There’s an alluring sense of immediacy and simplicity to God Eater Resurrection. You jump into a mission knowing full well what your orders are, you carry out those directives, and you exfiltrate when the job is done. It’s the same kind of glamorized efficiency that makes spy fiction so appealing. The narrative device that improves on this premise is, of course, when things don’t go as planned, when the agent or squad must adapt to changing circumstances. It’s due to a shortage of these surprises, however, that God Eater Resurrection never transcends its safe, uncomplicated design.
Resurrection’s world is candy-wrapped around an anime-influenced aesthetic and the medium’s ever-growing fascination with urban dystopias. Along with the variety of environments, there’s a lot of creativity to be found in the design of the enemies you’re sent to destroy: four-legged beasts with faces of old men, living iron maidens, and large bipedal lizards with stylish helmets.
You play the newest member of a team of god-killing soldiers, a group of teens and 20-somethings who’ve managed to survive an apocalyptic event in which hostile demon-beasts dubbed “Aragami” took over the world. As with many teen-targeted manga-styled ensembles, the cast is a collection of distinct personalities with limited emotional capacities. All the tropes are here: the archetypically neurotic support teammate, the brooding all-business specialist, and the squad member whose bubbly, saccharine demeanor can be forgiven thanks to her usefulness in combat.
Your custom character fits right in as the rookie who sounds self-assured no matter what voice type you pick. Your squad’s confidence in the face of humanity’s likely extinction is complemented by the extreme designs of their multipurpose God Arc weapons. Not only are these tools of destruction often larger than the people who wield them, but these gunblades also eat Aragami--hence the "God Eater" name. These echo the kind of transformable armaments found in Monster Hunter and Vanquish, only they’re infused with the ferocity of the beasts they kill.
Resurrection’s faithfulness to the original PSP version, Gods Eater Burst, underscores its limitations. The original appealed to that specific on-the-go audience that enjoys brief play sessions. It’s a different set of expectations in the context of a console in a living room, where it feels more natural to tear through a dozen missions in one sitting. It’s unfortunate that you can’t take on multiple assignments in Resurrection without enduring the time-consuming process of returning to base to assess your rewards after every mission.
There isn’t depth in combat so much as there are multiple moments in a fight where you need to adapt to changes in an Aragami’s behavior. When it’s enraged, you keep your distance, and when it tries to escape, you give chase. It’s like a chess match where the opponent always gets to make the first move. While the majority of the sorties are involved, there’s little room for improvisation. You can pick up the pace of play by using attacks that capitalize on an enemy’s elemental weaknesses, using consumable enhancements, and, most significantly, using the God Arc to bite a chunk off the Aragami. These mid-conflict opportunities not only provide a temporary stat boost for your customized protagonist but to your teammates as well, provided you can spare a couple of seconds to shoot your buddies with Aragami-infused ammo. Yes, you have to fire at your squad. It's unusual, but it sure beats having to run up to them to enhance their abilities.
The straightforwardness of Resurrection’s missions is both its greatest strength and most frustrating weakness. There’s comfort in knowing what you’re getting into and in the specificity of your missions. Unfortunately, it takes less than a few dozen quests before monotony sets in. There’s a modicum of gratification in maxing out your gear to keep up with the increasing difficulty of every subsequent batch of missions, yet there’s also a palpable sense of routine, since the Aragami throw very few curveballs. This uncomplicated approach has one bright spot: It’s easy to manage your team, which is both self-sufficient and made up of meaningful contributors. Given that boss battles can reach a frenetic pace, it’s often more sensible to leave your buddies to their own devices.
The simplicity of the maps reinforces this level of ease. Resurrection avoids the Monster Hunter-style loading-screen tedium of chasing your prey from area to area. A ranged strike from anyone on your team will stop a fleeing Aragami. Rarely does a target use the terrain effectively enough to find respite for longer than a few seconds.
There’s a bit more depth to be found in Resurrection's customized gear and crafting systems. Player progression doesn’t rely on gaining experience through kills but rather on weapon upgrades and other improvements. The challenge lies in ensuring you’re well-rounded enough to have a countermeasure for every enemy type. It’s a compelling judgment game to build a small collection of melee weapons that address every possible Aragami weakness, whether that’s through crushing, piercing, or slashing attacks. Then you have to factor in the weight of each weapon in the field and to determine how much damage you can deal per second. The one downside? There’s no item or weapon so rare or exceedingly useful that would warrant replays of any operation. Aragami item drops and the mission-completion rewards are abundant enough that you’ll always have items to craft and gear to enhance.
Beyond crafting and buying new gear, there’s little reason to spend time at your base, despite the game’s implication to the contrary. Conversations with NPCs are mostly superficial, save for the occasional chat that triggers the next batch of missions. HQ is merely a poorly created illusion of a grander base of operations, especially given the organization’s in-game role in saving humanity.
For as much as Gods Eater Burst excelled in 2010, it’s since been outpaced by similar games. That includes prey mounting in Monster Hunter and a more engrossing atmosphere in Toukiden: Kiwami. There’s comfort to be found in the simple mission goals, but it’s impossible to ignore how repetitive they are--and how outdated they make Resurrection feel in practice.
Hardcore roguelike traditionalists may find a lot to like in Necropolis, which goes heavy on atmosphere with its spooky, retro-flavored environs and even heavier on tense combat with the threat of permadeath looming overhead. But there isn’t much beneath the surface. While Necropolis compels you to explore the underworld for a few hours, shallow design and frustration eventually make you eager to find that exit back to the surface.
