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Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom Review - An Adventure Fit For A King

Mon, 03/19/2018 - 14:00

Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is ambitious. It's a character-driven RPG that doubles as a kingdom simulator and even occasionally becomes a real-time strategy game. Though these components don't always feel like parts of the same whole, Ni No Kuni 2 compels you to care and put your best foot forward. It's the whimsical setting; it's the demanding combat; it's the tangible feeling of growth that comes from being a well-rounded ruler. There's something worthwhile around every corner, and usually something pretty to admire along the way.

You can concisely summarize Ni No Kuni 2 as the wholesome story of Evan, a boy prince ousted by traitors on the day of his coronation who wishes to unite warring nations under a banner of peace. Rather than resort to revenge, he admirably believes that cooperation is a more important goal than domination and sets out to build a new, united kingdom. Evan's charge and passion for peace subsequently carries him from one dangerous doorstep to another. Armed with steadfast ideals, he repeatedly dismantles sinister adversaries because they, too, are actually good at heart; they've merely been corrupted by powerful, dark forces.

It's familiar fantasy fare and a bit safe at times, but Ni No Kuni 2 bears no shortage of interesting moments. For example, Evan's adult consul Roland is a dimension-tripping president from the modern day, cast into a strange time and place in the aftermath of a catastrophic military assault. While this intriguing origin story is rarely referenced after the fact, the kingdoms he and Evan visit offer up interesting qualities of their own. There's Goldpaw, a society that worships lady luck. Her divine power is channeled through a giant multi-armed statue that rolls a six-sided die to decide everything from criminal prosecution to raising or lowering taxes. You'll also have to navigate a kingdom where love in all forms is considered a criminal offense, and every interaction is monitored by an enormous, all-seeing eye. Ni No Kuni 2 dedicates itself to exploring these unusual societies, elevating the otherwise standard RPG tale to something far more interesting that you'd initially expect.

To do this, however, the game is forced to concede that even a king as peaceful as Evan will have to bear arms. And despite his small stature and cuddly kitten ears, Evan is a lion when backed into a corner. Considering his impassioned pleas for a world without war, the game's simple and infrequent RTS skirmishes--large scale, rock-paper-scissor battles that require basic resource management--feel notably contradictory, but standard battles are so flashy and exciting that you'll never think twice about the peace-loving king being in constant battle.

Ni No Kuni 2's traditional combat takes place entirely in real time apart from pausing to consume items, and despite the game's childish airs, fights are surprisingly demanding. Your party consists of three allies and four Higgledies--collectable miniature, goofy familiars that randomly offer buffs and attacks during battle. You only control a single person at a time, but that alone gives you three melee weapons to manage, a ranged weapon, magic skills to consider, and interlinked meters to monitor, on top of defensive concerns. You need to be aware of your surroundings at all times in order to block or dodge incoming attacks--a far cry from the first Ni No Kuni's turn-based battles. Needless to say it can take a few hours to grow comfortable managing all of these systems at once, but you're rarely put at a disadvantage. Your AI-controlled allies are good at self-preservation and dishing out damage, and your Higgledy friends regularly offer up a burst of healing magic or a powerful attack to keep things moving.

Ni No Kuni 2 also does a great job of simplifying things around combat to let you focus on the action at hand. While you can use gear to influence an individual character's strengths and weaknesses, you also earn a secondary type of experience that gets funneled into the Tactics Tweaker, a tool that lets you adjust team-wide attributes and how the game rewards your victories. You have plenty of opportunities to take on quests under-leveled, and being able to slightly dial up your effectiveness against a particular element or enemy type is a valuable means of punching above your weight. When pushing yourself against an enemy 10 to 20 levels higher than you, eking out a victory through clever preparation and a masterful performance can feel downright incredible. The game also smartly limits your inventory during battle, which means you can't rely on spamming restorative items. Only skill (or a leveled-up party) can carry you through a fight.

Given that you can find ways to overcome seemingly impossible odds, you can actually get by without intentionally grinding for experience points. To that end, the game is also designed to keep you from dulling your enthusiasm in unnecessary battles while moving about the world. Enemies appear in plain sight before an encounter with a level marker overhead, and a color denoting their threat level helps you easily discern their relative strength. Red and white labelled enemies will attack you on sight, but low-level enemies will simply ignore you unless you run into them first. Knowing you can bypass trivial fights makes the prospect of exploring the world for elusive treasure and difficult "tainted" enemies more enticing as the story carries on, and ensures that you're only focused on things worthy of your attention.

It's easy to imagine how Ni No Kuni 2 could get by on its quirky characters, engaging story, and real-time combat alone, but Evan isn't just trying to unite other nations; he's got a kingdom of his own to build. From a humble castle nestled between mountains and shore, your parcel of land will grow to contain dozens of buildings and facilities. You'll likely have smiths who craft weapons and armor, farmers that harvest meat, dairy, and produce, and institutions that develop techniques for being a more efficient ruler and a more effective fighter. If resource management and cooldown timers aren't your idea of fun, the good news is that there are only a few instances when the game forces you to reach certain architectural and population thresholds. And while not the most complex management sim out there, anyone who wants to push the limits of their kingdom can easily pour a dozen hours into forging new developments and reaping greater financial and practical rewards.

Ni No Kuni 2 is a robust game that offers ample ways to spend your time, and even if they aren't all up to the same level of quality, it's easy to appreciate how they collectively contribute to the bigger picture.

Everything in your kingdom takes money to fund and time to develop, but more than just investing in these services, you need to staff them with citizens from across the world. This means tackling a lot of sidequests, acquired either by mingling with the populace or by completing tasks for the taskmaster. By and large, sidequests are either a fetch quest or a kill-x-number-of-enemy bounty. These are common fare for RPGs, but nevertheless frustrating to see relied upon so heavily here. On the other hand, Ni No Kuni 2's humorous writing and endearing NPCs shine through, lending something worthwhile to even the most common interactions. They aren't all winners, to be certain, but the distinct accents and colloquialisms spread throughout the world play nicely into the visual variety on display.

In fact, many of the people you meet in passing are actually far more interesting than the four human characters that ultimately join Evan and Roland on the road: a sky-pirate father and his daughter, the former advisor to a queen, and an engineer from the one technologically advanced kingdom on the map. For whatever reason, very little time is spent developing their stories after they join your cause, but even if they offer little more than one-liners during most important events, they are at least invaluable allies in battle that introduce a wide range of skills.

Then there's the small creature Lofty, who while not a deep character, is the game's comic relief and an endless source of amusement. With yellow skin, a pointy head, and a red torso, he's what you might imagine Lisa Simpson looks like if someone described her but forgot to mention she's human. In almost every scene, be it serious or inconsequential, he often lingers just off-center with a dim-witted stare, mouth agape in blind amusement. And when he speaks, he cuts through scenes with wry wit, and even regularly calls out the team for repeatedly taking on errands and doing strangers favors. He is a massive benefit to the overall experience, even within battle. He primarily wanders aimlessly during a fight, but on rare occasions offers a ball of light that causes a character to enter a temporary state where magic can be used freely. Ni No Kuni 2 wouldn't feel the same without him.

Despite the fact that famed Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli isn't directly involved this time around, veteran artists from the studio have injected the sights and sounds of Ni No Kuni 2 with distinctly recognizable whimsy, of which Lofty is but one example. You see it in the characters and environments at large, and you hear it in the soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi, a veteran of numerous Ghibli films and the original Ni No Kuni. The feeling is often upheld by a clean and colorful cartoon aesthetic, but there are also plenty of times when Ni No Kuni 2 shifts into a different and far-less appealing style.

When exploring the world map, managing your kingdom, and diving into RTS skirmishes, the camera pulls back and everything is given a rough-hewn, super-deformed appearance. Though you can bend over backwards and call it a potentially necessary evil, that doesn't excuse the sinking feeling that there must have been a better way, one that doesn't require the game to hide its lovely, cel-shaded face. Near the end of your journey, this shift rears its head during a battle that's intended to feel epic and intimidating, but is ultimately deflated by the simple presentation and impersonal perspective; one last reminder that Ni No Kuni 2, despite its outstanding qualities, bears obvious flaws.

Ni No Kuni 2 is a robust game that offers ample ways to spend your time, and even if they aren't all up to the same level of quality, it's easy to appreciate how they collectively contribute to the bigger picture. It's chock full of excellent battles and surprising moments that make for a far more memorable experience than you initially expect and leaves you impressed by your own accomplishments. If you didn't play the first game, don't let this one pass you by too.

Categories: Games

Attack on Titan 2 Review: Colossal Action

Fri, 03/16/2018 - 23:31

Far from being a mere video game adaptation of the anime, Attack on Titan 2 stands strongly as a character-driven action-RPG in its own right, with rewarding combat that feels fluid and fast and a story that's equal parts charming and shocking. While it shares many similarities with the first game in the series, Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom, the sequel feels like a better package overall with a cleaner visual style and tighter combat. Despite its story taking some time to really dig its anchors in, it gets there and then some, entrancing you all the way until the closing of the final chapter.

Based on the second season of the popular anime series, the story puts you at the center of the conflict between humanity and Titans--a race of giant, people-eating humanoids that one day appeared out of thin air, wiping out a large percentage of the population. Forced to seek a new life behind three huge walls built to keep the Titans out, humanity tried to rebuild, but the Titans managed to find a way through. Faced with extinction, it's up to you and the rest of the military to stop them.

After creating a character--who, if you choose a woman, will still be weirdly referred to as "our man" by the game's narrator--the game opens with you joining the military cadets and becoming a part of the 104th Cadet Corps. The first few hours cover the same ground as Wings of Freedom, putting you through military training and effectively re-living the events of the first game, albeit in a more condensed setting. Also, each character is voiced in Japanese, so you'll rely on subtitles to keep on top of things.

The plot closely follows the anime, so fans are already familiar with what's going on. But it's a story that will pull you in, hard, though not without its fair share of melodrama. While much of the early game feels a little dragged down by some excessive exposition, you come to appreciate those sequences later on, particularly as characters you grow to like face death in shocking ways. Not that the game is overly violent--although the Bloodborne-esque spatter from killing a Titan is pretty messy--it's more that the characters grow on you over time. Watching them struggle through the Titan invasion becomes less of a drudge and more an emotional rollercoaster.

The game is made up of numerous large combat areas and some smaller, peaceful hubs where you can go about your daily life: upgrading weapons, buying materials, and maintaining friendships that grant you different equippable skills that can upgrade your stats. While not all that interesting visually, the hub areas serve as a good bookend between each battle, as well as a chance to debrief with the other characters about the last mission and your next moves.

The larger, more-open combat zones, which vary from green valleys and large towns to snowy, abandoned villages and giant forests, are far more interesting to move through. A big part of what makes the movement so vital and exciting is your omni-directional mobility gear, or ODM for short. The ODM gear fires anchors into a distant object like a house, a tree or even a Titan, and with the help of two side-loaded gas canisters, thrusts you along the ground and up into the air. It can get a little janky; sometimes you’ll catch the underside of a roof or hit a cliff face that’ll halt your momentum. But more often than not, gliding through buildings or between giant trees feels effortlessly satisfying.

Similarly great is the combat, which manages to feel faster and better paced than it did in Wings of Freedom. Titans can only be taken down by slicing out the nape of their necks. You have to fire your anchors into any one of five spots on a Titan you can lock onto, circle around it in mid-air, and then launch at it, swinging your blades wildly. It can feel a little clumsy at first, but within an hour I was dodging attacks in the air and flinging between Titans like it was nothing. The rapid switching of targets and close calls while maneuvering between enemies during a fight never loses its allure, only getting more intense as the story builds.

The Titans themselves are the true stars here. With their ridiculous grins, ambling movements and saggy butts, they look amazingly creepy. On higher difficulty levels, the Titans become faster and more aggressive. Their limbs flail impishly as they freely counter your attacks, flick off ODM anchors like they're swatting flies, and pick fellow Scouts out of the air. Moments like this amp up the intensity tenfold, especially when you're caught between responding to an urgent request for help or going to the aid of someone who's been grabbed by a Titan. It's hard not to feel the pressure in the moment, and it's great.

Despite its slow start, Attack on Titan 2 offers exciting gameplay along with a deep and intriguing plot that, melodrama aside, tugs on the heart strings. It's well-paced and offers some impressive spaces to move through. The unique combination of the movement and combat mechanics combines with a gripping story to make Attack on Titan 2 one of the more surprising releases of the year.

Categories: Games

Surviving Mars Review: Building The Final Frontier

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 23:25

It's been said that city simulators are best thought of as a series of stocks and flows. You have essential buildings that supply resources, which are then distributed in a grand pattern etched by your design. Your success, then, depends on how artfully and effectively you've crafted your settlement. If that is the measure by which we are to judge city simulators, nowhere is that more beautifully or essentially or thematically distilled than in Surviving Mars.

Space is hard, and Mars isn't any more forgiving; your goal is to command a mission that can endure the punishing conditions of the Red Planet. You can take the reigns of an international consortium, a major private enterprise, or any number of real-world space-capable nations here on Earth. From there, you choose how to guide your Martian colony. Insofar as many simulators allow a degree of role-playing, your time on Mars is yours to do with how you will. But your progress is constantly evaluated by your sponsor country or organization, offering some very loose targets like "get colonists" and "keep them alive for a while." Beyond that, the direction is yours.

Your first forays on the planet are drone-based; RC rovers and semi-autonomous bots are your essential tools. They help you probe the surface of Mars and get your basics going. You have a bevy of options for obtaining vital resources--with each creating a slightly different relationship between your settlement and the planet. That's because everything here degrades. Ground down by the perpetual dust storms, punishing cold, and meteor strikes, nothing lasts and everything comes with a cost. Whether it's by extracting from rock, or sucking what little can be from the scant Martian atmosphere, even something as basic as how you obtain water influences countless other decisions down the line.

Choose the extractor, and then you need to design your outpost around the fact that it'll kick up far more corrosive dust into the air (among a half-dozen other considerations). The extractor's cousin, the vaporator, is a more environmentally friendly option...but at the cost of comparably low output, and requiring broad spacing between structures to be effective. The brilliance of Surviving Mars, then, is in forcing you to think systemically. Each choice is a commitment, a statement of how you think it best to run humanity's excursion to the new frontier.

