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Jack Gardner
Cuphead captured the hearts of gamers around the world when it released during the tail end of 2017. The distinctive, early animation art style in particular caught the attention of artists and fans, which has lead to an incredible partnership between the game's developer, Studio MDHR, and the incredible illustrator Uki Hayashi. With the help of Bottleneck Gallery, a number of illustrated prints have been made for sale that meld the game's wonderful aesthetic with Hayashi's unmistakably Japanese stylings. 
The print collection has been put togehter to pay homage to the Japanese titles that inspired Cuphead, the indelible classics that many continue to hold up today as gold standards for gameplay and aesthetic. Cuphead took the finely balanced side-scrolling shooting from games like Contra and combined it with jaw-dropping visuals, garnering almost universal acclaim. Three unique prints have been made by Uki Hayashi and been made available through Bottleneck Gallery. Each Giclee print sells for either $40 or $50 and, though there are three basic designs, each one has a color variant that plays with and changes the use of white in each design. You can view the full collection on Bottleneck Gallery's site.
Bottleneck Gallery hosts a variety of contemporary art and artists. It makes an effort to provide space to both new and well-known artists for events intended to build up the local community and benefit charity. It also focuses on bringing unique and interesting pieces of pop culture art to the masses with works ranging from Bob's Burgers enamel pins to incredible artistic renderings of iconic moments in cartoons, blockbuster movies, and more. 
Some mainstream critics maintain that Cuphead was one of if not the hardest games they have ever played. Despite that, or maybe because of it, Cuphead received some of the highest awards and scores outlets could bestow on a game, helping to propel the indie game's success around the world. Now, Cuphead is coming to the Nintendo Switch tomorrow, April 18.
Maybe it's a good time to pick up a cool art print while buying the game for the first, second, or third time?
Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!

Jack Gardner
The console that will replace the PlayStation 4 has officially been glimpsed on the horizon. While none of the next-gen consoles have been officially announced, a number of details have come out regarding what they might be capable of achieving and what the gaming landscape will look like in the next few years. Now, tantalizing new information has been revealed about what Sony has been working on courtesy of Mark Cerny, the device's lead systems architect. 
In an interview with Wired, Cerny revealed a treasure trove of new information and even displayed the capabilities of one of the early development kit units that have been sent out to a number of developers currently working on titles for the next-gen system. Perhaps coming as a surprise to many, the name of the new console was not confirmed to be the PlayStation 5, though perhaps Sony's track record with their console naming convention would make that a safe assumption. The new machine won't be releasing this year and it might even be a 2021 release, but even so, what we know about it so far seems fantastic. 
Standing in stark contrast to the move away from physical media in Google's Stadia, Apple Arcade, and Microsoft's continuing inclination toward phasing out of discs, PlayStation's next console will play discs. In fact, due to its foundations resting in the design of the PlayStation 4, it will be backwards-compatible with physical PlayStation 4 titles. Also, the next console will support PlayStation's current iteration of PSVR, even if a new version of that hardware releases at a future date.
On top of that, the PlayStation 5 will possess the things people most expect from a new console: Improved GPU, an enhanced CPU, more memory, and a greatly increased storage capacity. These improvements will make the device able to support ray tracing, the hot new technique in game development that helps light to reflect more realistically in-game. Cerny expects that ray tracing will have wider applications as more developers make use of it, allowing an increase to audio quality, too.
However, the biggest feature the new console will bring to the table is a solid-state hard drive enhanced with proprietary software that makes it perform faster than anything available for PCs. Cerny demonstrated the "low-speed" development kit of the PlayStation 5 for Wired;  the dev unit performed 19 times faster than the PS4 Pro. It reduced load times on the same game from 15 seconds to 0.8 and was able to render the same files in a fraction of the time it took the current hardware. That improvement is largely due to the improved ability of the hard drive to pull data efficiently, aided by the specialized software. Though the current unit was connected to a 4K television, it will be able to output up to 8K resolutions. 
Though no new software or cloud gaming strategies were revealed during the interview, Cerny hinted that Sony has plans to compete with Microsoft and Google on that front. Perhaps PlayStation Now might merely be a test run for what the gaming giant has in store for the next generation of hardware? 
What features would you like to see included in the PlayStation 5 (or whatever it winds up being called)?
Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!

