hours of deja vu, but it still stands out.

For die-hard fans, the Limit Cut Episode that unlocks after watching the same closing cutscene from the base game is the meat of the package. Those who played Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix will be familiar with the mode, which sees Sora in a computer simulation fighting data versions of Organization XIII members like Xigbar, Ansem, and Xehanort. It even features cameos from the long-lost Final Fantasy characters.

Unfortunately, the barrier for entry is extraordinarily high, because Limit Cut bosses are exponentially more challenging than any of the fights in the base game. If you didn't grind near or all the way to the level 99 cap in the main campaign--and there was no need to--Limit Cut will probably feel like an insurmountable challenge. I'm still working my way through the bosses, and I seriously doubt that I'll ever actually beat them all. The ocean that exists between the difficulty of the base game and the data bosses is jarring.

It's of course impossible to separate the DLC from the game it builds off of, and Kingdom Hearts 3's best moments came in the Disney and Pixar worlds--the individual stories of friendship and love and good conquering evil that could almost be appreciated as self-contained short stories. Re:Mind seeks to tell a very specific story, but along the way it becomes blindingly clear that Kingdom Hearts' strengths lie in its pieces and parts, not its convoluted sum that threads through and disrupts the franchise's magical moments.

Even as a longtime fan of the series who adored Kingdom Hearts 3, it's hard to muster up any sort of enthusiasm for Re:Mind. What's more, Re:Mind made me understand Kingdom Hearts 3's story even less, which is a testament to how bonkers it really is. It's not all that surprising this happened; after all, it's Kingdom Hearts. Nevertheless, Re:Mind is an incredibly peculiar expansion that simultaneously falls flat and partially obscures the brilliance of Kingdom Hearts 3.

Lenna's Inception Review - Fresh Start

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 21:50

In the southwesternmost corner of the overworld map sits a building that houses a slot machine. You've seen this sort of mild gambling den in any Zelda game; pull the lever, match three heart pieces and you win. Here, though, row upon row of slots are being played, their skeletal victims under permanent house arrest by the one-armed bandits. The building is, in fact, a bank. Betting on the slots requires you to purchase shares in various enterprises, all of which are owned by the bank that is manipulating the odds; the financial system is a casino and the capitalist always wins. This isn't your typical Zelda clone.

Lenna's Inception is a top-down action-adventure that is--ahem--very heavily inspired by the Legend of Zelda. Mechanically it is extremely similar to Link's early adventures, but thematically and through a couple of mechanical surprises it finds its own voice. The result is a playful and inventive homage to a classic series of games that manages to distinguish itself from its inspirations.

The setup immediately departs from Zelda tradition, with schoolteacher Lenna roped into saving the world after the prophesied hero--and clear Link analogue--succumbs to an unexpected demise in the tutorial dungeon. Elsewhere, an evil banker has imprisoned the prince of the land, archangels are signalling the end times, glitched-out pixels are spreading across the world, and somewhere a mysterious fridge is on the blink. This is weird Millennial Zelda, touched by creepypasta yet restrained enough to not go full internet meme.

My opening paragraph was a little misleading. In my game the bank was to be found in the southwest corner, but in your game--or indeed my subsequent games--it may not be. Lenna's Inception generates its maps procedurally, shuffling the contents of its world to ensure a new route through the quest each time you start a new game and to allow players to share "seeds" of maps they particularly enjoyed. There's a daily challenge seed, too, further encouraging the sense of a shared experience.

Experiments with the map generation revealed that it's not just the overworld being reconfigured. All but one of the dungeons you enter are unique to your playthrough, from the overall layout to the design of individual rooms, from the critical-path boss dungeons to the small secret lairs you might find hidden away behind a bush or a rock. Further still, the key items you collect along the way are shuffled to the extent that one playthrough might hand you the bomb item immediately while the next might make you wait for it until near the very end.

In itself this doesn't necessarily have any bearing on the quality of the level design, though in general the suspicion is always that a compromise must have been made somewhere, that a procedural level could never be as good as one that was hand-crafted. The trade-off seems acceptable here: We forgo one painstakingly intricate design for the prospect of near-endless hopefully good variations. Certainly the overworld I played through (seed “ystreath” if you want to try it yourself) felt consistent and well-designed--no jarring sections that felt obviously untouched by a human hand. It had a mazelike quality that demanded exploration and was crammed with teases of just-out-of-reach areas I'd have to note to return to later and that in any other non-procedural game I'd credit to smart design.

Dungeon design is mostly solid, with an emphasis on having the right item to allow you to bypass obstacles and finding the various coloured keys to open their respective doors. Save for the final dungeon, they all lack the light puzzle elements you would find in a typical Zelda dungeon, and are poorer for it. The last dungeon, however, takes full advantage of the environment-altering ability of a late-game item to push puzzle design to the fore. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's the only hand-crafted dungeon in the game. Where the procedural generation truly detracts is in the little side dungeons that throw you into a handful of random rooms, lock the doors until you've killed all the monsters, and then reward you with a health or weapon upgrade. They're not terrible in isolation, but they are all essentially the same and wear out their welcome long before you've acquired all the pick-ups they house.

As you find new items--such as a spring that enables you to bounce over gaps or a cigarette lighter that lets you melt ice--you can unlock new regions of the map or return to previous areas to find secrets in classic Zelda fashion, a facet of the genre that is as inherently compelling here as it so often is, even if the execution is slightly off. The random order in which items are acquired does have a tendency to flatten out the experience. Some items have multiple uses, lending a degree of redundancy that diminishes the impact of obtaining a new piece of gear. Still, it's rewarding to nab a new ability and start mulling over all the possibilities, the new places you can now explore. It's a high that never diminishes.

Perhaps as a consequence of the non-linear item progression, fighting regular enemies doesn't require you to use items other than your sword. They can be damaged by several of your items--the lighter sets things on fire and does useful damage over time while the bow, hammer, axe and bombs can all be effective--but there isn't a single enemy that, for example, must be staggered with the hammer before taking damage from your sword. With little variation it's sufficient to mash the attack button in order to survive any non-boss encounter.

Bosses themselves are smartly designed even if they hew closely to the Zelda archetype. The rule of threes applies here, as each boss requires you to perform the same set of steps three times in order to beat it. And each one demands the use of a certain ability you've picked up, though the precise execution tends to not be telegraphed. Quite a few of the bosses had me puzzling things out for several attempts before the eureka moment hit and I knew exactly what I had to do. Fortunately in such instances, death isn't a hassle and you find yourself respawning in the chamber before the boss room.

The procedural aspects of Lenna's Inception lay a solid foundation upon which to build. On top you'll find a handful of NPC quests to follow, some of which test your lateral thinking as you chuckle along with the mischievous sense of humour of the writing. Moments of oddness abound. I found what the game described as a "urine potion" before cheerfully informing me that I would have to drink it to discover what effect it had. My first follower companion was a chicken that would relentlessly peck enemies to death. My last was a librarian who could hurl books with pinpoint accuracy. At one point I donned a growth tunic and ran around as a giant Lenna until she couldn't fit through the door to escape the dungeon. Surprises like these are scattered throughout the entire game and are never less than a joy to discover. There's even an option to play the entire game with either 8-bit or 32-bit graphics.

Lenna's Inception is a lighthearted Zelda-style adventure fuelled by levity and a taste for the bizarre. At its heart, though, it's a testament to the powers of procedural generation. On balance it gains more than it loses, delivering an endlessly rearrangeable, replayable quest that suffers only slightly from the lack of a guiding human touch.

Journey To The Savage Planet Review - A Pulpy Sci-Fi Romp

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 01:39

Journey to the Savage Planet is a fantastic name for a pulpy sci-fi game, but is a bit of a misdirect when taken at face value. A "savage planet" conjures up thoughts of hostility and survival, tapping into the inherent dangers of life on the frontiers of space. Sure, there are things that want to kill you in Journey to the Savage Planet, but they're only a minor inconvenience rather than the main focus. Instead, developer Typhoon Studios places the emphasis on exploration, coupling this with genuine humour and a charming tone to present a lighthearted and singularly focused chunk of sci-fi adventuring.

The entire game takes place on a single planet located deep in uncharted space. You're strapped into the space boots of an employee of Kindred Aerospace--a rinky-dink outfit that's so proud of its standing as the fourth-best interstellar exploration company, it'll make you shudder to think of how bad the fifth-best must be. Once your feet touch the planet's surface, you'll begin to catalog the flora, fauna, and life located across the various biomes of planet AR-Y 26 to determine if it's fit for human habitation, what with the whole climate change thing ruining Earth.

Journey to the Savage Planet excels when it comes to the assortment of tools and equipment you can gradually craft and use to reach every nook and cranny of the planet's surface. You're immediately free to explore as you see fit, but it doesn't take long to discover plenty of inaccessible areas. As such, much of the game is spent scanning the flora and fauna to reveal whether they have gameplay benefits or are just there to contribute to the planet's vibrant and colorful aesthetic. Some plants may contain seeds that restore your health or produce projectile explosives, while most of the planet's hodgepodge glossary of alien critters are filled with resources you can gather if you're heartless enough to put a laser blast between their eyes. Gathering these resources and locating items that can be reverse-engineered using your ship's 3D printer allows you to craft equipment like grappling hooks, double-jump upgrades for your jetpack, and other tools that make traversal and deeper exploration possible.

The whole game latches onto this palpable sense of momentum, as each new upgrade opens up more of the planet for you to probe. Your feet may be firmly planted on the ground in its opening stages, but by the end of the 10-hour adventure you'll be gliding across natural ziplines hundreds of feet in the air, propelling across perilous chasms with a triple jump, and using a powerful ground pound to unearth new passages. Journey to the Savage Planet adopts the classic Metroidvania formula and executes it wonderfully, presenting you with an ever-growing arsenal of tools that are satisfying to use and feed into the game's inherent focus on exploration.

Of course, the other side of this equation is the planet itself, which is well worth turning inside out. AR-Y 26 is split into three distinct biomes. Each one is moderately sized, resulting in the planet's scale feeling manageable and allowing you to explore freely without fear of getting lost. When presented with multiple paths, it's easy to choose one over the other because you know getting back to that initial fork in the road is going to be relatively easy. This encourages you to poke your nose in every crevice, travel to every far-away cave, and check behind every waterfall. You're often rewarded for doing so, with extra resources or important upgrade items hidden throughout the planet--not to mention the visual treats that are on offer in each disparate biome, whether you're navigating through the craggy icy caves and glaciers your ship landed on, walking amongst the overgrown pink and turquoise mushrooms of the Fungi of Si'ned VII, or jumping between the floating islands of The Elevated Realm.

Journey to the Savage Planet isn't a completely leisurely tour, though. Your first order of business is to develop a futuristic blaster pistol, but combat is a means to an end rather than a major part of the game, and it ends up being a drag. While most of the planet's creatures are docile, there are outliers that become hostile as soon as they spot you. Defeating these aggressive predators involves a rinse and repeat pattern whereby you use a nifty sidestep or jump to avoid an attack before following up by shooting one or multiple weak points. There are only slight deviations on this back-and-forth that require you to lob an explosive or poison cloud at the enemy before you can pepper its weak spot. The pistol never feels quite accurate enough for the job, especially because you're usually being asked to hit small targets, and each of the combat's faults comes to a head during the game's closing moments as you're thrown into one fight after another before facing off against the final boss.

