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Found 110 results

  1. A wanderer collapses in the night, surrounded by a broken world torn by war and littered with the bones of giants. Gorgeous pixel landscapes and animated sequences mesh to create an impression of a coming doom that has happened before and will happen again. However, even in a shattered world heroes can rise, braving the ruins of glories long past to uncover technology and hope, a way to avert the coming end. This is Hyper Light Drifter, a top-down action-adventure title from indie studio Heart Machine. As the nameless drifter, players must venture forth to battle monsters, solve puzzles, and become master of the four regions which surround the one safe haven that still seems habitable for the few remaining peaceful people who inhabit the world. In many ways, Hyper Light Drifter plays like a unique combination of The Legend of Zelda series with a dash of Dark Souls tossed in for good measure. Much like a Zelda title, players need to explore vast dungeons riddled with bloodthirsty monsters and traps. Thorough exploration is well rewarded and observant players will find tons of secret nooks and crannies that hold hidden gear bits that can be used to upgrade the drifter's gear and techniques. These treasures are hidden in ways that make those who find them feel clever, but few will be able to find all the secrets of Hyper Light Drifter like the golden keys or glowing power sources. Initially, players will need to make do with a simple slashing sword attack and a laser pistol along with a dash, but the opportunities to unlock more moves and tools soon open up. By the end of the game, most players will have a charged slash, the ability to knock back projectiles, and even a slashing light dash. Every tool in the player’s arsenal will need to be used to solve puzzles and proceed through levels infested with enemies. The comparison to Dark Souls comes in the way that each combat encounter plays out very deliberately. Often players will find themselves strategizing on how to best take on a room full of enemies. Reckless play can easily lead to death, while methodical approaches to every fight are rewarded. There exists a certain economy of time in Hyper Light Drifter that limits the actions of enemies and the player. This makes understanding what enemies are capable of doing, how they move, imperative alongside understanding the drifter’s abilities. Each slash takes up a definite amount of time; each dash puts the player a set distance in a given direction; a certain number of slashes restores a set fraction of projectile ammo, etc. Once a player can instinctively understand these rules, the combat gradually gains speed and what once seemed to be a slow game of tactics becomes a fluid storm of action as the player seeks out the most efficient means of clearing an area of enemies. Of course, this approach to combat also has some downsides. A mistimed slash can lock the player into a second of animation that can’t be cancelled in favor of a dodge if an enemy makes an unforeseen attack. There were many times when playing that I wished I could cancel my action to avoid incoming danger. To be honest, I’m unsure if this slight irritation comes directly from the way Heart Machine believed combat should flow or it stems from a desire to have smooth, unbroken animations. The focus on creating an economy of time also leads to an issue with button timing. A perfect example of this can be found in the way Hyper Light Drifter allows players to chain together dashes for faster, longer dashes. With each additional dash, the timing required for the next dash shortens slightly. I found it almost entirely impossible for me to successfully chain more than three or four dashes together, frequently stalling out (which can prove to be a problem when your life depends on chaining together those dashes). The mechanics of Hyper Light Drifter are practically perfect in most other respects, so these complaints are rather small, but can lead to some significant frustration over the course of a full playthrough. One aspect of Hyper Light Drifter is utterly perfect, though. The aesthetic manages to remain captivating and gorgeous from beginning to end. Any given screenshot of the title would look at home in a frame on someone’s wall. It easily contains some of the most gorgeous pixel art that I have ever seen. Surreal animated dream sequences, fantastic beasts, breathtaking landscapes, the motivation to visually devour more of this world will be more than enough to motivate most players to fully explore it. Hyper Light Drifter depicts its neon, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk world as dirty, grimy, and barely clinging to life amidst piles of death. Corpses and bones are commonplace, but still civilization and light remains to those few who press on with the task of living. Monsters roam the lands and sow chaos as they prey upon the few sentient lifeforms left alive. The bodies of great giants litter the world, limbs frozen mid-battle. Below the earth in mechanical labs, the colossal hearts of long-dead experiments still beat, hinting that perhaps those giants of war aren’t truly gone. The fortunate strength of Hyper Light Drifter’s aesthetic allows the entire narrative to unfold visually. There are cryptic messages left throughout the world written in a cypher that players who have cracked it claim give some small details about the world, but those messages will remain a mystery for most. Players encounter characters who tell stories of great battles, lost loved ones, and small hopes for a brighter future through still frame images. Through these visual insights, touching moments connect players to the setting of Hyper Light Drifter and motivate players emotionally. Many of the characters who tell their stories don’t provide material aid to the player, but they give faces and stories to the world and make it worth fighting for. <a data-cke-saved-href="http://music.disasterpeace.com/album/hyper-light-drifter" href="http://music.disasterpeace.com/album/hyper-light-drifter">Hyper Light Drifter by Disasterpeace</a> The mesmerizing soundtrack from Disasterpeace conveys a sense of sinister mystery and dread as players explore. Each new area seems to ratchet up the tension with very few lighthearted breaks in the soundscape. It does some really fascinating things with silence and a minimal style that really adds to the overall character of Hyper Light Drifter. The visual and audible aesthetics build on one another as players delve deeper into the secrets concealed by the old world ruins. Now, all of that being said, Hyper Light Drifter left me feeling conflicted. It is undoubtedly beautiful, mechanically very sound, and well made, but I’m not sure if that is enough. To be clear, I loved my time with it and I think anyone who looks at it or sees it in action will have a great time. However, I’m not sure if it has the staying power to remain firmly rooted in our collective gaming consciousness. There is something about Hyper Light Drifter that, much like its protagonist, feels fleeting. This might be a deliberate choice from Heart Machine, as that transient impression works in Hyper Light Drifter’s artistic favor, but might also lead to it being forgettable. The subdued nature of the title leads to a solid theme, but there are few highs or lows that will lodge it forever in a player’s mind. No shocking revelation or emotionally charged battle to prod us into remembrance, just the image of an ailing drifter near a fire in the middle of a dark world as the flames sputter into embers. Conclusion: For some, Hyper Light Drifter’s competence, aesthetic, and soundscape might be enough. It’s well designed and gorgeous and fun – a very well-rounded and solid experience. However, I think Hyper Light Drifter will also leave people wanting more both in terms of how long the game is, it clocks in at four dungeons and around seven or eight hours, but also in terms of meaning. Most will enjoy their time within the devastated lands of Hyper Light Drifter, but some people will struggle to attach personal meaning to the experience. The artistic cohesion that Hear Machine has put together is incredibly impressive and well worth the time it takes to experience. Those who wish for more beyond the tense melancholy of dangerous exploration and the rough interpretations of a wordless, surreal story might need to seek out other worlds and stories. For those who can accept it as it is, Hyper Light Drifter is beautiful, haunting, tense, and fittingly transient as an artistic work. Hyper Light Drifter was reviewed on PC and will soon be available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One View full article
  2. There are tears in my eyes. As I step carefully through the dead halls of a long-opened vault, the haunting voice of Skeeter Davis serenades the end of the world. Skeletons of drug addicts, dead for centuries, lay around in their final poses, boney arms still grasping for their next fix. I know what happened here, about the experiments and the desperate, doomed struggle these people faced while imprisoned with the very things they sought to escape on the surface. And as I explore the remnants of their homes, I see the small stories that made up their lives. Two people, probably alcoholics, lay on the floor in front of a liquor cabinet. Another locked themselves in the bathroom and overdosed on psycho. One of the last rooms contains a small, scattered pile of supplies and a PC that holds the final journal entries for an inhabitant that tried to stay clean, but eventually gave in to the temptation and died with his friends. I see all these small tragedies play out as I explore the vault and I can feel my heart constrict in my chest as Davis sings of loss. “Why does my heart go on beating? Why do these eyes of mine cry? Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?” croons Skeeter Davis as I take in the stories. It all comes rushing in: The destruction of the old world; the callous cruelty with which the end was prepared; and all the rage, sorrow, and despair my character must feel after the incredible losses she has endured. It’s all brought to a sharp, poignant moment of empathy through Fallout 4’s brilliant storytelling and characterization. Many people think of story as something that is delivered through dialogue and text. However, games also tell many little stories through environment design. While Bethesda has a long tradition of skillfully telling stories through their environments, Fallout 4 has some of the best instances of this. There are hundreds of small stories waiting in the wasteland. Some require some detective-like snooping to uncover and others don’t even have markers on the map, but observant players will find these glimpses into pre-fallout life scattered everywhere. The stories themselves aren’t always the most interesting, but the sheer number of them give weight to the Boston area. This was a place that once teemed with human life and could again one day, if the factions at work in the Commonwealth could be left to their own devices. Unfortunately, the different factions of the Commonwealth can’t seem to leave one another alone and that tension ties in with the profound disaster that takes place in the opening minutes of Fallout 4. The journey to resolve the initial conflict that begins the protagonist’s journey serves as the crux of some of the game’s most interesting ethical dilemmas (that consequently have sweeping ramifications for the wider game). Those hard choices are kept grounded in a personal reality by the relationships that players build with their companions, NPCs who serve as actual characters with opinions on how the protagonist interacts with the world and its inhabitants. This improves dramatically on the follower system that has appeared in previous Bethesda titles, by endowing these friendly NPCs with real character bonds become stronger and decisions farther down the line become more difficult. You will remember the likes of Piper, Nick Valentine, and Curie long after your time with Fallout 4 comes to an end. Fallout 4 impresses me with the many improvements that take the elements established in Fallout 3 and brings them to the next level. The most easily seen improvement appears in the graphical presentation, with lighting and details that can sometimes draw gapes and awe. Most critically, the facial animation has drastically improved, with compelling facial performances matching vastly improved voice acting (with a few exceptions). Facial expressions in particular are very expressive and characters are given the chance to show a wide range of different emotions. And, after so many years of being irritated by hair clipping through faces, Bethesda has finally devised a system that creates decent facial hair and long hair that generally avoids clipping. It’s a small improvement, but for me it eliminates something that I’ve found irritating for a long time. Also, explosions look absolutely stunning. While a new sheen of graphical paint does the franchise a world of good, subtle changes to underlying systems create a familiar experience that offers fresh gameplay and narrative experience. The new dialogue system has been trimmed down to four responses for any given conversation. Some might see this as a limit to the number of choices you can make in any given scenario, much less than the various options Fallout 3 could potentially offer, but I think that the presentation and overall storytelling benefits from the more fleshed out dialogue. This also allows for the protagonist to be voiced and deliver lines, which leads to an actual character that feels more real than the voiceless husk players projected themselves into in Fallout 3. There are undeniably less dialogue options, but those that remain feel more meaningful. Bethesda’s overhaul of the gunplay is certainly the best improvement made from Fallout 3 to Fallout 4. It is actually possible to play the game entirely without using the VATS targeting system, as the shooting can now hold its own as a gameplay mechanic. It leads to a combat system that feels fluid, effortless transitioning between the tactical VATS view that allows for players to call their shots on specific body parts while slowing time and the often frantic shooting in real-time. It’s a simple, straightforward change, but it feels like the most necessary update to the franchise. While most of the changes have been overwhelmingly for the better, some wrinkles persist. The user interface for Fallout 4 feels muddled and messy. Forgetting the name of an important audio tape or note could leave you searching through your inventory for several minutes. Spending a scant few minutes searching through an inventory pales in comparison to one of Fallout 4’s biggest irritations: Finding dismissed companions. Every time a new companion is recruited, the previous companion can be sent to any settlement under the player’s control. At first this isn’t a huge problem, but once the pool of companions expands and you learn that you can only send one or two companions to the same settlement it becomes a colossal issue to track down a particular sidekick. At one point I spent almost two hours trying to find Preston Garvey, one of the first companions the game throws your way. Even if you manage to track down the right settlement it can be difficult to spot a human NPC milling around with the twenty other settlers living in your settlement. A small UI tweak noting where to find each of your recruited companions on the list of controlled settlements or a companion-only base would have been a huge help. One of the main systems that Fallout 4 introduces early on is the ability to control and build in settlements. Players are supposed to build structures that feed, water, and shelter potential settlers. The building mechanics are actually really fun and reward players who can’t help picking up everything they see. Building possesses one huge drawback: There is almost no incentive to do it. Building successful settlements doesn’t have a reward and never expands much past the initial concept. These settlers never come to your aid in a Wasteland war or provide amazing, unique items; they just wander around and sometimes do the jobs you assign to them. The building is fun, but that fun is its own reward. That doesn’t make it bad, I certainly enjoyed more than a few hours building settlements and growing them as large as possible. However, the lack of tangible benefits does make building defenses and homes feel like a time sink when you ultimately realize you could be exploring new locations, meeting new challenges, and interacting with interesting quests and characters. Conclusion: Despite the issues a new era have ushered into the franchise, I don’t feel like I’m being hyperbolic when I say that Bethesda’s latest venture into the post-apocalypse could very well be their best game to date. I’ve poured over 100 hours into Fallout 4 and, while I’ve finished the main campaign and a decent amount of exploration, there are still vast areas that remain undiscovered and unexamined. The irradiated area around Boston jealously guards some of its most potent secrets. To see and find everything would take hundreds more hours. That Fallout 4 managed to reach something raw and emotional in me after dozens of hours spent becoming desensitized to the misery and violence of the Commonwealth’s new world testifies to the underlying power at Bethesda’s fingertips. While almost every single Bethesda title has been revolutionary in some way and highly polished, Fallout 4 strikes me like the herald of something even better. I don’t know what that might be, but the developers have the talent to do something not just good or great, but something earthshattering; glimmers of that potential can be seen in Fallout 4. My time with Fallout 4 has been a roller coaster, both inside the game and in the real world. I started playing it the day it released, the day after my great aunt Winnie passed away. I continued to trek through the post-apocalypse as terror attacks unfolded in France, Lebanon, and Nigeria, an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, and as I received news that one of my aunts has cancer. The world has seemed like a pretty horrible place for the last couple of weeks. Fully aware of the irony, I found comfort in the war-strewn, harsh, and violent landscapes of Fallout 4. Our world is a complicated place, full of shades of grey, competing agendas, and people who are perfectly willing to exemplify the worst of what humanity can be. Bethesda’s Fallout 4 has a lot of that, too, but it is also full of compelling characters that bring out the good in people. Even in that world of radiation and unchanging war, a city can rise from the ashes and people can stand up for one another. It reminded me that good exists out in our world, too; it can be easy to forget that when faced with hate and happenstance. Like Diamond City rising from the ruins of Boston, We can build our own communities while embracing our differences and looking out for one another… and that’s something I’d like to believe that’s what we’ve been doing here at Extra Life. So, thank you to all of you for being a force for good in a world that sometimes seems to have gone completely mad. Bethesda teased hope out of a scorched and tortured world and that hope is worth experiencing for yourself. Fallout 4 was reviewed on PC and is currently available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. View full article
