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The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Nintendo Switch)

Link, Find Me!

The Good
* The new abilities offer much greater flexibility and depth to traversal, combat, and puzzle solving.

  • Ultrahand lets you get really creative with objects in the world and build almost anything you want.

  • Though largely recycled from its predecessor, the game smartly remixes its old content with new surprises and changes.

  • Dungeons and boss fights are much improved over Breath of the Wild

  • The Sky Islands and the Depths add serious scale and content to the already impressively large world.

    The Bad
    * Technical performance issues

  • While overall better, the dungeons may not be enough to satisfy classic Zelda fans.

  • Presentation and visuals still feel too retro at times.

  • Nintendo hasn't quite cracked non-linear storytelling yet.

    The Bottom Line
    Few games were as hotly anticipated for 2023 as The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. The seventh 3D game in the iconic series, Tears of the Kingdom is not only the direct sequel to 2017’s Breath of the Wild, it holds the record for the longest development cycle in the entire franchise. It has been over six years since a brand-new Zelda game has been released, without even a handheld entry to tide fans over. You would have to go back to the 1990s to find such a long gap between games, and the length of time between Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom is still longer than that. Still it’s finally here, and though the wait was far longer than anticipated given how much this game recycles from its predecessor, I have to say it was worth it. This is hands-down the best game I’ve played this year, and though the remaining months look to be jam-packed with quality titles, it’s hard to imagine anything else taking the top spot.

Tears of the Kingdom opens several years after Breath of the Wild, with Link and Zelda investigating a strange, newly-opened passage underneath the ruins of Hyrule Castle. After coming across a desiccated mummy emanating a red miasma known as “gloom”, Link and Zelda are attacked and get separated, with Zelda falling down into a fissure before disappearing. Link wakes up on a sky island somewhere above Hyrule, his arm replaced by a green cybernetic limb granting him several mysterious new abilities. As a result of the gloom and Link and Zelda’s actions, Hyrule has been altered in numerous ways by the cataclysmic event known as the Upheaval, resulting in numerous changes such as Hyrule Castle getting lifted into the air. Link must track down the whereabouts of the missing Zelda while also finding a way to combat the mysterious ancient evil which has taken over the land.

In terms of its story, Tears is generally more exciting that its predecessor, and much more of it happens directly as a result of the player’s actions. Unlike the previous game, it does not simply give away its mysteries from the jump, which is great since it means that basically every character in the game is just as in-the-dark as Link when it comes to wondering what is actually going on. That being said, while the story does have more urgency and more structure, it’s also horribly repetitive, particularly in the cutscenes which culminate the end of every dungeon, which literally offer the exact same exposition dump four times over. The story also utilizes the same structure where you can find various collectibles to trigger flashbacks that can be viewed in any order. All of this means that you’ll probably figure out the various twists way before the game actually intends you to, and while these twists are much more satisfying and unexpected than in the previous game, the story feels like it’s missing some of the depth that Breath of the Wild had. The game also muddies the series timeline even further to the point of irrelevancy, for those who actually care about that. Overall the story is a step forward in some ways, but. I don’t think Nintendo have quite cracked how to tell a wholly satisfying story in a non-linear fashion. That being said, it’s still a delight to catch up to the returning characters from Breath of the Wild and see what they are getting up to in this game. The game really leverages this aspect well, although there were a few characters whom I would have liked to have seen return.

Tears of the Kingdom has an extremely similar presentation to its predecessor, with characters speaking through text boxes along with grunts and sound bites to suggest their voice, with the occasional fully voice-acted cinematic cutscenes to spice things up. To be honest, I was honestly hoping for a bit more voice acting this time around considering that having fully-voiced characters are the standard in AAA games in 2023, but Nintendo have largely stuck to their guns here. What we do get is generally pretty solid for the most part, and there are some truly epic moments during the game’s cinematics. Still, it’s more than a little odd to see a character go from speaking full sentences during one moment then using a dialog box the next, even in the exact same camera shot. Nintendo really needs to ditch the N64-era presentation for future installments, or at the very least keep it consistent. Either give us one or the other, but not both!

Tears of the Kingdom is one of the rare direct sequels in the Zelda series, and as a result it uses many of the same fundamentals as its predecessor, right down to having the same map. It’s a rather unusual choice for a sequel, and though this might be a dealbreaker on paper, it’s anything but once you’re actually in the game. The landscape has changed dramatically due to either the Upheaval or the passage of time, and many of the areas you know from Breath of the Wild have been heavily altered. Part of the fun is returning to the places you knew and seeing how they changed, as well as learning about what familiar faces from the first game are getting up to now, now that several years have passed in-universe. Yet there’s so much more to this game than just a remixed map.

In terms of its general gameplay, Tears of the Kingdom follows very closely in the footsteps of Breath of the Wild. You’ll still explore the world searching for Shrines, which contain puzzles or challenges to earn points towards upgrading your Hearts of Stamina. You can climb practically any mountainside or surface, which means that if you can see it, you can go to it. You’ll still activate towers to unlock portions of the map, although the way you’ll interact with said towers is much different this time around, since they launch Link up high into the air. Weapon durability has, much to the chagrin of many players, returned. And yes, you’ll still need to search for Koroks to expand your inventory space.

This time around, there’s slightly more structure to the proceedings. Breath of the Wild allowed you to pursue Ganon as soon as Link jumped off of the Great Plateau, and while that is certainly possible here, Tears more strongly insists that you complete several objectives first before fighting the final boss. This makes Tears feel a bit more like one of the older Zelda games, though only just a bit, as the progression is still largely open, even if the path to actually completing the game is a bit more hidden from the player this time out.

Tears of the Kingdom is the triple-stacked sandwich of open worlds, with not one, but three distinct areas to explore: the Sky Islands, the surface, and the Depths. Each one of these roughly corresponds with a different pillar of gameplay. Together, these three layers complement each other in intriguing ways. The surface focuses mainly on exploration and side quests and is where you will spend the bulk of your time. The landscape now includes proper caves, which contain their own monster types, treasures, and resources to collect, sometimes house Shrines, and can even be used as a shortcut between areas. Admittedly, the game struggles to make each cave feel truly distinct from one another, but generally this is a fantastic addition.

In contrast, Sky Islands have a stronger emphasis on puzzle solving. Much of these floating ruins are modular and you’ll start to notice recurring elements such as Zonai relic dispensers and giant stone spheres as you explore them further, but as with the surface, there are certain types of resources and rewards that can only be found in the sky, including treasure maps which can point to the location of various special armor pieces. Most of your time in the air will be spent trying to devise ways to travel between each Sky Island, not too dissimilar to 2011’s Skyward Sword, although you won’t have the luxury of having a Loftwing at your beck and call. Some Sky Islands offer minigame challenges to complete, such as skydiving, which is a lot of fun. I do wish there was a bit more variety in terms of what you can actually find within the Sky Islands, as too many of them are ultimately too similar, but I still found them to be a good addition overall.

While you won’t find any Shrines or Koroks in the underworld, the Depths contain the toughest combat encounters, but also the most valuable gear and resources, including more durable weapons, Zonaite for building vehicles and increasing your Zonai battery capacity, and numerous armor pieces inspired by characters from past Zelda games. Going into the Depths is always something of a risk. For starters, the underworld is completely pitch dark until you start placing Brightbloom seeds to light things up. Your primary task is to search for Lightroots, connected to Shrines on the surface, which not only light up the Depths but also reveal parts of the map. The other factor that makes exploring the Depths challenging is that most enemies are afflicted with Gloom, meaning that taking damage from them can actually cause Link to lose hearts which can’t be restored unless you either find a Lightroot, eat certain kinds of food, or return to the surface. The Depths can also sometimes function as a means of travelling back to the surface world to reach otherwise inaccessible areas using Link’s Ascend ability. Some sidequests are designed to take you down into the Depths, and offer very nice rewards for completing them, including an ability that ends up being a huge timesaver. For the most part the Depths are a compelling and at times intensely atmospheric addition to Tears of the Kingdom, although the lack of visual and mechanical variety compared to the surface world or even the Sky Islands can be a bit grating if you stay down there for too long.

The other major aspect distinguishing this game from its predecessor are Link’s new core abilities, which completely change how you interact with the world. Gone are the Runes from Breath of the Wild, and this time around there are a host of new powers to play with. The Fuse ability lets you combine weapons, shields, and arrows with nearly any other object in the world: this not only enhances weapons’ durability, it also allows for different effects. Stick a rock onto a stick, and suddenly it’s a hammer, or stick a cart onto a shield and now it’s a skateboard. Discovering the possibilites of this system is a lot of fun, especially when you try out the more “wacky” combinations to see what could happen. This system not only makes collecting resources from fallen enemies much more essential, it also effectively replaces the different arrow types from Breath of the Wild, since resources in your inventory can be used to achieve similar effects, such as sticking a Bomb Flower onto an arrow to create a Bomb Arrow. Most weapons you find will be decayed and relatively weak, though stronger, non-decayed stuff in the Depths exists should you choose to go down there. There’s also Ascend, which lets Link fly up into any ceiling and pop out of the top, which makes vertical traversal so much nicer, and Recall, which allows an object to be sent backwards in time.

The real party piece has got to be Ultrahand. At first glance this seems to be a variation of Magnesis from the last game, except now Link is able to pick up pretty much anything that’s not nailed down. However, the real fun comes when you realize that objects can actually be attached together, letting you build so many different things. You’ll start out building bridges and platforms from logs, but eventually you’ll be able to use battery-powered Zonai artifacts to create various types of vehicles, from airplanes and hot air balloons through to cars, trucks, and even mecha and laser cannons. I will say that for as fun as this building system is, it can seem a bit inefficient at times. Most of the time, the simplest vehicles and solutions often work the best, anything that you build is temporary in the world, and when the game expects you to build something, typically most of the pieces will be available in a certain area. Despite this, building Zonai vehicles and other object often provide superior options for mobility and combat in many instances, making it a worthwhile system for imaginative players to take advantage of. The ultrahand system makes attaching pieces together very intuitive, and it works something like Lego. Much like Breath of the Wild, you can expect to see online videos showcasing stuff you didn’t know you could do for years to come.

Breath of the Wild’s dungeons were a huge point of contention for many longtime series fans including myself. While a great idea on paper, the Divine Beasts shredded too many conventions when in came to dungeon design. They were far too small and compact, all had the exact same theme, and the boss designs were similar. Tears attempts to fix a couple of those aspects and make some concessions towards fans of the older dungeons. For starters, the visual design of each dungeon is very different, and some of the new concepts are seriously cool, and too good not to spoil. The lead-up to each dungeon is also longer, more elaborate, and substantiative enough that you could technically consider each one a part of the dungeon in its own right. The boss designs feel much more in line with the old-school Zelda games, with each boss being a diverse enemy requiring very specific means to defeat them, and they range from jaw-dropping cinematic spectacles to genuinely challenging, nerve-racking encounters. You’ll even get a map with multiple floors to peruse, much like the older Zelda games. But at the end of the day, these temples ultimately hew very closely to the style of the Divine Beasts. You’ll typically begin in a central area and have to unlock several terminal by solving individual puzzles with the dungeon’s distinct mechanic, here provided by your companions, and each dungeon will take you roughly 20-30 minutes to solve. To their credit, these do a good job of taking advantage of this game’s more open design, but their small size and relative lack of complexity might be something of a bummer for those hoping for the second coming of Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple or the Ancient Cistern. I do believe Tears’ dungeons are generally superior to the Divine Beasts, and can be fun to solve, with the Wind and Lightning dungeons being real standouts in particular. Still, I miss the classic formula, and I would love for the series to find a way to properly bring back the classic-style dungeons in the future, without trying to meet players halfway.

The Nintendo Switch was already pretty outdated when it first launched, and six years later, it’s technical power languishes in the face of it’s newer, next-gen competitors. Despite that, Tears of the Kingdom is at times a true technical feat for the tablet console. The fact that you can jump from the sky, to the surface, and all the way down into the depths in one seamless motion without any loading screens at all is seriously impressive from a design standpoint. The draw distance is also much larger than Breath of the Wild’s. The physics engine functions pretty much as you would expect, with surprisingly little of the expected jank that usually comes from incorporating such a complex system in a game. That being said, there are a number of moments when the framerate dips pretty hard, and although some of the more problematic areas are better optimized than in Breath of the Wild, the performance can still be inconsistent where there are too many enemies and physics objects on the screen. It’s hard to argue that Nintendo hasn’t done a lot with their consoles’ meager specs, but I’m not going to lie, Tears of the Kingdom would definitely be an even better game on stronger hardware.

I might have come across as a bit more critical than expected given that I love this game, but it’s only because Tears does so many things well that the few things it doesn’t really stand out. Most of the issues from Breath of the Wild have been smoothed over, and its a much larger game to boot. Though it isn’t the perfect fusion of classic and modern Zelda that some perhaps have hoped for, it offers a number of refinements to the new formula and enough changes to the old content to make it worth playing regardless of how one might feel. Ultimately, Tears of the Kingdom made me remember why I remain obsessed with this series.

By krisko6 on August 2nd, 2023

Horizon II: Forbidden West - Burning Shores (PlayStation 5)

Hollywood's Burning

The Good
The proper conclusion to Forbidden West, and a fairly satisfying tale in its own right. * Challenging new machines to fight * Gorgeous new area to explore with compelling lore * Phenomenal final boss fight

The Bad
Lacks content compared to previous Horizon expansions * Too many UX elements to juggle, and most of the new skills aren't terribly useful. * Conclusion may be divisive for some players

The Bottom Line
Over a year after its initial launch, the official expansion DLC for Horizon Forbidden West, Burning Shores, has finally arrived. Arriving between multiple major open-world releases, this return to the world of Horizon couldn’t have come at a better time. For series fans who own a PS5, it’s highly recommended as it provides a more satisfying conclusion to the Forbidden West era, although it’s it’s not quite strong enough to justify purchasing a PS5 console. Yes, PS4 players have been left behind due to this expansion taking advantage of the PS5’s additional processing power, and not just for visuals.

Unlike the first game’s expansion, The Frozen Wilds, which could be accessed at nearly any time but was canonically set before the final mission, Burning Shores is set directly following the end of Forbidden West’s campaign, making it a true continuation of the game’s storyline, rather than just a lengthy sidequest. It exists in its own section of the map completely disconnected from anything else, so there’s no way a new player can randomly just stumble into this content, unlike what happened when my friend recently played through the first game.

The storyline follows Aloy as she gets a new tip from Sylens regarding a still-undefeated Zenith, a former tech and entertainment producer named Walter Londra. After flying down to Los Angeles, she gets shot down by a mysterious probe and found by Seyka, a warrior, adventurer, and focus user who has a whole lot in common with Aloy. As it turns out, Seyka comes from the other half of Alvie’s Quen expedition that did not reach San Francisco, and instead crash landed in Los Angeles, and she needs Aloy’s help to find her missing sister and the rest of the expedition’s survivors, who are being held captive as part of Londra’s mysterious plan.

The plot for Burning Shores is much more straightforward than that of Frozen Wilds. Seyka is charming and a likable enough companion, and her friendship with Aloy is quite charming and keeps you invested throughout the expansion’s main quest. She’s also a much stronger fighter than any other companion featured in Forbidden West, and her elemental attacks really helped me out of a few binds. Still Although she’s a far superior Quen companion compared to Alvie from the base game, I can’t say that she’s as compelling as Erend or Kotallo. While the villain, Walter Londra, is a bit of a mustache twirler, it’s clear that Sam Witwer had a blast playing him, and he only reveals himself to be increasingly slimy as the story goes on.

In general, this is a solid expansion that brings some of Forbidden West’s most notable emotional highs and lows. In general, I think the story being told here, and how it sets things up for the next game, is far better than what Frozen Wilds had to offer. That being said, there is one aspect of the storyline in particular that is sure to divide the Horizon fanbase. I can’t say I’m necessarily the biggest fan of the direction the writers decided to take Aloy at the very end of this DLC, but to really unpack that would require me to get into heavy spoilers which I really don’t want to delve into. Regardless of my own thoughts on this new revelation, however, many players will find it utterly bafling that Guerrilla Games chose to reveal such an important aspect of Aloy’s character in an optional DLC that many people who originally purchased Forbidden West can’t even play unless they purchase and expensive new console. My guess is that the developer is using this as a hotbed to test a new narrative feature for the next game of the Horizon series.

Burning Shores adds new machines and takes place in a partially sunken Los Angeles overrun by volcanic activity and plant life. The map itself is filled with recognizable Los Angeles landmarks, as well as a theme park, which has to be one of the coolest locations in the entire series. It’s easily one of the most gorgeous playgrounds in the Horizon franchise, and considering some of the areas featured in the base game, that’s certainly saying something. There’s something so thrilling about exploring long-abandoned areas in this game and wondering what they could have been like hundreds of years prior.

Much like how Frozen Wilds offered a leap in difficulty from Horizon Zero Dawn, Burning Shores is substantially harder then the base game, and I really had to make use of my health options and weapon upgrades just to survive the later parts of the quest. The expansion adds three new types of machines: the toad-like Bilegut, the fly-like Stingspawn, which the Bilegut creates and eats, and the diving-bird like Waterwing, which can fly but is capable of diving into the water in short bursts. Of these, the most challenging machine by far is the Bilegut, which moves around so quickly it can be hard to get an aim on it.

To combat this, Burning Shores adds new skills and Valor Surge abilities to the skill tree. By far the best one has got to be grapple strike, which allows Aloy to use the grapple to slingshot towards a downed enemy and hit them with a critical blow. There’s also the elemental spear, which allows the player to use capsules on Aloy’s spear to give it an elemental effect. This does lead to a bit of a prolbem however. The UI for using this ability is incredibly clunky to say the least. While the utility belt system in the first game was mostly fine, there have been so many potion, weapon, food, trap, and now capsule types added that switching between them is an incredibly tedous process, making these items far less usable in combat than the developers want them to be. This system badly needs a rework for the next game of the series. I also found that barring a couple, most of the new skills weren’t particularly useful to me.

Burning Shores saves the very best for last, as it features a boss fight with a machine that is so much bigger than anything Aloy has faced before. Longtime fans will know exactly what I’m talking about, especially if you’ve seen the expansion’s trailer, and yes, the fight is as epic as it sounds. This, right here, is the reason this expansion is only playable on the PS5, as there’s simply no way the 10-year old PS4 could possibly handle this sequence without breaking a sweat. This multi-part fight features stealth sections, underwater swimming, light puzzle moments, and screen-filling moments of drama and action that really blew me out of my chair. This final fight is not only 2023’s most “try and top that” setpiece, it’s easily the series’ best boss fight to date, one that not only puts your skills to the test yet unlike the concluding fights of the rest of the Horizon games, truly feels like an actual mic drop moment. Honestly, this sequence is almost worth the price of admission alone, although it’s pretty clear that this is actually where the lion’s share of developmnt went considering the rather lacking content in the rest of this expansion.

Buring Shores doesn’t feel quite as substantial of a package as Frozen Wilds did. There’s only one town, only two side quests, no hunting challenges or arena fights, no Strike, and only one relic ruin to explore. Although it ends in a truly spectacular fashion, the main story feels relatively short and sparse, with much of the aspects of both Quen culture and Londra’s story left somewhat unexplored. Despite the expansion being roughly a third of the base game’s map size, it also feels much smaller since most of it is water. It’s great that underwater exploration is a thing in the Horizon series, but I don’t think this DLC took advantage of it as much as it could have, as there’s only one mission which actually requires you to do some underwater exploration.

If you’re a PS5 owner and you’re in the mood for some more Forbidden West, than Burning Shores comes highly recommended. That being said, it’s a harder sell for PS4 players who don’t have the option of playing the DLC unless they invest in a new console, as while it does some key things better than The Frozen Wilds and provides a proper conclusion for Forbidden West, the actual expansion itself feels a bit lacking in overall content. Aspects of the DLC’s conclusion have proven to be hugely divisive online, but putting that aside, there’s enough enjoyment here for about 15 hours of gameplay, and the final boss fight is simply unmissable gaming, if you ask me. Consider it a snack between your larger gaming meals: it may not be the most filling thing, but it’s wonderfully tasty all the same.

By krisko6 on April 27th, 2023

Hogwarts Legacy (PlayStation 5)

You're a wizard, Player!

The Good
* It's the game that Harry Potter fans have wanted since the beginning - or at least the fundamentals of it

  • Visually stunning throughout, with great attention to detail and a lovely soundtrack

  • Combat is genuinely fun and engaging, if ultimately too easy even on the hardest difficulty.

  • A handful of missions are among the best in recent memory, and bring the nostalgia highs.

  • Exploring Hogwarts is a consistent delight, especially once you get a broom.

    The Bad
    * The story is mediocre and feels undercooked at times. Outside of one companion's storyline, it pales in comparison to the books and films

  • Not enough school-life elements to make the player truly feel like a student at Hogwarts.

  • The RPG systems are shallow - gear is unrewarding to find and upgrade, the Room of Requirement can be a little tedious to interact with, and there are essentially no meaningful choices to make. The lack of any sort of morality system is, quite frankly, Unforgivable.

  • The open world outside of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade is loaded with generic side quests and bland, copy-pasted content, and the same few enemy types repeated over and over again.

  • No Quidditch!

    The Bottom Line
    Since the Harry Potter franchise first began in 1997, there have been countless video games based off of the popular fantasy novels and their film adaptations. While some of these could be considered enjoyable games in their own right, they were always hamstrung by their need to function as tie-in licensed titles for the films, resulting in most of the games feeling half-baked or rushed out the door. Yet for myself and millions of other people around my age, Hogwarts Legacy, appeared to be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: a legit, AAA, open-world adventure set in the Wizarding World, where the player gets to create their own wizard student and put them through almost everything that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has to offer. After several delays, and enough controversy and sales hype to rival a Rockstar game, Hogwarts Legacy has finally landed on store shelves. The good news is that Hogwarts Legacy is far and away the best game this franchise has ever seen. That being said, there are a fair amount of compromises and rough edges that belie developer Avalanche’s first attempt at a game of this scale, and some of the series’ finer points have been lost in translation in favor of sticking to design tropes more favorable to a broader casual audience, rather than the typical gamer crowd. Still, what’s here should be more than enough to keep all but the most demanding fans happy after such a long wait.

    In Hogwarts Legacy, the player takes on the role of a newly admitted fifth-year student of their creation attending Hogwarts in the late 1800’s, about 100 years before the events of the Harry Potter books. While undertaking the surprisingly perilous journey to Hogwarts, your character discovers that they possess the rare ability to see and interact with something called “ancient magic”, making them a hot target of both a recent goblin rebellion and their dark wizard allies. The story of Hogwarts Legacy is serviceable as a means to get the player to learn the various spells needed for progression, but the central conflicts feel underdeveloped, and the player character's lack of personality can make it hard to get invested. Rather than something which leaves an impactful legacy in Wizarding World lore, the story here and what the player ultimately accomplishes ends up more like middling fan fiction, rehashing many of the same tropes of the novels without the secret sauce that once captivated the world. But hey, as long as it's fun to play and captures the Hogwarts experience, the overall tale shouldn't matter as much, right?

    Despite taking place in perhaps the most famous school in all of fiction, Hogwarts Legacy is by no means a school-life simulator. There’s no need to worry about doing homework, following a class schedule, or even getting to bed on-time. Rather, the game functions as a more familiar open-world style game, where for the most part you’re free to do what you want when you want to. If a mission or a class needs to be done during a particular time of day, the game will just advance time to when that can take place. Your professors will give you out-of-class “assignments”, which you’ll need to complete before they will teach you new spells, but these are essentially checklist tasks designed to familiarize the player with the game’s various systems.

    All of this makes the game more accessible for a more casual audience, but considering how school life is such a central part of this franchise, the lack of sim aspects feels like a missed opportunity. I’m not saying that the game needed to make us study for tests. But Hogwarts Legacy never really tries to make you feel like a student either, which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. Indeed, the game’s opportunities for role-playing as both a student and a wizard as a whole feel remarkably limited. Your house choice makes hardly any difference, your character has no background and surprisingly little personality to speak of, and while there are companion characters you can form friendships with, they don’t have the same amount of depth they have in other games like Mass Effect or Persona. That being said, there is one particular companion, Sebastian Sallow, which has by far the best, darkest, and most emotionally impactful storyline in the game, far more so than the somewhat generic main story, and you should absolutely do his quests whenever you get the chance. Hogwarts Legacy promised to let us “be the witch or wizard we always wanted to be” but this is a bit of a lie, at least when it comes to morality. You’re allowed to act selfishly in certain instances, such as asking characters to hand you more money after completing a quest, and you can even learn to use dark magic, but at the end of the day your character will still ultimately end up as a hero - the consequences for your actions are far too limited for them to have actual weight. In a franchise that is all about exploring morality, this is a real misstep.

    Hogwarts Legacy’s fast-paced combat takes a surprising amount of inspiration from the Batman Arkham trilogy, coincidentally also published by Warner Bros., rather than more traditional fantasy RPGs. You can target enemies with basic attacks from your wand, which can be mixed with the various spells you’ve learned over the course of your time at Hogwarts. The goal is to utilize these spells in combinations to maximize their effects. For example, you might use the Accio spell to summon an enemy near you, then follow that up with the short-range Incendio to cast a burst of flames dealing major damage. Hitting enemies repeatedly with spells without taking damage, along with successfully blocking and dodging, will fill your ancient magic meter, which can then be used to deliver incredibly powerful finishing moves. The catch to all of this is that most enemies are protected by shields which can either be broken via throwable objects or by casting a spell with the right color onto them.

    Combat can be challenging in certain instances, particularly when the game decides to throw waves of enemies at you, but otherwise it isn’t that difficult most of the time, even on the hardest difficulty setting. There’s certainly depth to be found here, but the game rarely pushes you hard enough to actually explore it. That being said, it can still make for a gratifying power trip when you manage to pull off a cool combination or face a group of enemies unscathed. Some of the spells, items, and abilities you acquire later in the game are disgustingly powerful, and that doesn’t even include specializing in Dark Arts should you choose to do so. Stealth is also quite busted in your favor: you can easily enter a camp, become nearly invisible, and just Petrificus Totalus everyone before they even have a chance to detect you. Needless to say, going in wands blazing is much more fun than the stealth option in this game. My one real complaint with the actual combat mechanics is that it ’s rather fiddly to aim your spells at the correct enemy when multiple targets are on-screen, which can often make the difference between success and failure in the more intense combat encounters.

