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The Sexy Brutale Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 04/26/2017 - 22:00

Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day believed he was in hell, but let's admit it: There are worse possible time loops to get ensnared in than having to spend your days reporting on rodent shadows and courting 1990s Andie MacDowell. In fact, consider The Sexy Brutale: you could end up reliving a single day at a fancy, sprawling casino mansion where you're attempting to save the lives of nine guests who get slaughtered by the staff during an annual masquerade ball.

Worse, you can only save one or two at a time. So during one day in the time-loop you might thwart the death of one guest, but when you try to save another the next day, the guest you saved "yesterday" dies gruesomely once more. That's The Sexy Brutale for you—a sad, attractive adventure combining time travel elements of Majora's Mask with the murder-solving antics of Clue and the sensibilities of Edward Gorey. Its elements usually work well enough that it lingers in memory long after its brief eight-hour run time draws to a close.

The time loop is far from the only supernatural business afoot in The Sexy Brutale, as the early sight of a woman emerging from a pool of blood to chat might tip you off. After giving you a magic mask, she also hands over a pocketwatch that lets you rewind time throughout the day. This allows you to save lives by memorizing each guest's schedule and movements, and attempting to remove the objects that eventually lead to their demise. (Later, you can reset the time loop to start from any clock in the mansion.) To take the earliest, simplest such puzzle, you save your first life by replacing the live cartridge in a rifle with a blank.

The grateful guest then takes off his or her mask--this is a masquerade, after all--and transfers its power to you, unlocking new skills, such as the ability to hear distant conversations or shatter glass with your voice. The next day, it starts all over, but with new tools in your possession that help you save a new guest and unlock new wings of the sprawling manse.

The catch? You can't let any of the other guests or staff see you. Should they do so, time screeches to a halt, the lights dim, and the mask of the observer floats across the room to attack. Much of the action thus consists of peeping through keyholes for signs of life or listening for sounds from surrounding rooms. The Sexy Brutale can be rewarding when your observation skills and timing help save a life, but it's not for the impatient. Even when you use your pocketwatch to rewind time, all the items you picked up along the way return to their original places. It's mildly frustrating when first figuring out the niceties of the time controls. Once you understand how everything works, however, it's possible to fall into a satisfying rhythm. You realize which items to pick up, which doors to go through and when, and when a murderer’s victim will enter the room. Finding that rhythm feels a little like mastering the jumps and related timing of a flawless Mega Man run.

The Sexy Brutale also manages to dull its repetitiveness by making the mansion itself a pleasure to explore.

The murders themselves are never particularly hard to thwart, and you have a handy Marauder's Map of sorts in the vein of Harry Potter that shows the location and movement of every guest in every room (provided he's discovered them). You also retain access passwords, concealed passageways, and other important scraps of information you've found, making the repeat attempts a bit less painful.

Still, a slightly bitter (and perhaps unavoidable) sting of repetition slips in, since the circumstances ensure that you must listen the same conversations over and over again and snatch up the same items. You can jump forward to 4 p.m. or 8 p.m. to skip unnecessary waits, but even so, you'll still end up listening to character belt out the same lines over and over. On the bright side, this repetition is also responsible for the richly tragic aura that blankets the adventures--each day, you must hear again the sound of a distant gunshot or circus music that signifies the death of another guest.

The Sexy Brutale also manages to dull its repetitiveness by making the mansion itself a pleasure to explore. The vibrant art style is partly to thank for that. House guests tromp about like masked bobblehead figures against richly detailed blackjack tables and fireplaces, all of which perfectly complement the mix of sadness and silliness. The constant comings and goings of guests and malevolent staff bring vitality to the game’s stylish mix, as do the strange portraits and macabre fixtures lining the walls. The writing, too, helps in this regard, particularly with the richly descriptive flavor text for items you encounter that further boost the Edgar Allen Poe vibe the game already exudes.

The are times, however, when the game is over reliant on broadcasting its ideas rather than allowing you to experience them in action. The final 40 minutes or so deliver almost nothing in the way of gameplay--instead, it's just you pressing through button prompts as each new text box imparts revelations about the reasons for all this madness from the endgame cast. Suffice it to say that if you weren't a big fan of drawn-out endings you'll probably find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat here as well. It's not a bad ending, but the delivery robs it of some of its narrative punch.

There's a lesson in that. The Sexy Brutale's puzzles are fun enough, though they’re never precisely challenging. Instead, the game is likely best understood as an interactive art piece. Seen as such, it succeeds on almost all fronts. There's dramatic tension as you discover each of the gruesome ways your fellow guests meet their end in ever more fascinating wings of the mansion, and there's a dark commentary on the banality of death as you grow accustomed to using the sounds associated with specific murders in distant rooms as a form of a timer. Over and over again, The Sexy Brutale hammers home the brutal truth that you just can't save everyone.

Categories: Games

Cosmic Star Heroine Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 22:00

Cosmic Star Heroine makes a great first impression. Its introductory hours are all synths and saxes, flashy sci-fi espionage, and daring escapades lit by suffusions of neon and moonlight. There's no mistaking it for some imported decades-old classic, but it still managed to give me flashbacks of loading up untranslated PC Engine games and gawking at the interstitial artwork.

Agent Alyssa L'Salle is a beret-wearing, bo-wielding covert ops specialist for the government who spends much of the game unraveling a large-scale conspiracy. Within minutes of being introduced, she's defusing bombs, hacking computers, and getting into harrowing fights with flying drones while clambering up the side of a skyscraper. She's almost cartoonishly cool and competent, as are her companions. It may seem a little over the top at first glance, but it's part of what cements the game's vibe as a pulpy, joyously unfettered throwback. Pop stars, tech experts, monk-like gunslingers, and literal dancing machines--Cosmic Star Heroine is far from shy about letting its cast shine every bit as brightly as its lead.

The game is also a little more than standard turn-based RPG fare. Each character's abilities can only be used once, with the exception of a handful. While the majority can be restored by using a character's recharging/guard move, certain powerful abilities, as well as equipped items, can only be used once per battle.

Added to this are Style and Hyper Points. Style accumulates over time and offers a boost to allies and enemies alike, so the longer a battle takes, the more devastating each strike becomes. Hyper Points, meanwhile, are accumulated with each turn and are represented as little pips under a character's health bar. Fill in the requisite number of pips and the character unlocks the damage-doubling Hyper Mode for their turn.

That's a lot to take in at first, but the end result is that combat has an extra layer of strategy beyond what you might initially expect. If an enemy is weak to water, for instance, there's a massive advantage to saving one of Alyssa's water abilities until she's in Hyper Mode to get the most out of it, especially if a few turns have already passed and she's had a chance to accumulate some Style as well.

In general, this system encourages good habits and thoughtful fighting. This is especially true in Hyper Mode, which encourages you to be a lot more diligent about considering your entire repertoire of moves and making big, flashy strikes really count. At lower difficulty levels, these mechanics have little chance to shine, but since the difficulty can be adjusted at any point in the game, it's easy to experiment and find the exact level of challenge that suits your play style.

No matter what difficulty is selected, Cosmic Star Heroine clearly doesn't want to be a grind. Alyssa moves from dystopian city to alien planet to swanky mob banquet with plenty of fighting in between--but plenty of direction and purpose, too. The handful of alternate paths, hidden areas, and optional bosses seldom take her too far from the action or distract too much from the core objective, and they typically yield high-quality gear for her or her companions.

As a result, you never feel like you're dragging your heels in any one location for long--but it also makes the individual events feel oddly abbreviated at times. Plots sometimes pivot and settings shift before you get a good sense of either. If the game dealt purely in tropes, this wouldn't matter, but Cosmic Star Heroine presents its own individual world, its own uniquely interesting characters, and its own blend of technology and the supernatural--and then provides you with almost no space to acclimate to any of it. Fast-paced action and intrigue can and should still allow for moments of downtime, flavor, or world-building. Even within the confines of short scenes, moments that could use a little time to breathe are awkwardly clipped. Hacking is instantaneous, as is subway transportation. These just happen, immediately and without fanfare--at its worst, it can feel like watching a movie at 1.5 times the normal speed.

This is true even when it comes to the writing, which usually strikes a decent balance with its cheesiness. But every now and then Cosmic Star Heroine offers up a joke dampened by its own preemptive flop sweat. The style of its tone-setting minimalistic animated cutscenes is another case of the usually great being undermined by the occasionally awkward. Three-dimensional rendered models of ships and structures are sometimes slipped in alongside the hand-drawn elements, which has the effect of cheapening and fracturing an otherwise cohesive visual style.

You will also find that Cosmic Star Heroine is peppered with slightly pettier annoyances as well. The biggest of these is the fact that there's no option to load the game from the system menu, so any time you want to test a different strategy or replay a section on a different difficulty setting, you have to close and restart the game. And strangely, some boss fights instantly resolve themselves under certain difficulty settings, but not always. Sometimes, one or two of the enemies would simply flee and reduce the opposing team's numbers, and sometimes a boss would simply concede before even a single turn passed.

The dialogue trigger also seems to be incredibly sensitive, so even if you take extra care to press the button as lightly as possible, you may end up trapped in a loop of the same few lines from an NPC, unintentionally triggering the same text three or four times before breaking loose--an unfortunate and regular occurrence.

With all of that said, Cosmic Star Heroine is still an enjoyable sci-fi RPG with a classical spirit. It's shameless in its celebration of its inspirations, and the soundtrack goes a long way to sell every moment. Though it has more than its fair share of flaws, none of that stops this game from being exactly what it sets out to be.

Categories: Games

Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 09:00

Previous entries in the Sniper Ghost Warrior series have been justifiably criticized for their stifling linearity. Missions would regularly guide you by the hand through one cramped corridor after another, with a succession of targets ripe for elimination along the way. It wasn't a formula conducive to the type of freedom and choice one might hope to find in a game focused on the act of long-distance sniping, and Polish developer CI Games has seen the error of its ways with the latest entry in the series. Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 ditches the restrictiveness of its predecessors by shifting the action to the gritty open world of a separatist-controlled Georgia. With an increase in scale and the flexibility inherent therein, it's a positive direction for the skull-splitting series--albeit one that's still frequently disrupted by myriad flaws rearing their ugly head.

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The jagged cliffs and dense forests of the Georgian wilderness are notable for their expansiveness, yet the muted color palette, lackluster lighting, and some muddy, low-quality textures do little to inspire awe. Conceptually, this is also an open world without a clear, defined purpose. There are a few nebulous activities dotted across its three maps--like rescuing civilians and capturing outposts--that net you XP, money, and materials that can be used for crafting. But I gradually ignored these minor distractions and still had a surplus of cash and materials on-hand to acquire the weapons, ammo, and items I desired. With little in the way of interesting locales to entice exploration, it's also a particularly barren world. Pockets of civilian life do their best to present the illusion of a living, breathing society, but their nonplussed reactions to a burly marine barging into their houses aren't exactly believable. Ghost Warrior 3's depiction of Georgia is neither a convincingly realized place, nor an emergent sandbox like the Far Cry games it shares many similarities with. This slice of Eastern European landscape is little more than a glorified path to get you from point A to B without a loading screen interrupting the flow.

For as disappointing as this is, it matters little once you've reached the whereabouts of your active mission. Each one is generally contained within a single, sizable location, whether that's a decrepit block of apartments or a busy airfield. Objectives are refreshingly varied, and there are often optional tasks to complete if you're up for, say, retrieving a downed drone or completing the active mission with no alerts.

