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Found 108 results

  1. Jack Gardner

    Feature: Review: RimWorld

    RimWorld exists as one of those strange Steam Early Access titles that has been around for over five years but only officially released in the last couple of weeks. In an age where many Early Access games wind up in limbo forever or sitting abandoned, it's refreshing to see one emerge from development in a completed state. In a way, the condition of Early Access can be summarized neatly by RimWorld itself; full of failures, stagnation, and occasionally triumph. Ludeon Studios has put together a game that can best be described as a cross between Prison Architect and the capricious elements that would throw wrenches into the perfectly made plans of a city designer in Sim City. Players are given a number of starting scenarios on a vast variety of randomized worlds. From there, their job is simple: Survive. Players must build shelter for their stranded people, secure food, invest in decorations, provide for entertainment, and also build up defenses. Neglecting any of these risks destruction from raiders, crazed animals, or internal mental breaks. Players can win their game by escaping the planet via spaceship, but reaching the point of building or finding a ship can be a laborious process. The learning curve of RimWorld can be a bit steep when first starting out. Though a tutorial mode teaches the basics, nothing quite beats the experience of learning by doing. I went through several settlements while familiarizing myself with the nuts and bolts of the game before I managed to create a sustainable base. On one early attempt I thought I had discovered a successful blueprint for a long-term base, but in an instant it was swept away by a roaring sheet of flame from an errant lightning strike in the dead heat of summer. I could only watch as my colonists slowly succumbed to the heat from the flames they feebly attempted to control. In the end, only one colonist survived to attempt a new life in the ruins of the old base. He drifted toward death ever so slowly until a raiding party arrived and captured him, dragging him off screen to lord only knows what fate. RimWorld's emergent narrative design leads to these stories of death, but it also creates fantastic tales of perseverance. Sometimes a freak storm can light fires all over the map, potentially surrounding your base with uncontrolled flames. Other times, your most skilled colonist could find themselves dying instantly to a cave-in or a poorly constructed roof might fall on top of your best shot leaving them blind. Pressing on despite the setbacks leads to a great story, a personal story, about winning against the odds. Of course, it might not be a glorious tale of survival, but players have some degree of control over the pacing of the story when selecting the parameters of their game. Each game has a specific style of emergent storytelling depending on the AI director that players choose during colony creation. Players looking for a leisurely pace or even just a pure building game can certainly find that in RimWorld, while those seeking a story that keeps them on their toes can select the most capricious of AI narrative designers. Each colonist has a story that builds as you make progress farther into the game itself. It's a story that begins with their short bio page. These pages give some information about where the colonist came from and what sorts of personality quirks, both good and bad, they possess.The next part is, as they say, written in blood. Each colonist can take damage to various internal organs and limbs. Rough encounters can sometimes leave a colonist without a lung or missing one or more limbs. Proceeding farther along the tech tree opens possibilities for prosthetic legs or bionic eyes, allowing grievously wounded colonists a chance to regain or even surpass their previous ability. By the end of my winning run, only one out of my twenty colonists lacked scars, only a handful more weren't missing at least one limb, and my most capable shot was basically Robocop with all but one limb replaced with robotic parts and two synthetic eyes. Each day, colonists need to rest, eat, experience the outdoors, take in beautiful surroundings, and have fun. Without those things being in order, they will quickly fall into depressive funks and even experience mental breakdowns. These breakdowns can range from wandering sadly around the map to running around trying to set the base ablaze, or even attempting to murder a fellow colonist. If particularly hopeless, a colonist might just attempt to leave. Of course, players can capture them by placing them in jail alongside any captured raiders. Once confined, players can begin the recruitment process to bring a wayward colonist back into the fold. All of this comes together to form a really interesting package. Managing the temperature indoors and providing power for various spaces like freezers to keep a stockpile of food handy can be a stumbling block early on, but RimWorld has a nice escalation of problems as it progresses. Eventually food becomes less of a problem, but generating enough power to sustain devices like high-tech labs or fabrication benches becomes a huge hurdle - especially when you need to make those parts to replace limbs, build weapons of war, or create a spaceship from scratch. From start to finish, RimWorld was designed to have the player hooked with one additional goal to work toward, regardless of circumstance. Conclusion: It took me 124 hours of playing RimWorld to see the credits roll. I had a great time trying to figure out the most optimal builds for bases and clever defensive fortifications. It's not a particularly intense experience. In fact, I found it to be quite relaxing despite the insane amount of time I invested into it. That lends itself to this "one more turn" mentality, common in games like Civilization, taking hold. Hours seem to slip by as each objective slowly reaches completion. There are nitty-gritty details to nitpick about RimWorld, like how the AI sometimes doesn't seem to prioritize events or scenarios despite the finest of tuning on the colonists work priority lists. However, the only real request I had was more research options and a faster in-game speed. I played mostly on the fastest speed possible and making progress still felt slow. Overall, RimWorld is great if you are the kind of person who can sit and imagine interesting bases or are looking for a game that forces you to make your own stories by putting you through trials and tribulations. RimWorld is now available 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
  2. Jack Gardner

    Review: RimWorld

    RimWorld exists as one of those strange Steam Early Access titles that has been around for over five years but only officially released in the last couple of weeks. In an age where many Early Access games wind up in limbo forever or sitting abandoned, it's refreshing to see one emerge from development in a completed state. In a way, the condition of Early Access can be summarized neatly by RimWorld itself; full of failures, stagnation, and occasionally triumph. Ludeon Studios has put together a game that can best be described as a cross between Prison Architect and the capricious elements that would throw wrenches into the perfectly made plans of a city designer in Sim City. Players are given a number of starting scenarios on a vast variety of randomized worlds. From there, their job is simple: Survive. Players must build shelter for their stranded people, secure food, invest in decorations, provide for entertainment, and also build up defenses. Neglecting any of these risks destruction from raiders, crazed animals, or internal mental breaks. Players can win their game by escaping the planet via spaceship, but reaching the point of building or finding a ship can be a laborious process. The learning curve of RimWorld can be a bit steep when first starting out. Though a tutorial mode teaches the basics, nothing quite beats the experience of learning by doing. I went through several settlements while familiarizing myself with the nuts and bolts of the game before I managed to create a sustainable base. On one early attempt I thought I had discovered a successful blueprint for a long-term base, but in an instant it was swept away by a roaring sheet of flame from an errant lightning strike in the dead heat of summer. I could only watch as my colonists slowly succumbed to the heat from the flames they feebly attempted to control. In the end, only one colonist survived to attempt a new life in the ruins of the old base. He drifted toward death ever so slowly until a raiding party arrived and captured him, dragging him off screen to lord only knows what fate. RimWorld's emergent narrative design leads to these stories of death, but it also creates fantastic tales of perseverance. Sometimes a freak storm can light fires all over the map, potentially surrounding your base with uncontrolled flames. Other times, your most skilled colonist could find themselves dying instantly to a cave-in or a poorly constructed roof might fall on top of your best shot leaving them blind. Pressing on despite the setbacks leads to a great story, a personal story, about winning against the odds. Of course, it might not be a glorious tale of survival, but players have some degree of control over the pacing of the story when selecting the parameters of their game. Each game has a specific style of emergent storytelling depending on the AI director that players choose during colony creation. Players looking for a leisurely pace or even just a pure building game can certainly find that in RimWorld, while those seeking a story that keeps them on their toes can select the most capricious of AI narrative designers. Each colonist has a story that builds as you make progress farther into the game itself. It's a story that begins with their short bio page. These pages give some information about where the colonist came from and what sorts of personality quirks, both good and bad, they possess.The next part is, as they say, written in blood. Each colonist can take damage to various internal organs and limbs. Rough encounters can sometimes leave a colonist without a lung or missing one or more limbs. Proceeding farther along the tech tree opens possibilities for prosthetic legs or bionic eyes, allowing grievously wounded colonists a chance to regain or even surpass their previous ability. By the end of my winning run, only one out of my twenty colonists lacked scars, only a handful more weren't missing at least one limb, and my most capable shot was basically Robocop with all but one limb replaced with robotic parts and two synthetic eyes. Each day, colonists need to rest, eat, experience the outdoors, take in beautiful surroundings, and have fun. Without those things being in order, they will quickly fall into depressive funks and even experience mental breakdowns. These breakdowns can range from wandering sadly around the map to running around trying to set the base ablaze, or even attempting to murder a fellow colonist. If particularly hopeless, a colonist might just attempt to leave. Of course, players can capture them by placing them in jail alongside any captured raiders. Once confined, players can begin the recruitment process to bring a wayward colonist back into the fold. All of this comes together to form a really interesting package. Managing the temperature indoors and providing power for various spaces like freezers to keep a stockpile of food handy can be a stumbling block early on, but RimWorld has a nice escalation of problems as it progresses. Eventually food becomes less of a problem, but generating enough power to sustain devices like high-tech labs or fabrication benches becomes a huge hurdle - especially when you need to make those parts to replace limbs, build weapons of war, or create a spaceship from scratch. From start to finish, RimWorld was designed to have the player hooked with one additional goal to work toward, regardless of circumstance. Conclusion: It took me 124 hours of playing RimWorld to see the credits roll. I had a great time trying to figure out the most optimal builds for bases and clever defensive fortifications. It's not a particularly intense experience. In fact, I found it to be quite relaxing despite the insane amount of time I invested into it. That lends itself to this "one more turn" mentality, common in games like Civilization, taking hold. Hours seem to slip by as each objective slowly reaches completion. There are nitty-gritty details to nitpick about RimWorld, like how the AI sometimes doesn't seem to prioritize events or scenarios despite the finest of tuning on the colonists work priority lists. However, the only real request I had was more research options and a faster in-game speed. I played mostly on the fastest speed possible and making progress still felt slow. Overall, RimWorld is great if you are the kind of person who can sit and imagine interesting bases or are looking for a game that forces you to make your own stories by putting you through trials and tribulations. RimWorld is now available 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!
  3. Jack Gardner