Jack Gardner
Back in August of 2018, I put together a short campaign with Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition called Dragonguard as a part of Extra Life Tabletop Appreciation Weekend. For Game Day 2018, we released a second set of episodes and followed it up with a third set continuing the adventure. The last series of episodes ended on something of a cliffhanger, and after a short and rocky release schedule, the fourth session's episodes are ready for listening! Join Naomi Lugo (Nomsooni the druid), Marcus Stewart (Scratch Mangy the ranger), and Kyle Gaddo (Barphus the bard) as they don the armor of the illustrious Dragonguard, sworn to defend and protect the realm of Alterra from the dragons at its doorstep. Jack Gardner serves as the Dungeon Master, guiding our heroes through their journey.
Dispatched to the small town of Verne, the party began investigating rumors of draconic activity in the area. Learning of a kobold encampment deep within the Morrithil Wastes, they made their way into the vast swampland only to find a largely abandoned village built in the shadow of an ominous dragon skeleton. Encountering a number of old and infirm kobolds in the heart of the town, our heroes learned of an impending attack led by the vengeful dragon, Fallowfell. In an effort to convince Sir Rothurt, Verne's leader, to take the threat seriously, the party made an attempt to rescue his recently kidnapped son, Charles. Risking life and limb, they were able to save Charles only to be met with the awful revelation that Fallowfell had allies in the town itself. Now, Nomsooni, Barphus, and Scratch attempt to consolidate their power in the areas outside of Verne only to find themselves in ever-deepening danger from draconic evils, cunning opportunists, mystical threats, and (of course) themselves. 
If you want to get a sense of how great a time tabletop roleplaying can be, you're invited to enjoy the adventure along with us. Here's to the amazing things the gaming community accomplished in 2018 and to the even greater things we will all do together in the years to come! You can listen to the new episodes below or start at the beginning with this handy SoundCloud playlist. 



Intro and Outro music:
"Furious Freak"
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
You can download or listen to the podcast over on Soundcloud, our hosting site, and iTunes. A YouTube version is available as well.
Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!

Jack Gardner
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice exists as a fundamentally different beast than what many players might expect from the developers who brought them Dark Souls and Bloodborne. FromSoftware manages to infuse the stealth-action game with a lot of the same trimmings and style as their previous action-RPGs, but take Sekiro in an almost entirely different direction. Diverging from their incredibly successful formula to try something new represented a substantial risk. However, Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team pulled off the impossible and created an experience that will surely stick with players for years to come - provided they can adapt to Sekiro's punishing gameplay mechanics. 
Sekiro tells the story of an honorable (or perhaps dishonorable, depending on your choices) shinobi, a ninja in service to a young boy named Lord Kuro. Of course, a FromSoftware game these days needs an element of the mystic and Lord Kuro also happens to be the Divine Heir, someone blessed with blood that prevents him from ever dying. Of course, that blood makes him the target of every power-hungry figure who yearns for immortality. The lands of Ashina in feudal Japan find themselves overrun with hostile forces and Lord Kuro captured shortly after the game begins. Our titular hero, Sekiro, must use all of his cunning and swordsmanship to rescue his master and follow the Iron Code of the shinobi. In his quest to secure Lord Kuro and follow the boy's orders, Sekiro contends with far more than human adversaries. Ghosts, gods, demons, and creatures straight out of Japanese folklore rise to stop him and spread chaos throughout the land.

Learning how to deal with all of these threats, both mundane and supernatural, as just one man armed with a sword and a handful of shinobi tools would be quite the challenge under a Dark Souls-like system of death. You will die. That's an inescapable fact about Sekiro. However, Lord Kuro gave his loyal shinobi the gift of his blood, bestowing the ability to resurrect from the point of death to give another chance at emerging victorious from battle.  
And what battles you will have to endure and survive. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice focuses on the back and forth of clashing swords. You won't be able to dodge roll around most attacks or play it safe. Instead the highly lethal combat encourages players to stand toe to toe with adversaries, timing blocks and counters to overcome enemies in a way that would feel right at home in the life or death struggles that play such an important role in Akira Kurosawa's films. In this way, combat becomes more of a dance, blades singing through the air as they strike against flesh and steel. Players who can pick up on the pattern of attacks, the pacing of the dance, will find that Sekiro takes on an almost rhythm game-like feel.

Sekiro rewards players for timing blocks and dodges right by turning them into deflections or counters, moves that help open enemies up for attacks. This makes the ability to time moves properly incredibly important. It also often means that running around and avoiding attacks while waiting for an opening is just not enough to make much progress. In fact, most of the boss encounters early on are specifically designed to crush that approach to combat out of players. Clever use of shinobi tools, knowing when to disengage, and recognizing when the time has come to stand your ground and fight head-on all prove integral to standing in triumph over foes. Always remember that Sekiro was built with more verticality in mind than Dark Souls or Bloodborne, so keep an eye out for grappling locations, especially in boss fights. They could open the door for a quick escape or a devastating counterattack. 
Of course, mastering the basic combat only prepares players for the unexpected challenges that are to come. The world of Sekiro is one where a human with a sharp mind and skilled with a blade can fight on equal terms with gods and demons. The mechanics introduced in the early game apply when fighting colossal beasts and otherworldly threats, though adapting to those animations and rhythms can prove to be a true challenge. Contending with magic and restless undead might seem to put Sekiro on uneven footing, but as players progress, they can use skill points to unlock new combos and techniques to help them compete against even immortal adversaries. 

