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Yo-kai Watch 3 Review - Tokyo To Texas

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 19:02

If you had to explain Yo-kai Watch in a nutshell to someone who's never heard of or played it, you might boil it down to "Pokemon but with Japanese ghosts" or "Baby's first Shin Megami Tensei." Anything grim or distressing about a kid who can talk to ghosts goes by the wayside when the ghosts are comical entities like a missing left sock or a possessed police car. In this third expansive and quirky outing for the Yo-kai Watch series, our hero Nate has to take on a quest far more daunting than anything he’s faced so far: moving to America.

Specifically, Nate's family ends up moving to BBQ, an over-the-top caricature of Texas, for his dad's job, and finds that the U.S. has supernatural problems all its own that he and his best yokai buddies, a cat named Jibanyan and an uber-effete ghost butler named Whisper, have to handle. Meanwhile, back in Nate's hometown of Springdale (which is located in Japan), a bubbly ball of nerdy energy named Hailey-Anne is enticed into buying a Yo-kai Watch of her own, which ties her to Usapyon, a ghost astronaut rabbit. Stuck with each other, they form a detective agency.

That's really over-the-top as far as a game aimed squarely at a younger audience goes, and that's largely a result of how it's been localized. Yo-kai Watch 3 was originally two games in Japan, with Nate and Hailey-Anne's stories comprising a game each. The version released in the West has combined the two, allowing players to switch to the other campaign at will, before the two stories converge in the later hours. It's a daring choice that allows you a ton of control over how you experience the sprawling narrative, but it also highlights just how much the narrative didn't need to sprawl to begin with. The first major plot points of both stories--Nate meeting a boy in BBQ who can see yokai as well, and Hailey-Anne starting the detective agency--are a good five or six hours in. Having both stories in the same package is a positive, but having to manually thread together two stories that could already stand to be a little more concise is less so.

On the plus side, that does give you ample reason to slow down and really take in your surroundings, which is really one of the greater joys in this game. Despite the aesthetic, the interpretations of Japan and Texas are surprisingly intricate places full of people worth speaking to and places to wander off to. As the game went on, one of my favorite things to do in it was to ride the trains in Springdale, missing stops just to look around. In addition, Nate's story has the compelling element of him trying to get accustomed to American culture, and on occasion, work you do in one of the towns--unlocking an app, or asking someone for a favor--affects the story in the other. But by and large, much of the first half of the game has both Nate and Hailey-Anne doing random fetch quests or being distracted with the game's numerous side missions, which are fun but wholly tangential from the main game. That creates a major problem with pacing early on.

Yo-kai Watch has always been an accessible series, and this third entry is no different. The cycle of gameplay usually boils down to Nate finding a possessed human doing something unusual, using the watch to reveal the yokai controlling them, and getting into a simple showdown with it. After these battles, there's a strong chance it joins your menagerie of friendly yokai who can be used to fight other yokai--of which there are a whopping 600-plus. There are very few of what seasoned RPG veterans might consider a dungeon, and when there are, as long as you've found at least six yokai you like, you can blow through nearly all of them in mere minutes, with no real pressing need to collect more except for the sheer joy of collecting them.

Combat does ostensibly have some measure of depth compared to the series' predecessors, with the addition of a 3x3 grid system that allows you to move yokai around to dodge attacks and pick up special items. There's also plenty of information about each yokai which you can put to good use, such as elemental weaknesses and their preferred food. That's all alongside familiar mechanics like quirky mini-games used to heal yokai that have been afflicted with status effects or to charge up ultimate (or more accurately, Soultimate) attacks. But with the exception of the occasional boss fight and the rather welcome difficulty spike of the final third of the game, it's rare that you actually have to utilize any of these mechanics. So much of the game's combat is a passive experience, but neglecting to have a full grasp of it when the game finally expects you to be proactive in battle will eventually get you in serious trouble.

These are the things that make Yo-kai Watch excellent as an introductory RPG for beginners. For everyone else, however, the game has to endear itself in between major plot points on sheer charm which, thankfully, it's more than capable of delivering. On the Hailey-Anne side, what comes off as grating over-enthusiasm at the start settles down over time to become unflappable optimism and curiosity. The girl fears absolutely nothing, even when giant demons start showing up that send her running through the streets. Her alliance with Usapyon evolves from one of convenience to a genuinely sweet elementary school partnership over time, especially as the details of Usapyon's origins become clearer.

Having both stories in the same package is a positive, but having to manually thread together two stories that could already stand to be a little more concise is less so.

As mentioned, Nate's side has an even more intriguing angle. For some reason, the localization obscures the fact that Nate's hometown of Springdale is in Japan, but the touchstones of a kid dealing with severe culture shock are still here. Even when American culture is as hilariously exaggerated as it is, there's something subtly poignant about an ostensibly Japanese kid exploring an all-American city for the first time. And as his circle of friends expands to include Buck, a wild-haired kid with a deep southern drawl, so too does his experience with American yokai and all the loud and proud aspects of such.

It's still a game aimed at a young crowd, though, and the game's poignancy is undercut a bit by wild reactions, non-sequitur humor, and impromptu j-pop musicals. Most of the scarier aspects of the game dealing with the existence and management of the afterlife have been softened to the absolute extreme. The game was only ever going to get so serious, and the winking nods to more adult fare like The Godfather, Fist of the North Star, The X-Files, and Twin Peaks are indeed just that: playful winks. It's less the competitive Growlithe-eat-Growlithe world of Pokemon than a cheerful, wacky playground where Pokemon-like creatures happen to live.

There's not much to Yo-kai Watch 3, but there’s still a lot of charm to be found. The towns of Springdale and BBQ are both bright, pleasant places to be; the people in it are even more so. Visiting the world of Yo-kai Watch for the third time is a fun time, even though you’ll end up staying a lot longer than perhaps necessary.

Categories: Games

Eastshade Review - Brushing Up

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 04:00

There's a blacksmith, toiling away in the markets of the capital of Nava, who thinks making swords is boring. Why create something, she argues, when death is its only use? She'd rather make a kettle any day of the week. So I bought her kettle, and now I can brew all kinds of delicious, and at times mysterious, tea whenever I hole up and camp in the wilderness. And I still haven't found a sword.

Eastshade is a non-violent, first-person adventure game set in a rolling open world full of quests. Imagine an Elder Scrolls game was an old boot, and you picked it up, turned it upside down and shook it until all the combat and magic and loot, every orc and dragon and bandit fell out. Then you took a shoehorn and eased a walking simulator inside the wrinkled leather before setting off on a delightful stroll across the countryside. Eastshade is just about the loveliest, prettiest, and just bloody nicest game I've played in years.

You play an artist, recently shipwrecked in Eastshade near the small coastal village of Lyndor. After a kind chap finds you on the beach and lets you rest in his cozy cave until you recover, you resume your journey to visit and then paint your just-passed mother's favorite places in Eastshade. It's a simple setup, paying tribute to a lost loved one, and it's indicative of the kind of sincere, touching gestures you'll carry out over the course of the game.

The flow of Eastshade will be familiar to anyone who has played an open-world RPG in recent years. You speak to NPCs, at first enquiring about the local history and points of interest before delving into something more personal and finally unlocking a unique quest. A child and aspiring painter asks you to help her acquire some art supplies. A smitten merchant wants some advice on how she should pursue her romantic interest. A park ranger needs your assistance in catching and caring for an injured waterfox. Not everyone has a story to tell--there are plenty of mute, generic NPCs filling the streets--but the ones you do meet almost always open up to you in the sweetest of ways.

Most quests involve tracking down the next person in the quest chain or venturing afar to find a particular item. Some, however, require your talents as an artist. Indeed, it seems that once an Eastshadian discovers you can paint, they're quick to realize how much they'd really like some oil on canvas hanging over the fireplace. One keen art-lover asked me to paint him a picture of a chicken, so I made my way over the markets where I'd earlier spied some chickens nestling among the hay, set down my easel and painted the perfect poultry portrait.

The act of painting itself isn't simulated in any way. You simply use the mouse to drag a frame across the screen. Anything within that frame is then captured, rendered in a painterly style, and reproduced on the canvas. In essence, you're taking screenshots. As such there's much pleasure to be had in framing your subject, as anyone who has unearthed the joys of a game's photo mode can attest. I was asked by a particularly pompous villager to paint his portrait, and fully capture all his self-described nobility and heroism. He was sitting in a tavern at the time, next to a huge fireplace whose chimney stretched to the double-story ceiling, so I framed him as this tiny figure dwarfed by the imposing stone furnace. He was grateful, of course--I'm sure the game logic merely checks if the required subject is in the frame--but I found it extremely satisfying.

At a certain point you will also gain the ability to register with another local artist and begin taking commissions to earn glowstones, the local currency. It functions much like a job board: you check in, accept the gig, then return later with the finished painting and collect your cash. Each commission gives you a description of the type of painting desired and it's up to you to figure out where you need to go and what you need to include in the frame. Some are easy to identify, like a specific request for a windmill, but you may have no idea where to find it. Others are more vague, like a “starry cavern” or a “natural arch.” Either way, it's enjoyable to have your memory of the landscape tested as you struggle to recall elements of the terrain.

Sometimes you won't have a spare canvas to paint on, meaning you'll have to obtain the materials necessary to craft a new canvas. Fortunately, there are wooden boards and piles of cloth lying around the various towns and villages, and NPCs don't seem to mind at all if you walk into their homes and grab some. It's a good idea to thoroughly explore every area and collect any such craftable materials as there doesn't seem to be any limit on how much you can carry. I found I typically had enough canvases to complete quest-critical paintings, but if I'd wanted to paint for fun, as it were, I would have had to tediously wait for previously collected materials to respawn or spend my hard-earned glowstones to buy them.

Money's tight, you see, and there are other things worth purchasing. This isn't an RPG, so you won't be selling loot to finance your endeavors--though there is a sort of joke merchant who will buy anything off you for the princely sum of one glowstone. However, there are items you will need in order to access new areas of the world. A coat, for example, lets you continue to explore the countryside during the cold nights, while a tent lets you camp outdoors overnight or simply rest for a while if you need to meet someone at a certain time of day.

You'll find yourself walking a fine line between securing what you need to complete your current tasks and saving up to afford what you need to unlock new quest possibilities. I remember standing in the markets and agonizing over whether to spend what little money I had on a fishing rod (because one quest wanted me to catch a particular type of fish) or a kettle (because my pockets were already bursting with all different kinds of plants and herbs). It was a genuinely stressful moment in a game otherwise conducted entirely in serene contemplation.

Eastshade is a slow game. There's an awful lot of walking, or running once you realize there's the option, and you'll spend almost all your time trekking back and forth between villages or strolling across town from one shop to the next, ferrying this item to that person and hoping to speak to so-and-so about this-and-that. It would quickly grow tiresome were it not for the dinky penny-farthing bicycle you can buy and the presence of craftable fast travel items, and more importantly, the immense natural beauty found in every corner, along every path, and over every crest of the world.

Indeed, Eastshade is a slow game that moves at just the right pace. From the warm, golden sunlight filtering through the dense canopy of the Great Tree to the pools of water on the terrace farms that skirt the city glittering in the morning light, you'll constantly find yourself stopping to catch your breath. Even after treading the same cobbled road a dozen or more times, hours later I would still find myself admiring the scenery, expansive vistas and minute details alike.

The pace perfectly complements your actions, too. This is a game about taking your time and paying attention to the environment through which you're moving. You have a quest log and a map of the land, but there are no quest markers or waypoints telling you where to go. You have to read the lay of the land and remember details of where you've been. As you travel, the geographical contours of the world gradually become imprinted in your mind until you could paint them almost from memory alone. Almost.

By giving you a paintbrush (and a kettle) instead of a sword, Eastshade is a rare first-person open world game that's not about killing but rather about doing good deeds, helping people see the error of their ways, and bringing communities together all through the power of art. It's a breath of fresh Eastshadian air and a genuine, unironic feel-good game. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to put the kettle on.

Categories: Games

Crackdown 3 Review In Progress - Man Of Steel

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 13:01

Editor's note: This review in progress covers only the campaign portion of Crackdown 3. We will be updating and finalizing the review once we have access to the Wrecking Zone multiplayer mode and have spent sufficient time with it. Keep an eye out for the final review in the coming days.

It's been a long wait for Crackdown 3. Delays can be a positive thing, offering developers time to refine and polish a game. In other cases, it can result in what feels like a dated experience. At least in terms of its campaign--we don't have access to the Wrecking Zone multiplayer mode yet--Crackdown 3 firmly falls in the latter category, offering some amusement but little in the way of interesting new ideas or fun things to do. It's large and bombastic, with plenty of chaos and collateral damage, but few redeeming values--like a video game version of Man of Steel.

You play as a superpowered member of The Agency who is sent into a city to dispense justice as you systematically eliminate the comically evil members of a nefarious evil corporation. You start out relatively weak but progressively grow in power, jumping higher and gaining the ability to perform ground pounds, pick up and throw increasingly heavy objects, and so on. Enemy factions are responsible for certain aspects of the criminal operation, such as manufacturing a sort of poison, and taking them out weakens that area and makes your ultimate goal of taking down the big bad leader more feasible. There will be collateral damage along the way that is frowned upon--kill too many innocents, and a local militia puts up a halfhearted effort to put you down--but is soon forgotten. Yes, I'm describing Crackdown 3, not its 2007 progenitor.

It would be fine for this to feel so familiar if the action itself were more engaging. The core of collecting orbs (to level up your agility and jump height) and wreaking havoc remains enjoyable, but it isn't strong enough to make up for Crackdown 3's numerous shortcomings. From the moment you gain control of your character, it's hard to shake the sense that this doesn't feel like a game from 2019. Draw distance aside, the visuals are underwhelming, leaning too heavily on recreating the simple cel-shaded look of past Crackdown games. The one technological advancement the game may have to boast about--large-scale destruction, powered by Microsoft's Azure cloud servers--is reserved entirely for the online Wrecking Zone mode, which we have not yet gotten to try in the full game. There's no meaningful destruction in the campaign, and the end result is a world that feels lifeless, as if some key element of it is missing.

The game's opening takes place in a small area of the city and lays out the basic structure of your goals: Take over a particular boss's various bases to locate him or her and then complete a boss fight, which, in most cases, is a pretty standard encounter where the enemy has more health than usual. This tutorial is somewhat of an off-putting start; for a game about freedom and doing badass superhero things, you're stuck in a tightly confined area, underpowered, and tasked with a goal that entails killing some enemies and then removing a pair of batteries powering a propaganda station. Before long, the game opens up and you're given access to the full city and a wider selection of objectives to tackle, at which point there's some hope that the newfound freedom and variety will provide the excitement that's lacking in this early area.

The problem is, what you do in that opening section is representative of the entire game; there's very little variety to speak of. Ostensibly, each of the different factions presents its own unique challenges and objectives for you to complete. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that what distinguishes them are only surface-level details. No matter the faction, you're always mindlessly shooting an endless wave of foes as you work your way toward objective markers. Once you're there, you'll usually hold a button. Sometimes you'll have glowing targets to shoot. For a certain objective, you have to shoot a piece of machinery or throw a rock underneath it (always two times) to destroy it. After multiple hours of this, the action begins to bleed together. All of these bases you complete are just another box you can check off the to-do list, rather than a satisfying challenge you look forward to dealing with. I suffered a crash midway through the game that might have resulted in me losing some small amount of progress, but with how same-y many of the objectives are, I honestly wasn't sure if I was repeating one I had already completed. One of the major criticisms of the original Crackdown was a lack of things to do, and while there might be more here on paper, far too much of it feels like filler, rather than worthwhile missions.

Interesting enemies could have made these rote objectives more exciting, but they too suffer from a lack of diversity. There are different archetypes with their own attack patterns, but they do little to shake up the action, even if some do fly, have shields, rush at you, or pilot mechs. Snipers, due to the heavy damage they inflict, were the only enemies that prompted me to break from my otherwise uniform approach of attacking whatever was closest to me. Weapons have certain types of targets they're more or less effective against, but certain guns are so powerful that I found little need carefully evaluate what I was using. You move from one objective on the map to the next, hold down the trigger to lock on to enemies, hope it picks the target you want (not always a given), and then blast away.

it's just sort of a constant white noise, like you're taking a weed wacker at whatever is in front of you

And that's okay. Crackdown 3 isn't a game where you should need to carefully consider your loadout and the precise manner in which you need to approach a fight; you're supposed to be a superhero who can dominate whatever is in front of you. But the combination of stale objectives and cannon-fodder enemies makes combat mindless and, at times, even boring, which is strange for a game filled with explosions and enemies flying off of rooftops. If you were to chart the excitement of playing through the campaign, there would be few peaks or valleys; it's just sort of a constant white noise, like you're taking a weed wacker at whatever is in front of you. It's not until much further into the game that you gain the weapons (like a gun that creates black holes) and high-level abilities (like being able to pick up and throw tanks) that make combat more entertaining. By that point, the repetitive goals and encounters have long since become stale. Making your way up the skyscrapers that serve as headquarters for the final few bosses provides some of the only memorable combat sequences, but these only serve to emphasize how rote so much of the game is otherwise.