Surviving Mars gets a lot of narrative mileage from this. As you progress, you're always fighting the exaggerated elements and forces of nature. Your structures are always degrading, and help of any sort is often months away--meaning that you either have strong supply lines for the necessary materials, or you're prepared to work around the long delays in resupply missions from Earth. Because your colony's development is connected to these choices, it also creates a powerful emergent narrative throughout, not unlike ones found in The Sims, for instance.

Those decisions might feel like setting up a trap down the line, but Surviving Mars' other stroke of genius is how permissive it can be. Instead of locking you into a given play style, the emphasis is on consequences and teaching you how to manage them. Your colony, at its most basic level, is governed by a set of rules. If you have X building, every so often you'll need Y resource to maintain it, and that resource comes from Z building, and so on.

The brilliance here is that all of these systems work and are responsive to how you play. Every choice matters, but none rule your destiny. Even if you can't get what you need from a Martian mine just yet, you can order it from Earth. Each of those choices, too, have consequences, though. And that means that at some point, you either fail to meet a condition and the system starts falling apart, or you keep going and surviving.

What helps here is that Surviving Mars may be delicate, but it isn't punishing. Sure, the in-game consequences of failure are...a little extreme (like watching your colonists suffocate, should you fail to keep oxygen flowing). But you'll often have plenty of time to fix them, and a series of warnings that encourage you to change course. How you do so, again, comes down to which consequences you want to take on, and how long you can keep paying those costs--at least, at the most basic level. At times, Surviving Mars may underemphasize some key parts--namely just how important supply chain management is--but it's delightful and elegant, tasking you with just enough management and planning to keep your role engaging. As you progress, drones can take on more, leaving you to handle larger-scale plans for the settlement.

That allows you to graduate to managing the lives of the colonists, your relationship with Earth, the fineries of your supply chains, and new expansions and additions to your colony (which follow their own systems and sets of rules). What makes all of this work is precisely that it is so scalably complex, gives generally great feedback on how well your choices are working, and giving you progressively larger goals to chip away at. It's a strong set of basic ideas that keep the game consistently engaging, and allows you to open up new fronts and address new challenges--like getting another adjacent settlement going--as you build the confidence to work through them.

Surviving Mars is SimCity with soul.

A more traditional, optional narrative is available as well. Each time you play, you'll eventually discover some sort of mystery, be it colonists with weird visions, disturbing black cubes, or legit aliens. These will nudge your colony in more specific directions, if you decide that it's something you want to explore. Often, these mysteries require you to do something specific, like construct a special building to start a sequence of narrative vignettes. While the core play of "maintain and survive against all odds on the Martian surface" should be a big enough hook for many players, it's nice to have an optional story that addresses the mythology of the planet throughout our real-world history and pop culture.

And that's just it. Mars is more than a planet--it's the next big goal for a healthy portion of people here on Earth. Surviving Mars nods to that with a pursuit of real-world influences and designs, plus as many plausible technologies as it can pack in. While the game definitely takes some liberties, most of the structures, ships, and technologies will be familiar to fans of spaceflight. The basic supply and passenger ships, for instance, are modeled after SpaceX's forthcoming BFR ships.

Surviving Mars, above else, is about hope. So many strategy games hold to their gameplay, eschewing any overarching themes or messages. But, as corny as it sounds, for those who believe in the majesty of spaceflight, for those who are keen to marvel at how pernicious our plucky little species can be, Surviving Mars is SimCity with soul. It shows the challenges that come along with planetary migration, but it also shows that they are solvable. With the right planning, drive, and ingenuity, we can do great things together.

Categories: Games

Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life Review: Tokyo Drifter

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 07:00

The Yakuza franchise is over a decade old, and in that time, its feature set has predictably grown. Over six mainline entries, free-roam areas became more substantial, additional playable protagonists were introduced, combat mechanics were expanded to incorporate multiple fighting styles, and more and more minigames were steadily piled on. Surprisingly, the latest installment goes the other way, discarding components that certainly won't go unnoticed by series devotees. But that doesn't end up being a bad thing, because Yakuza 6: The Song of Life successfully uses its smaller footprint to create a deeper, more meaningful impression.

The final installment in Kazuma Kiryu's story focuses on him alone, with the plot seeing the large cast of series-significant characters like Majima, Saejima, Daigo, and the children of Sunflower Orphanage make only the briefest of appearances before being tidied away. Adopted daughter Haruka, sympathetic detective Date, and hobo-turned-loan broker Akiyama play important parts, but exist on the fringes. The Song of Life centers on Kiryu as he returns from another long stint in prison, separated from the Tojo Clan, and unravels the mystery of an infant who's suddenly come into his care. The setup distinctly echoes the events of the first game, a seemingly purposeful decision which lets The Song Of Life act as a fitting refrain, giving Kiryu's final sojourn a roundness that brings a nice sense of closure to his series arc.

His investigations bring him to the port town of Onomichi, Hiroshima, where he encounters a lowly blue-collar crime family led by an aging, but supposedly legendary yakuza portrayed by Takeshi "Beat" Kitano (a yakuza film icon in his own right, though his subtle mannerisms don't completely survive the transition). While the game unsurprisingly spirals into a complex and dramatic story involving underworld political alliances, age-old conspiracies, and a healthy dose of deception, what's ultimately memorable are the threads and character developments that explore what becomes a very significant, widespread theme: family. Kiryu's time meeting new people from different walks of life in a closely-knit small town has him reflecting on remarkably ordinary ideas as they exist in different facets of society--bonds of friendship in the face of adversity, loyalty in times of uncertainty, and caring for your ward as a parental figure.

These themes resonate consistently throughout the better part of Yakuza 6's narrative, and this includes the numerous, optional substories. You'll help children and parents resolve conflicts and try to understand each other's point of view. You'll see Kiryu finding true strength and loyalty in the smallest of gestures, along with the different ways friends and strangers can support one another. The writing in these stories is often corny, but that doesn't mean there isn't an endearing sincerity that regularly shines through. When the sentimental piano melody kicks in during pivotal scenes of moralistic resolution, it's hard not to be swept up by it all. The series' penchant for goofiness still exists, though it doesn't return to Yakuza 0's ludicrous levels of absurdity. Particularly memorable substories are ones which humorously explore Kiryu's unfamiliarity and disdain towards modern technology like drones, robot vacuums, and YouTubers. But even the game's most comedic series of quests, which involve Kiryu dressing up as Onomichi's adorable character mascot (who has an orange for a head and a fish for a purse) ends up becoming a touching reflection about having loyalty in town pride.

These heartwarming stories are also a key component of Yakuza 6's new minigames. There are less of these side activities than previous entries, but much of what's included is more robust than usual, and in many cases, the substories attached to them are enjoyable enough to stop the simple mechanics from wearing thin too quickly. Spear Fishing is a score-based on-rails shooter that finds Kiryu helping an injured fisherman and orphaned fishmonger track down the shark that ruined their lives. The Onomichi Baseball League involves some light team management, pinch-hitting, and player scouting, but the story of Kiryu rallying a team of no-hopers is what really makes the whole affair great. The Snack Bar minigame stands out as a real highlight in this regard. It involves attempting to become a regular in a small, Cheers-style local's bar where Kiryu tries to forge personal relationships with a group of relatively unextraordinary, blue-collar folk. Its key mechanic is participating in group conversations where one patron has a vent about their woes, and Kiryu's role is to help provide supportive dialogue and refrain from saying anything selfish or dumb. It's lovely to see Kiryu try to resolve everyday, down-to-earth dilemmas and provide genuine acceptance and friendship.

Conversely, there's the incredibly involved Clan Creator Mode, which sees Kiryu unwittingly intervening in a war between youth gangs (whose leaders include real-world New Japan Pro Wrestlers, because why not). Taking leadership of one of these groups, you'll help Kiryu scout for soldiers, organize hierarchy, and participate in simple, real-time strategy-style street battles. You'll take a bird's eye view in skirmishes, where you can dispatch autonomous grunts as well as a limited number of leader characters with special abilities. Clan Creator is Yakuza 6's most substantial minigame, boasting online network functions that let you compete against other players, tackle daily missions and participate in a ranked ladder. Unfortunately, it's also the most tedious to play. Victory strategies stem entirely from massing as many troops as possible and grinding missions to keep your leaders at a capable level. Battles don't really become challenging until the many substory missions are already done, and even then, the strategy more or less stays identical. For a mode with such ambitious scope, its mechanics and relatively uninspired plot--which mainly seems concerned with spotlighting its celebrity guests--aren't satisfying enough to make the long ride enjoyable.

Elsewhere, the Club Sega arcade once again offers playable classics like Super Hang-On and Outrun, but there's also complete, multiplayer-capable versions of puzzle action favorite Puyo Puyo, and the seminal Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, both robust offerings in their own right. Mahjong is back, a gym offers track-and-field-style minigames for above average experience gains, karaoke and a cat cafe provide enjoyable distractions, and a simple-to-master darts minigame features a substory that lets you take on a real-world darts legend.

Yakuza 6 also maintains the series convention of including more titillating pursuits. Cabaret clubs return, with a choice of six hostesses for Kiryu to woo through conversation minigames. Also notable is the particularly risque Live Chat, a minigame which sees you pay money to watch live-action webcam shows (featuring real-world AV idols, no less), while hitting button prompts to progress to the point where you can watch the models strip their clothes off and moan suggestively. The unambiguous objectification of women in these minigames continues to make their inclusion uncomfortable in their own right. Their presence does truthfully reflect prominent parts of the real-world Japanese nightlife and adult industries, but these kinds of minigames have always perpetuated an unbelievable inconsistency of character for Kiryu. There's a conflict between the canonical depiction of him as a strong, stoic, honorable saint, and a version who is a creepy, bumbling pervert. After ten years, it's still hard to believe Kiryu is someone looking to build a harem as big as the orphanage he owns, who madly exclaims "BOOOBS" and "IT'S GROWING" when a woman takes her top off. These activities do have their moments, though--the text-based quips of Live Chat participants can sometimes be laugh-out-loud funny, and courting hostesses mean you get to see additional, phenomenally good karaoke videos. But in the grand scheme of Yakuza 6, where heartfelt themes pervade all of Kiryu's character interactions, these minigames feel like distant outliers.

The iconic red-light district of Kamurocho still plays a big part in the story, though it has a noticeably smaller area size this time around. You'll still feel at home if you've visited the area before, but there is a significantly disappointing lack of access to the Champion District and Park Boulevard areas. However, the distinct sense of a vibrant, bustling city still remains, and that's amplified by what feels like a more detailed and densely populated world. Walking around in the first-person mode is enough for you to appreciate all the surface level intricacies and changes, and there's a new element of verticality with increased rooftop access. But there are also some great advancements in the way the city invites you to engage with it.

Yakuza 6 now rewards you for interacting with the world in a way that previous games didn't. Eating at the game's many restaurants, which was previously really only worth doing if you needed a health boost, is now the most convenient way to rack up experience points to spend in the game's extensive upgrade system, though you're limited by a new stomach capacity meter. Purchasing and drinking beverages from one of the numerous vending machines around the world will give you cheap, temporary combat buffs. Every mini-game, from the batting cages to playing a round of Space Harrier will also earn you experience. The result is that slowing down and taking your time to soak in the atmosphere of the city will benefit you, and the world is no longer just a pretty path for you to run down to get to your next objective. Now, you don't necessarily have to feel guilty for letting yourself be distracted by Mahjong for hours.

Onomichi, Hiroshima is a region that is larger than previous accompanying locales have been, although the sleepy port town is a much quieter, more unassuming area than Kamurocho. Situated by the seaside, cute greenery arrangements line its single-story businesses, an above-ground train splits the area, and narrow pedestrian walkways snake up the steep hills, leading to an impressive temple with spectacular views. It's a charming, authentic-feeling recreation of the more tranquil parts of Japan, which both you and Kiryu learn to cherish. The town's relaxed atmosphere and characters exemplify the Song of Life's wholehearted themes.

Of course, in order to keep that tranquillity, sometimes you need to pound a few dirtbags into the ground, and the game's updated combat system follows its philosophy of slimming and focussing. Gone are the variable fighting disciplines introduced in Yakuza 0--the Kiryu of Yakuza 6 is equipped only with an expanded version of his signature brawling style, perhaps another refrain to the series' beginnings. It still maintains its characteristic weight and rigidity, but there are additional factors that make the act of fighting feel more fluid than it's been in the past, turning encounters as a whole into more dynamic and exciting experiences.

Enemy mobs are larger in The Song of Life, and crowd control takes a more prominent focus because of that. Set-piece fights that make up central story moments regularly see Kiryu and his companions go up against dozens upon dozens of enemies at once--a ratio that is frequently amusing. As a result, the properties of Kiryu's attacks have been altered. His throwing maneuver swings a victim around before letting them fly. Each combo string now allows him to execute two finishing blows as a default, and the second typically lunges forward with a wide attack radius. Starting a hard-hitting combo with some wise positioning means that Kiryu can feel like a human wrecking ball as he cleaves and plows through a group of assailants. You can frequently create domino effects that send enemies crashing into each other, and thanks to the game's new physics engine, into environmental objects like rows of bicycles, through glass windows, and potentially, into stores and restaurants.

That's the most significant change to combat--it now benefits from seamless transitions between world exploration and battles. Getting into a fight on the street no longer means coming to a jarring halt for a few seconds while a splash screen pops and civilians gather to restrict you to a small area. Fights now have the potential to move through the city and into areas like stairwells, rooftops, convenience stores, restaurants, and a handful of other accessible building interiors. It also means you have the opportunity to make a break for it if you're not in the mood to throw down. The dynamism and uninterrupted flow this gives to Yakuza's combat is a real wonder, and means that random battles are less likely to eventually devolve into monotony, as they could in past games. You could be strolling down the street, leisurely drinking a can of Boss coffee or taking a selfie in front of the cat cafe, and a gang of thugs can suddenly interrupt you, forcing you into a tight stairway brawl that eventually spills out onto a rooftop. Or, you might try to run and hide in a convenience store, unsuccessfully, and find yourself destroying shelves and sending snacks flying until you put an end to the chaos by slamming a thug's head into a microwave--just don't expect the clerk to serve you afterward. Combat in Yakuza 6 is exciting, and the situations you might find yourself in positively echo the kinds of scrappy, tense struggles you see so commonly in East Asian gangster films.

