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Found 98 results

  1. Jack Gardner

    Review: The Forest

    Armed with nothing more than an axe, a few cans of soda, and a paltry supply of medicine, I step out into a new world filled with beauty and horror in equal measure. The island I've found myself stranded on holds glistening ponds rife with exotic fish, fields in which rabbits and squirrels frolic together alongside giant lizards. Crocodiles swim in the lakes and deer cavort in the thickets of the woods. In many ways, this island seems a paradise; that is, until the sun sets and human horrors emerge from the earth. In The Forest, Endnight Games has carefully crafted a vibrant ecosystem in which players become disruptive interlopers and slowly descend, both figuratively and literally, into madness. Players take on the role of Eric Leblanc as he flies on a plane with his son, Timmy, to an unnamed destination. The airplane seems to hit turbulence in the opening scene before crashing violently onto a remote island. As Eric struggles to maintain consciousness, a strange human painted red wades into the wreckage and takes Timmy away. When Eric finally awakens, all he has are the supplies he can scavenge from the plane and its deceased occupants and his will to survive and find Timmy. The Forest becomes a game about survival and discovery after those initial opening minutes. Finding good places to set up camp, creating defensible positions, and developing sustainable ways of harvesting food and water are the absolute priority. To do all of that, players will need to master the crafting system to create structures, upgrades to their gear, and even entirely new pieces of equipment. It might also require some trial and error, as those opening days can be quite risky for a novice player. The biggest danger in The Forest comes at night. You see, for as idyllic and peaceful as the island can seem during the day, it's actually home to several groups of cannibals. They aren't automatically hostile at first, but with time their attitude will shift. This shift happens sooner if the player begins attacking them, building large structures, obstructing their patrol paths, or journeying into their underground catacombs. Once the cannibals become hostile, The Forest slowly ramps up the frequency and strength of their attacks. Players will need to turn to devious traps and fort layouts to keep themselves safe - but always remember that safety is relative in The Forest. As attacks become more potent, players will begin encountering a wider variety of cannibals, like ones that throw Molotov cocktails that can leave a base in flames or bombs that are capable of blowing a hole through your defensive walls. However, cannibals are not the worst thing that can crawl up into the surface world. Nightmarish conglomerations of limbs and heads occasionally roam the wild and catching their attention can prove to be incredibly deadly for the unprepared player. These behemoths can plow through defenses and traps with ease, leaving your carefully constructed bases in tatters. Even worse, they represent the primary threats once players have explored enough of the overworld and begin spelunking into the dark caverns that delve deep into the earth for treasure and resources. The possible treasures that await in the depths of The Forest's caves are certainly worth the risk. Improved axes, components to build explosives, hints at the history of the island and the origins of its twisted population, and gear that enables further exploration of caves can only be found by exploring the various nooks and crannies the cannibals have filled with their trophies and victims. The Forest does something interesting with its pacing and story. It initially hits hard with the horror of cannibalism on full display. Cannibals feast on their downed comrades, their caves and settlements hang bisected bodies and limbs everywhere, and they'll even build horrific displays in the night to mark their territory. However, over time, The Forest pulls a fantastically creepy and insidious slight-of-hand trick: These scenes gradually become mundane, normal - and there's always the option to fall into similar practices. Players can also turn to cannibalism and create effigies to mark their territory, blurring the line between the player and the monsters. Arming players with the ability to participate in cannibalism poses interesting moral questions: How far are you willing to go to survive? Have you really survived if you have abandoned the things that make you human? These questions tie in nicely with The Forest's climax which asks the player how far they have fallen from where they were when the game began. What sacrifice are you willing to make for something you see as yours? The Forest can be tackled solo or in a group with up to eight people playing simultaneously. The solo or duo experience seems more suited to players who value the survival horror experience and are looking for a more focused game. Playing with more than one other person lowers the tension while diving into caves or getting into scraps with groups of cannibals. However, it also makes building large settlements a more attainable goal. I'd encourage everyone to try both modes of play to see what suits their personal tastes best. After four years in Steam's Early Access program, The Forest finally looks great in an optimized state. The lighting effects as the day slowly cycles to night are especially great. Lighting in extreme darkness becomes a major hurdle since, oddly, being in the dark makes it difficult to see. There's no way around this by being crafty with the lighting settings; players simply have to make do with whatever light sources they can find. The all too real danger posed by darkness serves to make plunging into foreboding caves that much more frightening. It also highlights Endnight's impressive use of sound to convey the feel of locations, whether that's the creaking of trees in the woods, the drip of water in damp caves, or the maddened shriek of a blood-crazed creature in the woods calling for reinforcements. Conclusion: Going into The Forest blind and discovering the scope of its world, crafting system, and secrets was a really enjoyable ride through a new entry in the survival horror genre. It manages to toe the line between enjoyable building sim and the horror of monsters lurking in the dark. The story on its own isn't terribly interesting save for an impressive twist leading up to the end that might have been better served with more integration to the wider game. However, the mechanics and presentation of the game tell a story all their own that makes the core narrative stronger by association. At a mere $20, The Forest is a huge steal. I spent over 60 hours in it until I reached the end of the story, but I plan on diving back in with some friends to see what kinds of crazy contraptions and bases we can build in the dangerous wilds. The Forest is currently available for PC and is rumored to have a PlayStation 4 port on the way).
  2. Jack Gardner

    Feature: Review: The Forest

    Armed with nothing more than an axe, a few cans of soda, and a paltry supply of medicine, I step out into a new world filled with beauty and horror in equal measure. The island I've found myself stranded on holds glistening ponds rife with exotic fish, fields in which rabbits and squirrels frolic together alongside giant lizards. Crocodiles swim in the lakes and deer cavort in the thickets of the woods. In many ways, this island seems a paradise; that is, until the sun sets and human horrors emerge from the earth. In The Forest, Endnight Games has carefully crafted a vibrant ecosystem in which players become disruptive interlopers and slowly descend, both figuratively and literally, into madness. Players take on the role of Eric Leblanc as he flies on a plane with his son, Timmy, to an unnamed destination. The airplane seems to hit turbulence in the opening scene before crashing violently onto a remote island. As Eric struggles to maintain consciousness, a strange human painted red wades into the wreckage and takes Timmy away. When Eric finally awakens, all he has are the supplies he can scavenge from the plane and its deceased occupants and his will to survive and find Timmy. The Forest becomes a game about survival and discovery after those initial opening minutes. Finding good places to set up camp, creating defensible positions, and developing sustainable ways of harvesting food and water are the absolute priority. To do all of that, players will need to master the crafting system to create structures, upgrades to their gear, and even entirely new pieces of equipment. It might also require some trial and error, as those opening days can be quite risky for a novice player. The biggest danger in The Forest comes at night. You see, for as idyllic and peaceful as the island can seem during the day, it's actually home to several groups of cannibals. They aren't automatically hostile at first, but with time their attitude will shift. This shift happens sooner if the player begins attacking them, building large structures, obstructing their patrol paths, or journeying into their underground catacombs. Once the cannibals become hostile, The Forest slowly ramps up the frequency and strength of their attacks. Players will need to turn to devious traps and fort layouts to keep themselves safe - but always remember that safety is relative in The Forest. As attacks become more potent, players will begin encountering a wider variety of cannibals, like ones that throw Molotov cocktails that can leave a base in flames or bombs that are capable of blowing a hole through your defensive walls. However, cannibals are not the worst thing that can crawl up into the surface world. Nightmarish conglomerations of limbs and heads occasionally roam the wild and catching their attention can prove to be incredibly deadly for the unprepared player. These behemoths can plow through defenses and traps with ease, leaving your carefully constructed bases in tatters. Even worse, they represent the primary threats once players have explored enough of the overworld and begin spelunking into the dark caverns that delve deep into the earth for treasure and resources. The possible treasures that await in the depths of The Forest's caves are certainly worth the risk. Improved axes, components to build explosives, hints at the history of the island and the origins of its twisted population, and gear that enables further exploration of caves can only be found by exploring the various nooks and crannies the cannibals have filled with their trophies and victims. The Forest does something interesting with its pacing and story. It initially hits hard with the horror of cannibalism on full display. Cannibals feast on their downed comrades, their caves and settlements hang bisected bodies and limbs everywhere, and they'll even build horrific displays in the night to mark their territory. However, over time, The Forest pulls a fantastically creepy and insidious slight-of-hand trick: These scenes gradually become mundane, normal - and there's always the option to fall into similar practices. Players can also turn to cannibalism and create effigies to mark their territory, blurring the line between the player and the monsters. Arming players with the ability to participate in cannibalism poses interesting moral questions: How far are you willing to go to survive? Have you really survived if you have abandoned the things that make you human? These questions tie in nicely with The Forest's climax which asks the player how far they have fallen from where they were when the game began. What sacrifice are you willing to make for something you see as yours? The Forest can be tackled solo or in a group with up to eight people playing simultaneously. The solo or duo experience seems more suited to players who value the survival horror experience and are looking for a more focused game. Playing with more than one other person lowers the tension while diving into caves or getting into scraps with groups of cannibals. However, it also makes building large settlements a more attainable goal. I'd encourage everyone to try both modes of play to see what suits their personal tastes best. After four years in Steam's Early Access program, The Forest finally looks great in an optimized state. The lighting effects as the day slowly cycles to night are especially great. Lighting in extreme darkness becomes a major hurdle since, oddly, being in the dark makes it difficult to see. There's no way around this by being crafty with the lighting settings; players simply have to make do with whatever light sources they can find. The all too real danger posed by darkness serves to make plunging into foreboding caves that much more frightening. It also highlights Endnight's impressive use of sound to convey the feel of locations, whether that's the creaking of trees in the woods, the drip of water in damp caves, or the maddened shriek of a blood-crazed creature in the woods calling for reinforcements. Conclusion: Going into The Forest blind and discovering the scope of its world, crafting system, and secrets was a really enjoyable ride through a new entry in the survival horror genre. It manages to toe the line between enjoyable building sim and the horror of monsters lurking in the dark. The story on its own isn't terribly interesting save for an impressive twist leading up to the end that might have been better served with more integration to the wider game. However, the mechanics and presentation of the game tell a story all their own that makes the core narrative stronger by association. At a mere $20, The Forest is a huge steal. I spent over 60 hours in it until I reached the end of the story, but I plan on diving back in with some friends to see what kinds of crazy contraptions and bases we can build in the dangerous wilds. The Forest is currently available for PC and is rumored to have a PlayStation 4 port on the way). View full article
  3. Jack Gardner

    Feature: Review: Monster Prom

    With only a handful of weeks to go until prom, what's a monster to do? If your answer is a mixture of cursing and insane schemes to woo the reckless forces of evil that dominate your highschool, then Monster Prom might just be the game for you. Developed by Beautiful Glitch and published by Those Awesome Guys, Monster Prom stands out from the crowd as the very first multiplayer dating simulator. That odd combination of traits actually comes together as an effective and entertaining party game for up to four players either locally or online. The goal of Monster Prom is, aptly, to find a monster to successfully ask out to prom. The simple premise can play out over three weeks, a short game that lasts about 30 minutes, or a full game over six weeks that takes an hour to run its course. At the beginning of each game, players select one of four characters to be their avatar and then plunge into the hormone-riddled halls of Monster High. The choice of the avatar, as far as I could tell, doesn't matter much, but immediately after character selection players answer a series of questions from "the stupidest pop quiz ever" to determine stat bonuses and a starting advantage with one of the six romantic options. And what options there are! Players can choose to woo a ghostly party girl, the sizzling demon, a reserved hipster vampire, a good-natured jock werewolf, a business-oriented medusa, or a despotic mer-princess. The cast of romance options interact in hundreds of unique ways to the point that after dozens of playthroughs I only encountered a handful of repeat situations - and that was just in the pursuit of one particular character! Though there are six potential romance options and a maximum of four players, it's easy to see how Monster Prom could become a high stakes game night drama between friends. At the beginning of each round, there's the option to randomize turn order or participate in a real-world game based on an onscreen prompt to determine the order. That method becomes important because when a player chooses an activity it locks it off from the other players until the next round begins. That leaves the door open for a lot of negotiating and competition for places higher up in the turn order. There are also random events that can happen where a romance option could ask a player what they think of a rival, presenting a perfect opportunity to hurt or help them attain their ideal prom date. Each week in Monster Prom allows players to choose an activity in the morning, a place to sit during lunch, and another activity in the evening. Which location players choose to go will result in a boost to their stats. For example, going to the auditorium will increase their creativity by two points. After each segment of the week, players will interact with some of the members of the school and have to decide how to handle the resulting hijinks. Having a high number in a stat increases the likelihood that a given option that relies on that stat will succeed, though players will have to infer what stat their option might rely on from the situation's context. Correctly solving a situation will net the player another stat boost and possibly improve their relationships with classmates. Mechanically, Monster Prom doesn't have much going on. You won't find mini-games here. Instead, the fun resides in the myriad of situations and the joyfully crass and humorous dialogue. While that might not bring in players who need a kinetic sense of movement and purpose to feel engaged with a game, Monster Prom's charms will undoubtedly be received by those who live for scintillating word play and strange scenarios (i.e. those who are familiar with the text-heavy dating sim genre). The various scenes of Monster Prom all play out primarily through cleverly written text, but the art stands as the secondary aspect of any given scene. Beautiful Glitch have shoved an awful lot of joy and vivacious energy into the still images and character expressions that play out over the course of a game. If there might be one gripe about the artwork it's that sometimes conversations with the same characters can reveal that certain stances are reused with different outfits. It's not a terrible problem, but something that can become noticeable after several sessions of play. Overall, the visuals leave me wanting more of them, and that's never a bad thing (I would buy a graphic novel done in this style in a heartbeat). Conclusion: Basically, Monster Prom was handcrafted for people who loved the silly situations of the pigeon dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend and subsequently found themselves wishing they could play the game alongside incredulous friends to see what kind of hijinks they could get themselves into. Your reaction to the previous sentence really should tell you everything you need to know about whether you'd like Monster Prom. It's a glorious love letter to dating sim shenanigans mixed with the fun of either helping or backstabbing your friends in an effort to take a date to prom that I found quite enjoyable. It's certainly niche, but Monster Prom revels in the glorious absurdity of that niche. Monster Prom is available now on PC. Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games! View full article
  4. Jack Gardner

    Review: Monster Prom

    With only a handful of weeks to go until prom, what's a monster to do? If your answer is a mixture of cursing and insane schemes to woo the reckless forces of evil that dominate your highschool, then Monster Prom might just be the game for you. Developed by Beautiful Glitch and published by Those Awesome Guys, Monster Prom stands out from the crowd as the very first multiplayer dating simulator. That odd combination of traits actually comes together as an effective and entertaining party game for up to four players either locally or online. The goal of Monster Prom is, aptly, to find a monster to successfully ask out to prom. The simple premise can play out over three weeks, a short game that lasts about 30 minutes, or a full game over six weeks that takes an hour to run its course. At the beginning of each game, players select one of four characters to be their avatar and then plunge into the hormone-riddled halls of Monster High. The choice of the avatar, as far as I could tell, doesn't matter much, but immediately after character selection players answer a series of questions from "the stupidest pop quiz ever" to determine stat bonuses and a starting advantage with one of the six romantic options. And what options there are! Players can choose to woo a ghostly party girl, the sizzling demon, a reserved hipster vampire, a good-natured jock werewolf, a business-oriented medusa, or a despotic mer-princess. The cast of romance options interact in hundreds of unique ways to the point that after dozens of playthroughs I only encountered a handful of repeat situations - and that was just in the pursuit of one particular character! Though there are six potential romance options and a maximum of four players, it's easy to see how Monster Prom could become a high stakes game night drama between friends. At the beginning of each round, there's the option to randomize turn order or participate in a real-world game based on an onscreen prompt to determine the order. That method becomes important because when a player chooses an activity it locks it off from the other players until the next round begins. That leaves the door open for a lot of negotiating and competition for places higher up in the turn order. There are also random events that can happen where a romance option could ask a player what they think of a rival, presenting a perfect opportunity to hurt or help them attain their ideal prom date. Each week in Monster Prom allows players to choose an activity in the morning, a place to sit during lunch, and another activity in the evening. Which location players choose to go will result in a boost to their stats. For example, going to the auditorium will increase their creativity by two points. After each segment of the week, players will interact with some of the members of the school and have to decide how to handle the resulting hijinks. Having a high number in a stat increases the likelihood that a given option that relies on that stat will succeed, though players will have to infer what stat their option might rely on from the situation's context. Correctly solving a situation will net the player another stat boost and possibly improve their relationships with classmates. Mechanically, Monster Prom doesn't have much going on. You won't find mini-games here. Instead, the fun resides in the myriad of situations and the joyfully crass and humorous dialogue. While that might not bring in players who need a kinetic sense of movement and purpose to feel engaged with a game, Monster Prom's charms will undoubtedly be received by those who live for scintillating word play and strange scenarios (i.e. those who are familiar with the text-heavy dating sim genre). The various scenes of Monster Prom all play out primarily through cleverly written text, but the art stands as the secondary aspect of any given scene. Beautiful Glitch have shoved an awful lot of joy and vivacious energy into the still images and character expressions that play out over the course of a game. If there might be one gripe about the artwork it's that sometimes conversations with the same characters can reveal that certain stances are reused with different outfits. It's not a terrible problem, but something that can become noticeable after several sessions of play. Overall, the visuals leave me wanting more of them, and that's never a bad thing (I would buy a graphic novel done in this style in a heartbeat). Conclusion: Basically, Monster Prom was handcrafted for people who loved the silly situations of the pigeon dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend and subsequently found themselves wishing they could play the game alongside incredulous friends to see what kind of hijinks they could get themselves into. Your reaction to the previous sentence really should tell you everything you need to know about whether you'd like Monster Prom. It's a glorious love letter to dating sim shenanigans mixed with the fun of either helping or backstabbing your friends in an effort to take a date to prom that I found quite enjoyable. It's certainly niche, but Monster Prom revels in the glorious absurdity of that niche. Monster Prom is available now on PC. Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!
  5. Jack Gardner