Outside of the core objectives, there is some fun to be had. Stunt rings that require you to drive a vehicle through them are an amusing challenge, even if the solution is often to rely on your transforming vehicle's ability to jump into the air. (Your Agency car can be summoned at almost any time and transforms into various forms, which is a cool concept that's spoiled by the poor driving controls that make it feel like you're riding across a sheet of ice.) Rooftop races that have you going from checkpoint to checkpoint on foot, often by leaping from one building to the next, are a thrill. Likewise, climbing puzzles that have you ascend tall structures make for a chest-pounding activity. Just be sure to do those as soon as you meet the recommended agility level designated on the map; wait too long, and the satisfying rush of landing a difficult jump is gone due to your ability to skip obstacles with massive leaps.

Co-op multiplayer improves things across the board, letting you race against a friend and engage in general shenanigans. The old Crackdown standby of picking up someone driving a car and throwing it--whether to help them reach a distant goal or simply to doom them--is a hilarious way to interact with another player, and it's nice that rooftop races can be a competitive activity. But all of this only masks the underlying problems of the game; the action is just as repetitive, and I found myself wishing my partner and I had something worth doing together. Still, co-op is easily the best way to play the campaign.

Leaping high through the air across rooftops and collecting orbs--which still feature one of the all-time great sound effects--is fun and rewarding, because that pursuit has a direct correlation to further improving your jump height. Lifting large objects and chucking them at foes is likewise an entertaining alternative to typical gunfights. Just like in its predecessors, these two superpowers are the primary source of what entertainment there is to be had in Crackdown 3. But it soon it becomes apparent that the campaign has little new to offer. It certainly delivers on letting you blow things up and jump around the city. However, a dozen years after the first Crackdown offered that same experience but failed to provide you with enough interesting content surrounding that, it's truly disappointing to see this latest iteration suffer from the very same problems.

We'll finalize this review once we have access to Wrecking Zone and have had time to put it through its paces.

Categories: Games

Far Cry New Dawn Review - Mild, Mild World

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 11:00

Spoiler alert: At the end of Far Cry 5, the United States gets nuked. Seventeen years later, the region and residents of Hope County have endured and mostly recovered from the devastation anew. The vegetation is more abundant, society has been reshaped, and there is a hell of a lot more duct tape everywhere. Everything feels new and different--well, except for that fact that there's ruthless, tyrannical oppression taking over everything and it's up to you, and basically only you, to stop it. Some things never change. That's Far Cry New Dawn--despite a few new novelties and a great mechanical twist, New Dawn feels exactly like what it is: a direct continuation of Far Cry 5.

That's not inherently a bad thing. New Dawn features the same kind of forward-thinking approach to open-world exploration and progression as Far Cry 5. While main missions are mapped out for you, the discovery of side activities like enemy outposts, treasure hunts (formerly prepper stashes), and companion recruitment missions mostly comes from your own organic exploration. Earning perk points to improve your abilities is tied to your discovery of hidden caches and diversifying the activities you undertake. New Dawn is a more concise game--the map is smaller than Far Cry 5 and there's less curated content to discover this time around--but the emphasis is still on staying out in the world and soaking up the environment.

That sense of freedom has been diminished, however. It's not the fact that you're revisiting Hope County, but rather how New Dawn sets up the pins. In Far Cry 5, you began in the middle of the map and were allowed to explore in any direction you wished; New Dawn starts you off in the bottom corner of the map and basically pushes you in a steady, linear sweep north as you slowly reclaim territory, and asks you to regularly bring resources back to your base in that starting area to bolster it.

What's to stop you from just darting ahead? Well, damage numbers. New Dawn introduces RPG elements, like damage numbers, into its design for the first time in the series. The game's guns and enemies fall into four different tiered ranks, and getting ahead requires that you go out into the world to scavenge crafting materials to upgrade your base so you can upgrade your weapons workshop and eventually craft better guns to take down the higher rank enemies impeding your progress. Outfits, armor, and defense numbers don't factor in your growth, just weapons. Guns at rank 1 and 2 will do a minimal amount of damage to well-armored rank 3 and elite rank enemies.

Early on, this can be annoying if you try to push the limits of the game in a way you're not meant to. Heading too far into the map and needing to use up hundreds of bullets to take down a rank 3 bear you encounter isn't terrifying as much as it is silly, and eventually, the demands of story missions will stop you from going too far.

But if you dial down your Far Cry 5-style expectations of freedom and go with the flow, you run into these awkward predicaments far less often. Your guns feel like they do the damage they're supposed to, and enemies feel like they have an acceptable level of resistance. In fact, once you get access to the top-tier arsenal, things will start to swing wildly in your favor--your guns will feel overpowered to the point where even shooting rank 1 enemies in the foot might be enough to take them out--which feels great when you're getting overwhelmed. Played the right way, the game's RPG-style systems basically feel invisible, and you can enjoy Far Cry's style of weighty gunplay and feel like an incredibly competent one-person army. The feeling of eventually being able to overcome New Dawn's elite enemies is good, but you're left wondering why you needed to be held back by artificial gating at all.

It doesn't help that there's no tangible sense of growth with weapons and vehicle crafting; New Dawn's selection of guns and cars isn't dramatically different enough between ranks to make the large distinction in damage output believable. Rank 1 weapons are a varied suite of handguns, rifles, and shotguns, and higher-rank arsenals are basically defined by the increasing amount of duct tape and junk on that same suite, as if that stuff has magical properties that makes the guns perform better. There are lots of guns to choose from, but if you've played Far Cry 5 you'll immediately recognize them, duct tape or no.

The one nice exception is the new Saw Launcher, which shoots circular saw blades. Higher tier versions of the weapon actually have noticeably different properties, like the ability to shoot saw blades with ricocheting, homing, and boomerang traits. It's the only weapon which truly feels like it was borne out of the post-apocalypse, improvised from scavenged parts. Aerosol cans, pipes, and spray paint might give the other guns and cars a cool look, but it doesn't change how familiar they feel.

The same can be said of the world itself. Far Cry 5's Hope County already felt a bit post-apocalyptic--the rural setting was isolated from the world thanks to antagonist Joseph Seed--so even though there are plenty of visible differences to the region, the impact of those changes isn't massive. There are a few key locations that provoke some amusement in their discovery, but the strength of Far Cry 5's Hope County was its natural environments--the forests, lakes, rivers, and mountains. The conceit that the region was re-vegetated by a super bloom after nuclear devastation means that the vibe in New Dawn is basically identical, despite dramatic increases in upended cars and graffiti. It's a pretty post-apocalypse, but it doesn't have the feeling of desperation you might associate with the theme. Scavenging for materials doesn't feel like a drastic necessity, just a way to get ahead. New Dawn doesn't feel like it takes the theme to enough of an extreme to feel meaningful or different.

The solid bones of Far Cry's combat are still here, though, and they're still very good. Taking on outposts (within your rank), whether that be via stealth or aggression, is still enjoyable, and the game encourages you to repeat them at increased difficulties to earn more resources. New Dawn also introduces seven self-contained missions called Expeditions. These are large, diverse maps set outside Hope County, and they feature setpieces like a New Orleans amusement park, an aircraft carrier, and even a Splinter Cell-themed plane crash. Expedition environments are a highlight, but the snatch-and-grab objectives mean that you're never really encouraged to stop and appreciate them--you're more concerned with getting the hell out of there as a non-stop stream of enemies comes after you.

The concise nature of the game means there's a remarkable lack of time given to the characters and plot, too. A few of the major characters feel like they could be interesting, the twin sister antagonists especially, but the few interactions you have with them are definitely not enough to develop them and make you care. While the performances have gusto, key moments of pathos just feel completely unearned. Something major happened to a key character and I was surprised how little empathy I felt. A detestable deal is made and I was mad at how little time they spent justifying it. Underdeveloped connections to characters also exacerbate the relative mundanity of the story missions compared to the game's side and open-world activities--turret sequences, bland chases, forced melee fights, and even a slow boat ride, all of which go on for way too long.

You do get a double jump, though. That is, the ability to jump in mid-air. You also get the ability to basically turn invisible and give yourself super speed and strength. The Far Cry series has always dabbled in the mystic, but yes: In a strange turn of events, New Dawn eventually says "screw it" and gives you access to superhuman powers. And the way it changes how you approach the world is undoubtedly the best thing about the game.

These sudden powers let you lean hard into superhero fantasy, allowing you to bound over fences and onto buildings, using your newfound mobility and invisibility to completely terrorize enemies like you're the Predator, or perhaps jumping high into the fray and firing off explosive arrows, pretending you're Hawkeye from The Avengers. Maybe you're more of a Wolverine, activating the berserker ability to rush an outpost at super speed and send heavily armed assailants and bears alike flying with your bare fists. A minor new mechanic lets you temporarily pick up shields from enemies and toss them like you're Captain America (supporting characters even refer to you as "Cap"), and I'm shocked they didn't do more with this--the inability to permanently keep a shield is a big disappointment.

The powers are so good that it's almost a shame they come at a point late in the game where you'll likely already be well-equipped to deal with elite rank enemies, since a few scenarios that challenge your ability to use these effectively definitely would have been a welcome addition. But as it stands, they're a fantastic expansion of Far Cry's combat vocabulary. They completely elevate your confidence to rip through everything and everyone, suddenly turning New Dawn's familiar, pedestrian experience into a raucous blast.

There's a lot of potential in the ideas seeded in New Dawn, but there isn't enough room for many of them to breathe and feel fully realized. Not the post-apocalyptic theme, not the RPG mechanics, not the weapons, vehicles, plot, or characters. Advancing through the adventure is an enjoyable experience, especially once you get your superhuman powers, but this is largely because Far Cry 5's combat and progression models remain compelling enough to propel you forward. For its part, New Dawn is a palatable but unremarkable spin-off that feels like it could have achieved so much more.

Categories: Games

Jump Force Review - A Little Too Shonen

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 05:00

Jump Force is a celebration of 50 years of Weekly Shonen Jump manga, featuring nearly four dozen fighters from 16 of the magazine's most iconic stories. Bandai Namco's arena tag-team fighting game borrows plenty of elements from its source materials, for better and worse. Although Jump Force's campaign story drags on for way too long and ignores what could have been interesting character interactions in favor of repeated excuses for everyone to punch the crap out of each other, its combat is an enjoyable dance between two teams of fighters--thanks to the game's excellent mechanics and flashy visuals.

In Jump Force, you're an ordinary human who's caught up in a warzone when the Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Naruto universes collide into our world and bring their assortment of heroes and villains with them. After being mortally wounded by Frieza, you're resurrected as a hero capable of learning the powers, skills, and abilities of Shonen Jump's characters, and you decide to join Goku, Luffy, and Naruto's Jump Force of allies in order to fix everyone's broken world. What follows is a fairly stereotypical shonen affair, with your character growing stronger over time, enemies and friends switching sides, and a mysterious evil working behind the scenes. Like most fighting games, there's not a single problem you don't ultimately just fix with your fists, from deciding team leader to knocking sense into those who have been corrupted by the same evil forces responsible for everyone's worlds colliding with one another.

There's a decent story in Jump Force, but it's buried beneath a second act that goes on for far too long. After getting acquainted with your new allies, the game tasks you with responding to threats around the globe, as well as the recruitment of any additional heroes who've managed to stumble into our world from their respective universes. Character models during cutscenes are all rather cookie-cutter, as everyone stands in the same position throughout the story, only stiffly moving their mouths and occasionally blinking. The actual story moves with the same awkwardly slow pace, and it doesn't explain what's going on with everyone's worlds or what the villains' motivations are until the third act, so you play through most of the game without any idea as to what you're really fighting against. Not being able to skip cutscenes is also rather annoying, as exiting out of a mission for any reason--such as buying more items to use in combat--has you watch the same 40- to 90-second scene again.

There are brief snippets where you can see how a side story might have helped flesh out the characters, which in turn could have been a good incentive to keep pushing forward through the campaign. For example, Boruto recognizes a sadness behind the eyes of My Hero Academia's Midoriya and confides with the young hero that he knows how hard it is to live up to the ideal of father figures. But the game breezes past moments like this in order to get to the next fight.

Thankfully, those fights are a blast to play. Every combatant comes equipped with an assortment of attacks, blocks, grabs, counters, and dodges that operate in a rock-paper-scissors system. Combat is fairly accessible, and it doesn't take long to understand how the basic mechanics work. However, with over 40 playable fighters, it takes time to get a handle on the entire roster's assortment of strengths and weaknesses, giving you plenty of reason to keep playing. Each fighter has four distinct and unique special attacks as well. Even though these special moves can be broken down into one of seven different types--short-range, dashing, counter, area-of-effect, long-range, shield, or buff--each fighter handles quite differently. If you've read the manga that these characters come from, you already have a fairly good idea as to what most of these iconic moves are and how they behave, but you'll still have to practice with each fighter to get a grasp of what every move can do.

Every attack, basic or advanced, can be avoided in some way--whether via blocking, dodging, or countering--so most fights are tense, with each side looking for a way to bait their foe into opening themselves up for attack without putting themselves at a disadvantage. I've had fights where, after 30 seconds of back-and-forth, both sides are one strike away from defeat, and the battle continues for another full minute of counters, perfect dodges, and last-second blocks. It's empowering to finish off your foe with a perfectly executed combo or snag a victory when all hope seems lost. Each win feels like it needs to be earned, and this encourages you to explore the varied movesets of each fighter, experiment in how attacks might be chained together, and deduce your go-to characters' weaknesses in order to avoid defeat.

This is especially true in regards to the campaign, as you're allowed to customize your character with any four special abilities you want. You can also choose your character's gender, body type, voice, and skin tone, as well as dress them with an assortment of hairstyles, make-up, jewelry, and clothes, allowing you to build your perfect protagonist. Completing campaign missions earns you in-game currency, which you can use to buy new outfits and items. Cosmetics won't affect your character, but it's still fun to put together outfits and it's a welcome distraction when you need a moment to step away from the steep challenge of the late-game battles.

Once you're done with Jump Force's campaign, there's still plenty to do--even if not all of it is worthwhile. Free Missions are the game's version of a challenge mode, but it's not all that different from the handicaps placed on you in late-game story missions. The same can be said for Extra Missions mode, which you can play if you need a little extra in-game cash for that smokin' pair of black pants you've been eyeing for your character or if you want to expand your level cap.

However, a lot of fun can be had in Jump Force's competitive modes. You can play online or off, with both friendly and ranked matches in the former. Online is where your skills will be put to the test, meaning it's also where you'll find the game's best fights. Jump Force also allows you to practice against a computer while you wait for the game to find you an opponent, so you're not just waiting on a loading screen, which is a welcome touch. Ranked Play provides the most challenging combat in Jump Force by far, but earning higher titles--and thus bragging rights--by defeating more skilled opponents is a compelling goal to work towards.

Each win feels like it needs to be earned, and this encourages you to explore the varied movesets of each fighter.

It's awesome to see Jump Force's roster of playable fighters include so many characters from Shonen Jump's history, even the ones from manga that aren't as mainstream but no less important, like JoJo's Bizarre Adventure and Saint Seiya. That said, there's a disappointing disparity in the number of male and female characters, especially when Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Naruto contribute to nearly half the roster and only have two women between all three of them. Shonen Jump has always been geared towards young boys, but that doesn't mean its manga hasn't had great female fighters. Including Dragon Ball's Piccolo over Android 18 and Naruto's Gaara over both Sakura and Hinata is odd, as is leaving out Black Clover's Noelle, Yu-Gi-Oh's Anzu, My Hero Academia's Uraraka, and Boruto's Sarada.

Jump Force is a worthy celebration of the legacy of Shonen Jump manga, but it honors its source material a little too well with how filler-heavy the middle of its story arc is. However, even if the game rarely provides a clear motivation for stopping evil other than good must always oppose it, the act of stomping out villains in Jump Force's frantic bouts of tag-team arena combat is an enjoyable test of strategy. And with over 40 characters to master, there's ample opportunity to develop new strategies and reach greater feats of combat prowess in online multiplayer.