You can play the whole game cooperatively with a friend, which does make combat slightly more bearable, but co-op doesn't alter the moment-to-moment gameplay in any significant way. Conflicts are easier with two people, sure, but there's nothing about the co-op experience that's intrinsically built for more than a single player. You can explore the planet together or opt to split up and cover different ground, but that's about it.

Playing with a friend can result in moments of emergent humour, but Journey to the Savage Planet is also genuinely funny due to the abundance of FMVs located on your ship. These short and incredibly eccentric videos mock and parody everything from exploitative corporate practises to the video game industry. There's a commercial for a new game elegantly titled MOBA MOBA MOBA Mobile VR V.17 Golden Fleece; its main selling point is having more microtransactions than any other game, with one of its features being an in-game "Custo-mi$er" for your created character. The humour is somewhat frontloaded, but this does help the game's irreverent charm establish itself early.

Journey to the Savage Planet borrows plenty of familiar elements from other games, yet it does so in a carefree way that sets it apart from other sci-fi exploration games, settling on a relaxing playstyle that's informed by its single, vivid planet and tightly focused design. It only takes a couple of hours to reveal its humdrum combat, but this is the only significant damper on what is an entertaining slice of lighthearted planetary exploration.

Frostpunk: The Last Autumn Review - Winter Is Coming

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 18:53

In Frostpunk's main campaign, you already know the stakes. A winter of biblical proportions has descended upon Industrial Revolution England, driving its citizens into the frozen unknowns to seek out life-giving generators. In The Last Autumn, you are in charge of making one of those very generators a reality--one that will hopefully save lives in the future. Winter lies in wait on the periphery, so you have to worry about new means of resource gathering, timed objectives, and social challenges rather than staving off the flu. It dresses the familiar gameplay elements of Frostpunk up differently, demanding a new type of strategic thinking that reinvigorates the already satisfying formula at its core.

With the cold weather encroaching on Liverpool, you lead a handful of workers and engineers on an expedition to a cove on the edge of the country. Near-freezing sprays from the nearby ocean splash against treacherous rocky beaches, with only a small space to build upon peering through the thicket of trees outlining the coast. This limited space is immediately stressful--a massive generator needs to be built, resources around you already seem scarce, and the space you must work with doesn't allow for many placement mistakes. The odds are stacked against you from the start of Last Autumn's campaign, but some new tools provide reprieve in distinct ways.

Instead of gathering resources from deposits around you, you can build new harbors on limited coastline spaces to collect what you need. You have to choose which spaces are dedicated to fishing for food and which others can be set up as large ports, allowing ships with stockpiles of wood, coal, or steel to dock and unload. Shipping resources in is only one part of the supply chain, too. With new depots staffed with workers, you can quickly supply your main city with resources nearly as fast as they're unloaded, which vastly improves upon having workers manually carry them from the docks. Each of these structures requires some of your more limited resources, though, making each micro-decision carry more weight than before. When each ingot of steel feels as precious as the last, you'll rarely find yourself overwhelmed as was the case in some previous scenarios, escalating the overall tension as a result.

Other new structures are intrinsically tied to your new objective of building a central generator, each of which are used to build specific pieces of the giant contraption. You have a total of only 45 game days to achieve this goal, without any preparation time to make provisions for a stable resource supply line and citizen housing. It makes each of the four impending milestones immediately stressful, but it's all initially more confusing than it needs to be. The Last Autumn features the same useful tutorials from the main campaign to make picking up its new mechanics easy, but it doesn't do a good enough job surfacing the menus you can utilise to measure your progress towards the next milestone. It ultimately ruined my first run--I missed my first milestone without realizing that it even existed, making it impossible for me to hit subsequent ones on time before being fired. For all the good The Last Autumn does surfacing nearly every other facet of its new mechanics, it's frustrating that it takes some lost progress to truly understand its overall tempo.

Once you come to grips with the time limits imposed on you, you can focus more on The Last Autumn's new Motivation meter, which joins the returning Discontent meter from previous scenarios. Each is fairly self-explanatory--the first one measures how much motivation your workers have to get the job done, while the other indicates how unhappy they are with their current living situation. Unlike previous campaigns, though, letting either one get too high or too low doesn't end your game. Instead, Motivation determines just how efficient your workers are at the jobs they're assigned to, while Discontent alters how likely they are to put down tools entirely and walk out on strikes. Keeping Motivation high and Discontent almost non-existent at first is easy, but as the impending winter approaches and the realities of your encroaching deadlines loom, unavoidable, scenario-specific modifiers to both make their upkeep a true challenge.

Strikes are a new social aspect you'll need to contend with, going hand-in-hand with new metrics measuring the safety of workplaces in place of worrying about their overall temperature (given that winter hasn't yet arrived). Workplaces that are consistently dangerous and staffed with workers working either long or double shifts will quickly drive their occupants to down their tools and picket outside, forcing you to negotiate before returning to work. Worker requests will require you to pass new laws affecting either their work hours or living conditions, often demanding more resources from you or a tolerance for their slower pace of work in order to get them back into their factories and mills. The knock-on effects of these decisions can sometimes feel absent at first but come back around days later to haunt you, making each strike negotiation important to carefully consider. Even simply delaying your decision with handouts of rations often results in more strenuous demands from your workers, turning strikes into worthy headaches that compound the satisfyingly stressful symphony of systems present already.

With new mechanics to contend with and different ways to approach Frostpunk's strategic formula, the new laws that it introduces make tackling both as morally challenging as ever. Your base set of laws returns from previous scenarios, but the branches that come with siding with either labor or your engineers expand on them extensively. In one of my successful runs I passed laws in the engineering path that allowed me to ship in prisoners for cheaper labor, while constructing oppressive security towers and multiple penitentiaries to keep everyone in line. The authoritarian approach didn't sit well with most citizens, but it made sense to grow my workforce rapidly without needing to worry too much about the needs of my new laborers. Eventually I unlocked an ability to turn regular citizens into criminals without trial, giving me the chance to boost efficiency in workplaces solely staffed by criminals as a result of their supposed disposability.

None of these decisions are easy to make. Frostpunk has always made each of your decisions feel like choosing between two evils, and The Last Autumn maintains that. When shipping in criminals I was constantly reminded of how terrible some of their crimes were and how they might introduce problems to my other citizens if not policed correctly. But even introducing a growing security force presented issues. Empowered citizens imposed their authority incorrectly at times, which in one case drove one of my citizens to death after consistent harassment that I ignored so that my criminals could be kept in check. Seeing small stories like this emerge from decisions I made hours before was equal parts gut-wrenching and fascinating, encouraging me to explore new laws and regulations to see what effects they might have.

Because bad Motivation or Discontent don't end a run and only the stress of missing deadlines to contend with, The Last Autumn allows for more flexibility in your strategy. It lets you stretch the boundaries of what its new laws offer, offering you the chance to drive forward with increasingly morally dubious decisions if all you're focused on is getting the job done. It doesn't come without consequence, though, especially when the cold arrives near the end of the run and introduces further restrictions on resource gathering as well as the familiar temperature monitoring in workplaces and citizen residences. By the end of my own run I was furiously converting citizens into criminals to increase my workforce without new shipments of workers coming in, exponentially increasing the size of my required security force too. The last few days felt like a battle of attrition--I wasn't allowed to let up on longer shifts but also incapable of dealing with the living needs of my population without diverting resources from the work on the generator. Within just a few days nearly half my society had succumbed to illness and died, eventually allowing me to reach my goal but with hardly any of the people responsible for it alive to see the fruits of their labor.

Outside of small stories that your decisions generate and influence, The Last Autumn does attempt to conclusively confront your choices by its conclusion. With the generator built and your citizens sent to the next site that needs work, you're presented predictions for how effective your generator might be and just how many citizens it could save in the future. Based on how many milestones you missed, how many concessions you had to make to get there, and the number of people you lost along the way, the hard-fought victory might be met with depressingly low odds of success in the long run. It stings to have that presented to you after making sacrifices for what you assumed would be a greater good, forcing you to reevaluate your overall strategy and try again for a better outcome.

The Last Autumn demands a lot from you, but it's also a deeply engrossing evolution of the formula that Frostpunk is made up of, changing the core rules just enough to make all your previous strategies feel insufficient. Whether it's deciding on which resources to order and how to distribute them or which parts of your workforce to push just hard enough before they reach their breaking point, The Last Autumn maintains the morally challenging and consequence-riddled decision-making of the core game while giving you new laws to experiment with and master. It's a welcome return to an already fantastic strategy game that shouldn’t be glossed over.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot Review - Sparking Joy

Thu, 01/23/2020 - 18:30

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot begins right where the anime does: introducing us to Goku and his son Gohan just before the Saiyans are set to invade earth, revealing Goku's true Saiyan heritage and setting off a chain of events that threatens the entire universe. It's a story we've seen played out in many Dragon Ball Z games over the years, but unlike recent examples, Kakarot tells its tale by way of a narrative-driven RPG rather than a strictly combat-focused game. It gives life to the world and story of DBZ in a refreshing way, offering us a glimpse into what life is like for Goku and his many companions outside of battles to decide the fate of the universe.

All of Dragon Ball Z's major story arcs are contained here: the Saiyan invasion, the showdown with Frieza on planet Namek, the Androids, the fight against Cell, and Majin Buu's story. But among all of these massive, earth-shattering sagas and intense fights are numerous smaller stories and character interactions that many games have simply glossed over.

The game's structure is split into parts: free-roaming/exploration sequences with a semi-open world, battle scenes against foes big and small, and cutscenes where you watch some of the most dramatic story moments of DBZ play out in gorgeous in-engine renditions. There's a good balance between all of these; it rarely feels like you're spending too long watching a cutscene or that you're thrust into constant battle without being able to take a moment to catch your breath. Sometimes the exploration sequences can seem overlong, but a lot of that depends on how much time you want to spend doing side quests and hunting collectibles like power-up orbs, food supplies, and materials for side pursuits like cooking and crafting. It's not essential to spend a lot of time on side pursuits, but it does provide benefits--and while you're flying around the big, vibrant environments, it's easy to be swept up in exploring the DBZ world itself, which is filled with giant fish, rampaging dinosaurs, and futuristic cities.

One striking thing about DBZ: Kakarot is how it showcases the large cast of the anime. You begin the game as Goku, but as the story progresses, you assume control over several other characters, like Gohan, Piccolo, Vegeta, and Trunks, to name a few. Familiar faces like Krillin, Tien Shinhan, Yamcha, and Android 18 also appear to aid you in combat as assistants. Many of the other supporting DBZ cast members make cameos in side quests and story scenes as well. Building friendships with characters through questing and giving gifts rewards you with a character emblem, and by placing it on a “community board” that represents a group of Goku's companions, you can earn assorted boosts to combat, item-gathering, cooking, and other adventurous pursuits.