Ghost Warrior 3 is at its best, however, when simulating the methodical precision of being an elite marksman. There's a rhythm to the planning and execution that goes into these missions. You usually begin by sending your pocket-sized drone up into the Georgian sky to get a lay of the land, using it to tag enemies and make note of any advantageous vantage points. Once you're comfortable with the layout, you infiltrate the perimeter, using your sniper vision to reveal a climbable surface up the side of a nearby cliff. At the top, you go prone on the cold, hard granite, and prop up your rifle on a tripod for extra stability. With the target firmly in your sights, you twist the dial on your scope to 400 meters and adjust your aim to compensate for bullet drop and a gusty wind coming in from the east. Then you take a deep breath and pull the trigger. The bullet arcs through the strong breeze before darting downward and colliding with your target's temple. Blood spatter covers the bedroom wall behind him, and a convenient zipline covers your exfiltration.

Sniping is the winning card in its deck, and yet CI Games regularly plays other hands to the game's detriment.

While this sounds short and sweet, missions like this can take upwards of 20 minutes to complete if you're willing to take your time. Sniping is all about being cautious and taking a measured approach, and you're rewarded for your patience with some immensely satisfying killshots. For first-person shooters, it offers a unique approach that sets Ghost Warrior 3 apart from its histrionic contemporaries. Sniping is the winning card in its deck, and yet CI Games regularly plays other hands to the game's detriment.

There are three binary play styles for you to adhere to: Sniper, Ghost, and Warrior. Completing actions in each group (sniping for Sniper, performing close-quarters stealth kills for Ghost, and going all guns blazing for Warrior), nets you XP that can be spent on some humdrum upgrades in each, like auto-looting bodies or increasing the effect of health items. It's not the most exciting system, but the added emphasis on different play styles makes them all viable options. The ability to react to an ever-changing situation and completely alter your approach adds a sense of variety to each mission. Sure, the stealth is incredibly simplistic, and open gunfights are ponderous, but as minute complements to the sniping, they serve a functional purpose.

Where this falters, is when these styles take center stage. There are missions where your sniper rifle is taken out of your hands, and others where the tight confines of the level render your sharpshooter too unwieldy to seriously consider. These missions dilute the game's strengths and put it on a playing field with the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield, where it does not compare favorably. AI issues are more noticeable here, too, as enemies reveal their idiotic tendency to follow each other into a killzone. And in the latter half of the game, new enemy types adopt a bullet sponginess that makes the close-quarters shooting even more of a drag.

Similarly irritating are the glitches and rough edges peppered throughout. In the PlayStation 4 version, I had enemies T-pose in front of me, disappear in the middle of a stealth takedown, and repopulate before my eyes, inside what I thought was an empty outpost. The game also crashed on four separate occasions. Whenever you boot up the game or change regions it takes almost five minutes to load, which is excruciatingly slow. And even something as simple as tagging enemies is frustratingly inconsistent. Sometimes the ability won't work when you're directly aiming at someone from a few yards away; other times you'll pull up your gun and inadvertently tag someone in another room. The framerate is also consistently shoddy, whether you're simply walking or popping in and out of your sniper scope. Sometimes sounds don't play, and pop-in is a constant eyesore.

There have already been three updates pushed out before release, yet I still encountered these issues with the most recent patch installed*. CI Games is certainly working hard to iron out the kinks and address what needs fixing, but after multiple delays, it's disappointing that it's still arrived in such a buggy, unpolished state.

Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 feels like a B-tier, budget-priced game. Even the predictable, profanity-laden story is reminiscent of the type of gritty B-movies Steven Seagal is known for. There's certainly merit to its accomplished sniping mechanics, especially when missions hone in on the planning and precise execution that makes playing as a sharpshooter so thrilling. Yet it falters whenever it veers away from its strengths, and the plethora of nagging glitches and technical problems are a persistent nuisance that make Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 difficult to recommend.

*[Editor's note: CI Games has released another patch in time for Sniper Ghost Warrior 3's launch. This review was conducted prior to the patch's release. GameSpot will update this review after testing the patch.]

Categories: Games

Dragon Quest Heroes II Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 05:00

Dragon Quest Heroes II is a JRPG on fast forward. The gradual addition of new party members, the rollout of plot twists, and other typical genre roadmarkers come at you at a fast clip. If it normally takes 100 hours to amass a kill count of 10,000 enemies, this game lets you reach such milestones in less than 10. And, as one of the many spinoffs of the 20-year-old Dynasty Warriors series, it retains the best elements of the franchise's trademark combat, where you decimate armies with rudimentary, albeit flashy, combos. Dragon Quest Heroes II distinguishes itself from its equally great predecessor with its free roam-friendly fields of battle, which feel like an homage to the open expanses of mainline Dragon Quest games.

Though it's a sequel, you don't need any context from the first game or Dragon Quest in general to appreciate this one's story and gameplay. Of course, there are a handful of design similarities that fans of the last Dragon Quest Heroes will recognize. (For example, your two selectable male and female heroes aren't childhood friends this time around, but rather cousins.) And this sequel's premise doesn't involve the brainwashing of once-friendly monsters--instead, you're concerned with unexpected invasions of neighboring kingdoms.

It is when you embark on your journey to solve the mystery of the warring lands that you first realize how this game is influenced by the wide open areas found in many JRPG world maps. These lands are vast and filled with infinitely respawning monsters, but you can wander aimlessly with no problem; unlike typical JRPGs, Dragon Quest Heroes II doesn't have random encounters. Rather than exterminate every imp and zombie in your field of view, you can focus on high-value targets and areas where there are tight clusters of foes, who are often tormenting some unlucky NPC. Equally unlucky are the myriad endearing creatures minding their own business, particularly in the lush hills of Greena Pastures. Murdering slime knights while they nap on the sunniest of days is downright sadistic and never gets old.

By reaching the other side of these rolling battlefields, you're greeted with smaller but equally intense "war zones"--maps and conflicts that resemble the story-driven encounters from the first Heroes. Alternating between the larger spaces and these more intimate combat zones provides a level of diversity seldom seen in Warriors games.

The rollout of new regions as you make progress through the game's compelling story feels orderly, but the events that unfold as you explore these territories are rich in variety. In a given hour you could be navigating through a labyrinthine swamp with brain-teasing teleportation portals, or you could be hunting down a mischievous shape-shifter impersonating townsfolk or even your protagonist. Yes, there are straightforward objectives like taking out bosses or escorting NPCs, but the game's exploration-focused, JRPG-inspired segments avoids the tidy but boring chapter-based story progression common in many subpar Warriors anime spinoffs. And Dragon Quest Heroes II isn't above occasional Dynasty Warriors-inspired battles, which are easy to enjoy given their infrequency.

Even with the recognizable Akira Toriyama character designs and the hearty helping of quests, this is first and foremost a Warriors spinoff. It foregoes the precision of stylistic hack-and-slashers like Devil May Cry in favor of the gratification of killing enemies en masse. This is thanks to straightforward controls, where stringing quick and strong attacks into a single combo can decimate two dozen enemies. Combat shows further depth with the return of minion coins, which temporarily add the monsters you vanquish to your squad. This form of summoning loses some of its tower defense-inspired appeal from the last game to make room for a wider array of enemy powers, including the immensely satisfying ability to transform into some of the game's larger enemies.

For as much as this sequel differs from its predecessor, developer Omega Force wisely preserved many of the previous game's strengths. These include classic and simple experience point-driven character progression, gear upgrades, and item alchemy. The biggest draw, however, are the guest heroes from the mainline Dragon Quest games, despite the strengths and appeal of this game's original cadre of heroes.

This new cast features a mix of Dragon Quest Heroes first-timers like Angelo and Carver and returning characters like Jessica and Kiryl. They're all skilled monster hunters, although some squad combinations are more effective than others. Fan-favorite Torneko, for example, is one of the few teammates who can cast healing spells, which makes him an MVP during the more challenging battles. Experimenting with different party formations is part of the fun, where you're compelled to balance personal preference for certain characters with team composition. You have so much to choose from, in fact, that the newly implemented class-change feature feels both underutilized and redundant. Why retool your main hero as a priest and reset your level back to one when there are already characters with priest-like abilities?

While you do have to choose a main protagonist among two heroes, the ability to switch to your other three party members on the fly quadruples your potential at effective damage-dealing. Rotating through your team in order to make the most of their abilities and strengths becomes its own game of micromanagement. This presents its share of challenges and thrills, depending on the current battle predicaments of each squadmate. However, there wouldn't be this strong compulsion to jump from body to body if not for the modest contributions of your AI-controlled buddies. They never come close to attacking with the same intensity as you. That said, you seldom feel like you're babysitting them, and they never feel like a burden.

To experience a party's true ferocity, you would have to join real-life friends in the game's multiplayer modes, a rarity for a Warriors game. When compared to playing solo, having friends along can have a huge impact on your success rate in battle. That's not to say online play is bereft of challenges. Optional multiplayer dungeons are loaded with Dragon Quest's meanest foes, and these ferocious welcome parties change based on your levels and team size. If you do come out on top in these monster-infested mazes, you leave with useful loot like a ball that temporarily boosts the amount of XP you earn in battle, which can make your next play session all the more lucrative.

Side quests--where you're tasked with everything from exterminating a set amount of monsters to hunting for specific loot--are feel-good deeds that not only make NPCs happy but also serve as rewarding sources of experience. Whatever quests you take on, there are a variety of daily incentives that yield practical rewards. The real world Wednesday incentive, in particular, where there are extra metal slimes in the field, is especially worthwhile; any Dragon Quest fan can tell you that these elusive jokesters yield a ton of experience points, provided you can actually kill them.

Much like its predecessor, Dragon Quest Heroes II isn't short of opportunities for high-volume slaughter while effectively preserving the charm of Dragon Quest. Omega Force's thoughtful mix of familiar Dragon Quest Heroes designs and new features not only makes this sequel engrossing, but it also shows this side series' potential for future installments. It makes for a satisfying hack-and-slasher that is not only a great Warriors spinoff, but also an effective gateway to the main Dragon Quest series.

Categories: Games

Puyo Puyo Tetris Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 01:00

Video game mashups are nothing new, but Puyo Puyo Tetris is the most interesting one to come along in a while, bridging two puzzle series with distinct mechanics and rules. What you ultimately get are two great games and a surprisingly good mashup with numerous single- and multiplayer options at the ready. It's a robust package, and an excellent revival of two beloved yet stagnant series.

More players are likely to be familiar with Tetris than Puyo Puyo, but the two share a similar basic concept. Both revolve around objects falling from the top of the board that you attempt to arrange in a particular pattern. Creating a full horizontal line with Tetriminoes in Tetris will clear said line. In the case of Puyo Puyo, however, you're matching colored Puyo blobs--match four or more of the same Puyo types, and they explode off the screen. If your stack reaches the top of the screen in either game, you lose.

Puyo Puyo Tetris features a bizarre story mode with chatty anime-style characters and an absurd amount of dialogue--thankfully, you can easily skip these sequences. Story mode offers 10 acts, with 10 levels each that go back and forth between the two game styles before eventually merging them. While this is a lengthy way to see all the different elements Puyo Puyo Tetris has to offer, there are a wide array of game modes you can jump right into. Newcomers to either (or both) franchise can reference the Lesson mode in order to get up to speed as well.

The single- and multiplayer Arcade modes offer a surprising wealth of game variations. The multiplayer arcade includes a straight-up versus mode, along with four other options. Swap mode actually switches players between the two games during a match at certain intervals, while Fusion is a hybrid of the two, where both Puyos and Tetrominoes drop from the top of the board. Big Bang is a timed race to finish challenge boards before the other player, and Party mode features special items that drop (like exploding blocks) and either help or hurt players. Multiplayer supports up to four players locally and makes for a perfect couch-based party game.