Categories: Games

Metro Exodus Review - Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Wed, 02/13/2019 - 15:00

Beyond the dark, oppressive tunnels and radioactive surface of Moscow are the societies that emerge from a nuclear apocalypse and prospective lands habitable for new life. It's a sensible change in setting that broadens Metro's horizons, though it sometimes loses the focus the series is known for. Still, the firefights and stealth deliver a familiar and incredible tension, complemented by streamlined survival mechanics necessary to face terrifying threats. But with Artyom and friends punching a one-way train ticket in hopes of greener pastures, Metro Exodus becomes a journey more about the enduring relationships and ties that bind an earnest crew of survivors.

In the opening hours, returning protagonist Artyom is shown with a tenacious insistence that human life exists outside the metro. It gets him into serious trouble, and it's further revealed that a larger conspiracy is at play. Your departure seems all too sudden and a bit of a disservice to the hardships endured in the previous games, but the heat of the moment and gut instincts of your companions help ease you into the premise of a year-long expedition to wherever the railroads lead.

The way the map works in Metro Exodus is a nice touch.

Thus, Metro Exodus takes the franchise in a bold direction by having a few significant chapters dedicated to open sandbox-style environments where you're free to roam, explore non-critical points of interest, and follow the main story path. Exploration tends to not be a reward in itself as these open areas are sparse and struggle to incentivize you to venture far off. Doing so pits you against mutants that force you to expend valuable resources for very little in return. Navigating isn't entirely enjoyable whether it be because of the sluggish rowboats in the Volga or empty lands of the Caspian. It sometimes feels as if Metro's methodical movement was thrown into much larger spaces it wasn't meant for. Thankfully, the game reins it in for its other chapters, especially when you make it to the lush forest of the Taiga that masterfully guides you to and from open areas and confined spaces at a tempered pace.

It's a sensible change in setting that broadens Metro's horizons, though it sometimes loses the focus the series is known for.

During your time in the open areas, optional side quests will organically populate your map by way of environmental hints or characters mentioning a point of interest in dialogue. These aren’t traditional side quests that get logged into a checklist; instead, they're opportunities to experience more of Metro’s tense combat scenarios and lead to potentially finding new equipment, scavenging additional resources, or extracting smaller stories that feed into the bigger picture.

Despite the addition of open environments, Exodus primarily plays similarly to previous games, and for the majority of the time it channels the series existing strengths. Carefully laid out levels strike a balance between freedom of approach and linear, focused paths to objectives when you face human enemies, creating a fine flow within missions. Sure, some guards will have their backs conveniently turned or make silly moves in combat, but the overarching thrill that you can swiftly kill or be killed lingers. Another Metro staple of fighting mutated beasts delivers a different style of tension. Irradiated spiders, nimble mutants, and lurking amphibians strike fear as you brace for their attack in ravaged pitch-dark corridors and flooded buildings. Even the harmless spiders that crawl on your arm and across your face further build a terrifying atmosphere. It's a state of vulnerability covered in a layer of dread that Metro gets right yet again.

Hardly do you ever feel either unfairly disadvantaged or overpowered, as weapons fire with impact and can be a challenge to handle. Each firearm has a roster of modifications that you'll scavenge from enemy weapons--sights, scopes, barrels, loading mechanisms--which give you control of how you want to fight. This wide variety of customization options can turn a dinky revolver into a formidable long-range weapon or a janky Kalashnikov into a devastating assault rifle--it's a satisfying system that gives gunplay an additional layer of depth. Modding can also be done using your backpack at any time, giving you the chance to adapt to situations as they arise.

Workbenches and your backpack are saving graces in Metro Exodus, since there are no longer any shops to buy equipment and items. Gone is the clever system of trading in military-grade bullets for critical items; in its place is a crafting system that's both manageable and fitting for the survivalist mentality Exodus instills. You'll accumulate scrap metal and chemicals to craft medkits, filters, and ammo, and maintain weapon condition. Even when you're juggling systems such as keeping your flashlight charged and changing out gasmask filters, it never becomes overbearing and adds an enjoyable challenge of gear management even as you're fending off foes throughout.

For the most part, Metro Exodus does away with the supernatural by leaving the clairvoyant Dark Ones in the past. In venturing into the unknown, the game tends to rely on familiar post-apocalyptic tropes. You have the cultists who've brainwashed locals to shun technology, a society of cannibals who put up an orderly front, and slavers who exploit and abuse others. But Exodus uses them to lay the groundwork for its better moments between characters and the struggles they endure. And despite the story being less centered around Artyom--who oddly remains a silent protagonist outside of loading screen monologues--Exodus unfolds in a much more personal fashion. The broader examinations of humanity and psychological twists have been dialed back to make room for a more grounded story about the necessary sacrifices you make for the ones you love.

These characters are brought to life with an impressive amount of dialogue that seems to go on forever, but because the moments of levity have a degree of charm and earnestness, you’ll want to stay and listen.

The best parts of the story are found in chapters between the action where you simply hang out aboard the Aurora, the train that functions as headquarters. Here you have the chance to tune the radio to eavesdrop on transmissions that play off of in-game events or listen to some sweet tunes, but more importantly, it's your opportunity to unravel the endearing personalities that make up your crew. These characters are brought to life with an impressive amount of dialogue that seems to go on forever, but because the moments of levity have a degree of charm and earnestness, you’ll want to stay and listen. It's not without a few lines that feel contextually out of place, though the natural flow of dialogue and interactions between the team communicates just as much about them as the stories they tell.

Anna shares her thoughts about the life she hopes to build with you as she rests her head on your lap. Damir's commitment to his ethnic roots and what remains of his homeland of Kazakhstan leads to a bittersweet exchange. Stepan, the big softy, is an uplifting presence who also fills the air with his acoustic guitar. And Miller is the hardened leader exemplifying the tough love of a father figure who wants the best for you and his daughter Anna. These are just a few of the characters that represent the best in Metro Exodus' narrative.

Anna is one of the several great characters in Metro Exodus' story.

The exact narrative threads can change, however; Metro's morality system makes a return, subtly judging your actions without explicitly revealing itself. What's important is that it doesn't always force you into non-lethal approach; if you want to cut the throats of the heartless slavers or take a shotgun to a cannibal's head, by all means do so, and as long as you don't hurt the innocent, you're in the clear. And with a keen eye or sharp ear, you may also come across unexpected events that'll pay off depending on your course of action. Consequences don't make themselves immediately apparent, but can lead to fascinating results as the story progresses.

It's worth noting that technical issues are strewn throughout Metro Exodus. In one playthrough (pre-day one patch), I've fallen through the game world just after an auto-save, inexplicably lost upgraded equipment I couldn't get back at a workbench, and had some rare, but noticeable framerate drops at modest settings with a fairly high-end PC. They didn't break the game, but can frustrate and negate hard-earned progress. In the few hours spent with the PS4 version, the game was stable, and as expected it ran on a lower framerate than a capable PC. It's not always a smooth ride, though it doesn't take away from the gripping journey that the game takes you on.

You may miss the mystery and intrigue of the previous games, but Exodus puts together a charismatic crew of friends and family that you'll want to follow to the ends of the earth.

At first glance, Metro Exodus gives you that wide-open, free, and dangerous world unbound by tunnels, though the scope of its tale focuses on what drives you personally and the lengths you're willing to go to protect what matters most. The open sandboxes may not be strongest addition, but the game still embraces the sense of vulnerability and post-apocalyptic terror alongside impactful weapons used in refined combat and stealth scenarios. You may miss the mystery and intrigue of the previous games, but Exodus puts together a charismatic crew of friends and family that you'll want to follow to the ends of the earth.

Categories: Games

Civilization 6: Gathering Storm Review - The Wind Rises

Tue, 02/12/2019 - 00:00

Civilization VI told a straightforward story of the consequences of your actions. Fail to keep your people happy and they would put down their hammers and raise pitchforks. Be rude to the other leaders and they would soon refuse to deal with you. Beyond that, however, you could go about building your empire mostly unconcerned with any repercussions to your decisions. Last year's Rise and Fall expansion added some complexity to the tale with the introduction of its Loyalty mechanic. Operating in isolation was no longer possible. Settlements on the fringes of an empire could, if they liked what they saw across the border, decide to rebel. Players who took their citizens' loyalty for granted would find themselves leading no one.

This kind of accountability is extended in multiple directions with Gathering Storm, the second major expansion for Civ VI. Through the institution of a World Congress, Gathering Storm lets leaders reward and punish each other for certain actions, allow them to pass sweeping resolutions that affect every civilization, and ultimately secure their diplomatic favor. And with its new World Climate system, Gathering Storm makes you accountable to the world itself by hitting you--sometimes painfully hard--with the calamitous consequences of exploiting the map's rich resources.

Your path to victory in Civ VI was predictable once you'd established the foundation of your empire by the Modern Era, but the new World Congress and World Climate systems add enough dynamism to keep you working right up to the new Future Era. Gathering Storm encourages you to “play the map," taking advantage of the surrounding resources, and then adapt the repercussions of your decisions reflected on that map. As an expansion focused on consequences, however, it can take some time for the new stuff to make its presence felt.

The World Climate system is the most meaningful change, but it doesn't really kick in until you've started extracting strategic resources like coal and oil. Early on you'll encounter floods, hurricanes, blizzards, and endure the odd drought or volcanic eruption. These weather events pass in a couple of turns, potentially reducing your population, injuring units and pillaging improvements, but they can also fertilize tiles to reward you with greater yields in future.

But weather is not climate. Once you start burning coal and oil to fuel both the power plants in your industrial districts and the battleships and tanks that comprise your military force, you start pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As those emissions rise, tallied by the new World Climate report that tracks the cumulative contributions of each civ and resource, the world will progress through up to seven phases of climate change. Sea levels will rise, at first flooding coastal tiles and eventually leaving many of them completely underwater. Weather events will increase in both frequency and severity, simultaneously desiccating your farmlands through drought and ravaging your cities with tornadoes.

The choices you're forced to make here are difficult and meaningful. Resources like coal and oil are powerful and refusing to exploit them will cede an immediate advantage to any rival. Through the Industrial and Modern Eras they fuel the most effective units in your navy and army. Do you really want to rely on defending your homeland with frigates while the enemy has ironclads? Further, consumable fuel resources are the first ways you're able to power your cities. A concept debuting in Gathering Storm, powering a city--say, via a coal power plant--boosts the yields of various districts and buildings. Can you really afford to let your research labs and stock exchanges sit idle while your coal-guzzling neighbor is sprinting ahead in the science race?

Later you're able to develop methods of harvesting renewable energy resources such as wind and solar farms, but by the time you're able to deploy them, you may find yourself lagging too far behind a less eco-friendly rival or, worse, suffering the consequences of irreversible damage to the planet. Helping to mitigate such destruction and preserving the natural environment will slow down the effects of climate change. This forces new, perplexing early game decisions. Chopping down that nearby rainforest will give a quick boost to producing a settler, but leaving it untouched may mean future settlers will live to see a world that still has air to breathe. Before Gathering Storm, this wasn't a choice--you chopped for the short-term gain because there were no long-term consequences. Now, every decision is purposeful. Now, every tile in your empire is asking: "Are you sure you want to do that?"

The World Congress is slightly less successful at providing new and meaningful choices than the World Climate system. What it does, though, is make you far more aware of what other leaders are up to. Once the congress convenes, from the Medieval Era onwards, you'll find yourself voting on various resolutions every 30 turns. You might be asked to vote on boosting or banning certain types of great people, or whether trade routes to particular civs or city-states should receive bonuses. You don't just get one vote; instead, you can spend a new form of currency called Diplomatic Favor to vote as many times as you can afford. Favors can also be traded with other leaders, just like any resource, meaning diplomatic players will need to give away valuable luxuries or strategic resources in order to fully exert their influence on the World Congress.

In theory, these resolutions should enable the diplomatic player to tip the scales in their favor. In practice, though, their effects aren't transformative. You might get an extra trade route here, a slightly slower Great Engineer there, but nothing that feels game-changing. The randomness doesn't help--if you could propose a resolution rather than merely voting on the ones that pop up that would provide a better return on the investment.

More compelling are the choices to be made around actually pursuing the new Diplomatic Victory, awarded to the leader who first reaches 10 Diplomatic Victory points. You're still essentially voting your way to the top, but you're also competing with other leaders to send the most aid to another civ recently devastated by floods, for instance, or to generate the most great people points to win the Nobel Prize. Diplomatic Favor is also earned via alliances with other civs and becoming the suzerain of a city-state, so the Diplomatic Victory is genuinely a case of demonstrating you can lead the world.

These are the two biggest new features in this add-on, but Gathering Storm also includes countless smaller tweaks that in combination with the above make it an essential purchase for Civ VI fans. There are new World Wonders to build, such as the Great Bath or the University Sankore. There are new Natural Wonders, new military units to fill in the gaps between eras, and nine new leaders, including the series' first-ever dual-nationality leader (Eleanor of Aquitaine can represent either England or France).

Thoughtfully, the new leaders are balanced between those that are clearly geared towards Gathering Storm's prominent additions--Kristina of Sweden is all about winning diplomatic favor while the unique abilities of Kupe, the Maori leader, incentivize leaving untouched as much of the natural world as possible--and those who embrace some previously overlooked facet of the game. In the latter camp, Matthias Corvinus heads a Hungarian empire whose military force is best composed of units levied from allied city-states, while in the Inca, lead by Pachacuti, we finally have a civ that wants lots of mountain tiles throughout its lands.

Gathering Storm is overall a great expansion, ushering in two significant new systems that work hand in hand to deepen the experience. The embellished diplomatic options extend the range of interactions with other leaders, allowing you to work cooperatively towards common goals or pull the strings to your advantage behind the scenes. While the introduction of climate change delivers new strategic choices whose consequences resonate ever-more-loudly as you advance throughout the eras. It isn't simply more Civ, it's a whole new way to play Civ.

Categories: Games

God Eater 3 Review - Attack On Aragami

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 01:00

Gigantic inhuman entities threatening mankind are something that we're all familiar with in the year 2019. Monster Hunter, Attack on Titan, Godzilla--there's something inherently compelling about the trope where desperate survivors pit themselves against incredible odds and incredibly large monsters at the end of the world. God Eater 3's narrative, much like its predecessors, leans heavily into this conceit and tells an enjoyable (if light) tale as icing on its frenzied action-RPG cake.

Part of a series that has historically been for PlayStation portable devices, God Eater 3 is the first entry created with home consoles and PC as its primary platforms. Also significant is a new developer, Marvelous, a studio perhaps more well-known for its contribution to games with prodigious amounts of swimsuit DLC than the stuff of the monster-hunting variety. This tonal shift isn't as evident as you might think, though, especially since the series was already awash with anime tropes and aesthetic choices. God Eater 3 doesn't deliver any real twists and honestly, that's fine. The real friends that you make along the way in God Eater games aren't the ones with compelling backstories; they're the ones that help you kill Aragami with the sort of precision reserved for surgical procedures.

Aragami are representative of the evil threatening the world--they're gigantic predators that devour everything in their wake as the world drowns under deadly ash storms. A nightmarish fusion of beast and mech, there's something brutal about their designs, which hammers home the divide between the alien and the organic world that you have to protect. You're the mostly-silent star in this particular story, doomed to take up the thankless job of Aragami eradication for people who have treated you like an expendable weapon since infancy. There's a predictable follow-up series of events: You're liberated, you recover from your trauma through the power of friendship, and then you meet a life-changing person who isn't quite who they appear to be. There are plenty of similarities between the core story of God Eater 3, the previous entries in the franchise, and whichever monster-fighting anime is currently trending on Crunchyroll, so while it's an entertaining tale, temper your expectations for crushing moral dilemmas.

What will likely exceed your expectations, whether you're familiar with God Eater's particular brand of slaughter or not, is the combat. While it's easy to draw parallels with Monster Hunter, God Eater 3 is a fair bit closer to Devil May Cry's style of action. It's fast-paced and frenetic, reliant on chaining high-octane and high-mobility combos without getting hit in order to efficiently dissect Aragami. You have no shortage of movement options, including a specific command for Dash abilities, and you can effortlessly switch between melee and ranged combat. The feeling of stabbing an Aragami's plated shins with your greatsword in close combat before flying away and firing a shotgun shell right into the exposed wound never really gets old.