But these rewards are only part of what makes DBZ: Kakarot's adventuring feel satisfying. Dragon Ball Z is a series where character relationships and interactions are important, and that really comes through in the non-combat story bits. You see Piccolo warm up to young Gohan, Chi Chi's tough mother role, the fighters bonding outside of battle, teenage Gohan doing his goofy Great Saiyaman shtick, and much more. Even relatively minor characters like Yajirobe, Launch, and Puar have side quests that showcase funny interactions, silly scenarios, and genuinely sad and touching moments. Seeing so many DBZ characters given their moment to shine is great, and it helps you forget that a lot of the side quests are fairly typical RPG kill-these-enemies or collect-this-item affairs. As someone who thinks some of the “filler” and comedy episodes of DBZ are among the series' best, I really appreciated an increased focus on these stories in DBZ: Kakarot.

Of course, it wouldn't be Dragon Ball Z without combat. While the 3D, action-driven combat takes some getting used to at first, once you've got a decent handle on the controls, you'll be flying around, shooting off ki blasts and Kamehamehas like a pro. You control a single character who has two basic attacks--up-close melee strikes and ranged ki blasts. If you have companions in the fight, the CPU will control them, and you can command them to make use of special attacks. Besides your basic strikes, you have several powerful special skills, a boost to get up close to the opponent, several defensive techniques to guard, dodge, and catch an attacking opponent off-guard, and even (eventually) the ability to transform into stronger forms. Many of these abilities cost ki, which can be charged mid-battle but leaves you vulnerable when doing so, making ki management very important. A tension gauge fills over time, and when it's full, you can send your warrior into a superpowered state where you can chain special attacks into each other, causing some serious devastation.

It's an intriguing combat system, and the 3D aerial movement element is unique, but there's a lack of depth--most normal enemies and even a few bosses can be patterned to make fighting them much easier. On top of that, enemy variety outside of main story battles tends to be lacking, particularly the annoying cannon-fodder foes that will interrupt you during times when you just want to explore. But fighting still has some standout moments during big boss fights when enemies whip out massive, incredibly damaging energy attacks that force a rapid change in strategy. Overcoming some of the nastiest things Dragon Ball Z's iconic villains toss at you with skillful dodging and well-timed attacks is immensely satisfying, and it somewhat makes up for all of the combat time wasted punching the same robots over and over again.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot's modern, semi-open approach to telling the saga of DBZ--despite some minor issues--is a good one. Zooming around the environments and seeing the world up close is a blast, and it's great being able to interact with so many fun DBZ characters and see stories that usually get passed over for game adaptations. And even though combat can be a bit lacking, when the big battles happen, they feel suitably epic and engaging. If you're looking for an enjoyable way to see the life and times of adult Goku through a new perspective, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot will grant your wish.

Unity Of Command 2 Review - Lifetime Supply

Fri, 01/17/2020 - 15:00

At first glance, Unity of Command 2 may look intimidating, the familiarity of the pint-sized tanks and military men that populate its World War II battlefields obscured by an impenetrable fog of unintuitive jargon and confounding icons. But once the confusion clears it reveals a surprisingly straightforward wargame whose keen focus on establishing and severing lines of supply delivers remarkable strategic depth.

This isn't really a strategy game about marching your troops forward to attack the enemy. Unity of Command 2's twist on the genre makes it a game about manoeuvring your units to occupy spaces that maintain clear supply lines to your forces and deny supply to the enemy. In fact, the winning move often involves holding your position. Sometimes you don't even need to engage the enemy at all; you just have to starve them out.

Placing you in charge of the Allied forces in 1943, the campaign opens in North Africa before pushing up through Italy and into the heart of Western Europe. Missions arrive in groups known as conferences, one of the first off-putting terms you'll encounter. At the start of a conference, you can spend prestige points on upgrading your field headquarters, extending their range and efficiency during combat, and on purchasing theatre cards that you can play in battle to grant additional abilities. Beat all the missions in a conference and you unlock the next, along with another chance to upgrade and purchase.

Luck and short-term planning combine here in an interesting way. The cards available to purchase are shuffled randomly, meaning you can't always rely on picking up a favourite and may need to accommodate a curveball or two. And the choices you make are locked in for the duration of the conference, so you've got to manage with what you've got in terms of HQ upgrades and make those cards last over several missions. Knowing you have only three opportunities to use a naval bombardment over the course of a single mission does a lot to focus the mind. Such constraints force you to make bold choices about which targets you absolutely must hit and when precisely is the right time to do so. Get these plays right and you feel like the greatest general the world’s ever seen. Extra cards can be collected during missions as you complete certain objectives, but they arrive more as a relief package--an unexpected boon to your cause rather than a way to undermine the decisions you finalised at the last conference.

At the outset of each mission you're able to survey the map and plan your approach. Usually there are a couple of primary objectives that must be fulfilled to complete the scenario, accompanied by a few secondary objectives that, if achieved, offer a bonus reward or even a slight tactical advantage in the next mission. These objectives are designed in such a way to guide you across the map, and the attentive player will glean useful advantages from them. For example, if the objectives ask you to take a certain town by turn 5 and a second town by turn 8, then it's likely that taking the first town will be beneficial to your efforts to take the second. And if you're tasked with taking and holding a location then doing so will undoubtedly accord an ongoing advantage. Clear, concise objectives provide a structure to each mission that makes it easy to digest what's expected of you, and when you should be aiming to have it accomplished.

Rounding out the preparatory phase, the units at your disposal are pre-assigned as per the scenario, so you're never burdened with choosing whether or not to deploy the US 13th Airborne or the 7th British Armoured Division--they're already there, conveniently positioned on a hex, ready to go. Although units come in only two types--tank and infantry divisions--there's a host of critical attributes that can distinguish one tank division from the next, assuming you can get your head around the collection of arcane icons used to describe them.

Units are composed of "steps," an offputting, unfamiliar term that basically measures the health of the unit. All else being equal, a five-step unit will beat a three-step unit. Yet in these variable battlefields, things are rarely equal. Tiny stars and crosses next to a unit indicate whether it's an elite, veteran or regular unit, but these icons are all-too-easily missed, and even after dozens of hours of play I still found myself occasionally not noticing I was sending a regular infantry to their doom against an elite. Other, multi-coloured symbols represent various specialists serving in the division, but there's no tooltip or in-game explanation as to how a specialist can benefit a unit. I had to rely on an external guide, alt-tabbing out to remind myself that the dark blue icon with the chevron indicated a self-propelled anti-tank specialist while the chevron and dot meant it was a towed anti-tank specialist. There's a lot to remember and keep track of, and unfortunately, the tutorials and in-game tooltips aren't up to the job.

However, once you've taken stock there's the opportunity to make some last-minute adjustments, adding more regular or specialist units to this squad or that, to better suit the strategic gambit you wish to employ. Deploying an engineer specialist to the siege at your primary objective will help whittle away the enemy's fortification bonuses, but maybe you're better off assigning them to the infantry in the east to help ford all those rivers and secure a secondary objective? All these resources are limited, though, and the trade-offs you're forced into always carry weight.

The importance of every decision you make is heightened by the tight turn limit applied to each mission. Of course, you're free to take all the time in the world on each turn. But Unity of Command 2 is a wargame with a fast turnover, and that's precisely what makes it so accessible. Brief skirmishes are the order of the day rather than long, drawn-out stalemates. Often you'll be asked to tick off secondary goals within three or four turns while 10 or 12 turns is a generous amount of time to secure the primary objectives. Experimentation is encouraged by the short time scale. Roll the dice on one strategy, fail quickly, and then before you know it you're back at the battle planning stage, pondering a more effective approach based on the lessons taught by your unsuccessful sortie.

Battles are won through a combination of clear, decisive strikes and a conservative support structure that can swiftly respond to any breach in your line. The way you have to manage logistics through the supply line system turns what could have been a puzzle game about finding the correct solution into a meaty strategy game brimming with flexibility. Victory is all about identifying where you really need to break through the enemy line to secure that vital railroad junction that will cut off supply to every enemy unit in a particular region of the map. Or it's about realising that you can drop those paratroopers behind enemy lines to blow up a bridge that will deny the Germans' ability to keep supplying the frontline. Seeing your plan executed successfully is incredibly satisfying, but at the same time, it's still entertaining to see a plan fall apart as enemy tanks overrun a key chokepoint, suddenly finding yourself scrambling to hold the line and divert supply to your now-stranded troops.

Unity of Command 2 is an overall excellent wargame. The early going can be tough as it takes time to acclimatise to some idiosyncratic terms and learn to interpret the raft of poorly-explained icons. Persistence--not to mention some handy community-written guides--does pay off, though. Stick with it, and you'll be rewarded with one of the finest strategy games in recent times.

Wattam Review - Forever Wondering

Wed, 01/08/2020 - 19:32

There's a part in Wattam where your friend (an old-fashioned telephone) is crying because the sun took its receiver and is making a long-distance phone call. To solve this cellular problem, you have to gather all of your friends, stack them up, and climb on top of them so you can explain the situation to the sun and ask for the receiver back. Once you get up there, the sun gives it back and apologizes for the misunderstanding. The telephone says that it's okay, and then you carry on with your day.

That might sound like a hallucination, but that's the heart of Wattam. It's a bunch of silly concepts and weird actors being constantly thrown into head-scratching scenarios that you have to solve. In this world, it doesn't really matter that everything is so bizarre. What matters is ensuring all of your friends are happy, and every character would do absolutely anything possible to make their reality a friendship utopia.

Every character in Wattam is a vibrant random object that changes shapes, forms, and sizes the more you progress and interact with the world and its environment. The game starts with one character, but you meet plenty of new pals, and later in the game the screen becomes charmingly cluttered, like a kid dumped a bunch of their toys on the floor and didn't clean it up. Among the characters are trees that can gobble up others and turn them into a fruitified version of themselves, a toilet named Linda that can turn characters into poop, and a nose named Ronald that can sniff up characters that are buried underground. The characters always seem to be having fun, embracing the change and sometimes adopting new personas and using catchphrases to parody genres like action movies and whodunits. They treat each other like old friends and run around and play with each other even when you're not controlling them. Watching them all interact and utilize their powers together adds a sense of life to this zany world--it may be weird, but they have their own fascinating ecosystem going on.

The main character is a green cube with a bowler hat named The Mayor. At the start of the game, The Mayor finds out about "Kaboom," the hidden power of its hat which launches everyone in the nearby radius into the sky in an explosion of laughter (the people love a good Kaboom). With your newfound ability and the strange charisma of a cube, it's your job to explore the world, learn its history, and keep everyone happy. Most of the time you're acting as a mediator, walking up to whoever is crying at the given moment, asking them a genuine "What's wrong?" and then solving their problems via a mini-game. It's tough work at times due to some pushback from awkward controls and sudden frame rate drops, but it never gets frustrating. You just look down and realize you're playing as a cool little apple who loves to dance and you finish the mission. It's also satisfyingly worth it at the end of each puzzle when you see your motley crew of inanimate objects cheering you on and having a blast together in this world you helped soothe.

