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Runner 3 Review: A Bit Of A Trip

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 19:40

Out of the numerous games to spring up under the Bit.Trip umbrella, it's not exactly a surprise that the most accessible of the bunch, Bit.Trip Runner, would be the one to transcend its retro-styled roots. In bringing the Runner games' mechanics to a fancier playground on the Switch, developer Choice Provisions has made its most ambitious game yet--but in doing so, may have revealed the limits to how far it can push the concept. It's also the most difficult, and if you haven't already invested in a good sturdy case for the Switch that might stand up to having the system thrown at terminal velocity out of a living room window, now would be a good time.

On paper, the gameplay is as deceptively simple as it's always been. Your character runs forward automatically, and it's up to you to jump, duck, slide, and kick down obstacles until you reach the finish line. The secret sauce of the Runner series is that every action and every item in a stage is plotted to work with its music, a whole game trekking along to simple melodies. Stages can be unpredictable, but if you have any sense of rhythm whatsoever, losing yourself to the music can get you through the tougher moments.

None of Runner 3’s tunes are terribly catchy, and quite frankly, it makes me wistful for the innovative chiptunes that accompanied the original Bit.Trip Runner. Most of the tracks settle for rudimentary and quirky when they could’ve absolutely gone big and eclectic. The furthest Runner 3 branches out in that regard is in the Danny Elfman-like haunted house tunes that accompany much of the second area of the game. At most, the music does the bare minimum: providing a beat for you to follow.

Most people will be able to blast through the first few stages easily, but Runner 3 ramps up the difficulty early on. Around the halfway point of the first area, stages start changing perspectives to an angle, but the shifts in viewpoint can make some of the jumps trickier than they need to be and obscure some obstacles. At its most aggravating, it's difficult to suss out where it's safe to land or what the timing needs to be to kick something out of your way. There are also moments where the game is too complex for its own good; for example, a machine that builds platforms as you run along, making anticipation impossible except through sheer trial and error--which can feel immensely cheap, especially as you get closer to the finish line.

That problem is made worse by the sheer length of each level. Although there are fewer stages in Runner 3, they go on longer than ever--a perfect run with no deaths can sometimes stretch on for four or five minutes. There are still checkpoints at the midpoint of each stage (and as before, if you like living dangerously, skipping the checkpoint gives you a ton of points), but each stage is so densely packed with obstacles this time around that those two minutes to get to safety can feel like an eternity. On top of that, the difficulty is wildly inconsistent; you might get stuck on an early stage that throws bizarre off-kilter obstacle patterns at you, and the next two stages could be walks in the park.

Compared to the relative austerity of the previous titles, Runner 3's environments go full-tilt wacky, overloaded with comical flourishes. The very first stage has you running through a breakfast island, a place where the palm trees are slices of cantaloupe and grapefruit, the rivers flow with milk and cereal, and the high roads are paved with waffles and toast. Later, another stage in Foodland sends you running through a giant refrigerator, bouncing off Jell-O cubes and jogging past some of the most outlandish and gross fake food products imaginable (personal favorites: Fish Errors, Beefmilk, and Cup O' Lumps in Milk Brine). Runner 3's levels are so immensely packed full of random amusements that you're equally likely to fail because you were busy staring at some visual gag happening off in the distance.

For those who do want more of a challenge, there are Hard variations of each stage, and ironically, there's a more gradual climb in difficulty with these than in the normal stages. In addition, the branching Hard routes tend to be where most of the game's collectibles are hiding, giving even more incentive for multiple playthroughs of an area. Said collectibles unlock a sizable amount of content, from the truly infuriating Impossible stages to new runners--with recurring characters from previous games rubbing shoulders with Shovel Knight and, for some reason, Eddie Riggs from Brutal Legend--to Retro stages which are built on a Hanna-Barbera aesthetic.

The greatest compliment to be paid to a game like Runner 3 is that after feeling the urge to toss a controller, it's hard to think of anything else except trying again. Runner 3’s greatest strength is in rewarding that perseverance. Getting through each stage means more jokes to see, more characters to play around with, and more secret stages to explore. Runner 3, over time, reveals itself to be a veritable buffet of weird and whimsical environments, and thrilling, precision-based gameplay, but make no mistake: you will have to work for your meal.

Categories: Games

State Of Decay 2 Review: The Limping Dead

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 02:00

State of Decay 2 sometimes feels like a far-too-real representation of the mundane reality that comes with surviving a zombie apocalypse. Consistently being on the hunt for food, resources to craft ammunition, and survivors to bolster your ranks doesn’t always translate into a captivating gameplay loop--especially when you’re faced with horrors other than the countless undead that roam around you.

Like the first game from Undead Labs, State of Decay 2 infrequently checks in with an overarching narrative. You’re given the choice of three pairs of survivors to start off with, each with their own bare-bones background stories. Those stories don’t really matter, but your decision does define your starting area and the preliminary survivors you’ll team up with to combat a growing sickness called the Blood Plague. The plague is the singular goal for you to work against, as your community strives to eradicate it from your town and build towards a brighter future.

That mission boils down to finding zombie-invested settlements that you’ll need to first scout out and ultimately destroy, with grotesque, beating Plague Hearts at the center. These fights are the only real way to measure progression through State of Decay 2’s otherwise open-ended campaign. Each settlement you conquer strengthens the rest, forcing you to step back and regroup before attempting to blow up the next. They're the toughest challenges the game has to offer, too, serving up waves of foes for you to fight as you valiantly lob another Molotov at the heart, hoping it vaporizes and takes all the nearby undead with it. Unfortunately, they are basic action set-pieces at their core, without much variety to help shake up the otherwise monotonous scavenging that surrounds them.

State of Decay 2 is primarily about survival, and it bears all the baggage the genre is known for. Although you’re spared the stress of dealing with individual meters for hunger and thirst, you’ll instead be engaging with ones that affect your community. Food, medical supplies, and crafting materials all factor into the stability of your community, with the overall mood of your survivors governing how well you’re doing. Supplies are littered around the dilapidated and abandoned settlements surrounding you, which are easily scouted with a little high ground. Your objectives hardly stray from going out, clearing an area of enemies, and scrounging around for consumables, gear, and large rucksacks of the more pertinent supplies you’ll need to keep settlers happy.

The act of gathering these supplies is rarely gratifying, though. Although your settlement initially requires some quick work to get on its feet, State of Decay 2 hardly feels like it will fail you for slacking on your routine duties. Certain base structures, for example, have daily resources costs that might trick you into thinking you’ll need a steady supply coming through. But because days tick by so slowly (I finished my core objectives within the first 10 days) this never becomes a real concern. Resources only become troublesome when you need them to craft something specific, such as ammo or plague cures. They’re short-lived problems though, which hardly force you to pause and think about how you’re setting up your settlement. It’s rare for State of Decay 2 to make you feel pressure over the choices you make, which just make all of its interesting sub-systems feel shallow.

It’s a pity, too, because so many of them could’ve added a much-needed layer of strategy. As an example, your base features a threat level which governs how likely you are to attract a zombie attack. Creating new structures or powering them with generators creates noise and in turn increases the likelihood of an attack for a certain period. But even at the highest level, a community of just six members strong is often enough to fend off these attacks without needing explicit intervention on your part. Of the handful of moments that my character was radioed to return, the fight was over by the time I arrived. All structures intact, all survivors unharmed.

State of Decay 2 squanders systems like this by not giving you a reason to engage with them seriously. If your aim is to continually bring new survivors to a settlement but also worry about their well-being, your encounters with each new face should feature more scrutiny as to what they bring to the table. Their distinct abilities set them apart from each other, but not in a way that forces you to make tough decisions about who to invite into your settlement.

The friendlier survivors you encounter are injected with a sense of individuality thanks to numerous perks that come pre-assigned to them. One specialising in swordplay will be more effective with a bladed weapon, while another with computer skills can help expand your base of operations. The sheer breadth of options on offer might trick you into thinking that scrutinizing each potential new addition to your settlement is key, but that’s not the case. Frequently, State of Decay 2 informs you that clashing personalities are leading to fights at home base, but these never escalate to a point where you’re required to take action. You’ll never feel the need to exile an existing character or deny entry to one based on their lack of specific skills.

Graphical hitches are frequent, including enemies clipping through the environment and sometimes having entire hordes stuck on single piece of the environment.

Combat isn’t as dynamic as some character-specific abilities might suggest, but it is satisfying nonetheless. A single button is used for attacks, which depending on your weapon of choice could inflict blunt knockback damage and force an enemy to the floor or slowly slice away at them limb by limb. Each approach comes with its advantages and drawbacks. Bladed weapons deal with larger groups of enemies more efficiently but tend to be far less durable than a sledgehammer or tire iron. These bulkier weapons require you to take an additional action to finish off enemies on the ground, which might leave you open to getting surrounded. Either way, the gory finishers and gruesome sound effects really bring a weight to the melee action, even if you’re just mindlessly mashing the same button until your stamina expires. Firearms feature too, and ammunition for them is far more abundant than you might expect. Gunshots attract more zombies (even with silencers), but it’s the sluggish aiming that's ultimately more frustrating in practice.

State of Decay 2 does a fair job of mixing things up with the introduction of some new enemy types. While some less interesting additions suchs as exploding Bloaters feature more than they deserve to, two others shake up combat in delightful ways. Ferals will jolt around at high speeds, avoiding your melee swings and making firearms a nightmare to connect with. Similarly, Juggernauts make up the largest foes you’ll face on the frontier. They’ll soak up hits from vehicles and rounds of ammunition before giving you a chance to take them down with a satisfying execution. Combined with regular, lumbering enemies that will quickly surround you, Juggernauts make fights more about clever crowd control.

Often though, it’s the game itself that will do its best to deter you from playing rather than its lack of depth. State of Decay 2 runs extremely poorly, even on Xbox One X. Despite not standing out graphically in any regard, the framerate will frequently dip well below its 30 frames per second target, sometimes locking up momentarily when the action is thick on screen. As a result, inputs can often feel incredibly sluggish and unresponsive, which just becomes annoying when you’re trying to swing your way out of a supply run gone sideways. Lighting can sometimes be striking, especially in dawn and dusk situations, but State of Decay 2 lacks a visual theme to tie itself up with and just ends up looking drab and boring. This is all stacked on top of a motion blur that is so aggressive that even the slightest movement turns your surroundings into an unattractive smudge.

Bugs are prominent too and can range from slightly annoying to near game-breaking. Graphical hitches are frequent, including enemies clipping through the environment and sometimes having entire hordes stuck on single piece of the environment. Enemies also routinely drop from the sky if you’re racing across the map quickly, which you’ll do often when you’re travelling in any one of the vehicles present on the map. Physics will miscalculate, launching your vehicle in the air from a slight touch at low speeds. Companions are also particularly prickly. Some following you on missions will disappear for no reason, while I personally had a single instance of a community member disappearing entirely and being eliminated from my pool of characters upon starting the game. One other instance saw one of my characters locked out from use in perpetuity for no apparent reason, while other times some would be stuck in an endless loop of the same boring dialogue for an entire mission. State of Decay 2 is in rough shape as it stands.

Perhaps if State of Decay 2 had the kind of depth that drew you in, these technical faults would be easier to overlook. But it’s because of the lack of meaningful motivations that they stick out so predominantly. State of Decay 2 settles into a rhythm that might be easy for you to pass some hours with, but it’s never a ride with genuine surprises, excitement or purpose. There’s promise in so many systems that it introduces, but they’re woefully underutilized to make space for repetitive activities that are nowhere near as exciting to engage with. State of Decay 2 feels like the lumbering enemies that populate its country mountains. Aimless, wandering, and just out of place.

Categories: Games

Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition Review - The Great Zelda Spin-Off Is Back

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 16:00

Hyrule Warriors is a beautiful, chaotic mess of a game. It's got all the glossy rupees, imaginative monsters, and fashionable characters you'd expect from the Zelda series (and plenty you wouldn't), topped off with some nods to the medieval hack-and-slash Dynasty Warriors series. In place of puzzles and elaborate levels or side-quests, you're here to do one thing--mess up some monsters.

This shouldn't be new to most folks, as the original run of Hyrule Warriors launched back in 2014, but the port to Nintendo Switch brings all the extra characters and items from the DLC, plus some added costumes and all the content from the 3DS version. That's a ton of content to bring to the table, but the game's central theme is the same as ever. That makes the Switch version a tough sell for all but the most dedicated fans of the original or those who have never set foot into the wacky world of this strange mash-up. Given the Wii U's relatively meager sales, though, this is a great second chance for the strongest Zelda spin-off ever.