  3. There are tears in my eyes. As I step carefully through the dead halls of a long-opened vault, the haunting voice of Skeeter Davis serenades the end of the world. Skeletons of drug addicts, dead for centuries, lay around in their final poses, boney arms still grasping for their next fix. I know what happened here, about the experiments and the desperate, doomed struggle these people faced while imprisoned with the very things they sought to escape on the surface. And as I explore the remnants of their homes, I see the small stories that made up their lives. Two people, probably alcoholics, lay on the floor in front of a liquor cabinet. Another locked themselves in the bathroom and overdosed on psycho. One of the last rooms contains a small, scattered pile of supplies and a PC that holds the final journal entries for an inhabitant that tried to stay clean, but eventually gave in to the temptation and died with his friends. I see all these small tragedies play out as I explore the vault and I can feel my heart constrict in my chest as Davis sings of loss. “Why does my heart go on beating? Why do these eyes of mine cry? Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?” croons Skeeter Davis as I take in the stories. It all comes rushing in: The destruction of the old world; the callous cruelty with which the end was prepared; and all the rage, sorrow, and despair my character must feel after the incredible losses she has endured. It’s all brought to a sharp, poignant moment of empathy through Fallout 4’s brilliant storytelling and characterization. Many people think of story as something that is delivered through dialogue and text. However, games also tell many little stories through environment design. While Bethesda has a long tradition of skillfully telling stories through their environments, Fallout 4 has some of the best instances of this. There are hundreds of small stories waiting in the wasteland. Some require some detective-like snooping to uncover and others don’t even have markers on the map, but observant players will find these glimpses into pre-fallout life scattered everywhere. The stories themselves aren’t always the most interesting, but the sheer number of them give weight to the Boston area. This was a place that once teemed with human life and could again one day, if the factions at work in the Commonwealth could be left to their own devices. Unfortunately, the different factions of the Commonwealth can’t seem to leave one another alone and that tension ties in with the profound disaster that takes place in the opening minutes of Fallout 4. The journey to resolve the initial conflict that begins the protagonist’s journey serves as the crux of some of the game’s most interesting ethical dilemmas (that consequently have sweeping ramifications for the wider game). Those hard choices are kept grounded in a personal reality by the relationships that players build with their companions, NPCs who serve as actual characters with opinions on how the protagonist interacts with the world and its inhabitants. This improves dramatically on the follower system that has appeared in previous Bethesda titles, by endowing these friendly NPCs with real character bonds become stronger and decisions farther down the line become more difficult. You will remember the likes of Piper, Nick Valentine, and Curie long after your time with Fallout 4 comes to an end. Fallout 4 impresses me with the many improvements that take the elements established in Fallout 3 and brings them to the next level. The most easily seen improvement appears in the graphical presentation, with lighting and details that can sometimes draw gapes and awe. Most critically, the facial animation has drastically improved, with compelling facial performances matching vastly improved voice acting (with a few exceptions). Facial expressions in particular are very expressive and characters are given the chance to show a wide range of different emotions. And, after so many years of being irritated by hair clipping through faces, Bethesda has finally devised a system that creates decent facial hair and long hair that generally avoids clipping. It’s a small improvement, but for me it eliminates something that I’ve found irritating for a long time. Also, explosions look absolutely stunning. While a new sheen of graphical paint does the franchise a world of good, subtle changes to underlying systems create a familiar experience that offers fresh gameplay and narrative experience. The new dialogue system has been trimmed down to four responses for any given conversation. Some might see this as a limit to the number of choices you can make in any given scenario, much less than the various options Fallout 3 could potentially offer, but I think that the presentation and overall storytelling benefits from the more fleshed out dialogue. This also allows for the protagonist to be voiced and deliver lines, which leads to an actual character that feels more real than the voiceless husk players projected themselves into in Fallout 3. There are undeniably less dialogue options, but those that remain feel more meaningful. Bethesda’s overhaul of the gunplay is certainly the best improvement made from Fallout 3 to Fallout 4. It is actually possible to play the game entirely without using the VATS targeting system, as the shooting can now hold its own as a gameplay mechanic. It leads to a combat system that feels fluid, effortless transitioning between the tactical VATS view that allows for players to call their shots on specific body parts while slowing time and the often frantic shooting in real-time. It’s a simple, straightforward change, but it feels like the most necessary update to the franchise. While most of the changes have been overwhelmingly for the better, some wrinkles persist. The user interface for Fallout 4 feels muddled and messy. Forgetting the name of an important audio tape or note could leave you searching through your inventory for several minutes. Spending a scant few minutes searching through an inventory pales in comparison to one of Fallout 4’s biggest irritations: Finding dismissed companions. Every time a new companion is recruited, the previous companion can be sent to any settlement under the player’s control. At first this isn’t a huge problem, but once the pool of companions expands and you learn that you can only send one or two companions to the same settlement it becomes a colossal issue to track down a particular sidekick. At one point I spent almost two hours trying to find Preston Garvey, one of the first companions the game throws your way. Even if you manage to track down the right settlement it can be difficult to spot a human NPC milling around with the twenty other settlers living in your settlement. A small UI tweak noting where to find each of your recruited companions on the list of controlled settlements or a companion-only base would have been a huge help. One of the main systems that Fallout 4 introduces early on is the ability to control and build in settlements. Players are supposed to build structures that feed, water, and shelter potential settlers. The building mechanics are actually really fun and reward players who can’t help picking up everything they see. Building possesses one huge drawback: There is almost no incentive to do it. Building successful settlements doesn’t have a reward and never expands much past the initial concept. These settlers never come to your aid in a Wasteland war or provide amazing, unique items; they just wander around and sometimes do the jobs you assign to them. The building is fun, but that fun is its own reward. That doesn’t make it bad, I certainly enjoyed more than a few hours building settlements and growing them as large as possible. However, the lack of tangible benefits does make building defenses and homes feel like a time sink when you ultimately realize you could be exploring new locations, meeting new challenges, and interacting with interesting quests and characters. Conclusion: Despite the issues a new era have ushered into the franchise, I don’t feel like I’m being hyperbolic when I say that Bethesda’s latest venture into the post-apocalypse could very well be their best game to date. I’ve poured over 100 hours into Fallout 4 and, while I’ve finished the main campaign and a decent amount of exploration, there are still vast areas that remain undiscovered and unexamined. The irradiated area around Boston jealously guards some of its most potent secrets. To see and find everything would take hundreds more hours. That Fallout 4 managed to reach something raw and emotional in me after dozens of hours spent becoming desensitized to the misery and violence of the Commonwealth’s new world testifies to the underlying power at Bethesda’s fingertips. While almost every single Bethesda title has been revolutionary in some way and highly polished, Fallout 4 strikes me like the herald of something even better. I don’t know what that might be, but the developers have the talent to do something not just good or great, but something earthshattering; glimmers of that potential can be seen in Fallout 4. My time with Fallout 4 has been a roller coaster, both inside the game and in the real world. I started playing it the day it released, the day after my great aunt Winnie passed away. I continued to trek through the post-apocalypse as terror attacks unfolded in France, Lebanon, and Nigeria, an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, and as I received news that one of my aunts has cancer. The world has seemed like a pretty horrible place for the last couple of weeks. Fully aware of the irony, I found comfort in the war-strewn, harsh, and violent landscapes of Fallout 4. Our world is a complicated place, full of shades of grey, competing agendas, and people who are perfectly willing to exemplify the worst of what humanity can be. Bethesda’s Fallout 4 has a lot of that, too, but it is also full of compelling characters that bring out the good in people. Even in that world of radiation and unchanging war, a city can rise from the ashes and people can stand up for one another. It reminded me that good exists out in our world, too; it can be easy to forget that when faced with hate and happenstance. Like Diamond City rising from the ruins of Boston, We can build our own communities while embracing our differences and looking out for one another… and that’s something I’d like to believe that’s what we’ve been doing here at Extra Life. So, thank you to all of you for being a force for good in a world that sometimes seems to have gone completely mad. Bethesda teased hope out of a scorched and tortured world and that hope is worth experiencing for yourself. Fallout 4 was reviewed on PC and is currently available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
  4. Jack Gardner

    Review: XCOM 2

    All sequels dream of improving and expanding on the success of their predecessor. XCOM 2 manages to accomplish that goal by upping its production quality across the board. The drastically improved visuals stun with a frankly impressive level of detail. Locations, items, skill progression, everything has been either created entirely new or reworked into a slightly different, though recognizable, form. A relatively engaging narrative with some depth and pathos I simply wasn't expecting goes beyond “fight the bad aliens." Simply put, XCOM 2 feels like a big step in an exciting direction, setting the bar of excellence for all future additions to the series while also stumbling slightly on technical glitches. XCOM 2 begins with the assumption that the player failed to stop the alien invasion in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Twenty years after the fall of Earth, the alien forces have coalesced into a worldwide government known as ADVENT, an organization that goes to great lengths to appear benign, but something sinister stirs beneath the smiles they broadcast to the world. A scattered resistance movement has been agitating around the globe, chaffing under the alien’s rule. Spearheading that resistance, remnants of the XCOM project undertake a desperate mission to seize a critical alien asset…. It’s a good hook and a compelling scenario. Most interestingly, XCOM 2 eventually draws the player into the game world as an additional character. The cast of characters in XCOM 2 feels much more alive this time around. As players go about tasks like deciding what to research, optimizing squad equipment, or building new facilities within the alien ship that serves as a central base, characters like Central Officer Bradford, head engineer An-Yi Shen, and Dr. Tygan will share stories or gossip with both the player and each other in the base. It gives off a vibe reminiscent of the interactions from StarCraft II. XCOM 2 goes a long ways toward improving on Enemy Unknowns imperfections. A small change like introducing a trimmed down version of base-building that makes new expansions to your hideout feel more meaningful goes a long ways toward cultivating an enjoyable experience. Gone are the days when an allied nation panicked due to a lack of satellite coverage only to back out of the XCOM project permanently. Instead, a new system for maintaining a monthly income rears its head, requiring the player to merely contact resistance forces in a given area and complete any random missions that might arise in that area. Ignoring missions could lead to those areas being lost and having to spend precious time and resources to regain them again. Instead of satellites, players can build radio towers to lower the cost of contacting additional nearby pockets of the resistance. This eliminates a lot of the frustration the metagame caused in Enemy Unknown, while maintaining the element of choice that makes each attempt to complete an XCOM campaign unique. Firaxis really outdid themselves upping the all around visual presentation of XCOM 2. The level of detail really impresses. Small objects litter combat areas, adding to the sense that these are lived in space. In a shootout with ADVENT forces in a junk yard, small knickknacks and debris would go flying in reaction to gunfire or explosions. A guitar was clearly visible on the ground at one point. During one of the combat animations, the camera actually zoomed in so far to a cafe table that I was able to see a recently abandoned cup of coffee and an accompanying doughnut covered in sprinkles. Little touches like that are instrumental in giving an air of quality to XCOM 2; people clearly spent a lot of love and effort crafting it. No one puts doughnuts that few people will ever likely see into a game without caring about their work. New skill trees for class progressions really work to make classes that feel distinct and fun. Do you want a stealthy ranger or a ranger that can become a death-dealing hurricane? Would you prefer a grenadier who can make anything and everything explode or one that can shred through armor and enemies alike? The specialists all have drones that can be fitted for healing or combat tasks. Perhaps you want a sharpshooter to snipe enemies from afar or be a pistol-wielding nightmare. Maybe you throw all of those classes out the window and heavily invest in training psi operatives to unleash powerful psychic abilities on unwitting alien forces. All of these approaches can be experimented with heavily; mixing and matching abilities to fine tune soldiers so that they can overcome any challenge feels incredibly satisfying. Even more so, perhaps, because those ranks are earned in combat which always carries risk of permadeath. One of the larger gripes that people had about XCOM: Enemy Unknown when it launched in 2012 was its small pool of maps for random encounters. Firaxis clearly went out of their way to address this problem bringing a larger number of maps to XCOM 2. After 50 hours, I am sure I repeated a couple of the battlefields, but the randomized start locations mesh really nicely with the finely crafted combat spaces. I never had the thought of, “oh great, this place again,” while playing XCOM 2, which is surely an improvement over the 2012 franchise reboot. Firaxis also introduces never-before-seen enemies alongside revamped foes from Enemy Unknown, new items, and a commitment to destructible environments. Few things are more distressing than being caught in an ambush when one of the overhauled sectopods simply walks through a building and begins decimating your squad’s fresh recruits. Building more systems to facilitate environmental destruction really expands the tactical choices available to players. Don’t want to deal with an ADVENT officer who has taken up a defensive position on the second floor of an office building? Throw a grenade/shoot a rocket/use a special cover destroying ability and blow the floor out from under it, which causes it to take additional damage from the fall and potentially deprives it of cover. Of course, the aliens are equally capable of taking advantage of environment destruction, so players need to stay on their toes to avoid a total party wipe. All of these changes really help to give XCOM 2 an identity that feels distinct from its predecessor while maintaining the core gameplay that makes XCOM one of the staples of modern turn-based strategy. Perhaps its biggest accomplishment, XCOM 2 embraces the character personalization that arguably made 2012’s Enemy Unknown such an explosive hit. The randomizer that generates soldiers does a fantastic job of creating unique soldiers, each with their own backstories that brought them to be a part of the human resistance movement. You can spend hours agonizing over creating the coolest soldiers or inserting loved ones into the game. However, even without recreating friends and family to bring personal connections into the game, players will slowly develop a sense of who each of these characters are. The near suicidal Kellen “Smokey” Moore who stubbornly refused to die while pinned down by a colossal sectopod and three plasma-toting mutons; the whirlwind of destruction that was Jane “Cobra” Kelly who singlehandedly took down an entire defensive position of alien troops with only her machete; Jaqueline “Buzzsaw” Simon who truly earned her name in the final mission by taking down two charging berserkers to protect a gravely wounded comrade; or Kiriko “Priestess” Hasegawa who consistently beat the odds and hacked robotic defenses and soldiers to give her squad the winning edge they needed – I’ll remember these characters for more than the mere mechanical advantages they provided. We made memories together. I spent over 50 hours playing through one campaign of XCOM 2 and some of those soldiers were with me from the very beginning. Some potent bonding goes on when those characters live or die based on the quality of your tactical choices. Despite the triumph of XCOM 2, technical issues mar the otherwise amazing experience. The framerate can sometimes dip unexpectedly for seemingly no reason. Certain enemies can at times become invisible on the battlefield. Once or twice I had a character fall multiple from a higher elevation and become stuck in a piece of the environment. However, the biggest issue of all was the time many of my saves became corrupted and unplayable; crashing to the desktop every time they were loaded. No one wants to be forced to start a new game after investing nearly 40 hours into an experience. Randomly corrupting saves are a huge deal for a game that spans 50 hours for one campaign. Luckily, I was able to find an functional save file and continue with only a several hours of lost time. I’m sure Firaxis has been scrambling to fix these issues, but it might have been better to delay the game a bit further in order to fix some of these glaring technical hiccups before releasing it to the public. Conclusion: XCOM 2 is a strategic dream come true, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for waiting on it for a few weeks to give Firaxis time to sort out a patch or two for the most grievous glitches. Despite the struggles of modern development schedules cutting down on QA testing time, XCOM 2 delivers a really rich and rewarding experience that improves on Enemy Unknown in pretty nearly all respects. The emergent narratives crafted through commanding a resistance movement stand alongside set piece missions that shake up the standard objectives with really challenging scenarios. The standout for me involves the entirety of the XCOM barracks taking to the battlefield to fight for survival. I haven’t even mentioned the three mods crafted by Long War Studios, the team behind Enemy Unknown’s Long War mod, that were available at XCOM 2’s launch. They add SMGs, a new alien type, and an entire skill tree that allows soldiers to train as leaders, conferring squad bonuses and abilities. They are all excellent and bettered my core experience. Play XCOM 2 right now if you are a strategy fiend and you are jonesing for your next strategy fix, but for those with more self-control hold off for a few more weeks until the technical stuff finishes being ironed out. XCOM 2 is available now for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