You can play as anything on the screen, and when you swap into a character, it changes the main instrument in the song that's playing in the background. Each character has their own designated sounds: If you switch to a plant bud you'll hear the theme with a xylophone, for example, and if you switch to a poop you'll hear fart noises. Each quirky object has a clear and thoughtful theme tune, and the soundtrack as a whole always has you grooving. Sometimes I'd take a break from the main story to swap to a character and just listen to how the songs sounded from their perspective. There's a jazz song on the soundtrack called "A Long Time: The Six Years" that has no business going that hard.

Wattam is a collection of plotlines with objectives that can be completed in a few minutes, so each time you go back to the game it feels like a vastly different experience than what you were doing half an hour previously. One moment you could be running around as a miniature acorn, trying to find a spot to bury yourself, and the next you could be meeting a golden bowling pin that wants you to stack your friends to its exact height. It could so easily have been disorienting to be forced to constantly learn new mechanics and to always be playing the game in new ways every few moments, but Wattam isn't overwhelming. There's a sense of intrigue whenever a new character needs help, because whenever you help one, something in the game changes significantly--someone will gain a new power or maybe a mysterious staircase will emerge for you to investigate.

While it's essentially an anthology of short mini-games, Wattam has an underlying plot that's revealed over the course of a few cutscenes. These stop all the tomfoolery to tell a story of the apocalyptic events that happened right before the start of the game; it's a surprising tonal shift but it still fits very well with Wattam's ethos. Wattam is cool because it isn't just eccentric for eccentricity's sake--it also has a message it wants to share. You meet a few characters that come in the form of scroll, a book, and a futuristic floppy disk that explain that message and why connections and bonds are so important in this world. While they aren't the deepest cutscenes in the world, Wattam's message inside of them is ultimately heartwarming and offers context to things you wouldn't think are connected.

It isn't often that you play something that is so pure and unapologetically itself, but that's Wattam. I don't know if I'll ever play another game that makes me turn all of my friends into fruit so I can progress. It oozes passion, and it has an infectious enthusiasm that's present in each and every aspect of it. Wattam never takes itself too seriously, and that makes it easy to buy into its world and suspend your disbelief. While the gameplay is all over the place, Wattam is held together by themes of friendship and a cohesive soundtrack that actually leave you grinning long after you're done.

Supermash Review - Flop Jam

Fri, 12/20/2019 - 22:52

It's easy to think of how some of your favorite video game genres might fit together. In the space of just pure imagination, it’s possible to completely deconstruct familiar tropes and wildly throw them against a wall to see what sticks, challenging established norms without consequence. It’s this sort of unhinged creativity that makes Supermash initially hard to ignore. By making it easy to choose two genres and mash them together with randomly determined results, Supermash seems to promise a near endless supply of retro concoctions. But instead of delicately blended results, the games that Supermash does spit out lack any identity, while feeling too similar to one another when they do work and downright frustrating when borderline broken.

The core conceit of Supermash is the ability to create new games from templates of genres. The genres on offer are varied, ranging from a classic NES action adventure in the vein of The Legend of Zelda to the sneaky steps of a Metal Gear-inspired stealth game. Each genre template plucks a core idea from its inspirations and uses that as the core mechanic for your eventual combinations. For example, a JRPG will lend turn-based combat to any game it’s matched with, while a shoot-'em-up will introduce vertically scrolling terrains to whatever other genre you choose to pair with it.

Supermash is incredibly easy to get going--pick two genres, decide on a desired game length and difficulty, and use mostly single-use collectible cards to make small cosmetic and gameplay changes to the initial result. The rest is handled by Supermash’s procedural generation, which doesn’t always do the best job of masking the limited templates it's clearly working with. Within an hour, I was recognizing the same layouts in both stealth and action adventure mashes, and even routinely seeing the same visual palates used to dress them up in. Seeing the strings behind the puppetry would’ve been disappointing but forgivable, though, if the games themselves were any fun to play.

Most of the creations lack any substantial differences between them. Whether you’re playing a shrunken-down Zelda-like dungeon or jumping through a Mario-inspired platformer, you’re generally doing one of three things: finding a specific character, retrieving a specific item, or killing a certain number of a specific enemy, all within a short timeframe. These don’t change with the genres you’re putting together, which often makes genres meant to be less linear pointless. Genres like JRPGs or metroidvanias are much more than just their styles of combat or collectible upgrades, but Supermash never gives you levels or goals that reflect this. And even when the objectives do coalesce with the main genre influence, they’re just unsatisfying to play. Platforming feels floaty and imprecise, dungeon crawling becomes nothing more than a repetitive checklist, and shoot-'em-ups never capture the exhilaration of their inspirations.

Randomly assigned modifiers called "glitches" can somewhat differentiate one mash from the next, but more often than not, they result in more game-breaking issues. A glitch can, for example, spawn a new enemy every time you attack, or conversely heal you every time you take damage. These serve to either eliminate any challenge or increase it to frustrating levels, regardless of the difficulty setting you assign prior to making the game. Others are more frustrating, though. I had a glitch that moved me in a random direction for a few seconds after each attack, which made simple movement a chore. It forced me to just forgo combat entirely while navigating a dungeon, further restricting the already limited actions I had. There’s no way to turn these randomly assigned glitches off either, so when you’re dealt a bad hand, you just have to restart and hope for a better result next time.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some combinations that aren’t at least amusing. Playing a 2D stealth game with the turn-based combat of classic Final Fantasy games doesn’t work mechanically (having to go into an action menu to perform a stealth kill is ridiculous), but it does remind you of how good each of the individual parts are in other games. But Supermash’s multitude of little games never come close to reaching the entertaining heights of the genres they attempt to recreate, which makes it difficult to want to test the abilities of its random generation further after your initial attempts.

Encompassing all of this experimentation is a thin story about three friends trying to keep their video game retail store open, with the crew hoping to package and sell some of these new creations to spark some interest. Story objectives set some parameters for your next mashup, indicating what genres and modifiers to use, without really steering you towards any great outcomes. There’s an additional journal to work through with objectives tied to each genre you have at your disposal, each connecting small but throwaway stories within them.

Progressing this journal is incredibly frustrating, though, since the items required for completion are populated into your generated levels at random. You’re forced to repeatedly mash together the same genres in the hopes of finally getting one that has what you need, which only serves to expose the repetitive nature of them even faster. Each chapter culminates with a boss fight specific to the genre you’re completing, and despite being some of the only handcrafted bits of retro action in Supermash, they fail to be any more exciting than the random contraptions you put together. Most are one-note and devoid of challenge, only requiring repetitive attacks and simple movements to overcome. They’re not worth the time you need to invest to unlock them.

It’ll be rare for you to want to save any of the creations Supermash lets you construct, which is indicative of how shallow and unsatisfying they all are at their core. In a bid to try and do so many things right, Supermash forgets the fundamentals of all the genres it tries to encompass, while also overreaching by trying to make them all work in some way together. None of Supermash’s creations feel close to replicating the joy of their inspirations, and instead serve as reminders that there are far more focused and polished attempts at each individual one that will reward your time better. There’s no doubting the imaginative idea at Supermash’s core, but it ends up choking on its ambition.

The Touryst Review - Life's A Beach

Fri, 12/20/2019 - 17:00

The first island you visit in The Touryst is a tiny, perpetually sunny place, and it's full of spots to have a sit or a lie down. Having a rest doesn't achieve anything, but I found that my immediate instinct was to give my character a moment to luxuriate on a bed in one of the island's small personal rooms--this is a game about vacationing, after all, and on any vacation it's important to relax. The Touryst is a soothing and relaxing experience thanks to the lovingly rendered voxel graphics and the (mostly) gentle gameplay, and despite some occasional moments of frustration, playing it really does feel like taking a mini-vacation.

You play as a moustachioed man in a loud shirt who is tasked with travelling between different island vacation spots and collecting cores that rest within the game's scant few monuments--essentially short dungeons. You move between beach parties under orange sunsets, lush tropical expanses, and Mediterranean tourist spots, before diving into murky underground caverns that contain jumping puzzles and non-violent boss encounters. It's a strange combination of elements, but The Touryst wears its strangeness on its sleeve.

This is, above all else, a game about the joy of a holiday. As you play, you unlock new islands to visit, and while each one is small, they also all have their own distinct flavor, as well as unique activities to discover and engage with. The superb voxel art style imbues each setting with personality and makes the simple act of sightseeing a pleasure. Simply existing in these beautiful locations is inherently enjoyable, and while each new setting won't take long to fully explore, I found walking around each one calming.

The monuments themselves contain puzzles and tests of your dexterity, and working your way through them is essential to unlock every island and complete the game's story. They're ultimately the least interesting part of the game, but they're certainly not without their charms. They can be quite challenging, but the key is usually to just remember that there's an optimal solution to the puzzles, even when it seems like they're just asking you to nail precise jumps. Often, how you're manipulating the camera to line up your angles and judge the space you're in is as important as your ability to control your trajectory; if you're messing a jump up often, it's because you haven't quite cracked what that room is asking of you.

Even so, every now and then, the game asks for a greater level of precision from your actions than the controls want to give you. The controls are a bit floaty for how small some of the platforms you're landing on are, and one jumping puzzle took me, at a conservative estimate, 25 attempts to get. The rooms inside monuments are viewed from an isometric perspective, which can make judging gaps difficult. Any situation that requires you to throw an object with great precision is frustrating too because of how the throwing arc works, but these moments of frustration only stick out because they are rare.

Outside of these moments, The Touryst is a game with a lot of chill. One island doesn't even have a monument at all--instead it has a movie theatre that shows a short highlight reel of moments from the rest of the game, an art gallery that you'll eventually populate with your own photography, and, best of all, a retro arcade with three cabinets. There's a racing game (based on the studio's own Switch game Fast RMX), a strange platformer, and a Breakout clone, all offering brief diversions that successfully sucked me in for an hour. Completing the high scores in these arcade games (and earning the arbitrary cash reward) is challenging, but there's something almost zen about a game that encourages you to waste your time like this--it perfectly captures my very specific childhood memory of discovering arcade machines in local pubs while on holiday and shovelling coins into them. The Touryst, appropriately, frames everything you do as an act of tourism.

Completing sidequests will earn you money, but cash is largely inconsequential to completing the game--by the time the credits rolled I had hundreds of coins left with very little to spend them on. The sidequests play into the shaggy nature of the game--you don't complete them because they're helpful, but because you want to see everything the game world has to offer. I spent a long time down a mine you encounter on one island, engaged with a spelunking challenge that lets you collect gems that can then be exchanged for money. I spent so much time down there not because I needed money--I never even traded the gems in. I did it because the mines are particularly enjoyable--they let you abseil down cliffs, swing between ledges, and even ride rickety minecarts as you delve deeper and deeper.