    Review: Life Is Strange 2 Episode 1: Roads

    If you go into Life Is Strange 2 thinking it will be a similar journey to its predecessor you are going to be in for a shock. Life Is Strange 2 retains the same humanizing sensibilities and just slightly surreal world-building that made the town of Arcadia Bay come to life, but what it does with those strengths in the first episode looks very different. This change up will leave some people reeling and others deeply invested in where this story will be going as more episodes hit digital storefronts around the world. Roads plays very much like the previous Life Is Strange episodes before it. Players can walk around gorgeous environments that manage to find the beauty often hidden within the mundane and interact with objects or people, complete with a running internal monologue. When interacting with some items or character, players will have the opportunity to make choices that could affect what happens later on in ways ranging from whether a small token appears on a backpack to whether an entire town exists or not. That framework still functions as well as it ever did, though I particularly enjoyed its incarnation in Roads. Early in the episode, players have the opportunity to gather a collection of supplies, including money. That money is then used later on to buy food and other essentials from a gas station. Based on how much money you were able to scrounge in the beginning, players will face different pressures and choices about what to buy and what decisions seem to make the most sense. The way the team at Dontnod designed the scene leaves a lot of room for players to fill in the blanks for themselves and presents a great moral dilemma, the bread and butter of any narrative-heavy adventure game, in an original way. I will also say off the bat that The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit does not have a ton of overlap with the first episode of Life Is Strange 2, though it did tease some of its inciting incident. From what Dontnod has revealed so far, we can probably expect more Captain Spirit-related events in future episodes. Whereas the original Life Is Strange focused on the struggles of a young white girl in the early 2000s and her life in an aging coastal town on the decline, the sequel takes a look at the life of a young Hispanic boy named Sean Diaz living in the Seattle, Washington of 2016. At first, things seem like they will follow the same sleepy, nostalgic setup seen in Life Is Strange. It's near Halloween and the kids at the local high school are throwing a party, complete with all the pressures and concerns that go with that scene. However, a small disagreement with a neighbor kid escalates when punches are thrown and a police officer arrives, drawing his gun. When Sean's dad comes running out to see what's going on, the officer panics and shoots, killing Sean's father in front of both Sean and his 9-year-old brother Daniel. The trauma of the event causes Daniel to lash out with some unexplained power, sending a massive shockwave through the area that destroys parts of the surrounding homes, flips cars, and kills the officer and possibly the neighbor. Upon regaining consciousness, Sean takes in the situation and realizes that there's no explaining any of this away; running becomes the only thing that makes sense. So it is that Life Is Strange 2 becomes about hitting the road in the modern United States. As they travel, they encounter a small slice of people from across the socio-political spectrum. The first game painted a clear picture of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, but Life Is Strange 2, at least from the first episode, holds the larger ambition of reflecting the entire country. And that reflection doesn't pull punches. Perhaps most unexpectedly, the fluff of nostalgia that permeated the first Life Is Strange (and perhaps made some of its more disturbing moments palatable) has been replaced by a more immediate and applicable sense of time and place that, frankly, we aren't used to seeing in video games. It's surreal to hear characters throw slurs mixed with rhetoric about building a wall between the United States and Mexico or demonstrate a nonchalant attitude toward marijuana that reflects its legalization in Washington state. The veracity of these attitudes hits home as I have seen people act the same way in the real world. Especially when it comes to the uglier topics Roads touches on, the experience does not feel comfortable, but that's precisely the point. In some ways, it feels as though Life Is Strange 2 Episode 1 is having a conversation with the player. The developers must have been aware that some people would fall into the category that firmly believes games should be meaningless fun and wanted to subtly make the case that maybe some games should have more substance than just fun. Roads hits several extremely polarizing issues right off the bat, from police violence to racial prejudice, in such a way that it might shock people who aren't used to games that have pointed things to say about those subjects. Then, near the end of the episode, a character comments that, "Everything is political," both to the characters in their scene and also as if to directly address the player. And what are we supposed to do with that information? One of the closing conversations of the episode asks just that question. And the answer seems to be to continue pushing forward, whether that's for truth or for some kind of safe haven. Because that's all anyone can ever do. Conclusion: Life Is Strange 2's first episode blew me away. It manages to both be a heartfelt examination of the relationship between two brothers while unflinchingly engaging with incredibly weighty and difficult topics. It also doesn't leave the player with any easy answers or ways to address those issues in the real world. I suppose those might be coming in future episodes, but if I had to guess from how Roads played out we won't be presented with feel-good solutions. The story of the Diaz family left me constantly wondering what would happen next. While the episode ends with a somewhat concrete plan, I wouldn't be shocked if it veers off in completely unexpected directions. This episode manages to be equal parts gorgeous, funny, and searing all at the same time; gripping in such a way that you'll finish it in one sitting. It's going to be a long wait for Episode 2. Life Is Strange 2 Episode 1: Roads was reviewed on PC and is currently available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!
  4. If you go into Life Is Strange 2 thinking it will be a similar journey to its predecessor you are going to be in for a shock. Life Is Strange 2 retains the same humanizing sensibilities and just slightly surreal world-building that made the town of Arcadia Bay come to life, but what it does with those strengths in the first episode looks very different. This change up will leave some people reeling and others deeply invested in where this story will be going as more episodes hit digital storefronts around the world. Roads plays very much like the previous Life Is Strange episodes before it. Players can walk around gorgeous environments that manage to find the beauty often hidden within the mundane and interact with objects or people, complete with a running internal monologue. When interacting with some items or character, players will have the opportunity to make choices that could affect what happens later on in ways ranging from whether a small token appears on a backpack to whether an entire town exists or not. That framework still functions as well as it ever did, though I particularly enjoyed its incarnation in Roads. Early in the episode, players have the opportunity to gather a collection of supplies, including money. That money is then used later on to buy food and other essentials from a gas station. Based on how much money you were able to scrounge in the beginning, players will face different pressures and choices about what to buy and what decisions seem to make the most sense. The way the team at Dontnod designed the scene leaves a lot of room for players to fill in the blanks for themselves and presents a great moral dilemma, the bread and butter of any narrative-heavy adventure game, in an original way. I will also say off the bat that The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit does not have a ton of overlap with the first episode of Life Is Strange 2, though it did tease some of its inciting incident. From what Dontnod has revealed so far, we can probably expect more Captain Spirit-related events in future episodes. Whereas the original Life Is Strange focused on the struggles of a young white girl in the early 2000s and her life in an aging coastal town on the decline, the sequel takes a look at the life of a young Hispanic boy named Sean Diaz living in the Seattle, Washington of 2016. At first, things seem like they will follow the same sleepy, nostalgic setup seen in Life Is Strange. It's near Halloween and the kids at the local high school are throwing a party, complete with all the pressures and concerns that go with that scene. However, a small disagreement with a neighbor kid escalates when punches are thrown and a police officer arrives, drawing his gun. When Sean's dad comes running out to see what's going on, the officer panics and shoots, killing Sean's father in front of both Sean and his 9-year-old brother Daniel. The trauma of the event causes Daniel to lash out with some unexplained power, sending a massive shockwave through the area that destroys parts of the surrounding homes, flips cars, and kills the officer and possibly the neighbor. Upon regaining consciousness, Sean takes in the situation and realizes that there's no explaining any of this away; running becomes the only thing that makes sense. So it is that Life Is Strange 2 becomes about hitting the road in the modern United States. As they travel, they encounter a small slice of people from across the socio-political spectrum. The first game painted a clear picture of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, but Life Is Strange 2, at least from the first episode, holds the larger ambition of reflecting the entire country. And that reflection doesn't pull punches. Perhaps most unexpectedly, the fluff of nostalgia that permeated the first Life Is Strange (and perhaps made some of its more disturbing moments palatable) has been replaced by a more immediate and applicable sense of time and place that, frankly, we aren't used to seeing in video games. It's surreal to hear characters throw slurs mixed with rhetoric about building a wall between the United States and Mexico or demonstrate a nonchalant attitude toward marijuana that reflects its legalization in Washington state. The veracity of these attitudes hits home as I have seen people act the same way in the real world. Especially when it comes to the uglier topics Roads touches on, the experience does not feel comfortable, but that's precisely the point. In some ways, it feels as though Life Is Strange 2 Episode 1 is having a conversation with the player. The developers must have been aware that some people would fall into the category that firmly believes games should be meaningless fun and wanted to subtly make the case that maybe some games should have more substance than just fun. Roads hits several extremely polarizing issues right off the bat, from police violence to racial prejudice, in such a way that it might shock people who aren't used to games that have pointed things to say about those subjects. Then, near the end of the episode, a character comments that, "Everything is political," both to the characters in their scene and also as if to directly address the player. And what are we supposed to do with that information? One of the closing conversations of the episode asks just that question. And the answer seems to be to continue pushing forward, whether that's for truth or for some kind of safe haven. Because that's all anyone can ever do. Conclusion: Life Is Strange 2's first episode blew me away. It manages to both be a heartfelt examination of the relationship between two brothers while unflinchingly engaging with incredibly weighty and difficult topics. It also doesn't leave the player with any easy answers or ways to address those issues in the real world. I suppose those might be coming in future episodes, but if I had to guess from how Roads played out we won't be presented with feel-good solutions. The story of the Diaz family left me constantly wondering what would happen next. While the episode ends with a somewhat concrete plan, I wouldn't be shocked if it veers off in completely unexpected directions. This episode manages to be equal parts gorgeous, funny, and searing all at the same time; gripping in such a way that you'll finish it in one sitting. It's going to be a long wait for Episode 2. Life Is Strange 2 Episode 1: Roads was reviewed on PC and is currently available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games! View full article
