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Rust Review: Life Is Fleeting

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 20:00

It's hard not to have your interest piqued by Rust. Few other games strive to make you feel as helpless, vulnerable, and lost as its startling opening and outwardly confusing mechanics do. Rust wants you to think it's about survival, but it never uses the tools at its disposal to realize that. Instead it becomes a playground limited not by your understanding of its inner workings, but instead by how much time you want to spend slogging away at its tedium.

Starting stark naked on a beach with nothing more than a rock and torch on your person, Rust doesn't waste time letting you know that you're in danger. Health, hydration, and hunger bars make it immediately clear that your time on its massive island is borrowed. Without food and water (and later shelter, light, and warmth), you can slowly watch your life seep away with every passing minute. Rust attempts to guide new players with an often less-than-helpful tutorial to keep you alive longer than a handful of minutes, but it does nothing to prepare you for the real dangers its world holds.

Rust's facade is its survival mechanics, and its menagerie of crafting options and resources for you to gather up keep the illusion alive at first. You can use your otherwise useless rock to chop down trees or hammer away at different types of ore, and eventually you might gather enough to make a hatchet or pickaxe to increase your bountiful gains and speed up the process. This process quickly ramps up into more meaningful items, with the allure of modern weapons and robust armor only at the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

It's a nightmare of menus and item wheels that really slow things down to a halt. Rust might be out of Early Access, but it has so many elements that indicate otherwise. You can easily search for a building foundation in one menu, watch its building timer somewhere else on the screen, and then have it pop into your inventory, which is an entirely different menu at this point. Equip it and you have a relatively flat surface in front of you (Rust absolutely doesn't like any gradient variations and refuses to allow you to place items on them), and you're good to go. But what about moving it? You'll need an entirely separate tool for that, as well as another trip into a separate equipment wheel with options to rotate, move or otherwise dismantle one of your creations.

The cycle of gathering, crafting, and building up something to be proud of never feels rewarding. Rust doesn't have the tools you need to be creative, nor does it care about practicality when it comes to redesigning a small dwelling you might have crafted for that first chilly night out in the wilderness. Teases meant to entice you to brave Rust's other dangers fall flat fast, giving you few reasons to stick around for the tedious slog of dismantling greater weapons and gear to hopefully have the means to build them down the line.

You don't know these items exist because you see them on a list, but rather because they're probably what's being used to endlessly kill you. The island in Rust is inhabited by many other players, capping out at 250 per server. And despite only being alive for a few minutes and having nothing really of worth on your person, they will (often) waste no time in showing you how far down the food chain you really are.

In this way, Rust's true enemy shows its face: its other players. That's somewhat fascinating to ponder on for a moment. Rust has been the subject of many a think piece during its long time in Early Access, often centering around discussions of human nature and the tendencies towards violence when other options clearly present themselves. But while that makes for a neat article to read or interesting mechanic to discuss, it detracts from another vital part of the game: what it feels like to play.

Playing Rust is a frustrating experience even with a friend or two in tow and feels downright impossible to go at alone. Wandering players will attack you at a moment's notice, with their time spent in the server used to build up an arsenal that no amount of skilled play can overcome. Rust's ceiling has nothing to do with how well you understand its survival mechanics or get to grips with its clunky movement and cumbersome first-person action. It's a game that rewards those who put the most time into it first: giving them the boots to step on the ants that are any other players that might dare join after a server wipe.

Design is partly to blame for this, with Rust's server wipes a clear indicator of how little depth its survival elements hold. Some servers might routinely reset after a week of play, while all are forced to this measure within a month. The idea is to re-level the playing field--just a day or two into a fresh server is enough for towering fortresses and high-level weaponry to be crafted by those incredibly dedicated few--so that the process can start again. This wouldn't need to be a feature if Rust had any semblance of balance to it. But because time is the only commodity it rewards, it pushes itself into a corner where this is the only viable solution.

Without a skill ceiling of any kind, Rust demands that you dedicate every waking moment you have to it if you're planning to have any sort of fun. Logging off leaves you vulnerable to attack from other players, while your shelters slowly decay should you not top them up with the right resources. And a momentary slip up means certain doom. Death means your corpse and anything you've gathered to that point is ripe for pillaging, leaving you to respawn on that same beach with just a rock, a torch, and questions about what you've actually achieved.

Rust's community might sometimes offer glimmers of hope, but it's fleeting. Every so often you can witness players making amicable agreements to trade or stumble upon a shop that needs to be both stocked and protected by players. I once ran into another survivor that handed me a hatchet and bandages to make my early game easier; a simple, memorable moment to dull the pain of the frequent deaths in the hours preceding it. Rust's mixture of trigger-happy players and often toxic in-game chats make the entire experience profusely unwelcoming and unpleasant.

Technical issues only add to the unpleasantries. Rust routinely runs into periods of incredible slowdown, tearing the game from an unlocked framerate (its options menus riddled with spelling mistakes couldn't lead me to a lock of any sort) to single digits at the most inopportune times. Animations look stiff and unnatural. Character models look ugly and dull. And both stand in stark contrast to an often-gorgeous backdrop. Rust's island is serene and pleasant to look at, with its saturated blue skies and purple haze sunsets inviting you to take pause. There's beauty to mask the repetitive models used for resources and the inconsistent textures, but not enough to make them truly go unnoticed.

Rust is also disappointing because of just how long it took to realize its own inescapable faults. Its lack of survival depth and inclination to only reward time served instead of clever play saps whatever life it might have had to give. Its survival systems show their age, while its community does its best to chase off those who might dare try surviving a new night on the island. Rust might make for an interesting discussion on what it brings out of its players, but it's not one you need to experience firsthand.

Categories: Games

Secret Of Mana Review: Where Secrets Go, Trouble Follows

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 20:00

The new Secret of Mana is billed as a remake, but "reconstruction" is probably more accurate. If not for the updated graphics, it could almost be considered a port of the SNES game. Combat, magic, and movement are much the same. The new mini-map—one of the scant few quality-of-life tweaks--is the original SNES bitmap of each stage. It also ports over every mechanical flaw and obtuse element from the 1993 original. It's a strange game to assess, then; it simultaneously shows how far ahead of the curve Secret of Mana was 25 years ago, while also making its problems all the more pronounced under a modern lens.

Secret of Mana tells the tale of a spiky-haired boy named Randi who frees a mystical sword stuck in a stone. Instead of his home village giving him the King Arthur treatment, Randi is admonished for accidentally undoing the balance of the magical forces in the world. Monsters, an evil empire, and a world-ending dragon threaten to ruin the world as they know it, unless Randi can find the mystical Mana seeds and use his sword to restore order.

It's a fairly rudimentary tale of swords and sorcery, but one that's easy to see through to the end thanks to the cast's charming personalities. Newly written dialogue for the remake smooths out the original translation's rough edges, and introduces a few completely new scenes, where Randi and his cohorts--Primm and Popoi--hang out and talk over dinner every time you book a night at an inn. The remake sees our characters learn to know and love each other in new ways, and it makes a big difference in the long run.

The biggest change, of course, is the complete graphical overhaul, putting it on par with I Am Setsuna and some of the better Final Fantasy mobile ports. It maintains the original game's striking color palette, bathing the world in vibrant greens, blues and pinks. Most environments look delightful, but particularly dazzling locales like the Sprite Forest and Ice Country are breathtaking. Character models are a step up from Square Enix's previous remakes as well, though the decision to introduce voice actors yet not let characters' lips move is a jarring one. The fact that the voice acting is played so campy and cheesy--in both English and Japanese--doesn't help.

The remixed score is the same two-steps-forward one-step-back situation. For the most part, the expanded instrumentation works well. Some areas, like Matango and its '70s prog-rock theme, introduce surprisingly catchy tunes. The score keeps the original freewheeling approach as the world design, with no limits on what a particular dungeon or area might be accompanied by. But this occasionally leads to one too many strange, dissonant moments, with many of the village themes defined by the heavy use of bagpipes and accordions.

Secret of Mana's "anything goes" approach extends to gameplay as well. You can swap control between the three characters at any time, and they are each capable of wielding any of the game's eight weapon types. Each strike during combat initiates a recharge time where the chances of actually landing your next attack or doing decent damage improve as your character regathers their energy. This system forces you to move around the playing field as much as possible to avoid getting hit by enemies while you wait. Magic attacks can hit from anywhere, as long as your enemy is in range, but magic points are limited, and items that refill the meter are expensive. There aren't many console RPGs from the early '90s that forced you to consider so many things at once, but in 2018, it actually feels right at home.

There are, however, quite a few aspects that are less welcome by modern standards, and despite a golden opportunity to do so, nothing has been done to address them. The Ring system--the game's quick menu--is serviceable, but the color-coding used to indicate whose options, weapons, and magic you're accessing is too subtle for its own good; it gets worse as your repertoire grows over the course of the game.

It's also still extremely easy for your crew to get surrounded by lesser enemies during combat, getting smacked around from all directions with nowhere to go. Yet if you walk into another room where huge, dangerous enemies are lurking, you can often stroll right past them without raising alarm. Sometimes, the NPC A.I. being oblivious is a good thing. When that same obliviousness applies to the CPU controlled characters in your crew during a major battle, and your offensive spell caster is stuck behind a doorway, it's an unforgivable annoyance.

The original game's Grid System, where you could adjust how aggressive/passive you wanted your A.I. characters to be, is gone. In its place is a much more simplified system of dictating basic behavior, but there's not an effective way to instruct your allies to favor self preservation. Granted, that's a problem easily solved with the game's local multiplayer, where two friends can jump in at any point and control the other two characters in your crew--another area where Secret of Mana was way ahead of its time--but it's still no excuse for the issues experienced while playing solo.

Altogether, the new Secret of Mana exists in a weird nexus of being a forward-thinking RPG that occasionally shows its age, or a very modern RPG with some baffling design decisions and sub-standard A.I..

Other problems the original game didn't have, however, stem from the lack of general information. The Super Nintendo release came with a full-fledged world map and a manual which explained what store items were meant to do, and where certain cities were located in reference to major landmarks. The latter is critical once Flammie, a friendly dragon, comes into play, allowing you to travel anywhere in the world at will. None of that is included here, which could very well create a problem for newcomers since there's no place in-game that explains what anything does. That disconnect extends to weapons and armor, where there's no way to know whether a piece of equipment is better or worse than what a character is already wearing aside from buying it anyway and praying.

Altogether, the new Secret of Mana exists in a weird nexus of being a forward-thinking RPG that occasionally shows its age, or a very modern RPG with some baffling design decisions and sub-standard A.I.. Its ambitions, coupled with the outright charm of the world, are certainly more than many RPGs offer, and very few as visually dazzling as this. Secret of Mana remains an adventure worth taking, as long as you're prepared for a bumpy ride.

Categories: Games

Attack Of The Earthlings Review

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 20:00

The premise of Attack of the Earthlings is the flip of a well-worn trope: Instead of being faced with an impending alien invasion, humans are the intergalactic terror. And (even worse, depending on your own views) the invading terrans are hopelessly incompetent capitalists, who are out to make a quick buck. As the matriarch of a race of insect-like extraterrestrials, your only goal is to wipe out the humans and stop them from plundering your home to fill up their coffers.

Structurally, Attack of the Earthlings takes nods from the likes of XCOM and other turn-based tactical games. Instead of starting with a squad, though, you're generally alone. As you consume the bodies of your enemies (an essential part of hiding corpses, of course), you can spit out smaller, weaker creatures. Play revolves around your carapaced corps and guiding the spawnlings through each level. And, as a system for expanding play and tactical options, it works well. As you go, you'll unlock new abilities to torment the colonizers as well as more varied drone types that require careful coordination. In effect, this turns Attack of the Earthlings into a satisfying, single-player team-based stealth game.

Most maps revolve around a simple form of this dynamic. You--the misunderstood, scary alien hellbeast--are understandably terrifying to the weak, squishy humans, but they have guns that punch plenty of holes in your otherwise sturdy exoskeleton. You both kill (and can be killed) with little effort, meaning that you'll need to carefully measure your approach to battle.

The high lethality leads to a few exciting moments, but more often than not, those moments are defused by the tract of humor that runs throughout. After the first few missions, though, that's not much of a problem; once you regularly have drones to control, it becomes a lot clearer that Attack of the Earthlings is plenty content with letting you be an '80s horror flick villain. This goes double because, again, you are the hulking leader of your species. With your massive claws, the ability to eat whole people, and a legion of spawned followers, it quickly becomes clear that the Earthlings have no chance. You're here for the ride... and to see what kind of gory trail you can leave behind.

Where this really fits into that classic screamer vibe is how you'll need to make your approach. You can't fit into vents, nor is it easy for you to hide. Mission pacing varies, then, based on proximal goals. Inch the queen forward, kill a few dudes, create spawn, explore more of the area, and then bring your spawn slowly back to you as you complete objectives and unlock the exit. It can get a little monotonous, but the feeling of domination that you get from leading lots of little critters through the nooks and crannies of an interstellar planetary drill meshes perfectly with the tongue-in-cheek tone of the writing.

Attack of the Earthlings takes a different, absurd tack, dropping the severe consequences of mission failure and the emergent narrative for what is essentially a sketch comedy in space.

The connective tissue and guiding mission centers on a drill that the humans have brought to your stellar doorstep. Progress starts with infiltrating the drill and climbing upward, moving away from the blue-collar employees that maintain the drill bit and toward the posh execs at the top. Not too far-flung from the tongue-in-cheek brand of humor of Futurama or The IT Crowd, the most common thread in Attack of the Earthlings' writing is the silly, incompetent nature of your would-be invaders. They are threatening, yes--but not fundamentally so.

Your first victim, a lowly guard pausing for a pee break mid-patrol, sets the tone well. You are the horrific, unholy monster from the nightmares of these poor folks; at the same time, they are so hopeless and ignorant of the threat you pose that jumping a dude as he's taking a whiz (so that you can spawn more of your demonic children) doesn't ever come off as mean-spirited. They are hapless victims--stooges who get a little bit of humanity before they are playfully yanked offscreen, leaving a bloody mess behind.