    Feature: Review: Into the Breach

    Subset Games really knows how to design a solid game. FTL: Faster Than Light demonstrated that the team possesses the chops to create a game capable of sucking people in for dozens of hours with engaging strategy that often asks players to make tough decisions. Those tough decisions, the kind upon which hang life or death, form the central thesis of Into the Breach. Into the Breach takes place in a far flung future where Earth has flooded, reducing its landmass down to a handful of islands and unleashing the Vek, a collection of horrific kaiju from deep underground. Humanity created fleets of giant robots capable of fighting the Vek to defend the last cities on the planet, but it doesn't seem to be enough. Overwhelmed and on the brink of total annihilation, one last, desperate plan was conceived: Send one experienced mech pilot back through time armed with the knowledge to prevent humanity's doom and win the war against the Vek. The scenario, penned by Chris Avellone, the creative mind behind Baldur's Gate and Fallout: New Vegas, sets the stage for the roguelike elements of Into the Breach. When players manage to defeat the Vek, they are able to send a pilot of their choice to another timeline to continue the fight. Death, on the other hand, results in the last pilot to die engaging an emergency jump to a different timeline. That pilot brings all of the skills and experience they have acquired to the new timeline, giving future playthroughs an edge over the previous ones. It's a helpful feature, as players will need every tactical advantage they can get to make it through Into the Breach. While the decision making in FTL largely centered around preparing for battle, Into the Breach puts almost every decision into the turn-based tactics battles themselves. Each conflict with the kaiju takes five rounds. After those five rounds, the towering monstrosities retreat back into the dark depths from which they came. Players have two basic things to do during those precious few turns: Keep their mechs alive and prevent the kaiju from damaging cities. If a mech's health drops to zero, the pilot dies permanently. If a building takes damage, the power grid takes damage, too. Players lose the entire timeline if the power grid drops to zero hit points. These simple goals quickly become complicated by bonus objectives and map conditions. Each mission can grant reputation, which can be spent on various upgrades after completing an island, or power to replenish and reinforce the power grid's health and defenses. This leads to the player approaching each mission as potentially game-ending. Sure, perhaps using a rocket punch to kill that kaiju might accomplish an objective for reputation or save a friendly mech, but it will likely also damage the power grid bringing the timeline that much closer to failure. However, maybe that loss is worth it if you can get enough reputation to later purchase more power for the grid or maybe complete a bonus objective that provides more power. Each mech in the three machine team possesses different abilities that often do more than just straight damage. These abilities can push enemies, pull them, create a defensive shield, launch barriers, distribute damage in unique patterns, and much, much more. This leads to a delicate balancing act in battle, where every tool at the player's disposal must be employed to move enemies into positions where their attacks miss or hit one another in an effort to minimize damage to the power grid. One aspect unique to Into the Breach is that enemies move and prepare attacks before the player's turn. The game presents all information to players upfront. All attacks hit and do full damage. This allows players to sit back and plan their moves carefully while knowing what the outcome of their actions will be. Of course, that can lead players to make mistakes; something that can lead to absolute disaster in the space of a single turn. Subset included the option to reset a turn once per battle to give players some degree of leniency. While the tactical elements of Into the Breach outshine the competition, it stumbles when it comes to narrative. FTL: Faster Than Light allowed players to name their crews and contained numerous side stories and scenarios that tickled the imagination. Those decisions invested like a much larger game. Subset Games' sophomore outing ditches much of that. This leads Into the Breach to feel more sterile and empty with a world where the stakes aren't terribly dramatic. The cast of characters is composed of a handful of pilots and the four administrators of the remaining pockets of humanity. The pilots mostly speak in reaction to what's happening in battle with one-liners, remarking about how the battle went, or to give a final word to the player as they die. The administrators give comments at the close of every mission. None of that feels intimate; by the time the credits roll, the player does not know any of the characters beyond what stats they can give a mech. That's a shame, because one could imagine a version of Into the Breach where pilots have downtime together between battles to interact with one another and the administrators to show character development outside of their statistics. Chris Avellone is a great writer, one that I think excels at that kind of interaction, so the dearth of narrative outside of the overall scenario baffles me. Perhaps miscellaneous content wound up being cut to reduce development time or it created too much of a barrier between the player and the pitch-perfect strategy of the battles. Whatever the reason, the loss of that storytelling aspect hurts. Returning composer Ben Prunty hits a high note with his work in Into the Breach. The music manages to convey mood and tone quite effectively, adding an ever escalating sense of urgency without becoming too overbearing. Prunty strikes a balance that allows players to focus and plan while also encouraging decision-making with an encouraging forward momentum. It's great stuff to listen to if you want to make progress on a task and avoid distractions. Conclusion: Into the Breach combines the colossal conflicts of Godzilla and Pacific Rim with the turn-based tactics of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. However, the unique spin on the formula that sets it apart from its gaming brethren put it in a class all its own. Instead of killing, the systems in the game have players employing tactics that create Rube Goldberg-like chain reactions to save the civilians of a doomed world. The satisfaction at achieving a flawless victory or pulling through to the end and successfully defeating the Vek cannot really be overstated. Into the Breach stands as a high point in strategy gaming that should be pulled out in game design classrooms for years to come. That being said, it's hard not to see the possibility for it to have been more. The lack of a compelling narrative beyond the minute-to-minute gameplay experience feels like a missed opportunity. Perhaps a future update or sequel could add something along those lines to bolster the perfect mechanics. If you have any regard for turn-based tactical games, Into the Breach is absolutely a must play game for you. Into the Breach is available now on PC. View full article
  6. Jack Gardner

    Review: Into the Breach

    Subset Games really knows how to design a solid game. FTL: Faster Than Light demonstrated that the team possesses the chops to create a game capable of sucking people in for dozens of hours with engaging strategy that often asks players to make tough decisions. Those tough decisions, the kind upon which hang life or death, form the central thesis of Into the Breach. Into the Breach takes place in a far flung future where Earth has flooded, reducing its landmass down to a handful of islands and unleashing the Vek, a collection of horrific kaiju from deep underground. Humanity created fleets of giant robots capable of fighting the Vek to defend the last cities on the planet, but it doesn't seem to be enough. Overwhelmed and on the brink of total annihilation, one last, desperate plan was conceived: Send one experienced mech pilot back through time armed with the knowledge to prevent humanity's doom and win the war against the Vek. The scenario, penned by Chris Avellone, the creative mind behind Baldur's Gate and Fallout: New Vegas, sets the stage for the roguelike elements of Into the Breach. When players manage to defeat the Vek, they are able to send a pilot of their choice to another timeline to continue the fight. Death, on the other hand, results in the last pilot to die engaging an emergency jump to a different timeline. That pilot brings all of the skills and experience they have acquired to the new timeline, giving future playthroughs an edge over the previous ones. It's a helpful feature, as players will need every tactical advantage they can get to make it through Into the Breach. While the decision making in FTL largely centered around preparing for battle, Into the Breach puts almost every decision into the turn-based tactics battles themselves. Each conflict with the kaiju takes five rounds. After those five rounds, the towering monstrosities retreat back into the dark depths from which they came. Players have two basic things to do during those precious few turns: Keep their mechs alive and prevent the kaiju from damaging cities. If a mech's health drops to zero, the pilot dies permanently. If a building takes damage, the power grid takes damage, too. Players lose the entire timeline if the power grid drops to zero hit points. These simple goals quickly become complicated by bonus objectives and map conditions. Each mission can grant reputation, which can be spent on various upgrades after completing an island, or power to replenish and reinforce the power grid's health and defenses. This leads to the player approaching each mission as potentially game-ending. Sure, perhaps using a rocket punch to kill that kaiju might accomplish an objective for reputation or save a friendly mech, but it will likely also damage the power grid bringing the timeline that much closer to failure. However, maybe that loss is worth it if you can get enough reputation to later purchase more power for the grid or maybe complete a bonus objective that provides more power. Each mech in the three machine team possesses different abilities that often do more than just straight damage. These abilities can push enemies, pull them, create a defensive shield, launch barriers, distribute damage in unique patterns, and much, much more. This leads to a delicate balancing act in battle, where every tool at the player's disposal must be employed to move enemies into positions where their attacks miss or hit one another in an effort to minimize damage to the power grid. One aspect unique to Into the Breach is that enemies move and prepare attacks before the player's turn. The game presents all information to players upfront. All attacks hit and do full damage. This allows players to sit back and plan their moves carefully while knowing what the outcome of their actions will be. Of course, that can lead players to make mistakes; something that can lead to absolute disaster in the space of a single turn. Subset included the option to reset a turn once per battle to give players some degree of leniency. While the tactical elements of Into the Breach outshine the competition, it stumbles when it comes to narrative. FTL: Faster Than Light allowed players to name their crews and contained numerous side stories and scenarios that tickled the imagination. Those decisions invested like a much larger game. Subset Games' sophomore outing ditches much of that. This leads Into the Breach to feel more sterile and empty with a world where the stakes aren't terribly dramatic. The cast of characters is composed of a handful of pilots and the four administrators of the remaining pockets of humanity. The pilots mostly speak in reaction to what's happening in battle with one-liners, remarking about how the battle went, or to give a final word to the player as they die. The administrators give comments at the close of every mission. None of that feels intimate; by the time the credits roll, the player does not know any of the characters beyond what stats they can give a mech. That's a shame, because one could imagine a version of Into the Breach where pilots have downtime together between battles to interact with one another and the administrators to show character development outside of their statistics. Chris Avellone is a great writer, one that I think excels at that kind of interaction, so the dearth of narrative outside of the overall scenario baffles me. Perhaps miscellaneous content wound up being cut to reduce development time or it created too much of a barrier between the player and the pitch-perfect strategy of the battles. Whatever the reason, the loss of that storytelling aspect hurts. Returning composer Ben Prunty hits a high note with his work in Into the Breach. The music manages to convey mood and tone quite effectively, adding an ever escalating sense of urgency without becoming too overbearing. Prunty strikes a balance that allows players to focus and plan while also encouraging decision-making with an encouraging forward momentum. It's great stuff to listen to if you want to make progress on a task and avoid distractions. Conclusion: Into the Breach combines the colossal conflicts of Godzilla and Pacific Rim with the turn-based tactics of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. However, the unique spin on the formula that sets it apart from its gaming brethren put it in a class all its own. Instead of killing, the systems in the game have players employing tactics that create Rube Goldberg-like chain reactions to save the civilians of a doomed world. The satisfaction at achieving a flawless victory or pulling through to the end and successfully defeating the Vek cannot really be overstated. Into the Breach stands as a high point in strategy gaming that should be pulled out in game design classrooms for years to come. That being said, it's hard not to see the possibility for it to have been more. The lack of a compelling narrative beyond the minute-to-minute gameplay experience feels like a missed opportunity. Perhaps a future update or sequel could add something along those lines to bolster the perfect mechanics. If you have any regard for turn-based tactical games, Into the Breach is absolutely a must play game for you. Into the Breach is available now on PC.
  7. Jack Gardner

    Review: Shadow of the Colossus (2018)

    Time moves slowly and inexorably forward. The world changes, and we grow old telling stories together. Those stories, the ones that stick with us, communicated something important to us. As a medium, game creators have spent decades learning how to put together ever more effective stories that can offer that thing of precious importance, that moment of beauty, clarity, success, failure. In a sea of stories, Shadow of the Colossus stands out as a fairy tale in the classic sense, and the remake by Bluepoint Games serves to enhance what was already a foundational piece of video game history. Shadow of the Colossus tells the tale of a young man named Wander who travels to the Forbidden Land, a landmass sealed off from the rest of the world. Using an enchanted sword, he strikes a deal with an enigmatic entity named Dormin who agrees to bring the woman he has brought with him back from the dead if he can complete an impossible task: Defeat 16 colossal incarnations of the towering stone statues that line the temple. Armed only with his magic sword, a bow with unlimited arrows, and his trusty horse Agro, Wander sets forth into a long-abandoned world of ruins and natural wonders to battle towering behemoths the size of skyscrapers. The simple, powerful set up allows the visuals, music, and gameplay tell the vast majority of the narrative. That open approach to storytelling led a lot of people, even the marketing team for Shadow of the Colossus, to interpret the adventure as one about true, undying love. Wander, after all, goes to incredible lengths for a woman with whom he has a close connection. However, playing through the remake, a version remade after over a decade, I realized that my perception of the game has shifted to seeing it more as a tale about loss and the inability to let go being an ultimately destructive force. That flexibility and changing interpretation feels interesting. It's a reminder of how much time has passed since I played Shadow of the Colossus in 2005. Back then, the question of whether video games were capable of being art was a hotly debated topic. The internet was on fire with hot takes about what it meant to be art and whether interactivity itself negated art. Now that the question has largely been settled, it feels liberating to be able to think, "okay, it's art, so what does that mean? What does all of this, as a piece of art, mean?" Everyone will have to struggle with loss at some point in their lives. It's not pleasant. It hurts. There's the impulse to yell and scream and gnash your teeth because you would do anything to have that person back in your life. And Shadow of the Colossus asks the seductive question: What if you could throw everything to the wind and bring that person back? What price would you pay? And at first, the answer seems obvious, heroic even. But as the game progresses and one by one the beautiful, deadly colossi, who were all minding their own business before Wander showed up, begin to take their toll. The feeling of triumph and accomplishment gives way to self-doubt. Is this the right thing? That question of meaning scratches at the fundamentals of what I believe make myths and fairy tales resonate across time. Because Shadow of the Colossus is art. To some it could be a tale of love, to others it could represent a cautionary tale about obsession, and playing the remake it brought to mind loss. Shadow of the Colossus manages to have the narrative flexibility to accommodate multiple interpretations, and that's a quality that can bestow a great deal of longevity to a piece of art. I'd argue that's at least partly why we are getting a remake of a game that's two-and-a-half generations of technology behind the current PlayStation console. It's a testament to the artistry of the original PlayStation 2 release of Shadow of the Colossus that the visuals largely hold up due to its adherence to a strong minimalist aesthetic that focuses on natural beauty. The entire production possesses a washed out quality that cleverly hides some of the deficient parts of the world as Wander and Agro make their way across the quiet plains and subdued forests. With the remake, none of the world needs to be hidden by visual tricks; flowing water glitters in the sunlight, grass sways with the wind, dust motes flit through the air. The effect of the increased focus on detail afforded by the technological leap and the original style is jaw-dropping. To put it bluntly, this remake of Shadow of the Colossus stands as one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. I found myself slowing to a walk to soak in the moments of natural beauty that made yet another outing in the Forbidden Land unforgettable. With the share function on the PlayStation 4, I constantly paused the action to fiddle with the newly added photo mode in pursuit of that perfect angle to show off Bluepoint's gorgeously rendered take on Team Ico's classic. It was a compulsion to ogle the work put into everything on screen and then share that with the world. If I had to nitpick the presentation, there were a few elements that felt a bit off. The biggest would be Wander's strange lack of facial animations. The update gave him somewhat of a baby face; not a huge problem, but slightly different from the original character model. His face seems to lack some degree of animation for reacting to events, something more noticeable with a built-in photo mode. Outside of cutscenes, Wander is content to stare passively into the distance, regardless of the circumstances. Wobbling on the ledge of a colossus-sized fall? Not even the faintest recognition of his own mortality. Lastly, and this might be one of the most nitpicky things of all, one of the subtle elements of the original release of Shadow of the Colossus was the slow shift that visualized Wander's fall from grace. As each colossi met its death, he became less human. Players saw that change happen bit by bit, witnessing horns sprout from his head and his skin turn pale and black veins appear on his body. The remake seems to only gradually make his skin paler until the very end when he suddenly has horns and horrific cracked skin. It would have been nice to have a subtler touch applied to his transformation to give it more of a build-up. All of that being said, the small issues present in the Shadow of the Colossus remake are an exceedingly small price to pay for an update that's otherwise a fan or newcomer's dream come true. An updated control scheme provides people frustrated with the PS2 controls a new way to play, while also retaining the retro layout available for those who have grown used to how the original played. Small additions to the game like a series of hidden coins that can be collected for a secret reward that have been scattered across the world to reward players who poke into every nook and cranny. Additional clarification has been added to some of the colossi themselves to show what can and cannot be climbed and grabbed. The same with some parts of the environment that now have grabbable surfaces to avoid frustrating falls. The gameplay remains as harrowing, exciting, and frustrating as ever. Players who found the camera a problem in the original will find similar issues here. Agro's AI enhanced controls will prove just as frustrating (or appropriate) as it was in 2005. Running up gigantic swords, struggling to maintain a grip on a gliding stone eagle high in the sky, or outsmarting walking artillery batteries all remain exhilarating, rendered more breath-taking by Bluepoint. Kow Otani's soaring track still sends chills up the spine, playing with the player's emotions, masterfully directing the the reaction players have at any given moment. As far as I could tell, the soundtrack remained unchanged, but I might have missed a few subtle alterations. The soundscape of Shadow of the Colossus remains one of the most cohesive pieces of the whole package, bringing all of the elements together with a neat bow. Conclusion: Shadow of the Colossus was already a phenomenal game that shaped an entire generation of people and helped solidify the acceptance of video games as an art form. The remake provides a face lift from the ground up that brings forth a whole new world of beauty that enhances a timeless story. If you missed out on the original on PS2 or the HD remaster on PS3, this is the definitive edition that you owe it to yourself to play. Shadow of the Colossus is available now for PlayStation 4.
  8. Time moves slowly and inexorably forward. The world changes, and we grow old telling stories together. Those stories, the ones that stick with us, communicated something important to us. As a medium, game creators have spent decades learning how to put together ever more effective stories that can offer that thing of precious importance, that moment of beauty, clarity, success, failure. In a sea of stories, Shadow of the Colossus stands out as a fairy tale in the classic sense, and the remake by Bluepoint Games serves to enhance what was already a foundational piece of video game history. Shadow of the Colossus tells the tale of a young man named Wander who travels to the Forbidden Land, a landmass sealed off from the rest of the world. Using an enchanted sword, he strikes a deal with an enigmatic entity named Dormin who agrees to bring the woman he has brought with him back from the dead if he can complete an impossible task: Defeat 16 colossal incarnations of the towering stone statues that line the temple. Armed only with his magic sword, a bow with unlimited arrows, and his trusty horse Agro, Wander sets forth into a long-abandoned world of ruins and natural wonders to battle towering behemoths the size of skyscrapers. The simple, powerful set up allows the visuals, music, and gameplay tell the vast majority of the narrative. That open approach to storytelling led a lot of people, even the marketing team for Shadow of the Colossus, to interpret the adventure as one about true, undying love. Wander, after all, goes to incredible lengths for a woman with whom he has a close connection. However, playing through the remake, a version remade after over a decade, I realized that my perception of the game has shifted to seeing it more as a tale about loss and the inability to let go being an ultimately destructive force. That flexibility and changing interpretation feels interesting. It's a reminder of how much time has passed since I played Shadow of the Colossus in 2005. Back then, the question of whether video games were capable of being art was a hotly debated topic. The internet was on fire with hot takes about what it meant to be art and whether interactivity itself negated art. Now that the question has largely been settled, it feels liberating to be able to think, "okay, it's art, so what does that mean? What does all of this, as a piece of art, mean?" Everyone will have to struggle with loss at some point in their lives. It's not pleasant. It hurts. There's the impulse to yell and scream and gnash your teeth because you would do anything to have that person back in your life. And Shadow of the Colossus asks the seductive question: What if you could throw everything to the wind and bring that person back? What price would you pay? And at first, the answer seems obvious, heroic even. But as the game progresses and one by one the beautiful, deadly colossi, who were all minding their own business before Wander showed up, begin to take their toll. The feeling of triumph and accomplishment gives way to self-doubt. Is this the right thing? That question of meaning scratches at the fundamentals of what I believe make myths and fairy tales resonate across time. Because Shadow of the Colossus is art. To some it could be a tale of love, to others it could represent a cautionary tale about obsession, and playing the remake it brought to mind loss. Shadow of the Colossus manages to have the narrative flexibility to accommodate multiple interpretations, and that's a quality that can bestow a great deal of longevity to a piece of art. I'd argue that's at least partly why we are getting a remake of a game that's two-and-a-half generations of technology behind the current PlayStation console. It's a testament to the artistry of the original PlayStation 2 release of Shadow of the Colossus that the visuals largely hold up due to its adherence to a strong minimalist aesthetic that focuses on natural beauty. The entire production possesses a washed out quality that cleverly hides some of the deficient parts of the world as Wander and Agro make their way across the quiet plains and subdued forests. With the remake, none of the world needs to be hidden by visual tricks; flowing water glitters in the sunlight, grass sways with the wind, dust motes flit through the air. The effect of the increased focus on detail afforded by the technological leap and the original style is jaw-dropping. To put it bluntly, this remake of Shadow of the Colossus stands as one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. I found myself slowing to a walk to soak in the moments of natural beauty that made yet another outing in the Forbidden Land unforgettable. With the share function on the PlayStation 4, I constantly paused the action to fiddle with the newly added photo mode in pursuit of that perfect angle to show off Bluepoint's gorgeously rendered take on Team Ico's classic. It was a compulsion to ogle the work put into everything on screen and then share that with the world. If I had to nitpick the presentation, there were a few elements that felt a bit off. The biggest would be Wander's strange lack of facial animations. The update gave him somewhat of a baby face; not a huge problem, but slightly different from the original character model. His face seems to lack some degree of animation for reacting to events, something more noticeable with a built-in photo mode. Outside of cutscenes, Wander is content to stare passively into the distance, regardless of the circumstances. Wobbling on the ledge of a colossus-sized fall? Not even the faintest recognition of his own mortality. Lastly, and this might be one of the most nitpicky things of all, one of the subtle elements of the original release of Shadow of the Colossus was the slow shift that visualized Wander's fall from grace. As each colossi met its death, he became less human. Players saw that change happen bit by bit, witnessing horns sprout from his head and his skin turn pale and black veins appear on his body. The remake seems to only gradually make his skin paler until the very end when he suddenly has horns and horrific cracked skin. It would have been nice to have a subtler touch applied to his transformation to give it more of a build-up. All of that being said, the small issues present in the Shadow of the Colossus remake are an exceedingly small price to pay for an update that's otherwise a fan or newcomer's dream come true. An updated control scheme provides people frustrated with the PS2 controls a new way to play, while also retaining the retro layout available for those who have grown used to how the original played. Small additions to the game like a series of hidden coins that can be collected for a secret reward that have been scattered across the world to reward players who poke into every nook and cranny. Additional clarification has been added to some of the colossi themselves to show what can and cannot be climbed and grabbed. The same with some parts of the environment that now have grabbable surfaces to avoid frustrating falls. The gameplay remains as harrowing, exciting, and frustrating as ever. Players who found the camera a problem in the original will find similar issues here. Agro's AI enhanced controls will prove just as frustrating (or appropriate) as it was in 2005. Running up gigantic swords, struggling to maintain a grip on a gliding stone eagle high in the sky, or outsmarting walking artillery batteries all remain exhilarating, rendered more breath-taking by Bluepoint. Kow Otani's soaring track still sends chills up the spine, playing with the player's emotions, masterfully directing the the reaction players have at any given moment. As far as I could tell, the soundtrack remained unchanged, but I might have missed a few subtle alterations. The soundscape of Shadow of the Colossus remains one of the most cohesive pieces of the whole package, bringing all of the elements together with a neat bow. Conclusion: Shadow of the Colossus was already a phenomenal game that shaped an entire generation of people and helped solidify the acceptance of video games as an art form. The remake provides a face lift from the ground up that brings forth a whole new world of beauty that enhances a timeless story. If you missed out on the original on PS2 or the HD remaster on PS3, this is the definitive edition that you owe it to yourself to play. Shadow of the Colossus is available now for PlayStation 4. View full article
  9. Naomi N. Lugo