    Hogwarts Legacy feels weirdly violent considering the age of your character, with some of your finishers literally turning human enemies to ash. You aren’t really playing a student at Hogwarts so much as John Wick with a wand. Your player character never has any qualms murdering scores of dark wizards, trolls, and other enemies even without using dark magic, which doesn’t seem like something Harry Potter, or really any Hogwarts students, would have ever dealt with. There’s a lot of ludonarrative dissonance you’ll have to just look past for the sake of having a video game in this kind of setting.

    Compared to other open world games, combat is less frequent than other titles in the genre. Hogwarts Legacy is really a collectathon game at heart - much of the gameplay revolves around finding stuff. Acquiring the numerous types of collectables, from field guide pages to Merlin Trials will not only earn you experience points, but can also help in unlocking new spells and items for the Room of Requirement. Annoyingly, some collectibles can only be acquired at night, and there’s no way to mark them on your map to return to later, which is a bit frustrating. It’s also a bit strange that you can literally break into peoples’ houses with no consequences to grab collectibles from their chests, and this is required in certain instances. Otherwise, exploration in this game largely feels great, especially once you are able to acquire a broom and venture into the further reaches of the map. I can’t convey just how, well, magical it feels to walk into a courtyard, hop on a broom, and fly off into the highlands. There are other mounts you can acquire, including a hippogriff, but broom flight is just so good you won’t want to use anything else to get around.

    The other key gameplay component is the Room of Requirement, a famous location from the Harry Potter books. This highly-customizable space is also where you’ll go to grow plants and care for magical beasts you capture in the world, activities that yield resources to upgrade your gear and craft potions. You can also add furniture objects throughout the space to personalize it, although aspects of this system could have used a bit more work.

    Some of the other systems related to the Room of Requirement aren’t quite as impressive, namely the gear and upgrade systems. The game world is littered with chests, most of which contain some sort of item of clothing you can wear. There are only two stats to worry about: offense and defense, and the only thing you need to do is mindlessly swap to the gear with the higher stats just to keep up with the game’s power curve. The game will message you constantly just to ensure you have the gear with the highest stats equipped, and this cannot be turned off. You only have a limited amount of slots to hold gear, meaning that you’ll constantly need to either destroy certain items or head to Hogsmeade to sell all of your unwanted hats and robes at the various shops. You’ll also need to head to the Room of Requirement to “identify” certain items just to wear them, but these honestly aren’t sufficiently better or different than the ones that don’t need to be identified. There’s nothing, for example, that can fundamentally change your playstyle or give your character a different build. Eventually, you’ll be able to upgrade gear items in the Room of Requirement, using your ingredients to enhance their stats and add traits to increase the power of certain types of spells, but you’re showered with gear so much that it all becomes more tedious than it really should be. For a game that is billing itself as an action-RPG, these systems are far too shallow, and amount to little more than a game of wizard dress-up. At least the game makes it easy to get your character to look how you want them to, with a transmog system letting you configure how each clothing item should look.

    Avalanche made a good effort to try and include most of the iconic locations, spells, and creatures from the books and films, and there are some real surprises in what the game chooses to include. There’s a handful of missions in this game that are among the most creative I’ve seen in any game in quite some time, and are sure to have fans grinning from ear-to-ear with nostalgia. It’s possible to learn unforgivable curses and spec into the Dark Arts, allowing the player to go nearly full Voldemort if they wanted to, although the lack of true story consequences for going dark feels like a bad design decision. But there are some pretty deep cuts made as well, with the lack of Quidditch feeling like the most glaring omission. This was a major element of the books and films, so to see it not be playable, let alone depicted in a non-interactive cutscene in some fashion, feels like a misstep in a game that purports to deliver a comprehensive Hogwarts experience. In-game, this is explained away with the school’s headmaster, Professor Black, announcing that the sport is cancelled due to an injury one player suffered the year prior, but this is such a limp cover for a feature that really should have been considered from the start.

    Artistically, it’s clear that the team at Avalanche software not only loves the Wizarding World, but have made a game that, for the most part, truly captures its atmosphere. Hogwarts itself is an absolute triumph of world design, a veritable maze of corridors, moving paintings, magical objects, secret passages, and student interactions that truly feel like the books come to life. The school is large and crafted with obsessive attention-to-detail, and it’s possible to spend hours just exploring the grounds before you even venture out into the open-world highlands. For instance, once you reach certain points in the story, the school will be appropriately decorated for the nearest holiday. Hogsmeade, too, is nearly as fantastic - all of the famous shops you know from the books are there, and nearly every building can be entered, each one containing its own unique objects and assets. Both of these areas feel very alive at times: with plenty of random events and student interactions occurring as you head to your next class or quest. That being said, there are a couple of strange oversights that are hard to ignore, such as the way all students in Hogwarts just simply vanish during the night, leaving empty beds in all of the dormitories and an unintentionally silent, lonely atmosphere. Despite its meticulous detail, your common room plays no real part in the experience. You can’t socialize with companions outside of the very first morning, and you can’t even sleep in your own bed to advance time, which is just an incredibly strange design choice even though the game already has a wait function.

    Where the game gets a lot less impressive is in the world outside of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. The highlands are no doubt beautiful, but all you see are either hills, forests, and hamlets, and coasts near the bottom of the map. While the seasons change over the course of the story, there’s absolutely no visual variety or biomes types to really distinguish areas. Side quests are mostly on the generic side, although there are a couple of exceptions which greatly rise above the pack. The PS5-exclusive quest in Hogsmeade, “Minding Your Own Business”, is a real highlight, so its unfortunate that only a subset of players will actually experience it. But that’s an exception, and for the most part, much of the side content just isn’t terribly exciting. It’s all very copy-paste: each cave, ruin and bandit camp feels identical to the last you visited, and the excitement of discovery quickly wears down over the course of the playthrough thanks to a poor rewards system.

    As a fan of the franchise since I was a child, I really enjoyed my time with Hogwarts Legacy, but as a seasoned, adult gamer I’m not immune to the game’s shortcomings. For as entertaining as the game can be, thanks to satisfying (if overly easy) combat, the rich lore of the Wizarding World, and some truly spectacular locations to explore, much of the concept’s potential magic remains untapped. It’s mechanically shallow and far too railroaded to appeal to more RPG-minded players, the story is surprisingly uninvolving outside of a few companion and side quests, and the copy-paste open world should have been greatly scaled back in favor of developing stronger stories and activities within Hogwarts, alongside more dynamic gear and rewards systems. Hogwarts Legacy isn’t as good of a game as it could and should have been due to these drawbacks. Nevertheless, whether you’re exploring Hogwarts, flying on a broom, winning a battle with flashy spells, or engaging with the rare emotionally compelling or creative mission, the game can at times be a great reminder of why you fell in love with this series in the first place, even if it doesn’t hit those heights as often as it could. If I were a professor, I would grade this as a highly likable rough draft with the potential to grow into an A+ final project. I just hope that Avalanche can further tap into that magic for future outings.

By krisko6 on March 4th, 2023

God of War: Ragnarök (PlayStation 5)

A mostly satisfying sequel to one of Sony's finest games

The Good
* Combat and exploration feel as great as ever

  • Lots of inspired new mechanics and gameplay twists to keep things fresh throughout the game

  • A mostly satisfying conclusion to the Norse era of the series

  • Visually and aurally excellent across the board

  • A much more expansive game than the previous one

    The Bad
    * Plot can feel rather convoluted at times

  • Uninteresting puzzles

  • Frustratingly difficult

    The Bottom Line
    2018’s God of War reboot remains one of the generation’s greatest games, and one of the PS4’s best-selling titles. 4.5 years and a new console generation later, Sony’s Santa Monica Studio has returned with the conclusion of that story arc with the sequel, God of War Ragnarök. While not a major mechanical leap over its predecessor, Ragnarök nevertheless serves as a vital companion piece, picking up right where the 2018 reboot left off, and concluding the series’ Norse era in suitably grand style. If you enjoyed the 2018 reboot, then Ragnarök is appointment gaming.

    Three years after the events of God of War, and the long winter is coming to an end. Meanwhile, Kratos and a now teenaged Atreus are attempting to keep their heads low to avoid the inevitable coming of Ragnarök. However, Atreus, being the curious boy that he’s always been, has been investigating a means of stopping Ragnarök, which also catches the attention of the god Odin, who warns them not to continue. Not wanting his son to do something reckless, Kratos tags along in the investigation, which leads them to banding forces with the dwarf brothers Brok and Sindri and the newly freed god Tyr to find a way to survive the oncoming apocalypse, and perhaps change their fate.

    While 2018’s God of War had a relatively straightforward father/son tale, Ragnarök’s story is significantly more complex. There’s a lot more characters to keep track of, and subplots delivered from multiple perspectives that happen in parallel. The main core of the story deals with Kratos and Atreus learning to trust each other: they both have secrets and revelations that they are afraid to let each other know lest it leads to terrible things happening. To be honest, the plot of Ragnarök is far too complicated to easily summarize, and if there’s a complaint, it’s that the story can be a bit too vague and hard-to-follow at times, and in some ways I preferred the more straightforward nature of the previous game. Still, it manages to pull itself together by the end for a satisfying close that’s both rousing and heartbreaking at the same time.

    One of the reasons why the plot is so much more complex is that you’ll be visiting all nine realms this time around. Places that you didn’t see in the first game such as Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, and Asgard are now open for exploration, although the reality is that some realms got more love than others. There’s about 5 realms which offer the more open level of exploration found in the first game’s hub zone of Midgard, with Musphelheim reserved for trials again, and the rest confined to brief, mission-specific objectives. Even the realms that are revisited from the last game are significantly changed due to the effects of Fimbulwinter: Midgard’s Lake of Nine is now frozen solid, while Alfheim is ravaged by sandstorms. Some of the areas you’ll eventually explore are absurdly dense with side quests and collectables.

    The combat remains more or less identical to the first, but with a few enhancements on top. You’ll start the game with both the Leviathan Axe and Kratos’ Blades of Chaos, and these can be charged using the Triangle button for additional elemental damage. After using them enough times in battle, individual skills can be upgraded with tokens for additional effects. A shield bash move allows Kratos to deal additional stun damage and knock back enemies, and is required to disrupt particular attacks. This can be used in tandem with the new shield types, which complement different play styles, from defensive blocking, to offensive parrying. There are actually quite a few more new mechanics I could mention, but I won’t delve too deeply into them for spoiler reasons.

    The previous game was greatly criticized for its lacking enemy variety, however, that is not the case with Ragnarök. While the game does utilize one particular boss fight one too many times, there’s still significantly more enemy types to battle over the journey. Each realm has its own specific enemies that you face, in addition to standard mobs that can be found across the entire game.

    Bosses are also generally tougher this time around. There’s less emphasis on the “spectacle” fights of the original that eased back on the difficulty in favor of cool factor, though they are still present in a couple of instances. More often than not, you’ll really have to be on top of your game while playing Ragnarök. I’ve heard some talk that this was easier than 2018, but personally speaking I had a much harder time getting through this one. I put the game on Give Me No Mercy mode thinking it wasn’t going to be so difficult after finishing the last game, but boy was I wrong. It is significantly more challenging than the first, although your mileage will vary depending on your skill level and how well you know the combat mechanics.

    One thing that greatly bugged me about the difficulty was the lack of means to restore Kratos’ health after each encounter. You’ll often have long strings of battles to fight through on a single health bar, and the left over health pickups after every battle are hardly enough to refill Kratos’ health. Sometimes, it was easier to die after a combat encounter I was unprepared for so that I could retry it with a full meter rather than try to tough it out with a sliver of health. I pumped a lot of points into Defense and Vitality, and fully upgraded the new Rage ability to refill Kratos’ health, and yet I was dying more often than I should have. It is possible to interact with the game’s realm travel points to refill Kratos’ health, but the game doesn’t tell you this, and by the time I had found that out I was pretty close to being done with the game. Ragnarök could be more than a bit frustrating at times with its difficulty.

    The puzzles are fine, but they’re nothing to really write home about. Often, these will come down to just hitting switches with the Leviathan Axe or burning something with the Blades of Chaos. One of the new mechanics you use to solve them was extremely flaky and difficult to consistently work with. Some environments were difficult to read and I would spend a while on a puzzle trying to figure out what exactly the game wanted me to hit despite me knowing I needed to throw or interact with something. Some people on the internet have complained that the game gives you too many hints when solving a puzzle, but if you’re quick enough this is a non-issue at best.

    Visually, the game is strong. The realms are incredibly varied, motion and facial capture lets each actor’s performance shine through, and it runs at a virtually flawless 60 FPS on PS5. It’s not as much of a graphical leap over its predecessor in the same way that Horizon Forbidden West was over Zero Dawn, and you can perhaps notice a few places where it’s been held back by the PS4’s hardware, but nobody can honestly call this a bad-looking title by any means. Audio is equally solid, with crunchy effects, stellar voice acting performances from all of the cast and a stirring score from Bear McCreary (who also makes a cameo within the game itself). I did run into one bug during my playthrough where a boss fell through the floor as I fought it, but otherwise Ragnarök was a polished and stable experience.

    While I didn’t quite enjoy my time with Ragnarök as much as with the previous game, thanks to some nagging issues with its difficulty and a more confusing, less involving plot, it’s still among the best games to come out in recent memory. In a year where so many significant titles got delayed, it did a lot to prop up a rather limp holiday release schedule. It’s less of a full-blown sequel and more like the back half of a very, very long game, but when it’s built on top of a strong foundation it’s difficult to complain, especially since it rounds out the current era of the series very well.

By krisko6 on January 22nd, 2023

Deathloop (PlayStation 5)

Have a fulfilling day!

The Good
* Blackreef offers a rich and deep world to explore, with lore and interesting personalities to uncover.

  • Time loop mechanics are innovative and a lot of fun to work out.

  • Combat is snappy and visceral, with many cool abilities and weapons to use.

  • Cool 1960's art direction and presentation.

    The Bad
    * Repetitious structure means that the game becomes tedious at certain points.

  • Unimpressive multiplayer.

  • Story leaves lots of unanswered questions.

  • Not as reactive or replayable as Arkane's previous games.

    The Bottom Line
    Arkane Studios is unquestionably the modern-day torchbearer for the immersive sim genre. Both the Dishonored series and 2017’s Prey embraced the twin pillars of emergent gameplay and meticulous, multi-layered level design to create highly reactive and replayable experiences that nobody else is really making. Deathloop is their latest addition to this line of games, and while it is not necessarily their strongest effort, it’s still one of the most fascinating and innovative games to release in 2021.

    In Deathloop, you take control of Colt, a security guard and assassin situated on Blackreef, an island somewhere in the Arctic region. Blackreef has long played host to strange parascientific phenomena, and is currently occupied by the AEON program, overseen by society’s greatest scientific and creative minds, with their friends and followers, known as the Eternalists, in tow. Trapped in an eternal time loop endlessly repeating the same day, Colt remembers everything, except the reason why the mysterious assassin named Julianna is constantly hunting him down. On this island where unchecked scientific experimentation meets extravagant hedonism, Colt must find a way to end the eternal nightmare of "amortality" and break the loop.

    At first glance, Deathloop bears a striking amount of similarities to Arkane’s past titles: you have stealthy first-person gameplay, red and blue meters for health and magic respectively, and various powers to allow the player to sow chaos within an emergent sandbox. However, it’s in the structure where the differences lie. Taking influence from titles like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Outer Wilds, Deathloop tasks the player with solving various mysteries within the time loop and ultimately finding a way to break it.

    At the start of each mission, you’ll choose one of Blackreef’s four main districts to visit: Updaam, Fristad Rock, Karl’s Bay, and The Complex. You can visit these at four different times of day during the loop: morning, noon (although Karl’s Bay is closed during this time), afternoon, and evening, making for a total of fifteen possible “levels”. As you explore each area, you’ll gain information pertaining to things like codes for locked doors or background information on each of the main Visionaries. You’ll also be able to acquire various powerful weapons and trinkets, some of which require the completion of various challenges and side quests in order to access.

    Your ultimate goal is to uncover a way to kill all 8 Visionaries in one perfect loop. While it is possible to kill each Visionary point-blank, in order to break the loop you’ll need to manipulate the Visionaries to set them up for easy kills. For example, you might sabotage something in one district in the morning so that when a Visionary interacts with it later in the day, they will die instantly without you needing to fire a shot. Or, you might change something in one district to force a Visionary to go to another district, allowing you to kill multiple targets in one mission. Leads and clues for each Visionary are tracked, allowing you to pursue these objectives as you discover them. While this may seem confusing, the game offers an extremely generous quest tracking system for each of these leads to keep you on the correct path, although some will no doubt feel this makes for a more hand-holdy experience than is typical with Arkane Studios games.

    When killed, most Visionaries will drop various slabs, and this is where things start to get interesting. Each slab allows Colt to utilize a different ability. Colt has his own default slab called Reprise, which allows you to die up to three times per mission before the loop resets, and you can bring two others into any mission. The other slabs will be very familiar to fans of the Dishonored games. Shift is this game’s equivalent of Blink, allowing Colt to quickly teleport a short distance up to ledges and across large gaps. Aether turns Colt almost invisible (unless you happen to get really close to someone). Nexus links multiple targets together, when you kill one, all others will die along with it. Havoc increases your damage output and defense for a short time, Finally, Karnesis allows you to toss enemies around like ragdolls, throwing them off ledges and generally causing much insane chaos. If you manage to kill a Visionary again and you already own their slab, they will instead drop a slab upgrade, which allows you to customize the abilities of each slab power, such as increasing the distance that Colt can Shift.

    All slab upgrades, weapons, and trinkets will disappear at the end of each loop unless you use Residiuum, the game’s currency, to preserve them. You’ll acquire Residiuum when killing enemies and Visionaries, but it can also be collected from various objects in the environment. Killing any Visionary nets you a pretty generous 10000 Residiuum, which is enough to preserve the most expensive items, although you’re free to sacrifice any upgrades you don’t need for additional Residiuum. If you survive a loop, you’ll need to make sure you use as much Residiuum as you can, because it will all go away once the loop resets.

    Unlike Dishonored, which greatly discouraged the player from utilizing much of that game’s lethal sandbox, Deathloop takes practically the opposite approach to the problem of killing. Non-lethal options are non-existent, and since everyone’s going to be revived in the next loop anyway, there’s little moral consideration against killing them. While it is possible to play the sneaky assassin, Deathloop’s snappy combat and varied power sets practically beg you to take the guns-blazing approach. Combat can be a blast and a real power trip, as you utilize the various guns, grenades, and slabs, as well as Colt’s mighty kick, to sow chaos all across Blackreef. Most of Blackreef’s denizens are hopped up on drugs and alcohol, so they don’t exactly make for much of a threat: you’re more likely to die from accidentally falling off of a ledge or getting trapped in certain areas rigged to explode or flood. The Visionaries can at least take some bullets and utilize their various slabs against you, but even then they’re not especially difficult to kill outright.

    That is, apart from the most important Visionary, Julianna. In a twist that the immersive sim genre has never seen before, Julianna can be controlled by either the AI or a human opponent. On the main menu, you can choose to “Break the Loop” or “Protect the Loop”, and if you choose the latter, you can invade single-player games and try to take out a fully equipped Colt. The person playing Colt will be trapped within the district until they can hack the antenna which will unlock the exits. Meanwhile the invader’s goal is to attempt to kill Colt. Julianna’s slab ability allows her to mimic various characters. It makes for a cool cat and mouse game, although with Reprise, the deck is still heavily stacked in favor of Colt. Julianna has her own progression system, where playing through matches and accomplishing various feats earns you rewards, allowing you to go into future matches with a more powerful Julianna. Having a human opponent does make things a lot more interesting from a combat perspective, as fighting Julianna will only be as difficult as the player controlling her. Finding other players is relatively sparse at this point in the game’s life, and when I did manage to connect, the match was either over too quickly, it was too difficult to find Colt, or I suffered from extreme lag which made Julianna do the time warp all over the place. That being said, I’ve never been much of a multiplayer fan, so while having this mode is nice for those who want to squeeze a bit more longevity out of the game and can put up with those issues, it’s hard to imagine many players wanting to stick with it for too long over more established multiplayer titles.

    Arkane’s ability to create uniquely stylized worlds remains second to none, and Deathloop as a whole is greatly carried by its style, setting, and presentation. This retro-futuristic take on the 1960’s is just plain cool, from the Bond-style soundtrack, and the banter between Colt and Julianna, to the gloriously tacky architecture and wacky fashion statements from its many colorful characters. Blackreef itself has a lot of character as a setting with its craggy cliffsides leading down into ice-cold seas, and I love the way the game gets increasingly snowy and frigid as you progress throughout the day. You won’t find another game that looks and feels like this one any time soon. What is less impressive is Arkane’s technical abilities: Deathloop runs on the same Void engine used for Dishonored 2, which was already rather shaky tech to begin with. While Deathloop runs better on the PS5 than Dishonored 2 did on the PS4, there are occasional flickering issues with shadows and performance dips when too many enemies are on-screen hunting down Colt. I’ve heard things were much worse on PC which is why I opted to play this on PS5 instead.

    As you can imagine, visiting the same four districts can become a bit tedious after a while. Each area is quite sizeable and packed with activities and lots of little secrets to find, some of which can only be accessed at specific times of day or after other tasks have been accomplished in other districts. It’s a lot of fun seeing how each district changes over the course of each day, as the Eternalists get more rowdy and ready to party. Still, compared to Arkane’s other games, the footprint of Deathloop remains relatively small, and it’s hard not to feel at least some tedium through the late stages of the game, especially when you figure out exactly how to accomplish the perfect loop. That also means that there’s not much replay value when all is said and done. Yes, the codes will change to different values following your first playthrough, meaning you’ll need to go through the steps to acquire them all again, but otherwise things will mostly end up being the same apart from choosing one of three endings. The story, while certainly more interesting than in Arkane’s past games, also feels very incomplete, with a lot of unanswered questions and unexplained phenomena left over once you finally break the loop.

    Overall, Deathloop is a fun time, but I personally feel it’s not quite as good as the Dishonored games were. Its world is invigorating to explore, the characters are fascinating, and the powers and weapons are all incredibly fun to play with. The art design is remarkably distinctive throughout and just screams cool. However, its relatively small footprint and repetitive structure can make for a slightly tedious experience in some instances, but a brilliant one at other points. The multiplayer is innovative but personally unimpressive, although your mileage will vary. That being said, if you’ve already gone through Arkane’s previous titles and are in the mood for more of that sneak and shoot gameplay that only they specialize in, this time with a time loop twist, then you can’t go wrong with Deathloop.

By krisko6 on June 14th, 2022

Horizon II: Forbidden West (PlayStation 5)

Go West, Young Huntress

The Good
* A massive, hefty game with a lot to see and do - much of it of high quality

  • Graphically impressive and artistically diverse world

  • Combat is as fun as ever, now with plenty of new toys and enhancements to melee mechanics

  • Side characters are wonderfully fleshed-out

    The Bad
    * Overall story isn't as compelling or believable as Zero Dawn. Main missions take way too long to complete on average.

  • Locking exploration and side content behind key items is unnecessary and poorly signposted

  • Weapon/Outfit upgrade mechanics are unnecessarily tedious

  • Some minor graphical glitches/crashes

    The Bottom Line
    5 years have passed since Guerrilla Games introduced one of gaming’s best new IPs with Horizon Zero Dawn, a rookie entry into the open world action/RPG genre that stood toe-to-toe with and in some cases surpassed some of the genre’s biggest and longest-standing names. Now, after several pandemic-induced delays, the series makes its next-gen debut with the sequel Horizon Forbidden West, which not only continues Aloy’s story from where the first left off, but also overhauls and expands the gameplay systems of the first. The end result is an impressively fleshed-out and exhaustively indulgent sequel that should please most fans of the first game, although there are a few aspects which might leave some scratching their head.

    Taking place six months after Zero Dawn’s ending, the new title sees Aloy, now having accepted her responsibility and lineage as Earth’s protector, on the hunt for a way to stop a deadly red blight from consuming the Earth. Her search eventually takes her beyond the Carja Sundom into the Forbidden West, where she gets caught up in a civil war between the Tenakth clans instigated primarily by Regalla, all the while investigating a mysterious technologically advanced group of new arrivals who wish to take control of the planet’s terraforming systems for themselves.
    Part of the fun is seeing Aloy rediscover and meet up with characters from Zero Dawn. Though there is a recap of the first game’s basic plot points presented for newcomers once you boot up the game for the first time, you’ll appreciate this game a whole lot more if you have played Zero Dawn. I had just finished a replay of the first game the night before this released, and having everything about it fresh in my mind, I appreciated the numerous callbacks and character moments presented in Forbidden West so much more.

    While Zero Dawn’s story followed two main threads, one in the present and one in the past, Forbidden West’s focus lies mostly on the here and now. You’ll still do plenty of delving into the ruins of “The Metal World”, but the strong mystery element that made the first game’s story work so well has been somewhat downplayed here. There’s certainly a lot of past lore to uncover, but the emphasis is less on Aloy’s journey of self-discovery and more about renewing and healing the post-apocalyptic world. It’s certainly not bad, but it simply isn’t quite as compelling as what came before. Some may also feel that certain plot aspects drift too far into the realm of science-fantasy, compared to the relatively grounded feel of Zero Dawn. There are also some pacing issues: most main missions can take up to an hour or more to complete, so be ready for a long, long sit if you plan on advancing the story, especially if you plan on talking to every character and asking every question (and believe me, if you’re a fan like I am, you’ll want to).
    That being said, while the main plot may be a bit slack, the side characters really shine in this installment. Each of your companions is far more fleshed out, with top quality voice acting for nearly all of them (minus one later character) and all of them represent different factions within the game’s world. At some point during the game, you’ll establish a base where you can carry out optional conversations with each of your companions, which turns out to be a nice Mass Effect-influenced touch, since there’s so much dialogue to go through and you can really get a sense of what each one represents.

    I’ve always maintained that Horizon was meant to be Sony’s answer to the Legend of Zelda, and Forbidden West doubles down on that comparison even more than the first game, although in ways that might be a bit to its detriment. Key items and gadgets for traversal and progression play a much bigger part in this game than they did in the first. I’m sure you’ve seen the glider that Aloy uses in this game (I wonder where Guerrilla got that idea from), but that’s just one of several new tools you get over the course of the journey, including the pullcaster, which is essentially the Hookshot, and a device which allows Aloy to breathe indefinitely underwater. On the one hand, this results in a bit of a different feeling for exploration compared to the first game, especially early on. It brings back the thrill of the pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda games, giving you an incentive to return to places you thought you had thoroughly explored. On the other hand, the number of times I ran across a ruin or a cave I could not explore due to not having the correct equipment was more excessive than I would have liked.
    Not only is this approach fundamentally different from the first game’s, which hardly ever locked off anything until you had completed certain main missions, it also compromises the sense of freedom and exploration that the first game did so well, and I’m not completely sure why this change was made. The worst moment was when I started a side mission which was impossible to complete because I did not have the underwater breathing upgrade - I’ve never had to just up and walk away from a Horizon mission while I’m in the middle of it until now. I wish the game had done a better job at actually signposting, or at least blocking these areas off before you decide to investigate them, as the number of times the game says “no” is way more than it should be. Still, given how large and expansive the world is, and how much there is to see and do, it’s a minor gripe in the grand scheme of things.