  5. All sequels dream of improving and expanding on the success of their predecessor. XCOM 2 manages to accomplish that goal by upping its production quality across the board. The drastically improved visuals stun with a frankly impressive level of detail. Locations, items, skill progression, everything has been either created entirely new or reworked into a slightly different, though recognizable, form. A relatively engaging narrative with some depth and pathos I simply wasn't expecting goes beyond “fight the bad aliens." Simply put, XCOM 2 feels like a big step in an exciting direction, setting the bar of excellence for all future additions to the series while also stumbling slightly on technical glitches. XCOM 2 begins with the assumption that the player failed to stop the alien invasion in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Twenty years after the fall of Earth, the alien forces have coalesced into a worldwide government known as ADVENT, an organization that goes to great lengths to appear benign, but something sinister stirs beneath the smiles they broadcast to the world. A scattered resistance movement has been agitating around the globe, chaffing under the alien’s rule. Spearheading that resistance, remnants of the XCOM project undertake a desperate mission to seize a critical alien asset…. It’s a good hook and a compelling scenario. Most interestingly, XCOM 2 eventually draws the player into the game world as an additional character. The cast of characters in XCOM 2 feels much more alive this time around. As players go about tasks like deciding what to research, optimizing squad equipment, or building new facilities within the alien ship that serves as a central base, characters like Central Officer Bradford, head engineer An-Yi Shen, and Dr. Tygan will share stories or gossip with both the player and each other in the base. It gives off a vibe reminiscent of the interactions from StarCraft II. XCOM 2 goes a long ways toward improving on Enemy Unknowns imperfections. A small change like introducing a trimmed down version of base-building that makes new expansions to your hideout feel more meaningful goes a long ways toward cultivating an enjoyable experience. Gone are the days when an allied nation panicked due to a lack of satellite coverage only to back out of the XCOM project permanently. Instead, a new system for maintaining a monthly income rears its head, requiring the player to merely contact resistance forces in a given area and complete any random missions that might arise in that area. Ignoring missions could lead to those areas being lost and having to spend precious time and resources to regain them again. Instead of satellites, players can build radio towers to lower the cost of contacting additional nearby pockets of the resistance. This eliminates a lot of the frustration the metagame caused in Enemy Unknown, while maintaining the element of choice that makes each attempt to complete an XCOM campaign unique. Firaxis really outdid themselves upping the all around visual presentation of XCOM 2. The level of detail really impresses. Small objects litter combat areas, adding to the sense that these are lived in space. In a shootout with ADVENT forces in a junk yard, small knickknacks and debris would go flying in reaction to gunfire or explosions. A guitar was clearly visible on the ground at one point. During one of the combat animations, the camera actually zoomed in so far to a cafe table that I was able to see a recently abandoned cup of coffee and an accompanying doughnut covered in sprinkles. Little touches like that are instrumental in giving an air of quality to XCOM 2; people clearly spent a lot of love and effort crafting it. No one puts doughnuts that few people will ever likely see into a game without caring about their work. New skill trees for class progressions really work to make classes that feel distinct and fun. Do you want a stealthy ranger or a ranger that can become a death-dealing hurricane? Would you prefer a grenadier who can make anything and everything explode or one that can shred through armor and enemies alike? The specialists all have drones that can be fitted for healing or combat tasks. Perhaps you want a sharpshooter to snipe enemies from afar or be a pistol-wielding nightmare. Maybe you throw all of those classes out the window and heavily invest in training psi operatives to unleash powerful psychic abilities on unwitting alien forces. All of these approaches can be experimented with heavily; mixing and matching abilities to fine tune soldiers so that they can overcome any challenge feels incredibly satisfying. Even more so, perhaps, because those ranks are earned in combat which always carries risk of permadeath. One of the larger gripes that people had about XCOM: Enemy Unknown when it launched in 2012 was its small pool of maps for random encounters. Firaxis clearly went out of their way to address this problem bringing a larger number of maps to XCOM 2. After 50 hours, I am sure I repeated a couple of the battlefields, but the randomized start locations mesh really nicely with the finely crafted combat spaces. I never had the thought of, “oh great, this place again,” while playing XCOM 2, which is surely an improvement over the 2012 franchise reboot. Firaxis also introduces never-before-seen enemies alongside revamped foes from Enemy Unknown, new items, and a commitment to destructible environments. Few things are more distressing than being caught in an ambush when one of the overhauled sectopods simply walks through a building and begins decimating your squad’s fresh recruits. Building more systems to facilitate environmental destruction really expands the tactical choices available to players. Don’t want to deal with an ADVENT officer who has taken up a defensive position on the second floor of an office building? Throw a grenade/shoot a rocket/use a special cover destroying ability and blow the floor out from under it, which causes it to take additional damage from the fall and potentially deprives it of cover. Of course, the aliens are equally capable of taking advantage of environment destruction, so players need to stay on their toes to avoid a total party wipe. All of these changes really help to give XCOM 2 an identity that feels distinct from its predecessor while maintaining the core gameplay that makes XCOM one of the staples of modern turn-based strategy. Perhaps its biggest accomplishment, XCOM 2 embraces the character personalization that arguably made 2012’s Enemy Unknown such an explosive hit. The randomizer that generates soldiers does a fantastic job of creating unique soldiers, each with their own backstories that brought them to be a part of the human resistance movement. You can spend hours agonizing over creating the coolest soldiers or inserting loved ones into the game. However, even without recreating friends and family to bring personal connections into the game, players will slowly develop a sense of who each of these characters are. The near suicidal Kellen “Smokey” Moore who stubbornly refused to die while pinned down by a colossal sectopod and three plasma-toting mutons; the whirlwind of destruction that was Jane “Cobra” Kelly who singlehandedly took down an entire defensive position of alien troops with only her machete; Jaqueline “Buzzsaw” Simon who truly earned her name in the final mission by taking down two charging berserkers to protect a gravely wounded comrade; or Kiriko “Priestess” Hasegawa who consistently beat the odds and hacked robotic defenses and soldiers to give her squad the winning edge they needed – I’ll remember these characters for more than the mere mechanical advantages they provided. We made memories together. I spent over 50 hours playing through one campaign of XCOM 2 and some of those soldiers were with me from the very beginning. Some potent bonding goes on when those characters live or die based on the quality of your tactical choices. Despite the triumph of XCOM 2, technical issues mar the otherwise amazing experience. The framerate can sometimes dip unexpectedly for seemingly no reason. Certain enemies can at times become invisible on the battlefield. Once or twice I had a character fall multiple from a higher elevation and become stuck in a piece of the environment. However, the biggest issue of all was the time many of my saves became corrupted and unplayable; crashing to the desktop every time they were loaded. No one wants to be forced to start a new game after investing nearly 40 hours into an experience. Randomly corrupting saves are a huge deal for a game that spans 50 hours for one campaign. Luckily, I was able to find an functional save file and continue with only a several hours of lost time. I’m sure Firaxis has been scrambling to fix these issues, but it might have been better to delay the game a bit further in order to fix some of these glaring technical hiccups before releasing it to the public. Conclusion: XCOM 2 is a strategic dream come true, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for waiting on it for a few weeks to give Firaxis time to sort out a patch or two for the most grievous glitches. Despite the struggles of modern development schedules cutting down on QA testing time, XCOM 2 delivers a really rich and rewarding experience that improves on Enemy Unknown in pretty nearly all respects. The emergent narratives crafted through commanding a resistance movement stand alongside set piece missions that shake up the standard objectives with really challenging scenarios. The standout for me involves the entirety of the XCOM barracks taking to the battlefield to fight for survival. I haven’t even mentioned the three mods crafted by Long War Studios, the team behind Enemy Unknown’s Long War mod, that were available at XCOM 2’s launch. They add SMGs, a new alien type, and an entire skill tree that allows soldiers to train as leaders, conferring squad bonuses and abilities. They are all excellent and bettered my core experience. Play XCOM 2 right now if you are a strategy fiend and you are jonesing for your next strategy fix, but for those with more self-control hold off for a few more weeks until the technical stuff finishes being ironed out. XCOM 2 is available now for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. View full article
  6. Jack Gardner

    Review: Tharsis

    In one of the developer diaries, Zach Gage, the system designer at Choice Provisions, talks about the decision to make die rolls the foremost mechanic in Tharsis. In that particular video, Gage states that he wanted to make a game where, “the dice are the arbiter of [the player’s] life.” To Choice Provisions’ credit, Tharsis accomplishes exactly that. Tharsis puts players in control of the first manned mission to Mars. The astronauts under the player’s command were sent to investigate a mysterious signal coming from the Tharsis region of the red planet. However, mere weeks from their destination, the crew of the Iktomi meet disaster. Their vessel rockets through a field of micro-meteoroids, destroying their food supply and killing two crew members. The game tasks players to lead the surviving astronauts to Mars while facing down the dangers posed by the damage done to the ship and the dwindling scraps of food that remain on board. On top of that, every playthrough is randomized, leading to completely different experiences with every attempt to reach Tharsis. It’s a catchy premise and one which certainly caught my initial interest. However, the way in which Choice Provisions executed on that premise leaves something to be desired. Imagine you are playing slots at a casino. You are pulling the lever, watching the results mix around on the machine, sometimes winning, more often losing. Along comes the owner of the casino with an offer: You can participate in the grand slot game of the night! In order to win, you have to successfully combine the right slot results over the course of ten rounds. Each round, the required slot results change at random while the casino reduces the number of slot machines you can use. I have basically just described Tharsis. You see, Tharsis revolves entirely on digital dice rolls. Every round represents another week in space and each astronaut can move to one module of the spacecraft and make rolls to perform tasks, fix broken systems, or use special abilities. However, each week new problems arise that will cause more damage to the ship, the health of the astronauts, or the number of dice available to the crew. These disasters can be fixed with dice rolls added together to hit a target number. If the ship runs out of health, it explodes. If a crew member loses their last remaining point of health, they croak. On top of that, the crew loses one die for every action taken. Juggling health, dice, and the structural integrity of the ship is a delicate act of probability weighing. One false move could mean almost instant death for the entire mission. Tharsis shines best during that balancing act. Unfortunately, much like in the earlier comparison to a casino game, Tharsis is heavily weighted against the player. Two to three new events happen each round and all of them are bad. Any attempt to repair the resulting malfunctions carries with it the risk of to freezing certain dice results so they can’t be rerolled, completely taking certain rolls out of play, or damaging the crew member working on the fix. Combine these stresses with an ever decreasing dice pool for each astronaut (barring some exceptionally lucky rolls in the right areas) and the frustrations become clearer. Choice Provisions attempts to alleviate those frustrations via a mechanic with which players can save and spend die rolls for certain boosts like additional die or ship repairs. These boosts revolve in groups of three and are generated at random. Sometimes they can be immensely helpful and other times they merely represent the hollow hope of survival. If the dice situation becomes extremely bad, players can resort to cannibalism to keep surviving crew members alive and rolling large dice pools. I dearly wish Tharsis had any amount of character development. Who are these astronauts? Why should I care about them? It sucks when a crewman dies, but it sucks because I don’t get their dice anymore, not because I care about them in any other respect. Cannibalizing these people should be horrible, but it instead feels like a very mechanical decision done for dice with little to no thought about the digital humans stuck in that situation. Having characters we can care about would only serve to deepen our investment in the game and the sense of importance each dice roll possesses. On the aesthetic front, Tharsis consists mainly of the Iktomi, close ups of the crew in their helpfully colored space suits, and some animatics. While the animatics are visually engaging, the ship and crew appear bland in comparison. The audio in Tharsis is slim, but serviceable. When it plays, the music draws you into the desperate atmosphere of the doomed ship. Meanwhile the voice acting effectively conveys emotion and mounting intensity as the crew approaches their destination. The small budget shows, but it does what it needs to regarding the visuals and audio. Conclusion: I can’t shake the feeling that there is something really great in Tharsis despite the amount of frustration it gave me. Perhaps with additional ways for players to save their good fortune for the harsh events and poor rolls that inevitably occur along with general rebalancing could save this game. The potential exists for Tharsis to create a more engaging, exciting experience with an expanded array of random events and character development. The core concept of the dice being the arbiters of life and death is a good one, but maybe one or two bad rolls shouldn’t be a death sentence. Tharsis would be a great hit as a co-op tabletop experience in the same vein as Pandemic. I can see a group of friends really enjoying themselves while taking a morbid trip to Mars, casting lots to see who should be cannibalized to give the others a shot at successfully completing the doomed journey. However, as a video game it feels almost hopelessly stacked against the player, leading to a frustrating time with none of the distractions or house rules that a group of friends can provide. I can’t in good conscience recommend it at the price of $15. Tharsis is available now on PC and PlayStation 4
  7. In one of the developer diaries, Zach Gage, the system designer at Choice Provisions, talks about the decision to make die rolls the foremost mechanic in Tharsis. In that particular video, Gage states that he wanted to make a game where, “the dice are the arbiter of [the player’s] life.” To Choice Provisions’ credit, Tharsis accomplishes exactly that. Tharsis puts players in control of the first manned mission to Mars. The astronauts under the player’s command were sent to investigate a mysterious signal coming from the Tharsis region of the red planet. However, mere weeks from their destination, the crew of the Iktomi meet disaster. Their vessel rockets through a field of micro-meteoroids, destroying their food supply and killing two crew members. The game tasks players to lead the surviving astronauts to Mars while facing down the dangers posed by the damage done to the ship and the dwindling scraps of food that remain on board. On top of that, every playthrough is randomized, leading to completely different experiences with every attempt to reach Tharsis. It’s a catchy premise and one which certainly caught my initial interest. However, the way in which Choice Provisions executed on that premise leaves something to be desired. Imagine you are playing slots at a casino. You are pulling the lever, watching the results mix around on the machine, sometimes winning, more often losing. Along comes the owner of the casino with an offer: You can participate in the grand slot game of the night! In order to win, you have to successfully combine the right slot results over the course of ten rounds. Each round, the required slot results change at random while the casino reduces the number of slot machines you can use. I have basically just described Tharsis. You see, Tharsis revolves entirely on digital dice rolls. Every round represents another week in space and each astronaut can move to one module of the spacecraft and make rolls to perform tasks, fix broken systems, or use special abilities. However, each week new problems arise that will cause more damage to the ship, the health of the astronauts, or the number of dice available to the crew. These disasters can be fixed with dice rolls added together to hit a target number. If the ship runs out of health, it explodes. If a crew member loses their last remaining point of health, they croak. On top of that, the crew loses one die for every action taken. Juggling health, dice, and the structural integrity of the ship is a delicate act of probability weighing. One false move could mean almost instant death for the entire mission. Tharsis shines best during that balancing act. Unfortunately, much like in the earlier comparison to a casino game, Tharsis is heavily weighted against the player. Two to three new events happen each round and all of them are bad. Any attempt to repair the resulting malfunctions carries with it the risk of to freezing certain dice results so they can’t be rerolled, completely taking certain rolls out of play, or damaging the crew member working on the fix. Combine these stresses with an ever decreasing dice pool for each astronaut (barring some exceptionally lucky rolls in the right areas) and the frustrations become clearer. Choice Provisions attempts to alleviate those frustrations via a mechanic with which players can save and spend die rolls for certain boosts like additional die or ship repairs. These boosts revolve in groups of three and are generated at random. Sometimes they can be immensely helpful and other times they merely represent the hollow hope of survival. If the dice situation becomes extremely bad, players can resort to cannibalism to keep surviving crew members alive and rolling large dice pools. I dearly wish Tharsis had any amount of character development. Who are these astronauts? Why should I care about them? It sucks when a crewman dies, but it sucks because I don’t get their dice anymore, not because I care about them in any other respect. Cannibalizing these people should be horrible, but it instead feels like a very mechanical decision done for dice with little to no thought about the digital humans stuck in that situation. Having characters we can care about would only serve to deepen our investment in the game and the sense of importance each dice roll possesses. On the aesthetic front, Tharsis consists mainly of the Iktomi, close ups of the crew in their helpfully colored space suits, and some animatics. While the animatics are visually engaging, the ship and crew appear bland in comparison. The audio in Tharsis is slim, but serviceable. When it plays, the music draws you into the desperate atmosphere of the doomed ship. Meanwhile the voice acting effectively conveys emotion and mounting intensity as the crew approaches their destination. The small budget shows, but it does what it needs to regarding the visuals and audio. Conclusion: I can’t shake the feeling that there is something really great in Tharsis despite the amount of frustration it gave me. Perhaps with additional ways for players to save their good fortune for the harsh events and poor rolls that inevitably occur along with general rebalancing could save this game. The potential exists for Tharsis to create a more engaging, exciting experience with an expanded array of random events and character development. The core concept of the dice being the arbiters of life and death is a good one, but maybe one or two bad rolls shouldn’t be a death sentence. Tharsis would be a great hit as a co-op tabletop experience in the same vein as Pandemic. I can see a group of friends really enjoying themselves while taking a morbid trip to Mars, casting lots to see who should be cannibalized to give the others a shot at successfully completing the doomed journey. However, as a video game it feels almost hopelessly stacked against the player, leading to a frustrating time with none of the distractions or house rules that a group of friends can provide. I can’t in good conscience recommend it at the price of $15. Tharsis is available now on PC and PlayStation 4 View full article