  5. How does one make something new while retaining the weight of lore and history that comes with a premise that has been reborn again and again countless times in fiction? Marvel has certainly struggled with this question in their cinematic universe and various game developers have their own takes on classic superheroes. Often each iteration retells the heroic beginnings of the headlining hero or makes some connection with a popular continuity of said character. Insomniac Games seems to have been answered the question by skipping the iconic moments of the wall-crawler's origin story altogether in order to tackle the sophomore issues of being a hero. "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" - Everyone even remotely familiar with Spider-Man knows the final commandment of Uncle Ben, Peter Parker's father figure who dies early on in his origin story. Usually, when a piece of media starts off with this, we see Parker struggle with figuring out exactly how much responsibility he has to be using his power to help others. Given that Marvel's Spider-Man takes place roughly eight years after the events that made Peter Parker into a superpowered webslinger, it needs to address a different idea. There aren't any quotes delivered on the dying breath of a beloved old man, but the game tackles the issue of what happens to people who have accepted that responsibility but find forces beyond their control pushing them, perverting that sense of duty. How does someone good go on to commit brutal and evil acts despite the goodness they displayed and what does it take to stop them? When Marvel's Spider-Man roars to life with all cylinders blazing, it captures how much larger-than-life everyday struggles can feel sometimes. Clashing with the colossal force of Rhino or dodging the blasts of a villain whose on-the-nose name is "Mr. Negative" can be seen as a fight against the worst parts inside all of us. And part of what makes that resonate so much is that Peter Parker doesn't walk away unscathed. Over the course of the game, these fights take their toll. He is slashed, burned, stabbed, blasted, and crushed. At one point he has so many broken ribs that his allies tell him he shouldn't be standing. Peter, despite all the impediments thrown into his way, continues to do his best to stand by that responsibility, sacrificing himself at every turn. All of this he does while having ample opportunities to walk away and spare himself. In many ways, the way Peter fights as Spider-Man fits into the classic mold of a hero who does what is right no matter the cost to himself. If that's all one is looking for in a game about superheroes, then Marvel's Spider-Man will fulfill that desire. If, however, you're looking for a game that has things to say about the myriad of issues that those acts of heroism touch upon, Marvel's Spider-Man might fall a bit flat. For a super genius with a heart for justice, Peter Parker seems surprisingly unwoke about the systemic issues around him, focusing on the symptoms of various problems instead of the root causes themselves. All of this would be fine if this was a story about a Spider-Man just getting the hang of the hero business, but the game makes a point to show Peter has been at this for a long while now. Of course, one could argue that this version of New York is one without any systemic issues, but the text of the game indicates that's not true. The opening scene has corrupt cops attempting to murder Spider-Man (something that isn't really seen as abnormal by anyone involved); Oscorp routinely poisons the air and water in the name of profits (which Spider-Man fixes, but also doesn't report, effectively letting the billion dollar company off the hook); and both Peter and Aunt May work at a local homeless shelter. However, during all of Spider-Man's running monologues as he traverses the city, he never talks about the systemic issues that lead to those things being problems. Where are his comments about trying to reform the police in some way so as to discourage cops taking bribes? Why doesn't Spider-Man hold the billion dollar corporation responsible for being so focused on profiting that it is willing to allow people to be poisoned? How does Peter Parker not even consider the reality of income inequality staring him in the face when he moves between the world of Norman Osborne and that of FEAST, the homeless shelter at which he volunteers? The omission of any opining comments from Peter on these topics and issues certainly stems from the desire to keep Marvel's Spider-Man as uncontroversial as possible. Clearly, Peter as a character would care about all of those issues, but the game goes out of its way to avoid topics that might be touchy in the current context. Though the in-game world is presented to us as a version of New York City, you won't see Spider-Man or Peter Parker attending a rally against police corruption or breaking up a gathering of Neo-Nazis. There won't be talk about the forces that evict people out onto the street, though the game implies that rent prices are out of control and the care provided for mental health issues is inadequate. Ultimately, its desire to avoid saying anything that might be even slightly seen as controversial leaves Marvel's Spider-Man feeling a bit hollow once the dazzling feeling of swinging between skyscrappers wears off. To clarify, since this topic has become something of a sticking point for the game since its release: The decision to tiptoe around most of its relevant social issues doesn't make Marvel's Spider-Man bad. It's simply a noticeable narrative decision that might lead to its story being forgettable over time. To Insomniac's credit, that shine doesn't wear off quickly. Easily the best parts of Spider-Man are when the game leaves the player to traverse the city and do street-level hero things. Stopping a burglary in progress, disarming a bomb threat, or saving people from the wreckage of a car accident are all thrilling in their own way, but getting to the scene stands as the best part of any of these encounters. Swinging through the city, right from the beginning, feels amazing. The game knows this and has players shooting webs onto buildings within five minutes of booting up the game. As players progress along the three skill trees, new traversal abilities will unlock, making Spider-Man faster, giving him new abilities to keep up momentum, and it results in this gentle learning curve that keeps things fresh from the beginning of the game until the credits roll. However, once I hit the credits scene, complete with clips teasing what future games in this series will be about, I felt fully and totally done. The side content, while enjoyable based on the traversal mechanics alone, isn't terribly interesting. It serves as a decent distraction while going through the main game, avoiding the charge of being bloated fluff by virtue of the overall solid gameplay mechanics and the various tokens you get from doing them that can be used to upgrade gear or unlock new spider suits. However, the stories relegated to the side missions just aren't that interesting even when drawing on fun bits of lore. (Also, Insomniac, make Mysterio a proper villain, you cowards) It's a bit of a missed opportunity because one of the most intriguing decisions Insomniac made with regards to their Spider-Man game is that there are a number of missions where you take on the role of Mary Jane and Miles Morales and need to use stealth and trickery to sneak through different areas. These segments actually had a lot of potential for expansion into interesting side missions, but are only used in the main story under tightly controlled circumstances. Early on, there is a great section where Mary Jane sneaks into a facility owned by Wilson Fisk to collect some evidence and must do some sneaking and puzzle solving. It's fun and a breath of fresh air; seeing more iteration on that idea would have been really neat, maybe adding a social element to it and some more fleshed out stealth options. Miles is given some extreme hacking abilities that would make for awesome stealth gameplay, too, but that never fully pays off in any satisfying way. The little touches around the edges of Marvel's Spider-Man really give it a lot of character. Subtle musical call backs to The Avengers thrum through the most climactic moments. Gaining momentum while flipping through New York City results in a flurry of stringed instruments adding to the sense of speed and wonder. Different camera options in the obligatory photo mode (something no modern game should be without at this point) give players a lot of different options with which to play and get those perfect shots. The diverse array of suits are also really nice, and it was a great idea to tie them to specific powers that are then unlocked on every other suit. Heck, the game even has a Stan Lee guest appearance which was absolutely lovely. Conclusion: Marvel's Spider-Man might just be the best Spider-Man game ever made. It's gorgeously realized, cinematic as heck, for better and worse, and delivers a powerhouse of a final act. It also isn't perfect. Its side missions are dull, saved from mundane boredom by some rock solid traversal mechanics and adequate combat. Seriously, swinging through a city has never been as fun as it is in this particular Spider-Man game. All of that is built on a story about heroism; what it truly means to not just become a hero, but to live like one, too. While it misses the opportunity to be about a much more encompassing and larger idea of what heroes should be outside of the individual, punching-bad-guys level, that core conceit should be enough for just about anyone to enjoy Marvel's Spider-Man. Here's hoping that the sequel builds off of this simple foundation for a significantly bolder narrative that tackles some of the more grounded problems of our current times. Marvel's Spider-Man is now available on PlayStation 4. 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
  6. Jack Gardner