Another sticking point is one that's been present in all of the game's iterations--the inconsistent visual presentation. While the scenes that deliver pivotal plot events are absolutely spectacular--with uncannily lifelike character models, dramatic cinematography, and exceptional Japanese language performances--scenes that present lesser moments, like substories, are a dramatic drop in quality. As in previous games, they feature far less detailed character models and wooden, sometimes non-existent animation. Static camera angles also play a big part in aggravating their dullness. Substories make up a significant part of Yakuza games, so the low-end visuals continue to be an unfortunate blemish. Yakuza 6 is also entirely voice-acted for the first time in the series, and because the performances go a long way in enhancing the humorous and earnest moments these missions can contain, it's a shame that the presentation doesn't go to the same efforts.

Yakuza 6 reins in its scope, but doubles down on what has made the series great. It's a unique and fascinating representation of the modern Japanese experience, worth playing even if you're a newcomer. The narrative is dramatic and sincere, and the game's endearing characters--coming from all walks of life--are interesting studies. The world is dense and rewarding to exist in, the dynamic combat system stays exciting even after you've kicked the crap out of five thousand enemies, and perhaps most importantly, Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life serves as a fulfilling conclusion to the turbulent, decade-long saga of its beloved icon, Kazuma Kiryu.

Categories: Games

Bravo Team Review: Back To Basics

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 19:00

Well into 2018, we are past the point where VR is a new and novel experiment. Had Supermassive Games' Bravo Team released when the PSVR launched, we could at least excuse the game's milquetoast nature as a first, uncertain step; an experiment in trying to bring arcadey, cover-based shooting to a new format. Released two years into the PSVR's lifespan, however, Bravo Team already comes off as archaic, a game that's been outclassed several times over in the system's first year.

Bravo Team's banality is obvious during its opening minutes. You and your online co-op partner or A.I. brother-in-arms are charged with escorting the president of a made-up eastern European country back home to deliver a unifying speech that will hopefully bring peace to her nation. Of course it goes wrong; the president's envoy gets blown to bits, and a deposed military leader kickstarts a bloody coup d'etat that you and your partner must shoot your way through in order to get home. The mission plays out with stone-faced seriousness, with the monotony of our two masked heroes broken up only by the determined British timbre of your commanding officer. There isn't even a musical score to accentuate the action, so even the most dramatic moments happen in an uncaring void.

Bravo Team's presentation leaves a lot to be desired

The set up might be indistinguishable from Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, or any number of grim, washed-out shooters, but, really, Bravo Team's gameplay has more in common with games like Time Crisis. Most of your time is spent hiding behind cover, popping out to line up your shots and fire. You can play with the DualShock 4 or the Move controllers (and this is even one of the few times where movement feels natural with the latter). However, the PS Aim gun controller is where it's at in that regard, and what thrills do exist in the game come from the inherent thrill of the Aim lending a dose of immersion.

You also get a little bit more freedom to move than in a game like Time Crisis. You can point your gun or just tilt the PSVR headset at a certain area and you'll get a visual prompt telling you whether you can move there or not. The flaw here being that actual movement takes the game out of first person into a third-person view that rips that immersion away every single time.

The presentation, with its dull, anemic color schemes straight out of 2007 and a rampant, unfathomable problem with pop-in and blurry textures, is the most prominent flaw. The same three classes of enemies you encounter in the first stage--generic grunt, armored grunt, armored grunt with chaingun--are the same ones you see every step of the way. The last half hour or so introduces two sections with melee soldiers and snipers, but they're gone almost as soon as they enter the scene. There's only four guns--a pistol, an assault rifle, a shotgun, and a sniper rifle--and you only see two of those in the last 30 minutes as well.

Playing co-op is probably the best way to experience what little Bravo Team has to offer.

Seemingly in an effort to break up the straightforward gunplay, stealth kills are possible. But outside of the tutorial, it's impossible to maintain stealth for more than two or three enemies before, without fail, another enemy stands at an angle where he can't be stealth killed. It doesn't help that your supposedly silenced pistol gives away your position 75% of the time. The most fun in Bravo Team comes from its online co-op, where at least you have a partner to bounce dialogue off of, give directions to, or request recovery when you've fallen. It's a salve, albeit a temporary one.

Instead, Bravo Team slogs on, stranding you in huge spaces, throwing wave after wave of cannon fodder your way, making its short play time feel hours longer that it actually is. Bravo Team is a game that feels unsure and tentative about ideas that have been tried and tested for years now, even in VR.

Categories: Games

The 25th Ward: The Silver Case Review: Obstruction Of Justice

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 15:00

As a direct sequel to The Silver Case, it will come as no shock that The 25th Ward is a fundamentally bizarre game. It plays around with fever dreamy, Twin Peaks-esque logic, with a profound disregard for how reality works. That's all to say: it is very much a Suda 51 game. It's also not too surprising, then, that The 25th Ward is rough around the edges; sometimes purposefully so, and sometimes not. Disorderly it may be, but dull it certainly is not.

Set four years after the events of The Silver Case, The 25th Ward takes place in a completely new planned community in Japan, marketed as a home for the super elite. Its residents are specifically chosen to help establish a city with absolutely no criminal activity or negative elements, kept utterly spotless, and where every rule is followed to the letter. The price for even minor infractions--taking your trash out on the wrong day, being rude to a neighbor, playing music too loud--is typically death, either by being shot or having your brains scrambled to the point of being a drooling zombie.

In the most basic terms, The 25th Ward is a visual novel, its storytelling told predominantly through text and still photos punctuated by point-and-click adventure game tangents. Scenes will stop to force you to look around, move through hallways, use a particular item, talk to a specific person in the area, or type in a password. The game is structured as a compilation of three separate stories based around the people who're responsible for upholding the draconian law in the ward. Two of these tales, Match-maker and Correctness, follow the efforts of the presiding law enforcement branches of the ward: the Heinous Crimes Unit--essentially, a CSI team--and the Regional Adjustment Bureau. The third scenario continues the Placebo plot from The Silver Case, once again following hard-boiled reporter Tokio Morishima, now an amnesiac, as he loses his sanity investigating a mysterious death in the ward.

Compared to its predecessor, each of the scenarios feels distinct. Only Correctness was actually penned by Suda, and it has his jagged, pulpy fingerprints all over it, from the hard-as-nails, sailor-mouthed teammate to a string of attempted assassinations on an HCU detective playing out--for no rhyme or reason--like an 8-bit RPG. Non-sequitur discussions occur with the HCU's coroner about his burgeoning snuff film addiction and perfectly normal conversations veer off into thoughts about how hungry characters are at that moment.

The other two scenarios were written by Masahi Ooka and Masahiro Yuki, Suda's cohorts on The Silver Case. Their respective chapters are much more cohesive, purposeful pieces of work. Placebo, in particular, takes on an unexpected but beautifully twisted cyberpunk bent. Match-maker's story wouldn't be terribly out of place in one of Sega's increasingly nutty Yakuza games, with just enough of the surreal involved to make the story unpredictable.

The very idea of the 25th Ward as a standalone, authoritarian dystopia disguised as utopia is enthralling, and all three scenarios manage to mine surprising depth out of the set up. Correctness is, at its core, a story about the mindset that creates crooked cops, while Placebo and Match-maker explore the specific societal factors that create crooked people. It’s far from being the first piece of fiction to tell a tale of how moral deviancy develops when the idea of what’s considered deviant behavior becomes ubiquitous, but it’s a very distinct way of telling it. It’s a game with some heavy thoughts on its mind, and those thoughts are exaggerated and abstracted to the extreme. Helping things out in that area is a singularly off-kilter synth pop soundtrack from longtime Suda collaborator Masafumi Takada, with some simple moody beats contorted around strange instrumentation and eerily hypnotic melodies. The visual style follows suit, with each scenario adopting its own particular stark, gritty art style, from Correctness’ black-and-white, under-lit shadows, to Match-maker’s abstract, bloody, police sketchbook style. It’s all perfectly suited for the kind of crazed psychotropic Law & Order stories being told.

The 25th Ward's stories were originally released episodically, which makes it slightly easier to forgive just how sprawling the narrative is. Having said that, all three stories inhabit the same time period, each imparting information that helps fill in some of the blanks of the other episodes, though it's not like the game tells you that going in. While I played each scenario straight through, a more fulfilling approach would be to play each of the episodes in each scenario sequentially (all three episode 1s, then all the episode 2s, etc.). Otherwise, the stories being told, while still comprehensible, are annoyingly confusing instead of fascinatingly obtuse. Without a doubt, however, the game's biggest narrative weakness is its disregard for time. It's a game that luxuriates in making the wrong moments last, hammering minute character details down into dust, while forgetting to elaborate on complex plot twists. A 10-minute stretch is devoted to the unorthodox way a character eats a fancy dessert; 20 seconds are spent explaining how a major character seems to miraculously cheat death.

The game also has a bad habit of slowing you down with its disappointing "puzzles." They largely come in two flavors: elementary tasks, like memorizing a short series of numbers, or frustrating tests of patience. One such investigation requires you to narrow down which room a victim lived in, and provides 80 floors of a mostly empty apartment complex to explore. The very first room you go to gives a hint that the victim was in an even numbered corner apartment, and the next hint on the second floor tells you which rooms her favorite community groups met in. Narrowing down the target location seems like an impossible task, until you realize that the very first apartment on each floor gives new information, and after reaching the first apartment on the 5th floor, you're simply told which room to go to, at which point none of the previous floors' information even matters. I almost wanted to congratulate Suda on the A+ trolling, except there's no telling if that was the intent.

More commonly, your progress is gated by the need to exhaust every menu option in a conversation until the story progresses, but more often than not, the action in the menu doesn’t correspond to what needs to be done. The “Look” function, in particular, performs everything from moving into another room to completing a character's psychotic break and eventual self-actualization as a murderous sociopath. The amount of times “Look” actually means examining something can be counted on one hand. It's a problem exacerbated by a localization effort that, on top of some frequent, cringeworthy typos, has a tin ear for how character dialogue works. Many of the game's very grizzled, very adult characters occasionally drop into a very young millennial style of speech that occasionally threatens to break the game's immersion. It's a testament to what's still on the screen that it doesn't.

Despite a collection of problems, it's easy to occasionally admire The 25th Ward's ambitions. Where The Silver Case was a slog, punctuating long stretches of nonsense with blasts of pure horror, The 25th Ward consistently commands your attention with frighteningly relevant themes, bonkers plot twists, or even just the simple thrill of some beautifully rendered and twisted imagery. It's a game that demands patience and forgiveness, but rewards those willing to put up with its problems.

Categories: Games

Kirby Star Allies Review: Take It Easy

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 14:00

Kirby games are guaranteed to have a perky pink mascot, candy-coated platforming levels, and plentiful power-ups to wield and combine; all key pieces of Kirby Star Allies. But what sets the latest game apart from previous Kirby adventures is that everything is designed with co-op in mind, whether you have friends to play with or not. It's a welcome change that keeps the otherwise traditional gameplay fresh, and even though the extra help is overkill for most of the challenges that lie in wait, Star Allies still puts your cheerful chums to good use.

You've been able to team up in previous games, like Kirby's Return to Dream Land on Wii, but it's fundamental to Star Allies and far more flexible in practice. Rather than being limited to only playing alongside key characters like Meta Knight or King Dedede, you can now recruit almost any enemy you come across. And after you unlock a pair of extra modes upon completing the story, you earn the right to play as any character in the game in a speedrun mode. It's not a massive twist given that enemies play the same as Kirby does when he's absorbed their powers, but for a game built around its variety of personalities, it's an appreciated bonus to look forward to.

Star Allies perfectly executes its playful cartoon aesthetic from start to finish, stuffed with adorable animations and digital glitter. Meanwhile, the soundtrack swings from uplifting jingles to intense battle themes, providing ample motivation and entertainment, and is up there with the series' best works--many of which have been expertly remixed here. And now that you can team up with allies in unique ways--say, when you have a chef power-up and pretend-cook your friends in a pot to produce life-giving snacks--Star Allies is just relentlessly charismatic.

The story mode paces itself well, in part because it's so short. The procession of new ideas from one stage to the next keeps you wondering what clever platforming obstacle or power-up will appear next. These surprises may force your team to split up to tackle simple, large-scale puzzles, a feat the AI handles effortlessly without your input. You also occasionally group together to roll downhill as a wall-smashing wheel, hop on the back of a flying star for some casual side-scrolling shooter action, or line up to form a train and steamroll through enemies.

Reaching the end of a level or world is generally very easy. The only real challenge is to locate hidden items--puzzle pieces that are used to complete pictures, not unlike the 3DS StreetPass game, Puzzle Swap. Each stage has a unique pink piece, though you can regularly find randomized blue pieces or tap amiibo to generate them on the fly. The pictures you unlock are just that--pictures--which is a little deflating, as far as rewards go.

But rare levels contain hidden rooms with a switch that unlocks a new stage in the overworld. You're told when a stage contains a hidden opportunity, so the trick is to simply keep an eye out for suspicious-looking objects or doors during your travels. On some occasions an obstacle or object requires you to interact while using a specific ability (such as electrifying a power line or igniting a pile of leaves). Never one to make you suffer, enemies with the relevant power-ups are generally placed nearby so you won't ever feel totally unprepared.

Strolling through the story mode ensures a generous amount of expertly crafted whimsy and joy, but because levels are so easygoing, with lightweight platforming and a trio of friends watching your back at all times, Star Allies' campaign quickly runs out of steam. It's almost a good problem to have--a game that's so good that you don't want it to end--but it's tough to shake the disappointment when you cross the finish line.