  8. Well, here I am. The experience of Numinous Games’ debut title remains fresh in my mind, but it has left me without words. I completed the autobiographical game made by Ryan and Amy Green in about two hours, but less than five minutes into their indie game I began crying. The Greens made That Dragon, Cancer to memorialize their son, Joel, who passed away in March of 2014. It places the player in the role of an observer, both externally and internally, of the big and small moments in the life of Joel and his parents. That Dragon, Cancer will eviscerate the heart of anyone who has even a shred of empathy in their body. Shirking the weight of heavy-handed allegory, the Greens relate their experiences through a series of vignettes that capture specific moments throughout the final months of their son’s valiant struggle. In those moments we are given incredibly frank glimpses into the minds of Amy and Ryan as they struggle with their son’s impending fate. We see their faith in a God-given miracle that’s also contrasted with their human doubt. We see the couple arguing as the pressure of Joel’s situation causes each of them to cope differently, but also come together to find strength in one another. These are people with all the virtues and flaws inherent to the human race trying to get by while facing down tragedy that no one would wish upon another person. There are moments in That Dragon, Cancer where I literally became blinded by tears. How else can one respond to such an intimate and powerful work of truth? Playing with Joel in the park while listening to him laugh, knowing where this game is eventually headed - it breaks your heart. That was when I began to weep. I was going to say that was the first time I cried, but I pretty much continued to leak tears for the rest of my time with the Green family. Whenever I thought I had expended my supply of salt water, there was another scenario to bring back the rain. That Dragon, Cancer takes players on a journey through the valley of the shadow of death and shows that moments of joy, hope, and miracles can still be found even in the face of overwhelming anguish. The simple pleasure of hearing Joel laugh when you know the nature of the dragon he’s facing takes on a new light. We hear Amy’s desolate realization that Joel will never have an Off Treatment Day celebration, but we also see Ryan arrive at a crushing level of despair as he finds himself unable to get his son to stop crying only to experience a minor, comforting miracle. We live through short, powerful snippets of Joel’s story: Late nights at the hospital; feeding ducks at the park; the final, hopeless prognosis. However, we are never given more than we can absolutely bear. The structure includes enough time between these gut punches to allow players to recover just enough to be able to continue through the razor-sharp moments of heartbreak. However, even the breathing period between these moments resounds with the knowledge that though the Green family is telling their story, Joel’s path has been walked before and will be walked again. Art work from cancer patients, survivors, and those who have fallen adorn the walls of the in-game hospital and we are able to look at each piece and the names attached to them. The names. There are so many names. And that’s not all. The most moving of these quiet moments for me was walking around the hospital after it had been decorated with cards and realizing that I could read them. This was quickly followed by the realization that they were from the backers of That Dragon, Cancer. Those are real cards from real people whose loved ones have beaten cancer, are undergoing treatment, or have been brought low by that dragon. I felt an obligation to those people, to honor those messages. I read every single one of them and they ripped me apart in the process. But, as always, not more than I could bear. While the term “faith-based game” usually presents a red flag to the majority of the gaming community, That Dragon, Cancer might be the first game to earn that label while also being an incredibly compelling, worthwhile experience. Largely this is due to the most human attribute that many faith-oriented games gloss over: Doubt. Throughout That Dragon, Cancer, Amy Green voices her faith that her son will be healed. Again and again while Joel’s condition worsens she professes her sincere belief that her son will be healed. Meanwhile, Ryan Green despairs at the reality of Joel’s situation. This contrast makes Amy Green seem almost delusional. However, as players near the end of their time with the Green family, Amy gives insight into her faith that gets to the human heart of what she is going through. In a distraught voice she reveals that she has long acknowledged Joel’s condition, but why must everyone continue to chant about his death? “Death is a given,” she says, “but this miracle we are hoping for is worth pursuing.” The possibility of his life is worth believing in, and you know what? Amy is right. As long as hope exists, as long as the barest sliver of a chance remains, who are we to try to drag her down into grief before its time? These are obviously some very heavy questions, the kind that make you introspective and quiet. The subject matter is uncomfortable and difficult. So it comes down to the gorgeous visual presentation of That Dragon, Cancer to help the bitter pill of the experience become more digestible. Every scene appears as a lush geometric painting that allows for a certain surreal disconnect that oddly brings the ideas at play into clearer focus. Sitting through the final prognosis and seeing the room slowly fill with stormy waters perfectly illustrates the despair of the situation. The faceless character model of Joel becomes both Joel and the countless other children who have gone through similar experiences. That Dragon, Cancer works as both a story about a specific family and a story about all families afflicted with cancer. It helps that the mechanics of That Dragon, Cancer remain fairly simple, practically point-and-click for long stretches. However, that control scheme works by allowing players to take their time and tackle whatever comes next at their own pace. That isn’t to say That Dragon, Cancer sticks with slow contemplation. The point-and-click segments are broken up by moments that range from cart racing to a side-scrolling arcade game. While these might normally be a bit jarring, they ultimately connect back to the core narrative and work in the wider context of what That Dragon, Cancer tries to communicate to the player. Conclusion: That Dragon, Cancer is not fun, nor is it supposed to be. Some people might find fault with that, but there are moments of triumph and joy mixed in with this breathlessly human work. A powerful love woven through the fabric of That Dragon, Cancer propels the Green family’s achievement. It comes through in the visuals, the narrations, the gentleness and sincerity that permeates it all. I would be very surprised if That Dragon, Cancer didn’t go on to become one of the most influential works of game design for years to come. If you would feel anguish and heartache; if you would feel joy and hope; if you would be moved down to your foundation; play That Dragon, Cancer. That Dragon, Cancer is available now on PC, Mac, and Ouya
  9. Well, here I am. The experience of Numinous Games’ debut title remains fresh in my mind, but it has left me without words. I completed the autobiographical game made by Ryan and Amy Green in about two hours, but less than five minutes into their indie game I began crying. The Greens made That Dragon, Cancer to memorialize their son, Joel, who passed away in March of 2014. It places the player in the role of an observer, both externally and internally, of the big and small moments in the life of Joel and his parents. That Dragon, Cancer will eviscerate the heart of anyone who has even a shred of empathy in their body. Shirking the weight of heavy-handed allegory, the Greens relate their experiences through a series of vignettes that capture specific moments throughout the final months of their son’s valiant struggle. In those moments we are given incredibly frank glimpses into the minds of Amy and Ryan as they struggle with their son’s impending fate. We see their faith in a God-given miracle that’s also contrasted with their human doubt. We see the couple arguing as the pressure of Joel’s situation causes each of them to cope differently, but also come together to find strength in one another. These are people with all the virtues and flaws inherent to the human race trying to get by while facing down tragedy that no one would wish upon another person. There are moments in That Dragon, Cancer where I literally became blinded by tears. How else can one respond to such an intimate and powerful work of truth? Playing with Joel in the park while listening to him laugh, knowing where this game is eventually headed - it breaks your heart. That was when I began to weep. I was going to say that was the first time I cried, but I pretty much continued to leak tears for the rest of my time with the Green family. Whenever I thought I had expended my supply of salt water, there was another scenario to bring back the rain. That Dragon, Cancer takes players on a journey through the valley of the shadow of death and shows that moments of joy, hope, and miracles can still be found even in the face of overwhelming anguish. The simple pleasure of hearing Joel laugh when you know the nature of the dragon he’s facing takes on a new light. We hear Amy’s desolate realization that Joel will never have an Off Treatment Day celebration, but we also see Ryan arrive at a crushing level of despair as he finds himself unable to get his son to stop crying only to experience a minor, comforting miracle. We live through short, powerful snippets of Joel’s story: Late nights at the hospital; feeding ducks at the park; the final, hopeless prognosis. However, we are never given more than we can absolutely bear. The structure includes enough time between these gut punches to allow players to recover just enough to be able to continue through the razor-sharp moments of heartbreak. However, even the breathing period between these moments resounds with the knowledge that though the Green family is telling their story, Joel’s path has been walked before and will be walked again. Art work from cancer patients, survivors, and those who have fallen adorn the walls of the in-game hospital and we are able to look at each piece and the names attached to them. The names. There are so many names. And that’s not all. The most moving of these quiet moments for me was walking around the hospital after it had been decorated with cards and realizing that I could read them. This was quickly followed by the realization that they were from the backers of That Dragon, Cancer. Those are real cards from real people whose loved ones have beaten cancer, are undergoing treatment, or have been brought low by that dragon. I felt an obligation to those people, to honor those messages. I read every single one of them and they ripped me apart in the process. But, as always, not more than I could bear. While the term “faith-based game” usually presents a red flag to the majority of the gaming community, That Dragon, Cancer might be the first game to earn that label while also being an incredibly compelling, worthwhile experience. Largely this is due to the most human attribute that many faith-oriented games gloss over: Doubt. Throughout That Dragon, Cancer, Amy Green voices her faith that her son will be healed. Again and again while Joel’s condition worsens she professes her sincere belief that her son will be healed. Meanwhile, Ryan Green despairs at the reality of Joel’s situation. This contrast makes Amy Green seem almost delusional. However, as players near the end of their time with the Green family, Amy gives insight into her faith that gets to the human heart of what she is going through. In a distraught voice she reveals that she has long acknowledged Joel’s condition, but why must everyone continue to chant about his death? “Death is a given,” she says, “but this miracle we are hoping for is worth pursuing.” The possibility of his life is worth believing in, and you know what? Amy is right. As long as hope exists, as long as the barest sliver of a chance remains, who are we to try to drag her down into grief before its time? These are obviously some very heavy questions, the kind that make you introspective and quiet. The subject matter is uncomfortable and difficult. So it comes down to the gorgeous visual presentation of That Dragon, Cancer to help the bitter pill of the experience become more digestible. Every scene appears as a lush geometric painting that allows for a certain surreal disconnect that oddly brings the ideas at play into clearer focus. Sitting through the final prognosis and seeing the room slowly fill with stormy waters perfectly illustrates the despair of the situation. The faceless character model of Joel becomes both Joel and the countless other children who have gone through similar experiences. That Dragon, Cancer works as both a story about a specific family and a story about all families afflicted with cancer. It helps that the mechanics of That Dragon, Cancer remain fairly simple, practically point-and-click for long stretches. However, that control scheme works by allowing players to take their time and tackle whatever comes next at their own pace. That isn’t to say That Dragon, Cancer sticks with slow contemplation. The point-and-click segments are broken up by moments that range from cart racing to a side-scrolling arcade game. While these might normally be a bit jarring, they ultimately connect back to the core narrative and work in the wider context of what That Dragon, Cancer tries to communicate to the player. Conclusion: That Dragon, Cancer is not fun, nor is it supposed to be. Some people might find fault with that, but there are moments of triumph and joy mixed in with this breathlessly human work. A powerful love woven through the fabric of That Dragon, Cancer propels the Green family’s achievement. It comes through in the visuals, the narrations, the gentleness and sincerity that permeates it all. I would be very surprised if That Dragon, Cancer didn’t go on to become one of the most influential works of game design for years to come. If you would feel anguish and heartache; if you would feel joy and hope; if you would be moved down to your foundation; play That Dragon, Cancer. That Dragon, Cancer is available now on PC, Mac, and Ouya View full article
  10. It’s no secret that I enjoyed the debut of King’s Quest a few months ago. The lighthearted romp through new-yet-familiar territory represented a wonderful modernization of the venerable adventure game series. Imagine my surprise when Rubble Without a Cause delivers a deeper, more complex experience that packs a surprising punch while maintaining a family friendly demeanor. *slight spoilers to follow* Chapter 2 opens by giving players more insight into the ailing health of the old King Graham. Scared awake by a storm in the middle of the night, Graham’s granddaughter, Gwendolyn, runs to her grandfather’s room to find him struggling with his infirmity. Soon a storytelling session ensues, painting a portrait of a newly crowned King Graham overwhelmed with the weight of leadership as he is thrust into a life or death scenario where his subjects depend on his success for their protection. Taken prisoner by a goblin raiding party, Graham needs his wits to deliver old friends from the clutches of the enemy. This is a far cry from the coming-of-age adventure that comprised the majority of Chapter 1. I would have been perfectly content with more of the same from The Odd Gentlemen, but clearly the studio wasn’t content with a rehash. While Chapter 1 focused on exploration and reestablishing the Kingdom of Daventry after the series’ long absence, Chapter 2 goes hard into puzzle-solving and testing the relationships created in the previous chapter. Not only that, but the tone becomes slightly more serious. While there are still plenty of puns and witty lines, lives are put at stake. As a prisoner, Graham needs to keep his subjects alive and well while searching for a way to free them from captivity. Rubble Without a Cause brings with it a slight biting edge to the humor that was absent in the first installment. The added emphasis on puzzles adds to the depth of the King’s Quest experience. It feels like a slightly better bridging of traditional King’s Quest with modern adventure gaming than what was achieved in Chapter 1. While there were puzzles in the first chapter, they weren’t particularly difficult. However, I’ll confess to finding myself stumped at least twice during my time with Chapter 2. There are few things as puzzling as finding yourself with a chair, chopsticks, a pea, and no idea what you should do with them. This different approach to adventure gaming sacrifices some of the flowing transitions popularized by Telltale Games, but introduces more gameplay decisions. The way you solve the different conundrums presented to the player result in different outcomes. That idea might seem intuitive, but in practice it leads to a varied experience that’s actually pretty neat. King Graham makes progress through the dungeon over the course of several days. In addition to solving puzzles, players have to monitor the health of their subjects. If a subject’s health reaches zero they will definitely remember how their king didn’t look out for them. At one point in my playthrough I made a mistake. That mistake resulted in a sick, pregnant woman being carted off by the goblins to an unknown fate. I felt awful and, of course, attempted to reload my save. That’s when I realized that King’s Quest doesn’t allow for reloading to previous saves. King’s Quest autosaves every time Graham moves to a new screen. There is no rewinding, no do-over. From a user friendly perspective it would be nice to have a rewind feature of some sort, if only so players who want to replay certain chapters don’t have to start from the complete beginning. However, I appreciate King’s Quest as a harsh mistress. It forced me to come to terms with the consequences of my own poor decision making. That tied in really well with the thematics of the chapter; how leaders aren’t always perfect and must live with the weight of their decisions. Not being able to go back forces players into the same position as Graham and I think that’s a good thing, albeit frustrating. If I could suggest a change to Chapter 3, it would be a more obscure choices. The Odd Gentlemen have really made a great amalgamation of new and old with King’s Quest, but I think that the first two episodes have been overly obvious about the various paths open to players. It usually comes down to a choice between one of three paths: Bravery, cunning, and compassion. Level layouts and some really on-the-nose dialogue have often been overly telling rather than allowing the decisions to speak for themselves. It’s not a knock against what Chapter 2 offers, as it easily improves on this over Chapter 1, but King’s Quest can do even better. A bit of murkiness to the decision making process would go a long way. The animation in Chapter 2 remains absolutely gorgeous. Almost every screenshot looks like it could be a painting. Watching everything in motion and seeing the still frames during some cutscenes makes me ache for a King’s Quest film with this aesthetic. There were a few technical issues with the version I played; occasional frame stuttering when entering new areas, lighting effects not appearing properly, etc. However, these were rare and didn’t detract from my overall experience. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the number of great soundtracks that have been released this year, but I wanted more from the soundscape in Rubble Without a Cause. It felt a bit empty and lacked a signature King’s Quest flavor of its own that wasn’t borrowed from the previous chapter. The production schedule for King’s Quest must be ridiculously intensive, but hopefully future episodes can have the same care and attention paid to the soundtrack as the visuals, voice acting, and writing. Conclusion: King’s Quest Chapter 2 drastically increases my faith in The Odd Gentlemen as a studio that can do justice to the legendary Sierra property while bringing its gameplay into line with modern adventure games. It demonstrates that they’re committed to pushing their design and storytelling further with each episode rather than with every adventure series. Most importantly, Rubble Without a Cause brings back crucial gameplay elements that Telltale’s brand of adventures have lacked. If The Odd Gentlemen continue to push the envelope of episodic games, King’s Quest might be able to push the entire genre in new and exciting directions. King’s Quest Chapter 2 – Rubble Without a Cause was reviewed on Xbox One and is available now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.