There are plenty of other activities scattered across The Touryst's small world. You can fix up a boring beach party, then liven it up further by buying new records for the DJ; you can show off your sporting prowess in surfing, soccer, and pull-up minigames; you can search the game world for photography subjects with the camera you're given early on, or hunt down several carefully hidden scrolls. The sidequests are often very simple and easy but watching as island life slowly shifts and changes based on your actions is a delight.

I found that as the credits rolled on The Touryst's strange ending, I was keen for them to finish so I could jump straight back in and mop up the remaining objectives. Admittedly, even if you want to do absolutely everything, The Touryst isn't very long—my completion total sat at 94% after five and a half hours. But perhaps it's better this way--after all, the best vacations often end before you've had a chance to really get homesick. It's the next best thing to an actual holiday.

Phoenix Point Review - The Life Aquatic

Wed, 12/18/2019 - 17:00

You've earned the right to mess with the XCOM formula when you're the person chiefly responsible for it. Julian Gollop was the co-lead designer on the original XCOM: UFO Defense in 1994, and Phoenix Point, from Gollop's new studio Snapshot Games, is a self-described spiritual successor to XCOM. At first it feels all too familiar: You play the eponymous private military organisation defending Earth from an alien threat, patching holes in the sinking ship via tactical combat and strategic upgrades. But Phoenix Point reinvents the formula in both big and small ways, sending changes rippling across the strategic map and tinkering with the nuts and bolts of close combat. Not every new idea is equally successful, though many of them are welcome, and in sum deliver a refresh that points the genre in an exciting new direction.

As with the first XCOM sequel, Terror from the Deep, the threat here comes from the ocean. A mysterious mist is creeping at the coast, luring people into the sea and returning them as Lovecraftian fish monsters--all scaly-skinned, newly betentacled, and packing crustaceous heat, an army of soldier crabs. Phoenix Point is joined in defending the planet by three ideologically distinct factions: New Jericho want to destroy the aliens, the Synedrion want to coexist with them, and the Disciples of Anu want to synthesize human and alien life. Many of the missions you undertake will inevitably involve offending at least one of the factions and so, no matter how impartial you to try to remain, eventually you're going to have to choose sides. It's a depressing, relevant example of humanity's failure to come together in the face of existential catastrophe.

On the world map, presented here as it was in the original XCOM as the Geoscape, a rotatable globe pockmarked with scouted points of interest, the mist is a red miasma slowing enveloping the planet, a Doomsday Clock ticking closer to midnight one continent at a time. This strategic layer runs in real time as your Phoenix squads fly from one flashpoint to the next, while you work on increasing base capacity, manufacturing new arms, and researching new military solutions. All the while the red mist spreads, escalating the danger as new nests appear and strangling your ability to fight back as faction outposts fall. It's the perfect visual representation of the odds you're facing and the seeming inevitability of defeat. Despite the abstraction, it's genuinely painful to see the mist consume a settlement you had heroically rescued only days earlier.

At a strategic level, Phoenix Point wants to let you pick your own path. The Geoscape is at the start shrouded in the fog of war. Through scanning nearby areas and aerial exploration it soon becomes a sprawling, cluttered morass of multi-coloured icons describing your own bases, factional havens, key quest destinations, potential scavenging sites, neutral colonies, alien nests, and other unidentified locations. You have considerable freedom in navigating your own route across this world. You can basically travel wherever you like and, when you arrive, you can usually decide whether or not to take on the mission you've encountered. Want to save this low-threat scavenging mission for some new recruits further down the line? Just hit abort and fly your veteran squad into more dangerous territory.

It's liberating, at least early on, as you jet around, scouting the map, picking and choosing your next mission. Yet by the time you have multiple squads traversing the globe, and you're juggling a handful of different flight paths across a Geoscape that has exploded into a galaxy of competing icons, that liberation is swamped by confusion. It's not that it's hard to tell what you could do next--important story missions and factional quests are highlighted--it's more that there are so many things to do that it's easy to lose yourself in endless distractions or worse, drown under an overwhelming wave of map markers.

Indeed, the chaotic, confounding clutter of the Geoscape is emblematic of some wider interface issues. The research screen throws every possible tech into a long list with scant attention given to how useful it might or where it might lead. There's a research order function, but you can only send one tech to the front of the queue, not adjust the order further down. Inventory management is a mess when it comes to comparing different weapons to equip and deciding which new gear to manufacture.

The the freeform structure of the Geoscape guarantees no two campaigns will play out alike. What those campaigns have in common, however, is a mentally exhausted player. You're pulled in so many directions. Two colonies are under attack in India but an alien nest needs eradicating in Malaysia. New Jericho wants to assist its research in China but the Synedrion wants you to sabotage Jericho's research lab in Australia. And all the while there are dozens of unexplored spots in Africa that you haven't even visited yet. But it’s worth battling through the stress and clutter to get to the combat.

What typically awaits at a destination is a bout of small-scale, turn-based combat. Occasionally you will stumble upon a simple narrative event that will give you a decision to make and readjust your resources or factional reputation in response, but for the most part, you will find yourself engaged in a firefight.

At a combat level, Phoenix Point is all about tactical flexibility. There are four primary classes--heavy, assault, sniper, and melee--but perk trees are semi-randomly rolled for each soldier, and you can also allow them to multi-class. This means no two soldiers have to be the same, and you have a lot of room to tailor each six-person squad to suit your preferred style of play. My first heavy was the typical tank character, lots of health and a big cannon, but later adopted a secondary class and would jet pack onto a roof and launch a few grenades to destroy the enemy's cover before switching to a sniper rifle to finish them off.

Many of the man-made structures on a map can be damaged and destroyed. Grenades and other heavy weapons can remove that pillar you were relying on for cover. Even the humble pistol can shoot through a thin wall, hitting anything that was on the other side and leaving them more exposed for a follow-up shot. My jet-packing heavy nearly bit the dust one time when the roof they'd landed on gave way in an explosion, dumping them into the room below where a nasty crab creature lurked. Fortunately, on the next turn, they were able to jetpack to safety out of the newly renovated ceiling.

When you take a shot, you aren't given a percentage chance to hit while some dice are rolled to see if you did any damage. Instead, bullet trajectories are said to be physically simulated, meaning if you can see something, you can hit it. There are two ways to take a shot. The default has you aiming generally at the centre of the target's mass. Take an aimed shot, though, and you're given a first-person view where what you point at is what you'll shoot. You can target an enemy's limbs or their weapon or even another object in the environment, and for the most part you're likely to hit it. There is a degree of fuzziness here--you'll see the crosshair surrounded by two rings, the inner one indicating where most of the shot(s) will hit and the outer accounting for any remainder--and the accuracy and damage of any particular shot is still affected by the weapon's range and other stats. But it's very satisfying to destroy an enemy's shield with one well-aimed sniper shot, then follow it up with an assault rifle round to the now-exposed head.

The ability to target specific limbs becomes vitally important as more diverse enemy types start populating the battlefield--you'll very quickly need to worry about more than those wielding shields. The sheer variety of enemy types and behaviours issues an interesting challenge every turn and have you constantly thinking about cover, height, range, support, supplies, teamwork and priorities. In addition, every enemy is susceptible to a well-aimed shot that cripples a specific limb, thus slowing its movement, nullifying its special ability, destroying its weapon or inhibiting its mode of attack. As a result there's so much more to think about in combat than just methodically moving your squad forward and shooting the enemy when they appear.

The flexibility is heightened by the action point system that provides more options than just moving and shooting. Every soldier has 4 APs, but different weapons and abilities use different amounts, and the ground a soldier can cover in 1 AP is affected by their speed stat. Two of my assault troops worked in perfect tandem: one was a shotgun expert with the speed to close quickly on their target and use a debuff that reduced the APs of nearby hostiles, the other hung back a bit, offering support with their longer-range rifle, entering overwatch every turn thanks to its cheaper cost, and running in with a medkit if the other took damage. Both characters started out the same, but the wildly different level-up choices I made for them, coupled with the capacity to spend their APs every turn on a mostly unique suite of options, meant they felt distinct--like characters whose behaviour I had authored and who I was personally responsible for. I'd invested in their stats, tweaking them in parallel to become complementary, and as a result, had become emotionally invested in them.

When you lose a soldier it hits hard, of course. Any soldier that goes down in a fight is permanently dead, and you have to recruit a novice to replace them. Yet while your emotional investment can never be fully recovered, the stat investment can be at least partially reclaimed. This is because experience points earned from completing missions is awarded to each individual soldier who participated and to a common pool. You're free to dip into this pool whenever you wish--maybe you just need a few more points to unlock that next tier perk you've had your eye on--but my strategy was to save the pool for new recruits. Every time I hired a new soldier I was able to level them up several times before they had pulled a trigger. It's a clever, flexible system that means veteran troop losses are a setback, but never a debilitating or irredeemable one.

The tactical combat doesn’t suffer from the clumsy interface design that plagues the strategic layer. There are convenient overlays informing you of movement ranges, AP consumption, and targeting possibilities, it’s easy to scroll between different terrain heights, and everything requires deliberate selection so you don’t end up performing an action you didn’t intend. However I did very, very occasionally run into a problem where the overlay would tell me I had line of sight from a certain tile if I moved there, only to move there and discover I couldn’t actually see the enemy. And after dozens of hours of play, I still have no idea why my soldiers would sometimes start a new mission with their weapons needing reloading, nor indeed how to reload them when not in a mission. But these feel like trivial concerns in the grander scheme of what is an overall robust combat engine.

Phoenix Point has plenty of bold new ideas for the XCOM genre, but not all of them have the same level of shine. It can feel a bit unwieldy at times, a bit less user-friendly than you'd hope. But it's a game that feels more concerned with experimentation than perfection, that's more interested in discovering new paths to take than walking one that's already well-trodden. As a hybrid tactical/strategy game, it's dynamic and deep with the occasionally disorientating misfire along the way. As a contribution to the genre XCOM first defined, it's a well-aimed shot.

Darksiders: Genesis Review - Lucy And The Horsemen

Wed, 12/11/2019 - 00:42

Hell is teeming with demonic masters tricked into subservience by Lucifer himself--or Lucy, as Strife affectionately calls him in Darksiders: Genesis. An isometric hack-and-slash bonanza, the latest instalment in the Darksiders series sees you puppeteer dastardly duo War and Strife in a combat-fueled romp filled with bombastic brawls, infernal abominations, and quippish one-liners.

The protagonistic pair form one cohesive half of the Four Horsemen--a parade of soldiers born from the ungodly union of angels and devils. And yet Genesis' story is wonderfully witty and whimsically warm. War is a belligerent and straight-laced gladiator who takes everything very, very seriously, and Strife has brilliant fun hurling droll jests his way. "Knock knock," opens one exchange. "What?" replies War. "You're supposed to say 'Who's there?'," retorts an incredulous Strife. "Why would I give away my location? I would simply smash through the door and face my assailant," reasons War.