For the unfamiliar, Dynasty Warriors is a tactical action game that tasks you with managing an army and controlling specific keeps or tracts of land. All the while, you are able to insert yourself directly into the fray as an uber-powered demi-god. That allows you to shift the tide of battle, essentially acting as the queen in chess. Powerful though you may be, you've also got to keep constant track of the field, and where you're needed most. That tension--between the battle right in front of you, and the tactical considerations of the field--represent the core tension of the series.

Hyrule Warriors doesn't compromise on that at all, and even mixes in plenty of mid-game quests and objectives to keep you juggling your goals and constantly weighing your best options. It's a lot to have going on at once, but it genuinely works. Choices are always billed as risks--should you go home and shore up the defenses of your base, or press-on for a valuable collectible? Understanding where you're needed most and how the various elements of a map all play together is important, but it's not so taxing that you can't fudge your way through a good chunk of it.

And that's part of the appeal. As Link or Darunia or Zelda or Impa, you've got the entire Hyrule cast at your back. Zelda isn't some rando, she's a monster-busting fiend. Even when you've got more important decisions to make, watching Zelda summon spears and swords from raw light and dispatching wave after wave of moblins is the kind of cathartic release many have been waiting decades for. This is fan-service at its most pure and most satisfying. Seeing the characters you've grown up with or idolized in new contexts that allow them to unleash their full might, is a bit like taking your favorite characters into Smash Bros. or Marvel vs Capcom. There's an essence of childlike fascination that comes along with it, and Hyrule Warriors wields that well.

Fans of Zelda lore and the like need not turn their noses up at this adventure, either. Provided you can buy into the initial premise and get some mileage there, the adventure is truly a fascinating one. You'll cross dimensions and timelines, bouncing between locales from many of the more recent Zelda entries, including Wind Waker, Breath of the Wild and Skyward Sword. All of this fits tonally too. With more than a dozen characters from all over the timeline and Zelda own history of world-swapping, time-warping weirdness, muddling the lines between worlds a bit to get everyone into the same game feels natural.

If anything, as we stated in our original review, the one major issue this brings up is the longing for flashier attacks and better combos in the mainline Zelda series. And when a spin-off makes you want more from the original, that's certainly a special sort of accomplishment.

New to the Switch version is split screen multiplayer. The original allowed one player to use the Wii U Gamepad, and another to play on the TV. This mode honestly, while nice, isn't much of an improvement. The Switch can still chug a bit when the action gets heavy, and trying pack two players, and the mayhem they cause onto a single screen feels a little tight. Still, it's always nice to have the option.

Those returning to the fray will likely be a little disappointed as there just isn't enough new content to rouse fresh excitement. For newcomers, though, Hyrule warriors is a delightful, bizarre outing that opens up the Zelda series, taking us places we've been before, just with thousands of monsters and awesome, screen-clearing magical attacks.

Categories: Games

Framed Collection Review - Worth A Thousand Words

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 16:00

When it first released in 2014, Framed was declared game of the year by no less than Hideo Kojima. In the years since, this has been the game's enduring legacy--it's not just a good game, but one that inspired an industry heavyweight with its inventiveness. It's a fundamentally robust, unique idea executed well.

Framed Collection brings together Framed and its 2017 follow-up Framed 2 (a prequel, although the plot is largely inconsequential) to Nintendo Switch and PC--both were formerly exclusive to iOS and Android. They are essentially puzzle games in which you're trying to solve a narrative issue--they present comic books where the main characters die or get arrested on every page. Several panels are laid out on each screen, each one depicting different scenes, usually involving one or more of the game's unnamed protagonists trying to outsmart the police or overcome an obstacle. In the opening stages, all you need to do is switch the panels around so that the character can safely get to the end of the 'page' and escape it.

Once you have the panels in an order that you think will work, you press 'play' and watch what happens. To give an early example, if the first (immovable) panel shows two police firing their guns then you'll need to move the panel that shows a table into the second slot, so that the man who is being fired at can immediately dive behind it and take cover. If any other panel is placed second, he'll be shot. All of this is backed by a lovely jazz soundtrack and neat visual style that renders all the characters in silhouette. Framed has a great sense of style, and although some of the backgrounds can be a bit plain (especially in the first game), it's easy to read the action and figure out what is going to happen in each panel as you enter or exit it.

In both games, the puzzles grow more complicated and clever as you progress. Later puzzles will let you rotate panels, sometimes changing the orientation of objects within them, other times shifting a rectangular panel so that it's either vertical or horizontal (which changes the order the panels are 'read' in as well). Others will let you move panels around after you've pressed play, which means that getting through to the last panel on the screen will mean moving through some panels more than once. Everything works on silly video game stealth logic--you can assume that all the police are deaf to anyone behind them--but the game's internal logic is consistent.

It's a clever system, albeit one that feels like it could have been pushed just a little further after finishing both short games. Played back to back, it's the original Framed that stands out the most. It's not necessarily better, per se, but the game has held up well since its initial release, and still feels like a fresh idea. Framed has a loopier structure than the sequel, one that calls attention to the game's weird frame-switching conceit with a plot that is hard to fully understand, but is neat in its ambitiousness. The original game introduces all the series' best concepts and ideas too, and as such ends up feeling a tad more inventive just by virtue of being the first one.

That's not to say that Framed 2 isn't also good fun. It's much nicer visually, and the puzzles are more playful in the sequel--one sequence where you need to change a character's outfit by continually switching around panels so that they alternately put on and take off various items of clothing is a stand-out, as is one scene that lets you rotate the hands of a clock to affect the angle at which one of the characters leaps off it into the next panel. Some other set-pieces, like a fist fight and a sequence where you need to figure out a four-digit code based on a tableau taking up most of the screen, play out as cute proofs-of-concept rather than full-blown ideas, but they're in the minority. Both games have plenty of lovely 'a-ha' moments, where a puzzle clicks and an obvious solution that was staring you in the face suddenly leaps out. Neither is particularly difficult, and while that's not a major issue both games also end abruptly--some further complexity would not have gone amiss.

Framed Collection's only real significant addition is a fast-forward button, which lets you speed up the action after pressing play. This is a bigger deal than it sounds--having to watch the same scenes slowly play out every time you pressed play after organizing panels was the most annoying part of Framed on mobile, and the problem has been mitigated here. You can play either game in TV mode with the Switch, but it's better in handheld mode with touch controls--using a controller just doesn't feel natural, especially when you need to switch between panels quickly. Playing on PC with a mouse is a great fit, too; these games are well suited to a bigger screen, and the art scales well.

Framed Collection is a pleasant reminder of why these mobile games struck such a chord. I wouldn't go as far as Kojima and declare them game of the year material, but I'd be up for a Framed 3 that took the building blocks established by the first two games and found new ways to piece them together. If you've already played Framed 1 and 2 on mobile there's not much reason to come back, but if you haven't these are the best versions of the unique and enduring puzzle games.

Categories: Games

Battle Chasers Nightwar Review: Switch It Up

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 20:00

Based on a hit comic book series from the late '90s, Battle Chasers: Nightwar successfully translates the look and feel of a comic into a turn-based RPG. The mesmerizing animated intro shows exactly what you're in for: a wild world where steampunk meets Dungeons & Dragons, rendered in beautiful, deep-shaded colors. It was a spell that was frequently broken when it first released. After months worth of patches, tweaks, and improvements on other platforms, however, it's a very different, and much stronger experience right out of the box on the Nintendo Switch.

The broad premise of the Battle Chasers comic is that a girl named Gully has taken a pair of magic gauntlets, along with a motley crew consisting of a sellsword, a wizard, and a kindly robot, on a journey to find her missing father. The Nightwar chapter, however, is a minor sidetrack from that journey. The crew gets shot down from their airship over a mysterious island with serious problems of its own. Supposedly, the island is home to a mother lode of mana, which has prompted something of a magic-based gold rush. Mercenaries, thieves, unsavory merchants and, most worrisome of all, the attention of an evil sorceress named Destra, are drawn to the island. The crew's plans to depart dissolve into a trek that goes deep into the island's darkest regions.

Battle Chasers endears you in the process of establishing its world, characters, and combat systems. Garrison, the mercenary, is exactly what you might expect from a square-jawed warrior with a tragic backstory: his terse personality keeps him at arm's length from his cohorts. On the flipside, the hulking mech, Calibretto, is a gentle soul who acts more as the defacto healer, and the beating heart of the story as it goes along. The cast at large brings infectious personality and energy to every scene, and all of this is underscored by a delightfully diverse soundtrack, flavoring typical medieval adventure anthems with everything from Chinese string instruments to bassy, trip-hop backbeats.

The game's overworld is dotted with opportunities to battle oozing slimes, vicious wolf men, and surly prospectors. Dilapidated little shanty towns pop up along the way, as well as occasional side quests, which usually impart a bit of lore before asking your band to thwart a high-ranking enemy in a dangerous place. The bread and butter of the game, however, is its major dungeons. Eight in total, the dungeons are procedurally generated. Despite the randomization, each room and its layout is impressively detailed, with smoothly integrated puzzles, that most of the time it's impossible to tell every dungeon wasn't meticulously laid out until you reset one, and re-enter to find an unrecognizable location.

From the outset, combat is fairly standard turn-based fare. Veterans of the game will find that the difficulty curve has been evened out in a way where early battles are still very doable, but don't go too easy on new players. The first few hours are full of hard hits and unexpected deaths for those who don't stay vigilant. Basic enemies hit for dozens of points in damage in a single wave, leaving debuff effects like Poison and Bleeding in their wake before you even really know what they do.

Thankfully, it's fairly easy to turn the tables. Every character has a special skill to affect enemies within dungeons--proactively stunning, ambushing, or igniting them--just before a fight kicks off. The principal gimmick during a fight is the Overcharge system. Basic attacks contribute to a special pool of red mana points that can be used to cast magic and tech attacks, rather than actual mana points. The new balance of progression makes it much easier to gain a foothold in the world, where no fight feels too unwieldy. For the fights that do, the removal of level restrictions on equipment also means that the right tool for the job is never too far out of reach. MP still remains in short supply as the game progresses, however. One should still be mindful about whether to build Overcharge or expend mana when using abilities. This gets increasingly tricky, but in a way that keeps you engaged in every battle, no matter how small.

There were two major problems with Battle Chasers when it first released: A severely steep difficulty curve as the game progressed into its second and third acts, and frequent, aggravating load times going into both battles and new areas. The bad news is that the second issue remains. Even on the more powerful PS4, months of patches still leave a problem where even just getting into a fight in the overworld map can stop the game dead for 30 seconds to load a single, low-level enemy. At least that system gets 60fps fights as a consolation prize. The Switch gets no such benefit, with not just a lower resolution, but intermittent stutters in framerate the more active and flashy the attacks. On both systems, going from the overworld to a dungeon or vice versa can keep you trapped on a loading screen for close to a minute.

The good news is that everything else feels great. Changes to the game's XP and various store economies make it easier to keep your companions ahead of the curve through regular gameplay instead of through tedious grinding—though that's still an option if you want it to be, and the rewards are now much more worthy of the effort. The same considerations still have to be made with each new piece of gear. Armor typically raises a character's HP, stamina, and speed, but drastically lowers physical and magical defense--stats that matter against stronger enemies. The trick of it is finding items that counterbalance the loss, and the odds of that happening, as it stands, have been improved for the better.

Beyond the challenge of combat, Battle Chasers is sustained through the strength of its story, a rollicking tale that takes our heroes literally to hell and back. It's bolstered by some sharp dialogue, gorgeous artwork, and an ensemble that plays extremely well off of each other. Lots of work has gone into Nightwar since its first release, and the balancing improvements make it an easy game to recommend on all platforms.

Categories: Games

FAR: Lone Sails Review: Come Sail Away

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 15:00

FAR: Lone Sails, the debut title of Swiss developer Okomotive, opens with your character--an unnamed, ambiguous figure in red--wordlessly paying their final respects at a grave behind their home. As you guide them from left to right, through their residence and out the front door, you leave it behind and set out on an unclear journey. The world is tinged grey, broken, abandoned. You quickly arrive at the vehicle that serves as your dwelling for the rest of the trek, a landbound ship that uses petrol, steam, wind, and its giant wheels and sails to propel itself forward. You henceforth pilot the ship in a straight line away from your home, unsure of the specifics of your destination or purpose--it seems like you're simply trying to go as far as possible.

Lone Sails is a 2D puzzle game in which there are no enemies, few challenges, and a purposefully vague narrative. These are all ideas we've seen attached to plenty of other indie platform-puzzle games, and in the opening few minutes described above it all feels very familiar. But it does not take long for Lone Sails to emerge with its own distinct voice and identity, and that's thanks to the ship you're piloting.