Everything here emphasizes simplicity. Instead of creating a character, you get male and female rogues with slightly different looks and colors (and eerie glowing eyes beneath cowls) and the option of heading into the dungeon alone or with up to three buddies. Instead of diving into the usual fantasy-flavored epic saga, you presented with a straightforward objective: “here’s the Necropolis built by the Archmage Abraxis--try to get out of it alive.” The Necropolis is packed with procedural yet generic dungeon levels populated by a sparse roster of enemies that drop a limited amount of loot.
Necropolis’ visuals evoke the early days of 3D back in the mid-90s. The emphasis is on the big polygons and sharp edges that dominated gaming 20 years ago, when imagination was still required to bring settings like this to life. Some of this actually tips over the edge into the surreal and even a little spooky, with numerous odd touches. The audio is an eerie collection of piano plinks, horror-movie orchestral and techno surges like something out of a midnight fright film. Sound also includes distinctive, unsettling monster screams, plus the rumblings of a bizarre dungeon narrator called the Brazen Head, who comments on your life-and-death struggles like a game-show host.
Some of this old-school approach works. The graphics and sound are especially effective, giving the game a shot of nostalgia that seems appropriate for such an ancient genre. Dungeon chambers and corridors feature gloomy shadows, neon light effects, and even a few sci-fi touches--such as the pyramid robots that patrol the corridors, collecting loot and blowing up in your face. The look evokes Dungeons & Dragons by way of Tron. Even the flimsy storyline kind of works, thanks to the sarcastic Brazen Head. You always get the sense that nobody is taking the proceedings all that seriously, which works well in an arcade roguelike that’s more about clocking high scores than role-playing.
But at times, the game is unrelentingly traditional, slavishly sticking to old-school difficulty. Necropolis is extreme and unforgiving--permadeath is the default setting, not an option. Die here, and you go all the way back to the entrance and start over. The one saving grace is that you can get into a groove after the first couple of hours and come to grips with both the combat system and the way that crafting allows you to load up on health-replenishing food and potions that buff your combat skills. The game is always brutal, but at least it gives you a fighting chance to survive for a while as long as you’re smart and don’t rush heedlessly into combat.
Disappointingly, new weapons, armor, potions, arcane codexes, and the like are offered up with no identification at all. Even when you get to know the game’s limited stock of goodies and gear or use a scroll to identify this stuff, you still get nothing to tell you what they actually do beyond vague one-line descriptions. One type of sword, for instance, is described as "better to wield in combat than a rabbit". A codex called "Berzerking: Get That Party Started" is summed up with “Is hit. Is other hit. Soon, all hit. Much good.” Nothing comes with labeled stats, either, aside from a single digit denoting the level of the item in question. That means trial-and-error experimentation is almost always required when you want to discover if an item is something you want to use, or leave with the corpse of the bad guy who handed it off with his dying groan.
Battles are always intense, due to the specter of permadeath hanging over the entire game. Monster mobs increase with every level as you venture farther down into the dungeon. Enemy types may not be that varied, but the game provides plenty of skeletons, spectral thugs, robotic knights, and giant spiders to deal with, and they respawn freely enough that you always have to watch your back. Combat mechanics afford the easy and free-flowing ability to attack, dodge, and block. You can also chain combos together and hold a button to charge attacks. When you have a bit of breathing room, you can pull off satisfying whirling dervish-style sword assaults and Thor-like slams into the ground.
But battles can also spin out of control. Because of the way you push forward with every sword thrust, it’s all too easy to accidently go through or sidestep an enemy and end up behind them--which rewards your foe with a free shot or three before you can reposition. This can be bad news in heavy mob scenes, where a single mistake like this can get you killed very quickly. The camera also gets in the way. Move close to walls, and both your character and the enemies are instantly obscured, making you a sitting duck. All of these issues seem noticeably harder to manage with the default keyboard-and-mouse controls. Be sure to plug in a gamepad if you have one, since it makes combat a little easier to handle and the camera easier to manage with the help of the right stick.
Necropolis feels like a missed opportunity. Even though the game offers intense combat and an appealingly bizarre setting, there are just too many problems and limitations for it to hold your interest for very long. While the challenge inherent in the core roguelike formula adeptly applied here is enough all on its own to draw you in for multiple runs, you'll eventually tap out due to the weight of the grueling difficulty and repetition.
Update: We've updated our review to reflect the changes made to the PS4 and Xbox One versions of Kerbal Space Program. Please scroll to the bottom of the story to find the updated content. - PB, 7/26/2016, 12:42 PM PDT
Two astronauts are dead. And they represent one of my greatest achievements in a video game.
Of course it's terrible that the two Kerbals--an entire species of little green alien men who feel like an unholy combination of the Minions from Despicable Me and the Irken race from Invader Zim--are dead. I managed to keep them alive through disaster after disaster, spending hours ensuring to their survival in the cold black of space. Test missions were flown; probes collected scientific data; rockets would refuse to leave the ground and would explode or launch and then immediately tip over because the balance was wrong. These two died based on the collective knowledge of a thousand failures. And it was beautiful because they died crashing into the Moon. Sorry, the Mun.
It doesn't really cover it to say that Kerbal Space Program is a space sim. For one thing, no matter how serious things get, you're still playing in a world of little green cartoons, which the game never really reconciles with its overwhelming physical realism the further along you go. But for all the things that feel brain-bending and sciencey, there's still a mild sense of approachability, like the fact that trying to plot a flight path that puts you in orbit with a different planet is essentially a really touchy and precise game of Bop It. The game surpasses that categorization because of that sense of constant discovery and innovation. Making a mistake never felt like a punishment, as if the game had placed an insurmountable obstacle in front of me and laughed as I flailed wildly at it. It felt like growth. Failure is a teacher here, one that challenges you and doesn't compromise by handing you all the answers. But it is most certainly a teacher that wants nothing more than for you to find enlightenment.