    Combat is similar to the first game at first glance, but there have been a lot of changes under the hood. Your weapon wheel now allows you to store up to six different weapons in your loadout, and considering the exponential amount of new ammo types, you’re going to want to make full use of those slots. New combat mechanics include Weapon Techniques, which are special attacks you can use with each weapon type, and Valor Surges, which are unlocked on each skill tree and can be used once your Valor Gauge builds up. These can really turn the tide of combat when they’re used correctly, especially when used at max level. The game introduces many new and returning machine types from the first. Human combat has also been beefed up considerably: where in the first game most human enemies were paper bags that would go down in a couple of hits, here they’re bulked out in armor, use shields and heavy weapons, and won’t just flinch from a headshot with a basic bow. Some of them also ride on machines, which means you’ll often need to deal with the machine as well when fighting them.

    Melee has also been hugely overhauled from the first game, with more emphasis placed on using specific combos to gain the upper hand. Spear attacks are generally weaker than those in the first game, so you’ll really need to pump points into the warrior tree and associated outfits and keep the combos in mind to make yourself an effective melee fighter, even as the emphasis largely remains on ranged combat. As an example, one special move Aloy can do is a Resonance Blast - by hitting enemies with melee attacks, her spear can build up energy, which you can place on an enemy and hit with a projectile to score massive damage. It all comes back to your aiming skills. That being said, the absence of any sort of block feature is puzzling: melee combat is meant to be more of a complement rather than the main approach, but the inclusion of several difficult melee only activities means your only defense is dodging constantly without so much as a block or parry function.

    Another major change comes in the game’s RPG mechanics and skill systems. In an attempt to encourage build diversity, there are now six skill trees to choose from, and you can choose from a mix of passive bonuses, active skills, Weapon Techniques, and Valor Surges, which are unique to each tree. Outfits not only provide various types of defense, but also enhance the attributes of these individual trees. To be honest, this is a double-edged sword: I loved that the game presented me with more choices, and having Weapon Techniques and Valor Surges unique to each tree means that no two players are going to have the exact same loadout. On the other hand, the skill upgrades from the first game felt much more meaningful: the majority of upgrades here are passive bonuses or situational skills that you’ll hardly notice while playing, and some trees are just objectively better than others. Thankfully, most of the skills which were previously locked behind upgrades in the first are now given to Aloy by default in this game, though for some reason it’s never explained why she chose to drop most of her old equipment.
    Weapons also require considerable amounts of resources to upgrade to maximum strength and utilize all of their mod slots, which means you’ll really need to be sure you want to invest more in a weapon before upgrading it, a hard decision to make when the game is often showering you with new weapons after completing quests. This game wants you to exercise restraint in killing machines: tearing off certain parts before they are killed, and making sure you don’t destroy containers for easy explosions, although this can be adjusted in the difficulty settings if you so desire. You can create jobs to keep track of the upgrades that you want as well as possible locations to collect the materials that you need, although there is no way to quickly view these once you’re out in the wild, which feels like a quality of life oversight. The slow upgrade process for weapons meant that I always felt like I was somewhat behind the curve, especially the further I got into the game, when several missions grant new armor and weapon types. There’s isn’t much incentive to actually browse the shops, as completing quests usually gives weapon and gear types that are just as functional.

    All of these changes combined make for a much more difficult game than its predecessor. Zero Dawn was not a cakewalk, but it was much more manageable once you got to grips with its mechanics. Not only does Forbidden West completely overhaul those mechanics, forcing you to learn the game all over again, it’s also just a more difficult experience in general. Some of the new machines are downright terrifying to face, especially without a companion in tow, and making full use of Weapon Techniques and Valor Surges is essential for survival. I think I spent over an hour on one particular fight. It wasn’t until very late in the game, that having built up my arsenal and unlocked Weapon Techniques for each of my weapons did I truly begin to feel comfortable with consistently taking on the biggest machines.

    The game’s climbing system has also been overhauled, although this can prove to be a bit finicky to use at times. In the first game, Aloy could only climb along preset paths which either consisted of yellow climbable objects and white ledges. Despite early trailers indicating the game seemingly adopting Breath of the Wild’s climb-anywhere mechanics, it’s ultimately a slight variation of the first game’s system, and not always for the better. When climbing, you’ll often have more directions which you can move in, but you’re still only able to climb specific walls and cliffs, meaning it’s effectively the same. The yellow lines used to highlight climbable areas can sometimes be difficult to read, and there were several moments where it seemed like Aloy should be close enough to grab something or climb up a ledge, yet she won’t. Or, she will hang off certain ledges at funky angles. It just isn’t as refined as it should be, especially when you compare it to the competition. At least there’s an attempt to introduce some new platforming mechanics, including wall jumps and backwards leaps, although with the exception of using the pullcaster you’re rarely required to actually use these during traversal.

    Zero Dawn had no shortage of optional side content for the player to engage with, and Forbidden West easily goes a step or two beyond what that first title offered. This is a HUGE game with so much to do, and almost all of it at a consistently high level of quality. Most of the classic activities return, including Cauldrons, Hunting Grounds, Vantage Points, and Bandit Camps (here called Rebel Camps and Rebel Outposts). But there’s so much more beyond those. The new offerings include Melee Pits, where you can practice and battle against various opponents using the melee combat techniques, eventually working your way up to battling “the Enduring”; Relic Ruins, puzzle areas which are essentially this game’s take on Breath of the Wild’s Shrines; and Machine Strike, a chess-like board game where players collect and battle machine pieces on various boards, utilizing the terrain and skill types to claim victory. Perhaps the most challenging activity is the Arena, which is found in roughly the middle of the game and allows you to go up against the game’s toughest machines in timed combat trials. All that on top of numerous side quests and errands, of course, many of which offer either interesting bits of lore or great rewards, including new and unique weapon types. Once you get into the swing of things, it’s hard to stop.

    Though it’s now a five-year old game, Zero Dawn is still up there with the best looking titles, so it’s no surprise that the sequel is even better. Some might be bummed that Forbidden West is a cross-gen game rather than the full next-gen sequel that was anticipated, but honestly, Forbidden West looks better than most games coming out today even on the PS4. The main upgrades for the PS5 version are resolution and framerate. You can either choose to run the game at full 4K or at a lower resolution with a mostly-fluid 60 fps framerate. Either way, the game is stunning.
    It’s not just in the technical aspects, the art and design of the game is incredibly eye-catching throughout. Some of the settlements have incredibly unique and dense designs that I’ve never seen in a video game before, and they’re usually populated with more NPCs compared to the first game. Cutscenes are more dynamic than the original, allowing characters to move around and really express their emotions in ways the more limiting Zero Dawn could not. The PS5 version also takes advantage of the controller’s haptics and adaptive triggers to give extra oomph to sensations. You’ll feel the tightness of a bowstring as a weapon gets overdrawn, and the bulkiness of aiming a heavy weapon. There are also several major Uncharted-style action setpieces sprinkled throughout, which gives the game a greater sense of scale and spectacle than its predecessor. And, yes, the water is much, much better looking here than it was in the first game - deep, blue, and reflective.
    I have noticed a few visual bugs such as pop-in, sudden black screens, and shimmering textures from time to time, but generally speaking the game is more often than not a polished experience. I would have loved to report a perfectly stable experience, but I did suffer a couple of crashes during my playthrough.

    I may have really nitpicked this game, and in truth there are definitely some things to criticize here, but Horizon Forbidden West is a great experience overall: from the combat to the graphics to the sheer amount of content the game packs in. Yet compared to its predecessor I honestly still think Zero Dawn might be the better game. Forbidden West comes across like an indulgent double album after an artist wins a Grammy (on PS4, the game actually comes on two discs): captivating and expansive, yet messier, rougher and lacking in the tightness of craft that won them the accolades in the first place. That being said, Horizon Forbidden West is still a heck of a lot of game for your money, and no fan of the first game should miss out on playing it.

By krisko6 on March 19th, 2022

Hypnospace Outlaw (Macintosh)

Hypnospace is really really cool!

The Good
* Perfectly recreates the internet experience pre-Y2K

  • Puzzles are clever and challenging

  • Deep lore and Easter eggs to uncover

  • Killer, highly eclectic, and catchy soundtrack

    The Bad
    Low resolution visuals and UI

    The Bottom Line*
    The world was such a different place in 1999. DVDs were just catching on, CD players were the portable audio device of choice, and the only option for entertainment was cable television. Most importantly, the Internet was truly in its wild west days. For players of a certain age, Hypnospace Outlaw is the ultimate nostalgia trip: a glimpse into a past Internet that never existed, but feels like it could have. Even if you’re not old enough to bask in Hypnospace’s nostalgia, there’s a genuinely good puzzle game here as well.

    In Hypnospace Outlaw, a new online network known as Hypnospace was invented around 1998 by a company called Merchantsoft. Rather than using a traditional monitor setup, this network is beamed directly into the user’s brain using the HypnOS interface while sleeping, allowing the user’s mind to connect with others even as their body lies unconscious. The player takes on the role of an “Enforcer” under the employment of Merchantsoft, acting as a moderator by flagging copyrighted, offensive, or other content that the company deems “harmful”. You’ll experience the story developing over several days in late 1999, as Merchantsoft takes more extreme measures to protect both their corporate interests and the impressionable minds of young Hypnospace users.

    Hypnospace Outlaw is essentially a detective game at its core. You’ll get assigned cases from Merchantsoft informing you of what sorts of offending content to watch out for, then you’ll attempt to track it down using whatever information is given to you, whether that be website names, images, or text files attached to the cases. Once you’ve found the content you’re looking for, you can mark it and earn HypnoCoin, which can be used to purchase various applications and access codes needed for progress. Of course, you’re free to mark any other content you see along the way, provided that it fits Merchantsoft’s criteria, this will earn you some extra coin. The game’s only concession to video game rules is that solving cases advances the timer towards the end of each day, meaning that there is no real pressure to actually solve the cases until you are ready.

    Needless to say, things get a lot deeper very quickly. The early cases are relatively simple, requiring only a few steps to find the offending content, but later assignments are far more sneaky, requiring you to formulate passwords, read users’ personal data, and access the most underground, esoteric pages of Hypnospace. You’ll often need to combine relatively obscure pieces of information together, or find ways around page blocks and HypnOS glitches. You might need to deal with viruses and glitches while tracking down a hacker, or uncover a page in an obscure link that is presumed missing. There are several meta-game puzzles that go well-beyond the assigned cases, including a few passwords I have yet to personally crack, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised (and addicted) when you see just how far the Hypnospace rabbit hole actually goes, even as the number of “pages” is fairly small compared to the real internet.

    It’s hard to not find yourself getting distracted on the way to solving your cases. Just existing within the world of Hypnospace is a blast, as you’ll read up on the various netizens, as well as the brands and TV shows, movies, and video games, that exist within this alternative history 1999, while discovering their relationships to each other. The fact that many of these pages update over the course of the game, many of which happen as a direct result of your actions, is an amazing incentive to look back and see how things have changed. More importantly, it gives the game a sense that the story is happening around you, just outside of reach of your desktop screen. It is fantastically, and stunningly immersive, even despite the fact that you cannot actually chat with any of these characters.

    Hypnospace Outlaw’s presentation hits the pre-Y2K bullseye. Everything about the game feels like a perfect encapsulation of what using the internet was like when I was a kid: the crudely animated GIFs, the strange and garish formatting choices, the feeling that anyone can and will make their own page, no matter how weird it is, and the agony of having to wait ages when loading up a site on a slow modem. Some Hypnospace users claim that pages can load faster by wiggling the mouse, but this may be a placebo effect. It’s painful to remember all of this in this day and age, when internet speed is no longer a concern for most and data can be easily organized and viewed on social network sites like Facebook. There was real novelty and mystique to the Internet back then that has simply vanished in today’s hyper-connected society, and Hypnospace Outlaw manages to bring more of that back than you might expect.

    The game goes beyond what’s on Hypnospace, by recreating a desktop experience circa 1999. You’ll deal with software that brings constant pop-up ads, you can download virtual pets to play with on your desktop, and you’re free to choose several different cursor and background themes. You can also listen to songs you download from Hypnospace, play simple minigames (some of which are vital to progression during the endgame), and watch extremely compressed looking and sounding videos - the kind you would need to download in a pre-streaming world. My only real complaint is that the game can feel a bit too retro at times. Not only does the game have an insanely low resolution that does not take up the full screen, it isn’t possible to resize windows or have multiple tabs open at once. I would imagine that the reason for this is that the creators didn’t want to have to deal with scaling their fake internet onto multiple screen resolutions, something that any modern web developer will admit is an absolute nightmare. There’s a button you can use to quickly switch between apps, but this is a bit cumbersome and I wish the game had taken some more modern conveniences into account. Your other option is to use the game’s experimental scaler to blow up the image, but this looks just plain awful no matter how you slice it - the game even admits as such.

    Hypnospace Outlaw’s killer component, the thing that really elevates it to an insanely high level, is without a doubt its soundtrack. Nearly every page has some background music playing while you browse, and the styles are as eclectic as one might expect from an online network used by people from literally all walks of life. The game has its own set of fictional genres, subgenres, and microgenres that the soundtrack draws from such as cosmic rock, coolpunk, flip-flop, and earthaze, which not only parody real-world musical genres (including nu-metal, hip-hop, and new age) but often are genuinely good, and extremely catchy songs in their own right, striking just the right balance between mocking satire and believability. Just try to get Chowder Man’s rap/rock jingles out of your head, or resist singing along to Barnaby’s Chair’s hit song “Satellite Orchestra”. There’s literally hours of original music of all kinds to discover here, and as far as I can tell, it was all created just for this game, outsourced to several artists in the indie gaming and music scenes. You are able to download songs and listen to them in HypnOS’ Tunebox app, although you’ll need to figure out how to circumvent Merchantsoft’s copyright protections if you intend to get your hands on most of these.

    Hypnospace Outlaw is the computer game equivalent of a time machine: so perfectly attuned to the aesthetics and stylings, and sounds of its particular era that it feels as real as any Internet you used to browse in the dial-up days. It truly is amazing how much there is to uncover and explore in this game, even beyond solving the game’s brilliant and clever puzzles. In looking back, Hypnospace Outlaw is also able to offer commentary on the current state of technology: for as much as things have changed since then, it’s amazing how little has changed at all when it comes to corporate censorship, moderation, and the habits of online users. If nothing else, Hypnospace Outlaw provides a glimpse into the roots of everything we crave about technology today. I’ve never played a game like this, and barring a potential sequel, probably never will again, but I’ll remember this as a special experience.

By krisko6 on September 29th, 2021

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (Nintendo Switch)

A fantastic RPG getaway! Book your trip to Seiren today!

The Good
* Great combat

  • Lengthy, engaging story

  • Lots and lots of gameplay, exploration, and visual variety

  • Excellent soundtrack

    The Bad
    * Graphics are behind the curve, even for the Nintendo Switch

  • Rare crashes

  • A couple of disappointing characters

    The Bottom Line
    Despite its long-running status, the Ys series has remained firmly under the radar for most gamers. Blame it on the strange, not easily pronounceable name, blame it on the weird platform choices, or blame it on the relatively limited distribution and releasing, but despite its influence on both the action-adventure and RPG genres, the Ys series has never really caught on with a mainstream audience unlike, say the Final Fantasy or Legend of Zelda series. And that’s too bad, because these are all solid games, with fun combat, engaging (if a bit cliched) storytelling, and excellent music. Ys 8, the first to hit a Nintendo platform in over 20 years, has been arguably the most popular game the series has had since its early Turbografx CD days. While you may not hear this one get talked about very much, I can say that this is easily one of the best RPGs you will find on the Nintendo Switch, or any other platform you choose to play it on.

    Ys 8 begins as most games in the series do: with the series’ red-haired protagonist Adol sailing towards a new destination. When the ship that Adol is riding on is attacked by an unknown monster, him and the rest of the ship’s passengers and crew wash up on Seiren Island, an uncharted, mysterious place thought to be cursed. With no easy way off the island, Adol must work alongside his new-found allies to start a village, gather the survivors, and uncover the deep mystery surrounding the island’s strange monsters. Eventually, Adol begins having dreams of a blue-haired girl named Dana in a seemingly unrelated part of the world. Ys 8 starts off simple and relatively slow, but it isn’t long before you realize just how wild Seiren Island is. From serial killers and dinosaurs, to ghost pirates and ancient civilizations, the stakes just get higher and higher as the storyline drags on, with your band eventually teaming up to stop a full-blown apocalypse from occurring, as the game delves into ideas of evolution and destiny that you would have never anticipated from its rather humble start.

    Ys’ combat design has gone through several variations from the early bump-combat titles to the later combo-heavy button-mash gameplay of the Napishtim titles. Ys 8 inherits the three-character party system introduced in the prior game, 2009’s Ys 7. Rather than controlling Adol as a single character, instead you swap between three different characters in a party, each with their own unique skills to use and their own weapon attack types. Most enemies can be quickly dealt with by swapping to the character with the matching weapon type: insect enemies are susceptible to piercing weapons, while armored enemies are susceptible to blunt weapons. The other two party members get controlled by the AI. The ally AI are competent fighters, and you can order them to either hold back or attack as you see fit. This can be useful for backtracking through a zone while running past several difficult enemies - your partners won’t initiate a fight you didn’t intend to start.

    Each character is able to learn and assign different skills to the four face buttons. The player can then utilize the Spirit Gauge to fire off these individual skills, which allow for stronger damage, or better break and stun potential. They’re designed to be used constantly since the spirit gauge fills up relatively fast, so it’s easy to fire them off with reckless abandon. Each skill can be trained up to three levels, which makes them stronger. Eventually, you’ll be able to use EXTRA skills, which are the strongest attacks every character has to offer and work off of a separate gauge that fills much more slowly as you land hits on enemies. The other wrinkle to the combat comes in the form of Flash Moves and Flash Guards. By dodging at the last second as an attack is about to hit the player, you’ll slow down time, which will allow you to catch your breath or get in some easy hits. Or, you can block just as an attack hits to Flash Guard, which grants you increased attack strength for a few seconds, which can really help with taking out the enemies with bigger health bars. Learning how to utilize both of these is crucial for surviving even the toughest combat encounters.

    The three party system effectively gives you three health bars to work with, while the ability to immediately open up your inventory and drink a potion or eat a meal makes surviving slightly trivial compared to the older games, where you had to be able to fight a boss with one health bar and no option to heal. This system isn’t as overpowered as it could be: bottles are relatively scarce for much of the game, you’ll need to find the formulae and recipes for the most useful potions and dishes, and you will need to spend several minutes in real-time digesting a meal and using its effects before they can eat another one, or wash it down with some vegetable juice, which is quite expensive to produce. Still, even on Hard mode, Ys 8 was at times challenging but never truly overbearing - even if certain bosses and activities would kick my butt, I always had the option to come back with a stronger party or better weapons to overcome these difficult challenges. While most of the game utilizes the three-party system, there are also several boss fights as well as entire chapters which are completely solo, which make for a much more hairy experience in the vein of the older Ys games.

    Ys 8 is a very, very long game. You can expect to spend anywhere in the 40-60 hour range exploring Seiren, and there is just so much to do during that time. The map is utterly sprawling, littered with secret areas around every rock and tree. While it is not a true open world since it has been broken up into zones separated by loading screens, that doesn’t stop it from feeling utterly massive in size. There’s plenty of variety, too, from beaches and caves to the highest mountain peaks and the depths of the ocean, along with even more esoteric locations that you’re going to have to discover for yourself. Several zones can also be visited at nighttime, which brings a very different atmosphere, not to mention stronger, more aggressive enemy types. Ys 8 isn’t just a large game, it’s a deep one too: there are so many layers to not just the story but to the game design as well: you’ll be discovering new features, characters and mysteries, 30, 40, even 50 hours deep into the adventure.

    Key to the experience is the village itself - building it up from a small survivor’s camp to a self-sustaining entity is a wholly satisfying experience. At the start of the game, you will only have a few surviving shipmates, and must work to explore the island to find more survivors and gather materials to build out your camp. As you locate more characters, you’ll be able to open up more sections of the island, although you will face occasional setbacks as characters sometimes die or disappear altogether. Most villagers have their own functions that you’ll unlock: there’s a blacksmith, a farmer, a chef, a tailor, a trader, and many more. These characters have their own little arcs to engage with, as they turn from frightened survivors into hard-working and productive villagers, although this is somewhat less effective for villagers which show up far later in the game. These stories can be progressed by completing quests and giving characters specific gifts, which increase their affection towards Adol, and their effectiveness in their individual functions. Not every one of these side stories lands - I thought the stuff with the nun was a bit awkward - but most of them are satisfying enough to watch and really make you feel like a part of a group, rather than a single player. You may find it hard to want to leave by the journey's end.

    The other key element of the village has to do with raids and hunts. Your village gets routinely attacked by Seiren’s monsters, with attacks growing in frequency and danger as the game stretches on. You can use the materials you gather all across Seiren to fortify your village’s defenses and add traps to stave off monsters. At specific points in the game, you will be able to go on raids and fight off these monsters as they attack your village in waves. You’ll be alerted when this becomes available, although it seems like you’re free to put off certain raids for a pretty long time. Hunts, meanwhile, allow you to clear out areas filled with excessive monsters, requiring the player to plop down torches over a small area to slow down the enemies, eventually leading to a boss fight. In both modes, villagers can help out by providing additional support effects and buffs, which only increase as Adol’s affection towards them increases.

    The voice acting has that typical anime dub feel, but the cast generally fits their roles nicely, apart from only a couple of cringy characters. Considering the large number of characters that are voiced, the fact that only a couple stand out as weak is impressive. There are plenty of cutscenes with voice acting, but much of the game is not voiced, which does seem a bit inconsistent. The music, however, is almost uniformly fantastic. Many songs induce a peaceful, quiet state with chilly synth melodies. In the field, string-laden themes give way to crunchy guitars and heavy metal tempos. Every track fits the situation perfectly, and none of it ever feels out-of-place or jarring.

    This Switch port has gotten a bit of a mixed reception online, but I will say my experience with it was generally positive. Falcom has never made the most technically impressive games, and Ys 8 is no exception. While the game has a generally appealing aesthetic due to its tropical setting and distinctive, if strongly anime-influenced character designs, its visuals would have barely been considered cutting-edge 15 years ago. There’s a fair amount of enemy pop-in, clear dynamic resolution drops (especially when playing undocked) and shadows in particular looking extremely fuzzed out and janky. There are also occasional choppy moments, but these drops are generally isolated to cutscenes and hardly impact gameplay in all but the most intense moments. I ended up turning off the auto save feature when moving between zones, as the hit to performance was a bit too much to take. Thankfully, saving is quick and easy and you can do it literally anywhere. I was unfortunate to experience several crashes during my play time. Some of the later hunts in particular can cause the game to lock up - while I was able to power through these eventually, I was never able to find the cause as to why these issues happened. Still, they were rare enough during this long, long game that I could forgive it somewhat. Considering this originated as a PlayStation Vita game, Ys 8 makes perfect sense for Nintendo’s hybrid platform - it’s a game that can be enjoyed equally at home or on vacation.

    It’s easy to underestimate the kind of journey Ys 8 takes you on. Its graphics are behind the curve, and the story starts out relatively slow. By the time you’ve reached the end, you’ll have developed bonds with characters who are difficult to forget, listened to some great music, fought your way through some grueling battles, and explored the deepest and darkest places. There’s a whole lot packed into this adventure, and I enjoyed virtually every second of the experience. Players who are looking for a meaty RPG to sink their time into on Nintendo Switch should consider playing Ys 8.

By krisko6 on August 23rd, 2021

It Takes Two (PlayStation 5)

"It Takes Two to make it out of sight!"

The Good
* Highly imaginative, intuitive, and joyous platforming with varied levels and mechanics throughout a lengthy campaign.

  • The game handles genre shifts remarkably well

  • Gorgeous visuals, both artistically and technically

  • A touching love story

    The Bad
    * Occasionally cringy dialogue

  • A few unexpected difficulty spikes

    The Bottom Line
    It Takes Two is the newest co-operative game from the Swedish developer Hazelight Studios, led by former film director Josef Fares. It Takes Two follows a virtually identical exclusively co-op setup as its predecessor A Way Out, shifting genres from a semi-realistic crime thriller to a cartoonish, lighthearted 3D platformer. As with that game, only one player will need to own It Takes Two, as the other can download a “Friend Pass” to play the game over the internet. The game supports both local couch-co-op or online play between console generations - I played through this on my PS5 while my friend was on his PS4.

    The storyline of It Takes Two is a truly unusual one to say the least, as it centers around a subject I don’t think any game has ever tackled before: divorce. The title follows May and Cody Goodwin, a married couple living in what appears to be the English countryside who are on the verge of divorce after their relationship has gone sour. Meanwhile, their daughter Rose, who has constructed tiny dolls of her parents made out of wood and clay, retreats to the nearby shed and tries to gather some advice from “The Book of Love”, a tome written by Dr. Hakim who claims to be an expert on repairing relationships. After Rose cries onto the two dolls, the parents suddenly find their souls trapped in the bodies of the dolls on the floor of the shed. With assistance from Dr. Hakim, who appears as a talking Book of Love, the almost-divorcees are forced to work together to reach Rose and undo the curse by conquering a gauntlet of platforming challenges, as they brave the most intense and trippy couples’ therapy session ever devised.

    It Takes Two places a pretty high emphasis on its story as the players learn how to work together to solve the game’s numerous challenges, even if it can feel at times like a threadbare excuse to link together the game’s wildly varied levels and challenges. The progression of May and Cody’s relationship is handled quite well through the game’s numerous cutscenes as they, and the audience, learn more about each other. Dr. Hakim’s Mexican accent can be laid on a bit too thick at times, and there’s also a surprisingly high amount of distracting profanity in what otherwise appears as a relatively wholesome and cuddly game. I understand that these are adult characters trapped in a childish world of imagination, but it’s hard not to cringe at some lines like Hakim’s “You’re not in a relationship, you’re in a relation-shit!”. The back half of the game’s narrative feels artificially padded and I wish the campaign had found a better way of working those levels into the story instead of the “oops, you’re not quite done yet” approach that the writers take. While the story doesn’t offer any major twists, I personally found the game’s conclusion to be quite touching and satisfying considering all that me and my friend had been through trying to finish this game.