Meanwhile, Solo Arcade lets you play any of the multiplayer game modes against AI, and it also adds a couple of more game types. Endurance is a 1-on-1 battle against the numerous AI characters to see how long you can survive, while Challenge mode is a series of different game types (with no AI opponent) that range from the traditional sprint and marathon modes, to events that change the size of the actual game pieces.

The variations on the standard game are a welcome diversion, but you may inevitably gravitate towards standard versus or endless games without the added novelties. The zen-like appeal of seeing how high a score you can earn byforming lines or destroying Puyos is still the biggest draw of these games. The hybrid mode is the most notable addition here, but it's heavy on chaotic gameplay. The board filling with both Tetriminoes and Puyos feels like overkill, veering too far from the simplistic nature of either game.

Online multiplayer is divided between Free Play and the ranked Puzzle League. Both allow for customization options regarding which game and how you want to play. During our online matches, the only available players were in Japan, and while we had some games drop, most were consistently stable. As with offline multiplayer, up to four players can battle it out online.

Puyo Puyo Tetris is an achievement in that it takes two distinct games and combines them in a way that doesn't feel forced or overly gimmicky. If you love just Tetris, this is an excellent Tetris game, and the same goes for fans of Puyo Puyo. It's also a perfect portable game, so it's ideal on the Switch.

Overflowing with colorful personality, Puyo Puyo Tetris revels in its weirdness. It provides solid versions of both puzzle games and merges the two in bizarre, frantic ways that adds a fresh dash of style to these long-running series. With an array of game variations spanning single-player, along with on- and offline multiplayer, it's an incredibly meaty package that should satisfy gamers for a long time to come.

Categories: Games

What Remains of Edith Finch Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 01:00

The minute What Remains of Edith Finch puts its titular protagonist face to face with its slapdash Frankenstein's monster of a house, it seems the game is gearing up for a horror story, closer to Resident Evil than Gone Home. That's actually close to the truth in one sequence, but What Remains of Edith Finch ultimately tells a subtle tale with far more pensive ideas. It plays off a heightened sense of impending mortality, but terror never truly takes a physical form. These are simply the facts, presented as only the victims and witnesses could deliver them.

More specifically, the game follows young Edith on a trip to her family's abandoned, derelict home, built on a rural island off the coast of Washington state. Three generations of Edith's family have lived in this house--and three generations, with a single exception, have died early, sudden, shocking deaths of various causes under its roof. The Finches and those who know them consider this a family curse. Edith, however, is less interested in the possible supernatural implications of what befell her family and more focused on the circumstances that led them to their demise. And so, playing as Edith from a first-person perspective, you explore the house, this living monument to tragedy, not so much to learn the truth about her family but to accept it.

That's an important distinction to make. There's an elephant in the room that becomes clear early on, and it's ever imposing the more Edith explores the house: This is her fate. The specifics are unclear, but if there's one certainty about how Edith will finally die, it won't be of old age. As such, if there's anything resembling an ultimate goal to What Remains of Edith Finch, it's not in solving a mystery or unveiling some hidden backstory about the curse. It's about achieving grace in what's more than likely a graceless end through communion with the lives of her family.

As one might expect, this is an exploration game that stays out of the narrative's way as much as possible. The controls are blissfully simple, with only the two analog sticks and the R2 button needed to perform every action in the game. Every movement--opening a door, winding a music box, using a View-Master, even flying a kite--is performed intuitively, with very little in the way of a tutorial or UI necessary.

Things are a bit dicier with the actual exploration. The game does a stellar job of environmental immersion, with its beautiful tableaus of gothic dread and emptiness interspersed with moments of incredible vibrancy and imagination. But progressing further into the house beyond the first floor involves a rudimentary but unnecessary amount of travel through intertwining secret rooms and crawlspaces that no real people in their right minds would build unless, well, they wanted their house to be the setting for a video game. Once Edith finds what she's truly looking for in each major area, however, the game sinks its hooks in--and deep.

While the game isn't above a sense of humor or whimsy, it never forgets it's in the company of Death, a constant companion through an entire century of misfortunes in the Finch house.

Eleven total family members have died in the Finch house, and once they passed, the family sealed their rooms away, with their belongings intact. When Edith finds a final journal entry, last pictures, or crucial memento from their last days, the game seamlessly shifts to that family member's narrative. These vignettes vary not just in tone and particulars, but in gameplay style.

A father's final hunting trip with his daughter plays out through the eye of their camera, progressing as the player takes the perfect shots along the way, capturing the awkward final moment while on a timer. A little girl's dying fever dream sees her taking the form of various animals, ending up as a skulking tentacled beast taking out sailors a la Dishonored 2. A former child star's death is immortalized in an old-school, Bill Gaines-style horror comic, playable here in bold, cel-shaded, four-color beauty complete with the perfect piece of licensed film score imaginable. While the game isn't above a sense of humor or whimsy, it never forgets it's in the company of Death, a constant companion through an entire century of misfortunes in the Finch house. Its fatalism shapeshifts in every life it takes too soon; it's oppressive in the game's moments of joy, friendly in the face of misery, and never lacking in poetry.

That lyrical quality is where What Remains of Edith Finch finds its greatness: As Edith connects the stories together, weaving in a narrative all her own in the process, the game leaves players with the ultimate task of finding meaning in it all. Edith herself has her purposes, and once the credits roll, her own part to play becomes clear--but what it all means will vary depending on the player. There's no definitive "aha!" moment to definitively say the Finch family is cursed or convey what kind of judgment the game is passing on their choices. And yet, there's power and poignancy putting these final moments in the hands of the player, the knowledge and experiences of generations carried within them as the game plays on. It's macabre. It's often utterly heartbreaking. But it is undeniably powerful.

Developer Giant Sparrow managed to strike the delicate balance between joy and sorrow in 2012's The Unfinished Swan, but What Remains of Edith Finch transcends even the latent sadness of that game, finding the beauty--even sometimes the fun--in what's always fundamentally a tragedy. It's not often that a game's plot slips past the bitterness of grief to finally get to the acceptance, but that's the triumph in What Remains of Edith Finch. Ultimately, if the game has any resemblance of a moral, it's that the bravest, most beautiful thing every one of us does is choose to keep going, despite knowing what's coming.

Categories: Games

Outlast 2 Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 20:00

Outlast 2's maniacal commitment to its core conceit is simultaneously its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Like the original--which helped popularize first-person survival horror when it launched in 2013--Outlast 2 casts you as a hapless everyman with zero fighting skills and no tools beyond a camcorder. Your only option when confronted with grotesque, bloodthirsty murderers is to run and hide.

As a result, every snapping twig, every distant scream, every gruesome corpse grips you with fear even more tightly than it might if you actually had a way to defend yourself. But this also means the core gameplay cannot evolve as you progress--the chase sequences you survive at the start of the game are essentially identical to the situations you encounter near the end. There aren't many new mechanics or scenarios to keep the intervening hours feeling varied and engaging.

To make matters worse, the game's most harrowing moments--those sequences where you're spotted by an enemy and must flee to safety--frequently devolve into trial-and-error tedium. Almost invariably, these chases are scripted, meaning you must get from point A to a specific point B as quickly as possible. Problem is, point B is rarely obvious. It might be a tiny opening you have to crawl through or a bookcase you have to move, but you'll only have a few seconds to figure it out before your pursuers catch up and kill you, forcing you to replay most of the chase in order to return to the apparent dead end where you got stuck. At that point, the game stops being scary and simply becomes frustrating.

This was occasionally an issue in the first game as well, but you often had more freedom and could play more strategically--if you're trying to avoid one bad guy in a large area while sneaking from room to room to collect valve handles, you can decide, "Okay, he'll see me when I dart across here, but I think I can make it back to this locker and hide before he catches me." In Outlast 2, you generally just need to run from whatever's directly behind you and hope you figure out the one correct path as you go. At least when you do stay on track, it's unbelievably intense and exhilarating. The fact that the game excels at delivering sudden bursts of panic keeps your nerves on edge at all times. You never quite know when hell will break loose again, but you always know it's coming.

Not everyone you encounter tries to kill you. It's creepy.

Tension, really, is what Outlast 2 does best. Its gameplay may stumble in certain ways, but you're always deeply, inescapably immersed in its atmosphere. In place of the first game's mental asylum, new protagonist Blake Langermann finds himself lost in the Arizona desert surrounded by religious zealots and fetid corpses. Though you'll endure a wide variety of environments, desecration follows you everywhere. And while the visuals pack plenty of unsettling details, the sound design is some of the best in horror game history. From the jagged, unnerving score to the harsh whispers that seem to come from all directions, Outlast 2's audio is the single biggest contributor to its remarkable sense of foreboding. The subtle squish and crunch that accompanies every footstep as you cross a pit full of dead infants will likely haunt you forever.

All of these scare tactics get in your head and, in a way, deepen those skin-crawling lulls between the adrenaline-pumping chases. In most games, walking into a room and grabbing an item is about as simple as it gets, but when you're utterly convinced some new horror's just waiting to rip your throat out, exploring for camera batteries suddenly feels like a harrowing trial. And you'll need those batteries. Just as before, your camera's night vision allows you see in the dark, and the new directional mic also lets you (loosely) track enemies through walls.

However, both of these comforts drain your batteries at an alarming rate, especially on higher difficulty settings. You can keep night vision on even when you run out of juice, but your screen starts to flicker and the camera can't focus. It's almost scarier than being totally blind, so it's important to expend your battery power strategically. I never had a problem finding batteries on Normal, but higher difficulty settings turn this aspect of the experience into a legitimate challenge.

Even if you're stocked up on batteries, though, there's another reason to brave exploration: journal entries. As with the original game, there's no traditional story arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, you're given a goal--in this case, to save your missing wife--and bad stuff happens as you pursue that goal. The only way to understand your situation is to gather information from, for example, suicide notes and deranged gospel excerpts. The writing is strong throughout, but Outlast 2's primary narrative relies too heavily on trite horror tropes, including sadistic backwoods fanatics, demon babies, and of course, damsels in distress. The ending also falls short of the wild twist that capped the first game.

But there is another side to Outlast 2's story. As you progress, Blake starts to experience hallucinations that seem to depict a traumatic childhood event. They reveal new details at exactly the right pace, providing subtle, devastating hints without spelling everything out. It hooked me early, compelled me through the campaign, and eventually delivered an emotional payoff, all while tying together both halves of the game through shared themes of guilt, abandonment, and the exploitation of faith. Altogether, Blake's hallucinations prove to be one of the game's strongest elements.

In order to unlock certain journal entries, you have to film events as they happen. The timing can be tricky...and frustrating.

In truth, Outlast's "no weapons" formula worked better as a shorter experience. Stretched over twice the length of the original game, Outlast 2's gameplay starts to wear thin, especially since too many of its scripted chases funnel you down preset paths. At the same time, however, I admire its purity, and to an extent, I'm willing to accept its shortcomings for the sake of true survival horror. The campaign is scary from start to finish and delivers on its promise of unrelenting terror in part because it never allows you to fight back. The atmosphere and sound design are expertly crafted, and Blake's hallucinations elevate the game's story above that of the first. It doesn't do much to build on the original formula, but it unquestionably provides a more polished version of the same idea.

Think of it as a ride through a really amazing haunted house: you don't have a ton of control and sometimes the ride breaks down for a moment or two, but it's basically guaranteed to leave you scared out of your mind.