As such, trying to nutshell Kerbal Space Program isn't a matter of straightforward "You win if you get here" goals. As far as I can tell, the game never stops, and an entire solar system waits out there to be explored. What KSP values above all is perseverance. Although all your scientists and pilots are little green men, the game is intrinsically human. You advance simply by being bold enough to try reaching a little higher, making your species' sphere of influence just a little larger with every attempt. If you manage to break the world's speed record, you're ready to try reaching the upper atmosphere and recording how the air is up there. If you get there, then maybe we can put a satellite even further. If the satellite can get up there, maybe an astronaut can. If we can reach space, we can reach our closest planetary neighbor. All that matters is that the experience is never wasted. Whether you transmit the knowledge using an antenna you attached to your spacecraft or you manage to land safely and the data can be recovered manually, Mission Control receives the experience, shown under a blanket stat of "Science" in-game. If the mission crashes and burns horribly, it is worthwhile as long as you recognize why.Sitting in a tin can, far above the world.
Unsurprisingly, most of your time in-game is spent in the spaceport on a constant trial-and-error mode trying to build a craft that can do exactly what's required for the mission at hand. The game isn't going to blow your mind visually or aurally--land, sea, space are all relatively textureless and sparse, even with all the specs cranked up, and the sounds are about the same, with the soundtrack topping out at "playfully quirky" instead of awe-inspiring. All the horsepower has gone into making the fine kinetic details almost terrifyingly intricate. Virtually every aspect of a spaceship's design is accounted for here, with literally hundreds of design options and moving parts to assemble--from fuel tanks and rockets to the heat shields for re-entry and the decoupling devices for boosters. And you’d better take all of it into consideration or sure as you're born, it will crash and burn before you even see the stars. It's daunting, but starting small and adding new tech onto successful structures is where joy is found. The actual crafting process is dirt simple, however, because every part is basically attached to your craft like Legos. There's a slew of fine-tuning tools available for the more meticulous player, but it takes a long time before they become necessary evils.
Kerbal Space Program offers straightforward Easy-to-Hard difficulty settings, but in reality, the real difficulty setting is almost allegorical. The Sandbox mode opens up every available part in the game so you can just fool around and make the most elaborate, insane designs imaginable. The Science mode allows you to earn points for every new milestone achievement; you can spend those points on the Research and Development skill tree, which is where you earn bigger and better parts to use. The Career mode is a full-blown space program experience where money is, in fact, an object and good public opinion, public donations, government contracts, and farmed-out tech are required to before you can even afford to send astronauts on a flight. This is the most "gamey" it gets, with contracts representing clearly defined missions you can perform to get the most out of every flight. It's slow going, but it’s possibly the most satisfying because every new advancement is earned.You think if you spin the camera, there's a little green Michael Bay sitting behind it?
Both the Science and Sandbox modes feature pre-made spacecraft you can take out into the final frontier, but while it is a huge relief to not have to put in the clearly elaborate wrench time to build anything this complex, there's something a little hollow about just having these accomplishments tossed at you instead of reaching them yourself. The game almost makes up for this because even with a few extensive tutorials tossed in, getting a ship to the Mun involves a hundred tiny decisions you won't realize you’re making because you don’t have to make them time and time again. The stages of every launch have to be programmed in, sufficient fuel has to be stocked to make it where you're going and back, and ship stability has to be minded (even with the SAS feature, which is there for the express purpose of keeping your ship in balance). The blue navigation ball at the bottom of your screen is your best friend in the world, and ignoring it is a fool's act. Career mode is harder yet infinitely more satisfying when you find success. Even when you forge the most ridiculous-looking rocket, it’s a wonder of engineering as long as it breaches Kerbal's atmosphere and doesn't explode. True human achievement, in life as in this game, works at a snail's pace. It can't be given.
Once you have your spacecraft, the real struggle begins. And your opponent is gravity.
Gravity keeps your craft from lifting off when you've loaded it down with too much rocket fuel. It tilts your ship as it takes off if the thrust is even a tiny angle off-kilter. You fight it in the upper atmosphere as you try to put spacecraft in orbit instead of watching them fall helplessly back to the ground. You will charge against it as you try to create a new orbital path to get to a new planet, and all the tutorials do is teach you the basic principles. They don't tell you what parts you need to make these things any easier in practice (in case you haven't figured it out, the tutorials are kinda useless).
You advance simply by being bold enough to try reaching a little higher, making your species' sphere of influence just a little larger with every attempt.
But this is simply nature in action. Unlike, say, Surgeon Simulator or one of the new breed of indie titles with sloppy, inebriate physics, KSP's natural laws feel like a natural part of the universe’s uncaring nature instead of the developer’s attempt to stymie progress. It's up to you to use the tech at your disposal to break nature's shackles and crack the science necessary. This is often an arduous, aggravating process, where hours slip away as you try to find the one flaw in an insanely elaborate series of maneuvers that’s causing your missions to fail. The tiny moments when something clicks into place and one more of those chains breaks are the most breathtaking and gratifying of all. Once again, there's still even further you can go.