The unlockable extra modes, then, are the game's saving grace. Nevermind the wood-chopping and meteor-batting mini-games, which are cute but undeniably shallow; the boss rush and speedrun modes are the main attractions. For the speedrun mode, Guest Star, you charge through five sets of levels as the Star Allies character of your choosing. These are the same stages you've played before, but the further you get, the faster, stronger, and more resilient you become. Your gradual growth, robust set of actions per character, and the race against time inject Star Allies with the energy to match its overflowing personality.

And to account for the lack of difficulty elsewhere, the boss rush mode (The Ultimate Choice) can be dialed up to unforgiving levels, where enemies hit harder, health replenishments are in shorter supply, and more bosses line up to battle. Both this and the speedrun mode can be enjoyed with a total of four players, which feels more beneficial compared to the pushover story mode.

Star Allies is yet another Kirby game, but it's up there with some of the best. It's an artistic showcase, and a great opportunity for co-op platforming. The one real complaint you can levy at it is that it gates off its more challenging aspects, but the fact that they are present to begin with will please anyone who's grown weary of the series' painless platforming.

Categories: Games

Pit People Review

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 02:00

Pit People is the fourth title developed by The Behemoth, and also the fourth genre the developer has tried its hand at, after some side-scrolling blasting (Alien Hominid), an old-school beat-em-up (Castle Crashers) and devious puzzle platforming (BattleBlock Theatre). Pit People is a turn-based strategy game in the vein of Fire Emblem or XCOM, and it's got the same art style and irreverent sense of humor as the developer's previous games--and even some direct world-building carryover, if you pay close attention.

At a glance, Pit People looks like a simplified tactical game, and in many ways that’s true. But what sets it apart from the norm is the relationship between your position on a battlefield and the automatic action you’ll take once you move to a new location. Land on a tile touching an enemy, and you’ll attack them as expected. But land on a tile touching two enemies and your character will pick and choose which to attack on their own. Likewise, you need to be extra careful when lining up a ranged attack lest you automatically attack an inadvertent target nearby.

At first, this makes the game feel too limited for real strategic planning. Over time, though, these restrictions come to inspire foresight and creativity. The moment one of your characters splits from the pack, they're likely to be ganged up on, and premeditated blocking and baiting become important. Most characters (including your own fighters) have a lot of health and take many hits to down, so figuring out how to do the most damage while preserving yourself can be tricky. Some characters perform area-of-effect attacks that can also damage allies, so if you put a teammate between an archer and their target they might accidentally hit them with an arrow. Pit People may have distilled the logistics of the turn-based strategy purely to placement, but there's still plenty of thought required. It's not up there with the heavyweights of the genre--this simplified system makes the game easier to get into, but there are never really instances where you need to craft a grand, clever strategy that requires thinking ahead more than a couple of moves.

The way you build your team is the game's smartest hook. If a character can be armed with specific gear (which applies to most human classes), you can have them forego any sort of shield and instead give them a net. During combat, the net can be thrown from two spaces away to bind an enemy to their space for the next turn, but when there's only one enemy left on the field, you can hurl your net to recruit them, adding them to the list of characters you can control. It's the same hook that made Pokémon so big (it's surely no mistake that your team has six slots), and trying to keep the most enticing member of the enemy party alive so you can capture them at the end of the fight adds an interesting wrinkle to the campaign.

There are several different kinds of units, and while their attacks and abilities can be modified with a variety of equipment, they all serve specific functions--archers attack from long range, cupcakes can heal but can't attack, mushrooms can spray poisonous clouds, and so on. But capturing isn't just restricted to standard enemies, either--if you can defeat all a boss character's underlings, you can recruit characters who play a part in the game's story. The character designs are as cartoonish and fun as The Behemoth's characters have always been, with lots of gross-looking monsters and weird takes on standard RPG classes, which makes recruiting as many of them as you can more compelling--even if, at a certain point, it sinks in that you'll probably never use most of your under-levelled recruits.

According to one of the game's loading screen tips, you can recruit over 500 units. At its core, Pit People is a collect-a-thon--the campaign is brief, and the moment you finish it, the missions start cycling again from the beginning (there are a heap of optional side-missions too, which are mostly good fun). The true goal of the game is to build up your army, level up your best units, collect the best loot from battles, and then take it all into the titular Pit, a combat arena where you can either face waves of AI or fight opponents online. A lot of the loot is purely cosmetic, which makes the grind a bit less interesting than it could be, but putting together a team and taking them online to see how they fare is an interesting experience.

Unfortunately, the lobbies have been quiet since the game's 1.0 launch, and finding people to play against has been difficult. This is a shame--the competitive multiplayer is a fun addition. The whole game can be played cooperatively too, online or off, which means fighting with two teams against double the enemy count in each mission. Because characters tend to lack passive support roles, it's not a game where playing with a friend will necessarily enhance your experience, but it's a nice option to have and doesn't detract from the game in any significant way either.

Pit People is a fun take on the turn-based strategy genre, even if it's not the deepest out there. Building an army with the recruitment mechanics is great fun, and pulling off a difficult victory is always rewarding, especially when you manage to scrape through with only a single, battered unit left. On that note, a quick word of warning--do not start the game with permadeath enabled, no matter what your usual predilection in this genre is. If you lose certain characters that you need to take on story missions, you simply won't be able to finish the game, and while you can restart a battle (most of the time--one mission ended with my entire team spontaneously exploding, the game autosaving before I properly realised what had happened), getting through a match with no losses is difficult.

This would be acceptable--you’re signing up for a more difficult experience, after all--but it also renders the Pit all but unusable. Getting through a match against the AI or an online opponent unscathed is essentially impossible, making this an even more hardcore option than it usually would be within this genre. It’s not just that the permadeath mode is unbalanced--it essentially locks you out of certain modes, which is not clear from the beginning, and because of existing genre conventions it’s fair to assume that some players will go in expecting permadeath to be the ‘right’ way to play. Follow this advice: let your characters come back when they die, and you'll be okay.

Pit People's irreverent appeal isn't enough to make it stand alongside the greats, but it's entertaining and mildly engrossing. It maintains the cartoonish charm that The Behemoth always imbues their games with, and the gameplay cycle does a solid job of getting you invested in your scrappy team of fighters. Hopefully, over time, Pit People will build more of an audience and the online modes will improve, but even if you prefer to just stick to the single-player campaign, it's a fun time.

Categories: Games

Q.U.B.E. 2 Review: Think Inside The Box

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 10:00

If the original Q.U.B.E. was a product of experimental design and unhindered student ambition, Q.U.B.E. 2 is the sophomore follow-up that almost ticks all the right boxes. No longer are you messing with unmalleable puzzle rooms; Q.U.B.E. 2 gives you the tools to have greater flexibility with your solutions and feels more rewarding as a result. It sometimes struggles to shake off the shackles of its deeply rooted narrative limitations, but it’s ultimately a wonderful puzzle game that will often have you exclaiming in joy after solving one of its many riddles.

If you played the original game, it might be surprising to hear that Q.U.B.E. 2 redefines how its puzzles work from the start. As was the case with the first game, the objective in Q.U.B.E 2 is simply about moving forward. You enter a room and need to figure out a solution to either exit it at the other end or interact with a specific object (like a power node that routes energy) to open doors elsewhere. But where Q.U.B.E. had you manipulating different colored blocks in increasingly challenging puzzle rooms, it never gave you agency over their initial placement. Armed with a new set of gauntlets that have pulsating neon energy flowing through them, that small amount of freedom is exactly what Q.U.B.E. 2 bestows on you from the outset.

The options you’re given are still somewhat limited to compensate for this, with only three distinct abilities at your disposal. Red blocks can be extended and retracted at will; blue blocks turn neutral white tiles into springy bouncing boards; and green blocks let you create a cube of matter that you can further manipulate, either by moving them around with other abilities to activate switches or use them as additional steps to reach a higher ledges. You can use a red block, for example, to push a green block in front of it, perhaps into a nearby blue spring block that launches it into the air and onto a switch nearby. Learning how these three mechanics intermingle is gratifying, and the intricate levels laid out in a linear fashion do a good job of showing you just how you’re meant to employ them.

You can’t use these abilities anywhere, though, which starts to resemble the restrictive layout of the first game. Although you have the freedom to paint any neutral white tile to a color of your choosing, there’s still only a finite number of them in any given space. Their placement always feels deliberate, acting as signposts for the eventual solution. Such design can be helpful in latter stages where the scope and size of the space you’re solving in grows to overwhelming levels, but it's somewhat disappointing that you're never given complete freedom to concoct unusual solutions.

Impressively, the puzzles Q.U.B.E. 2 tasks you with solving are complex in makeup and exciting in execution despite this. Each scenario has a unique twist to the trials that came before it, introducing new mechanics and obstacles. Just as you’re comfortable with spawning a cube and getting it from one side of the room to another, an element like arrays of high-powered fans is introduced. These can, for example, allow you to propel cubes at high speeds, or give you a much-needed lift to a previously inaccessible area. Later, elements like slippery oil come into play, as do magnetic tiles, rotatable platforms, and restrictive doorways that require either sheer force or elemental damage (like fire) to bust open.

Just like the three core abilities, Q.U.B.E. 2 introduces each of these auxiliary mechanics in digestible chunks. As you progress rooms will start taking on themes around these new physics, giving you a playground to comfortably experiment with them before zooming out to larger, all encompassing cranial challenges. Light-bulb moments permeate the game from the opening seconds to its riveting conclusion, with only a few puzzles that seem out of place in terms of difficulty. Several patterns emerge over the six hours of puzzling--I found myself always placing a green tile above a blue one to spawn and instantly propel a cube, for example--but their application in new challenges that tax your spacial awareness never really gets stale.

The same can’t be said for the encompassing narrative that Q.U.B.E. 2 presents, which struggles to find a consistent pace. You play as Amelia Cross, a scientist that’s become stranded on the desolate alien cube most of the game plays out in. The story doesn’t rely on knowledge from the previous game but doesn’t seem to build on anything established either. Instead, it plods along from one revelation to the next, in an attempt to slowly piece together the secrets of the entity Amelia finds herself trapped within. Its latter half is then a rush to a conclusion, quickly introducing new story beats through an overload of exposition, and ultimately leading to an uninspired binary choice at the end. It’s a pity, given that the small cast does deliver some powerful voice acting performances, especially in conversations between Amelia and Emma Sutcliffe, a fellow survivor who seems to know more than she lets on.

Q.U.B.E. 2’s world lacks the impact and intrigue of something like Valve’s Portal series but takes some design cues from its breadth of visual design. Basic test chamber-like sequences are quickly pierced with gorgeous outdoor vistas, letting moonlight flood geometric chambers and cold tile spaces. As the story progresses, Amelia is whisked away to more lush territories, where nature has overgrown the structures she's trapped in. Vines choke the life out of walls around you as sunlight bathes the chambers you’re slowly working through, giving the entire experience a distinctly contrasting feel. Q.U.B.E. 2 might have benefitted from a higher framerate to keep up with the action at times, but it’s a consistently pleasing treat on the eyes.

C.U.B.E. 2 makes remarkably clever changes to a formula well established by its predecessor, giving you more agency over puzzle solutions with redefined core mechanics. It means veterans and newcomers alike won’t have to suffer through an overwrought tutorial, with a gentle learning curve effectively nudging you along its growing library of tools. Q.U.B.E. 2 struggles to contextualize its clever puzzles with a narrative as engaging as their solutions, but it’s still one nut that is consistently rewarding to crack.

Categories: Games

Gravel Review: Slow And Steady Doesn't Win The Race

Wed, 03/07/2018 - 18:04

Arcade racing games have been few and far between during this console generation, which makes Gravel's straightforward approach feel almost like a throwback. On its surface, Milestone's latest appears to toe the line between being an authentic simulation of off-road racing, and a rough-and-tumble arcade experience. There are myriad driver assists that let you tune the difficulty to your liking, and the option to tweak each vehicle's ride height, differentials, and so on, gives you some degree of performance-based customisation. Yet the effect these options have on Gravel's driving model are negligible at best. This is an unpretentious arcade racer that's incredibly easy to pick up and play, but this simplicity also contributes to a lack of heart-pounding excitement.

Gravel's single player career mode, dubbed "Off-road masters", has you globetrotting between events that mix up different race types and disciplines, with each one loosely connected by the concept of a Gravel TV show. There's not much of substance to this structure beyond the inclusion of an unenthusiastic commentator imparting a few tired lines before and after every race, and a few quasi boss fights that bookend each block of episodes. The latter do at least come locked and loaded with some corny FMV introductions, where fictional racing drivers strike poses in what can only be described as a flaming hellscape. For as amusing as I often found these brief interludes, the mano-e-mano races that follow suffer from the same prevalent problem Gravel does as a whole: they're just kind of boring.

Click image to view in full screen

All of this speaks to a lack of depth to Gravel's off-road racing. This wouldn't be an issue on its own, but the simplicity of its action craves an exciting assortment of tracks to really coalesce its various systems into something approaching an engaging racing game, and Gravel falls short of the mark. There are outliers, of course: the point-to-point cross country races through Alaska and the sun-drenched beaches of Namibia are highlights due to their white-knuckle nature and environmental variety. However, the rest fail to get the blood pumping with any sort of regularity. There are a few real world Rallycross tracks, but most of the courses on offer are fictional, and it's a shame they're not more imaginative. The majority of the time I felt like I was simply going through the motions, even after bumping the difficulty up to hard for a more substantial challenge. And this feeling is only exacerbated by the limited number of environments on offer, with multiple tracks taking place in the same locations.

Meanwhile, multiplayer options are confined to creating your own lobby to invite friends, or jumping into a quick match in the hopes of finding others to race against--but this is easier said than done. After numerous attempts I’ve only managed to find a solitary match, which was populated with three other people (the rest of the grid was made up of AI drivers). Other than this I’ve had no luck finding another race, even a week after launch.