You'll spend at least half your time running around inside your ship--presented from a bisected viewpoint whenever you enter it--pressing the big red buttons that operate its various functions. You'll need to make sure that you've got fuel in the tank before firing the engine, meaning you'll often have to stop and collect canisters of it from outside during your journey (at no point in my playthrough did I come even remotely close to running out). Steam will build up if the engine runs for long enough, and pressing the associated button releases a valve and gives you a brief speed boost. Aside from these functions, most parts of your ship don't require frequent attention. You have a hose for fires and a repair torch, but they're generally only needed during or following set-pieces; a brake that brings you to an immediate halt; and, following an early upgrade, a set of sails that you can coast with if the wind permits.

There are plenty of sections where the ship must be brought to a halt so that you can leave and fiddle around outside to clear a path or get yourself moving again. These are Lone Sail's puzzles, and they're generally quite gentle, usually not involving much more than figuring out the right order to hit a series of red buttons or attaching your ship's winch to something. But even if they're not challenging, these set-pieces are usually delightful, either in how much your meddling changes the environment around you, or how the world's vistas stretch out behind you, or because they end with your ship getting a neat upgrade. FAR: Lone Sails is consistently engaging, with a tactile pleasure to pulling boxes, pressing buttons, and jumping around as needed.

But there are also long stretches where you'll likely find yourself doing nothing--the wind is carrying your ship, everything is organized below deck, and there's not much to do but sit on top and admire the view while listening to the soft orchestral soundtrack that kicks in during these quieter scenes. In these moments, as you take a moment to appreciate Lone Sail's beauty, the storytelling feels especially confident and focused. The world is beautiful, even though it's vaguely post-apocalyptic, with much of the landscape made up of a drained sea-bed and abandoned buildings. There are little hints at what may have happened to the world here and there, but ultimately the world outside of your ship doesn't matter so much until near the end of the journey, as the game's final act unfurls in a way that informs everything that came before it. Coming to appreciate the extended stretches of tranquility that Lone Sails often stretches out is one of its greatest pleasures.

You are always alone, and because of that, your attachment to the ship grows deeper. After a while, exiting the ship for any period starts to feel dangerous despite the lack of enemies. When bad weather conditions kick in at various points, leaving the ship feels akin to having to get out from under your blanket on a cold night. The ship feels alive and reactive, thanks in large part to great visual and sound design. Watching the turbines whir and embers shoot out from the back when you release steam, or even just sitting on top of the ship as it blasts along a flat with its sails out, is a bonding experience.

This is a polished game, with only a few minor issues that I encountered. Every now and then an object in the foreground would obstruct my view of some parts of the ship, but the ship's layout is easy enough to remember that this was only a minor roadblock. Twice I had to reload my most recent checkpoint because I got stuck--once it was my own fault, the other time I was trapped by a rare invisible wall designed to keep me from going a certain way. But the checkpointing is generous enough that I didn't lose more than two minutes of progress, and I generally felt totally in control of my ship. It's also quite easy overall, and up until a surprising death towards the end of it all, I didn't even know you could die.

Lone Sails is a transfixing, lovely experience, one that takes recurring indie game tropes and does something unique and fun with them. It's short enough that you could play through it in a single two or three-hour session, but it will likely stick with you for a long time. I can see myself going back in a few months just to revisit the ship, like checking in on an old friend.

Categories: Games

Destiny 2: Warmind Review - Back To Work

Sat, 05/12/2018 - 16:00

Destiny 2 has been struggling to keep its players invested for a while now. Going into its second expansion, Warmind, the biggest question was whether or not Destiny 2 can entice people to come back to it. This expansion is geared more toward the hardcore players, offering difficult endgame activities and a slower, more demanding level grind to get there. If you aren't interested in those things, though, there's not a lot here besides the same old Destiny 2 activities to draw you in.

Warmind's campaign consists of a handful of missions, and it takes around an hour and a half to complete. If you haven't played Destiny 2 much since Curse of Osiris, it's easy to jump back in; I started at 310 power and did some minimal grinding to keep up with each mission's recommended level. It remains a very welcome change from Destiny's more punishing pace, where skipping a few weeks meant another few weeks of intense grinding just to catch up.

Like most story-centric activities in Destiny 2, Warmind's campaign does just enough explaining to justify fighting enemies in the first place and leaves you to fill in the rest yourself. That can work really well, but in Warmind, a lot of seemingly important things are packed into a very short amount of time; a buried Golden Age research facility, new information about Rasputin, a crazy-powerful spear, and suddenly a giant worm that you have to kill. It's not that those things aren't connected but rather that there's no time to absorb anything before you're in the final fight, and it's anticlimactic as a result.

Individually, Warmind's different components are actually kind of cool. The Valkyrie spear can take out swarms of enemies in one very satisfying throw, and fighting a huge, serpentine monster is fun just for the spectacle of it. The new ally character, Ana Bray, is almost interesting--she's related to Clovis Bray, a historical figure in Destiny lore, and can speak to Rasputin--but she doesn't have enough time to develop into anything substantial. Though Warmind is an expansion about a hyper-intelligent AI that's been around since the first game, it feels like these are just the building blocks for what could be a compelling story.

For laidback Destiny 2 players, the more accessible activities are a great way to test out the new Exotic weapon changes that launched alongside the expansion. The 1.2.0 update is available even if you don't have Warmind, but it's at least nice to have a reason to try out the Exotic buffs. My personal favorites are the Graviton Lance, which now fires a two-round burst with a heftier and more satisfying explosion on impact, and Riskrunner, which deals more damage when its Arc Conductor buff is active. They actually feel like true Exotics now and as a result are loot worth chasing, so much so that the changes kind of steal Warmind's thunder.

Two of Warmind's story missions are disappointingly repurposed as Strikes, just like in Curse of Osiris. The addition of Nightfall-like modifiers to Heroic Strikes makes them a lot more difficult, at least, but the loot chest reward for completing them doesn't match the challenge--weapons and gear drop at 340 power, which is right about where you'll be when you finish the story. The new cap is 385, leaving a large gap between the "easy" content and the endgame that could have been filled with mid-tier Heroic Strike rewards. As a whole, the mid-level section of the expansion is unfortunately pretty empty of anything to motivate you to keep going forward.

The new destination, the polar ice caps of Mars, is around the size of Io. In addition to new Adventures and Lost Sectors, Mars has new secrets to hunt down in the form of Sleeper Nodes. They're primarily for other quests, but they can be fun to look for and a good excuse to explore. Mars also boasts a new activity, Escalation Protocol. It works kind of like a Public Event in that anyone in the area can join, but it's way harder, throwing waves of high-level Hive at you. As of week one, it's basically impossible to complete it, which makes it a nice accomplishment to chase if you've been wanting more to do in the late game. So far, Escalation Protocol is the most intriguing thing in Warmind--I actually want to level up enough so I can see what happens and what kind of loot I can get.

It certainly feels like Warmind has a slower burn than vanilla Destiny 2 or Curse of Osiris. In order to get the Exotic fusion rifle Sleeper Simulant, for example, you have to complete a time-intensive multi-step quest that involves running both Heroic Strikes and Escalation Protocols. On the hardcore end of things, the challenging new Raid Lair is a big incentive to get your power level up. The grinding alone will likely keep the most dedicated players busy for a bit, and figuring out and implementing a viable strategy once you actually make it to the Raid Lair is, as always, a reward in itself.

However, if you aren't already dedicated to reaching the level cap and completing every late-game activity, Warmind doesn't offer many draws for you; the only reason to do anything is to level up or get new loot, and that can keep you busy for a while this time around. How busy depends on your patience when grinding and your desire to jump through every hoop to get there. That barren middle-tier--when you've beaten the story and need to grind 20 or 30 power levels so you can reach the endgame--is a very easy place to lose steam.

Categories: Games

Pillars Of Eternity 2: Deadfire Review - A Pirate's Life For Me

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 18:00

Pillars of Eternity was something of a herald for the second golden age of classic computer role-playing games. It was an inspiration, and was quickly followed by games like Torment: Tides of Numenera and Tyranny, and plenty more have filled in the gaps since then. And that's before we even get to the reboots and re-issues of some of the genre's aging classics like Baldur's Gate.

All of this is to say that the standards have shifted quite a bit since Pillars of Eternity released in 2015. It's remarkable, then, that Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire not only keeps pace with its contemporaries, but brings its own vitality and character that sets it apart from a genre that has been feeling a bit crowded of late.

Deadfire is a direct sequel to Pillars of Eternity, but you don't need to have played the first game, as you'll get solid recaps as well as the ability to make some general choices that will affect how Deadfire plays. That said, having a familiarity with the characters and world greatly adds to the game's overall appeal. These folks have aged, wizened, and grizzled a bit in the pirate-infested Deadfire Archipelago--the expansive, maritime stage on which our adventure is set. One old friend has taken to smoking a pipe, for instance, growing a bit more lax and observational, punctuating thoughts and commentary with tokes to help process his thoughts.

For the most part, character progression and the nuts and bolts of play work just as they did before. Character creation is deep and complex, designed to mimic the process of mapping out a character in a tabletop RPG. From there, you play a half real-time, half turn-based adventure, with exploration done in the former style and combat in the latter. If you’ve played just about any of the iconic CRPGs of the last 20 years, you’ll be immediately familiar with the basics in Deadfire.

On top of that, though, Deadfire blows out everything from its predecessor. There’s more of anything you can think of--more options for character setup, more classes and skills, more specialization, more items, and more levels. You can also explore open waters on a ship that you manage, from crew to cannon. In much the same way that an advanced player’s guide adds fundamental upgrades to the way a tabletop RPG works, Deadfire is bigger, but also deeper. New character sub-classes and the ability to multi-class your character will allow you to refine your options in combat or play more nuanced roles.

That said, the real value of Deadfire is how its setting tees up new stories and tales of exploration and adventure. The Archipelago has been settled throughout, but plenty of islands still contain ancient secrets and eldritch horrors. Moreover, the rough-and-tumble atmosphere demands sturdy defenses and plenty of able bodies to maintain your new ship. Life on the seas is brutal, and your first major craft will barely have the gear needed to survive even minor engagements. Kitting out your mobile base of operations becomes another major focus, and you'll always have to worry when another ship comes into view.

Your ultimate goal is track down Eothas, a god who has possessed a stone colossus. Mysteriously, your spirit and life force is tied to the god, and only by chasing him to the archipelago were your companions able to keep you alive. Now you must set out and figure out how all this happened and why, while trailing Eothas. This works particularly well as a means of pacing out the journey and developing a strong throughline of adventure.

So you set out for whatever towns and islands you can spot, and build from there. At this stage, curiosity is a virtue. Questions and probes yield small, intimate stories and clues for tracking down the big bad alike. These arcs build out the texture of the world and offer some of the most beautiful moments in the game. Plus, having extra gear and experience can only add to your proficiency in the game’s main thrust. How and when you engage with the world is up to you, but you'll be partially limited by the capabilities of your ship and the information you've gathered.

Deadfire's characters are bright and nuanced, and their descriptions weave personality into the simplest interactions.

Ship combat, perhaps the single largest mechanical addition in Deadfire, is well constructed. Bouts are turn-based and will be determined by everything from the abilities and experience of the crew you've gathered, to the tactical choices you make. These largely center on positioning, which is important to keep in mind when attacking or defending. Most vessels will have a few different types of guns, so you'll be working on closing or creating distance and repositioning so you can get the best shots off at the right times. Boarding, of course, also plays a huge role, but that works more or less the same as any other battle on land.

All of this, too, feeds into systems that impact how successful you are at general pirating. Your crew's morale will need to be kept high, for instance, or you could run the risk of a mutiny. While that could have been little more than set-dressing, Deadfire pulls those threads into the rest of the game--primarily through its art and writing.

Rich, detailed prose focuses on setting the scene and building an atmosphere. Deadfire's characters are bright and nuanced, and their descriptions weave personality into the simplest interactions. All of this makes for an enriching read--if you've got the patience for it. Like the first game, the writing is phenomenal overall, but some sections can be unnecessarily verbose, and that can occasionally strike as a weakness. But, more often than not, vivid text is a means to help you escape to this fantastical world. Thankfully, though, it's not the only trick Deadfire's got.

While the isometric view is a bit of a throwback, the art and visual detail of the world stands abreast with the writing as one of the adventure's strongest points. Not only is this a visual feast, mostly because of its imaginative settings and application of the arcane, but its direction is poignant and gripping. The seaside shacks and exotic, otherworldly creatures are a stark departure of the classical fantasy setting of the previous entry's Dyrwood. The cliched stylings of Caed Nua castle give way to Treasure Island, with all the monsters and magic of DnD. In other words, this is more a fantasy adventure in a pirate-y tone than the other way around. And that works just fine--keeping enough of the original appeal intact while folding in sharp new ideas and ambiance.