Kerbal Space Program was a beta release for years before this, its "final" version. Funny enough, even after all that time, bugs are still scattered throughout, such as ships that are no longer visible, orbital paths turning twitchy and changing randomly even as your ship follows the one you set, and button presses not registering as you float out of your ship . But these are small compared to what feels like the mass achievements of thousands of minds bringing their expertise to the table through the hundreds of tweaks done over the years to the clearly passionate, lovingly crafted mods, which are easily accessible and promoted in-game. Even NASA's gotten in on it with a few of their own hypothetical scenarios pre-loaded in the game from the get-go. On the micro and macro levels, Kerbal Space Program's greatest magic trick is giving the player a feeling of togetherness, that we all have the same curiosity required to transcend our limitations and that regardless of how Herculean the stakes, the constant idea is always "it can be done."Liar. Nothing in this game is child's play.
Instead of altering the layout of Kerbal's UI for consoles, Squad attempted to impart of all relevant keyboard and mouse functionality onto controllers. As a result, text and icons are microscopic on a big-screen TV, and though the UI can be scaled up in size, you sacrifice valuable screen real estate in the process. If ever there has been a perfect excuse to implement second screen capabilities, this would have been it. Most of the hard work in Kerbal Space Program—building craft, moving parts around, turning flight controls on or off--requires more precision than either the Dual Shock 4 or Xbox One controller offer.
A mouse arrow can be turned on and off with a click of the left analog stick, and in use, it excels at inputting large sweeping motions, but not fine movements--at least PS4 players have the option to use motion controls for marginally better cursor control. Surgical procedures like plotting orbits can be done, with time, effort, and trial-and-error, but a game that already has a Sisyphean learning curve certainly didn't need anything to create more work for the player.
You will fail at this game. It will demoralize you and it will stress you out, but, more often than not, it will soothe, quiet, and inspire you. Innovative muscles will be stretched here that aren't stretched very often by games, and more complex moments require a sort of zen beyond being simply twitch-ready for a surprise attack. Even failure imparts a lesson. No matter how big or small the achievement, anything else that can be done is limited only by your imagination. Even with its cartoonish humor and quirks, Kerbal Space Program has an almost sacred respect for the tiny miracles involved in space travel, and even at its most difficult, it deserves that respect in return.
The year is 1980. Hoverbikes are in vogue, and so are 1920’s Italian opera and portable vinyl record players. You’re in the midst of breaking into a highly secured villa, and the safe you’re there to grab is surrounded by lasers, just as you expected. You throw down your clunky laptop and after a flurry of determined keystrokes, you smack the Enter button. Elsewhere in the complex, your strategically-placed briefcase opens up to deploy a rifle, which swivels and fires a round to hit a switch, just as you programmed. The lasers disappear and you spring to action, forcing both the safe and yourself through a glass window, three stories down, straight onto the extraction point just seconds before the alarm triggers. Objective complete. You return home and celebrate a successful mission with your accomplices in style--by eating instant ramen.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is a game with two distinct kinds of experiences. The first: tense, Mission: Impossible-style heists, which take place in a variety of death-defying scenarios, and challenge you to use logic, computer hacking and a variety of unique gadgets to complete criminal objectives. The second: quiet, peaceful moments that take place in the homes and hideouts of your protagonist and her accomplices, which give you a sense of their relationships with one another, and immerses you in the game’s unconventional setting.
The world of Quadrilateral Cowboy is a bizarre, retro-futuristic collage. It embraces cutting-edge technology from the early 1980’s and injects that clunky, analog aesthetic into a cyberpunk ethos. The game’s fascination with analog technology, as well as the physical manipulation of technology, blankets the setting. You insert cassette tapes to retrieve data. You flip through spiral-bound instruction manuals. To save your game, you have to wrench a lever on a six-foot magnetic tape machine. One of the first things you’re required to do is build a computer by installing each individual part into the motherboard; pop in the CPU, drill-in the power supply, and plug in that massive stick of 256k RAM. Then, there’s the physicality of the game’s primary mechanic, hacking.
Hacking is a joy. In Quadrilateral Cowboy’s heist scenarios--towering skyscrapers, high-speed truck chases, space stations, to name a few--the purpose of hacking isn’t to break into computer mainframes, but rather manipulate the physical environment to open doors, disarm lasers, and remotely operate some of the game’s unique gadgets like miniature robots and deployable turrets. The commands you must learn and physically type out on your own clacky keyboard are not particularly complicated. But what makes the act of hacking incredibly fulfilling is the physicality of your hacking deck, the complexity of command strings required later in the game, and how you’re required to move and interact within the complex, tangible effects of a successful hack.An organised workspace is an efficient workspace.
Before hacking, you need to physically equip your hacking deck and place it on a surface, and although perspective zooms to the terminal screen once the deck boots up, you are still completely free to look around and observe your environment. Looking around with the mouse when you need to be typing with both hands can be cumbersome, but what makes this feature incredibly gratifying is that you can immediately see the impact of commands you execute. When unlocking a door, you can type the necessary command into the hacking terminal, move your perspective to look past the in-game hacking screen and at the door, confidently hit the "enter" button, and immediately see the effect.
The physical placement of your deck and what you can see while operating it becomes a necessary part of missions later in the game, where observation of the environment becomes key in knowing exactly when to manipulate it. You have to know when to deactivate lasers to allow a moving object to slip through without triggering an alarm, for example. In another case, you may need to wirelessly connect a gadget’s camera to an additional CRT screen, separate from your hacking deck, in order to monitor the situation from a distance. In cases like this, it’s crucial to consider that the physical placement of your CRT screen needs to be in a position where you can both observe the images your remote device is beaming back, while also being able to see the information on your hacking deck so you can give it the correct commands.