Beyond combat, Sekiro has much to offer in terms of narrative. For the past several games, FromSoftware has told stories heavy on lore and world-building without much of a focus on the main protagonist outside of the role they fill within that detailed world. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice takes a different approach, opting to have a named protagonist with clearly articulated wants and desires, and supporting characters who all relate to him. This, more than anything else, helps Sekiro to feel more grounded than any of Hidetaka Miyazaki's other projects over the last several years. The grounded experience is further reinforced by the fact that the setting is one in which humans not only survive but thrive. Some of the most interesting enemies and encounters aren't big in scope, just two highly competent humans fighting one another in a life or death struggle. Since the narrative frames those human struggles in a more intimate and personal way, the player gets pulled into that fight, too. It simply feels more "real."    
We are continually reminded throughout the game that dragons, gods, demons, and ghosts are all aberrations; creatures and creations that pervert the natural cycle of the world - or exist outside of it. That brings us to one of the more interesting elements of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice: Religion. Whereas Dark Souls had bonfires and Bloodborne had lanterns, Sekiro has carvings of Buddha. In fact, Buddha and Buddhist imagery appear numerous times throughout Sekiro and understanding Buddhist philosophy can deepen the understanding of the narrative. For example, a major part of the central conflict raging at the heart of most FromSoftware games has been that holding onto something that will inevitably be lost can only cause suffering; it cannot actually satisfy. In Dark Souls, that something is Gwyn's Age of Fire and the curse placed upon humanity to force them into continuing the cycle over and over again. In Sekiro, the human pursuit of immortality represents a complete abandonment of the natural cycle of death and reincarnation.
Sekiro's ability to die and resurrect is shown as useful but also something that spreads disease and suffering onto others. Those who have allowed themselves to become infested with immortal worms become undying and monstrous. The mission to create a god who could bestow eternal life sacrifices untold numbers of children to form one imperfect idol. In Buddhist terms, the dissatisfaction that these characters feel with their impending deaths are part of what is known as dukkha, the suffering and unsatisfying nature of a temporary existence. The way that they deal with that, however, is to wander far in search of an escape, a way to make their temporary state permanent rather than to pursue the eight-fold path and exit the cycle of reincarnation. Sekiro depicts the folly of such a wrong-headed approach to dealing with dukkha and the pain that can be inflicted on others by such an attempt. 

What interests me the most about Sekiro's depiction of Buddhism comes down to how its included so boldly in the game itself. Not many games are willing to show anything more than a fictional religion for fear that it might alienate some of the consumer base. In Sekiro, however, players pray at Buddha statues to fast-travel, level up, and more. The imagery is carved into the environments. Characters talk about Buddha, too. In fact, one of the main characters can't seem to stop carving Buddhas. One of the most important items players collect over their time spent in Sekiro are Buddhist prayer beads. There are even several cutscenes depicting the earnest prayers of our protagonist. That's bold and fascinating. How often have you seen a Muslim in prayer in a video game? Or a Christian? I honestly don't know that I have ever seen a protagonist in a video game pray in relation to a religion that exists in the real world. Video games are art and religion seems to be one of those areas that video games haven't yet gone in-depth, so this could be a sign of things to come. 
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice stands apart from the Soulsborne games. The highly lethal approach to combat seems suited for the mechanics and message the developers were going for. Encounters with enemies feel fair, with tight controls responding well to the rhythm of battle; even normal enemies sometimes achieve the satisfying back-and-forth trading of blows often reserved for mini-bosses. The world doesn't stop surprising right up until the end, especially if you aren't familiar with Japanese folklore. The main complaint about Sekiro's gameplay would be the functional but shoddy stealth system. A sequel seems almost inevitable at this point and further refinements to sneaking and related abilities would go a long way toward making it feel more robust. Perhaps sneaking through an enemy city and avoiding the non-violent civilians? 
Experiencing Sekiro's visuals feels like a treat for the eyes. The lighting and level design often lead to moments that feel cinematic and the day-night cycle that progresses as main story objectives are achieved lends each location a new experience when you begin backtracking looking for secrets (something you should definitely do). The music in Sekiro failed to live up to the standards of the visuals, but it doesn't actively detract from the game in any major way. It just doesn't stand out. However, the sound design almost completely makes up for the lackluster score. Blades clashing, otherworldly howls, the melancholy notes of ethereal instruments floating through the air, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice knows how to characterize its enemies and struggles by sound alone. 
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice should absolutely be on your gaming wishlist if you have any love for FromSoftware titles or action games in general. It doesn't get much better than this. 

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was reviewed on PC and is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!

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