The pair are so radically different to one another that the writing really has room to blossom into something special. To make this even more charming, the majority of Genesis' cutscenes unfold in a comic-book panel aesthetic--much like previous Darksiders games. The animation is stylish and memorable, and helps to ensure that Genesis never gets too grave--quip after quip, panel after panel, it's a game about Hell and the end of the world that maintains a delightful degree of charisma and warmth. It's also spectacularly garish, to the extent that its inherent campiness becomes its biggest strength.

Each of the two characters has their own distinct playstyle, both of which are excellent. War uses his gargantuan sword, Chaoseater, to tussle with enemies at close-range--he's a big, hulking bruiser that enjoys a good knock. Strife, on the other hand, has a pair of trusty pistols and excels when quickly moving about the battlefield. Like his wit, his movements are sharp and precise, and he's very well-suited to players who enjoy pummeling bosses in between choreographed sequences of fancy footwork. Being able to switch between the two on the fly allows for a massive amount of diversity in combat.

Although the genesis of Genesis is the relationship between its joint protagonists, these differences in combat style are what make it shine as a Darksiders game. It may seem as if this is budget Darksiders--an isometric camera angle and a short but sweet story. It's the opposite. You emphatically feel like a member of the Four Horsemen. As you learn new abilities--called Enhancements in Genesis--you gradually gain access to combos so devastating that it makes sense for the masters of Hell to fear you. War can channel lightning into his sword and unleash it upon his enemies, whereas Strife can shoot legitimate lava bullets from his pistols--he's half-gunslinger, half-volcano.

You have two different variables to pay attention to while you're in the thick of it: Health and Wrath. The former is a straightforward vitality meter, whereas the latter is tied to special abilities. For every Wrath bar you fill, you can use one of these powers--maybe you'll do a flaming somersault or create a clone of yourself to serve as a decoy while you leg it back to safety.

However, the real fun starts when you fill your Wrath meter right up to the brim and then some. After achieving this, you gain access to your Chaos mode, which causes you to temporarily become a colossus. War lights himself and his sword on fire, while Strife gets a gun that seems to shoot space dust. If you're clever, you can deprive a boss of half their health with a single Chaos transformation. It's an excellent mechanic because it's difficult to obtain and necessitates a lot of risk--you can't spend your Wrath bars on standard abilities if you're saving up to go Plus Ultra, Darksiders style. However, when you pull it off, you become a force of nature wreaking havoc on the hordes of hell and reminding their infernal lords that the Nephilim are not to be trifled with. It's almost as if they seem to forget that one of you was literally named after war itself.

You improve your Health, Wrath, and general attack power by investing in what's more of a skill map than a skill tree. Because it's refreshingly easy to navigate this skill map, you can experiment with a variety of combat styles without having to pump hours into trying different permutations. Although each character only has a single, distinct build, the wide range of enhancements and abilities available to you begets combat that never truly becomes boring or laborious, which is a massive testament to why the game actually works. One minute you're using your sword to rip up the ground and shoot a shock wave at your opponent, the next you're putting on a red Iron Man-esque gauntlet and smashing hordes into bits from above. The more fights you pick, the more the game opens up for you in terms of varied belligerence.

However, the isometric camera angle is not well-suited to the game's platforming sections whatsoever, which means that any puzzle that requires mobility to solve is a nightmare, especially on mouse and keyboard. At times, movement seems entirely arbitrary, as moving right in one section might have the same directional effect as moving up in another, even when tied to the exact same angle and situation. Most of Genesis' puzzles are intuitive, especially in co-op where the gear system really gets to shine--War and Strife each have access to three tools, which are used for problem-solving. However, once traversal comes into the question, puzzles become chores, and the momentum of an otherwise excellent game slows to a disheartening standstill.

There are also quite a few bugs in Genesis, but they're relatively minor and can be easily rectified. I got stuck in rocks on at least five occasions, but because the game auto-saves so regularly, a soft reboot fixed these pretty quickly. However, a more serious bug can occur in co-op. The host is fine, but the person playing in their friend's server can automatically switch to first-person mode, which isn't even supposed to be an option as far as I know. Being forced to wander around a world designed for third-person in first-person is far less than ideal. This issue can be fixed by summoning your horse and immediately dismounting it, but you can't summon a horse in dungeons or tight spaces, and even though these bugs may be co-op specific, they break the game. A shame, really, because co-op is where puzzles become complex endeavors that necessitate proper teamwork, and where boss fights encourage synergized button-mashing instead of 100 slightly-concentrated mouse-clicks a minute--not that rapid clicks are a bad thing in a good hack-and-slash. It's just more satisfying to strategize and quickly dispatch enemies with a partner.

Despite these issues, Darksiders: Genesis is a very worthy prequel to an established series. The combat is excellently engaging, the writing is genuinely funny without having to try too hard, and the art is consistently captivating. It's a shame about the dodgy camera angle--this is a game that doesn't really benefit from an isometric perspective for the most part, despite the hack-and-slash aspects being easy to control in top-down view. But at the end of the day, Darksiders: Genesis has a clear identity. It's not the most experimental game in the world, but it takes a variety of tried-and-tested systems and executes them with bravado and grace.

Shovel Knight: King Of Cards Review - Royal Refinement

Tue, 12/10/2019 - 23:35

King of Cards, the third (and final) Shovel Knight expansion, feels almost like a full-blown sequel. Starring the memorable King Knight, it harkens back to the gameplay of the original Shovel Knight adventure in both structure and execution. It's filled to the brim with varied and challenging levels, each more refined and focused than before by building on the many established strengths of this enduring franchise.

Shovel Knight: King of Cards acts as a prequel to the events of the original game in the same way that Specter of Torment did, following King Knight prior to his induction in the Order of No Quarter. It's a humorously written tale that gives more insight into the petulant and egotistical (but consistently entertaining) self-proclaimed King as you battle across the land to claim your namesake through a frivolous Joustus tournament. This is a new card game sweeping the kingdom, controlled by three of its best players in each of the regions you'll visit and claim for yourself.

King Knight's adventure falls squarely into standard Shovel Knight fare, with King of Cards feeling the most similar in structure to the original adventure out of the three expansions and the closest to a sequel in its scope. There's the same Super Mario Bros. 3-styled overworld map that you can work through in various ways. You can choose the shortest path to the region's boss battle or enjoy exploring by using alternative exits in levels to create paths to secret stages filled with valuable loot or new weapons and abilities. Side boss battle and optional treasure challenges pop up on the map to tempt you into treading off the beaten path, rewarding your detours with unsurprisingly stratifying platforming puzzles or nail-biting bouts that the series has become known for.

Stages adopt familiar themes from the series, from the neon-soaked labs of Plague Knight to the gold-laden walls of King Knight's future abode. Revisiting these areas is initially welcoming--a trip back to a familiar world--and does make some of the newer stages stand out more, given that you're not seeing them for potentially the fourth time like with the returning ones. King of Cards often feels like a celebration of Shovel Knight and its world, but it can at times feel overindulgent in its return to boss fights and stages you may have experienced multiple times already. While stages are altered enough to feel different beyond their visual makeup to account for King Knight's new moves, boss fights can feel much easier given that their attack patterns and abilities haven't really changed since their first appearance in the original Shovel Knight.

King Knight's own move set does make combat and platforming feel fresh, though, while also feeling faithful to the original flow of Shovel Knight. His standard attack is a horizontal dash and bash, flinging you into the air on contact with an enemy or a wall. When launched into the air, King Knight pirouettes into a dangerous spin, letting you hop between enemies while damaging them until you hit the ground again. It's reminiscent of Shovel Knight's vertical attack without the added benefit of choosing when you can enact it. Instead you have to carefully connect multiple dashes with reactive movements in the air that keep the chain going for the best effect, studying enemies' various attack patterns to pick the right moment to engage and the best window to get out. It gives combat a much quicker pace than any other previous protagonist, and retains the satisfaction of it despite the recycled enemies.

This puts a different spin on platforming, with each stage being suitably designed to challenge your understanding of King Knight's unique movement. While Specter Knight was able to wall jump and glide through lanterns, King Knight feels more restrained. Most walls can be dashed into to initiate a higher jump, but levels will routinely shake things up with elements that both restrict and change the way you perform this simple action. Slippery, ice-slicked platforms add a dangerous momentum to each of your landings, for example, while walls overgrown with vines prevent you from jumping against them from certain angles. Learning when you can chain together dashes and jumps and using the opportune positioning of enemies to bounce between long stretches of dangerous falls feels great. The designs of each stage make you feel like you're constantly on the brink of failure, but are forgiving enough to make each attempt feel fair. It's incredibly rewarding to push past each of King of Cards' challenging platforming gauntlets, and the varied level design makes consistent use of your limited movement in inventive ways.

King of Cards features many, many stages for you to tackle, and scratches the same sort of itch previous entries in the series have. But it also features an entirely new avenue of play in Joustus. Central to King Knight's quest is a card game that has captivated the land, filling taverns in each of the game's unique areas with challenging opponents. In Joustus, you use a deck of 16 cards to strategically move cards you've placed on a board onto green gems. Once the board is full and a player can no longer make a move, the player with the most cards on the gems on the board wins. Unlike card games such as Hearthstone or Gwent, Jousts feels more akin to strategic games like Go. It's less about individual card abilities and more about using specific cards to push around ones on the board, where thinking three steps ahead of your opponent and anticipating how they might affect the board is paramount to victory.

Vendors and beaten opponents will reward you with cards to build your deck, with their unique abilities adding to the complexity of the matches that follow. Initially, cards are inscribed with arrows that indicate directions that can push others on the board, but it doesn't take long for them to include effects that let you destroy other cards, alter their player allegiance, or push them much further than the standard single square. It takes some time to adjust to the rhythm that Joustus demands, especially when thinking about how your cards on the board can be moved around into inescapable areas. But it's a challenging side activity that acts as a rewarding respite from the demanding platforming, balancing the overall pacing of King of Cards.

Standard progression isn't gated by Joustus if you choose not to engage with the card game at all, despite the rewards attached to them. Vendors even offer cheats that turn each Joustus game into a trivial affair, letting you reap the rewards without needing to engage with deck construction and card collection if you're just here for standard Shovel Knight fare. It's easy enough to ignore the cheats if you want to feel the rush of a strategically demanding game of Joustus, but not obscure enough to miss if you're just looking for an easy way out.

Whether you're challenging foes at a table in a tavern or bashing them into oblivion with your scepter, King of Cards is like comfort food if you already have a taste for Shovel Knight. It doesn't stray from its established formula and often sticks closer to the format of the first game in the series rather than the more experimental expansions that came after it. And while its well-balanced platforming and demanding combat are a treat, its use of existing boss fights and enemies with little to no change in their mechanics saps some of the surprise out of these exciting encounters. It's been a persistent issue in each of Shovel Knight's expansions, but the King of Cards' attention to level design and deeply engrossing gameplay do help mask it better than before. If this is meant to be a farewell to Shovel Knight's first adventure, it goes off with all the spectacle and confetti it deserves.