The missions in Quadrilateral Cowboy eventually culminate in a number of complex situations where you not only need to observe the nature of environmental obstacles blocking your path, but learn to plan ahead and program a sequence of commands to be automatically executed with precise timing. Some of the game’s most thrilling moments had me code a lengthy algorithm, double-check it for mistakes, hit "enter", and immediately dash through a series of dangers that were disabled just as I reached them, and reactivated as soon as I passed. This is cyber espionage action at its finest.
Although learning a breadth of hacking commands sounds daunting, it isn’t. Quadrilateral Cowboy very gradually introduces new mechanical concepts, commands, and gadgets with each heist mission to slowly help you build a base of knowledge. Each individual mission can last from one to 20 minutes depending on your skill, and each does an excellent job in making you feel like a genuine hacker each time you accomplish something new. In the final missions of the game, I found myself doing the equivalent of in-game touch-typing--keeping my perspective on the hacking target rather than the hacking deck, and entering reams of commands sight-unseen, beaming with confidence.
There are only a couple of instances where the game’s mechanics disappointed. One of the final obstacles in the game demanded much more dexterity, rather than programming prowess, to overcome. The other disappointment is in regards to the tag-team mechanic introduced later in the game, where you’re given the ability to take control of different characters with different skillsets. These missions require you to go in as Character A, essentially “record” a series of actions, back out and rewind, change to Character B, and then act in tandem with the previous character’s actions. This mechanic is executed well despite some minor technical hiccups, but is only used for two proper heists before never appearing again. It’s a shame to see this feature under-used, although the game’s integrated Steam Workshop functionality does allow the opportunity for custom maps to be made.I don't know what it is about this cat, but I don't trust him.
The other side to Quadrilateral Cowboy’s coin, the quiet moments between the missions, are just as strong as its heists. The game has no explicit storyline and no dialogue to drive events forward. Instead, what is provided are a number of short, but minutely detailed interactive vignettes that give insight into particular characters, their relationships with each other, and the slightly off-kilter world they inhabit. Those familiar with some of the developer’s previous games--Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone--will have an idea of what to expect. These dioramas are filled with details, meaningful flavour text, and can be explored at the player’s leisure. I got as much gratification from staring at a collection of photographs on a bedroom wall, trying to piece together the backstory of these characters, as I did from perfectly executing a string of command-line prompts with my hacking terminal while on top of a moving train. One of the most memorable scenes of the game involved just hanging out with the characters on a rooftop at sunset, and enjoying the moment. When Quadrilateral Cowboy ended, I was left feeling a distinct and poignant fondness for the characters and the journey we’d all been on, despite never speaking to them.
Quadrilateral Cowboy succeeds in astonishing ways: It makes you feel like an incredibly accomplished computer hacker and agent of espionage. It creates an eccentric, thorough world that feels good to exist in and creates characters you can empathise with, despite the lack of a clear plot thread. Quadrilateral Cowboy presents you with a spectrum of moments, and each moment makes you feel great.
If you've ever stepped into Samus Aran's boots for a Metroid adventure, you'll instantly recognize parallels in Headlander's world structure, outfits, and animations. It doesn't beat around the bush: you shoot laser guns, explore sprawling maps, and hunt for hidden power-ups--Metroid in a nutshell.
On the other hand, years of experience with Samus can't prepare you for Headlander's lead character: a head in a rocket-powered jar. Without a body to call home, you have to decapitate robots and steal their bodies to fight back. This is but one of many refreshing concepts on display, not the least of which is a stylized 70s sci-fi aesthetic that's immediately appealing. Headlander is dripping with color, laced with humor, and anything but typical.
This side-scrolling adventure takes place in a world populated by hedonist robots, who at any given moment are tripping out, trying to get laid, or dancing--just another day in the Pleasure Dome. The denizens' penchant for all things pleasurable is Headlander's primary source of humor, but you find that even service robots--that provide maps and dust floors--offer multiple lines of entertaining dialogue. That said, I could do without the sardonic AI that mans the game's security doors: I know you lead a repetitive life, but don't poison the Pleasure Dome's inkwell with your attitude.
You're guided through this world by a man named Earl--a voice on the other side of your communication equipment--who's trying to help you escape the clutches of the lead AI, Methuselah. Earl's southern drawl and lackadaisical personality are a breath of fresh air, portraying a level-headed and helpful gentlemen in a sea of far-out characters. Methuselah fills the perfunctory antagonist role, but your interactions with him are minimal. Headlander puts gameplay and moment-to-moment interactions with quippy NPCs ahead of its overarching story, but the game as a whole is so delightfully entertaining that it's hard to feel too bad about that.
When Earl first jars you from a deep sleep, you awake in a state of shock. Without a body, you can't speak or fire back at gun-toting robots. As you venture through the Pleasure Dome and beyond into the belly of Methesula's fortress, you take over robot bodies to gain access to weapons and security doors. Robot bodies are color-coded to security levels, and with each new level, the shots from those robots' laser rifles bounce off one additional surface. Lasers can be used to open doors if you can't walk up to them with a body intact, which becomes necessary for one very important reason: you can't jump. It's a weird omission at first blush, but once you get used to flying your head around in low gravity--a satisfying experience on its own--you quickly forget why you cared about the lack of jumping in the first place.