Deadfire is dense, and it isn't a small game, easily dwarfing its predecessor in terms of scale. There's a lot to do, and it's easier than ever to get lost in the little stories you find, without following the arcs that the game has specially set out for you. Still, it's worth taking your time. The richness of Deadfire takes a while to appreciate, and like the brined sailors that call it come, you'll be left with an indelible attachment to these islands when you do finally step away.

Categories: Games

City of Brass Review - Hidden Treasure

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 18:00

City of Brass opens with an ominous warning about the many dangers lurking within its cursed city, before dropping a tantalizing tease of incredible wealth should you manage to overcome all of its obstacles. You play as a thief trying to reach the mythical treasure through endless foes and dangerous traps, and if you're able to overlook some technical and presentation shortcomings, there's a lot of fun to be had with City of Brass's thoughtful combat and first-person dungeon crawling.

City of Brass is a roguelike which takes place over 12 procedurally generated levels and one final boss battle, and every playthrough is different. Shifting level layouts, enemy spawn points, and different trap types require you to be on your toes, and keep the game engaging and continually surprising. But though it's exciting to experience "new" levels in each playthrough, the presentation leaves a lot to be desired.

Each of the twelve levels is broken down into four unique backdrops--cities with desert, overgrown, and opulent themes, as well as underground catacombs. They're initially impressive to look at, but repeating textures and assets quickly become noticeable, resulting in stages that are virtually indistinguishable from another. The Arabian Nights-inspired audio design is minimalist and fitting for the game's aesthetic, but is generally unremarkable. Oud and flute-heavy themes feature heavily, but like level assets, are reused time and time again. The shortcomings in the presentation also extend to the menu--cumbersome interfaces make learning about City of Brass' levels, enemies, weapons, and gear needlessly frustrating and unhelpful.

The lack of stage variety means that City of Brass occasionally feels like a four-level game being padded out into 12. But while they can be dull at times, the first-person combat plays a huge part in alleviating the tedium. You're armed with a whip in one hand and a sword in the other, and the interplay between them is wonderfully implemented. Should you be unable to break through a foe's defenses, there's the option of using the whip to pull their feet from under them before rushing in for the final blow with your blade, which feels incredibly good to do.

When overwhelmed in situations where your sword and whip are simply not enough, you can use randomly scattered items or the many available traps to turn the tide of the fight. Items like an explosive jar or a lamp can help clear out a big horde of enemies; pushing an enemy into a venom jug will make them easier to kill; docile enemies can be lured or pulled into traps like floor spikes and bottomless pits. There's a satisfying amount of strategic thinking and creativity allowed within City of Brass' combat. There is also a sizable roster of enemies and mini-bosses scattered throughout each location, most of whom require different strategies to overcome. The enemy designs aren't particularly inspired, but the rudimentary AI offers up enough of a challenge to keep you alert, particularly during moments when large groups of enemies relentlessly chase you down.

Memorable and heart-stopping combat moments are also generously sprinkled throughout City of Brass. One particularly notable encounter has you tailed by a near-indestructible enemy statue that only comes to life when your back is turned and can only be damaged by explosive jars. As soon as you're within the proximity of an enemy statue, the music immediately hits high-pitched notes, and you're on edge trying to keep sight of the statue while searching for an explosive jar or the exit.

Death will be a regular occurrence, but the short stages and friendly learning curve help encourage repeated attempts. City of Brass also allows you to generously tailor difficulty according to your skill level. A total of twenty modifiers aimed at buffing or nerfing both you and enemies alike are available from the beginning, allowing you to be as flexible with the difficulty as you please.

The fantastic sword and whip mechanic is unfortunately tarnished at times by the combat system's poor hitbox recognition. Several times over the course of a single playthrough, sword swings can pass harmlessly through a skeleton's head despite standing at point blank range. Similarly, the whip doesn't have any noticeable effect on enemies outside of small strike zones on their head, feet, or weapon. Skirmishes on PlayStation 4 were also negatively impacted by occasional frame rate drops that interrupted the flow of fights.

But performance issues aside, City of Brass is notable for its impressive balance between its pacing, difficulty curve, and combat systems. Each level takes only a few minutes to complete, but the time limit, the high-paced nature of all enemy encounters, and the constant wariness of traps and ambushes instills high-stakes tension to every stage. In order to combat the progressively tougher enemies, buffs, stronger weapons, and health can be bought from genies scattered throughout each level.

City of Brass' enemy difficulty and character upgrade system is tuned well enough that you will never be too over- or underpowered at any stage of the game. Treasure used to purchase new weapons and upgrades is easy enough to find, but there's an element of strategy on how to most effectively spend your coin. There are several times where you're forced to make a choice between buying an expensive stronger sword or buff, but run the risk of having not enough money for a much-needed health boost later on.

City of Brass is a good dungeon crawler, with some of its best moments and mechanics derived from its rendition of an Arabian Nights theme. While its repetitive scenery and uneven presentation are noticeable tarnishes on its sheen, the satisfying combat and well-balanced difficulty curve will keep you going back for more.

Categories: Games

Total War Saga: Thrones Of Britannia Review - Rule, Britannia

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 01:00

The year is 880 AD. West Seaxe has flourished across the British Isles, and you’ve kept yourself in the hotseat of the English kingdoms through years of hasty allegiances, diplomatic marriages, and bribery. However, your adopted son Ricsige cuts a swathe through your settlements in some misguided idea of rebellion before meeting his end at your sword. Before you can grieve, however, a war horn sounds to the east and a barbaric force appears on the horizon. Resigned to taking up arms against lest your citizens turn on you for being a coward, you’ve got no choice but to face the invaders head on despite your exhaustion. As the Vikings advance on your skeleton crew of soldiers, you look once more across the rolling hills of the land that you call home and utter a silent prayer for your slain son. Later, after the crows have descended on your corpse and your countrymen have been enslaved, your former allies whisper about your useless heir and conspire to carve up your remaining settlements for themselves. This is Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia, and your kingdom will never be the same again.

One of the core systems in Total War’s latest is the idea that your kingdom’s legacy is everything, for better or for worse. This isn’t revolutionary for the series, considering previous installments were fixated on the Roman Empire and its own bag of patriarchal succession woes. But the laser focus on lineage, loyalty and responsibility are more pronounced in Thrones of Britannia. It’s nothing short of engaging when all of its gears are in motion, and making sure that those gears are well-oiled is where the challenge lies. As is usual for Total War games, you’ve got to strike the right balance between warmongering and good governance. Your success is measured best by how your townsfolk are feeling, and they react organically to your decisions when you make them. If you lower taxes, they’ll undoubtedly get a boost to their satisfaction. If you’re not zealous enough, or too zealous for too long, their thirst for conflict will decline. If multiple things go wrong at once, you’ll potentially face a peasant uprising just as you’re knee-deep in a Viking-slaying sojourn.

Depending on the faction that you’ve chosen to play as, you’ll also have a number of other competing concerns vying for your attention, along with a corresponding cultural perk. Each cultural faction (there are five, each with two subsets) has its own way of charting the rise or fall of your empire, and they’re all distinctly different. For example, if you’re playing as the Welsh, protecting your culture will be the key factor to watch. If you’re walking on the wild side and playing as the Vikings, then it’s a matter of making sure that lesser kingdoms recognize your military accomplishments via lavish tributes. Keeping those respective meters high for your chosen faction will lead to positive increases in universal metrics like loyalty or even the melee abilities of your units. The differences between the cultures feel much more than skin-deep when these systems come into play, and they each guarantee a unique experience which incentivizes players to try their hand at other factions once they’ve tasted success.

These integral bits and bobs are also affected by the actions of your generals and governors, and Thrones of Britannia does its best to give you the tools you need to be politically savvy. Your henchmen are important, but acquiring them is now a precise science. Unlike the chance acquisition of previous titles, you get to place a follower into someone’s retinue when they level up. These peons assist you with improving specific empire metrics. If you’re struggling to feed your troops, perhaps give a governor a well-trained forager. If you’re looking to crack skulls in battle, then assign a Champion to a general for a little more steel. However, it's hard to keep your loyal subjects truly happy even if you make sure that they’re prepared for anything that the Isles may throw their way. Why? Well, they’re only human, and humans get greedy.

The aforementioned cautionary tale of Ricsige the Overambitious is just one of the many vipers in your kingdom’s nest that the game can throw at you. If your inner circle are too good at their jobs, their influence may eclipse your own and lead to some nasty confrontations if you don’t use espionage to discredit them in front of the populous. If you let them get too unhappy, then their loyalty suffers and they’ll make off with an army if you fail to placate them. Thankfully, the game gives you choices: You can secure loyalty through bribes, torture, or by doing what any good King would do, giving them estates. If things are looking particularly dire, you can even declare a new heir, though it pays to be cautious about the riff-raff that you’re letting into the royal bloodline. Managing the expectations of your inner circle is a balancing game that has surprising depth considering the immediacy with which your kingdom bears the brunt of your choices. It’s a credit to Creative Assembly that granting titles and destroying marriages never feels like busy work no matter how big your posse gets.

If you thought that your sons would be tough to manage, then your vassal states and potential enemies are an even bigger headache. While there’s no need to negotiate over imports and exports anymore, you still have to do your bit in ensuring good neighborly relations. You can suggest peace treaties, broker mutual military access, and even marry off an argumentative maiden to a frosty sovereign to appease them. You can also just as easily put an end to a friendship; each faction will react in either a positive or negative way to what you may see as a minor act (i.e. walking through someone else’s forest), and things can quickly turn into a diplomatic minefield. End up making a wrong choice and breaking an alliance? You’re signing yourself up for a beating from the very same monarchs that you kicked to the curb. While it can sometimes feel like you’re being pigeon-holed into specific diplomatic relationships depending on your story missions, the general freedom that you get to flip the bird at petty rulers adds a welcome touch of brevity to the proceedings.

For those who are chomping at the bit for combat, this sort of confrontation probably sounds more like a blessing than an indictment. Thankfully, Thrones of Britannia maintains the series' satisfying war mechanics. Formations for your units make their comeback in Thrones of Britannia, so if you sloughed through Warhammer and Warhammer II wanting the micro-play of the early Total War games, you’re in luck. The loop is conceptually familiar even to the uninitiated: you line your men up, point them at the enemy, and send them to meet either early deaths or victory spoils. Some factions have a leg-up on others at different points of the game, but the usual suspects of cavalry, ranged infantry, and sword-wielders populate the majority of your ranks.

Every location is rendered in great detail, even though the game relies on an aged engine. The camera’s range here is welcome; you can view the action from the top down or you can get up close and personal with the carnage. AI enemies respond reasonably intelligently to the actions of your troops--this isn’t a case where they throw themselves against your pointy weapons until they stop moving. However, there are some instances of the AI becoming prematurely spooked by aggression, and their defensive maneuvers of hiding behind trees and scattering unprompted can feel repetitive after consecutive skirmishes. Despite that, the mechanics around preparing for sieges and the economic minigame of raising your armies pad out the combat experience well as a whole, even if other elements of the game are more abrupt.

One of those such elements is the act of seeking victory itself. There are Short Victories and Long Victories, and they encompass the full gamut of empire metrics: you can win by getting really famous, controlling a certain portion of the map, or simply by sticking around long enough to give the Viking horde what for. Getting a Short Victory can sometimes feel like an accident; a win is in sight if you manage to inherit a foreign landmass, and this can happen through no effort of your own if your chosen target is unlucky enough to incur the wrath of someone stronger. However, the factions all have their own starting difficulty indication that appears to be mostly accurate, so it’s easy to see where you should jump in if you have any doubts about whether you’ll be sufficiently challenged.

Once you’ve gained a victory, the forward momentum of the game seems to slow. While you may previously have been fed missions to move events along, your trusty advisor seems happy to largely occupy the back seat of your chariot while you tramp around Britain looking for people to stick swords into. If you’re lucky enough to have fallen into multiple win conditions, you’ll likely find it hard to motivate yourself to keep going; the AI may not be strong enough to keep up. On the other hand, it’s just as easy to taste only defeat in a playthrough, as the AI is quick to bare its teeth and to close in on weak or unguarded settlements. Regardless, it’s prudent to not take victory for granted: a decisive win could spell an exhausted army ripe for the routing before an in-game year passes.