Another mechanic, which is now a staple of the God Eater series, is the ability for your weapon to consume the essence of the beasts you kill. In doing so, you get to enter Burst Mode, giving you better damage output, flashier combo moves, and increased range on your basic attacks. The effects vary depending on your weapon loadout, which offers an interesting level of strategy for you to consider from mission to mission. The most difficult bosses in the game have a similar mechanic of their own, where attack patterns can grow a host of other deadly variables, making your defensive strategy just as important as your damage output.

Unfortunately, the game's difficulty curve is fairly stagnant until about the halfway mark, when it suddenly ramps up by increasing the number of baddies you need to take down at the same time. This can lead to an initial feeling of being underpowered for these tense stand-offs, where you'll have to rely on every ounce of your skills to not get nailed to the wall by twice as many deadly laser beams and teleporting death machines than what you're used to.

It's not all smooth sailing when it comes to the nuts and bolts of God Eater 3, either, with a number of small annoyances. One particular gripe here is that the game binds multiple options to the same input, and most frustratingly, the button to loot will also be bound to another action (whether it be dashing or blocking, depending on the control scheme) which makes looting a pain. Flitting around the maps as quick as you please is fine and dandy until you want to pick up something useful, like crafting materials; you have a higher chance of careening face-first into a nearby enemy.

Another issue is the presence of the various customization systems that the series has accumulated over the years. There are crafting systems, ability systems, what seems like well over 100 possible skills to use, and upgrades on top of those too. Fiddling with a million and one variables to make your character perform better is neat at first, but a mastery of those systems isn't at all necessary to do well in the game, meaning it's easy to ignore them.

The rest of the time spent as a God-eating machine is an affair punctuated by expository cutscenes and managing your various AI companions on the fields of war. The AI perform well enough at their respective jobs of doing damage, chaining skills, and trying to keep you alive if necessary. If you're craving a little more of a human feel to those connections, then there's the option of taking on the fast and furious multiplayer Assault Missions where pile-driving Aragami into the ground with mates before the timer runs out is the name of the game. It's a welcome reprieve from the grind of the single-player mode and its buffet of relatively run-of-the-mill missions, so having it as an option is a refreshing change of pace for the series.

God Eater 3 is a solid entry in the franchise that doesn't necessarily reinvent itself, but it doesn't have to. All the core things that make God Eater so enjoyable, from the lightning-fast combat to the anime stylings, have been given a new lick of paint and propped up enticingly next to additions like the well-tuned Assault Missions and creative enemies to make one delicious package. Some aspects of the game--like its difficulty curve and multitude of superfluous customization systems--miss the mark, but it's an enjoyable romp with plenty of raucous battles if you're hungry for an action RPG.

Categories: Games

Apex Legends Review - Battle Royale The Way It Should Be

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 22:30

If Apex Legends has one thing going for it, it's the feeling that the game is complete--something not all battle royale games can boast. The explosion of popularity in the genre means there are a lot of games that do last-player-standing competition pretty well, but with some kinks. Some existing shooters are adding battle royale modes to their offerings, fitting their existing gameplay into a new framework; other battle royale games are constantly struggling to work out bugs, kinks, and balancing issues; and still others started life as something else and managed to retrofit their ideas the battle royale mold, with some fitting better than others.

Meanwhile, Apex Legends focuses on doing one thing extremely well. That thing is team competition in the BR genre; at launch, it only includes a team-based mode where 20 groups of three players square off against each other. Everything in Apex Legends works to further teamwork: that includes a number of improvements to issues that plague the whole genre, like cleaning up inventory management and increasing accessibility, and the addition of new ideas, like squad composition elements and special character abilities.

Apex Legends excels by combining good ideas that have worked in shooters before. The battle royale ruleset is the same as in similar games, with very few changes: Teams skydive onto a huge island with nothing and scramble to gather up weapons and items to use against any other teams they encounter until only one team survives. While there are no titans or wall-running, it's still possible to see the bones of Titanfall 2 undergirding Apex, which reuses Titanfall's weapons and some of its fluid movement mechanics, like sliding and mantling. But the core of the formula here is the tight, three-player squad structure, which all the other pieces benefit.

Another big change to the battle royale formula in Apex Legends is one extremely similar to what Blizzard brought to multiplayer FPS games in Overwatch. At the start of each match, each player chooses one of eight characters, each with specific abilities that serve specific roles. The defensive Gibraltar can drop a shield and call in an airstrike to drive another team back; the offensive Wraith can create portals between two locations and briefly disappear to avoid damage; the supportive Pathfinder uses grappling hooks and ziplines to help the team reach areas where they might have a tactical advantage.

It all plays back into the focus on teamwork, since no character is especially powerful, and no abilities are useful all the time. You're not a lone wolf--instead, you have a specific role that complements teammates as you play, and that works to help find a new side of battle royale that hasn't been explored before.

Moment-to-moment, though, what's remarkable about Apex Legends is that it just works. Battle royale is a bit of an obtuse genre with a lot of moving parts; in most games, you find weapons, gun attachments, armor, healing items, and more. You'll spend lots of time digging in menus to manage inventory. Apex streamlines all of that with user interface tweaks that make it possible to instantly identify what you need and ignore the things you don't. Ammo types are color-coded to the guns that use them. Attachments automatically join with guns they fit and swap to appropriate new guns when you pick them up, while things you can't use or don't improve your gear are brightly marked as such. It's an even more accessible version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's battle royale improvements with its Blackout mode, and the rest of the genre should adopt it.

The best feature in Apex Legends is its extremely robust "ping" system, which lets you press a button to create a marker on your teammates' screens. The ping system is super smart--aim it at a gun or a helmet and your character will identify that object's location to everyone else. You can ping in your menu to call for things you need, mark places you want to go, or identify spots other players have passed through. Most importantly, you can use pings to mark enemy locations. The system is so responsive and well-implemented in Apex Legends that it can fully replace talking to your team at all. In fact, the accuracy of a ping on-screen can often be better at helping you quickly convey information than talking.

A revival system also helps you get more engaged with your team. If a teammate falls in battle and is knocked out of the match, you can recover their banner, an item that drops with their loot, and use it to respawn them into the game as if they just started. The system adds some intense, harrowing strategy to Apex that requires you to risk everything to save your squad; you can only call back dead teammates at specific, single-use Respawn Beacons on the map, but you're completely exposed while doing so. Pull off a clutch play, though, and you can bring your team back from the brink. The system provides a great incentive to stay in matches and keep talking to and aiding your team, instead of just leaving when you die to join another match.

Like in Respawn's previous games, shooting here is hefty and satisfying, and Apex sports a wide variety of cool guns to learn and master. However, gunplay sometimes gets held back because lots guns carry strangely small magazines. Players have a lot of health, which gets increased greatly with the addition of armor, so it often takes a lot of shots to take people down. Ideally, you're always shooting someone with the help of a pal, but the small magazines have the effect of making you feel underpowered alone. In most matches I've played, shotguns get the most use from players because they have the highest likelihood of actually taking down an opponent, while many of the other guns spray bullets too much and leave you vulnerable as you reload and reload and reload.

Apex Legends is a mix of smart shooter ideas that makes for a competitive, team-based game that gets at all the best parts of battle royale while addressing a lot of the weaknesses.

As a free-to-play game, Apex Legends includes both loot boxes and in-game items that can be purchased with real money, and loot boxes can also be earned by playing. Everything on offer is cosmetic, much like in Fortnite or Overwatch, so paying money isn't essential to playing the game and staying competitive, and you can largely ignore microtransactions if you aren't interested in paying.

The one place Apex Legends' microtransactions can irritate is in trying to unlock new characters. At launch, six characters are available for free, with two that can be unlocked either with paid or earned currency. Neither is essential--they offer different abilities but not better or worse ones--but as an average player, it still took me around 17 hours of play to earn enough currency to buy one character (it'll be shorter if you get more kills and more wins). With Respawn adding more characters to the game in the future, it's fully possible trying to unlock new characters will become a slog that turns off casual players and those unwilling or unable to pay.

Apex Legends is a mix of smart shooter ideas that makes for a competitive, team-based game that gets at all the best parts of battle royale while addressing a lot of the weaknesses. Respawn's intense focus on team play makes Apex more than just a worthy addition to the genre; it's an indicator of where battle royale should go in the future.

Categories: Games

Astroneer Review - New Frontiers

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 23:03

It's rare that you'll ever feel stressed while playing Astroneer. Its colourful planets and soothing synth soundtrack make exploring its handful of varied planets a treat for the senses, but its reined-in take on survival is what makes your hours with it as serene as possible. With little to worry about in terms of actually surviving, Astroneer shifts its focus to a core resource gathering and building loop. But, disappointingly, it struggles to entice you to visit all of the land it has to see.

Astroneer's solar system includes seven uniquely styled planets with procedurally generated terrain. They feature a familiar low-polygon styling that is made striking thanks to bold, vibrant colors and a great range of colour palettes used throughout the solar system. Your starting planet features gorgeously green fields stretching for miles on end, while another nearby feels far less inviting with harsh mustard-yellow mountain ranges and darker, more ominous clouds hanging above. The cartoonish designs that stretch from your customizable character to the structures you build blend well with the vibrant backdrops. Everything looks larger than it should realistically be, from the tires on your trusty rover to the simplistic 3D printers you make use of frequently, but it's an aesthetic that gives Astroneer a great and distinct look.

You play as a lonesome Astroneer, or as part of a pair if you choose to play cooperatively with a friend. You're given nothing more than a few tools and a home on a planet mostly devoid of life to start off with. You also aren't given any objectives, either--instead you're encouraged to explore the land around you and harvest useful resources to fuel your home expansion. Resources such as the vaguely named "compound" lie in abundance next to resin and organic matter on a planet's surface, with the catacombs beneath it housing rare metals and strange alien elements. Your progress is defined by how you expand your home on the planet, with no direction or set path imposed on you.

You can feel aimless at first, but the initial hours of Astroneer are some of its most intriguing. With nothing but foreign land stretching out all around you, it's tantalizing to pick a direction and set out. Your exploration is limited by oxygen, though--without a direct connection to your home or a substantially large oxygen generator, you will quickly burn through the reserves on your backpack and succumb to suffocation. You can craft and then drop oxygen tethers to extend your supply far beyond your starting point, and, in the process, leave a glowing blue trail that can easily lead you back home when you need to return. It strikes a good balance between being both a simple survival mechanic and a way to chart your explorations on a planet, letting you recklessly explore with a means to return safely.

As you start hoarding and building more, your options start expanding. After gathering resources on foot, you can craft a tractor which can carry a train of trailers, allowing you to gather more resources during a single expedition. Refiners let you turn basic resources into the building blocks of more helpful structures. These can range from simple large storage units to lighten the load of your backpack to massive research chambers and soil refiners that reward you with research points and basic resources respectively.

Without a narrative reason to push your exploration, watching your barebones homestead expand over time is the strongest driving force behind your extensive exploration. Specialised structures require unique resources that can't be synthesized through constructed tools alone, which encourages you to explore beyond your starting biome. Yet despite the prospect of adding new structures to your home base, extended exploration on other planets isn't that alluring. It takes a lot of investment to build up your main base on your starting planet, and there's no way for you to move this from one planet to the next. Without established sources of oxygen and power, survival on each new planet is tricky, and it feels like you're starting from scratch. It's far easier to make short trips to other planets in the solar system and gather the exact resources you need as quickly as you can, almost completely ignoring their unique designs and possible secrets in the process.

When you aren't managing oxygen on the go, you're overseeing power distribution between new structures around your base. Each operation--such as refining raw materials, researching mysterious ores, and printing new tools--requires power to operate efficiently. Operations will slow down or speed up relative to how much power they're supplied, encouraging you to route power intelligently throughout your base. Instead of managing this in a series of menus, you have to physically connect each module and structure with large red power plugs. The constant redirection of power can become tedious to manage individually; it's not complicated to understand where power is coming from, but the larger your base becomes, the messier the tangled web of power wires becomes, too.

Astroneer's overall inventory management also struggles at scale. You aren't inundated with meters and bars to watch on your journeys; all the information you need is conveyed mostly by your large backpack. Your inventory, for example, is always visible, with stacks of resources occupying single slots on your backpack and mining tool. You can zoom in on this and swap out items without having to dive into a menu, or drag and drop items out of personal storage and into a structure nearby with the flick of the mouse. It initially seems clever, but problems arise again when there's just too much to manage. Trying to place a stack of organic matter on a specific small generator becomes challenging when your zoomed-in backpack view takes up half the screen in an already chaotic home base, for example, and finer movements with your mouse are undone by an overly aggressive automatic snapping that makes trying to place an object cumbersome and frustrating.

Inventory management initially seems clever, but problems arise when there's just too much to manage.

There are some technical hiccups that unbalance this serene setting on occasion, but none that are severe enough to really hamper your progress. Performance on PC (which in this case featured a RTX 2080Ti and 6th generation Core i7) can inexplicably plummet when you're surrounded by numerous oxygen tethers, and I had two separate instances where I clipped through the ground and was forced to reload a previous save. Astroneer is generous with when it saves, though, so progress loss is infrequent.

Astroneer succeeds when it's enraptured you with its beautiful visuals and the irresistible call to explore the planet you find yourself on. Although it lacks a central through line to give you guidance, the variety of structures you can build helps point you towards new resources to hunt for. It struggles to incentivise you to sufficiently explore other planets within its single solar system, however, while also forcing you to work with an inventory system that is often unwieldy. These are frequent frustrations that Astroneer never fully overcomes either, but they're worth putting up with to experience its serene sense of planetary exploration.

Categories: Games

Dragon Marked for Death Review - Dates With Death

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 15:00

A war rages on for centuries between the powers of light and dark. After strife and sorrow, the light prevails in a veritable burst of glory that changes the course of the world forever. However, life goes on, and adventurers rise from the rubble of the old world to claim their fortune. This is where you come in. Considered the lowest of the low on the mercenary food chain, you harbor a dark secret and a tragic past: You've made a pact with an evil draconic legacy that seeks to disrupt the world anew. Unfortunately, you have to be a somebody to set things right, and so begins the true saga of many a video game protagonist--murder, mayhem, and fetch quests. Dragon Marked for Death delivers on all three fronts with colorful aplomb, but if you're looking for a solid single-player experience, then your prize is likely in another castle.

Inti Creates' latest offers a classic side-scrolling multiplayer action experience that will be instantly familiar--the studio is intimately acquainted with some of the most famous titles of the genre, such as Mega Man and Azure Striker Gunvolt, and Dragon Marked for Death appears to contain the necessary components for success. The big point of difference is the elegant anime visuals sprinkled on top of retro fantasy, which make it feel like a more original conception. It's a nice, modern facelift on the bare bones of Azure Striker Gunvolt, albeit with a less-stylised UI and a statistic display familiar to any RPG fan.

There are four distinct classes, all with their own quirks and charms, and each of the game's levels can be traversed in different ways that let you make the most of your character's capabilities. The Shinobi and the Empress classes, in particular, have gap-closing abilities that allow them to flit across stages with deadly efficiency, while the Warrior and Witch have far more situational movement inputs that open up the map in more indirect ways. Dragon Marked for Death differentiates these classes by difficulty, and this is evident in the way that the title has been released on the Nintendo eShop. There are two versions: Frontline Fighters (containing the Warrior and the Empress) and Advanced Attackers (containing the Shinobi and the Witch). In order to acquire the classes that your chosen version is missing, you'll need to buy them as additional DLC.

As indicated by the names of each release, some of the classes are better suited to getting hot and heavy up close. The Warrior is the most robust and is well-suited to living through absolutely everything that could be thrown at you. The Empress strikes a balance between mobility, damage options, and defensive capability--the perfect class for beginners. On the other hand, the Shinobi is more of a glass cannon, blessed with speed and damage in spades. And the Witch, potentially the most rewarding class to use if you can handle it, has powerful spell combinations entered with button sequences that you have to memorize, all locked inside someone with the physical constitution of wet tissue.

In solo play, it's easy to identify where things could get a little hairy for each class. Enemies are relentless in their pursuit of your character once they spot you, and each level sees you facing off against a variety of minions and sub-bosses that all have one single-minded focus: your destruction. You face down ogres who spew fire, cut a swathe through the bellies of seafaring monsters large enough to drown entire ships, and dodge bullets that take away your ability to control your movement. If you're advancing through the maps as they become available, each one will feel like a challenge and an exercise in how you manage both your class and your time. No matter which class you pick up, going toe to toe with the baddies is rewarding once you figure out the intricacies of damage dealing. Whether it’s suped-up spells that wipe out everything in a five-mile radius, knowing when to deploy a shield in that split-second between life and death, or running up walls and gleefully skewering your foes, there’s an interesting game plan for every character in Dragon Marked For Death.