    Review: Lock's Quest

    That last wave of Clockwork horrors has left me exhausted with my defeat looming imminent. The enemy infiltrated my barriers, and have begun their final push toward their objective. The stronghold will be destroyed within seconds once they break through, but I’ve got the next round planned. I’ve assessed my strategy and know how to hold the oncoming Clockwork army back until I can regroup. This round my plan will surely... wait, no! How did they get through there that fast? Wait! Lock’s Quest immerses players in tower defense gameplay with RPG elements sprinkled in. The game first hit the scene in 2008 when THQ released it on the Nintendo DS. At release, it enjoyed a bit of a cult status with mixed reviews from critics. On May 30, 2017, the remaster released on consoles with updated music, controls, and graphics, as well as the addition of extra content. The new graphics slap a new coat of paint on Lock's Quest that looks like an isometric mash-up of Pokémon and Stardew Valley. While music and UI got the remaster treatment, combat saw expansion. A new progression system, strategy elements, map, endless mode and other features were added to appeal to old fans of the series as well as "sophisticated gamers" according to the new features listed on the game's website. This beefing up affects build and combat gameplay (more on those modes later). The progression system now aligns with the plot, unlocking relevant goodies for build-mode. And the remaster also boasts speedier build/combat cycles so players can assess their strategy if necessary to tackle the next wave more effectively. While I did get frustrated when I failed a stage, I did appreciate the ability to reset and tackle the challenge with new knowledge. However, I did occasionally have issues with crashing when attempting to do so. Speaking of building and combat, 5th Cell structured gameplay around tower defense into two distinct modes: Build Mode and Battle Mode. Players have a time limit on their barricade planning in Build Mode. This barricade protects an objective and must withstand a barrage of enemies within the combat time limit. The tools and resources at your disposal correspond to progress as the enemies get more diverse and stronger. Structure options include walls, turrets, land mines, soldiers, and more. The currency you'll use to construct your barricade comes from defeating enemies and adds a depth to the difficulty. If you're not doing well in your planning it will carry over to the next level. During the battle phase you have control of Lock, and depending on your progress, he has different abilities. At the very beginning of the game though he has a vital skill called ratcheting where he repairs the damage done to structures. His other abilities range from attacks and energy drains to more advanced repair and money drops. The enemy, the Clockwork focus on attacking your infrastructure during this stage. Guiding Lock will help you save your defenses for future rounds and help earn some currency. The foundation for the civilization of the Kingdom where Lock's Quest takes place surrounds the discovery of an element called Source, aka that currency we were talking about earlier. Source doesn't really have an explanation, but people who have been dubbed Archineers found a way to manipulate it. The magical stuff powers defense items, like what Lock builds and uses. Conflict came when one Archineer found that Source could replicate life and utilized this ability. The king banished this Archineer. This Archineer then became Lord Agony and created the Clockwork, "living" machines, in retaliation. Lord Agony disappeared seemingly defeated, but the details of the battle remain unclear to the world's inhabitants. This all happened before the events of the game. One thing is clear, however, the Clockwork have returned. Players participate in the current, battle-ridden world as the titular Lock, a young hero with an unclear past but a determination to pave his future. Lock lives with his sister Emi and grandfather Tobias. One day while making repairs to structures on the shore Lock and Emi come across a wounded Archineer who fled from a battle against the Clockwork. The wounded Archineer enlists Lock to help fend off an upcoming attack. In the chaos of the attack, Emi is lost, the town falls under the attack and Lock gets determined to defeat the Clockwork. What I could really get behind in terms of the story was the fact that it explained the gameplay. Lock's Quest's use of story makes it unique. Rather than arbitrarily running alongside the gameplay, the story seeks to explain the presence of the RTS gameplay. Lock has Archineer abilities and can manipulate source making him able to build turrets. This makes sense with this context. Rather than expecting players to just accept the mechanics of the game, the devs did a good job of weaving it into the story. Not a small feat for a tower defense. While Lock's Quest's strength shines in its storytelling, its weaknesses lie in combat. Isometric view is standard in games like this, but I found myself fighting with it during the battle sequences. Moving Lock around was painful. The slow movement became especially noticeable while fighting under the constraints of a time limit on a battlefield swarmed with enemies. I also had some issues with crashing and having to restart. I wasn't a happy gamer when I discovered that the cutscenes were unskippable. Conclusion: While frustrating at times, Lock's Quest provides engaging mechanics that makes you want to progress. I found it a little addicting to see how the enemy would interact with my builds, and the degree to which they would be successful. And like a good little gamer I was driven by the need to unlock new gear to fortify. Crashes and trouble finding Lock during a stressful attack sequence definitely detracted from my initial experiences, but overall this title had me pushing my left brain during combat and engaged my right with the world it managed to create. Lock's Quest was reviewed on Xbox One and is also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo DS.
  10. Jack Gardner

    Review: Solstice Chronicles: MIA

    Twin-stick shooters have been gaining more attention lately with a number of small releases like Full Mojo Rampage, Nex Machina, and Helldivers. The influx of indie titles has made the genre become more crowded in recent years. Solstice Chronicles: MIA aims to differentiate itself from the pack, but only comes up with concepts that have been done better elsewhere or half-baked ideas that barely function. Solstice Chronicles: MIA’s most glaring problem comes down to a severe lack of polish. It feels like an unfinished build of what might eventually have been an interesting game. Pretty much every kind of rough edge you can think of permeates the experience. Typos abound in the text prompts. Glitches rear their ugly heads at inopportune times, occasionally completely blocking all progress. It runs sluggishly. The story seems to be missing key parts that would help string it together; dialogue, transitions between scenes, etc. All of that simply leads to a frustrating, jagged mess, which could be forgiven if the gameplay itself was satisfying. Unfortunately, the lack of polish results in the complete disruption of any sense of pacing the various levels might potentially possess. Despite having a system that controls the spawn rate of alien enemies, there never seems to be consistency to it. Some levels begin mid swarm. Others go long stretches at the max alien spawn level without releasing much of anything. Often, the best solution to reach the end of a level is by ignoring enemies altogether and sprinting for the end, fighting only when the game boxes you into a corner to wait for an elevator or a door. During those hold your ground sequences, Solstice Chronicles: MIA manages to have a pulse of life. The developers sometimes provide various tactical defenses like turrets or barricades or napalm bombs, all of which can be placed strategically to help ward off oncoming waves of aliens. Due to the pacing of the game being completely off, you will not often have the breathing room necessary to place those pieces of equipment. Also, for some reason the game seems to think lights are a good defensive item? If you’re given a choice between an automated turret and a set of lights, why on earth would you pick the lights? Also, sometimes doors don’t open or get stuck, leaving you to battle monsters for eternity or until you turn the game off. The story, such as it is, functions. Players take on the role of a space marine left for dead at a remote outpost struggling to find his way back to civilization as a mutating plague infects a nearby colony. He encounters an autonomous drone with some attitude and the two make an uneasy alliance to get them back home and stop the virus. It’s a tired premise, but the dialogue occasionally manages to earn a chuckle. The whole thing ends on a somewhat baffling cliffhanger. We experience this story through a number of cutscenes that often unceremoniously dump the player into the next stage with little to no transition or set-up. As much as I don’t usually point fingers at the graphical quality of a game, Solstice Chronicles: MIA really needed more polish on that front. Most of the locations look or feel the same. If you’ve played a generic sci-fi action game before, you know what this looks like already. A climactic boss encounter occurs late in the game against a giant sand worm while the player clings to a moving train. This sand worm just clips through the surrounding terrain and the train itself. It’s not even uncommon to see similar graphical glitches in Solstice Chronicles, the worm just provides one of the most noteworthy examples. It took four hours to complete Solstice Chronicles: MIA. There are several difficulties, a survival mode, and the entire thing can be tackled with a friend, but only via local co-op. A truly dedicated player might be able to squeeze out twelve hours of gameplay, but most won't have any desire to stay within Solstice's world for that long. The game checks all the boxes of being a functional, if horribly messy, twin-stick shooter, but offers very little else. Some interesting ideas do appear within Solstice Chronicles: MIA. The main innovation takes the form of the drone. Players can use the drone to perform a number of different tasks to add variety during the hectic bullet shooting. The drone has the capability to scavenge, finding ammo, upgrades, and health while mid-combat, but it comes at the cost of attracting more enemies. As a counterbalance, the drone can taunt enemies, attracting more of them to the player's location while decreasing the overall spawn rate. It can also create a forcefield to give the player a bit of temporary breathing room. If things get a bit too overwhelming, players can have the drone detonate an AOE explosion that can be intense over a small area or cover a larger zone and do less damage. If, miraculously, Solstice Chronicles: MIA receives a sequel that has more time to be fully fleshed out, I’d love to see the drone’s unique functions expanded. Conclusion: When everything goes right and Solstice Chronicles: MIA manages to fire on all cylinders, there are glimmers of a much better game. that being said, I find it hard to recommend, especially at the full price of $20. If you’re really hurting for a local sci-fi co-op game, pick it up when it inevitably goes on sale. Similar games exist out there for lower prices and with more content, like the 2010 Valve title Alien Swarm, which offers a more refined experience, four player online co-op, and comes at the low cost of free. Steer clear of this one unless you truly can't get enough twin-stick shooting in your life. Solstice Chronicles: MIA was reviewed on PC and is now available. It has a release planned for PlayStation 4.
  11. Twin-stick shooters have been gaining more attention lately with a number of small releases like Full Mojo Rampage, Nex Machina, and Helldivers. The influx of indie titles has made the genre become more crowded in recent years. Solstice Chronicles: MIA aims to differentiate itself from the pack, but only comes up with concepts that have been done better elsewhere or half-baked ideas that barely function. Solstice Chronicles: MIA’s most glaring problem comes down to a severe lack of polish. It feels like an unfinished build of what might eventually have been an interesting game. Pretty much every kind of rough edge you can think of permeates the experience. Typos abound in the text prompts. Glitches rear their ugly heads at inopportune times, occasionally completely blocking all progress. It runs sluggishly. The story seems to be missing key parts that would help string it together; dialogue, transitions between scenes, etc. All of that simply leads to a frustrating, jagged mess, which could be forgiven if the gameplay itself was satisfying. Unfortunately, the lack of polish results in the complete disruption of any sense of pacing the various levels might potentially possess. Despite having a system that controls the spawn rate of alien enemies, there never seems to be consistency to it. Some levels begin mid swarm. Others go long stretches at the max alien spawn level without releasing much of anything. Often, the best solution to reach the end of a level is by ignoring enemies altogether and sprinting for the end, fighting only when the game boxes you into a corner to wait for an elevator or a door. During those hold your ground sequences, Solstice Chronicles: MIA manages to have a pulse of life. The developers sometimes provide various tactical defenses like turrets or barricades or napalm bombs, all of which can be placed strategically to help ward off oncoming waves of aliens. Due to the pacing of the game being completely off, you will not often have the breathing room necessary to place those pieces of equipment. Also, for some reason the game seems to think lights are a good defensive item? If you’re given a choice between an automated turret and a set of lights, why on earth would you pick the lights? Also, sometimes doors don’t open or get stuck, leaving you to battle monsters for eternity or until you turn the game off. The story, such as it is, functions. Players take on the role of a space marine left for dead at a remote outpost struggling to find his way back to civilization as a mutating plague infects a nearby colony. He encounters an autonomous drone with some attitude and the two make an uneasy alliance to get them back home and stop the virus. It’s a tired premise, but the dialogue occasionally manages to earn a chuckle. The whole thing ends on a somewhat baffling cliffhanger. We experience this story through a number of cutscenes that often unceremoniously dump the player into the next stage with little to no transition or set-up. As much as I don’t usually point fingers at the graphical quality of a game, Solstice Chronicles: MIA really needed more polish on that front. Most of the locations look or feel the same. If you’ve played a generic sci-fi action game before, you know what this looks like already. A climactic boss encounter occurs late in the game against a giant sand worm while the player clings to a moving train. This sand worm just clips through the surrounding terrain and the train itself. It’s not even uncommon to see similar graphical glitches in Solstice Chronicles, the worm just provides one of the most noteworthy examples. It took four hours to complete Solstice Chronicles: MIA. There are several difficulties, a survival mode, and the entire thing can be tackled with a friend, but only via local co-op. A truly dedicated player might be able to squeeze out twelve hours of gameplay, but most won't have any desire to stay within Solstice's world for that long. The game checks all the boxes of being a functional, if horribly messy, twin-stick shooter, but offers very little else. Some interesting ideas do appear within Solstice Chronicles: MIA. The main innovation takes the form of the drone. Players can use the drone to perform a number of different tasks to add variety during the hectic bullet shooting. The drone has the capability to scavenge, finding ammo, upgrades, and health while mid-combat, but it comes at the cost of attracting more enemies. As a counterbalance, the drone can taunt enemies, attracting more of them to the player's location while decreasing the overall spawn rate. It can also create a forcefield to give the player a bit of temporary breathing room. If things get a bit too overwhelming, players can have the drone detonate an AOE explosion that can be intense over a small area or cover a larger zone and do less damage. If, miraculously, Solstice Chronicles: MIA receives a sequel that has more time to be fully fleshed out, I’d love to see the drone’s unique functions expanded. Conclusion: When everything goes right and Solstice Chronicles: MIA manages to fire on all cylinders, there are glimmers of a much better game. that being said, I find it hard to recommend, especially at the full price of $20. If you’re really hurting for a local sci-fi co-op game, pick it up when it inevitably goes on sale. Similar games exist out there for lower prices and with more content, like the 2010 Valve title Alien Swarm, which offers a more refined experience, four player online co-op, and comes at the low cost of free. Steer clear of this one unless you truly can't get enough twin-stick shooting in your life. Solstice Chronicles: MIA was reviewed on PC and is now available. It has a release planned for PlayStation 4. View full article
  12. Naomi N. Lugo