Individually, the humans aren't concerning; they aren't even really a threat, unless they have weapons. Instead, the fear they instill comes from their ability to cooperate against you--clumsy and silly though they are. Countering that, much of the game has you pulling off simultaneous kills with one or more of your minions (and you) at the same time. This helps even the field--particularly down the line, when you can bring one of three specialized drones into combat.

Each specialization is an insectoid riff on the standard trinity of character classes: warrior, mage, and rogue. Goliaths are beefy brawlers, stalkers are sneaky trap-masters, and disruptors help to control foes--opening them up to attack or allowing you to slip by. The drones themselves aren't complex or novel, but playing their strengths off of each other and using their skills to complement your abilities is a joy, especially if you can conduct them in one massive assault. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of these orchestrations to make them consistently engaging.

Attack of the Earthlings is short-lived, and the levels don't showcase its strengths as well as they could. Much of that comes from each area's heavily scripted nature; the game has a story to tell, and you can't do much to muddle with the plan. Because of that, the game doesn't feel like an organic stealth adventure. Enemies move in rote patterns, with little in the way of surprises to shake up play. This is especially true when it comes to cross-level play: Where XCOM and its contemporaries bill themselves on persistent consequences for mission choices, Attack of the Earthlings takes a different, absurd tack, dropping the severe consequences of mission failure and the emergent narrative for what is essentially a sketch comedy in space. Despite that, the game is often funny enough to warrant a rather broad recommendation.

As long as you aren't thirsty for a deep tactical foray into the great unknown, Attack of the Earthlings is a competent (and occasionally great) jab at the corporate world, and the ludicrous lengths that people will go to in order to make a buck.

Categories: Games

Aegis Defenders Review

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 22:00

In combining a tower defense game with a platformer, Aegis Defenders carries an ingenious idea at its core. The problem is, that idea is never fully reallized: the game's surface-layer tower defense is serviceable but unbalanced, while the platformer underneath is unimaginative and frustrating, leaving very little to actually enjoy.

Each level is separated into two sections: you'll explore and puzzle-solve your way through a linear side-scrolling section for 10-20 minutes, before stumbling upon a MacGuffin that, for a number of contrived reasons, needs to be defended. You must then place various items around the enclosed area of the level to fight off enemies during a series of waves, each preceded by a preparation phase. Those enemies are varied enough in design and appearance to keep things interesting; importantly, they come in four colors, each corresponding to one of your squad.

Your team is comprised of main protagonist Clu, her grandfather Bart, a traveler named Kaiim, and his old flame Zula, and each character's attacks are most powerful against enemies of the same color. Placing one character's item on top of another's can create combination towers that have more powerful effects, and doing so makes the tower defense half of the game more active than the genre's standard. For example, place one of Clu's bombs in the same position as one of Bart's defense blocks, and you'll make a trishot turret that's powerful against both blue and yellow critters.

The idea is to create an extra layer of strategy--not only do you have to think about where you place your items, you must also consider which additional items you place in combination with your original. However, the discrepancy between damage dealt to an enemy by the corresponding color hero and an opposite-color hero is barely noticeable: Clu's bow is almost always the most effective weapon, so I ended up using her the majority of the time regardless of what color enemy I was faced with, rendering the color-matching and combination mechanic inconsequential. That said, combining items and seeing more powerful combinations taking down enemies quicker is satisfying--as is dealing damage with your active weapon--even if most waves just end as a scramble to deploy as many towers as possible, regardless of color.

Most frustrating is that playing by yourself, rather than using the game's local co-op option, becomes nigh-on impossible around the game's middle third; the number and strength of your opposition increases, and the teammate AI fails to keep pace, meaning you eventually find yourself doing all four fighters' jobs yourself. Bart is capable of repairing broken defenses, for example, but he'll only do so if positioned directly next to one. You can have him follow your active character, but then he won't attempt to fix or fight anything. So, inevitably, you must manually position every character in the exact spot you want at the start of a round before coming back and taking them out of harm's way when necessary. But doing so means you leave your other fighters in the incompetent hands of the AI, meaning they'll each deal far less damage than if you were controlling them. Micromanaging your squad becomes essential to progress, and regardless of whether this was the developer's intention, doing so is a frustrating experience, especially when I always felt disadvantaged by not having a human partner to help.

Most frustrating is that playing by yourself, rather than using the game's local co-op option, becomes nigh-on impossible around the game's middle third...

Exploration sections forego the tower defense in favor of basic platforming. There are switch-activated doors, warp panels, and yet more technicolor enemies. But the platforming within is trite: we've seen all this before, with more precise controls and more imaginative puzzles. There are a handful of standout puzzles in the late game--one memorable example sees all four characters spread out across the area, needing to cooperate in order to move a critter through some laser beams and utilize its own power to melt a barrier--but most are simplistic cases of merely unlocking a door or blowing up a cracked wall. More interesting mechanics, such as the warp panels and air bubbles you can use to move across gaps, are introduced far too late and rarely used in compelling ways, while even the basic concept of a moving platform doesn't crop up until halfway through. Worse still, while the sensation of jumping is fine, the art style makes it difficult to see exactly where a platform ends, resulting in far too many failed jumps that feel like they weren't your fault.

At least in these sections checkpoints are frequent enough that death isn't too much of a hindrance. However, this is not the case in the tower defense areas, where death rarely teaches you anything and always sends you back to the very first wave. Death will be frequent, too: enemies are powerful and plentiful, and many are bigger and possess greater agility than any playable character. The difficulty curve is all over the place, with the campaign remaining relatively easy before a sudden spike during a ridiculously tough third quarter, later tapering off again as it approaches its conclusion. Finishing the game took me around 20 hours, despite the in-game clock--which doesn't appear to track failed attempts--saying I only played for two and a half.

During each mission, the game's narrative is told through dialogue scenes--some of which you can choose responses within, though I never felt like my decisions affected anything of note--while cutscenes at each stage's opening serve you exposition pertaining to a disaster that struck humanity thousands of years ago. I struggled to stay invested in that exposition, however, since it remains irrelevant to what's happening in the present-day plot until the story's conclusion, so I simply got bored. You're bombarded with so many gobbledygook names and phrases--The Clarent, The Deathless, Manasa, Hozai, Shem, Sen, Ichor, Vaara, and Aegis itself, to name a few--that I was confused about who was who and what their motivations were from the very outset, and this robs the story of any emotional impact it attempts to have. Why would I care that Shreya has been captured when I'm not really sure who she is and why she matters?

It's marred by a plethora of tiny issues: repetitive voice samples, inaccurate hitboxes, inconsistent framerate, poor AI, and overuse of music, among others bugs and glitches. And these all amount to an experience that is not enjoyable.

It doesn't help that your camp--a base where you can buy upgrades and talk to other characters between levels--will suddenly be inhabited by never-before-seen characters at seemingly random points in the story. Why is there a strange man hanging out near my home, and why are none of the other characters acknowledging him? One character, named Nick, appears about one-third of the way in and is the subject of an intriguing romance subplot--but that subplot never amounts to anything before Nick disappears as suddenly as he turns up. Some interesting character interactions and story revelations happen towards the end, but by this point I'd long since given up caring about any of the characters involved.

Defenders does at least offer a comforting sense of rhythm: you go off and explore, defend a base, come back to camp to acquire upgrades, then go and do it all again. However, even at this surface level, the game has too many small issues to ever really enjoy. It's marred by a plethora of tiny issues: repetitive voice samples, inaccurate hitboxes, inconsistent framerate, poor AI, and overuse of music, among others bugs and glitches. And these all amount to an experience that is not enjoyable.

Aegis Defenders is disappointing because it had potential, and I still think that potential exists. There is satisfaction to be found in setting up its towers and combining them in interesting ways to make bigger and better turrets. And its loop of exploring, defending, and upgrading is alluring. But the game never meets your expectations. Whether it's the nonsensical narrative, the frustrating combat, the numerous bugs, or the simplistic platforming, Aegis Defenders stumbles more often than it excels.

Categories: Games

Bayonetta 2 Review

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 14:00

Editor's note: Bayonetta 2 arrives on Switch with everything intact from the Wii U version, but with the added convenience of portability and a more consistent frame rate, making it the definitive version of the game. Thanks to the confident execution of seemingly unbridled creativity, Bayonetta 2 remains a game that shouldn’t be missed, just as it was when we first reviewed the game on Wii U. The original review has been updated to reflect the new version of the game. - Peter Brown, Feb. 14, 6:00 AM PT

Bayonetta 2 never strives to be anything less than the purest, rarest kind of action-game experience, one that values skill, reaction times, and sheer spectacle over all else--realism and storytelling be damned. Sure, you can feel the influence of the likes of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden in Bayonetta 2's combat, and see it in its wonderfully outlandish visuals. But neither of those games, nor the many that followed in their footsteps, come close to the brilliance of Bayonetta 2. It is a masterclass in pure, unadulterated action-game design, where its insane eye-popping visuals meld effortlessly with some of the sharpest, most joyful combat to have ever graced a video game.

There's no delay in getting you to the good stuff either, no scene-setting preamble to keep you from the action; I can think of few games where the opening moments are as outrageously bombastic as the last. Within minutes you'll have travelled through space atop a crumbling building, sliced golden angels into gooey chunks of meat, and even hopped inside a machine-gun-mech to take on gargantuan holy beasts. Newcomers may well button bash their way though these opening moments, but the sheer spectacle of it all makes them no less fun or exciting.

The basics are explained briefly--press Y to fire your guns, press X to punch things--but Bayonetta doesn't hold your hand via convoluted tutorials or training sequences. All it gives you are the absolute essentials you need to survive its early stages; it's up to you to learn more complex moves by experimenting or perusing the command list. Your proficiency with the titular Bayonetta's combat skills evolves at a natural pace. Nothing seems forced or faked, and--with a couple of minor exceptions--nor are you suddenly gifted some newfangled ability that results in a huge boost of power.

It's the design of the levels themselves, and the enemies that populate them, that encourage you to learn new combos and improve your skills. While there's not much in the way of exploration, levels like the beautiful, European-like Noatun, with its detailed stone pillar walls and glistening canals, hide secret battles and challenges for you to find. Most, however, funnel you as quickly as possibly from one hypersonic set piece to next. One moment you're happily chopping away at angelic guardians atop a fighter jet, and the next you're battling a giant golden snake that's guarding the glittering gates of heaven. Death comes quickly to those who fail to adapt to the timings and speeds of these wildly different encounters, but it's in this learning by doing that you're rewarded with a real sense of accomplishment, one that you don't get from simply being told what to do.

The mechanics of Bayonetta 2's combat don't differ that all that much from those of its predecessor. But when that predecessor is one of the greatest action games ever made, this is no bad thing. Everything from the way punches and kicks connect with your enemies, to the detailed, pixel-perfect animations that accompany them, showcases a stunning combat system that values skill and reaction times while looking gorgeous in the process. Even minor frame rate issues during the game's more complex scenes do little to detract from it. What is new in Bayonetta 2 is Umbran Climax, a powerful combat technique that lets you unleash powered-up punches and kicks, and a devastating demon summon. While you need a full magic gauge to perform an Umbran Climax--preventing you from using one of Bayonetta's gruesome torture attacks--the increased range of each hit, and the small amount of health you reclaim while using it, makes it a far more useful in combat.

But it would all be for nothing without Witch Time, a dodging mechanic that rewards last-second escapes by temporarily slowing down time, allowing you to unleash a barrage of attacks, or circumvent defences like shields and rotating spikes. It's a mechanic that's often mimicked, but never bettered; Witch Time transforms the already impressive combat into a sweeping ballet of guts and gunfire, culminating in the furious button mashing and blood-splattering of a dazzling Climax finish.

Timing, of course, is crucial to these moments, but even if you aren't that adept at unleashing a killer combo, the simplicity of Witch Time's single-button manoeuvring makes impressive displays of combat accessible to all. Bayonetta 2 ably strikes that balance between intuitiveness and depth, and does so without resorting to built-in handicaps or convoluted training missions. With just a few simple combos and well-timed flicks of the trigger to engage Witch Time, Bayonetta effortlessly twirls and kicks through the air, unleashing calamitous blows that are overwhelmingly satisfying to perform. Before long, you feel like a master of the form, even if, in reality, you've barely scratched the surface. The smooth, seamless flow of gratuitous gore and eye-popping visuals that follows the most dramatic of your encounters make for a wild ride almost impossible to put down.

It helps that Bayonetta 2 rarely lets the action drop. Unlike its predecessor, the game rarely allows the pace to dip as you explore larger towns, and it's not long before you're thrown back into another spectacular battle against the forces of heaven and hell (Paradiso and Inferno, in Bayonetta speak). Cutscenes are briefer this time around, which keeps the focus squarely on the combat, but they are just as tongue-in-cheek as before. You get your fair share of cheesy characters and sight gags, particularly in the humorous opening moments where bumbling Italian gangster Enzo is mercilessly teased by Bayonetta, and then has his more delicate parts almost run over by a motorbike-riding Jeanne. Things get a little more tense as the battle to save the earth rolls on, but the game never takes itself too seriously, punctuating its deeper moments with sarcastic quips from Bayonetta, who--despite suffering crotch shots and blatant innuendos--remains one of the most charismatic and powerful heroines in the medium. There are none of the sleazy moments that peppered the likes of Lollipop Chainsaw and Killer Is Dead; the sexualisation here serves to empower, not to belittle.

The story stitching it all together is utter nonsense, but fittingly so, because its absurdity serves as way to push you into ever more outlandish battles. By the time you reach the latter half of the game, the action rapidly escalates into multiple "Whoa! Did that really just happen?!" moments--a rock 'em sock 'em battle between two giants of Paradiso and Inferno, and an underwater clash with a sword slicing mega-knight being particular highlights--before climaxing into some of the most absurdly weird and wonderful boss battles to have graced an action game. But making it to the end credits barely scratches the surface of Bayonetta 2. There are hidden battles to find in each chapter, different accessories and weapons to buy and pick up from fallen enemies that give you access to new combos and powers, and challenges that have you trying to defeat enemies without taking a single hit, or by only being able to deal damage in Witch Time.