Visually, weather and lighting effects are occasionally impressive, but otherwise Gravel's tracks mostly look flat, and a short draw distance leads to shadows and foliage frequently popping into view. There's also a lack of detail to each vehicle's body, and a smoothness to each one that gives the illusion they're coated in a sheen of vaseline. They look more like toy cars than the high-powered mud-churners they should be.

In my mind's eye, Gravel's bland visuals contribute to a game that doesn't look too dissimilar from the seven year old titles it most closely resembles. There's something appreciable about its no-nonsense style, and there's definitely some intermittent fun to be had with its arcade style racing. But it doesn't do anything that its contemporaries haven't done better before, and it fails to stand out as an enjoyable alternative, which is unfortunately reflected by its barren multiplayer component. Like the fireworks that occasionally ignite throughout select races, Gravel's attempts at excitement don't quite dazzle.

Categories: Games

Mulaka Review: Of Myth And Monsters

Mon, 03/05/2018 - 16:30

Every part of the world has its own history and legends that are ripe for examination, yet games typically stick to a narrow range of familiar cultures. It's why games like Mulaka stand out; they can open your eyes to concepts and themes that you otherwise might never encounter. Mulaka is a 3D action-adventure game that looks to the Sierra Tarahumara region of northern Mexico and channels its cultural heritage into a fascinating adventure steeped in mythology.

You play the role of the Sukurúame, a spear-wielding warrior shaman who can see both the physical and spirit world, and eventually transform into various animals. From the open desert to a thriving human city, Mulaka's landscapes have a magical quality that make it feel like an interactive trip inside a children's book. Your goal in each area is typically to find three magical stones that will unlock a giant door leading to a boss. Bottomless drops, deadly quicksand, water hazards, and precarious climbs are combined in entertaining and challenging ways to keep the action moving and diverse, as are the simple yet enjoyable puzzles throughout.

It can be fascinating to take in as you convene with animal spirits or battle fantastical monsters. The game utilizes its fairly primitive graphics style to give the game a classic look that fits its mythical themes, and the landscapes have a beautiful contoured quality. All the while the soundtrack uses native instruments to create an ambient soundtrack that fits the action, but stays mostly in the background.

The aforementioned civilization you engage with offers a slightly human touch to the mystical landscape, but Mulaka’s NPCs are disappointing conversationalists. They’re static characters who don’t do much except passively add to the atmosphere. And much like NPCs in classic RPGs, they only have one line of dialogue a piece.

Mulaka's detailed use of Sierra Tarahumaran mythology is the main here, since it provides a setting we haven't really seen before. Much like God of War used Greek myths to add compelling, otherworldly drama to its saga, Mulaka's setting adds a unique flavor to every aspect of the game. The presence of animal spirits leads to a set of monsters that are mostly grounded in the real world, but magnified to menacing proportions.

The themes of animal transformation lend themselves naturally to gaming. So moving from human to bird to bear forms in quick succession later in the game is a fast-paced thrill. Your character's spirit vision lets you see where objectives and key items (such as keystones) are, in addition to invisible platforms that are required to access specific parts of the world. The magic energy you expend to see these things extends to other abilities, such as flight. The multi-use resource forces you to balance your abilities on the fly, which can be a thrilling challenge during the game's more intense and chaotic battles.

Combat is near ever-present, and figuring out the best way to deal with the various enemies is part of the fun. Normal enemies, like giant frogs and basic mantis men, can just be wailed on, but many, including a creepy skull-armored spider, are shielded and must first be opened up to attack with a heavy strike. Other enemies are only vulnerable if you can successfully dodge their opening attacks.

Somewhat frustratingly, airborne enemies--from flying bolo-throwing mantises to balls of fire--can be especially hard to hit, especially in the midst of a full-blown battle between several distinct kinds of monsters. The issue stems from controlling your spear, which is especially problematic on Switch. There, the game insists on using motion controls, which don't behave as accurately as you'd hope. The target lock is also nearly useless, making it incredibly frustrating to hit moving targets, which can be further complicated by the lack of camera inversion settings.

Where things are at their are best are in the terrifically designed and imaginative boss encounters that range from straightforward battles to devious and clever platforming tests. So, in one fight you might be taunting a giant bug to run into towering rock sculptures and another requires you to use the wind generated by the boss itself to fly up to higher points so you can attack the boss's weak points. Seeing what surprises the next boss offers is one of the great joys of the game.

Mulaka is a simple game at heart with a lot of familiar traits. The open, low-poly landscapes and characters are reminiscent of Journey. The combat and puzzle elements are similar to Breath of the Wild and Okami. But thanks to the specific Tarahumara setting and characters, Mulaka still manages to have a personality and feel all its own. It offers an appealingly unique setting that makes it something more than a typical adventure game.

Categories: Games

Bridge Constructor Portal Review

Wed, 02/28/2018 - 20:00

Bridge Constructor Portal leans heavily upon its iconic forebears. GlaDOS, an uncaring-though-humorous AI, greets you at the beginning of many levels, setting the stage for the plentiful puzzles that lay before you. It sounds like the setup for another delicious brain-teaser that will tickle your funny bone while pushing your logic muscles. But neither the story nor the puzzles capture your imagination, resulting in a predictable slog that grows more tedious the deeper you get into the adventure. Even worse: I encountered a game-breaking bug that completely halted my progress at the home stretch.

The story in Bridge Constructor Portal is little more than a collection of references to the previous Portal games. GlaDOS is back to make light of your shortcomings, but her insults feel like diluted copies of familiar quips, lacking the clever tongue-lashings that she used to so easily dish out. She's there to greet you with an insult at the beginning of some stages, and then you're left on your own in a bleak and bland test chamber. Periodic cutscenes borrow familiar artifacts from previous games, but do little with these props other than make you fondly remember happier days. During one such segment, a picture of Portal's famous cake appears on a computer screen while an instrumental version of "Still Alive" plays over the loudspeakers. This scene means nothing if you aren't familiar with that game...and it's just a quick nostalgia jab for those who are.

As the name implies, Bridge Constructor Portal has you building a series of bridges in the facility made famous in Portal. The goal is to guide a self-driving forklift full of cute little stick figures from the entry point to a faraway exit--all while avoiding turrets, leaping over acidic lakes, and triggering switches. Building a bridge is no easy task, though; physics are a constant and punishing presence, forcing you to consider the impact of gravity as you build rickety structures. With only metal planks and guy-wires to hold your contraptions in place, you have to make smart use of your materials to ensure that the entire structure doesn't topple as soon as you begin.

A handy "best practices" tutorial teaches you the fundamentals of architecture. Build a series of triangles, for instance, to hold a bridge in place, or affix an arch to add even more support for your road. Bolts in the ceilings and walls can bear a lot of weight if you hook guy-wires up to connecting points, but make sure you balance the bridge properly, or it's still going to cause your forklift to crash and burn as soon as it lays its wheel upon the road.

All of the techniques you need are doled out slowly, so it's easy to get a handle on what the game is demanding of you. While you start out building simple ramps and roadways, you're soon sculpting hundred-piece structures that dangle impossibly high in the air. The early going is tense: I would hold my breath as the forklift sauntered across my swaying bridge, hoping that the guy-wires were strong enough to carry the weight. My forklift would often land on a bridge from too high a distance, and I would watch helplessly as it all toppled to the ground. Then it was a matter of going back to work, adding a few more supports and tweaking the angle of ramps, before once again testing my creation.

It doesn't take long, though, before you've seen all of the obstacles Bridge Constructor Portal can dish out. Once you've mastered suspension bridges, oscillating bridges, and angles of incidence, the stages force you to go through the motions to show--once more--the tricks you already learned. The game tries to keep things fresh by injecting obstacles and items from the original Portal game into this one; you'll encounter talking turrets, companion cubes, speed goo, death lasers, bounce pads, flying balls, and (of course) portals. Later levels throw all of these into a single stage, but that only makes the experience more tedious, not more interesting.

The game often confuses complexity with fun, as throwing in more moving pieces doesn't mean you're going to have to think harder.

Bridge Constructor Portal is at its best when it focuses on one or two key ideas. Figuring out how to use a companion cube as a shield to block the laser attacks from a turret took enough clever construction that I was satisfied when my forklift glided gracefully through the exit. But the game often confuses complexity with fun, as throwing in more moving pieces doesn't mean you're going to have to think harder. Rather, it means you're going to spend most of your time making small adjustments, wallowing in small details instead of appreciating the greater whole that surrounds you.

The best part of puzzle games is figuring out how to overcome a tricky obstacle. That's the easiest and shortest aspect of Bridge Constructor Portal, though. Long after you've devised a way through the portals, off the bouncing pads, and past the lasers, you're fiddling around with one small part of the contraption that is close, but oh so far, from the necessary perfection.

A lot of the tedium comes from how editing works. In test chamber 49, for instance, I had to guide my forklift through a series of portals on the right side of the screen while crashing into turrets from behind, and hitting a button that would release a companion cube on the left side. The cube is supposed to knock down three more turrets and hit a switch that opens the exit. The problem is that I couldn't quite get the angle needed to guide the cube to its destination. So I would tweak a ramp, start the level up, and then wait 30 or so seconds until the forklift hit that switch to release the companion cube. Then, I would watch the cube fall, see where my mistake was, and move a ramp a few more pixels to try to get it in the right spot. And then... I'd start the whole process again. Tweak, wait 30 seconds, tweak, wait 30 seconds, tweak. There's no way to start a run from a certain point to iterate on the one problem area, so I went back and forth with this project for a half hour until I finally got it right.

And then the game crashed.

From beginning to end, it took me about an hour to pass test chamber 49. Most of the later stages take 30 minutes or longer to get right, and some took even more than an hour. Losing my progress after spending so much time constructing the perfect series of ramps and bridges was maddening. But I had no time to pout: I jumped right back into test chamber 49, moving quicker than my first time through, and got my trusty companion cube to knock down the turrets and trigger the exit door in about 20 minutes.

And then I ran into an even bigger problem.

Test chamber 50 is much easier than the previous stage, but I experienced a bug every time I reached the exit that forced the game to crash to the Switch OS. I tried to save my work before exiting, crossing my fingers that I wouldn't have to start from the beginning if the game crashed again--but the save function failed consistently, too. So I never got beyond test chamber 50, and never saw the last 10 challenges.

Obviously, a game-breaking bug is a serious problem, but I was tired of Bridge Constructor Portal long before my progress was abruptly halted. This game falls short in just about every area; an amusing story or eye-catching visual design could have at least distracted from the dull puzzles, but you get no reprieve here. The game doesn't even feature any music while you're building the many bridges. Long after you've figured out how to pass a stage, you're still left tinkering with minute portions, adjusting ramps by mere pixels at a time, crossing your fingers that you landed on the exact angle needed to guide a companion cube or bounce a ball of light toward the wall trigger. Instead of testing your puzzle-solving ability, Bridge Constructor Portal just sees how long you can withstand tedium before you want to walk away from the whole endeavor.

Categories: Games

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine Review: Hard Travelin'

Wed, 02/28/2018 - 16:00

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine defies any sort of comparison to other games. You're tasked with collecting stories and building up folklore across Dust Bowl America, wandering across the land and briefly involving yourself in other people's lives. You're collecting tales so that you can share them with other wanderers who are moving across the country and eventually appease an anthropomorphic Dire Wolf (played, amazingly, by Sting) who, in the game's opening cutscene, beats you in a card game and sets you to work collecting these folk stories as payment for the debt you now owe. It's a wholly unique premise for a game, but not necessarily one that reaches its full potential.

You guide a skeleton avatar around the map, moving between states by foot, by train, or by hitchhiking, and collect stories when you encounter them. These are folktales by and large: animals will talk to you, children will be all-knowing (and often touched by evil in some way), you'll meet ghosts and dying men and people capable of impossible feats. Some will stick with you, offering creepy imagery or neat twists, and others will fade from your memory soon after you hear them, but the hit-to-miss ratio of the 219 stories on offer is pretty high.

The tales you collect fit into one of four basic descriptors: hopeful, tragic, funny, or adventurous. These categories become important as you work your way through the game's main objective--uncovering the life stories of various fellow wanderers. Campfires around the map house other travelers who will exchange their own life stories for some of your collected tales. The characters cover a spectrum of gender, race, sexuality, and your goal is to visit each person as they move between campfires, telling them stories they like, and eventually encounter their "true" selves, having learned everything you can about them. The real reward isn't so much the folktales themselves as the artwork of these final encounters--seeing each figure twist into an artistic representation of their own character's struggles or values is a highlight.

Once you've spread your tales among these campfires, they start to mutate, and you'll begin to encounter retellings of your tales that add or change details as you travel. Telling someone who asks for a scary tale about a demon you met might end in you being chastised for telling a "cheerful" story, while a seemingly hopeful tale about a journalist who always sees the bright side is classified as funny, but as these stories evolve, they become more cheerful and funny, respectively. These versions will have a more significant impact on your future campfire visits and will make it easier to appease wanderers and unlock the next chapter in their story. It can also cause the tale's classification--which you have to decipher--clearer, which is helpful, because it's frequently hard to tell and remember.

After a few hours you get into a good rhythm of uncovering and sharing stories, and the way the game works eventually becomes clear (it's light on instruction). But there's a problem here--you soon realize that wandering the map, listening to stories, and slowly heading towards the next destination is really all there is to do, and with no satisfying overarching narrative to keep you going, the excitement of the process quickly begins to diminish. The game opens by spreading North America out in front of you to explore, and suddenly starts to look incredibly narrow as it becomes clear that you're going to spend the rest of the game just clicking through other people's stories and slowly trudging between campfires.

It doesn't help that getting around the map can be an extremely time-consuming process. Your avatar walks slowly--you can speed up by whistling a song, but this involves a "press direction keys in order" mini-game that ultimately feels like busywork. You can hitchhike, but roads only go one way, and the controls for hitching a ride are inconsistent--sometimes I could hail down a car, while other times my avatar refused to stick its thumb out. Rivers will slow you down, and using trains requires either money or hopping on one without paying. Doing the latter usually ends with you getting injured and dying, and although death isn't a big deal here, it will reset you to the last town you visited, which usually undoes the train ride's progress.