    But it’s the game’s platforming and wildly inventive level design that’s the real star of the show here. From a journey through a shed filled with living tools, to battling in a war between squirrels and wasps, soaring through space, and exploring the inside of a kaleidoscope and other utterly fantastical places, It Takes Two is relentless in changing up its settings and ideas, always giving new mechanics in each stage to experiment with. Sure, the developers are likely throwing darts at all of the ideas they had, but for the vast majority of the time, they stick thanks to solid, forgiving controls and consistently excellent mechanical design. Each character has a double jump and a dash that can be used for easy in-air maneuverability, and the two easily swing across hooks and grind on rails with a tap of the R1 button. These are the basic fundamentals that are used across the game’s 9 chapters, but It Takes Two offers up so much more. Most stages will equip Cody and May with different abilities and items, which they will need to use in conjunction to overcome the game’s numerous obstacles. These include projectile-based weapons, vehicles, and unique traversal and puzzle-solving abilities, many of which are truly creative and original.

    It Takes Two may be a puzzlebplatformer at heart, but it’s a true shapeshifter of a game, freely mixing in other genres such as flight, fighting, racing, rhythm, and even action role-playing games. All of these genre shifts were both surprising and competently executed, and both my friend and I found the campaign a consistent delight from start to finish.

    It Takes Two is for the most part a casual and forgiving game. If one player dies, they can mash the Triangle button to come back to life as long as the other continues to survive. If the other player dies before the first can come back to life, both players get brought back to the previous checkpoint. That being said, the game isn’t afraid to offer the occasional hair-pullingly difficult moment where both players will really have to band together to get past the current obstacle. One boss in particular near the middle of the campaign is one of the most stressful experiences I’ve had playing a game in quite some time, and the sudden and unexpected difficulty spike left my friend and I traumatized for the rest of the campaign. There are other sections that, if you’re not at least competent in video games, can also be a pain to get through. I had considered playing this game with my dad when he comes to visit even though he isn’t too well-versed in modern video games, but after finishing it with my friend I can safely say he wouldn’t have a fun time. In general, I noticed that playing as May demands more difficult platforming on average than Cody, so if you’re playing with a less-skilled gamer you may want to opt to play as her. As with A Way Out, there are numerous competitive minigames featured throughout the campaign that both players can optionally partake in. These “couples’ challenges” can be fun diversions, although some of them feel insubstantial or inconsequential at times.

    It Take’s Two’s graphics are downright gorgeous, evoking the feeling of playing through a Pixar movie, with an aesthetic reminiscent of Good-Feel’s “crafted-look” platform games like Yoshi’s Crafted World. Animations are expressive, and the lighting, texturing, and use of materials to give everything a handcrafted look is top-notch. While A Way Out was a more subdued game visually thanks to its more realistic tone, It Takes Two has no such constraints, many scenes just explode with colors. As with that game, It Takes Two makes smart use of the split-screen view, resizing or even having one player’s screen completely fill the view to emphasize their actions. Each world is visually stunning and highly detailed apart from maybe the final one, which felt a bit rushed compared to the other sections of the game. Some areas offer detailed settings to explore with different pieces to interact with, while other sections take players on a high-speed rollercoaster ride through dazzling environments. My only real complaint with the graphics is that the human characters such as Rose can look a bit odd at times, but since most of the game is spent in the crafted world it’s not much of an issue. In terms of technical issues, there were a couple of brief stutters in cutscenes, and a few moments where the sound cut out, these typically happened during saving/loading moments, but otherwise the game is incredibly polished from start to finish.

    From start to finish, It Takes Two offers some of the most creative and downright fun platforming this side of Nintendo. It’s beautiful, smooth, and consistently inventive with a surprisingly lengthy campaign, and the collaborative aspect really adds a fresh dimension to the genre. There’s a clear tip of the hat to the iconic Japanese game company near the game’s conclusion, which makes it an utter disappointment that the game is currently unavailable on the Nintendo Switch, as any Mario fan with a buddy will easily lap this game up. I’d like to hope that Hazelight and Electronic Arts will one day rectify this, but given their inconsistent support of the hybrid console, that may not happen. Nevertheless, platforming fans who own other consoles or a gaming PC should absolutely take a look at It Takes Two - few games in recent memory have been filled with as many purely magical moments as this one.

By krisko6 on April 30th, 2021

Oddworld: Soulstorm (PlayStation 5)

A strange, infuriatingly twisted, yet ultimately soulful brew

The Good
* 2.9D level design makes Oddworld feel more immersive and real.

  • Amazing cutscenes, animation, and voice acting, with a compelling storyline that will make you want to see the game all the way through despite its difficulty.

  • A systems-heavy game that allows for greater player creativity when solving puzzles compared to previous games.

    The Bad
    * A more "video-gamey" experience than the series typically offers, particularly in regards to controls, HUD, and the crafting system.

  • A few bugs and glitches can ruin otherwise successful runs

  • Brutally difficult and downright unfair at times, particularly in regards to its checkpoint system.

    The Bottom Line
    First teased in 2015, Oddworld Soulstorm, the sequel to Oddworld Abe’s Oddysee New N’ Tasty, has finally landed on PlayStation consoles and PC. While the first game was a semi-faithful remake of the original with a few modernizations and tweaks, Soulstorm is a completely redesigned and reimagined experience in the vein of last year’s Final Fantasy VII remake. It’s effectively a new game, a chance to re-do the story from Abe’s Exoddus that is now the “official” second game in the proposed Oddworld Quintology, and the first wholly new Oddworld title since 2005 (wow, has it been a long time!).

    Soulstorm picks up after the events of New ’n Tasty, after Abe successfully rescued all Mudokons from Rupture Farms. On the hunt for Abe is Molluck the Glukon, the formerly disgraced CEO of Rupture Farms who has become the laughingstock of Oddworld for blaming the destruction of his factory on Abe, who is now seen as a myth. After the caves where his tribe are hiding get attacked by the Glukkons, Abe and his tribe set out on an epic journey to locate a new home. Along the way, Abe is tasked with searching for “The Keeper”, an ancient mystical Mudokon who guards the secret history of the Mudokons. At the center of all of this is the mysterious Soulstorm Brew, an addictive beverage that may be the key behind everything.

    Oddworld creator and the voice behind many of the game's characters, Lorne Lanning, claims that much of the game’s design is what was originally intended for Abe’s Exoddus, but time and hardware constrains forced Oddworld Inhabitants to pump out a very familiar sequel. Yet Soulstorm is at times such a heavily modernized game that it’s difficult to imagine that all of this was something they had wanted to do back in 1998. Unlike the minimalistc original, Soulstorm is a game with a full HUD, regenerating health, and achievements for each stage. It’s a much more “gamey” experience than New ’n Tasty, which may not sit so well with some longtime series fans.

    Cinematic platformers such as the Oddworld games are usually built around a standard set of conventions. The platforming is something a regular person could theoretically pull off, and there’s a weight to every action. Yet it isn’t long before Soulstorm introduces it’s first major shakeup to the genre. While you’ll still engage in the typical climbing, sprinting, and short jumps typical of its predecessors, Soulstorm now grants Abe the ability to double jump. Later levels require you make massive leaps of faith and use your double jump to land on far-off platforms. It’s a huge shift from the more grounded platforming typical of the genre, and while this makes the controls smoother for players unfamiliar with cinematic platformers, it also takes away some of the feeling of Abe being a slightly above-average joe protagonist against a massive corporation.

    Soulstorm introduces the Quarma system, which keeps track of the number of Mudokons you’ve rescued as well as the number of Sligs you’ve killed in each stage. Unlike the first game which gave you the good ending based on a flat number of Mudokons rescued, you’re required to rescue at least 80 percent of each stage’s Mudokons to earn the game’s true ending. You can choose to play the game lethally or non-lethally, and while Oddworld Inhabitants claims that it is possible to play the entire game without killing any Sligs, there were a few moments where killing one or multiple almost seemed inevitable to get past certain puzzles. I generally tried to play the pacifist, but certain sections were so irritatingly difficult with this approach that I ultimately had to resort to violence. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to affect the Quarma score to get the best ending since only the number of Mudokons rescued actually matters, but unlike Abe’s Odyssee it could make for a more interesting challenge on repeat playthroughs since that game didn’t give you many options in how you could take care of the enemy Sligs.. Nevertheless, violent players are going to have a much, much easier time of things than pure pacifists.

    As in the first game, Abe can chant to open doors and possess Sligs, although in Soulstorm, Abe’s chanting takes the form of a golden ball which can be moved around the screen for a limited time. When possessing a Slig, you can fire its weapons, kill it instantly, or un-possess it to stun it. Some areas require you to possess and stun multiple enemies to give Abe enough of a window of opportunity to pass. A new addition to Soulstorm are flying Sligs, which are super annoying in most situations but can also be possessed and flown through labyrinths to hit far off switches.

    Soulstorm’s puzzle solving puts a greater emphasis on inventory management and systems-based gameplay than previous games. The Soulstorm Brew is flammable and can be used to propgate fires, which can be used to burn wooden structures. Water bottles can be used to put out fires. This also extends to Soulstorm’s new crafting system. As you progress through each stage, you’ll collect various items from trashcans, lockers, dumpsters, and even Sligs’ pockets. You can then combine these into various weapons such as explosives and mines or utility items such as smokescreens and antidotes. For example, you can create Bouncy Rock Candies by combining them with rubber bands, which will knock out any Slig in one hit when thrown. Tape can be used to subdue individual Sligs, or combined with a Bouncy Rock Candy to create a ranged weapon that non-lethally takes out a Slig. You won’t have any of these crafting recipes at the start of the game, but you’ll earn them as you progress throughout. You can also purchase items from vending machines, and while these are sometimes free, other times you’ll need to use the game’s currency, moolah, to purchase these items. Youll also need moolah to get past certain doors, but as long as you thoroughly check everything you’ll almost always have more than enough to purchase everything you could want, so feel free to spend as much as you want on crafting better items.

    While Abe’s Oddysee largely consisted of small, self-contained puzzle rooms, Soustorm’s Mudokon rescues are often stretched out over the course of a stage. Many times, I had to collect a large group of Mudokons, lead them through an extended gauntlet of traps and sligs, then open the portal for them. While you’ll still be able to find self-contained side areas, most of them aren’t as deviously hidden as in Abe’s Oddysee. Most secret areas are only slightly off the beaten path in generally obvious locations. This might be a relief for those who want to rescue as many Mudokons as possible on their first run but a bit disappointing for those who appreciated the earlier titles’ demand for careful exploration. At least the game keeps track of the state of the captive Mudokons in each stage on the HUD, so you’ll know if you’ve missed some as you progress through each level. There were a couple of stages which were inconsistent with the order of the Mudokons shown on the HUD, so there were times when I thought I had missed a few only to find them much further in the stage, but for the most part the game keeps this HUD element straightforward.

    The new addition that’s sure to be the most divisive are the tower defense sections. Yes, you read that correctly. Certain levels contain hundreds of Mudokons that will need to be protected on a climb towards their freedom from Sligs which spawn in randomly on each level You can place traps and followers around each arena before pulling a lever, at which point Sligs begin spawning in the arena. You must subdue or kill all Sligs while ensuring a minimum number of casualties, while also keeping any followers you have inside the arena alive. It’s a lot to say the least, and while the new double jumping makes maneuvering around these arenas much easier, relying on your followers to do your dirty work for you is a bit flaky to say the least. Your best bet is to place them right behind to a spawn point and give them Fizzy Pop to throw at enemies, but sometimes they will take too long to throw it or run back to you after taking out one Slig. You’ll have to endure a lot of frustration in trying to get the AI to defend itself while not dying.

    There are also occasional on-rails shooter sections, where you’re required to knock out or kill Sligs in the background by shooting your weapons out of a cannon before they shoot towards your Mudokons. These are just as frustrating since Sligs open fire on you well before you can get a clear shot on them, though these bits are usually so short that the pain is somewhat lessened.

    The problems with these sections are only exacerbated by the checkpoint system. Checkpoints are often placed right at the entrance of each arena, but this is a problem as you will need to spend time searching all of the lockers and placing your followers in their positions before pulling the lever. You can’t save again at the same checkpoint, so after you or your followers inevitably die you’ll need to go through all of the setup and crafting all over again before giiving it another go, or head to another checkpoint then return to the current area. The option to simply save again at a checkpoint is something that desperately needs to be added in future patches, especially since the Quiksave feature from New ’n Tasty has been scrapped this time around. It’s a good thing that you’re not actually required to get all Mudokons in a level for the best ending, or Soulstorm would feel like a virtually impossible experience.

    At least visually, Soulstorm is a mostly-solid looking game. Like the preious remake, it also runs on the Unity engine but with updates for more modern hardware. The textures are solidly detailed if occasionally blurry, and there’s a clean visual language for what can and can’t be interacted with. Levels set in dark caves make excellent use of the game’s dynamic lighting system, including a harrowing chapter where you must avoid monsters who are repulsed only by light. While New n’ Tasty was strictly a 2D game, Soulstorm does much more ambitious things with its camera system to create what the developers term “2.9D”. Levels don’t just simply move left to right on a linear plane, they snake around columns and twist and turn into and out of the background. Stages often consist of multiple layers, where the next part of the stage is visible yet distant in the background, giving a preview of what’s to come. This gives a greater sense of scale and allows Oddworld to feel less like a game world and more like a real place, although throwing or interacting with certain objects not part of the linear plane can be a bit inconsistent.

    The real visual standout are the cutscenes between levels, which honestly have animation rivaling some of the best AAA games out there. Cutscenes are actually FMVs created within the Unity engine, but since they are encoded to run at 60 FPS on PS5, it was impossible to tell that they were not running in realtime on my system. Watching these cutscenes honestly felt like watching a PG-13 film produced by Pixar with how detailed and lifelike the animation is, combined with the excellent, if quirky voice acting. While the first game featured cutscenes primarily narrated by Abe, Soulstorm takes here’s a much more dialogue-heavy approach to the storytelling that draws you in to a much greater extent, with full voices for both your Mudokon companions as well as the villainous Glukkons. It really fleshes out the story in a way that Oddworld never did in the past. This is backed by a surprising commitment to a more serious and epic tone, a conscious shift from Soulstorm’s flatulence-obsessed predecessors. The only blemish is the occasional “Saving Checkpoint” graphic that appears under some of these as they play, and hopefully this is a bug that can be patched soon.

    There are a few technical issues and bugs, mostly due to launch-period teething issues, although these are far less pronounced than other recent games I could name. There are occasional moments where even the mighty PS5 chugs, particularly after some explosions, and the framedrops that occur when hitting checkpoints can be annoying as well, though there’s apparently no plans to fix that due to the nature of the save system. I also noticed some visual issues such as Abe falling endlessly through the level or followers t-posing as they prepare to jump off a platform, but these were mostly rare and can probably be fixed after a few patches. One unfortunate bug happened to me near the end of a stage when all of the Mudokons following me vanished after I died. While I was still able to get the 80 percent completion required for the stage, it was super annoying to miss out on 100 percent because of this random glitch. Other bugs I saw included Abe’s possession getting stuck and the enhanced smokescreen consumables somehow lasting shorter than the basic ones, both of which absolutely should not be the case,

    Oddworld Soulstorm was a real roll-of-the-dice from Oddworld Inhabitants. They could have simply chosen to rebuild Abe’s Exoddus in the new graphical engine, but instead chose to completely redesign and modernize the game from the ground up. The end result is something that will probably shock old-school Oddworld fans, while not being modernized enough for brand new players. It’s an infuriatingly difficult and sometimes patchy experience, that lacks some tuning and polish. Yet it’s also one with a lot of artistic ambition, character, and heart. It’s the kind of game you just don’t see very often in today’s market of bland looter games and annualized sports titles. Even if I ultimately preferred New ’n Tasty over this new direction, I’m still very glad games like this are still getting made.

By krisko6 on April 28th, 2021

A Way Out (PlayStation 4)

A frustratingly inconsistent co-op adventure.

The Good
* A unique co-op experience that emphasizes communication and teamwork

  • Lots of gameplay variety within the campaign

  • Lets you play the entire game with a friend with only one copy purchased

    The Bad
    * Past the first third, inconsistent level design and game mechanics

  • Mediocre writing and voice acting. The game strains for an emotional climax that isn't earned.

  • Overly cartoonish visuals and bland sound design.

  • Netcode issues

    The Bottom Line
    A Way Out, the debut title from Swedish developer Hazelight Studios, led by Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons director Josef Fares, is a 1970’s-set crime thriller designed as an exclusive co-operative experience. There’s no single player mode or computer AI to help you here, this split-screen adventure requires a friend from beginning to end. In a rare occurrence, the game only requires that one person own the game in order to play it, and I applaud EA and Hazelight for allowing A Way Out to be more accessible than it otherwise would have been.

    The title follows two men behind bars: Leo, who has been in prison for some time, and new recruit Vincent, who has been convicted of murder charges. After the pair get to know each other, the two plot a perilous escape from prison: first to visit their wives and children, and second to get revenge on Harvey, a man in possession of a rare diamond that both men have past connections with.

    As you would expect from a buddy adventure, this pair of escapees have distinctly contrasting worldviews and approaches to various situations. Leo is more violent and direct, while Vincent generally prefers a quieter, more subtle approach. There will be several times when the two debate different approaches to the problems in front of them, and both players will need to communicate and agree on what to do before continuing. This also gives the game a bit of replay value as you can take different approaches during each playthrough, although the overall story will remain relatively unchanged.

    The initial section involving the prison escape is easily A Way Out’s strongest section. The puzzles may be basic, but you feel quite clever for figuring them out, even if there are some times when your actions would be blindingly suspicious to even the most amateur prison guards. There’s a satisfying rhythm to each scene as you see each part of the plan come together and learn to coordinate your actions. One section where the pair need to chisel out of their cells while avoiding the watchful eye of passing guards is particularly tense, as one player must keep lookout while the other furiously taps to dig behind their thin prison walls. Communication, timing, and luck are all necessary to survive each moment of this section. It’s a good thing that playing on my PS5 made this surprisingly easy since the DualSense controller happens to have a built-in speaker and microphone.

    Once that initial breakout is complete, however, the experience varies wildly in terms of quality. What started as a subtle yet tense thriller is at some points an unbearably low-key family drama complete with optional minigames and side activities, and at others a bombastic, Uncharted-on-a-budget action spectacle, with moments of slow-motion and tons of explosion. A game that had started out so surely and cleverly suddenly has trouble finding a consistent tone and sticking with it over the course of its 6-hour runtime. You clearly can’t fault the campaign’s variety, but the game feels as if it was pin-balling between boring and exciting extremes. A key example of this is during the buildup to a late emotional scene, we had the option of engaging in a game of balancing on wheelchairs, comically falling over and laughing like kids.

    The game stumbles especially hard at the end, which not only has a twist reminiscent of a '80s arcade classic, but executes it in a manner that feels tedious and completely unnecessary. A Way Out wants to earn an emotional ending, but the weak writing and mediocre vocal performances prevented me from embracing Vincent and Leo’s story in the way the developers had intended.

    Most of the game is presented in a vertical split-screen format whether you’re playing online or with someone sitting next to you. The view will often shift to emphasize certain aspects that one character might be doing over another. Some sequences take place in a horizontal split-screen view to give the player a better sense of their surroundings. A later action scene, which depicts the two characters escaping a location via completely different paths, shifts the view entirely between the two characters, as the camera moves through vents and shifts perspectives in a seamless, unbroken take.

    Graphically, A Way Out isn’t likely to give most AAA games pause - this is an indie effort through and through. Character models have weirdly cartoonish proportions and animations which make taking the story seriously a bit difficult at times. Lighting is entirely baked, shadows are a bit non-existent, and while there are the occasional beautiful or unique environments, most of them are generic and uninteresting. I suppose the slightly-dated look of the graphics was meant to facilitate a consistently smooth gameplay experience on consoles despite the split-screen format, although one sequence in particular still has framerate issues. There were also at least two instances where our game got disconnected from the servers. The game’s checkpoint system is surprisingly generous, so we didn’t lose a ton of progress, but it really shouldn’t have happened regardless.

    Despite the game’s cinematic tone, nothing about the game feels particularly memorable in terms of its sound design. The only neat twist is how the game manipulates the volume when key moments are taking place within one side of the screen. Nothing about the soundtrack feels particularly 1970’s, and there aren’t even any licensed tracks to emphasize the period.

    A Way Out offers a unique, and occasionally brilliant co-op experience, but there are just as many aspects of it that are disappointing. It fells like Hazelight had a really nifty idea for a game yet were unable to truly follow it through. All of its best ideas are in the opening section, and their attempts to be more emotional and bombastic fall apart due to lacking storytelling and shallow gameplay mechanics. Josef Fares may come from a film background, yet there’s nothing Oscar-worthy about the hackneyed b-movie that plays out in front of you. The only reason you’d care is getting to play through this with a friend, which made it a lot more interesting than it otherwise would have been.

By krisko6 on April 22nd, 2021

Spiritfarer (Windows)

Cruise to the Afterlife

The Good
* Gorgeous hand-drawn art style

  • Building and crafting a bigger ship is more satisfying than expected.

  • Goal-oriented gameplay and emotional character stories keep you invested once the grind kicks in.

  • Smooth, fluid platforming controls and Metroidvania progression

    The Bad
    * Late game becomes extremely grindy and tedious

  • Some materials and spirits have esoteric requirements for collection

  • No real incentive to properly invest in the cooking system beyond giving basic meals to your spirits

    The Bottom Line
    Death is one of gaming’s most fundamental themes. How many countless creatures and humanoids have we killed across all of the games we’ve played? We often done so without a second thought: every kill is just another frag, a point to be earned, an obstacle to overcome. Spiritfarer takes a different approach: it’s a game about death set in the afterlife. Very much inspired and at times blatantly derivative of games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley, Spiritfarer finds its own identity thanks to its more mature tone surrounding the subject of death.

    Spiritfarer takes place in a world between life and death, where spirits roam a collection of small islands. As Stella, the new Spiritfarer appointed by Charon at the start of the game, it’s your task to board the world’s spirits on a voyage towards the Everdoor, the portal to death. Until they’re ready to go, you’ll cater to their every request: building a home, keeping them fed and happy, taking them on shore excursions, and of course making sure to give them a hug every once in a while.

    The spirit passengers take the forms of different animals, although as far as I could tell there didn’t seem to be much correlation between their personality and the animal form they take. As you fulfill their requrests, they’ll gradually open up more about their past life. Once their quest chains are completed, you’ll then need to take them to the Everdoor for a final goodbye.

    At the start of the game, you’re given a basic ship with only a cabin for yourself. You’ll start out by building a guest house for spirits to sleep on board, and a kitchen for cooking meals. Gradually, you’ll gather blueprints for new kinds of buildings, such as fields to grow crops and looms to manufacture thread and fabric. You’ll also find blueprints which allow you to upgrade these buildings to increase their efficiency and output.

    Traveling to new islands will unveil the surrounding fog of war on the map, though you’re also free to explore by simply picking a spot to sail towards even if it’s covered up. Each island contains several different types of resources, which you can either harvest from the natural surroundings or purchase at shops run by raccoons. If you choose to harvest a resource, it will eventually renew after some time, so you’re perfectly free to take as much as you need. Some islands contain new spirits, and though some of these will join you immediately, others will take a bit of convincing before they choose to board your ship. You might need to build a house for them on your ship, for example. Each spirit will offer you an obal, which can then be cashed in at various shrines to earn new platforming abilities for Stella that allow you to reach new areas within the islands. Some islands also contain sidequests, which can net you resources or glims to put towards major ship upgrades.

    Resources can be spent on building new cabins, upgrading both residential and manufacturing cabins, and upgrading your ship at Albert’s shipyard. Upgrades include increasing the size of your vessel, unlocking new buildings to craft, and adding features such as a mailbox or an icebreaker to enable travel in the northern part of the map. One curious feature is that you are not allowed to delete any spirits’ homes, even after they have passed on through the Everdoor. These custom homes often have unusual shapes which make fitting in all of the cabins you want a bit of a pain until you upgrade ships. There’s no in-game reason given for this, so I can only assume the designers created this rule as a means of showing respect for the dead. This can still be kind of frustrating until you get your hands on the bigger ships.

    During voyages, you’ll have time to chat with your passengers abut their past lives, or perform various chores around the ship such as fishing, watering plants, cooking meals, and manufacturing fabric, wood, or metals. While some spirits will do these tasks on their own, the results are never as potent as doing them yourself, and you’ll need to spend a fair amount of time grinding away at the somewhat repetitive minigames in order to obtain all of the resources you need. Minigames also occur when you sail your ship into specific spots on the map like storms: these will also give you glims and opportunities to harvest specific resources, though they are optional and can be skipped if you’re trying to get to your destination quicker.

    As you reach the later parts of the game, ship upgrades become more and more costly, often requiring you to sell your excess junk and materials and/or grind for all the glims you need to actually afford them. The crafting system is such that after a certain point you will rarely need “lower tier” materials to craft the necessary items for progression. Linens and maple become almost useless after a certain point of the game. I found it hard to gauge when I could safely get rid of these materials, as I have an unfortunate habit of holding on to everything until the last minute. It can also be difficult sometimes to gauge where to get certain materials. For example, certain world events to harvest specific materials or build specific items only begin to appear once you have certain spirits on-board, but the game doesn’t do a great job of sign-posting when this happens. I often had to look up guides on how to get certain materials since there was no information on how to get them in-game.

    Yet for all of my talk about late-game grindiness, Spiritfarer ultimately leans onto the casual side of video games - this is no in-depth or hardcore sim, and certain design choices reflect that philosophy. The ship, Stella, and the spirits, are effectively immune from any environmental hazards and cannot “die”: crashing your ship into a rock before you get the rockbreaker upgrade will merely stop you ship instead of sinking it. Your inventory is also unlimited and you can hold as much stuff as you want, which is great for those players with a hoarder mentality like mine who have to hold on to everything because they’re convinced they will need it someday. The cooking system has been designed where there are numerous dishes you can make, yet actually digging into this system doesn’t confer you any particular advantages. Spirits will refuse to eat the same dish twice in a row, meaning you’ll need to be stocked up on several types of foods, which could be the start of an interesting challenge. Yet while there are specific dishes and dish types that each spirit prefers, such as Summer’s refusal to eat meat, you can feed most spirits simple foods like fruits and veggies or coffee and tea and that will be enough to keep them satisfied. The later spirits will force you to prepare more complex dishes, but there’s no incentive to actually feed them specific dishes. I wish the game was a bit less lenient as far as how the food and hunger systems go, and actually rewarded me for cooking as many different dish types as I could: perhaps different dishes could confer specific benefits onto spirits when eaten. Still, I can appreciate that I was rarely in a position where I was unable to keep my spirits fed given how much work there was to do elsewhere.