  11. It’s no secret that I enjoyed the debut of King’s Quest a few months ago. The lighthearted romp through new-yet-familiar territory represented a wonderful modernization of the venerable adventure game series. Imagine my surprise when Rubble Without a Cause delivers a deeper, more complex experience that packs a surprising punch while maintaining a family friendly demeanor. *slight spoilers to follow* Chapter 2 opens by giving players more insight into the ailing health of the old King Graham. Scared awake by a storm in the middle of the night, Graham’s granddaughter, Gwendolyn, runs to her grandfather’s room to find him struggling with his infirmity. Soon a storytelling session ensues, painting a portrait of a newly crowned King Graham overwhelmed with the weight of leadership as he is thrust into a life or death scenario where his subjects depend on his success for their protection. Taken prisoner by a goblin raiding party, Graham needs his wits to deliver old friends from the clutches of the enemy. This is a far cry from the coming-of-age adventure that comprised the majority of Chapter 1. I would have been perfectly content with more of the same from The Odd Gentlemen, but clearly the studio wasn’t content with a rehash. While Chapter 1 focused on exploration and reestablishing the Kingdom of Daventry after the series’ long absence, Chapter 2 goes hard into puzzle-solving and testing the relationships created in the previous chapter. Not only that, but the tone becomes slightly more serious. While there are still plenty of puns and witty lines, lives are put at stake. As a prisoner, Graham needs to keep his subjects alive and well while searching for a way to free them from captivity. Rubble Without a Cause brings with it a slight biting edge to the humor that was absent in the first installment. The added emphasis on puzzles adds to the depth of the King’s Quest experience. It feels like a slightly better bridging of traditional King’s Quest with modern adventure gaming than what was achieved in Chapter 1. While there were puzzles in the first chapter, they weren’t particularly difficult. However, I’ll confess to finding myself stumped at least twice during my time with Chapter 2. There are few things as puzzling as finding yourself with a chair, chopsticks, a pea, and no idea what you should do with them. This different approach to adventure gaming sacrifices some of the flowing transitions popularized by Telltale Games, but introduces more gameplay decisions. The way you solve the different conundrums presented to the player result in different outcomes. That idea might seem intuitive, but in practice it leads to a varied experience that’s actually pretty neat. King Graham makes progress through the dungeon over the course of several days. In addition to solving puzzles, players have to monitor the health of their subjects. If a subject’s health reaches zero they will definitely remember how their king didn’t look out for them. At one point in my playthrough I made a mistake. That mistake resulted in a sick, pregnant woman being carted off by the goblins to an unknown fate. I felt awful and, of course, attempted to reload my save. That’s when I realized that King’s Quest doesn’t allow for reloading to previous saves. King’s Quest autosaves every time Graham moves to a new screen. There is no rewinding, no do-over. From a user friendly perspective it would be nice to have a rewind feature of some sort, if only so players who want to replay certain chapters don’t have to start from the complete beginning. However, I appreciate King’s Quest as a harsh mistress. It forced me to come to terms with the consequences of my own poor decision making. That tied in really well with the thematics of the chapter; how leaders aren’t always perfect and must live with the weight of their decisions. Not being able to go back forces players into the same position as Graham and I think that’s a good thing, albeit frustrating. If I could suggest a change to Chapter 3, it would be a more obscure choices. The Odd Gentlemen have really made a great amalgamation of new and old with King’s Quest, but I think that the first two episodes have been overly obvious about the various paths open to players. It usually comes down to a choice between one of three paths: Bravery, cunning, and compassion. Level layouts and some really on-the-nose dialogue have often been overly telling rather than allowing the decisions to speak for themselves. It’s not a knock against what Chapter 2 offers, as it easily improves on this over Chapter 1, but King’s Quest can do even better. A bit of murkiness to the decision making process would go a long way. The animation in Chapter 2 remains absolutely gorgeous. Almost every screenshot looks like it could be a painting. Watching everything in motion and seeing the still frames during some cutscenes makes me ache for a King’s Quest film with this aesthetic. There were a few technical issues with the version I played; occasional frame stuttering when entering new areas, lighting effects not appearing properly, etc. However, these were rare and didn’t detract from my overall experience. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the number of great soundtracks that have been released this year, but I wanted more from the soundscape in Rubble Without a Cause. It felt a bit empty and lacked a signature King’s Quest flavor of its own that wasn’t borrowed from the previous chapter. The production schedule for King’s Quest must be ridiculously intensive, but hopefully future episodes can have the same care and attention paid to the soundtrack as the visuals, voice acting, and writing. Conclusion: King’s Quest Chapter 2 drastically increases my faith in The Odd Gentlemen as a studio that can do justice to the legendary Sierra property while bringing its gameplay into line with modern adventure games. It demonstrates that they’re committed to pushing their design and storytelling further with each episode rather than with every adventure series. Most importantly, Rubble Without a Cause brings back crucial gameplay elements that Telltale’s brand of adventures have lacked. If The Odd Gentlemen continue to push the envelope of episodic games, King’s Quest might be able to push the entire genre in new and exciting directions. King’s Quest Chapter 2 – Rubble Without a Cause was reviewed on Xbox One and is available now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC. View full article
  12. Telltale Games has been experiencing a golden age since the release of The Walking Dead season one three years ago. I very much contend that the studio hasn’t made a bad game since, and their first season of Game of Thrones is no exception. That doesn’t mean, however, that Telltale’s Game of Thrones exists free of problems. Despite the backing name of HBO’s most popular show, this might just be one of Telltale’s most muddled offerings since Lee and Clementine turned the company’s fortunes in 2013. I believe that the core narrative problems stem from an effort to emulate the show and books by cutting between our five main characters combined with the limitations of Telltale’s aging storytelling infrastructure. *minor spoilers ahead* The first season of Telltale’s Game of Thrones focuses on the plight of the noble House Forrester. The small, but important, family tasked with supplying the kingdom’s ironwood falls into dark times as it becomes embroiled in the political fallout of the infamous Red Wedding. Rotating between five members of the Forrester household spread across Westeros and beyond, players are tasked with keeping House Forrester from being wiped out by the scheming Whitehills and their backer, Ramsey Snow. The first episode proves incredibly effective at illustrating this premise while also introducing all of the main cast and their individual plot threads. We have Gared Tuttle, a squire to Lord Forrester who hears the nobleman's cryptic last words that send him on a journey to the Wall and beyond. In their darkest hour, the Forrester family sends for the exiled Asher Forrester who has become a mercenary across the Narrow Sea. Stranded in King’s Landing, the political heart of Westeros, Mira Forrester plays a dangerous game to protect her house from afar. In the absence of his father and elder brothers, Ethan Forrester must put aside his childhood in order to keep the Forrester keep of Ironrath from falling into devious hands. Gravely wounded and presumed dead, Rodrik, the eldest son of the Forrester clan creeps back home to prevent almost certain disaster. These various plot threads weave together to form a narrative that is at turns compelling and frustrating. While cutting between the diverse cast of characters certainly provides an interesting dynamic that other Telltale series lack, it sometimes felt more like a gimmick than a genuine asset. This feels particularly true of episodes two through four which seems to have certain characters treading water while more interesting things happen elsewhere. Writing diverse storylines and characters can be incredibly difficult, but because of the dead air in those episodes the momentum of the story slows to a crawl. For example, we seem to spend an awful lot of time with Mira in King’s Landing as she tries to make allies, but the payoff for that time often feels unrelated to what actions were taken during the time we were with her. That time could have been spent building relationships between other characters, bolstering the importance of player decisions. That isn’t to say that Mira doesn’t have important things to do during the six episode series, but rather sometimes the story seems to be subservient to the format instead of the reverse. That isn’t to say that there aren’t really awesome moments in Telltale’s Game of Thrones. Choosing to defiantly stand up to the Whitehills; guiding Mira through a delicate dinner party to successfully uncover an infernal plot against the Forrester family; and the heartrending climax of episode six are some of the best written moments in Telltale’s catalog. Those moments really work and feel equal parts Telltale at the height of its powers and Game of Thrones offering its mix of honor, duty, and backstabbery. However, I think that above all, Telltale’s Game of Thrones reveals the limits of what their current engine and game design strategy is capable of accomplishing. I had almost nothing but good things to say about the Tales from the Borderlands series that released alongside Game of Thrones. However, it existed comfortably in a relatively linear story that could diverge and reconnect relatively easily. Telltale’s design formula and engine work best within those constraints. To say that the world presented in Game of Thrones operates on the same level misses the mark entirely. Throughout the series I was constantly questioning why there weren’t more options. “Why doesn’t Mira do this? Why doesn’t Rodrik say that?” I’d think, “Surely there are other ways of dealing with this situation.” Having an incredibly limited way of dealing with tricky political situations seems at odds with the setting depicted in Game of Thrones. Telltale needed to do something a bit different mechanically to really pull off this series, but it stuck to the formula. That decision ultimately works to the series' detriment. While many Telltale games offer relatively few truly game-altering choices, often the illusion of choice is enough. Not so with Game of Thrones. It is actually frustrating to lose favor in court regardless of whether you play safe or live on the edge. That some important figures react the same way regardless of players’ decisions feels wrong for Game of Thrones. That I was so frustrated by the preordained decisions shows how attached I became to the cast through the well-written dialogue, but also shows that something else wasn't quite working. Not only does the story suffer from periods of treading water and impotence, the artistic style just doesn’t work the majority of the time. They were clearly going for an oil painting aesthetic that only sometimes hits the mark. More often than not, a strange background filter renders background objects to look incredibly pixelated or even poorly drawn. These starkly contrasting background objects appear most frequently in the first four episodes, but Telltale seems to have been aware of the problem as those jarring visuals are dimished in the final episodes. The only moments I wasn’t actively bothered by the visual choices for this style were in the establishing shots, but even those were often reused between episodes. Coming on the heels of Tales from the Borderlands, I expected to hear some captivating music. Perhaps Telltale would include a chilling rendition of 'The Rains of Castamere' or more variations of Talia’s lament. Unfortunately, that never happens. The music serves its purpose, but it never soars to the heights of tracks like 'In the Pines' or 'To the Top.' While Tales from the Borderlands feels like composer Jared Emerson-Johnson on his A-game, Game of Thrones feels more like his B-game. Conclusion: Telltale’s Game of Thrones is made for people who are already thoroughly invested in the world depicted in A Song of Ice and Fire. If you knew place names like King’s Landing, the Wall, or 'The Rains of Castamere,' you’ll thoroughly enjoy Telltale’s Game of Thrones. Just beware that this is definitively only the first season, and it does not end on a satisfying conclusion. The fate of House Forrester is left hanging in the wind and mysteries like the North Grove go unexplained. There are very genuine high points that will leave you gaping; moments that will have you giving an involuntary fist-pump; and periods of rage toward certain characters. The emotional highs are captivating, but it takes some patience to accept Telltale’s latest offering for what it is and bear with the plodding times between those highs. Game of Thrones – A Telltale Games Series was reviewed on PC and is available now for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android. View full article
  13. Telltale Games has been experiencing a golden age since the release of The Walking Dead season one three years ago. I very much contend that the studio hasn’t made a bad game since, and their first season of Game of Thrones is no exception. That doesn’t mean, however, that Telltale’s Game of Thrones exists free of problems. Despite the backing name of HBO’s most popular show, this might just be one of Telltale’s most muddled offerings since Lee and Clementine turned the company’s fortunes in 2013. I believe that the core narrative problems stem from an effort to emulate the show and books by cutting between our five main characters combined with the limitations of Telltale’s aging storytelling infrastructure. *minor spoilers ahead* The first season of Telltale’s Game of Thrones focuses on the plight of the noble House Forrester. The small, but important, family tasked with supplying the kingdom’s ironwood falls into dark times as it becomes embroiled in the political fallout of the infamous Red Wedding. Rotating between five members of the Forrester household spread across Westeros and beyond, players are tasked with keeping House Forrester from being wiped out by the scheming Whitehills and their backer, Ramsey Snow. The first episode proves incredibly effective at illustrating this premise while also introducing all of the main cast and their individual plot threads. We have Gared Tuttle, a squire to Lord Forrester who hears the nobleman's cryptic last words that send him on a journey to the Wall and beyond. In their darkest hour, the Forrester family sends for the exiled Asher Forrester who has become a mercenary across the Narrow Sea. Stranded in King’s Landing, the political heart of Westeros, Mira Forrester plays a dangerous game to protect her house from afar. In the absence of his father and elder brothers, Ethan Forrester must put aside his childhood in order to keep the Forrester keep of Ironrath from falling into devious hands. Gravely wounded and presumed dead, Rodrik, the eldest son of the Forrester clan creeps back home to prevent almost certain disaster. These various plot threads weave together to form a narrative that is at turns compelling and frustrating. While cutting between the diverse cast of characters certainly provides an interesting dynamic that other Telltale series lack, it sometimes felt more like a gimmick than a genuine asset. This feels particularly true of episodes two through four which seems to have certain characters treading water while more interesting things happen elsewhere. Writing diverse storylines and characters can be incredibly difficult, but because of the dead air in those episodes the momentum of the story slows to a crawl. For example, we seem to spend an awful lot of time with Mira in King’s Landing as she tries to make allies, but the payoff for that time often feels unrelated to what actions were taken during the time we were with her. That time could have been spent building relationships between other characters, bolstering the importance of player decisions. That isn’t to say that Mira doesn’t have important things to do during the six episode series, but rather sometimes the story seems to be subservient to the format instead of the reverse. That isn’t to say that there aren’t really awesome moments in Telltale’s Game of Thrones. Choosing to defiantly stand up to the Whitehills; guiding Mira through a delicate dinner party to successfully uncover an infernal plot against the Forrester family; and the heartrending climax of episode six are some of the best written moments in Telltale’s catalog. Those moments really work and feel equal parts Telltale at the height of its powers and Game of Thrones offering its mix of honor, duty, and backstabbery. However, I think that above all, Telltale’s Game of Thrones reveals the limits of what their current engine and game design strategy is capable of accomplishing. I had almost nothing but good things to say about the Tales from the Borderlands series that released alongside Game of Thrones. However, it existed comfortably in a relatively linear story that could diverge and reconnect relatively easily. Telltale’s design formula and engine work best within those constraints. To say that the world presented in Game of Thrones operates on the same level misses the mark entirely. Throughout the series I was constantly questioning why there weren’t more options. “Why doesn’t Mira do this? Why doesn’t Rodrik say that?” I’d think, “Surely there are other ways of dealing with this situation.” Having an incredibly limited way of dealing with tricky political situations seems at odds with the setting depicted in Game of Thrones. Telltale needed to do something a bit different mechanically to really pull off this series, but it stuck to the formula. That decision ultimately works to the series' detriment. While many Telltale games offer relatively few truly game-altering choices, often the illusion of choice is enough. Not so with Game of Thrones. It is actually frustrating to lose favor in court regardless of whether you play safe or live on the edge. That some important figures react the same way regardless of players’ decisions feels wrong for Game of Thrones. That I was so frustrated by the preordained decisions shows how attached I became to the cast through the well-written dialogue, but also shows that something else wasn't quite working. Not only does the story suffer from periods of treading water and impotence, the artistic style just doesn’t work the majority of the time. They were clearly going for an oil painting aesthetic that only sometimes hits the mark. More often than not, a strange background filter renders background objects to look incredibly pixelated or even poorly drawn. These starkly contrasting background objects appear most frequently in the first four episodes, but Telltale seems to have been aware of the problem as those jarring visuals are dimished in the final episodes. The only moments I wasn’t actively bothered by the visual choices for this style were in the establishing shots, but even those were often reused between episodes. Coming on the heels of Tales from the Borderlands, I expected to hear some captivating music. Perhaps Telltale would include a chilling rendition of 'The Rains of Castamere' or more variations of Talia’s lament. Unfortunately, that never happens. The music serves its purpose, but it never soars to the heights of tracks like 'In the Pines' or 'To the Top.' While Tales from the Borderlands feels like composer Jared Emerson-Johnson on his A-game, Game of Thrones feels more like his B-game. Conclusion: Telltale’s Game of Thrones is made for people who are already thoroughly invested in the world depicted in A Song of Ice and Fire. If you knew place names like King’s Landing, the Wall, or 'The Rains of Castamere,' you’ll thoroughly enjoy Telltale’s Game of Thrones. Just beware that this is definitively only the first season, and it does not end on a satisfying conclusion. The fate of House Forrester is left hanging in the wind and mysteries like the North Grove go unexplained. There are very genuine high points that will leave you gaping; moments that will have you giving an involuntary fist-pump; and periods of rage toward certain characters. The emotional highs are captivating, but it takes some patience to accept Telltale’s latest offering for what it is and bear with the plodding times between those highs. Game of Thrones – A Telltale Games Series was reviewed on PC and is available now for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android.
  14. The Tales from the Borderlands series stands as the most entertaining collection of episodes released by Telltale Games to date. I can’t remember the last time I smiled and laughed during a game as much as The Vault of the Traveler. Through the obscure alchemy known as “fantastic writing,” Tales from the Borderlands elevates itself from simply being funny (a difficult feat by itself) to a place where it conveys genuine pathos. By Episode Five, we’ve grown attached to the characters and we’ve become invested in the stakes. Important figures in both Tales from the Borderlands and the broader Borderlands universe have died in previous episodes, but The Vault of the Traveler ups the body count considerably. While the finale powerfully hits other emotional notes like sadness or anger, it remains fundamentally lighthearted. Some of what lies ahead could be considered spoilers. If you haven’t played any of Tales from the Borderlands yet, do yourself a favor and download the first episode for free. It comes with our recommendation. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Five was reviewed on PC. Telltale Games has been given an almost shocking freedom to change the game world of Borderlands. Previous episodes in the series have made smaller changes, but Episode Five goes all out and completely changes the fabric of the in-game universe. By the time the credits roll, staples of the Borderlands franchise have been left shattered and broken, leaving an exciting and intriguing future in store for upcoming entries in either the Gearbox or Telltale series. We’ve grown so used to game worlds and characters that remain relatively static that something as simple as following a story through and leaving the world different seems novel and progressive. While there have been no announcements regarding future Tales from the Borderlands seasons, the cliffhanger ending of Episode Five practically begs for a follow-up. As the series has progressed it has become clear that Telltale made a conscious decision to incorporate the jokes directly into the story. What might have seemed to be a funny, one-off moment in the first episode becomes a hilarious gag an episode or two later and somehow grows into a huge set piece during the finale. This does two things that are vitally important and really difficult to pull off. First, it cultivates humor and attachment. Sure, it might have been funny the first time Rhys and Vaughn fist bump and call each other “bro,” but seeing that friendship develop and those fist bumps become more and more ridiculously elaborate eventually makes the gesture really meaningful during the more serious moments. We understand that it means something more to the characters in whom we’ve become invested, so we empathize and feel closer to them by proxy when things become solemn. Second, the jokes become ground the serious moments of the story in a happy-go-lucky territory. Sure, the finger-gun segments at Hyperion were smile-inducing in the first episode. Sure, they were hilarious during the infiltration segment. But that particular joke coming back as a large-scale plot device during a tense life-or-death battle? Brilliant. That kind of set-up and pay-off is one of the hallmarks of great writing. Lesser writers often don’t look that far ahead in their stories. The hero just happens to be fluent in Mandarin for reasons that are explained in a bit of throwaway dialogue. The escaped heroine stumbles randomly into the room where the pivotal McGuffin has been hidden. Less talented writing occur when things just happen; where cause and effect don’t seem to exist. Tales from the Borderlands sets everything up from the beginning and propels itself forward with the almighty writers’ rule of “and then.” Beginning with Rhys and Fiona making active decisions to engage in a risky endeavor, every story beat from then on is a series of “and then” moments deriving from those fateful decisions. This leads to an unprecedented, breathless pacing that manages to move assuredly even in the insane world of Pandora. Because of that logical structure, players are able to easily understand the stakes and the various motivations of everyone involved with a minimal amount of effort. The entire finale is one big highlight of the best that Tales from the Borderlands can offer. Rhys finally confronts Handsome Jack. We at last learn the identity of the masked man who kidnapped Fiona and Rhys back in the first episode. The Gortys Project reaches its full potential. Players get a chance to assemble a team of vault hunters to take down the vault guardian. Fiona and Sasha fly into an alien portal and encounter vault dwellers. There are few moments that feel anything less than awesome. One of the few studios that puts a heavy emphasis on writing, Telltale Games will have put out six entire games in the past two years when the final episode of their Game of Thrones series lands next month (seven if you include Minecraft: Story Mode, though that won’t conclude until next year). That kind of output seems insane for such a small studio. Since the release of their first season of The Walking Dead, all of those games have ranged in quality from good to superb. I’d argue that the reason both seasons of The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones, and Tales from the Borderlands have been so successful has been because of the commitment Telltale shows to high caliber writing. People don’t play Telltale games because they have fun quick time events or heart racing gameplay mechanics; they do it to experience a well-told story and make meaningful choices. Storytelling carries the entire company. If a smaller studio like Telltale Games can be so successful by emphasizing story above AAA graphics and revamped gameplay mechanics, why can’t other studios learn from their example? Or rather, why are we content with lesser, lazier writing when we know how much better it could be? We should expect from all our games because of what Telltale routinely shows us is possible on a shoestring budget. On that small budget, Telltale delivers swashbuckling space heists, world-shattering disasters, giant robot fights, and gorgeous scenes that play just as well on a mobile phone as on a tricked out PC. Constrained art direction combined with some fantastic composing and licensed music selection by Jared Emerson-Johnson really elevate the presentation above what many have come to expect from Telltale Games, which is no small feat. There are very few criticisms to level against the conclusion of the Tales from the Borderlands series. The largest problem I encountered was the lip syncing running off track once or twice for a few jarring seconds. I also noticed some graphical stuttering, but given the sheer number of effects and moving objects on screen it’s likely that the fault lies with the aging Telltale engine which allows for so much multiplatform flexibility. The only other thing that really stood out to me as being moderately irritating were a few instances of obvious set ups for dramatic turns. Episode Five contains some incredible surprises, but a few of its most meaningful moments are a bit too obviously telegraphed. All told, however, these insignificant nitpicks didn’t really detract from my enjoyment. Conclusion: Tales from the Borderlands begins as one of the best game series Telltale Games has made to date and ends as a serious contender for Game of the Year. Vault of the Traveler is the perfect conclusion for the series. It will tickle your funny bone, pull your heartstrings, and punch you in the gut while keeping plenty of surprises and fake-outs in store to keep things incredibly interesting. I wouldn’t be upset Episode Five was the last we saw of Tales from the Borderlands, but I hope we see more and that we don’t have to wait years for a season two to become a reality. If you value games as vehicles for compelling stories, you owe it to yourself to play Tales from the Borderlands. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Five is available now for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android. --- Don’t forget to sign up for Extra Life’s Thunderclap to donate a tweet or Facebook post on October 24 to help raise awareness of Extra Life! It’s super easy and will only take you a minute to set up.