Once you've heard half the game's stories, you start to see where each tale is going from the first paragraph, and it's much easier to find and identify sad or scary stories than hopeful or adventurous ones. When you've had a few dozen tales retold and figure out which classification they fit into, you don't really need to worry about gathering more, either. You can rely on the same handful of tales, both because they're the easiest to remember the details of and because the game doesn't really incentivize diversifying your repertoire, especially since the stores you accumulate at campfires act as wildcards during future encounters. If you're asked for a tragic story, for instance, selecting any of the tales told by someone you encountered at another campfire will make you tell that story while "focusing on the tragic parts." I cleared almost every final encounter by just telling stories from other wanderers, and you don't get to experience this retelling--you just select the option from the menu and get a brief reaction in response.

Over time, even the best parts of the game start to grate. Ryan Ike's soundtrack, which mixes elements of jazz, bluegrass, and folk music, is excellent, and a great companion for the first few hours. But when you're engaged in yet another long trek across the plains, it's hard to resist switching over to your own music. By the end, I was rushing through the stories of the remaining campfires because I just wanted to see what happened when I'd collected them all, and I was skipping over new stories because it had become difficult to keep caring about them.

I spent 12 hours working my way around the America of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, but after the first six hours I felt like I had gotten everything I wanted out of the game. Most of the rest of the time was spent checking the map to figure out where the next campfire was, holding W to move forward, and then clicking through dialog (all of it brilliantly voice-acted, but patience only stretches so far) until I was able to appease the Wolf.

If the basic premise of gathering folk stories across a version of 1930s America strongly appeals to you, then Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is worth a look, but it's probably not worth finishing. Perhaps one day I'll feel the urge to jump back in and encounter a few more tales, but Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, for all its interesting ideas and unique elements, outstays its welcome.

Categories: Games

Moss Review: Tiny Triumph

Tue, 02/27/2018 - 16:00

Too often VR games seek (and fail) to replicate the feel of traditional games. Their inability to translate the smooth gameplay we’re used to--as opposed to working with the strengths of the hardware to create something new--often sours the experience. Moss, a new PlayStation VR exclusive from developer Polyarc, does the complete opposite. With its careful use of the hardware it's running on, Moss is a platformer that isn't just full of charm and surprises, but one that wouldn't feel at home outside of VR.

Moss stars Quill, an incredibly adorable white mouse with an aptly tiny sword and satchel on her back. Quill lives within folk tale, the sort of whimsical fantasy that comes to life from the watercolours of a story book and narrated over with a single personable voice. Due to a terrible war years earlier, Quill and an adorable city of similar rodents live on the outskirts of a castle that kisses the horizon. There's mysticism and magic at play around every corner, different factions controlling parts of the thick forests surrounding you, and dangers that have everyone keeping their heads down.

Quill doesn't seek to change this balance, but like in all good fantasy tales, fate doesn't share that opinion. It doesn't take long for her to stumble upon a magical item that introduces a second protagonist: you. You control Quill with a standard DualShock 4, but you also play the part of the Reader, a ghost-like figure with a mask that only Quill can see. You do double duty as an ever-present deity, actively observing Quill's adventure and aiding her where you can.

Your relationship with Quill and the investment in her journey are paramount to why Moss entangles itself in your heartstrings. Using motion controls, you're able to give Quill a little head scratch, which she reciprocates with an appreciative smile and wave. At certain times, Quill will gesture for a high-five after completing a difficult task or gesture toward the solution of a puzzle when you’re stuck. Quill is almost unbelievably animated; her motions give her personality and entice you to just watch as you control her scamping about. The way she kicks her legs at the end of a climb or communicates through sign are both contextually fitting and wondrous in both minute detail and fluidity, and never ceases to bring a smile to your face.

Moss is all about multitasking. You handle Quill’s platforming in small, bite-sized areas, with the thumbsticks and face buttons for control. As the Reader, though, you interact with objects within Quill’s world with the use of motion controls and single button holds. At the same time you're able to peer around every nook and cranny the space has to offer, manipulating your view to discover new routes, spy on well hidden secrets, and just keep up with Quill’s fast movements. Moss doesn’t feel like a game that would work without VR. It combines its many input options eloquently, using them to inform and drive the design of its puzzles instead of the other way around. It’s a joy to engage with in ways that so many other VR titles struggle to achieve.

Moss requires you to interact with specific objects in Quill's world. You can move large stones with small motion gestures to shorten a gap for Quill to hop over or pull staircases from the ground that lead to doorways above. You can even load a ballista for her to fire with a lever nearby. These interactions are enacted with simple motion controls and single button holds to grab onto items. Moss does a good job of gently increasing the difficulty of its challenges as you go but always understands the limitations of its control scheme. It's rare to run into puzzles where deft timing is the only way to succeed. Instead, Moss requires you to understand how to work together with Quill, and its challenges are designed around that rather well.

Often, puzzles involve moving elements in each area to create paths for Quill to traverse. Gates might be controlled by a pressure pad nearby, forcing you to keep it pressed down as Quill rushes to slink beneath it. Other times it's a simple matter of spacial awareness. Quill can scale ledges demarcated with white paint, but reaching them might involve moving a platform along a small rail of track and blocking it at just the right time to make the jump possible.

Enemies punctuate this in a clever way, making up what would in any other game be additions to Quill's inventory. Quill never gets access to anything more than a sword, leaving her with just a simple string of attacks and a useful dodge in her repertoire. As the Reader, though, you can take direct control of three distinct enemies. For example, one will simply rush Quill with dangerous swipes of its arms, while another will sit atop a ledge and fire off balls of energy in your direction. The latter just explodes in a fountain of green, smelly goo, with its blowback proving useful in making space during combat or knocking down walls impeding your progress.

Alone they are pieces to a puzzle: taking control of a projectile-based enemy lets you trigger switches from afar, while a well-timed explosion can remove a fragile wall blocking the way. In combination--specifically in the limited combat arenas you will find yourself in--it becomes a tricky dance of control. Quill is fragile, with only a handful of hits spelling death. It's up to you to keep her dodging around the battlefield while locking down enemies for her to strike, or better still, using their abilities against each other to level the field in imaginative ways.

It's a pity that you aren't given a lot of time to truly experiment with these combinations in more ways. Moss is almost criminally short. Quill's adventure abruptly ends after about three hours, with a tease that Quill’s story isn’t yet complete. It's heartbreaking in the way that finishing any good game is, but Moss could certainly have benefited from a little more finality after such an emotionally engaging journey.

Slight hiccups in performance also detract from what is otherwise an impressive VR achievement from a technical standpoint. Quick movements with the motion controls are difficult for the PlayStation Camera to pick up reliably and can often result in the wrong enemies being locked-on to. But while it's inconvenient, death is hardly punishing, so these stumbles are easier to swallow. As are the infrequent technical issues, which resulted in some enemies clipping through walls and being unable to move--a small fracture in what is otherwise a captivating and rich technical showcase.

Moss thrusts you deep into its whimsical world with a variety of different locales throughout Quill's journey. The sense of scale that VR affords lends the world a lot of weight. A stirring deer in the distance might be a throwaway movement in another game, but its tremendous sound and size in comparison to Quill make it an earth-shaking moment. Later in the game, glowing sentinels and a suffocating infestation of metal vines wrap around a city long forgotten, acting as a strong change of scenery after extended trips through damp catacombs and sandy beaches. Quill might be small in stature, but she takes you on a riveting trip through some truly beautiful scenery.

It's a testament to just how well Moss understands PlayStation VR and works with the device instead of trying to bend it to a will it was never designed for. Moss wouldn't feel right without it at all, and its many strengths are married to the interactions that only full immersion can manufacture. Unsurprisingly, then, Moss is easily one of PlayStation VR's best titles to date, even if it's a little too eager to get you in and out of its world.

Categories: Games

Into The Breach Review - Out Of This World

Mon, 02/26/2018 - 08:00

In 2012, Subset Games released FTL--a strategy roguelite whose best moments were when everything worked like a well-oiled machine, but also when you were frantically trying to adapt to dangerous, unexpected situations in the spur of the moment. Into The Breach, Subset's sophomore effort, again has you enacting carefully planned strategies. The difference is that when the going gets tough, Into The Breach's turn-based mechanics and tactical tools allow you to improvise precisely, and respond purposefully, with perfectly choreographed counters in an aggressive ballet that feels amazing to conduct again and again.

In a world where giant monsters called Vek threaten the earth, humanity has devised equally giant, human-operated mechs to combat them. Humanity has also invented time-travel technology to give pilots the opportunity to go back in time and start the whole conflict over, should the worst happen. You command a squad of three mech pilots whose purpose is to deter the advances of the Vek, one region at a time, through four different island stages with the ultimate goal of destroying their hive.

In each region, your primary objective is to stop Vek from causing collateral damage--each civilian building destroyed depletes part of the game's overall power grid meter, and if it hits zero, your game is over. However, Vek almost always outnumber your squad, with even more continually spawning in, which makes wiping them out entirely a difficult task. Into The Breach is a tactics game with an emphasis on deterrence and creatively mitigating damage with the limited tools at your disposal.

It's a daunting task, but there is one central feature that makes this process enjoyable and manageable: Every action the enemy will make in their next attack phase is clearly telegraphed through the UI during your turn. You can see which tile a particular Vek will hit and how much damage it will do, meaning you can assess your priorities and the response options you have available, then take direct steps to address the fated outcome. In the critical moments, just before a Vek flattens a hospital, you might dash in and tackle it out of range, and into the firing line of another Vek. Or, if your mech lacks close-combat abilities, you might move into harm's way to prevent the building from destruction. You might notice that more Vek will be spawning from the ground, and decide to throw a boulder on the tile to stop them from emerging, or shoot an off-the-mark missile, letting the explosion push another Vek on top of it.

Knowing the exact outcome of each action means that Into The Breach feels like a game of violent chess, in the best way possible. Each turn will have you pondering over possible moves and outcomes, threats you can feasibly attend to, and pieces you can afford to sacrifice--common characteristics found in any good turn-based tactics game. But because the possibility spaces of Into The Breach skirmishes are so confined (every battle takes place on an 8x8 grid, just like a chessboard, filled with impassable squares) decisions can be reached quickly, and momentum rarely comes to a standstill for long.

What also makes these decisions so entertaining to consider is not just the novelty of the way different components can interact in delightful ways, it's the certainty of how they will interact. Into The Breach is a tactical game that features a relative lack of probability, uncertainty, and risk. Attacks will always connect and do a distinct amount of damage, the grid-based scenarios mean units move and take actions in exact distances, and nothing ever occurs without at least some warning. The transparency and amount of information communicated provide great peace of mind, since every action you take will go as planned.

The only exception is that when a Vek attacks a building, there is a tiny chance that the building will withstand damage. The probability of this happening is related to your overall grid power and can be increased, but the percentage value is always so low that this rare occurrence feels more like a miracle when it happens, rather than a coin toss you can take a chance on.

The game's time-travel conceit also has a part to play here--you have the ability to undo unit movement, and each battle gives you a single opportunity to completely rewind and re-perform a turn. It's possible to execute your most optimal plan for each scenario every time, and the result is that turns in battle can feel like choreographed moves in an action movie, a confidently flawless dance of wind-ups, feints, counters, and turnabouts.

You can unlock up to eight different premade squads, each comprised of three unique units, which focus on entirely different styles of combat. The diversity here is significant enough that each team calls for distinct strategic approaches. The default squad, Rift Walkers, focuses on straightforward, head-first, push-pull techniques. The Blitzkrieg crew works best when corralling Vek together in order to execute a lightning attack that courses through multiple enemies. The Flame Walkers focus on setting everything ablaze and knocking Vek into fire for damage-over-time en masse. Each different combination of mechs can completely change how you perceive a battlefield; things that are obstacles for one squad could be advantageous strategic assets for another.

But where the possibilities of Into The Breach really open up is in its custom and random squad options, and the imaginative experimentation that comes from putting together unique all-star teams with individual mechs from different squads, along with your choice of starting pilot--whom all possess an exclusive trait. You might have a team composed of a mech who shields buildings and units, one that freezes anything on the map into a massive block of ice, one whose sole ability is to push everything surrounding it away, and a pilot that can perform one additional action each turn if they don't move. Can you complete a run of the game with that custom squad of pacifists? The game's structure makes these unorthodox options enjoyable challenges that are legitimately interesting to explore.

Into The Breach maintains a roguelike structure of procedurally generated trials and permadeath, but when a campaign goes south not all is lost. If a mech is destroyed during a battle, it will return in the next, only without its pilot and their unique trait. Too much collateral damage is game over but means you have the chance to send one of your living pilots--experience points and bonus traits intact--back in time to captain a new squad, in a new campaign. The game is difficult, but starting over isn't tiresome because your actions so directly determine outcomes, and you always feel you can improve. And individual battles are so swift and satisfying that they become a craving that you'll want to keep feeding over and over.

The clean and understated surface elements of Into The Breach complement the precise nature of its mechanics. The simple presentation, as well as the sharp UI layout, is attractively utilitarian and serves as a crucial component of the game's readability. There is no explicit plot outside of the time-traveling conceit, but the flavor text--small snippets of dialogue for each mech pilot and island leader, whom you'll encounter again and again throughout multiple playthroughs--adds a modest but pleasant facet of character to contextualize the world and round out the overall tone.

There is so much strategic joy in seeing the potential destruction a swarm of giant monsters is about to unleash on a city, then quickly staging and executing elaborate counter maneuvers to ruin the party. Into The Breach's focus on foresight makes its turn-based encounters an action-packed, risk-free puzzle, and the remarkable diversity of playstyles afforded by unique units keeps each new run interesting. It's a pleasure to see what kind of life-threatening predicaments await for you to creatively resolve in every new turn, every new battle, and every new campaign. Into The Breach is a pristine and pragmatic tactical gem with dynamic conflicts that will inspire you to jump back in again, and again, and again.