Thrones of Britannia is an exciting experience despite the cuts to integral components of the Total War series, such as city planning hinging on military needs, specific building customization, and expanded intrigue options. But this has given Creative Assembly room to focus on enhancing parts of the strategy experience that aren’t quite as impenetrable to newcomers, and to allow the series to return to some of the beloved parts of previous historical games to balance out its newer, slimmer form. While there are minor issues with AI, and pacing suffers when you’ve comfortably gotten the upper hand, this is still a worthy and engaging contribution to the Total War stable that has successfully taken its cues from history’s winners and losers alike.

Categories: Games

Nintendo Labo Review: Variety Kit And Robot Kit

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 16:00

It's very easy to dismiss Nintendo's new line of Labo build-and-play toys as merely cardboard. For adults especially, building the Variety Kit's five toys--or the Robot Kit's suit--and playing their simple games might feel like a short-lived novelty. But there's a surprising amount of depth to what you can do with the kit's stack of cardboard sheets and cutesy software. It's a remarkable educational tool and an opportunity to see your creations come to life, and that's something very special, even if the games themselves don't stand out.

The Variety Kit comes with five different Toy-Cons to build and then play with: the RC car, the fishing rod, the house, the motorbike, and the piano. In that order, the process of building them gradually increases in difficulty, with the more complicated projects expanding on the concepts introduced in the easier ones. The RC car takes around 10 minutes to build and is effectively a practice run, showing you the importance of precise assembly and how to work with cardboard without bending it in weird places. (The cardboard itself is pretty sturdy if you're reasonably careful with it.)

After the "make" portion, you move on to "play." The games are all relatively straightforward; drive the RC car, fish with the fishing rod, play piano using the piano. It's more rewarding to see how the cardboard translates to the software than it is to play any of the games at length, though they're deeper than they look at first glance. Even the most basic one, the RC car, has a self-driving function and a multiplayer battle mode; in the motorbike's game, you can design your own tracks just by moving a Joy-Con through the air. The least interesting, at least from an adult's perspective, is the house--the game there is to experiment with three insertable parts and see what kinds of rooms and mini-games they can unlock when in different combinations.

The piano is the most impressive component of the Variety Kit, with a regular play mode and a surprisingly deep studio mode. It only has 13 keys, but there's a lever on the side that changes the octave, giving you access to a wider range of notes. You can layer recordings for more sophisticated songs, change the envelope and reverb of the notes before you record, and insert cards of different shapes into the top of the piano to change the waveform patterns. You can also create drum beats (composed of bass drum, snare, hi-hat, and cymbal sounds) using a kind of punch card that goes in the waveform card slot; the infrared camera in the Joy-Con detects the shape of the card and then uploads the card's "data" into the studio UI.

Not much of this is apparent when you first start playing the piano, though. A lot of the depth can be found in "discover" mode, where three cheeky characters walk you through the technology behind each Toy-Con, any extra things you can make or do with them, and how the games work. Like with the building process, a lot of the enjoyment comes from learning how each of the Toy-Cons works and understanding why you had to make them a certain way. For kids in particular, there are straightforward explanations of abstract physics concepts that benefit from having the Toy-Cons as hands-on aids. There are also plenty of resources on how to fix the Toy-Cons, including how to repair bent or ripped cardboard (which is good for all ages).

In addition to the Variety Kit, there's also a separate Robot Kit available. Instead of five different Toy-Cons, you build one large one: a robot "suit." The basic suit consists of a visor and a backpack with pulley mechanisms for each of your hands and feet that control the in-game robot. The visor part utilizes the left Joy-Con's gyroscope, while the backpack works using the right Joy-Con's infrared camera and reflective tape. It's a complex project that can take three or four hours to build, but the instructions are as easy to follow as they are in the Variety Kit, and it's broken up into eight steps so you can pace yourself.

The Robot Kit's games are especially geared toward children's imaginative play. The main attraction is a destroy-the-city mode, in which you punch buildings to dust and rack up points. In addition to that, there's a versus mode where two robots can battle and a "studio" mode where you can assign different sounds to the robot's limbs and step and punch your way to a beat. You can also customize your in-game robot and unlock better abilities in a challenge mode. These games do show the different applications of the Toy-Con you've built, but they're not likely to grab you for very long unless pretending to be a robot is your jam. Like in the Variety Kit, the Robot Kit's discover mode is the place to learn more.

In both the Variety and Robot Kits, the secret endgame is the Toy-Con Garage, a mode where you can program your own games using if-then statements. You can pick an input, like "if the Joy-Con is face-up," and connect it to an output, like "vibrate," by dragging a line between them on the touchscreen. Depending on how many rules you weave into your program, you can make some decently complex games as well as mod the Toy-Cons you already made. It's both a great learning tool at its most basic level and an opportunity to challenge yourself and apply everything you've learned so far.

It's nice to have something to tinker with long after building the Toy-Cons, and that's mainly because the official games are more like demos to show you how everything works. The only one likely to keep your attention for any length of time is the piano; everything else is a jumping off point, and you're limited by how much it inspires you to create. And that's just what Labo is at the moment: a great tool for creation, rather than for playing.

Categories: Games

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review - A Blast From The Past

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 14:00

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze arrives on Switch in great shape after four years confined to Wii U, and it's a treat to revisit. It's a straightforward platformer packed with delightful moments, but a steady stream of peril ensures that any fun you're having is underscored by ever-present tension. It doesn't have as much added content as other Wii U-to-Switch ports, but even so, Tropical Freeze is an easy game to recommend.

Retro Studios' second Donkey Kong Country game doesn't deviate too far from the series' familiar foundation. It presents you with six worlds and a handful of levels in each, as well as a bunch of optional challenges that considerably ramp up the difficulty if you're in the mood. You can attempt to beat stages as Donkey Kong alone, but you can also team up with his fellow Kongs: Dixie, Diddy, and Cranky. Riding on DK's back, each sidekick offers a slight advantage that he wouldn't have on his own; Dixie can extend the length and height of jumps, Diddy can hover in place, and Cranky can bounce off of his cane to attack enemies. There's also the option to play with a friend controlling one of the secondary Kongs independently from you. Surprisingly, the coordination required to find success as a pair can make things more difficult than playing alone, despite the extra set of hands.

Regardless of how you play, the Kongs' abilities are dutifully tested by Tropical Freeze's tightly orchestrated gauntlets of obstacles and enemies. There's little room for hesitation, and the emphasis on commitment is one of many factors that makes Tropical Freeze's charming cartoon world so stressful. More often than you'd expect, platforms and structures transform on the fly, and you more or less have to rely on instincts when making blind jumps. Tropical Freeze thrives on keeping you at the edge, where death-defying performances feel like the norm. There's practically always a twist or gimmick waiting to upend your expectations and test your reflexes.

With enough memorization and muscle memory, you shouldn't have too much difficulty clearing the game's main path in less than ten hours. You can, however, dial up the challenge and longevity quite a bit by making it your goal to find the many collectables scattered throughout each level. There are coins that you can collect to purchase single-use items, but the real hidden prizes are the puzzle pieces and K, O, N, and G letters in every stage--one of the consumable items is built explicitly to help you find them, for example. Finding these will help you unlock bonus content, including extra-difficult stages in each world. These items are often situated in difficult-to-reach corners of levels, but they can also be obscured by environmental structures that you have to move, by either obvious or cleverly disguised means.

Hunting for hidden items is usually manageable in stages where you control the overall pace. However, Tropical Freeze has many levels that scroll automatically, say, with you outrunning a lava flow, flying on the back of a rocket, or tumbling down bumpy tracks in a rickety mine cart. These can be such exacting challenges that you will most likely be too concerned with staying alive to discern a means of collecting that seemingly out-of-reach item that you so often zoom past. Of course, once you have the confidence and knowledge under your sleeve to replay a level without trepidation, the challenge of pushing yourself further than before (in different ways) makes repeat playthroughs just as exciting as the first time around.

The primary addition to Tropical Freeze for Switch is the addition of Funky Kong, a surfer who has a far easier time of things than his relatives. Funky comes with his own mode, and the rule changes therein are significant. Where spikes instantly hurt everyone else, Funky can land on them without taking damage. He can also double jump, swim underwater indefinitely without an air supply, and comes with more than double the health of DK. The only thing he lacks is the ability to team up with others when playing alone, but with all the other advantages, you won't exactly miss them.

Playing as Funky Kong is essentially playing Tropical Freeze on easy mode, but it is also a nice treat if you want to revisit the game under a new lens. Funky is fast and can fly through levels without much hesitation on your part. While there's no doubt plenty of opportunity to speedrun the game as DK, for the less talented or ambitious, Funky can give you a taste of the fast life with little fuss or frustration. It's not a game changing addition, but it's one that mixes up the feel of play in an immediately enjoyable way.

Finally, it's worth noting that Tropical Freeze looks great and plays smoothly on Switch. Docked, the game is beautiful at 60 frames per second at 1080p (it ran at 720p on Wii U), with the vibrantly colored and expressively animated world looking better than ever. Surprisingly (as reported by Eurogamer) Tropical Freeze runs at a sub-720p resolution when played handheld. Truth be told, the downgrade isn't that apparent, likely an effect of the Switch's relatively small screen. Regardless, playing handheld on Switch is a significant improvement from streaming it to the GamePad's 480p screen from your Wii U, leaving no question that this is the definitive version.

Tropical Freeze isn't a heavy-hitter from Nintendo in the same way Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey are, but it's a fantastic platformer that's bursting with creativity and expertly designed challenges. It's tuned just right--always tough but rarely frustrating--to ensure that even the most common moments feel great. If you missed out when the game first debuted back in 2014, give it a shot today. It easily stands the test of time.

Categories: Games

Battletech Review: Slow And Steady

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 03:01

Enjoying Battletech takes time and patience. Born from the decades-old tabletop game of the same name (which also gave birth to the Mechwarrior series of games), the Harebrained Schemes version of Battletech places the universe into the genre most suitable to its origin: turn-based tactical strategy. It's a successful endeavor in that playing Battletech very much feels like playing a complex board game, both for better and worse. There are deep systems to be found in its meaningful mech customization, detailed combat scenarios, and enjoyable fantasy of running an interplanetary mercenary outfit. But reaching the point of thoroughly enjoying Battletech requires the willingness to weather its steep learning curve and laborious pace, which can sometimes veer into excruciating territory.

Individual missions in Battletech are protracted, plodding conflicts, averaging around 45 minutes in length. You command a group of four battlemechs, each piloted by unique and specialized pilots, with the goal of either blowing something up or keeping something safe against outnumbering forces composed of hostile mechs and vehicles of warfare. The enormous mechs of this universe are the lumbering, industrial behemoth kind, bulky tanks with legs characterized by ugly chassis and weapons overtly fused to their limbs. They are graceless, unwieldy machines, and Battletech doesn't hesitate in belaboring their nature as they slowly trudge through the game's vast, sprawling maps like pieces on a military sand table.

Observing a unit's actions play out can be a quite a process. You'll watch them steadily stomp to a point on the topological grid-based terrain, leisurely rotate their torsos to their designated angle, wait for their weapons to spin up, watch the weapons fire, and wait again for a few moments as the damage report comes in to assess the aftermath. Mech animation speed aside, there are often pauses during this string of actions that feel unnecessarily egregious, and given the number of turns that need to be played out, long missions have the capacity to feel never-ending. There are more exasperating examples, too--during escort missions you'll find yourself watching up to four autonomous convoy vehicles taking turns to crawl through the map, slowly and one at a time, and the display is nothing short of agonizing. At the time of writing, there is a debug mode you can use to help artificially alter speed, but these are not officially endorsed options. By default, Battletech debilitating pace, combined with the game's lacking tutorials, firm difficulty, complicated UI, and persistent technical stammers mean the experience of Battletech's early hours can be tough to brave.

But it's worth it. Growing acclimated to Battletech's attrition-focused warfare and making enough of your own critical mistakes to get a handle on its systems feels liberating, when it eventually happens. Being able to parse initially obtuse information allows you to internalize and appreciate the suite of mechanical nuances and helps you recognize the game's detailed and hard-nosed approach to strategy. Like any great tactical game, each decision requires multi-faceted risk analysis for the best possible outcome. But the joy of good choices in Battletech doesn't come from bombastic maneuvers where your team precisely eliminates a whole enemy squad without a scratch, as it might in XCOM or Into the Breach--that's an impossible scenario here. Being truly successful in Battletech relies on being prepared to get into scrappy, aggressive fighting, and coming to terms with what an acceptable loss might be to you at the time, whether that's an objective, a limb, or the lives of multiple pilots.