Your head has unlimited propulsion and vacuum power, and it is graceful in flight, carrying momentum and turning on a dime if it needs to. To take over a new host, you can either propel into them to knock their head off after you've upgraded your helmet's thrusters, or use your vacuum ability to pull it off. When you've upgraded your abilities further by collecting scattered bits of energy, you can head-butt other robots to swap heads in a flash. Every victim you possess has its own life bar, but the one associated with your helmet is the one that really matters. Thankfully, it replenishes automatically over a short period of time, so it's easy to recharge if you can fly into a corner and tuck yourself away for a few seconds. Even if you manage to die, Headlander is extremely forgiving, allowing you--in most cases--to respawn in the same room.
Multi-stage boss fights and objectives are the only exception, where you are forced to restart from the beginning of your task upon death. This is only troublesome during the game's two boss fights, where death comes at the drop of a hat should you fly erratically and wander into a projectile. The last boss is especially frustrating because it's uniquely challenging--remember, Headlander is typically forgiving, allowing you to play fast and loose--and despite clearly providing tools during the fight to inflict damage, the best way to fight that boss boils down to ramming your head into his weak point and retreating for cover.
On your way to Methuselah's doorstep, you are sent on a lot of fetch quests, but it isn't as bad as it sounds: paths contain battle sequences and puzzles that require you to deftly swap bodies and survive stretches of hazardous corridors to arrive at your destination with a specific type of robot. While the shooting could be better, its twitchy nature isn't damning. You control the trajectory of your shots by aiming with the right analog stick, and there are many puzzles and fights that require you to angle your shots just so. Frustration is inevitable when you're carefully aiming shots and enemies keep respawning and firing at you, but these occasions rarely require more than two attempts to overcome.
In many cases, you can resort to using your head when a gun proves difficult in the moment; outside of clearing security doors, your head's capabilities are adequate the majority of the time. This flexibility is greatly appreciated, allowing you to run and gun or zip around and decapitate enemies as you wish.
When you aren't dead set on accomplishing a mission, you can veer to the corners of maps and hunt for upgrades, or for large doses of energy that you can invest into abilities that manifest when you inhabit a body. The biggest upgrade your head gets is a powerful dash, but there are numerous powerful upgrades that activate when you pilot bodies, which include a rainbow-colored armor aura and the ability to abandon bodies that continuously fire their weapons--essentially turning them into turrets. It will take the entire game to gain enough energy to unlock every upgrade, but it seems like incremental upgrades for your helmet lie in wait around every other corner. The result is an experience like Metroid where your desire to explore is handsomely rewarded, but the pace is sped up, making for an ever-present reward loop.
The 10 or so hours it takes to beat Headlander are packed with glimmering visual effects and great tunes that range from light-hearted lounge music to overbearing synth tracks. It's a weird and infectious world that feels like the perfect playground for Headlander's quirky and engaging action. Minus one boss fight and an odd instance of major slow-down in a treacherous labyrinth filled with bouncing lasers, there's rarely a bump in the road that proves significant enough to disrupt the joys of flying around as a head, decapitating robots, and taking over bodies against the game's absurd and colorful backdrop.
From its odd mechanics to its captivating presentation, Headlander's parallels to Metroid bubble under the surface; it's the game's fresh qualities that grab your attention and make it one of the most delightful takes on the well-worn formula in years.
Virtual reality works best when games utilize it in ways that are inherently unique to the technology. Still, plenty of developers shoehorn games into VR that fail to live up to the technology's potential. Unfortunately, The Assembly falls into this category.
The Assembly is a first-person adventure game that throws you into the deep end of an ongoing story. A group of underground scientists--the titular Assembly--conduct experiments without the government standing over its shoulder. You take on the role of two different scientists: new recruit Madeleine Stone, and Caleb Pearson, a veteran looking for a way out. These characters only come into contact with each other for a brief period of time; otherwise, their stories are separate.
Stone, a scientist whose career was recently ruined, is undergoing trials to see if she's fit to join The Assembly. These trials will, at times, involve simple tasks like moving blocks around or choosing the right shapes. Other puzzles, however, expect you to move around the environment to inspect various objects, listen to audio tapes, or use in-game terminals to gleen information. These trials can be compelling; investigating a simulated murder to uncover the culprit is an unexpected-yet-captivating twist. Some of these quests push Stone to confront her past, though the game doesn't offer you enough of a chance to care about the character before it throws you into her troubled family history. This makes the choices feel less impactful than they should.
Pearson, on the other hand, discovers that The Assembly is creating something sinister based on his past research, which prompts him to take all the evidence he can find to expose the organization. His path is definitely the more interesting of the two and makes The Assembly feel like a dystopian society, where "The Man" is always watching. You travel through the facilities, identifying evidence and solving simple puzzles. Pearson will talk to himself, letting you know what you need to find or do. His story goes in some intriguing directions, but it seems to stop short just as you start to get engaged.
Unfortunately, neither story feels climactic in any way. It's more like you're looking in on a day in the life of the secretive scientific organization. This makes the narrative feel aimless and unsatisfying, despite the promising premise. With a bit more time, fleshing out, and room to breathe, this tale could’ve been a lot more intriguing. Some characters are introduced with little to no explanation as to who they are, and The Assembly would tell a much more entertaining, effective tale if you were allowed to spend more time learning about the world before arriving at story beats. As it is, the story is delivered at a pace that feels like it works against itself, making it hard to care about the game's events.
You experience The Assembly through a VR headset or playing it on a screen. I tried both, and the experience felt better outside of VR. I felt motion-sick in VR a couple times, specifically when moving through the facility on a wheelchair-like device or using an elevator. This problem didn't occur outside of these sequences, however, as you can travel through the world by teleporting from one spot to another. Teleporting in VR gets tiresome, though, especially when you're trying to find the optimal spot to look at a specific object in the environment. Stone's trials are much easier to accomplish outside of VR, since you can move faster and look around more easily with the analog sticks. If you can handle the locomotion, you can use the analog sticks to move in VR.