    Review: Marvel's Spider-Man

    How does one make something new while retaining the weight of lore and history that comes with a premise that has been reborn again and again countless times in fiction? Marvel has certainly struggled with this question in their cinematic universe and various game developers have their own takes on classic superheroes. Often each iteration retells the heroic beginnings of the headlining hero or makes some connection with a popular continuity of said character. Insomniac Games seems to have been answered the question by skipping the iconic moments of the wall-crawler's origin story altogether in order to tackle the sophomore issues of being a hero. "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" - Everyone even remotely familiar with Spider-Man knows the final commandment of Uncle Ben, Peter Parker's father figure who dies early on in his origin story. Usually, when a piece of media starts off with this, we see Parker struggle with figuring out exactly how much responsibility he has to be using his power to help others. Given that Marvel's Spider-Man takes place roughly eight years after the events that made Peter Parker into a superpowered webslinger, it needs to address a different idea. There aren't any quotes delivered on the dying breath of a beloved old man, but the game tackles the issue of what happens to people who have accepted that responsibility but find forces beyond their control pushing them, perverting that sense of duty. How does someone good go on to commit brutal and evil acts despite the goodness they displayed and what does it take to stop them? When Marvel's Spider-Man roars to life with all cylinders blazing, it captures how much larger-than-life everyday struggles can feel sometimes. Clashing with the colossal force of Rhino or dodging the blasts of a villain whose on-the-nose name is "Mr. Negative" can be seen as a fight against the worst parts inside all of us. And part of what makes that resonate so much is that Peter Parker doesn't walk away unscathed. Over the course of the game, these fights take their toll. He is slashed, burned, stabbed, blasted, and crushed. At one point he has so many broken ribs that his allies tell him he shouldn't be standing. Peter, despite all the impediments thrown into his way, continues to do his best to stand by that responsibility, sacrificing himself at every turn. All of this he does while having ample opportunities to walk away and spare himself. In many ways, the way Peter fights as Spider-Man fits into the classic mold of a hero who does what is right no matter the cost to himself. If that's all one is looking for in a game about superheroes, then Marvel's Spider-Man will fulfill that desire. If, however, you're looking for a game that has things to say about the myriad of issues that those acts of heroism touch upon, Marvel's Spider-Man might fall a bit flat. For a super genius with a heart for justice, Peter Parker seems surprisingly unwoke about the systemic issues around him, focusing on the symptoms of various problems instead of the root causes themselves. All of this would be fine if this was a story about a Spider-Man just getting the hang of the hero business, but the game makes a point to show Peter has been at this for a long while now. Of course, one could argue that this version of New York is one without any systemic issues, but the text of the game indicates that's not true. The opening scene has corrupt cops attempting to murder Spider-Man (something that isn't really seen as abnormal by anyone involved); Oscorp routinely poisons the air and water in the name of profits (which Spider-Man fixes, but also doesn't report, effectively letting the billion dollar company off the hook); and both Peter and Aunt May work at a local homeless shelter. However, during all of Spider-Man's running monologues as he traverses the city, he never talks about the systemic issues that lead to those things being problems. Where are his comments about trying to reform the police in some way so as to discourage cops taking bribes? Why doesn't Spider-Man hold the billion dollar corporation responsible for being so focused on profiting that it is willing to allow people to be poisoned? How does Peter Parker not even consider the reality of income inequality staring him in the face when he moves between the world of Norman Osborne and that of FEAST, the homeless shelter at which he volunteers? The omission of any opining comments from Peter on these topics and issues certainly stems from the desire to keep Marvel's Spider-Man as uncontroversial as possible. Clearly, Peter as a character would care about all of those issues, but the game goes out of its way to avoid topics that might be touchy in the current context. Though the in-game world is presented to us as a version of New York City, you won't see Spider-Man or Peter Parker attending a rally against police corruption or breaking up a gathering of Neo-Nazis. There won't be talk about the forces that evict people out onto the street, though the game implies that rent prices are out of control and the care provided for mental health issues is inadequate. Ultimately, its desire to avoid saying anything that might be even slightly seen as controversial leaves Marvel's Spider-Man feeling a bit hollow once the dazzling feeling of swinging between skyscrappers wears off. To clarify, since this topic has become something of a sticking point for the game since its release: The decision to tiptoe around most of its relevant social issues doesn't make Marvel's Spider-Man bad. It's simply a noticeable narrative decision that might lead to its story being forgettable over time. To Insomniac's credit, that shine doesn't wear off quickly. Easily the best parts of Spider-Man are when the game leaves the player to traverse the city and do street-level hero things. Stopping a burglary in progress, disarming a bomb threat, or saving people from the wreckage of a car accident are all thrilling in their own way, but getting to the scene stands as the best part of any of these encounters. Swinging through the city, right from the beginning, feels amazing. The game knows this and has players shooting webs onto buildings within five minutes of booting up the game. As players progress along the three skill trees, new traversal abilities will unlock, making Spider-Man faster, giving him new abilities to keep up momentum, and it results in this gentle learning curve that keeps things fresh from the beginning of the game until the credits roll. However, once I hit the credits scene, complete with clips teasing what future games in this series will be about, I felt fully and totally done. The side content, while enjoyable based on the traversal mechanics alone, isn't terribly interesting. It serves as a decent distraction while going through the main game, avoiding the charge of being bloated fluff by virtue of the overall solid gameplay mechanics and the various tokens you get from doing them that can be used to upgrade gear or unlock new spider suits. However, the stories relegated to the side missions just aren't that interesting even when drawing on fun bits of lore. (Also, Insomniac, make Mysterio a proper villain, you cowards) It's a bit of a missed opportunity because one of the most intriguing decisions Insomniac made with regards to their Spider-Man game is that there are a number of missions where you take on the role of Mary Jane and Miles Morales and need to use stealth and trickery to sneak through different areas. These segments actually had a lot of potential for expansion into interesting side missions, but are only used in the main story under tightly controlled circumstances. Early on, there is a great section where Mary Jane sneaks into a facility owned by Wilson Fisk to collect some evidence and must do some sneaking and puzzle solving. It's fun and a breath of fresh air; seeing more iteration on that idea would have been really neat, maybe adding a social element to it and some more fleshed out stealth options. Miles is given some extreme hacking abilities that would make for awesome stealth gameplay, too, but that never fully pays off in any satisfying way. The little touches around the edges of Marvel's Spider-Man really give it a lot of character. Subtle musical call backs to The Avengers thrum through the most climactic moments. Gaining momentum while flipping through New York City results in a flurry of stringed instruments adding to the sense of speed and wonder. Different camera options in the obligatory photo mode (something no modern game should be without at this point) give players a lot of different options with which to play and get those perfect shots. The diverse array of suits are also really nice, and it was a great idea to tie them to specific powers that are then unlocked on every other suit. Heck, the game even has a Stan Lee guest appearance which was absolutely lovely. Conclusion: Marvel's Spider-Man might just be the best Spider-Man game ever made. It's gorgeously realized, cinematic as heck, for better and worse, and delivers a powerhouse of a final act. It also isn't perfect. Its side missions are dull, saved from mundane boredom by some rock solid traversal mechanics and adequate combat. Seriously, swinging through a city has never been as fun as it is in this particular Spider-Man game. All of that is built on a story about heroism; what it truly means to not just become a hero, but to live like one, too. While it misses the opportunity to be about a much more encompassing and larger idea of what heroes should be outside of the individual, punching-bad-guys level, that core conceit should be enough for just about anyone to enjoy Marvel's Spider-Man. Here's hoping that the sequel builds off of this simple foundation for a significantly bolder narrative that tackles some of the more grounded problems of our current times. Marvel's Spider-Man is now available on PlayStation 4. 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!
  7. Marcus Stewart