Then there are the medals doled out after every battle (awarded to you depending on the length of your combos and how much damage you take) that encourage you to keep going back and trying to perfect your performance--and when you've done that, there are the harder difficulties to try and master too. You can spend hours hunting down Nintendo-based Easter eggs and costumes, and--judging by my own squeals of delight when I found them--it's well worth the effort.

If you manage to work your way through all that, there's Tag Climax's two-player online co-op to master too. Not only does Tag Climax let you do battle with enemies not in the main game, it's actually also one of the best ways to acquire halos (Bayonetta 2's in-game currency), if you've got the chops for it. You can wager halos against your online partner as to who will get the highest score, with larger wagers upping the difficulty as well as the potential reward. Then, at the end of six rounds of furious battling, a winner is declared. Shared abilities like Witch Time and Umbran Climax ensure that there's an element of teamwork to these cooperative battles, and on higher wagers, they can get incredibly challenging.

But it's a challenge you'll want to experience again as soon as you put down the controller. Bayonetta 2's combat is so expertly constructed, and its presentation so joyously insane, that you'd have to try so very hard to get bored of it all. In a year filled with the promise of ever more elaborate experiences on all the shiny new hardware, that Bayonetta 2--a homage to classic game design and escapism--should be the most fun I've had playing a game all year is unexpected. But maybe it shouldn't have been. After all, its predecessor still stands as one of the finest games of its genre. To have surpassed that with Bayonetta 2, and to have created a game that will be remembered as an absolute classic, is nothing short of astonishing.

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Categories: Games

Owlboy Review: A Heartfelt Tale

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 17:00

By their very nature, retro-inspired games are fighting an uphill battle against the nostalgia they aim to invoke. How can they form their own identity when they're partly designed to make you remember other games? After finishing Owlboy, it seems D-Pad Studio might have the answer.

For almost a decade, Owlboy has lurked behind the curtain of mainstream releases with a small-but-devout following. Looking at screenshots and videos over the years, it was always apparent that Owlboy would look and sound great, but there's so much more to love about the final product: the humor, the varied cast, the disasters that befall its otherwise bright and uplifting world, and the incredible action set-pieces that punctuate the calm found elsewhere. It's not until you break through the surface that you're blinded by Owlboy's artistic brilliance and swayed by its heartfelt story.

It begins with Otus--our mute protagonist and the runt of his village--during a stressful dream where his professor and dark figments criticize his inadequacies and chastise his inability to speak. It's a powerful setup that endears our hero to you. Trouble brews shortly after he wakes up and concerns of pirate sightings explode into panic as a nearby metropolis comes under attack. Otus teams up with a military mechanic, Geddy, to put a stop to the pirates before their home is destroyed.

Owlboy is old-school, not just in its presentation, but also in its storytelling--there’s no voice acting, and events are set in stone with nary a major decision-making opportunity in sight. The plot manages to avoid predictability, however, not only through a handful of twists, but by allowing characters to evolve throughout the course of the game. Sad moments aren't swept under the rug by unreasonable optimism--they stay with your squad and fundamentally alter their outlook on the mission and their own identity in surprising ways. There's great attention to detail in the cast's animations, which are often tailored for a specific scene, as opposed to falling back on routine reactions. Coupled with a script that's rife with emotion and nuance, Owlboy's characters feel real in your heart despite their cartoonish look.

Owlboy tackles multiple artistic themes and subjects with consistently impressive execution.

It may be a throwback of sorts, but Owlboy's visuals aren't tailored to specifically ape 8- or 16-bit graphics; it doesn't have a limited color palette, and its pixel resolution changes based on the scene at hand. When you enter wide-open spaces, the camera zooms out, chunky details shrink, and meticulously designed structures and environments take shape. In tight spaces, you're brought closer into the scene for more intimate inspection. From subterranean creatures to ancient structures, Owlboy tackles several artistic themes and subjects with consistently impressive execution. And if you have a soft spot for 2D games with multiple layers of parallax scrolling--where the background moves slower than the foreground to simulate depth--you're in for a treat.

When you first take control of Otus, darting around floating islands and chatting with other creatures makes for a pleasant experience, and while the open air and bright colors deserve some credit, it's the orchestrated soundtrack that solidifies Owlboy's shifting atmosphere and tone. Violas and flutes instill merriment at first, but this innocence is short lived; when the pirates invade, oboes drone and cellos growl to the slow beat of a heavy drum. When the dust settles and the second half of your journey kicks off, sprightly piano compositions provide a much-needed respite from the stress of a society under attack.

Your trek to the pirate's den takes you through expansive spaces and into the heart of sprawling cave systems where buccaneers and wildlife alike lie in wait. They typically bombard you with rocks and other projectiles, rarely engaging in close-quarters combat. On his own, Otus can only dash into enemies, stunning them at best. However, with the help of a handy teleportation device, he can summon one of three partners into his claws mid-flight to utilize their long-range blaster, shotgun, or webbing that can ensnare enemies and be used as a grappling hook to escape dangerous situations.

Otus is unfortunately a tad slow by default, which causes you to spam his dash move repeatedly to keep things moving along outside of combat. There’s a modest upgrade system driven by collecting and turning in coins found in chests, but you're upgrading health reserves--in the form of soup canisters--and your team's weapons, not physical traits. Still, a keen eye and fast reflexes are more critical to success than any upgrades purchased during your adventure. Knowing that success comes from a show of skill rather than your ability to collect upgrades is gratifying, but you walk away from Owlboy with the sinking feeling that the equipment and upgrades in the game have unrealized potential.

Owlboy is consistently charming and surprising, and when its final act doubles down on every front, it's bittersweet to see it end.

Standard combat isn't anything special, but it never wears out its welcome thanks to deft pacing. Owlboy steadily mixes combat and exploration with measured stealth challenges, fast-paced escape sequences, and entertaining exchanges between characters. The chase/escape sequences in particular are some of the most impressive moments in the game, throwing you into a harrowing race against time in the face of tightly choreographed hazards. These scenes are challenging and filled with visual effects that add to the sense of danger, and they're overwhelming at first, but should you die, not to worry: Owlboy never truly punishes you for failure, allowing you to restart from the last room you entered.

Owlboy is consistently charming and surprising, and when its final act doubles down on every front, it's bittersweet to see it end. As you relish the outcome of the final battle and watch the closing cutscene, you can't help but reflect on the beginning of your adventure and how far the world and its inhabitants have come. You'll never be able to play Owlboy for the first time again, but the memories of its magic moments stick with you. This is more than a treat for fans of old-school games; Owlboy is a heartfelt experience that will touch anyone with an affinity for great art and storytelling.

Editor's note: After further testing, GameSpot has updated the score to reflect the Nintendo Switch version of Owlboy. - Feb. 13, 2018, 9:00 AM PT

Categories: Games

The Longest Five Minutes Review: The Power Of Memories

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 17:00

The premise of The Longest Five Minutes is one that immediately grabs your attention. You’re thrust into the climactic final battle of an old-school Japanese RPG, only you--playing as the main hero--have been afflicted by the sort of amnesia that usually hits at the beginning of those games. You’ve forgotten everything: your name, where you are, who your companions are, and why you’re currently being stared down by a fierce demon lord. As a five-minute climactic battle with the final boss ensues, you must pause time and dive deep into your subconscious, rediscovering and reliving your memories to rekindle your fighting spirit. Because of this, the proposed five minutes extends to hours of gameplay outside of your main objective.

It’s an interesting concept that turns the normal flow of RPG final battles on its head, and made me eager to piece together a story built from fragmented memories presented in classic turn-based RPG style. After seeing the lively character sprite animations and silly dialogue, I was eager for a sendup of RPG conventions in the vein of the excellent Half-Minute Hero games. Sadly, The Longest Five Minutes never realizes its full potential.

When our hero, Flash, has an elaborate flashback, scenes from his past play out as typical moments from 8- or 16-bit JRPGs: exploring towns and dungeons, conversing with NPCs and party members, and fighting parties of low-level enemies. These flashbacks are somewhat non-linear, letting you piece together a story from the disjointed bits that the hero remembers.

While you can blow through and recover each disjointed memory by completing its central objectives, there are usually a few side quests you can also embark on. Completing these quests and fleshing out the memories yields rewards in the form of “re-experience points” that increase your power in the ongoing fight against the Demon King. And depending on the choices you make both in the memory sections and during your climactic fight, the story can follow one of a few different branches, resulting in multiple endings.

It’s intriguing to go back to events like the hero's first-ever date with a would-be love interest or the time when everyone faces their fears and decides to risk their lives by vowing to confront an otherworldly threat. Most of the time, however, you’re going to be stuck revisiting dungeons and completing fetch quests. That wouldn’t be so bad if your objectives were more surprising, but they tend to be bog-standard quests with bland dungeon design and simplistic puzzles. The optional side quests aren’t much better, ranging from lost-and-found errands to mini-games like a slot machine that will have completionists cursing.

One interesting side effect of the game’s disjointed nature is that every memory is essentially a self-contained adventure, making it quite easy to digest in small chunks. Even your money and items revert to presets every time you enter a memory, so there’s no need for time-consuming grinding or item/equipment management. This makes the game feel very breezy, and it’s possible to complete a single playthrough within eight to 12 hours, making it less of a serious time commitment than your typical RPG.

However, with items, equipment, and EXP never carrying over from memory to memory, exploring and fighting beyond what you're required to do feels completely unnecessary. Even if you acquire cool stuff in a dungeon or get a lot of money off of enemies, it’s all going to vanish pretty quickly. This, in turn, makes meandering through uninspired mazes and quashing foes in extremely simplistic turn-based combat (which you’ll auto-battle through 99% of the time) a hassle rather than an enjoyable challenge. At least the towns are fun to romp through, and some cute NPC and party member dialogue adds a lot of charm to the game. Ultimately, though, it feels like a there’s a good amount of unnecessary, laborious fluff despite The Longest Five Minutes being quite lean.

The concept of The Longest Five Minutes is undeniably intriguing, and its retro-styled visuals, quirky personalities and dialogue, and moments of inspired, emotional storytelling give it a lot of inherent charm. But charm can only go so far to make up for a game’s flaws, and far too often, The Longest Five Minutes falls victim to stereotypical old-school JRPG drudgery like endless random encounters and annoying dungeons--the exact sort of thing it wants to deconstruct. Though its ambition is admirable, it ultimately doesn’t live up to the promise of its clever premise.

Categories: Games

Crossing Souls Review: Stuck In The Past

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 14:00

It's easy to let yourself be lured into the 1980s world of Crossing Souls. The striking, Saturday morning cartoon cinematics pull you into an equally enticing pixel-art world, where every little detail is likely something significant from your childhood, at least if you're over 30 years old. But while there is some satisfaction in the game's core action, the way it utilizes and adheres to its retro-pop influences ultimately detracts from it in the long run.

Taking its cues from films like The Goonies, Stand By Me, and The Neverending Story, Crossing Souls revolves around a group of five teenagers as they discover an ancient artifact with mystical properties. With some tinkering from the group's incomprehensibly brilliant genius, they learn that they can cross into the spiritual world and interact with ghosts. Naturally, their discovery draws the attention of a ruthless paramilitary organization who will stop at nothing to obtain the stone for their own nefarious purposes, including harming the children and their families.

You control all five kids, guiding them through an action-adventure analogous to 2D Zelda games, and regularly switch between them to take advantage of each kid's unique attack and traversal abilities. Main protagonist Chris is an athletic type who hits things with a baseball bat, aforementioned genius Matt has a deadly ray-gun because he's smart I guess, "Big" Joe's large frame means his punches pack immense damage, Charlie (Charlene) has a skipping rope that provides great crowd control, and Chris' kid-brother Kevin can pick his nose, and that's about it.

Each kid has separate health and stamina bars, but depleting the health of just one means game over. Combat is a juggling act where you might be using the kid whose attack is most suitable for the fight, but also tagging them out when they take too much of a beating or become exhausted. It's a system that's surprisingly involved; taking out a group of enemies with a character's melee combo is easy enough, but you can very quickly become overwhelmed after a couple of whiffed blows or ill-timed dodges. The skills and abilities you have at the beginning of the game are what will carry you all the way through to the end since Crossing Souls eschews ability and equipment upgrades. But although combat isn't particularly complex, most attacks have satisfying feedback which give fights an enjoyable heft, and encounters are challenging enough to continually keep you on your toes.

Crossing Souls also features some equally demanding environmental puzzles. While simpler variants involve throwing switches, finding keys, and using Big Joe to move boxes, there are also a significant amount of unexpectedly challenging platforming sections where you'll use Chris' unique ability to jump and climb in tandem with Matt's ability to hover for limited distances, and flip back and forth between the two in quick succession. You eventually also get the ability to cross into the spirit world to phase through doors (although not walls or traffic cones, strangely), which introduces another facet to puzzles. The game's character movement and perspective isn't an ideal fit for precision platforming, and some later challenges introduce some downright devious scenarios that verge on aggravating, but even so, completing these puzzles feel like well-earned achievements.

The game seeks to maintain a balance of difficulty which teeters on that precipice of engaging and downright frustrating. But it's a thin line, and there are a handful of significant sections that feel like they err too much on the wrong side. One particular sequence involves an extensive fetch quest that makes you ping-pong through numerous NPCs to move things along, and then asks you to make a seemingly straightforward deduction. But it felt as if a step was missing, something that could help you deduce the specific location to apply that information, and this completely curbed my enthusiasm until I brute-forced my way through it.

Some boss fights have an overly demanding onslaught of projectiles for you to dodge at length. They're shoot-'em-up-style patterns you need to internalize and anticipate with little room for error, and in these scenarios, throwing yourself at it again and again while learning a bit more each time is what will eventually get you through it. But while I personally enjoy these kinds of challenges, Crossing Souls isn't a game that's tuned for precise, repeated action. So hitting one of these particularly tough battles, failing it because you've been stun-locked by mortar fire, and then having to watch an introductory cutscene again and again is annoying enough to make you walk away.

Outside of regular combat and puzzle-solving, Crossing Souls also weaves in standalone minigame scenarios that are directly based on iconic 1980s film and video games. Sequences that echo Double Dragon, Raiden, and the bike chase in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial are fun diversions, but these examples represent the extent to which the game leverages its influences in a significantly positive way.