    Feature: Review: Lock's Quest

    That last wave of Clockwork horrors has left me exhausted with my defeat looming imminent. The enemy infiltrated my barriers, and have begun their final push toward their objective. The stronghold will be destroyed within seconds once they break through, but I’ve got the next round planned. I’ve assessed my strategy and know how to hold the oncoming Clockwork army back until I can regroup. This round my plan will surely... wait, no! How did they get through there that fast? Wait! Lock’s Quest immerses players in tower defense gameplay with RPG elements sprinkled in. The game first hit the scene in 2008 when THQ released it on the Nintendo DS. At release, it enjoyed a bit of a cult status with mixed reviews from critics. On May 30, 2017, the remaster released on consoles with updated music, controls, and graphics, as well as the addition of extra content. The new graphics slap a new coat of paint on Lock's Quest that looks like an isometric mash-up of Pokémon and Stardew Valley. While music and UI got the remaster treatment, combat saw expansion. A new progression system, strategy elements, map, endless mode and other features were added to appeal to old fans of the series as well as "sophisticated gamers" according to the new features listed on the game's website. This beefing up affects build and combat gameplay (more on those modes later). The progression system now aligns with the plot, unlocking relevant goodies for build-mode. And the remaster also boasts speedier build/combat cycles so players can assess their strategy if necessary to tackle the next wave more effectively. While I did get frustrated when I failed a stage, I did appreciate the ability to reset and tackle the challenge with new knowledge. However, I did occasionally have issues with crashing when attempting to do so. Speaking of building and combat, 5th Cell structured gameplay around tower defense into two distinct modes: Build Mode and Battle Mode. Players have a time limit on their barricade planning in Build Mode. This barricade protects an objective and must withstand a barrage of enemies within the combat time limit. The tools and resources at your disposal correspond to progress as the enemies get more diverse and stronger. Structure options include walls, turrets, land mines, soldiers, and more. The currency you'll use to construct your barricade comes from defeating enemies and adds a depth to the difficulty. If you're not doing well in your planning it will carry over to the next level. During the battle phase you have control of Lock, and depending on your progress, he has different abilities. At the very beginning of the game though he has a vital skill called ratcheting where he repairs the damage done to structures. His other abilities range from attacks and energy drains to more advanced repair and money drops. The enemy, the Clockwork focus on attacking your infrastructure during this stage. Guiding Lock will help you save your defenses for future rounds and help earn some currency. The foundation for the civilization of the Kingdom where Lock's Quest takes place surrounds the discovery of an element called Source, aka that currency we were talking about earlier. Source doesn't really have an explanation, but people who have been dubbed Archineers found a way to manipulate it. The magical stuff powers defense items, like what Lock builds and uses. Conflict came when one Archineer found that Source could replicate life and utilized this ability. The king banished this Archineer. This Archineer then became Lord Agony and created the Clockwork, "living" machines, in retaliation. Lord Agony disappeared seemingly defeated, but the details of the battle remain unclear to the world's inhabitants. This all happened before the events of the game. One thing is clear, however, the Clockwork have returned. Players participate in the current, battle-ridden world as the titular Lock, a young hero with an unclear past but a determination to pave his future. Lock lives with his sister Emi and grandfather Tobias. One day while making repairs to structures on the shore Lock and Emi come across a wounded Archineer who fled from a battle against the Clockwork. The wounded Archineer enlists Lock to help fend off an upcoming attack. In the chaos of the attack, Emi is lost, the town falls under the attack and Lock gets determined to defeat the Clockwork. What I could really get behind in terms of the story was the fact that it explained the gameplay. Lock's Quest's use of story makes it unique. Rather than arbitrarily running alongside the gameplay, the story seeks to explain the presence of the RTS gameplay. Lock has Archineer abilities and can manipulate source making him able to build turrets. This makes sense with this context. Rather than expecting players to just accept the mechanics of the game, the devs did a good job of weaving it into the story. Not a small feat for a tower defense. While Lock's Quest's strength shines in its storytelling, its weaknesses lie in combat. Isometric view is standard in games like this, but I found myself fighting with it during the battle sequences. Moving Lock around was painful. The slow movement became especially noticeable while fighting under the constraints of a time limit on a battlefield swarmed with enemies. I also had some issues with crashing and having to restart. I wasn't a happy gamer when I discovered that the cutscenes were unskippable. Conclusion: While frustrating at times, Lock's Quest provides engaging mechanics that makes you want to progress. I found it a little addicting to see how the enemy would interact with my builds, and the degree to which they would be successful. And like a good little gamer I was driven by the need to unlock new gear to fortify. Crashes and trouble finding Lock during a stressful attack sequence definitely detracted from my initial experiences, but overall this title had me pushing my left brain during combat and engaged my right with the world it managed to create. Lock's Quest was reviewed on Xbox One and is also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo DS. View full article
  13. Jack Gardner

    Feature: Review: Pyre

    Supergiant Games never makes the same thing twice. Bastion tackled a fantasy post-apocalypse, melding it with a grizzled narration, some western twang, and hooked players with engrossing isometric action and light RPG elements. Transistor told what can best be described as a Shakespearean techo-revenge tale that leaned more heavily into turn-based RPG elements. Pyre goes for something completely different: A story following a ragtag group of misfits who play a religious sports tournament to earn their freedom from exile. If NBA Jam had a visual novel component, gorgeous visuals, and endearing characters, it would be called Pyre. In the world of Pyre, the Commonwealth stands as the last powerful empire. Those who run afoul of its laws or make the wrong enemies are exiled from its safety into another world, the Downside, a harsh purgatory where only the strong survive. In this environment, criminals and ne’er-do-wells fall prey to their vices or, in rare cases, find redemption and new purpose. Pyre thrusts players into the role of an unnamed character known only as “the Reader,” an individual who broke one of the most sacred laws of the Commonwealth by learning how to read. Near death, the Reader is found by a trio of Downside wanderers who invite them to read a set of texts that detail an ancient set of rituals, known as the Rites, which can set one free from exile to begin a new life in the Commonwealth. These Rites are only known to a few and represent the one and only chance for an exile to rejoin society. The trio reveal themselves to be a new incarnation of the Nightwings, a familiar name among those who pursue the Rites. The Nightwings have reformed to seek their freedom, overturn the order of the Commonwealth, and bring an end to Downside exile forever. To that end, the player travels the Downside to participate in the Rites, clashing with other teams who participate in the religious tournament. These competitions represent the meat of Pyre’s gameplay. To win the Rite, players must douse the flames of the opposing team’s pyre with a stellar orb that falls from the sky. Each side controls three different characters, but can only move one at any given time. Every character controls differently and possesses different powers that must be used strategically in order to emerge victorious. Each character can jump, sprint, pass or throw the orb, and cast their aura, a mystic energy field that banishes any opposing character that comes into contact with it. Banished character return to the match after a set period of time, but that might be just enough time to get the orb into the pyre. A few small glitches occasionally rear their heads with some head-scratching hit detection, but for the most part, the quick, smooth gameplay experience feels great (the game even includes a local multiplayer mode). This all works very well, capturing the arcade feel of an SNES sports title in modern form. However, the gameplay only represents half of the overall experience. Between matches, players travel from location to location, often making decisions that affect how the Rites will proceed. Perhaps you spend time tutoring a member of the Nightwings, digging for buried treasure, or sabotaging the opposing team. Maybe you have time for a heart-to-heart conversation with one of your teammates where you could learn more about what sent them into exile and what they hope to accomplish when they return home. In the text and characterization of the Reader’s companions we find the beating heart of Pyre. You see, the more you use a character in the Rites, the more powerful they become. However, the more useful the character, the more you learn about what drives them and the more worthy of freedom they seem. The dirty secret of the Rites is that only one person may go free with each season of the ritual games. Often the best character on your team might be the one you select to go free and live out their days in the Commonwealth. By structuring character growth in this way, Supergiant Games creates a natural and emotional roller coaster for each character. And by each character, I really do mean each character. Every character encountered in Pyre has their own arc and can achieve liberation through the Rites. The option is always left open to lose a Rite, to allow an adversary to ascend back to the Commonwealth instead of an ally. In clashing time and time again, players learn about the cast of antagonists, some of whom might be deserving of their liberation, too. That’s the whole tragedy of the Downside – everyone can be redeemed, but not everyone is. It stands as the defining power Pyre gives over to players; deciding who possesses qualities worthy of salvation within a corrupt system. A larger story functions merely as a vehicle for players to interact with these characters and experience the thrill of the Rites. The overarching narrative deals with revolution and the role stories play in wider societal change. In many ways, Pyre is about how the games we play, the stories we create can change the world, for better or worse. There are three levels of drama to Pyre’s adventure through the wastes. One the most immediate level, the second-to-second excitement of the Rites. It’s visceral, tangible. Then you have the intermediate drama, the relationship with the characters that extends beyond the Rites. Players learning who characters are by interacting with them directly or by witnessing them interacting with one another. This deepens the drama on the base level because Supergiant manages to make players care about the individual characters who all have stakes in the Rites. Finally, the overarching narrative adds a more abstract scenario that limits how often players can interact with the other Nightwings, how many people can go free, which places a final, excruciating weight to the player’s decisions up until that point. I'd be remiss at this point if I didn't give Pyre praise for its incredible art direction. Jen Zee has to be one of the most striking artists working in games right now. Her style remains instantly recognizable and captivating. Her hand-drawn approach to visually designing the ethereal world of Downside gives rise to haunting visions of giants, lively, expressive characters, and a hostile beauty. Darren Korb returns to Supergiant with a full, rambunctious musical score in which one can hear hints of the old Bastion country twang. Korb's musical style works hand-in-hand with the visuals to allow the player's imagination to run wild, filling in the gaps created by the constraints of Pyre's visual novel approach to storytelling. In this case, Korb has a literal stand-in character in the form of The Lone Minstrel, Tariq, a celestial being with a haunting voice - one of only two intelligible speakers in Pyre. Conclusion: Supergiant Games stands as one of the most fascinating developers working today. Their games possess vision and take bold risks. Bastion and Transistor hammered home their overall narratives with great skill. Pyre relegates the overall narrative to the background while highlighting the characters. It’s bold; it’s different; and it doesn’t quite work as well as its predecessors. The reason for this seems to be the focus on characters above all else. The narrative ostensibly deals with a revolution in the Commonwealth, but the game itself stays far removed from those events. This keeps the focus squarely on the cast, but it puts them and the player in a reactionary role, rather than a proactive one. Players merely react to changing circumstances rather than having any direct agency in changing events. That lack of agency could very well tie in with the theme Pyre goes for, but it doesn’t manifest as clearly as the themes in previous Supergiant titles. All of that said, Pyre stands as a great game. The weakest Supergiant title still holds its own as one of the most original and interesting games in the industry. What other studio could successfully meld NBA Jam with a gladiatorial revolution while retaining a cute, gorgeous charm? Pyre’s one of the most unique games available today and certainly worth experiencing, especially if you are looking for something different. Pyre is available now for PlayStation 4 and PC. View full article
  14. Jack Gardner

    Review: Pyre

    Supergiant Games never makes the same thing twice. Bastion tackled a fantasy post-apocalypse, melding it with a grizzled narration, some western twang, and hooked players with engrossing isometric action and light RPG elements. Transistor told what can best be described as a Shakespearean techo-revenge tale that leaned more heavily into turn-based RPG elements. Pyre goes for something completely different: A story following a ragtag group of misfits who play a religious sports tournament to earn their freedom from exile. If NBA Jam had a visual novel component, gorgeous visuals, and endearing characters, it would be called Pyre. In the world of Pyre, the Commonwealth stands as the last powerful empire. Those who run afoul of its laws or make the wrong enemies are exiled from its safety into another world, the Downside, a harsh purgatory where only the strong survive. In this environment, criminals and ne’er-do-wells fall prey to their vices or, in rare cases, find redemption and new purpose. Pyre thrusts players into the role of an unnamed character known only as “the Reader,” an individual who broke one of the most sacred laws of the Commonwealth by learning how to read. Near death, the Reader is found by a trio of Downside wanderers who invite them to read a set of texts that detail an ancient set of rituals, known as the Rites, which can set one free from exile to begin a new life in the Commonwealth. These Rites are only known to a few and represent the one and only chance for an exile to rejoin society. The trio reveal themselves to be a new incarnation of the Nightwings, a familiar name among those who pursue the Rites. The Nightwings have reformed to seek their freedom, overturn the order of the Commonwealth, and bring an end to Downside exile forever. To that end, the player travels the Downside to participate in the Rites, clashing with other teams who participate in the religious tournament. These competitions represent the meat of Pyre’s gameplay. To win the Rite, players must douse the flames of the opposing team’s pyre with a stellar orb that falls from the sky. Each side controls three different characters, but can only move one at any given time. Every character controls differently and possesses different powers that must be used strategically in order to emerge victorious. Each character can jump, sprint, pass or throw the orb, and cast their aura, a mystic energy field that banishes any opposing character that comes into contact with it. Banished character return to the match after a set period of time, but that might be just enough time to get the orb into the pyre. A few small glitches occasionally rear their heads with some head-scratching hit detection, but for the most part, the quick, smooth gameplay experience feels great (the game even includes a local multiplayer mode). This all works very well, capturing the arcade feel of an SNES sports title in modern form. However, the gameplay only represents half of the overall experience. Between matches, players travel from location to location, often making decisions that affect how the Rites will proceed. Perhaps you spend time tutoring a member of the Nightwings, digging for buried treasure, or sabotaging the opposing team. Maybe you have time for a heart-to-heart conversation with one of your teammates where you could learn more about what sent them into exile and what they hope to accomplish when they return home. In the text and characterization of the Reader’s companions we find the beating heart of Pyre. You see, the more you use a character in the Rites, the more powerful they become. However, the more useful the character, the more you learn about what drives them and the more worthy of freedom they seem. The dirty secret of the Rites is that only one person may go free with each season of the ritual games. Often the best character on your team might be the one you select to go free and live out their days in the Commonwealth. By structuring character growth in this way, Supergiant Games creates a natural and emotional roller coaster for each character. And by each character, I really do mean each character. Every character encountered in Pyre has their own arc and can achieve liberation through the Rites. The option is always left open to lose a Rite, to allow an adversary to ascend back to the Commonwealth instead of an ally. In clashing time and time again, players learn about the cast of antagonists, some of whom might be deserving of their liberation, too. That’s the whole tragedy of the Downside – everyone can be redeemed, but not everyone is. It stands as the defining power Pyre gives over to players; deciding who possesses qualities worthy of salvation within a corrupt system. A larger story functions merely as a vehicle for players to interact with these characters and experience the thrill of the Rites. The overarching narrative deals with revolution and the role stories play in wider societal change. In many ways, Pyre is about how the games we play, the stories we create can change the world, for better or worse. There are three levels of drama to Pyre’s adventure through the wastes. One the most immediate level, the second-to-second excitement of the Rites. It’s visceral, tangible. Then you have the intermediate drama, the relationship with the characters that extends beyond the Rites. Players learning who characters are by interacting with them directly or by witnessing them interacting with one another. This deepens the drama on the base level because Supergiant manages to make players care about the individual characters who all have stakes in the Rites. Finally, the overarching narrative adds a more abstract scenario that limits how often players can interact with the other Nightwings, how many people can go free, which places a final, excruciating weight to the player’s decisions up until that point. I'd be remiss at this point if I didn't give Pyre praise for its incredible art direction. Jen Zee has to be one of the most striking artists working in games right now. Her style remains instantly recognizable and captivating. Her hand-drawn approach to visually designing the ethereal world of Downside gives rise to haunting visions of giants, lively, expressive characters, and a hostile beauty. Darren Korb returns to Supergiant with a full, rambunctious musical score in which one can hear hints of the old Bastion country twang. Korb's musical style works hand-in-hand with the visuals to allow the player's imagination to run wild, filling in the gaps created by the constraints of Pyre's visual novel approach to storytelling. In this case, Korb has a literal stand-in character in the form of The Lone Minstrel, Tariq, a celestial being with a haunting voice - one of only two intelligible speakers in Pyre. Conclusion: Supergiant Games stands as one of the most fascinating developers working today. Their games possess vision and take bold risks. Bastion and Transistor hammered home their overall narratives with great skill. Pyre relegates the overall narrative to the background while highlighting the characters. It’s bold; it’s different; and it doesn’t quite work as well as its predecessors. The reason for this seems to be the focus on characters above all else. The narrative ostensibly deals with a revolution in the Commonwealth, but the game itself stays far removed from those events. This keeps the focus squarely on the cast, but it puts them and the player in a reactionary role, rather than a proactive one. Players merely react to changing circumstances rather than having any direct agency in changing events. That lack of agency could very well tie in with the theme Pyre goes for, but it doesn’t manifest as clearly as the themes in previous Supergiant titles. All of that said, Pyre stands as a great game. The weakest Supergiant title still holds its own as one of the most original and interesting games in the industry. What other studio could successfully meld NBA Jam with a gladiatorial revolution while retaining a cute, gorgeous charm? Pyre’s one of the most unique games available today and certainly worth experiencing, especially if you are looking for something different. Pyre is available now for PlayStation 4 and PC.
  15. Marcus Stewart