    Graphically, Spiritfarer opts for a simple but striking Saturday morning cartoon-inspired look much in the same vein as Thunder Lotus’ previous games. The hand-drawn sprites are wonderfully expressive and at times downright gorgeous: bristling with personality and charm. Every area has its own distinct architectural and environmental design inspired by the real world: the starting islands have a summery Mediterranean vibe, while later areas are inspired by Japan and Nordic countries. The game also makes great use of lighting and weather effects, giving just a touch of realism and believability to this cartoon world. Sunlight rays pierce the open air in the early morning, while storms are very dramatic and filled with loud bangs and explosions. The game is exceptionally well-optimized considering it runs on the resource-heavy Unity engine: I didn’t see any slowdown, camera jitter, frame pacing, or unexpected stuttering at any moment during gameplay. It’s a fluid experience from the moment you press start.

    The sound design is simple but effective. There is essentially no voice acting aprt from some grunts and noises from the various characters you meet. The score in Spiritfarer consists of jaunty orchestral themes when sailing the seas and venturing through storms, and quieter tunes when exploring on-shore or sleeping at night. The instrumentation used often reflects the architectural settings of the surrounding environments - the Japanese inspired areas have Eastern-style background music. There’s also the occasional use of ethereal electronic elements to give a more other-worldly sound. There were some irritating pieces such as the songs played when the junk merchant Francis visits your boat, but for the most part the music is a pleasant experience and mostly made up for the lack of voice acting.

    Spiritfarer made a strong first impression, although that faded into eventual tedium as I got later in the game. Still, considering that this is primarily a crafting-driven game, Spritfarer managed to keep my attention for longer than most games in its genre thanks to its more goal-focused design over sandbox meandering. The gorgeous art design and charming characters also kept me playing even during the extremely tedious parts of the game. Ultimately, Spiritfarer is a refreshing look at life and death that isn’t a morbid or macabre experience, although it could have used some streamlining.

By krisko6 on March 29th, 2021

Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee - New 'n' Tasty! (PlayStation 4)

An Oddysee you'll never forget!

The Good
* Captivating story and cinematic platform gameplay

  • A lengthy, challenging campaign filled with deadly puzzles

  • Possessing enemies is a ton of fun

  • A great translation of the original graphics into 2.5D

    The Bad
    * Punishingly difficult and unforgiving

  • Steep learning curve

  • Throwing grenades can be a bit wonky at times.

    The Bottom Line
    I just can’t get enough of cinematic platformers loaded with trial-and-error gameplay and intentionally stiff controls. I love the challenge of having to actually think about overcoming more realistic physical limitations as opposed to mindlessly controlling the superhuman-like characters of other platformer games. Yet if there’s one mountain I have never climbed, it’s the Oddworld games, and more specifically the first two titles: Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus, which were two major examples of the genre released in 1997 and 1998 respectively. I tried out the original versions of these games on my Steam account, only to be taken aback at just how complex and unforgiving they were, even by this genre’s often rigorous standards. Oddworld may have just been the most complicated, and nasty cinematic platformer experience of them all, something only designed for the bravest and most tenacious gamers among us. With the incoming release of Soulstorm, the reimagining of Exoddus and sequel to this game, on its way, now’s the time to look back on the 2014 remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee that successfully revitalized Oddworld Inhabitants back to prominence in the video game market.

    On an alien planet known as Oddworld, there exists a meat factory known as Rupture Farms, which packages all of the creatures of the world up as various meat products to be sold across the galaxy, until each species has gone extinct. Our enslaved Mudokon protagonist, Abe, observes a boardroom meeting one night and discovers that, with few options left, Rupture Farms in planning on putting his species on the chopping block as the main ingredient in their upcoming product, “New ’n Tasty”. From there, Abe attempts to escape, becoming a reluctant hero as he attempts to rescue all of his fellow Mudokons enslaved at Rupture Farms before they become baked into meat pies.

    Oddworld’s creator and the voice of Abe, Lorne Lanning, wanted to create a game that expressed more social and political themes than were typically expected of the titles of the day, eventually settling on Odddworld being a commentary on environmentalism, capitalism, and food crises. A lot of this had already been explored in other media, but seeing it in video games was quite a rare and unusual thing at the time. Had Oddworld come out only half a decade later, it would have likely been hailed right alongside many beloved indie titles.

    Controlling Abe is, true to the cinematic platformer style, intentionally clunky and stiff. You can use the analogue stick to walk or run at different speeds. Abe can crouch and roll up into a ball to enter tight spaces. He can also sneak, which is useful for getting past sleeping or unobservant enemies. Using the GameSpeak system, Abe can give simple commands to his fellow Mudokons, ordering them to follow him and wait so that they can be maneuvered to the right places. This system can also be utilized to complete copycat door puzzles and inputting passwords, using whistles and farts (it was the ’90’s).

    Abe is also able to possess enemy Sligs using his chant. Once possessed, Abe can use GameSpeak to speak to other Sligs or tell Mudokons to duck. Sligs cannot jump, climb, or crouch like Abe can, but they can interact with switches and pulleys if necessary. Abe can also fire Slig weaponry, which can be used to kill other Sligs or enemies. Just be sure to not shoot your fellow Mudokons, and try to be sneaky about killing Sligs, as they can turn on you and kill your possessed vessel. The Sligs have left Chant Suppressors around to prevent Abe from using it to possess them, which can either be blown up using grenades or using a power received toward the end of the game.

    There are various items which Abe can throw. You can throw coins which can be used to distract Sligs. You’ll also be able to pick up grenades which are used to destroy hazards and kill enemies, or meat which is used to distract Paramites long enough for Abe to sneak past them.

    This remake may have apparently toned down the difficulty of the original, but it’s still an outrageously tough, patience testing game at times. There are certain levels which require the player to execute precise actions within a quick amount of time. Some puzzles practically require you to abuse or break certain mechanics just to get past them, such as one room where I needed to repeatedly throw coins to get a Slig to turn around long enough for me to get behind them, then run and jump across several ledges at once. Using grenades is flaky and inconsistent, since they bounce around so easily, and dropping them off ledges is flaky at best since they bounce around randomly. During the late game, it’s actually possible to lock yourself out of being able to rescue Mudokons since you’ll need specific items or powers to reach behind several doors. The checkpoint system is both a gift and a curse: they’re frequent enough that you won’t need to worry too much about saving. However, there are times where you can hit a checkpoint and inadvertently place yourself in a nearly impossible or unwinnable situation. I recommend using the Quiksave functionality as much as you can since that will allow you to go back if you get permanently stuck in an area.

    The real kicker is the ending. I felt like I had gone out of my way to save every Mudokon I could, but by the time I rolled the credits on my first playthrough I was shocked to discover I had missed over half of them, which was enough for the game to show me the bad ending. And it really is a bad ending, the kind of thing you don’t want to see after a game has really put you through the wringer like this one did. You’ll need to save at least half of the game’s Mudokons to see the good ending, but most players aren’t likely to achieve this milestone on their first playthrough. You’ll need to be fully aware that the majority of Mudokons are hidden in some incredibly tricky locations. You can go back to earlier sections of the game to collect the missing aliens, which is a nice touch and helped me get the good ending without needing to venture through the entire game a second time.

    Visually the remake has been given a complete overhaul, going from 2D prerendered sprites to fully 3D backgrounds and characters rendered in the Unity engine. Artistically, it’s a perfect translation of the original game’s style to modern hardware, with much more colorful lighting and environmental detail. The remake also ditches the static flip-screen scrolling of the original for a continuously scrolling camera, and while this leads to a much smoother experience it does mean that certain puzzles are breakable in ways not quite intended by the designers. I would sometimes run into obstacles when running fast, so I would often end up walking instead. I also noticed a few strange jitters as the camera scrolled around, and I’m not sure if this is due to early Unity games’ often terrible optimization or the way the camera was coded.

    I played this on my PlayStation 5 due to backwards compatibility, and while most of the game was fine, I did run into repeated crashing near the end in rooms which contained a ridiculous amount of Slogs, creatures that are sometimes used as guard dogs. It was only through repeated loading and luck that I was able to get past these. I don’t know if the crashing was a result of playing a game that hadn’t been properly updated to take advantage of the new hardware, but this section was annoying regardless, especially since there had otherwise been no issues up to that point.

    Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee New ’n Tasty may have made me want to do terrible things to my PlayStation 5, but leading a slave revolt is never easy, even with divine power on your side. If you can overcome its complex controls and puzzle design, Oddworld: Abe's Odyssee New ’n Tasty, like the best games in its genre, has that addictive quality to it, that inexorable pull to see Abe through his journey, no matter how difficult it is and no matter what ending you see. There’s no doubt that Oddworld is an acquired taste: you have to not only truly love cinematic platformers but also be on-board with wacky creature designs, a protagonist with a strange voice and a blackly comedic storyline. But New ’n Tasty helps to make this wild concoction go down much easier for today’s gamers.

By krisko6 on March 21st, 2021

The Medium (Windows)

A medium-rare order of horror

The Good
* Great graphics, voice acting, and sound design

  • Split-screen, parallel dimension gameplay is a neat twist for horror games

  • Strong initial setup and solid pacing throughout

    The Bad
    * The ending. An absolute garbage conclusion that ruins the entire game.

  • Mechanics are simplistic or underdeveloped and take a backseat to the (disappointing) story. Puzzles are basic and stealth is lackluster.

  • Tries a bit too hard to be disturbing

    The Bottom Line
    The concept of split-screen gaming has been largely abandoned as developers shift to producing always online multiplayer titles. The idea of hanging out with your friends and battling it out on the latest FPS has been ditched with the assumption that everyone has the latest consoles. But what if split screen could be used for a single-player game? That’s the approach Bloober Team took when designing their newest horror adventure title, The Medium. A clear homage to the classic PlayStation-era third-person horror games such as Silent Hill, complete with songs composed by Akira Yamaoka to evoke the Konami classic, it opts for a more puzzle-based approach to disappointingly mixed results.

    Set in 1999 Poland, the player takes on the role of Marianne, a woman dealing with all kinds of mental and spiritual problems as she possesses special abilities which allow her to perceive the spirit world alongside our own, thus enabling her to communicate with the dead and help them “cross over”. Over the years, Marianne has gradually accepted her abilities as her new normal, despite the disbelief of everyone else. One day after her father dies, Marianne gets a call from a man named Thomas who knows of Marianne’s abilities and begs her for help. The call leads her to an abandoned resort hotel called Niwa, which originally catered to communist officials and their families, and just so happens to be the site of an event where many people were killed at once. As Marianne investigates the resort’s dark secrets and her connection to its mysterious past, she comes face to face with a terrifying creature known as the Maw.

    Marianne’s spiritual powers manifest by splitting the screen into two realities: the material world, and the spiritual world. This always occurs during specific, scripted moments during the story. You will often need to manipulate objects in the spiritual world to get past obstacles in the material world, and this puzzle solving forms the core of the experience. You’ll charge objects using “spirit energy”, use a shield to blast moth-like enemies, and reconstruct memories within the spirit world to progress the story. Marianne also has the ability to split her soul from her body for an “out of body” experience. Doing this gives her a limited amount of time to investigate areas which are blocked in the material world but unblocked in the spirit world. Later on, Marianne also gains the ability to cross over fully from one world to the other utilizing mirrors, which also enable a kind of teleportation between areas in the material world.

    In the material world, Marianne will solve basic inventory puzzles to progress past locked doors or reach ledges. Often times, the player will need to use Marianne’s insight, a detective-vision-like feature, to follow trails and locate hidden objects and switches. Insight can also be used when inspecting objects to hear audio logs from the past. Some puzzles involve simulating physical interactions with the controller, such as pressing both triggers to break a lock with bolt cutters or holding down the stick to cut through walls of skin with a razorblade (don’t ask).

    Eventually, Marianne will need to sneak past the Maw, which shows up at several key moments during the adventure. The creature is invisible in the material world, but the player can use Marianne’s insight to get a sense of where the Maw is located. All you’ll need to do is avoid the creature’s line of sight while staying crouched and holding your breath with the right stick and you’ll slip by pretty easily. It’s unfortunate that the stealth mechanics are so simplistic and underdeveloped, and these sections are disappointingly short and half-baked. I think having a more stealth focused game trying to avoid the Maw would have been more tense, but The Medium cops out and limits this to a very small handful of instances which are over far too quickly. The rest of the encounters with the Maw either involve setting up traps to stun him or being chased down long corridors. I think the developers could have done more with this creature.

    Graphically, The Medium is a nice-looking game considering the small size of the development studio. Running on Unreal Engine 4, the environments are dripping with atmosphere and gritty details. The mundane world is rusted and falling apart, while the spirit world offers consistently hellish, nightmarish landscapes. There are later sections within the spirit world that offer some truly trippy and creative designs, making use of oversized objects as background props, and showcasing the darkest corners of the human mind. The cutscenes are very well animated, and I particularly like the way they are often split in two, showing Marianne interacting with the spirit world despite nothing being there in the material one. It helps us get inside her perspective while showing us why everyone else thinks she’s crazy. The transitions between the material and spirit world never stop being jarring for the entire duration of the game. The Medium largely opts for the fixed camera angles seen in the early Resident Evil games, which is a fairly unusual setup for a modern title, although there are sections where the camera will also follow along behind Marianne as she walks forward down a path or corridor. The only issue for a lot of players is the sheer demanding nature of the game.

    This is the first “true” next-gen game I’ve played on PC, as even the PS4 and Xbox One reportedly could not handle this game due to the sheer grunt required to run two parallel universes side by side. I ended up running the game at 30 FPS, which was fine for the most part but even then there were a few moments, almost exclusively during cutscenes, which visibly chugged just a bit. It was hardly ever enough to ruin my experience, but it’s clear that The Medium is quite the beast when it comes to demanding modern games, and I would imagine some will use this as a benchmark title when testing out new PC builds.

    The music is also intensely atmospheric. It’s mostly ambient noises and atmospheric effects, but there are a number of vocal pieces which pop up throughout the soundtrack. The voice acting is solid across the board and I never noticed any particularly bad performances even if things were overdone or campy at times.

    The Medium is a game which puts all of its stock in its story, with the puzzles, stealth, and chase sequences serving as pacing between the moments which flesh out the mystery. Unfortunately, it’s also the area where The Medium really drops the ball. The opening hours are strong, setting up a heroine with cool abilities, a novel setting, and a seemingly compelling mystery. The game only gets darker and more disturbing as it goes along, and some will find some of the topics the story broaches to be uncomfortably taboo and even offensive. The game can honestly feel like it's trying too hard to shock at times, and I wouldn’t blame someone for not wanting to continue the game’s story given its implications. At first it seems like politics of Polish history will play a larger role in the story than they actually do. I’m not one for political games, but it feels like Bloober Team spent so much time in the early sections of the game referencing various ideologies but not actually doing much with them. You’re in a resort run by communists, but it’s so easy to forget that when the main story has very little to do with that apart from a few references.

    But the real kicker is the game's conclusion. No game in recent memory has left me feeling more cheated after finishing it than The Medium. It’s honestly difficult to overstate exactly how disappointed I was with The Medium’s ending without going into some very heavy spoilers. Some might appreciate the ending’s ambiguity, but for me it was a total shrug of a conclusion, the kind of ending that makes you wish you never wasted your time installing the game in the first place.

    There's a thrilling and intriguing story in here somewhere, but Bloober Team just bungled it in trying to be “artsy”. The gameplay, while functional, isn’t truly fun enough to make the journey worth taking. The end result is a pretty, but empty experience that wastes strong visuals and sound design, a great setup, and a concept that, while not as innovative as claimed, still offers a lot of potential for the horror genre. The Medium is, quite simply, undercooked. Take this one back to the kitchen, please.

By krisko6 on February 18th, 2021

Marvel Spider-Man: Miles Morales (PlayStation 5)

New Generation, New Spider-Man

The Good
* A great technical showcase for the PS5 launch: speedy load times, ray-traced reflections, and new weather effects make for a more immersive experience.

  • Miles' new abilities are fun to use.

  • A mostly-solid continuation of the story from the first game.

    The Bad
    * A very familiar experience to the first game

  • Game is shorter and smaller in scale than the first, between a DLC and a full campaign.

  • Some annoying boss fights drag down the fun.

    The Bottom Line
    In the fall of 2018, Sony and developer Insomniac Games launched what would be known as one of the PlayStation 4’s defining titles: Spider-Man. The game’s lavish production values, open-world web traversal, enjoyable combat, and cinematic storytelling made for an enjoyable comic-book power fantasy. With the dawn of a new console generation and the power afforded to the developers, Insomiac decided to return to their reimagined Marvel universe and continue the story by focusing on a new character taking up the Spider-Man mantle: Miles Morales. Somewhere between a DLC and a sequel, the game largely sticks to the template established by its predecessor while offering up a few new wrinkles of its own.

    Continuing where the previous games’ DLC left off, the story is set some time after the original game around the holiday season. Miles has spent some time learning how to use his newfound spider powers under Peter Parker’s tutelage. One day, Parker decides to leave New York on vacation with his girlfriend over in Europe, entrusting Miles with the responsibility of being New York’s only Spider-Man. That’s also when Miles begins to discover that he has some unique abilities of his own which Parker doesn’t possess. New enemies emerge over the holiday break as Miles is caught in a war between Roxxon, a corporation offering a new clean energy source and an eco-terrorist resistance known as The Underground. Miles must split his time with protecting his neighborhood from these new threats while also dealing with the highs and lows that come with the holiday season.

    As with the first game, the game’s story presentation is highly cinematic, fitting more with the tone of the Sam Raimi/Tobey McGuire-era Spider-Man films than any other incarnation, although with Miles as the star there’s also a bit of the acclaimed animated feature Into The Spider-Verse mixed in as well. We’re given a much greater exploration of Miles’ domestic life compared to the first game, as he’s still a high school student unlike the post-grad Peter Parker. Much like Into the Spider-Verse, the soundtrack mixes the traditional orchestral stylings of the first game with drum machines, electronic beats, and even songs with vocals, giving an urban, hip-hop flavor to this particular Spider-Man. There’s even a suit mod you can unlock which mimics the annoyingly choppy, stop-motion comic book animation style from that film, even if that looks incredibly out of place in the photo-realistic world of Insomniac’s games. One thing that might throw some people off is that the voice of Peter Parker has been completely recast for this installment. That being said, the new actor does an excellent job with the role and I barely noticed it after a while.

    The presentation is only enhanced with the new possibilities afforded by the next-generation PS5 hardware. Despite also being available on the PS4, Miles Morales is clearly designated as Sony’s flagship, showcase launch title for the system. The PS5’s speedy SSD allows for unbelievably quick loading times when booting up the game, while the enhanced draw distance and ray-traced reflections offer up a more immersive New York. New weather effects this time around include snow, intense blizzards, and fog, although as with the first game every time of day is pre-set for each story mission, and there is no true day-to-night cycle. There’s a calm, serene beauty to the falling snow and Christmas lights which contrasts nicely with the fast-paced comic-book action of the gameplay. There’s also a performance mode, which shuts off the more advanced graphical features but doubles the framerate, allowing for an unbelievably smooth and fluid 60 FPS game experience that puts the previous generation incarnation to shame. While no single enhancement truly blew me away individually, all of these features collectively make for an impressive experience at the outset of a new generation. Insomniac has also remade the original game’s campaign using these new features and upgrades as well, allowing you to transfer your game across generations, although you’ll need to purchase the ultimate edition to download this. That being said, I did witness a couple of crashes as I made my way through this game’s campaign, so perhaps there’s a few next-generation kinks left to iron out.

    Spider-Man Miles Morales doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to its overall game experience. Even though Miles is supposed to be a rookie compared to the far more experienced Peter in the first game, the way the game feels to play is remarkably similar. You’ll still swing around New York as Spider-Man with the same basic control scheme as before, completing various objectives and earning skill points and tokens to invest in upgrading Miles’ abilities and suits. You’ll still battle waves of faceless goons from various factions using different combo moves as well as gadgets. The open world of New York is largely the same apart from being gussied up for Christmas, and new interiors have been added for specific missions. And random crimes and objectives will pop up constantly to reward you with experience points and tokens that can be used to unlock new skills and suits. A hero’s work is never done, it seems.

    There have been some changes and streamlining, however. First, the Pipe Dream-style puzzle sections which were meant to simulate Parker’s scientist occupation have been completely axed in favor of environmental puzzles, a smart idea in theory. However these are disappointingly basic, and rarely, if ever had me stumped for long. Generally, the puzzles come down to either using web to connect electric wires, using Miles’ bioelectric abilities to charge generators or punch through walls, or using web to hold a mechanism in place to keep a door open. That’s where the second major difference comes in, as instead of each suit having its own special ability when the special meter is full, Miles utilizes his own bioelectric “Venom” attacks which stun enemies and open them up for extra damage. You’ll need this to break the guard of the new enemy types introduced in this game, and it also allows for a fair amount of crowd control. The downside is that each suit feels a bit less unique, although some of them are still pretty cool. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock increasingly powerful venom attacks, starting from a punch and eventually graduating to using a full, screen-clearing attack which knocks out just about everybody around you.

    Later on, Miles can also turn invisible using his camouflage power, which is highly useful for stealth and avoiding hairy situations during combat. I’ve even been able to escape combat entirely and go back into stealth when using this during a few instances. That being said, I feel that the length of time Miles can become invisible is a bit too long, however, and its a bit too easy to just walk around and web everyone unseen. This ability, while awesome to use, could have used a bit of nerfing.

While the first game constantly shifted the player’s perspective between Peter Parker and the unpowered Miles Morales and Mary Jane, I found this to be a choice which didn’t pay off. We want to play as Spider-Man in our Spider-Man game! This time around there are no such perspective shifts and we’re playing as Miles for the entire game although there are a couple of flashbacks to Miles’ life as an ordinary kid.

While the first game was loaded with huge set pieces and big boss battles, Mile Morales dials things back a bit due to its shorter campaign. Most of the story missions are focused around the Harlem area as opposed to all of New York. There are some nifty set pieces involving a mall, a bridge, and a few major boss battles, and all of these offer the kind of spectacle seen in the first game: there just isn’t as much of it. One boss battle in the back half of the game is easily the most annoying fight between the two campaigns, and if it weren’t for the game’s forgiving checkpointing I might have chosen to dial down the difficulty for a bit.

Spider-Man Miles Morales does the PS5 proud as its inaugural AAA title, offering a great superhero experience. However, it rests so much on the foundation laid by its predecessor that there really isn’t much left to go beyond continuing the story and streamlining a few aspects and adding some new powers for its new character. Much like Miles himself, It’s a game that cannot quite escape the long shadow of its predecessor despite possessing some of its own identity. That said, if you enjoyed the first part then you’ll also like this one as well.

By krisko6 on February 1st, 2021

Watch Dogs: Legion (Windows)

* London Calling

The Good
* Ability to play as anyone is a neat mechanic, especially when combined with permadeath features.

  • The hacking and stealth sandbox is as fun as ever.

  • Gadgets are enjoyable to use with some clever platforming and puzzle elements.

    The Bad
    * So many cut features from the first two games.

  • In-game currency is pointless outside of cosmetics.

  • Not enough differentiation or uniqueness between operatives.

    The Bottom Line
    Since its debut in 2014, Watch Dogs has secretly become one of the more fascinating AAA franchises out there. One could simply write it off as yet another Ubisoft open world title, just one more in a slew of franchises that all deliver their own wrinkles on a uniform set of mechanics. However, its dystopian techno-thriller vibe, varied gameplay approach, and unique hacking mechanics really do make it a standout amongst games in its genre. Watch Dogs hasn’t exactly been a critical darling, yet for me it defines the freedom of what open world games should be about better than Rockstar’s restrictive theme parks. Yes, I’m saying it, I actually prefer Watch Dogs to Grand Theft Auto, despite many of its concepts being lifted wholesale from the latter.

    The latest installment of the series, Watch Dogs Legion, has finally arrived after a massive delay pushed it way back from its original March release date. Taking place several years after the events of the first two games, the Blume corporation has continued to work with installing ctOS, the city control system, in several major metropolitan centers around the world, and their latest happens to be post-Brexit London. The newest version of ctOS has allowed for improvements such as a system of self-driving cars and augmented reality contacts installed into every citizen. Now, the city has been taken over by both a PMC named Albion and a gang called Clan Kelley. Not long after the game’s introduction, a new hacker group named Zero-Day is discovered, causing several explosions around London and blaming the series’ main hacker group, DedSec, for it. With their backs up against the wall, Bagley, a friendly AI working with DedSec, decides to start recruiting individuals frustrated with the system across London to free London from all of these factions.
    The story definitely lacks any kind of nuance: it really comes down to DedSec and hackers good, corporations and military bad. It would have been nice to have gotten some alternate perspectives on both the actions of the player as well as the positives of why a country such as England would want to enter a technological police state. That being said, it does occasionally offer some nifty twists and some really neat set piece moments. Luckily, the story isn’t the main reason we’re here, and expecting truly exceptional video-game storytelling from Watch Dogs is a bit futile at this point.

    For better and worse, Watch Dogs Legion is perhaps the most grandly experimental, even risky AAA game to release in 2020. It forgoes the more polished and contained experience of the first two games in favor of something that’s a bit more freeform, even a bit jazzy in the ways it brings its dystopian London to life. That’s because this time around the protagonist isn’t a single person: it’s an entire movement.

    In Watch Dogs Legion, you can recruit any character off the streets to join DedSec in order to free London. Each character you recruit has different strengths and weaknesses. They might be better at hacking, but a poor climber and unable to take cover. Or, they could be a pro at melee combat, and can blend in with whatever faction runs the area you’re infiltrating. Or, they could be a senior citizen who struggles to climb objects and cannot take cover. The choice is always yours. All of your operatives can pick from a default selection of non-lethal weapons and various gadgets, but some characters also have unique weapons, gadgets, and/or vehicles they can utilize in combat or driving. Other recruits, while not necessarily suited for field work, can bring general advantages to your whole team should they be recruited. For instance, if one of your team members ends up in the hospital, having a paramedic on your team will allow you to release them immediately. The game will often recommend and pinpoint certain characters which are the best to recruit should the need arise for a specific type of character.