There is plenty to enjoy on a superficial level, of course; the impressive visual style, pixel art in a fashion that echoes The Secret of Monkey Island, is bursting with dozens of small visual references to entertainment products of the era. There are little nods to everything from Nintendo, to Die Hard, to The Land Before Time, to Stephen King, and more substantial set pieces that replicate moments from Stand By Me, Ghostbusters, and Metal Gear. Mousers from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon appear as late-game enemies, and more modern references from Breaking Bad, Grim Fandango, and Half-Life are also present, seemingly just for the hell of it. But Crossing Souls' fervent obsession with its source materials is ultimately its biggest hindrance.

1980s Spielberg adventures and coming-of-age films are the game's primary touchstones, and while the overarching supernatural adventure in Crossing Souls is uniquely interesting in concept, the character-level experience of it feels strangely empty. Though the story revolves around a group of kids going up against impossible odds, little time is spent exploring any individual child, or even their relationships with one another. You only get a broad outline, reliant on archetypes like the athletic white kid, the dweeby nerd, the fat kid, and the girl. There is no nuance in their personalities, so when a character has a sudden change of attitude, it feels like it comes entirely out of left field. When something utterly drastic happens, it doesn't really worry you. Though the story takes the stakes to some pretty wild extremes, Crossing Souls doesn't do enough to convince you that this band of kids actually cares enough to protect one another against the cartoonishly evil villains. The multiple antagonists are equally as shallow, with no real defining features aside from their ruthlessness; stereotypes are their primary traits.

In-depth character development supposedly takes a backseat to the density of nostalgic callbacks. An elongated sequence, mentioned earlier, is based on Back To The Future III and culminates in a Track & Field-style minigame to boost the speed of a DeLorean. But the entire section is inconsequential, having no real impact on any of the plot events that precede or follow it. And when you get a joke about the fat kid shitting his pants for the third time, you begin to wonder whether these spaces and lines of dialogue could have been better utilized.

Its strict adherence to familiar tropes also means that Crossing Souls adopts some of the more dubious traditions of 1980s pop cinema. An elderly, mystic Asian shopkeeper echoes the House of Evil shopkeeper in The Simpsons and Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China, but it's a caricature that comes off as crass and half-baked--the game can't even seem to decide whether he speaks fluent or broken English. This shopkeeper, along with Big Joe, his mother, and a Prince look-alike, are seemingly the only people of color in a Californian town filled with dozens of visible NPCs. There are jokes made at the expense of a community of rednecks, forever dumb and drunk. Charlie, who hails from this group, is abruptly reduced to a damsel and love interest despite being one of the more combat-useful characters with a fierce personality archetype. Replicating these familiar tropes and caricatures from 1980s cinema may serve as an homage, but they feel dated and detract from what could have been a more meaningful adventure.

Crossing Souls has the building blocks of a rousing '80s adventure. Experiencing the significant, pitch-perfect moments of the story is great, because it's hard not to get energized by a John Williams-esque score, or get a little sentimental as the credits roll over a feelgood synthpop track. But when you emerge from the nostalgia-induced stupor, it's hard to deny that the characters and plot that underpin it all could definitely be more substantial. Crossing Souls has good mechanics, and its facade is a visual treat that is easy to be seduced by, but it fails to achieve a level of holistic enjoyment that raises it past the giant pile of references.

Categories: Games

Dynasty Warriors 9 Review: Slice And Dice

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 14:00

The story of Three Kingdoms-era China has been a mainstay of Dynasty Warriors since the days of the original PlayStation--and while it's gone through a number of iterations since then, Dynasty Warriors 9 represents the biggest shift away from the series' established formula since moving from a one-on-one fighting game to its more established musou form. While the feeling of cutting down entire formations of soldiers with a button press will feel more than familiar to fans of the series, the introduction of a massive open world changes the pacing in a way that allows the action to breathe. Although it suffers from a number of disappointing technical hitches and some typical open-world jank, Dynasty Warriors 9's sprawling campaign feels right at home in its new setting.

Given that the game's story mode is presented unconventionally, it can take a little while to figure out precisely what's going on. The entire story of the Three Kingdoms is told through the eyes of more than 80 separate playable characters from across four major clans--Wei, Wu, Shu, and Jin--as well as a handful of other smaller bit players. From the beginning, you're limited to a choice of three officers: Cao Cao, Sun Jian, and Liu Bei (the three lords of the Wei, Wu, and Shu clans, respectively).

Playing through each chapter unlocks the next one along with more characters, unfolding the differing perspectives of each clan throughout each battle in a way that's equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Seeing each battle from multiple perspectives is enthralling from a historical point of view--but it can mean playing through a lot of the same missions multiple times, which can be a little frustrating, given how similar each character feels on the battlefield. Thankfully, any powerful weapons, items, or horses that you acquire carries over across every mission, mitigating some of the grind.

Dynasty Warriors 9's open world is the big game-changer here, and it works to the game's advantage in many ways. This time, missions are picked up from non-player characters out in the world, and among the different cities that dot the landscape. Although the old menu-based quest option is still there if you want to merely move from mission to mission, traveling from one area to another gives you chances to find peaceful moments between each battle.

Your actions in the open world are also tied closely to each main quest. Completing sub-quests lowers the recommended character level for the main quest--so if you find a mission too difficult, you can polish off a few sub-quests to make it easier. Ditto for taking down squadrons on the open-world battlefield, which changes the frontlines and gives your clan the numerical advantage for next main mission. And while it's satisfying to watch this play out, it only felt essential when playing on the highest of the game's five difficulty levels, as combat generally feels weighted in your favor.

If you make your way off-road when moving towards the frontlines, the chances are good that you'll find a dangerous group of bandits to take down, or a pack of wild deer or tigers to hunt. Although many of the optional open-world activities--like hunting and fishing (of course there's fishing)--aren't especially inspiring in themselves, they net you ingredients which you can use to buff your attack or defense stats through cooking at a Teahouse. You can also earn special items from the Dilettante who deals in hunted goods, or trade in various different currencies earned from defeating enemies at the Coin Collector, who will trade you for scrolls (which are effectively blueprints required for crafting weapons and items from raw materials collected out in the world).

The world is massive, and in its own way quite pretty; its sparsity reflects the period, and the vast and varied environments flow seamlessly into one another. It’s serene in the way that a horseback ride through nature should be. The day/night and full weather cycles aren't just visual changes, but also affect the action: Soldiers won't march at nighttime, and bad weather slows them down. But overall, it also just looks plain grimy at times--many of the game's textures appear as though they've been lathered in thick coats of Vaseline. Cities and palaces suffer from this the most, as their elaborate architecture often fails to load with high-resolution textures at first, leaving them looking like big brown lumps in the world instead of beautiful, ancient Chinese palaces. At worst, full bases will phase into view a few moments after being loaded in to the world, but thankfully this is reasonably rare.

Aside from the randomly appearing geometry, Dynasty Warriors 9's graphical shortcomings are perhaps most noticeable in the character costumes. While character models and costume designs themselves are absolutely stunning, the textures within them lack the sort of clarity needed to work up-close. This, combined with rough animations and some truly abysmal English voice work--make sure you switch to the Chinese voice-over immediately--make the story cutscenes a little rough to look at, given the frequency with which they're shown.

Cutting down hundreds of enemies in a single sitting feels as satisfying as ever.

On the PlayStation 4 Pro, you're given a choice of two graphics options that focus on either stabilizing resolution or frame rate. Leaning toward the resolution option is meant to lock the game down to 30 frames per second at a higher resolution... but it struggles to stay anywhere near that, and looks arguably worse than when running the frame-rate-preferred option, which dials down the resolution in favor of trying to hit a consistent 60fps. And while it barely retains said consistency (especially during character-heavy battle moments), it's a far better experience overall.

If Dynasty Warriors is known for anything, its throwing huge numbers of enemies at you to cut through like a hot knife through butter, and Dynasty Warriors 9 is no different. Given the game's technical issues, it's a good thing that cutting down hundreds of enemies in a single sitting feels as satisfying as ever; entire squadrons can be laid to waste in mere moments. It's truly an epic power fantasy that, even after 50 hours of gameplay, continues to thrill. The soundtrack shifts from a softer, more traditional sound to crunching drums and wailing guitars, giving it a pure action game feel. Admittedly, the horseback combat doesn't feel all that great (mostly thanks to the horse lacking any subtlety in its movements), and using the bow can be underwhelming--but the melee combat remains the biggest draw, and the series' strongest pillar. It lacks nuance in some of the later one-on-one boss battles, but nine times out of 10, you'll come out of a battle with a smile on your face.

It's clear that Koei Tecmo and Omega Force have gone back to the drawing board with Dynasty Warriors 9, and in many ways, it's a big improvement. The new open-world format changes up the game in a way that helps the flow and pacing of its story mode, as well as its core mechanics. Despite the obvious graphical flaws and some issues with combat lacking finer controls, the streamlined menus, open world atmosphere, and laughably fun moment-to-moment play makes Dynasty Warriors 9 not just a must for fans, but worth a look for the merely curious.

Categories: Games

Radiant Historia Perfect Chronology Review: Time After Time After Time

Sat, 02/10/2018 - 16:00

Of the many story-driven games that feature user-dictated time travel, Radiant Historia ranks high. This RPG treats altering events as essential to its story, forcing you to regularly jump back and forth between two streams of time. The impetus for this temporal weaving is so well ingrained into its narrative that it subverts any question of gimmickry. This engaging mechanic also complements Historia's traditional RPG gameplay of pursuing quests, surviving turn-based battles, and exploring a vast landscape. Originally released in 2010 on the Nintendo DS, Radiant Historia gets a welcomed re-release on the 3DS, and is an enhanced port in every sense of the term.

An Atlus RPG not associated with Shin Mega Tensei or Etrian Odyssey, Radiant Historia is based in its own original world with a built-in history. In fact, you start the game in what appears to be the twilight of the continent of Vainqueur--the game's setting--as its being slowly devastated by an unexplained "desertification". Sand isn't only consuming the land but also living beings as well. The kingdom of Alistel blames neighboring Granorg for this plague, inflaming a conflict between these warring lands.

You initially play as Stocke, an Alistelian agent assigned to escort a spy back to your capital. Though a series of events lead to the downfall of Stocke, two subordinates, and even the spy, our hero gets a supernatural reprieve. Finding himself in another realm, Stocke learns that the White Chronicle--a book given to him by his superior, Heiss--has the power to transport the user to key events in the past thereby giving you the ability to alter these moments. Using this tome to revive Stocke and his companions to further the interests of Alistel is only part of the story. Key characters like Heiss are aware of the White Chronicle and figuring out their motives is part of the narrative's draw.

Once empowered with time travel, you're presented with turning points and key branching paths on a regular basis. This system is at its most appealing when you're faced with a barrier--literal or otherwise--and trying to find the key event in the past that lets you bypass that hurdle. There are two distinct timelines and often the solution to advancing in one involves making progress in the other. Mentally arriving at some fixes can be a nuanced process, compelling you to retrace story events and figure out where an action or choice can create a new outcome.

As you overcome roadblocks and jump to the other timeline to surmount those obstacles, you'll come across optional opportunities to change the fate of others. Provided you have a keen eye to read your surroundings, using the White Chronicle can affect the environment and the nearby characters who might otherwise perish if you didn't get involved. Even after having the satisfaction of saving a life, there's an alluring sense of mystery in whether rescuing someone will ultimately lead to a positive or negative result further down the line.

The beauty of these diversions is that they don't feel like optional objectives in the traditional sense. The feeling of accomplishment in attending to the needs of others is often as gratifying as reaching a milestone in the main story. And since the White Chronicle timeline diagram is well-laid out with nodes denoting fail states, open story paths, and side routes, there's a strong compulsion to see every result as soon as you spot the clues leading to those endings. The satisfaction of filling in the White Chronicle isn't unlike finding all the dead ends in a dungeon before venturing forward on the presumptive main path. With 283 nodes to discover, Radiant Historia Perfect Chronicle is that rare breed of RPG where the drive to find minor and bad conclusions is as strong as reaching the main "good" ending.

Venturing out of the capital of Alistel to accomplish your missions will bring you face-to-face with all manner of hostile creatures and soldiers from Grenorg. These battles--triggered by making contact with enemies visible in the field--unfold in classic turn-based fashion. Facing off against foes who are laid out in a three-by-three grid presents its share of strategies. One of the most useful battle skills allows you to knock your target into another enemy-occupied space, either one space back or to the sides. With the right planning, a follow-up attack can deal shared damage to those crowded square in a single blow. There's further combat depth since you're also offered the option of swapping turns with other teammates. These opportunities deliver a puzzle-like sense of strategy, which make victories feel rewarding.

It's a battle system that feels both traditional and brain-teasingly fresh and it would've been superb if not for its quality-of-life shortcomings. For instance, if your threesome targets a single enemy and it's vanquished before all your team's turns are used up, remaining attacks will not defer to the other opponents. This results in wasted turns, which is all the more frustrating when party members in your reserves swoop in randomly to offer a one-off support action. This well-intentioned perk is appreciated when a teammate heals or buffs, but not when he's attacking a monster the active party is already cued up to attack. And if you hope to avoid excess grinding, think again; the advanced difficulty of the combat discourages trying out new characters as active teammates in battle, given their relatively low starting levels.

The improvements in Perfect Chronology over the original DS version range from minor to significant. The changes in 2D art character designs isn't an upgrade so much as it feels like Atlus trading the works of one talented artist for another. More clear cut production enhancements like new voiceovers, a retooled soundtrack, and a new anime-styled opening music video adds freshness to this game, but Perfect Chronology's more substantial upgrades are found in its new modes. A bonus dungeon called the Vault of Time provides opportunities to fight more monsters for a chance at exclusive items like support skills, which often prove useful in the main story. The difficulty of the vault increases with each subsequent floor and the stakes are heightened by the inability to use items.

The boldest new feature by far is the addition of a third stream of time. Given the tight woven relationship of the two other timelines, this third path--dubbed 'Sub-History'--unsurprisingly doesn't affect the original game's story or outcomes. Rather, it presents a host of what-if adventure scenarios where Stocke interacts with familiar friends and enemies, some whom behave out of character. It offers a look into the world and inhabitants of Vainqueur that manages to be insightful even if it's non-canonical.