With only four mechs to eliminate a larger number of adversaries in a turn-based ruleset, with no allowances for mid-combat repair, learning how to maneuver your mechs in order to endure a reasonable amount of damage becomes one of the most gripping aspects of decision making--how far do you push yourself to take on enormous odds? On the battlefield, this might mean something as simple as studying the impressively varied terrain in each map and finding the most advantageous spot to hunker down, or using buildings, forests, and mountains as cover during an advance. But on a more advanced and necessarily specific level, it might mean rotating your mech to present a fully-armored side to an attacking foe and obscure a side already damaged. Taking additional damage to a body part stripped of armor can result in structural damage or loss of limb, requiring replacement and repairs at significant cost, on top of running an increased risk of having your mech pilot permanently killed.

Similar considerations are always on your mind when you're on the offensive. You might decide to temporarily switch off some of your weapons when attacking to avoid overheating your mech, which can cause immediate, all-over internal damage. One of your mechs might be out of ammo but has the option of using its jets to leap off a mountain and crash onto an enemy below to knock it down--but can you afford the risk of breaking both your legs and being floored yourself?

With a complete understanding of how each unit can affect another at different locations, with various skills, weapons, and modifiers at play, your perception of unfolding battles becomes one of utter fascination at the minor details and outcomes of each strike. Seeing the battlefield in a different way in order to devise your own alternative approaches and formulating creative backup plans are things that begin to occupy your thoughts, instead of the tempo. Conflicts are still lengthy, and some drawn-out maneuvers still feel unnecessary, but with the time devoted to each turn, you start to use it to observe and internalize what exactly is happening and why. Pivotal turning points in a battle can be narrowed down to the exact action, which can become tactical learnings for future use. There are still a few random elements that can occur, attributed to the probabilities that drive attack calculations--lucky headshots that instantly injure your pilot regardless of armor durability are the prime unfair example--but regardless, the increased focus and time spent on each distinct action means that the anxious feelings that come with even the most trivial of anticipated hits and misses are amplified tenfold.

Battletech also gives you an interesting ability used to preserve your squad--when a mission becomes overwhelming and dead pilots are almost certain, you can choose to immediately withdraw from a mission, at the cost of sullying your reputation with the factions that hired you and surrendering your paycheck. The latter is an especially vital consideration, because money quickly becomes a huge concern in Battletech's campaign and begins to affect all your decisions, both on and off the battlefield.

The dynamic between the tactical battles and logistical management means almost every decision you make feels like it has rippling, tangible consequences elsewhere. The campaign sees your custom character rise to the leadership of a mercenary company which has accrued an enormous debt, with monthly repayments to meet every month. Naturally, everything costs money, from post-mission repairs, mech upkeep, pilot salaries, ship upgrades and even travel costs--this is a game about business management as much as it is about commanding a squad. Accepting missions allows you to negotiate a contract to determine what your fee should be in relation to your post-battle salvage rights (valuable for maintaining and upgrading your mech configurations as well as unlocking new models) and faction reputation, which opens up more lucrative opportunities. Request too little money on a mission you take carelessly, and the cost of mission-ready repairs afterward might send you into bankruptcy. Without enough salvage and spare cash to play around with, you're impeded in your ability to play with one of the most vital and enjoyable parts of Battletech: building and customizing individual mechs to improve the combat capabilities of your squad.

There are close to 40 different models of stock mechs, varying in tonnage and intended purposes. But the joy of spending time in the mech bay is experimenting with different configurations using the parts you have on hand. Every alteration you make on a mech is at the sacrifice of something else--you can carry more weapons and ammo at the expense of dropping things like heatsinks and additional armor plating, for example. Taking the time to fine-tune that balance and seeing your decisions translate into a more efficient unit on the battlefield feels exceptionally worthwhile.

The lore and epic narratives of the Battletech universe are as important as the mechs themselves, and this game puts a heavy emphasis on them. The main plot begins with the coup of the head of a parliamentary monarchy--your custom character's childhood friend--and continues as you regroup years later to rally forces and take back the throne. The recorded details of the fictional history and politics between factions are unsurprisingly scrupulous--glossary tooltips for universe-specific concepts litter the game's text. But there are enough broad strokes and familiar feudal parallels to enjoy it at face value, and the comprehensive presentation--well-written and diverse characters, beautiful 2D cutscenes, inspired soundtrack, crunchy sound design and convincing radio chatter--do more than enough to completely sell this brand of mecha fantasy.

Battletech is a game that selfishly takes its time to be meticulous in every respect, and pushing through the density and idiosyncrasies of its many, slow-moving parts can be tough. But if you have the will to decipher it, albeit, at a deliberate and punishingly plodding pace, you can find yourself completely engrossed in its kinetic clashes. Battletech's intricate components ultimately foster a fascinating wealth of nuanced systems that build a uniquely strenuous, detailed, and thoroughly rewarding tactical strategy game.

Categories: Games

Jotun: Valhalla Edition Switch Review - A Slight Downgrade

Fri, 04/27/2018 - 16:00

Imagine the bleakness of the man versus giant creatures gameplay of Shadow of the Colossus as a definitively Nordic tale, and you have a general idea of what Jotun is. Sprinkle in a little bit of Dark Souls’ difficulty and a malevolent sense of challenge, and you’re closer to hitting the bullseye. Now imagine all of that hand-drawn in a style somewhere between Dragon’s Lair and Princess Mononoke, and you’ve got Jotun.

Boiling the game down to its disparate parts does the game a mild disservice, though. In execution, Jotun is a perfect storybook, a game that seems ripped from the imagination of a Viking child being told tales of warriors of old facing down their gods. It’s a wonderfully wild, vibrant bedtime story told with fire and verve, even when the game is at its most stark and lonely.

Jotun tells the tale of Thora, a Viking shield maiden who falls from her boat during a voyage and drowns. Because passage to Valhalla is only granted to those who fall in battle, Thora is given the chance to earn her way into the golden halls by finding and killing the Jotun, the Titans of Norse mythology. Along the way, the gods assist her, granting her new power when she finds their shrines and pays her respects. Otherwise, all she has is an iron axe and an iron will. We learn between stages where Thora’s determination comes from in a fantastic, steely narration performed in Icelandic. Each new piece of her story would be worth it on its own, revealing years of underestimation, neglect, and later, a sibling jealousy that turns tragic. Even if the gameplay wasn’t as good as it was, being able to help Thora achieve glory would be more than worth the effort.

Behold, the tree of life.

Gameplay is 16-bit levels of simple, and yes, that is a compliment. You have a light attack with Thora’s axe, a hard-hitting heavy attack with a major delay, and a dodge. Thora can find massive shrines to the Gods in each stage, and by praying there, she earns new magical powers specific to each one--Thor allows her to use Mjolnir for a short time, Frigg allows her to heal at will, Loki creates a decoy that eventually explodes after a time--but all six of the powers have limited uses, and none are what you would call a guaranteed solution to any sticky situation. Primarily, timing, cunning, and luck will get Thora to Valhalla.

For most of the game, that cunning involves mastery of the environment. Jotun’s six stages, which can be tackled in any order, are impeccably designed. They are deceptively linear, laid out in such a way that gives the impression of vast, stunning tableaus in places dwarfed in size by your typical Diablo III dungeon. The illusion works. Grand, breathtaking vistas are the norm in Jotun, and they often serve as a wicked distraction from the dangers mere inches away. They’re also often rather desolate places, dark locales that no mortal has tread upon in ages. The game isn’t swarming with enemies, except for one particular stage that sends a veritable legion of dwarves your way. This bolsters the comparisons to Shadow of the Colossus, where the loneliness of what Thora has to do makes the sheer distance between each new obstacle feel like a greater journey. The real problem with that desolation is that more than a few times, you’ll need to backtrack through some of these areas to find much needed power ups, or because you’ve missed a crucial switch in order to get to said power ups, or because you’ve ended up in an area and the game’s obtuse pause screen map didn’t help you.

And this is why pruning your garden once a week is just so important.

The main events of the game, however, are the Jotun themselves as bosses. The Jotun are simply awe-inspiring enemy design, taking the rather threadbare descriptions from Norse lore, and extrapolating them to the nth degree, with each one several times Thora’s size onscreen.

The best is still the first: A nature giant that feels like Ursula from The Little Mermaid made entirely out of living trees and vines. Still, each of the bosses are just wonderfully realized, and you get maybe a good minute to marvel at them before the pain starts. A terrifying shield-swinging giant can summon a legion of dwarves out of the ground to rush at Thora with a scream. Halfway through the frost giant’s fight, the playing field turns into a sheet of slippery ice; when it’s down to a quarter bar of life, a white-out blizzard starts. A blacksmith giant has you fighting in a neverending firestorm. What the Jotun typically lack in speed, they make up for in power, where being in the wrong place at the wrong time during a fight will mean your end in two hits. The Jotuns’ patterns and weak points aren’t hard to suss out whatsoever, it’s simply a matter of using your limited arsenal to deal with them, and often with the horde of peripheral obstacles/enemies each Jotun will throw at you during, and quite often it will still not be enough. The game gives Thora infinite tries, and will start her right at the boss with each of her powers replenished each time she dies. Persistence and learning from the numerous failures will lead to success, but the game will not coddle, and every victory will be well-earned beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The PS4 and Xbox One ports of Jotun are very much on par with the PC version. The only major difference is the addition of Valhalla Mode, a boss rush that opens up after you beat the campaign. Aside from expanded health bars, an extra element of danger has been added to each boss battle taken from the campaign, forcing you to alter your attack strategy. The first stage's plant boss now has poisonous spores surrounding her weak points, making it a game of hit and run rather than patient strikes. Alternately, a sword-wielding forge boss has a much shorter window in which to strike. Valhalla Mode is a small addition, but a welcome one.

One solemn face and 200 angry dwarves.

The Switch version of the game stands tall next to its more powerful console brothers, with not a single frame out of place, and no slowdown, even in the game's busiest and most expansive areas. In handheld mode, the moments where the camera zooms out to give players a full view of their surroundings, or to behold the game's numerous, massive bosses can sometimes make poor Thora a tiny red needle in a haystack. These moments are scarce, though, and it's a small price to pay for the game's epic scope.

The Switch port does, however, have one problem that's much less tolerable: A much longer load time stretching between 15-30 seconds when entering a new area or respawning after a death. The initial load for a stage is acceptable, and transitions to new areas within a stage are much quicker, but for a game whose greatest challenges come from trial-and-error bosses that can sometimes kill with a single hit, the wait time to have another crack and be maddening. It's a single flaw, but it's a crucial one that can add insult to game's legion of fatal injuries.

Jotun is a short game, and good players can probably plow through it in about 3 or 4 hours, but even with the ending behind me, I find myself dying to witness some images again and wanting to try different strategies. I want to hear Thora tell her tale again. Any good bedtime story that makes you want to hear it again right after it’s over is one for the ages.

Editor's note: Portions of this article were featured in our PC, PS4, and Xbox One Jotun review.

Categories: Games

Frostpunk Review: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 23:00

Huddled together in a crater, they gather around their last hope against the cold--an aging steam generator. Fueled by coal, it can kick out just enough heat to give the last bastion of humanity a faint glimmer of hope. A moment like this illustrates the essence of Frostpunk, a survival-style city-builder where you must lead a lonely band of survivors not against encroaching armies, but against a frigid storm that's wiped out most of the human race.

As temperatures plunge well below freezing, it's your job to guide the remaining populace towards establishing a successful, self-sufficient camp. You'll need hunters and hothouses, mines and saw mills. And you have to keep all of these machines running in temperatures that would make even the hardiest penguins shiver.

The essentials are pretty simple, though. People need houses and jobs. Because this is a survival situation, everyone works on a near-constant basis. The day starts at 5:00 AM, and people have a few hours to finish any construction projects before they head to their primary job for 12 hours. Then they head back home, finish a few small tasks, and go to bed.

This cycle is hugely important because you'll need to always make sure you have enough fuel to keep the generator running through the night. A major part of this is planning out when and where people need to be to complete their tasks. If you survive, you'll build outwards in concentric rings, ensuring that, as you expand, your core can keep up with the heating demands and provide enough warmth for your citizens to combat the pervasive chill.

This all works seamlessly, too. There’s a natural pattern to it all, and you’ll be given little challenges throughout the day to help give you a bit more structure. Often, these are emergent consequences of past decisions. If you were able to keep people alive through the night, but not warm enough, then they could get sick--posing a new set of challenges to prioritize for the day after. If any one element of the city is neglected a bit too long, then you’ll start getting more strident demands from your people, which often become more intricate, two-to-three-day goals. The structure for it all is elegant and precise--you always have just enough work, and you’re never left without near and moderate-term goals to help give you direction.