    Feature: Review: Tacoma

    Like Gone Home before it, Tacoma’s intriguing setting and compelling storytelling largely supersede its relatively light gameplay. Fullbright’s sophomore outing trades the nostalgia of the 1990s for a fascinating, mildly unsettling, near-future space setting. As a lone contractor, mega corporation Venturis hires you to visit the deserted space station Tacoma to retrieve the ship's AI, ODIN. But the intrigue in that task pales in comparison to learning the captivating stories of Tacoma’s distressed crew, who disappeared after an accident. Tacoma’s mission doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, but its highpoints in characterization help carry it to the moon and back. Tacoma’s story unfolds by watching decrypted scenes of the team recorded using augmented reality. A simple polygonal model represents each person. Think of it like watching a holographic ghost, with characters distinguished by designated colors and physiques to compensate for a lack of physical details. The age of recordings range from a few days old to several months or even a year. Witnessing past celebrations, emotional turmoils, and intimate moments stirred up emotions ranging from optimism, foreboding, and, at times, even voyeurism. These genuine feelings stemmed from the well-written dialogue and stellar voice performances from the likes of Carl Lumbly (Alias, Justice League) and Greg Chun (Overwatch, Nier: Automata). Tacoma’s crew feel like actual, relatable people trapped in a horrific situation, not just NPC’s spouting lines. Connecting players to each team member are the familiar personal burdens each carry: Tragic personal losses; the pressures of appeasing a high and mighty family; coping with professional failures; long distance parenthood. The ways those stresses influence their responses to the larger situation feels logical and nuanced, as do the emotional interactions between characters. The sympathy and endearment these performances generate act as the driving force behind exploring every inch of Tacoma. You don’t need to see and hear everything to finish the game but I wanted to. I felt compelled to read every email and pick up every object in the hopes it would shed more light on these people. Before long, my motives shifted from a purely objective curiosity to legitimately hoping the crew had survived their predicament. That emotional connection also adds weight to the otherwise predictable and well-worn revelation about the nature of the disaster. Tacoma’s alien setting makes picking up garbage feel more worthwhile than it did in Gone Home. I lived through the 90’s, so I inspected objects in that game primarily for nostalgia. With Tacoma, Fullbright presents an almost eerily plausible future with unique ideas such as corporate loyalty becoming a form of spendable currency. AI’s advanced enough to pen their own autobiographies (seriously) are trusted to oversee major operations like hospitals and residential blocks, guiding and advising the humans within. This future is both exciting and terrifying, but you’ll miss out on much of it by ignoring the random junk around you. I enjoyed having an incentive to rummage through trash bins. From a gameplay standpoint, recordings have a neat investigative quality due to a rewind and fast-forward mechanic. Replaying scenes to catch important details reminded me of combing through videos in the indie hit Her Story, especially using older conversations to add context to more recent ones. I would have liked for recordings to demand a little more deductive skills in gathering info, but I get that Tacoma wants to tell a story and not hang players up on puzzles. On that note, problem-solving in general never comes close complicated; you’re typically just looking for codes to open doors. Even still, Tacoma offers more active involvement than its predecessor, and that’s ultimately a good thing. In a nice touch of realism, several recordings feature multiple conversations occurring simultaneously in different areas. Additionally, characters may enter or exit discussions in progress. Thus, replaying scenes multiple times and following different team members around is a must if you want to experience the full narrative scope. A fun nosiness comes from watching a scene, seeing someone walk away, then replaying the scene again and following that person to see what they’re up to. Overall, this conversation system feels like a cool and smart spin on interactive cutscenes, especially for this genre. Conclusion Tacoma possesses more complicated gameplay than Gone Home, but you still wouldn’t be off-base if you said it only consisted of walking around and eavesdropping on NPC’s. While that might seem shallow, the wonderfully written characters bring value to that experience. Tacoma largely succeeds in presenting a fascinating world worth exploring, backed by novel storytelling mechanics. Your stay is brief, but once you get to know Tacoma’s crew, you’ll be glad you stepped aboard. Tacoma was reviewed on Xbox One and is also available now for PC. View full article
  16. Marcus Stewart

    Review: Tacoma

    Like Gone Home before it, Tacoma’s intriguing setting and compelling storytelling largely supersede its relatively light gameplay. Fullbright’s sophomore outing trades the nostalgia of the 1990s for a fascinating, mildly unsettling, near-future space setting. As a lone contractor, mega corporation Venturis hires you to visit the deserted space station Tacoma to retrieve the ship's AI, ODIN. But the intrigue in that task pales in comparison to learning the captivating stories of Tacoma’s distressed crew, who disappeared after an accident. Tacoma’s mission doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, but its highpoints in characterization help carry it to the moon and back. Tacoma’s story unfolds by watching decrypted scenes of the team recorded using augmented reality. A simple polygonal model represents each person. Think of it like watching a holographic ghost, with characters distinguished by designated colors and physiques to compensate for a lack of physical details. The age of recordings range from a few days old to several months or even a year. Witnessing past celebrations, emotional turmoils, and intimate moments stirred up emotions ranging from optimism, foreboding, and, at times, even voyeurism. These genuine feelings stemmed from the well-written dialogue and stellar voice performances from the likes of Carl Lumbly (Alias, Justice League) and Greg Chun (Overwatch, Nier: Automata). Tacoma’s crew feel like actual, relatable people trapped in a horrific situation, not just NPC’s spouting lines. Connecting players to each team member are the familiar personal burdens each carry: Tragic personal losses; the pressures of appeasing a high and mighty family; coping with professional failures; long distance parenthood. The ways those stresses influence their responses to the larger situation feels logical and nuanced, as do the emotional interactions between characters. The sympathy and endearment these performances generate act as the driving force behind exploring every inch of Tacoma. You don’t need to see and hear everything to finish the game but I wanted to. I felt compelled to read every email and pick up every object in the hopes it would shed more light on these people. Before long, my motives shifted from a purely objective curiosity to legitimately hoping the crew had survived their predicament. That emotional connection also adds weight to the otherwise predictable and well-worn revelation about the nature of the disaster. Tacoma’s alien setting makes picking up garbage feel more worthwhile than it did in Gone Home. I lived through the 90’s, so I inspected objects in that game primarily for nostalgia. With Tacoma, Fullbright presents an almost eerily plausible future with unique ideas such as corporate loyalty becoming a form of spendable currency. AI’s advanced enough to pen their own autobiographies (seriously) are trusted to oversee major operations like hospitals and residential blocks, guiding and advising the humans within. This future is both exciting and terrifying, but you’ll miss out on much of it by ignoring the random junk around you. I enjoyed having an incentive to rummage through trash bins. From a gameplay standpoint, recordings have a neat investigative quality due to a rewind and fast-forward mechanic. Replaying scenes to catch important details reminded me of combing through videos in the indie hit Her Story, especially using older conversations to add context to more recent ones. I would have liked for recordings to demand a little more deductive skills in gathering info, but I get that Tacoma wants to tell a story and not hang players up on puzzles. On that note, problem-solving in general never comes close complicated; you’re typically just looking for codes to open doors. Even still, Tacoma offers more active involvement than its predecessor, and that’s ultimately a good thing. In a nice touch of realism, several recordings feature multiple conversations occurring simultaneously in different areas. Additionally, characters may enter or exit discussions in progress. Thus, replaying scenes multiple times and following different team members around is a must if you want to experience the full narrative scope. A fun nosiness comes from watching a scene, seeing someone walk away, then replaying the scene again and following that person to see what they’re up to. Overall, this conversation system feels like a cool and smart spin on interactive cutscenes, especially for this genre. Conclusion Tacoma possesses more complicated gameplay than Gone Home, but you still wouldn’t be off-base if you said it only consisted of walking around and eavesdropping on NPC’s. While that might seem shallow, the wonderfully written characters bring value to that experience. Tacoma largely succeeds in presenting a fascinating world worth exploring, backed by novel storytelling mechanics. Your stay is brief, but once you get to know Tacoma’s crew, you’ll be glad you stepped aboard. Tacoma was reviewed on Xbox One and is also available now for PC.
  17. Jack Gardner

    Review: Outlast 2

    Horror films hold onto the golden rule: Never show the monster early. You can see it flit about in the shadows; the camera can linger for a while on a pair of glowing eyes as something stalks the protagonist; but never display the monster if you are trying to build the tension and subtle horror that lies beyond jump scares. Outlast 2 revels in shoving players face-first into the most awful things it can think of as if to say, "Isn't that gross and weird? ARE YOU SCARED NOW?" Its lack of nuance represents a step backward for Red Barrels. Red Barrels greeted the world with Outlast back in 2013. The horror title received acclaim for its tense structure and story line that slowly descended into madness. Players were pulled into the world of a seemingly abandoned asylum as seen through the eyes of an intrepid journalist. Combat was nonexistent, meaning players could only run and hide from the various antagonists they encountered. The fact that the asylum housed all manner of inmates led to a very interesting, deliberate grey area when it came to horror. Some inmates would become hostile, others would not. This resulted in tense moments, fueled by a fear of the unknown. Those moments of uncertainty, when constrained within the linear story and structure of Outlast, represented some of its best attempts at horror. Outlast 2 tells the story of Blake Langermann, a journalist and camera man, who works with his journalist partner and wife, Lynn. Together, they decide to pursue a story about the mysterious murder of a pregnant woman in a desolate region of Arizona. As they fly above the region in a helicopter, a mechanical failure causes the chopper to go down, stranding the both of them in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, the two of them have fallen into the middle of a conflict between two opposing cults who believe Lynn holds the keys to the end of the world. Blake sets off to rescue Lynn and escape the manic cult members. Outlast 2 moved away from the more interesting, murky elements of horror. Instead, it commits to subjecting the player to gruesome scenes and scenarios – shock horror. These certainly make for an uncomfortable experience, but they lack the subtlety and pacing of its predecessor or the gold standard of modern, defenseless horror, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Several things contribute to making Outlast 2 a grueling slog to play through: world structure, how players progress through the setting, and what makes for good horror. A large portion of Outlast 2 takes place in the outdoors. You would think that this would make for an interesting dynamic; many horror games thrive on a tightly controlled, linear structure, but taking place without physical barriers seems to fly right in the face of that. The situation seems like a great opportunity to reinvent the horror genre with a more open world approach to design. Despite having access to the open air, Outlast 2 keeps to a more traditional structure, a perfectly sound, reasonable decision. Unfortunately, the implementation of this structure hurts more than helps. It ends up creating confusion in Outlast 2’s perpetual darkness. Outlast 2 wants players to run in specific directions to specific areas in the dead of night with only a grainy camcorder to reveal the way. Ideally, the design of the world would usher players in those desired directions, toward those important areas. Too often, Outlast 2 drops the ball and becomes a confusing, frustrating exercise in trial and error in the woods and fields. In pushing stealth and hiding as the main mechanic, Outlast 2’s design leads to players avoid the obvious routes and stick to the outskirts of any given area – until they are forced into those pathways, which triggers enemy aggression. If this is the approach the game wants to take, why bother having open, outdoor segments at all? Players are often given no time to learn an area, no time to strategize – unless they die repeatedly to scout out the proper route. This has the effect of reducing the horror as players become more familiar with any given area, something that should be the exact opposite of what the developers want players to experience. Outlast 2 seems to be strangely aware of this deficiency, however. To counter these more open, frustrating segments, the game puts players through cutscenes and areas of minimal interactivity that deal with highly uncomfortable and twisted scenarios, like living through a crucifixion. Doubtlessly this approach will appeal to some in the horror community, but I personally found it desensitizing after a while. That desensitization, that cheapening of the horror inherent in Outlast 2’s violence might just be the title’s biggest problem. Instead of leaving the player to feel a growing dread or an uncertainty about their surroundings, Outlast 2 opts to try going bigger and more horrible the farther that players progress. This immediately becomes a problem because Outlast 2’s starting point begins at what might in other games be part of the horror highlight reel. Within the first hour players encounter a pit of dead children, tortured people in cages, ritualistic killings, sexual assault, and more. Where else can the game go from there? It turns out that it can go quite a few places, but the staged scenes intended to shock the player become less scary and more of a grueling chore than anything else. And that’s a shame, because the story of Outlast 2 might be one of the best things it has going for it. Repressed memories, working through trauma, how people live and survive after experiencing tragedy, all of those themes present some interesting questions throughout Outlast 2. Unfortunately, experiencing that story might be really difficult for people who are either turned off by the violence – not just because of the graphic content, but also that it eventually becomes so routine and, frankly, boring. Conclusion: Instead of feeling scared or tense, I fell into a rut with Outlast 2 of just trying to make progress, and the intended scares wound up feeling flat. In other words, Outlast 2 reveals its hand too early; it breaks the golden rule and puts its hideous monster on full display in the opening minutes and never lets up until the very end. Some might find that exhilarating in a horror game – others, like myself, might find it dull compared with other titles in the genre. Outlast 2 was reviewed on PC and is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC
  18. Jack Gardner

    Feature: Review: Outlast 2

    Horror films hold onto the golden rule: Never show the monster early. You can see it flit about in the shadows; the camera can linger for a while on a pair of glowing eyes as something stalks the protagonist; but never display the monster if you are trying to build the tension and subtle horror that lies beyond jump scares. Outlast 2 revels in shoving players face-first into the most awful things it can think of as if to say, "Isn't that gross and weird? ARE YOU SCARED NOW?" Its lack of nuance represents a step backward for Red Barrels. Red Barrels greeted the world with Outlast back in 2013. The horror title received acclaim for its tense structure and story line that slowly descended into madness. Players were pulled into the world of a seemingly abandoned asylum as seen through the eyes of an intrepid journalist. Combat was nonexistent, meaning players could only run and hide from the various antagonists they encountered. The fact that the asylum housed all manner of inmates led to a very interesting, deliberate grey area when it came to horror. Some inmates would become hostile, others would not. This resulted in tense moments, fueled by a fear of the unknown. Those moments of uncertainty, when constrained within the linear story and structure of Outlast, represented some of its best attempts at horror. Outlast 2 tells the story of Blake Langermann, a journalist and camera man, who works with his journalist partner and wife, Lynn. Together, they decide to pursue a story about the mysterious murder of a pregnant woman in a desolate region of Arizona. As they fly above the region in a helicopter, a mechanical failure causes the chopper to go down, stranding the both of them in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, the two of them have fallen into the middle of a conflict between two opposing cults who believe Lynn holds the keys to the end of the world. Blake sets off to rescue Lynn and escape the manic cult members. Outlast 2 moved away from the more interesting, murky elements of horror. Instead, it commits to subjecting the player to gruesome scenes and scenarios – shock horror. These certainly make for an uncomfortable experience, but they lack the subtlety and pacing of its predecessor or the gold standard of modern, defenseless horror, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Several things contribute to making Outlast 2 a grueling slog to play through: world structure, how players progress through the setting, and what makes for good horror. A large portion of Outlast 2 takes place in the outdoors. You would think that this would make for an interesting dynamic; many horror games thrive on a tightly controlled, linear structure, but taking place without physical barriers seems to fly right in the face of that. The situation seems like a great opportunity to reinvent the horror genre with a more open world approach to design. Despite having access to the open air, Outlast 2 keeps to a more traditional structure, a perfectly sound, reasonable decision. Unfortunately, the implementation of this structure hurts more than helps. It ends up creating confusion in Outlast 2’s perpetual darkness. Outlast 2 wants players to run in specific directions to specific areas in the dead of night with only a grainy camcorder to reveal the way. Ideally, the design of the world would usher players in those desired directions, toward those important areas. Too often, Outlast 2 drops the ball and becomes a confusing, frustrating exercise in trial and error in the woods and fields. In pushing stealth and hiding as the main mechanic, Outlast 2’s design leads to players avoid the obvious routes and stick to the outskirts of any given area – until they are forced into those pathways, which triggers enemy aggression. If this is the approach the game wants to take, why bother having open, outdoor segments at all? Players are often given no time to learn an area, no time to strategize – unless they die repeatedly to scout out the proper route. This has the effect of reducing the horror as players become more familiar with any given area, something that should be the exact opposite of what the developers want players to experience. Outlast 2 seems to be strangely aware of this deficiency, however. To counter these more open, frustrating segments, the game puts players through cutscenes and areas of minimal interactivity that deal with highly uncomfortable and twisted scenarios, like living through a crucifixion. Doubtlessly this approach will appeal to some in the horror community, but I personally found it desensitizing after a while. That desensitization, that cheapening of the horror inherent in Outlast 2’s violence might just be the title’s biggest problem. Instead of leaving the player to feel a growing dread or an uncertainty about their surroundings, Outlast 2 opts to try going bigger and more horrible the farther that players progress. This immediately becomes a problem because Outlast 2’s starting point begins at what might in other games be part of the horror highlight reel. Within the first hour players encounter a pit of dead children, tortured people in cages, ritualistic killings, sexual assault, and more. Where else can the game go from there? It turns out that it can go quite a few places, but the staged scenes intended to shock the player become less scary and more of a grueling chore than anything else. And that’s a shame, because the story of Outlast 2 might be one of the best things it has going for it. Repressed memories, working through trauma, how people live and survive after experiencing tragedy, all of those themes present some interesting questions throughout Outlast 2. Unfortunately, experiencing that story might be really difficult for people who are either turned off by the violence – not just because of the graphic content, but also that it eventually becomes so routine and, frankly, boring. Conclusion: Instead of feeling scared or tense, I fell into a rut with Outlast 2 of just trying to make progress, and the intended scares wound up feeling flat. In other words, Outlast 2 reveals its hand too early; it breaks the golden rule and puts its hideous monster on full display in the opening minutes and never lets up until the very end. Some might find that exhilarating in a horror game – others, like myself, might find it dull compared with other titles in the genre. Outlast 2 was reviewed on PC and is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC View full article
  19. Marcus Stewart