    The catch to all of this is simple: if an operative dies, they are gone for good. There are exceptions to this of course: operatives can get “arrested” or “injured” in certain situations, in which case they will need to spend time in jail or the hospital before they can be used again. The game is also surprisingly generous when it comes to keeping the story rolling when this happens. One time, I had my operative die during a mission to hack a server, yet because I had already completed the main task, the story continued to move forward following their death, since DedSec had gotten the information it was looking for. And as a testament to the game’s level of commitment to this mechanic, the death of every operative will actually result in the credits screen rolling, with each dead operative’s name listed; a very cool touch indeed. Honestly, even though these weren’t real characters, it was hard not to feel just a twinge of sadness and regret as my bad playing would lead them to their death, knowing that I would be one step closer to losing all of my operatives.

    In order to recruit a character, you’ll need to complete one or more missions for them. You can start the recruitment process for most characters by simply talking to them in person, however, other characters, including those from the antagonizing factions, will take a bit more convincing. To recruit these characters, you’ll need to use the Deep Profiler to examine their schedule and find subtler ways to get their attention. For an example of this, one person I recruited was an Albion guard I saw standing outside of Buckingham Palace. I tracked him down to a nearby pub and challenged him to a game of darts. After winning, I could talk to him to begin his recruitment mission, and was able to use him in a later main mission to easily infiltrate an area guarded by Albion. If you fail the recruitment missions too many times, those characters will despise DedSec and be locked from recruitment permanently. It also doesn’t take long before you start to see the exact same recruitment missions in the same locations pop up; an inevitable limitation of this system perhaps, as there’s only so much of the map that can be used, but a disappointment nonetheless. There’s only so many times one can break into the same building and hack the same server or steal the same car just to recruit a new character.

    Surprisingly, however, this system is actually a bit deeper than in initially appears. Each NPC not only has their own statistics, but also their own schedules and their own relationships to other NPCs, which can lead to some rather interesting consequences. For example, if you manage to kill or injure an NPC, there is a possibility that their brother or sister will try kidnapping one of your operatives, and you’ll need to save them. Recruting someone’s relative or lover or trainer can give you the connections you need to recruit a not-so-easily convinced operative. Even something as simple as rescuing a potential operative as they are being accosted by Albion can be enough to convince them to join the DedSec cause, without needing to complete a recruitment mission.

    The best thing about Watch Dogs has always been its freedom of approach, and Legion adds some very cool new toys to the hacking sandbox. There are several new types of drones, including a cargo drone which can be used to fly the player up to high places. There are also several types of gadgets you can utilize on each mission. One will let you turn invisible for a few seconds, another allows you to place mines which shock and stun enemies, but perhaps the most versatile is the spiderbot, which serves as this game’s replacement for the jumper drone from Watch Dogs 2. It pretty much works the same, but it is faster, can take down enemies from behind, and can even be thrown over walls and onto ledges that the player cannot reach. It’s also used in some really cool platforming sequences, as you navigate it through office buildings, security measures, and at one point, up through Big Ben’s clockwork.
    A surprisingly large number of tasks can be accomplished using the spiderbot alone, and perhaps the game could be a bit more punishing on what happens after the bot is seen and destroyed, as all you really need to do is wait a minute before using it again. One minor issue is that you can’t quickly swap out weapons and gadgets on the fly: you have to enter your character’s screen in the Team menu and manually switch, and of course this cannot be changed while you’re inside a restricted area. Curiously, there are certain missions which demand the spiderbot in order to complete, and most of the time there will be boxes which allow you to call spiderbots which are nearby the objectives. These bots don’t have the same kind of capabilities as the ones which you can personally use, but they are available nonetheless.

    Watch Dogs has always been a stealth game at its core, though players have the ability to fight back should the need arise. Playing with a combat-centric approach in Watch Dogs Legion is more stressful and nerve-wracking not only due to the possibility of losing your character at any given moment but also because the guns you have, even lethal ones, do a pretty low amount of damage to enemies. It takes at least two, and in some cases more, headshots from your starting taser to actually knock out even basic enemies, and lethal weapons are not that much better. Even if you plan on playing stealthy, you’re going to want to pack some heat just in case things end up going south, and I highly recommend grabbing either the grenade launcher or the shotgun as a secondary weapon as soon as you can. While the gunplay is solid, the lack of blind fire and sometimes wonky cover system make playing combat more difficult than it needs to be at times. Player characters are also quite frail even with the upgrade that allows them to take more damage.

    One new feature in this installment is a melee system. Previous installments had merely a button press for melee attacks, however in Legion each fight takes a significantly longer time, and you’ll need to punch, break guard, and dodge your opponent’s attacks to win. As long as you don’t pull out a gun, most enemies will be willing to fistfight you rather than start shooting. While not overly complex, it does make melee a significantly more interesting tactic than the simple button press of the previous installments. The downside to this is that melee isn’t something you’re going to want to get involved in if you need to get away quickly, and good luck fighting more than one opponent at once with the slightly wonky targeting system. This system gets primarily showcased in a side mission where you can participate in London’s underground bare-knuckle boxing league.

    There will be times when the character you’re playing as will be thrown into a mission that isn’t entirely suited for their skillset. Generally the game will try to keep you informed about what you could expect, but there will be moments when you’re almost certain to be caught off guard. There were a few moments when I was unexpectedly forced to fight waves of enemies despite only being prepared for stealth, and I almost always died during these moments. Until you get the more powerful weapons/hacks on your side, expect these moments to be among the most frustrating in the game, as you’ll keep throwing operatives at the problem until something works.

    While Watch Dogs Legion has opened up a lot of possibilities with the character system, there are some small but significant cutbacks from the last two games. Development of the franchise has been handed over to Ubisoft Toronto from Ubisoft Montreal, and it’s clear that the new dev team has their own, different take on the series. It’s less of an iterative game and more of a sidestep into a new direction, but it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the things which are missing or diminished from the older games. Several of the classic hacks from the first two games, such as blackouts and traffic lights, are non-existent in Legion.
    In the first two games, you could use the cash you earned to buy better vehicles and weapons, giving you an edge for future missions. Yet despite Legion’s insistence on needing to save some “quid” for DedSec, there is absolutely nothing to spend your in-game cash on apart from new clothing options thanks to the fact that certain characters have unique weapons/vehicles, and even this aspect is much less detailed, since there are no longer individual interiors for clothing stores you can enter. Not to mention of course that almost all of the absolute coolest gear is locked behind a cash paywall in a fully-priced, AAA game. Ugh.

    Perhaps the most egregious cutback is the near-total lack of side activities to engage with. The first Watch Dogs in particular had a truly dizzying array of side-content to tackle, but each subsequent game has seen these activities dwindle further and further. The only real side activities in Watch Dogs Legion are the aforementioned bare-knuckle brawling tournaments, delivering packages, and playing darts and football keep-up. You can also get drunk (after one beer, really?) at any of the numerous pubs, but this isn’t advised, especially near cops. But where are the drone races? Where are the digital trips? Why is there so little to do outside of the missions? True, when potentially every NPC can offer their own side mission you probably won’t have a lot of time to engage with these features, but they really added some life to the city and helped fill your downtime as you travelled from one area to the next, breaking up the monotony of the otherwise fun core gameplay. At least participating in the fights can net you opportunities to recruit strong melee combatants for your team.

    The sound design is overall pretty solid, with nice ambiance when wandering the streets of London, as well as impactful sound effects during combat. The game features an unmemorable soundtrack when participating in standard gameplay, but there is also some licensed music featuring UK acts which plays in the car’s radio stations. I wish it was easier to actually pick the songs we want to hear and listen on-foot like in the first two games, but that’s another thing that’s been cut. One of the side missions actually involves one of these artists, as the player helps real-world rapper Stormzy, who I’ll admit I had never heard of before this game, debut his new music video on the side of a London building.

    In terms of voice acting, Watch Dogs Legion is both an interesting technical showcase but also very bizarre. Every single operative is given their own voice from a pool of voice actors, and from there, the game modulates the voice to make it sound more unique. However, the number of unique lines these characters use is surprisingly low, and I’ve heard more than my fair share of repeated lines from both DedSec operatives and Bagley, the AI which coordinates your operatives. There are some biographical details that you can view for each operative, but these hardly seem to reflect on the character’s personality. Regardless of their former profession, once they become “your” characters, they kind of seem to act like everyone else. And pretty much everyone swears all the time. Yes, the first two games had an excessive amount of profanity, too, but here the swearing seems to indicate a Canadian developer’s idea of “Britishness”, rather than something that feels more authentic to the setting.

    Watch Dogs Legion is one of the very first new games releasing on both current and next-generation consoles. Despite this, Watch Dogs Legion doesn’t necessarily scream “next-gen” in any particular aspect of its presentation, apart from maybe its use of ray-tracing effects on the latest GPUs. For the most part, it’s typical Ubisoft: a slickly presented and detailed open world. I do have to be completely honest however and say that certain aspects of Watch Dogs 2 looked much better than in Legion, and that’s still a pretty visually solid title even by today’s standards. London doesn’t have quite the same sense of variety and uniqueness in each district San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area had in Watch Dogs 2. It’s almost certainly a smaller, if denser, map, and its terrain is relatively flat, while the buildings seem rather homogenized. While the first two games were fairly grounded in current technology, Watch Dogs Legion has a much more futuristic look to everything.. Even the UI has shifted to a more generic sci-fi look as opposed to the leet hacker stylings of the first two games.

    Performance-wise, the game ran decently enough on my PC at 1080p resolution, although it seemed like areas with too many reflective surfaces, in particular near water, would cause my frame rate to tank for no reason. Even turning down reflections seemed to create no real improvement, but I could at least live with it since most scenes don’t have these features. I experienced only one crash, but looking over other people’s impressions, I must have gotten lucky, as others have complained about far, far worse performance and stability issues even on consoles. From what I can tell Watch Dogs: Legion is a particularly demanding game on the CPU, and requires a highly multi-threaded core to really get the most performance out of it, so even those with really high-end graphics cards but low-bandwidth CPUs will probably not be able to get a smooth experience from Watch Dogs Legion. It’s kind of telling that even on the new next-gen consoles the game won’t go above 30 FPS at 4k, indicating some deep optimization problems under the hood.
    After several years of playing their modern games on PC I’ve kind of accepted by this point that Ubisoft rarely has even adequate optimization when it comes to their PC ports. However, if you’re willing to brute-force it or are okay with locking the frame rate and the settings down farther than you’d like then it’s not that bad, and it’s more playable than some would have you believe.

    So, the fundamental question at the heart of Watch Dogs Legion is this: was it worth streamlining and cutting back on the systems established in the first two Watch Dogs games in order to accommodate the ability to play as any character? The answer is complex. If you’re willing to meet it on its own terms by playing with permadeath on and making sure you utilize a diverse range of characters and playstyles for each mission, you’re likely to have a pretty good time. It can be funny to take someone as ill-equipped as a grandmother with gas problems into infiltrating a heavily-guarded fortress, and actually coming out safe on the other side. If, however, not having a meaningfully centralized character without questionable voice acting and a wide variety of side content is a deal breaker, you may want to give Legion a pass, or at least wait for a sale.
    I don’t think many people would have actually asked for a feature like this in the new Watch Dogs game, but while I’m disappointed by the cuts they took in order to implement it, I’m also glad that Ubisoft were willing to take a roll of the dice on an untested mechanic like this. Despite all of the flak they get for not being innovative enough, this does show that Ubisoft isn’t a company unwilling to take creative design risks. And while perhaps it shows signs of “first-implementation” problems, it does mean that Legion is poised to be a unique entry in the genre for several years to come.

By krisko6 on November 23rd, 2020

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (Windows)

Happy Trails

The Good
* A lengthy, compelling adventure in a cohesive world. And it's only the beginning!

  • Combat can be rewarding against tough enemies and bosses, and the game demands you utilize every system it has.

  • Excellent soundtrack

    The Bad
    * Combat and exploration become a grindy and tedious process, especially near the end game as enemies get stronger.

  • Dated visuals for its era

  • UI needs some adjustments, particularly when retrying encounters.

    The Bottom Line
    When naming some of Japan’s developers which specialize in RPGs, a few names typically come to mind: Square Enix, Atlus, even Monolith Soft. Yet one very long-running company that rarely gets talked about is Nihon Falcom. For whatever reason, Falcom has produced games for decades that usually fall under the radar in the West, not helped by often sluggish localization processes. They are best known for two long-running series: the Ys series, and The Legend of Heroes series.

    Trails in the Sky is the sixth installment of the latter series, but it is also the first installment of a subseries called “Trails”. These particular games take place in the same universe in different countries of a fantasy world that’s in the throes of an industrial revolution, and the events which happen in one game will be referenced in future games down the line. Though set in a world ripe with epic adventure, the games are driven more by interpersonal and political drama as tensions between its various nations boil and simmer. This isn’t something like Final Fantasy where you can just jump in on any game, these games are highly interconnected, and form one large, cohesive story that has been told over the last 16 years. That makes getting into this series an incredibly daunting task for newcomers. And it all began with this game.

    Trails in the Sky is the first of what has come to be known as the “Liberl Arc” of the Trails series, beginning with this game and continuing with two more sequels. The storyline centers on a young warrior named Estelle Bright, the daughter of the top-ranked Bracer named Cassius. Estelle spent about half of her life living with her adopted brother Joshua, who was brought home one day under mysterious circumstances. Years later, Estelle and Joshua set out on a year-long quest to become Bracers, or freelance knights, just like their father and guardian Cassius, but soon discover a much more sinister plot happening in the shadows after their father mysteriously vanishes while on a secret mission.

    Following the main story will take you through the five regions of the country of Liberl, which is situated in a loop consisting of the five main cities linked together by roadways that branch off into smaller towns and various dungeons. Estelle and Joshua are expected to visit each of the regions as part of their Bracer training, and the game’s five acts take place in each of these regions. Once you finish a region, you aren’t allowed to travel back to it. During each act, your party will team up with one of several different party members, up to a maximum of four, each with their own skills, weapons, personalities, and backstories.

    Trails is notorious for the sheer amount of text that each game has, and this first installment is definitely no exception. You’ll spend just as much time in cutscenes reading dialogue and talking to NPCs as you will battling monsters and collecting loot. Every NPC has multiple lines of dialogue which change following various story events, and they react to the actions you achieve while on your quests. Characters from earlier chapters, both playable and non-playable can and often will show up unexpectedly in later ones, making the world feel cohesive and connected. There is also a lot of lore you can learn about in the world, from its man religion to its history up to the point where its at now.

    Each chapter will also have their own quests to complete at that region’s Bracer Guild. These can range from simple quests to kill tough monsters to more involved tasks which take place over several different quests. Doing these quests is by far the best way to earn gold, which you can then spend on healing items or upgrading your party’s weapons, armor, and accessories, which are necessary to survive tough boss battles. Just be sure to turn them all in to the Bracer Guild when you’ve completed them!

    You can also purchase meals at restaurants, and when these are eaten your party members will gain various buffs and learn their recipes. Afterwards, these can be crafted in the field using ingredients that you find or purchase from shops. It becomes downright essential to have a diverse and lengthy cookbook of recipes on hand, as these foods are often superior and cheaper than the healing items which you can buy from shops. After all, Estelle and Joshua are travellers on a journey, and sampling all of the local cuisine is just part of that experience.

    Combat in Trails in the Sky is turn based and utilizes a hybrid system of a traditional JRPG with light elements from tactical RPGs. You can see enemies which appear in the world and sneaking up on them from behind will give you a first-turn advantage. Each battle takes place on an isometric grid, and you can move, use items, and attack enemies depending on your character’s position. Each character also has special skills to use: arts and crafts. Crafts can be utilized in the same turn and are unique to each character, while arts, which are essentially this game’s form of magic, can be used by any character but take time to cast. The type of arts each character can use is determined by how their orbments have been set up (more on that later). Certain enemies are more susceptible to specific elemental arts, and you can use this to your advantage during the early game to quickly destroy foes, though by the end game most enemies don’t have any particular elemental weaknesses. The main wrinkle in all of this is that every character operates on a timed turn system. There are various bonuses which appear alongside the turn order, and you’ll need to use spells and attacks to manipulate the turn order to ensure that these bonuses land on your character’s turns rather than the enemies’. You’ll also need to take advantage of the numerous status effects such as petrify, confuse, faint, and sleep, which also take turns away from enemies. Most of these only have a chance to hit, and different enemies are resistant to certain effects, so you can’t rely on them too much, but finding the right one to use can certainly make a difference in battle. I found that equipping each party member to inflict these effects on an attack was far more efficient than attempting to do the same with using arts. Just don’t let them happen to your party members!

    Arts and Crafts use the EP (effort points) and CP (craft points) gauges respectively, and while the EP gauge is filled using certain items or resting, CP are built up when characters attack, get hit, or use arts. When the CP gauge reaches 100, the character can utilize an S-Craft, a special attack which usually deals massive, massive damage but depletes the CP gauge entirely. Using an S-Craft when the CP gauge is at the maximum level (200) unleashes a stronger version of the S-Craft. Once available, these S-Crafts can also be used at any time as S-Breaks even if your character’s turn is not up yet, allowing you a chance to disrupt your enemies and turn the tides of battle in your favor.

    Then there’s the orbment system. All of the technology and magic in the world of Trails is powered by orbal energy, and your party members carry pocketwatch-like devices called orbments in order to utilize the benefits of this energy. You can slot various quartz orbs into each party member’s orbments to grant them stat boosts and the ability to utilize various arts. You can use the sepith, or orbal materials you harvest from enemies to open more orbment slots or buy stronger quartz orbs to use in your current slots. I initially randomly placed quartz into slots without thinking about their placement, but later in the game I realized that placing quartz in a certain way will allow characters to utilize both stronger and area-of-effect arts, which are crucial to surviving the tougher battles. This system is similar to other progression systems like the Final Fantasy VII materia system, so if you’ve played games like that you’ll understand how this works even if the terminology is a bit weird..

    While this system is enjoyable once you wrap your head around exactly how everything works, there are a few things which can serve as frustrations along the way. First, most battles that feature a high amount of enemies to fight can be incredibly frustrating, as your party will need to tank several hits before they can take their turn. Trails in the Sky is very forgiving when it comes to running away from battles, as all but a few story-specific battles can be fled from if you feel your party is getting overpowered. However, things got to a point where unless there were only one or two enemies in a battle, I felt better off avoiding it until I got my hands on the best gear and weapons available, as the sheer tedium and frustration of these larger-scale battles would take away from the exploration and the desire to get to the next story beat. I would also use this tactic to help train my party’s CP up to max level, then unleashing all of my S-Breaks at the start of a boss battle.

    I played the game on hard mode, and at every turn I felt like the game was practically begging me to get my hands on the best gear and weapons upgrades available for each of my party members, and to battle every monster chest to ensure I was getting all of the rewards for an easier time in the boss battles. In other words, playing on hard mode made the game more tedious, and while I appreciated that it actually forced me to explore everywhere and consider using every last one of the game’s numerous systems to my advantage, it also made me grind and grind like few games do these days. I think I must have spent about 10 hours in the final dungeon alone getting all of the monster chests, as each encounter required serious preparation just to come in swinging with the best attacks. Making things worse is that despite a generous save system that lets you save at any time, there is no way to just reload a game after dying in battle to tweak your party’s orbment and accessory loadouts, which can mean the difference between victory and defeat. You will have to quit to the main menu and hope that either you or the game saved before the battle you are stuck on. On the plus side, you can retry encounters at an easier difficulty should you feel you have no other way of getting through the battle, though this can be turned off in the game’s settings.

    One reason that Falcom is perhaps not as revered as other developers I mentioned is due to their games’ often outdated visual appearance. Trails in the Sky came out exclusively on PC in 2004, right at the height of the PS2 era, yet visually it more closely resembles PS1 or Sega Saturn-era RPGs. The game primarily uses a combination of 3D world geometry with 2D pre-rendered character and enemy sprites drawn from multiple directions. The textures and sprites are fairly low-res, although the UI elements such as text and character portraits scale pretty nicely with the widescreen resolution. This graphics style was too dated to be considered cutting-edge yet not dated enough to be considered retro-cool, so the visuals fall into the trap of being underwhelming in the context of the release. Generally, the world of Trails in the Sky consists of more detailed town and dungeon areas connected by various roads, which despite having different lighting and textures, more often than not tend to look rather samey. There are a could of high-up areas which use skyboxes, and some of these don’t scale properly to the resolution, resulting in ugly black stripes on the sides of my screen. Thankfully, the towns do look pretty nice, and interiors are decently realized even if many of them pull from a lot of the same assets. I’m also like how expressive the character portraits are, and how their faces tend to change the more they get wounded. Despite some appealing elements here and there, this is not a game you’ll be playing for the graphics.

    In terms of sound design, Trails in the Sky offers a distinctively retro experience. The sound effects are punchy and anime-flavored, while the soundtrack is filled with the kinds of pan flute-filled digital melodies one might expect from a game like this. While there is voice acting, it’s limited to grunts and lines after battle: otherwise, the game is entirely text-based.

    Though this is a game from 2004, it travelled a long, long road before finally seeing the light of day in the Western PC market. This game was ported to the Sony PSP in Japan in 2006, and it was this version which was initially localized and released in the West in 2011 by XSEED games. Three years later, a localized Windows port was finally released, marking a decade after the original. This version features controller support, support for high-resolutions, and most importantly, turbo mode. By holding down a trigger, you can speed up the game, which greatly cuts down on the wait time for various attacks and makes exploration much faster and simpler.

    Trails in the Sky was an exhausting and at times frustrating experience, but it definitely had that something that kept me going. There’s a reason that games like this rarely get made anymore. Maybe it was the relief of finally getting past a tricky boss battle and the satisfaction of exploring every possible area of Liberl that I could. Maybe it was getting to see this new world along with the characters for the first time. Maybe it was the music. Or maybe it was knowing that despite its epic length this was only a very small part of what lies ahead for me as I dive into this lesser-known series. By the time I reached the game’s ending at nearly 60 hours of play time, I felt both incredibly fulfilled yet yearning to see what the next chapter has in store. Trails in the Sky may ultimately be an opening act, but it puts on quite a show if you can stick with its quirks.

By krisko6 on November 14th, 2020

Super Mario 3D All-Stars (Nintendo Switch)

A nostalgic bundle of joy, although it could have had more than what's being offered

The Good
* Three classic 3D Mario titles, together in one package

  • After 18 years, Sunshine is finally officially available outside of the GameCube

  • The games look sharper than ever and can be played portably.

    The Bad
    * Limited Release

  • Very minimal updates for each game outside of minor visual and control changes.

  • No extras outside of soundtracks.

  • No Galaxy 2 or 3D Land

    The Bottom Line
    In the fall of 1985, a Japanese arcade game company known as Nintendo launched their first home console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, in the United States. The console’s marquee game, Super Mario Bros., became an instant success and is now widely regarded as perhaps the most important moment in the entire history of video games, with its plumber lead character, Mario, becoming the company’s mascot and appearing in numerous games ever since. 35 years later in time for the anniversary, Nintendo has marked the date with the release of the Super Mario 3D All-Stars compilation for Nintendo Switch. The package collects Mario’s first three 3D adventures together on the Nintendo Switch.

    First up is Super Mario 64, first released in 1996 back on the Nintendo 64. As Mario’s 3D debut, the tile was considered revolutionary and one of that decade’s best games. From the innovative analog controls, intuitive camera system, and smooth gameplay, Mario 64 offered players the chance to hop and run through a variety of surreal playgrounds all set within the now-iconic hub world of Peach’s castle. Rather than the course-based approach of the 2D titles, the player would instead accomplish objectives in a smaller set of open levels to collect up to 120 stars. The game offered smooth 3D visuals which resembled an interactive cartoon, and a catchy MIDI soundtrack to match. Although I remember playing this at various friend’s houses as a kid, my main experience with this game was actually the 2004 Nintendo DS port, which made some serious changes such as touch screen minigames and the addition of more playable characters in addition to Mario, so playing the original offers a distinctly different, yet familiar experience. A freeing experience at the time, some of the finer control aspects may be a bit wonky compared to the later games but this is still an excellent time capsule of a generation-defining game.

    Also on this collection is Mario’s 2007 Wii adventure, Super Mario Galaxy, my personal favorite 3D game in the entire franchise. This game took Mario to the stars by having each level be a galaxy with different planetoids to jump on. Each area offered its own gravity, so Mario would end up walking upside down and all over the planetoids to collect the stars. The game had far more stages than the previous two games, offering a seemingly never-ending well of variety, creativity, and occasionally stiff challenge. Most of the objectives had a more linear feel compared to the more open-world nature of Mario 64, but there was still plenty of exploring to be had including optional paths which held secret stars. This was also the first 3D Mario game to run at 60 FPS, which would be a feature of pretty much every 3D Mario since. Its soundtrack was now given a boost with plenty of live orchestral elements, which added an epic and cinematic feel to the whole experience. There were plenty of elements which took advantage of the Nintendo Wii’s motion and pointer controls, such as collecting star bits to open optional paths, shaking the controller to spin attack, and several motion-based minigames. Controlling the pointer is now done using the gyroscope in the Joy-Cons or Pro Controller, or the touchscreen if you’re playing undocked. There’s really not a lot to say other than that this is as close to a perfect game as I’ve ever played.

    But for me, and likely many others, the true star in this collection has got to be Super Mario Sunshine. First released on the GameCube back in 2002, this game has never been re-released officially on any other console since, making copies of it extremely hard to come by. I was a PlayStation kid back then (and still am) and never got to experience this game, so although it’s 18 years old, this is effectively a new game for me. Sunshine takes Mario and Peach on vacation to Isle Delfino. Upon arrival, Mario finds anything but paradise as he discovers that the island has been covered in goop and he has been framed for the mess. Forced to clean up the mess he never made, Mario is assisted by a robotic water pack named FLUDD, which allows him to either spray water at enemies and objects or use it to hover in midair for more precise jumps. Largely following the formula laid down by it’s predecessor, Super Mario 64, Sunshine has some rather unusual features which would never be seen in the series again. These include cutscenes with full voice acting, side objectives to collect blue coins, spin jumps, and of course the aforementioned FLUDD. Perhaps its most lasting contribution has got to be its secret areas which take away FLUDD, as these short, surreal challenges offer an early preview of the kinds of levels we would see five years later in Super Mario Galaxy. While there are a few aspects of this game which feel a bit off-brand such as a temperamental camera, it still ultimately delivers that fun, colorful experience I’ve come to know and love from this classic series. It also showed that Nintendo was willing to take risks and experiment with such a well-loved franchise.