With all the time juggling, the brain-teasing mechanic of the White Chronicle doesn't overshadow Radiant Historia Perfect Chronology's story. Its politically charged tale complements Stocke's personal journey as he follows his orders and makes sense of his powers. The White Chronicles' close connection to the plot only makes temporal manipulation all the more engrossing, regardless if you're working your way to the game's best conclusion or hitting every node in the timeline. This feature maintains its grip for much of the game's 60-hour journey in spite of its combat shortcomings. Had this been a straight port of the DS version, it would still warrant the attention of RPG enthusiasts who missed Radiant Historia the first time around. With its upgrades and considerable bonuses--particularly the Sub-History--even those who think they got their fill by beating the original game should check out this definitive edition.

Categories: Games

Dragon Quest Builders Review: Working The Land

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 19:00

Dragon Quest Builders serves as the jumping-off point for a new tale in a new period using an old setting--the storied land of Alefgard from the first Dragon Quest. It's an alternate reality that begins where the original game ends, but with a twist: the hero from the first game didn't defeat the Dragonlord. No prior knowledge of the series is required, but having a familiarity with the its jingles and diverse bestiary helps to invoke a strong sense of nostalgia

Given that the world-crafting genre is uncharted territory for Dragon Quest, Square Enix was wise to make the tutorial equal parts concise and informative. This allows you to start building within minutes of launching the game, and it's satisfying to get the hang of building complete houses, crafting items, and surviving the Alefgardian wilderness. A seemingly menial task like bricklaying is made easy when it only takes one button to set the brick above, below, or at head level. Moreover, the process of upgrading a wall with higher-quality bricks works in one convenient, single-input motion.

It's almost as easy as adapting to Dragon Quest Builders' combat, which isn't as frenetic as fighting in Dragon Quest Heroes--but it moves more quickly than the main series' turn-based battles. This orientation period also showcases the game's heavy emphasis on RPG-inspired questing. Building a bathhouse feels less like a chore when there's a checkmark, a congratulatory jingle, and a grateful NPC who has a reward for you.

Supporting Dragon Quest Builders' story and its objective-intensive draw is a foundation built on 30 years of franchise nostalgia. No, you can't explore settings in later mainstream installments like Zenithia (seen in Dragon Quest IV, V, and VI) or Dragon Quest VIII’s Trodain. Still, coming across familiar monsters, such as metal slimes, and well-known items like chimaera wings, will make any Dragon Quest fan smile. It's surprising how well all these elements--running the gamut from the music to the bestiary--have been adapted to this malleable world. Enemies drop crafting ingredients rather than experience. Energy from digging is replenished by eating food. The overworld, as revealed by the camera positioned way up high, won't show the original 1986 map, but the blocky art style will resonate with old-school JRPG enthusiasts.

It's not Alefgard as we've known it, but it's no less inviting--thanks to the familiar aesthetics and the classic low-level enemies who litter the land near your town. Exploring simply for the sake of it isn't time wasted here. Going off in one direction can yield a wealth of resources for crafting items. The only variable that would devalue any free-roaming excursion is when you’ve maxed out your capacity for an item type--a tough task, since you can carry 99 of something.

Even though the world’s terrain is open to manipulation, the maps remain faithful to classic JRPG world design. For example, the farther you venture from civilization, the more likely you'll run into tougher enemies. The journey to a quest destination is seldom a straight line, as Alefgard presents myriad distractions, often with worthwhile rewards. The forests, deserts, and towers have their share of obscured secrets--the kind you often reveal by swiveling the camera. It's doubly rewarding when using visual clues to hunt for treasure underground and inside mountains. A missing block or a brick that looks out of place can be a hint to a nearby prize, such as a useful set of 25 windows for your future buildings.

Advance through the story enough, and all manner of slime and golem will turn the tables and perform a siege operation against your town. You and your comrades work to protect all four sides of your base while you reinforce the perimeter with barriers and automated fire-breathing gargoyle statues. In other words, Dragon Quest Builders plays like a tower defense game at times, putting a delightful twist on the popular genre. You're defending a square area rather than a winding route, and not all of your support options are stationary; this only enhances the diversity of activities in a game that throws plenty of goals at you.

Invasions can do significant damage to your towns, and even if the resources to rebuild are plentiful, repairing your inns and workhouses can be time-consuming; but you can avoid this process altogether if you wish. Dragon Quest Builders' Free-Play mode saves you the grief of hostile monsters and offers more peaceful islands where you can get your architectural juices flowing.

Dragon Quest Builders is full of opportunities to take breaks from questing and defending your town. The franchise's endearing aesthetic, defined by Akira Toriyama's character designs, can make the simple process of building and designing rooms around town fly by. To customize an inn, you need simply place a torch, and get to work laying out beds and other furniture as you wish. Although you can share your personalized building creations, it’s not possible to visit your friends’ worlds. It's also disappointing that there's no cross-save support between the PS4 and Vita versions, despite the fact that they feature the same content.

The excellence of Dragon Quest Builders illustrates the versatility of this 30-year-old franchise as much as it speaks to the engrossing appeal of Minecraft-inspired creation. The story-advancing draw of quests goes hand-in-hand with the depth of a crafting system that cleverly uses monster drops as some of the game's building tools. Whether you want to focus on completing assignments or build with no specific purpose, the game is feature-rich enough to suck up untold hours, even if this happens to be your first Dragon Quest experience.

Editor's note: Dragon Quest Builders' re-release on the Nintendo Switch proves to be a splendid fit for the hybrid console. Its downgrade to 720p on the Switch is negligible when the framerate is smooth and comparable to the other platforms. The Dragon Quest series' loveable art style, anchored by Akira Toriyama's character designs has never veered toward hyper-realism, which is why this port's visuals easily flourishes even at lower resolutions. And whatever your preferred Switch control and viewing setup, navigating your industrious hero and crafting complex structures becomes intuitive over time.

The Switch-exclusive features--limited to the free-building non-story mode--adds another layer of endearment to a game already brimming with charm. You're now paired with a Great Sabrecub who--despite its preciously compact size--is mountable for swift traversal across your custom maps. This feline who first appeared in Dragon Quest V isn't the only new throwback, though. Free-building also features retro customization options, allowing you to make 2D landscapes in the style of the original Dragon Quest. It's the type of well-designed fan service that will bring smiles to the faces of fans of the franchise.

The flexibility to mold the land and vanquish endearing monsters on a large screen and on the go offers a welcome level of convenience the PlayStation versions lacked. While this is obviously a benefit of all Switch games, the involving nature of Dragon Quest Builders, particularly the sense of player ownership in carving the land to your liking makes this game a strong match for the Nintendo platform. - Feb. 7, 2018, 11:00 AM PT

Categories: Games

Dandara Review: Off The Wall

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 17:00

Dandara defies its platforming heritage by subverting two ubiquitous ideas: jumping and running. Neither is present in the traditional sense within this surreal, Metroid-inspired adventure. Rather, the heroic Dandara slings herself to any wall, ceiling, or floor she fancies, thumbing her nose at gravitational forces that would dare stifle her kinetic charm. This spin on standard movement sets Dandara apart, making it feel different from every other exploration-heavy platformer. When you’re zipping carefree through its labyrinthine world, Dandara is a complete joy, but control hiccups and a story that’s too vague for its own good often undermine its unique charm.

Although Dandara is based on a Brazilian figure who helped lead a slave revolt in the late 1600s, you wouldn’t know it based only on the game's surreal tale. The story is one of oppression told through vague metaphors about a broken world whose currency, salt, is in short supply. The sporadic conversations Dandara has with the trapped inhabitants does little to inject the world with any sense of humanity. The story is simply too abstract to create the lasting bonds that could have propelled Dandara forward with a real sense of purpose.

Thankfully, the imaginative action sequences grab hold of your attention in ways the story cannot. Dandara doesn’t walk. Instead, she leaps to designated spots that dot the walls, floors, and ceilings. Aiming the analog stick in a given direction shows where Dandara will land, and though her reach is limited, you can quickly bounce between surfaces to dance past enemies or arrive at a nearby treasure chest that's waiting to be opened.

This simple action is the basis on which the entire adventure is built. Because Dandara’s leaps have limited range and you can only latch on to certain places, navigating each room becomes a small puzzle as you decipher how best to reach the next area. In some places, there are rotating blocks or gliding platforms that Dandara can control by firing a burst of energy from her palms, while other rooms have tracking lasers that demand a frantic pace lest you wind up dead. There’s a great variety in what each section demands, ensuring you don’t fall into a dull routine of simply looking for the white spots along the walls without any deeper thought.

Of course, Dandara can do more than just leap to any surface. She has a projectile weapon at the ready, one that’s slow-acting so you can’t just spam your foes. It takes a second or two to charge so you have to plan your assault--if you don’t, a wayward projectile could smack you while you’re gearing up for a strike. This smart system means that even though you always have the ability to fight, it’s often better to avoid confrontations rather than risk taking damage. Eventually, Dandara does acquire new projectiles that can be unleashed instantaneously, but these are limited by an energy bar. Because every attack has an obvious downside, mastery of movement is ultimately the key to staying alive.

However, mastering movement is no easy task. Even though I spent more than 10 hours exploring this world, I never felt completely in control. The line that sprouts from Dandara to show where you’re going to land can be fiddly. Too often I had to adjust and then readjust my aim because it would auto-aim to a specific spot that I didn’t want to be on. And though that wasn’t much of a problem, quickly bounding across a hazard-strewn section was way trickier than I would have liked. Precision felt like it came at the cost of speed, so I would get smacked around by enemies as I tried valiantly to make my way to a safe area.

There’s one section late in the game that should have been the exhilarating climax everything had been building toward. It has narrow walls and five different types of enemies preventing any chance of reprieve. I was all set to show off my jaw-dropping movement abilities and dispatch the enemy swarm with the style I had learned during my hours with the game. But the reality of the situation was that instead of evading the homing missiles barreling toward me, I would accidentally fly directly into them. The same clumsiness persisted as I tried to time my leaps to counter an enemy flipping between the floor and ceiling. Because I had so much health by this point, I was able to progress with little more than a bruised ego, but it was an ugly victory. That moment in platformers where you show off all that you learned is one of the reasons I love the genre. Moving so awkwardly even as I reached Dandara’s end was a bummer.

It’s a shame that the control can be a little tricky, because Dandara is an utter delight when things really click. There’s a boss fight early on where you chase an enemy through the nothingness of space. Platforms appear out of thin air as you hunt him, and you have to bounce across the broken landscape while dodging projectiles and spawning enemies to get close enough to land a counter attack. When I finally vanquished my opponent, I felt like taking a bow. The speed and precision required pushed me to my limits, and though I died a dozen or so times, it was a serious rush when everything coalesced into a beautiful dance. But Dandara doesn’t often reach those heights. Later scenarios require even more speed and precision than that early boss fight, and because there’s a slight auto aim on your jumping point, I often felt bit out of control as I zipped around.

If you play on the PC, you do have the option of using a mouse, but it’s a little cumbersome. Although it’s slightly easier to aim for a specific spot, it’s much slower, and areas where you have to quickly bounce from one place to the next, avoiding traps on the ground while dodging projectiles from angry enemies, are tougher without a controller. No matter which control method you choose, though, Dandara is forgiving enough that I never got angry. Frequent checkpoints mean you’re rarely more than 30 seconds from where you last died, and Dandara has plenty of health to help her withstand a few stray attacks.

The level design is another strong point. The world rotates as you turn ceilings and walls into floors, making you put a little thought into figuring out which way is up. But even as everything flips and twist around you, it’s still clear where you need to go next. There are only so many unexplored paths at a given time, so a quick peek at the map should be enough to get you moving to your goal. And as you explore, there are plenty of fascinating sights to behold. The most impressive comes late in the game in a nightmare world where swirling vortexes dot the foreground while mystical islands drift behind you. It’s a stunning area that made me pause to take it all in. The same mesmerizing feeling came from the enchanting music. Even though the story comes up short, the visuals and music really transport you to an imaginative world just begging to be discovered.

Careful explorers are rewarded with bonuses that help against the tougher boss fights. Dandara can use the salt she collects from defeated enemies and treasure chests to boost her abilities. Although you don’t need to upgrade often during the early going, as you earn more and more salt toward the end of the game, and the bosses get harder and harder, you really need the extra burst of health and energy these upgrades provide. But, more importantly, it’s just fun figuring out how to reach every hidden room and unlock every treasure chest. Even when a chest doesn't yield a particularly valuable reward, simply solving a tricky puzzle to get the chest is satisfying on its own.

There have been so many Metroid-inspired games that it’s almost impossible to stand out. Dandara’s unique movement abilities ensure it’s at least significantly different from its peers. But the same reason that Dandara is so unique is also its biggest setback. The sense of mastery never quite comes, resulting in a game that flashes its potential in one scene only to undermine that thrill soon afterward. Even with its occasional stumbles, though, Dandara offers enough excitement and beauty to push you onward.

Categories: Games

Civilization 6: Rise And Fall Review: A New Age

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 15:00

Civilization VI stands out as the deepest and richest base game in the series, with smart additions and changes that refine its already great strategy gameplay. With that, however, comes the challenge of adding new content to improve upon what's already there without bloating it. Civ VI's first expansion, Rise and Fall, strikes a remarkable balance between the two, with several key features that both complement and change up the base game.

The big-picture addition and namesake of Rise and Fall is the Ages system, which coincides with each of the existing technological eras--Ancient, Classical, etc.--but is based on a global average rather than individual progress through the tech tree. As the world collectively transitions from one era to the next, each civilization accumulates a score toward the next era's "Age." Depending on your progress during the previous era, you can enter a Normal Age, fall into a Dark Age, or rise into a Golden Age. While Golden Ages obviously carry the most benefits, Dark Ages have unique bonuses of their own, and if you pull yourself out of a Dark Age and into a Golden one, it'll be even stronger. These so-called Heroic Ages are a powerful weapon later in the game if you've fallen behind and are struggling to catch up.