Categories: Games

The Disney Afternoon Collection Review

Games Spot Reviews - Sat, 04/22/2017 - 18:00

Capcom is big on cashing in on its extensive gaming history, so yet another blast-from-the-past package of 8-bit games from the company is no surprise. In this case, the theme is Disney--and a good reminder that, when Disney put its name on a game back in the day, it was a pretty sure bet you'd be in for a good time. Disney and Capcom had a great track record of solid NES titles based on beloved late-'80s/early-'90s cartoons, and now those 8-bit classics are available in one affordable package.

If you're the kind of person who even just sees the word DuckTales and instantly hears "woo-ooo!" in your mind, Capcom's gifting you a retro treat here. Six games are included in the Disney Afternoon Collection, and they are the kind of side-scrolling platformers so prevalent in the NES' heyday.

You'll find DuckTales and DuckTales 2, both Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers titles, Darkwing Duck, and the aerial shooter TaleSpin in the collection. These are largely straightforward ports of the original games made to fit your HDTV, but they're otherwise untouched replications of the original NES versions. You can turn filtering on and off on the fly to smooth out the pixelated graphics and stretch the game to fit your screen (or leave the bordered version true to the original aspect ratio), but none of the graphics have been explicitly retouched.

Given the nature of this collection, the entire pack feels like an historical artifact. In their day, Capcom's Disney-themed games had impressively high production values, solid level design, and otherwise stood out thanks to their recognizable cartoon cast. They also shared another defining feature--they were almost universally, uncompromisingly difficult (a trend that would continue well into the Super Nintendo years).

The Chip 'n Dale games were cooperative platformers, which was distinctive for the time. DuckTales offered players the ability to take the large worlds in whatever order they wanted and offered replay value with the ability to revisit previously explored worlds, since the levels were full of secret gems. Darkwing Duck focused on side-scrolling shooting and a humorously noirish atmosphere that was countered by a controller-throwing level of potential frustration due to game mechanics and difficulty level. The odd duck out (so to speak), TaleSpin, starts off almost like a side-scrolling arcade shooter, where you can only shoot one slow bullet at a time, which can be upgraded over time. The pacing is such that every shot must be timed perfectly, or you're doomed.

The games themselves are only part of the appeal here, though. Capcom has included a plethora of additional content as well. The Disney Museum lets you stroll down memory lane and provides some interesting perspective on each game and their characters. The goodies offered in the Museum include ads, concept art, and soundtracks. Given the historical nature of the games, this is a particularly nice touch that adds more weight to the idea that once, long ago, these were premium-priced, triple-A titles.

Each game also comes with two new modes: Boss Rush and Time Attack. Boss Rush distills the game down into a gauntlet run made up entirely of bosses, as the name suggests. Time Attack adds an interesting layer of social gaming to the mix--this mode lets you race through the levels against the clock but also links to online leaderboards to let you compete against the world for the fastest times.

The final addition to the Disney Afternoon Collection is the rewind button, which boosts the enjoyment of these challenging diversions. Pressing the left shoulder button instantly backs the action up so you can try again. It works throughout every game, and you can even use the feature to go back to the very beginning of a level. To say it's a sanity saver for those not used to punishment of this magnitude is an understatement.

The Disney Afternoon Collection is a refined time capsule that covers a very specific chapter in gaming history. While these games might not be anything to get overly excited about individually, in a package that includes plenty of history and extras, this collection is a nostalgic curiosity with heart.

Categories: Games

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War III Review

Games Spot Reviews - Thu, 04/20/2017 - 15:00

Dawn of War III is a game at odds with itself. Matches start with a lot of momentum and expand quickly before settling into a soft balance for long stretches. Careful control of elite warriors on the front line is essential, but so is constantly nurturing your base and marshalling upgrades for your armies. Despite that, Dawn of War III holds its own, offering delicious tooth-and-nail fights that will push both your technical skill and strategic aptitude to their limit.

Continuing the story of Gabriel Angelos, head of the storied bunch of Space Marines known as the Blood Ravens, Dawn of War III centers on the search for an artifact from the Eldar blood god Khaine. However, the campaign shifts between each of the game's three major factions--the Space Marines, the Eldar, and the Orks--to show each of their perspectives and explain why a magical MacGuffin is worth interplanetary war.

If you got through that paragraph fine and you know your tyranids from your chaos demons, you're good to go. Otherwise, like most games under the Warhammer umbrella, this isn't friendly to newcomers--and it matters this time around. Everything from tactical options to unit management leans at least partially on knowledge of the Warhammer universe. The tutorial will do a solid job of giving you the tools needed to get going, but background knowledge is all but essential.

Beyond a healthy addition to the already massive Warhammer canon, the campaign doesn't offer much. You have a straight push through 17 missions, and each of them serves as a really drawn-out tutorial, offering contrived scenarios for you to test out different strategies before playing against others online. That's fine on its own, but without interesting twists on the fundamentals of play, you're better off starting with multiplayer. There's only one mode, but it's packed with ideas.

Skirmishes can have between two and six human (or AI) players split into two teams. Each is charged with defending a power core. Both sides start with an array of basic defenses, including a pair of powerful automated turrets, to deter early intruders. From there, you'll plan out your base and capture strategic points around the map to pull in resources and keep tabs on the enemy.

That, in itself, could form the backbone of a game, but Dawn of War III also has an array of powerful hero units. Each is a pillar of the Warhammer story and comes with weapons and powers befitting their esteem. You'll be able to summon your first after the first few minutes of a match, after which they can press fronts, boost morale, or harass your foes. While most of these units can turn the tide on their own, they're akin to a queen in chess, in that if you do manage to lose one, it can be devastating.

That's fine on its own, but what it means, practically speaking, is that just as your base-building gets more complex and requires more care and attention, you're also tasked with tactically managing your Elite units. That makes for one steep learning curve, but for those that manage it, there's a lot of added depth.

Bases in Dawn of War aren't just where your core units get churned out. They're a vital part of resupplying and supporting your forward troops. Elites, tough as they are, also don't typically heal on their own, and marching your shiny Morkanaut all the way to the foe's headquarters--only to have to march home and then back just to freshen up--isn't wise. That creates an unusual attentiveness to the front lines that lends itself to white-knuckle play.

Awkward as it can be, there's magic to be found here. Pressing with the gargantuan Wraithknight Taldeer as a distraction right as you capture a resource node is exhilarating, and it’s made that much better when you can connect the Webway and warp in reinforcements from across the map.

These gains are always tenuous, though. Dawn of War strictly limits army sizes, and resource gathering slows exponentially the more troops you have. This means that even if you knock an opponent down, they'll build up resources quickly and come back swinging in short order. That magnifies the importance of the psychological play. Running with the previous example, while you'd have a strong forward position, that also stretches supply lines and leaves you open to a swift, brutal counterattack.

These quick reversals are brilliant and make for intense, memorable matches. While humans are more fun to spar with, the included AI isn't a slouch either. Computer players will try their own tricks, often hinting at larger armies than they have for intimidation, or launching sneak attacks to your core base.

Each of the three main factions also complement each other well in the classic rock-paper-scissors fashion. Space Marines are slow to build up momentum, but once they've hit the field, they're a force. Eldar are mobile and suited for hit-and-run attacks, and the Orks...well, they're weird. They’re exceptionally strong, but only when they declare a "WAAAAAAAGH!!!"--which, while terrifying, notifies everyone on the field, letting others adjust defenses accordingly.

Between matches, you can tune your army a bit, changing out different elite units as a kind of loadout. Plus, in a nod to Warhammer’s tabletop inspirations, you can customize the paint and color scheme for every unit in the game. Given the role of army customization in Warhammer proper, it's a shame you can't also swap out weapons and gear for your basic units and vehicles, for example. They're nice additions that mix things up a bit, but they're also a bit shallow.

A few other problems lurk here and there, particularly in the user interface. On multiple occasions, Elite units won’t deselect when clicking around the map. At times, dragging boxes around troops won’t highlight them at all. While small problems on the whole, they did cause their share of raised voices.

Dawn of War III doesn't quite keep up with its predecessors' pedigree of high production values. The game certainly sounds amazing, with crisp sound effects and an excellent soundtrack, but the same can't always be said of the visuals. Battles often look great zoomed out, but pulling in shows plenty of blemishes. The camera also doesn't do a great job of showing off the battlefield. Even at its most distant, very little of the map fits in the screen, meaning that you can expect to need to move around a lot during play.

An odd chimera of its forebears, there's a lot in this fast-paced RTS that’s a little bit off. Parts of the interface don't work sometimes, inter-match army management is half-baked, and the micromanagement needed to use the game's signature hero units effectively doesn't jibe with the extensive base-building you'll need to support them. But those problems fall away when you’re in the heat of battle. Dawn of War III builds and maintains an organic tension that yields huge pay-offs, and there’s nothing else quite like it.

Categories: Games

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Review

Games Spot Reviews - Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:00

For Mario Kart fans, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe might look like more of the same with small Double Dash-inspired tweaks. But thanks to a series of updates both big and almost unseen, it's the version of Mario Kart to get. If you don't own a Wii U or skipped out on Mario Kart 8 the first time around--or even if you've played it before--Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is worth your time. It plays beautifully on Switch in both handheld and docked mode, and its core racing is as exciting as ever. And, most notably, it completely revamps the original's lackluster Battle Mode, rounding out an already great racing game.

In the original version of Mario Kart 8, the balloon-popping Battle Mode disappointingly repurposed tracks designed for regular racing instead of having arenas designed specifically for a completely different way of playing. All of those tracks have been replaced in Deluxe, and the Battle maps we get make all the difference. There are five new maps and three retro maps, and each has choke points great for face-offs built around central areas where you can mercilessly toss items at your friends. And unlike on regular racetracks, those items have a much greater chance of actually hitting someone instead of flying off to the side pointlessly. The Splatoon-inspired Urchin Underpass and the almost Overwatch-like Dragon Palace are standouts.

In order to fully take advantage of these new maps, Battle Mode introduces modes that weren't in the original. Balloon Battle is of course back with a few changes--it's point-based rather than last-man-standing, which keeps battles exciting right up until time is called, and it's nice to not get booted out of the fun when all your balloons are gone. There's also a completely new mode called Renegade Roundup that's very similar to cops-and-robbers tag, meaning it capitalizes on Mario Kart 8's strong racing for a different kind of battle.

Finally, there are three modes that return from previous Mario Kart games--Bob-omb Blast, Coin Runners, and Shine Thief--that all complement the maps, with my personal favorite being the explosive, competitive mayhem of Bob-omb Blast. You have to drive around collecting item boxes, throw the bombs you get at your opponents, and avoiding getting hit with bombs yourself, and it's very easy to get way too competitive amid a flurry of bombs dropping around you. Combined with the other modes, this is the varied, exciting Battle Mode that Mario Kart 8 should have had all along.

Regular racing is as strong as in the original and gets minimal updates in this version. All the tracks and characters from Wii U, including the DLC, have returned, and there are also a few new characters to choose from. Unfortunately, there are no new tracks, so if you've done your share of racing (and yelling at) your friends on the existing tracks, you'll pretty much know what to expect.

This is the varied, exciting Battle Mode that Mario Kart 8 should have had all along.

That said, the ability to carry two items at once is back from the Double Dash days, and that means slightly more items on the track to keep you on your toes. My mastery of the tracks from playing on Wii U was challenged a bit by a few more Blue Shells thrown my way. But your driving ability still matters more than in previous Mario Kart games, and racing in Deluxe is as enjoyable and rewarding for skilled players as it was originally. Precise drifting and a good handle on what kind of kart or bike configuration fits your style and the tracks you're on goes a long way.