    Feature: Review: Nex Machina

    My hands ache, palms are sweaty. I let out a huge sigh of relief as the final boss explodes into a confetti of voxels and vibrant particle effects. How many lives did I throw at that thing before I finally managed to take it down? A few dozen? Sounds about right. Although the journey was exhilarating romp, it was also draining test of hand-eye coordination and reflexes. That about sums up Nex Machina: an addictive arcade shooter with a blistering challenge that occasionally gets too tough for its own good. Housemarque knows how to craft arcade shooters that keep players coming back for more. The studio’s past works, Super Stardust HD and Resogun, are among the best modern takes on the genre. With Nex Machina, the studio has assembled perhaps its most arduous game yet by teaming up with Robotron/Smash TV mastermind Eugene Jarvis. The influence of those arcade classics are immediately evident. Players mow down waves upon waves of enemies from a top-down, third person perspective. Clearing one arena teleports players to the next, and so on until you reach the world’s boss. Nex Machina is a fast-paced, no-nonsense affair right out of the gate. I died within the first few seconds thanks to how swiftly enemies swarm players from all sides, sometimes in Galaga-esque serpentine patterns, other times in messy groups. If fending off a dozen hostile creatures wasn’t enough, you’re often doing so while simultaneously avoiding spinning laser beams, screen-filling projectile waves, and long-range mortar fire. Nex Machina revels in throwing everything but the kitchen sink at players and letting your guard down for even a nanosecond results in an explosive demise The game is demanding, sometimes to a fault, but it’s supremely satisfying to outmaneuver and outgun seemingly insurmountable opposition. Watching targets burst into tiny cubes adds to that thrill thanks to the crisp voxel graphics and destructible environments. Multiple secrets lay within each arena, most within objects like breakable cubes and boulders. The game lacks a tutorial, betting on players to blast away everything in sight and discover things on their own–an assumption quickly proven accurate. A fun and devilish layer of challenge comes in seeking out these collectibles. Since eradicating foes automatically warps you to the next room, completionists must intentionally stay their trigger finger in order to stick around and thoroughly inspect an area. However, doing this increases your likelihood of getting killed. So do you quickly mow down foes in the name of swift progression or put everything on the line for maximum points? The best example of this decision-making comes from rescuing humans from the clutches of aliens ala Resogun. Gathering them all feels awesome, but going out of my way to do so cost me countless lives. Sometimes I was forced to abandon humans in the interest of completing a merciless zone–a decision I always hated. No matter how frustrating this task got, I felt compelled to perform better just to spite Nex Machina and prove that I could not only win but do so in style, even if that didn’t always work out. While I found Nex Machina to be generally fair despite its difficulty, cheap deaths weren’t a complete non-factor. Some questionable respawns occasionally drop players directly in harm's way, such as in front of turrets, killing them before they have a chance to react. This problem rears its head most in busy situations where’s there’s no real safe spot to drop into. The small character can easily be lost among packed crowds, creating an infuriating game of Where’s Waldo that made me feel cheated when I failed due a loss of visuals rather than a lack of skill. Another issue is the lack of saving in the arcade campaign. Once started, it must be completed in one sitting, otherwise players start over from the beginning. I learned this the hard way after I completed the third world and closed the game, assuming I’d be checkpointed at the beginning of world four upon my return. To my horror, I was greeted by the first world’s opening motorcycle sequence. I get the old-school arcade mentality behind this design, and, thankfully, worlds can be completed in roughly 10 minutes (depending on how much you die). However, it's annoying to be forced to commit like that. I hit several rough spots that caused me to tap out for a breather, forcing me to leave my PS4 in rest mode for long stretches since I couldn’t shut off the game entirely. Nex Machina does a nice job of accommodating each skill-level of player without dumbing down the core experience. Rookie allots unlimited continues for those who want to see the entire game with the freedom of failing as much as required. Experienced grants 99 continues (which burn away far quicker than believed), Veteran grants a mere 10 continues and tougher foes, and the unlockable Master difficulty sports 5 continues, quicker enemies and movement. Other modes include local co-op through the arcade campaign, a Arena mode where players compete for leaderboard rankings under increasingly tougher stipulations, and a Single World mode that allows players to cherry pick individual levels. Conclusion Those itching for new twin-stick arcade shooter to sink into, or Smash TV/Robotron fans curious about a modernized take on that style, should definitely give Nex Machina a look. Offering an enjoyable, pulse-pounding experience layered with a satisfying, if not sometimes overwhelming, challenge, it's a quality shooter that successfully invokes the glory days of arcades. No matter how infuriating Nex Machina becomes, you’ll find yourself continually picking up the controller you just threw for one more run. Just be sure to bring a Gandhi-level of patience on top of Spider-Man-like reflexes and everything should be gravy. Nex Machina was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and is also available now for PC. View full article
  20. Marcus Stewart

    Review: Nex Machina

    My hands ache, palms are sweaty. I let out a huge sigh of relief as the final boss explodes into a confetti of voxels and vibrant particle effects. How many lives did I throw at that thing before I finally managed to take it down? A few dozen? Sounds about right. Although the journey was exhilarating romp, it was also draining test of hand-eye coordination and reflexes. That about sums up Nex Machina: an addictive arcade shooter with a blistering challenge that occasionally gets too tough for its own good. Housemarque knows how to craft arcade shooters that keep players coming back for more. The studio’s past works, Super Stardust HD and Resogun, are among the best modern takes on the genre. With Nex Machina, the studio has assembled perhaps its most arduous game yet by teaming up with Robotron/Smash TV mastermind Eugene Jarvis. The influence of those arcade classics are immediately evident. Players mow down waves upon waves of enemies from a top-down, third person perspective. Clearing one arena teleports players to the next, and so on until you reach the world’s boss. Nex Machina is a fast-paced, no-nonsense affair right out of the gate. I died within the first few seconds thanks to how swiftly enemies swarm players from all sides, sometimes in Galaga-esque serpentine patterns, other times in messy groups. If fending off a dozen hostile creatures wasn’t enough, you’re often doing so while simultaneously avoiding spinning laser beams, screen-filling projectile waves, and long-range mortar fire. Nex Machina revels in throwing everything but the kitchen sink at players and letting your guard down for even a nanosecond results in an explosive demise The game is demanding, sometimes to a fault, but it’s supremely satisfying to outmaneuver and outgun seemingly insurmountable opposition. Watching targets burst into tiny cubes adds to that thrill thanks to the crisp voxel graphics and destructible environments. Multiple secrets lay within each arena, most within objects like breakable cubes and boulders. The game lacks a tutorial, betting on players to blast away everything in sight and discover things on their own–an assumption quickly proven accurate. A fun and devilish layer of challenge comes in seeking out these collectibles. Since eradicating foes automatically warps you to the next room, completionists must intentionally stay their trigger finger in order to stick around and thoroughly inspect an area. However, doing this increases your likelihood of getting killed. So do you quickly mow down foes in the name of swift progression or put everything on the line for maximum points? The best example of this decision-making comes from rescuing humans from the clutches of aliens ala Resogun. Gathering them all feels awesome, but going out of my way to do so cost me countless lives. Sometimes I was forced to abandon humans in the interest of completing a merciless zone–a decision I always hated. No matter how frustrating this task got, I felt compelled to perform better just to spite Nex Machina and prove that I could not only win but do so in style, even if that didn’t always work out. While I found Nex Machina to be generally fair despite its difficulty, cheap deaths weren’t a complete non-factor. Some questionable respawns occasionally drop players directly in harm's way, such as in front of turrets, killing them before they have a chance to react. This problem rears its head most in busy situations where’s there’s no real safe spot to drop into. The small character can easily be lost among packed crowds, creating an infuriating game of Where’s Waldo that made me feel cheated when I failed due a loss of visuals rather than a lack of skill. Another issue is the lack of saving in the arcade campaign. Once started, it must be completed in one sitting, otherwise players start over from the beginning. I learned this the hard way after I completed the third world and closed the game, assuming I’d be checkpointed at the beginning of world four upon my return. To my horror, I was greeted by the first world’s opening motorcycle sequence. I get the old-school arcade mentality behind this design, and, thankfully, worlds can be completed in roughly 10 minutes (depending on how much you die). However, it's annoying to be forced to commit like that. I hit several rough spots that caused me to tap out for a breather, forcing me to leave my PS4 in rest mode for long stretches since I couldn’t shut off the game entirely. Nex Machina does a nice job of accommodating each skill-level of player without dumbing down the core experience. Rookie allots unlimited continues for those who want to see the entire game with the freedom of failing as much as required. Experienced grants 99 continues (which burn away far quicker than believed), Veteran grants a mere 10 continues and tougher foes, and the unlockable Master difficulty sports 5 continues, quicker enemies and movement. Other modes include local co-op through the arcade campaign, a Arena mode where players compete for leaderboard rankings under increasingly tougher stipulations, and a Single World mode that allows players to cherry pick individual levels. Conclusion Those itching for new twin-stick arcade shooter to sink into, or Smash TV/Robotron fans curious about a modernized take on that style, should definitely give Nex Machina a look. Offering an enjoyable, pulse-pounding experience layered with a satisfying, if not sometimes overwhelming, challenge, it's a quality shooter that successfully invokes the glory days of arcades. No matter how infuriating Nex Machina becomes, you’ll find yourself continually picking up the controller you just threw for one more run. Just be sure to bring a Gandhi-level of patience on top of Spider-Man-like reflexes and everything should be gravy. Nex Machina was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and is also available now for PC.
  21. Jack Gardner

    Feature: Review: Dark Souls III

    The Dark Souls series has defined itself as a fight around the idea of entropy. Should we embrace that all things must come to an end or rage against the dying of the light? Or perhaps find another way entirely? This conflict forms the central theme that permeates every nook and cranny of the game world, clarifying itself with each new enemy and boss. That struggle makes up the Dark Soul itself. The kingdoms of men in the Age of Fire, for all their strength, are doomed to fade and succumb to a curse brought on by time and the gods themselves. When the curse awakens, it makes men immortal, living on in a state of undeath, but once undead, humans begin to lose bits of themselves as time passes. Time eventually wears them away into hollows, mindless monsters who hunger for purpose. There is only one way to lift the curse: A hero must arise and brave the dangers of a world deteriorating into chaos to rekindle the First Flame, a bastion of power that preserves the world. After braving horrors and madness, players are given the option of rekindling the First Flame with their life or snuffing it out to usher in the Age of Dark, a new world order that embraces a fireless world - but there may be other choices hidden to all but a few. Players entered the world of the first Dark Souls shortly after the curse had begun afflicting humans for the first time. No matter how that great cataclysm is resolved, the events of Dark Souls II take place far into the future, in the middle of the Age of Fire. The second game has players fighting to ascend to the Throne of Want, a throne that looks strikingly like a kiln. Again, no matter how players decide to end the story, Dark Souls III happens. This time, the Age of Fire has begun to literally choke on its own ash. The First Flame is dying. It has been linked so many times that one powerful soul can no longer relight it. Now several are needed. In an effort to avert almost certain death, powerful beings from history have revived as Lords of Cinder to become sacrifices, however all but one refuse their duty to continue the world. One more bit of unkindled ash arises from the graves of heroes and receives the task of uniting those Lords and relighting the flame – the player. From the beginning, the world of Dark Souls III feels tired and broken. Ash litters the ground. Violent religious cults abound, each with their own ways of coping with their hopeless plight. The player isn’t even a lowly undead as in previous titles, but the dregs of ashen souls randomly reforged. Even immortal dragons have begun to succumb to decay of mind and body. This is the Dark Souls that players have known and loved since the beginning of the series, but all around the edges of that Dark Souls identity threads come unraveled. Of course, when I say “this is the same Dark Souls,” I mean thematically and visually. The mechanics of Dark Souls III have undergone a revision that incorporates lessons learned from the development of Bloodborne. When Bloodborne released, people compared its fast, aggressive combat favorably against the more deliberate, measured pace of the Dark Souls series. You can see that quickened sensibility translated into Dark Souls III in a number of little ways. For example, the player gets locked into fewer animations, something that in previous Souls games could mean death by accidental button press. More weapons feature transformations between distinct move sets, something that Bloodborne certainly popularized. Combat occurs with a desperate finality. The enemies players encounter act as if they know they are living in a world with a mortal wound, a fatal injury that affects them as well. And as the saying goes, “nothing is more dangerous than a wounded animal.” Enemies throw themselves into combat ferociously, adopting frenzied patterns of attack. Sometimes these patterns can seem unfair, but the core fun of Dark Souls has always been in learning those patterns and overcoming obstacles either alone or in jolly cooperation with other players. Dark Souls III feels rigorously balanced to avoid luring players into cheap deaths. Often it feels like if you’re just vigilant enough, you could deal with anything the game might throw at you. Though that confidence is often immediately undercut by a blistering encounter - if nothing else, Dark Souls III keeps players humble. Developer From Software describes their artistic approach to Dark Souls III as “withered beauty.” I wasn’t sure at first if the style of a dying world in all its dilapidated grandeur stemmed from a conscious choice or if the aesthetic was an extension of series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s reluctance to return to the series. He had made some statements in the past that indicated he wanted to be done with Dark Souls and that too many sequels would muddy his original intent. After spending almost 100 hours in its intricate, crumbling world, I feel comfortable saying that, yes, Dark Souls III is an entirely intentional work of art that brings the series full circle. While the core game does conclude on a definitive note regardless of player choice, the DLC ultimately brings things to a climactic final coda at the end of all things: A clash between the old world and the possibilities of the future. Ashes of Ariandel invites players into a world of rot and ice, a refuge from the apocalypse in the outside world. However, the shelter from ending possesses its own dangers and stands out as providing one of the most unique encounters in Dark Souls III. It also introduces a largely disposable multiplayer Vs. Mode, though I am sure many will derive some joy from fighting friends and strangers. Ashes of Ariandel ultimately exists to set the stage for The Ringed City DLC. This lore-heavy expansion has players delving into the legendary home of the Pygmies, an obscure, but important race of beings in the Souls universe. However, some characters and creatures have persisted within the city’s walls for countless years, standing firm to ward off intruders who come hoping to lay claim to the titular Dark Soul. Strangely, the final encounter in this DLC doesn’t end with an explosive cutscene or much exposition, just an intimate battle to the death and a subtle revelation hidden within the Ashes of Ariandel. It’s quiet, and that muted finale subverts expectations in a game that goes big so often. But that ending gets at the heart of what Dark Souls III and, indeed, what the larger Dark Souls series was about from the beginning. Conclusion: Dark Souls has been about the continuation of a toxic cycle, a cycle that offers diminishing returns with each renewal. Miyazaki purposefully left that cycle open to interpretation as an artistic statement. Does it represent addiction? Depression? Existentialism? One can interpret the cycle of spiraling rebirth and death to mean quite a number of things on a personal level – that, along with the near perfect "firm but fair" mechanics, is part of what allowed so many people to identify so strongly with the series. Dark Souls III sees that cycle finally spiral down toward its ultimate conclusion. The world can continue to struggle on, locked in an endless twilight, take the plunge into darkness where hope might one day be born anew, or the cycle can be broken into something else entirely. Even in this ending, Miyazaki leaves what the series could mean up to each player’s interpretation. There are some who see nothing in it, a pointless exercise in rehashing the Dark Souls adventure for a third time. There are some who see some truth in that portrayal of the world. Personally, Dark Souls III seems to be a meta commentary on the creative process – it is an adventure that seems limitless until limits are imposed upon it by solidifying an idea and making it real, and then creativity dies or stagnates or, very rarely, soldiers on toward something new and unknown. Indeed, while Miyazaki might not have initially desired a Dark Souls III, he and his team made the most of it while operating within the constraints of the franchise. Now From Software is working on something new, a new world on a new canvas. Dark Souls III is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC View full article
  22. Jack Gardner