Life Is Strange 2: Episode 5 Review - Beyond Good Or Evil

Mon, 12/09/2019 - 23:34

It's been some time since the explosive events of Haven Point, and even longer since Sean and Daniel Diaz's journey first began in Seattle, but the end of Life Is Strange 2 has finally arrived, and with it a satisfying conclusion to the tumultuous and emotional story we've witnessed thus far. Episode 5 abandons the goofy villains and cliches of Episode 4 and reconnects us with what makes Life is Strange 2 work best: nuanced characters, deep relationships, and a narrative that is unafraid to show the ugly side of present-day America while still spending plenty of time unearthing the beauty that lies beneath.

No matter what kind of relationship you've built between Sean and Daniel so far, the game kicks off with the two camping out under the stars in Arizona, during which Sean says to Daniel, "I love you no matter what happens, okay?" This scene illustrates a significant strength of the series which has carried through from Episode 1--while you can guide Sean's choices and morality and the impact that has on his little brother, no choice you make will change the love they have for each other. Even a low-morality Sean with a penchant for stealing who swears like a sailor will still love Daniel and protect him at all costs. The stellar performances delivered by each of the brothers continue to make their connection believable and their sibling affection palpably relatable.

Sean's spot-on characterization makes him a fantastic conduit to understanding the beauty in the characters you meet, the pain in the vile circumstances he so often finds himself in, and the overwhelming adoration he has for his brother. You love Daniel because Sean does, do your best to trust your estranged mother because Sean does, and feel palpable terror in the face of the worst of America because Sean does. His sense of self remains intrinsic to any version of his character and that is vital to your ability to empathize with him. As for the impact you can have, Daniel's personality can shift depending on how you've treated him and the choices you've made in previous episodes. He will have increased or decreased morality, and that trait will drastically change how he acts in the dramatic final moments of the series. As a result, your ending to the story will likely feel earned and satisfyingly in line with the events in your journey.

The inclusion of Sean and Daniel's mother is explored in more depth and with greater nuance than in Episode 4, where her appearance was overshadowed by the tonally inconsistent plot. The layers of her character and preference for isolation are cleverly mirrored by the first major location you explore in Episode 5, called Away, a community of people who have shunned society in favour of a self-sufficient life in the desert. The strength of Life is Strange 2's writing buoys up its new characters in the final episode, most of whom feel complex and well rounded. You meet a middle-aged gay couple whose familes' homophobia has driven them to a quieter life outside the city, a familiar face from Life is Strange 1 who gets the chance to exhibit the growth they appeared capable of in the previous series, and Diego and Carla, a Mexican man and his pregnant wife trying to build a better life by immigrating to America.

The latter example in particular is a testament to another of Life is Strange 2's greatest strengths: its willingness to ask complicated questions, amplify marginalized voices, and attempt to explore the complicated sociopolitical climate of present-day America. This difficult undertaking isn't always executed flawlessly, and some of the more extreme representations of xenophobic Americans can come off a little on-the-nose. But the larger themes of politics, racism, and differing perspectives as a result of ethnicity and privilege are effective due to the nuance and believability behind Episode 5's characters. Because of this, it's the quieter moments that deliver the themes most effectively, such as when the Diaz brothers arrive at the Mexican border and Daniel asks if there is also a towering border wall between America and Canada. Or when a particularly tense moment in the game is broken up by Sean meeting Carla and Diego, who engage with Sean entirely in Spanish and explain why they're so desperate to flee Mexico to provide a better life for their child.

However, some interactions in Episode 5 remain a little too hard to swallow. An entire encampment of social outcasts deciding they aren't phased by a 10-year-old with superpowers is unlikely, and sometimes otherwise intelligent characters seem to have inconsistent lapses in judgment or logic. That said, ignoring the social impact of Daniel's powers lets the plot to move forward without belabouring well-trodden ground, which returns the focus to the characters whose stories often paint a relatable picture of people's attempt to do right by others as they do right by themselves.

The impact of Episode 5's interactivity also falls flat in some places. Despite some heart-pounding events late in the game, the use of Daniel's powers doesn't amount to much as a mechanic. While awe-inspiring to behold in a cutscene, there is little weight behind actually using them. You mostly point at very clearly highlighted interactables and watching Daniel unleash his power on them. Save for a section with some variable choices late in the game, this is almost always too simplistic, as was the case in previous episodes, making the act of using Daniel's powers feel less exciting than it should, even in the emotionally-charged final moments.

The multiple endings to the series are significantly different and largely reflected how I had interacted with Daniel in both of my playthroughs. Both endings I reached were truly satisfying in their own way, and in the case of my main playthrough, heart-wrenchingly sad. There are no easy answers which feels appropriate, but there is positivity to be found in each possible conclusion. Coming to the realization that there is unlikely to be a purely happy ending for the Diaz brothers is disheartening, but it works to solidify the thematic undercurrents of Life is Strange 2's story--the troubled state of the current sociopolitical climate, identity, brotherhood, and what it means to be American.

Saying goodbye to the Diaz brothers is as difficult as it was to leave Chloe and Max in the original Life Is Strange, which is a testament to the extraordinary strength of the game's character building. Though the story of the Diaz brothers arrives at some kind of ending, the larger implications of the story and its politically-charged themes raise more questions than they can possibly hope to answer, though to even ask them feels like an admirable feat. As the game itself states within the blog of a gone-but-not-forgotten ally from Episode 1, "It's not a happy ending, but maybe it can be a hopeful one."

Audica Review - Electronic Gun Music

Fri, 12/06/2019 - 23:35

Before it made games that just dropped the pretense altogether and used plastic instruments, Harmonix was already the master at turning your average, run-of-the-mill controller into an instrument of musical chaos in Frequency and Amplitude. That same ethos is the engine driving Audica, which seeks to do the same for VR motion controllers. It's a game with a killer idea, but the execution is just short of the mark.

At its core, Audica is a VR shooting gallery that makes music. In a world where stylishly slicing boxes with lightsabers is the current gold standard for rhythm games, stylishly making music with blasters was pretty much the logical--even welcome--next step on paper. Your instruments are two neon laser tag guns. Colored targets fly toward you to line up with a circle on a specific beat in a song, and your job is to shoot that target on the beat with the correct colored gun for the maximum amount of points. The game does throw curveballs at you--some targets require you to hold your gun sideways, for example. But, by and large, Audica's premise is simple: make music with laser pistols. Despite this simplicity, though, making beats with bullets feels great in Audica.

Your lasers feel appropriately futuristic; by default, they're cool, reflective cannons with mirrored blades attached to the barrel that convey a sense of power. That feeling of power is all the more pronounced once you start firing away at targets and get in sync with the ebb and flow of a song's note pattern. Every successful hit generates a slick, track-specific "thwap!" that punctuates every note.

Screenshots were provided by the publisher

If, for whatever reason, the default sound on a track doesn't work for you, you do get the option to customize the effect. That same level of customization carries over to the calibration options, with some extremely user-friendly settings to account for your sense of rhythm or lack thereof. That's even more crucial in virtual reality, and Audica aces it, weaving the calibration tools in with the beat and targeting tutorials rather elegantly before you even start the game proper. Even with the calibration, the game is extremely forgiving when it comes to perfectly hitting a target dead center, though perfect aim does help achieve the best possible scores on a song. Still, just jumping into a track and firing at will is a blast because Audica is so approachable.

Audica's big, pervasive caveat, however, is that you better like fast-paced, thumping EDM from the last five years, because there's really nothing else in the game. Constricting the pool of music causes all of the tracks to bleed together after long sessions. The DLC helps, bringing some bigger star power and at least some element of chill to the soundtrack with songs like Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger" and Billie Eilish's "bad guy," but these are also some of the trickiest songs in the game, even at lower difficulties. More than anything, those tracks are a perfect showcase of how versatile the note charting and game design can be given a bigger musical palette to work from, and highlight just how much less of that creativity gets a spotlight in the main tracklist.

Also, even by rhythm game standards, Audica is too tricky for its own good. Far too often, notes are there to taunt, trip up, and challenge instead of letting you revel in the music being played. Audica's challenges often come from deliberately destroying your groove, creating off moments that don't feel like you're supposed to get in sync with the music being created by your shots and swipes. It feels like trying to win a dance competition, and every few seconds, someone tosses an orange at your head.

In this case, that orange can take the form of frequent errant notes, targets outside your field of view, or modifiers that you can't turn off, many of which ask the unnatural--a certain modifier that requires you move your arms an arbitrary amount during the song is probably the most egregious of them. On Advanced and Expert modes, you still get a wide berth to hit the targets anywhere, but it doesn't matter if those targets appear off the beat and ask more of you than responding to the rhythm. When the game isn't getting in its own way--and the note patterns are complex, but follow a certain rhythmic logic--it does feel empowering, like you're in a breezy, futuristic version of Baby Driver. In particular, tracks like KD/A's "Pop Stars" that flit back and forth between poppy melodies and impactful hip-hop line deliveries lend themselves extremely well to punctuating every note with a pull of the trigger. But this isn’t sustained across all of Audica's tracks. Obstacles are far too arbitrary too often for that.

Mostly, though, you just can't help but get the feeling of playing a grand experiment, and it's a shame that Audica doesn't land as well as Harmonix's other rhythm games. There's a lot that's simply, innately cool about Audica's concept, the very idea of using weapons to make music, but once you reach a certain level of proficiency, the enjoyment dries up faster than it should.

Shenmue 3 Review - From A Forgotten Time

Tue, 12/03/2019 - 18:07

Shenmue III is an anomaly, a game that feels like it doesn't really exist. It's as though it was beamed here from a parallel universe where the Dreamcast was an ongoing success and early-aughts game design remained the norm decades later. The truth is much more banal, of course: It's the result of a (sometimes rocky) crowdfunding campaign and the hopes and dreams of a fervent fanbase. Unfortunately, while it's fascinating as a weird curiosity from a long-gone era of gaming, it's simply not that fun to actually play.

Shenmue III picks up right where the last game left off--as though 18 years haven't passed since players wrapped up Ryo Hazuki's last adventure--resolving Shenmue II's cliffhanger in a way that's surprisingly unexciting after such a long stretch. Once that's over with, Shenmue III's story revolves around a small martial-arts village in the middle of China (and later, a larger harbor town), as he investigates various happenings, interacts with the populace, and engages in time-wasting activities like mini-games, gambling, scrounging for herbs, and levelling up his fighting skills. In other words, it's Shenmue.

In terms of setting, Shenmue III succeeds quite admirably in making the world pleasant to be in. There are some gorgeous vistas both in and outside of Bailu village, making the day-to-day strolls warm and inviting. The village itself is a charming setting, too; it's filled with interesting landmarks that give it character, like a massive sunflower garden and a small collection of gambling facilities on the riverbed. Niaowu, the port city where the game's latter half takes place, also feels like a real and engaging place, with the massive variety of shops you'd expect from a trading city on the water. The characters who live in these places also give them a nice flavor; NPCs all look distinct, have individual quirks and personalities, and are easy to recognize--which is nice when you have to find and talk to specific people in the absence of quest markers.