Viewing The Assembly's world through a VR headset won't enhance the experience, either. The most it offers is the chance to move around its environment, which doesn't feel like enough of an incentive to jump into an Oculus Rift. It doesn't feel like you're living in the world. Stone and Pearson's disembodied voices come from what’s supposed to be your virtual body, which makes you feel even more disconnected from the game. Elements like these, coupled with the non-optimal control experience, make it difficult to recommend playing The Assembly in VR.
The Assembly feels like a small part of a bigger, much more engaging game. It's a good foundation for a world full of mystery, but it ends just as it starts to get interesting. A game that fully explores the dystopian facility, its history, and the state of the outside world is something I'd be interested in. However, as it is, The Assembly is hard to recommend.
There are times when I Am Setsuna's mimicry is too obvious for its own good, when you immediately recognize that it's a deliberate effort to trigger nostalgia for classic Japanese RPGs. But these moments don't tell the whole story. Poignant events and some delicate writing lend distinction to the otherwise archetypal cast, and you grow to appreciate how tenets of the genre are ignored in favor of trying something new. The juxtaposition of I Am Setsuna's numerous inventions and references make for an eye-opening examination of Japanese RPGs, and a satisfactory debut from developer Tokyo RPG Factory.
In a world blanketed in snow and overridden with beasts, young Setsuna sets out to reach The Last Lands. It is there that she will fulfill her duty as a human sacrifice--a ritual held every decade to keep wild threats at bay. With the help of like-minded adventurers, you accompany Setsuna through caverns and forests, fending off creatures and thwarting--or recruiting--humans that try to stand in your way.
Setsuna would be the first to admit that her fate is tragic, but she remains ever steadfast and resolute in her charge. You can say the same for her companions, some of whom face very different but equally somber realities with grace. I Am Setsuna expresses occasional jocularity through a corny joke or quippy NPC dialogue, but its story is dominated by hardship. Forget the perfunctory villains and other tangible obstacles that come up; it's the emotional baggage that your companions carry that's notable. There are secrets to keep, actions to regret, and bad luck to accept. Clocking in around 20 hours--moderately short by RPG standards, it's unfortunate that I Am Setsuna doesn't allow more time for backstory and character development, because there are a few moments that are begging for more attention.
The majority of your adventure is steeped in combat, which is almost identical to Chrono Trigger's battle system and, thankfully, every bit as enjoyable. There are no random encounters in I Am Setsuna, and no enemies on the world map; battles begin when you bump into enemies visible in dungeons. When combat kicks off, enemies and your party members are arranged in starting positions. Different skills and attacks change your position on screen, although you never actually have control over movement – enemies are also in a constant state of motion. Positioning can be important when using certain skills or weapons that have areas of effect rather than single targets. Waiting for enemies to wander into an ideal arrangement can pay off, but it potentially comes with risks depending on which version of I Am Setsuna's turn-based combat you choose to play.
Active mode allows each character's active time battle gauge to fill on a constant basis; when the ATB gauge is full, a character is able to act. Active mode brings the added challenge of time management, where you need to make a move quickly to avoid wasting time in menus--take too long and an enemy can potentially sneak in an extra turn. If you choose to play in Wait mode, all ATB gauges stop charging when you're picking an action from the command menu, affording you more time to plan your next move. Choosing between one or the other is an easy way to make the game more challenging or forgiving, but most common enemies rarely pose a threat. The only time you may desire to play in Wait mode is during some of the game's boss battles, where the difficulty abruptly spikes.
Each character has an inherent strength, weapon type, and selection of skills, known as techs. Techs are a product of spritenite--magical stones slotted into talismans, I Am Setsuna's secondary equipment. Certain characters can combine techs in combat to dish out a devastating attack or a powerful recovery spell, so long as they both have full ATB gauges. With a limited number of slots, you have to carefully pick and choose which techs to carry. Doing so will help you form a well-rounded team, and ensure the availability of preferred combo attacks, which are tied to specific techs.
When things are left to chance in an RPG, it can feel like all of the effort you put into planning and crafting your team loses some of its meaning.
Every tech can be enhanced on-the-fly during combat when a character builds up enough Setsuna Points to trigger momentum--you earn SP when you attack, take damage, or hold your position with a full ATB gauge. Triggering Momentum bonuses requires you to press a button immediately after a flash of light that occurs just before a character takes an action. Managing your momentum opportunities is the most critical element during difficult fights, as it can effectively turn one action into two. You can occasionally trigger HP recovery after an attack, or spread an action that would typically impact one character to your entire party--or every enemy on screen. Momentum opportunities can mean the difference between a win or a loss, and seriously add to the tension of Active mode's already stressful time management.
Triggering momentum during combat can also lead to singularities, seemingly random events that grant extreme benefits to your team. Despite the fact that you can influence the chance of singularities occurring, it's impossible to plan for them. They are, in effect, bonuses, but they are so overpowered that they can make a challenging battle feel like a walk in the park. It's refreshing to receive a helping-hand now and again, but some singularities limit your abilities in favor of boosting others--Chrono Burst makes your ATB gauge fill faster than usual, but it stops you from using combo moves, which isn't necessarily a welcome surprise. When things are left to chance in an RPG, it can feel like all of the effort you put into planning and crafting your team loses some of its meaning.