    Review: Dark Souls III

    The Dark Souls series has defined itself as a fight around the idea of entropy. Should we embrace that all things must come to an end or rage against the dying of the light? Or perhaps find another way entirely? This conflict forms the central theme that permeates every nook and cranny of the game world, clarifying itself with each new enemy and boss. That struggle makes up the Dark Soul itself. The kingdoms of men in the Age of Fire, for all their strength, are doomed to fade and succumb to a curse brought on by time and the gods themselves. When the curse awakens, it makes men immortal, living on in a state of undeath, but once undead, humans begin to lose bits of themselves as time passes. Time eventually wears them away into hollows, mindless monsters who hunger for purpose. There is only one way to lift the curse: A hero must arise and brave the dangers of a world deteriorating into chaos to rekindle the First Flame, a bastion of power that preserves the world. After braving horrors and madness, players are given the option of rekindling the First Flame with their life or snuffing it out to usher in the Age of Dark, a new world order that embraces a fireless world - but there may be other choices hidden to all but a few. Players entered the world of the first Dark Souls shortly after the curse had begun afflicting humans for the first time. No matter how that great cataclysm is resolved, the events of Dark Souls II take place far into the future, in the middle of the Age of Fire. The second game has players fighting to ascend to the Throne of Want, a throne that looks strikingly like a kiln. Again, no matter how players decide to end the story, Dark Souls III happens. This time, the Age of Fire has begun to literally choke on its own ash. The First Flame is dying. It has been linked so many times that one powerful soul can no longer relight it. Now several are needed. In an effort to avert almost certain death, powerful beings from history have revived as Lords of Cinder to become sacrifices, however all but one refuse their duty to continue the world. One more bit of unkindled ash arises from the graves of heroes and receives the task of uniting those Lords and relighting the flame – the player. From the beginning, the world of Dark Souls III feels tired and broken. Ash litters the ground. Violent religious cults abound, each with their own ways of coping with their hopeless plight. The player isn’t even a lowly undead as in previous titles, but the dregs of ashen souls randomly reforged. Even immortal dragons have begun to succumb to decay of mind and body. This is the Dark Souls that players have known and loved since the beginning of the series, but all around the edges of that Dark Souls identity threads come unraveled. Of course, when I say “this is the same Dark Souls,” I mean thematically and visually. The mechanics of Dark Souls III have undergone a revision that incorporates lessons learned from the development of Bloodborne. When Bloodborne released, people compared its fast, aggressive combat favorably against the more deliberate, measured pace of the Dark Souls series. You can see that quickened sensibility translated into Dark Souls III in a number of little ways. For example, the player gets locked into fewer animations, something that in previous Souls games could mean death by accidental button press. More weapons feature transformations between distinct move sets, something that Bloodborne certainly popularized. Combat occurs with a desperate finality. The enemies players encounter act as if they know they are living in a world with a mortal wound, a fatal injury that affects them as well. And as the saying goes, “nothing is more dangerous than a wounded animal.” Enemies throw themselves into combat ferociously, adopting frenzied patterns of attack. Sometimes these patterns can seem unfair, but the core fun of Dark Souls has always been in learning those patterns and overcoming obstacles either alone or in jolly cooperation with other players. Dark Souls III feels rigorously balanced to avoid luring players into cheap deaths. Often it feels like if you’re just vigilant enough, you could deal with anything the game might throw at you. Though that confidence is often immediately undercut by a blistering encounter - if nothing else, Dark Souls III keeps players humble. Developer From Software describes their artistic approach to Dark Souls III as “withered beauty.” I wasn’t sure at first if the style of a dying world in all its dilapidated grandeur stemmed from a conscious choice or if the aesthetic was an extension of series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s reluctance to return to the series. He had made some statements in the past that indicated he wanted to be done with Dark Souls and that too many sequels would muddy his original intent. After spending almost 100 hours in its intricate, crumbling world, I feel comfortable saying that, yes, Dark Souls III is an entirely intentional work of art that brings the series full circle. While the core game does conclude on a definitive note regardless of player choice, the DLC ultimately brings things to a climactic final coda at the end of all things: A clash between the old world and the possibilities of the future. Ashes of Ariandel invites players into a world of rot and ice, a refuge from the apocalypse in the outside world. However, the shelter from ending possesses its own dangers and stands out as providing one of the most unique encounters in Dark Souls III. It also introduces a largely disposable multiplayer Vs. Mode, though I am sure many will derive some joy from fighting friends and strangers. Ashes of Ariandel ultimately exists to set the stage for The Ringed City DLC. This lore-heavy expansion has players delving into the legendary home of the Pygmies, an obscure, but important race of beings in the Souls universe. However, some characters and creatures have persisted within the city’s walls for countless years, standing firm to ward off intruders who come hoping to lay claim to the titular Dark Soul. Strangely, the final encounter in this DLC doesn’t end with an explosive cutscene or much exposition, just an intimate battle to the death and a subtle revelation hidden within the Ashes of Ariandel. It’s quiet, and that muted finale subverts expectations in a game that goes big so often. But that ending gets at the heart of what Dark Souls III and, indeed, what the larger Dark Souls series was about from the beginning. Conclusion: Dark Souls has been about the continuation of a toxic cycle, a cycle that offers diminishing returns with each renewal. Miyazaki purposefully left that cycle open to interpretation as an artistic statement. Does it represent addiction? Depression? Existentialism? One can interpret the cycle of spiraling rebirth and death to mean quite a number of things on a personal level – that, along with the near perfect "firm but fair" mechanics, is part of what allowed so many people to identify so strongly with the series. Dark Souls III sees that cycle finally spiral down toward its ultimate conclusion. The world can continue to struggle on, locked in an endless twilight, take the plunge into darkness where hope might one day be born anew, or the cycle can be broken into something else entirely. Even in this ending, Miyazaki leaves what the series could mean up to each player’s interpretation. There are some who see nothing in it, a pointless exercise in rehashing the Dark Souls adventure for a third time. There are some who see some truth in that portrayal of the world. Personally, Dark Souls III seems to be a meta commentary on the creative process – it is an adventure that seems limitless until limits are imposed upon it by solidifying an idea and making it real, and then creativity dies or stagnates or, very rarely, soldiers on toward something new and unknown. Indeed, while Miyazaki might not have initially desired a Dark Souls III, he and his team made the most of it while operating within the constraints of the franchise. Now From Software is working on something new, a new world on a new canvas. Dark Souls III is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC
  23. Mass Effect has been a series dear to my heart since I played the first entry almost a decade ago. That original trilogy captivated a generation of players with a science-fiction universe into which BioWare wove a spellbinding tale of heroism that sought to answer some of the very fundamental questions of human existence. The trilogy ended on a note that left an entire Milky Way galaxy irrevocably changed – the kind of ending upon with it is difficult, if not impossible, to continue. To that circumvent that finality, Mass Effect: Andromeda sends players on a mission to colonize a completely different galaxy. Having left years before the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, several arks house the primary sentient species that inhabited the Milky Way. Those familiar races, the humans, asari, turians, salarians, and krogan, spent six hundred years in stasis pods to reach the Andromeda galaxy. This journey promised a fresh start for those who embarked upon it. The Initiative, the organization behind the resettlement, launched the Nexus, a gigantic space station that would serve as a new galactic hub, around the same time as the ark ships. Several “golden worlds” had been identified, prime targets for habitation for the various settling species. Everything was planned to the letter. Except very few things ever go according to plan. Really, that above sentence could apply broadly to Mass Effect: Andromeda, not just the story. No doubt most people reading this review will be familiar with the facial animation issues in Andromeda. While those animation woes are by no means small, the extreme focus on them has eclipsed a lot of the discussion regarding the more interesting problems that plague Mass Effect: Andromeda. When I think back on my time with BioWare’s latest attempt as a space epic, I remember all the time I spent on sprawling planets that initially held a certain thrill of discovery. I was an explorer! These were planets in a new and unknown galaxy! Who knows what kinds of crazy lifeforms or interesting encounters might be around any given turn of the terrain? Heck, BioWare even resurrected a planet roving vehicle and improved its handling to hark back to the original Mass Effect and its Mako tank. As I delved deeper and deeper into Andromeda, the game begin to feel routine. Why? Part of what contributed to the mundane atmosphere that pervades Mass Effect: Andromeda can be traced to the waste of its own fundamental premise. Players were on an adventure to an entirely unknown galaxy, a situation prime for introducing truly alien encounters. Instead of expanding the Mass Effect universe in interesting ways, players simply find more of the same stuff. BioWare took a creative approach to write themselves out of the corner they had created with Mass Effect 3, but chose to ignore many of the interesting elements that their solution would entail in order to bring everything back to some arbitrary status quo. Instead of encountering novel beings that would arise from a galaxy free from the cycle of destruction within the Milky Way, the two new sentient races encountered in Andromeda are humanoid with immediately relatable wants and desires. The main quirk of the angaran? They are more communal and open with their emotions. The main quirk of the kett? They have a rigid theocratic hierarchy based around genetics. We’re in a new galaxy in a rich sci-fi universe where the creatures we encounter could be anything: sentient energy crystals, renegade swarms of nanites that have achieved a hivemind, mouse-sized silicon creatures whose ways are completely incomprehensible. Literally anything could exist in a galaxy so far removed from any kind of interaction with the galaxy BioWare crafted in the first three games. Those interesting possibilities are shoved aside in favor of more familiar and “relatable” allies and villains. In fact, this desire to return to the pre-Mass Effect 3 status quo in a new galaxy even extends to some of the most thought provoking questions of encountering alien species. The most important part of first contact involves figuring out how to communicate. Entire films have been based around that premise *cough* Arrival *cough*. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation took an hour for Picard to figure out how a new alien species communicated. You could take it for granted in the trilogy that humans had figured out communications with the aliens of Citadel space decades previously, so it wasn’t an issue. Mass Effect: Andromeda spends not even five minutes on that subject with either of its new additions to their galactic cast of character species. Not only that, but the entire sense of scale, the stakes, and the urgency at play is skewed. If things go wrong with the ark ships, the entire initiative could fail. Even ground-level, no-name NPCs don’t seem too concerned, despite their desperate circumstances that present a threat to their survival. In one side mission, Ryder encounters two human pot heads living in the middle of nowhere on a planet where the water is so toxic it is literally on fire. The duo should be in the perfect position to know how monumentally screwed the Initiative’s future is, but they simply don’t care – an attitude reflected in how most NPCs react to deadly danger in Andromeda. Here’s an example: One of the primary locations in Mass Effect: Andromeda is an ice planet called Voeld. It’s one of the worlds controlled by the angara, but the player is told that it has become the front line in the war against the kett. When players land and begin exploring Voeld, the planet presents absolutely no evidence of any kind of protracted war. There are some scattered bases, some ships overhead on occasion, but nothing resembling an ongoing war. Heck, there aren’t even any craters to be seen. We know from Mass Effect 3 what a war in Mass Effect’s universe looks like. Palavin was a colossal battleground between the Reapers and the turians. Soldiers were breathless, tired from combat and wiped out emotionally. They did everything and anything they could to hold the line against an overwhelming adversary. Voeld has none of that. They even have entire towns – one of which has a hotel. They have scientists traipsing around researching animals beneath the ice or old ruins. The kett, supposedly an existential threat to the angaran people, seem at worst a nuisance. Very few characters act appropriately to the situations in which they find themselves. Most almost always go for a glib one-liner on par with Batman Forever’s Mr. Freeze, “Ice to meet you.” Arrived at what should be the sparkling hub of your new civilization only to find that it seems partially derelict? Time for a quip! Wandering in the belly of a completely unknown alien civilization’s living ruin? Time to just randomly activate things because you think you know what they do! Side note: Just once I want to see Ryder or their allies activate one of these alien devices only to find out it starts a giant alien weapon made to warp the planet into a star or some nonsense. They literally have no idea what these devices do, just their best guess and a human created AI that also is just making educated guesses. Then we get to the actual exploration, supposedly the core of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Very little exploration goes on. There are several huge maps covered with constantly respawning camps of enemies that stand between players and objective markers. The missions encountered in the wild rarely become anything more complicated than a fetch quest to get a thing from some bad guys. Sometimes pleasant surprises lurk at the end of seemingly boring quests, like gigantic robot boss battles, but often these grunt work tasks reward the player with habitability points. These points act as a kind of gating mechanism for upgrades, similar to the points used on the world map in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Outside of that, they don’t feel that impactful or important. Even raising planet habitability to 100% feels pointless. The settlements remain the same, some marginal rewards increase, but other than that there never felt like a compelling reason for anyone to bother unless they are a completionist. I’d like to contrast this approach with the original Mass Effect. While the first Mass Effect game certainly had problems, there was genuinely a sense of adventure. Every planet scanned might lead to something unique, like an ancient alien ruin or a collective of terrorists or rogue scientists whose experiment has gone awry. These sequences also had large, open maps that were filled with a lot of nothing and filler enemies, but enough was done to the planets to make them feel distinct and many of the encounters, though reusing assets, were written well enough to be interesting and involved player choice. None of that random exploration is present in Andromeda. I scanned every planet and found not a single unique situation or hidden adventure, only resources for crafting. That crafting system that BioWare touted in the lead up to Andromeda’s release? Unfortunately, it rarely feels impactful. I used weapons I picked up and they worked fine. I crafted weapons a handful of times and they also worked fine in slightly different ways. Most of the time the only things I was excited to craft for Ryder were improvements to the roving tank to improve its speed or boosters. For the most part, Andromeda’s supporting cast manage to provide endearing personalities. Drack as a krogan grandpa and Vetra’s lady-turian smuggler were fun additions to the crew, but on there aren’t any Garrus Vakarians or Tali’Zorah vas Normandys to really latch onto as standout characters. That’s something BioWare could build toward over time with sequels, but I didn’t feel any particularly strong connections with most of the characters in this first outing. The disconnect between the player and various characters in Andromeda largely boils down to the amount of inconsequential fluff that pads out Andromeda. There’s so much busywork with so little pay-off that players lose track of what makes the cast fun or special. There was a 15+ hour long period in my playtime where I was just bored with what I was doing. Oh no, a scientist put her thesis on a hard drive that was stolen by bandits. Time to drive to the middle of nowhere to kill them and get it back (and the solution is almost always kill some ambiguous “them”). Missions like this exist in abundance throughout Andromeda – little to no interesting character interactions, just straightforward affairs that have players going around the same big environments. When the worlds open up, players naturally invest themselves in the various activities thinking that there might be an interesting moment or pay off to any of it… but there isn’t. Instead, players start to forget what they’re even supposed to be doing or care about. The narrative loses its propulsion. Trudging through the motions of establishing colonies and checking off the soon routine alien ruins spread across planets while dealing with disgruntled colonists- it all becomes work. All of this should be fun – we’re using cutting-edge technology to forge a new home on planets full of alien technology and life forms we have never seen before. The first beat of life after the exciting introductory sequence occurred over a dozen hours later when I was able to take on companion missions. It felt like things were happening! I got to see characters interacting with each other! Some well-written scenarios that made me laugh or excited! Liam’s side mission in particular felt like such a welcome breath of fresh air it almost seemed like it was from a different game. When Andromeda leans into those more linear segments and allows its characters to be themselves with Ryder or other companions, it really shines. Remember the action button prompts that would frequently pop up in Mass Effect 2 and 3? The ones that allowed extreme actions to be taken during dialogue sequences? Those are so rare that I could count with one hand the number I saw in a full playthrough. It got to the point that I just pressed it excitedly when it popped up without really knowing what was going to happen and at least on one occasion that resulted in a character’s death. While ditching the Paragon and Renegade system of years past seemed like a necessary update, it also eliminated the short hand players could use to predict what kind of an outcome pressing the action prompt might have in Andromeda. Combat stands out as the most solid aspect of Mass Effect: Andromeda. This is the smoothest and most action-filled BioWare game to date and it just feels good to take down enemies. On top of that, the new jump and boost mechanics give combat a whole new degree of mobility that it never had before. It feels free and fluid, providing players with more options in a fight than ever before. The responsive gunplay and interesting abilities really come to the forefront, making it easy to sink a lot of time into the less interesting parts of the game just to discover the perfect combination of abilities. The smooth combat translates into an enjoyable multiplayer experience who enjoy the gameplay on its own. Players accomplish a variety of objectives around various maps before escaping in shuttle craft. Succeeding in these missions allows players to level their multiplayer character and unlock new weapons and abilities for that character. Some rewards also carry over into the single-player campaign. It's a solid experience, but I'm not entirely sure how much longevity it has for players who have had their fill of fighting from the core game. Unfortunately, the combat stumbles when it comes to progression in Mass Effect: Andromeda's campaign. Players begin by choosing specialties, but can decide to respec their ability points at any time from their ship or simply use points from new levels to unlock abilities outside of their beginning specialties. Only a handful of those abilities are gated to certain levels, meaning that most abilities are available from the start. This all sounds great, but the problem comes in when players discover their preferred play style and abilities. When that happens, the motivation to experiment comes to an end. Upgrading those abilities simply makes them more effective, but doesn’t change the player’s approach to gameplay. This leads to gameplay becoming stale toward the end of a prolonged playthrough, which is hardly ideal. All of this doesn’t even touch on the various glitches that can plague Mass Effect: Andromeda. These manifest in a number of ways. Sometimes the game randomly crashes. Other times NPCs duplicate themselves. This can happen during conversations and can be really jarring. Sometimes NPCs get stuck in world objects. Notably, a random NPC on the Nexus space station would stand still on a stage staring straight ahead. She unnervingly persisted throughout my entire playthrough. Enemies in the respawning zones around the various worlds sometimes just float in the air. Sometimes characters simply disappear from cutscenes or fuse with other characters to create horrifying chimeras. Note: A recent patch weeks after release managed to fix the bizarrely dead and distracting eyes that often appeared to be locked into a look of fear or surprise. That patch doesn’t fix some of the other issues most of the faces in Andromeda seem to have with emoting, though. Some characters have certain resting faces that make them look like they are perpetually smiling, regardless of the situation. This issue is particularly noticeable with certain versions of female Ryder or her ally Cora. Also, and this is really not important, but female angaran character models look like they weren’t finished. Compare them to male angaran faces and they seem to lack a lot of detail or defining features. Conclusion: Mass Effect: Andromeda has the potential to be built into something great, but that potential is buried under a pile of issues that range from structural to technical. These problems range in scale from insignificant to huge. That this game launched without a fix for something as basic as the patch that fixed how eyes looked is incredible. Combat manages to top that of its predecessors, but becomes mired when it comes to progression. The visual presentation of the various planets at times reaches awe-inspiring heights, but gets brought low by the facial animations and persistent glitches. The potential of a new galaxy stretches out for players to explore and define, but that promise gets squandered in a number of disappointing ways. All of that being said, Mass Effect: Andromeda succeeds in laying a foundation on which sequels could successfully build. This outing might not live up to the series’ roots, but the possibility remains open for the entries that are sure to come. Mass Effect: Andromeda is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC View full article
  24. Jack Gardner