Categories: Games

Pac-Man: Championship Edition 2 Review

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 19:00

It’s always a risky proposition to take a beloved classic franchise and move it forward with added twists. Change too much, and a reimagined retro game can lose its nostalgic charm. Don’t change enough, and players might not see the point at all. Bandai Namco has been toeing this razor-thin line with Pac-Man for quite a few years, but with good results. In 2007, Pac-Man: Championship Edition bolstered the series' simple maze template with different modes, challenges, map configurations, and eye-catching effects--and the result was one of the best arcade revamps ever made.

Fast-forward nine years, and Bandai Namco has successfully rejuvenated Pac-Man once again in Pac-Man: Championship Edition 2. It’s so overhauled, in fact, that it uses a progression meter to unlock new modes--starting with a tutorial. Who’d have thought that a Pac-Man game would need instructions? Yet Championship Edition 2 definitely does. Rather than merely teach you how to play, it also serves as a quick trip down the road of game design to see how developers can successfully evolve a game from 1980.

The first major enhancement comes courtesy of Pac-Man’s relationship with the ghosts, Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde. Pac-Man can touch them now, after decades of doing his best to avoid making contact. Even though you won't outright die if you bump into a ghost, it can still have dangerous side effects--and after the third bump, the ghosts will doggedly chase down Pac-Man and kill him on contact.

The game includes sleeping ghosts as well, who wake up when Pac-Man gets near and immediately rush to join their leader. The veritable trains that form after waking up multiple ghosts are vital for achieving high scores, because when Pac-Man eats the power pill that allows him to devour weakened spirits, he can gobble up multiple ghosts in quick succession. When it's time to feast on the dead, the game switches to a cinematic 3D view, allowing you revel in your success in style.

Boss battles are also included now--but done in proper Pac-Man style. You don’t attack a boss directly, since they float above and below the board (they’re usually massive ghosts made up of hundreds of blocks). Instead, you fight through a series of maps by collecting every last piece of fruit. On the final stage, Pac-Man must eat enough dots to make a power pill appear. The resulting mayhem isn’t quite as interactive as it could be--the power pill merely kicks off a cutscene where Pac-Man devours the boss on his own.

The final twists are bombs and bomb jumps. Essentially, if Pac-Man gets himself into a tight spot, a quick button press will send him back to his starting point. This is important, because Pac must tactically change course sometimes in order to evade ghosts or catch floating fruit that runs away from him.

The first Championship Edition was a triumph of style, and the same can be said here. The classic Pac-Man theme is present and accounted for--remixed and enhanced like everything else--and the overall presentation is terrific. All these elements come together across the game's many levels to create an experience that’s still absolutely Pac-Man but advanced in ways that make it far more interesting and strategic.

Pac-Man: Championship Edition 2 creates an exciting dynamic where ghosts are still dangerous, but the overall game is more forgiving than the original--and it’s more entertaining as a result. Arcade ports tend to be games we play in short bursts--mostly for the nostalgia factor. Pac-Man: Championship Edition 2 certainly relies on that nostalgia to a point, but it handles the classic game in a way that plays with expectations to surprise you. It’s the same game enhanced in the right directions to be make an old concept fun, innovative, and challenging all over again.

Update: Just released on the Switch in a slightly enhanced “Plus” version, Pac-Man feels perfectly at home on the portable system. Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 Plus retains all the same game modes, features, and good looks of the previous console versions, but smartly adds a two-player version where two Pac-Men must work together to foil the ghosts.

This Plus2P version is more than just a thrown together cooperative play mode. You can opt to play with a second CPU-controlled Pac-man, instead of a second player, which changes the dynamics a bit. In the single player version, you’ll merge with the CPU Pac at times and then send the AI off after ghosts thanks to Power Pellets. The AI Pac will chase after blue ghosts, but to eat them, you have to trap the ghosts from the other side. In boss rounds, the CPU can automatically go after pellets, then connect with your Pac-man to attack the boss. There’s jumping from one wall to another in these segments, but the game is designed well enough to still feel like a natural evolution of the core game.

In the actual two-player mode, the sense of teamwork is more palpable and there’s a distinct sense of accomplishment when two players work together to trap a whole string of delicious frightened ghosts for big points. Beyond that, this is the same great game it was on the other consoles with the same terrifically trippy neon visuals and gameplay.

Editor's note: Just released on Switch in a slightly enhanced “Plus” version, Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 feels perfectly at home on the portable system. It retains all the same game modes, features, and good looks of the previous console versions, but smartly adds a two-player mode, where the sense of teamwork is more palpable and there’s a distinct sense of accomplishment when two players work together to trap a whole string of delicious frightened ghosts for big points.

You can also opt to play with a second CPU-controlled Pac-Man, instead of a second player, which changes the dynamics a bit. You’ll merge with the AI-driven Pac at times and then send it off to chase after blue ghosts. But to eat them, you have to trap the ghosts from the other side. In boss rounds, the CPU can automatically go after pellets, then connect with your Pac-Man to attack the boss.

Beyond that, this is the same great game it was on the other consoles with the same great visuals and gameplay. - Jason D'Aprile, Feb. 24, 11:00 AM PT

Categories: Games

Payday 2 Switch Review: Mo' Money Mo' Problems

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 18:00

Since its launch on PC and last-generation consoles in 2013, Payday 2 has proven to be one of the more popular co-op shooters around. Considering that, it's perhaps unsurprising to see it make its way to Nintendo's hugely popular new platform. But given the game's largely online nature, it also raises questions about how well this version retains Payday 2's established charms. The answer is simple: not well. Yes, it's still Payday 2--full of all the sass, swearing, and swelling dubstep you remember--but almost every aspect is outdated or diminished in some way.

Payday 2 is a first-person shooter about pulling off big heists, then using the money from those jobs to buy weapons and equipment to better tackle the harder heists that lay ahead. Heists can range from a simple smash-and-grab at a local jewelry store to an elaborate, three-day plan set across numerous locations to bring down a drug and weapons cartel.

Using the aptly named in-game database where mission contracts are offered--you sign up to each mission, set your loadout, and plan your approach. Some missions also offer the illusion of stealth, but stealth in Payday 2 rarely lasts for long. Every mission largely descends into a violent shootout at some point, but thankfully the variety in core mission structure is such that this isn't a problem. It's one of the game's ultimate strengths, and that, at least, hasn't changed in this edition.

Team up with other capable players and you'll see why people are still playing Payday 2 despite its age: it can be very fun, if chaotic. Playing with a full room of up to three other players speeds up the game immensely, giving the heists a sense of urgency that's missing when you're forced to play solo. Although it's hindered by the Switch's frustrating lack of voice chat, your teammates' status is conveyed in the UI, so it doesn't take much to see whether they're in trouble or not.

Every heist is built with teamwork in mind, so if you're playing on the go or without an internet connection to link up with other players, you'll be stuck completing many of the more elaborate and laborious tasks with AI cohorts, which rarely goes well.

While not outright obstacles, the AI can be utterly useless. These accomplices never engage in mission tasks. They won't help you pick up loot or unlock doors, nor will they help you restart the drill you're breaking into the vault with when it inevitably fails. They take a couple of seconds to react to enemy fire, and also never place down any support equipment. Occasionally, they'll even fail to revive you, instead standing over you until the counter hits zero and you're put into custody, effectively a respawn counter. And unless you've taken a hostage that can be used to negotiate your release, you'll fail the mission and get nothing. It can be downright disheartening at the best of times. The worst part about this is some of these exact problems have been fixed via patches for other versions of the game.

Exclusive to this version is Joy--a new character sporting unique gear and weapons--but in all other respects this version of Payday 2 is outdated. It's missing some weapons, heists, masks, and years of patches that helped improve other versions of the game. It does have a handful of never-before-seen heists, but existing players hoping to enjoy the fruits of years of updates on a new platform will be disappointed when they see what's missing.

Visually, Payday 2 is a bit of a rollercoaster on Switch. In handheld mode, it runs at 720p/30 FPS. On one hand, the game looks pretty good given the handheld hardware at play, but it's also nowhere near the standard seen on now-outdated consoles. It's generally quite dark, and it can be tough to see where you're going in some of the nighttime missions. Lining up long-range shots is also tough on the smaller screen, and when out in some of the larger, more open environments, the frame rate can take some serious dips. But it's a much better experience overall when compared to playing in docked mode, which, at 1080p on a big screen, emphasizes the game's grungier textures. Everything from environments and characters to weapons--even the menus--looks woefully dated and suffers from greater slowdown than when played undocked.

Visuals aren't the only important factor when deciding whether to play handheld or in docked mode, though. Ignoring performance, the game easily feels best when played with the Pro controller. Playing with Joy-Cons can be a little awkward, with the small and cumbersome analog sticks making it difficult to line up some of your shots. Part of this is alleviated by automatic reticle snapping when aiming down sights, at least.

Ultimately it doesn't matter which way you decide to play; you're having to compromise somehow, which is the story of Payday 2 on the Switch. It is an entirely functional video game that (in most respects) looks, feels and plays like Payday 2, and given the right circumstances, can also be a bit of fun. But given how readily available it is on other platforms and the concessions made with this version, it doesn't highlight Payday 2's unique brand of shooting and looting the way other platforms have for years.

Categories: Games

Metal Gear Survive Review In Progress: A Harsh But Compelling Experience

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 17:00

Metal Gear Survive is demanding, oppressive, obtuse, and not what most people would traditionally think of as "fun." I've played for hours and haven't achieved anything meaningful. My most dependable method of defeating the zombie-like Wanderers littered around its barren world is still poking at them with a sharp stick from the other side of a chain link fence. And I spend the majority of my time throwing up because I drank dirty water and contracted a horrible stomach bug.

And yet, I keep coming back to it. Not just because I'm obligated to soldier on and review the game, but because on the other side of the desperation and stress is a small nugget of satisfaction; the sweet release of endorphins that comes with completing an objective. I'm the rat pushing a button for a food pellet, and by god I can't stop.

Click image to view in full screen

This manipulation of human psychology as game design has always been a tenet of role-playing games, but it has become a pervasive part of most genres of late. Metal Gear Survive pushes it to its most ruthless, demanding extremes to make good on its classification as an action game focused on survival.

The game is set shortly after the attack on Mother Base in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. During this siege, a wormhole into a parallel world appears, sucking in a chunk of Mother Base, along with the members of Snake's Diamond Dogs and the attacking XOF forces. Your character is seemingly killed or rendered unconscious while defending Mother Base, but is brought back by an enigmatic UN scientist and constantly frowning Laurence Fishburne look-alike named Goodluck.

Upon waking up, you're told you've been infected by a parasite that has overrun Dite, the world on the other side of the aforementioned wormhole. Your mission is to travel there to seek out a cure for yourself, and also find out what has become of your comrades, including a close friend. In typical Metal Gear Solid fashion, there's more to Goodluck than meets the eye, and since the parasite that transforms people into Wanderers first showed up during the Vietnam War, there's some questions around its true nature too. Dite also happens to have a special crystalised resource called Kuban, which can be extracted from Wanderers and harvested from the environment.

From the moment you land in Dite, you're on the back foot. Survive wants you to know that success in this hellscape will come through struggling and pushing forward in the face of overwhelming adversity, and to that end the game tracks hunger, thirst, and oxygen on-screen. These ever-visible bars are constantly depleting, counting down to death if not kept topped up. The food and water needed to replenish them are scarce, and even the act of seeking them out expends resources in a way that will make you pause and really think about if it's all worth it. It's a grueling grind where the material rewards offer just a fleeting respite.

But all this also serves to intensify that rush of satisfaction you get when you manage to complete a mission or successfully take a trip to gather edible herbs, meat, or dirty water that has a good chance of making you sick. By stacking the odds so heavily against you, these successes--big or small--feel like an act of defiance.

By stacking the odds so heavily against you, successes--big or small--feel like an act of defiance

The narrative is advanced by taking on main missions that send you into a distant, poisonous cloud of dust that envelops your home base. There you're tasked with recovering data that can restore Vergil, the AI that ran previous missions into Dite, to full functionality and, hopefully, help track down a cure and return everyone home. These operations usually send the player into Wanderer-infested territory, where Survive's rudimentary combat comes into play. The Phantom Pain felt like the meeting of slick, refined combat mechanics and enemy behaviour that was dynamic, reactive, and very often surprising, Survive--in its opening hours--feels restrictive and lethargic, and its enemies do little to challenge you outside of attacking in large groups.

Since you're burning resources, be it recovery items, stamina, or weapon durability, engaging them is usually a fruitless endeavour. The Kuban energy that can be harvested from Wanderers is the only reason to actually take them on, and since Kuban is used to craft items as well as level up the character and unlock perks that improve stats or add combat moves, it's a good one. But the smarter player will isolate straggling Wanderers and bring them down by either approaching from behind to deliver a one-hit kill, jabbing them in the big crystal weak points located where their heads should be, or firing an arrow at them from a distance. It's not very exciting.

Of course, I'm still early in the game, so there's plenty of room for it to develop into something more, especially as additional enemy types are introduced and I gain access to advanced weaponry. The game certainly is motioning towards this, as I recently encountered the larger Bomber enemy type, which has a less opportune weak point and a giant pustule on its head that would probably have exploded had I stuck around to find out.

The set-piece moments thus far have been when I've tried to activate wormhole transporters, which enable Survive's equivalent of fast travel. Doing this summons a wave of Wanderers to your location, and at this point the game becomes about building fortifications and holding off advancements long enough for the machine to power up and release a wave of energy that wipes them out. To its credit, these moments are tense, high-octane bouts of action that involve running between locations, managing enemy numbers, setting up barriers, and maintaining your own health and stamina.

Given that Metal Gear Survive only became playable to press on its launch day, I haven't played enough to deliver a more comprehensive review. There are other aspects to its gameplay that haven't had the time to properly develop: the base building, crafting, and online multiplayer for example. And there are also characters who are slowly appearing that need the chance to grow before I can make a judgment on them.