Deluxe also adds some small quality-of-life updates that make for a more polished package. Load times are shorter on Switch than on Wii U, and the game takes advantage of the Joy-Cons' vibration capabilities--off-roading is bumpier and drifting boosts feel more satisfying thanks to a stronger sense of acceleration. Plus, you can change your kart configuration in multiplayer without having to leave the lobby first. (About time.)

Even if you didn't really care about Battle Mode, the smallest changes in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe refine an already great racing game. But the huge overhaul to the original's afterthought of a Battle Mode is a chaotic, varied opportunity to play very differently than in Grand Prix mode and well worth reinvesting yourself in Mario Kart 8 on Switch.

Categories: Games

Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 04/19/2017 - 23:00

Remakes are a tricky business, especially for a game like Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap. Originally released on the Sega Master System in the console's waning days, the game didn't get a lot of attention in North America in the 80s, but it won over the hearts of many in Europe, where the Master System was far more popular. The problem is, how do you reintroduce a game that's a beloved classic to some but virtually unknown elsewhere to a modern, global audience? By keeping the gameplay close to the source material while giving the game an audiovisual overhaul. The result is a classic game that feels fresher than ever before.

The Dragon's Trap is an early example of what's now commonly called a "Metroidvania." This style of action game presents a free-roaming map that you're able to explore more of as you obtain new items and abilities. Most of your abilities in The Dragon's Trap come from the animal forms you can take after beating the dragon bosses. You start off as a lizardman who has limited defense and movement capabilities but wields a ranged fire projectile. As you assume other forms, your abilities will expand greatly: a mouseman with small stature and the ability to scale certain walls, a piranhaman who can swim through water freely, a lionman with a fierce offensive sword swing, and a flight-capable hawkman who can soar the skies but rapidly loses health in water. Each of these forms offers a play style that's both unique and easy to grasp--you won't have to struggle to re-learn controls for each transformation.

The world of The Dragon's Trap is fairly small compared to most modern games of this nature--there's no in-game map, but you probably won't need one. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially since this game doesn't have true "save points." If you die or continue a saved game, you'll always begin in the hub town. It's a nod to the game's old-school, password-save roots (you can even use old passwords, if you like), and while it can be a bit annoying to redo entire dungeons if you're KO'd partway through, it also emphasizes the importance of skillful play and proper preparation.

What does "proper preparation" entail? Upgrading your weapons and armor, stocking up on limited-use magic spells that aid you in beating some of the game's more obnoxious enemies, and keeping a few health-restoring potions on hand that'll save your scaly/furry/feathered behind.

A bit of exploration and creative thinking will pay off immensely in the form of loot-filled treasure rooms, permanent health boosts, and secret shops selling high-powered gear. Few things are more satisfying in The Dragon's Trap than pressing up in a suspicious-looking enclave to find a wondrous hidden door to a treasure chamber with copious goodies for the taking. Developer Dot Emu has even gone the extra mile and included new, extra-challenging secret areas made exclusively for this version of the game.

Despite the world map's small size, each area manages to remain distinct and interesting--and this is augmented by the remake's charmingly upgraded presentation.

Despite the world map's small size, each area manages to remain distinct and interesting--and this is augmented by the remake's charmingly upgraded presentation. Between the stunningly drawn backgrounds, exceptionally well-animated characters, and little visual flourishes that make every set of screens unique, The Dragon's Trap is a visual delight. What's even more amazing is that the core gameplay hasn't been compromised at all from the original to accommodate the new visuals--it's still the same in terms of controls, physics, and overall exploration progression. In fact, you can switch from new- to old-school visuals and sound on the fly with simple button presses.

Despite its modernized 2D graphics, The Dragon's Trap does show its age in a few places. Sometimes the means of progression isn't always obvious, leaving you feeling stuck. This version of the game adds a fortune-teller who sometimes drops vague hints, which helps somewhat, but it's still a bit annoying to wander around aimlessly trying to find something to help you progress. (At least the old FAQs for the game are still useful.)

A few of the mechanics also take some getting used to, such as the odd stun state that can happen when you're trapped by an enemy or rapid-fire projectiles and debilitated for seconds at a time. The boss fights also feel very underwhelming--the enemy dragons fall into simple patterns that are easy to learn after a bit of observation, and they don't change them up even at low health. But since they can tank a lot of damage, these encounters turn into tests of patience and endurance rather than skill.

As things stand, however, Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap shines as one of the best retro remakes yet. It knows not to tamper too much with the enjoyable, exploration-driven gameplay that made the original so good, instead focusing on updating the presentation to reintroduce the game to a new generation of players. While it's a bit on the short side--you can probably beat it over the course of a lazy Saturday--its small world is packed with personality. Whether you've played the original or are completely new to the weird, wacky world of Wonder Boy, The Dragon's Trap is an adventure well worth embarking on.

Categories: Games

Guardians Of The Galaxy - Episode 1: Tangled Up In Blue Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/18/2017 - 04:59

The first episode of Telltale's Guardians of the Galaxy series sets the action-packed, sarcasm-filled stage for what's to come. It has just the right amount of exposition to keep things on track and establishes its characters without over-explaining things for those who are familiar with the comics or film. But while its two hours are paced like a movie and consistently engaging, its more game-like elements of choice and exploration remove you from the story rather than keep you grounded in it.

The episode starts strong, immediately diving into some action. The Guardians get a call from the Nova Corps, who need help fighting Thanos; soon enough, their ship is crashing and they stumble into battle. It might feel a little abrupt if you're unfamiliar with Guardians, but bickering among the team fills in most of the gaps with their personalities and dynamic. The whole episode feels true to their characters, especially how they're portrayed in the movie, and it's a good introduction to what they're all about without relying on lengthy exposition.

Before the actual fight begins, though, you first find the Nova Corps decimated by Thanos--and you have to do some exploring to figure things out. It's the first of several point-and-click adventure sections that feel out of place in the episode's movie-like structure. Since it's not immediately apparent what you're looking for, a section that would take maybe a minute in a movie can take 10, and things come grinding to a halt. It almost feels as if your participation is just the episode checking to make sure you're paying attention, when it was doing a fine job of being interesting on its own.

The fight itself picks things back up. Switching between team members to try and take Thanos down fits Telltale's quick-time events style well, and it's also a critical setup for the real conflict at the heart of the episode: rising tensions between the Guardians. Most of your important decisions revolve around siding with one team member over another. After the kind of bonding experience only fighting a genocidal maniac can achieve, not being able to make everyone happy is a little heart-wrenching, and those decisions have weight to them.

Less-important dialogue choices can reveal some backstory, but a lot of them can get confusing given that Star-Lord has such an established personality. He's snarky and sarcastic most of the time, but when you have options, you can choose to say something a little more mushy about friendship and family. That by itself works fine, but as the episode goes on, it can feel like you're choosing between acting the way you'd think Star-Lord would act and saying the things you'd actually want to say. In certain situations, it's jarring to have choices when the decision Star-Lord would make seems obvious, especially given the episode's cinematic format.

After the kind of bonding experience only fighting a genocidal maniac can achieve, not being able to make everyone happy is a little heart-wrenching.

Because of that characterization, though, jokes land more often than not, and even less-important interactions serve to build out the team. That and good voice acting balance out a few rough bits of dialogue (Rocket making a "your face" retort and following it with, "That was terrible," for example). Quiet, intimate moments between characters are what Telltale does best, and this episode strikes a good balance between Guardians-style snark and conversations with a little more meaning to them.

The episode has one majorly important decision toward the end, but I was only able to experience one of the two options. When I replayed it to see what would change, the only scene that was really different had no sound. It's the only bug I encountered, but its timing was more than inconvenient. From what I can tell, it's a decision that will more greatly affect later episodes than this one.

Even without that one scene, the episode sets up an important conflict and serious questions about the galaxy going into Episode 2. Some more game-y elements can take you out of the experience a bit, but this is also a compelling introduction to the series that captures the unique charms of the Guardians--plus, there's some kickass music.

Categories: Games

Mr. Shifty Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 04/17/2017 - 23:00

Mr. Shifty's influences are easy to identify. In one sentence, it's "Hotline Miami meets that opening Nightcrawler sequence in X-Men sequel film X2." It's high-concept, but Mr. Shifty lives up to the expectations that description might instill.

You play as the eponymous Mr. Shifty, a gun-averse thief with the power of teleportation who spends the entire game storming a tower in the style of movies like The Raid or Dredd. There's a plot, but the script all but acknowledges that it doesn't matter--you're here to teleport a lot and beat up hundreds of bad guys. Mr. Shifty only has three abilities: He can teleport a short distance, he can punch hard, and he can pick up melee weapons which can then be used to strike an enemy directly or thrown from afar.

In a typical encounter, you might aggressively warp into a room, punch an enemy twice, and then immediately jump out. The foes in the room will give chase, and you'll stand by the doorway and take out another one by slamming them into the door as they exit, then warp to safety. From there, you can warp back into the room they just left and take out the last to leave, then run outside and warp between the stragglers, taking them down as fast as possible.

This is one of the game's simpler scenarios--at any given point, there's a chance you also need to deal with proximity mines, rocket-launching enemies, turrets, moving laser grids, and zones that hinder shifting. The true beauty of Mr. Shifty is that you can only plan so far ahead, especially in later levels. You can have a perfect plan for how to deal with the first 10 foes in an area, but one of them might use a surprising new tactic or more enemies might flood in, and you suddenly need to adjust your strategy. As you warp around--being careful not to use five warps in quick succession and deplete your shift meter--carnage is likely to unfurl around you, and it's up to you to corral your enemies while also being aware of any nearby hazards. Mr. Shifty feels varied, even as you're performing the same actions repeatedly.

It's like a shot of adrenalin, offering an exciting, intense experience, and it's easy to forgive the game's performance flaws when it so consistently makes you feel like a badass.

Enemies are dumb enough to kill their fellow soldiers if they think they have a shot at you, a fact that becomes near-vital once they begin carrying rocket launchers. You can pick up grenades or timed mines, teleport into a room, drop one, and teleport back out. Tricking an enemy into taking out their support or provoking a group of foes before blowing them up with a well-placed mine feels fantastic, and surveying the ensuing carnage makes you feel amazing for having survived it. The key is confidence and fast action, and when you're taking out 20-plus bad guys in quick succession, it's easy to walk away feeling smug.

Mr. Shifty is a hectic, challenging game, but it's rarely frustrating or unfair--the checkpointing is generous, meaning you rarely lose more than a minute of progress at a time. However, a few puzzles and scenarios don't align with game's typical scenarios: a small handful of rooms across Mr. Shifty's 18 levels offer up light puzzles, and in a few instances, the solution requires prompting the somewhat flighty AI into performing very specific actions. These sequences are brief and too uncommon to become a huge issue, though. Realistically, all this means is that the game may hold you up for a few minutes until you figure out a solution.

What's more likely to turn players away from Mr. Shifty is its presentation--to be blunt, this is not a great-looking game. The developers have opted for a cel-shaded look, but everything is rendered very simplistically. The game also suffers from performance issues whenever the screen is full of enemies and effects, which happens a lot toward the end. Mr. Shifty can stutter heavily on both Switch and PC, visibly struggling to handle all the moving parts. However, this isn't a deal breaker, and one of these brief stutters can actually grant you an extra half second to plot your way out of a sticky situation.

Mr. Shifty isn't a huge game in terms of length, but the three- to four-hour campaign is ample. It's like a shot of adrenalin, offering an exciting, intense experience, and it's easy to forgive the game's performance flaws when it so consistently makes you feel like a badass.