Do you kill as many mobs as possible for experience and money? Do you skip all of the minor enemies in order to head straight for the sub-bosses at the cost of missing out on healing opportunities? If you run out of time on a level it's Game Over, and if you run out of your vitality, it's also a rude kick back to the starting line. Dragon Marked for Death forces you to find a strategy that works for you, and the timers are just tight enough that you're incentivized to learn the layout of maps and the quirks of the enemies inhabiting them if you want a chance at success. You repeat levels at different difficulties as you get stronger, farming missions for experience and for the gold to equip yourself with better weapons, all so you can chip away at the seemingly immovable wall of at-level quests to progress the story. This is essentially the gameplay loop that is fundamental to the title--grinding.

A frustrating difficulty curve emerges when venturing solo, and even if you're accustomed to this kind of loop, it's a bitter pill to swallow compared to the experience provided by the multiplayer mode. Each classes' distinct identity makes it feel like they've been designed for the sole purpose of filling a party role in an MMORPG, since their strengths and weaknesses are complementary. Playing as just one without any backup feels incredibly limiting--you aren't capable of much in the face of high stakes.

Luckily, linking up in multiplayer with your friends is as seamless as jumping into single-player. You need a Nintendo Online subscription if you're worlds apart, or simply flip to the local multiplayer menu if you're sitting next to each other. It's as easy as dropping in and out of a party, with the leader selecting what maps to tackle. After you finish a stage, you're returned to the map selection screen so you can jump right back into the action, and it's that kind of action that will keep you coming back for more.

Multiplayer is compelling because the classes work better in tandem--tank characters keeping the heat off damage dealers always results in a boss dying quicker--and levels feel less deadly when the Witch can focus on blasting through anything and everything with a Warrior to cover her from any fatal damage. In later stages, single-player requires an amount of dedication to the grind that can suck the fun out of the encounters, especially when you have had a taste of co-op and can spot moments where having a party would have helped save your bacon.

Akin to the classes themselves, the levels were clearly designed with multiplayer in mind. Because of the varied ways in which maps can be explored, including hidden segments that can be tricky to navigate if you don’t have a particular movement skill or the sufficient patience to figure out an alternative route, having more than one class in play at a time helps make those closed-off areas feel more accessible. The relentlessness of your foes is another thing which makes the single-player experience feel a little less than well-balanced in difficulty if you’re tackling new content as soon as you unlock it; you won’t have sufficient items or perhaps the know-how to navigate certain levels. As the Witch in particular, you only learn certain elemental spells when hitting level thresholds, which can leave you at a type disadvantage for longer than is necessary. What smoothes out all those little bumps, however, is another player to take the heat off you, and the experience bonus granted from multiplayer also sweetens that deal.

Overall, Dragon Marked for Death is a polished experience that draws on a lot of existing genre sensibilities, but with a heavy focus on aspects that make for a good co-op experience. The classes are thematically coherent and entertainingly distinct, and the levels are just varied enough that gliding through one for the first time is always aurally and visually pleasing. The unbalanced single-player experience is a big sticking point, but if you have friends who are willing to take up the Dragonblood mantle with you, then there are few action platformers more entertaining.

Categories: Games

Sunless Skies Review - Text Appeal

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 00:00

Would you like to hear a Tale of Terror or a Sky-Story? Relay some Salon-Stewed Gossip or pass on a Savage Secret? The names given to the various forms of currency exchanged across Sunless Skies give you a good idea of what sort of game it is. This is a world where words flow like water and stories hydrate whole planets. Where a turn of phrase is just as likely to unlock a door as the turn of a key.

Sunless Skies is a narrative-heavy adventure where every dramatic event is conveyed through beautifully written text. A delicate, customizable layer of "rogue-lite" action and survival encases a beating heart of vivid location descriptions, verbal flights of fancy, and giddy, spiraling story paths. Developer Failbetter Games has cleverly built upon the foundation of Sunless Sea, designing a sequel that improves core mechanics and spins its world into imaginative new orbits while easing the avenue of entry for new players. You're welcome here as long as you love words.

The British Empire, headed by Empress Victoria, has boarded its steam-powered engines and, improbably, made for the stars. There, amid the floating drifts of rock snaking across the sky, it has founded New Albion and, by remaking the Sun, it hopes to start again. It's an eccentric vision of outer space as alien territory where polar winds blow through ice-crusted canyons, hive-shaped asteroids drip honey, and myriad fungal spores glitter like stars. You play the captain of Her Majesty's Locomotive, the Orphean, newly inherited after the untimely death of the previous captain, and your ambition is to travel the stars seeking fame, fortune, or the truth.

Dotted around the New Wilderness, which is composed of four maps you may travel between once you've earned the appropriate permits, are dozens of busy ports and isolated homesteads. You pilot the Orphean between them, revealing new points of interest on the top-down 2D map and working to ensure you've packed enough fuel and supplies to make it to your destination. While docked you can repair and re-supply your engine, purchase any available upgrades, and visit the bazaar to claim prospects and earn additional revenue through trade.

Once that admin is out of the way, you can take your time to explore. Each port is well-stocked with fascinating locations and idiosyncratic characters. Buy a ticket to Polmear & Plenty's Circus and enjoy a show where the clowns can't juggle and the trapeze artist has lost their partner. Encounter an Inadvisably Big Dog at Port Prosper while seeking to aid the establishment Stove-pipes in their civil war against the revolutionary Tacketies. Travel to Hybras in search of a lost filmmaker and discover an entire colony of seniors has mysteriously vanished. There's a new captivating story to be found every step of the way.

As you follow each new narrative thread you're called upon to make choices and meet certain requirements. You might find a dying captain whose engine ran aground. Do you: end his suffering, return him home for one last glimpse of London, or escort him and try to complete his final, failed mission? There's something odd about that Repentant Devil you picked up at the previous port, but you'll need to track down some tea before he'll open up to you and reveal his true motivations. The decisions you make can see you gain or lose favor with a host of rival factions as you chart a course through the political struggles of this new frontier.

Every time you are presented with a path of action or choice to make, it's always clear how you have unlocked it. Some are based on having the correct items, purchased at a port or found in an earlier part of the story, while others provide a percentage chance of success depending on one of your character's core attributes. Actions you cannot yet take are grayed out but visible, allowing you to note that you need to find another Vision of the Heavens to make that selection or come back later once you've increased your Hearts attribute and boosted those odds in your favor. It's a clever setup in that you always have the information you need about your immediate options and enough of a nudge towards how to open up new sets of paths.

Between ports, however, things can slow down. Exploring an uncharted region of the map can be tense, especially as you venture into the outskirts and encounter some of the more dangerous enemies. It's also never less than beautiful to look at. But combat is simplistic and, much of the time, completely avoidable anyway. And while puttering the often long distances between points of interest, there's not a great deal to do beyond pinging your bat scout to identify random resource deposits and just watching the maze-like scenery wash by.

Popping up from time to time, and helping to enliven long journeys, are incidents involving the various officers you've recruited on board and your crew. Like the cast of a Mass Effect, each named officer--and like everyone in this world they all sport wonderfully evocative titles like The Incautious Driver or The Incognito Princess--has their own storyline to follow and they serve up some of the best questlines in the entire game. You'll want to check in with them whenever you can and prioritize their next steps.

There's also the ever-lurking concern of the "Terror" itself. As with Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies leans into elements of horror, in particular a kind of horror that draws on the ineffable mystery of the cosmos. Despite reaching the stars in our iron engines, no matter the expertise of all our Phlegmatic Researchers and Romantic Ornithologists, we don't have all the answers. So as you explore the darkest corners of space, and run headlong into the inexplicable, the Terror accumulates. Untreated, the Terror will send your crew, and ultimately you, into madness. But not before you've wasted supplies in a futile effort to placate their fears or lost crew members to horrific accidents.

You can die, of course, at which point you reroll as a new captain and inherit (most of) what could be salvaged of the Orphean. Certain character traits can be "passed on" as it were, a nod to your predecessors' achievements, and any banked goods can be retrieved at a major port. However, in what at first feels like a jarring rebuff, all story progress is reset upon death, leading to the retreading of narrative beats and character interactions. But, in combination, the freedom you have to explore the world, the small random elements it throws up, and the sheer speed at which you can breeze through any previously encountered scenario mean such repetition is ultimately only of minor concern.

There are small flaws, but each is balanced out. Travel can be dull, yet the passing scenery and shifting soundtrack are never so. Combat isn't interesting, but the decision to fight or flee carries weight, and the choices you make when scavenging through the wreckage can feel momentous. Repeating a quest can feel tedious, but this time you're wiser and, hopefully, better prepared.

At its best, Sunless Skies is a triumph. Its writers have crafted a world of endless wonder where seemingly anything is possible. At heart, it's a text adventure that conjures the imagination to send you on a journey as spectacular and memorable as any big-budget graphical blockbuster.

Categories: Games

Etrian Odyssey Nexus Review - Where All Paths Cross

Mon, 02/04/2019 - 23:11

For over a decade, the Etrian Odyssey series has been keeping the old-school dungeon crawler RPG alive and well on the DS console family. We've created our own adventurer's guilds and party members time and time again, painstakingly drawn tons of dungeon maps step-by-step, and slain countless numbers of deadly enemies in turn-based combat. Etrian Odyssey Nexus is the series' swan song on the 3DS, and it's a farewell celebration well worth attending, combining many beloved elements from across the whole of the series.

As is usual for the Etrian Odyssey series, you find yourself almost immediately thrust into the game's main story. The floating islands of Lemuria are filled with strange, unexplored lands and a Yggdrasil tree, the secrets of which adventurers come from all the over the world to discover. You must assemble a guild of adventurers, name them, customize their looks and voices, give them basic adventuring skills, and gather them together in a party to explore the mysterious floating islands, dungeon by dungeon, floor by floor.

Character creation and customization in the Etrian Odyssey games has always been a key component, and in Nexus, it's taken to new heights. The interesting fantasy races of Etrian Odyssey V (and their various race-based bonuses and skills) are gone, but that's fairly easy to forgive considering that you have a whopping nineteen classes from across the entire series' history to choose from at the beginning of the game for each character, giving you an incredible amount of freedom in constructing your own personalized band of explorers.

It can be a bit overwhelming at first to assemble an effective party out of the huge amount of choices you're given, especially when several classes have overlap--for example, Pugilists, Ronin, and Ninjas are all "glass cannon"-type classes that emphasize offense and speed over defense, but each will evolve and function very differently over the course of the game. Things get even more in-depth with sub-classes, which become available much later in the game and provide yet another layer of intense customization, allowing you to either augment character strengths or compensate for weaknesses with additional skills from other classes. Sub-classing isn't new to the series, but this feature unlocks far later in Nexus than I had hoped, leaving me sitting on banked skill points I probably could have better used to boost main class skills.

At the very least, if you're unsure which classes would work well in your ideal composition--or you just want some backup you can swap in as situations dictate--you can create a few extra party members and keep them in reserve at the adventurer's guild. You'll get an item early on (the Memory Conch from EO5) that will let you give some EXP earned to members in reserve, so you don't have to level-grind to make lesser-used teammates and new additions viable.

Similarly to Etrian Odyssey IV, once you venture outside of town, you're not given one gigantic dungeon to explore floor by floor but instead presented with a world map that grows as you progress through the game, with multiple sub-areas and dungeons that you explore and map out individually. The airship-flying exploration sections of EO4 that connected these dungeons are gone, replaced with a very simple map you select locations from, which is a bit disappointing since it means fewer fun expeditions and less discovery outside of dungeons--but it also eliminates many of EO4's exploration frustrations like having to navigate hazards.

The meat of Etrian Odyssey, however, has always been its dungeon exploration, and Nexus does not disappoint in that regard. You wander through intricate labyrinths step by step, exploring every nook and cranny for treasures, exits, gimmicks, and various points of interest, jotting all of your findings down on the map on the 3DS's touchscreen. The dungeons themselves take on lives of their own as you spend hours within them; they're filled with distinct graphic flourishes, unique hazards, and terrifying enemies that give a sublime sense of ever-present danger to the often-serene environments. Longtime fans will also recognize callbacks to previous titles in some very familiar enemies, areas, and musical tracks presented throughout the game.

While most of the core Etrian Odyssey games outside of the Untold spin-offs have less of a focus on story than other RPGs, Nexus' storytelling is a high point for the series as whole. EO has traditionally let its story unfold through gradual exploration and careful, well-placed NPC dialogue when necessary, rather than through lengthy text dumps and cinematics. Over the course of the Nexus adventure, you encounter numerous NPCs both in town and while exploring, all of whom have flavorful dialogue and well-conveyed personalities without being overly wordy. You also encounter various points of interest in the dungeons, described to you in richly detailed text as if hearing it from the mouth of a storyteller, where you have to make careful choices about how to proceed. It's all fantastically done and does a spectacular job of letting you feel like part of the world without being overbearing.

Nexus' storytelling is a high point for the series as whole... It's all fantastically done and does a spectacular job of letting you feel like part of the world without being overbearing.

There's not much new to combat--it's still turn-based, and you've got the Force Boost/Break system from Etrian Odyssey Untold 2 for every class--but it's just as intense as ever, with even low-level enemies poised to offer a serious threat if you aren't paying attention. The flora and fauna of each area varies slightly, requiring you to do your homework and observe enemy types and their attacks--especially the FOEs, extremely dangerous enemies that roam the dungeons (usually in patterns) and can absolutely wreck you if you bumble into battle unprepared. Sometimes, however, it feels like Nexus' pacing in terms of hazards and enemy threats feels off.

I played on standard ("Basic") difficulty, and there were a few times where I'd finish one dungeon and head to the next only to get totally trounced from the standard enemies there, as though I were still a few levels behind. There are also a few points where the game springs some major battles on you without much warning. For example, at one point fairly early on, there are two major boss battles one right after the other, the latter being a complete surprise. While you do get a free health refill between these two fights, springing the extra battle on you so early without giving you a chance to regroup is rude and exhausting even by the series' standards of challenging encounters.

Despite a few small stumbles, the grandiose adventure Etrian Odyssey Nexus delivers is a rewarding, engaging journey you'll be glad to take. The feeling of discovery as you and your band of merry adventurers venture bravely into the unknown, fighting one fierce battle after another and growing stronger along the way, is tremendously fun, and Nexus does it better than any other game in the series yet. This is definitely the last EO game on the 3DS, and it has an air of finality to it that makes it feel like it could be a closer for the series as a whole--which I hope isn't the case. I'm ready for many map-making expeditions in the future. But if this really is the end, then Etrian Odyssey goes out on a high note.

Categories: Games

Downwell Review - Polished Boots

Thu, 01/31/2019 - 23:00

Update: Three years on, Downwell continues to be a gripping, fast-paced action game that thrives by pushing you into taking huge, exciting risks. The new Switch version of the game is on par with other versions but carries a few unique pros and cons. Playing Downwell in the Switch's standard handheld mode means that the vertical play area of the game is dramatically reduced in size, which makes it hard to follow the game's frenetic action. On the other hand, the console's unique capability to remove the Joycons and position the screen as you wish allows the game's built-in tate mode (which optimizes the play area for vertical screens) is perfect for an undocked Switch, provided you have some method of safely propping up the body of the console at a 90-degree angle (like the Flip Grip). Downwell's play area perfectly covers the whole screen in this method, and it's a wonderful way to experience the game. -- Edmond Tran, February 1, 2019, 10:00 AM AEST

Original text, published November 6, 2015: Jumping into a bottomless pit is terrifying. Gravity shows no mercy and no matter how prepared you might be, you’re probably going to hurt yourself. Downwell’s premise embodies this fear. Downwell is a game about diving into the unknown and learning to adapt to the consequences, and it’s a thrilling, action-packed descent.

In Downwell you control a character using only three inputs: left, right, and an all-purpose action button. Pressing the action button while on the ground makes your character jump. Pressing the action button while mid-air causes your character to fire a limited number of bullets downwards, and these bullets can break destructible floors, eliminate enemies, and let your character hover for a brief period. There is only one objective: get to the bottom. And when you die, you start from scratch. The basic systems are straightforward, but the benefit is that it makes the game especially easy to pick up and play. Eliminating the need to think about moving in any other direction, or even switching between two separate buttons to jump and fire, successfully allows players to completely concentrate on the task at hand.

No platforms, no problem.

Each level is randomly generated, and there’s no way to stop and look ahead to gauge what enemies or traps may appear. There are pickups that increase your health, ammo capacity, and give you new kinds of weapons, but there’s no guarantee which pickups you might stumble across. End-of-level character upgrades give you useful abilities, such as causing blocks to explode into bullets and the ability to consume dead bodies for health, but are also chosen from a randomly selected pool.