  15. There are places in the twisted windings of the world where what we take for reality breaks down and allows a malicious madness from beyond our comprehension to seep through the cracks. Euclidean rips us through one such warped fissure into a realm of impossible creatures and huge, gloating malevolence. Whatever intellect built and encompasses the crumbling structures of that beyond-ancient place never meant for humans to trespass. Those who find themselves in that drowning, suffocating space soon find themselves obliterated to less than dust. However, this time is different. We are to descend into the depths of Euclidean. Developer Alpha Wave describes their first project as an adventure of “geometric horror” which is an apt description for a game that brings writhing geometric patterns to life with a strange wickedness. A deep, cruel voice soon informs you that everything here will kill you as you begin sinking into the darkness that awaits. In the blackness below, it waits and mocks, taking a subtle pleasure in degrading what it believes to be your final moments. Euclidean plays a bit like a slow-paced endless runner, but with sinking through an ocean of monsters instead of running from imminent danger. You use the WASD to avoid obstacles and beasts and have the ability to become insubstantial for a couple seconds in order to pass through the creatures that wish you ill. Touching anything beside the strange glowing orbs on the floor of every level results in death. It never evolves past those concepts and feels more contemplative and puzzle-like than a more action-packed endless runner. This design choice really allows the atmosphere and creepiness to seep into the action. For its benefits, the slow pace cuts both ways for Euclidean. The leisurely sinking speed leads to controls that feel sluggish as moving out of the way of mad horrors and floating ruins seems just as unhurried. That can be pretty frustrating when an instant death means you restart the stage over from the beginning, which can mean another several minutes slowly floating down through the detritus of madness. A visually dark aesthetic, while effectively reinforcing the title’s murky themes, compounds the irritation by obscuring obstacles. Just seeing enemies becomes a struggle. Your gaze in this first-person game naturally gravitates down, the only direction in which you move, making it hard to see the geometric monstrosities coming from the sides or above. Euclidean boasts virtual reality integration, which might have been able to alleviate my frustrations with perceiving the dangers in the depths. Unfortunately, I did not play Euclidean on Oculus Rift. I get the distinct impression that it was designed specifically with virtual reality in mind. It is almost impossible to get a good feel for the environment without leaving yourself open to immediate and unexpected death. Being able to look around by turning your own head probably both fixes that problem and provides a larger sense of scope by allowing you to really soak in all angles of the game world. I keep talking about the environment and atmosphere. Imagine being in the middle of an ocean that teems with the indistinct shapes of squids and sharks and whales on a colossal scale and knowing that they all would like nothing better than to rip you apart and savor your landling flesh. That unnerving sensation encapsulates what Euclidean feels like. The environments give the impression of gigantic, watery graves filled with pulsing, alien lights and occasional bits of living anatomy that should not be. This is all supported by amazingly solid art design that creates menacing and frightening enemies out of geometric shapes. It manages to be wordlessly eloquent, eerie, and eldritch all at the same time. The environments and concepts are all very influenced by Lovecraft, but I think it is underselling the talents of the people who worked on Euclidean to leave it at that. Each enemy type has its own personality that comes out through their movements and overall design. The structures in the water give the world a very lived-in quality that speaks to a history we will never know. That scope, that understated bigness, takes a lot of effort and skill to pay off and I thought it worked swimmingly. Conclusion: Euclidean feels like a fully realized idea. Its nine stages are interesting and fascinating. Despite three other difficulties and a mode with permadeath, I don’t know if I will ever go back to it. However, I am definitely glad that I had the chance to spend time in its otherworldly space. It speaks to an inevitability that we can all relate to; an existential truth that none of us asked for, but with which we have to live. At two hours, it isn’t a long game, but it felt worth the $3.99 price of admission. If that sounds like a bit much for a solid and memorable two hour experience, pick it up for a couple bucks when a price drop hits. My biggest takeaway from this, though, is an anticipation for Alpha Wave’s next project. Euclidean tested the waters, but I can’t wait to see Alpha Wave dive in with heedless abandon. Euclidean is available now for PC. View full article
  16. There are places in the twisted windings of the world where what we take for reality breaks down and allows a malicious madness from beyond our comprehension to seep through the cracks. Euclidean rips us through one such warped fissure into a realm of impossible creatures and huge, gloating malevolence. Whatever intellect built and encompasses the crumbling structures of that beyond-ancient place never meant for humans to trespass. Those who find themselves in that drowning, suffocating space soon find themselves obliterated to less than dust. However, this time is different. We are to descend into the depths of Euclidean. Developer Alpha Wave describes their first project as an adventure of “geometric horror” which is an apt description for a game that brings writhing geometric patterns to life with a strange wickedness. A deep, cruel voice soon informs you that everything here will kill you as you begin sinking into the darkness that awaits. In the blackness below, it waits and mocks, taking a subtle pleasure in degrading what it believes to be your final moments. Euclidean plays a bit like a slow-paced endless runner, but with sinking through an ocean of monsters instead of running from imminent danger. You use the WASD to avoid obstacles and beasts and have the ability to become insubstantial for a couple seconds in order to pass through the creatures that wish you ill. Touching anything beside the strange glowing orbs on the floor of every level results in death. It never evolves past those concepts and feels more contemplative and puzzle-like than a more action-packed endless runner. This design choice really allows the atmosphere and creepiness to seep into the action. For its benefits, the slow pace cuts both ways for Euclidean. The leisurely sinking speed leads to controls that feel sluggish as moving out of the way of mad horrors and floating ruins seems just as unhurried. That can be pretty frustrating when an instant death means you restart the stage over from the beginning, which can mean another several minutes slowly floating down through the detritus of madness. A visually dark aesthetic, while effectively reinforcing the title’s murky themes, compounds the irritation by obscuring obstacles. Just seeing enemies becomes a struggle. Your gaze in this first-person game naturally gravitates down, the only direction in which you move, making it hard to see the geometric monstrosities coming from the sides or above. Euclidean boasts virtual reality integration, which might have been able to alleviate my frustrations with perceiving the dangers in the depths. Unfortunately, I did not play Euclidean on Oculus Rift. I get the distinct impression that it was designed specifically with virtual reality in mind. It is almost impossible to get a good feel for the environment without leaving yourself open to immediate and unexpected death. Being able to look around by turning your own head probably both fixes that problem and provides a larger sense of scope by allowing you to really soak in all angles of the game world. I keep talking about the environment and atmosphere. Imagine being in the middle of an ocean that teems with the indistinct shapes of squids and sharks and whales on a colossal scale and knowing that they all would like nothing better than to rip you apart and savor your landling flesh. That unnerving sensation encapsulates what Euclidean feels like. The environments give the impression of gigantic, watery graves filled with pulsing, alien lights and occasional bits of living anatomy that should not be. This is all supported by amazingly solid art design that creates menacing and frightening enemies out of geometric shapes. It manages to be wordlessly eloquent, eerie, and eldritch all at the same time. The environments and concepts are all very influenced by Lovecraft, but I think it is underselling the talents of the people who worked on Euclidean to leave it at that. Each enemy type has its own personality that comes out through their movements and overall design. The structures in the water give the world a very lived-in quality that speaks to a history we will never know. That scope, that understated bigness, takes a lot of effort and skill to pay off and I thought it worked swimmingly. Conclusion: Euclidean feels like a fully realized idea. Its nine stages are interesting and fascinating. Despite three other difficulties and a mode with permadeath, I don’t know if I will ever go back to it. However, I am definitely glad that I had the chance to spend time in its otherworldly space. It speaks to an inevitability that we can all relate to; an existential truth that none of us asked for, but with which we have to live. At two hours, it isn’t a long game, but it felt worth the $3.99 price of admission. If that sounds like a bit much for a solid and memorable two hour experience, pick it up for a couple bucks when a price drop hits. My biggest takeaway from this, though, is an anticipation for Alpha Wave’s next project. Euclidean tested the waters, but I can’t wait to see Alpha Wave dive in with heedless abandon. Euclidean is available now for PC.
  17. There are a lot of things to love about the Tales from the Borderlands series from Telltale Games. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, equal parts charming and violent, and can even muster up the capacity to be heartfelt from time to time. There is this underlying sincerity to it all that makes the series work better than one might expect from a story-driven adventure set in the insane universe of Borderlands. While an enjoyable segment of adventure, Episode Three was essentially the set up for the craziness that makes up the meat of Escape Plan Bravo. Our heroes, backed into a corner and left with no other option, must undertake the biggest con of their lives to secure the final piece of the puzzle that will lead them to a legendary vault. Failure to secure the piece will mean death for everyone involved. It’s a classic set up that slowly becomes more and more convoluted as parts of the plan fail or run into snags. By the end of the episode, just when things couldn’t possibly become worse, the stage is set for the finale with an improbably catastrophic turn of events. In the middle of all the enjoyable con artistry, the game pauses for an unexpected character death. It serves as a reminder that Pandora is a harsh and violent place where death is never far away, even during hijinks and heists. More importantly, this scene again shows that Tales from the Borderlands can achieve more emotional high-notes than laughter and visceral excitement. The death hits home as genuinely sad. It is an effective send off for a character who has become a staple of the series, though I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if that character turned out to have survived through a series of improbable events. Picking the highlight of Escape Plan Bravo is easily done. Towards the end of the episode, an imaginary gun battle breaks out with a bunch of accountants who are upset about discrepancies with the books. The amazingly creative and hilarious scene features dozens of accountants getting finger-gunned down and imaginary grenade explosions. It injects some levity into an otherwise tense con. Those two aforementioned scenes demonstrate the solid construction of the individual episodes of Tales from the Borderlands. It all feels balanced. Events are funny, but never wander into outright farce territory. An element of danger always underlies the humor. However, that danger is managed in such a way that it never feels suffocating, allowing the humor to speak for itself while making the tragedies encountered over the course of four episodes feel earned or at least understandable. It’s a precarious path for the series to walk, but it manages to toe the lines with apparent ease. From a technical perspective, Escape Plan Bravo ran the smoothest out of any of the Tales from the Borderlands episodes to date. I encountered no graphical hiccups or bugs during my two hour playthrough, which led to a very pleasant experience. Not much else to say on this other than it works without a hitch. Visually, Escape Plan Bravo is probably the most diverse and eye-candy filled episode in the series to date. We get to see more than the blasted surface of Pandora, which makes for a nice diversion from crazy psychos, monsters, and eccentric locals. There is an air of novelty to the visuals that is hard to pin down on any one part of the visual design. Perhaps a part of what makes thing so interesting to look at is that they come with a lot of meaning. People who have played through Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and Borderlands 2 will get a lot more out of Episode Four as it deals rather heavily with Handsome Jack. It manages to humanize the character to such a degree that it is perilously easy to forget that a cold-hearted villain lurks beneath Handsom Jack's outward charms. The one complaint that I can possibly level against Escape Plan Bravo is that the overarching plot is very predictable. If you have ever seen a heist or con movie, you’ll understand where Episode Four is going. Even if you haven’t, the set up leads to a large chunk of the episode feeling like formulaic moving from Point A to Point B in the most over-the-top ways imaginable. There’s nothing wrong with that, but part of the fun of previous episodes was the blindsiding unexpectedness of encountering Pandorans living their hyperbolic lives. Conclusion: It is a Telltale Game. Expect great writing, game-changing choices, and some really interesting scenarios. Escape Plan Bravo comes close to being a new high for the series between its dramatic and comedic turns. With the overarching mystery laid out in the framed narrative still unsolved, Episode Five is sure to hold a lot of bombshells and insanity. As it stands, if you played the first three episodes of Tales from the Borderlands, you will be doing yourself a favor by playing Episode Four. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Four – Escape Plan Bravo is now available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android devices.