    With the popular recent trend of taking old games from this era and remaking them, Mario 3D All-Stars is inevitably going to be compared to recent efforts by companies such as Activision, Capcom, and Square Enix to restore their back catalog and bring their classics to a new audience. For starters, these are essentially emulated versions of the games with minor visual and control enhancements, not ground-up remakes unlike the collection’s original 2D SNES counterpart, Super Mario All-Stars. Sunshine and Galaxy are both presented in 1080p widescreen, while 64 also gets some texture updates and a resolution bump to 720p. Unfortunately, that game does not offer widescreen support, opting for the original 4:3 aspect ratio. While the classic experiences have been more or less preserved, some may be disappointed that Nintendo didn’t do more to truly modernize these games.

    The biggest criticism of Super Mario 3D All Stars isn’t going to be what’s in the collection, but rather what is not. The only real included extras are the soundtrack albums for each game to listen to. We get a simple front-end showing video clips from each of the games and an area to listen to the soundtracks, but that’s it. We don’t have anything such as developer interviews, concept art, or documentaries to make this collection feel like anything more than just a barebones re-package. At best, this feels like a DVD with hardly any extras, and for what’s being touted as an important celebration, it’s hard to not feel like more could have been done. Even more egregious is the complete absence of 2010’s Super Mario Galaxy 2. While I may have preferred the first game, having the sequel with its identical engine and gameplay on this compilation really should have been a no-brainer since the first is already available here. We also don’t get Super Mario 3D Land from the 3DS, and while Wii U’s Super Mario 3D World is also a no-show, at least that is getting an enhanced port with new features and content in February 2021.

    Perhaps the single most-baffling decision Nintendo has made with this collection is its limited release. The collection will only be available until the end of March 2021 both physically and digitally, forcing everyone to buy copies brand new and capitalizing on FOMO. I really, truly do not understand why Nintendo needs to do this. A Mario collection, especially with the costly Sunshine in the mix, would have sold brilliantly over the holidays even without the forced scarcity of a limited release. I get why Nintendo has made certain hardware items such as the NES and SNES Classic limited releases, but there’s no need to make a surefire hit software release like this artificially scarce. I myself decided to opt for the digital release.

    While barebones, and saddled by an unfortunate release schedule, there’s not much in this collection that can truly take away from the fact that Super Mario 3D All-Stars is ultimately three great games all in one place, and they can all be played portably as well. It’s a nostalgia trip for longtime video game fans as well as a history lesson for newcomers. Perhaps Nintendo wasn’t quite capable of delivering even more given recent events, but I’m still glad this collection has been released during such a rough moment. There’s hours of gameplay to be had here, particularly if you’ve never played some or even all of these games before. Plus, we could all use the joy that only Mario brings during these difficult times.

By krisko6 on September 20th, 2020

Astral Chain (Nintendo Switch)

Chain of Fools

The Good
* Unique, deep combat and upgrade systems

  • Impressive scale and spectacle for the system

  • Fun puzzle, exploration, and investigation elements

    The Bad
    * Performance issues

  • Underwhelming story

  • Boss battles aren't as fun as standard fights

    The Bottom Line
    While 2020 may be seriously barren in terms of major first party releases past Animal Crossing, there’s no denying that 2019 was a pretty solid year for the Nintendo Switch when it came to big games that you just couldn’t play anywhere else. Most of last year’s top Switch exclusives such as Pokemon Sword and Shield, Fire Emblem Three Houses, and Yoshi’s Wooly World were all part of long-running, established franchises. However, the most unusual Nintendo release from 2019 has to be Astral Chain, a brand new IP developed by famed Japanese cult developer Platinum Games.

    Astral Chain is an action game with RPG elements set in a post-apocalyptic future. The game takes place on an artificial island called “The Ark” decades after a mysterious supernatural force known as the corruption seeped through from the Astral Plane into our world. This forced the remnants of humanity to crowd onto the ark, which sits in a remote location out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was only a matter of time, however, as the Corruption eventually reached the city in the form of an event which infected the population with Redshift, a disease that transforms the infected into creatures called “Chimeras”. Thus, a task force within the city’s police called “Neuron” was formed to fight off threats related to the Chimeras.

    The player takes control of one of the Howard siblings, the progeny of one member of the Neuron Task Force, both of whom have decided to follow in their father’s footsteps. The one the player chooses ends up becoming the typical Nintendo silent protagonist, but the other is referred to as “Akira” and is fully voiced within the game’s many, many cutscenes, becoming an extremely important character in the overall plot.

    Astral Chain is a game that needs a lot of time to really sink its hooks into you. It’s not the kind of game that immediately grabs you, rather it slowly unfolds new layers of its complex combat system, investigation system, and background lore. One thing that might throw some people for a loop is just how cinematic and movie-like this game feels for a Nintendo published game. There are an awful lot of cutscenes, and there are times when the game seems to be unable to get out of its way. Honestly, I was almost falling asleep in the early parts as I had to sit through the seemingly endless conversations and tutorial messages. Even right up until the very end of the game, Astral Chain is always introducing new gameplay mechanics and features.

    The gameplay of Astral Chain has the player working many aspects of being a cop. Sure, for a good portion of the game, you’ll ultimately end up fighting many different types of chimeras with the assistance of your trusty legions. However, the game also makes time for plenty of other types of gameplay, such as investigation, catching criminals, and platforming to reach out-of-the-way places.

    Most chapters start with a slower-paced, exploratory section where you can solve quests, investigate chimeric activity, and platform to reach remote areas at your own pace. Your character can make use of a detective-vision like mode called “Iris” which can be used to highlight important objects as well as investigate drone cameras and chimera trails. The Iris can also be used to read the weight, height, and age of various NPCs, which actually comes in handy in a few side quests.

    Due to plot-related reasons which I won’t go into here, your character is uniquely attuned to using the Legatus, meaning that they can utilize multiple Legions. There are five in all, but you’ll need to fight them first before subduing them. Each Legion has their own fighting style and special abilities. You’ll often need to make use of the various abilities to solve the game’s numerous puzzles or reach areas you can’t get to alone.

    When combat actually starts, you can call your Legion and send it out to fight chimeras and other enemy types. You can dodge or attack in different timing and holding combinations to utilize different combos. There are three different types of weapons you can utilize and they all have their specific uses and combo animations, so switching is highly encouraged. While in combat, you have the option to wrap the Legion’s chain around enemies, binding them in place and enabling you to bring extra damage. You can also use the chain to block certain enemy charging attacks. Each Legion has a special ability that can be used by pressing the L button, and using them is crucial not just for combat but also environmental navigation. In fact, most of the early missions have areas that you can only reach using certain Legions, which strongly encourages replays.

    Each Legion offers its own skill tree, and as you use the Legion more you’ll be able to unlock the more remote parts of the tree. Legions can be upgraded with various skills, two of which can be equipped at any time. You can also outfit Legions with “Ability Codes” which grant passive bonuses, but these are not especially useful.

    My main complaint with the combat system is that fights with more humanoid-sized enemies tend to be much more fun than the massive bosses which frequently punctuate the mid and endpoints of each chapter. If I’m facing against several enemies around my size, I can chain-bind and crowd-control them like nobody’s business, but bosses are a very different story in this game. The camera during these fights can be difficult to follow, and some of them output attacks that are next to impossible to walk away from unscathed. They also go on for far longer than they really need to, especially the final boss in particular. The game’s constant fighting can become exasperating, so you’ll want to take plenty of breaks when playing.

There’s always a slight sense of jank with how Platinum Games regularly play, and this is no exception. Jumping can be finicky, as if you end up colliding with a piece of scenery during the jump, you’ll just end up falling instead of actually jumping to the location you chose. The camera is sometimes extremely temperamental, particularly when directly controlling certain legions. Certain legion abilities such as the Sword Slash are tough to use in a pinch since they will often pin you to the spot. Using potions in battle can also be a bit frustrating to work with, as you need to be perfectly still for a second for them to take. Once you learn to work around these quirks the game becomes a lot of fun, but you definitely have to get used to a fairly complex, button-heavy control scheme at first.

While the combat system and puzzles are mostly excellent, the game is a bit weak in terms of its story. The game spends so much time setting up various characters and filling in the backstory for how The Ark came to be that it’s honestly pretty impressive. It feels like watching an anime. However, the actual plot this game tells is in the end confusing and underwhelming. The game attempts to deliver dramatic moments and huge twists, but it all feels extremely forced and confused. For every moment that is brilliant (I adored all of the stuff revolving around Lappy, which is the Ark’s police mascot dog), there are even more that just don’t land how they are intended. By the time I reached the end, I had very little grasp on what the villain’s motivation was beyond “oh, this is what 90 percent of anime villains try to accomplish”. It’s a shame that this game is held back by its story, as it had a real chance to do something a bit different from other Nintendo published games.

Graphically, Astral Chain isn’t a patch on what the competition puts out, but in the context of the Nintendo Switch’s more limited capabilities it still offers a pleasing sense of spectacle. The game has an extremely strong anime-vibe in its cel-shaded visuals making use of bold red, blue and purple colors. While not as impressive as the recent Final Fantasy VII Remake on PS4, the designs are highly comparable to that game, especially the cyberpunk-inspired city squares. Boss fights are often massive and over the top, and the Astral Plane offers a surreal, brutalist contrast to the cyberpunk city of the Ark. If you look close, you can definitely see some of the shortcuts Platinum used to get this game onto the Switch. Some faded textures and objects have a dithered look to them, and there seems to be some sort of dynamic resolution throughout the game. The enemies have a very jagged, low-poly look which complements the art style, and the draw distance is moderate to accommodate the smaller environments.

In spite of all of the care taken to optimize this game for the Switch, it’s not uncommon to see the game drop to around 15 frames per second. This happens particularly in the open hub areas with lots of people running around. The good news is that the vast majority of the fights take place in cordoned off locations or in the Astral Plane, so the performance issues don’t hurt the experience as much as it seems. However, those who are sensitive to such frame drops may want to investigate the gameplay first to see if they can tolerate it.

Musically, Astral Plane features the typical sort of selections you might find on an anime TV show, including opening and closing songs with vocals, hard rock and techno themes during battles, and soft, ambient music during quite or tense moments. Most of the tracks are find but they don’t really stand out from the overall presentation.

The voice acting is another story entirely. You can clearly tell that the voice actors have been chose from those who primarily dub anime for English audiences, as all of the actors have that strange, cheesy vibe you get from dubbed shows, with the lines hardly matching the lip animations of the characters. You can at least change the voices to Japanese to complete the anime-style presentation.

Astral Chain is one of those solid games that I’m glad I played, but I’m not sure I completely love. Some aspects of the game just felt tedious or overdone, and the story doesn’t quite deliver what it intends. Thankfully, it is saved by a mostly great combat system that is highly unique, as well, as some fairly cool environments to explore. If these kinds of action games are your bag, or you happen to be a die-hard fan of the anime aesthetic, you’re sure to fall head-over-heels for Astral Chain, but for me it was simply a pleasant experience.

By krisko6 on August 21st, 2020

The Last of Us: Part II (PlayStation 4)

Love and hate: two sides of the same coin

The Good
* Incredible technical achievement with stellar graphics, fantastic environments, and superb sound design

  • More open level design offers more options for stealth and traversal

  • Plenty of weapon upgrades and items to craft

  • Solid performances from the cast.

    The Bad
    * A ambitiously messy, clumsy storyline

  • Pacing and length issues

  • AI is occasionally dumb

  • Melee dodge feels clunky

    The Bottom Line
    With just a few months left to go before the PS5 storms the video game market, Sony is now launching the final exclusive games for the PS4 console. The original The Last of Us launched in 2013 under much the same circumstances, as one of the final exclusive titles for the PS3 console.

    Honestly, I wasn’t a huge fan of the first. It was one of the first PS3 games I can remember buying. I kept waiting for some sort of transcendent moment to happen during my playthrough but one never did. Many others disagreed, and The Last of Us is now cited as among the best games of all time. At first I wasn’t planning on playing the sequel. However, after seeing the leaks, the excessive DMCA takedowns, and the controversy surrounding certain plot elements I was starting to get intrigued. Since there are no new movies coming out, The Last of Us Part II is the closest 2020 has to a proper summer blockbuster, so why wouldn’t I want to play the hot new game and give my take on it?

    The Last of Us Part II opens 5 years after the events of the original game. Joel and Ellie are now living in Jackson, Wyoming, with the world largely unaware of the fact that Ellie is the only known person who holds the secret to curing the plague. After a traumatic and shocking crime occurs in Jackson, Ellie and her new girlfriend, Dina head over to Seattle to seek retribution on an ANTIFA-like militaristic faction, the Washington Liberation Front. While in Seattle, she eventually crosses paths with a dangerous religious cult known as the Seraphites.

    While the original was a relatively linear plotline, Part II has a considerably more complex narrative structure. On paper, the storyline is brilliant, as it asks us to consider the consequences of violence and the multiple sides to every story. What one person may see as justified is a heinous act in another person’s eyes. It asks us to look beyond mere notions of people being “good” or “evil”. However, the way in which the game goes about exploring this is suspect, to say the least. The story is leaden with so many flashbacks, parallel events, and perspective shifts that the story is at times difficult to follow and the pacing suffers. Since The Last of Us Part II can no longer rely on the shock of a new franchise, this kind of storytelling feels like trying to compensate for having to be a sequel. The only option is to go bigger, louder, messier, gorier, and raunchier, and not every idea is a good one. It’s also a hefty game in terms of its length, clocking in at anywhere from 25-30 hours. It’s by far the longest game Naughty Dog has ever made.

    In terms of gameplay, Naughty Dog has largely stuck to the stealth/survival horror template of the original The Last of Us. You’ll be traveling through zones filled with human and infected enemies. You can either sneak past them, kill them stealthily, or go in loud and utilize all of your limited weaponry. There will be times when you’re forced to either kill all enemies in order to progress, or run away from them in extended chase sections, so your gameplay will end up being a mix of both tactical styles. Your weaponry consists primarily of guns, melee weapons such as boards and pipes which break after a few uses, and various craft-able items such as silencers and bombs. As you explore each environment, you will pick up various objects that can be used to craft these items, as well as weapon parts to upgrade your guns and pills to upgrade your skills in several trees, all of which are slowly unlocked over the game. There are also various collectibles to find, such as coins and superhero trading cards, which were highly amusing to read about.

    New to Part II is Ellie’s ability to jump and go prone. The former allows Naughty Dog to create more expansive and vertical environments. The levels often have multiple paths to their endpoint, creating a variety of routes for the player to progress, as well as optional explorable areas. Going prone allows Ellie to hide in grass and crawl under gaps, which makes stealth much easier in certain situations.

    Part II offers several new types of infected, including some enemies that are heavily armored and aggressive. Human enemies also come in a variety of factions, and some of them now use dogs, which can follow your scent and make hiding that much more difficult when they are around.

    True to Naughty Dog’s established style, The Last of Us Part II is a highly linear experience. That said, it does flirt with open world gameplay at times, most notably in an early section where you are given free reign to explore a large area of the ruined Seattle. You’re free to visit various points of interest, including a courthouse, several stores, a synagogue, and a bank, in any order that you like, and as you collect items in each location they will be crossed out on the map. It makes for a surprisingly chill experience before the real drama with the human factions begins, even with the occasional infected battle

    In general, the gameplay is a mostly solid experience. Trying to sneak through a zone and not get caught was tense and sometimes rewarding, while combat against infected was equally fun. I spent my first playthrough on Hard, and it was a fair but not insurmountable challenge. However, I did notice some occasional weird enemy AI issues once or twice such as them somehow not seeing Ellie kill an enemy right where they were looking, which broke immersion a bit. Maybe playing on Survivor I might have seen this less. The game introduces a dodge button for melee, but it still feels a bit clunky to use, since the dodge button is the same as the run button. There are several boss battles which rely solely on this mechanic, but they feel more like quick-time events. I also found the game got kind of tedious towards the end, as it was a very long game with not quite as much variety as it could have had.

    Graphically, The Last of Us Part II is close to faultless. Never before has a devastated world been rendered with such beauty. The environments are filled with unique, individual details that paint a vivid picture of life before the pandemic hit. There are loads of optional buildings to explore and many of them have their own character. The game does take a fair amount of artistic license with the “real” Seattle, but that’s true of most games set in real-world cities. As a resident of the area, it was fun to see how various buildings were compared to the real ones. True to the real world, Seattle is also an incredibly rainy city, and the floods and storms you’ll frequently witness make for a very dramatic game at times. On the contrast, the game’s violence is ugly and harsh: you’ll frequently see Ellie blow off limbs, slit the throats, and crush the skulls of both infected and human enemies alike. Her brutality it seems, does not discriminate. Indeed, the character animations are mostly fantastic in general, with excellent motion capture and a mostly solid blending system, though I did notice some occasional glitches with the awkward jumping animation. There were a few times where I saw framerate dips, but they happen rarely and don’t impact the experience as a whole.

    Sound design is also spot on. The soundscape is atmospheric and haunting, from the sound of breaking glass windows to the croaking of clickers, nearly every element is realized effectively. Voice acting is also largely great across the board, and while the script has some issues, the actors deliver very solid performances. The music of the game largely consists of Gustavo Santaolalla’s desolate guitar driven themes, mixed in with a few licensed tunes and some electronic music for the more intense battle sequences. All in all, the game is a technical marvel.

    The Last of Us Part II does not offer a dramatic departure in gameplay from its predecessor, yet its tone and themes couldn’t be more different. Part II tells one of the medium’s most ambitious stories to date, but boy is it messy. It’s the messy and sprawling nature that makes it a fascinating game, though definitely not a masterpiece like most critics claim. It’s too deliberately imperfect and misshapen for that. It’s the kind of game that for better or worse will have people debating its story decisions for months, if not years to come, and it’s bound to be a cultural lightning rod given the lack of new movies coming this year.

By krisko6 on June 26th, 2020

Final Fantasy VII: Remake (PlayStation 4)

Final Fantasy VII: Reimagined

The Good
* Incredible graphics and cinematic presentation

  • Addictive and dynamic action-combat with turn-based elements

  • Materia system is highly flexible

  • Compelling storyline and characters

    The Bad
    * Only a very small portion of the original story

  • Occasional bad textures and pop-in

  • Sidequests are on the basic side

    The Bottom Line
    The term “remake” means a lot of different things. For some, it could be a simple as slapping a shiny new coat of paint on an old game, bumping up the textures and resolution and calling it a “remaster”. For others, its a cash grab opportunity to repackage or resell the same game on a new generation of hardware. Sometimes, a game comes along which really blows open the definition of what a remake should be, and Final Fantasy VII Remake is one such game.

    Despite the title, this is no mere remake, it’s a reimagining. It is effectively a brand new game which utilizes the original’s story beats and characters, but also expands on them and even adds a few new elements of its own, some of which have really divided the Final Fantasy VII fanbase. The decision to split the remake up into multiple installments has infuriated some, and while the story itself is structured as a clear opening act, leaving tons of unresolved characters and plot threads, as a product it offers a full-fledged experience.

    Final Fantasy VII focused on the story of Cloud Strife, a mercenary who joins up with an eco-terrorist group named AVALANCHE to fight against the Shinra corporation, a company which provides power and security for all but is slowly draining the planet of its most precious resource: mako energy. At first, Cloud is purely working with AVALANCHE solely for the money, but over the course of the game he begins to align with their cause in spite of their sometimes dogged fundamentalism and destructive tendencies, which ruin the lives of those which rely on the Mako power. Soon, however, he discovers there are larger forces at work than Shinra to save or destroy the planet, and a mysterious flower-seller named Aerith Gainsbourgh may be the key to unlocking the deeper conspiracies.

    Final Fantasy VII Remake largely retells the events of the original leading up to when the player begins to explore the open world map, but it also adds a whole lot of new stuff along the way. Many of the classic characters and scenes are recreated, but some are expanded, such as the ancillary AVALANCHE members like Jesse. Even the infamous cross-dressing scene is included here, an uncomfortably suggestive moment that probably should have landed the game an M rating but somehow didn’t. Fans of the original will be very happy with how Square rebuilt and reimagined many of the original’s famous moments.

    As someone who had only played a bit of the original game however, the final moments of this game are clearly more coherent to those who are already intimately familiar with the specifics of Final Fantasy VII’s plot. As an almost newcomer of the game, I was more than a little bit lost and confused as to what it all meant, and while some online searches did clear some things up this also spoiled a few plot points from the original game not in the remake that I was not yet familiar with. Many have compared this section to Kingdom Hearts and how vague and nonsensical their stories tend to get, and they’re not wrong. Still, this does leave open some interesting possibilities for the remake series going forward, but how they will address various issues will remain to be seen. I still have a lot of questions, such as which parts of Final Fantasy VII will be represented, and how will character progress transfer over to the subsequent games, if at all?

    Perhaps the greatest change is in Final Fantasy VII’s combat. Instead of simply re-creating the turn-based combat system of the original, Square have instead chosen to transform it into an action-RPG, while keeping just enough elements of the classic combat intact for long-time fans. The end result is perhaps the best action-based battle system Square Enix has developed, the culmination of everything they have worked towards building over the last decades both with the Kingdom Hearts series as well as the recent Final Fantasy games such as Type-0 and Final Fantasy XV.

    How it works is relatively straightforward: You’ll attack, dodge, and block just as in an action game, and successful attacks and dodges will fill a character’s ATB meter. When a section of a meter is filled, the player can open a menu while the game slows to a near-pause to use an Ability, Spell, or Item. These must be used at the correct times lest the player gets interrupted by an enemy attack. When your allies’ gauges are filled, you can issue the same commands to them as well.

    Using the correct attacks and spells on an enemy will build up that enemy’s stagger meter. When this is maxed out, the enemy is stunned for a short while and attacks do much more damage, which can even be increased by certain abilities.

    Each character plays very differently. Switching between allies will allow you to utilize each character’s special abilities, such as Cloud’s alternate Punisher stance for strong but slow attacks, to Barret’s Overcharge, a devastating shot which can greatly damage enemies. You’ll often be forced to switch, as characters will get stunned or bound by enemies. You can also switch to help a character build up an ATB faster, or switch to a character with more health so that enemies primarily target them instead. By the game’s end, I was constantly switching characters and utilizing nearly all of their abilities to a great extent. While it’s not as relentlessly punishing as the first Kingdom Hearts game, on the Normal difficulty it is by no means a cakewalk like the later Kingdom Hearts games, and the battles will require some strategy and learning to pull off properly, not to mention having the correct Materia equipped.

    Limit breaks and summons return from the original, and are both highly useful whenever a battle gets too tense. Summons in particular work a bit differently in the remake, as they can only be used during specific fights. You cam bring in one summon for a short amount of time and use the character’s ATB bars to trigger various special attacks for the summon. At the end of the time, they will unleash their ultimate move then vanish from the battlefield.

    There are a couple of small issues. First the camera can sometimes get a bit finicky especially when dealing with multiple enemies at once. Second, there is no proper jump button, and while aerial attacking isn’t too difficult, it can be a bit inconsistent as to whether or not a character will actually jump up to attack an enemy or not. Finally, some of the spells and status effects are a bit under-utilized compared to some of the others. You’ll make use of the elemental and healing spells constantly, and even the time spells have their use. However, some spells such as Subversion are extremely situational and will only be used in a handful of battles.

    The main form of character customization is the Materia system, which was also featured in the original game. Essentially, throughout the game you will find or purchase different materia. These can be equipped to add new spells, augment character stats, and add new abilities. There are also special “linking” materia that when used in connected slots along with the right materia, can add various bonus effects. For example, there is a materia which can add an elemental attack to your weapon for some extra damage. These materia will individually level up as you use them, unlocking new spells or increasing their capabilities. This is a great system that provides a lot of flexibility, though in later parts of the game as characters jump in and out of your party in can be a bit tedious to constantly switch your most used materia to a new character . There are several moments of the game where you don’t even play as Cloud, but there’s also some moments near the end where you’ll swap between two parties at once.

    There is also a second form of customization in the form of the Weapon Upgrade system. As you level up and complete quests, the characters will earn Skill Points, which they can use to upgrade each weapon with new materia slots or stat upgrades.

    FFVII Remake is mostly structured as a linear, cinematic adventure. You’ll venture through multiple chapters with more or less one straight path and the occasional nook or cranny here and there which usually has items or other goodies stashed away. Some materia can only be acquire by going out of your way to collect them in the game world. However, there are a few chapters where the game eases back on the intensity and opens up for a bit, letting you explore some fairly sizeable hub areas, allowing you to complete various side quests, mini games, and other activities at your leisure. These side quests are pretty basic but they offer some fun character moments and more of that sweet sweet combat. I ended up doing every single one in my playthrough, and I don’t regret doing so. There are a couple of chapters which offer optional arena and VR battles to take part in, and you’re definitely going to want to do these. Some of them will unlock new summons to use while others will grant more powerful limit breaks.

    In typical Square Enix and Final Fantasy fashion, Final Fantasy VII Remake makes few compromises when it comes to cinematic presentation and graphical fidelity. This game utilizes Unreal Engine 4 to the maximum effect, creating environments and characters which replicate and enhance the classic art design of the original, now in glorious HD and full 3D. Screens which were static in the old game due to PS1 limitations are now more vibrant and alive than ever. During combat, the screen gets so filled with particle effects that it can be hard to make out exactly what is happening at any given time, at least without opening the command menu. There are a couple of places where certain textures are rather substandard, but these are brief moments and don’t ruin the presentation as a while. I also noticed one particular cutscene where Cloud had the wrong sword equipped, this was a result of that particular cutscene being an FMV rather than rendered in-engine, and as soon as it ended Cloud was back with the correct weapon. The PS4 is obviously in its twilight era with the looming launch of the PS5 set for late this year, but Final Fantasy VII Remake is still an impressive showcase of the console’s capabilities, and one of the best-looking games available at the moment.

    Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack is widely considered one of the very best soundtracks in video game history, and while I wouldn’t say it is among my favorites, it does capture the Final Fantasy feeling in a way the only the older games could. Many of the songs are catchy and fit the situation well, such as the battle and town themes. The tracks have all been re-recorded for this release and sound better than the synthy bops of the original. There are also a lot of vocal pieces throughout the game, including the end credits song and several others. These really bring the soundtrack to life in a way that the older games were not capable of.

    The voice acting is very cheesy and anime-style, but I don’t think Final Fantasy fans would really have it any other way. The voices are often heavily exaggerated to the point of parody, but never quite dip over.