    Feature: Review: State of Mind

    State of Mind presents a vision of 2048 that feels equal parts neat and unsettling. Robots dominate society, acting as household servants and even make up a fully autonomous police force. Citizens have augmented reality implants that display basic information for every person they come into contact with. Virtual reality has evolved into fully immersive worlds that many people prefer to spend their entire lives within. Technology can be wonderful, but should it advance at the expense of our humanity? State of Mind presents meaningful transhumanistic questions, but the delivery leaves much to be desired. Daedalic Entertainment’s narrative adventure has much in common with Life is Strange in terms of its third-person design. The meat of the experience involves exploring compact hub areas and interacting with characters, with additional elements sprinkled on top. These include puzzle-solving, stealth sequences, and even light shooting segments. The plot centers on technophobic journalist Richard Nolan. His life gets flipped on its head when he’s involved in a near-fatal car accident. As he gradually picks up the pieces, he realizes his accident may have been anything but. Worse, his family has also gone missing. In his search for answers he uncovers a conspiracy revolving around a secret virtual world. Despite his reservations with tech, Nolan must cooperate with forces in both realities, including a digital copy of himself, to rescue his family and squash a grander scheme. Nolan’s overwhelming unlikability holds back the story in a big way. Granted, much of this is by design. He’s tangled in an affair despite being married with a kid. His paranoia, both tech-related and personal, causes him to regularly fly off the handle, often irrationally. Nolan’s glaring flaws play into one of the game’s themes: escapism. Many characters turn to the virtual world to escape real world pain or imperfection. Richard has every reason to do the same, but he detests the idea of an artificial existence. That’s fine, but Nolan’s sheer abrasiveness made it nigh impossible to get behind him as a sympathetic character–something State of Mind clearly tries to accomplish. Nolan and the most of the cast suffer from cheesy, wooden performances that often rob serious moments of their emotional weight. A character death, for instance, doesn’t hit nearly as hard because of the rough acting. The story periodically drops players into the shoes of other supporting characters. Some tales land better than others–the story of a robot gaining freewill feels uninspired. However, these scenarios do a solid job of providing backstory and tying together different plot threads. Experiencing the troubled life of Nolan’s mistress Lydia became my favorite tale. She has easily the most fascinating history as well as the most genuine performance. Even though it features player choice, State of Mind tells a largely linear plot. Most choices lead to minor changes in tone, like choosing to respond angrily or passively. The only decision of significance comes at the flat conclusion. Those hoping to see branching paths for everything they do will be disappointed, but I personally didn’t mind the more focused approach. What did bother me was how the hokey, somewhat pretentious writing got in the way of State of Mind’s otherwise intriguing themes of transhumanism. The game sometimes feels like it tries too hard to be profound and can get up its own butt with its philosophy. State of Mind clicks best when those themes simply prop up the relatable human drama; an estranged father attempting to rebuild his family, for example. Other scenes feel outright dumb. In one unintentionally hilarious moment, I met a character infiltrating the virtual world undercover. He reiterated his need for secrecy, then immediately denounced the beliefs of the society he’s supposed to blending in with by making a loud scene in public. Well-worn archetypes (e.g. the messiah with a god complex, the self-righteous hacktivist) could have been stronger if they were written with more subtly. They can be over-the-top to the point being cartoonish and are painfully one-dimensional. In terms of presentation, the sharp, polygonal art direction gives State of Mind a cool style. I especially love the slick camera framing that adds to the cinematic feel. Unfortunately, scenes that abruptly switch to the loading screen and occasionally wonky angles (such as from within a character model) mar the production values. State of Mind’s gameplay can be hit and miss, as well, but I admire its variety. More involved mechanics include using a drone to navigate a maze of ventilation shafts while avoiding rogue bots. Sifting through notes to find correlating intel offers cerebral fun akin to a classic adventure title. An interactive art exhibit allowed me to manipulate music and visual effects for no real purpose but was neat diversion nonetheless. Best of all, only a few mechanics repeat themselves. Recurring activities are simplistic but mostly inoffensive. For example, piecing together jumbled AR scenes like a virtual puzzle. Others, such as a hacking mini-game, feel too easy. Players must position the analog sticks in the right spot but exacts solutions worked repeatedly, sometimes even consecutively. Conclusion State of Mind presents interesting ideas wrapped around solid gameplay and a good look. However, the questionable writing and performances bring everything down. It has some bright spots, but State of Mind ultimately boils down to an ambitious yet average sci-fi thriller. 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
  8. Marcus Stewart

    Review: State of Mind

    State of Mind presents a vision of 2048 that feels equal parts neat and unsettling. Robots dominate society, acting as household servants and even make up a fully autonomous police force. Citizens have augmented reality implants that display basic information for every person they come into contact with. Virtual reality has evolved into fully immersive worlds that many people prefer to spend their entire lives within. Technology can be wonderful, but should it advance at the expense of our humanity? State of Mind presents meaningful transhumanistic questions, but the delivery leaves much to be desired. Daedalic Entertainment’s narrative adventure has much in common with Life is Strange in terms of its third-person design. The meat of the experience involves exploring compact hub areas and interacting with characters, with additional elements sprinkled on top. These include puzzle-solving, stealth sequences, and even light shooting segments. The plot centers on technophobic journalist Richard Nolan. His life gets flipped on its head when he’s involved in a near-fatal car accident. As he gradually picks up the pieces, he realizes his accident may have been anything but. Worse, his family has also gone missing. In his search for answers he uncovers a conspiracy revolving around a secret virtual world. Despite his reservations with tech, Nolan must cooperate with forces in both realities, including a digital copy of himself, to rescue his family and squash a grander scheme. Nolan’s overwhelming unlikability holds back the story in a big way. Granted, much of this is by design. He’s tangled in an affair despite being married with a kid. His paranoia, both tech-related and personal, causes him to regularly fly off the handle, often irrationally. Nolan’s glaring flaws play into one of the game’s themes: escapism. Many characters turn to the virtual world to escape real world pain or imperfection. Richard has every reason to do the same, but he detests the idea of an artificial existence. That’s fine, but Nolan’s sheer abrasiveness made it nigh impossible to get behind him as a sympathetic character–something State of Mind clearly tries to accomplish. Nolan and the most of the cast suffer from cheesy, wooden performances that often rob serious moments of their emotional weight. A character death, for instance, doesn’t hit nearly as hard because of the rough acting. The story periodically drops players into the shoes of other supporting characters. Some tales land better than others–the story of a robot gaining freewill feels uninspired. However, these scenarios do a solid job of providing backstory and tying together different plot threads. Experiencing the troubled life of Nolan’s mistress Lydia became my favorite tale. She has easily the most fascinating history as well as the most genuine performance. Even though it features player choice, State of Mind tells a largely linear plot. Most choices lead to minor changes in tone, like choosing to respond angrily or passively. The only decision of significance comes at the flat conclusion. Those hoping to see branching paths for everything they do will be disappointed, but I personally didn’t mind the more focused approach. What did bother me was how the hokey, somewhat pretentious writing got in the way of State of Mind’s otherwise intriguing themes of transhumanism. The game sometimes feels like it tries too hard to be profound and can get up its own butt with its philosophy. State of Mind clicks best when those themes simply prop up the relatable human drama; an estranged father attempting to rebuild his family, for example. Other scenes feel outright dumb. In one unintentionally hilarious moment, I met a character infiltrating the virtual world undercover. He reiterated his need for secrecy, then immediately denounced the beliefs of the society he’s supposed to blending in with by making a loud scene in public. Well-worn archetypes (e.g. the messiah with a god complex, the self-righteous hacktivist) could have been stronger if they were written with more subtly. They can be over-the-top to the point being cartoonish and are painfully one-dimensional. In terms of presentation, the sharp, polygonal art direction gives State of Mind a cool style. I especially love the slick camera framing that adds to the cinematic feel. Unfortunately, scenes that abruptly switch to the loading screen and occasionally wonky angles (such as from within a character model) mar the production values. State of Mind’s gameplay can be hit and miss, as well, but I admire its variety. More involved mechanics include using a drone to navigate a maze of ventilation shafts while avoiding rogue bots. Sifting through notes to find correlating intel offers cerebral fun akin to a classic adventure title. An interactive art exhibit allowed me to manipulate music and visual effects for no real purpose but was neat diversion nonetheless. Best of all, only a few mechanics repeat themselves. Recurring activities are simplistic but mostly inoffensive. For example, piecing together jumbled AR scenes like a virtual puzzle. Others, such as a hacking mini-game, feel too easy. Players must position the analog sticks in the right spot but exacts solutions worked repeatedly, sometimes even consecutively. Conclusion State of Mind presents interesting ideas wrapped around solid gameplay and a good look. However, the questionable writing and performances bring everything down. It has some bright spots, but State of Mind ultimately boils down to an ambitious yet average sci-fi thriller. 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!
  9. Jack Gardner