  18. There are a lot of things to love about the Tales from the Borderlands series from Telltale Games. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, equal parts charming and violent, and can even muster up the capacity to be heartfelt from time to time. There is this underlying sincerity to it all that makes the series work better than one might expect from a story-driven adventure set in the insane universe of Borderlands. While an enjoyable segment of adventure, Episode Three was essentially the set up for the craziness that makes up the meat of Escape Plan Bravo. Our heroes, backed into a corner and left with no other option, must undertake the biggest con of their lives to secure the final piece of the puzzle that will lead them to a legendary vault. Failure to secure the piece will mean death for everyone involved. It’s a classic set up that slowly becomes more and more convoluted as parts of the plan fail or run into snags. By the end of the episode, just when things couldn’t possibly become worse, the stage is set for the finale with an improbably catastrophic turn of events. In the middle of all the enjoyable con artistry, the game pauses for an unexpected character death. It serves as a reminder that Pandora is a harsh and violent place where death is never far away, even during hijinks and heists. More importantly, this scene again shows that Tales from the Borderlands can achieve more emotional high-notes than laughter and visceral excitement. The death hits home as genuinely sad. It is an effective send off for a character who has become a staple of the series, though I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if that character turned out to have survived through a series of improbable events. Picking the highlight of Escape Plan Bravo is easily done. Towards the end of the episode, an imaginary gun battle breaks out with a bunch of accountants who are upset about discrepancies with the books. The amazingly creative and hilarious scene features dozens of accountants getting finger-gunned down and imaginary grenade explosions. It injects some levity into an otherwise tense con. Those two aforementioned scenes demonstrate the solid construction of the individual episodes of Tales from the Borderlands. It all feels balanced. Events are funny, but never wander into outright farce territory. An element of danger always underlies the humor. However, that danger is managed in such a way that it never feels suffocating, allowing the humor to speak for itself while making the tragedies encountered over the course of four episodes feel earned or at least understandable. It’s a precarious path for the series to walk, but it manages to toe the lines with apparent ease. From a technical perspective, Escape Plan Bravo ran the smoothest out of any of the Tales from the Borderlands episodes to date. I encountered no graphical hiccups or bugs during my two hour playthrough, which led to a very pleasant experience. Not much else to say on this other than it works without a hitch. Visually, Escape Plan Bravo is probably the most diverse and eye-candy filled episode in the series to date. We get to see more than the blasted surface of Pandora, which makes for a nice diversion from crazy psychos, monsters, and eccentric locals. There is an air of novelty to the visuals that is hard to pin down on any one part of the visual design. Perhaps a part of what makes thing so interesting to look at is that they come with a lot of meaning. People who have played through Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and Borderlands 2 will get a lot more out of Episode Four as it deals rather heavily with Handsome Jack. It manages to humanize the character to such a degree that it is perilously easy to forget that a cold-hearted villain lurks beneath Handsom Jack's outward charms. The one complaint that I can possibly level against Escape Plan Bravo is that the overarching plot is very predictable. If you have ever seen a heist or con movie, you’ll understand where Episode Four is going. Even if you haven’t, the set up leads to a large chunk of the episode feeling like formulaic moving from Point A to Point B in the most over-the-top ways imaginable. There’s nothing wrong with that, but part of the fun of previous episodes was the blindsiding unexpectedness of encountering Pandorans living their hyperbolic lives. Conclusion: It is a Telltale Game. Expect great writing, game-changing choices, and some really interesting scenarios. Escape Plan Bravo comes close to being a new high for the series between its dramatic and comedic turns. With the overarching mystery laid out in the framed narrative still unsolved, Episode Five is sure to hold a lot of bombshells and insanity. As it stands, if you played the first three episodes of Tales from the Borderlands, you will be doing yourself a favor by playing Episode Four. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Four – Escape Plan Bravo is now available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android devices. View full article
  19. The neon-drenched streets of a future Hong Kong, awash with trash and desperation, resound with malicious intent as something sinister stirs in the shadows of the monolithic corporations that practically enslave the general population. In those very same shadows one might catch fleeting glimpses of the criminals who remain free, fleeing from the whisper of alarms and the heavy footsteps of those that pursue them. In a world where magic and technology collide in interesting and terrifying ways, where dragons and gods vie for power with corporations and world governments, Harebrained Schemes manages to tell a story that remains surprisingly human. As the protagonist of Shadowrun: Hong Kong, you’ve been summoned to the titular city at the request of your aged foster father, who you haven’t seen in the years following an incident which resulted in your incarceration in an off-the-books corporate prison. Shortly after arriving and meeting up with your estranged foster brother, things go bad. Really bad. Forced to turn to a local crime lord to burn your life-long identities, you now owe some dangerous people dangerous favors. What happened to your father? What was he calling you to Hong Kong to do? Why are you now hunted in the streets like a rabid dog? The mystery sucks you in and slowly spirals toward an unnerving conclusion. Hong Kong represents the third Shadowrun title from developer Harebrained Schemes. The accumulated experience shows as does the extra refinement from the successful Kickstarter campaign that went toward additional funding for various side characters and revamped mechanics. The additional characters are really very interesting and feel fully integrated into the story, managing to void that "tacked on" feeling that can sometimes accompany such situations. While Hong Kong shares a base framework with Returns and Dragonfall, it distinguishes itself through well written dialogue and vivid scene descriptions that often surpass Harebrained’s previous efforts. This improvement lies in the sense of scale that Hong Kong seems to exude. Though some of the areas might be technically small, the descriptions and the ways in which the characters talk about the various locations impart a sense of bigness. If this were done in AAA fashion, the costs would be astronomical to achieve the same effect in a third-person environment. The tense moments of talking your way through heavy security or deadly shootouts in secret labs are no less exciting for the isometric angle of the action. It isn’t going to blow anyone's mind when it comes to graphical presentation (though the animatic scene transitions added by the Kickstarter certainly look nice), but it has a lot of heart and manages to soar to greater story moments than many games with larger budgets. Shadowrun provides an enjoyable mix of strategic, turn-based gameplay and RPG progression. Players will have to be able to make use of magic, melee, combat drones, guns, computer hacking, a number of empowered abilities, and even cybernetic enhancements if they want to get through Hong Kong unscathed. No matter what paths players choose to take while leveling and customizing their character, there will always be unique dialogue options to pursue that open new routes through sticky social situations. Or, you know, you could just shoot everything that stands in your way. To me, having a wide array of viable options is where Harebrained Schemes really manages to capture the spirit of the tabletop RPG. However, Hong Kong wobbles a bit at the landing. The narrative doesn’t allow for the climax of the story to stew quite long enough, which prevents the resolution of the plot from being as satisfying as it might otherwise be. The finale hits the ground sprinting and left me scratching my head at the number of important loose ends that were wrapped up with only a single sentence. One thing you really don’t want is for your story to leave people confused (unless that ambiguity is part of the point your work is trying to get across). It simply feels rushed and the finale of Hong Kong would have benefited from more time allowing the situation to truly sink in. There are a few technical hurdles, too. The Unity engine that previous Shadowrun games have operated on sometimes suffers from hiccups that make a certain part of the isometric arena untargetable. Accompanying that annoyance are some staggeringly long load times (not Bloodbourne-long, but still sizable), even on high-end hardware. On top of those issues, it is possible to break your game on inventory screens by replacing required equipment. There seems to be no remedy for this besides restarting the game from your last save or checkpoint. For a game that heavily relies on text it is also more than a little strange that I encountered a few residual filler text portions that were still in the text. No, Shadowrun: Hong Kong, my name is not [Insert Player Name]. Or moments when the action on screen was being described incorrectly, which happened a couple of times toward the end. I know the text for this title must have been hugely long, but it would have benefited from another run through an editor. Conclusion: Shadowrun: Hong Kong represents a high point for Harebrained Schemes. The writing and characters will stick with you after you’ve finished playing and leave you wanting more. Hong Kong is an ambitious project and it largely succeeds in achieving its goals, despite a wobbly ending and some jagged edges. The gameplay is solid and enjoyable, especially if you are a strategic gamer. There are always multiple routes through an area and multiple solutions to a puzzle. It manages to consistently feel rewarding. Only a few years ago people were worried that the increasing cost of game development could spell an end to games espousing big ideas with grand designs. Shadowrun: Hong Kong shows how unfounded those fears were, demonstrating exactly what a focused team with a smaller budget can accomplish. While the future might eventually involve a lot of shadows, for now – for gamers, developers, and certainly Harebrained Schemes – it looks promisingly bright. Shadowrun: Hong Kong is currently available on PC and an additional mini-campaign will be released sometime in the near future. View full article
  20. The neon-drenched streets of a future Hong Kong, awash with trash and desperation, resound with malicious intent as something sinister stirs in the shadows of the monolithic corporations that practically enslave the general population. In those very same shadows one might catch fleeting glimpses of the criminals who remain free, fleeing from the whisper of alarms and the heavy footsteps of those that pursue them. In a world where magic and technology collide in interesting and terrifying ways, where dragons and gods vie for power with corporations and world governments, Harebrained Schemes manages to tell a story that remains surprisingly human. As the protagonist of Shadowrun: Hong Kong, you’ve been summoned to the titular city at the request of your aged foster father, who you haven’t seen in the years following an incident which resulted in your incarceration in an off-the-books corporate prison. Shortly after arriving and meeting up with your estranged foster brother, things go bad. Really bad. Forced to turn to a local crime lord to burn your life-long identities, you now owe some dangerous people dangerous favors. What happened to your father? What was he calling you to Hong Kong to do? Why are you now hunted in the streets like a rabid dog? The mystery sucks you in and slowly spirals toward an unnerving conclusion. Hong Kong represents the third Shadowrun title from developer Harebrained Schemes. The accumulated experience shows as does the extra refinement from the successful Kickstarter campaign that went toward additional funding for various side characters and revamped mechanics. The additional characters are really very interesting and feel fully integrated into the story, managing to void that "tacked on" feeling that can sometimes accompany such situations. While Hong Kong shares a base framework with Returns and Dragonfall, it distinguishes itself through well written dialogue and vivid scene descriptions that often surpass Harebrained’s previous efforts. This improvement lies in the sense of scale that Hong Kong seems to exude. Though some of the areas might be technically small, the descriptions and the ways in which the characters talk about the various locations impart a sense of bigness. If this were done in AAA fashion, the costs would be astronomical to achieve the same effect in a third-person environment. The tense moments of talking your way through heavy security or deadly shootouts in secret labs are no less exciting for the isometric angle of the action. It isn’t going to blow anyone's mind when it comes to graphical presentation (though the animatic scene transitions added by the Kickstarter certainly look nice), but it has a lot of heart and manages to soar to greater story moments than many games with larger budgets. Shadowrun provides an enjoyable mix of strategic, turn-based gameplay and RPG progression. Players will have to be able to make use of magic, melee, combat drones, guns, computer hacking, a number of empowered abilities, and even cybernetic enhancements if they want to get through Hong Kong unscathed. No matter what paths players choose to take while leveling and customizing their character, there will always be unique dialogue options to pursue that open new routes through sticky social situations. Or, you know, you could just shoot everything that stands in your way. To me, having a wide array of viable options is where Harebrained Schemes really manages to capture the spirit of the tabletop RPG. However, Hong Kong wobbles a bit at the landing. The narrative doesn’t allow for the climax of the story to stew quite long enough, which prevents the resolution of the plot from being as satisfying as it might otherwise be. The finale hits the ground sprinting and left me scratching my head at the number of important loose ends that were wrapped up with only a single sentence. One thing you really don’t want is for your story to leave people confused (unless that ambiguity is part of the point your work is trying to get across). It simply feels rushed and the finale of Hong Kong would have benefited from more time allowing the situation to truly sink in. There are a few technical hurdles, too. The Unity engine that previous Shadowrun games have operated on sometimes suffers from hiccups that make a certain part of the isometric arena untargetable. Accompanying that annoyance are some staggeringly long load times (not Bloodbourne-long, but still sizable), even on high-end hardware. On top of those issues, it is possible to break your game on inventory screens by replacing required equipment. There seems to be no remedy for this besides restarting the game from your last save or checkpoint. For a game that heavily relies on text it is also more than a little strange that I encountered a few residual filler text portions that were still in the text. No, Shadowrun: Hong Kong, my name is not [Insert Player Name]. Or moments when the action on screen was being described incorrectly, which happened a couple of times toward the end. I know the text for this title must have been hugely long, but it would have benefited from another run through an editor. Conclusion: Shadowrun: Hong Kong represents a high point for Harebrained Schemes. The writing and characters will stick with you after you’ve finished playing and leave you wanting more. Hong Kong is an ambitious project and it largely succeeds in achieving its goals, despite a wobbly ending and some jagged edges. The gameplay is solid and enjoyable, especially if you are a strategic gamer. There are always multiple routes through an area and multiple solutions to a puzzle. It manages to consistently feel rewarding. Only a few years ago people were worried that the increasing cost of game development could spell an end to games espousing big ideas with grand designs. Shadowrun: Hong Kong shows how unfounded those fears were, demonstrating exactly what a focused team with a smaller budget can accomplish. While the future might eventually involve a lot of shadows, for now – for gamers, developers, and certainly Harebrained Schemes – it looks promisingly bright. Shadowrun: Hong Kong is currently available on PC and an additional mini-campaign will be released sometime in the near future.
  21. There are fundamental principles to video game development as real and constant as the speed of light. Perhaps the most important of these rules is what has become known as Bushnell’s Law. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell was fond of saying, “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.” While the quote has come under fire for perhaps encouraging developers toward game design that fosters compulsive rather than rewarding experiences, I believe it simply means that developers should respect the time invested into their work by players. Video games are unique as an art form in that they fight us more so than any other medium. Each game requires a learning process, usually encapsulated within a tutorial, to teach us how to play. For veteran gamers, it can be easy to forget how difficult initially navigating in-game spaces once was, let alone actually accomplishing basic tasks. This is where Bushnell’s Law comes in. The more a developer can make a game easy to comprehend while still retaining depth, the better and more accessible it will be. It is a simple rule and one that can be seen at work in many of our most enduring games. Tetris remains one of the most played, most emulated games of all time because it exemplifies Bushnell’s Law. Almost anyone can grasp how to play Tetris within one minute, but learning to cope with the increased speed of falling bricks takes time and reflexes to master. In an age where technology moves ever forward at a breakneck pace, Tetris, a 31-year-old game, maintains its relevance to this day. This might seem like a very round-about way to begin talking about Rocket League, but it’s critical to understanding why I think Rocket League is so brilliant. The elevator pitch of Rocket League is irresistible: What if you combined soccer with high-speed car chases and explosions? Throughout its execution, Rocket League stays close to that core premise. Teams of up to four players can face off against each other while attempting to bounce a giant ball into the opposing team’s goal. That’s really all there is to the basic concept. However, spending more and more time playing reveals the depth introduced by the various supporting systems. Rocket League appears to be one of the few modern games that truly understands and embraces Bushnell’s Law. The controls boil down to steering the car, accelerating/reversing, boosting, a small explosion to flip your vehicle, and a handbrake. These are the kind of controls most people are able to grasp with relatively little effort. A training mode is available, but isn’t really necessary to enjoy the simple, frenetic gameplay that will absorb players into the moment-to-moment action. While the controls always remain simple, the true highlight of Rocket League is its physics system. The ball and cars all operate under a fun, bouncy gravity that results in an ever shifting field of play that can send anyone flying in different directions at a moment's notice. Hitting an opponent’s car with enough force temporarily takes them out of the game for a second or two before they respawn near their goal. Players can also learn to control their flights through the air, flipping to make the most efficient landing or to hit the ball in just the right way. Flipping through the air to hit the ball at the correct angle to make a shot or deflect an imminent goal is incredibly satisfying. The controls might be intuitive and easy to learn, the physics system lends Rocket League the depth to make it a fascinating and fun experience. If there is one drawback to Rocket League it is that it loses a bit of its luster when played alone. Communicating with teammates and coordinating strategies enhance the experience above and beyond the solo modes. This makes Rocket League an engaging party game, but not the most exciting option if you’re by yourself. Luckily, Rocket League makes finding and communicating with friends painless and easy, whether it is via a Steam friends list or through PSN. While some people might complain regarding a lack of diverse gameplay modes, I find it hard to fault the game for presenting such a perfect base experience. On top of that, developer Psyonix has promised more game modes and maps will be added in the future as free DLC. More variety is coming in the future, but for now players can settle for playing an amazingly fun and solid core experience with their friends and family. While playing, players can unlock various pieces of gear and accessories for their cars. The equipment is all cosmetic, but seeing a car in a top hat while it explodes across a soccer field to perform a wheelie to make a game winning shot is definitely an amazing sight. Conclusion: Rocket League “rewards the first quarter and the hundredth.” It respects player time enough to deliver a faultless base game that will certainly deliver dozens of hours of entertainment. For $20 (or free if you had PS Plus last month), I discovered it to be a ridiculous bargain for the amount of fun I found myself having. Grab a few friends, hit the arena, and lose your minds over the sweet, joyous thrill of Rocket League. View full article
  22. There are fundamental principles to video game development as real and constant as the speed of light. Perhaps the most important of these rules is what has become known as Bushnell’s Law. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell was fond of saying, “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.” While the quote has come under fire for perhaps encouraging developers toward game design that fosters compulsive rather than rewarding experiences, I believe it simply means that developers should respect the time invested into their work by players. Video games are unique as an art form in that they fight us more so than any other medium. Each game requires a learning process, usually encapsulated within a tutorial, to teach us how to play. For veteran gamers, it can be easy to forget how difficult initially navigating in-game spaces once was, let alone actually accomplishing basic tasks. This is where Bushnell’s Law comes in. The more a developer can make a game easy to comprehend while still retaining depth, the better and more accessible it will be. It is a simple rule and one that can be seen at work in many of our most enduring games. Tetris remains one of the most played, most emulated games of all time because it exemplifies Bushnell’s Law. Almost anyone can grasp how to play Tetris within one minute, but learning to cope with the increased speed of falling bricks takes time and reflexes to master. In an age where technology moves ever forward at a breakneck pace, Tetris, a 31-year-old game, maintains its relevance to this day. This might seem like a very round-about way to begin talking about Rocket League, but it’s critical to understanding why I think Rocket League is so brilliant. The elevator pitch of Rocket League is irresistible: What if you combined soccer with high-speed car chases and explosions? Throughout its execution, Rocket League stays close to that core premise. Teams of up to four players can face off against each other while attempting to bounce a giant ball into the opposing team’s goal. That’s really all there is to the basic concept. However, spending more and more time playing reveals the depth introduced by the various supporting systems. Rocket League appears to be one of the few modern games that truly understands and embraces Bushnell’s Law. The controls boil down to steering the car, accelerating/reversing, boosting, a small explosion to flip your vehicle, and a handbrake. These are the kind of controls most people are able to grasp with relatively little effort. A training mode is available, but isn’t really necessary to enjoy the simple, frenetic gameplay that will absorb players into the moment-to-moment action. While the controls always remain simple, the true highlight of Rocket League is its physics system. The ball and cars all operate under a fun, bouncy gravity that results in an ever shifting field of play that can send anyone flying in different directions at a moment's notice. Hitting an opponent’s car with enough force temporarily takes them out of the game for a second or two before they respawn near their goal. Players can also learn to control their flights through the air, flipping to make the most efficient landing or to hit the ball in just the right way. Flipping through the air to hit the ball at the correct angle to make a shot or deflect an imminent goal is incredibly satisfying. The controls might be intuitive and easy to learn, the physics system lends Rocket League the depth to make it a fascinating and fun experience. If there is one drawback to Rocket League it is that it loses a bit of its luster when played alone. Communicating with teammates and coordinating strategies enhance the experience above and beyond the solo modes. This makes Rocket League an engaging party game, but not the most exciting option if you’re by yourself. Luckily, Rocket League makes finding and communicating with friends painless and easy, whether it is via a Steam friends list or through PSN. While some people might complain regarding a lack of diverse gameplay modes, I find it hard to fault the game for presenting such a perfect base experience. On top of that, developer Psyonix has promised more game modes and maps will be added in the future as free DLC. More variety is coming in the future, but for now players can settle for playing an amazingly fun and solid core experience with their friends and family. While playing, players can unlock various pieces of gear and accessories for their cars. The equipment is all cosmetic, but seeing a car in a top hat while it explodes across a soccer field to perform a wheelie to make a game winning shot is definitely an amazing sight. Conclusion: Rocket League “rewards the first quarter and the hundredth.” It respects player time enough to deliver a faultless base game that will certainly deliver dozens of hours of entertainment. For $20 (or free if you had PS Plus last month), I discovered it to be a ridiculous bargain for the amount of fun I found myself having. Grab a few friends, hit the arena, and lose your minds over the sweet, joyous thrill of Rocket League.