Your mission is also strained by all manner of unavoidable disasters. Everything from sudden cold snaps and necessary amputations to mining disasters and refugee crises crop up, requiring your intervention. This forms what could be called the crux of the game--balancing hope and discontent. Compassionate actions give your people hope. They remind the huddled masses that we (in the general sense) haven’t lost touch with humanity. Dispassionate or draconian acts, however, drain the collective will. Unlike most moral choices in games, neither are unilaterally better.

Compassionate actions are typically better long-term goals for short-term hits. For instance, taking on gravely injured or terminally ill refugees will help hold your people together--reminding them that if they are ever left out or lost, they will be found and cared for. At the same time, medical care in the post-apocalypse is damned near impossible, and if you don't have the facilities to care for the people, you'll soon end up with a pile of bodies spreading disease throughout the colony. Manage to fix up the wounded, though, and you'll have an able-bodied workforce embued with the unbreakable spirit of hope.

These are the kinds of choices Frostpunk lives on, and what separates it from every other comparable game. Frostpunk gets a lot of mileage from it, too. It’s hard to cling to the moral high ground--even if you succeed--when you’re reminded of the sacrifices you’ve made along the way. That gives your decisions weight in a way that SimCity and many of its ilk simply can’t. Here, the effects of disasters are tangible, and the game rightly blames you for your personal failures.

One of your citizens approaches you: "Children should be put to work. We're all in this together, and we need help right now." Then, you're shuffled over to a rough-hewn book of laws for your band. There you can, with a click, start putting the kids to work. Or you could build child shelters to house the kids and keep them healthy and safe from the cold. The citizens didn't present you with that second option--and why would they, they can only see what's immediately in front of them?

Frostpunk itself, in the tutorial, notes that the people you serve are always looking for a solution, but not necessarily the best one. What's ultimately best depends on the emergent challenges you face. Do you have a mysterious illness spreading wildly through the camp? Are you struggling to find coal, forcing you to char firewood and construction materials to keep the generator going? These questions are constant and agonizing throughout. Frostpunk drips cynicism and bleakness. And yet it is that hopelessness, that fundamental need of human beings to persist in spite of everything that Frostpunk seeks to embody most. You become the bulwark against fear--even as you look across the land and internalize just how hard this fight will be.

That's powerful precisely because it hurts. Every time you make a tough call, doubts linger. If you had been better, if you had chosen differently, maybe you'd have been able to save everyone. Adding to the distress, Frostpunk's Hope meter shows you the consequences of your decisions right as they happen. Send children into the mines and you can watch the camp's faith evaporate as a whole chunk of meter gets lopped off.

This system--balancing the will of the people against their own needs--works so well precisely because every mechanism in the game is built to support that core idea. Your job is to manage the emotional fortitude of the people as much as it is about anything else. In time, you'll be able to form scouting parties, outposts, and build a sprawling network of makeshift towns and settlements that stand together. But again, that arc intersects with countless brutal decisions. Should you send a scout to help survivors fight off bears? What about risk turning off an electrical super-weapon that fries everything it touches--but with the potential of a new safe haven from the world outside? The story of your civilization, of your masses hoping, is forged in the choices you make along the way. And they become a part of the narrative you build.

Frostpunk is among the best overall takes on the survival city builder to date. Its theming and consistency create a powerful narrative through line that binds your actions around the struggle to hold onto humanity in uncertain times. Hope is a qualified good, but you may not always be strong enough (or clever enough) to shelter that flame from the cold.

Categories: Games

The Invisible Hours Review: From Every Angle

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 18:00

Sharing much of the style of Punchdrunk's 2011 play Sleep No More, The Invisible Hours is more immersive theater than it is interactive fiction. You exist as a ghost in each scene, and you can follow any of the characters at any time, rewinding, fast-forwarding, and pausing as you please. But you don't act on anything; you just observe, gathering pieces of a larger story along the way. That story draws heavily from classic mystery novels, and even though its twist isn't as original as it initially might seem, it's intriguing to watch things unfold from every perspective and learn more about its shady characters.

Set in an alternate version of the late 1800s, The Invisible Hours takes place at inventor Nikola Tesla's mansion, where an assortment of guests--including a very arrogant Thomas Edison--have gathered at his behest. When the first chapter begins, Tesla is already dead, lying in a pool of his own blood in the entryway. If you pause as soon as the chapter opens and wander Tesla's island, you can find five of the guests in their rooms and one outside in a gazebo--and no indication of who the murderer is, of course. In true Agatha Christie fashion, among the guests is a detective who supposedly can help the process along.

That detective, Gustaf Gustav, is the first character you meet and the only person at Tesla's isolated mansion who arrived after the murder. You start out on the docks of the rocky island just as Gustaf's boat approaches, though you can go anywhere at any time rather than sticking by his side. But following Gustaf through a scene gives you the most straightforward perspective, since he's the only one of the seven suspects who almost certainly didn't do it and is simply looking for the killer. Effectively making him the protagonist for your first playthrough of each of the four chapters is the easiest way to get your bearings, and it's a strong anchor for the rest of the story.

That said, The Invisible Hours works regardless of the order in which you experience different events. The game is structured so that one revelation or detail won't ruin any other scenes in the same chapter, so you can follow whoever interests you the most and go from there. You can listen to a character discuss a murder trial and then find a newspaper clipping about it with new details, or you can find the news story first--each instance works in isolation with the bigger picture. For the most part, there's something going on at any point in time. There are stretches where characters, when left alone, aren't doing much--looking out windows into the storm, reading books, or sitting and staring into the distance--but there's always a lead to chase somewhere, if not more than one.

The characters and their sordid backstories turn out to be far more interesting than the murder itself. The real mystery is not who killed Tesla but why Tesla invited these people to his mansion in the first place, and as the story progresses, those reasons become more and more clear. The depth of each side story makes rewinding and revisiting scenes rewarding, rather than the chore it could have been. The game also tracks who you've seen and at what time during each chapter, so it's easy to find exactly whose perspective you're missing and track them down--and find out what they were doing when you weren't looking.

Because it shares a lot of the same DNA as classic mystery novels, The Invisible Hours can initially come off a little campy. A few over-the-top characters--especially Edison--and some convenient explanations for their behavior feel like dinner theater fare at times, but there are significant reasons for those apparent missteps to appear the way they do. The Invisible Hours' performances are reflective of that, and the more you learn about each character, the more you can appreciate the acting that goes into all of them. The stage actress in particular is impressive, with shifting body language and changes in her speech revealing the different sides to her.

The Invisible Hours works regardless of the order in which you experience different events.

In the same vein, every plot hole I thought I'd found turned out to be solid once I saw it from every angle. That put me in the position of the characters in mystery novels that frustrate me the most: the ones who jump to conclusions, make assumptions, and cause more problems than they solve. It was a reminder that my job wasn't to figure out whodunnit, and I appreciated The Invisible Hours most when I stopped trying to solve the mystery and instead just watched as it unfolded. Once I did find out who the killer was, I wasn't even concerned with it anymore, for better or worse (though a hard-to-find secret ending makes the killer's reveal more interesting than it is on its own).

The Invisible Hours shifts depending on how you approach its story; scenes take on different meanings as you see them from different perspectives, and as a result, finding every detail in the bigger picture is rewarding. It strikes the same tone as an Agatha Christie novel and at times feels campy for it, but the characters are interesting and well-acted, making each trip through the same few minutes worth it just to see a different character's side of things.

Categories: Games

The Swords Of Ditto Review: One Good Turn Deserves Another

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 14:00

As games continue to grow in scope and complexity, there is something to be said about the light-hearted, compact RPG stylings of The Swords of Ditto. It mixes childlike cartoon visuals and a delightful soundtrack with light puzzles and simple-yet-challenging combat. And while it doesn’t offer anything particularly groundbreaking to seasoned RPG or roguelite fans and backs you into a wall in some confusing ways, the intuitive nature of its systems, along with the inclusion of local two player co-op, makes The Swords of Ditto a fun leap down the rabbit hole into saving a strange and ever-changing cursed town.

The main loop of each playthrough is simple: Wake up, gather a sword from its resting place in the town of Ditto--either from statue or in the graveyard--to become the hero, then seek out the Toys of Legend to destroy the Anchors that the villain Mormo uses to strengthen her grasp on the world, making her easier to defeat in the final confrontation. If you die before then, Mormo wins and Ditto lives under her rule for another 100 years before the new Sword of Ditto is awakened, and the cycle continues. If you succeed, Ditto lives in peace for 100 years until Mormo returns, and it all happens all over again. Getting the hang of this can all feel a little overwhelming at first, but any confusion quickly slips away as the game’s rhythm settles in, and it doesn’t take long to feel comfortable with what’s expected of you.

Co-op play is local only, but the drop-in, drop-out system makes it very easy to have another player come and go at any moment. It also changes up the dynamics of play fairly significantly. Enemies are stronger, as you’d expect, meaning some enemies require a more tactical approach to take down. Items are shared between players, which can put a sudden strain on health items if you’re both struggling to deal with the added difficulty. Thankfully this is alleviated somewhat by an increased item drop rate, so health items can be replenished nearly as quickly as you go through them.

The entirety of the explorable areas are made up of individual sections that are pieced together at random for each playthrough. When out exploring the world, there’s plenty to find and keep you busy. In Zelda-like fashion, you can slice up grass to score more coins or health items. One standout touch: If the weather is dry, you can torch a field of grass and watch it all go up in super-satisfying fashion. Random shops, caves and houses filled with cute and interesting characters dot the world, and while some only share a few repeated lines of dialogue, others offer quests for items or keys to unlock dungeons in other parts of the map. Almost everywhere you look there’s something else to see and do, and it’s this sense of discovery that's felt when finding these hidden gems that makes The Swords of Ditto so rewarding.

Combat is mechanically straightforward; you can perform a simple melee attack with your sword as well as a roll dodge, and you have four interchangeable gear slots for items or weapons that are accessed using the d-pad. You can also buff your character by applying stickers that you find around the world or purchase within certain shops. It’s all fairly rudimentary, but despite the combat’s relative simplicity the enemies are a huge challenge, and this is where it gets gratifying.

Each foe has its own unique way of attacking or defending, and learning this for each enemy will make you much more effective at taking them down. The three-headed fireball will, if it touches you, turn your sword attacks into healing slashes for a few seconds, forcing you to retreat before the effect wears off. The green slime-ball monster falls harmlessly apart when physically attacked--it'll only taking damage when it’s set on fire. It takes some time to learn all of this, but when you do, combat feels much more satisfying. You become more capable of clearing large groups of monsters than if you’d just kept slashing away, and having to think each encounter through makes it all the more enjoyable.

While it needs a little refinement, The Swords of Ditto is sure to delight, whether played on your own or with a friend.

Dungeon puzzles are also relatively simple yet engaging. Some involve coloured switches that rearrange the room entirely, altering your path and the enemies within. Some rooms simply involve killing all the enemies to make a key or a chest appear, while others are increasingly more elaborate and labyrinthian. It’s not unusual to come across a room that demands you place a multiple runes in slots that only appear when a certain switch is triggered, all separated by large chasms, locked doors, and rows of floor spikes. Later rooms will combine all of these variables into one, adding a light complexity that manages to keep things breezy and enjoyable.

Alongside the puzzles, each dungeon submits to the Isle of Trials rules--a set of modifiers that changes the rules of how each dungeon works. Early dungeons will only have one or two of these applied, but later playthroughs will throw upwards of four, and they could be anything from negating poison to activating auto-health-regen while prohibiting the use of consumables. These modifiers keep the game and the dungeons feeling fresh, especially in subsequent attempts, offering new challenges that unpredictably swing things either for or against you.

It’s not a game without issue, though. Even while playing on PS4 Pro, The Swords of Ditto can be prone to quite a bit of slow down and stutter, mostly when there are lots of items strewn about. I also had a couple of triggering issues that would block my progress, meaning I had to quit to the menu and reload the game to reset the room. But the biggest problem is the time limit that’s enforced for each playthrough. You are only given a handful of in-game days--which changes depending on difficulty--to explore, gather resources, and complete quests before being forced into confrontation with Mormo at the end of the final day. Not only that, it feels like the days are too short, making some of the more elaborate discoveries difficult to fully engage with in a single playthrough.

While you can unlock the ability to rewind time by collecting enough of a particular type of item and taking them to a shrine, you have to collect yet a second currency to purchase them on top of that. Given that some of the items required for these longer quests are lost with a new character, It feels like you should have this ability to purchase rewinds from the start. This would have given me more confidence to explore more of the game, instead of keeping one eye on the days remaining and the other on whatever tasks are left to complete.