    Feature: Review: Vampyr

    Dontnod has made a name for itself over the last several years as a publisher willing to try new things and take risks. Mixed reactions to their debut effort Remember Me grew into acclaim for Life Is Strange. Three years have passed since Life Is Strange captivated players; Dontnod used that time to not only craft a sequel, due out this year, but also something completely different. Unlike anything the developer has tackled before, Vampyr takes players into a dark and dirty vision of early 1900s London; a world of death, disease, and vampires. Doctor Jonathan Reid, a field medic returning from the battlefields of World War I, awakens in the corpse pits of a London under siege by the Spanish flu, a brutal virus that swept through the real world shortly after the turn of the century. Maddened by a profound hunger and the echoing words of an ethereal entity, Dr. Reid stumbles through the carnage, happening upon a woman looking through the dead. She knows him, embraces him, and in a fit of insanity, he digs his fangs deep into her neck. He drinks, she dies, and he is reborn - sane and in agony at the realization of his crime. This opening scene strives to capture the unsettling horror of Vampyr on a small scale, giving players a textual stake (har har) in the consequences of their actions. You see, Mary, the woman murdered in the opening minutes of Vampyr happens to be Mary Reid, Dr. Reid's sister. This death haunts Jonathan throughout the game in a way that can profoundly alter the course of events, depending on how players choose to develop the doctor as a character. Vampyr tempts players with blood at every opportunity. Completing quests rewards players with nice chunks of experience that can be used on a variety of vampyric and scientific abilities. However, players can take shortcuts to power by manipulating the citizens of London, mesmerizing and taking them to dark corners for a taste of their blood. This kills them, of course, but grants thousands of experience points, more than can be gained by completing quests. The system encourages players to take care of the people they meet, treating their illnesses with appropriate remedies and learning their secrets by interacting with the people in their social circle. The healthy blood of someone more intimately known provides quite a bit more experience than someone almost totally unknown who has been struck with the plague. As the primary vampire of Vampyr, players have to be careful how they exercise their newfound power. Some parts of London's communities are more necessary than others. The pillars of each community hold those around them together by their presence and tireless efforts. Killing those people could bring the entire district they live in crashing down under the weight of the epidemic. Not all parts of the community can claim to be aligned with those constructive forces, however. Some proudly declare themselves criminals while others hide dark secrets of murder and abuse. Of course, no matter who Jonathan chooses to feed upon, the community will react. It could leave it a better place, but that act of murder could also plunge everything into chaos, leaving openings for the plague to seep in among the bodies. Players who seek to walk a nobler path will be pleased to know that the life of bloodsucking innocents can be avoided almost entirely. However, those who opt out of this staple activity of vampirism will find themselves at a definite disadvantage, making do with fewer and less powerful blood and shadow based powers. The difficulty will definitely have some players looking longingly at the NPC they know to be a murderer, contemplating murder for their extra experience. The point of the difficult path is to tempt the righteous to fall, and the developers certainly play into that aspect of their game. Dontnod cleverly leaves the player with the ultimate decision to give Mary Reid's death meaning. Will Jonathan steer the hardest path and make his first steps as a newborn vampire without sacrificing others along the way? Will he pursue power at all costs, slaughtering as many people as London can bare? Or will he walk a middle path, turning himself into the judge, jury, and executioner of London's wickedest denizens? Those are interesting questions to explore over the course of Vampyr and answer for yourself. The system that enables this, the complex net of relationships and dependencies of each section of London that shift with each death, must have taken an incredible amount of effort to create, and stands out as one of Vampyr's best features. It's strange, then, that Vampyr does not choose to focus its narrative on that core systemic conceit. Instead, the narrative revolves around a series of three acts to which the residents of London play background parts as pieces of set dressing and leveling opportunities - a decision which defangs the whole "needing to kill for the blood needed to survive" aspects of vampires. The first act revolves around Jonathan Reid coming to terms with his role in his sister's death and his new life as an Ekon, Vampyr's term for the beings we traditionally know as vampires. It is here that we are also introduced to the other varieties of vampires. Skals make up the majority of vampires, but are often people who failed to transform into full Ekons, often going mad in the process. They only need to eat flesh to live and don't require blood the way other vampires do. Vulkod are the brutes of the vampire kingdom, possessing superior speed and strength to other kinds, but often losing themselves to blood rages. Other kinds exist, too, but they are left to be mysterious around the edges of British vampire society. Before going on, we should note that the icing of yet another woman in the opening minutes of a video game for dramatic effect, a trope with a long tradition (I'm looking at you, Shadow of Mordor), is getting so old. It doesn't help that this is the game's cold open; as players, we have no investment in Jonathan or his sister within those few minutes, which robs even more drama out of this storytelling cliche. The cliche compounds in the closing minutes of the first act as it practically repeats itself. This is lazy writing, and it doesn't sit well in 2018. We can and should do better than going for cheap shock value and character motivation. The second act expands the world with more details about the various factions: The Guards of Priwen, the Ascalon Club, and the Brotherhood of St. Paul's Stole. The Guards of Priwen act as a human check on vampire activity during the epidemic, wandering the streets and killing any kind of mutated beast they come across. The Ascalon Club operates as an exclusive group of vampires who seek to control the wider world, a kind of shadow government based on blood purity. Finally, The Brotherhood of St. Paul seems to mostly be a group of holy researchers who are more pragmatic than the Guards of Priwen and prioritize the greater good over any vampire vendettas. This act is also when many of the pillars of each London community have to be addressed by the player, often in ways that could doom the communities if handled poorly - but perhaps that's what a less scrupulous Dr. Reid desires? The third and final act introduces a lot of esoteric lore that was barely hinted at throughout the preceding sections of Vampyr. The final twenty or thirty minutes of Vampyr possesses an energy lacking in the earlier segments of the game as secret after secret comes tumbling out and the narrative pieces all begin coming together. To say much about these closing minutes would spoil quite a bit, but suffice it to say that a Vampyr 2 would be incredibly welcome as Dontnod veers far afield of what might be considered the classical vampire stylings they had adopted up until that point. Overall, the narrative takes an understandable detour around its core system based around vampyric feeding and winds up with a tale composed of many interesting parts when taken on their own, but without much of a through line keeping it all connected. Mary's death recedes into the background after the end of the first act, replaced by a lot of factional drama that doesn't ultimately get resolved or have many consequences in act two. The third act concludes the plague plot and possesses the strongest focus of the three parts, but doesn't have much to do with the themes of previous sections. The feeding mechanic further muddles the themes of the game. Doctor Jonathan Reid makes a distinction between killing average citizens and those those who oppose him. For example, when it comes to one of the in-game factions called the Guards of Priwen the good doctor seems to have carte blanche to drink their blood and kill without mercy. This leads to moments throughout the game where Dr. Reid claims to have not killed anyone, provided the player has not fed on one of the civilians of London, despite the massive trail of bodies left behind him as he tore through the Priwenites in the streets of the city. This isn't an active impediment to enjoying Vampyr, but it represents a larger problem of mixed messaging that erodes Vampyr's story structure. The combat mechanics also present a fun, flawed opportunity that needed refinement. There are a handful of abilities to choose from, each of which can be upgraded, eventually into diverging paths. These include defensive moves, like creating a shield of blood, attacks, like creating a large area of exploding darkness beneath enemies, utility maneuvers, like invisibility or leaping into enemies, and your garden variety carry more of bullets or serums and increase health/stamina/blood. More variety would have been welcome, as after initially deciding which skills to take the system encourages you to stick with those until the end. There's not much room for experimentation or really a need for much as almost any offensive skill will carry you through to the end of the game. On its own, the combat serves its purpose. When everything is going well, it feels serviceable. Dashing out of combat range to set shadowy traps, whirling through enemies with one of the small variety of interchangeable weapons, powering up an ultimate maneuver, it all can be exciting. That is, at least, provided technical issues or strange design decisions don't get in the way. Some of the enemies have variable attack ranges, will sometimes land a hit without actually hitting anything, and many powers don't feel all that effective. Enemies are often made more difficult by giving them more health and damage rather than interesting mechanics to play around and counter with your own growing arsenal of vampy powers. One of the most consistently irritating aspects of Vampyr's combat is that if you die in battle, you return to a section just outside the area where you died. That's fine, but any consumables you used in the fight disappear. Struggling through a boss fight only to die at the last minute? Well, good luck trying it again with out any healing items, stamina boosts, or additional blood transfusions. Alternatively, have fun trudging back through the areas you just battled through to make more of those items because you have to craft them all yourself at specific crafting stations and can't store more than you can hold in your inventory at any one time. That means that if you can only hold two serums for use in battle, you can only craft and hold two serums of each type at any given time. The other issue that plagues Vampyr boils down to mobility. As a vampire, Jonathan Reid can shadow dash and teleport himself to higher vantage points. This seems like it would be a particular useful ability to escape combat situations or navigate the world. Unfortunately, once Dr. Reid enters combat, he loses the ability to travel vertically to escape his assailants. The game simply won't allow that to happen until everyone in the area has perished. This becomes irritating when you realize that often these optional fights simply take up time and resources without giving much in return. The flipside of this issue rears its head when it comes to world traversal. Mobility stands out as one of the defining aspects of vampires both in the myths and legends of our world and in the game itself. Characters routinely disappear out windows or appear seemingly out of nowhere. Our protagonist doctor doesn't seem capable of this outside of very specific circumstances. This attaches Jonathan firmly to the ground, no doubt as a means of gating player progress from more dangerous areas in the opening portions of Vampyr. In the absence of a fast travel system, players constantly find themselves backtracking across districts and areas that had previously been cleared, but enemies constantly respawn. It becomes one of the most tedious aspects of Vampyr and probably a large reason why the middle act seems to sag and lose so much momentum. Running freely along the rooftops of London or flying through the air as a cloud of shadow bats could have gone a long way toward easing this frustration, even if it only became accessible later on. Instead, we are left with a system that grants freedom of movement, but only on its own constrictive terms. It would be a grave oversight to not talk a bit about the visuals of Vampyr. London has never looked so dingy, squalid, and vaguely post-apocalyptic (in video games, obviously) than in Dontnod's bloodsucking adventure. Drainage water sits tepid in the streets, reflecting the shining moonlight from between damp cobblestones. Candle light filters through boarded windows. Each NPC has a distinctive face, model, and animations that sets them apart from everyone else (if you don't count the enemies that you meet in combat). Everything looks grim, dirty, and that can all come together to resemble the locations sought out by urban explorers for their decaying beauty. The effort that went into making London an interesting locale shows; despite all the backtracking, it doesn't wear out its welcome. The voice acting does quite a bit of work to sell the various characters. Notably, Anthony Howell turns in an incredible performance as Dr. Jonathan Reid. You can feel the sorrow and pain in his voice, a character who has seen and done horrible things on the battlefields of Europe and now must contend with the twisted homeland to which he has returned. Dr. Edgar Swansea, an eccentric doctor who treats with vampires and mortals alike, helps to expand and explain the world with the aid of Harry Hadden-Paton's performance. People might recognize Hadden-Paton as the voice actor behind the male Inquisitor's voice in Dragon Age: Inquisition or his role in Downton Abbey as Bertie Pelham. Katherine Kingsley manages to create a compelling and mysterious character with her role as Lady Ashbury, a centuries old vampiress whose every line drips with the weight of history. It is a difficult role and Kingsley plays it perfectly. In the hands of these capable professionals, what could have been a campy story about vampires turns into a tale filled with genuine drama and memorable exchanges. Conclusion: Dontnod deserves to be applauded for taking risks in a time during which many developers opt for the sure thing time after time. The world and characters they have created in Vampyr could easily be continued in future games, something I very much hope that they do. They took concepts that many might have thought done to undeath and made them their own. The visuals and sense of place that London will take players on a wild journey filled with horror and vampire shenanigans. Even the ideas that don't necessarily work perfectly are at the very least interesting or have the potential to be used more effectively in the future. A few kinks in the machine show a number of narrative and mechanical hiccups that occasionally cause player momentum to screech to a halt, but those setbacks are always temporary. For those who persevere, a rewarding experience offers something you can't find anywhere else. Vampyr is ambitious, flawed, and I loved it. Dontnod, a sequel would be excellent. Vampyr is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games! View full article
  10. Jack Gardner