Categories: Games

Toukiden 2 Review

Games Spot Reviews - Sun, 04/16/2017 - 00:00

With the global popularity of the Monster Hunter series on the rise, several developers have attempted to put their own spin on the “team of warriors working together to take down a giant beast” concept. While some players might simply dismiss any game besides Monster Hunter as a knock-off, many games inspired by that series are valuable in their own right because they introduce and iterate on the formula in meaningful ways. Toukiden 2 is one such game, taking genre foundations and building upon them to form an identity all its own.

The game doesn’t waste any time before thrusting you into demon-crunching action; the very first scene puts you in the middle of a battle in Yokohama in an alternate-history version of Japan. Wicked demons known as the Oni are flooding through an interdimensional portal, and it’s up to you to destroy them before they finish wreaking havoc on Earth. This scene serves as a tutorial, introducing you to the basics of fighting: attacking with your chosen weapon, targeting (and cutting off) body parts of larger enemies, and purifying the remains of the fallen demons. Unfortunately, things don’t turn out so well in the end, and you wake up on the other end of the country 10 years later. You’re rescued by a professor and her strange mechanical companion who, along with various warrior factions of the local village, are working to help stem the tide of the Oni scourge.

One of the big things that sets Toukiden 2 apart from its peers is its ongoing story. New locations, characters, and plot elements frequently appear as you progress through your objectives. Framing the narrative is a semi-open world where you can fight monsters, find extra side quests, gather materials, and locate collectibles like ancient pillars that provide insight into the game’s backstory. Having this sort of freedom in a hunting game feels fresh and makes the world itself more engaging. But if you want traditional mission-based quests from a hub area, those are available as well.

Toukiden 2 is not totally open world at the start, however. Some locations are locked until later in the story, and some areas are infected by an evil miasma emitted by the Oni. The longer you stay in an afflicted area, the more impure your body becomes. Fail to purify yourself and it’s game over. It’s a harsh system, but there are ways to get that nasty air out of your body: you can use cleansing stones located around the world and back in town, or kill and purify a lot of demons. This system adds a nice balance of danger to exploration and adds to the overall atmosphere of the game by showing you directly how the Oni are corrupting the world.

Special praise must be given to the variety of Toukiden 2's monsters. The Oni you fight have a distinct look that falls somewhere between Japanese yokai and modern game creature design. Onis can present fast-paced one-on-one fights or lengthy, hard-fought battles that require a group strategy. Demons don’t go down easily--you’ll need to first get them to reveal their hidden life force by attacking and eventually severing specific body parts. Then you can lay into a weakened Oni with attacks and special skills to finish the job.

A crucial weapon in your fight against the Oni is the “Demon Hand,” a special piece of gear given to you by the professor. This acts like a sort of grappling hook, allowing you to perform an array of flashy attacks and maneuvers. For starters, you can latch onto enemies and objects in the environment and slingshot over to them, launching a sweet aerial attack along the way. You can also grab elemental sources and certain objects in the environment, flinging them at foes or using them to augment your weapon. Finally, you can use the Demon Hand to launch special unity attacks when your team’s unity gauge is full, tearing off certain body parts and making it extra hard for the Oni you’re fighting to regenerate. It definitely takes some getting used to, but few things are more satisfying than summoning a gargantuan supernatural hand to rend the weakened limbs from giant enemies.

Wandering through the world can be very frustrating at times due to the lack of detail on your map, repetitive environments, and a lackluster guidance system.

While you’ve got a diverse array of weapons (each with differing play styles) to choose from, Toukiden 2 also offers an interesting way to customize your warrior in the mitama. Mitama represent souls of historical and mythological Japanese figures that have been devoured by the Oni, and by freeing them, you can make use of their powers. Some mitama are earned over the course of playing the game normally, while others are random drops from slain Oni or quest rewards. You can equip them in offensive, defensive, or support roles, and depending upon where you put them, they offer various boosts and special effects.

The mitama in the attack role is the most vital since they give you a set of active skills to utilize in combat, but other mitama offer handy abilities that trigger when conditions are met (for example, when you’re hit with a status ailment). In addition, the boosts they provide can be leveled up, giving you numerous passive buffs that improve the more you fight with them. Finally, mitama abilities can be boosted if they’re equipped in certain combinations--for example, using a set of mitama from the same historical period or finding mitama whose lives were connected to each other in some way (so brush up on those Japanese history books). Collecting, levelling, and creating ideal sets of mitama is one of the big draws that keeps you coming back to the game. It can be a bit grindy, but thankfully, there are drop- and experience-boosting items you can buy in-game to make the process faster and easier.

While Toukiden 2 introduces a lot of valuable ideas, it's not without its flaws. Wandering through the world can be very frustrating at times due to the lack of detail on your map, repetitive environments, and a lackluster guidance system that will indicate where you need to go but not the often-roundabout route to get there. Areas that have stronger miasma concentration compound these issues, as they cause your corruption meter to increase many times faster than usual. There’s no indication that you’re entering one of these areas, so it’s not uncommon to take a peek at your miasma corruption mid-exploration and see that, whoops, it’s suddenly going up really fast--and also, you’re almost dead.

Toukiden 2 also neglects to explain its nuances. There’s an in-game guide you can reference that covers many topics, though it never feels like it describes things well. This extends to the multiplayer mode, which doesn’t explain how joining sessions and embarking on missions works--it just assumes you’ve played other hunting games and know the drill.

Fortunately, once you know what you’re doing, multiplayer becomes one of the highlights of the game, offering smooth, fun Oni fights with up to three other players. While you can’t do the story mode as a co-op event, the multitude of missions that are available offer up plenty of challenging quests that reward teammates for working well together to accomplish their objective.

What seems at first glance like a fairly standard genre game, Toukiden 2 ultimately offers an interesting setting, imaginative creature designs, story- and exploration-driven gameplay, and unique combat elements. While its flaws are obvious, it’s not hard to forgive them when you’re in the heat of battle, chopping off a hellish spider-demon’s legs one by one and watching its life force disappear with every slash, shot, and punch.

Categories: Games

Drawn To Death Review

Games Spot Reviews - Thu, 04/13/2017 - 22:04

The best thing Drawn to Death has going for it is the aesthetic, which thoroughly lives up to its promise of vast, wild worlds crafted from the classroom notebook scribblings of a teenage delinquent. It's a world of kittens controlling giant robots, unicorn/teddy bear/cyclops abominations, and hideous caricatures of classmates and bullies. The stars, of course, are the playable characters, ranging from comparatively milquetoast designs like a murderous punk rocker named Johnny, to less conventional fare like a curvy female ninja with a shark's head. It’s a strong foundation and a perfect fit for the kind of Quake-alike third-person shooter revival the game seems to be aiming for, but it’s a combo that only seems to work--pun thoroughly intended--on paper.

The poison in the well is obvious in the first 10 minutes. The tutorial is a chore just by having to endure a non-stop stream of unfunny trolling and insults. To the game's credit, one sly prank Drawn to Death pulls here will have players looking like total fools and laughing about it later. By and large, however, Drawn to Death plays with swears like a child who just found Dad's shotgun, and long after they've shot themselves, they keep wondering if the trigger will do something different next time.

Beyond the tutorial, the game's voiceovers berate you for doing nothing, utterly hate you for failing, and become flat-out obnoxious when you win, with the announcer ranting and raving nonstop. The fact that your guide for so much of the game is a dissected, effete British frog drawing almost makes it worse, since there's comedy to be mined there, and yet this is the best the game can muster out of it. The “comedy,” as a whole, falls flat, with no sense of timing, nuance, or delivery. There's just the assumption that the “adult humor” coming out of what’s ostensibly a cartoon is enough to count as cool and edgy--which wasn't even that cool and edgy when Duke Nukem 3D was doing it 20 years ago.

This would be grating if the game were actually a fun shooter, but it’s nigh intolerable considering the two-decade-old Duke Nukem 3D also feels better to play. While there's some interesting stage design--with intricate papercraft temples, wastelands, and militarized neighborhoods--you're still tromping through them with movement mechanics that feel like you're on roller skates when on foot and like swimming in the ocean while jumping.

Even though there's a decent collection of weaponry to be used, including two special abilities for each character, you might as well be shooting paperclips at enemies for all the damage they deal. Showdowns with other players don’t rely on effective use of one’s arsenal but on grueling patience, as pumping bullet after bullet from weapon after weapon fails to whittle an opponent’s life to any degree. The special attacks are, again, well conceived, but they feel woefully underpowered, and more often than not, their projectiles just disappear into nothingness amongst all the visual clutter.

But the only new element Drawn to Death brings to the table is a streak of ugly, juvenile misanthropy played less for comedy than for maximum annoyance and distraction.

Drawn to Death does offer more powerful weapons, but so many are designed with “cool” factor in mind instead of user friendliness. One of the better ideas, a catapult in a coffin that fires corpses at high velocity, takes a good 10 seconds to load, rear back, and fire, which is just death in a game like this. The game's sniper rifle is its most effective weapon, and already, early in the game's lifespan, players have figured this out, rendering matches into lethargic Enemy at the Gates-style showdowns, instead of what should feel closer to a profane Ratchet & Clank.

Therein lies the real problem, overall: For a game with such a unique conceptual starting point, the feeling that we've seen it all before in a smarter, funnier, and better way would be tragic enough as it is. But the only new element Drawn to Death brings to the table is a streak of ugly, juvenile misanthropy played less for comedy than for maximum annoyance and distraction. The narrative rewards for the player's patience and proficiency don't even remotely make up for the mental debt created by a game that puts up such a thick, garish barrier against anything resembling a good time.

There's a much different, more interesting game lingering within Drawn To Death, a stylish character study of the type of person who spends his nights posting dank animal-abuse memes on Reddit and breathing too hard into the mic before calling someone a “cuck” for playing Hanzo in Overwatch. The actual thoughts of “the Hand,” the human responsible for the edgelord line-paper wonderland of Drawn to Death, are everywhere in the game--in the backstories of each character, the sketches and random objects scattered throughout the game, in the descriptions of the game's wacky arsenal, even in the names of trophies, which, put all together, read like a LiveJournal entry.

We see a fairly normal kid who idolizes his brother, a serviceman, can't gather the gumption to talk to a girl in his class, seems somewhat embarrassed about his interest in guns and knives, and uses the world of his notebook to brutalize and embarrass the things in reality that make life miserable. All this creates a funhouse-mirror image of screwed-up teenage gamerdom worth exploring with a measure of detachment, which makes it even more of a shame of the outdated, obnoxious shooter that never shuts up Drawn To Death actually is.

Categories: Games

Hacknet - Labyrinths Review

Games Spot Reviews - Sat, 04/08/2017 - 14:00

Hacknet is a refreshingly grounded take on the hacker-sim genre. With a crude, Linux-inspired interface and dark, driving soundtrack, it follows the story of a recently deceased hacker named Bit, who reaches out to you from beyond the grave. What follows quickly becomes a hive of building tension and a satisfying deep-dive down the rabbit hole of online security and its moral effects on society.

Initially released in August 2015, Hacknet is now seeing its first expansion: Labyrinths. This entirely new chapter takes place alongside the main story and opens up soon after you've cleared the tutorials of the main game. In addition to granting you new hacking tools and techniques, it provides even more challenging investigations that require some serious attention to detail.

Missions in both Hacknet and Labyrinths range from straight-forward break, enter, and delete jobs to thorough investigations that involve finding vulnerabilities in order to crack into secure networks with numerous, heavily-encrypted servers. You’ll read files you shouldn’t be reading, steal confidential software, rummage through memory dumps for valuable information, and counter incoming hacker attacks amongst myriad other activities. Labyrinths is far tougher than the main campaign in this regard, though, since it doesn't waste any time throwing you into the deep end and relies on experience with previous puzzles.