    Review: Mass Effect - Andromeda

    Mass Effect has been a series dear to my heart since I played the first entry almost a decade ago. That original trilogy captivated a generation of players with a science-fiction universe into which BioWare wove a spellbinding tale of heroism that sought to answer some of the very fundamental questions of human existence. The trilogy ended on a note that left an entire Milky Way galaxy irrevocably changed – the kind of ending upon with it is difficult, if not impossible, to continue. To that circumvent that finality, Mass Effect: Andromeda sends players on a mission to colonize a completely different galaxy. Having left years before the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, several arks house the primary sentient species that inhabited the Milky Way. Those familiar races, the humans, asari, turians, salarians, and krogan, spent six hundred years in stasis pods to reach the Andromeda galaxy. This journey promised a fresh start for those who embarked upon it. The Initiative, the organization behind the resettlement, launched the Nexus, a gigantic space station that would serve as a new galactic hub, around the same time as the ark ships. Several “golden worlds” had been identified, prime targets for habitation for the various settling species. Everything was planned to the letter. Except very few things ever go according to plan. Really, that above sentence could apply broadly to Mass Effect: Andromeda, not just the story. No doubt most people reading this review will be familiar with the facial animation issues in Andromeda. While those animation woes are by no means small, the extreme focus on them has eclipsed a lot of the discussion regarding the more interesting problems that plague Mass Effect: Andromeda. When I think back on my time with BioWare’s latest attempt as a space epic, I remember all the time I spent on sprawling planets that initially held a certain thrill of discovery. I was an explorer! These were planets in a new and unknown galaxy! Who knows what kinds of crazy lifeforms or interesting encounters might be around any given turn of the terrain? Heck, BioWare even resurrected a planet roving vehicle and improved its handling to hark back to the original Mass Effect and its Mako tank. As I delved deeper and deeper into Andromeda, the game begin to feel routine. Why? Part of what contributed to the mundane atmosphere that pervades Mass Effect: Andromeda can be traced to the waste of its own fundamental premise. Players were on an adventure to an entirely unknown galaxy, a situation prime for introducing truly alien encounters. Instead of expanding the Mass Effect universe in interesting ways, players simply find more of the same stuff. BioWare took a creative approach to write themselves out of the corner they had created with Mass Effect 3, but chose to ignore many of the interesting elements that their solution would entail in order to bring everything back to some arbitrary status quo. Instead of encountering novel beings that would arise from a galaxy free from the cycle of destruction within the Milky Way, the two new sentient races encountered in Andromeda are humanoid with immediately relatable wants and desires. The main quirk of the angaran? They are more communal and open with their emotions. The main quirk of the kett? They have a rigid theocratic hierarchy based around genetics. We’re in a new galaxy in a rich sci-fi universe where the creatures we encounter could be anything: sentient energy crystals, renegade swarms of nanites that have achieved a hivemind, mouse-sized silicon creatures whose ways are completely incomprehensible. Literally anything could exist in a galaxy so far removed from any kind of interaction with the galaxy BioWare crafted in the first three games. Those interesting possibilities are shoved aside in favor of more familiar and “relatable” allies and villains. In fact, this desire to return to the pre-Mass Effect 3 status quo in a new galaxy even extends to some of the most thought provoking questions of encountering alien species. The most important part of first contact involves figuring out how to communicate. Entire films have been based around that premise *cough* Arrival *cough*. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation took an hour for Picard to figure out how a new alien species communicated. You could take it for granted in the trilogy that humans had figured out communications with the aliens of Citadel space decades previously, so it wasn’t an issue. Mass Effect: Andromeda spends not even five minutes on that subject with either of its new additions to their galactic cast of character species. Not only that, but the entire sense of scale, the stakes, and the urgency at play is skewed. If things go wrong with the ark ships, the entire initiative could fail. Even ground-level, no-name NPCs don’t seem too concerned, despite their desperate circumstances that present a threat to their survival. In one side mission, Ryder encounters two human pot heads living in the middle of nowhere on a planet where the water is so toxic it is literally on fire. The duo should be in the perfect position to know how monumentally screwed the Initiative’s future is, but they simply don’t care – an attitude reflected in how most NPCs react to deadly danger in Andromeda. Here’s an example: One of the primary locations in Mass Effect: Andromeda is an ice planet called Voeld. It’s one of the worlds controlled by the angara, but the player is told that it has become the front line in the war against the kett. When players land and begin exploring Voeld, the planet presents absolutely no evidence of any kind of protracted war. There are some scattered bases, some ships overhead on occasion, but nothing resembling an ongoing war. Heck, there aren’t even any craters to be seen. We know from Mass Effect 3 what a war in Mass Effect’s universe looks like. Palavin was a colossal battleground between the Reapers and the turians. Soldiers were breathless, tired from combat and wiped out emotionally. They did everything and anything they could to hold the line against an overwhelming adversary. Voeld has none of that. They even have entire towns – one of which has a hotel. They have scientists traipsing around researching animals beneath the ice or old ruins. The kett, supposedly an existential threat to the angaran people, seem at worst a nuisance. Very few characters act appropriately to the situations in which they find themselves. Most almost always go for a glib one-liner on par with Batman Forever’s Mr. Freeze, “Ice to meet you.” Arrived at what should be the sparkling hub of your new civilization only to find that it seems partially derelict? Time for a quip! Wandering in the belly of a completely unknown alien civilization’s living ruin? Time to just randomly activate things because you think you know what they do! Side note: Just once I want to see Ryder or their allies activate one of these alien devices only to find out it starts a giant alien weapon made to warp the planet into a star or some nonsense. They literally have no idea what these devices do, just their best guess and a human created AI that also is just making educated guesses. Then we get to the actual exploration, supposedly the core of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Very little exploration goes on. There are several huge maps covered with constantly respawning camps of enemies that stand between players and objective markers. The missions encountered in the wild rarely become anything more complicated than a fetch quest to get a thing from some bad guys. Sometimes pleasant surprises lurk at the end of seemingly boring quests, like gigantic robot boss battles, but often these grunt work tasks reward the player with habitability points. These points act as a kind of gating mechanism for upgrades, similar to the points used on the world map in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Outside of that, they don’t feel that impactful or important. Even raising planet habitability to 100% feels pointless. The settlements remain the same, some marginal rewards increase, but other than that there never felt like a compelling reason for anyone to bother unless they are a completionist. I’d like to contrast this approach with the original Mass Effect. While the first Mass Effect game certainly had problems, there was genuinely a sense of adventure. Every planet scanned might lead to something unique, like an ancient alien ruin or a collective of terrorists or rogue scientists whose experiment has gone awry. These sequences also had large, open maps that were filled with a lot of nothing and filler enemies, but enough was done to the planets to make them feel distinct and many of the encounters, though reusing assets, were written well enough to be interesting and involved player choice. None of that random exploration is present in Andromeda. I scanned every planet and found not a single unique situation or hidden adventure, only resources for crafting. That crafting system that BioWare touted in the lead up to Andromeda’s release? Unfortunately, it rarely feels impactful. I used weapons I picked up and they worked fine. I crafted weapons a handful of times and they also worked fine in slightly different ways. Most of the time the only things I was excited to craft for Ryder were improvements to the roving tank to improve its speed or boosters. For the most part, Andromeda’s supporting cast manage to provide endearing personalities. Drack as a krogan grandpa and Vetra’s lady-turian smuggler were fun additions to the crew, but on there aren’t any Garrus Vakarians or Tali’Zorah vas Normandys to really latch onto as standout characters. That’s something BioWare could build toward over time with sequels, but I didn’t feel any particularly strong connections with most of the characters in this first outing. The disconnect between the player and various characters in Andromeda largely boils down to the amount of inconsequential fluff that pads out Andromeda. There’s so much busywork with so little pay-off that players lose track of what makes the cast fun or special. There was a 15+ hour long period in my playtime where I was just bored with what I was doing. Oh no, a scientist put her thesis on a hard drive that was stolen by bandits. Time to drive to the middle of nowhere to kill them and get it back (and the solution is almost always kill some ambiguous “them”). Missions like this exist in abundance throughout Andromeda – little to no interesting character interactions, just straightforward affairs that have players going around the same big environments. When the worlds open up, players naturally invest themselves in the various activities thinking that there might be an interesting moment or pay off to any of it… but there isn’t. Instead, players start to forget what they’re even supposed to be doing or care about. The narrative loses its propulsion. Trudging through the motions of establishing colonies and checking off the soon routine alien ruins spread across planets while dealing with disgruntled colonists- it all becomes work. All of this should be fun – we’re using cutting-edge technology to forge a new home on planets full of alien technology and life forms we have never seen before. The first beat of life after the exciting introductory sequence occurred over a dozen hours later when I was able to take on companion missions. It felt like things were happening! I got to see characters interacting with each other! Some well-written scenarios that made me laugh or excited! Liam’s side mission in particular felt like such a welcome breath of fresh air it almost seemed like it was from a different game. When Andromeda leans into those more linear segments and allows its characters to be themselves with Ryder or other companions, it really shines. Remember the action button prompts that would frequently pop up in Mass Effect 2 and 3? The ones that allowed extreme actions to be taken during dialogue sequences? Those are so rare that I could count with one hand the number I saw in a full playthrough. It got to the point that I just pressed it excitedly when it popped up without really knowing what was going to happen and at least on one occasion that resulted in a character’s death. While ditching the Paragon and Renegade system of years past seemed like a necessary update, it also eliminated the short hand players could use to predict what kind of an outcome pressing the action prompt might have in Andromeda. Combat stands out as the most solid aspect of Mass Effect: Andromeda. This is the smoothest and most action-filled BioWare game to date and it just feels good to take down enemies. On top of that, the new jump and boost mechanics give combat a whole new degree of mobility that it never had before. It feels free and fluid, providing players with more options in a fight than ever before. The responsive gunplay and interesting abilities really come to the forefront, making it easy to sink a lot of time into the less interesting parts of the game just to discover the perfect combination of abilities. The smooth combat translates into an enjoyable multiplayer experience who enjoy the gameplay on its own. Players accomplish a variety of objectives around various maps before escaping in shuttle craft. Succeeding in these missions allows players to level their multiplayer character and unlock new weapons and abilities for that character. Some rewards also carry over into the single-player campaign. It's a solid experience, but I'm not entirely sure how much longevity it has for players who have had their fill of fighting from the core game. Unfortunately, the combat stumbles when it comes to progression in Mass Effect: Andromeda's campaign. Players begin by choosing specialties, but can decide to respec their ability points at any time from their ship or simply use points from new levels to unlock abilities outside of their beginning specialties. Only a handful of those abilities are gated to certain levels, meaning that most abilities are available from the start. This all sounds great, but the problem comes in when players discover their preferred play style and abilities. When that happens, the motivation to experiment comes to an end. Upgrading those abilities simply makes them more effective, but doesn’t change the player’s approach to gameplay. This leads to gameplay becoming stale toward the end of a prolonged playthrough, which is hardly ideal. All of this doesn’t even touch on the various glitches that can plague Mass Effect: Andromeda. These manifest in a number of ways. Sometimes the game randomly crashes. Other times NPCs duplicate themselves. This can happen during conversations and can be really jarring. Sometimes NPCs get stuck in world objects. Notably, a random NPC on the Nexus space station would stand still on a stage staring straight ahead. She unnervingly persisted throughout my entire playthrough. Enemies in the respawning zones around the various worlds sometimes just float in the air. Sometimes characters simply disappear from cutscenes or fuse with other characters to create horrifying chimeras. Note: A recent patch weeks after release managed to fix the bizarrely dead and distracting eyes that often appeared to be locked into a look of fear or surprise. That patch doesn’t fix some of the other issues most of the faces in Andromeda seem to have with emoting, though. Some characters have certain resting faces that make them look like they are perpetually smiling, regardless of the situation. This issue is particularly noticeable with certain versions of female Ryder or her ally Cora. Also, and this is really not important, but female angaran character models look like they weren’t finished. Compare them to male angaran faces and they seem to lack a lot of detail or defining features. Conclusion: Mass Effect: Andromeda has the potential to be built into something great, but that potential is buried under a pile of issues that range from structural to technical. These problems range in scale from insignificant to huge. That this game launched without a fix for something as basic as the patch that fixed how eyes looked is incredible. Combat manages to top that of its predecessors, but becomes mired when it comes to progression. The visual presentation of the various planets at times reaches awe-inspiring heights, but gets brought low by the facial animations and persistent glitches. The potential of a new galaxy stretches out for players to explore and define, but that promise gets squandered in a number of disappointing ways. All of that being said, Mass Effect: Andromeda succeeds in laying a foundation on which sequels could successfully build. This outing might not live up to the series’ roots, but the possibility remains open for the entries that are sure to come. Mass Effect: Andromeda is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC
  25. Jack Gardner

    Review: Nioh

    The rocky road to Team Ninja’s release of Nioh meant that a lot of factors were working against the action RPG when it hit store shelves in February. It had originally been announced back in 2004 by Koei as a straight RPG adaptation of Oni, an unfinished script by famed Japanese film legend Akira Kurosawa. Over the years, it was ripped apart and stitched back together by various development teams trying desperately to make it work. Nioh became a Dynasty Warriors-esque large-scale war game after the merger of Tecmo and Koei. The multiple development teams slowly scrapped almost all of the Akira Kurosawa’s story beats from the title. It wasn’t until Team Ninja fully took control of the project in 2012 that Nioh became recognizably similar to the game that released in 2017. Team Ninja had a very simple elevator pitch for their vision of Nioh: What if you combined a fanciful retelling of Japan’s Sengoku jidai with Dark Souls? Nioh weaves the heavily altered story of William Adams, a sailor for the Dutch East India Company who became the first Western samurai, a top advisor to Japan’s Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and became known as Miura Anjin. Those three facts are about all that remain in Nioh of the real William’s life story. Nioh takes the framework of William’s journey to Japan in the 1600s at the end of one hundred years of civil war and brings it into a more fanciful setting full of spirits and monsters. William begins his tale in England, where a mysterious figure named Edward Kelley imprisons his guardian spirit. The pursuit of this creepy sorcerer takes William to the shores of Japan where evil spirits and demons have run amok, feeding off the death caused by the war. William’s becomes embroiled in the war himself after finding that the sorcerer has allied himself with the enemies of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Soon the conflict threatens to spin out of control as the sorcerer wields ever more powerful magic granted by his consumption of guardian spirits and crystalized spirit stones called Amrita. William, however, has his own array of abilities to combat threats both magical and mundane. One of Nioh’s draws is the ability to play with a wide selection of fighting styles. Players can choose from katana, axe, dual wielding swords, spears, and kusarigama (a sickle with a weighted chain). Each weapon has its own unique style and move set that becomes even deeper with the addition of stances. Any given weapon has three separate stances, high, mid, and low. High stance has slower, more powerful attacks, middle has a good mix between power and agility, and low stance tends to have the fastest attack and dodge speeds. Each of these stances alters the move sets and combos of their given weapon in addition to their differing benefits. On top of that, Nioh allows players to put points into ninjutsu and onmyo to gain ninja and spellcasting abilities. The robust combat system presents a definite learning curve. Those just beginning Nioh will doubtlessly struggle with when to switch stances and the make use of the various abilities at their disposal. However, the true mechanic that every Nioh player will absolutely need to master comes down to one thing: Ki. In Dark Souls, players must manage a stamina gauge that depletes as various attacks are used. Nioh has a Ki meter that serves the same purpose. However, the key difference between the two systems is that timing a follow-up button press after a string of attacks restores some of the player’s lost Ki. This means that those with a good sense of timing and battle rhythm can make more attacks or dodges without becoming exhausted and vulnerable. Some abilities even give attack bonuses for players who can pull off this move. This technique becomes even more necessary when battling the demonic yokai spirits who can create areas that slow Ki regeneration unless the player can purify them with that well-timed button press. Nioh does a number of small, yet significant things when it comes to combat that make it feel like a fresh experience. Adding the active Ki system goes a long way toward creating more engaging combat, but so does extending the effectiveness of status impairments. Typically, status effects in games are more for the rank and file enemies. Nioh allows even the bosses to be affected by the likes of poison, fire, and paralysis. These can help give the winning edge in a particularly challenging boss fight or make an otherwise difficult enemy encounter manageable. Projectile weapons also go a long way toward breathing life into Nioh. Players can equip bows, matchlock rifles, or personal cannons to deal with enemies from afar. These weapons prove to be very effective and benefit from leveling stats that benefit your hand-to-hand combat abilities, so they continue to be effective into the late game. In fact, I was able to take down the final boss of Nioh with a shred of health from cover by making quick use of my fully loaded cannon to land critical headshots. Nioh slips up most when it comes to the level design. One of the things that worked in the favor of the Dark Souls series was the interconnected world that truly felt like a giant puzzle to be solved through exploration. Nioh has a much more linear structure governed by missions. Each mission is its own contained world that leads players toward a boss fight. The quality of these areas varies greatly. Some are perfectly serviceable, a few inch up into “good” territory, but many of them are only interesting on a visual level and only present straight-forward slogs from one combat encounter to another. The worst levels include areas where the player can easily slip off a ledge and fall to what feels like an incredibly cheap death. One boss fight in particular happens to encapsulate both the frustrating level and boss design. A decent slice into the game, the player is tasked with clearing out a flooded temple. Upon reaching the boss, the player becomes locked inside an arena floating on the water to do battle with a giant ooze monster. Except you can’t swim in Nioh, so a trip off the edge of the arena is an instant death. Just don’t fall off, right? Well, the boss is such a large creature, that targeting it means you can’t see anything behind you, so it becomes difficult to tell when you’re in danger of running off the edge. Okay, so don’t target the creature? Well, if you let your attention wander, you might miss the short wind up it does for a move that blasts half the arena with an insta-death energy beam. If you happen to be doing fine against this yokai hell-beast, it actually has two versions of its insta-death move. The first has a warning animation of about a second or two. The second has a split-second jiggle that’s easily missed in the heat of combat. Speaking of those bosses, they represent some of the most irritating encounters I’ve had in video games. Some are relatively easy to overcome while others will leave you dazed with how quickly they destroyed you. Many of the bosses present long, painful bouts of learning when to dodge, what moves will instantly kill you, and what you can or can’t block. On the other hand, a fair number of these encounters feel like truly climactic battles where the odds are stacked against you. Conclusion: When everything goes right in Nioh, it feels wonderfully fluid, responsive, and challenging. The combat shines brightly as something from which future games in the action RPG genre should draw inspiration. While Dark Souls mastered slow, methodical combat and Bloodborne rewarded fast, brutal aggression, Nioh requires players to be fast and precise in order to keep abreast of the chaotic action. However, that’s a delicate balance to maintain and sometimes bosses and level design don’t quite support that balancing act. The visual designs of monsters are routinely interesting to take in and discovering new creatures adds to the fun of progression. The loot system feels unnecessary and clutters up Nioh with useless items. There’s a very solid core to Nioh that deserves expansion. A little more inspiration from similar games (some kind of healing reward for aggression similar to Bloodborne might have been nice), while cutting any needless complications or unfair designs could go a long way toward taking any Nioh successor to even greater acclaim in the future. Nioh is now available for PlayStation 4
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