    It may only be a sliver of the original game’s storyline, but nevertheless there is a lot to unpack here. The combat is excellent, the graphics are astonishing, and the world is captivating. I’m very intrigued to see where the story ends up. More importantly, this has me wanting to play the original game so I can see the rest of Final Fantasy VII’s world. It might be set in a horrible dystopian environment, yet ironically its the perfect escape for 50 hours and counting. This is my personal game of 2020 so far.

By krisko6 on May 19th, 2020

Half-Life: Alyx (Windows)

After 13 years, Half-Life has returned

The Good
* Polished gameplay and memorable set pieces

  • Fantastic visuals and sound immerse you in City 17- the best looking VR game so far.

  • Highly detailed physics system

  • Interesting story that dramatically shifts the series' direction

    The Bad
    * Combat lacks melee options

  • Paltry weapon selection

    The Bottom Line
    It has been 13 years since a Half-Life game has graced our computer screens. That’s long enough for someone in kindergarten to now be in their senior year. Back when social media was an emerging technology rather than the backbone of our cultural consciousness. And years before consumer virtual reality was an available thing.

    After Half-Life 2: Episode 2’s gut-wrenching cliffhanger ending, Valve had attempted to close out the series with a third Half-Life game, but all of their attempts were in vain. They were waiting for the right time when they could push the limits of technology again, and with the advent of virtual reality, they finally found an avenue to do so.

    Valve’s first single player game in 9 years, Half-Life Alyx is a midquel taking place 5 years before Gordon Freeman’s arrival in City 17. You play as Alyx Vance, the daughter of former Black Mesa researcher Eli Vance, who has grown up all of her life under the oppressive alien regime, the Combine. After Eli is captured, Alyx teams up with a hacker and inventor named Russell in an attempt to rescue Eli from the Combine. She soon finds herself caught up in a larger task that ultimately involves breaking into the Combine’s Vault, a large floating ship above City 17.

    Half Life Alyx emphasizes the series’ horror elements much more strongly than in previous games. Compared to the Freeman-led 2D installments, Alyx is a much slower, more methodical affair. Movement speed is slow and platforming is limited to teleportation rather than jump-based movement. Exploration is a much more crucial part of the gameplay as you search in lockers, bins, and trashcans for various pickups along your journey.

    Your primary means of environmental interaction are the “Russells”, or gravity gloves. These allow you to pick up small items from some distance away. You simply point your hand over the item, grip the trigger, then make a gentle tugging motion to bring the item to your hand so you can catch it. It is incredibly weird at first, but it gradually becomes second-nature as the game goes on.

    The player can utilize Alyx’s multitool to solve various environmental puzzles. These include manipulating power currents in the walls as well as various simple hacking minigames which take place in 3D space. These grant you access to lockers, doors, and Combine upgrade and power stations.

    In combat, Alyx can utilize several different types of guns, which are all one-handed so that the player has a free hand to interact with the environment at all times. These include a pistol, a shotgun, and an SMG. Each of these guns can be upgraded at various stations over the course of the game using resin which you can collect through the environments. These upgrades add laser sights, increased ammo count, and alternate fire modes to the weapons. There isn’t enough resin to fully upgrade them all before the game’s end, so you’ll have to be wise in choosing which upgrades you want the most. You have to manually reload each weapon during gameplay, and each one has a different means of reloading. This can be very stressful in the heat of battle. Combat is almost exclusively ranged, so Alyx becomes a game about managing your ammo count closely as you fight enemies. Melee weapons simply don’t exist in the game, and using thrown objects outside of grenades does basically no damage to the enemies.

    Each chapter introduces new items, weapons, or enemy types so the game never gets too stale throughout its lengthy campaign. There are a few enemy types that are new to this game, including armored headcrabs which can only be shot in a specific place under their belly. One chapter features an encounter with a single enemy hunting the player that is so terrifying it will be difficult to foget anytime soon.

    That being said, its hard not to feel like Valve could have pushed harder in certain areas. There are only a paltry three weapons to use, plus grenades. Melee is completely absent from the game, meaning that you cannot damage enemies with held or tossed objects. There’s a vaguely shallow feeling in the game’s back half, and while the game delivers lots of fantastic moments, its hard to feel like there could have been just a little bit more to the experience. I’ll admit I experienced some feelings of tedium as I got closer to the game’s end as I had to venture through yet another run-down location digging through every drawer and cabinet for ammo and resin.

    Half Life: Alyx has been designed with the idea that it will likely be a player’s first VR game in mind. It eases the player very slowly into the game’s mechanics, introducing enemy types and familiarizing players with the tone of the game before cranking things up. Ladders are designed so that simply beginning to climb them will take the player all the way to the top. Entering buildings through windows is done via teleportation. Comfort and playability is a key aspect of designing VR games, and Valve came through with a variety of comfort and locomotion options for the player. These include both teleportation and continuous movement, snap turning, and a crouch button. These options allow the game to be played with virtually any VR setup, including while seated.

    As the first real single-player game running on Valve’s Source 2 engine, Half-Life Alyx is easily the best-looking and sounding game in VR to date. From the opening view of the City 17 skyline looking directly towards the Citadel, the series has never looked better. The art style is a bit different, more technological and angular, but in some ways it represents a look that Valve had always wanted for City 17 but couldn’t quite have due to the limitations of technology in the 2000’s. But even judged against other VR titles, Alyx is a stunner. Textures and models are highly detailed from all angles, lighting and shadow is effective, and character animations during certain moments are so life-like you can practically feel yourself in the room with them. There are lots of unique models and objects to look at throughout the game and no two areas look the same. There does seem to be some small performance drops during heavy explosions or large daytime environments, but otherwise I can’t fault the visuals on display here.

    Similarly, the sounds you know and love from previous Half-Life games are present and correct, and have been cleaned up significantly from their 90’s versions. The sound design is highly immersive, especially since the game is more horror-based compared to the previous installments. The voice acting is also strong. I have to give praise especially to Rhys Darby, who absolutely nails his performance as Russell. His dry, sarcastic wit brought a smile to my face every time he chimed in over Alyx’s headset, and he brought a real charm to the game that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Valve has yet another to add to their perfect track record of great companion characters alongside Wheatley, GlaDos, and Alyx herself.

    While I wouldn’t say that Half Life Alyx is overwhelmingly the best VR game, it is still among the most polished and complete experiences that modern-day VR has to offer. It takes a lot of mechanics seen in other VR games and presents them in a refined package. Make no mistake, this is a landmark title for the medium, but it also shows that there is still plenty of room for it to grow.

By krisko6 on April 4th, 2020

Kentucky Route Zero (Nintendo Switch)

Retro Digital Americana

The Good
* Distinctive visual style

  • Great soundtrack

  • Contains all Acts and Interludes

  • A truly unique experience

    The Bad
    * Dull as a conventional game

  • Narrative eventually loses its focus

  • May be too abstract and interpretive for some players

    The Bottom Line
    Kentucky Route Zero might just be the most difficult game I’ve ever tried to review. Not because the game itself is impossible to beat, far from it in fact. Rather, Kentucky Route Zero is an experience that, while utilizing the language and platforms of video games, also exists so far outside of the video game sphere that calling it a game is simultaneously incredibly reductive and overblown. It can be best described as something of an interactive art piece which happens to run on a console, something to experience and think about rather than simply finish. Even if you compare it to some of its contemporaries in the adventure and interactive fiction genres, it clearly is set apart thanks to its unique setting and interpretive, dreamlike nature.

    Taking influences from literary genres such as magical realism, American folklore, and southern gothic literature, Kentucky Route Zero is an interactive drama which initially casts the player as Joseph Conway, a truck driver in Kentucky who is making his last delivery before retirement. He is tasked with delivering antiques to “5 Dogwood Drive”, an address which seemingly doesn’t exist anywhere on the map of Kentucky. After exploring around for a bit, he learns that the only way to complete his delivery is to follow the Zero, a mysterious, circular inter-dimensional highway which makes seemingly no logical sense. Along the way, Conway will interact and build relationships with several fellow travelers. These include tv repair woman Shannon Marquez, Johnny and Junebug, a roaming pair of robotic new wave musicians traveling to Nashville, and Ezra, a young orphan boy whose brother is a giant bald eagle named Julian.

    Kentucky Route Zero draws inspirations from sources not typically associated with video games, and its hard to think of any other game with a setting like this. The setting is highly unusual, mixing mundane bars, gas stations, and rest stops, with fantastical, seemingly impossible locations, such as an office building with bears on one floor. The game has a strangely timeless feel, as the technology, designs, and fashions in the game make it difficult to pinpoint a decade as to when this is taking place. All of the game’s computers use tape and cathode-ray displays. The truck Conway drives looks like something out of the 1940’s, while the televisions resemble those of the 1950’s, and VHS tapes are still commonly used. Yet at least one character has a cell phone. It’s another intriguing layer to the game’s setting.

    Unusually for the point-and-click genre, Kentucky Route Zero is definitely a game that is much more about theme rather than narrative. so right away this will only appeal to a certain set of players. It deals with the plight of America’s forgotten places and downtrodden blue-collar workers, who try and move forward with grit and determination. Perhaps its an tough love letter to red-state America, or perhaps its a bleak social commentary on capitalism and the recession. There’s so much going on in each act that it can be difficult to determine exactly what the game is trying to say. Every player will no doubt see different things in Kentucky Route Zero. Rich in symbolism and metaphor, Kentucky Route Zero sometimes forgoes logical sense and standard narrative tropes entirely in order to emphasize certain ideas or catch the player off guard. Nothing in this game was what I really expected it to be. At a certain stage, it almost feels like finishing the delivery is less important than what is happening with the characters and how the process certain events.

    Kentucky Route Zero is constantly shifting perspectives, and during conversations you will be asked to make dialogue choices not just for Conway, but these other characters as well. These choices don’t change the plot too much, but they do allow the player to fill in a backstory and characterization for each of these wayward souls as the game progresses. You will also take control of these characters during certain scenes. Much like the Telltale games the developers have clearly taken influence from, there are no real puzzles during the game although there might be a few moments where you get lost figuring out what to do next.

    On console, playing the game works extremely well. You move your character using the analog stick and select clickable objects with the right stick, while pressing a button to interact with the object. It is all very intuitive. On Nintendo Switch, you also have the option of playing the game utilizing the touch screen controls, which gives the game a more traditional point-and-click feel. This is a very nice touch from the developers.

    Kentucky Route Zero is divided into 5 acts which follow Conway and his friends, although there are interludes between each act which follow other characters and events happening in the title’s universe. These interludes were originally released for free as standalone downloads, but are now integrated as part of the main experience.

    When discussing Kentucky Route Zero, its protracted development time will inevitably be brought up. Originally Kickstarted around 2011, the game was released episodically on PC beginning in 2013, when the PS3, 360, and Wii U were still the dominant consoles. The developers had planned to finish the entire game within a single year, although that obviously didn’t happen. Instead, Kentucky Route Zero became a target of awe for some internet fans and frustration for most, as the developer would often be completely radio silent for years between releasing each act. It’s hard not to look at certain aspects of this game and see how the development time helped or hurt them. Even looking at the game’s original Kickstarter page reveals a vastly different art style and synopsis for the finished game, indicating a ton of changes behind the scenes. You can clearly see the developers getting more confident with visuals and camera tricks with each episode, but you also have to question what exactly took so long to develop in the first place. Act V is easily the game’s shortest, yet it took almost 4 years to finally release!.

    Graphically, Kentucky Route Zero has a simple but striking art style, mainly consisting of flat-shaded polygons with a few textures. The character models have a low-poly feel not unlike the early cinematic platformer games such as Another World, although unlike that game they have no visible facial features. This is augmented by some of the best camera work and transitions I’ve ever seen in an adventure game. The way the camera zooms in on objects only to have them fade or cut out to reveal new things is a wonderful feeling. Many areas have a dynamic camera which travels all around, making for a unique experience. Map screens and menus utilize a sort of vector-graphics style. Together these two styles give the game a distinctly retro vibe, but the kind of retro that is rarely invoked rather than merely pixel art. On the Switch Kentucky Route Zero runs mostly fine although there are a few places, mainly act V, with some light stuttering probably thanks to the game’s use of the Unity engine, which seems to have optimization problems on every console. I wouldn’t let that put you off from the Switch version though, since its portability allows you to consume it like the book that it is.

    There is little voice acting in the game to speak of outside of a few radio broadcasts or as part of the ambient soundscape. Much of the game consists of the sounds of rural Kentucky: the roar of the highway, the chirping of crickets, and the crackle of flame as it lights darkness. There are a few ambient tracks played during the map screens. During gameplay, you’ll get to hear some absolutely wonderful songs with vocals, which perhaps evoke the game’s strongest emotions. Most of the songs have a folk or bluegrass style, though there is one that has more of a soft pop style. I was always in awe whenever a song would come on, as it usually signaled that an Act was drawing to a close. These songs bring a sense of warmth and humanity to a game which mostly consists of silently reading character dialog and picking responses.

    If you can’t already tell, Kentucky Route Zero is definitely not for everyone. When the curtain closed on the final act I wasn’t even really sure if I actually liked it. Perhaps its not the kind of game that wants to be liked. It will infuriate traditional game fans with its lack of anything meaningfully challenging or conventionally fun, while narrative lovers may be put off by the game’s insistence at being more interpretive than literal. Its themes are depressing and sad, and the ending doesn’t really offer much in the way of closure. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that there is indeed something truly one-of-a-kind here. For proponents of games as a form of interactive art, it’s another example to use, and its story and themes will likely be discussed for years on end. If you’re up for that kind of experience, then you can turn left onto the Zero. Otherwise, most gamers should just stick to the main highway.

By krisko6 on March 5th, 2020

Ministry of Broadcast (Windows)

We See All. We Hear All.

The Good
* Clever writing and narrative

  • Tense, challenging platforming with step-based movement

  • Satisfying puzzles and level design

    The Bad
    * Some extremely frustrating platforming sections

  • Very little voice acting

  • Generic sound and music

    The Bottom Line
    The decade’s first cinematic platformer has officially arrived in the form of Ministry of Broadcast Studio’s eponymous debut title. Set in an Orwellian dystopia, the game provides both the tense platforming, light puzzle solving, and stiff challenge one expects from the genre, along with a heaping helping of darkly comedic humor and twisted satire of the circus we call politics.

    You play as an unnamed redhead living in a post-apocalyptic dystopian state separated by a large wall. He wants to cross the border so he can see his family again, but to do this he must compete on “The Wall Show”, a deadly reality show, for the public’s entertainment. Navigating many tricky arenas and hazards, he must make his way past guards, dogs, alligators, and other hazards, all while keeping his body, and his sanity, intact. Along the way, your character will be guided and interact with a talking crow that may or may not represent his conscience.

    In terms of gameplay, Ministry of Broadcast displays an extremely deep understanding of the classic cinematic platformers. Movement is step-based and requires deliberate climbing, sprinting, and jumping with occasional trial-and-error. The movement feels solid and weighty, allowing you to make jumps with precision while still playing much like the classics. Climbing is responsive, and the jumps never seem unfair even when they feel impossible. Those who have never played these kinds of games before will understandably call the movement bad, since its realistic speed, friction, and jump distance are a far cry from most conventional platform games. However, players familiar with games like Prince of Persia and Flashback will feel right at home, and this game plays just as well, possibly better than those.

    Unlike its forbears, you cannot duck or roll, though you never really need to do so. There isn’t much in the way of combat in Ministry of Broadcast. You don’t have any conventional weapons for much of the game, though there is at least one section that is definitely a homage to Flashback. Instead you’ll take advantage of the environment to get past enemies and other obstacles. Ministry of Broadcast also incorporates puzzles and occasional stealth sections throughout. The puzzles aren’t too difficult but they feel satisfying to solve. Usually, to get past obstacles, you’ll have to ruin someone else’s day, whether that be letting them run into a pit of spikes so you can run across their bodies, using them as bait for guard dogs, or even starting a riot. Your character shows absolutely no qualms about any of this, he’s just out for himself. It’s more than a little disquieting to see your character’s humanity slip away as he tries to get as the state’s rules press down on him more and more.

    There are at least a couple of sections of this game that are extremely difficult. The first is a section where the entire level is dark except for a small pocket of light. It is hard to judge how much speed your jumps should have, and the light will make random directional changes that are unexpected. The other extremely tough section involves lots of fast platforming on construction that is crumbling apart, which is ncredibly confusing to navigate correctly at first try. These sections made me want to throw my controller against the wall with how difficult they were, but eventually I was able to power my way through them.

    While Ministry of Broadcast doesn’t have quite the same level of rotoscoped animations as its forbears, it still delivers lots of great little details. If you bonk your head against the wall, you character’s head will squish momentarily. When stepping on icy platforms, the character will pause momentarily before moving forward. If you move too fast, he will slip. Of course, no cinematic platformer would be complete without its fair share of grisly death animations, and Ministry of Broadcast is definitely no slouch in this department. If you jump too high off of a ledge, both of your character’s legs will be broken with gory results. Icicles can split your head in two. Piranhas and alligators are looking for dinner, and their meal is you. At one point, you can literally die from boredom if you happen to trap yourself under a very specific platform in the middle of the game, which shows just how meticulous the developers have thought about ways to die. Every death is a stark reminder of the unwavering cruelty of the oppressive regime. Your character’s is always ready with a sarcastic quip to comment on any situation.

    Ministry of Broadcast offers a clean, pixel-art look. It mostly operates in a wintery, industrial setting, though you’ll also venture through TV sets and sewers. There are loads of pop-cultural references sprinkled throughout, from The Shawshank Redemption to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The game even pays homage to the genre’s grandaddy, Prince of Persia. I ran into at least one glitch where the camera failed to scroll to where my character was in the room, but a reset quickly fixed it.

    The sound and music re solid if not entirely memorable. There’s a slight rock undercurrent to the soundtrack which is mostly sparse throughout the game, while the sounds are basic but effective. The writing is actually pretty solid throughout the game, so I was a little disappointed at the near-total lack of voice acting throughout the game. There actually is one scene with voice acting, from a character who is otherwise not heard when speaking, and its presence completely caught me off guard. Apart from a few screams and yells, and some muffled speech in the background of one scene, the use of voice is very limited. The fact that the developers managed to include voice acting for that one scene makes me question why they simply couldn’t have done it for the entire game, or at least for that particular character.

    Ministry of Broadcast is, in my opinion, the first great game of 2020. Its low profile and total embracing of an otherwise niche style of gameplay means that it won’t gather the mainstream attraction of other indie games, but it absolutely deserves to be better-known despite feeling incomplete in a few areas. It’s writing is sharp and clever and full of character, and it offers plenty of satisfying cinematic platformer action to sink your thumbs into.

By krisko6 on February 16th, 2020

Boneworks (Windows)

Entering the Void

The Good
* Unprecedented physics interaction with nearly every object in the game world.

  • Intense, visceral combat

  • Solid weapon variety

  • Amazing soundtrack

    The Bad
    * Vague, unsatisfying story

  • Platforming and physics are occasionally awkward

  • No real checkpoint system.

    The Bottom Line
    Boneworks is probably the most anticipated, most-hyped VR game in recent memory. A “next-generation” first-person shooter, it combines a complex physics simulation with combat and puzzles reminiscent of Portal, all presented in virtual reality. It’s an ambitious attempt by indie developer Stress Level Zero to take VR to the next level, and while it is not a complete success it does at least show how much more potential for game design that VR can offer.

    The story in Boneworks is vague and extremely cryptic. You play as Arthur Ford, an employee of a company called Monagon, which is developing a virtual reality operating system called “MythOS”. The employee shuts themselves in a strange room and barricades the door before putting on a VR headset. MythOS resembles a city under construction, and as you go through it it becomes apparent that something isn’t right. It is populated by strange orange men called Nullbodies, virtual reality helmets which resemble headcrabs, and other weird digital abominations. The story is primarily told through graffiti on the wall as well as computer monitors with videos from your fellow employees. Despite that, it doesn’t seem to make much sense.

    That’s partly because Boneworks is actually part of a universe that Stress Level Zero has been building across multiple titles. The game’s lore is actually quite deep and expansive and touches on some intriguing ideas including corporate espionage, demons, and the blending of virtual and physical reality. That being said, you really have to dig deep for these things, as well as be familiar with Stress Level Zero’s previous titles. On a surface level Boneworks’ plot is simply unsatisfying, failing to give even the most basic explanation why you’re doing what you’re doing as you play through the campaign. With a more direct surface-level plot, Boneworks could have even been more special, but as it stands the story will only appeal to lore junkies. Luckily, that’s not really why you play this game.

    Boneworks is definitely a weird gameplay experience. Most of the time it feels amazing to play: you’ll aim, shoot, duck, swing, stab, and reload with nothing but your controller movements. Theres a real tangibility to each weapon, and it feels great to use them. For instance, rifles will need to be gripped with both hands to reduce the recoil. It’s a real joy to pull out two pistols and take out a bunch of enemies at once in slow motion. When Boneworks works, you truly feel like an action movie hero.

    Your player character has four slots for holding weapons and objects, two spots under the armpits for storing pistols and SMGs as well as a pocket on the back. The backpack system works most of the time but it can be a bit frustrating when you have to fumble around for your next weapon after running out of ammo for your current gun during intense combat situations. Weapons can be “force grabbed” from a distance, though this only works for specific items marked as weapons.

    Early in the game, the enemy AI isn’t especially smart. Most of the time, you’ll be fighting the zombie-like nullbodies and all of their variations, which wander around slowly and flail their arms at you. Some later enemy types do use guns or other ranged projectiles and you’ll need to make smart use of cover to make it out alive. There are also the headcrab like virtual reality helmets, which leap at the player and attempt to cover their face. The reason that most enemies are so “easy” however, is due to the nature of the game’s reloading system as well as the sandbox nature of the game’s combat mechanics.

    Part of the fun of Boneworks is the true physical interactions with just about everything. You can move and grab just about anything that isn’t nailed down. You can use tables and boxes as makeshift cover, or create bridges over gaps using planks. You can use whatever is lying around to bash enemies in the skull. You can use trash-can lids to defend yourself against turrets. It is really next level stuff, and at times it feels like you can pretty much utilize anything to solve your problems. Boneworks was definitely designed with Valve’s Index controllers in mind, but it is playable on any headset that supports PC VR, including Oculus and Windows Mixed Reality.

    Its when you have to deal with platforming or manipulating large physical objects that things begin to get a bit dicey. Despite the game’s attempts to simulate weight for every object that you pick up, objects just seem to flop around with little control. You’re supposed to move heavier objects slowly as if you are truly holding them in real life, however it sometimes feels that some objects just don’t want to move where your hands are in the real world, resulting in a strange disconnect. For instance, heavy red boxes can only be lifted up so high, which is frustrating when you need to toss them across a gap. While it is workable, climbing feels springy and awkward, and mantling onto objects is a Herculean task even once you figure out how to properly do it.

    You’re really only have full control of your head and arms, the rest of your body just kind of dangles underneath your torso. Despite the game’s best efforts to compensate for this via inverse kinematics and realistic physics, platforming and jumping just feel awkward. You can control the height of your crouching by pulling down on the right analog stick, which will prep you for a higher jump. However, its difficult to get a feel for the momentum you’ll have when you hit the jump button. It’s especially terrible when you have to perform multiple jumps in a row on high-placed platforms. Thankfully there is no fall damage (this is a virtual world after all) so you can jump off of high places to your hearts content.

    Boneworks’ biggest problem besides its awkward platforming is its checkpoint system, or lack thereof. The game will only save at the start of each level. If you quit or die while in the middle of a level, you’ll have to complete it all over again. Each level takes about 45 minutes to an hour to complete, so you definitely need to be prepared for a lengthy session every time you reach a new stage. You can at least choose to start from any stage after you reach it.

    Boneworks takes away all of your weapons at the end of each stage, however, you can toss them into reclamation bins near the end of each stage. This will allow you to use these items in the game’s sandbox mode. After you complete the campaign, you’ll also unlock the arena mode where you can utilize the game’s myriad weapons against waves of enemies. I should point out that while there are a great variety of weapons, the game doesn’t have explosive weapons or even explosive barrels to shoot.

    You can purchase items in vending machines by using the ammo you collect throughout each stage. You’ll have to place each clip one by one into the vending machine slot, which can be tedious as some items are incredibly expensive. In addition, there are several fancy “dev-tool” items that you can unlock near the end of the game. These items cost a lot of ammo but can do cool things like allowing the player to fly, climb up any surface, or manipulate objects from a distance.

    Graphically, Boneworks has a clean, realistic art style. The surroundings are mostly concrete and steel, with the game having an extremely industrial, urban vibe. At times the game’s spartan visuals can belie the deep interaction systems lying underneath. While it is funny to view the construction of a VR world in a literal, rather than code-based sense, it also has an intentionally sterile and cold feeling. You get the sense that you really don’t belong in this world as you continue through it. Later in the game, it shifts to a much more surreal direction with cosmic horror undertones. Admittedly much of Boneworks has a very “tech-demo” vibe to it, but this is intentional to highlight the physics system and tweak your expectations for when the environments begin to shift. It runs on the Unity engine and the performance is mostly fine apart from a few areas with too many physics objects in them. It’s a game which demands a powerful CPU thanks to the physics simulation.

    The sound design for Boneworks is hit and miss. Guns sound fantastic, with a satisfying ping whenever bullets hit something and the memorable clicking noise whenever you reload them. Other objects have kind of a stock sound effect when hit or destroyed that isn’t particularly exciting. I’m not a huge fan of the noises the enemies make either. Luckily, Boneworks also has a surprisingly fantastic soundtrack. I know that VR games are still fairly niche and don’t get the same recognition as their 2D counterparts, but man if this isn’t one of the best soundtracks in any game released last year. Every tune is catchy and well-suited for the situation. There’s creepy ambient music during quite moments, loud synthesizer during the firefights, peppy pop music blasting from the in-game radios, and at one point what sounds like a Latin mass. This composer deserves a lot of credit for coming up with a great set of tracks.

    I may sound like I hate this game, and truth be told there’s a lot to criticize here. The platforming and physics are awkward, and the story is so vague as to practically be nonexistent. However, despite all of this, Boneworks is also fantastically, riotously fun and a true milestone in the history of VR games. Honestly, it is truly difficult in words to describe just how this game makes you feel when playing it. While it may be a bit barebones in its presentation, disappointing in its plot, and sloppy in its mechanical design, it also brings to light many of the gameplay possibilities that this new form of gaming is capable of delivering. Its so far ahead of the curve that playing any other VR game feels like a step down in comparison. I’m fully on-board with whatever Stress Level Zero decides to release next.

By krisko6 on January 24th, 2020

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