Hacknet’s reliance on typing to navigate means you’ll want to break out a real-life notepad or smartphone camera to keep track of the commands available to you. Almost all the puzzles involve breaking through network security to find a specific piece of information, which means first cracking that system’s ports by using various executables from the command-line to grant you administrator access. Once in, you are free to browse, move, rename, delete or copy files, as well as scan for other linked systems on the network.

The challenge is that on top of taking up valuable time, these executables also take up a chunk of system memory while they’re running, so identifying the most economical order to run them is key to hacking efficiently. It doesn’t take long for hostile tracers to start pushing back on your progress, and they'll make your life difficult unless you learn how to get in and get out quickly. You may even find yourself in dire situations where your UI is deleted.

While the act of hacking in Hacknet is wonderfully exciting in itself, frequently recurring variables in the core puzzles means that after several hours of nefarious online activity, much of the process becomes routine. At worst, it feels like a missed opportunity to subvert the somewhat processional nature of the moment-to-moment in the later hours of the main story. This is not a problem in the Labyrinths campaign though, which grants that extra bit of variety to each hack.

In Hacknet’s main storyline, you get involved with a group named Entropy--affiliates of the recently deceased Bit--and work together to uncover the mystery surrounding his death. Labyrinths branches off this, pulling you away from the group to focus on a different, secret task with a different collective of hackers before returning to complete the original job. Labyrinths can be started at any point during the main campaign, though how much you enjoy it will largely depend on how deep your understanding of hacking in Hacknet is.

Hacknet’s narrative explores and captures the dark side of the Internet while also knowing when to keep it light-hearted. You stumble upon random IRC logs that vary from typical troll-level banter to arguments about the depravity of society. You’ll dig incessantly at various corporate interests all while uncovering the mystery of your colleague’s death. As the stakes get higher and the stories start to intertwine, the feeling that you’re doing things you really shouldn't be starts to hit home, creating a wonderful sense of tension around your actions that remains a constant throughout.

Where Hacknet relies on personal emails to move the story forward, Labyrinths tries to introduce the concept of team hacking with IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Replacing emails with a chat log that updates regularly with chatter from your fellow hackers during missions, the faster back-and-forth conversation effortlessly flows from mission critical information to jokes. That said, it’s disappointing that you can’t talk back to these characters, because you’ll want to feel more involved in the group and contribute firsthand to their discussions.

Labyrinths also slightly falters towards its end, where the stakes suddenly take a huge and unexpected leap. Although twists and surprises are central to Hacknet's main campaign narrative--counter-hackers and tracing programs are everywhere--Labyrinths’ felt more jarring than most. The frenzied urgency that’s whipped up in the campaign’s climax is gone just as quickly as it starts, leaving you feeling largely unaffected by its outcome.

The feeling of playing Hacknet in a dark room with headphones on and being absorbed by its engrossing puzzles and soundtrack--full of heavy beats and filthy synth sounds--feels as close as you can get to the Hollywood hacker experience. The puzzles are uniquely challenging without feeling inaccessible, and the Labyrinths expansion takes the formula further by integrating deeper investigations and adding more puzzle variety. Despite the stumbling climax and steady learning curve, Hacknet - Labyrinths is one hell of a ride that leads you down the rabbit hole and back again.

Categories: Games

Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight Review

Games Spot Reviews - Fri, 04/07/2017 - 10:00

Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight belongs to the club of games designed to look and feel like console classics from the '90s, and it makes a great first impression. It's a charming 2D action-platformer with a Castlevania vibe; there's a haunted town and castle, a sprawling map with secret passages hidden behind false walls, and a powerful curse that needs to be eradicated. The only aspect that betrays its retro stylings is the orchestrated soundtrack, though it suits the foreboding atmosphere wonderfully.

In many ways, Reverie Under the Moonlight's also bears similarities to Dark Souls. Dodging attacks and pummelling an enemy at the right moment is often the key to success. Healing, when you fail to precisely time your moves, comes from an item that you replenish by ringing bells placed around the map, which also serve as checkpoints. And when you encounter NPCs that utter ambiguous lines alluding to a mysterious past or future event, building up your curiosity--and confusion--over the state of world and who, if any one person, is responsible for its blight.

For all of the familiar elements the game appears to ape, it never feels like a mere reflection of trends. It's not the first Momodora game--it's the fourth--and the action feels appropriately refined compared to previous entries. Your movements and attacks feel great in practice. The presentation, too, strikes a wonderful balance between simple and expressive, with great use of color and effective character sprites.

The main character, enemies, and bosses are no doubt cute, balancing out the otherwise dark tone, and the juxtaposition of darling and somber is refreshing when so many games opt for one or the other. But no matter how adorable an enemy looks, it almost always packs a punch. You will acquire new skills and increase your stats by scouring the map for items, but--save for a couple of encounters with oversized, slow bosses at the start--you rarely feel overpowered until late in the game.

Even then, however, you may find that you die on a regular basis. This is a product of Reverie Under the Moonlight's overabundant spike pits. Too often, you find yourself in a position where one small misstep will result in an instant death. At the start of the game these moments feel reasonable, almost as if they exist to teach you how to be a cautious and self-aware player. But the trend persists, and as you subconsciously tally the number of times you died due to a minor platforming mistake, it ultimately feels like a cheap way to drum up difficulty, rather than clever or necessary bit of level design. This cheap quality is made even more apparent when you consider the difficult-but-fair combat system. Though you may struggle in a fight, you can come out on top through smart play. If you struggle while platforming, there's a good chance you will have no choice but to reload your last save.

If Reverie Under the Moonlight regularly introduced new enemies, it's not hard to imagine how evolving combat encounters might distract you from focusing too much on the prevalent spike pits. But the game seems to run out of gas far too soon, especially given that the adventure only lasts for about 5 hours. It is a short game, yet it also ends up feeling longer than it needs to be.

For a while, as long as you are good about looking at the map and searching for unexplored pathways, you'll uncover the next step in your quest without much trouble. At a point, however, that tactic fails. The trick, then, is to speak to and follow orders from NPCs that hang out at various places within and without the game's decrepit castle. The issue is that the game fails to emphasize the importance of NPCs. This can lead to undue exploration as you poke at walls in search of a missing path in vain. Once you realize that, seemingly apropos of nothing, an NPC suddenly offers new dialogue after previously repeating themselves for hours, Reverie Under the Moonlight stops being a game you enjoy, and becomes a chore you merely want to finish.

For most of its tenure, Reverie Under the Moonlight is a satisfying game. It sounds unlikely, but the inviting presentation melds wonderfully with its uninviting atmosphere. The initial search and discovery process recalls the familiar comfort of games like Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, with fun and challenging combat sprinkled throughout. But short of not finishing the game, there's no way to avoid the less-impressive closing hours when it runs out of new ideas, and at worse, halts your progress with increasing instant deaths and obtuse progress requirements.

Categories: Games

Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition Review

Games Spot Reviews - Thu, 04/06/2017 - 14:00

If ever a game deserved a second chance, it's Bulletstorm. Though the original debuted just six years ago, the game went largely unnoticed at the time. So now, Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition is bringing it back to life by revamping the visuals and adding new content.

On its face, Bulletstorm is an outrageously macho first-person shooter that careens through a gauntlet of linear corridors and over-the-top set pieces in a testosterone-induced frenzy. But beneath this bro-y veneer, it quietly shapeshifts into a clever, challenging puzzle game thanks to the addition of skillshots.

Rather than simply shooting everyone to death, Bulletstorm challenges you to off your enemies in increasingly imaginative and elaborate ways: kick them into fountains full of flesh-eating fish, lasso them into overgrown cacti, flatten them by bringing elevator cars down on their heads, and so on. There are well over 100 unique options in total, many of which indeed require serious skill to pull off.

For your efforts, you're rewarded with points--the more creative the kill, the higher the point value. These points can be redeemed for weapon and ability upgrades at pods that punctuate the game's various sections, but the skillshots are plenty rewarding in and of themselves. Seeing the "new" tag pop up next to a skillshot name after something cool happens on screen evokes the same giddy excitement of nailing a "gap" in the old Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games. There's a sense of discovery and accomplishment that's refreshed with every new skillshot you uncover.

Skilled players can even check the skillshot menu and deliberately attempt to tick every box on the list, a challenge that transforms the entire game. Enemies are no longer threats as much as they are opportunities--each one could be the canvas for another skillshot masterwork. It's an incredibly novel and gratifying hook, one that fundamentally elevates the standard shooter formula to something transcendently arcadey.

And this is all in addition to the fact that Bulletstorm stands as a strong shooter even without its point system. The core aiming and movement feel tight, and added mechanics like the "instinct leash"--which allows crass hero Grayson Hunt to grab enemies across great distances and yank them in closer--along with the Titanfall-esque slide-and-shoot maneuver keep the action feeling fast and dynamic.

Bulletstorm's campaign also enjoys excellent pacing and variety. Recalling the gloriously ridiculous guns of '90s shooters like Quake and Turok, weapons range from relatively standard to utterly outlandish: you can fire spinning drill bits into your foes, chase them with manually-guided sniper bullets, or just vaporize them with a quad-barrel shotgun. Your arsenal gradually grows as you progress, ensuring there are always new skillshots to try.

You also encounter new enemy types as you barrel through the campaign--some charge at you wielding explosives, others evade your leash with unexpected agility, but all offer some slight variation that helps keep the action from feeling too predictable. And of course, with every new environment come new hazards; it's always fun figuring out that yes, you can kick enemies into that nearby turbine/chasm/hotdog cart.

Some elements of Bulletstorm's campaign do feel stale, however. You'll periodically encounter quick-time events, scripted set pieces, and on-rails shooter sections, and while none of these moments are bad, per se, they are design hallmarks of a game some years out of date. The campaign's final chapters also become a bit of a predictable slog, diminishing your ability to be creative by hurling more and more obstacles at you.

Even with these highs and lows, the campaign holds up well--after all, its inventive skillshot system is a timeless idea. The story, on the other hand, remains an acquired taste. The script--which was almost certainly written entirely in all-caps--contains torrents of gratuitous swearing and some of the most painfully sophomoric humor ever to appear in a game. You may think you have an unlimited tolerance for dick jokes, but the only way to truly be sure is to play Bulletstorm.

A quick look at Full Clip Edition's video options on PC.

What's especially weird about all the cartoonish machismo is the fact that it comes wrapped in a relatively serious storyline about war crimes, personal responsibility, and moving beyond self-loathing in order to help those you care about. That juxtaposition is jarring, but in a weird way, it works. It's a bit like The Fast and the Furious: if you're willing to turn off your brain and accept the fact that you've signed up for a spectacularly stupid thrillride, you might just enjoy yourself (even if you cringe a few times along the way).

While the contents of the story and campaign have not changed since the original release, the multiplayer and visuals have both been updated. Even in 2011, Bulletstorm was a good-looking game awash in color, each area soaked in brilliant hues, perhaps as a reaction to Epic's notoriously brown shooter, Gears of War. It's no surprise, then, that Full Clip Edition also looks excellent.

Though it can't compete with the splendor of current-gen titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, it by no means looks out of place on modern hardware. The colors are as vibrant as ever, textures appear crisp and detailed (until you zoom the camera all the way in on an object, at least), draw distances prove impressive, and the frame rate holds solid on both PC and PS4. I encountered a small handful of glitches--mainly dead bodies ragdolling through walls--but overall, this is a technically sound update. PS4 Pro and PC players can even enjoy the game in 4K.