The Ages system works brilliantly with Civ VI's emphasis on careful planning and building a well-rounded civilization regardless of the victory condition you're working towards. A wide variety of accomplishments contribute to your score, from clearing Barbarian outposts and building Wonders to being the first civilization with a complex form of government. If you lean too heavily into one specialization, like science, you'll have trouble earning enough points in any given era to escape a Dark Age and its pitfalls. So even if you're two eras ahead of everyone else in your own tech tree, you're still susceptible to falling into a Dark Age if you fail to do anything else of note. As a result, a strong start isn't enough to carry you through Rise and Fall, even on lower difficulties--you need to work proactively and adapt your strategies at every step if you want to rule the world.

Building off the base game, monitoring each city's individual growth is paramount. In vanilla Civ VI, cities have individual happiness meters instead of civilization-wide ones, and greater depth to city development forces you pay close attention to each city and its unique contributions to your empire. Rise and Fall adds two big features that affect cities specifically: Loyalty and Governors, which work in tandem to add depth to city management without overcomplicating it.

Loyalty is a metric of each city's dedication to your leadership and is added on top of happiness to the list of city stats you need to care about. Loyalty suffers in Dark Ages and flourishes in Golden ones; if it falls too low, your city will be less productive and eventually revolt, becoming a "free city" open to the sway of other civs. You can affect Loyalty through proximity--a city on the edge of your borders will be vulnerable to the charms of a nearby foreign city and vice versa--city projects, espionage, and more. Colonizing a separate continent requires more of a cost-benefit analysis than ever, as the danger of low Loyalty can outweigh the advantages of settling new regions. But you can also disrupt an opponent's Loyalty for your own gain, including the city itself (without suffering a Warmonger penalty).

Keeping your Loyalty high is more passive than it sounds thanks to various Loyalty-boosting improvements as well as Governors, new characters that you can gradually unlock and station in your cities. In addition to increasing Loyalty, each of the seven Governors has a different specialization (commerce, war, science, and so on) and can be leveled up to provide various benefits to the city they govern. They can be reassigned at any time, too, so you're not locked into one city being all culture-focused until the end of time. Most importantly, Governors are a further incentive to invest in each of your cities and consequently develop a more balanced civilization--not just one that can crank out science points until you win the space race in the 1800s.

Rise and Fall brings with it a series of smaller tweaks to round out the big additions. You can now form different kinds of alliances with other civs, like economic or military ones, so you can trade comfortably without going to war; there are also "Emergencies," triggered by things like taking over city-states and dropping nukes, during which civs can band together to address the threats and reap the benefits if they succeed. On top of that, there are new policies and small changes to the highly customizable government system, which means more options to tailor your government to your playstyle as it develops.

Of course, there are also new civs and leaders, which range from the battle-ready Genghis Khan of Mongolia to the science-minded Seondeok of Korea. There are nine new leaders but eight new civilizations; Chandragupta has been added as an alternative to Gandhi in India. The new civs aren't so much groundbreaking as they are a nice change of pace for Civ VI veterans who are eager to try out something new.

Unfortunately, Rise and Fall doesn't appear to improve the AI inconsistencies present in vanilla Civ VI. Some AI-controlled civs still act almost randomly--Japan declared war on me twice in one game despite never sending its military my way--while others are a bit more clever, declaring preemptive wars or offering strategic trades at opportune times. And while the Loyalty and Governors systems enhance city management and encourage you to pursue a wider variety of specialties than just your intended victory condition, religion remains the least dynamic of the avenues without anything in Rise and Fall drastically changing it.

As Civ VI's first expansion, though, Rise and Fall works so well with the base game that lingering issues are minor. It enhances, rather than overcomplicates, systems that were already deep and layered to begin with, while introducing features that keep each game engaging from start to finish. Ages in particular provide room for struggling civs to climb the ranks in the late game and keep leading civs on their toes, and the Governor and Loyalty systems add to the city-specific strategies that helped make the base game great.

Categories: Games

Dissidia Final Fantasy NT Review: A Messy Mashup

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 20:07

Moving away from its role-playing game foundations, the original Dissidia Final Fantasy traded turn-based battles for real-time action duels. Featuring an all-star cast from the franchise, it told an original story that celebrated the series' diverse incarnations--while also presenting an odd yet satisfying approach to character action. After the release of the 2015 arcade follow-up, Square-Enix and developer Team Ninja have brought the 3v3 multiplayer fighter to the PS4. But in aiming for a more competitive focus--along with some half-hearted offerings for solo content--Dissidia Final Fantasy NT loses sight of what makes the Final Fantasy series so memorable, resulting in a hollow journey through a franchise's storied history.

Set long after the original Dissidia titles, and just before the arcade edition, Dissidia Final Fantasy NT takes many liberties with the franchise's array of stories to offer context as to why the many fighters are embroiled in an eternal battle. When warring gods Materia and Spritius call-forth the heroes and villains to engage in a new fight for the fate of their collective universes, the warriors soon realize that there is a greater threat lurking in the background--forcing rivals to set aside their differences to take on the encroaching menace.

Much like its predecessors, Dissidia NT is very much a celebration of the Final Fantasy mythos. Set across different locales from the series' past--including Final Fantasy I's Cornelia and FFVII's Midgar--several of the stages recreate the same style and tone found from their respective titles. The visuals on display are vibrant and detailed--allowing fans to see their favorite characters and their ornate outfits with modern graphics. Along with the return of iconic musical themes and other references to past titles--including the appearance of the tutorial Moogle who continues to overstay his welcome--the brawler pays great attention to creating a mashup of the most iconic elements from 30-years worth of noteworthy games.

Dissidia Final Fantasy NT's story campaign makes attempts to justify the backdrop of its chaotic slugfest, while offering some moments of fan-service. Taking control of several heroes from the Final Fantasy series, they'll fight against their own rivals and corrupted copies of other characters as they come to grips with the reality of the present battle. While the many cutscenes throughout are charming, the story as a whole feels undercooked, even disregarding some of the newcomers to the roster.

This is made worse by some rather odd choices in how you go about experiencing the narrative. Story progression uses a node-based system, with cutscenes and key battles costing Memoria to unlock. After exhausting your Memoria, you'll have to dive back into other gameplay modes such as the Gauntlet mode to grind experience and earn more tokens for the campaign. This ultimately makes the campaign a fragmented experience that you can't go through at your own pace, weakening the impact of the story's more meaningful encounters, which build up dramatic fights that you've already experienced several times over in other modes.

To switch things up during the story, your party will take part in boss battles against several of the game's summoned monsters. Pitting your team of three against large-scale foes that can use several arena-filling attacks and super moves is certainly a step up from the usual fights throughout the campaign. But while the scale of these fights are impressive, and the game's visual luster shines throughout, these battles also present massive difficulty spikes in the campaign. What's apparent during these encounters is that Dissidia's multiplayer-tuned mechanics and movement seem ill-equipped to handle the large attacks and movement patterns these bosses wield. Given that they are capable of wiping out your party in single moves with ease, these large battles feel more like clumsy exercises in trial-and error--and luck--rather than a culmination of your skill.

Spiritus and his warriors ready for battle.

With a roster of well over 20 characters--including familiar faces such as the brooding loner types Cloud Strife and Squall Leonhart, along with newcomers Ramza Beoulve and Noctis Lucis Caelum from Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XV respectively--there's an impressive set of brawlers to choose from, each with their own unique playstyles. These characters adopt one of four classes, ranging from the heavy hitting Vanguard to the agile Assassin, the zoning Marksman, and the versatile Specialist--with their varied movesets bringing strategy to Dissidia's fast-paced combat system.

The battle system in Dissidia NT is largely as it was in the previous titles, save for the removal of character-unique super moves and the new focus on team-battles. Dissidia will force you into split-second decisions to make your hits count. By building up attack power with non-lethal Brave attacks--draining your opponent's power in the process--you'll be able deal greater amounts of raw damage to your opponents with lethal HP attacks. Moreover, collecting energy from randomly placed crystals will allow your team to call in your chosen Summon monster to the fight turning the flow of battle in your favor. Much of the previous game's RPG growth mechanics have been stripped out in favor of more static growth. Gameplay in Dissidia is entirely skill-based, with leveling only opening up alternate abilities and other supplementary options. Which places every player on a largely even playing field.

Battles are set in large arenas, so you'll constantly be on the move utilizing defensive maneuvers --along with support spells and buffs--to stay one step ahead of your rivals. Combat is mostly kept at a relentless pace, and when you're in the thick of it, the fighting system allows players to exhibit some rather clever strategies that reward those who can read their foe's next move and strike back. While this system may come off as bit a overwhelming for newcomers, the generous tutorial mode will put you through your paces to learn all the mechanics necessary to survive.

Materia's guardians face off against their rivals.

Moving away from the one-on-one duels, the new 3v3 format makes for more hectic battles. While these are fun to take part in most of the time, they often result in overly busy encounters with all fighters bunching up--made slightly worse by an overstuffed user-interface. The camera also struggles to keep up with the action, which is especially frustrating on the higher difficulties or during online play, with your enemies adopting a more cunning approach.

As you clear through battles and increase your player rank and character level, you'll acquire Gil for use in the item shop. While you can buy most of every item in-game with the currency--which includes character costumes, weapon skins, online card decals, player avatars, and background music--you can also find special treasure packages that yield a set of randomized rewards. Though rest assured, you can acquire every item on your own in-game with Gil, as there are no real-money microtransactions in the game whatsoever.

In keeping with its multiplayer focus, Dissidia NT now features an online experience which includes ranked matches and custom games tuned to your own preferences. When up against skilled players online, these matches can prove to be intense affairs that show off the complexity and strategy within the combat system. Unfortunately, simply waiting to take part in battles can be a chore. During the first week of the game's release online matchmaking took upwards of 3-5 minutes to get a battle going. Moreover, several of the matches were burdened with sudden lag spikes and skipping, resulting in some rather uneven and unreliable encounters. While most online battles turned out well, lag dips and long wait times were a common occurrence.

What's most disappointing is that in going headstrong into its competitive multiplayer angle, Dissidia NT doesn't offer much outside of it. If the online multiplayer and repeat excursions into the Gauntlet mode doesn't interest you in the long term, then you may find yourself with few reasons to proceed with the game's already repetitive offerings.

For all its attempts to honor Square-Enix's long-running series, Dissidia Final Fantasy NT stumbles far too often when trying to replicate some of the many core gameplay tenants of the series in the framework of its own game. While it manages to offer fun and responsive combat, along with an infectious charm throughout, it struggles to advance much from the previous Dissidia titles. With a story that's fed piecemeal behind arbitrary gating, several combat encounters that feel out of place, and unreliable online systems that don't function when you need them to, this online brawler isn't able to live up to the series that it steadfastly tries to celebrate.

Categories: Games

Night In The Woods Review

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 17:54

Both intensely personal and widely relatable, Night in the Woods doesn’t just tell a story--it gracefully captures complex, often unpleasant feelings and experiences. From the quiet melancholy of doing nothing on a rainy day to the emotional vacuum of severe depression, I felt deeply, sometimes too deeply, while wandering through the cartoon-animal version of a small Midwestern town. Its witty writing and character development keep its crushing existential themes grounded, making Night in the Woods one of the most evocative games I’ve played in a long time.

Night in the Woods follows 20-year-old Mae Borowski--who happens to be a cat--after she drops out of college in the beginning of fall and returns to her tiny hometown of Possum Springs. She’s an angsty troublemaker with a bit of a rap sheet and a sharp tongue, and you spend her first few days back kicking around town and catching up with people, including her high school friends Bea and Gregg. A few people allude to something awful Mae did in the past, while others talk about a kid from her high school who has gone missing.

There's enough small-town curiosity in those short, early interactions to be intriguing, but there are plenty of awkward moments that keep Mae’s homecoming feeling ordinary. You can talk to an old teacher (who likes Mae despite her awful behavior) and an elderly neighbor (who considers Mae a horrible nuisance), and it feels very real, like any small talk in your hometown--just with Mae’s distinct brand of snark. These interactions both offset and highlight the mysterious elements of Possum Springs, a balance Night in the Woods masterfully strikes throughout the entire story.

You’ll spend most of your time exploring Possum Springs through light platforming and optional interactions with the same few people you want to talk to, broken up by lighthearted, simple mini-games. For most of the game, you take things day by day, and that slow drip of information bolsters the development of Mae and her friends. This structure manages to feel aimless without being purposeless; every day is similar but not the same, and there’s always something new to learn about a neighbor or a dry remark from Mae to make the same few sights feel different each time. It’s understated worldbuilding that enhances the impact of the main story--especially through a better connection to Mae, her friends, and Possum Springs as a whole.

Many days end with a choice of activity, like going to the mall with one childhood friend or "doing crimes" with another. This is when a lot of the bigger--and stranger--events take place. Sometimes things are lighthearted, like sneaking into an abandoned grocery store just for the fun of it, but there are also serious talks about past mistakes or what exactly Mae is doing with her life. Watching her struggle to articulate her problems and awkwardly dodge questions about college is hard--especially if you’ve ever been in a similar position. Combined with melancholic music, a lot of Night in the Woods evokes the feeling of lying in bed all day, despondent and paralyzed by indecision and uncertainty.

Initially, I had an incredibly hard time getting through more than a day without having to step away from the game for a bit. At 20 I was in a bad place with both school and depression, much like Mae, and playing felt more like looking in a very shameful mirror. But there’s enough going on in Possum Springs to distract from that early-20s, nearly drowning feeling, and instead of closing my game, I looked forward to the respite of mini-games and visiting friends at work, both for Mae’s sake and for mine.

I began checking every corner of town hoping to find the smallest or silliest of moments, and I often got them. I shoplifted pretzels (in a red-light, green-light style mini-game) for baby rats just to see what would happen if I fed them, and I listened to a neighbor’s dumb poetry every day because she could easily have been someone I know in real life. At the center of Night in the Woods is a story about a young adult who has gone numb, and those experiences on the periphery are what she--and anyone who’s lived through an emotional void--does to feel anything at all.

The unfortunate reality is that finicky controls, and even some scenes that feel forced, occasionally interrupt Night in the Woods’ evocative atmosphere. More than one scene requires you to complete simple platforming to proceed, for example; sometimes it’s unnecessarily hard to execute thanks to poorly placed platforms, and in general, having a hard objective is at odds with a game that is otherwise not really gamified.