These rogue-like elements are nothing new, but Downwell’s unique contribution to the mix is its use of gravity. The only way to progress through the game’s stages is to keep dropping down, and as it turns out, gravity makes your character fall pretty damn quickly. Downwell’s design focuses on dealing with the situations caused by unseen dangers below you as you fall into them at great speed. Your character is vulnerable from the top, and if you don’t manage to deal with an enemy once you’ve dropped past, it’s usually safer to keep jumping down before they bear down on you. The narrow, vertical stages leave little room to manoeuvre, and death comes quickly if enemies trap you. Aside from avoidance, jumping on heads and shooting is the only way to deal with enemies, but certain types can only be defeated by one or the other. Learning and correctly responding to these dangers as you speedily free-fall through the stages is a mentally taxing, but satisfying task if executed successfully.

Trapped platforms appear early on to make sure you keep moving.

The speed of the game is frustrating at first, and it’s tempting to try and take it slow, descending one platform at a time, making sure all enemies are clear, and taking a short breather before moving on. It’s also tempting to hold out for your favourite weapon module, one whose damage spread and ability to slow your descent matches your preferred playstyle. This works for the first few levels, but past the game’s first world, this calculated approach only causes even more frustration. Terrain traps are introduced, which cause damage if your character lingers too long, a time-based mechanic forces a race to the end of the level, and solid platforms to rest on become increasingly scarce. But once you start to become familiar with the game’s array of obstacles and learn how to better react to situations, playing Downwell at a quicker pace becomes incredibly enjoyable. Keeping up with your character's fast falling speed and making snap decisions on how to deal with enemies while speeding past platforms can occasionally lead to disaster. But managing to hurtle through a large stretch of a level while dealing with everything that comes your way without even touching the ground is a joyus feeling, when you pull it off.

"...managing to hurtle through a large stretch of a level while dealing with everything that comes your way without even touching the ground is a joyus feeling, when you pull it off."

Your character begins each run with a small amount of health and bullet capacity, and one method of improving these traits is to find pickups in side-rooms that occasionally appear throughout the stages. The caveat is that each pickup also acts as a new weapon module. This clever design decision results in some interesting choices: To replenish health in a near-death situation or upgrade your weapon capacity for later levels, you must change your weapon to something you may not necessarily be comfortable with. While learning to be familiar with how to use all the weapons can be a nice side-benefit, at times the weapon available may turn out to be completely unsuitable for the kind of trials that may lie ahead. Never knowing if a decision you make is going to severely hurt you is initially annoying, but you soon come to appreciate the additional layer of unknown to the game’s equation, which positively magnifies Downwell's ever-present sense of danger.

First you get the combos. Then you get the money. Then you get the upgrades.

Downwell’s biggest incentive to keep playing fast and risky is the game’s combo system: Every enemy the player kills before touching the ground counts towards a combo multiplier, which can eventually reward you with increased ammo capacity, and large amounts of currency to spend at sporadically-placed upgrade stores. Because your character has a limited number of shots in the air before running out of ammo, and jumping on enemies refreshes that ammo, maintaining a long combo becomes a challenging feat of perception, quick decision making, and adept execution. Leaping on an enemy while avoiding another, shooting a gap in the floor and falling through it, then stabilizing yourself and manoeuvring to a position where you can stomp onto another enemy to refresh your ammo is an action-packed thrill. Learning the skills and vocabulary of the game gives you the confidence to risk chaining large combos, and it’s at this level where you can experience Downwell's most exhilarating moments again and again.

"Learning the skills and vocabulary of the game gives you the confidence to risk chaining large combos, and it’s at this level where you can experience Downwell's most exhilarating moments again and again."

The idea of plummeting into the unknown is terrifying, but Downwell is a game where the systems coerce you to take big risks, and enjoy the reward and thrill of pushing your limits to achieve a new personal best. The difficulty and diligence required to master Downwell does not make it an easy task, but its straightforward controls, utilitarian lo-fi presentation, and steady stream of exciting moments make the journey a consistently enjoyable and engaging experience, no matter how many times you may die on the first stage.

Categories: Games

Mage's Initiation: Reign Of The Elements Review - VGA Heyday

Thu, 01/31/2019 - 00:00

It would be remiss to talk about Mage's Initiation: Reign of the Elements without considering its overt inspiration: Quest for Glory, a series of Sierra games from the early '90s. Quest for Glory was an ambitious hybrid of point-and-click adventures and Dungeons & Dragons-inspired role-playing featuring multiple classes, real-time combat, comprehensive statistic-based character building that all affected and changed the way you approached the game's obstacles. It remains a concept very few games have directly replicated, but Mage's Initiation proudly embraces this influence at every turn and draws liberally from the Quest for Glory template. It feels like a spiritual successor in many ways, but while the fantasy adventure it creates is enjoyable in its own right, its attempts to execute Quest for Glory's RPG-inspired diversity in its different playstyles aren't as robust and meaningful as they might initially seem.

Mage's Initiation follows D'arc, a teenager residing in a magic boarding school, as he faces his initiation to, well, become a mage. His big test requires him to overcome three major trials that ask him to deal with the mythic and fantastical, and along the way he hits some unexpected twists and uncovers a greater conspiracy. At the beginning of the game, you're given the opportunity to choose from four different mage classes, each focused around an element (fire, earth, wind, water) which will determine the selection of spells D'Arc will have at his disposal for both puzzle solving and combat. The path to overcoming the trials involves conversing with a diverse cast of characters, hunting for items and information, solving puzzles with logic and the environment, and fighting enemies with both force and wit.

Much of what Mage's Initiation does is enjoyable without the context of its influences. It's a well-paced adventure game throwback with solid voice acting, an intriguing mystery, and satisfying puzzles. As someone whose formative years were defined by endless replays of Quest for Glory, it's exciting to see the game trade so heavily on nostalgia for those games. Almost every element of Mage's Initiation can be immediately identified as a connection to Sierra adventure games. The beautifully illustrated environments, character portraits, and interface perfectly evoke the aesthetic, most obviously. But there are also parallels like attempts at Quest for Glory's signature pun-heavy humor, exotic character archetypes, and unique dark fantasy atmosphere. There's also the blatantly anachronistic, maze-like structure of the wasteland and forest areas that encouraged me to draw my own real-life maps to get around--just like I did playing Quest for Glory as a kid.

The issue with Mage's Initiation is that in a lot of cases, the clear ambitions to ape its source material don't reach the same meaningful depths of that source material, and as a result, the existence of some of these elements eventually feels like window dressing--whether you're aware of its influences or not. The aforementioned maze-like areas are fun to map out initially, but unlike Quest for Glory, you don't really need to internalize them because you don't have to navigate them regularly--key locations in Mage's Initiation are mostly clustered together in a straightforward manner. As a result, these environments feel strangely tacked on, an excessive obstacle you need to overcome to find a couple of quest items.

In a similar fashion, the four classes provide some minor variations in how you solve puzzles, but few of them actually feel like fundamentally different approaches. For example, to find a way into a particular second story window, you can use the air mage's levitating spell, use the water mage's water jet to activate a water wheel to ride, or grow a vine to climb as an earth mage. But the fact that these solutions are all just spells activated in the same manner never made me feel like I was thinking in a drastically different way for each mage or using a different set of tools--merely changing the location I pointed the cursor. This aspect becomes especially apparent upon multiple playthroughs.

Similarly, the classes' combat abilities fail to be fundamentally distinct. Each starts with comparable projectile attacks corresponding to their element, as well as defensive abilities that mitigate damage. None of these skills feel particularly unique in practice. Toward the end of the game, each class gets more powerful and varied spells, but their presence highlights another issue with combat: The high mana cost of these powerful skills rarely made using them feel worthwhile. I found it most effective to simply cast the low-cost basic projectiles repeatedly for basically all of the game's combat encounters, which rarely felt challenging or tense. This is due in part to the game's convenient auto-saving before any hostile encounter, which has the unfortunate effect of making it unnecessary to ever upgrade your character's constitution stat--I could just reload to the start of the encounter if I died.

There are a few major branching paths and decisions that affect the outcome of your relationship with certain characters and events of the plot, but these aren't tied to your class. Many of the more devilish roadblock puzzles that need to be cleared before you can progress, while satisfying to solve, have the same solution in each playthrough. The major point of difference between the adventures is that each class has its own unique side quest, which are interesting, but they're completely optional, easily missed, and feel like an afterthought because of that.

Some of the game's unique additions don't quite hit the mark, either. An entire economy of gems you can equip to augment your combat capabilities is initially interesting, but they're too bountiful, and easy to forget about because of the exploitable nature of combat. And for all the beautiful art in the game, there are a few key cutscenes that take a jarring deviation from the game's visual direction and a strange dip in quality, detracting from revelations they portray.

I ultimately enjoyed my time following D'arc through his journey, and Mage's Initiation left me curious about the events still to come. It's an entertaining adventure game, but its ambitions to incorporate a meaningful diversity of role-playing options fall disappointingly flat and feel inconsequential. Mage's Initiation is a fair appropriation of a hybrid formula that I was happy to consume, but its shortcomings made me more eager to revisit the series that inspired it for another run-through.

Categories: Games

Wargroove Review - Advanced Wars

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 14:00

It's not often that fans' calls for a new entry in a series are ignored, only for an unrelated developer to come along with the perfect answer. And yet that's precisely what we have in Wargroove, an apparent facsimile of the Advance Wars series, which has has been dormant for more than a decade. But while its immediate appeal lies in filling a gap that few games have in recent years, Wargroove introduces smart improvements and impressive custom content tools that make this an experience that stands on its own as a terrific strategy game.

Wargroove's most basic gameplay is nearly indistinguishable from that of Advance Wars (a point of comparison that developer Chucklefish itself hasn't avoided). It's a turn-based tactics game set on a tile-based map in which you assemble an army, take control of structures that can build units or generate gold, and (usually) work to eliminate or destroy a particular target. Every action is a significant commitment; because units can't stack on the same tile and buildings can only produce one thing per turn, you have to carefully think through your strategy on each turn. The same is also true of engaging in combat; because damage is dictated by the amount of health a unit has, being aggressive can help ensure you take less damage later. None of this is new, but it serves as a solid base that Chucklefish improves upon.

Wargroove rekindles not just the classic gameplay of Advance Wars, but also its visual style. The pixelated, cartoonish maps are filled with small flourishes that help them to feel alive; birds fly overhead, fires burn, and the shadows cast by clouds slowly move along the ground. When combat begins, the action shifts to a 2D side view depicting the two units squaring off and showcasing a great-looking set of animations. The best of these belongs to the dog commander, Caesar, who exhibits a frankly impressive level of nonchalance, scratching himself and enjoying his time as his crossbow-wielding attendants do all the work. (Commendably, despite the presence of dog units--battlepups!--the amount of whining they do when taking damage is kept to a minimum.) For as nice as it all looks, I did find the breakdown of units' strengths and weaknesses--which consists of small, often similar-looking portraits--needlessly difficult to read.

Aside from swapping Advance Wars' firearms, jets, and tanks for swords, dragons, and magic, the most obvious change is how commanders work. Rather than serving only as a special ability that can occasionally be wielded, commanders are powerful units on the map you control like any other. In most cases, eliminating the other team's commander is one of the available victory conditions, so you always want to keep yours safe. But what makes commanders so interesting are the ways in which you're encouraged to use them aggressively.

Commanders each have a unique ability--the titular Grooves--such as healing nearby units, allowing adjacent units to act again during the current turn, summoning a friendly unit, and so on. These build up passively but are gained much more quickly by eliminating enemies with your commander, who unlike standard units also regains a small amount of health each turn. As a result, you're often wise to push forward with your commander in order to maximize how often you can use your Groove. But this presents you with difficult choices. Does it make sense to hurt but not kill a strong unit with your commander to mitigate the damage it can do and kill a weak enemy with another unit? Or should your commander secure that final blow to get your Groove that much faster, but risk suffering the strong unit's next attack doing heavier damage? Units each have enemies that they are strong and weak against, and terrain can provide defensive buffs or nerfs to account for. Along with that, commanders offer an additional consideration that make even a simple engagement into something you have to more thoughtfully examine.

The same can also be said for Wargroove's critical-hit system. Rather than being something that happens randomly, each non-commander unit has a specific criteria for when a critical hit will occur. Pikemen get critical hits when adjacent to a friendly pikeman, rangers when they attack without first moving, trebuchets when their target is at the edge of their attack range, and so on. As a result, you sometimes have to weigh the risk of overextending yourself to get a critical hit against the risk of leaving yourself in a more vulnerable position. In one case, you might put a spearman in danger just to ensure another one lands a critical hit; in another, you might retreat slightly with a knight on one turn so that on the next they can utilize their maximum movement range (triggering a critical hit) to kill an enemy and avoid suffering a counter-attack. The logic behind critical hit requirements is uninspired in some cases--those for naval units merely ask you to be in a certain type of water tile--but they add another welcome layer of depth to combat and an extra point of differentiation for units.

How you heal your damaged units is another tricky decision. The primary method requires you to move next to a structure you own and then pay gold that would otherwise be used to buy units or activate certain abilities. But healing like this comes with the downside of trading health from that structure (which slowly regains health each turn) to the unit (which does not). At times this means you won't necessarily be able to heal everyone, even if you have the gold to cover the cost. It also can mean leaving your buildings--and thus your source of income and additional units--susceptible to being lost. There are no easy choices here, and the aforementioned health regeneration of commanders provides you with the risky option of letting them tank damage and hoping they can recover from it for free.

Despite having so much to juggle, the action is rarely overwhelming. That's due in part to a manageable number of unit types being available; Wargroove's four factions are different in appearance only, although each has three commanders with their own unique Groove. While it's disappointing to realize the introduction of a new faction means very little, there are enough unit types and systems at play to keep things interesting. Having to account for dozens of additional unit types would have slowed each turn to a crawl as you try to remember how they all work.

Despite having so much to juggle, the action is rarely overwhelming.

What does unfortunately slow the action down is the process of determining the danger zone in which you can be attacked. Rather than allowing you to see the full potential attack range of the enemy team, you're only able to see it unit by unit. Especially when managing expensive aerial units who can be easily downed if they end a turn within range of certain anti-air specialists, it's essential to carefully check and re-check these ranges. This adds an unnecessary layer of tedium to every turn, particularly in the large-scale battles that see significant numbers of units in play simultaneously. As a result, turns take more time than they otherwise would in order to facilitate this busywork.

Those match times proved to be frustrating on occasion in the campaign. While I found myself having trouble in only a small handful of missions, those I failed often came near the end of 20- to 30-minute matches. With no way to create a mid-mission save, a loss can be dispiriting, especially if it comes as a result of an accidental click (it's far too easy to end a turn or order a unit to wait by mistake) or because you didn't notice an enemy unit and thus didn't account for its attack range.

Some of my frustration in those failures stemmed from the fact that I was eager to see what the next mission held. Most offer some new wrinkle, like the introduction of a new type of unit or a different overall mission structure (such as assisting in a retreat). While dialogue is funny at times, the story is forgettable, consisting of a string of conflicts that could be avoided if characters made a real effort to explain why they aren't enemies. The story is not a major part of the experience, though, and much of the world's lore is consigned to a codex. Besides, the consistently fresh ideas the action itself offers are all the reason you need to see the campaign through.

Even after completing the campaign, there are plenty of other ways to keep playing. Arcade mode presents you with a series of five battles and a light narrative wrapper for each commander, giving you a light campaign of sorts that you can see through in a single sitting. Puzzle mode more intriguingly presents you with a level that must be completed in a single turn, forcing you to ensure every move maximizes your damage output. Four-player multiplayer, with support for both local play and online, works well and presents a more worthwhile, unpredictable challenge than what the AI can muster. However, the lack of online support for private matches and AI players (available offline) are unfortunate omissions.

Wargroove's greatest potential lies in its custom creation tools. These allow you to make not just maps but entire campaigns filled with main missions, side missions, and cutscenes. These can be easily shared and downloaded right through the game. While the creation aspect of Wargroove is initially overwhelming--you're left to discover the many tools at your disposal with zero direction--the end result is the ability to create a campaign on par with the one that the game ships with. Diving into this creation suite won't be for everyone, but everyone stands to benefit from those who do. One minor gripe with this setup: There's no way to jump directly into a new map when browsing for new content, and failing on a standalone map unceremoniously boots you back to the main menu.