I'm still playing Metal Gear Survive and formulating my thoughts, but, from the outset, there's something strangely compelling about it, despite the fact it's designed to treat players so harshly. Fundamentally, the loop of exploring, scavenging, and marginally improving your existence in Dite is satisfying. That, in essence, is the core of all survival games and what has drawn people to titles like Don't Starve, Subnautica, Terraria, and even Stardew Valley. In that respect, Survive succeeds in what it sets out to achieve--it's perhaps one of the most hardcore survival games available. But there's also room for it to grow into something more and put its unique stamp on the genre.

Metal Gear Survive's high-profile baggage, and the fact that it is created from the building blocks of a much different experience, provide more to consider and analyse. I'm going to stick with it and in the coming days will deliver a finalised review. For now though, if the idea of a brutal game where you scavenge and fight for survival sounds like the way you want to spend your gaming hours, it's worth considering.

Categories: Games

Age Of Empires: Definitive Edition Review: Antique Revival

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 20:00

Booting up Age of Empires: Definitive Edition for the first time is immediately surprising. The original game launched more than two decades ago, but it's been refined and revived for 2018, ready for modern audiences--or at least old players with new PCs and missing CD keys. It begins with pomp as a curt opening trailer plays, showing off the upgraded visuals and the new, orchestral score. As a returning player, that moment feels like coming home.

Starting with the launch of Age of Empires II: HD Edition, Microsoft Game Studios has been working to update the series, even adding plenty of new content. Now, the game that started it all has been remastered in 4K, with new narration and slight gameplay tweaks rounding out the list of improvements. Even with all that, though, the core play hasn't been meaningfully altered, leaving it to feel relatively quaint by modern standards: You simply command troops to gather resources, chop wood, build out a base, and conquer nearby enemy strongholds. That's great for some purists, but it does put Age of Empires: Definitive Edition in the awkward position of having to stand on some old and tired legs. Thankfully, the majority of the game makes the leap well enough.

Not keen on tackling the whole of human history in one game, as with Rise of Nations or Civilization, Age of Empires games focus on limited timelines--for instance, the Ancient and Classical ages at play here. You aren't some disembodied leader looking to lead your people to an overarching victory against all others--you're just trying to survive and not be wiped from the history books.

In the Egyptian campaign, your work revolves around supporting one of the first Pharaohs, Narmer, to help him marshal the political and material strength needed to unite the early Egyptian Empire, thousands of years before the rise of Rome. That gives you immediate, tangible goals to pursue, allowing you to feel effective and influential.

Where those sort of history lessons fade into the background, of course, is in the open-ended multiplayer. You'll see the Egyptians fielding Roman legionnaires, even though that doesn't make sense. Nor does the troop progression of Hoplite, to Phalanx, to Roman Centurion, which implicitly suggests a linear path through history that both didn't happen and doesn't add up. But, again, this game hails from 1997, a year before Starcraft, when the idea of having factions with unique traits in strategy games was only just being considered.

It's hard to say whether that's an issue that you will personally find bothersome, but it's a strong example of the game's old-school foundation. While not everything in the game has been refreshed, all the things that were, however, are stellar.

Visual upgrades aside, small tweaks to sound effects as well as myriad gameplay adjustments are the real stars of this remaster. The expanded multiplayer mode in particular get high marks. It's simple and quick, allowing you to jump into a match less than 30 seconds after opening the game. Boosted population limits (all the way up to 250) allow much larger and more chaotic battles than before.

The in-game scenario editor, too, offers up some powerful level-building and even campaign-creation tools. It's a bit complex, requiring you to have an external file organization system for your campaign maps and the like, but it's still quite robust for those who want it. Just about all the tools you need to design your own entire plots are there, too. You can, with some effort, create a historical campaign more-or-less akin to what you’d play in the main game. Or you can get silly with it and have a map made of forests where players will have to log their way to a foe, opening up some very unusual tactics and strategies.

Other changes might not get quite the same fanfare but are nonetheless vital to keeping Definitive Edition relevant. Improved pathfinding, tools for locating stray villagers and military, attack-move commands, and plenty more have all been folded into the remaster, making for an impressive bump to general feel and smoothness of the game.

Unfortunately, there's still a lot that just isn't quite there, by modern standards. The limited units--particularly the lack of unique ones for each faction--can make play feel homogenous very quickly. Structures aren't as developed either, meaning your ability to run more complex strategies is limited. You won't find extensive unit queuing, hotkeys, shift-commands, or any of the countless gameplay improvements RTS designers have come up with over the intervening decades.

If you're set on playing the original Age of Empires, this is far and away the best way to do so. That said, real-time strategy is a very feature-heavy genre. While this is the tightest the original AoE has ever been, it’s still sluggish and stripped-down compared to almost any modern offering.

Categories: Games

Kingdom Come: Deliverance Review: The Past Comes At You Fast

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 20:30

No matter how much a textbook, TV show, or video game strives to depict the reality of what life was like in ages past, the end result is usually sanitized. The medieval era is a great case in point. Think of this long-ago time today and you imagine noble knights, maidens fair, and fat kings waving around legs of lamb. In truth, the period was more about robbers knifing you in the streets, wenches plying their trade, and lords working you to death on their manors.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance is dirty. Filthy, in fact. This expansive RPG from indie developer Warhorse Studios ditches cliches for a brutal portrayal of the Middle Ages that wastes no time proving how difficult life was in the early 15th century. Every romanticized notion of the era is extinguished through storytelling and a setting that captures the unfairness of existing when life expectancy hovered around 30 years--if you were lucky. Aspects of the game can be a little too unforgiving even for this vicious era due to some overly exacting mechanics and a host of oversights that includes a torturous save system, but Kingdom Come: Deliverance is still a rewarding, one-of-a-kind game.

Granted, it delves into a part of history you probably know little if anything about. You play as Henry, the naive son of a blacksmith who has the misfortune of living in Skalitz, Bohemia in 1403, when the countryside erupted with violence due to the imprisonment of the rightful King Wenceslaus IV by his power-hungry brother Sigismund. After a pastoral medieval day of hitting on the local barmaid, playing pranks, and helping dad finish a sword for the local lord, your village is attacked by an army without warning. Faced with savage marauders, all Henry can do is watch in terror before fleeing for his life.

All of this adds up to a terrifying opening that serves as both a spectacular source of frustration (expect to die many times before successfully escaping Skalitz) and as a warning that Kingdom Come: Deliverance is not a typical fantasy RPG. There's no heroic swordplay here, no wizards casting fireballs, no clerics raising the dead, no orcs or dragons. This is the story of an actual civil war that raged across Bohemia in the first decade of the 15th century. Your part in it is that of a nobody struggling to survive in a land full of noblemen who couldn’t care less if you lived or died, and fellow peasants who would stab you in the back for a crust of bread.

Such a cruel atmosphere is actually what makes Kingdom Come: Deliverance so enthralling, supported by an incredible attention to detail. Built in CryEngine 3, the presentation brings the era to life, from the filth of muddy village streets to idyllic sylvan forests where you can hunt wild boar or relax while sunbeams and butterflies sparkle around you. Character faces are diverse, as are their costumes, which appear textbook-authentic whether you are looking at a nobleman in hose and puffy sleeves or a guardsman wearing a steel hat and a leather jerkin. The layering of armor results in some visual clipping and details being filled in abruptly as you approach NPCs, but these little blemishes are easily overlooked when you're immersed in the events occurring around you.

Voice acting and scripting is nicely evocative of the age, right down to the constant religious references that underline the importance of Christianity. There are some flaws here, most notably in the load times needed to start dialogue and the sometimes repetitive conversation options, but all of the important dialogue is presented brilliantly.

Looking after your clothing and taking semi-regular baths is also vital. Shown up at a lord’s manor house in rags stinking of the stable? Good luck if you have to ask a favor. Conversely, wandering around taverns wearing a shirt adorned with someone else’s blood can make you more fearsome. Almost every action here has a consequence.

Other dialogue idiosyncrasies include anachronistic modern swearing along with accents from seemingly every corner of the globe (many actors voicing the main characters hail from the U.K., but you encounter others with American and other inflections). Still, while this language creativity can be a little jarring, it mostly fits. Even the music contributes strongly to the mood, with such strong plucked strings and flutes that you almost expect Ian Anderson and the rest of Jethro Tull to prance out of the woods on occasion.

A codex actually tracks everything you discover during Henry’s adventures. These entries eventually turn into something of a medieval encyclopedia. Lengthy sections reveal extensive details about the struggle between Wenceslaus IV and Sigismund, the feudal system, hygiene, liturgy, prostitution, toilets, and much more. So if you want to find out more about the Western Schism in the Roman Catholic Church but don’t want to crack a textbook, this is your game.

Game systems further prop up the ambiance provided by the game's look, sound, and historical detail. Characters start work when the sun rises and head to bed when it sets. You must fit into this schedule, which also involves regular food and sleep to stay healthy and hearty. Time skips are possible, although even then you still have to wait a minute or two while the hours slowly tick by. Looking after your clothing and taking semi-regular baths is also vital. Shown up at a lord’s manor house in rags stinking of the stable? Good luck if you have to ask a favor. Conversely, wandering around taverns wearing a shirt adorned with someone else’s blood can make you more fearsome. Almost every action here has a consequence.

While an extensive statistic-and-skill system provides you with a tremendous number of ways to customize Henry as he explores 15th-century Bohemia, he's only as good as his collective experiences. So if you want to get better at firing a bow, you need to practice at the archery range or head into the forest and shoot wild game like rabbits. Want to buff your skills with a sword or mace? You need to head to the training yard or into the countryside to look for bandits and enemy soldiers.

With that said, you still level up, track four primary stats, and follow 17 skills that impact specific activities. Dozens of selectable perks attached to the individual skill categories afford even greater fine-tuning, in that you can pick all sorts of personality traits that govern everything from how much beer you can drink to how well you can stay on a horse, to improving charisma and speech through the power of literacy. There are no shortage of options when it comes to turning Henry into a wannabe noble and a scholar (or a thug and a thief).

Combat and movement controls also run true to the focus on realism. Instead of instantly turning into a warrior when you whip out a sword for the first time, Henry is a klutz at the start. You throw punches or swing a weapon with mouse or analog stick motions to dictate an attack trajectory. Ranged battles are similarly tough, due to a lack of a targeting reticle for your bow. Increasing stats and skills allow your combat abilities to gradually improve over time, but it doesn't seem that you can get anywhere close to the effortless abilities typically displayed in RPGs. Other actions such as riding a horse and picking locks can also be overly finickly. Yet as much as such activities can result in frustration (especially at the start of the game), the rigorous control scheme underlines the central theme that adventuring is not supposed to be easy for a village peasant with no experience of the wider world.

Progress is saved automatically after you sleep and at certain moments of play, but you can’t just sleep anywhere and saves aren’t made regularly enough during quests. And since you can get killed so easily here, you always feel at risk of losing time and momentum.

As a result, fighting has a steep learning curve. But it is one well worth scaling. Every battle in the game is nerve-wracking. The cold fact that you are not a majestic fantasy warrior means that you can be killed at any time. Taking on more than one opponent is incredibly risky, and engaging with three or more is simply futile. Armor adds a layer of tactical complexity, too. The game features a thorough suite of medieval armor and clothing options ranging from padded shirts to plate, but wearing it weighs you down and can block your vision (put on a full helmet and you see the world through a slit). Battling foes in armor also presents its own challenges. Take on a fully equipped enemy and you need to either target their openings with arrows, or switch to blunt weapons better at bashing metal-covered heads and shoulders than anything with an edge.

Despite these complexities, it's disappointing that combat lacks physicality. It’s clumsy enough that you never feel completely in control (although much of this is certainly intentional, to best depict Henry’s rookie status when it comes to waging war), and there are odd hesitations in the animation that remove you from the immediacy of battles. Melee scraps are rough-and-tumble brawls for the most part, where you try to beat the enemy down before you collapse of wounds or exhaustion. That said, you’re generally so grateful just to survive that you don’t care how good your victory looked.

Even though Kingdom Come: Deliverance is built similarly to a standard RPG like Skyrim, where you accept quests and follow map icons to their destinations, there are some key differences. The biggest is the way that adventures are built around the living world. So if you’re told to meet a nobleman at dawn, you better do it or he may well take off without you. This has some tremendous benefits. You really feel like you’re inhabiting a real world that continues on without you. Quests also nicely blend mundane medieval duties like hunting rabbits for food and taking on guard patrols with more involving jaunts like investigating a murder, partying with a priest, tripping with witches, and tracking down the bad guys to get some vengeance and earn respect from nobility.

Still, this approach makes for a lot of dicey moments. The game feels like a balancing act where everything could spin out of control at any moment if you miss a scheduled appointment to start a quest, or even worse, encounter a bug. Bugs sometimes prevent characters from appearing when they should, making you revisit locations to trigger quests, or revisiting old saves to get things back on track. Key characters and locations are also often not given precise locations. This adds to the sense of being a real person in a medieval landscape and not a gamer following an icon on a compass, but it also forces you to take on impromptu scavenger hunts and wander aimlessly through the extremely dangerous wilderness, where you can easily stumble into an enemy encampment or even an ambush staged by robbers.

Being able to save your location anywhere and at any time would have helped a lot of the above problems, but this isn't an option. Progress is saved automatically after you sleep and at certain moments of play, but you can’t just sleep anywhere and saves aren’t made regularly enough during quests. And since you can get killed so easily here, you always feel at risk of losing time and momentum. You can save manually with the use of “Saviour Schnapps,” but this concoction has to be purchased at a high cost (tough to manage early in the game) or brewed. Modders have already stepped in with a fix that adds the ability to save on demand on PC, although the developers need to officially add this feature (or at least a save-on-exit feature in case real life gets in the way and you need to stop playing the game quickly).Basically, the game needs a patch along with a fresh look at saving and a few other design elements to let its better qualities shine.

Even with these issues in mind, anyone who can appreciate the down-and-dirty nature of history should play Kingdom Come: Deliverance. It's an impressive and unflinching look at the medieval era that transports you inside the compelling story of a real person caught in the middle of a civil war. As such, this is one of those rare, memorable games that stays with you long after you stop playing. While quirks and bugs can certainly be frustrating, none of these issues interfere much with the unique and captivating nature of the overall experience.

Categories: Games