At the center of Night in the Woods is a story about a young adult who has gone numb, and those experiences on the periphery are what she--and anyone who’s lived through an emotional void--does to feel anything at all.

Night in the Woods does have a game-within-a-game: a dungeon-crawler called Demontower that you can play on Mae’s computer. It’s another good distraction--I played it right before having Mae go to bed, much like I would in real life--and it’s a throwback to the kinds of games you might have put a lot of hours into in the mid-2000s. As a cute detail, you can pick up where Mae apparently left off a decade earlier (and if you don’t like Demontower, you can just go on the computer to IM your friends after a night out).

By the third and final act of the game, I had grown seriously attached to Mae and her crew of deeply flawed but charming weirdos. Their experiences in a struggling, dead-end town are relatable even if you’re nothing like them--and that’s what gives Night in the Woods its emotional impact.

From beginning to end to epilogue, Night in the Woods is ultimately open to individual interpretation. How you relate to it depends on your own experiences and choices, including Mae’s dialogue and who you decide to spend time with. Though its charming and angsty story works well on its own merits, it’s special because of how it prioritizes conveying emotion over telling a straight narrative.

Editor's note: This review has been updated to reflect our time with the Nintendo Switch version of the game. -- February 1, 2018

Categories: Games

OK K.O.! Let's Play Heroes Review: Pulling Punches

Wed, 01/31/2018 - 17:00

With an extensive roster of quirky characters and a world that's as colorful as it is joyful, the OK K.O.! universe is the perfect playground for a video game adaptation. But while OK K.O.! Let's Play Heroes perfectly captures the show's tone and aesthetic in its own way, it is, unfortunately, let down by repetitive quests and shallow mechanics.

You play as a young boy named K.O. who aspires to be the world's greatest hero. He is aided in his journey by his delightful group of friends (such as the cool-as-ice Enid, the slacker Radicles, and the tough-as-nails Mr. Gar) who all hang out and work with him at the Lakewood Strip Mall. But when the evil Lord Boxman from across the street threatens to take down Lakewood by resetting every hero's POW card (which depicts their "hero levels") to zero, it's up to K.O. to help restore everyone's levels by beating up an endless factory line of robots. Let's Play Heroes is primarily a beat-'em-up with some simple RPG elements, such as a basic leveling system and side-quests, sprinkled in. While this helps keep the game from getting too mundane, it only partially succeeds in alleviating the tedium.

The game's beat-'em-up combat is simple but has enough variety to keep things engaging. Attacks and dodges are performed with single button presses, and advanced moves involve a few more directional changes but nothing too tricky to master. Like most beat-'em-up games, there are also a large number of super techniques, called Powie Zowies, available to unlock. As you complete each stage, you earn experience points that go towards leveling up your Strength, Agility, or Cool stats. With three attributes, there might have been potential to shape K.O. to your desired playstyle, but disappointingly, the stats only serve as a way to keep advanced moves locked until you reach certain levels.

Each enemy robot has its own unique skillset, and some battle stages have item crates containing useful weapons. These factors encourage some strategic thinking, but the limited number of enemy types and the simplistic AI means that you can win almost every battle in the same manner with the same attacks. These robot fights only become remotely challenging during boss battles, but these are few and far between.

When you are not battling robots, the rest of Let's Play Heroes involves exploring Lakewood Strip Mall and talking to the various side characters to unlock their Powie Zowies via simple side-quests. Unfortunately, most of your options are either long-winded fetch quests or battles against robots, quickly turning these tasks into a grind. The game falls into a tedious pattern of talk, fetch item and/or fight, and talk again. There are a few mini-games available, but they are generally nothing more than reskinned or tweaked versions of the game's many robot battles.

The repetitiveness also does nothing to help the game's poor pacing. Despite the high-stakes story (for the OK K.O.! universe), Let's Play Heroes plays out like a series of meandering vignettes that mostly ignore the overarching storyline, not unlike the narrative structure of the show. While that approach may work in TV, the result is a game with too much padding and little in the way of forward momentum.

What Let's Play Heroes lacks in narrative urgency and mechanical depth, it almost makes up for in its presentation. Rather than imitate the show's simple presentation, like what The Fractured But Whole did with South Park, OK K.O.! Let's Play Heroes features its own colorful interpretation of the characters and universe. In contrast to the show's static look, the game's art style is dynamic and rich in detail yet simple enough to capture the tone of the source material.

Complementing the eye-pleasing visuals is the excellent audio design, notably the soundtrack and voice acting. Each background track feels entirely in tune with the show’s whimsical tone, right down to K.O.’s adorable beatboxing. The voice cast from the show lends their talent to the game, giving Let’s Play Heroes a wonderful sense of familiarity and comfort. Writing and characterization are also top notch, and perfectly capture the quirky nature of the show. Witty one-liners, layered jokes, and meta gags are generously sprinkled throughout the game, though these sadly start to run out towards the final act. All the characters in Let's Play Heroes are well-realized, with nearly every hero and villain given enough time to shine in their interactions with K.O., all while staying faithful to their TV counterparts. It goes a long way in not only pleasing long-time fans, but also establishing character relationships and dynamics for those unfamiliar.

There is also an additional payoff for those who watch the show religiously, though it's something may frustrate newcomers: The game features a special vending machine that allows you to input secret hidden codes found within episodes of the show in exchange for POW cards that are otherwise unobtainable. While this kind of locked content is disconcerting, Let’s Play Heroes’ simplistic fighting system renders this almost unnecessary. The fact that you can easily finish the game without unlocking these hidden POW cards means the mechanic ultimately doesn’t have a significant effect on the overall experience, though it may frustrate those who want to collect every POW card in the game.

As far as adaptations go, OK K.O.! Let's Play Heroes looks and sounds fantastic in a way that is distinct yet faithful to the source material. But the shallow mechanics, the repetitiveness of the gameplay loop, and narrative pacing issues prevent the game from being a rousing knockout.


Categories: Games

Shadow Of The Colossus Review: A Somber Masterpiece

Tue, 01/30/2018 - 08:01

2005's Shadow of the Colossus was a revelation, a game whose gorgeous aesthetic and reserved tone were, at the time, undeniably distinct. Together with its unique take on boss encounters and a stirring soundtrack, those aspects made the game a defining title of the PlayStation 2 era. But it was also a game infamous for its technical issues: most notably, the ambitious design of the titular colossi meant the game would often suffer from a choppy, aggravating framerate.

A 2011 HD remaster for the PlayStation 3 alleviated these problems, but now, with 2018's Shadow of the Colossus for PlayStation 4, Bluepoint Games has completely rebuilt every aspect of the game's world while leaving the underlying structure and mechanics intact, a move which not only rejuvenates the game visually but uncategorically intensifies the utter majesty of this extraordinary experience.

Shadow of the Colossus takes place in an ancient world, where young warrior Wander and his horse Agro transport a deceased loved one to a forbidden, sealed land. With a mythical sword and an ordinary bow, Wander hopes to take advantage of a fable that suggests something in this isolated province has the means to bring back the dead. There, he encounters an omnipresent entity who compels him to destroy sixteen colossi scattered throughout the territory in order to enable his wish.

If you've already played a previous version of Shadow of the Colossus, you'll find that Bluepoint's rendition feels much the same, barring some minor differences in controller mapping, some subtle quality-of-life tweaks, and a new Easter egg. The locations of each colossus and the methods of defeating them remain the same, as do the locations of every white-tailed lizard and fruit collectible. The weight and movement physics of Wander and Agro feel unchanged, and New Game+ rewards are identical.

But the impact of the completely rebuilt world is transcendent. This is a world that is geographically as you remember, but one that still astounds you as if seeing it for the first time. Highly detailed environment modeling in tandem with impressive light and shadow simulation bring amazing life to the game's breathtaking biomes. Lucious forests are densely packed with majestic tall trees and twisting foliage, dappled beautifully with soft rays of sunlight. Vast, arid deserts feel hauntingly desolate as you try and sight somber ruins through a wispy sandstorm. Even the simple sight of mountainous crags and cliff faces is impressive, with shadows acutely defining their rocky surfaces, making them pop ominously. Every time you crest a hill, emerge from a crevice, or change your perspective, the landscape will be a sight worthy of pause.

The increased fidelity of the reconstructed colossi is just as spectacular, and the mere sight of one in this version of the game is even more awe-inspiring than it is in your memory. Each foe--some small and nimble, the rest impossibly titanic and overbearing--is a terrifying beast of stone, fur, and leather. That fur is now noticeably more dense and luscious, and hanging onto it for dear life as your enemy tries to violently shake you off feels even more intense. These moments are enhanced by the detail of the distant environment that lies far beneath you when on top of a colossus, combined with motion effects that amplify the sense of danger at these dizzying heights. The first time I mounted a flying colossus in this version of the game, I could feel my chest wrench as I squeezed my controller to hold onto its wing for dear life while it soared, flapping wildly through the air. It was exhilarating.

Playing on a PS4 Pro offers you the ability to further enhance visual fidelity via high dynamic range color, as well as the choice between two different graphical options with different priorities. Cinematic mode enables 4K resolutions, as well as allowing for impressive downsampling (that is, scaling down a higher-resolution image) for 1080p displays at a targeted 30fps. Performance mode provides less impressive graphical quality but maintains a smoother frame rate targeting 60fps. In my experience, I preferred the crisper image offered in Cinematic mode--once you realise you can recognise the definition between each individual blade of grass, it's hard to let that go. However, the visual quality offered by both modes still enhances the experience of the game in ways previously mentioned, especially for those whose last memory of it was suffering through sub-30fps framerate issues on the original PS2 release.

The visual reconstruction doesn't detract from what makes Shadow of the Colossus great, and the game's holistic and understated direction still comes through strongly: its muted colors, cinematic camera angles, and stark absence of music while exploring the world still evoke a poignant tone of desolation and solitude. The world's large forsaken landscape doesn't feel bereft of things to do, because simply riding through it and enjoying at the majesty of the land, accompanied only by the sound of Agro's hooves scraping against the earth, is a meditative experience.

Fighting a colossus is still a grand, solemn, and tense challenge that is exhilarating to overcome. The impassioned orchestral soundtrack heightens the pressure of every maneuver: Deciphering a method of mounting your impossibly enormous enemy, clambering to reach their vulnerabilities as they try to fling you off, and driving your sword into their flesh. Every moment of a colossus battle is thrilling to execute and witness, whether you're doing it for the first time, or the fifteenth time in a post-game time trial.

While the passing of twelve years hasn't affected the overall quality of Shadow of the Colossus, there are two technical annoyances that persist and remind you of a bygone era. The third-person camera system does not clip through world objects, so it becomes erratic and troublesome to adjust when moving Wander through enclosed spaces, or near a solid object. Additionally, the game's unforgiving climbing system, which asks you to jump with the X button and grasp onto a ledge or surface with the R2 trigger, is occasionally temperamental in certain situations; there may be times when contact with a ledge may not correctly register even though you may have been holding R2 well in advance and correctly estimated the distance needed for your jump. However, both of these issues affect only a small amount of your time with the game and should not be considered a significant strike against the whole. In the case of the climbing system, it's a quirk that's easy to come to peace with because of how absolutely essential the mechanic is to creating the rousing pressure and suspense of colossus encounters.

Shadow of the Colossus is a tremendous journey, and one well worth taking and retaking. The visual overhaul is stunning, thoroughly enhancing every facet of Wander and Agro's excellent adventure. Galloping through the tranquil world is always breathtaking; felling a monumental colossus is always humbling. Shadow of the Colossus is a beautiful reconstruction of an already exceptional title. It continues to be a modern classic and is an extraordinary game that everyone must experience.

Categories: Games

Subnautica Review: A Water Wonderland

Mon, 01/29/2018 - 21:00

Decades after Jaws cemented our cultural fear of the deep ocean, Subnautica emerges from Steam Early Access to fuel a new breed of underwater nightmares. This first-person survival epic by Unknown Worlds Entertainment dumps you into the water with not a great white shark to watch out for, but an entire alien world full of monstrosities ready and able to swallow you whole. Subnautica expands into an intense and challenging game that maintains considerable beauty and mystique across its massive environments. It's so magical and otherworldly that it practically pains you to stop playing, even when you're filled with dread.

Despite its scale and demanding ecosystem, Subnautica is one of the most approachable open-world survival games around. Where most of this sort have a steep difficulty curve to climb, this underwater alien world is easy to get into. The solo-only campaign begins when your ship crashes onto a flooded planet. You awaken, floating in your pod with only the fiery ruin of your former starship to break up the monotony of the ocean that rolls on endlessly to all points of the horizon.

From here, your goal is a simple one--survive, discover what else is on this world, and do your best to find a way off of it. Thankfully, you come from a Star Trek-style federation. Your lifepod is tricked out with a fabricator, a nifty wall-mounted device that can make pretty much anything, provided you feed it the necessary raw materials. Bladderfish are needed right away to provide potable water, while smaller finned creatures are best for fast frying and eating.

Compared to other survival games, gathering up items is easy. Want to see what mineral is hiding in that rock? Punch it or whack it once or twice with whatever you have in your hand. Need to cut plants or coral? Right-click to slash with your knife. Considering other survival games force you to do things like bash your fists bloody against trees to collect wood, you get by pretty easy here, and the entire game is better for it.

Because the crash has corrupted a lot of your databank, you also have to find and scan fragments and crack open data boxes scattered across the ocean floor before you can build bits of technology. You can even fabricate additional fabricators that make components for vehicles like the zippy Seaglide or Seamoth mini-sub, and even seabases straight out of Octopussy. These are not only cool to look at, but useful in the long run, with '70s-style observation bubbles, solar panels, and high-tech hardware to refine and manage your supplies.

Of course, there are still some significant challenges here. While you start off in the appropriately named Safe Shallows, home to mostly friendly fish and readily available materials required to craft basic items like swim fins and oxygen tanks, you soon need to venture farther afield. The world consists of many biomes, distinct geographical regions with their own flora and fauna. Most of the better goodies in the game come from more extreme and far away places, which forces you to steadily upgrade your equipment to handle greater depths and highly aggressive sea life that look more like monsters of myth than fish at your local aquarium.