Outside of campaigns and standard missions, there's also the opportunity for map creators to develop entirely new ways to play. One example of this is baked right into the game with the Chessgroove map, which lines up two teams in a standard chess formation and permits players only a single move per turn. It's an intriguing concept, but one that quickly grows tiresome; because units aren't instantly killed as in chess, you can't quickly evaluate potential moves, turning what should be a relatively fast-paced affair into a boring slog. As disinterested as I was in playing Chessgroove again after my first match, it does offer a glimpse at what kind of outside-the-box concepts people might be able to come up with.

That's good news, because Wargroove is a delight to play, and the possibility of an endless supply of content for it is a tantalizing prospect. Chucklefish could have offered up a prettied-up take on Advance Wars with online multiplayer and called it a day. Instead, it's made meaningful improvements that make this both a satisfying answer to starved Advance Wars fans' wishes and a genuinely great experience on its own merits.

Categories: Games

The Hong Kong Massacre Review - Very Hard Boiled

Tue, 01/29/2019 - 17:00

The Hong Kong Massacre aims to replicate the experience of a gun-kata-action scene, where characters shoot while diving through the air, performing acrobatic feats as they blow each other's brains out. It's an extremely violent riff on the twin-stick shooter, one clearly inspired by Hotline Miami and Max Payne. You play as a former detective in 1992 Hong Kong, seeking retribution against the Triad for murdering someone close to you. The exact specifics are unclear, but that doesn't matter too much--the plot elements are kept to a minimum, as the game focuses most of its energy into frenetic and satisfying action.

At the start of each mission you equip one of four guns--a pistol, SMG, rifle or shotgun--and are then unleashed in a top-down level to kill everyone inside it. Because of the zoomed-out view you can see into rooms and scope out opponents well before they know you're there. The rules of engagement are established quickly: one shot from any gun is all it takes to kill either you or your enemies (until later levels where some enemies get body armor and can withstand two shots), and you also need to collect new guns from the enemies you kill, lest you run out of ammo. If you go into a dive, you cannot be hit until the dive is over. Your enemies can dive too, and the same rules apply for them.

The one major advantage you have over the bad guys is your ability to slow time. This is how the game lets you fight at the speed and fury of the action cinema choreography it is paying homage to, and it makes you feel like a badass. In almost every situation, the best way to excel is to enter slow motion, dive into a position where you have a line of sight, and fire at your enemies. Often this will mean shooting through a window, or a door, or the paper-thin shoji screens that are used to separate rooms in just about every building you enter. In its wildest moments, The Hong Kong Massacre turns into a wonderfully violent ballet of shattered glass, splayed bodies, and bullets from a variety of guns all firing at once in slow motion.

The meter and cooldown for your slow motion ability is extremely generous, as it takes quite a while to drain and fully recharges within about two seconds. So as long as you plan to be in cover by the time it runs out you can use slow motion almost continuously. The star rating system for each level encourages you to try not using slow motion at all, though. Complete a level without it and you'll be awarded a star that can be spent on weapon upgrades--but not only does this make things considerably harder, it would make some levels all but impossible to complete. If you're playing on PS4 with a controller, your aiming reticule moves slowly, which is important for lining up long shots and maintaining some sense of tension and realism amidst all the madness, but it also means that completing the more difficult missions at full speed would be extraordinarily difficult.

Even with these abilities, The Hong Kong Massacre can still be extremely hard. Your enemies are not the smartest, but when there's so many of them and it only takes a single bullet to kill you, you'll likely die an awful lot. There are plenty of mistakes you can make and traps you can fall into, too. Every now and then a dive won't go as planned, and you'll slide up against a door jamb instead of leaping through the door, for instance, or end up surrounded by gunfire. It's quite tricky to pay attention to both your person and your aiming reticule, and often I wasn't sure exactly when a dive animation had ended.

Each failure requires a restart of the whole level, and even though the absolute longest one will ultimately take less than three minutes to finish once you've got a handle on the situation, there will likely be many, many failed attempts on the way there. But there's a certain pleasure in how you begin to memorize the layout, the patterns of the bad guys (which can change slightly), and weigh up the pros and cons of the different strategies and approaches you've tried thus far. And when you're in the zone, completing levels back to back with very few deaths, you'll really feel like an action hero.

Five boss fights change up the level format and see you and your opponent both moving down parallel hallways, taking shots whenever there's an opening through a window (bosses take multiple shots to kill), and every now and then you'll need to take out an enemy on your side to collect their gun. At the end of each boss stage, you'll both end up in a more open area where you'll need to finish them off, and they work well enough as a change of pace. Some levels also make you dive between rooftops, which is satisfying and fun as you fire at enemies while making an almost-impossible sideways leap.

But there's a lot of repetition across the campaign, too. The level designs aren't distinctive; while layouts and aesthetics change, the basic building blocks never do. Even as you shoot your way through a police station, you'll still notice that they're using shoji screens to separate some rooms. After a while, it becomes clear that the game is, essentially, the same few seconds of gameplay over and over. The four-weapon selection also feels slightly hamstrung by the general uselessness of the shotgun, unless you pump all the points you earn from completing levels into upgrading it (for my money it's better to focus on the SMG and pistols).

The game's strangest oversight is its lousy leaderboards. While you can see your top time for every level from the menu, there is no friends leaderboard, nor does the game show you where you sit on the global total. In fact, only the top 99 are shown for each level, and even if you've made that list you need to scroll to find yourself. This removes some incentive to replay levels and try for a faster time.

The Hong Kong Massacre is a game with a specific goal--to capture the feeling of an over-the-top John Woo-style slow-motion diving kill shot, and it succeeds. The game's faults are washed away whenever you leap out of the way of a bullet and quickly take out the person who fired it. It's a game that sticks with you when you're not playing it, as you think through different approaches to the room you died in last time. You'll fail frequently, and the repetition can wear you down, but it's hard to resist the temptation of bursting through a window and perfectly lining up three kill shots.


Categories: Games

Genesis Alpha One Review - Drifting Without Direction

Tue, 01/29/2019 - 09:00

Genesis Alpha One's ambitions are made clear from the moment you begin constructing the vessel meant to act as an ark for humanity's survival. You're alone in space, searching for a planet hospitable enough to act as a new home. But getting there is no easy task. You need to juggle the expansion of your ship, the maintenance of its existing modules and the living conditions of your growing crew of clones, and that's when you're not mining for new resources, fending off alien infestations, or tending to crew job assignments. The problem with Genesis Alpha One isn't that all of these systems buckle under the weight of their interconnectivity--it's that none of them are that engaging to interact with in the first place.

Genesis Alpha One contains a mixture of strategic shipbuilding and the more personal exploration of your ship and surrounding planets through a first-person view. Your ship can be thought of as a moving command center; it's where you construct new modules to scan and scavenge resources from nearby debris, hangars for ships to explore nearby planets and biomes to sustain life onboard as you expand your crew of barely indistinguishable clones. When not making changes to your ship, you explore the hallways of your creation or join crews on missions to planets for resource scavenging.

Each run in Genesis Alpha One rarely deviates from the same starting steps. You construct the bare minimum you need on your ship before getting the chance to jettison off into the great unknown--essentials like a Greenhouse for oxygen production, Quarters for your crew, a Tractor Beam for harvesting resources, and more are the fundamentals around which the rest of your ship is built. Although finding the exact module you want to add to your ship is made frustrating by the unclear menu headings (which I never got used to), actual construction is far easier. Modules click into place like Lego blocks, offering entrances and exits that need to be lined up to existing pieces of your ship or strategically placed for future ones. It's satisfying to go from a broad overview of your uniquely designed vessel and straight into the shoes of a member on board, giving you the freedom to roam around the intricately (or confusingly) laid-out hallways you just placed down.

Genesis Alpha One features familiar elements from roguelikes, giving you modifiers to change how you start each run. You choose a template for your initial crew--based on a Corporation you select--which determines how many metals, elements, and oxygen-producing plants you begin with, as well as the number of crew members on board. You unlock new corporations as you play. To gain access to a corporation that specializes in mining ore, for example, you'll first need to have one lucrative mining run.

These corporations and their advantages are then combined with a limited number of separate static upgrades, which you discover during your travels through the galaxy and that impact your playstyle more directly. You might choose to adorn your personal suit with upgrades to health and damage reduction but miss out on helpful indicators pointing you to special resources on your galaxy map, for instance. You're encouraged by the numerous locked upgrades--which appear in the menu--to search new areas of the large galaxy map during each run so that you can secure a more diverse set of upgrades to further modify your playthroughs. There are few that drastically change how a run might unfold, which leads to a sense of tedium setting in with each new attempt and its protracted start. The slight changes to your starting resources and crew do, however, give you more creative flexibility when deciding how to initially start the construction of your ship.

Although building out your vessel is generally satisfying, you soon begin to realize how tedious your routines around the ship can become. Each module has a purpose, and without hands tending to them they remain ineffective. Salvaging resources from nearby debris requires workers on the Tractor Beam, for example, that you need to assign via a console that's only located in that specific room. The same goes for every other station around your ship, making your opening moments aboard a frantic dash between each room to get everything running. When you jump from one solar system to another, this process sometimes needs to be repeated. You'll need to rescan new debris around you--which requires you to hold a button for far too long--and manually assign the Tractor Beam again for salvaging, even if you previously assigned crew members to that job. It's baffling to have to go through these same motions every time you jump to a new solar system (which happens fairly regularly), especially when a centralized interface giving you access to all your ship's sub-systems would be far easier and more manageable.

This is exacerbated by AI that makes your crew largely useless without your input. Unless they're assigned to a station, crew members will wander around the ship and not really do anything. They might engage with unwelcome alien stowaways but appear to ignore or forget about them completely when even slightly separated from them. An attacking pirate crew might be storming your hallways and causing mayhem, but your crew won't react until they've entered a room with them inside. As a captain, you're severely limited in the ways you're able to command your crew, save for ensuring that they're present at a console to carry out the menial tasks that rooms and their associated purposes require.

That leaves a lot of additional work for you to do alone, which starts piling up to an unbearable degree. Should you find yourself fighting off an alien infestation, you're stuck dealing with eradicating the spreading alien eggs alone in the catacombs below each corridor. It's satisfying to set up your vessel in a way that establishes clear choke points or routes enemies into an area filled with turrets you've placed for defenses. But as your ship grows, your ability to actively react to a growing danger becomes nearly impossible. It's compounded by unclear ways to deal with mission-ending threats such as infestations and raiding pirates. It seems that once either is onboard there's little you can do to get rid of them for good. Pirates will continually spawn on your ship even after multiple jumps to new solar systems, while aliens will continually sprout new hives even after you've cleared them all out. If there's a way for you to triumph over these challenges after you've encountered them, Genesis Alpha One doesn't make it clear exactly how.

Losing progress in a roguelike is meant to entice you to hop back in with new accessories to change your next run, but Genesis Alpha One doesn't have the mechanics in place to make these variations interesting enough to experiment with.

The first-person action isn't that robust, either. You can craft numerous types of weapons--ranging from simple assault rifles and flamethrowers to more futuristic, slow-firing laser weaponry--but enemies rarely offer diverse-enough challenges for you to consider the strategic advantages of each. The actual mechanics of shooting are also not satisfying. You can't aim down a gun's sights; instead, you lock onto enemies with the press of a button, making skirmishes tedious and boring. Enemies don't recoil from your attacks convincingly, robbing the action of a punchy feeling. And, despite your abnormally high movement speed, there are no enemies that demand you use this in creative ways. Instead it's just easy enough to use that speed to back away from enemies that can hardly ever keep up, or are never accurate enough to pose a threat from afar.

Losing progress in a roguelike is meant to entice you to hop back in with new accessories to change your next run, but Genesis Alpha One doesn't have the mechanics in place to make these variations interesting enough to experiment with. Instead, death just feels like a punch to the gut, and a reminder that all the tiring setup you endured in the previous run must be repeated for hours to feel anywhere close to where you left off.

From tedious combat to the repetitive nature of exploring new solar systems, there's little in Genesis Alpha One to hold your attention. Expanding your ship as you traverse a vast universe is marginally rewarding when you get the chance to roam around the elaborate structures you've built. But the process of gathering resources to make this possible is arduous, while threats bringing your inevitable demise are either dull to fight against or spawned onto your ship in aggressively large numbers without any clear methods of success against them. Genesis Alpha One contains all the components for deep space adventure, but none of them are executed well enough to make it a voyage worth taking.

Categories: Games

Kingdom Hearts 3 Review - Dearly Beloved

Thu, 01/24/2019 - 15:00

Like every game in the series before it, Kingdom Hearts 3 begins by playing its theme, Dearly Beloved, over the title screen. Composed by acclaimed musician Yoko Shimomura, it perfectly captures the sentimentality at the heart of the series. The song is at once tender and melancholic, wistful and adventurous, somber and uplifting--a reminder of a history that'll leave longtime fans dewy-eyed. I wish I could properly convey the impact of hearing it, but the best I can do is to say that it is overwhelming.

The only way to really understand the emotions Dearly Beloved stirs is to have connected with the franchise and its characters; to have followed their journeys over its 17-year history, for better or worse. The nostalgia for and investment in Kingdom Hearts as a franchise is incredibly powerful, so much so that it helped me push through the rougher patches in what is overall an enjoyable, if uneven, third entry in the core series. Kingdom Hearts 3 is preoccupied with fan service to a fault, and it also struggles to stay coherent under the weight of its own convoluted lore. But it's also everything fans love about the series: a thrilling action-RPG that celebrates Disney and Pixar, all the while ensuring themes of friendship, heroism, and pure-hearted goodness shine bright.

At times, those themes can be difficult to discern, particularly when the game is intent on telling the grander story of Kingdom Hearts as opposed to the smaller tales centered around Disney's iconic characters or Sora’s innocent idealism. Given it's the concluding chapter in a massive story arc, it can't be faulted for having this fixation, but the execution is frustrating nonetheless. Kingdom Hearts 3 is bogged down in the finer details of its lore, so much so that--for all but the most clued-in fans--it can be difficult to get a sense of what our three main heroes are actually trying to accomplish.

At its broadest, the story of Kingdom Hearts 3 involves Sora, Donald, and Goofy preparing for an upcoming war against the forces of darkness by gathering the Guardians of Light. This is oversimplification to its most extreme, but to delve into the finer details would require lengthy explanations of numerous confounding concepts and characters. It is undoubtedly messy, but for fans who have committed to playing all the games and been studious enough to join the dots along the way, it makes sense. For those that aren't as well-versed in Kingdom Hearts, the essentials of the story aren't laid out nearly as clear as they need to be.

The bloated state of Kingdom Hearts’ lore is the result of numerous spin-offs and sequels that introduced new characters to explore back- and side-stories. Contained in their own games, these characters had the room to breathe, establish themselves, and have full narrative arcs. However, when united in one game, each is diminished in both characterization and impact. Kingdom Hearts 3 attempts to take all the disparate narrative threads from across its many games--and the characters tied up in them--and weave them together into one concluding story, and the result is incoherent to say the least. It doesn’t help that numerous characters look the same, or that some are time-travelling versions of themselves. Others, meanwhile, are reincarnations that have taken on a new form or exist inside the heart of yet another character. There are also a few that used to have one name, but now have another, but both names are used depending on who is talking about them. Before long all of these characters are elbow to elbow, vying for screen time and pulling the story in so many different directions that it becomes difficult to find its center again. The handful that are critical to the plot inevitably become lost among the many bit-parters that feel like they're in the game as fan service, instead of being meaningful to the story.

If Kingdom Hearts 3 had stronger writing it may have been possible to highlight key details and figures for the player to latch onto; a chance to see through the crowd of faces and pick out the ones most important. However, the writing largely makes proceedings even harder to follow. The villains in particular--many of which are members of Organization XIII--spout inane lines that are purposefully vague. Presumably this was to build mystery, but it only serves to muddy motivations and further obscure the crux of the story. Otherwise, they're delivering cheesy dialogue that feels at odds with the sincere melodrama happening around them.

At its core, Kingdom Hearts 3 is a heartfelt tale of enduring friendship, and the narrative is at its strongest when it narrows its focus to just this

This is a shame because, at its core, Kingdom Hearts 3 is a heartfelt tale of enduring friendship, and the narrative is at its strongest when it narrows its focus to just this. Sora, the hero of the series, continues to be plucky and lovably naive. His greatest facets are his strength of heart, his ability to make friends with anyone, and his devotion to them--he is the archetypal wholesome good boy. Joining him once again is Donald Duck, stuffy and prone to outbursts but a trustworthy companion; and Goofy, slightly dimwitted but also the emotional anchor of the group.