    Review: Vampyr

    Dontnod has made a name for itself over the last several years as a publisher willing to try new things and take risks. Mixed reactions to their debut effort Remember Me grew into acclaim for Life Is Strange. Three years have passed since Life Is Strange captivated players; Dontnod used that time to not only craft a sequel, due out this year, but also something completely different. Unlike anything the developer has tackled before, Vampyr takes players into a dark and dirty vision of early 1900s London; a world of death, disease, and vampires. Doctor Jonathan Reid, a field medic returning from the battlefields of World War I, awakens in the corpse pits of a London under siege by the Spanish flu, a brutal virus that swept through the real world shortly after the turn of the century. Maddened by a profound hunger and the echoing words of an ethereal entity, Dr. Reid stumbles through the carnage, happening upon a woman looking through the dead. She knows him, embraces him, and in a fit of insanity, he digs his fangs deep into her neck. He drinks, she dies, and he is reborn - sane and in agony at the realization of his crime. This opening scene strives to capture the unsettling horror of Vampyr on a small scale, giving players a textual stake (har har) in the consequences of their actions. You see, Mary, the woman murdered in the opening minutes of Vampyr happens to be Mary Reid, Dr. Reid's sister. This death haunts Jonathan throughout the game in a way that can profoundly alter the course of events, depending on how players choose to develop the doctor as a character. Vampyr tempts players with blood at every opportunity. Completing quests rewards players with nice chunks of experience that can be used on a variety of vampyric and scientific abilities. However, players can take shortcuts to power by manipulating the citizens of London, mesmerizing and taking them to dark corners for a taste of their blood. This kills them, of course, but grants thousands of experience points, more than can be gained by completing quests. The system encourages players to take care of the people they meet, treating their illnesses with appropriate remedies and learning their secrets by interacting with the people in their social circle. The healthy blood of someone more intimately known provides quite a bit more experience than someone almost totally unknown who has been struck with the plague. As the primary vampire of Vampyr, players have to be careful how they exercise their newfound power. Some parts of London's communities are more necessary than others. The pillars of each community hold those around them together by their presence and tireless efforts. Killing those people could bring the entire district they live in crashing down under the weight of the epidemic. Not all parts of the community can claim to be aligned with those constructive forces, however. Some proudly declare themselves criminals while others hide dark secrets of murder and abuse. Of course, no matter who Jonathan chooses to feed upon, the community will react. It could leave it a better place, but that act of murder could also plunge everything into chaos, leaving openings for the plague to seep in among the bodies. Players who seek to walk a nobler path will be pleased to know that the life of bloodsucking innocents can be avoided almost entirely. However, those who opt out of this staple activity of vampirism will find themselves at a definite disadvantage, making do with fewer and less powerful blood and shadow based powers. The difficulty will definitely have some players looking longingly at the NPC they know to be a murderer, contemplating murder for their extra experience. The point of the difficult path is to tempt the righteous to fall, and the developers certainly play into that aspect of their game. Dontnod cleverly leaves the player with the ultimate decision to give Mary Reid's death meaning. Will Jonathan steer the hardest path and make his first steps as a newborn vampire without sacrificing others along the way? Will he pursue power at all costs, slaughtering as many people as London can bare? Or will he walk a middle path, turning himself into the judge, jury, and executioner of London's wickedest denizens? Those are interesting questions to explore over the course of Vampyr and answer for yourself. The system that enables this, the complex net of relationships and dependencies of each section of London that shift with each death, must have taken an incredible amount of effort to create, and stands out as one of Vampyr's best features. It's strange, then, that Vampyr does not choose to focus its narrative on that core systemic conceit. Instead, the narrative revolves around a series of three acts to which the residents of London play background parts as pieces of set dressing and leveling opportunities - a decision which defangs the whole "needing to kill for the blood needed to survive" aspects of vampires. The first act revolves around Jonathan Reid coming to terms with his role in his sister's death and his new life as an Ekon, Vampyr's term for the beings we traditionally know as vampires. It is here that we are also introduced to the other varieties of vampires. Skals make up the majority of vampires, but are often people who failed to transform into full Ekons, often going mad in the process. They only need to eat flesh to live and don't require blood the way other vampires do. Vulkod are the brutes of the vampire kingdom, possessing superior speed and strength to other kinds, but often losing themselves to blood rages. Other kinds exist, too, but they are left to be mysterious around the edges of British vampire society. Before going on, we should note that the icing of yet another woman in the opening minutes of a video game for dramatic effect, a trope with a long tradition (I'm looking at you, Shadow of Mordor), is getting so old. It doesn't help that this is the game's cold open; as players, we have no investment in Jonathan or his sister within those few minutes, which robs even more drama out of this storytelling cliche. The cliche compounds in the closing minutes of the first act as it practically repeats itself. This is lazy writing, and it doesn't sit well in 2018. We can and should do better than going for cheap shock value and character motivation. The second act expands the world with more details about the various factions: The Guards of Priwen, the Ascalon Club, and the Brotherhood of St. Paul's Stole. The Guards of Priwen act as a human check on vampire activity during the epidemic, wandering the streets and killing any kind of mutated beast they come across. The Ascalon Club operates as an exclusive group of vampires who seek to control the wider world, a kind of shadow government based on blood purity. Finally, The Brotherhood of St. Paul seems to mostly be a group of holy researchers who are more pragmatic than the Guards of Priwen and prioritize the greater good over any vampire vendettas. This act is also when many of the pillars of each London community have to be addressed by the player, often in ways that could doom the communities if handled poorly - but perhaps that's what a less scrupulous Dr. Reid desires? The third and final act introduces a lot of esoteric lore that was barely hinted at throughout the preceding sections of Vampyr. The final twenty or thirty minutes of Vampyr possesses an energy lacking in the earlier segments of the game as secret after secret comes tumbling out and the narrative pieces all begin coming together. To say much about these closing minutes would spoil quite a bit, but suffice it to say that a Vampyr 2 would be incredibly welcome as Dontnod veers far afield of what might be considered the classical vampire stylings they had adopted up until that point. Overall, the narrative takes an understandable detour around its core system based around vampyric feeding and winds up with a tale composed of many interesting parts when taken on their own, but without much of a through line keeping it all connected. Mary's death recedes into the background after the end of the first act, replaced by a lot of factional drama that doesn't ultimately get resolved or have many consequences in act two. The third act concludes the plague plot and possesses the strongest focus of the three parts, but doesn't have much to do with