...there is a real push-pull dynamic at large that makes you feel like you're constantly achieving one new goal after another.

Aggressive creatures are a continual presence. You have to respect them and keep your distance, knowing what they can do. With that said, creatures are not unduly punishing. Running into something aggressive doesn't result in instant death. You'll likely die far more often as the result of drowning during an exploration dive, or starving to death because you took too long during an expedition.

Diving into wrecks makes for the most intense moments in the game, especially when you're at significant depths. Bigger wrecks almost always seem to be in the neighborhood of the nastiest monsters on the planet, which means you need to sneak in and out. Caves are almost as nerve-wracking and contain an even stronger likelihood of drowning due to their labyrinthine nature. Further investigation rewards you with rarer natural resources like diamonds, nickel ore, and Blood Oil. Caves aren't as enjoyable to explore as wrecks, though, because the sheer danger makes them too risky to have much fun in. At least the game eventually allows you to craft things like a compass and the pathfinder tool that lets you lay down a trail of electronic breadcrumbs.

While routine scavenger hunts for more basic survival needs can grow routine (though you can turn off the need to eat and drink at the start of a game--or go in the other direction and turn on a hardcore permadeath mode), there is a real push-pull dynamic at large that makes you feel like you're constantly achieving one new goal after another. Even something as simple as grabbing a dozen or so bladderfish and peepers and turning them into bottles of water and salted fish snacks can be rewarding, because you know those supplies are essential for extended exploration missions.

Your development as a scavenger is nudged along by a story that loosely guides your exploration. Getting the lifepod radio repaired reveals a number of distress calls from other lifepods that went down along with you, along with coordinates of their current or approximate locations. This even opens up a possible rescue attempt, which leads to another interesting part of the planet. Venturing to these locales uncovers an unexpectedly deep story, but it also moves you to various locations where you find vital resources at just the right time. Progress moves quickly if you follow the story, though this is still a huge game that requires a lot of time, patience, and exploration.

Some patience is also required when you bump into the game's rare technical issues. Loading save files takes a very long time, there are regular sound glitches where audio vanishes while leaving the water, and crashes can occur when loading your save. Given that you're only allowed a single save slot per campaign, these moments are stressful, though thankfully no saves were lost during our time with the game.

Subnautica's story, scares, and beautifully rendered underwater setting make it one of the most fascinating survival games around. You will always have to grind away to a certain extent to gather necessary resources, but the overall experience is both accessible and refined. Subnautica may not make you eager to get back to the beach this summer, but right now there is no better virtual way to experience the beauty, and the terror, of the deep blue sea.

Categories: Games

Lost Sphear Review

Mon, 01/29/2018 - 15:00

Lost Sphear, like its predecessor I Am Setsuna, wants to remind you of the 16-bit RPGs that were so beloved in the '90s. Developer Tokyo RPG Factory has succeeded in terms of the basic look and mechanics, but after two games, it's starting to feel like the studio's name is intended more literally than we initially realised. Lost Sphear isn't a bad game by any stretch; it does some genuinely interesting things with its combat system, but everything surrounding that often feels like something that came off a factory assembly line.

Lost Sphear follows Kanata, a young man who sets out on an adventure with his two childhood friends, Lumina and Locke--along with Van, a stranger that the team adopts with very little vetting or discussion--after a calamity strikes their hometown. It soon becomes clear that Kanata is the key to solving a worldwide epidemic of people and places becoming "lost," meaning that they've disappeared, leaving behind a sparkly white silhouette. He and he alone can restore the lost thanks to his special, mysterious ability to compile and restore memories, and as whole chunks of the world disappear Kanata learns more about the disaster and why he alone can turn it around. This likely sounds familiar, because it's hitting on the same broad tropes that many RPGs have in the past. This is a standard "chosen one" story, albeit one that gets fairly bogged down in game-specific terminology. You and your slowly-expanding crew of fighters travel around an overworld map straight out of the SNES days, discovering new towns and smacking down a variety of monsters. Structurally, there's nothing here you haven't seen before if you're even a casual fan of RPGs.

Lost Sphear's battle system--despite being very directly based on Chrono Trigger's Active Time Battle system--has a stronger sense of craft to it than the story does. Each member of your team has access to unique weapons and moves, with no overlap, and by visiting the magic consortiums and blacksmiths in each town you can equip them with all sorts of abilities. Over time, you can play around with the "momentum" system--which lets you add buffs and bonuses to certain abilities that can be triggered during battles--and "sublimation," which lets you build up passive effects on these abilities over time. Each attack has its own area of effect, and each character also has access to a "vulcosuit," which lets them suit up in a mech during battle to access more powerful attacks. Figuring out strong attack combinations, and which attacks to assign which momentum bonuses, is satisfying, and while the game throws a lot of terminology at you as more combat abilities unlock, it never feels overwhelming.

You also have full control of your movement when each character's turn rolls around, meaning that you can choose where to place them. You might position someone who attacks from ranged distances in a safe spot behind the rest of the party, or spend ages trying to find a pixel-perfect position that will let one character's attack hit two enemies instead of one. This means that you have a lot of control over your placement on the battlefield and by playing strategically you have the potential to execute attacks that will let you deal a lot of damage at once. The strategic depth imbued into these systems means that even the most basic battles, the ones you can't possibly lose, remain enjoyable. Over time you can build up a huge number of passive buffs by restoring lost parts of the overworld map with Katana's powers, meaning that diligent players will have the opportunity to really boost their effectiveness in combat.

Some abilities are fundamentally much more useful than others, but harsh cooldown times and resource penalties mean that, in a long battle, you can’t spam your strongest attacks over and over. But while the system behind combat is great, most enemies will go down quickly if you just throw your biggest attacks at them without worrying too much about being strategic. I only died once outside of a boss fight, but when the bosses arrived, I never knew what to expect. Playing on normal, some were a cakewalk, while others were a brutal slog that the game had in no way prepared me for. Bosses will throw out incredibly cheap tricks, often right at the very beginning of the fight--instant-death attacks, sleep powders that put your entire team out of action for a long time, punishing area-of-effect attacks that trigger upon the boss' death, you name it. Thankfully, you can change the difficulty at any time if you get frustrated and don’t want to take a long trek back to the nearest town to buy new abilities and fortify your weapons in the hope of becoming strong enough to endure their attacks. And Lost Sphear not only allows you to quick save, but it signposts boss fights with save points--modern concessions that you'll likely be thankful for.

Outside of combat, working through Lost Sphear's campaign can often feel like busywork. It gets bogged down in glorified fetch quests for long periods of time, sending you pinging between different points on the map to take in unexciting dialogue exchanges. There are very few formal side quests with dialogue and objectives, and while there's quite a bit you could do on the map there's not much incentive to strive for 100% unless you're committed to finishing it on Hard.

For a while Lost Sphear feels aimless and flabby--it takes a while for an identifiable villain to emerge, and many early plot threads drop by the wayside as new, less interesting conflicts and dramas pop up. There's a lot of exposition, and the plot justifications for what you must do next often feel flimsy or forced. But lore is built up over time, and the plot pulls a neat trick on the player later on, subverting expectations and eventually connecting various dangling threads across the final act. It builds to a satisfying conclusion, albeit one weakened by uninteresting characters.

Lost Sphear also has an odd aesthetic to it. It has the look of an older portable title that has received an HD remake, with some pleasant scenes and locations offset somewhat by numerous repeated assets, bland textures, and dull interiors. Every now and then there will be a moment of beauty--a lovely vista, a quaint village--but other sections of feel like placeholders, too empty and boring to feel like real places. The character designs are indistinct, and the lack of close-ups or FMV cutscenes mean that it's hard to get a sense of personality from them. Tomoki Miyoshi's score is a solid fit for the events that unfold, but is lacking in earworms and unique boss themes.

It feels like the main purpose of Lost Sphear is to remind you of your favourites of the genre, rather than to join their company. Its enjoyable combat system and late-game revelations are satisfying, but it's hard to pin down its identity or to point towards anything that really makes it stand out beyond its ability to provoke nostalgia. For some players, that may be enough, but for others, the best thing about Lost Sphear might be that it inspires you to replay Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI.

Categories: Games

UFC 3 Review In Progress

Sat, 01/27/2018 - 18:00

EA Sports UFC 3 begins with a slick video package charting the meteoric rise to stardom of cover athlete Conor McGregor. The Notorious Irishman is the ideal poster boy for UFC 3's new G.O.A.T. Career Mode, as it focuses not just on your performances inside the octagon, but on your propensity for drumming up hype and promoting fights outside of it--something the high-powered southpaw has arguably mastered. McGregor's world class striking also serves as a perfect introduction to UFC 3's wince-inducing action, as you're thrust into a tutorialized fantasy matchup against interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson.

UFC 3 hits the ground running with this match-that-could've-been, hastily showcasing a plethora of improvements to its stand-up game, from an impressive suite of fluid new animations to an intuitive new control scheme that emphasises maneuverability. Much like previous entries in the series, developer EA Canada continues to excel at stand and bang slugfests--as fists fly, skin lacerates, and the canvas adopts a crimson hue--but falters when the action is dragged down to the ground.

Click image to view in full screen

UFC 3's grappling remains unchanged from its predecessor--utilizing the right stick for transitioning into and out of various positions--and is too cumbersome and binary to ever be particularly enjoyable. Submissions fall into the same category, too. The default four-quadrant mini game feels disconnected from what's happening on screen, while a simplified alternative that consists of mindless button mashing also fails to capture the intricacies of these bone-breaking holds. Not to mention how overpowered each arm bar and gogoplata is in the hands of the AI.

Fortunately, the stand-up game's redefined excellence does an admirable job of distracting from these flaws. Almost every aspect of UFC 3's striking has been completely redesigned, placing much more significance on movement, spacing, and momentum. With both fighters standing toe-to-toe, there's a palpable sense of weight to the way you move around the octagon, and a responsiveness to each blow and crucial head bob that allows you to act just as fast as you can think--reaction times notwithstanding.

The new control scheme does still require a certain degree of finger gymnastics in order to perform particular techniques, but by moving each offensive move to the face and shoulder buttons, the right stick is freed up to be used exclusively for ducking and weaving, while the left stick is dedicated entirely to movement, allowing you to throw strikes and move at the same time. This sounds like a simple change on the surface, but it's a crucial deviation that opens up myriad possibilities, and substantially increases the kinetic dynamism of each fight. Suddenly you can barrel forward like a freight train to apply pressure; retreat out of danger with defensive jabs to keep your opponent at bay; and laterally weave to a fighter's weak side while simultaneously throwing a dangerous uppercut to their unsuspecting jaw. It's a game changer, and beautifully complements UFC 3's newfound focus on momentum and the risk versus reward at play with each strike.

Being mindful of spacing becomes a key attribute as you look to get in and out of your opponent's striking range without sustaining damage. Stamina management also plays a crucial role, as repeated strikes lose power as your stamina fades to discourage aggressive players from their worst tendencies. You have to be smarter and more precise with each blow; reading your opponent's movement, using feints to throw off their timing, and slipping into counterattacks to punish any misguided swings. All of this results in a game that adopts a more measured pace than its predecessors, and should suit those who approach each fight with nuance and tactical astuteness.

Almost every aspect of UFC 3's striking has been completely redesigned, placing much more significance on movement, spacing, and momentum

Once you're comfortable in the octagon, the aforementioned G.O.A.T. Career Mode is on-hand to test you against the world's greatest fighters. With a few fights on the regional circuit under your belt, it doesn't take long until you impress Dana White enough to earn a UFC contract and can begin climbing up the ranks for a shot at a championship. It's a familiar setup, but one that differentiates from its contemporaries by embracing the promotional aspect of the sport and focusing on time management above all else. You start the run up to each fight by signing up to a gym that specialises in a specific fighting discipline, and can then choose to train and improve your attributes, learn new moves and perks, spar with a training partner who's emulating your upcoming opponent, or promote your next fight to drum up hype and attract more fans to your brand.

This balance between performance and promotion is an interesting concept, and it strips away a lot of the monotony these career modes often suffer from. Improving your attributes simply boils down to selecting which areas you want to develop, with each activity eating into that weeks designated time allotment. Promotion works much the same way as you're given the option to generate hype for your next fight by, say, predicting the finish on social media, attending autograph signings, or even taking a page out of Demetrious Johnson's book by streaming some video games. There are no tedious mini-games revolving around punching bags and speed balls, and those that are included are incredibly brief with immediate rewards in the shape of new moves and perks. The whole thing is so streamlined it's almost negligible, ensuring you spend less time staring at menus between each fight, which is a good thing.

Click image to view in full screen

Elsewhere, Ultimate Team returns and continues to be a curious addition to the world of mixed martial arts. With one-on-one fights on the agenda, UFC 3's particular flavour of Ultimate Team lacks the appeal of concocting your own unstoppable dream team. Instead, card packs are bundled with not just fighters, but tiered moves, perks, and bonuses as well, essentially painting each fighter as blank canvases for you to outfit with whatever moves you choose. It's a fascinating idea, and there are a number of single and multiplayer modes for you to unleash your Frankenstein's monster on. Microtransactions are still a factor, letting you spend real-world money on premium card packs, but there's enough in-game money to be earned from various fights and challenges that paying real money never seems necessary. Time will tell whether this changes once you fancy testing your mettle at high-level Ultimate Team play.

Of course, a lot of UFC 3's success will depend on the quality of servers that aren't currently populated enough to deliver a final verdict on. As it stands, EA Sports UFC 3 is a tense, exciting, and dynamic recreation of the stand and bang aspect of mixed martial arts. There's a fluidity to the way it moves, and a satisfying feel and unpredictability to the way fights can unfold that demands your engagement. The grappling still needs plenty of work, and one would hope this is something EA Canada addresses in the next iteration; yet these shortcomings become easier to overlook because of the accomplishment of its redefined striking. When it comes to the art of combat, few sports titles do it better.

Editor's note: Our review of UFC 3 will remain a review in progress until we've had adequate time to test multiplayer servers after the game's release on Feb. 2, 2018.

Categories: Games

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