In typical RPG fashion, characters earn experience from combat and level up, but rather than impact every stat, new levels only boost a character's HP and MP. In order to grow stronger and heartier, you have to seek out new weapons, which directly dictate a character's physical and magical strength, as well as both types of defense. Therefore, purchasing weapons becomes a habit the moment you discover a new town. But you can't buy anything in I Am Setsuna until you sell materials--objects earned in battle and found on the ground when exploring dungeons--because currency isn't doled out after fights or found in treasure chests.
While this is a curious and unorthodox approach to dealing with in-game money, selling materials is needlessly laborious. When facing a list of dozens upon dozens of materials--some enemies can drop over ten different resources in a single battle--it would be great to have an option to sell everything at once. In practice, you have to go down the list, one by one, selling each type of material. In addition to earning you money, they end up in the hands of the merchants who sell spritenite, which becomes available for sale once you've traded in the appropriate items.
I Am Setsuna walks in the footsteps of giants, and is thus dwarfed by the memories of games that inspired it.
There's a lot to unpack when discussing combat and configuring your party, but it's not that complex in practice. You grow accustomed to managing your Momentum opportunities and configuring techs across your team. Again, some bosses pose a real threat, but by the end of the game, mobs of common enemies--even strong ones--can't stand up to a well-oiled party, and can be wiped with a single combo move and a little added Momentum. As such, it can feel like you're going through the motions when playing I Am Setsuna. This, paired with obvious references to well-known games, can make the game feel rote and at worst, boring.
I Am Setsuna is an unapologetic homage to beloved Japanese RPGs that plays well but takes few risks. Tokyo RPG Factory has accomplished their implied mission statement: to make Japanese RPGs the way many of us remember them back in the day. As a result, I Am Setsuna walks in the footsteps of giants, and is thus dwarfed by the memories of games that inspired it. There are times when its familiar music and faces feel comforting, like returning to your hometown after a decade away, so as someone who grew up playing Japanese RPGs, I enjoyed my time with I Am Setsuna. It's like any trip down memory lane: it was nice to look back and remember the good times.
A grimey, lo-fi text-to-speech program coughs out a made-up word: "Brig-a-dor." From here on, I know what I'm in for. Brigador isn't like today's games. From the moment you start playing you'll wrestle with befuddling menus and a nonsensical plot. But that's okay; menus don't hinder much in this case, and the plot is no more important here than it was in the original Doom. What matters in this game is satisfying action in a destructible playground with badass mechs. And there, Brigador delivers.
The eponymous brigador are a series of mechs that range from nimble hovercraft to hulking tanks on legs, and each has a shield and a basic array of attacks. Bigger brigs can stomp the ground and fire colossal mortars, while nimble craft rely on light ordnance like machine guns. After running through a couple of tutorials that introduce you to the basic controls and abilities of each mech, you're dropped into your first mission--and it is a maelstrom.
In seconds, you're swarmed by all manner of enemies ranging from unarmored men with guns all the way up to other brigs. The rush is overwhelming and forces you to think tactically. You may be outnumbered and outgunned, but if you can outthink your digital foes, you'll be fine. In this effort, terrain and movement are your biggest allies.
During my first big firefight I found myself surrounded, but there was a shipping depot not too far away. I used my temporary cloak to dash through their ranks and break for cover behind shipping containers. I managed to funnel my attackers into one of two chokepoints, so I could focus my fire. Because these mechs are loosely based on real-world tanks, though, their armor is thickest in the front and weak on the sides and back. My tactic, while helpful, wasn't necessarily the best or only way to approach the scenario."There was a fire fight!"
Your enemies employ spotters, alarms, and plenty of automated defense systems that can hamper or even halt your progress towards a mission objective. If you carelessly run and gun, and don't have a monstrous, overpowered mech to match, you'll be crushed. The action is fast-paced, but you can't afford to be reckless.
Brigador works in these little oscillations. It will present you with a chaotic, borderline unmanageable situation and then force you to figure out a plan. It can feel overwhelming at times, especially after the comparatively restrained tutorial areas, but you shouldn't have too hard a time as long as you play mindfully.
To that end, Brigador gives you a lot of tools to help you control encounters. For example, every mech has a few weapons slots and a defensive technique. When you set out for a mission you can choose your loadout, including which chassis and armament you think will serve you best. Smoke grenades, cloaking and EMP grenades can disable or avoid enemies altogether. When combined with some terrain knowledge, you can use your machine to tear through a wall and attack a vital target before anyone sees you. Or you can set-up an ambush, tricking heavier tanks into revealing their rear for a swift and deadly assault.
While it looks like a twin-stick shooter, Brigador is a lot more precise and demanding. You control the direction you're facing, where you're moving, and the firing arc of your weapons independent of one another. And Brigador keeps that flexibility throughout. While progression in terms of unlocking new parts or chassis is linear, the campaign and the flow of individual missions is left open. If one level is frustrating, you're free to skip it altogether.Are you afraid of the dark?
It all serves a weird power fantasy that runs throughout. Brigador wants to drop you into a quagmire and force you to adapt. Enemies will swarm and flank, and unless you've been particularly stealthy, you'll often have to deal with attacks from all sides. You need to manage all of this on top of every movement of your mech, trying not to expose its weakpoints while focusing on the most dangerous targets. It's a lot to process and manage, but when it all comes together, succeeding in the face of such complexity and chaos is very satisfying.
In many ways, Brigador is the modern, indie progeny of classic mecha games like Armored Core. It's rough around the edges, and doesn't do much with its story or its tutorials, but distills the gluttony of the 90s action genre into an impassioned, indulgent package.