the themes of previous sections. The feeding mechanic further muddles the themes of the game. Doctor Jonathan Reid makes a distinction between killing average citizens and those those who oppose him. For example, when it comes to one of the in-game factions called the Guards of Priwen the good doctor seems to have carte blanche to drink their blood and kill without mercy. This leads to moments throughout the game where Dr. Reid claims to have not killed anyone, provided the player has not fed on one of the civilians of London, despite the massive trail of bodies left behind him as he tore through the Priwenites in the streets of the city. This isn't an active impediment to enjoying Vampyr, but it represents a larger problem of mixed messaging that erodes Vampyr's story structure. The combat mechanics also present a fun, flawed opportunity that needed refinement. There are a handful of abilities to choose from, each of which can be upgraded, eventually into diverging paths. These include defensive moves, like creating a shield of blood, attacks, like creating a large area of exploding darkness beneath enemies, utility maneuvers, like invisibility or leaping into enemies, and your garden variety carry more of bullets or serums and increase health/stamina/blood. More variety would have been welcome, as after initially deciding which skills to take the system encourages you to stick with those until the end. There's not much room for experimentation or really a need for much as almost any offensive skill will carry you through to the end of the game. On its own, the combat serves its purpose. When everything is going well, it feels serviceable. Dashing out of combat range to set shadowy traps, whirling through enemies with one of the small variety of interchangeable weapons, powering up an ultimate maneuver, it all can be exciting. That is, at least, provided technical issues or strange design decisions don't get in the way. Some of the enemies have variable attack ranges, will sometimes land a hit without actually hitting anything, and many powers don't feel all that effective. Enemies are often made more difficult by giving them more health and damage rather than interesting mechanics to play around and counter with your own growing arsenal of vampy powers. One of the most consistently irritating aspects of Vampyr's combat is that if you die in battle, you return to a section just outside the area where you died. That's fine, but any consumables you used in the fight disappear. Struggling through a boss fight only to die at the last minute? Well, good luck trying it again with out any healing items, stamina boosts, or additional blood transfusions. Alternatively, have fun trudging back through the areas you just battled through to make more of those items because you have to craft them all yourself at specific crafting stations and can't store more than you can hold in your inventory at any one time. That means that if you can only hold two serums for use in battle, you can only craft and hold two serums of each type at any given time. The other issue that plagues Vampyr boils down to mobility. As a vampire, Jonathan Reid can shadow dash and teleport himself to higher vantage points. This seems like it would be a particular useful ability to escape combat situations or navigate the world. Unfortunately, once Dr. Reid enters combat, he loses the ability to travel vertically to escape his assailants. The game simply won't allow that to happen until everyone in the area has perished. This becomes irritating when you realize that often these optional fights simply take up time and resources without giving much in return. The flipside of this issue rears its head when it comes to world traversal. Mobility stands out as one of the defining aspects of vampires both in the myths and legends of our world and in the game itself. Characters routinely disappear out windows or appear seemingly out of nowhere. Our protagonist doctor doesn't seem capable of this outside of very specific circumstances. This attaches Jonathan firmly to the ground, no doubt as a means of gating player progress from more dangerous areas in the opening portions of Vampyr. In the absence of a fast travel system, players constantly find themselves backtracking across districts and areas that had previously been cleared, but enemies constantly respawn. It becomes one of the most tedious aspects of Vampyr and probably a large reason why the middle act seems to sag and lose so much momentum. Running freely along the rooftops of London or flying through the air as a cloud of shadow bats could have gone a long way toward easing this frustration, even if it only became accessible later on. Instead, we are left with a system that grants freedom of movement, but only on its own constrictive terms. It would be a grave oversight to not talk a bit about the visuals of Vampyr. London has never looked so dingy, squalid, and vaguely post-apocalyptic (in video games, obviously) than in Dontnod's bloodsucking adventure. Drainage water sits tepid in the streets, reflecting the shining moonlight from between damp cobblestones. Candle light filters through boarded windows. Each NPC has a distinctive face, model, and animations that sets them apart from everyone else (if you don't count the enemies that you meet in combat). Everything looks grim, dirty, and that can all come together to resemble the locations sought out by urban explorers for their decaying beauty. The effort that went into making London an interesting locale shows; despite all the backtracking, it doesn't wear out its welcome. The voice acting does quite a bit of work to sell the various characters. Notably, Anthony Howell turns in an incredible performance as Dr. Jonathan Reid. You can feel the sorrow and pain in his voice, a character who has seen and done horrible things on the battlefields of Europe and now must contend with the twisted homeland to which he has returned. Dr. Edgar Swansea, an eccentric doctor who treats with vampires and mortals alike, helps to expand and explain the world with the aid of Harry Hadden-Paton's performance. People might recognize Hadden-Paton as the voice actor behind the male Inquisitor's voice in Dragon Age: Inquisition or his role in Downton Abbey as Bertie Pelham. Katherine Kingsley manages to create a compelling and mysterious character with her role as Lady Ashbury, a centuries old vampiress whose every line drips with the weight of history. It is a difficult role and Kingsley plays it perfectly. In the hands of these capable professionals, what could have been a campy story about vampires turns into a tale filled with genuine drama and memorable exchanges. Conclusion: Dontnod deserves to be applauded for taking risks in a time during which many developers opt for the sure thing time after time. The world and characters they have created in Vampyr could easily be continued in future games, something I very much hope that they do. They took concepts that many might have thought done to undeath and made them their own. The visuals and sense of place that London will take players on a wild journey filled with horror and vampire shenanigans. Even the ideas that don't necessarily work perfectly are at the very least interesting or have the potential to be used more effectively in the future. A few kinks in the machine show a number of narrative and mechanical hiccups that occasionally cause player momentum to screech to a halt, but those setbacks are always temporary. For those who persevere, a rewarding experience offers something you can't find anywhere else. Vampyr is ambitious, flawed, and I loved it. Dontnod, a sequel would be excellent. Vampyr is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!
  11. 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).
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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!
  15. 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
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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
  22. 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
  23. 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
  24. 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.
  25. 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
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