  23. Tales from the Borderlands Episode One – Zer0 Sum did a lot of heavy lifting when it came to establishing characters. By the time we saw the credits roll, we knew what our protagonists’ goals were, some of their personality quirks, and understood the insanity of the planet Pandora. Episode Two fleshes out the supporting cast and allows them all to bounce off of each other, interacting in fun and unexpected ways. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two - Atlas Mugged was reviewed on PC. The basic conceit of Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two is that of an extended chase sequence that slowly transitions into a series of madcap scenarios that would feel right at home in a heist film with a sense of humor. The pacing keeps up the breakneck momentum of Zer0 Sum, but interjects a few slower segments for dramatic effect. The first episode ends with the discovery of a device that puts protagonists Fiona and Rhys on a path toward untold riches while also painting a massive target on their backs. Powerful people want what the duo have and would like to see them dead, just for kicks. The two schemers and their companions struggle to stay one step ahead of their pursuers and reach a cache of valuable technology. Chases can be tricky to pull off well. They walk a tightrope between the basic tension that exists within pursuit (will the heroes be caught or will they escape?) and the desire for novelty. The best chases are straightforward, with just enough of a twist to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Atlas Mugged manages to toe this line well, keeping things fairly simple (if you can call getting shot at by a giant space gun “simple”) while also introducing new elements that keep the chase fresh, like bounty hunters, colossal monsters, and character reveals. I noticed one thing that gives me very slight pause. There seems to be a lot of deus ex machina moments involving a servile Loader Bot. I don’t know if this is an intentional move or if it is just how the writing shook out for the first two episodes, but I count around five times that Loader Bot has shown up at the last second to save everyone. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was leading to an intentional dramatic/joke payoff in future episodes. Given how well the other aspects of the story are coming together and the sheer level of narrative competence on display, it’s likely that a subversion of some sort is in store for this trope. Atlas Mugged deserves praise for how it fleshes out the supporting cast. There wasn’t a whole lot of downtime dedicated to exploring the characters of Vaughn, one of Rhys’ best friends, or Sasha, Fiona’s sister. I didn’t even mention their names in the review of Episode One because the focus was so clearly on Fiona and Rhys, building them up to be protagonists in whom players could invest themselves. We learn that even though Vaughn remains prone to cowardice he tends to rise to the occasion, even finding the experiences on Pandora to be a bit liberating. We also learn more about Sasha through her interactions with Fiona when they revisit their home in the city of Hollowpoint. She and Fiona don’t always agree on important issues and her stubbornness can lead to problems when it comes to forgiveness. These are all little things, but they are important piece of information that serve to humanize the cast in the grand scheme of this episodic series. They have motivations and desires as individuals that are distinct from those of the protagonists. Those differences make the narrative, and by extension the entire game, more thought-provoking. It has been interesting to see Telltale’s take on violence in Tales from the Borderlands differentiate itself from the violence depicted in The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. A scene early on in Episode Two brought to mind the part of The Walking Dead Season One where players can try to stave off a zombie infection by performing an amputation. The scene is, as you might imagine, painful, uncomfortable, and horribly unpleasant. However, Tales from the Borderlands is not The Walking Dead. Without mincing words, Atlas Mugged requires players to remove someone’s eyeball with a spork. Framed as highly comedic (I mean, it DOES involve a spork!) and gross, the scene manages not to be overly graphic while incorporating slapstick, puns, and situational humor. Two similar situations, one played for horror, the other played for laughs, and both work very well in their respective contexts. This represents another tangible example proving the skill of Tellltale’s writing staff. As far as visuals and gameplay go, Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two is identical to Episode One. The Borderlands aesthetic lends itself very well to Telltale’s game engine leading to a great looking game that is carried along on the strength of its narrative. The only difference between Episode One and Episode Two was that I thought Atlas Mugged ran a tiny bit smoother on my PC. There were a few graphical hiccups, a background mountain flew along with the characters when they were in flight to a different location and Sasha seemed to blink out of existence once or twice. None of these interruptions took me far out of the narrative or would be enough for me to hate the three hours or so I spent playing. Conclusion: Tales from the Borderlands Episode One set a really high bar for Episode Two and I believe Atlas Mugged passed in truly magnificent style. For as much as I love the human drama of The Walking Dead seasons and the fantasy-noir of The Wolf Among Us, for as much as I cried and raged in those games, Tales from the Borderlands makes me laugh and smile, while still retaining an emotional core. Atlas Mugged stands as one of the finest episodes Telltale Games has ever released. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two - Atlas Mugged is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android devices.
  24. Tales from the Borderlands Episode One – Zer0 Sum did a lot of heavy lifting when it came to establishing characters. By the time we saw the credits roll, we knew what our protagonists’ goals were, some of their personality quirks, and understood the insanity of the planet Pandora. Episode Two fleshes out the supporting cast and allows them all to bounce off of each other, interacting in fun and unexpected ways. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two - Atlas Mugged was reviewed on PC. The basic conceit of Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two is that of an extended chase sequence that slowly transitions into a series of madcap scenarios that would feel right at home in a heist film with a sense of humor. The pacing keeps up the breakneck momentum of Zer0 Sum, but interjects a few slower segments for dramatic effect. The first episode ends with the discovery of a device that puts protagonists Fiona and Rhys on a path toward untold riches while also painting a massive target on their backs. Powerful people want what the duo have and would like to see them dead, just for kicks. The two schemers and their companions struggle to stay one step ahead of their pursuers and reach a cache of valuable technology. Chases can be tricky to pull off well. They walk a tightrope between the basic tension that exists within pursuit (will the heroes be caught or will they escape?) and the desire for novelty. The best chases are straightforward, with just enough of a twist to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Atlas Mugged manages to toe this line well, keeping things fairly simple (if you can call getting shot at by a giant space gun “simple”) while also introducing new elements that keep the chase fresh, like bounty hunters, colossal monsters, and character reveals. I noticed one thing that gives me very slight pause. There seems to be a lot of deus ex machina moments involving a servile Loader Bot. I don’t know if this is an intentional move or if it is just how the writing shook out for the first two episodes, but I count around five times that Loader Bot has shown up at the last second to save everyone. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was leading to an intentional dramatic/joke payoff in future episodes. Given how well the other aspects of the story are coming together and the sheer level of narrative competence on display, it’s likely that a subversion of some sort is in store for this trope. Atlas Mugged deserves praise for how it fleshes out the supporting cast. There wasn’t a whole lot of downtime dedicated to exploring the characters of Vaughn, one of Rhys’ best friends, or Sasha, Fiona’s sister. I didn’t even mention their names in the review of Episode One because the focus was so clearly on Fiona and Rhys, building them up to be protagonists in whom players could invest themselves. We learn that even though Vaughn remains prone to cowardice he tends to rise to the occasion, even finding the experiences on Pandora to be a bit liberating. We also learn more about Sasha through her interactions with Fiona when they revisit their home in the city of Hollowpoint. She and Fiona don’t always agree on important issues and her stubbornness can lead to problems when it comes to forgiveness. These are all little things, but they are important piece of information that serve to humanize the cast in the grand scheme of this episodic series. They have motivations and desires as individuals that are distinct from those of the protagonists. Those differences make the narrative, and by extension the entire game, more thought-provoking. It has been interesting to see Telltale’s take on violence in Tales from the Borderlands differentiate itself from the violence depicted in The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. A scene early on in Episode Two brought to mind the part of The Walking Dead Season One where players can try to stave off a zombie infection by performing an amputation. The scene is, as you might imagine, painful, uncomfortable, and horribly unpleasant. However, Tales from the Borderlands is not The Walking Dead. Without mincing words, Atlas Mugged requires players to remove someone’s eyeball with a spork. Framed as highly comedic (I mean, it DOES involve a spork!) and gross, the scene manages not to be overly graphic while incorporating slapstick, puns, and situational humor. Two similar situations, one played for horror, the other played for laughs, and both work very well in their respective contexts. This represents another tangible example proving the skill of Tellltale’s writing staff. As far as visuals and gameplay go, Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two is identical to Episode One. The Borderlands aesthetic lends itself very well to Telltale’s game engine leading to a great looking game that is carried along on the strength of its narrative. The only difference between Episode One and Episode Two was that I thought Atlas Mugged ran a tiny bit smoother on my PC. There were a few graphical hiccups, a background mountain flew along with the characters when they were in flight to a different location and Sasha seemed to blink out of existence once or twice. None of these interruptions took me far out of the narrative or would be enough for me to hate the three hours or so I spent playing. Conclusion: Tales from the Borderlands Episode One set a really high bar for Episode Two and I believe Atlas Mugged passed in truly magnificent style. For as much as I love the human drama of The Walking Dead seasons and the fantasy-noir of The Wolf Among Us, for as much as I cried and raged in those games, Tales from the Borderlands makes me laugh and smile, while still retaining an emotional core. Atlas Mugged stands as one of the finest episodes Telltale Games has ever released. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two - Atlas Mugged is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android devices. View full article
  25. The first three episodes of PlayStation’s superpowered foray into the wild world of television aired on Tuesday. Adapted from Brian Michael Bendis’ award-winning graphic novel, the ten episode miniseries attempts to bring to life a world inhabited by heroes, villains, and the normal people trapped in the crossfire. Despite that intriguing premise, does Powers deliver a compelling reason to watch the seven upcoming episodes? I’ll be upfront about my love of Sharlto Copley. I’ve really enjoy him as an actor since I first saw him in District 9 and in everything I’ve seen him in since. He has a great deal of natural charisma and something about him holds my attention. I should also mention that I’ve never read Powers and had relatively little knowledge of the characters and premise other than what was put forth in the trailers and general announcements regarding the show. Without further ado, here are my thoughts. A few short minutes into the pilot firmly establishes in my mind that Powers is not for a young audience. A casual observer might take the words “graphic novel adaptation” and “superpowers” and make the mistake that Powers is geared toward children. It is not. Murders, of which there are several in the first episode, are grisly affairs with blood gratuitously spattered everywhere. As a related side note, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the director made use of physical prop blood rather than cheap digital blood effects. The first episode gives us the building blocks for the rest of the series. Set in a world where people sometimes develop superpowers, casually referred to as “powers,” the show tells the story of Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley), an important agent who works for the Powers Division. Normal people can’t always rely on the superheroes to put a stop to a rampaging power, so the Powers Division are the first responders to powers related crimes. Walker is especially respected within the division both because he was once a power himself and because he personally put away Wolfe, one of the most dangerous powers in the world. When a job pits average humans against people with extraordinary abilities, it often comes with a short life expectancy. Within minutes, we see an improperly restrained power crush the skull of Walker’s partner into a concrete support beam. Following that tragic incident, Walker is assigned Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward) as his new partner. During their first day together Walker and Deena are called to investigate the death of one of Walker’s old power friends, Olympia. Beyond the violence, Powers goes some really dark places. A core plot element of the first episode involves a girl in her late teens performing oral sex on the much older Olympia in an effort to get superpowers from him, which we are informed can happen during “an exchange of fluids.” A core tenant of the show is that these characters, whether or not they have powers, are not Superman. They have the same vices and flaws as normal people. Everyone has problems and powers often seems to make those worse rather than better. As the investigation continues, it becomes clear that Olympia’s death is only a small part of a wider criminal powers conspiracy that somehow involves the incarcerated and mentally unstable Wolfe. Walker and Pilgrim’s search for answers lead them to Calista, the young girl found at the scene of Olympia’s death, and a struggle over the girl’s allegiance ensues between the agents, a crime-fighting power, and a mysterious teleporting man. I’m not going to venture into spoiler territory, because I think a large part of the appeal of a show where people have superpowers is that element of the unknown. Overall, my impression of the show was positive and, with episode three’s cliffhanger, I am certainly interested in watching more high-powered drama unfold. My biggest worry after I finished watching the pilot was that the show wouldn’t be able to establish good chemistry between the characters. The first episode goes quite a bit out of its way to make the viewer understand that this isn’t an optimistic world in which all powers are heroes or even good-natured people. I like that approach. We don’t see many superhero properties tackling their worlds like this. However, the first episode ended with everyone angry and sad, which left a bad feeling in my mouth. Feeling bad after watching something can be a good thing if it’s driven by a purpose, but if that purpose is just to establish the cruel realities of a fictional setting… well, I am not a fan of that. There were relatively few moments where it felt like the characters really cared about each other or had a few seconds of levity. It seemed that an overzealous focus on the gritty world might severely dampen my enthusiasm for future episodes. Luckily, the second and third episodes seem to ease off of the harsh corners of the world and spend some time humanizing the characters, aside from their anger and sadness. The grim setting is still grim, but by the end of episode three, you feel that at least the Walker and Pilgrim generally like each other, which seems to be the core dynamic that really needs to work well. I found myself enjoying the writing in Powers. Characters feel like people who have histories, motivations, wants, desires, and lives that go on when they aren’t on the job. It isn’t always the best thing ever, but the writing is always functional. There are actual set ups and payoffs! We are given the means to understand why these characters are the way they are and we can understand why they react to new information in the manner that they do. Yeah, this is basic writing stuff, but a lot of the time even big budget shows and movies don’t worry about getting the basics right. The flatter parts of Powers' dialogue are largely hidden behind great performances from pretty much everyone involved. Seriously, the casting director did a fantastic job. Sharlto Copley lived up to my expectations, surprising me with the near elimination of his Johannesburg accent. He expresses a wide range of acting talent and is generally fun to watch. Susan Heyward provides some much needed heart and subtle humor to Deena Pilgrim. Noah Taylor turns in a fantastic performance as an enigmatic teleporter, reminding me of a more active version of the smoking man from X-Files. I was also surprised to see Eddie Izzard go all out for the role of Wolfe (and I do mean ALL out), creating a fascinating portrayal that comes off half Wolverine and half Hannibal Lector. One of the most admirable aspects of Powers is how well they managed to translate the world of the graphic novel into a live-action setting that feels real. Obviously, they had to do this without hundreds of teams of special effects artists. Recognizing that they wouldn’t be able to pull off sweeping superpowered battles, the production wisely limited their usage of CG effects. This works in the show’s favor, as it relies on excellent cinematography to highlight real people and locations. Powers is beautiful, aside from the occasional dip in CG quality. When viewers notice the special effect seams, they can prove to be a momentary distraction. However, a well told story generally matters more than occasional slips in graphical fidelity. Some parts of Powers feel a bit rushed. A bit more time to learn about the locations and side characters before launching into the main storyline could really have benefited the show as a whole. There are also some strange editing decisions, quick cuts between rooms and scenes that I could nitpick about, but I don’t think that will really influence anybody one way or another at this point. Conclusion: Powers has a neat premise, a great cast, and some really competent execution. It can be tempting to write it off as a police procedural with superpowers. True, the main characters are police and there are superpowers, but instead of investigating separate crimes, each episode is clearly building to an end goal. Relatively little fluff clogs up the narrative. Like I said at the beginning, Powers is definitely not for kids, but if you are looking for some mature entertainment and don’t mind adult themes and language, it is definitely worth checking out. If you’ve been on the fence about a PlayStation Plus subscription, here is another reason to consider subscribing on top of the free monthly games. The first three episodes of Powers are currently available to PS+ subscribers and new episodes will be released every Tuesday. View full article
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