The Swords of Ditto is nothing short of a light-hearted good time. Despite a few bumps getting in the way of progress and some misgivings about the forced time limit per playthrough, it’s still a joy to slash through enemies and collect items while humming the game’s ear-tickling soundtrack. Meeting oddball characters and watching the world react to past playthroughs is a wonderful exercise, and pushing through the game’s barriers to exploration feels rewarding every time. While it needs a little refinement, The Swords of Ditto is sure to delight, whether played on your own or with a friend.

Categories: Games

The Alliance Alive Review: A Change Of Pace

Mon, 04/23/2018 - 20:00

The Alliance Alive wastes no time throwing you into a dark and oppressive world. As soon as you begin, you meet young Azura and her friend Galil. In their world, Daemons have sealed off continents from each other, forced humans to toil under Beastfolk masters, and covered up the sun for over a thousand years. Azura dreams of seeing a painting of a blue sky. It seems like a silly thing to obsess over, but anything that can bring even a twinge of happiness is something worth risking life and limb for.

This story is only the beginning, however, as you are funneled through a series of three intersecting perspectives: Azura and Galil, the Daemoness Vivian and her desire to observe humanity directly, and a human servant to Daemonic overlords named Gene. At about ten hours in, the three parties’ stories converge in a spectacular battle against a powerful foe, and the game transforms from a linear RPG into a more open-ended adventure to free humanity from its oppression and discover the truths of the world they live in.

Alliance Alive’s world captures your interest from the get-go and is uplifted by strong visual design that creates a series of distinct, detailed environments. The story moves along at a brisk pace, never lingering for too long on a singular location or plot point. Dialogue is also succinct and punchy, though some of the character development suffers a bit as a result--Daemon noble Vivian’s motives are flimsy compared to the machinations of the mysterious Gene and eccentric inventor Tiggy, while Azura and Galil’s rebel companions barely get any characterization at all. Overall, though, The Alliance Alive never feels likes it’s dragging its feet.

The game's turn-based combat deviates from established RPG norms in a lot of interesting ways. First, characters do not level up; instead, they randomly gain stat boosts after battle. Secondly, most characters can equip any weapons and armor they want, but they need to use said weapons in combat in order to gain proficiency and skills (which, much like stat gains, are learned at seemingly random moments). Thirdly, combat formations are hugely important here: depending on their position and the role (offense, defense, or support) a character is assigned, the effectiveness of attacks and skills is altered--and skills have individual levels tied to the specific position a character is in.

These oddball elements, though perhaps strange at first, help make combat more engaging than just mashing through menus. However, the game does a poor job of explaining most of these systems, expecting you to either be familiar with the series that inspired them (Square-Enix’s SaGa games) or having played developer Cattle Call’s previous RPG with similar combat mechanics, The Legend of Legacy. There are a few NPCs in the starting village that will drop hints, but they’re easily missed and don’t go into a lot of detail. An easy-to-access guide from the camp menu would have been a huge help, but unfortunately, you’re just going to have to learn a lot of Alliance Alive’s quirks through experience.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of everything, you’ll eventually reach a point where the game’s progression shifts towards a more open-ended structure. Despite this change, however, the speedy pacing and the solid combat don’t suffer much--though you may encounter more instances where you need to run from a high-level enemy that’s kicking your tail. One of the most fun elements also opens up around this time: the ability to find helpful NPCs who can be recruited to the various guilds that dot the land.

Groups like the Signimancy Guild, the Library Guild, and the Blacksmith Guild have set up towers across the world, and being in the towers’ sphere of influence yields benefits like enhanced combat stats and random start-of-round attacks and status ailments on enemies. They also aid the party by developing specialty weapons, armor, and spells. As you recruit more NPCs to these guilds, their capabilities also increase. You can engage with this element as little or as much as you want, but it can be one of the most enjoyable parts of The Alliance Alive. The feeling of building up support for your ragtag rebel crew is immensely satisfying--it’s just a shame it takes about a third of a game before it even opens up.

There’s a lot to love about The Alliance Alive: a well-paced story in an interesting world, a meaty mashup of unique combat elements, and a fantastic soundtrack that keeps you pumped and eager to explore. If you can put up with a bit of a learning curve, you’ll find a great portable adventure well worth dusting off your 3DS for.

Categories: Games

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm Review - Keep the Good Times Rolling

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 21:00

It's rare that a prequel truly works, where a story can captivate despite the audience knowing what's coming and where the path will lead. Life Is Strange: Before The Storm is one of those exceptional stories because it draws you in on its own terms. The only problem: You know it's building you up just to break your heart.

As we know, the original Life Is Strange is steeped in tragedy. Maxine Caulfield's estranged friend Chloe Price comes riding back into her hometown, hoping to find her missing friend, Rachel Amber. The search brings Chloe and Max close again after years apart, but it also illustrates a vast gulf in their life experience, which never fully closes. Max's life is defined by good fortune and privilege. Chloe, as seen through Before The Storm, is defined by loss.

When Episode 1 starts, Chloe is forced to finagle her way into an underground metal concert with nothing but street smarts and her own awkward sense of sass. She's not yet as sharp and hardened as the girl we meet in the original game, but she has it in her to become stronger as life gets tough. That girl's outlook on life is everywhere in Before The Storm: the greyer, evocative, post-rock soundtrack compared to the sunny lilt of the original game, the sneering commentary of the information in the menus. The Backtalk system—a stand-in for Life Is Strange's time travel mechanic—gives you even more control over the flow of a conversation to get what you want. It's a way to portray Chloe's very human strengths that sadly doesn't get implemented often enough in the latter two episodes.

Whoever you choose to make Chloe become, meeting Rachel shifts her focus. In the original game, Rachel is to Arcadia Bay what Laura Palmer is to Twin Peaks: a bonafide popular girl whose absence seems to mean everything to everyone, but who no one seems to really know on a personal level. Chloe Price, however, did know her, and Before The Storm gives you the chance to find out what was so special about Rachel in Chloe's eyes.

On the surface, the answer seems to be nothing. Episode 1 has Chloe and Rachel playing hooky, and trying to suss each other out, which doesn't tell you anything you couldn't guess on your own. It's only after Rachel catches her District Attorney father in a compromising act that she metaphorically bares everything, revealing she and Chloe aren't as different as they seem.

Before The Storm's three episodes are roughly two hours each, depending on how compulsive you are about exploring every nook and cranny. Compared to the original game, which leaned heavy on the implications of Max's time travel, Before the Storm has no real supernatural crutch to lean on to solve the world's problems. What few flights of fancy there are--aside from a heartwarming impromptu Shakespeare performance in Episode 2--manifest as occasional dream sequences, more for Chloe to sort through her own grief than to affect the world around her. The real world around Chloe continues to crumble, and your choices tend to fall on the side of figuring out how to sort the remains. It's choices like figuring out how best to deal with being kicked out of school, whether it's worth upsetting Chloe's mother to clap back at her trashy gun-nut stepfather, or parse out how much basic respect to give the gossip girls on Blackwell Academy's campus.

The heart of it all remains Chloe's relationship with Rachel. It's a textbook case of two people finding someone worth clinging to, and taking it on good will that their faith in each other isn't misplaced at best or going to get them killed at worst. Episode 3 veers ever slightly off into low-grade cable-TV drama, but even that's played earnestly, with Chloe and Rachel's mistakes having tangible, believable consequences, and choosing how Chloe deals with her failings is endlessly captivating to play through.

That captivation is, of course, the problem, if you can call it that. It's a game that so admirably and genuinely builds a relationship between two girls who absolutely need and deserve each other; when it gets to the ugly business of reminding you where it ends, it sours and saddens every moment. You could use your choices to keep Rachel at a bit of distance, but even that distance feels unfair, because why wouldn't both girls deserve their momentary bliss?

Still, Before The Storm's main three episodes largely play out as though the future isn't set in stone, allowing you to craft something resembling a momentary win for an ill-fated relationship, entertaining the notions of coping and vulnerability in ways very few games typically have time or inclination to. The bittersweet cherry on top, however, is contained in the game's Deluxe Edition, a final episode that allows you to play through Max and Chloe's last beautiful day together before Max leaves for Seattle. It's light, whimsical, often funny, and bathed in a gentle golden nostalgia. And once again, its final moments bring truth rushing in, and it's a stab in the heart.

This, apparently, is the heartbreaking joy that is Life Is Strange: the inevitability that life will do terrible, unexpected things to people whose presence we love, and people who absolutely deserve better. Developer Deck Nine's contribution through Before the Storm posits that the pain is still worth it; just to have the time at all is enough. A storm is still coming to Arcadia Bay, and Rachel will still disappear one day, and it doesn't matter. Being able to spend time with Chloe when her heart is at its lightest, and putting in the work to keep it going, is powerful and worthwhile.

Categories: Games

Penny-Punching Princess Review: In For A Pound

Fri, 04/13/2018 - 15:00

Penny-Punching Princess opens by declaring that, in the age of capitalism, money is where real power comes from. This is a game about a princess who needs to accumulate wealth to get revenge on the Dragaloan Family, who sent her father into poverty and death with their harsh interest rates. It's an intriguing, startling note for a cutesy beat-em-up game to open on. This isn't a 'message' game--don't go in expecting a searing critique of capitalism, as it's largely played for laughs--but this framing device immediately makes it clear that this brawler is going to be different. It might not be in the top-tier of its genre, but at the very least Penny-Punching Princess is unique.

The game is an isometric beat-em-up, in which fighting is your main form of interaction with the world. There are no puzzles to solve, and the level design is extremely simple, to the point of being universally uninteresting, designed just to funnel you between fights--the extent of permissive exploration is simply a matter of going left when your compass is telling you to go right. When a fight starts, the Princess (or Isabella, a zombified second playable character that you unlock a few hours in) can perform quick punches, use a stronger charge attack, or roll to safety. It's not the deepest system, and your defensive options are limited.

Most fights involve a few waves of enemies, usually of increasing danger, and generally, there will be traps, like buzzsaws, giant rolling balls, and fields of poison, to avoid too. The Princess and Isabella play very differently, although most players will likely attach themselves to a favourite rather than swapping between them--I stopped using the Princess almost entirely after unlocking Isabella. Unfortunately, there's not much variety in the game beyond this choice between the two. The arenas you fight in throw more and more traps at you as the difficulty ramps up towards the end of a chapter, but no specific encounter every really stands out.

When you beat enemies to a certain point, the word 'break' appears over them, and if you rotate the right stick, coins will spill out of them. Coins are important during a fight, as they can be used to bribe both enemies and traps. Enemies vary in price depending on their power, but if you bribe an enemy not only will it disappear from the battlefield, but you'll be able to summon it to fight for you. You can bribe traps too, meaning that they'll stop hurting you and can be turned onto enemies. Traps are more cost-effective--they're cheaper and tend to do a lot of damage--but using them properly also means that you need to lure your enemies into range. Leading a powerful enemy right into a trap and doing massive damage is extremely satisfying, even if most of the game's boss fights come down to you leading a huge enemy from trap to trap. During hectic battles, it's hard to know exactly what you're about to bribe--the Princess can be more exact, but in the heat of the moment you're more likely to just nab whatever is directly in front of you--which can get frustrating.

Every enemy and object you bribe gets added to your collection, which can be cashed in to build new armour and Zenigami Statues (which are effectively the currency used for stat upgrades). A piece of armour, for instance, might require you to have previously bribed five of a specific minor enemy, two of a stronger, more expensive enemy, and two buzzsaw traps. Each piece carries a price like this, and if you're missing something the level select screen handily highlights four enemies and traps you'll encounter in each individual level. Upgrading your armour is essential--occasionally you'll hit enormous difficulty spikes and realise that you're under-equipped, at which point you'll typically need to jump back into earlier levels and grind to collect specific bribe targets (and search for treasure chests, many of which contain additional Zenigami statues).

The grind is rarely too severe if you're being mindful and upgrading as you go, but the difficulty spikes can hit hard. It's frustrating when you reach the end of a level only to find that the final boss is far too powerful for you to take on, and the checkpointing, which can be somewhat capricious, means that you'll often have to redo easier fights just to reach the more difficult ones again. My frustration only occasionally boiled over to the point where I had to step away for a moment, but there was also rarely a real sense of reward for having beaten a difficult level, because you know the next level is just going to involve doing the same thing again.

All of this is presented without too much flourish. The sprite-based character designs are occasionally charming (Sebastian, a stag-beetle who acts as the princess' butler and appears in pre-and-post-level interstitials, is pretty funny), and the weird script plays up the game's irreverence to good effect, but it's difficult to really get invested in Penny-Punching Princess' cycle of punching and spending. While the game is moderately entertaining and has its moments it just doesn't offer lasting satisfaction. Penny-Punching Princess doesn't set its sights particularly high, and while it feels like it's achieving what it intended, it's hard not to wish there was a little more to it.

Categories: Games

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