Shenmue III retains a lot of old favorite activities from previous titles--collecting capsule toys, gambling with games like Lucky Hit and turtle races, simple arcade mini-games like whack-a-mole, and the all-important Shenmue staple of forklifting--while also introducing a handful of new activities. You can wander around the countryside looking for herbs, selling and trading sets for money and valuable scrolls that teach Ryo new attacks, or you can kill a few hours fishing and hope your day's catch will net you some money and a cool prize. If you need some fast cash, you can do manual labor and chop wood in a brief minigame. And if self-improvement is your goal, there's always spots to train and raise your martial arts proficiency.

Exploring all of the side activities and enjoying the atmosphere of the locations in Shenmue III is fun, but it highlights one of the game's biggest problems: How utterly boring and unengaging the main story is. Ryo is still a dull-as-dishwater character who we're told is motivated by a sense of vengeance and justice, but his wooden dialogue and complete lack of a personality totally undermine any sense of urgency or intrigue this ongoing martial-arts drama might have. It doesn't help that the main plot moves like molasses, often requiring repeated, tedious wandering and interaction to find the character or place you need to get a tiny sliver of information that moves the plot along ever-so-slightly and unnaturally gating you off from places.

For example, It takes hours to find a pair of thugs at the game's beginning that you probably could have chased down in minutes if you were allowed to enter the area they're in from the get-go. Usually games gate off areas in order to better pace out the narrative they're trying to tell, but nothing interesting happens in the hours between the game's beginning and the confrontation with the thugs. I found myself frequently opting to do everything except what I needed to do to advance the story, not because the mini-games were particularly amazing (though they are quite satisfying), but simply because the story itself was so unengaging that I preferred to spend my time doing practically anything else instead of moving it along.

It's not just the pacing of Shenmue III that's a holdover from the Dreamcast era, either. There's all sorts of mechanics that, seen through a modern lens, are downright nonsensical and only serve to make the game less fun. For example, there's the stamina system: Ryo has a stamina bar that continuously drains even if he does so much as stands around, falling significantly faster if you choose to do activities like training, working, or even just running to get to a place more quickly (since fast travel is limited). Ryo needs to eat constantly in order to refill it throughout the day, and woe be to you if you stumble into a fight with less-than-ideal stamina, since it doubles as your life bar. In a game where exploration is a focus, it's a baffling mechanic that only frustrates.

Then there's the dialogue, which is every bit as unnatural and awkward as it was in previous games. If for some reason you find yourself in a conversation you didn't want to be in, you can't just cancel or even button-mash out of it--you're going to have to listen to someone babble on until Ryo clumsily apologizes for bothering them and escapes. Since you're often in situations where you have to bother everyone you see to find a person with the info you need, you're going to hear a lot of pointless blather. While there are some fun characters with cute personality quirks that are entertaining to engage with, a lot of the dialogue seems like banal filler meant to make conversation seem substantial when it really isn't.

The worst element of Shenmue, however, continues to be the combat, which is every bit as clunky and unsatisfying as it was back in the Dreamcast days. You're forced into an awkward angle where it's hard to see everything around you (which is awful when you have more than one opponent), the button combinations needed to perform various skills don't flow together well, and it simply feels laggy and unresponsive as a whole. You can "cheat" somewhat and simply do training exercises to level up your strength and stamina if you want to struggle a bit less with fighting, but it still doesn't serve to make the combat itself any more fun.

Shenmue III has its moments. It delivers on the promise of creating interesting and engaging new environments for Ryo and friends to explore and play around in. Yet, I can't help but think that the game's dogged determination to retain the same "feel" of its Dreamcast ancestors at any cost hurts it immensely. The creative team seems determined to not move anything forward substantially when it comes to Shenmue--including the story, which ends on yet another unfinished cliffhanger. Shenmue III is certainly an interesting game thrown out of time, but that doesn't mean that it's always enjoyable to play.

Blacksad: Under The Skin Review - Dog Days

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 08:00

It is to damn with faint praise to admit my favourite part of Blacksad: Under the Skin happens within the pause menu. Specifically, the menu option called "Progress." Here you can browse a comic book that tells the story so far, its speech bubbles and illustrated frames altered to reflect the choices you’ve made. The major plot threads remain intact, but you can weave subtle changes. Once the end credits have rolled, the final comic is a tangible reminder of the course you charted throughout the game.

It’s my favourite part of the game not just because it is a meaningful nod towards Blacksad’s origin as a comic book series--created two decades ago in Spain, written in French, and set in a version of 1950s America where all people are depicted as humanoid animals. It’s my favourite part of Blacksad because it gets to the heart of what Blacksad is about: Blacksad himself. It’s a shame such a strong central character finds himself in the middle of a merely competent noir-detective story with a couple of neat ideas and a distinct lack of pizzazz.

Like its source material, the game leans very heavily, if superficially, into the stock imagery of noir fiction. You know the drill: An attractive woman walks into the office of a down-on-his-luck private eye while well-tailored men are beaten up in dark alleyways by other well-tailored men. There’s a trip to the docks at night, a tense poker game against a group of gangsters, and the underbelly of every animal is even more seedy than you imagined, especially the rhinoceros.

In the midst of all this is John Blacksad, the implausibly-named feline private investigator who, when the game opens, finds himself working a tawdry case to expose a cheating husband. This early scene sets the tone and allows you to begin colouring in your version of Blacksad. The husband, furious at having been caught in the act of infidelity, confronts Blacksad and, after violence fails, offers him 10 times what his wife was paying in order to keep quiet. You can choose whether to take the money or not--the money itself is ultimately irrelevant and actually spending it is outside the scope of this story. Determining the character of the man is the whole point.

Later, you have the opportunity to tell the wife the truth of the affair or to keep your promise to the husband, and a box will pop up in the top left corner of the screen, Telltale-style, to inform you whether you’ve lied or accepted a bribe or betrayed a promise depending on the precise sequence of events. Blacksad begins the game as a heartbroken man (his lover was recently killed) and a struggling gumshoe (the bills are piling up in his tiny ramshackle office), but from this starting point you’re given a good deal of freedom to shape his future.

The new case gets underway via a set of mechanics that are staples of the adventure genre, but lack some of the refinements of recent years. Blacksad walks around each location and interacts with hotspots to look at objects and provide a brief observation, pick up items for later use, or talk to people and ask them questions about the case. It’s not a point-and-click interface, however; it uses direct control over Blacksad and he is, rather surprisingly for a cat, a cumbersome figure to move about.

Hotspots only appear when Blacksad moves near them, and they often disappear if he walks too far past them or slightly turns away from them. As a result, navigating a location and revealing all its interactable items can prove a finicky, frustrating process. Time is never of the essence in these scenes, so you’re never punished for being too slow. But you’re never assisted either; Blacksad walks very slowly, and there’s no run modifier or option to quickly exit a screen you’ve already walked across a dozen times. In the mid-game, there’s even a room you must explore in darkness, with only the unreliable light of a Zippo to guide you towards the vital, erratically appearing hotspots. It’s infuriating.

Very little of Blacksad is skippable. You can’t speed up dialogue during conversations. Mashing all the buttons during cutscenes does nothing. When Blacksad looks at a photo on the wall, for example, the camera zooms in on it and then ponderously pans across to a second photo next to it, Blacksad’s inner monologue noting something about the situation. You can’t skip the sequence even if you’ve accidentally triggered the hotspot a second time. I’m a patient player, but Blacksad forces you to move at its pedestrian pace, and it strained even my generous limits.

The investigation fares better when the interrogations commence. The conversation wheel comes in two varieties: The first are a sort of standard, "just the facts, ma’am" set of questions that let Blacksad get a feel for what the other person knows, and the second option provides an opportunity for you to express what Blacksad himself is thinking. The latter set is often how you get to shape Blacksad’s character and, crucially, you only have a few seconds to make the choice.

Conversations can feel quite tense, especially as they go back and forth between timed and non-timed sets of responses. You’re always on your toes, never quite sure when you’re going to be called upon to make a split-second decision about what exactly is going on in Blacksad’s head. It’s effective because, from Under the Skin's opening scene, you’re aware that the game will remember what you said and remind you of your previous decisions when you say something down the line that’s consistent or inconsistent with them.

Two other, somewhat more novel mechanics come to the fore during your investigation. The first plays upon the heightened senses of a cat. At certain prescribed moments you can activate Blacksad’s cat sense and view the world in black-and-white slow motion from a first-person perspective. The idea here is that you’re able to hear, smell, and see things that someone other than a cat wouldn’t pick up on. In practice, all you’re doing is swinging the camera around until you’ve highlighted what you need to find. The slow-motion effect in these sections lends a degree of drama that the scenes might otherwise not possess, but it doesn’t enhance the feeling you’re doing any sort of extraordinary detective work.

What does a much better job of that is the second uncommon feature. Blacksad adds vital clues and important questions to a sort of mental map of the case. You can combine two or more of these to verify a particular detail, rule something out, or suggest a new path to probe. The game will prompt you when you’ve collected enough clues to make a deduction so you’re not constantly opening the menu up and trying things out. In addition, the clues as written do a good job of providing just enough of a hint to nudge you in the direction of which ones to combine, without blatantly giving the game away. Though it’s possible to brute force the correct combinations since there are never more than ten clues to consider at any moment, you’ll be doing a disservice not only to a clever system but to yourself. Putting two pieces of information together, that you suspect clears up an important part of the case, and seeing Blacksad smile and give you a hearty thumbs up to indicate that you did so correctly… man, it’s a marvellously simple and effective way of making the player feel smart.

Effective is a pretty good way of describing Blacksad as a detective game. As a noir detective game, however, it struggles. No matter that this is a world full of cats, dogs, wolves, lizards, rhinos, and horses going about their lives as people, Blacksad’s New York is well-trodden material. The main story does manage to twist and turn in unexpected ways, and the payoff, at least in terms of the central whodunnit mystery, is satisfying. Less successful are the attempts at building a larger world beyond the immediate case. There are gestures towards the racism and sexism in this society--and by implication, modern America--but they're just that, a gesture. There's no follow-up or investigation of these issues; they're just set dressing.

It also lacks a coherent noir style. Blacksad himself offers up a decent take on the noir lead, with his voiceover commentary laced with weary cynicism and flashes of tender empathy. There’s the expected sultry sax soundtrack which, coupled with numerous long, lingering shots of cigarette smoke wafting into the air, ensures everything feels like it’s been smothered in a sticky heat haze. But everything else looks drab and dull and boringly conventional. There’s very little of the high contrast lighting and off-kilter camera angles that defined noir cinema. For a genre synonymous with style, it’s disappointing to see something so lacking in it.

Blacksad: Under the Skin works, it's a solid detective game that serves up a case worth cracking, a charismatic lead whose character you can shape in meaningful ways, and an investigation method that successfully wraps you in a brown trenchcoat. But when it doesn’t work you'll find yourself bogged down in the tedium of traipsing around another uninspired location, searching for that final wayward hotspot, and the atmosphere is sucked out of the room.

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