The endearing trio's adventures through the Disney and Pixar worlds featured in Kingdom Hearts 3, as well as the interactions they have with the characters within them, are a reminder that beneath the tortuous lore are smaller stories that resonate. By keeping the bigger Keyblade Wars story in the periphery and having minimal involvement from all those involved with it, these stories are clearer and more concise. The underlying themes of Kingdom Hearts harmonize with those of Disney's own properties so well that each new world Sora journeys to delivers an impactful moment of storytelling. In Toy Box, Sora helps Woody, Buzz, and the gang find their missing friends, as they also grapple with the idea that they live in a world where Andy doesn't exist. In Arendelle, he meets Anna, who is desperately trying to reconnect with her sister, Queen Elsa, and gets caught up in the family drama. In San Fransokyo, Sora assists Hiro and the Big Hero 6 team as they battle Microbots and find a forgotten friend. Admittedly, some of these stories retread old ground, but whether it's Tangled, Pirates of the Caribbean, Winnie The Pooh, Monsters Inc., or Hercules, experiencing them again through the lens of Kingdom Hearts 3 still packs an emotional punch. It's hard not to get swept up by the exaggerated displays of heroics or earnest reminders that your friends exist in your heart.

One of the strengths of Kingdom Hearts 3 is the care and attention it pays to bringing Disney's worlds to life, which, in turn, makes being in them all the more exciting. You get to wander around Andy's bedroom as a diminutive toy version of Sora, scaling his walls and jumping on his toys, before making a trip to the mall. There you visit various toy shops, leaping on top of display units and between shelves as you battle the enemy Heartless. Returning to Kingdom Hearts 2's Twilight Town comes with a wave of nostalgia, as you hang around in the square watching a Mickey Mouse movie projected on a wall or visit the mansion where Namine stood at the window all those years back. Venture to the Pirates of the Caribbean world and the game adopts a striking, realistic visual style, swapping Sora and friends from their usual vibrant visages to a muddier tone in line with the movies' color palette. It then gives you command of your own ship with Jack Sparrow at your side. 100 Acre Wood shifts to the warmer pastels of a storybook aesthetic, as you help Rabbit tend to his garden so that Pooh can get some honey. San Fransokyo makes great use of verticality and Sora's ability to effortlessly run up buildings and glide between rooftops. At night it transforms into a blinding neon cityscape, inviting you to fly between floating blimps and grind rails with Baymax flying in tow. Monsteropolis has you working with Sully and Mike to stop Randal seizing control of Monsters Inc., and all the while Boo adorably potters along next to you.

Many of the worlds offer extra gameplay activities to engage with after the story within them is wrapped up. Toy Box puts you in a Final Fantasy XV parody where you're in a mech destroying enemies and chasing high scores. Traverse Town has a cooking mini-game which involves collecting ingredients from across the worlds and then bringing them to Ratatouille's Remy to make meals. Pirates of the Caribbean lets you sail the open sea in search of treasure and do battle with enemy ships, or defend Port Royale in a wave-based mini-game. The amount of gameplay variety in Kingdom Hearts 3 is impressive, and although the extras may be short-term distractions, for those who want to spend more time in their favourite worlds, they're a fun reason to make the return trip.

Not all worlds maintain that high bar, however, as some feel either empty or lacking in what they offer. Arendelle's snow-covered terrain, for example, feels quite bland, and the main mission involves climbing a mountain multiple times. Port Royale is an entire location used primarily for an item hunt. Toy Box's mall is devoid of life beyond the toys and enemies--it would have been nice to have people around to make it feel more alive, instead of like an after-hours shopping center. The same can be said of San Fransokyo which, on ground level, feels eerily deserted for a metropolis.

The bulk of Kingdom Hearts 3's gameplay, however, is in its sword-swinging, magic-conjuring combat, which feels fast, frenetic, and spectacular in its cinematic flourishes. Its combat mechanics are an evolution of Kingdom Hearts 2's, which themselves have been tweaked and refined in the various spin-off titles. The most noticeable change is in its fluidity; Sora moves between enemies quickly, delivering a barrage of attacks, seamlessly transitioning into casting Fira to set enemies ablaze or Cura to recover health. There's a pleasing forward momentum to all the battles, as you zip around dispatching enemies in quick succession.

There are numerous layers on top of the basic combat mechanics which, while not adding a great deal of depth or strategic considerations, make for more exciting skirmishes. Keyblades now come in a number of flavours to match the Disney worlds they're unlocked from. As part of this, they also have Formchanges, which are exactly what they sound like. As you land attack buttons, a meter builds up, and you are eventually given the option to transform your Keyblade into more over-the-top forms, where more powerful attacks and abilities become available. The game shows creative flare in these transformations too; Wheel of Fate, unlocked in the Pirates world, becomes an oversized spear and then the mast of a ship with the flag attached. Happy Gear, found in Monsters Inc., transforms into a set of high-speed claws and then a pair of yo-yos. Hunny Spout morphs into a pair of twin pistols and then a launcher, both firing honey at enemies.

The amount of gameplay variety in Kingdom Hearts 3 is impressive ... for those who want to spend more time in their favourite worlds, [mini-games] are a fun reason to make the return trip

Magic works similarly, with repeated use of a spell eventually making a Grand Magic version available at no additional mana cost. Throughout, Donald and Goofy will call to Sora for a team-up attack. For the former this could be a salvo of colorful fireworks that damage everyone in your vicinity. For the latter you can leap into the sky and throw Goofy at an enemy, with his shield causing an explosion on impact. These are characters that have fought many battles side by side, so having these back and forths are a nice representation of the camaraderie between them and their growth across the series--not to mention they're eye-catching cinematic moments.

Feeding into the Disney milieu further are attractions such as tea cups, water rafts, bumper cars, and a rollercoaster that can be summoned to dish out damage. Each one controls differently, either through timed button presses, using the analogue stick to guide their path, or becoming a first-person shooter to pinpoint specific enemies, injecting a different style of combat gameplay into the action at regular intervals. Other Disney characters such as Simba, Stitch, and Ariel can also be called into battle, functioning similarly to Final Fantasy's summons to unleash devastating special attacks. Their inclusion is welcome, in lieu of giving them their own worlds, as some have had in past games. Beyond that there's Flowmotion, which builds a sense of speed by encouraging you to dash into objects in the environment to swing around, or at walls to parkour along. It can be tricky to get a handle of, but once you're able to work these moves into the flow of combat, you build a sense of prowess over the battlefield.

Watching battles unfold, you'd be forgiven for thinking that combat is a complicated dance of fingers across buttons, but everything is actually achieved with one or two taps. Kingdom Hearts 3 is simple to play, which works in its favour. It prioritizes spectacle above all else and delivers tremendously. Instead of having to focus too much on what you're pressing and when, you can enjoy the madness unfolding on screen. This is a game that shows off and wows you with dazzling lights, explosive sounds, and high-octane action, and you don't want to miss a second of it. That's not to say it's completely devoid of strategic considerations, but you'll need to play on the harder Proud difficulty level if you want the game to challenge you. Otherwise--barring a few end game bosses--the enemies are pushovers.

Another feature that makes its return from Kingdom Hearts of old is the Gummi Ship. Sora and his crew are able to pilot a spaceship as they travel to new worlds, at which point the game becomes a shoot-em-up of sorts. While Gummi Ship segments in the past were on-rails, this time you have full freedom to fly where you please, using wormholes and boost pads to explore quicker. Space is littered with treasures to find, but you'll often have to battle enemies to acquire them. The shooting in the Gummi Ship, while serviceable, isn't satisfying. The combination of lackluster visual and auditory feedback makes it hard to tell whether you're actually doing any damage, and for the most part I found myself absentmindedly holding the fire button down and waiting for things to explode. It is possible to create your own ships and outfit them with more weapons and augmented support abilities, but the fundamental shooting remains unchanged and uninteresting.

As the game reaches its conclusion, the balance shifts heavily in favour of non-Disney worlds, where the main story of Kingdom Hearts can play out and resolve itself. Many of the environments this happens in are striking, from a pristine white city to strange modular arenas that can be turned upside down at the whim of an enemy. But in these locales the game trades the heart and whimsy of the worlds up until that point for heavy-handed storytelling that inevitably culminates in battles that are impressive set-pieces but feel cheap and spammy to play. With the finish line in sight, the game disrupts the pace with one arduous boss fight after another--not challenging in any way, just more of slog. The payoff, meanwhile, isn't entirely worth it, as Kingdom Hearts 3 wraps up its story in an incredibly unfulfilling way.

But the story of Keyblade wars, time-travelling villains, body-hopping also-rans, and world-ending darkness isn't what I'll remember about Kingdom Hearts 3 or the series as a whole. What sticks with me is the exciting battle against elemental titans with Hercules, taking Rapunzel out into the unfamiliar wide world for the first time, snapping selfies with Winnie the Pooh, and going toe to toe with Davy Jones. In 2002, as Sora, I left Destiny Islands to travel across the universe and make new friends. In 2019 I brought old ones home, and I had so much fun doing it.

Categories: Games

Jon Shafer's At The Gates Review - Fertile New Ground

Wed, 01/23/2019 - 20:00

In his time at Firaxis as the lead designer on Civilization V, Jon Shafer showed he wasn't afraid to uproot a settled and successful series and venture forth in search of something better. With At The Gates, his first release under the one-man studio moniker Conifer Games and his first game proper since Civ V, you get the feeling Shafer challenged himself to pack up the whole 4X genre and find fertile new ground on which to start over again.

Connections to the past remain--technologies are researched, resource nodes are exploited, wars are inevitably waged--but Shafer's pioneering vision here is of a genre that is narrower in scope and more concerned with how players respond to the figurative hand of cards they're dealt. At The Gates is a promising starting point that, with a few thoughtful additions, has the potential to develop into a thriving empire.

It all starts with a settlement. At first, you play as the Goths on a randomly generated map that represents 400 A.D. Europe. On each map is a number of rival clans, some of whom are always vastly more powerful than you are right from the start, as well as two factions of the fading, but still intimidatingly large, Roman Empire. Your aim is to grow your settlement into an empire and eventually win via one of two victory conditions: by conquering the Romans by military force or by training your own Roman Legion to assume control, i.e. an economic victory. Cleverly, factions other than the Goths are unlocked to play once you’ve met and formed an alliance with them in a previous game.

As the early turns tick by, clans of people will join the settlement and you can put them to work extracting resources from the surrounding tiles. Each clan can be trained in a profession drawn from one of six disciplines, all of which are unlocked by generating knowledge to progress through the tech tree. Early decisions are influenced by the mysteries of the randomly-generated map algorithm. If it has spawned you in an area with a lot of mineral deposits you will probably want to focus your efforts on metalworking professions, a couple of diggers to extract the iron, and, say, a dredger to multiply their production.

But how should you employ your fourth and final clan? While the map informs your strategy in certain directions, the whims of your population will often be tugging you in the complete opposite direction. Clans are randomly rolled a handful of traits when they arrive at your settlement's door. Some traits are unambiguously beneficial, like a +1 bonus to their movement points or with a few levels already earned in the crafting discipline, while others are downright bad, like a tendency to commit crimes; others yet are merely circumstantial, like preferring an active profession like explorer over a settled one like cheese-maker.

These elements quickly start to create compelling conundrums. What do you do when, on the one hand, the mineral-rich starting area of the map might be telling you to invest in mining, but on the other hand the clans you're being sent bear all the characteristics of some really effective soldiers? Or cheese-makers? Clans can, of course, be retrained as the need for new or more advanced professions arises, but it cannot be done instantly and any experience they had accumulated in their previous profession is lost. If you've only got a village of farmers and bards when the bandits turn up, you're quickly going to regret not training at least one of them to wield a spear. Balancing the demands of the map with the skills of your clans is the core strategic concern of the entire game. Along the way--and this is where At The Gates really starts to shine--there are many ways that relationship between the map and your people can change.

For one, you're not committed to your starting position on the map. In fact, at any moment you can pack up your settlement, move to a new location, and resettle. For the first 50-odd turns you'll be living something of a nomadic existence, exploring the lands, foraging for food, hunting and trapping animals, and collecting wood before moving on, crossing those mountains to the eastern coast or trekking across the steppes to the lush riverlands of the south. On a mechanical level, all the early technology you have at your disposal depletes resources--send a gatherer to work a fruit tree and they'll keep picking until the tree is exhausted. It's not until the mid to late game that you're able to build structures that don't deplete a resource and, in the case of a fruit plantation, can even replenish it. And it's at this point that you'll want to have found somewhere to make your permanent home.

This makes for an early game flow that is fascinating and unusual for the 4X genre. You want to be researching technology and training clans to suit your immediate situational needs, while also identifying (but, crucially, not yet exploiting) a resource-rich region you can later claim for your eventual empire. Sometimes this is straightforward enough--in one game I spawned on a narrow land bridge connecting two continents. I fished and picked berries until I was ready to journey southeast and declare my kingdom in a river valley full of wheat and horses. Other times it's more challenging, like the time I spawned on a tiny peninsula with only a bare handful of tiles separating my settlement from the border of the Huns. The beauty here is that even when the enemy is literally at the gates, you have enough flexibility to find an alternative--in this case, several hundred miles away, preferably.

The beauty here is that even when the enemy is literally at the gates, you have enough flexibility to find an alternative...

The map itself also intriguingly shifts in fundamental ways thanks to both seasonal and situational changes in weather. During cold months you have to worry about supplying any units traveling outside your territory, or else that scouting party might not make it back home. It's also vital to maintain a surplus of food for the winter as many of your food sources will no longer be operational. Heavy rains, flooding, and even blizzards on specific tiles also keep things interesting, as they can see units immobilized for multiple turns, potentially throwing into chaos your carefully planned assault on a rival settlement or, if you're lucky, delaying that bandit raid on your logging camp.

As the environment changes over the years, so do the people. Two clans might get into a feud and you'll be forced to pick a side. Another might be caught stealing and you'll have to decide their punishment. It's up to you to sort things out--retrain clans, shuffle them around to new locations, placate them with alcohol--before morale drops too low and everyone's unhappy. This might seem fiddly and a little prescriptive, but it's rarely as simple as it may sound. Clan Dankward may now hate Clan Waller, but the Dankwards are your best breadmakers and the Wallers your best blockcutters, you can't just send one of them out to run the sheep pasture. Besides which, the Wallers are afraid of animals and refuse to work in livestock. Working out a solution to these problems often means having to make tough decisions and uneasy compromises.

None of these clans are fleshed-out characters; they're just a collection of buffs and debuffs attached to a random name and portrait. But the way their traits and desires are expressed through their abilities and little exchanges goes a long way to make you feel like you're ruling a loose collection of real people. They're not people, of course, but they're your people.

The same cannot be said of the opponents you face, though. You’re always pitted against the same opponents on every map, but to my mind this is acceptable within the bounds of the scenario Shafer chose to depict. Instead, the more significant problem here is the lack of interaction with those AI opponents. To begin with, they don't particularly care about you--that's how small and insignificant you are in your initial nomadic phase. As you grow they start to take notice, but it's rarely more than a raised eyebrow here and there. Occasionally a dialogue box pops up and you can give a gift or rudely refuse one, and that's pretty much it until you're at war or you form an alliance. Essentially, you're either utterly indifferent to the AI, or you're their best friend or worst enemy, with barely any negotiating in between.

Indeed, it feels like the late game in general is underdeveloped. The absence of compelling diplomacy with the AI factions plays a huge part here, as for much of the game it's perfectly possible to adopt an isolationist strategy and focus on the more economically focused victory. Pursuing the military route extends your interactions with the AI to throwing your stacked military units at theirs until you occupy their settlements and structures. Combat will be familiar to anyone who’s played Civ IV and it gets the job done in a similarly efficient, if tactically unspectacular, fashion.

Even trade is handled in a curiously neutral manner, having you buy and sell goods through an anonymous caravan rather than through any interaction with the AI factions. Worse still, the concept of religion is relegated to a checkbox that has an unclear effect on an AI faction's disposition toward you. Shafer has admitted that the diplomacy features are still in their infancy and he has plans to continue to work on them post-launch. That's an encouraging sign, and one we hope also applies to these other areas, because the late game in its current form is desperately undernourished.

That makes At The Gates difficult to wholeheartedly recommend. What's there right now is undeniably good; however, what's missing makes you yearn for how good it could yet be. It's a fresh, invigorating, more personal take on the grand strategy game. But at the same time, it's lacking in a few areas, and they really do hold it back from greatness. Jon Shafer has found that fertile new ground on which to settle. He just needs to give it a few seasons to grow.

Categories: Games

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