The updates to multiplayer are less impressive. Full Clip Edition adds six brand new maps to the solo, score-driven Echoes mode and also includes the four additional Echoes maps, three cooperative Anarchy mode maps, and an objective-driven version of Echoes called Ultimate Echoes that were added as DLC following Bulletstorm's original release.

Echoes mode in general isn't all that exciting since each map is just an isolated snippet of the campaign--your score can earn you a spot on a leaderboard, but the gameplay, down the very last enemy, remains identical to how the section played out in the campaign. Consequently, the mode provides a convenient option for those who want a streamlined experience, but it doesn't add much to the overall package. Full Clip Edition's six new maps don't change that.

The cooperative horde mode Anarchy is a far more engaging option, especially since each round forces you to exceed a preset score threshold. Often the only way to achieve the requisite score in later rounds is to successfully perform team-based skillshots, a mechanic that sets Bulletstorm's horde mode apart from the rest of the...er, horde. Maps prove especially important in Anarchy since unique environmental hazards frequently provide the highest score boosts, so Full Clip's inclusion of the old DLC maps was a smart move.

Finally, Full Clip adds two major pieces of fan service: first a "new game plus" option called Overkill Mode, which enables all weapons and skillshots from the beginning of the campaign. Annoyingly, you must beat the campaign before unlocking Overkill--a move that will surely irk returning fans looking to dive right in--but it's a welcome addition nonetheless.

Hail to the king, baby!

More interestingly, fans who preordered Full Clip Edition (or who shell out an additional five dollars) can play through the entire campaign as the king himself, Duke Nukem. In practice, Duke's character model replaces Hunt's in every cutscene and longtime Duke voice actor Jon St. John reworks many of the original lines to better suit his character.

But the rest of the content, including the other character's reactions and responses, remains unchanged. Your AI companion Ishi even uses Hunt's name on several occasions. It is, of course, kind of hilarious to see and hear Duke in this new context, but his presence doesn't meaningfully impact the story, let alone the gameplay.

For longtime fans, Full Clip Edition doesn't offer much to be excited about. Additions like Overkill Mode and the upgraded visuals are certainly welcome, but fundamentally, this is the same game they already played in 2011. That said, the experience absolutely holds up: the skillshot system remains wildly fun and inventive, the weapons are still a gruesome joy, and the writing...well, it's as distinctive as ever. If you missed Bulletstorm when it originally released--and based on sales numbers, you probably did--now's the time to treat yourself to a clever if cringe-worthy blockbuster.

Categories: Games

Has-Been Heroes Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 04/05/2017 - 03:00

When it was first unveiled, roguelike Has-Been Heroes had unique expectations to meet--here was another game from Frozenbyte, developers of the Trine series, in which you control three heroes at once. But while their previous trios worked together well, this game’s eponymous heroes fall short. At the beginning of the game, the bland triumvirate--made up of two veterans pulled out of retirement and a newcomer, not that it matters--sets out on an uninspired quest to deliver two princesses to school on orders of the king. The plot aims for amusing whimsy, but it doesn’t land, so from the first cutscene on, Has-Been Heroes has a motivation problem. Progress is measured in inches across hours of playtime, with your victories coming more from luck than any discernible decision you made.

You’re given control of three heroes--a mage, a rogue, and a warrior--and sent on a series of brief journeys likely to result in death more often than not. Gameplay boils down to a mix of combat and pathfinding: You progress along a map in the bottom right of the screen, choosing between different forks in the road to determine which nodes along the way you will or won’t access. You try to guess the best path forward, one in which, in between battles, you’ll encounter spell and item vendors who’ll boost your stats or abilities in exchange for the gold you’ve collected from fallen enemies. Odds are, though, that you’ll find yourself growing increasingly frustrated that none of the chests or vendors you encounter are giving you useful spells or equipment.

The unique battle system places your three heroes along lanes, with enemies coming at you from the right of the screen. The goal is to chip away at the stamina of whichever enemy is leading the charge in the lane by trying to match it with the number of attacks your heroes have. The rogue, for instance, hits three times, so if you smack an enemy with three stamina points, it’ll be stunned and vulnerable. After an attack, your heroes can switch lanes--put the warrior in the same lane and have him attack next, and you can inflict massive damage.

You'll need to put in a lot of time, and get very lucky, before you earn attacks that look remotely like this.

When you get into a good pattern, and fortune favors you, switching lanes and throwing down your most punishing spells can be exciting. But once you reach each area’s boss, tactical forethought won’t be enough. Getting ahead in these battles eventually requires a good loadout, but whether you’re well equipped by the end of a zone is dependent entirely on luck. You can’t tell what a node is going to contain until you’re adjacent to it. Acquiring items and spells is a gamble--if you haven’t encountered your prize previously in the game, you can’t tell what it does until you have one of your heroes pick it up (and if it’s a bad fit for them, you can’t transfer it to someone else), while many of the vendors ask for coins and then award your chosen character a power without letting you know what it is first. Worse still, often you need to play what’s essentially three-card Monte with treasure chests, knowing that only one of them contains a prize.

This means that when you die, it’s hard to pinpoint anything you personally did wrong, beyond making a bad choice that you couldn’t have possibly known was bad before you made it. Has-Been Heroes can be exceptionally hard, with an uneven difficulty curve that ramps up too dramatically during boss fights, and if you don’t have the tools capable of holding off their attacks, all you can do is chip away until your inevitable death. When that happens, you’ll have to start again, battling screen after screen of identical skeleton foes that weren’t particularly exciting the first time around, let alone the 30th.

These vendors make you gamble on the possibility of winning an upgrade, which feels unfair when they're so necessary.

If you manage to reach the end, you’ll unlock a new hero in one of the three classes. For the first hero, you only need to beat two bosses, but that takes at least four hours. To get the next hero, you need to defeat three bosses, and so on. Unlocking heroes is the only goal to work toward in the game, but the fact that it becomes more and more of a hassle after each victory--and that your reward is an even harder game--sours the experience. This is a shame, because the core combat mechanics of Has-Been Heroes can be quite engaging. Getting to a point where I could consistently defeat the first boss felt good, but never so much so that it made up for the intense grind the game subjected me to.

Has-Been Heroes is, at least, a great fit for the Switch. It’s the sort of game you can play while half-watching a sitcom in the background, rather than one to which you’ll want to give your full attention. By the same token, playing the game with intense focus starts to feel like a waste of time after the first few hours. It’s a demanding game that gives very little back for the time and effort it eats up. The game’s name does not lie--it’s best to let these has-beens be.

Categories: Games

Yooka-Laylee Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 16:00

As a spiritual successor to 3D platformer Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka-Laylee really does capture the cheeky personality of its predecessor. It doesn’t introduce many new ideas, but it does rework the existing formula, creating a far less linear version of the N64 collectathon. Ultimately, though, bloated levels and a largely uncooperative camera keep Yooka-Laylee from being more than just a nostalgia trip.

The adventure begins when corporate president Capital B steals a book’s golden pages, called Pagies, from a lizard and bat named Yooka and Laylee. The pair figure that the Pagies must be valuable if someone would bother to steal them, so of course they decide to enter Capital B’s building to get them back. That hub area, Hivory Towers, splits into five themed worlds with a variety of collectibles to find, including Pagies, currency-like Quills, and powerups.

Yooka-Laylee is about finding collectibles first and foremost, and platforming takes somewhat of a backseat. You can find Quills out in the open, and you unlock Pagies by completing a variety of tasks, from solving simple puzzles to playing a round of golf to, of course, platforming. The focus on a wide range of activities instead of just platforming is actually a good thing, because the camera has a nasty habit of getting in your way when you're exploring levels. It locks into place at seemingly random points and even swings wildly in tough spots, making the platforming challenges that are there terribly frustrating and time-consuming. When most of your time goes toward the collectibles that are the least fun to get, that’s a problem. Once I unlocked the ability to fly for limited periods of time, I started cheating to completely get around tricky platforming sections. However, it’s worth noting that swimming doesn’t suck in Yooka-Laylee, and I didn’t dread underwater sections the way I do in Banjo-Kazooie. Movement in water is quick and easy, so exploring in and around water isn’t a chore.

I most consistently enjoyed the hub world, where the powerup collectibles are hidden in clever spots and the Pagies are locked behind challenging puzzles that make good use of the moves and techniques you pick up in the discrete worlds. Those worlds also have their strong puzzles, but they’re less consistent.

There are only five levels, none of which have a terribly original theme. The first world is “tribal”-themed, for example, which was also the case in both Banjo-Kazooie and -Tooie. The casino level is the weakest of the five; it introduces a new kind of collectible that can be exchanged for Pagies, adding an unnecessary layer to the collecting process. But the rest of the levels lay out their collectibles well, and finding all 200 Quills in a level always gave me a sense of pride.

In contrast to the established Banjo formula, each of the levels can be expanded once, and you can visit each of them in pretty much any order you want. That open structure allows you to control the pace of the adventure since you don’t have to stay stuck on a Pagie or puzzle--you can move on to another world where you might learn a move or strategy that will help you elsewhere. That also makes returning to a world you’ve already visited more rewarding. When you’ve found 20 of the 25 Pagies in a world and are sure there was nothing else you could possibly do to find the rest, coming back to that area with fresh eyes and seeing what you didn’t before is its own special kind of achievement.

The other update to the Banjo formula--being able to expand worlds--is less successful. Each of the base worlds is clearly incomplete, but expanding them doesn’t necessarily improve them. Because most of them have additions in multiple areas and directions, their layouts are hard to follow, and just figuring out where you haven’t been yet can be tedious. They’re hard to parse in the same way that N64-era levels were because they’re open-ish but sectioned off in unnatural places with no landmarks or visual aid to guide you. The snow level in particular is broken up into a bunch of areas that connect in bizarre ways, and even after several hours exploring it, I’m not entirely sure which caves connect to which parts.

Much like the level design itself, the boss fights in each world feel stale and outdated. Each boss up through the end of the game follows a very simple structure: you figure out their attack strategy, hit them a couple times until they change up that strategy, and repeat maybe three times until they’re dead. But since you don’t need all the Pagies to actually beat the game, these bosses are as optional as any other individual Pagie.

Coming back to a level with fresh eyes and seeing what you didn’t before is its own special kind of achievement.

20 hours of hunting collectibles and fighting simple bosses later, I had found the bare minimum amount of Pagies necessary to move on to the end of the game and couldn’t justify finding any more than that. The ones I hadn’t yet collected were not worth either the time it would take or the frustration I’d have to endure to get them.

I stayed as long as I did because of my own nostalgia. Although there aren’t references outright, Yooka-Laylee has plenty of Banjo parallels. The lizard-and-bat duo are nearly identical in personality to Banjo and Kazooie, with Laylee making the majority of the snarky comments and Yooka being the voice of reason. On top of that, the collectibles and moves are very similar in function to their counterparts in the Banjo games, and the music features many of the same familiar motifs. But Yooka-Laylee also lacks new ideas, and the twists it introduces aren’t entirely successful.

Ultimately, Yooka-Laylee’s best and worst aspects come directly from its predecessor. Despite attempts at modernizing the formula, its style of gameplay is still outdated, and it doesn’t stay challenging or interesting for long as a result. But if you’re looking for a faithful return to the Banjo-Kazooie formula, Yooka-Laylee certainly delivers--from the font to the music to the wealth of collectibles, it’s worthy of the title of spiritual successor.

Categories: Games
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